Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The truth can set us free... but it's unlikely we'll get it

General Sir Michael Jackson

Whiling away half-time at the Derry City-Bray match in the Brandywell last Friday night – 2-0 to the City, since you ask – Eddie Mahon and myself fell to talking about ancient Greece and the lessons therefrom for Richard Haass.

Mahon, of course, was a GAA minor star (as opposed to a minor GAA star) before turning to net-minding for the City and then for Finn Harps, Limerick, Dundalk and other obscure outposts. He is also, I believe, the only Ancient Greek-speaking goalkeeper in the history of Irish league football.

We occasionally meet up with ex-Maynooth man Paddy Logue for a chinwag about the days we spent in Fr McGlinchey's class at St Columb's, absorbing the three declensions of the noun and six principle parts for the conjugation of verbs (present, future, aorist, perfect, perfect middle and aorist passive: I have waited a lifetime for that, too, to come up in a quiz) and browsing through Zenophone's Anabisis, Sophocles' Antigone, or whatever.

Fr McGlinchey was the best teacher I ever met – although I didn't foresee that his lessons would one day cast light on the murk of a peace process. He taught next door to Sean B O'Kelly in the temporary hut which permanently housed our class.

Sean B imparted a love of English poetry to all who came his way. His alumni include Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane. He is entitled to more recognition than he has received of late for his role in the nurturing of genius.

And he can be blamed for my own propensity to sprout coiled-word quotes at inappropriate moments from tortured Jesuit Gerald Manley Hopkins.

Anyway. It was Logue who had circulated an email drawing attention to Homer's account of Odysseus' difficulty in protecting his crew from the lure of the Sirens and pointing to parallels with the labours of Haass.

It is sometimes assumed that the Sirens seduced mariners onto the rocks with their provocative hair, clingy garments and sweetly-rendered love-songs. Not so. If anyone had suggested such a thing to Homer, he would have responded "Duh!"

The Sirens' target was specific – Odysseus' forces on their 10-year journey home from Troy. The enticement they offered was not sex-on-the-rocks, or spiritual epiphany, but information on what had really happened in the course of the war: "For we know everything that the Greeks and the Trojans/Did and suffered in wide Troy."

Did Paris have Hector murdered to cover up his own collusion with the Greeks? The Sirens will have had the inside info on that.

In the course of their voyage, the Greeks had skirted the slow river that encircled the underworld, Lethe (forgetfulness), a sip from which would obliterate all memory of the past.

The Greek word for truth, aletheia, derived from Lethe, means, literally, "unforgetfulness". Truth requires remembering. The foot-soldiers among the weary warriors may have considered the Sirens their a last chance for truth-recovery.

But Odysseus knew that following the trail of the truth would likely lead to death on the rocks. He ordered his men to stuff their ears with beeswax and had himself lashed to the mast lest he succumb to the Siren calls.

Will Gordon Kerr, of the Force Research Unit, tell what he knows of UDA briefings so they'd mainly kill people the authorities had no interest in keeping alive?

As much chance of that as of Gerry Adams coming clean about his leadership role in the Provisional IRA through the bloodiest days of the conflict.

Or of General Sir Michael Jackson recovering from false forgetfulness about Bloody Sunday.

There are tired ex-combatants, whose fitful dream is of "the bones/Of dead men rotting in a pile beside them/And flayed skin shrivelled" and who wake needing to know why, who, whom.

The US army doctor and classical scholar, Jonathan Shay, wrote in Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and Trials of Homecoming that, "Complete and final truth is an unachievable and toxic quest".

Or, as Gerald Manley Hopkins put it: "When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut/Your round me roaming end, and under be my bough?/When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite/To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but/That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows/Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?"

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