Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, 2018

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here’s my annual holiday round up of news and features about the Irish and Irish America.

Annual Washington Festivities

Barack and Enda … Enda and Donald … Donald and Leo. The mid-March Washington meeting of U.S. president and Irish taoiseach has changed each of the last three years. Given the political uncertainties for both leaders, we could see another pairing in 2019. What’s more important is that Ireland, including the north, continues to receive this annual day of unmatched attention.

Coverage of this year’s early meeting:

St. Patrick’s Parades
  • In the digital age, it’s possible to watch the Dublin parade from anywhere in the world via Ireland’s RTÉ Player.
  • In New York City, marchers will carry a banner demanding “England Get Out of Ireland” for the 70th year, the New York Times reports.

For several years I’ve made an extra effort to visit St. Patrick’s churches in my travels. See my full list. Here are a few favorites:

  • Belfast, Northern Ireland: Given the city’s long history of sectarian strife, the opportunity to practice my Catholic faith felt infused with extra meaning and significance.
  • Rome, Italy: The church’s foundation stone was laid 130 years ago Irish as tenant farmers battled absentee landlords. The Vatican’s response to the trouble wasn’t welcomed back home.
  • Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Typical of the Eastern U.S., the parish and earlier iterations of the church date to the early 19th century, when Irish immigrants helped to build a vast system of canals, railroads, and turnpikes. A new building and vibrant Irish-American community were established by the early 20th century.

Stain glass image of St. Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa. church.

Fading of the Green

“The ranks of Americans who trace their ancestry back to Ireland – long one of the most prominent subgroups in American society – are slowly declining,” Pew Research reported a year ago, citing U.S. Census Bureau figure in an update of its original 2015 post.

The trend continues. The latest available data in the 2016 American FactFinder shows 32.3 million American identify as having Irish heritage, down from nearly 36 million in 2006. This map used to be much greener:

The American Conservative offered a review of Breandan Mac Suibhne’s book, The End of Outrage, which “studies the Irish habit of ambivalently accepting the present while willfully forgetting the past.”

Under the headline “Slow Fade of Pennsylvania Irish,” the review by Charles F. McElwee III continues:

The dispersing of Irish Catholic hamlets to suburbia, accompanied by the closure or demographic change of parishes, has further erased remnants of this once identifiable cultural tribe. … Millennials will likely be the last generation to fully comprehend … [Irish Catholic] tribal qualities. The Irish Catholic experience peaked during the Second Vatican Council, but has slowly faded with the death of older relatives, the changed cultural makeup of urban neighborhoods, the dissolution of cash-strapped and scandal-ridden parishes, and an overall indifference towards tradition in this modern era.

Euros and Greenbacks

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Ireland released “U.S.-Ireland Business 2018: A Two-Way Relationship.” The 92-page report tells the story of how over 700 established and new U.S. companies continue to invest in Ireland; and how up to 400 Irish firms now have operations in the U.S., while 300 more export to America. U.S. firms employ more than 155,000 people in Ireland; Irish affiliated entities have more than 100,000 workers on their payrolls in all 50 states.

Fields of Green
  • There’s been a small uproar (tempest in a pint?) since January, when ESPN’s Max Kellerman suggested Notre Dame University should ditch its “Fighting Irish” mascot as a “pernicious, negative stereotype of marginalized people.” Writing in the The Federalist, Matthew Boomer responded: “As an Irish-American and Notre Dame alumnus I am happy to explain why calling for the leprechaun’s head, far from being a blow for justice, is an utterly futile and self-serving exercise in which one attempts to establish progressive bona fides by tearing down an actual symbol of progress.”
  • With baseball season just a few weeks away, former news researcher Bill Lucey bats home a nice post about “Baseball and its Irish Roots” on his DailyNewsGems blog.

Catching up with modern Ireland: February

I spent February producing my Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited blog serial, which explores aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. I also traveled to Ireland for a week of research and visiting relations in Dublin, Navan and Mayo. Before continuing my exploration of Hurlbert’s book, let’s catch up on developments about modern Ireland and Northern Ireland:

  • 6 February was the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Ireland and Great Britain. Here’s an overview from John Dorney of The Irish Story.
  • Should there be an “Irexit” of Ireland from the European Union? A poll from said no.
  • The Washington Post reported on the battle over the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
  • Team Ireland had five athletes at the Winter Olympics: two from Ireland; one from America; one from France; and one from Norway. None won a medal.
  • The New York Times offered a feature story about the Great Western Greenway in Mayo.
  • I was blessed with mild weather during my visit. February ended with the island getting pummeled by a fierce winter storm.

A mild February afternoon in Mayo.

Catching up with modern Ireland: January

I’ve spent January producing my Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited blog serial, which explores aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Thanks for the great reader response. Before the next post, I want to catch up with the month’s developments in modern Ireland and Northern Ireland:

Tourism poster of Innisfallen, Killarney, in County Kerry, from the 1920s.

Best of the Blog, 2017

Welcome to the fifth annual Best of the Blog, which follows my 2012 launch anniversary and 500th post in July. I hope you enjoy this Irish news and history feature year-in-review. I’ve got some great things planned for 2018, including … wait for it … my seventh trip to Ireland!


In 2017, the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and fallout from Brexit created some of the biggest headlines, including debate about the border between the North and the Republic, and a surge of Irish passport applications from Ulster and other U.K. residents seeking E.U benefits.

Heading into 2018, it remains uncertain whether the nationalist/unionist power-sharing Assembly can be reconstituted by April’s 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. For now, it appears the island of Ireland will avoid check points and other hassles of a “hard border” once the North and Britain leave the E.U. in March 2019. Meanwhile, expect to hear more talk about a united Ireland, with the North welcomed into the E.U.

Among political personalities in 2017, Sinn Féin‘s Martin McGuinness died … Gerry Adams retired … the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster teamed with Tory PM Theresa May … and Fine Gael‘s Leo Varadkar replaced Enda Kenny as taoiseach. Much was made of the fact that Varadkar, just 38, is openly gay and the son of an Irish mother and Indian father. He leads a precarious governing partnership with Fianna Fáil that could easily erode and spark snap elections. … A national referendum is set for June on whether to repeal the constitutional amendment that bans most abortions. 

U.S. philanthropist and businessman Brian Burns, the grandson of Kerry emigrants, was nominated by the new Trump administration to replace former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley. Burns withdrew due to health concerns, however, and a replacement has not been named. Reece Smyth is the current chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin. … In August, Daniel Mulhall became the new Irish Ambassador to the U.S.

The Past

Here is some of my original research and curated content about Irish and Irish-American history milestones in 2017.

170 years ago:

150 years ago: 

125 years ago:

100 years ago:

The Irish Americans

I produced original research about Irish prisoners in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th century:

Other stories about the Irish in America included:

The Irish shrine mural in Baltimore by artist Wayne Nield.

The Census

Ireland’s 2016 Census was released to the public in 2017. Among many details about modern Ireland, it shows:

The Church

I added to my list of St. Patrick’s Churches, with visits to:

  • Rome, Italy, where the church’s 1888 founding coincided with the papal warning about the Irish Land War.
  • Cumberland, Md., Newry, Pa. and Harrisburg, Pa., where Irish immigrant laborers and ascendant professionals carried the Catholic faith of their homeland to America.

Stained glass image of St. Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa. church.

The Media

I explored U.S. press coverage of Northern Ireland; Dublin media protesting descriptions of the Irish capital in an ESPN The Magazine profile of native son Conor McGregor; and Irish media “past, present and future.”

Freelance Stories:

In 2017, I published three stories outside the blog:

I have a story about the Famine set to publish in the Winter issue of Prologue, the magazine the National Archives and Records Administration. Two other pieces are under consideration with two other publications.

Guest Posts:

I always appreciate the offerings of guest bloggers, this year including:

Lovely Louth countryside. Photo by Cathy Cahill.

The Departed

  • Ronan Fanning, professor emeritus of modern Irish history at University College Dublin and the author of several books, in January at age 75.
  • Thomas Kenneth Whitaker, “the most influential public servant” in the history of the Republic of Ireland, in January, a month and a day after his 100th birthday.
  • Martin McGuinness, former IRA man and Sinn Féin leader, in March at age 66.
  • Dan Rooney, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and longtime owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in April at 84.
  • Liam Cosgrave, former Irish prime minister, in October at age 97.
  • William Hastings, Northern Ireland hotelier, in December at age 89.

Visiting Ireland in 2018

  • Me, to Mayo and Dublin, in February
  • An exhibition from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., to Dublin and Cork, from March through October.
  • Pope Francis to Dublin, in August, with a possible historic side trip to Northern Ireland.

BOB Archive

Outside views: Brexit, taxes and tourism

Following my last post about Irish media, it’s always interesting to see how media outside of Ireland covers the island. Here are three recent examples:

Ireland and Britain reach border deal


Ireland, Britain and the European Union announced agreement (8 December) to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the deal “had “achieved all that we set out to achieve” in this phase of the Brexit negotiations.

Read the full text of the agreement.


The border deal has collapsed, at least for today (4 December), due to DUP objections.

Here’s a good explanation and background story from The Washington Post.


Ireland and Britain have reached a deal to prevent the return of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, according to The Irish Times and other media outlets.

Negotiators have agreed on the term “regulatory alignment” to describe customs rules and trade practices between the north and south of Ireland, rather than a formal commitment to “no divergence” originally sought by Ireland.

The reported deal comes weeks ahead of more wide-ranging Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union (of which the Republic remains a member) later this month.

Some early press reports portray the agreement as a concession to Ireland by Britain, which has angered the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP could block the deal “given Theresa May’s dependence on the party for a working majority in the Commons.”

I’ll update this post as more details emerge.

Political problems mount on both sides of Irish border

Political turmoil is growing on the island of Ireland. Each new development complicates the other. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The minority government coalition in the Republic of Ireland is on the verge of collapse. The opposition Fianna Fail party is threatening to break the three-year deal it made with the Fine Gael party just 18 months ago. A dispute over a police whistleblower case is the surface reason, but don’t be fooled: this arranged marriage was rocky from the start. If  Fianna Fail walks, Irish voters may have to trudge to the polls before Christmas.
  • As Reuters reports, this crisis comes three weeks ahead of a European Union summit in which the Irish government has an effective veto on whether Britain’s talks on leaving the bloc (Brexit) meet the Republic’s concerns about the future of the border with Northern Ireland. A weakened Irish government means less power at the bargaining table.
  • In Northern Ireland, the power-sharing Assembly has been suspended since January, when the nationalist Sinn Fein withdrew from government over concerns about the role of Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster in a renewable energy scheme. The New York Times does a good job of piecing together the ensuing events. “This is a more profound crisis than we’ve had at other times in the last 20 years,” said a member of the Alliance Party, a smaller centrist group that does not identify as either nationalist or unionist.
  • Complicating the border issues, Foster has written to the leaders of all 27 E.U. countries, telling them that Northern Ireland will not tolerate any difference in status between itself and the rest of the United Kingdom, after Brexit. She wants Northern Ireland to remain identified with the U.K. rather than any special arrangement with the Republic, as Sinn Fein wants. This reduces the chance of compromise on restoring the Assembly.
  • Remember, earlier this year Foster also entered into coalition government with British PM Theresa May.  As The Guardian reports, Foster now accuses the Irish government of exploiting Brexit to attempt to unify Ireland.
  • The ongoing Brexit negotiations, and what happens to the government in the Republic, will continue to impact Northern Ireland. Given the current difficulties, there may be calls to renegotiate the governing framework of the Good Friday Agreement, which reaches its 20th anniversary in April. Or political control may simply revert to London, a huge step backward. Next year also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and start of the Anglo-Irish War, which resulted in the island’s partition in 1921. Foster is right, in that talk of a referendum to reunify the island is only likely to increase.

Map of Ireland from the 1920s shows the partition of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland.

Guest post: Frank Sinatra at Kate’s Bar, Derry

I’m always happy to publish a guest post from people visiting or just returned from Ireland. This piece is by Dick Davis, a retired San Francisco Bay area stockbroker and author of “Bus Journey Across Mexico” and other photo journals; and Victor A. Walsh, a retired California State Parks historian who has written about Ireland and Irish America for the San Francisco Irish Herald, Irish America, Eire-Ireland, and Journal of American Ethnic History. MH

Massive 17th-century siege walls surround the city of Derry (Londonderry to Loyalist Protestants) in Northern Ireland.  Waterloo Street, which parallels the old gray walls, rises steeply above the Bogside. In a 2002 visit, at a late hour, it’s empty; the buildings a silhouette of dark forms in the black night.

At the corner where Waterloo turns toward Diamond Square, we spot a brightly lit pub — a glow of life on the otherwise dreary street. The sign in front says, “Tonight Frank Sinatra”; below in smaller letters, “Jimmy Breslin.”

This is nuts, I think. I’m in Ireland, not New Jersey, and Frank’s dead.

We enter Kate’s Bar. It’s packed. Men are standing shoulder to shoulder drinking black pints of Guinness. Wisps of cigarette smoke and loud conversation fill the stale air. Some of the men are wearing white polo shirts with a football patch. Three ladies, near the front corner by the mike, more than fill a bench meant to seat four.

They remind me of buxom cafeteria workers from my high school days, only without aprons. All of them are blondes and their hair is curled and teased in the beehive style of the early ‘60s. It’s clear that they are here to listen to Frank.

We push through the throng of people, and find two tall stools against the back wall. A fellow next to me with tousled wavy black hair tells us that there are some empty tables in the next room. “Thanks,” says my friend Vic, “but we want to hear the music of Hoboken, Ireland.”  He nods somewhat quizzically and introduces himself as Declan.

Just as he begins to speak, someone yells, “Mop,” and Declan springs into action. A tray in front of a golden retriever sitting underneath the bar in front of us has been kicked over. As Declan quickly mops up the floor, he tells us that the dog belongs to a blind man, a regular seated at the bar. The tray is refilled, and the dog goes back to contentedly lapping up the Guinness.

At the far end of the bar stands an animated chap alternately talking and listening to his neighbor. When a point is made or something funny is said, he twirls his hand in a spiral motion and pokes his finger at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if he was challenging God or keeping score.

Being newcomers, we begin to attract attention. “Where you from?” asks a thin fellow with a brown, droopy moustache. “California, near San Francisco,” I reply. “Oh, you’re a Yank,” he says in a friendly manner. He introduces himself as “Fergus,” with an emphasis on the “fer.”

We chat, and soon Declan returns. Like several other men at the pub, he is wearing a white polo shirt with a Celtic Football Club badge embroidered in green with a shamrock in the center. The patch is sewn on the right side of his shirt. On the left side, stitched in a circle with Irish flags are the words, “Celtic Supporters Club, McSheffrey and Deery.”

“Can I buy one of these shirts here?” I ask him. “They’re not for sale. They’re commemorative. They honor the memory of me friends, Eddie McSheffrey and Paddy Deery. We lost them to The Troubles here in ’87.”

“To your friends,” I saluted with my glass raised high and took a drink. Fifteen years, I thought, and The Troubles are still here, but friends are never forgotten.  

The stone walls that encircle Derry rose out of history. They stood in 1689 when Protestant defenders repelled a 105-day siege by the Catholic army of King James II.  They straddle the steep ground above ‘Free Derry’, the Catholic Bogside where British paratroopers in 1972 without provocation opened fire on unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers, killing 13 (a 14th person died later) and wounding 17 protesters in a massacre remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”

The murals and slogans painted on the walls and ramparts—“No Surrender”, “End The Torture”; “We Salute Those Who Gave Their Lives For Irish Freedom”—are a living testament to what divides the two cultures into segregated communities: one Protestant, British and Unionist; the other, Catholic, Irish and Republican.

As I think about this, someone whistles. The crowd claps, a cheer goes up, and a ruddy-faced version of Jimmy Breslin steps forward and screams into the mike, “It’s time for Frank!”

He’s dressed like a young Sinatra in a white-on-brown plaid sports jacket and fedora with the hat cocked and the brim turned down. He taps the mike; the crowd quiets as he fixes his gaze on the lady with the tallest beehive and sings, “I’ve got a crush on you…” She throws back her head; her face enveloped in a great smile. Her two friends nudge and jostle her.

As Sinatra croons “You do something to me…,” I look out at the blissful gathering, sparkling eyes, happy faces, people at the bar talking and laughing, small men dancing with large women, more joy and love than I’d ever seen in a church on Sunday.

Fergus comes over, taps me on the shoulder, and whispers, “To New Jersey,” referring to Sinatra’s home state.

Declan, who had disappeared when Frank began, returns with a white polo shirt. “Let me check the sizes. I couldn’t see in that cave-dark store room,” he explains. It’s extra-large, my size. As he hands it over to me, I could see a tear of joy in his eyes. “The club stocks the shirts, but we never sell our memories,” he says.

In June 2017, I returned to Derry with my granddaughter and grandson. We visited the Museum of Free Derry. The film clips on The Troubles were both personal and deeply moving, especially Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology on June 15, 2010, for what happened on Bloody Sunday. The Bogside was jubilant; the fallen finally remembered as victims, not perpetrators. In this sense Free Derry represents a future together as much as a past apart. .

Afterwards, we walk up Waterloo looking for Kate’s Bar. Uncertain, we ask around until I spot a pub called Castle Bar. For me, it’s still Kate’s.

When we enter, my commemorative polo shirt catches people’s attention. At the bar, I ask if anyone remembered Kate’s. “Yes,” an older fellow shouts while nudging his way forward. When he sees the polo shirt, he slowly bends his head, kisses the logo with the two names, and then praises me for bringing my grandkids, letting them know about The Troubles.

The mood is subdued; almost reverential. No one spoke. Words did not matter for the faces in that moment of silence simmered with the memory of tribal wrongs.

(Editor’s Note: Patrick Deery and Edward McSheffrey were among nearly 100 people killed in Northern Ireland in 1987. Nearly 3,600 violent deaths–nationalists, loyalists, British troops and innocent civilians– occurred during The Troubles, which lasted from 1968 to 1998.)

The worst of the Troubles ended nearly 20 years ago with Good Friday Agreement, but neighborhoods in Derry/Londonderry remain divided between Unionist/Loyalists, top, and Nationalists/Republicans, below. June 2017 photos by Dick Davis.

Gerry Adams to stand down as Sinn Féin leader

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams says he will retire next year after 34 years as chief of the Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“His ultimate goal of a united Ireland is still elusive,” Reuters reported. “But the party he leaves is not only the dominant Irish nationalist force in the British-ruled province, but also strong enough across the border in the Irish Republic to have a chance of entering government there, too.”

Adams was first elected Sinn Féin leader in 1983, midway through The Troubles, when the party operated as the IRA’s political wing. As such, he became “the face of the IRA” for many in Britain and Northern Ireland. But he remained in the position through the peace process and Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Adams spent most of his career as an abstentionist MP representing West Belfast. In 2011, he moved to the Republic and won a seat in the Dail representing Louth.

His retirement announcement comes at the end of a year that began with the January resignation of political partner Martin McGuinness as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the nationalist-unionist power-sharing government. That decision resulted in the Assembly being dissolved for new elections, but months later the body has not yet been restored.

McGuinness died in March and was replaced by Michelle O’Neil as Northern leader. Mary Lou McDonald is widely expected  to replace Adams.

Adams said he and McGuinness had agreed to an exit plan last year. “Leadership means knowing when it is time for change and that time is now,” he said during his announcement.

1917: Year of shipwrecks off Irish coast

More than three dozen ships were sunk off the Irish coast in 1917, most in German attacks related to World War I. About 600 people, including merchant crews and civilian passengers, died in these episodes, but the toll likely was much higher. Some survived these ordeals.

The Irish Shipwrecks Database (ISD) lists 41 vessels as sent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Irish Sea and St. George’s Channel in 1917. Some of the wrecks were more than 100 miles off the coast, others within sight of shore. My review of other sources indicates the database is missing at least a few navy ships and cargo vessels sunk by German submarines, and also does not included a few of the U-boats destroyed in Irish waters by the U.S. and British navy.

About half the vessels listed in the ISD were torpedoed by German submarines. Others struck mines floating in the sea lanes. A few vessels were captured, stripped of food and other valuables, then scuttled. The wrecked watercraft included cargo ships under steam and sail, merchant cruisers, minesweepers and fishing trawlers.

The 41 shipwrecks in 1917 is the third highest total in the ISD behind 64 sunken vessels in 1867 and the same number in 1852. The ISD shows five shipwrecks in both 1918 and 1916, including the Aud.

Germany renewed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 after restricting such activity in the wake of sinking the British liner Lusitania in May 1915. America entered the war in April 1917, and a month later the U.S. Navy arrived at Cork. The war continued through November 1918.

The deadliest episode of 1917 was the 25 January sinking of the Laurentic at Lough Swilly, County Donegal. The British steam ship, which had been converted into an armed merchant cruiser, hit a mine about 90 minutes after leaving the harbor. One hundred twenty one men were rescued from the crew of 475.

S.S. Laurentic

The Laurentic was carrying a valuable cargo of gold ingots. As of October 2017, 542 of the gold bars had been recovered from the original load of 3,211 as high-tech salvage crews continue searching the bottom for the rest of the treasure.

The second deadliest 1917 Irish shipwreck occurred two weeks after the Laurentic, on 7 February, when the passenger steamer California was torpedoed 38 miles from Fastnet Rock, off the Cork coast. A total of 43 people were killed–30 crew and 13 passengers–among the 205 aboard.

While these episodes were widely reported in Irish newspapers, other ship sinkings were not mentioned at all, or matter-of-factly. For example, on 24 April, this story appeared on page 5 of the Freemans Journal:


Another Irish ship, with a cargo of grain, flour and general merchandise, for an Irish port, has been sunk by a German submarine. It is understood that the crew was rescued.

The 1917 Irish shipwrecks are getting some contemporary media attention at this year’s centenary: