The journey began for me in Sligo which is where my maternal great grandparents came from. I knew a little about their circumstances and the poverty of the Catholic community in that part of the world, made poor in many instances by the policy of the British Government and English landowners who had confiscated the property of native Irish landowners, who were primarily Catholic, and distributed it to the predominantly Protestant settlers brought over from Scotland to populate the North of Ireland. Penal laws had placed significant restrictions upon Catholics. They were forced to practise their religion in secret and while the emancipation act of 1829 brought some kind of justice, tensions between Catholics and Protestants continued with most Catholics being disenfranchised because their poverty did not allow them to pay local taxes or rates on which rested the right to vote. It was a tense situation, made worse by the famine of 1817-22 when the potato crop, on which Irish peasants were dependent, failed and this at the same time as British landowners exported most of the crops grown on their lucrative land. The subsequent outbreak of cholera, and the Great Famine of 1845-49 led to hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation without help from the British Government or British landlords. It decimated the population of Sligo by a third and thousands emigrated to America and Canada from Sligo port – mostly on sailing ships. The journey must have been terrible. By the 1850s steam ships were transporting emigrants to Glasgow and Liverpool. For some this would be a stopping off point for sailing to America and Canada.
My great grandparents made this journey in the 1870s with their first born. I can only guess how awful it would be to have experienced and, indeed been brought up, in the aftermath of both famine and disease. Obviously they longed for a better life. I don’t know if they intended going further but they settled in Glasgow and an area of Glasgow which was burgeoning with new industries and businesses so work was available. This had led to a large influx of Irish and Highlanders but led to overcrowding and slum conditions so life was difficult even if there was work to put food on the table – probably endured because better than the conditions from which they had come. Nor did the Scottish population welcome them with open arms. There was the usual fear of immigrants – taking away jobs but especially with the Irish, of a takeover by Catholics. The ensuing sectarianism and anti- Irish sentiment has been called Scotland’s shame. It’s been a blight on Scottish society and while there are still some expressions of it legislation such as Race Relations and Equality Acts have outlawed the blatant anti- Catholicism that existed when I was growing up. The consequence of this, however, was that Catholics like other immigrant religious communities tended to live in rather a closed community albeit warm and loving. Catholic schools exacerbated this and it was possible, up to not so long ago, to meet Catholics who hadn’t spoken to a Protestant, never mind anyone of any other faith.
All of this pain and conflict I carry in my genes. In some ways nothing has changed, as is obvious from the plight of immigrants that we see daily on our television screens. We have such an ability to cut ourselves off from the suffering of others, to harden our hearts against them and to leave them in dire situation. At least the poor Irish had work which allowed them to better themselves but present government legislation doesn’t allow asylum seekers to work even though they could make a very good contribution to the infrastructure of our country. In other ways things have changed, especially with regard to sectarianism. Christian ecumenism has brought about new understanding of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Christians work, live and pray together happily and most anti- Catholic feeling is, I think, more tribal than religious. Scotland really does strive to be tolerant and welcoming but there is still a prejudice amongst some of those who are different. Perhaps today one of the biggest prejudices is against religion itself and religious people expressing their faith, either in what they think, what they wear or what they believe. For some people a secular society means having a place for everyone and accepting their right to speak and act out of their personal beliefs but for others it seems to be about imposing a secularism or non- religious view of life on everyone – something they would criticise religion for doing. And sometimes this criticism of religion comes from a place of hurt and rejection.
Nearly all religions have a history of suffering, struggle, conflict and persecution. I think we carry a lot of suspicion and pain in all our genes. We are still connected to our painful histories. And this pain can rise to the surface at unexpected moments. It can influence dialogue between people of different religious and non-religious beliefs. It can influence the dialogue in unconscious ways. It needs to be acknowledged by each of us who engages in dialogue, acknowledged and then let go of as we face one another in friendship and honesty with a concern for our common human struggle and the common good of the community in which we all live.