Tag Archives: Protestant

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.

U.S. media plays sectarian card in N.I. election coverage

News of Sinn Féin‘s big gains in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is reaching American media outlets, and with it the usual sectarian shorthand that has virtually disappeared from Irish and British coverage.

While Jewish-Muslim tension remains fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Catholic-Protestant animosity has a shrinking role in today’s Northern Ireland political narrative. But the storyline remains catnip to many U.S. news outlets.

Here’s the top of The New York Times‘ Assembly election coverage, which appeared at the bottom of page 10 of the 5 March print issue:

Sinn Féin, the main Catholic nationalist party in Northern Ireland, won its greatest number of legislative seats ever after a snap election this weekend, creating a virtual tie with its Protestant rivals and throwing nearly two decades of peaceful power sharing into turmoil.

This is an improvement over the 16 January Times’ story reporting the pending election:

Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls on March 2 in a snap election that was forced by the main Catholic party, Sinn Féin, after the collapse of a regional government in which Catholics and Protestants shared power.

The newer story introduces the concept of a nationalist party — instead of simply Catholic –in the first sentence. In the January story, the word nationalist isn’t used at all. The fourth paragraph does explain: “Sinn Féin wants Northern Ireland to stay in the European Union and eventually reunite with Ireland.” The word unionism is introduced in the same graph. Both stories were written by Sinead O’Shea.

The Washington Post published an Associated Press story on its website, though none has appeared in print as of 5 March. Here’s the lede:

Northern Ireland’s snap election has left the rival extremes of politics virtually neck and neck for the first time — and facing a bruising battle to put their Catholic-Protestant government back together again in an increasingly polarized landscape. The big winner from Saturday’s final results to fill the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Irish nationalist party that triggered the vote, Sinn Féin.

“Unionist” doesn’t appear until the fifth paragraph, in the formal name Democratic Unionist Party, then a graph later as lowercase “unionists committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.”

The descriptions could benefit from modifiers such as “predominantly Catholic nationalists” or “historically Protestant unionists,” leaving room for those who do not fit the easy stereotype. We are a long way from the days of “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” Northern Ireland is increasingly diverse in its religious (or non-religious), racial and political make up. Winners of 13 of 90 seats in this election are from parties or independents that eschew traditional Catholic or Protestant affiliation. Their 14.4 percent share is up from 12.9 percent in the May 2016 election.

Think it’s impossible for U.S. media to avoid this sectarian shorthand? NPR’s coverage, by Colin Dwyer, shows how the basic political divide can be explained without using religious identifiers.

When the dust finally settled Saturday on Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election, it became clear a new political reality now awaits voters there. After an exceedingly strong showing by Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s government is split all but down the middle between Irish nationalists and their pro-British counterparts.

The story does not use the words Catholic or Protestant.  Only an online photo caption describes “the Catholic Falls Road” in Belfast. The word nationalist appears three times in this story, lowercase unionist four times, plus an additional reference to the Democratic Unionists.

The opening of The Irish Timeselection wrap-up is representative of how Northern politics is reported on the island of Ireland, and in Britain. Note the use of the word republican instead of nationalist:

Sinn Féin has emerged as the biggest winner in the North’s Assembly election after the party came to within one seat of matching the Democratic Unionist return of 28 seats. In a dramatic shake-up, unionists lost their long-enduring and highly symbolic overall majority in Stormont as the republican party came very close to securing more first preference votes than the DUP.

Peace walls, right, gated roads , center, and boarded windows are reminders of the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in Belfast. Mark Holan photo, July 2016.

I’m not saying sectarian labels are never used in Irish and British media coverage, but they are becoming as sparse as people in Northern Ireland church pews. I wonder if these newsrooms have made conscious decisions to keep religious affiliation out of their political coverage.

To be sure, the “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast are a stark reminder that sectarianism still exists in Northern Ireland. And the U.S. media coverage does include the important contemporary context of Brexit and the Northern Ireland renewable energy scandal.

Alan Bairner wrote a chapter about international and local media coverage of the Troubles in the 1996 book, Northern Ireland Politics, edited by Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow. Remember, this was more than 20 years ago, and two years before the Good Friday Agreement.

Certainly the people of Northern Ireland could have no grounds for complaint about the levels of interest shown by the international media, although they were frequently uneasy about the quality of the analysis which resulted from that media interest. … There is little evidence, for example, that British or, indeed, international coverage of the Troubles had a significant impact on the views of people in Northern Ireland itself. Most Northern Irish people formulate political views on the basis of numerous factors and their reaction to media output, regardless of its aim, is more or less predetermined.

And the local press coverage?

It would be preposterous to suggest that the owners and editors of Northern Ireland’s local newspapers are responsible for the divisions in their society. It is undeniable, however, that their papers, through the choice of stories which are published and even the use of language to tell these stories, give voice to the rival perspectives of the two communities and, as a consequence, give added strength to these perspectives in the eyes of those who hold them. Therefore, local papers as well as the [Protestant] News Letter and the [Catholic] Irish News have helped to reproduce sectarian attitudes and in so doing they have become complicit in the maintenance of the politics of division.

(I added the paragraph beginning “Such descriptions … ” and made other minor revisions from the original post. MH)

Confederate battle flag and NI marching season

It’s marching season in Northern Ireland, and this year there’s some extra attention on appearances of the Confederate battle flag, subject of much controversy in the American South.

Writing in National Catholic Reporter, Mary Ann McGivern notes the similarity of arguments between those who believe celebrating Protestant King William of Orange’s 1690 victory over Catholic King James II is a matter of heritage, and those who say it represents hate. She writes:

As far as I can see, most of the people who wield these symbols of supremacy and privilege don’t have the ugly history in the forefront of their minds. The flags and songs are an excuse for drinking and maybe for finding someone to beat up — in short, for exercising privilege today.

flag

The U.S. has been focusing attention on the June murder of nine African-Americans inside their South Carolina church, and the alleged 21-year-old killer photographed with the battle flag on a website attributed to him and filled with racist rants. South Carolina political leaders are trying to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. But Business Insider reported the “stars and bars” also flies in other nations around the world, for various reasons. In Northern Ireland, the dissident Red Hand Defenders have marched with the flag due to their links with Ulster-Scots who fought for the Confederacy.

Now, with marching season building to its 12 July climax, the Confederate flag has been erected outside the home of a black family in East Belfast. One local politician told the UK Independent“The flying of this flag is closely intertwined with historical slavery and racist tension, as can be seen by its glorification during recent racially-motivated attacks in the US.”

And in Co. Antrim, the Belfast Telegraph reported Confederate and Nazi flags were flown along with the Union Jack and loyalist paramilitary flags near a Carrickfergus bonfire site. The BBC later reported the Nazi flags were removed.

Scotland votes ‘no’ as political waves hit Irish shores

The nationalist effort in Scotland was defeated 45 percent to 55 percent, but now a new debate begins over increasing devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has wasted no time in reiterating republican calls for a border poll, while DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has rejected the idea. The Belfast Telegraph reports:

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers can call a border poll at any time, according to the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought about peace. It also specifies that the cabinet minister shall order a referendum if it appears likely that a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland. The proportion of Protestants has fallen to 48% from 53% 10 years ago, census data showed, while the proportion of Catholics increased to 45% from 44%.

Of course, not all Catholics would want a united Ireland, and surely some Protestants would quietly vote to break from the U.K., especially if the Irish economy continues to rebound, as discussed in my previous post.

Here’s another thought piece about some of the calculations in Northern Ireland, written before the vote, including whether London wants to keep its bond with Ulster. How strongly does Dublin want the six counties?

At the very least there is going to be a lot of discussion about devolving more power to Belfast, especially corporate tax rates. The Irish Times reports:

The big focus initially will be on whether the British government now allows the Northern Executive to bring corporation tax here in line with the general 12.5 per cent rate that applies in the South. David Cameron has already promised that he would make a decision on corporation tax soon after the completion of the referendum.

Many economists and most politicians believe that reducing the level of corporation tax from its current general figure of 21 per cent would be a “game changer” for Northern Ireland: it would boost international investment and create thousands more jobs.

Scotland referendum stirs debate about impact on Ireland

The Scottish independence referendum is a week away, and one recent poll showed a swing toward the Yes side, stirred a vigorous debate the implications for Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Here’s a sampling of opinions:

Eamonn McCann writes in The Irish Times that Westminster is embarrassing itself trying to hold on to Scotland, but wouldn’t give a flip if Northern Ireland wanted to break away. “The political establishment in London couldn’t care less about the North.”

The Irish Examiner says a “yes” vote for Scotland would pose a major risk for Northern Ireland. Nothing will be the same afterward, regardless of the outcome. “Profound change will come. If the referendum passes, an immediate constitutional crisis occurs. There is no clear pathway forward, and the questions for now unanswerable, are myriad. In the event of defeat, greater devolution is now certain to follow. Like the ‘Irish Question’ the issue of Scottish independence is unlikely to go away.”

Scotland and Northern Ireland friendship flags.

Scotland and Northern Ireland friendship flags.

The Telegraph, in England, suggests that a “yes” vote could reawaken sectarian violence in Scotland similar to that in Northern Ireland. “If Northern Irish sectarianism had sprung from the dispossession of Catholics by 17th-century Protestant planters, Scottish sectarianism came from too large and fast an influx of Irish Catholics in the 19th century. … Such hatred has diminished with prosperity and with relative calmness in Northern Ireland, but there are many Scots who are terrified that independence will exacerbate old tribal resentments. An Orange order parade in favour of “No” is due to take place on Saturday in Edinburgh. It may well be counterproductive, especially if some of their less disciplined members fall out with nasty elements of the “Yes” campaign.”

The Belfast Telegraph says the “Better Together” campaign against Scottish independence “has made the same sort of mistakes that unionism has made over the years in Northern Ireland: far too much criticism of their opponents and not enough effort to set out the value and merits of their own beliefs. … If Northern Ireland and unionism are to survive, then the pro-Union lobby needs to be ready for the border poll and coherent enough to avoid the catastrophic errors and complacency of Better Together.”

Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, details the similarities and the differences between Scotland’s nationalist effort and those of Ireland in the early 20th century. He says, “there is life after independence from the UK. The day the British left in 1922, the Union flag came down, the Irish Tricolour was hoisted over Dublin Castle – seat of their Britannic Majesties for hundreds of years – a UK Governor General (who was of course Irish) took his seat, and anyone lucky enough to receive mains electricity could turn the switch by the dining room door – and the lights came on, just as they always did.”