Rome and Ireland: the latest chapter of a long story

UPDATE:

Following their meeting in Rome, Higgins has raised the prospect of Pope Francis visiting Northern Ireland when he visits Dublin next year, according to RTÉ.

ORIGINAL POST:

Irish President Michael D. Higgins will meet with Pope Francis, 22 May, in Rome, two days ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s more attention-grabbing visit to the Vatican.

Higgins and the pontiff will discuss “issues of regional and global importance,” according to a press statement. They are also sure to talk about Pope Francis attending the August 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

The pope’s trip to the island of Ireland has fueled speculation of a possible side visit to Northern Ireland, which would match or surpass the historic 2011 state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic. Her trip came 100 years after her grandfather, King George V, became the last British royal to travel to what became independent Ireland after the island’s 1921 political partition. Higgins reciprocated the Queen’s visit in 2014 when he became the first Irish president to make a state visit to the United Kingdom.

Pope John Paul II visited the Republic in 1979, but he did not travel to the North, then in the thick of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. One can only imagine what sort of reception he would have received at the time from the late unionist firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley.

“I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine,” Paisley yelled at the pontiff in a 1988 visit to the European Parliament. Paisley eventually entered a power-sharing government with Catholics, including former IRA man Martin McGuinness.

Six years ago, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny criticized the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism” of the Catholic Church for its handling of clergy abuse of children in Ireland. Rome recalled its papal nuncio to Ireland, reporting at the time to Pope Benedict XVI. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs closed its embassy in the Vatican, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. It reopened in 2014.

Kenny, who just announced his resignation, met with Pope Francis in November 2016 and offered his “full support” for next year’s World Families visit. The lesson here seems to be that whatever is true of today’s political dynamics, they most likely will change in the future. The pontiff and Trump might even patch up their previous disagreement.

For an exploration of an earlier rift between Ireland and the Vatican, read my piece about the troubled founding of St. Patrick’s Church in Rome during the Irish Land War period of the 1880s.

Higgins’ itinerary also includes a visit with Irish clergy and lay staff working at the Vatican during a reception at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. Founded in 1628, it is the last of the many Irish Colleges that were once scattered over Europe when it was not possible to educate priests in Ireland, the college website says.

The Irish tricolor hangs from the balcony of its embassy to the Holy See in this April 2017 photo during my visit to Rome.

Enda Kenny to resign as party leader, taoiseach

Enda Kenny will resign as Fine Gael party leader and as Ireland’s taoiseach effective 2 June. He has served as the Republic’s prime minister since 2011. He is the longest serving taoiseach of his party, which has more often been in minority opposition to Fianna Fáil.

The Mayo-born Kenny, 66, signaled his intentions months ago, but the 17 May announcement caught Irish political observers off guard. His leadership has suffered from bumbling a plan to institute national water charges, and the handling of a long-running police misconduct scandal.

Enda Kenny and former U.S. President Barack Obama during a St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House.

Still, Kenny leaves a solid legacy. Here’s Stephen Collins writing in The Irish Times:

His crowning achievement was to lead the country out of the financial crisis that brought it to the brink in 2010, and preside over a government that transformed it into the fastest growing EU economy for the past three years.

Kenny’s mixture of political skill, sheer stubbornness and incredible stamina enabled him to achieve what many deemed impossible, but he never managed to win the level of public popularity achieved by some of his less successful predecessors.

His successor will have to deal with Britain’s coming withdrawal from the European Union, which could mean the return of a hard border with Northern Ireland. At the same time, the Republic’s new leader will have to navigate growing calls for the island’s political reunification.

Other big issues include a potential 2018 referendum on whether to repeal Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion, and whether to allow the country’s diaspora to vote in national elections.

Fianna Fáil could refuse to allow Kenny’s successor as party leader to also follow him as taoiseach. That would mean another national election. 

In praise of the Irish diaspora

I’ve been reading “The Princeton History of Modern Ireland,” edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride. It was one of the Irish history books under the Christmas tree five months ago.

The book offers 21 chapters by different historians that range from broad essays about major developments of Irish society and politics to more focused looks at specific factors that played an important role in shaping that trajectory, as Bourke writes in the Introduction.

Among the “standout entries,” Tom Deignan wrote in his August 2016 Commonweal review, are “explorations of the Irish language as well as the diaspora, topics that are often shoved to the margins but provide key insights into Ireland and its history.”

I especially liked Enda Delaney‘s “Diaspora” chapter, which concludes the book. These two passages caught my eye:

To write the Irish story without the diaspora is to render a partial account. It is worth remembering that in 1910 the Irish-born population of New York at 250,000 people was only exceeded by the populations of Dublin and Belfast. In other words, the third largest “Irish” city was across the Atlantic. (p. 493).

***

Irishness was never circumscribed by place of birth, as hundreds of studies of the diaspora clearly show, even if the venerable inhabitants of the “motherland” are sometimes less than keen to acknowledge this. (p. 502).

Immigrants at Ellis Island.

Remembering Bloody Sunday’s uneaten Mars bar

First, the numbers: 45 years after 13 Catholic civil rights marchers were shot dead on Bloody Sunday, 18 members of the British Parachute Regiment that opened fire on them that day in Derry may soon face charges, John Kelly, brother of one of the victims, told The Irish Times.

Kelly also repeated the story he told me in 2001, when we met at the Bloody Sunday Trust, a museum, human rights advocacy and conflict resolution center. His brother Michael, 17, was carrying a Mars candy bar in his pocket at the time he was shot.

The sweet became part of the evidence in several tribunals that explored the events of Bloody Sunday. A 2010 report determined the victims (a 14th person died later) were innocent. British PM David Cameron apologized for the 1972 military action to the surviving families and the community. As yet, however, none of the soldiers has faced charges for the deaths.

More on the background and latest developments in this BBC story.

“We will be here as long as we need to be,” Kelly told me in 2001. “What’s a couple more years, since we have waited nearly 30 [now 45] to hopefully get truth and justice?”

The 1972 civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, that became Bloody Sunday.

Surf and turf: Beach reappears as wildfires spread

These two environmental stories caught my eye:

Dooagh Beach is back! The strand on the west side of Achill Island, Mayo, disappeared 33 years ago during a storm.  Now, a “freak tide” has deposited hundreds of tons of sand where for more than three decades there has been nothing but rocky tide pools.

This Smithsonian.com story links to other coverage.

Meanwhile, The Irish Times reports that 30 to 40 gorse fires are raging across the country. The majority of the fires are burning around the Border area and Roscommon and Sligo, but the most significant blaze is in Cloosh Valley in Galway, according to the Times.

The beach is back. Image by Sean Molloy/Achill Tourism Via Reuters.

Remembering the catch turned catastrophe

One hundred years ago, as the west of Ireland daylight neared its summer solstice peak, four Connemara fishermen made an extraordinary catch: a “barrel-shaped” object with “handles on each side” floating in Galway Bay.

The men tied off the object and began rowing to shore, the big black barrel bobbing behind their boat. The slap of water on the currach punctuated their excited talk (likely in Irish) about the haul, which they suspected was a barrel of oil, tallow or similar shipwreck treasure. They knew the stories of other fishermen making similar lucky finds.

They rolled the barrel on the beach and began to manipulate some screws and pulled out a piece of cord. That’s when the marine mine exploded, killing the four fishermen and five others gathered on the shore. There was “not a trace of the mine or men … only a great hole in the beach,” said a report published a few weeks later in several American newspapers.

The tragedy was quickly blamed on a German munition, “without evidence to back that up,” according to a centennial remembrance in The Irish Times. The determination kept the surviving families from making a compensation claim with the British government, then in the third year of the Great War.

Fifty years later, a plaque with the names of the nine victims was secured to the face of a boulder in the remote location. But the tragedy was mostly forgotten. Now, the plaque has been restored as part of an enhanced memorial, to be rededicated in centennial ceremonies 15-18 June, as the west of Ireland daylight nears its summer solstice peak.

The restored memorial to the nine victims of the 1917 barrel mine explosion near Galway. Image by Joe O’Shaughnessy, part of a photo gallery and short video in The Irish Times.

E.U. would welcome the North in United Ireland

Northern Ireland will automatically join the European Union if voters on both sides of the 1921 partition agree to the island’s political reunification.

Leaders of 27 E.U. states agreed the decision at a 29 April Brussels summit called to prepare for the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc. Last June, U.K. voters approved Britain’s exit, or Brexit, by 52 percent to 48 percent. Nearly 56 percent of voters in Northern Ireland, however, supported remaining in the E.U.

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny urged E.U. leaders for the commitment to welcome the six counties of the north. The approved statement is now being called the Kenny text:

The European Council acknowledges that the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for an agreed mechanism whereby a united Ireland may be brought about through peaceful and democratic means.

In this regard, the European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union.

A vote on Irish reunification is not scheduled at this time, and it appears unlikely to happen anytime soon. “In my view, the conditions do not exist now for a Border poll,” Kenny said after the E.U. statement.

Kenny

The more immediate concern is resolving what happens with the border between Northern Ireland, as part of the departing U.K., and E.U.-member Republic of Ireland.

The border has been nearly seamless since the late 1990s, when military check points began to disappear with the easing of sectarian violence in the North. The biggest difference between the two countries is the change of currency, since the U.K. never adopted the Euro. On the Dublin to Belfast train last summer, I also noticed the automatic change of data carriers on my mobile device.

The is just one part of even thornier Irish-British trade issues.

Stormont deadline extended until June 29

In a related development this week, the U.K. parliament extended the deadline to form a new power-sharing executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly until June 29. Unionist and nationalist leaders have been unable to reach an accord since the 2 March election, in which the pro-reunification Sinn Féin party made dramatic gains in the assembly.

Since then, British PM Theresa May called for a 8 June snap election in the U.K. to bolster support for the Brexit negotiations. The election, which includes Northern Ireland, provided a handy and logical rational to delay the formation of the assembly executive.

Confused? This BBC Q & A should help.

“Angela’s” Pulitzer: Catching up 20 years on

Margaret Cashill of Tampa, one of my former newsroom colleagues, suggested this blog post and sent along a few links. Thanks Margaret! MH

Columbia University President, George Rupp (left), presents Frank McCourt with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

In April 1997, Frank McCourt’s memoir of his “miserable Irish upbringing” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography. Angela’s Ashes had published a year earlier.

Twenty years on from the Pulitzer, there is a wave of developments associated with the book:

  • Angela’s Ashes: The Musical is preparing to open this summer, with performances in Limerick, site of the book, as well as Dublin and Belfast. “There’s a recognition of the brand across the world. … But this is a show I want to stand on its own two feet in Ireland,” producer Pat Moylan told The Irish Times.
  • Leamy House on Hartstonge Street in Limerick, the author’s old school, has been purchased by a Limerick businessman. The building hosts multiple tenants, including the Frank McCourt Museum, which the new owner plans to keep in place, according to the Limerick Leader.
  • The Leader also reported that hundreds of people have contributed to a large montage portrait of the famous Limerick writer.

McCourt was born in New York. His parents returned to their native Ireland during the Great Depression. He was 67 when Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer.

In a September 1996 book review under the headline “Generous Memories of a Poor, Painful Childhood,” The New York Times wrote:

“Writing in prose that’s pictorial and tactile, lyrical but streetwise, Mr. McCourt does for the town of Limerick what the young Joyce did for Dublin: he conjures the place for us with such intimacy that we feel we’ve walked its streets and crawled its pubs. He introduces us to the schoolmasters who terrorized (and occasionally inspired) their pupils, the shopkeepers who extended credit to the poor and the priests who listened to the confessions of young boys preoccupied with sex and sin and shame.”

McCourt later wrote ‘Tis (1999) and Teacher Man (2005). He died in 2009.

The troubled foundation of St. Patrick’s in Rome, 1888

ROME — The foundation stone of St. Patrick’s Church in the Eternal City was laid during a critical period of Irish history and the eve of a low-point in the country’s relationship with the Vatican.

I stopped by the church, plain by Roman standards, as part of my ongoing project of visiting as many St. Patricks as possible. As it turned out, the church’s foundation date of 1 February 1888 (St. Brigid’s Day) also dovetailed with my interest in Ireland’s late 19th century nationalist struggles and land war.

St. Patrick’s Church, Rome, April 2017. Mosaic of St. Patrick below Celtic cross.

The morning of the foundation ceremony, a delegation of three archbishops, 10 bishops and 300 other pilgrims from Ireland, America and other nations with significant Irish immigrant populations met with Pope Leo XIII. The visitors gave the pope “a magnificent chalice of Irish workmanship,” a photo album of “sights, churches and principal monuments” of Dublin and a nearly £16,000 donation to the Vatican exchequer. The pontiff blessed the trowel to be used in that afternoon’s building site ceremony and handed each of the guests a coin commemorating the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination.

The pope addressed the group in Latin, according to The Nation, which reproduced his text with an English translation. He assured the visitors that he had viewed Ireland “with paternal care” since the start of his pontificate 10 years earlier.

“We were moved by her many claims upon us, but most of all by the integrity of that Catholic faith which, established by the labors and the zeal of St. Patrick, was preserved by the unconquerable fortitude of your ancestors, and transmitted to you to be guarded as a sacred inheritance,” he said.

The mosaic above the sanctuary is by Rodolfo Villani and depicts St. Patrick converting the High King Laoghaire at Tara, using the shamrock to explain the Trinity. The banner UT CHRISTIANI ITA ET ROMANI SITIS (“Be ye Christians as those of the Roman Church”) — is from the writings of St. Patrick.

The pontiff also briefly discussed the “present state of affairs” in Ireland, noting that a year earlier he dispatched Archbishop Ignatius Persico to investigate the country’s troubles. At the time, tension between Irish tenant farmers and absentee landlords had been stoked by a protest strategy known as the Plan of Campaign, which sought to reduce rents by withholding payments. If tenants got evicted, the Plan called for peer-enforced social ostracism, or boycotting, to prevent others from leasing the land. Some Catholic clergy were tacitly supporting the movement by joining the simultaneous nationalist efforts to secure Irish political autonomy, called home rule.

Persico began his mission to Ireland in 1887 just as the Times of London published a sensational series of stories linking agrarian unrest to Irish leader Charles Steward Parnell. The prelate’s presence generated mixed reactions among the Irish hierarchy, according to their letters to Tobias Kirby, rector of the Pontifical Irish College, Rome, who acted as their representative to the Vatican. In July, Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin wrote that he was “very edified” by Persico’s mission. In September, Rev. J. Hassan of Londonderry said he was “ashamed of the cold reception” some gave the Vatican visitor. In October, Msgr. Bernard O’Reilly of Dublin worried that Persico’s report would be “unfavorable to Ireland” and complained he was “the wrong man to send.” The next day, Rev. M. Mooney of Cahir wrote he was delighted by the “genuine spark of Celtic spirit in his [Persico’s] very tone.”

As if to underscore the troubles in Ireland, boycotted Kerry farmer James Fitzmaurice was gunned down in a widely reported land-related murder a day before the February 1888 foundation ceremony. That may have been on the pope’s mind when he told the Irish delegation he ordered the Persico mission “that we may be aided by his report in ascertaining the actual condition of things, and the steps that in your interest it may be desirable to take.” The pontiff also suggested that he might help ease Ireland’s “difficulties” through his personal diplomacy, just as he diffused anti-Catholic tensions in Germany.

Back in Ireland, however, The Nation noted that there were “wide differences” between the situations in the two countries, and that a similar outcome was unlikely. “The German question was essentially a religious one; the Irish question is an essentially non-religious one. Nor is there in English politics any such commanding personage as Bismarck,” the paper wrote four days later.

Sanctuary statue of St. Patrick. The tabernacle is open because this photo was taken the morning of the Easter Vigil.

About 10 weeks after the St. Patrick’s foundation ceremony, Rome issued a Papal Rescript that condemned the Plan of Campaign and its associated violence and boycotting tactics. While Persico favored grassroots guidance by the Irish bishops, the decree reflected the top-down approach of the Vatican, which at least in part was trying to appease English Catholic elites and the conservative government in London, which soon opened a special commission on “Parnellism and Crime.”

The Irish bishops grumbled that the decree divided their loyalty to the pope with their ministry to the people. The directive also drew a harsh rebuke in the first issue of The Irish Catholic, the latest publishing endeavor of Timothy Daniel Sullivan, a Dublin-based MP who also owned The Nation. “We deplore that the Holy Office has been deceived into accepting as a description of the affairs of Ireland, one without any basis in fact,” the new weekly said in its 5 May editorial.

Two months later, Rome reinforced the rescript with a Papal Encyclical, Saepe Nos, which complained the original decree was “grievously perverted by means of forced interpretations.” The pontiff reminded his Irish readers that he had “carefully inquired” to “obtain full and reliable knowledge of the state of your affairs, and of the causes of popular discontent.” In other words, the Vatican was standing by its original orders against boycotting and the Plan.

The Irish hierarchy and populace only grew further enraged. By the end of 1888, 28 of 30 Irish bishops signed a letter to the pope stating that they could not enforce the decree without jeopardizing both his and their own authority in Ireland. The following year became “perhaps the worst period in the whole history of Irish relations with the Holy See.” The Irish bishops even balked at Vatican directives to hold special collections to help pay for building St. Patrick’s Church in Rome.

Lack of funds and other delays slowed completion of the church for 23 years. It finally opened on St. Patrick’s Day 1911, “in weather that was raw, and chill, and rainy, much resembling that of spring days in Ireland,” the Freeman’s Journal reported. Eight years after the death of Leo XIII, the Kerry People suggested the late pontiff “encouraged and most generously contributed” to the Irish-connected church. (The Nation folded 11 years earlier, and The Irish Catholic’s archive was not immediately available.)

Most of Ireland’s tenant-landlord disputes had been resolved by 1911, but an even more difficult revolutionary period was just about to begin. With it, there would be a new round of trouble between Irish nationalists and the Holy See.

NOTES in addition to material linked above:

  • Freeman’s Journal, 28 March, 1911, page 5.
  • Kerry People, 8 April 1911, page 9.
  • Larkin, Emmet: The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and the Fall of Parnell, 1888-1891 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1979. “Worst period” quote on page 3, plus other background.
  • St. Patrick’s Church, Rome.
  • The Nation, 4 February 1888, page 11.
  • The Two Edged Sword.

Rooney & O’Reilly: Dead … and gone

I’ve been away from the blog for an Easter trip to Rome. During my absence, two Irish Americans made headlines for very different reasons:

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney dies

In my native Pittsburgh and across most of America, Dan Rooney was best known as chairman of the NFL Steelers, the son of the team’s late and much beloved founder. But he also was U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from July 2008 to December 2012, a co-founder of The Ireland Funds, and principal benefactor of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin.

He died April 13 at age 84. His grandfather emigrated from Newry, County Down to Montreal, Canada, then moved to Ohio and Pittsburgh, where the late ambassador was born.

“Deeply committed to Ireland and the Irish people, he was always conscious of his Irish roots,” Irish President Michael D. Higgins told The Irish Times.  Said former U.S. President Barack Obama:

Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage. I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland thank fondly of him today.

Obama and Rooney, right, in 2014. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette image.

Bill O’Reilly ousted from Fox News

Conservative news anchor Bill O’Reilly and the Fox News Channel parted ways after 20 years in the wake of a New York Times exposé about the media company paying $13 million to settle sexual harassment allegations against the cable television ratings king.

O’Reilly describes the claims as “completely unfounded” and himself as the victim of “the unfortunate reality many of us in the public eye must live with today.”

His great-grandfather emigrated from Clonoose, County Cavan, according to a 2016 episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” O’Reilly also was a 2014 inductee in Irish America magazine’s Hall of Fame.

The honor recognizes “the extraordinary achievements of Irish-American leaders, from their significant accomplishments and contributions to American society to the personal commitment to safeguarding their Irish heritage and the betterment of Ireland.” Among 45 honorees since 2011: liberal cable television anchor Chris Matthews; former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and President Donald Trump’s Ambassador to Ireland nominee Brian P. Burns.

But not Dan Rooney, though the magazine has written about him.

I’ve reached out to the New York-based publication by email and Twitter to ask if they plan to keep O’Reilly among their honorees. Maybe they could switch him with Rooney. If you agree, contact the magazine at: @irishamerica, or submit@irishamerica.com.