In 1991 Seamus Heaney’s play, The Cure at Troy was first performed.
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”
These lines from that play resonate strongly with anyone who has studied the history of the conflict in Ireland, or indeed taught about it as I did in the 1990s. At that time, it seemed extraordinary that the deep-seated conflict between the Nationalist and Unionist populations of the province of Ulster, which had given rise to the 30 years of ‘The Troubles’, might find some kind of peaceful resolution. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which has been the basis of the largely peaceful politics of Northern Ireland for the last twenty years felt wholly unexpected; here was ‘hope and history’ rhyming.
I have been thinking a great deal about the state of mind which is hopefulness as we have started this academic year at Bennett, working in the face of the considerable challenges that COVID 19 has brought to us all. Indeed, I made it the theme of my opening assemblies.
My reading of Heaney’s ‘hope and history rhyme’ is of a complex interplay between human feeling and behaviour and historical determinism. It seems to me that the latter, that sense of humanity riding upon wave after wave of forces beyond control, might easily overwhelm a generation facing global warming, pandemic and international conflict. We cannot afford to surrender to this, to lose our sense of human agency and indeed of moral purpose in our lives. For us in a Christian school, this also means holding on to the belief that God has a plan for us and that our moral purpose is part of that plan.
The figure of John Hume, the Irish Nationalist who died in August seems to me to provide us with a powerful example of what an individual human can achieve for good. He was of course one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace alongside his Unionist counterpart David Trimble.
Hume’s resolutely non-violent approach to the campaign for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland deserves our admiration. It easy to forget that he and fellow SDLP leaders were vilified by some in their own community for the approach that they took. Sinn Fein members dubbed the SDLP the ‘Stoop Down Low Party’, regarding them as traitors for failing to support direct action and the terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA. Pictures of John Hume at the height of the Civil Rights protests show him hands outstretched in a gesture of pacifism advancing towards baton-wielding police.
The other abiding image of John Hume is of him shaking hands; shaking hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern; shaking hands with the Reverend Ian Paisley; shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. There seemed to be nobody with whom John Hume wouldn’t share that simple gesture of common humanity, nobody he wouldn’t countenance talking to as he tried to build trust and peace for Northern Ireland.
John Hume sadly died this summer on 3 August. In his later life he experienced dementia, that cruel disease which besets many as they get older. His life however remains a powerful beacon of what living hopefully must surely be about. It shows that being hopeful entails more than simply adopting an optimistic approach to life. It requires us to live out our hopefulness, to commit ourselves to changing our world for good, and for us as Christians to put our trust in a divine plan in which we are each uniquely treasured. At Bennett, we endeavour to foster that kind of hopeful approach to living in our students.