The past, its songs and sovereigns

I’ve just finished listening to Sunday Miscellany (RTÉ Radio One) and among the songs they played was ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’.  Brother Skeehan taught us that song, along with a lot of other songs, when we were in fourth class in Omagh CBS. After all these years, it’s still beautiful.

But as one memory hauls clear another behind it, I also remembered how Brother Skeehan taught us ‘De Camptown Races’ ‘The Old Folks at Home’  and several other what were then called Negro songs. In those songs, there are all sorts of no-longer-acceptable assumptions and statements: that black people were child-like and inferior, and never happier than when they lived on the plantation and had a decent Massah. What should I do, I wonder, with all these sweet-sounding songs that rattle around in my head? Should I disown them? Avoid thinking of them, as we were urged not to entertain impure thoughts? Expunge all references to Al Jolson, who gloried in black-face singing and was considered during his lifetime the greatest showman in the world?

It’s all part of the ongoing problem of how we deal with what the past has left us, whether  inside our heads or decorating/despoiling our public spaces. If slave-owners should no longer have statues on display  in their honour, should we not clear out a lot of statues to British generals and monarchs, leaders of an empire that tortured and killed and empoverished generations of Irish people? Take down Carson’s overbearing statue at Stormont, the essence of unionist domination?

As well as being a task comparable to cleaning out the Augean stables, it would be a terrible waste of time, I think. The past, for better or worse, has happened. No matter what we do, we can’t change it. And if we don’t like the songs and entertainers and royalty from that bloody past, what better revenge on them all than creating a world which leaves them and their beliefs gawping down at us in disgust? Bobby Sands knew what he was talking about when he predicted that our revenge would be the laughter of our children.  

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