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Sunday 1 April 2012

Che Guevara should not be immortalised in Galway

As we're stuck with the monuments we erect, we should choose very carefully, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

READING about the proposal to raise a statue in Galway to Che Guevara, I was reminded of the ugly mosaics on either side of the altar in the Chapel of the Resurrection in Galway Cathedral.

Hands clasped in prayer, two youngish men with the initials PP and JFK soulfully address their god.

As crass and inappropriate memorials go, these secular images are hard to beat. Padraig Pearse in 1916 led a small cabal into a rebellion condemned by the Catholic Church which resulted in 450 deaths, including 242 civilians, of whom 28 were children. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as US president, had a private life of remarkable sexual degeneracy.

Built in the Sixties, the Cathedral was known locally as 'Michael's Erection'. The mosaics are an embarrassment these days, but there's little to be done other than hope no one draws attention to them. You can put up a memorial, but taking it down is a different matter.

Last week Senator James Heffernan suggested that the portraits of disgraced taoisigh should be removed from the Leinster House public gallery. He meant well, but it's an eejity suggestion with nasty totalitarian resonances. Our taoisigh were our taoisigh. We can't wish them away.

These days we've learned to live with statues of people our ancestors liked but we don't. Our history is our history, and airbrushing doesn't change that. (I admit to having been delighted when someone knocked Sean Russell's head off, but a Nazi-sympathising IRA chief-of-staff did seem to me to be a special case, and damn it, one can't always be consistent.)

But since we're stuck with the memorials we erect, it behoves us to choose carefully. It's quite a good rule of thumb to avoid nasty surprises by waiting until someone is a) dead, b) all the dirt has been dug on them, c) historians' sober assessments have been digested, and d) the pros and cons of the individual in question have been properly weighed up.

Che Guevara being a descendant of some 18th-Century Blakes and Lynches seems to be enough for Labour Councillor Billy Cameron, who's pushing the idea. "We're honouring one of our own from a distance," he explains.

Now I've no idea if Billy is ill-informed about Che Guevara or if he's read all about him and still thinks he's a role model for the young, but I hope that his colleagues do some homework pretty sharpish and kill off what could be a serious embarrassment to lovely Galway in the future.

Declan Ganley has compared Guevara to -- among others -- Stalin and Pol Pot, which was slightly overdoing it, but he's right to describe him as a 'mass murderer'. This Argentinian did little killing when he joined up with Fidel Castro and his Cuban Communists, but when the corrupt Batista regime fell without a struggle, Guevara discovered a taste for it. For instance, while living in a luxurious home he had seized, as the man in charge of La Cabana prison in 1959, he killed or had killed without trial between 400 (a colleague's estimate) and 2,000 people (Guevara's estimate) for being suspected opponents of the new order. "Evidence," he explained, "is an archaic bourgeois detail."

In a letter which the Irish Times didn't print, Yale Professor Carlos Eire, who had relatives tortured and murdered in La Cabana, has begged the Irish not to erect this statue. He describes him as a violent thug with despotic tendencies, who sent dissidents, gays and Catholics to concentration camps and helped establish "one of the most repressive regimes on earth".

The collapse of the Soviet Union, of which communist Cuba was a client state, and the mess that is its economy, is forcing its present dictator, Castro's brother Raul, to introduce some economic liberalisation along Chinese lines. Pope Benedict's visit has been a religious and diplomatic triumph. The Catholicism persecuted for so long has burst its bonds, the Pope has met both Castros and has had civilised conversations, he has called for religious freedom and has stood by political prisoners and the million or so Cuban refugees by praying "for the needs of those who suffer, of those who are deprived of freedom, those who are separated from their loved ones". He has also called for the ending of the United States's stupid, vindictive and counterproductive trade embargo.

The sculptor Simon McGuinness has designed what he calls a 'total homage' representing 'the man, image, and ideal' of the legacy based on the image of Che that adorns the chests of the gullible and the far left. The plan is that the statue be funded by Argentina -- lately come from military rule to democracy -- and the police state that is Cuba.

Galway city mayor Hildegarde Naughton is now trying to halt the stampede towards a really bad decision. "Remember Bishop Michael's mosaics," she needs to tell Galway City Council. "Erect at haste, repent at leisure."

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards