What do you do when awful things happen in the world and you want to make a change but you feel utterly powerless? Perhaps you believe anything you might try wouldn’t make any difference anyway? Do you have a quiet moment in the bathroom and cry? Do you write a letter? Share a clip on social media of someone speaking out in righteous anger? Do you pray? Do you block it out as fast as you can, flick the switch on the radio changing from news to music? Do you yell at the television: blaming, finger-pointing, swearing? I’ve done all of those things and I am no further forward. I don’t have the answers. One thing I have not done for a few years, though, is to join a rally. A march. The last time I did was 6th April 2011, when I left work at lunchtime to join a peace rally at Belfast’s City Hall following the murder of policeman Ronan Kerr. Annals say that 7,000 people were there that day. According to official records, peace had long since ‘broken out’ in Northern Ireland by 2011, and yet, there we were. There were speeches – there always are at such gatherings – but what I remember most keenly was the silence before and after, as we gathered and dispersed; the stillness and calm of a large collective gathering, the resoluteness of purpose. The power to be had in that collective quiet was, for me, more moving than any speech. This memory spurs my support of the planned march on Washington next month and my hope that the movement for gun control will grow in numbers and strength and power and that it will affect change.
When it’s a case of war, famine, displacement, and sprays of bullets, we can’t afford to take it slowly. Unfortunately, though, history teaches us that change is often slow, that we suffer repeatedly before we reach a point of ‘enough’. In 1936, in the month of October, a small group of people marched from Jarrow, on the outskirts of Newcastle, in the North of England, to the seat of Government in London. The cause at the heart of the ‘Jarrow March’ was rampant unemployment and hunger in Britain during the Great Depression. In particular, their cause was the poverty blighting the Tyneside town of Jarrow following the closure, in 1934, of its main employer, Palmer’s Shipyard, but they marched for the whole of the country. Around 200 men (‘Crusaders’, they called themselves) marched 300 miles from Jarrow to Westminster, carrying a petition to the government requesting the re-establishment of industry in the town. The petition was received by the House of Commons but not debated, and the march produced few immediate results. The ‘Crusaders’ returned home dejected, believing it all a failure. A match had been lit, though, 200 heads lifted to speak about an issue that millions of other felt powerless to address. Despite their initial sense of failure, the Jarrow March is now looked upon as a defining event of the 1930s that paved the way for social reform, universal health care and education, after the Second World War. Its impact was gradual, its legacy great.
‘The Green Fields of France’, is thought to be an Irish song, as it was made famous by Irish folk band, The Fureys. In fact, Scotsman, Eric Bogle, wrote the anti-war ballad, centred around the pointless death of a 19 year old Irishman named Willie McBride who died in the Great War in 1916. The lyrics are sung from the point of view of a traveller stopping by McBride’s gravestone many years later, lamenting his loss, imagining the life young Willie left behind to go and fight, having not reached two decades of life. It’s an unspeakably sad song without any resolution and the final verse questions whether we’ve learned anything at all with the passage of time:
“Now Willie McBride I can’t help wonder why
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did they really believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrows, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying was all done in vain
For young Willie McBride it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again and again.”
We’re not out of the woods in Northern Ireland but history is repeating itself less regularly there. As for what is happening again and again and again and again in the U.S., much of the world is quietly marching with you for change.