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War, Peace, and the Folklorist’s Mission
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An apology to begin: this is not a scholarly article, slowed by defensive qualifications and interrupted by parenthetical references; it is a slightly expanded text of the talk I gave to open the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society on October 21, 2011, in Bloomington, Indiana. Designed to address the theme of the conference, its topic thrust upon me, the talk takes a spiraling course, circling over old ground, then spinning into new territory before returning to the center. To it I append a bibliography of the works that, so far as I am aware, aided me during preparation. After the generous, elegantly crafted introduction by Diane Goldstein, this is what followed:

On January 30, 1972, British troops rioted in the city of Derry, murdering 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators—a butcher’s dozen in the outraged words of the poet Thomas Kinsella. Thus the war on terrorism commenced with an act of terrorism.

In that year, 1972, the bloodiest year of the Troubles, I settled into a rural place on the embattled Irish border, Ballymenone, at the mouth of the Arney River, beside Upper Lough Erne, in the County Fermanagh. It was a place of low green hills and whitewashed farmsteads, lacking electricity, telephones, running water, and paved lanes. The people worked the land with hand tools and gathered at night in the convivial chat of the ceili. Their work was pastoral, their literature oral, but they were dramatically a part of the modern world.

Newsworthy history surrounded them with helicopters throbbing in the sky, armed soldiers prowling down the roads, and bombs that blew through the night. To understand their predicament, I came into colloquy with Ballymenone’s historians, Hugh Nolan and Michael Boyle, and with their neighbors who did not claim, and were not granted, the high name of historian, but were also knowledgeable about their place and its past: Peter Flanagan, Hugh Patrick Owens, and James Owens. God bless them all.

Deep in his thought, logical in his discourse, the philosopher among them was Hugh Nolan. He was born in 1896 in the house his grandfather built, and there he lived in one of its two black rooms. Mr. Nolan farmed a small patch and was famed for his physical strength. He wore a long black coat, bound round with a purple sash, and pedaled his bike to Mass every Sunday, first in Arney, then in Enniskillen. His neighbors called him a saint. They called him a saint and praised him as a historian. He had studied in his youth with the historian Hugh McGiveney, his neighbor, and he taught me as old Hughie had taught him. During conversations that continued from my arrival in 1972 until this death in 1981, I learned Mr. Nolan’s view of history.

In this place of past and present conflict, Hugh Nolan and his colleagues confronted war, telling of the great battles of the past—prime among them the Ford of Biscuits in 1594 and the Mackan Fight of 1829—to illuminate by indirection the conditions of the present. During narration, Mr. Nolan held tightly to the facts, arranging them to exhibit one pattern in battle after battle. In the realm of war, people provoked by threats, theft, or attack fight to secure what is theirs by right. Their cause is just, and they win, but in winning, they lose.

The explanation lay in the parallel history of faith. In the realm of faith, the ancient saints—Patrick, Febor, and Naile—arrive in Fermanagh and leave signs on the land, counters to doubt that prove the existence of God. To love one’s neighbor is the eternal commandment. And who is your neighbor? All mankind is the catechism’s answer. It is necessary to stand in defense of one’s home and property, yet war is not a Christian option.

Hugh Nolan set the ultimate tale in the sixth century. Saint Columcille, enraged by the loss of property he believed was his own—his transcription of Saint Jerome’s second translation of the Psalter—took the path to war. A man of noble birth, descended from the warrior-king Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columcille rallied his kinsmen...

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