Are parts of Europe coming to resemble Northern Ireland?

I imagine that few people outside Northern Ireland would disagree with the statement that the North is one of the most politically backward regions in Western Europe. The reasons are numerous and well-known: 30 years of destabilising and for a long time seemingly insoluble civil conflict; a politics largely determined by 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and empire loyalism on one side, early 20th century irredentist nationalism on the other; the archaic militarism of Orange marches and republican hunger strike commemorations; little or no strategy for the social and economic improvement of its people, with high unemployment, low productivity and heavy dependence on subsidies from central government; and now the longest period without a coherent system of government of any European nation or region this century. Future historians will surely be dumbfounded at the failure to secure a working government over issues as marginal and eminently soluble as the Irish language and marriage equality.

My wife and I have just returned from a holiday in Catalonia, one of Europe’s most prosperous, progressive and sophisticated regions, with a capital, Barcelona, which is one of the world’s great cities and a proud record of defending democracy against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. But I saw some worrying signs in that ancient civilised region (a rich province of the Roman empire 2000 years ago) of a society facing the danger of deepening divisions between nationalists and unionists: nationalists who want Catalan independence and unionists who want to remain part of Spain.

In our small Costa Brava seaside resort there were Catalan flags, posters demanding the release of political prisoners and yellow ribbons protesting their imprisonment on every surface: on balconies, park and seafront railings, beaches and in people’s lapels. The mayor, chairman of a group of pro-independence town mayors, had even proposed putting yellow crosses on the town’s beaches.

This pattern was repeated in the region’s major cities, Barcelona and Girona. While we were there, a woman whose children were removing yellow ribbons from railings in a Barcelona park was hit in the face and had her nose broken. In Girona people associated with the largest party in the Catalan parliament, the unionist Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), wore hoods to do the removing. This will not end well.

Catalan nationalism, unlike its Basque equivalent, has always prided itself on being completely peaceful, and in the past being more concerned with the independence of its culture and language rather than political independence. But the fierceness of the separatist language and the ubiquity of the pro-independence symbols were striking to the visitor this year (we have been holidaying in the same seaside resort for the past six years and like journalists on holiday everywhere, closely peruse the local papers).

The difference is what happened on 1st October last year. Then an outlawed and chaotic independence referendum was held with a 43% turn-out, in which over 90% of those voting opted for independence. The poll was marred by violent attacks on voters by the Spanish police, who blocked polling stations to try to prevent people voting. Earlier the Catalan parliament had stated that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout. However this was clearly illegal under Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which requires a two thirds majority in that parliament for any change to the region’s status. It was also declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court following a request by the Spanish government. After an abortive declaration of independence, nine independence leaders were jailed to await trial on a range of charges, while five more, including then regional president Carles Puigdemont, fled into exile.

Since then there has been a regional election, which saw the pro-nationalist coalition returned with an increased 70 to 65 seat majority; a change of government in Madrid, with the more conciliatory socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, re-opening a long stalled dialogue with the Catalan nationalists, but a new, even more hard-line anti-Spanish separatist leader, Quim Torra, in Barcelona. While the new government has offered a new referendum on improving Catalonia’s self-governing powers, Torra has insisted that only “a referendum on self-determination will resolve the conflict.”

In a recent article the new Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, a former European Parliament president, warned that the drive for independence was dividing Catalan society into two halves with the increasing risk of a highly damaging confrontation. The pluralism of a society that was bilingual, culturally diverse and with multiple identities was in danger. He said a fundamentalist nationalism with undertones of xenophobia, which preached that Catalonia was an an oppressed colony of Spain, could lead to a ‘Kosovo solution’ in the region.¹

Kosovo is a disputed, corrupt and mainly Albanian state, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2008, but still contains large pockets of Serbs who angrily proclaim their loyalty to Serbia. There re-partition is back on the negotiating table. While we were in Catalonia, there was a proposal from the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia that mostly Serb northern Kosovo would be returned to Belgrade’s rule but other Serb enclaves would remain part of Kosovo, while a mainly Albanian area of southern Serbia would be transferred to Albania. This is apparently aimed at helping the two countries establish normal relations after a bitter little war in 1998-1999 (complete with massacres of civilians by both sides), which is what they have to do if they are to have any chance of joining the European Union. However other senior Albanian politicians have reacted with horrified astonishment, warning that such a re-partition would risk triggering the kind of terrible ethnic and border conflicts that convulsed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

To Irish observers, all this is depressingly familiar. We too have a society in the North divided down the middle between unionists and nationalists, with changing a national border – if necessary by a hair’s breadth 50% + 1 vote – being proposed by one party as the deeply destabilising ‘solution’ to that division. “Accelerated reunification post-Brexit” is how I heard Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney describing it earlier this month. And of course the dreadful Brexit is driving a new wedge between the two communities there so that 20 years of hard toil to build a multiple identity and culturally diverse society is now in jeopardy.

Similar divisions based on fearful national identity and suspicion of the immigrant and the outsider are growing in countries as different as Italy and Sweden, Germany and Hungary. Is it too simplistic to see all this as akin to the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Europe?

ENDNOTE (1)  My experience is that even moderate Irish nationalists in the Republic find it difficult to be objective when the word ‘unionist’ is used. Their default position is that unionist equals bad. Please bear in mind that I am using ‘unionist’ in the above article in its Spanish-Catalan context, so don’t instinctively take the side of separatist Catalans simply because they are nationalist. [God knows how we’re going to cope if 900,000 of those ‘bad’ people become citizens of a united Ireland in a few decades or so!]

ENDNOTE (2):  In contradiction to my opening paragraph, I have to say that at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month, I was hugely impressed by some of the civil society speakers from Northern Ireland. The panel on the second day on ‘bridging the gaps’ in the divided North consisted of Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, in the chair; Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, talking about the role of story-telling and drama; Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors (who is originally from England), on those people still suffering from the legacy of the conflict; Bob Collins, former Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission (who is from the South) on the success so far of the 1916-1923 centenary commemorations; and Duncan Morrow, Director of Community Engagement at University of Ulster and former CEO of the Community Relations Council, who delivered a brilliant dissection of the failures of reconciliation and the shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement. When a society has such leading citizens, there must still be real hope for its future. I wish the same could be said of the political speakers: the deeply unimpressive Secretary of State, Karen Bradley; the fervent Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney (he must terrify the life out of unionists!) and the young stand-in for Arlene Foster (do DUP leaders ever turn up at events where people might disagree with them?), Christopher Stalford.

¹ ‘Lo peor aun puede estar por llegar’, El Periodico, 2 September 2018



Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Views from abroad | 1 Comment

My dream is of an economically united Ireland

When it comes to Northern Ireland many years of journalism and cross-border cooperation have taught me to be a hard-headed, cold-eyed realist. Any suggestion of movement towards Irish unity, whether it be a post-Brexit agreement to put border checks down the Irish Sea or demographic increases in the Catholic population, will be fiercely resisted, or wilfully ignored, by the great majority of people in the unionist community.

But I do have one dream. It is that the two parts of Ireland will come together slowly, with an increasing number of Northern unionists realising that a much closer association with the Republic makes huge sense for reasons of economic self-interest. In short, it is that the benefits of an economically united Ireland will over time start persuading them of the merits of a politically united Ireland. I know that Brexit may put paid to such highly optimistic ideas – but this is a dream we’re talking about!

Because when one digs down into the economic performance of the two Irish jurisdictions in recent times, the differences are both dramatic and dramatically in the Republic’s favour. I have been reading a report published last month by the island’s two business confederations, IBEC and CBI Northern Ireland, called Business on a Connected Island. This shows startling differences between economic activity, income, consumption and education levels between North and South.

For example, Gross Domestic Product per capita in 2016 was more than twice as high in the Republic as in the North (€58,800 to €27,400). Even given factors such as the distortion of the Irish economy by profit outflows to the large number of  multinational companies here, this is an extraordinary discrepancy. 

The export performance of Northern companies is simply pathetic when compared to the Republic’s booming economy. In 2016 the Republic (with goods sold overseas to the value of €119 billion)  exported more in one month than Northern Ireland did in the whole year (€9.5 billion).

In that year average hourly wages were substantially higher (Stg£21.47 to £13.87) in the Republic, although again this comparison has to be treated with some caution because of poorer and more expensive public services like health and education. The average weekly expenditure on consumption in the South in 2015 (excluding housing) was €614 compared to €527 in Northern Ireland.

Higher education qualifications, so vital for employment these days, are far more prevalent in the Republic than the North: 53% of 30-35 year olds have such qualifications in the former, compared to 35.5% in the latter.

The report’s authors observe that if you put the North and South together into one all-island economy, that would make it the third largest regional economy in the British Isles, behind only London and the English south-east. If one takes Northern Ireland on its own, it is easily the weakest regional economy in the UK. They conclude: “The opportunities offered by an all-island economy have  been used by a wide range of firms in both jurisdictions to grow their businesses and create new jobs. As a result, what was once merely a concept is now an economic reality.”

In a study published in April the Derry-based financial journalist Paul Gosling confirmed this picture of Southern economic strength and Northern weakness.¹ He calculated that since partition the two economies have gone in opposite directions. In 1920 80% of Irish industrial output was in and around Belfast, then the island’s largest city. Just under a hundred years later the economy of the Republic is four times larger than that of Northern Ireland, with industrial output 10 times larger.

According to a recent Economic Eye study from the accountancy firm EY, economic growth in 2017 in the Republic was 4.9% compared to 1.4% in Northern Ireland. In January the Irish Central Bank forecast the creation of nearly 90,000 new jobs this year and next, and that unemployment would decline to just over 5%: effectively full employment. Young people are flocking from all over the world to Ireland to seek employment opportunities in its dynamic IT, pharmaceutical, financial services, aircraft leasing and other sectors.

At the same time, as I have pointed out before, the Republic has become one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe, with same sex marriage and a liberal abortion regime passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. A poor health service and a scandalous lack of social housing remain major problems. But in the Irish Times and Guardian commentator Fintan O’Toole’s words, Irish democracy has showed itself to be “a strong, vibrant plant” at a time when “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.”

What is there not to like in all this? Unfortunately for many unionists, the prospect of becoming part of an attractive and prosperous Irish society is always trumped by their deeply fearful brand of identity politics. For too many of them politics remains about one thing only: remaining British at all costs – even the hugely damaging cost of crashing out of the EU, seeing the break-up of the UK and becoming a second rate nation with a standard of living well below that of its former European partners.

The next part is pure fantasy on my part. Once the Brexit imbroglio is semi-resolved in the next few years, I would like to see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coming together on a joint electoral platform of starting to get ready for an Irish unity based on economic performance and prosperity (they could add a comprehensive package to deal with the housing crisis). As part of this they would offer unionists a power-sharing regional Assembly in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement; Irish membership of the Commonwealth; an overhaul of the Constitution to remove any remaining elements influenced by 1930s nationalism and Catholicism, notably the preamble, and to recognise the British identity of Northern unionists; a new flag (I suggest St Patrick’s harp on a blue background as used in the presidential standard or the symbols of the four Irish provinces) and national anthem (perhaps Ireland’s Call); and new systems of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and healthcare without church involvement.

The Citizens Assembly could have a key role here. It was recently described by two distinguished UCD professors  as “a venue for calm, reflective deliberation that fed back into our representative system of politics [so that] Ireland is now seen (deservedly) as a world leader in the use of deliberative democracy.”² The Assembly could be convened in semi-permanent session over a number of years to discuss these proposals and how they might be implemented.

This dramatic démarche by the two largest Irish parties, working together, would have three impacts: it would marginalise Sinn Fein as the party of Irish unity; it would help moderate unionists (who would then, I believe, be facing into a post-Brexit economic meltdown) to begin to contemplate an Irish unity that would not be the creation of their arch-enemies in the republican movement (the political representatives of the organisation that spent 30 years killing and bombing them); and it would force Southern people to face for the first time the far reaching and socially disruptive implications of unity for their cosy little 26-county society.

Remember this is only my dream. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it started coming true?

¹ The Economic Effects of an All-Island Economy 2018

² Bryan Fanning and David Farrell, ‘Ireland cannot ignore threat of populism’, Irish Times, 17 August



Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 6 Comments

On this occasion it was a DUP politician who talked the most sense

Sometimes I despair of the poor understanding of the people of this Republic about what makes the Northern quarter of this island tick. It is not helped by poor reporting of what happens there.

We had another example of this earlier this month. Former Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson came to the Glenties Summer School in Donegal to make an important speech. However his message was almost completely lost because all the headlines were about a question he answered from a member of the audience to the effect that unionists should prepare for the possibility of Irish unity (even though he didn’t think it would happen) and should accept the result of a Border Poll if that was its outcome.

This is what both the Southern media and his unionist critics – obsessed in their very different ways with unity – seized upon.But this is not what he came to say, as the one journalist who realised the import of his speech, RTE Northern editor Tommie Gorman (who chaired the session he addressed) has pointed out in a thoughtful online article¹.

Robinson came to Glenties to say two very important things: firstly, that if at the end of the Brexit negotiations there is a worsening of UK-Ireland relations and unionist relations with Dublin, “the spill-over consequences on relationships within Northern Ireland are clear and alarming”; and secondly, to issue a call to the Northern parties – and this must mean the DUP and Sinn Fein above all – to get back into government as soon as possible; to accept that “no one’s position is weakened if parties were to return to Stormont while outstanding issues are resolved in parallel, under a strictly timetabled schedule.”

In a carefully considered and even-handed speech, the former DUP leader examined the various relationships that had been built since the Good Friday Agreement.  He praised the inter-governmental relationship between London and Dublin within the EU as “a common room where allies discussed common interests and almost always pursued common causes.” He stressed that the frequency of EU contacts between the two governments had created “a sense of friendship and conviviality” and a “comradeship of being part of the same team.”

However he forecast a post-Brexit scenario of resentment between the two nations as the Republic “takes up cudgels alongside the other EU states which are hostile to the United Kingdom’s interests.” He warned: “No matter how it is approached, at best the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland governments will struggle to maintain anything close to the warmth of their pre-Brexit affinity. At worst that relationship may become stony and staid and, in extreme circumstances, even perfunctory and fruitless.” Robinson said he already detected a view in London that “what they judge to be the rigid, if not antagonistic, negotiating posture adopted by Irish government ministers, has planted the seeds of regression in that association.”

Robinson warned sternly that “the harmonious and cordial co-existence between the two traditions on this island, upon which, I would suggest, peace and stability depends,cannot in the future be reliant or dependent on the safety net of the one-in-a-million possibility of a genial Brexit outcome that maintains British-Irish relations at pre-Brexit levels.”

He then moved on to North-South relationships. “Those who manipulate the UK’s exiting process to shift the balance – either by working towards a back-up option that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK or by pressing for a hard border that cuts off North-South interaction – clearly do not understand the importance of maintaining the balance which led – pre-Brexit – to Northern Ireland having its best ever rapport with the South and internally. More than that they are playing a dangerous stratagem, one that could destabilise Northern Ireland for years to come.”

“The network of arrangements, North-South, east-west and within Northern Ireland, have developed over a number of years and involved much give and take and hard work in getting the balance right. These arrangements have allowed unionists and nationalists to participate fully within a framework of relationships – and to do so in a manner with mutually beneficial outcomes. It worked and moreover no one felt threatened by it. But it is a carefully and finely tuned instrument, and events which disturb the balance will require measures to be taken to maintain the equilibrium. Correspondingly, efforts to tip the balance one way or the other must be resisted.”

He warned that from a unionist perspective there had been “a rapid deterioration in their estimation of the Irish government. Unionists believe Dublin has been completely self-serving and unnecessarily bellicose during this process…It would be a unionist view that the Republic’s government showed little interest and took no account of how they felt about any of the proposed Brexit solutions and still less about the impact of those proposals on future relationships.”

Finally he turned to inter-community relationships in the North. He recognised that nationalists and unionists had radically different views of the consequences of Brexit: the former fearing a new hard border and greater separation from the South; the latter “any deal that results in them being prised away from Great Britain and by treaty or regulation stapled to the Irish Republic.” Both of these are “notionally possible outcomes.”

Much of the polarisation between the parties which had resulted from “Brexit hysteria” was avoidable, he believed, “but an absence of the political cohesion that a functioning Executive has provided in the past has intensified the division.” He warned that “each tradition will almost certainly echo the position of the government with which they most closely identify, and without the task of governing and the responsibilities that accompany being in government, a blame game and justification philosophy will prevail.”

He then turned to his key message: “Central to protecting the helpful and cordial set of relationships that have been built up over many years is the rebirth and smooth operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its Executive, along with the North-South and east-west institutions. Without each and all of those parts being in place, and working, relationships will suffer – perhaps drastically. The absence of the complete network of connections leaves us all vulnerable to a downward spiral which may lead to toxicity.”

“It remains my strong and settled opinion that the deadlock in Northern Ireland must be broken…It is intolerable that there are politicians who appear to have turned their backs on the will and needs of the community they are elected to serve.”

Robinson demanded – a call surely aimed at the two governments –  “an injection of urgency to get the process moving.” “Over the past generation we have, bit by bit, created a unique construct bringing together diverse traditions and distinctive cultures…I contend that the revival of the Assembly and Executive is an imperative in a post-Brexit era. It represents our best hope of peace, stability and reconciliation.” Nobody had “come forward with a better plan for Northern Ireland than the one we operated successfully for over a decade – one that was capable of attracting the support of both sections of our community. It was worth the risks and hardships to put those arrangements in place, and it’s still worth fighting to see them return.”

I agree with Peter Robinson that the past 20 years has showed us one thing above all: when the British and Irish governments work closely together, peaceful progress and an element of togetherness are possible in the deeply divided place that is Northern Ireland. A good relationship between the Irish government and the DUP has also been part of that benevolent cocktail, a relationship that Bertie Ahern, in particular, worked tirelessly to build and foster.

In the wake of Brexit, both governments have taken their eye off that crucial ball. Dublin-London-Belfast relations are now worse than at any time since the Northern peace process started in the 1990s. As an Irish person, I hold my own government – and  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – particularly to blame. Last December I was a lone voice cautioning against the deterioration of relations between Dublin and London, and between Dublin and the DUP, after the diplomatic sleight of hand that led to what is now known as the ‘backstop’, aimed at avoiding a post-Brexit hard border.² There was far too much facile green jersey wearing and anti-British schadenfreude in Dublin as Theresa May’s hapless government floundered from crisis to crisis. And the total breakdown in relations with the largest unionist party was unforgivable from a government that is supposed to be one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

Dublin’s unyielding insistence on the backstop and nothing short of the backstop has continued ever since, while relations with London and Belfast have worsened by the month. Is it in Ireland’s interest that the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal? Is it in Ireland’s interest that relations with the British Government and the DUP turn from frosty to toxic? Is it in Ireland’s interest that efforts to revive the power-sharing Executive seem to be seen in Dublin as something that will happen only after the Brexit problem is resolved?

Peter Robinson, that wise old unionist owl, has challenged the two governments, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to wake out of their torpor, and once again work night and day to give the miraculous accord that was the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions one more chance. It may be our last chance before crude demographic arithmetic and sectarian polarisation move us back once again to the ancient and malignant stalemate that is non-politics in the North.

ENDNOTE 1: Two pictures in the Irish Times of 6th August symbolised for me two contrasting visions of a future Ireland. On the front page were our women’s hockey team, surprise World Cup silver medallists, a harmonious collective punching brilliantly above their weight, with their joyous faces and exuberant rendition of Ireland’s Call. Using my well-honed sectarian antennae (I have spent too many years in the North!), I can identify their religious/social backgrounds as follows: one Northern Catholic (their camogie playing captain Katie Mullan); eight Southern Catholics; five Northern Protestants and four Southern Protestants. What about that for a successful united Ireland combination that’s both equal and diverse?

On page of 7 of the paper is a picture of a very different Ireland: the 37th annual National Hunger Strike Commemoration march in Castlewellan, County Down, complete with paramilitary-style marching men and women, grimly determined all, tricolours and starry ploughs aloft, and pictures of the dead IRA and INLA Maze Prison hunger strikers everywhere (with an address by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald). Do we really want to go back to that dark place? Or do we want to go forward instead to the happy, peaceful, pluralist country personified by our wonderful women’s hockey team?

ENDNOTE 2: On Sunday 23 September I will be taking part in the second Glencree Peace Walk (10k) through the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains to raise money for the work of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Glencree played a key role in the Northern peace process, bringing the warring sides together for key confidential face-to-face meetings. Now we work with people suffering from the legacy of that conflict, women in conflict areas, refugees and young Muslims. I am particularly appealing to friends in the Republic (having asked my Northern friends to support another charity walk earlier this summer) to help me with a donation, however small. Please donate via the following crowd-funding site:


² December 2017 blog: Northern institutions crumbling as Leo rides high in Europe []

Posted in British-Irish relations, General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Leitrim lessons from the great John McGahern

John McGahern is known, in Ireland and beyond, as a marvellous teller of stories about ordinary rural people’s lives. His most famous novels – The Dark, Amongst Women, That They May Face the Rising Sun – are set in his native Leitrim (and the Roscommon of his teenage years), where he returned to live, farm and write for 30 years before his death in 2006.

He grew up in Ireland in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when two near-theocracies snarled at or ignored each other across a high border wall of mutual loathing and incomprehension. He lost his teaching job in the mid-1960s for writing a ‘dirty’ book – The Dark, which was compared by reviewers to the early Joyce and Mauriac – and, according to his trade union representative, for marrying a Finnish woman. It was the all-powerful Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who ordered his dismissal.

He was scathing of the Irish state of that period. “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”¹ Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England.

In an irony beyond irony, this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.

Despite his experience at the hands of the Church, McGahern continued to value the Catholicism he had inherited as a child from his beloved mother, who died when he was nine, leaving him and his sisters and brother to be brought up by his brutal police sergeant father “in near starvation and violence and slavery”. He wrote: “I had affection still and gratitude for my upbringing in the Church: it was the sacred weather of my early life, and I could no more turn against it than I could turn on any deep part of my life. Through work and reading and reflection I had come to separate morals and religion, to see morals as simply our relationship with other people and the creatures of the earth and air, and religion as our relationship with our total environment, the all that surrounds our little lives. I had come to see the story of Jesus as a story among other sacred stories that sought to explain and make palatable the inexplicable.”²

Of all Irish novelists, John McGahern strikes the deepest chord with me: whether it is his courageous and unapologetic independence of mind; his love of the overgrown rural lanes where he grew up (I loved the County Antrim lanes of my childhood holidays in a similar way); or his insistence that good manners and neighbourliness are the only way to conduct affairs between civilised human beings.

He is not a political writer, although circumstances – driven out of a job and into exile by a pusillanimous state – sometimes forced him to be. He wrote mainly about the trials and joys of country people, and the pain and pleasure of family life. His most memorable characters ranged from the lovable to the monstrous: from Jamesie in That They May Face the Rising Sun, whose “intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement” to the child-beating Mahoney in The Dark, an archetype of the vain and violent father who appears in several of McGahern’s novels.

So it was no accident that when I did my annual cross-border and cross-country walk (this year from Armagh to Sligo) last month, I made sure I passed through McGahern’s country in Leitrim around Ballinamore. I visited his and his mother’s grave at Aughawillan church; passed the old school where his mother taught, and walked the mile or so they used to walk every day to Corramahon where they lived in a poor, rickety house in the middle of a field. All that is left from those times 75 years ago is a rusty gate in a prickly hedge and an empty, rushy meadow. It is extraordinary to think that out of this remote and unpromising place came a great writer and literature of world renown.

I also identify strongly with McGahern’s views on violence, the North and the ‘national question.’ In a memorable passage in That They May Face the Rising Sun, a thinly disguised version of himself, Joe Ruttledge, met a local IRA leader, a thinly disguised version of John Joe McGirl (who is described as a “plain and decent” man who would only shoot you “if you stood in the way of the Cause”).

The McGirl character, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, said: “You don’t seem to have any interest in our cause?” “No” said Ruttledge, “I don’t like violence.” “You don’t believe in freedom, then?” “Our country is free.” “A part of it is not free.” “That is a matter for that other part. I don’t think it is any of our business.” “I think differently. I believe it is all our business.” Ruttledge knew that as he was neither a follower nor a leader he must look useless or worse than useless to this man of commitment and action. As far as Jimmy Joe was concerned he might as well be listening to the birds like an eejit on the far side of the lake, and he made no further attempt at speech.’

I would not go as far as McGahern in saying that the North is none of the Republic’s business. I think it is primarily the business of the politicians and people of Northern Ireland to work out their deep-seated problems, but unfortunately history has taught us that they are incapable of doing that without strong involvement from the Irish and British governments, working together.

But I agree absolutely with him about the utter impossibility of moving towards reconciliation and mutual understanding in Ireland through people killing and hating each other. In a 2010 article the novelist Colm Toibín wrote: “It hardly needs saying that McGahern viewed this inter-tribal hatred and disgust with horror. The idea for him of attacking your own neighbours was a very shocking idea. He would say that if only people in Northern Ireland could improve their manners, then they might stop shooting each other, or when that stopped, hating each other or disliking each other in ways that caused pain or the slightest form of civil disturbance.”³

The Northern Protestant character in That They May Face the Rising Sun, the anglicised advertising executive Robert Booth, also spoke the truth when he said: “If it came to an all-out conflict our people would render a very bloody account of themselves, but they would probably lose.”

John McGahern, like all great writers, was a truth-teller. In his 2010 article Colm Toibín said he wished he had been able to introduce McGahern to Bob Bain, the pastor of the Darkley gospel hall in south Armagh, whose Sunday evening service was machine gunned by the INLA in November 1983, killing three worshippers and injuring many others. Toibín had been greatly taken with Bain’s charm, resilience and independence of spirit. Meeting him was “one of those moments when the partition of Ireland seemed to me immensely sad: my community in the South had been deprived of the presence of men like Bob Bain as a living, vibrant, fully accepted part of our religious and civic life. We could have been nourished by the sheer difference.”

Toibín finished with the following words: “In their loneliness and their fierce dignity, I wanted to invoke both John McGahern and Pastor Bain as two figures who in one way lived close to the border, a place others might have called home – but in a better way, in an exemplary way, they lived deeply and truthfully within themselves. It is as much as any of us can hope for.”

ENDNOTE. From a great writer to a great educationalist: I would like to pay tribute to my admired friend and colleague John Coolahan, former professor of education at Maynooth University, who died in June. John’s central role in the reform and modernisation of the Irish education system has been written about elsewhere. What is not so well-known was his huge commitment to increasing mutual understanding on this island through North-South educational cooperation. He was the main mover behind the setting up of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) in 2003 to bring together all those involved in teacher training and education in Ireland through joint research, conference and exchange projects. He himself said that the formation and development of this all-island network, which is still going strong (administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies), was his proudest achievement in a lifetime of high achievement. It is only a pity that such an outstanding example of cross-border networking was not followed by other key sectors and professions.

¹ Memoir, Faber and Faber paperback, p. 210

² Memoir, p. 222

³ ‘Along the Catalan and Irish borders: politics of memory and progress through good manners’. The Journal of Cross Border Studies, spring 2010.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | Leave a comment

In praise of Irish villages (under the summer sun)

Earlier this month I spent a week walking along back roads and across hills through a relatively unknown part of the rural north and west of Ireland. I started at the village of Tynan, west of Armagh city; walked across north Monaghan and the Upper Lough Erne lakeland district in Fermanagh; into west Cavan and down through Leitrim to Carrick on Shannon; and then westwards as far as the village of Coolaney under the Ox Mountains in Sligo. I had intended to continue across Mayo to Ballintubber Abbey and Croagh Patrick, but because of an injury (not serious) was forced to stop there. I will return to complete the walk later in the summer.

What struck me again and again during this walk was how lovely so many Irish villages looked in the brilliant summer sunshine. This is not a fashionable or wealthy part of the country; the opposite, in fact. But is it clear from the ‘Pride of Place’ signs (the all-island competition run by Cooperation Ireland), flower bedecked modern houses,  manicured gardens, neat streets and squares and ubiquitous public notice-boards explaining the history and natural environments of even the tiniest of places, that their inhabitants are genuinely proud of their small communities. It is a very far cry from the picturesque scruffiness, miserable housing and widespread rural poverty that I first witnessed when cycling around Ireland as a teenager in the mid-1960s. For me, this is a sign of a genuinely successful country: when ordinary people in humble places traditionally neglected by the metropolis are clearly living in comfort and prosperity.

I am going to take four examples from my walk: Tydavnet in north Monaghan, Bawnboy in west Cavan, Leitrim village and Coolaney in west Sligo. Three of these villages are genuinely off the beaten track. Walking along back roads between Glaslough (an outstandingly pretty heritage village just south of the border) and Tydavnet, I immediately noted how smart the farmhouses and bungalows were, with their white-painted walls, perfectly tended gardens, children’s swings and bouncing castles. One may not particularly like the derivative building styles: mock-Georgian, mock-traditional farmhouse, mock-Irish cottage. One may not approve of less than well-planned ribbon development or numerous battery henhouses. But knowing the history of this poor, marginalised, and occasionally violent wedge of the Republic sticking up into Northern Ireland, it gladdened my heart to see it looking so peaceful and prosperous on a gorgeous summer afternoon.

Tydavnet itself is a tiny place, but archaeologically and religiously significant. It was the location of the famous Tydavnet Gold Discs, now in the National Museum, which are the largest and most sophisticated Bronze Age gold artefacts ever found in Ireland. It is named after St Dympna, a seventh century saint who was said to have stopped in the village while fleeing to Belgium to escape the attentions of her incestuous father (who would eventually follow and murder her). She is known as the patron saint of the mentally ill and her shrine at Geel in Belgium (with which Tydavnet is twinned) is a place of international pilgrimage – Geel first adopted a community-based model of caring for psychiatric patients as long ago as the 13th century.

Today Tydavnet’s little main street is as neat as a new pin, with its church, two pubs, guest house and public wildlife garden. It has refurbished a derilect former national school as a centre for ceili dancing and storytelling, and has clubs for GAA, soccer, tug of war, cycling and rambling. My host in Tydavnet was Breege Lenihan of the County Monaghan Community Network, who has worked tirelessly over the years to build cross-border and cross-community relations between Catholics and Protestants in Monaghan and Armagh.

Further west I walked out of Fermanagh across Slieve Rushen, with its concentration of windmills, and down into Bawnboy in Cavan. This is another very small place. Here I stayed in the charming, spotless Keepers Arms pub and guest house, a 165 year old bar which has been turned into a wonderfully cosy village hotel. The village itself boasts a handsome GAA complex, completed in 2005, where I watched the senior team train in the luminous evening. It is in outwardly insignificant places like these, not obviously heartlands of Gaelic sporting excellence, where the GAA’s generous investment is most admirable.

Beside the GAA ground is a relic of a grimmer past, the old Bawnboy Workhouse, looking remarkably unchanged (as least from the outside) from its Victorian beginnings. A mile out the road is the Jampa Ling Buddhist Centre, presided over by Panchen Ötrul Rimpoche, a close associate of the Dalai Lama, who sent him from India to the West to spread the teachings of the Buddha. The Irish countryside is full of surprises.

Leitrim village is an altogether livelier and more cosmopolitan place. It is blessed by its location at the point where the River Shannon meets the Shannon-Erne waterway, with the result that it is a major hub for summer boat traffic. It also benefits from being close to the boom town of Carrick on Shannon, with weekend hen and stag parties, and many other visitors, spilling over into its hotel, restaurants, bars and campsites. Its modern housing estates and apartment complexes were bright and clean and fully occupied when I walked through. The waterside campsite beside Beirnes pub restaurant at Battlebridge (complete with pods and tree houses) looked particularly idyllic in the bright sunshine, as families barbecued and children splashed in the river. I met a developer who has ambitious plans to develop walking tourism in the largely unknown Sliabh an Iarainn to the north of here.

However probably my favourite village of the walk was Coolaney in west Sligo. Who in Dublin or Belfast has even heard of this small place under the Ox Mountains?  Yet seven miles before the village, outside Collooney, I ran into no fewer than a thousand people completing the ‘Sligo Camino’, a cross-county walk from Dromahair, 22 miles away on the Leitrim border, now in its fifth year. This major logistical exercise was being run entirely by volunteers from community groups in Coolaney. There were marshals slowing down the traffic, drink stalls outside back lane bungalows, and a full meal provided at the finish by Sligo’s only community-run café.

Coolaney is a harmonious combination of the old and new. Its traditional main street is tree-lined and whitewashed, but its new estates – not a ghost estate anywhere – speak of the relative proximity of the bustling regional centre and employment hub that is Sligo town. Across the border the flags flying from the lamp-posts would have been those of the historically warring Northern Irish tribes. Here, in this outstanding example of an outward-looking ‘new Irish’ village, they were of the 32 nations competing in soccer’s World Cup finals. Among the people serving meals to the Sligo Camino walkers as they arrived were children with beautiful Indian and Filipino faces. Leaflets were being handed out advertising an ‘international morning’ at the tiniest of tiny neighbouring places – the hamlet of Beltra – with a Russian folk group, Spanish tapas, Surinam snacks and ‘world food from the global kitchen’. As an Irishman with plenty of foreign blood in my veins, it made me feel right at home.

These villages may have looked deceptively alluring in the marvellous summer weather, but I couldn’t help thinking that their glowing well-being and extraordinary community spirit meant we are doing something right in rural Ireland.

I must be careful not be be a  complete Pollyanna. A priest friend who I had dinner with in Coolaney warned me that neighbouring Roscommon towns like Boyle and Ballaghaderreen were full of boarded-up shops, and during a drive through East Mayo a few days later I spotted several still empty and derilect estates. But where there are towns that are doing well – like Carrick on Shannon, Sligo and Ballyconnell in Cavan (where Sean Quinn’s astonishing former empire of cement plants, hotels, building supplies and insurance firms still appears to be largely intact) – once remote and disadvantaged villages in their vicinity are thriving.

My final thought – as so often in these blogs – goes back to Northern Ireland, where I started my walk. Why would anybody in their right mind want to disrupt this green and pleasant republic by forcibly trying to unite it with the deeply fractious and economically parasitical North? The violence in Belfast and Derry during my walk through the peaceful countryside was only the latest reminder of this.

PS I am still accepting donations in support of my Armagh to Sligo walk to the Belfast charity BCM for their work with young homeless people in Northern Ireland at Many thanks to those who have already donated.



Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 2 Comments

I wish the Taoiseach would shut up about a united Ireland

I wish our Taoiseach would shut up about a united Ireland until he has something sensible to say on the subject. According to the Irish Times he was at it again earlier this month, telling Fine Gael parliamentarians after a recent visit to the North that the “tectonic plates” of Irish politics are shifting as a result of Brexit and pointing to opinion polls showing increasing support for Irish unity.¹ [I must enter a caveat here: the current coverage of the North by the Irish Times is the weakest I have seen since I first went to Belfast as a journalist 40 years ago].

In fact the opinion polls, as usual, are all over the place. Earlier this month a Lucid Talk poll for the BBC showed that 45% of Northern Irish people questioned wanted to stay in the UK, while 42% wanted to join the Republic of Ireland.² In contrast, an Ipsos MORI poll last month for a Queen’s University research project led by the political scientist, Professor John Garry, found that just 21% of people would vote for Irish unity in the event of the UK leaving the EU.³ Whatever the differing figures, they add up to one thing: continued stalemate.

This is confirmed in a careful study of demographic statistics by my friend Dr Paul Nolan, a highly-regarded Belfast-based social researcher. An earlier remark on BBC television by Nolan that Catholics would probably overtake Protestants as the largest population group in Northern Ireland by 2021 had led to a wave of wild, self-serving speculation about nationalists becoming the Northern majority in the near future.

Nolan was actually saying something quite different. Warning that the actual figures would have to wait until the 2021 census, he said that “the demographic shift may allow for the Catholic population to overtake the Protestant one in terms of size, but it will not become a simple majority – that is, it will not increase to the point where it is over 50%. Perhaps more surprisingly for some, that increase in the size of the Catholic population will not translate in any simple way into nationalist votes.”

Nolan noted the significant growth of the Catholic population in recent decades. Between the 2001 and 2011 censuses the Catholic share of the population (in terms of community background) had grown from 43.8% to 45.1% while the Protestant share had fallen from 53.1% to 48.4%. Using school census statistics, he shows that among children and young people the picture is even starker: Catholic schoolchildren have been in a majority (50%-51%) for the past 18 years, with the proportion of Protestant children falling to 37% in recent years (children of other or no religion make up the remaining 13%).

The January 2018 NI Labour Force Religion Survey confirms a picture of rapid Catholic growth and Protestant standstill. There were 643,000 Protestants aged 16 and over in 1990; in 2016 this figure was slightly down by 3,000. However in this period the number of Catholics increased by 39%, from 440,000 to 610,000.

Because of the much greater preponderance of Protestants in the over 60 age group (57% to 35%), Protestants remain the largest group in the overall population: 44% to 42% Catholic (according to the Labour Force Religion Survey).

But the direction of travel is clear. Each year sees Protestants over-represented in the death statistics (by a 2:1 ratio) and Catholics over-represented in the birth statistics. “Northern Ireland is on its way to a situation where Catholics will outnumber Protestants. This will happen in two stages. First, the overall Catholic population will overtake the overall Protestant population. In the second stage, which will follow on inexorably, Catholics will outnumber Protestants among those of voting age.” Nolan forecasts that “it is at least possible that the first of these two stages will be reached by 2021.”

However for those who define themselves according to the archaic tribal category of CNR (Catholic Nationalist Republican), there is an important caveat before they start celebrating. Nolan finds that this demographic shift in favour of Catholics has not translated into any significant advance in the nationalist vote since the Good Friday Agreement. In the past 19 years the combined nationalist vote (that is, Sinn Fein and the SDLP taken together) has risen by a tiny 0.1% of a percentage point: from 39.7% in the June 1998 Assembly election to 39.8% in the March 2017 Assembly election. “In fact, the overall nationalist vote has been at a standstill, and rather than breaking through the 50% barrier it finds it hard to break the 40% ceiling.”

Nolan concludes that the political future of Northern Ireland may rest with another group entirely: the ‘Others’. According to the NI Statistics and Research Agency’s authoritative Pooled Survey, the combined total for those people declaring themselves ‘Other Religion/No Religion/None Stated’ grew by an astonishing 38% in four years (from 111,000 in 2011 to 152,000 in 2015). Although he stresses there is no straight ‘read across’ to voting patterns, it may also be significant that between the June 1998 and March 2017 Assembly elections, the parties that are clustered together as ‘Others’ (including Alliance, the Greens and People before Profit) increased their vote share from 9% to 16%.

“It was this group that held the balance of power in the EU referendum and pushed Northern Ireland into the Remain camp, and it will be this group which would hold the balance of power in any Border Poll, where the majority required [for unity] by the Good Friday Agreement was set at just 50% plus one,” Nolan points out.

Which brings me back to Leo Varadkar and why he should shut up about Irish unity. That unity isn’t coming any time soon, and if and when it comes it will be fiendishly complex because of the need to accommodate 900,000 unionists, the great bulk of whom will bitterly oppose such an outcome. Stalemate is the order of the next decade (and almost certainly longer).

Varadkar hasn’t got any record of thoughtful interventions on the North: before he became Taoiseach he rarely if ever voiced an opinion on it, except for (some might say opportunistically) playing a greenish card during the leadership contest by saying he wanted to bring back into use Fine Gael’s sub-title of the ‘United Ireland Party’.

Now he should concentrate on the immediate and extremely difficult job in hand, getting a good Brexit deal for Ireland and Northern Ireland. By all accounts he made a favourable impression during his recent trip to the North, visiting the Orange Heritage Museum (as well as launching the West Belfast Féile an Phobail programme) and telling a group of ‘civic unionists’ that he wanted Northern Ireland to get the “best of British, best of Irish” out of the Brexit negotiations. That’s exactly the message he should give to that beleaguered community, 44% of whom (according to the Queen’s University team’s poll) agree – in direct opposition to the DUP – that the North should have a special status after Brexit.

Varadkar is in the unique position for a Taoiseach of having very little baggage on the ‘national question’ and, what’s more, having become something of a celebrity to all sides. That was shown by the people lining up for photos with him at the Orange Museum. He should capitalise on such advantages to rebuild the bridges he once had to Arlene Foster and the paranoid people in the DUP (admittedly a difficult task).

He should resist the temptation to indulge in ‘green’ rhetoric which may be aimed at keeping the door open for a future government deal with Sinn Fein.  Sinn Fein’s road to unity via a hair’s breadth majority in a Border Poll is the road to ruin. A smart politician like Leo, surrounded by other smart politicians like Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohue and Simon Harris, must be able to come up with some better ideas once the Brexit imbroglio is put to bed. Until then, a really smart politician would heed the old Ulster-Scots advice to ‘haud yer wheesht’ about a united Ireland.

The quotes and statistics in this blog are from an unedited version of Paul Nolan’s article, the edited version of which appeared in the Irish Times on 19 June.

ENDNOTE: Next week I will be going on my annual cross-border summer walkabout, and trying to raise money for BCM (formerly Belfast Central Mission), who work with homeless and other vulnerable young people in Northern Ireland. This year I will be undertaking a ‘pilgrimage’ from Armagh to Croagh Patrick, walking through Monaghan, Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo across hills and along back roads and abandoned railway lines. If anybody in the North or Britain would like to sponsor me, please see my funding page on . Thank you to those who have already sponsored my walk. I will be coming to friends in the South with another walking appeal later in the summer!

¹ ‘Taoiseach tells FG support rising for united Ireland’, Irish Times, 14 June


³  Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think?,820734,en.pdf


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10 beautiful and interesting places off the Belfast to Dublin road (part two)

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last month I left you in the excellent Strandfield cafe just north of Dundalk, which was my fifth beautiful and interesting place just off the Belfast to Dublin Road.

This month I am starting six miles north-west of Dundalk at my sixth place of significant interest: the mighty keep of Roche Castle. This is one of the greatest and least-known Norman fortresses of the Pale. It is shamefully neglected: in the words of its main chronicler, local artist, archaeologist and historian Micheál McKeown, “it has been used as a cow byre for the last five and a half centuries.” In any other European country such a magnificent citadel would have been restored and refurbished as a national historic monument. In Ireland it doesn’t even rate a mention on the itineraries for Failte Ireland’s ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’ marketing campaign.

I had been intrigued by this huge, well-preserved ruin close to the border for years, ever since I used to take a cross-country short cut on the way home to Dublin from my Armagh workplace to link up with the motorway. This gaunt structure on a rocky promontory was the northernmost limit of the Pale: the armed border which the Normans fortified against the native Irish whose land they had plundered. Barely two miles to the north-west, and across the modern frontier with Northern Ireland, lies Glasdrumman, the stronghold of the O’Neills of the Fews, kinsmen and descendants of the great O’Neill of Tyrone, and, like him, ferocious military leaders and fighters against the English in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Four centuries on some things don’t change. A mile and a half south of Glasdrumman and two miles west of Roche Castle lies Provisional IRA leader Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy’s farm at Ballinaby, neatly divided by the Armagh-Louth border. As the epicentre of IRA operations in South Armagh, this was in its time one of the most watched places in the world (not least from a British Army post on historic Glasdrumman hill). By the 1990s Murphy was judged by MI5 to be the single biggest domestic threat to the United Kingdom and the resources devoted to curtailing his military and smuggling activities were probably greater than those deployed against any single person in recent British and Irish history. For Murphy, a brutal, ruthless man and a brilliant military strategist, was also the inheritor of a centuries-old tradition of anti-British guerrilla warfare in this area.

For all these reasons I was interested in Roche Castle (Caislean Dhún Gall – or Castle of the Foreigners – in Irish). McKeown recounts the story of the castle’s first owner, Rohesia de Verdun, one of the most fascinating and notorious women in Irish history, who, like her castle, as been almost totally erased from its annals. Rois Mhor Ní Ghairbe (‘Big Rough Rose’) was born in Staffordshire around 1200, the grand-daughter of Bertram de Verdun, a powerful and wealthy Norman aristocrat who held high office under both Henry II and Richard I. He had accompanied the former to Ireland as his seneschal (responsible for provisioning the expedition) in 1171 and was given extensive lands in Louth for his trouble.

Rohesia was brought to Ireland at the age of eight. The legend attached to her is that she promised to marry the man who would build her the castle of her dreams. When Roche Castle was completed she took her newly wed husband to a window in the banqueting hall to point out all the land that was now his. As he stood in the window (since called the ‘murder window’), she pushed him to his death. In this way she gained a reputation as a cruel and tyrannical woman. Unfortunately for the legend, it is a drop of a mere 12 feet to the ground from this particular window!

Whatever about the legend, there are several unexplained deaths in Rohesia’s life. Her marriage to her second husband, Nicholas de Bellew, a marriage which did not find favour with the then monarch,’wicked’ King John, ended after he disappeared without trace. In 1225 she married Theobald de Butler, whose first wife had died mysteriously a few months earlier. McKeown thinks there is a distinct possibility that King Henry III, John’s successor, had this marriage annulled or even had de Bellew killed in order to consolidate the vast Irish estates of two great families, the de Bellews and the de Butlers. It is also possible that Rohesia herself had him murdered in order to maintain her standing at court. Whatever about such speculation, it is certain that Rohesia was that very rare example of a Norman woman who was powerful enough in those brutish times to retain her maiden name for herself and her children. At the height of her wealth and power she owned half a million acres in England, Ireland and the Welsh borderlands. 

Roche Castle was built in three phases between 1236 and 1270, with a Great Hall measuring 57 by 42 foot protected by an outer barbican and an inner defensive wall (or ‘bawn’). It was as good an example of a finely-furnished and well-fortified Norman castle as one would find anywhere in England, France or Italy. However by 1330 it had been abandoned. McKeown’s view is that it probably succumbed to a small band of Irish guerrillas who caused its demise by sneaking up to its walls at night and lobbing over torches or flaming arrows. It was the “war of the flea” six centuries before that term was invented.

I have written a little too much about this venerable redoubt, so my notes on my final four places of interest off the road to Dublin will have to be brief. Two years ago, when walking from Belfast to Dublin, I followed the Irish Sea coast south of Dundalk, along beaches and back lanes and across fields.

Probably the least known stretch of the whole eastern seaboard is the section between Annagassan and Clogherhead. Yet I doubt if there is a finer view in the country on a clear day than the one from Dunany Point, north of Clogherhead, across Dundalk Bay towards the Cooley and Mourne Mountains. On Dunany Point itself I clambered up into a large meadow and lay under a blue sky of towering cumulus clouds on a carpet of wild flowers: Bird’s Foot Treefoil, Lady’s Bedstraw, Buttercups, Meadowsweet, Willowherb and Vetch (plus a dozen more I couldn’t name). Heavenly peace is lying in a flower-covered field under an Irish summer sky!

14 miles further south, just outside Laytown, I visited Ireland’s national eco-centre, Sonairte. In any other Western European country this would be a ‘state of the art’ facility generously funded by an environmentally conscious state. But not in Ireland. I toured it with a friend, the environmental writer and journalist Paddy Woodworth, and it was clear to both of us that it was suffering badly from under-investment. Yet 30 years ago an idealistic and far-sighted local farmer, Luke van Doorslaer (orginally from Belgium), had, with enormous public spirit, donated his own farm as a place for the public to learn about the vital topic of how best to manage and preserve our precious earth.

As Paddy said: “If we were serious for a minute about Ireland’s green agriculture, it’s to places like this we should be turning, headed by serious ecological farmers like Luke and his gardener colleague Paddy Ryan. I had an interesting conversation with Luke in which he was very honest. Sonairte is open since 1988, yet he is saying ‘We are failing to get people to engage with us, to give us their time to come and help with the work here. Everybody who comes here says it’s wonderful, but that’s where it stops’. I’ve been in eco-centres like this before, where there’s a sense that the place has had a heyday. The bee exhibition was nice but it needs to be refurbished with things like touch-screen technology. There’s a wonderful organic vegetable garden which should be supplying more restaurants in the region.” He hoped that a new generation of younger people, personified by Nicola Winters, a young teacher, ecologist and human rights activist who was also with us at Sonairte, might work to revive this hugely innovative centre.

There are two final, very different stops before my journey’s end. In the grounds of that north Dublin landmark, the sprawling old St Ita’s mental hospital in Portrane, lies possibly the most picturesque soccer ground in the country (I am a lifelong soccer fan, and a travelling supporter with the Republic of Ireland team for much of the past 30 years). Perched above cliffs and ringed by fir trees, with the most spectacular views across to Howth Head, the Sugar Loaf and the Wicklow Mountains, this is the home of St Ita’s AFC. If anybody wants to visit this gorgeous spot, look at the team’s website for a match date, walk along Donabate strand, and tell the tough-looking Eastern European security guards on the hospital’s back gate you are going to watch a bit of soccer –  football fans all, they will certainly let you through.

And so, finally, to one of my favourite pubs in Dublin, Cleary’s of Amiens Street (my 10th interesting place on the road from Belfast to Dublin). Appropriately, given that I had done the journey entirely on foot two years ago and was literally gasping for a pint, this is situated under the railway bridge just opposite Connolly Station, once the headquarters of the Great Northern Railway. Apart from the Long Hall in South Great George’s Street (which is far better known), this old railwaymen’s pub is arguably the most handsome Victorian era bar in Dublin, with its cosy, wood-panelled snugs which are perfect for a private conversation. Michael Collins used to come here for very private conversations during the War of Independence (there is a wealth of photos from that period on the walls). If you’re nice to the publican, Des Hanlon, he might even show you the upstairs room – preserved as it was in 1919-1921 – where Collins used to hold secret Irish Volunteer meetings.

So that’s it for now: 10 fascinating glimpses of Irish landscape and history, from the Bronze Age to the War of Independence, spread out along the road between our two major cities. Try a visit to one or two of them this summer.




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