Blurring history with hagiography

A look at a controversial politician and a remarkable cleric
reveals the difference between real history and hazy history

The Microsoft ad is both slick and moving – but there’s one note in it that likely rankles a great many Irish Americans, not to mention the Irish in both the Republic and the North. The ad, in conjunction with the company’s search engine, Bing, touts remarkable women, with the presentation set to a musical backdrop of the hit ballad “Brave,” by Sara Bareilles. No one can dispute that the valiant Afghan teen Malala Yousafzai and the former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – survivors both of an assassins’ bullets – deserve every bit of acclaim in the ad, or anywhere else. To see both of them juxtaposed with Margaret Thatcher, however, lies somewhere between incongruous and jarring. The “Iron Lady” – really?

Yes, Thatcher was indeed the first female prime minister of the UK, no mean feat and one that is by any measure remarkable. Unlike Malala and Giffords, who work for unity, Thatcher goes down in history as one of the most polarizing figures of the last 40 years. As Eamonn Mallie wrote for Reuters after her death in April 2013: “Thatcher has long been a figure of hate for nationalists in Northern Ireland for her uncompromising policies during her 11 years in office between 1979 and 1990, which saw the death of 10 prisoners in a hunger strike. ... The Republican prisoners won widespread sympathy among the province’s Roman Catholic minority by fasting to support demands to be treated as political prisoners, and refusing to wear prison clothing or do prison work.”
Thatcher apologists will counter that she had a right to loathe the IRA and any nationalists after her friend and ally, Airey Neave, was assassinated in a 1979 car bombing by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and after she herself barely eluded a similar fate from an IRA bomb at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984. Her supporters will also point out that backdoor negotiations by her government helped open the way for the peace talks of the 1990s. In 1985, she signed the Anglo-Irish agreement, enraging unionists in the province. The pact did aid the process leading to the IRA’s first ceasefire in 1994, and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
While it is true that she played a role in the process, only the most ardent Thatcherites believe that she had any sympathy for the Catholics of Northern Ireland. The hard fact is that the Iron Lady callously dismissed the ten Irish prisoners who died in the 1981 hunger strike as no more than the equivalent of common murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. In her view, no one who wanted a Northern Ireland free of British rule merited anything other than criminal status. She derided the hunger strikers with the following words: “Crime is crime is crime.”
Historical hagiography is always offensive, and placing Thatcher in the same pantheon as the other women in the Microsoft ad is myopic and shows ignorance of the past. Still, if anyone questions just how effective and polished the ad is, one need look no further than Maria Shriver’s fawning tweet. Yes, that Maria Shriver, who apparently forgot the Margaret Thatcher that her Uncle Ted saw for who and what she was – a smart, tough, hardline politician whose name remains a sore spot for countless Irish and Irish Americans. Shriver may have been so caught up in her Shriver Report, her laudable pro-women, nonprofit media initiative, that she forgot her own family’s history. How else to explain her tweet about the ad: “Can we talk about the @Microsoft @bing “Be Brave” commercial for a second? AMAZING. Bravery: #WhatWomenNeed!”
Tommy McKearney, a surving hunger striker and former member of the IRA who is now a community worker, told Reuters that “Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy, in Britain or Ireland, is not something to celebrate.” A great many Irish Americans – even those who never supported the IRA – would likely agree.
With February being Black History Month, few would disagree that the saga of Bishop James Healy stands as a landmark chapter in both African-American and Irish- American annals. Healy, who became both the first ordained African-American Catholic priest and first African-American Catholic bishop, was born on a plantation near Macon, Georgia, in 1839, to Co. Roscommon immigrant Morris Healy and “Mary Eliza, a mixed-race domestic slave.” James was the couple’s tenth child. Because Georgia law prohibited interracial marriage, Morris, who was deeply in love with Mary Eliza and flouted convention by treating her as his wife, sent his children north to be educated. In 1844, James Healy was sent to Worcester, Massachusetts, to begin his education.
He went on to fledgling Holy Cross College there and graduated in 1849 as valedictorian for the school’s first graduating class. He earned a master’s degree there and decided to enter the priesthood. With the sponsorship of Boston Bishop Bernard Fitzpatrick, Healy was ordained on June 10, 1854, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to serve in Boston. According to the Catholic Dictionary, Healy was “was identified as and was accepted as white Irish Catholic.” Pope Pius IX named him Bishop of Portland, Maine, in 1875.
Healy died in 1900, and throughout his life, this son of the Irish plantation owner and the slave he loved revered Holy Cross as the place where his entire career took shape. Instead of burial in the vault of the Portland, Maine, Cathedral, Healy specified that he be buried in a simple graveyard at Holy Cross College. At the school he so loved, a building fittingly bears his name today.