Truth-telling in Australia, and our Convict scars

In 2000, a white woman, Jo Berry, met a white man, Pat Magee at a private residence in Belfast, on Berry’s request. They stared across the table at each other at first. This doesn’t sound very remarkable – unless we note that the gaze occurred across a chasm of ethnic conflict between Northern Irelanders and English aristocracy – a divide spanning hundreds of years and claiming many lives on both sides. Jo Berry’s father, Sir Anthony Berry,  Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate and member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet was killed in a bombing at Brighton Hotel in 1984. Pat was the man responsible for the bomb that took her father’s life. “The Brighton Bombing” as it was called, occurred during the last day of a Conservative Party Conference. The bomb was intended for Margaret Thatcher but also for her cabinet. Pat Magee had placed the bomb in her bathroom as a guest the week before, placing it under the bathtub. Five people were killed that night in this English seaside resort town. The IRA’s public message read,

Mrs. Thatcher will now realize that Britain cannot occupy our country and torture our prisoners and shoot our people on their own streets and get away with it. Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once—you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.[1]

Magee was caught and tried for this terrorist act against the head of state. Despite receiving multiple life imprisonment sentences, he was released early through a Good Friday Agreement in 1999.[2] After fourteen years in gaol, he agreed to meet Jo Berry. She says,

An inner shift is required to hear the story of the enemy. For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is that sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice, which means it’s not all sorted and put away in a box.[3]

Since then the pair have worked tirelessly towards conflict resolution. They call each other unlikely friends. I happened to stumble across the website http://www.forgivenessproject.com and I spent about three hours in absolute wonder at this amazing thing called forgiveness.

 

This story spoke deeply about my research topic too – born in Australia, all my life I believed I was a product of the British Empire. I was secretly proud of the fine linen and Willow pattern plates my paternal Grandmother saved carefully as my “glory box”. (I think she was shocked when I told her such a concept was evocative of a “dowry” and she might as well sell me along with it should she  happen to find a man who liked fine bone china – I was sixteen, and studying Feminist Literature in school). Since her death I’ve taken the linen out of its box many times, remembering her love of Scotch finger biscuits and viewing the carefully kept pieces of ‘Henderson’ Scottish family tartan she kept in the biscuit tins. My mother read A.A. Milne poems of Winnie The Pooh at bedtime, and I had a picture of “Paddington  wearing a dufflecoat and carrying an old suitcase above my bed. As a creative seven year old I’d stuck it there, and my mother left it, afraid of destroying the old lacquer Queen Anne bedhead. I’ll never forget the first time I stood in England’s Paddington Station, within the chaotic movement of people and trains. I felt as lost as the bear in the bedtime story, left on the station with the words attached; ‘Please look after this bear. Thank you’. Paddington Bear was luckily adopted by an English family – I that day, however, realized that I was not English. Nothing of the painted world described as ‘England’ was real. It was a façade, a fabricated story told by those I loved. But why?

 

I can’t help but think of the convict scars forged upon the gutters and buildings of the inner city suburbs of Sydney – these physical marks all that is left of the individual stories of those hands, imprisoned in the most perfect location – a remote island settlement at the edge of the known world. Living next to a sandstone mansion in Camperdown I couldn’t help but research it, and found that families indentured convict gangs to construct their manors, paying them food for work under their lifetime sentence of ‘hard labour’. Some of the records in Sydney’s museums list stolen bread as the crime that would invoke a transportation sentence. Often it’s items that would sell quickly on the black market – lace, silver. My husband’s ancestor was transported for “borrowing” a horse to get a message to its recipient. But when you place this in context, in a time when the Irish famine filled an overpopulated London with hungry, dangerous characters who needed reform it becomes more understandable. The Angli(can) ising of the largely Roman Catholic Celts.

 

The first Christian minister appointed to Sydney, Samuel Marsden, is often touted with the creation of the ‘Australian Christian nation’. It’s funny that he got that reputation, and I’m not sure how long it will hold out. The books tell us he was nicknamed “The Flogging Parson” by the convicts, enacting English Machiavellian penal sentences to the very last whip of the cat o’ nine tails, a specific instrument the redcoats made out of pieces of knotted rope intended to wreak the worst possible damage upon the backs of largely Irish and Scottish lower socioeconomic prisoners. Needless to say, the Church of England wasn’t so popular back in the day. That is, until the Government gave land grants to convicts, wiping away criminal charges and declaring all Australians equal. “All Australia equal” of course excepted those with the original, rightful claim to the land. Going back to Marsden, he attempted to evangelise Indigenous Australians, who saw the bodies hanging from the gallows in the public spaces of the colonies, and politely declined his religion. He is credited, funnily enough, with the conversion of Maori Christians, though his role in this mass conversion is arguably minimal.

 

What I’m reading at the moment is primarily how we piece together our identities – we can consider them contingent, constructed and contested, as Michael A. Rynkiewich explains in Paradigm shifts in Christian witness: insights from anthropology, communication, and spiritual power (Van Engen, Whiteman, and Woodberry 2008). In a nutshell, they are contingent because it depends on how we construct our identity – the stories we tell and the ones we don’t. This is especially true of the stories we tell in public. Are we the victim, or the vanquisher? The one who aligns with those in power, or those who revolt? They are constructed because we piece our identity together with items such as willow-tree china and bedtime stories, and songs. They are contested – not everybody agrees. Individuals opt in and opt out of various parts of the story.

 

This statement might be contested, but sometimes I think that Australia needs to liberate the stories of the Irish in our history before we can begin to really reconcile with our Indigenous people – and the literature I’m reading from the various Australian academics scattered around the world trying to “make a go of it” tends to agree.

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