In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of my ancestors made their way to America from Ireland. I know very little else about them.
One year around middle school in American history class, I read a brief paragraph about New York City’s 1863 Draft Riots – a several-day explosion of violence sparked by the drafting of soldiers to fill up gutted Union Army ranks in the Civil War. The laboring-class mobs of mostly Irish protesters vented most of their anger and frustration on the city’s black population. The riots resulted in over 100 dead, including several actual lynchings, as well as destruction of black and abolitionist homes and even a black orphan asylum. The current turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri, reminded me of this history and how deep run the human realities that lead to such tragic events.
My middle-school self, shamed by this dark piece of Irish-American history, drew some comfort from knowing it had occurred before my ancestors arrived in America. At least, I thought, they could not have taken part. Only, it now looks like a couple of them might have arrived on this side of the Atlantic in time, although the chances that they were even in New York at that point are slim. Even the bare possibility, however, provokes in me strong psychic flinching and feelings of complicit guilt that – given the long, sad, sin-filled history of human life on this planet – seem puzzlingly extreme.
This is not a column about Civil War-era history, and the point is not to tease out all the complexities of the Draft Riot backstory. I know, of course, about the desperate poverty and accumulated injustices suffered by the Irish in their homeland. I understand how ringleaders may have whipped up passions and exploited ignorance, how mob psychology takes over, how, after all, not all the city’s working class or working class Irish population took part. But none of that is really germane to what I am trying to get across through describing my personal reaction to this example of, well, ancestral sin.
It is not guilt, so much, that lies uppermost in my reaction as the poignancy of what might have been (what might have been, in different ways, for all of us). Perhaps sentimentally or unhistorically, I imagine the emotions of my ancestors as they struggled for the means to get out of Ireland, escaping from a birthplace of great natural beauty and strong social bonds, and religious heritage, but also escaping famine, persecution, and corrosive relationships with those who ruled them.
I imagine the buoyancy of shedding all that for a fresh start as they flung themselves and their meager belongings across a great salt ocean that many of them would never re-cross to visit family left behind. Naturally they must have hoped this new life would include prosperity and freedom. But maybe some – maybe many – also hoped to leave behind the bitterness and resentments accumulated over centuries of persecution under foreign rule.
But jettisoning negative personal baggage takes more than leaping an ocean. So the hopes and freshness, although for many perhaps partially vindicated by eventual successes, were not enough for some (or many, or most) to unkink or un-dent the damaged places in psyches and souls.
So I imagine, after the riots, a tough young Irishman, accustomed to butting his head against obstacles, running through in his mind again and again just what had happened and why. I see a young wife and mother lying beside her husband in bed, silent tears running, wetting her face, as she makes room for an alien kind of bitterness – not that of the persecuted but of the persecutor.
As you can see, it bothers me. It may very well not bother you, but likely there is some event connected with some group you identify with or belong to – whether national, ethnic, political, or religious – that rouses somewhat similar emotions of pained regret and guilt by association.
If so, then for you as well as for me, a large part of the poignancy may lie in the unlived-up-to promise of the fresh start, the un-blotted page, the turned corner. We feel a different version of this poignancy when we hear children and young adults talk about what they intend to do with their lives. There is something good, and clean, and hopeful and right, and (for us experience-stained elders) terribly sad about such starting-out confidence, such buoyancy, because we are acquainted in body, mind, and spirit with compromise and failure and making do, and explaining away. We are acquainted with sin, and therefore we are acquainted with grief in the particular form of guilt and regret.
In truth, we know there is no going forward without blotting a good many pages with actions and inactions that we will deeply regret, and there is no going back to a state of primal innocence and purity this side of Eden. “If only,” we say, in a million ways in all kinds of contexts. “If only,” to neglected opportunities, bad decisions, ill-judged conversations. All these “If onlies” come down, perhaps, to the primal “If only”: If only Adam and Eve had not given way.
“If only,” says the narrator in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, after throwing up his hands at the limitless “if onlies” of life, “we were all dead or better!” As Christians, we know there is no way back to the guarded Garden. Guess we’ll just have to settle for being redeemed.