I’ve been to the Vietnam Wall in Washington twice. The second time was just as emotional as the first. It was the problem in the world when I was a kid until it became us. It cuts a scar in the landscape commensurate with the human mess it has left, not just on those who have died, but on the calm way that old men come to stand out from their much younger fallen comrades to adopt.
I have often considered this great book, Lost Lives, to be our only moral equivalent. Every name, regardless of side or motivation, is recorded, stacked, classified and considered. Fintan O’Toole did his country a remarkable service by pointing out that this great book of Recovery and Compassion is no longer in print.
It made the Irish government think about buying the rights. A TD in the back seat set the logic …
Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan, who referred to the book as a “Memorial to the Deceased,” raised concerns in the Dáil this week that the book will not be reprinted and that its objective records will be lost.
“In many cases the dead are invoked for a specific political purpose. There’s nothing wrong with that, but contaminated sites have become part of the territory where the political division in Northern Ireland is now operating.
The Dublin Bay South TD said if the government misses the opportunity it will become “controversial and difficult for us to get an inter-community agreement in Northern Ireland on how to put together a complete memorial to all those who have died”. .
However, one of the authors has objected to reviving this great work in this way.
The BBC reports:
Brian Feeney, co-writer of Lost Lives, fears this could be “controversial”. Mr. Feeney told BBC News NI that he would be “very concerned” if the NI executive or the Irish government acquired rights to the book.
“Right now, and everyone says so, the book is not controversial, but if politicians got their hands on it it would be controversial,” he said.
“I would be sure the book will be edited.”
The last one is probably true. The amount (and type) of primary materials available to Brian and the rest of the world in the 1990s has likely increased, if not multiplied. It’s also worth noting that it emerged from an incredibly generous and optimistic moment in our history that the stop-start history of our institutions put down.
We can see that we have tried in narrow and selective ways to deal with the legacy of 25 years of low-level terrorism, the unequal effects of which are being felt today in communities whose mainstream policies they seem more likely to forget or want to remember theirs own internal affairs without external intervention.
The genius of Lost Lives was and is its inclusiveness. Its tragedy in its temporal form as a book is that it has been relegated to the fragmentary search areas of Google Books. The reason it is being sold at ridiculous prices should be obvious. Once you’ve bought a copy, the chances that you’ll ever want to sell it again are negligible.
It is also true, however, that a book that no one next generation can buy or access is just an idea, or even worse, an abstraction. As Fintan notes, this is important because:
… The book put together by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea is not just history.
It affects the here and now. It does something to you as you read it. It brings the dead to life. You start to cry, not just for them, but with them. They are no longer “legitimate targets”. Your humanity will be restored.
Such a process is crucial not only to understand the past, but also to know which human (as opposed to ideological) traits we need in order to lead a better, less bitter life than those in this great one Book were recorded. The drift noted by Fintan in Amnesia and Selective Memory is also an invitation to exclude large numbers of our own citizens from our personal “circles of empathy.”
Access to the true stories of what happened to all of the deceased, be they civilians (by far the most victims) or pro or anti-state actors, is critical to restoring proportionality with our political life across the island . Let’s hope any concerns Brian has can be addressed without compromising or destroying the integrity of the original project.
We do not owe it to future generations, as the poet says …
“… Tell with such enthusiasm
For children who yearn for desperate fame
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est,
For the sea ”.
Mick is the founding editor of Slugger. He has written articles on the impact of the internet on politics and the media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty