The Inquest of Bread

Unintended faux pas do happen

Some quiz questions:

Which date is the anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of Bloody Friday?

Which date is the anniversary of the La Mon restaurant bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Droppin Well bombings?

Which date is the anniversary of the Teebane bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Shankill Road bombing?

Which date is the anniversary of the Omagh bomb?

Which date is the anniversary of the Loughinisland massacre?

Which date is the anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings?

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know the exact answer to any of these questions. The year and the month of some, at a stretch.

Barry McElduff, the Sinn Féin MP suspended from the party for three months, is supposed to have known the date of the Kingsmills massacre. He is supposed to have known that it was a very bad day to put a Kingsmill loaf on top of his head. He is supposed to have known, at the very least, the brand names of the products he puts on top of his head for videos shared online have potentially damaging connotations for people who might watch those videos.

Some people think Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. They think that he knew very well it was the anniversary of the Kingsmills massacre, and that he went down to the local shop, picked up a Kingsmill brand loaf, and placed it on his head. They think the MP then posted it on his Facebook page for the world to see, maybe because he thought some of the viewers would find it funny, or maybe because he thought, with calculated malevolence, that other viewers would find it desperately hurtful.

Some people say they do not know if Barry McElduff was deliberately making a joke at the expense of the victims of the Kingsmills massacre. However, they say, he should have known what date it was. Or he should have made the association between the brand of the loaf he picked up, and the massacre.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the date when you know all the dates of all the atrocities conducted in the Northern conflict over 30 years. Maybe there are lots of people who keep a close watch on such dates, but I don’t think I’ve ever met any.

I guess it is easier to say that he should have known the association between the brand name of the loaf and the massacre when this is what you yourself think whenever you pick up a Kingsmill loaf in the supermarket. Or maybe you do not pick up such products, because of what they connote for you.

But Kingsmill is one of the most common bakery brand names in Northern Ireland. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland eat these branded products every day. They lift the packet from the bread bin or wherever, take out a couple of slices, and put them in the toaster, or maybe they make a sandwich. I have done this many times myself.

How many people, would you say, are put off eating the sandwich when the association with the massacre comes to mind, as it is supposed to? If it’s a common association, which is what people appear to think, then there are tens of thousands of people who are regularly reminded of the massacre by the food in front of them, but they carry on eating regardless, their appetite undimmed. What kind of person does something like that? I cannot help think of the regular scenes from House of Cards, with the monstrous Frank Underwood preparing himself a white bread sandwich in his kitchen late at night, unmoved by the carnage that surrounds him. Would it not be a society of monsters, if so many people have the stomach for that?

Is Northern Ireland a society filled with monsters? Some would have you think that is, and that there are significant numbers of people whose fuel for living is the purest hate. One of the most horrible images in my mind -it seems no less horrible even though I wasn’t even there when it happened- is of one group of teenagers passing through a schoolyard, crying and bewildered because two of their classmates had been shot, and another group, from inside a classroom, banging on the windows, laughing and shaking their fists at those outside in taunting celebration. What do you do with images like that? You could give in to them, let them take hold of you. You could build an entire outlook on the idea that there is an enemy out there, ever present, hiding perhaps, but ever willing to seize the opportunity to humiliate and annihilate. You would find it easy to find others who have the same enemy as you. There are plenty of Facebook groups devoted to that kind of thing. And one of the attractions -for want of a better word- for this outlook is that you can never know, for sure, that some other person isn’t secretly harbouring some pure hate towards you under an outwardly friendly disposition.

It seems sensible to me, though, to try and avoid making out that there is some malign force at work when there might be good grounds for believing that there may not be, to try and avoid stocking up on fuel for nightmares. In the response to Barry McElduff’s video what is striking is how seemingly few people are open to the possibility of pure coincidence. As if pure coincidence were some sort of logical impossibility, let alone a likely explanation. If it is right and proper that people should do nothing that adds to the pain of victims of atrocities -and of course it is- then we can’t confine this to the initial circulation of an image, but also to the act of lending it a significance and weight that it may not have. In this regard I don’t know what good purpose anyone thinks they are serving by calling upon a victim of an atrocity and asking them to weigh up whether or not such and such a thing relates to that atrocity or not. Or worse, presenting them once again with their painful memories, and asking them to relive it once more. It seems sensible to me, as well, to try and distinguish between ghoulish opportunism on the one hand, and, on the other, a disinterested effort to prevent a flare-up of sectarian paranoia.

For what it’s worth, which is very, very little, I believe Barry McElduff is telling the truth when he says he did not intend any hurt with his silly video. Believing it doesn’t mean I know for certain what he intended, because I can’t. I just choose to live in a world where I’m not fetching up monsters at every turn. And maybe you should too.

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