Category Archives: Religion

Catching up with modern Ireland

March was a newsy month for Ireland, including the failed constitutional referendum, a sour St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, and the shock resignation of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Here’s some coverage and commentary that has caught my attention:

Varadkar resignation, Harris ascension, Donaldson resignation

Varadkar

The messiah complex: Neither Leo Varadkar, nor anyone else, could be a ‘savior’ of Fine Gael, Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times (Ireland)

“He was able, articulate and – in the twin crises of Brexit and the Covid pandemic – reassuringly adept. But his great talent was for riding out contradictions, not for resolving them. He managed to walk the line between politician and anti-politician, conservative instincts and an increasingly progressive society. …”

Update 1: The governing Fine Gael has selected Simon Harris as its new leader. There was no opposition to him within the party. At 37, he is set to become Ireland’s youngest taoiseach on April 9; a year younger than Varadkar when he took the job in June 2017. Some are already calling Harris the “TikTok Taoiseach.”

Harris was first elected to the Dáil in 2011 and managed Ireland’s COVID-19 response as minister for education, research and science. He has dismissed calls for a general election before the scheduled contest in March 2025.

Update 2: Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, abruptly resigned March 29 after being charged with sexual offenses. Leaders of the Northern Ireland say the development will not impact the power-sharing government, but it has rocked Irish and British politics.

Reverse reads on referendum result

Ireland’s Snakes of Secularization“, National Catholic Register (USA)

There is a very understandable desire among the faithful in Ireland — and elsewhere — to interpret this month’s rejection by Irish voters of a pair of “woke” constitutional amendments as a decisive Catholic inflection point. According to this narrative, the unexpected and overwhelming rejection of these amendments represents a watershed moment in terms of reversing the tide of secularization that has washed over Irish society in recent decades. Unfortunately, that’s probably untrue. … The hostility of voters toward the progressive inanities expressed by both amendments can’t be taken as a sign that secularism is now generally on the wane in Ireland — or that a concomitant rebirth of Catholic faith is broadly underway.

Ireland and the terrible truth about wokeness“, Spiked (England)

Ireland has become hyper-woke. Its elites are fully converted to the gender cult. They promote the ruthless policing of ‘hate speech’, which really means dissent. They damn as ‘far right’ anyone who raises a peep of criticism about immigration. Their culture war on the past is relentless. Woke is the state religion of Ireland now. And if you thought Catholic Ireland was sexist, irrational and illiberal, just wait until you see what wokeness unleashes. … The irony is too much: in ostentatiously distancing themselves from bad old religious Ireland, the elites have created a system of neo-religious dogmas that makes the Catholic era seem positively progressive in comparison.

Green (and blue) at the White House

Biden

Can the Irish Get Biden to Change His Policies on Gaza?, New York (USA)

Many of the actual Irish — the ones who came over from Éire for this annual celebration of the shamrock diaspora — spent the afternoon trying to talk sense to Biden over his Gaza policies, and his confounding (to them) support of Israel’s relentless military response to Hamas. … The Irish have a long-held kinship with the Palestinians. They see parallels between their struggle against Israel and the Irish struggle against British rule. They see in the famine that is gripping Gaza today a tragic echo of their own. This has been true for decades, but never more so than now. … So just beneath all the stout suds, these were the fault lines on display at Biden’s St. Patrick’s Day party this year: his assumption that the Irish were his friends and that so were the Israelis. But it’s no longer so easy to be both.

Three more stories:

  • Britain is appealing a ruling against its Legacy Act, which gives amnesty to ex-soldiers and militants involved in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles.” Victims’ families have challenged the law, and a Belfast court in February ruled it breached human rights. The Irish government is separately contesting the law before the European Court of Human Rights.
  • Rose Dugdale, who left a life of wealth to become a partisan activist fighting for Irish independence in the 1970s, died in Dublin, aged 82.
  • The Central Statistics Office launched the Women and Men in Ireland Hub, ” which features data from the CSO and other public sources broken down into six main themes: Gender Equality, Work, Education, Health, Safety & Security and Transport.

On marriage, family, and the Irish constitutional referendum

UPDATE: Both referendum questions were defeated by margins of nearly 3-to-1, an embarrassment for the coalition government that put forward the measures. The Irish Times editorialized: “The timing was rushed, the rationale unclear, the propositions confusing and the campaigning lackluster. It was an accident waiting to happen.” Whether the outcome is merely a botched one-off or indicates a conservative turn from the progressivism of the past two decades remains to be seen. I’ll have more analysis in a future post as Ireland now prepares for a general election in 2025. MH

ORIGINAL POST:

My maternal grandparents were married 100 years ago this week at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. They are seated in the wedding photo below, joined by five siblings of both families. All seven emigrated from Kerry between 1910 and 1921. Other members of both families remained in Ireland.

The newlyweds welcomed six children over the next eight years, all of them girls. My mother, 93, is the only survivor.

I remember these relations ahead of the March 8 referendum on proposed language changes in the Republic of Ireland’s 1937 Constitution. One measure would include “other durable relationships” beyond marriage; another eliminates language about women’s “life within the home.”

The language about women was controversial 87 years ago. The conservative influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the constitution was and is a target of secularists and progressives.

I will report the referendum results as they become available. Until then, an affectionate nod to my traditionally married grandparents and their families, which the Irish Constitution describes as “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society.” That language will remain in place regardless of the referendum outcome.

Nora Ware and Willie Diggin, seated. Standing, left to right, John Ware, Mary Diggin, Michael Diggin, Bridget Ware and Annie Diggin. March 4, 1924. (Thank you JVS for the restored photo.)

Guest post: John Bruton (1947-2024), an appreciation

Dublin historian and former public servant Felix M. Larkin’s last contribution to this site was about ‘Periodicals and journalism in twentieth-century Ireland‘, two volumes of essays co-edited with Mark O’Brien. Larkin is the author of ‘Living with History: occasional writings’, among other works. MH

***

John Bruton, who died on Feb. 6, 2024, was one of the most significant figures in Irish public life for more than 50 years. He was taoiseach from December 1994 to June 1997, and the European Union’s ambassador to the United States from 2004 to 2009.

Bruton’s book

In 2015 Bruton published a collection of essays entitled Faith in Politics. The pieces ranged widely over politics, economics, history, and religion. Included in the last category was a paper he gave at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, in which he reflected on the “added value” that Christians can bring to politics. He concluded that paper by saying that “no Christian, and Catholics in particular, should be afraid to bring their beliefs into the public square”. This is today an unfashionable idea in an increasingly secular Ireland, but Bruton never shrank from writing and speaking against the grain of the prevailing consensus.

Also unfashionable was his defense of the constitutional nationalist tradition in Irish history. John Redmond, the long-time leader of the Irish party at Westminster, was his great hero. In a seminal address in the Royal Irish Academy in 2014, reproduced in his book, he argued that “the 1916 Rising was a mistake” and left us with a baleful legacy of political violence. He feared that our continued commemoration of the Rising ran the risk of “saying that killing and dying is something that will be remembered by future generations, but patient peaceful achievements will be quietly forgotten”.

Elsewhere in his book he expressed concern about what he saw as the “higher level of skepticism about politicians nowadays”, but his “faith in democratic, constitutional politics” was absolute – hence the title of his book. His steadfast defense of constitutional politics both today and in the past is perhaps his greatest legacy to his fellow countrymen. I am proud to have known him.

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Journalists, historians, authors, researchers, and travelers to Ireland are welcome to offer guest contributions. Submissions are generally from 500 to 1,000 words, with an accompanying photo or graphic. Use the contact form on the Guest Posts page, where you can see earlier contributions.

Why G.B. Shaw, feminists denounced 1937 ‘Eire’ constitution

Voters in the Republic of Ireland on March 8 will decide two proposed changes to the State’s 87-year-old Constitution. Both amendments are related to family life. The first will replace the clause describing women’s place as “within the home” with a new government commitment to value the work of all family care givers. The second will broaden the definition of the family to include all households with “durable relationships,” including the roughly one third of couples with children born out of wedlock.[1]See the current and proposed language.

In 1937, Irish leader Éamon de Valera proposed to update the 1922 Constitution that founded the Irish Free State, which he had opposed because it fell short of republican goals. His revised Constitution asserted full sovereignty for the 26 counties, which were renamed Eire, the Irish word for Ireland. As it widened the separation from Britain, Dev’s draft gave deference to the Catholic Church, confirming the longtime “Rome rule” suspicions of many Irish Protestants.

Since then, Ireland has dramatically modernized and secularized, especially in the past quarter century. Several amendments to the Constitution have removed language about the “special” role of the Church and penalties for blasphemy; while others have legalized divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. And the 1937 language about the role of women has received increased attention.

Shaw in 1936.

This section also drew criticism at the time of its introduction, notably from Anglo-Irish author and playwright George Bernard Shaw. He complained “its attitude toward women is simply going back ages,” adding the passage was “worse than ridiculous.”[2]”G.B.S. Says De Valera Has Fascist Aims In ‘Eire'”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1937. Shaw continued:

De Valera’s new constitution, reactionary in its attitude toward women, is just another example of the world’s despair and revolt against democratic and parliamentary institutions which do nothing but talk, talk and get no action.  … It’s true that the work of women in the home is extremely important, and so, for that matter, is the work of men who maintain the home. But that is not sufficient reason for writing into the constitution that men should never be anything but breadwinners, and women nothing but home-workers. … Although the constitution generally appears to be modeled after that of the United States, it has a dash of Fascism in the provisions relating to women and marriage.

Two weeks after Shaw’s telephone interview with a Universal Service correspondent, Dáil Éireann TD Patrick McGilligan (Fine Gael-Dublin North-West) raised the celebrity’s author’s comments during a debate about the Constitution. This prompted a laugh from de Valera.

“He talks through his hat sometimes,” de Valera (Fianna Fáil-Clare), president of the Dáil’s executive council, said of Shaw.[3]See Dáil Éireann debate, May 13, 1937, Vol. 67, No. 3.

Then 54, de Valera was the New York City-born son of an Irish immigrant mother who relinquished the care of her two-year-old toddler to relatives in Ireland. Shaw, then 80, was born in Dublin but moved to London at age 19 and remained in England for the rest of his life. The two famous Irishmen shared a frequently antagonistic but generally good-humored relationship, as revealed in public spats and private correspondence before and after 1937.[4]Bernard Shaw. “Two Unpublished Letters To Eamon De Valera: With an Introduction by Brad Kent.” Shaw, vol. 30, 2010, pp. 27–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5325/shaw.30.1.0027. In 1945, Shaw famously defended de Valera for offering condolences to the German minister in Dublin upon hearing of Hitler’s death. The playwright, in a letter to The Times, London, described the politician as “a champion of the Christian chivalry we are all pretending to admire. Let us recognize a noble heart even if we must sometimes question its worldly wisdom.’’

Feminist criticism

The Dáil approved de Valera’s draft Constitution in mid-June 1937 by a vote of 62 to 48. De Valera placed it on the ballot of the national elections set for a few weeks later for ratification.

De Valera in 1937.

In addition to Shaw, “a minority of vocal activists” opposed the clause about women in the home.[5]Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation Of Ireland. [New York: The Overlook Press, 2005] 421. They included feminists such as Louie Bennett, Hannah Sheehy-Skiffington, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of 1916 Rising martyr Tom Clarke. Mary Hayden of University College, Dublin, and the Women’s Graduate Association, also protested.[6]Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History. [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010] 450.

Irish journalist R.M. O’Hanrahan, in a pre-plebiscite analysis distributed by the North American Newspaper Alliance, noted these college and university educated women were “up in arms” about the language that referenced their gender. While these women advised a “no” vote on the Constitution, “the effect of this vote cannot be very marked as the time for organizing opposition meetings is rather short,” O’Hanrahan predicted.[7]“Women In Irish Election”, The Boston Globe, June 28, 1937.

He was proven correct. Historian Thomas Bartlett has observed, “in the crucial areas of paternalist control they failed to make any impression. It is clear that many women and mothers agreed with de Valera’s construction of their role” because the Constitution won approval with 56.5 percent in favor to 43.5 percent against. Subsequent protests by feminists in 1938 and 1943 failed to remove the offending language.[8]Bartlett, Ireland, 450.

But the Constitution’s passage was “not very convincing,” de Valera biographer David McCullagh has argued. The leader’s claim that a majority of the Irish people supported his update was “an implicitly partitionist reading,” since nobody in the six counties of Northern Ireland could vote. Observers then and now agree they would have rejected it and changed the outcome. Just over 1.3 million people cast ballots in the referendum, nearly 76 percent of registered voters, but only 38.5 percent of the total electorate voted in favor.[9]David McCullagh, De Valera (Vol. II), Rule, 1932-1975. [Dublin: Gill Books, 2018] 134.

The revised Constitution took effect at the end of 1937. “It is there now and it is better that people should get to like it the more they study it,” de Valera said.[10]Ibid. In fact, the longer the Irish people have lived under the Constitution, the less they have liked it.

References

References
1 See the current and proposed language.
2 ”G.B.S. Says De Valera Has Fascist Aims In ‘Eire'”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1937.
3 See Dáil Éireann debate, May 13, 1937, Vol. 67, No. 3.
4 Bernard Shaw. “Two Unpublished Letters To Eamon De Valera: With an Introduction by Brad Kent.” Shaw, vol. 30, 2010, pp. 27–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5325/shaw.30.1.0027.
5 Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation Of Ireland. [New York: The Overlook Press, 2005] 421.
6 Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History. [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010] 450.
7 “Women In Irish Election”, The Boston Globe, June 28, 1937.
8 Bartlett, Ireland, 450.
9 David McCullagh, De Valera (Vol. II), Rule, 1932-1975. [Dublin: Gill Books, 2018] 134.
10 Ibid.

United Ireland in 2024? Fiction and fact

Happy New Year! The arrival of 2024 means it is time for the reunification of Ireland, at least according to a 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Declan McVeigh described the television fiction and its historical context in The National UAE:

During the brief discussion, Data gives Cpt Picard a list of successful armed rebellions in ages past, including “the Irish unification of 2024”. This prospect – debated between an entirely fictitious robot and a spaceship captain – was deemed by the BBC to be so objectionable that the episode was not broadcast unedited on U.K. television until September 2007, nearly a decade after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement that largely ended the 30-year conflict known as the Northern Ireland Troubles.

This 1937 map shows the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland 16 years after partition.

The 34-year-old episode has been reported before but seems to be getting fresh attention now that the designated year has arrived. In fact, future documentaries about Irish politics are unlikely to cite 2024 as the year of the island’s reunification. Just over half – 51 percent – of northern voters would reject a unity referendum, according to an Irish Times/ARINS poll published in early December, while 64 percent of the Republic of Ireland electorate favors eliminating the 103-year-old partition.

Nevertheless, talk of a (re)united Ireland has grown since the 2016 Brexit vote removed Northern Ireland from the European Union. The Republic remains part of the E.U. The economic advantages of that membership have become as much of a driving force toward Irish reunification as the north’s shift to a Catholic majority, or the island’s geographic and historical integrity. Such economic factors were foreseen in a 1923 U.S. press dispatch from Belfast:

The war will continue until Ulster (Northern Ireland) joins the Irish Free State (now the Republic), or until the Free State relinquishes its insistence on a united Ireland. … Ulstermen declare they are not ready to give up their connection to England and never will be, unless it is shown that a united Ireland would be of benefit to them. … There is much speculation but little information in Ireland as to whether and when there will be a united Ireland. … Continued peace in the south, combined with loss of business or reduction of profits to Ulster industry, might shorten the separation.[1]United Press correspondent Charles McCann in a story widely published in U.S. newspapers two years after partition.

Talk of a united Ireland continued in 1924 as the Irish Boundary Commission began its deliberations through 1925. Ultimately, the 1921 partition lines remained unchanged. Newly released Irish state papers show officials discussed the possibility of redrawing the border in 1975 as a way of reducing Troubles-related violence. It didn’t happen.

The reunification issue has ebbed from time to time, but it has never ceased.

Below the Sinn Féin t-shirt logo are two quotes from Irish politicians that caught my attention late last year. They are followed by a passage from a New York Times op-ed about partition. We’ll have to see what really happens with Irish reunification in 2024 … and beyond.

Logo on the front of t-shirts being sold in Sinn Féin’s online gift shop. The marketing chatter says, “In every phase of struggle Irish America has stood with the cause of Irish Independence and Unity. Lets celebrate the link between Ireland and ‘our exiled children’,” a reference to language in the 1916 proclamation.  .

“Irish Unity is the very best opportunity for the future. In the words of Rita O’Hare, ‘We must keep going. A United Ireland lies ahead.’ ”

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald, Nov. 11, 2023. O’Hare died in March 2023. She was the party’s general secretary and representative to the United States.

“They (Sinn Féin) think in their minds that they would get the United States behind a united Ireland. They wouldn’t. They would actually turn our friends into enemies.”

–Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Nov. 18, 2023. In September, Varadkar said, “I believe we are on the path to unification. I believe that there will be a united Ireland in my lifetime.”

“It’s the unionists — the largely Protestant faction clinging fiercely to British citizenship and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom — who question the terms of the peace they live under and struggle to articulate their future. And it’s the Irish nationalists — those, largely Catholic, who regard the partition of Ireland as an untenable injustice — who are brimming with confidence.”

–Contributing writer Megan K. Stack, “A United Ireland May Be More Than a Dream“, in The New York Times, Nov. 21, 2023.

References

References
1 United Press correspondent Charles McCann in a story widely published in U.S. newspapers two years after partition.

‘Sacred to the memory of Irish blood’

This memorial is engraved into the marble wall at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.:

Sacred To The Memory Of
The Men And Women Of Irish Blood
Who Served In The Great World War
1914-1918

I had walked past it many times without noticing. You can see why in the photo at the bottom. The eye is drawn up to the gold bas-relief sculpture of the Third Station of the Cross (“Jesus falls the first time.”) rather than the words below it.

The memorial is ambiguous. Is it dedicated to Irish immigrants and their offspring in America who served in the First World War, or does it also apply to the Irish in Ireland? Remember, the United States didn’t enter the war until April 1917, nearly three years into the conflict. It was only then that Irish immigrants from America were shipped to continental battlefields. See my earlier post: An Irish-American’s most perilous summer, 1918. Irish blood had been spilled from the start of the war in 1914.

The cathedral staff has been unable to provide any details about its origins. I have also reached out to the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Please contact me if you have any information.

This Nov. 11 is the 105th anniversary of the armistice ending the war. I am traveling to Belgium and hope to visit the Irish Peace Tower in Flanders. It is said to be the only location on the western front where both Irish nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants, fought together in the trenches.

Five years ago I was driving from Galway city to north Kerry on a rainy Sunday morning at the centenary of the armistice. I listened to special programing on RTÉ that marked the solemn occasion. Bells tolled at the eleventh hour of that eleventh day of the eleventh month.

A year later I attended Mass at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in Belfast. There, another memorial to Irish lives lost in the Great War was erected inside the church before the fighting concluded on the continent. I might have missed it, too, except that the priest mentioned it during his homily.

May all victims of the Great War, including innocent civilians, rest in peace.

The memorial at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is engraved into the marble wall below an image of the Third Station of the Cross: Jesus Falls the First Time.

Catching up with modern Ireland

Here’s another of my occasional posts with headlines and curated content about contemporary Ireland and Northern Ireland. Enjoy:

Ireland’s Central Statistics Office released the country’s latest census figures, a snapshot of the Republic from April 3, 2022. Highlights include:

  • The population exceeded 5 million (5,149,139) for the first time in 171 years. This is an 8 percent increase from 2016. All counties showed at least 5 percent growth.
  • The proportion of the population who identified Roman Catholic fell to 69 percent from 79 percent in 2016. The “No Religion” category increased to 736,210 people from 451,941.
  • Almost 80 percent of Irish households have a broadband internet connection, up from 71 percent in 2016 and 64 percent in 2011. Nearly a third of workers indicated they did their jobs from home for at least part of the week.

The CSO’s Summary Report is the first of nine 2022 census releases. More detailed reports on topics such as housing, homelessness, and religion will follow throughout the year.

CSO graphic.

Other stories:

  • The Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party, which supports reunification of Ireland, followed last year’s historic Northern Ireland Assembly victory by defeating their pro-Britain unionist rivals in May council elections by a wide margin. Sinn Féin for the first time is the largest party at the local and provincial levels. The Assembly remains in limbo, however, due to the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to participate in the power-sharing government.
  • Ireland’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent in May, a record that surpasses the “Celtic Tiger” period of two decades ago. Unemployment in the North fell to 2.4 percent, slightly below pre-pandemic levels and just 0.1 percentage point shy of the record low.
  • Almost all sectors of the Irish economy will fail to meet 2030 carbon reduction targets, The Irish Times reported; while warming weather and rising seas continue to demonstrate the impact of climate change. A proposal to slaughter 200,000 cows to reduce methane emissions generated blowback from the agricultural sector, as expected, and from outside actors ranging from PETA to Elon Musk.
  • The Republic’s Department of Rural and Community Development has launched a 10-year “Our Living Islands” initiative to repopulate nearly two dozen islands from Donegal to Cork.
  • The New York Times detailed Ireland’s vanishing fishing fleet, following a similar story from Euronews.com in January.
  • Former President Donald Trump, now under state and federal indictments, earned nearly $25 million from his golf property in Doonbeg, County Clare, during his four years in office, Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington has reported. The revenue was part of a $160 million haul from overseas businesses with interests in U.S. foreign policy. Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence each stayed at Doonbeg at taxpayers expense while in office.

The entrance of Trump’s Doonbeg golf course in County Clare during my July 2016 visit.

Women journalists offer perspectives on Northern Ireland

Boston College highlighted three women journalists from three generations of the Troubles in Northern Ireland at the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. They were:

  • Susan McKay, a teenager in 1972 when her native Derry became the center of international attention on Bloody Sunday. She established her reputation for fearless reporting of the loyalist community during the Drumcree conflicts in Portadown in the late 1990s, and post-agreement coverage. She has authored Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground, 2021, Bear In Mind These Dead, 2007, and other work.
  • Freya McClements, Northern editor of The Irish Times, 17 when the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998. Her post-agreement work includes Children of the Troubles, 2020, co-written with RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy. The book details the stories of 186 youth aged 16 and under who died in the conflict between 1969 and 2006, including some killed accidentally and not part of earlier Troubles’ death lists.
  • Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old up-and-coming journalist killed during 2019 rioting in the Creggan area of Derry. Now subject of a new documentary film, Lyra, McKee helped call attention to high post-agreement teen suicide rates in the North and LGBTQ advocacy.

The 92-minute Lyra is a tough to watch, in part because viewers are drawn so intimately into McKee’s life through an abundance of archival video dating to her childhood in Belfast’s Ardoyne neighborhood, a working-class, mostly Catholic and republican enclave. We see her grow up, blossom with professional and personal promise, then get shot as senselessly as earlier Troubles deaths.

Authorities have attributed McKee’s murder to an IRA splinter group. Several people have been arrested but nobody has been convicted of the crime.

McKee was represented at BC by her surviving partner, Sara Canning. She said the best way to honor McKee’s memory is to contribute to the Lyra McKee Journalism Training Bursary at the Centre for Investigative Journalism. And she encouraged wide viewership of the movie.

Here’s the official trailer:

McClements, the Times editor, said there has been “peace but not reconciliation” in Northern Ireland over the last quarter century. She noted that most schools remain segregated by religion and dozens of “peace walls” are still required to separate sectarian neighborhoods. Brexit has created “a new fault line” of tension in the North.

McClements predicted that the Democratic Unionist Party will rejoin the Northern Ireland Assembly, which it has boycotted for over a year, perhaps by this fall. If not, she said, the British and Irish governments will begin to devise an alternative, which could leave the DUP and other unionist hardlines even more in the cold. Direct rule from London is not an option, she said.

Adding to the tension is the British government’s determination to pass a “Troubles Legacy and Reconciliation Bill,” which seems to have support only from the Tory majority and military veterans groups. The measure, which blocks enquiries of past events and even destroys records, is opposed by Northern politicians, the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States. McClements expects Parliament will pass the measure, which will then be targeted for a long grind of court challenges.

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

McKay said she had to learn to rein in her aggressiveness to get the story when she noticed the fear in other journalists also covering the loyalist mobs at Drumcree.  She said that international press coverage of the Troubles “on the whole told the story properly,” though some visiting journalists “looking for certain images were disappointed if they didn’t get it.”

McKay declined to speculate about the immediate future of Northern Ireland politics due to her current role as ombudsman for the Press Council of Ireland.

BC’s two-day symposium began with Belfast-born author Louise Kennedy reading from her acclaimed debut novel, Trespasses, about a romance across the sectarian divide in 1970s. A previous symposium at BC reconsidered terrorism in Northern Ireland. The latest event concluded the 2022-23 academic year at the school’s Irish Studies program under the leadership of historian Guy Beiner.

Biden’s sentimental Irish American trip to Ireland

U.S President Joe Biden’s four-day trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was an elegy or wake for sentimental Irish American views of Ireland, at least according to preliminary opinion coverage. This view was especially noticeable in The Irish Times, the once conservative but now liberal national daily.

“The 46th president is almost certainly the last great avatar of a specifically Irish-American culture that is now in terminal decline,” wrote columnist Hugh Linehan. The Irish aren’t nostalgic, he insisted, but Irish Americans are. Linehan continued:

From the mid-19th century onward, waves of migration to the big cities of the US northeast created a market for drama, stories and songs lamenting the misery of Irish exile and usually declaring a fervent desire to ‘be back in [insert evocative name of townland here]’. There was also a lot of talk about mothers. As the 19th century became the 20th, these melodramas, comedies and songs migrated from the stage to the screen and the radio Irish-Americanness became a clearly defined strand of US – and therefore global – pop culture. Along the way, it was beamed back to the mother country where it was received with a mixture of bemusement, amusement and a keen awareness that there might be a few bob to be made from it. The naïve returning Yank remains a recurring trope to this day.

Not to be outdone, Fintan O’Toole suggested, “Biden’s sense of Irishness is very real and profoundly felt. But it is rooted in soil that is now increasingly thin on the ground in Ireland itself: a complete fusion of Irish and Catholic identities. … In Irish-America, this parochial Catholic world can be recalled with a simple, uncomplicated fondness that is almost impossible now in Ireland itself. … Biden is here because he identifies passionately with a religious idea of Irishness that has lost much of its grip on the homeland.”

Comparing the June 1963 visit of President John F. Kennedy to Biden’s trip 60 years later, O’Toole continued, “This is a case of history repeating itself, the first time as a dream of the Irish future, the second as echo of an Irish past. JFK embodied, in all his impossible glamour, an idea of what Ireland then aspired to be: modern, sophisticated, confident. Biden now embodies an idea of what Ireland used to be — a place in which ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ was a match made in heaven (and from which there could be no divorce).”

Finally, the Times‘ Gerard Howlin wrote, “Ireland today bears little relationship to the one imagined by Irish America. … There is something of the end of an era about the Biden visit. He is the last of the generation of Irish-American politicians who can remember the springtime Kennedy spoke of and who subsequently gave generously of their friendship.

President to president: Ireland’s Michael D. Higgins and Joe Biden.                       President of Ireland media library

 and  echoed this view in the American press: “The Ireland Biden visited is a distant cry from the place his ancestors left so long ago. It doesn’t even look much like the country John F. Kennedy – the last Irish Catholic president – toured in 1963.”

These suggestions that Irish Americans cling to outdated and overly romanticized views of Ireland is greatly exaggerated and has become a cliché. More than 900 American companies do business in Ireland, and 700 Irish firms have operations in the United States. Combined, they employ several hundred thousand Irish and American citizens in both countries. These people–and their families and friends–understand modern Ireland, as do most tourists.

Biden correctly noted that Kennedy’s trip “captur(ed) the imaginations of Irish and Irish American families alike.” But, he added, “For too long Ireland has been talked about in the past tense. … Today, Ireland’s story is no one’s to tell but its own.” He emphasized the contemporary partnership between the two nations.

Negative coverage

At the National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that Biden seemed “not to know or care that, in Ireland, a public official admitting to some pride in Irish-Catholic identity would be an incident more infamous and unwelcome than a Loyalist bombing of a day-care center,” a grossly irresponsible statement from the conservative writer. Fox News and some Republican lawmakers jumped on Biden’s remark about “not going home” to the U.S., but “staying here” in Ireland. If only he would keep his word, they chortled, predictably.

Biden began the trip with a quick stop in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Some British press opinion pages and a few hardline Brexiteers and unionists criticized the president in much the same way as their right-wing brethren in America. In the most notorious example, former Northern Ireland Assembly First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party vomited that Biden “hates the U.K.,” in part because of his announced decision not to attend the coronation of King Charles III. Oh my!

Current DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was more moderate in his comments. He welcomed Biden’s offer to support investment in Northern Ireland, without interfering in local political matters. Donaldson and the DUP have refused to participate in the power-sharing Assembly for a year due to objections to the way Brexit treats the province.

“In the estimation of British officials, Biden’s brief visit (to the North) accomplished what they had hoped, a quiet message with carefully chosen words that did not aggravate the dynamic and might eventually help lead to another restoration of government,” wrote Washington Post chief political correspondent Dan Balz. “Biden could point but not forcefully persuade. As always in Northern Ireland, it remains in the hands of the leaders and the people there to make the way forward.”

I’m interested to see how Biden’s Ireland trip is viewed in the coming weeks and months; whether the visuals are used in his anticipated re-election campaign; and if he returns to the island during a potential second term or post presidency. It will be just as interesting to see how, or whether, his visit is leveraged by Irish tourism and other commercial interests.