Tag Archives: The Troubles

New book explores role of Catholic Church in The Troubles

Dr. Margaret M. Scull, (@MaggieMScull) the Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway, is the author of a new book, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998.

The 256-page book evaluates the Irish and English churches role in mediating the conflict, including new perspectives on religious institutions as such mediators in the 20th century. In additional to church and state archival research, Scull interviewed bishops, priests, religious women, former paramilitaries, community organizers, and politicians.

Scull gave Nov. 18 talks in Washington, D.C., at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, and the Global Irish Studies program at Georgetown University. Some office obligations and late-afternoon D.C. traffic made me late for the latter, so instead of my own reporting, I’m posting a Nov. 11 interview Scull did with Barry Sheppard (@barry_shep), presenter on NVTV’s “History Now” program, and a friend from the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland.

One quick note: Scull is expanding her work to explore the role of the American Catholic Church during the Troubles, specifically the dioceses of Boston and Chicago. A follow up journal article is expected in 2020.

History Now: The Catholic Church and the Troubles – Ep 48 from Northern Visions NvTv on Vimeo.

Visiting Ireland 2019: Remembering the dead

Belfast is pocked with memorials to 20th century conflict and disaster. For example:

The Titanic …

World War I …

The Troubles …

There are more than a dozen memorial pocket parks focused on The Troubles scattered through the sectarian neighborhoods of West Belfast. The top and middle image are in the republican/Catholic Falls Road; the bottom photo on the loyalist/Protestant Shankill Road. Both neighborhoods also contain wall murals about the conflict.

As I visited these sites, I wondered how much longer the Titanic disaster and World World I will resonate among 21st century people now that the centenary of each event has passed? Also, while it would be naive to suggest the brutalities of The Troubles be forgotten, would it be better for the long-term prospects for peace without so many graphic memorials, which seem to perpetuate hate in the city’s sectarian neighborhoods.

Irishman Shane Lowry wins Open at Royal Portrush

Republic of Ireland golfer Shane Lowry has won the British Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland. It is the first time since 1951 the Open has been held on the island of Ireland. The earlier tournament also was played at Portrush, on the County Antrim coast, and won by Englishman Max Faulkner.

Irishmen Fred Daly of Portrush; Padraig Harrington of Dublin; Darren Clarke of Dungannon, NI; and Rory McIlroy of Holywood, NI; have also won the Open, but at courses in England or Scotland.  The tournament was first played in 1860.

“Forget the demarcation between the North and South of this island: the Irish stand as one when it comes to golf,” Alistair Tait of Golfweek reported. “As far as Irish golf fans are concerned, Royal Portrush is an Irish golf course.”

The course at Royal Portrush opened in 1888, 33 years before the political partition. During the Troubles, the IRA bombed six buildings in Portrush town in August 1976, with no fatalities; but shot and killed two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers in April 1987 … nine days after Lowry was born in Mullingar, County Westmeath, in the Republic.

Now 32, Lowry lives in Clara, County Offaly, also in the Republic. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, his victory might add to ongoing discussions of reuniting the island of Ireland, which are mainly driven by the likelihood of a chaotic Brexit. I’ll update this post with any related commentary.

My wife and I look forward to visiting Portrush later this month.

Irishman Shane Lowry as he nears his 2019 Open victory. Image from theopen.com.

Guest post: ‘Milkman’ is dark, grim & terrifically funny

I always welcome guest posts, especially from my wife, Angie Drobnic Holan, who maintains her own excellent, if intermittent, blog. Angie’s last post here was a review of Sally Rooney’ Conversation with Friends.

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Anna Burns is the latest in a long line of acerbic Irish writers who are able to cast jaundiced eyes on the hypocrisies and shortcomings of their own community because they know it so intimately from the inside out.

Belfast-born Burns, whose Milkman won last year’s Man Booker Prize for literature, said she based the novel on life experiences.

“I grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could,” she said.

Milkman is a winding, stream-of-conscious narrative set in Northern Ireland’s Troubles of the 1970s or 1980s. We are plunged straight in: The narrator has a gun held to her chest, and the wielder of the gun is Somebody McSomebody, because the hit squads killed the milkman. But, she hastens to inform us, the so-called relationship between her and the milkman never existed. It was wanted by him and gossiped into existence by the community, but never real. That surreal set-up is gradually unspooled, logically and relentlessly, over the novel’s 350 pages.

Violence, paranoia and depression hover over the community like a fog. As we come to know the narrator, we learn she is an 18-year-old woman who variously carries the roles of middle daughter, maybe girlfriend, middle sister, oldest friend. She likes to read old books — Ivanhoe, Vanity Fair — as a means of escape, and sometimes she even reads while she walks.

The reading-while-walking is an act of defiance within the confines of a suffocating community, but it’s not a true escape from the ever-present political and religious divisions. Plus, it will get you branded as one of the beyond-the-pales, as Burns puts it. Here’s a passage where the narrator gets a scolding from a friend.

‘You brought it on yourself, longest friend. I informed you and informed you. I mean for the longest time ever since primary school I’ve been warning you to kill out that habit you insist on and that now I suspect you’re addicted to – that reading in public as you’re walking about.’ ‘But -’ I said. ‘Not natural,’ she said. But -’ I said. ‘Unnerving behavior,’ she said. But -’ I said. But -’ I said. ‘I thought you meant in case of traffic, in case I walked into traffic.’ ‘Not traffic,’ she said. ‘More stigmatic than traffic. But too late. The community has pronounced its diagnosis on you now.’

It’s a long Irish tradition to be dark and grim while being terrifically funny. Milkman delivers.

For more on Anna Burns’ Milkman:

Ron Charles of the Washington Post reviews the novel for an American audience: “Lovers of modernist fiction by William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — I know you’re out there, waiting for a book to slake your thirst for something strange and complex — Milkman is for you.”

The New York Times profiles Anna Burns, outlining her struggles as a writer (both financial problems and health issues) and her thoughts on Northern Ireland.  

Claire Armitstead at The Guardian says of the novel’s Man Booker Prize win: “Milkman may not be the best novel in contention this year, but it is certainly a plucky and challenging one – also one that speaks directly to the #MeToo era and to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”

Two found books about Northern Ireland

Since the current troubles in Northern Ireland began in 1968, there has been an explosion of research on the area. Hundreds of books and an even larger number of articles have been published. … It is quite possible that, in proportion to size, Northern Ireland is the most heavily researched area on earth.
–John Whyte, in the Preface of Interpreting Northern Ireland, January 1990

It’s now two years since the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in a feud between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, an unfortunate anniversary overshadowed by concerns about how the impending Brexit will impact the north’s border with the Republic of Ireland.

My neighborhood book kiosk.

By coincidence, two books about Northern Ireland just arrived at my reading chair, both published before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. My wife plucked them from the “Little Free Library” outside the Episcopal church near our apartment building.

Maybe you’ve seen one of these literary kiosks, typically emblazoned with the motto: “Take a book. Leave a book.” We’ve done both.

In addition to Whyte’s 1990 Interpreting Northern Ireland is The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland by Sean McPhilemy, which was published in February 1998, two months before the historic peace accord.

Both books are among over 18,800 reference materials relevant to the Northern Ireland “Troubles” listed in the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the INternet) Bibliography, last updated in April 2016. Entries mainly refer to books, but also include journal and newspaper articles, pamphlets, and dissertations. (Allow me to link to my own 2001 piece for the Mobile (Ala.) Register, written as part of a German Marshall Fund journalism grant.)

At 21 and nearly 30 years old, the books are dated, thought not rare or antiquarian. As should be the aim of any good journalism (McPhilemy) and scholarship (Whyte), each attempted to provide the fullest picture of reality with the best information available at the time. 

Whyte’s bibliography stretches 27 pages. His concluding chapter includes a subtitle: “Has Research on the Northern Ireland Problem Been Worth While?” He notes there was not nearly as much academic attention to revolutionary Ireland in the period 1916-1923.

Yet the people muddled through to some kind of settlement. From Irish experience one might deduce that research actually does harm: that the more work is done on a problem, the longer it takes to solve it. I do not put that forward altogether seriously–there were other reasons besides a mere absence of academics why the last round of troubles proved easier to bring to an end. But it could be argued from Irish experience that research does not seem to do much good.

Whyte died in May 1990, just a few months after his book was published; felled by a heart attack at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on his way to a conference in Virginia. He was traveling with Garret FitzGerald, the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, who two months later wrote the Forward of Interpreting Northern Ireland:

It is a tribute to the comprehensive and objective character of this work that one can say with assurance that no one is likely to be able to write intelligently about the Northern Ireland conflict in future without having first taken account of John Whyte’s last book.

McPhilemy’s 1998 book is based on his 1991 “sensation documentary” for British television. Both alleged to reveal that Unionist members of the Northern Ireland business community, Protestant clergy, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and British security forces colluded with Loyalist terrorists to murder Irish Republicans and other Irish nationalists.

Irish America magazine publisher Niall O’Dowd and U.S. Congressman Peter King each qualified their promotional blurbs on the dust jacket with “If McPhilemy is right…”, and “If McPhilemy’s allegations are true…” , respectively. 

As it turned out, the book has spent more time under the noses of judges and juries than regular readers. Its post-publication history is a long docket of libel cases based on its central allegations and due to complexities that emerged in the then new “age of the Internet and global book publishing,” as The New York Times reported in 1999

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, alleged to have assisted the secret loyalist committee, was the most high-profile plaintiff. He won two judgements against online retailer Amazon.com for distributing The Committee via its online platform. The book was published in America by Roberts Rinehart Publishers, which also was sued and settled.

It probably didn’t hurt Trimble’s case(s) that he co-won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement. He also became the first “first minister” of the Northern Ireland Assembly, 1998-2002.

Online sales of The Committee were supposed to have stopped, but the book is still available from Amazon. The full text can be viewed on the Internet Archive. Here in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress has a copy; as does the Ralph J. Bunche Library at the U.S. Department of State; and most university libraries. Digital and print versions are also available at Queen’s University Belfast, and at the National Library of Ireland, Dublin.

I understand that reputations can be damaged by shoddy or malicious reporting or scholarship. I respect libel laws, but suspect they too often are used as a cudgel to suppress information. I am encouraged that it is difficult to disappear books; whether recently created or a little aged; whether posted online; sold in a store; shelved at a library; or placed in the neighborhood book kiosk.

George H.W. Bush, disengaged during Troubles, dies at 94

Irish political leaders are offering their condolences on the 30 November death of former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“He will be remembered for the directness with which he expressed his policy principles and his efforts to achieve bipartisanship,” Irish President Michael D. Higgins said in a statement. “On behalf of the Irish people I offer our deepest sympathies to his family and to the people of the United States.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tweeted:


Unlike U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, Bush never had much of a relationship with the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Bush was Reagan’s vice president from 1980 to 1988, then won the office in 1988, spanning some of the bloodiest years of The Troubles.

Once Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 U.S. election, he sought to “establish distance” from his predecessor’s approach to Ulster, according to John Dumbrell in “The United States and the Northern Irish Conflict 1969–94: from Indifference to Intervention,” a 1995 piece.

George H. W. Bush

“The Bush administration had followed a cautious, State Department line, strongly opposing the MacBride principles and interpreting the situation in the province as ‘unripe’ for mediation.” … Since the Carter presidency of the late 1970s,  “Washington has asserted the legitimacy of its interest in the province and-with the exception of the Bush years-presented something approaching a coherent, interventionist strategy.”

The Good Friday Agreement was reached during Clinton’s second term of office, 20 years ago this year. In 2010, introducing Clinton for a Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Award, Bush recognized his successor’s role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Catching up with modern Ireland: October

As of 30 October, traffic on this site surpassed our highest annual total, in 2016. Thanks very much for your readership and support, including several of you who emailed suggestions for this month’s roundup, which starts in arts and ends in crime:

  • Anna Burns became the first Northern Irish author to win the Man Booker prize, for Milkman, a novel about a young woman being sexually harassed by a powerful man during the Troubles. Authors John Banville, Anne Enright, and Roddy Doyle of the Irish Republic won the prize earlier.
  • On Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s “thrilling new play” The Ferryman “mines the folksy clichés of Irish archetypes — as garrulous, drink-loving, pugilistic souls — to find the crueler patterns of a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance,” according to this New York Times review.
  • “The extent to which many English people are ignorant about Ireland has become painfully clear. … I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess.” I Didn’t Hate the English — Until Now
  • An Bord Pleanála approved a 25-story residential tower in Cork city. If built, it would become the county’s tallest tower.
  • Ireland ranked 5th on the 2018 CAF World Giving Index, behind the U.S. and ahead of the U.K.
  • The Republic will impose tobacco-style health warning labels on alcohol as part of a sweeping package of restrictions intended to tackle one of the world’s worst rates of binge drinking.
  • “When confronted with a film that identified prime suspects in a massacre of unarmed British citizens [Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994], the authorities made no apparent effort to further question those suspects—and arrested the filmmakers instead.” Why Were a Filmmaker and a Journalist Arrested in Northern Ireland?
  • In a case that reminds me of the “agrarian outrages” of the late 19th century, north Kerry bachelor dairy farmer Michael Ferris, 63, of Rattoo, was found guilty of manslaughter for the 2017 death of John Anthony O’Mahony, an unmarried tillage farmer, 73, of Ardoughter, Ballyduff.  Ferris drove the pallet forks of his teleporter into the car occupied by O’Mahony, apparently enraged by the older man’s use of a crow banger, according to the Irish Examiner.
  • In America, the notorious James “Whitey” Bulger, 89, once head of Boston’s Irish mob, was killed in federal prison. Read my “Southie memories” piece from his 2013 trial.

James “Whitey” Bulger in 1959, early in his criminal career.

Northern Ireland ‘Journey’ nears critical bend in road

“The Journey,” a fictional “imagining” of the real-life partnership between unionist firebrand Dr. Ian Paisley and former IRA man Martin McGuinness, recently debuted in Washington, D.C., as part of its wider U.S. release.

The movie isn’t as awful as early reviews suggested last fall, though there is merit to that criticism. It’s worth seeing for those who follow Northern Ireland politics. The long, twisted history of the Troubles, and the actors’ thick accents, are probably too much for more casual viewers.

A line near the end of Colin Bateman’s screenplay caught my attention and could prove to be prescient in the coming weeks. It is spoken by McGuinness (Colm Meaney) to Paisely (Timothy Spall) as they are about to agree on the power-sharing deal that resulted in the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly:

This is our only opportunity to build something that will last, at least for our lifetime.

The real-life duo got the Assembly off the ground and developed such a close working relationship that they become known as  the chuckle brothers. Peace and progress flourished in Northern Ireland. But Paisley died in September 2014, and McGuinness died in March.

Now, the suspended Belfast Assembly is facing a 29 June deadline to reorganize, or the north could return to direct rule from Westminster. This matter is complicated by the Paisley-founded, pro-unionist DUP entering a Tory coalition to control the London Parliament, which will put Irish republicans on the defensive. This comes as the U.K. also begins to negotiate its exit from the European Union–Brexit–which threatens the return of a “hard border” between the north and the Republic.

At the same time, the annual Orange Order marching season, in which Protestants celebrate a 1690 military victory over Catholics, is getting underway and approaching its 12 July peak. The season always raises tensions between the two cultural and political communities in the north.

What could possibly go wrong?

Irish republican leader Martin McGuinness dies at 66

Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in January, forcing the Northern Ireland Assembly to shut down for a new election, held at the beginning of March. It was already clear the former IRA commander was ill, and he said as much in announcing his decision not to seek to re-election. Now, his death stirs further remembrances of The Troubles, and raises more questions about the future of the province as Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists face the uncertainties of Brexit.

Here is a sample of the first wave of international coverage:

“This election is about equality and respect for all our people and integrity in the institutions. Vote SF for the politics of hope not fear.”

–Last tweet of Martin McGuinness, 1 March 2017, just before Sinn Féin‘s historic success in Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

McGuinness and the Queen shake hands in Belfast, July 2012. Probably no other photo says as much about the arc of the former IRA leader’s life.

Guest post: Outrage over inclusion of IRA in new video game

Timothy Plum has been traveling to Ireland for more than 20 years on business, academic and personal reasons. His last guest post for this blog was about Brexit. MH

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The latest iteration of the “Mafia” video game series, which references IRA violence, is drawing criticism in Northern Ireland for trivializing the Troubles.

“Mafia III” is set in 1968 in a recreation of New Orleans. The player is on a quest to build a new crime organization to confront the Italian mob over the killings of his friends. Players game through the third-person perspective of fictional orphan and Vietnam War vet Lincoln Clay.

In a segment titled “The IRA Don’t Ask,” Clay’s mission includes stealing cars for an Irish underboss named Thomas Burke. The cars are destined for use as car bombs meant to “keep the Belfast law guessing.” The game also includes a Northern Ireland flag defaced with the word “traitor.”

Screen grab from "Mafia III" by 2K Games.

Screen grab from “Mafia III” by 2K Games.

The game uses stereotypes to glorify the IRA, including drunkenness, rowdiness and extreme violence. Using a time period as fresh and raw as 1960’s Northern Ireland, in my opinion, is a disservice to gamers–most of whom will have no idea of the actual events–and the public at large.

Unionist politicians have condemned the game. DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told The Irish News that he is “very concerned” about the impact the game could have on “impressionable” minds. “The IRA were a terrorist organisation that murdered very many innocent men, women and children in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.”

As of 15 October, news coverage from the North has not included any reaction to the game from Sinn Féin or other nationalists.

So far, “Mafia III” has been poorly received by the gaming community, so perhaps the damage of misunderstanding and myth perpetuation will be tamped down by poor sales. But it is sad to have the past dredged up in such a poor fashion that only perpetuates stereotypes and does not further discussion.