When I write about Irish affairs for U.S. readers I generally begin by apologizing for having brought to their attention a tiny country that seems to be of no real consequence to the great affairs of the world. This time I am going to depart from that formula. I am, in fact, going to begin this piece by asserting boldly that I believe Ireland to be the most interesting place in the world right now, and that I think we should all be wiser, better informed, healthier and more attractive to potential romantic partners if we paid more attention to Irish matters.
Have I gone a wee bit overboard there? Well, possibly; but consider some of the great issues that form the substance of serious conversation among thoughtful Americans nowadays. Terrorism vs. civil society; “diversity” vs. monoculturalism; race and identity; the place of religion in a hedonistic popular culture; the future of nationhood in a globalizing world economy. You want to talk about these things? Go to Ireland, where they are all in active play. At this point in history, Almighty God, following his own unfathomable intentions, has chosen a small windswept patch of boggy turf in the North Atlantic as a test site for the next few decades of human development. Whether this attention is something the Irish people should feel flattered by, or cursed by, is for them to tell you.
To see what I mean, let me survey current talking-points among Irish people.
• Trimble’s tirade. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party — the more moderate and “respectable” of the Northern Ireland Protestant parties — let fly at the Republic of Ireland on March 9th. “It is time to stop talking down the union [i.e. of Northern Ireland with Britain]. The union is strong … Contrast the United Kingdom state — a vibrant multi-ethnic, multinational liberal democracy, the fourth largest economy in the world, the most reliable ally of the United States in the fight against international terrorism — with the pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state to our south.” When everybody had recovered from the shock of hearing an Ulster Unionist speaking approvingly of multiculturalism, the speech drew widespread ridicule. The poverty-stricken, priest-ridden “potato republic” of Trimble’s imagination is long gone, swept away by the “Celtic tiger” economy of the 90s. Ulster Unionists — none of whom lives more than 50 miles from the Republic — apparently do not know this.
• Bertie’s referendum. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, wanted to amend his country’s constitution to make abortion more difficult. As it stands, Ireland’s constitution allows abortion when the mother’s physical or mental health is endangered. In matters of law, as we saw recently in the Andrea Yates trial, “mental health” is spelt L-O-O-P-H-O-L-E. Bertie wanted to close the loophole, so that only danger to the mother’s physical health would be grounds for abortion. However, votes went 629,000 to 618,500 against Bertie and his amendment, on a lackluster 40 per cent turnout. Voting, as Mary Kenny noted in The Irish Independent, showed up the gulf between urban and rural Ireland. (Mary’s book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland is, by the way, a basic text for understanding what happened to the old, pious, conservative Ireland whose demise David Trimble failed to notice.)
• Blair’s amnesty. British Prime Minister Tony Blair held talks last summer with various Irish parties, attempting to break the deadlock over the refusal of the IRA to decommission its weapons. In an attempt to get a deal, Blair apparently promised Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin (the IRA’s political front), that terrorists who had committed their crimes prior to the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 would be amnestied. That is, if they emerged from their hiding places, they would not be prosecuted. Among the people involved here are two wanted for the Enniskillen bombing of Veterans Day, 1987, when 11 people in a crowd assembled to commemorate the dead of WW2 were killed by an IRA bomb planted in the memorial. (The IRA refer to WW2 as “England’s War.” They kept themselves busy for the duration of the conflict by sabotaging the Allied war effort.) Blair has been put under notice by his own party leaders that the amnesty will not get through Parliament.
• Casement’s Diaries. Roger Casement was an Irishman (though a Protestant one) hanged in 1916 for trying to enlist German help in the Easter Rising of that year. While he was being held in custody by the British authorities, some diaries of his turned up, revealing that he was a promiscuous homosexual — at that time not only disgraceful, but also illegal, in both Britain and Ireland. It has been an article of faith among Irish Republicans for decades that the diaries were forged by the British police to discredit Casement. Now a joint team of British and Irish scholars, using the latest forensic techniques, have proved the diaries genuine. At this point, of course, nobody much cares about Casement’s sex life; the significance is that one more cherished nationalist myth has been exploded.
• Ulster’s 9/11. On August 15th 1998 a huge bomb exploded in the main shopping area of Omagh, a Northern Ireland town of mixed Catholic and Protestant population. Twenty-nine people were killed — 31 if you include two babies in the womb of a pregnant woman — and hundreds were maimed. An IRA faction claimed responsibility. Getting on for four years later, only one person has been convicted in connection with the outrage. The identities of several others are well-known, but no-one will give evidence against them for fear of the IRA. Gerry Adams and other IRA front-men could certainly supply the necessary evidence, but have refused to do so, in spite of pleas by both the British and Irish police. The families of victims, who refer to Omagh as “our 9/11,” are now bringing a civil suit, à la Fred Goldman. Tony Blair has refused to meet them — too busy with his plans to amnesty IRA killers, presumably.
• Gerry’s Irish. Irish terrorists, like their Palestinian comrades, speak from one side of their mouths, in English, for public consumption, but out of the other, in their own language, when addressing their own followers. The Sinn Féin house organ Republican News recently ran a fiercely anti-American piece headlined “Bush as Smacht ” (“Bush out of control”), laying into the President’s war on terrorism. Conor Cruise O’Brien, a fluent Irish-speaker, translated the article for the benefit of the U.S. Dublin embassy — which has no Irish-speakers on staff, being less a diplomatic establishment than a vacation resort for big political contributors — and they, he believes, then brought it to the attention of the authorities in Washington. This may account for the fact that Gerry Adams could not find anyone willing to speak to him at the White House St. Patrick’s Day bash — except, of course, for the ever-faithful Rep. Peter King. Meanwhile, the poor old Irish language itself is on its last legs — “laid out on a slab” says Kevin Myers in a hilarious piece in The Irish Times. Wonders Kevin: “How many working-class children have left school almost uneducated because of the time and the resources wasted on the vain but often violent attempts to drum Irish into their brains?”
• Samantha’s breasts. Say what? I’m terribly sorry — that seems to have wandered in from my movie review last Friday. It is not entirely off-topic, though. Samantha Mumba is an Irish pop singer who plays female lead in the current movie of The Time Machine. Raised in Dublin by a Zambian father and an Irish mother, she represents the multiracial side of the new Ireland. Like other European countries, but more noticeably so because Ireland’s prosperity has come so quickly and recently, the country has been sucking in immigrants from East Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. There have been pitched battles between the travelling “Tinker” people, who have been a feature of the Irish landscape for centuries, and newly-arrived tribes of Romanian gypsies, who covet the Tinkers’ traditional occupational niches (pocket-picking, car stealing, etc.) Ireland seems to be particularly attractive to Nigerians, including those very skilful con artists you may have heard about, to whose persuasions the newly-affluent Irish seem to be very susceptible. Not all Irish people are yet ready to be cemented into the Gorgeous Mosaic, though. There have been some ugly incidents, and the government is now issuing vigorous declarations of its determination to stamp out “racism.” Dubliners, who are a gambling people, are opening books on the year and month when the city will have its first race riot.
If David Trimble is stuck around 1960, he has at least made it into the 20th century. Many Irish-Americans are still trapped in the 1840s — droning on about famine ships, the Saxon Yoke and the Penal Laws. When they deign to notice anything that has happened since the death of Daniel O’Connell, it is the “oppression” of Catholics in pre-1969 Ulster. (Though they never bother to explain to us why, all through the 1950s and 1960s, there was steady immigration into that hell-hole of degradation and discrimination, which had a welfare state, from the Republic, which did not. As Ulster people of the time liked to say: “They’ll take the half crown [a British coin] but not the Crown.”) Mike Cummings, of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, offered an egregious example of what the Irish themselves scoff at as “MOPE” blather in The Houston Chronicle last week. “MOPE” stands for “Most Oppressed People Ever,” the image of Ireland cherished by far too many Irish-Americans. The only people who talk like that in Ireland today are Marxist academics — the kind of folk who, over here, would be railing against “Amerika,” the Patriarchy, and the racist white power structure.
There are even Americans who still have tender words for the IRA, apparently not understanding how much this terrorist gang is hated in Ireland. It is illegal, in fact, in the Irish Republic, which has a perfectly good army of her own. Éamon de Valera, the father of modern Irish nationalism, used to hang IRA men when he could catch them — they were safer in England. The Republic also has a fine police force, many of whose members, like poor Gerry McCabe, have been murdered for having had the temerity to interfere with IRA fund-raising activities — bank robbery, drug dealing, protection rackets, and so on. How would you feel, as a patriotic American, if a gang of criminal fascists was going round setting off bombs in crowded shopping malls and calling itself “The Republican Army of the United States”? (Actually, “… of the Confederate States” would be a better analogy, as the IRA represents the losing side in the Irish Civil War of the 1920s).
The old joke about Ireland is: “Every time the British think they have found an answer to the Irish Question, the Irish change the question.” The Irish have been changing a lot of questions recently, and indeed adding some new ones. Apropos the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland, an Irish friend remarked to me recently that: “The process of secularization, which in England took 150 years, we have gone through in 15.” The drowsing, timeless, poverty-stricken, myth-haunted villages of the Gaeltacht (i.e. Irish-speaking areas), the kind of place satirized in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth, now have four-lane highways, yacht marinas and hacienda-style condo blocks full of German tourists. Ruddy-faced midland farmers still talk obsessively about the price of cattle, as they have since the time of the mythic hero Cuchulain; but they no longer wait to get married till their mothers have died, and their sons and daughters trade financial futures on the international exchanges, or start dot-com businesses.
“All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born,” remarked Yeats at the time of the Easter Rising. What has actually been born in Ireland during this past 20 years has been a modern, secular, hedonistic welfare state with a globalized economy, a Marxified Academy, a crime problem, a drug problem, an immigration problem and a terrorist problem. Is that terrible? Or beautiful? Your answer is probably a good indicator as to whether or not you are going to enjoy the first half of the 21st century.