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 https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1. 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 https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1 . 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

²  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-44398502

³  Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think?  https://www.qub.ac.uk/sites/brexitni/BrexitandtheBorder/Report/Filetoupload,820734,en.pdf

 

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 1 Comment

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

The road and railway between Belfast and Dublin have been an important part of my life. Over the past 50 years I must have travelled between Ireland’s two major cities several thousand times. Given the millions of people who make this short journey every year, it is extraordinary how many of the beautiful and interesting places on either side of that main highway are completely unknown. Since it is the beginning of summer, and I am a bit weary of the Northern Irish politics I usually cover in this column (but also see Endnote 1 below for a comment on the amazing Repeal the Eighth referendum result), I am going to write about some of those places. All are within 10 miles of the main Belfast-Dublin road. I will write about five of them this month and five later in the summer.

A few miles south of Belfast, above Shaw’s Bridge on the river Lagan, is the Giant’s Ring, a favourite with the city’s day trippers. This big earthwork circle inside a 13 foot bank, roughly 200 metres in diameter and built over 4,700 years ago, is virtually unknown outside Northern Ireland, but is one of the most beautiful examples of a ‘henge’ monument in these islands (henges feature a ring bank and ditch, but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside, and therefore are not believed to have been defensive structures). In the middle is a massive tomb made of five upright stones and a large capstone, the bare frame of which was originally a chambered grave, covered with a cairn of stones and earth.

Excavations in the 1990s found charcoal in an enclosure adjoining the Giant’s Ring which was carbon-dated as going back to over 3,000 BC. This is over 200 years earlier than the great pyramids of Egypt, contemporary with the earlier phases of Stonehenge and 200 years later than Newgrange. Archaeologist Barrie Hartwell has concluded that this Bronze Age society was both well organised and socially coherent, with some imposed or inherited authority – and spiritual leadership – that was able to motivate or coerce the population into building these impressive monuments for a religious or ceremonial purpose.

This chimes with the view of the great Welsh geographer and archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, who wrote in the 1980s that at that time “this corner of Ireland was among the most advanced, culturally and technically and commercially, of all the regions not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.”  The archaeological evidence shows that this was because “people of different origins and cultures had learned to live together, to mix, to quicken each other. So Ulster, which is best known to the English today as a place of unrest and civil strife, is thought of by British archaeologists as the place where they had that brilliant Bronze Age.”

My second beautiful, unknown place on the road south is the Lackan Bog Walk, near the village of Moneyslane in deepest County Down. If you are seeking half an hour of complete and perfect tranquillity in the most magical sylvan setting, look for Dickson’s Hill Road just south of that village. There, around 600 metres on the right, if you look carefully, you will find a sign posting you across a field and along the tree-covered bog path. This crosses 83 hectares of wetland and raised bog covered with a thin living carpet of Sphagnum mosses, with colours ranging from brilliant green to ochre red. These mosses support a wealth of plants such as bogbean, bog myrtle, marsh cinquefoil and bottle sedge, growing above pools containing aquatic species such as the insect-catching bladderwort and sundew, duckweed and pond asphohel.

Lackan Bog is also one of the most important dragonfly sites in Ireland, with 13 out of a total Irish fauna of 22 resident here. Their names are like something out of a Seamus Heaney or Micheal Longley poem: the Irish damselfly, the ruddy and black darter, the hairy dragonfly, the common and brown hawker, the four-spotted chaser and the azure,blue-tailed, emerald and large red damselfly. You will be extremely unlucky if you meet one other human being on this mile-long path, which on the sunny July evening I walked it was a tiny glimpse into the nature of heaven on earth. But Northern Irish reality is there to greet you at the end of the walk with a sign proclaiming ‘Without Christ, without hope, lost in Hell’.

12 miles further on, south of Hilltown, is a very un-Northern Irish surprise: Santa Claus’s cottage in the Mourne Mountains! The Kilbroney River Glen is as lovely and remote a glaciated valley as you’ll find in any part of Ireland. When I walked this glen in the summer sunshine two years ago with my friends Eoin Magennis and Gerry Campbell, we came across a man with two full-sized reindeer outside a picture postcard whitewashed cottage. Its owner, Laurence Moore, a retired engineer from Warrenpoint, has devoted many years to converting this remote dwelling under Altataggart Mountain into the official Irish residence of Santa Claus.

According to Moore, it has been recognised as such by an organisation called the ‘Greenland Denmark World Congress of Santas.’ It is open for just over a month before Christmas every year and for that month many thousands of people visit it, making a major tourist attraction in the area. I’m not sure I could handle the kitsch of a garishly lit Santa’s Cottage, complete with a pneumatic Santa, elves, grottoes and piped music in the heart of the Mournes in November and December, but in July it is a place of extraordinary beauty and peace. And at Christmas time it must be a fantasy come true for small children.

My fourth beautiful place is just across the border – but only just. On the banks of the Forkhill River, which marks the Armagh-Louth border, is the idyllic spot that is Urney graveyard, where the poet Peadar O Doirnín is buried. This spot, with its ancient graves surrounded by cypress trees and barley fields, is another peaceful haven unknown to the hordes who speed in their metal boxes up and down the M1 motorway a few miles to the east.

Peadar O Doirnín, poet and teacher, was probably born close to here in around 1700 and died in 1769. He was best known for his love poems, notably Úrchnoc Chéin mhic Cáinte (The Green Hill of Cian son of Cáinte) and Uillegán Dubh Ó (Dark Beautiful Maiden O), which were written to be sung. He was also a member of the famous band of Jacobite rapparees (or outlaws) led by Seamus McMurphy (Seamus Mór Mac Murchaidh) in the 1740s. McMurphy was eventually hung in Armagh city after being betrayed to the British authorities by a woman, and is buried in the historic Church of Ireland graveyard in nearby Creggan along with the descendants of the O’Neill chieftains.

Urney graveyard wasn’t always a place of tranquillity. For more than 30 years its border location meant that it was overlooked by a British Army watch tower. As I walked along the Forkill River I had passed a derilect farmhouse, plumb on the border, complete with abandoned crockery, gas canisters and bags of animal feed – it was easy to imagine an IRA active service unit holing up here for an attack on a passing army patrol.

My fifth place of interest is a cafe, one of Dundalk’s best kept secrets. On the town’s northern outskirts is Strandfield, a hidden gem which is by far the best place to stop for lunch, coffee or tea if you are driving between Belfast and Dublin. And I mean hidden. You take the turn-off to Carlingford from the M1, and 50 yards down that road on the right-hand side is an almost invisible sign. You drive down an undistinguished avenue into a farmyard. And there on your left is a garden centre in what looks like a large barn. Inside is Dundalk’s answer to Avoca, a large cafe cum florist cum eclectic goods shop offering tasty vegetarian cuisine, health foods and bakery products, teas and coffees and cakes and gifts of all shapes and sizes, all served by a friendly young staff from half a dozen countries.

I am running out of space so I will leave the final five beautiful and interesting places between Dundalk and Dublin until a column later this summer, starting with the magnificent and unjustly unknown Roche Castle to the west of the town.

ENDNOTE 1: I can’t finish without adding my two ‘ha’pence’ worth of comment on the overwhelming and historic majority in the 25 May referendum which changed the Irish Constitution so that women with difficult and dangerous pregnancies can for the first time obtain a safe and legal abortion in this country (they still can’t in Northern Ireland).

This was an utterly transformative event for contemporary Irish society, for so long stuck in the straitjacket of a profoundly conservative, male-dominated alliance between the Irish state and the Catholic Church. I will limit myself to reporting three comments of people I have great respect for. The first was from the eminent journalist and commentator Olivia O’Leary, who remembered with barely-concealed emotion that at the time of the 1983 referendum, which put the anti-abortion clause into the Constitution, her daughter was four months old. She said when the result came through this time  she “suddenly felt that I was a citizen of this country, and so did my daughter. Suddenly women’s lives matter, you don’t have to be at death’s door before they matter. …You have to be a woman to know how that feels – that new sense of the freedom, recognition and visibility of women”.

The second was from my former colleague on the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission, Paul Burgess, now a university lecturer in Cork. He wrote on the day of the result: “I have lived in the Republic for 25 years now, arriving here with all the uncertainties and pre-conceptions of someone from a Belfast working class, loyalist background . May I say today that I am proud of my Irish citizenship, as the liberalisation and modernisation of this state continues unabated (sadly, shaming my beloved homeland in comparison).”

As someone who, like Burgess, is from a Northern Protestant background, I believe Ireland is now one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe: with a liberal abortion regime and same sex marriage 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. Irish democracy has showed itself to be a strong, vibrant plant at a time when (in Fintan O’Toole’s words) “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.” O’Toole continues: “This is what patriotism really looks like: not flag-waving xenophobia but a real belief in the possibilities of a better Ireland.”¹

When I was young and naive I believed that the liberalisation of Irish society in such ways would bring the political unity of the island closer. The late Garret Fitzgerald once felt the same. In my mature years I am more realistic: my native North is not interested in liberalism, it is paralysed by reaction.

ENDNOTE 2: In early July I will once again 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 lanes and abandoned railway lines. If anybody in the North or Britain would like to sponsor me, please see my funding page on https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/andypollak1 . I will be coming to friends in the South with another walking appeal later in the summer!

¹ ‘A campaign won by a generation that had good reason to give up on Ireland’, Irish Times, 28 May

 

 

 

 

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

In Prague: Memories of my Czech father and my Irish mother

My wife Doireann and I spent a long weekend in Prague earlier this month. For me, it was a sentimental journey into my family’s past. 71 years ago this month my Czech father Stephen and my Irish mother Eileen were married in the 12th century St Martin in the Wall church, a couple of hundred yards from the Old Town Square in that city’s most historic quarter. Last month my journalist daughter Sorcha, in the introduction to her book New to the Parish – about Ireland’s recent immigrants – wrote (and also spoke on radio) about how my father had arrived in Ireland in 1948 as a political refugee. I thought I would add some of my own memories.

My father was a Communist (although still only a candidate member of the Czech Communist Party) from a German-speaking Jewish background; my mother was a County Antrim Presbyterian. They had met three months earlier when my father, a journalist who spoke fluent English, had been asked to commentate on the Czechoslovakia versus USA game in the world ice hockey championship. At a post-match party he had met my rather beautiful young mother who, having spent the war years as a teacher in Bray, was avid for new experiences in some faraway European city, and ended up teaching English in Prague.

It was an unlikely match. My father had been badly wounded while fighting for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War; had travelled as a courier between underground Communist parties in the Balkans under a Canadian alias; and had been interned for four years as a Communist by the British in India. My mother came from a devout and conservative Presbyterian family outside Ballymena. But it was a love match. Within two months my father had proposed and on 17th May 1947 they were married, first in a civil ceremony, then in the Hussite church of St Martin (one of the centres of the pre-Lutheran Czech Reformation at the beginning of the 15th century).

My father had at first resisted my mother’s insistence on a church wedding. He found it difficult to “compromise with the principle of man determining his own fate without divine guidance and inspiration.” In the end, Czechoslovakia’s greatest journalist, Egon Erwin Kisch – himself a Communist – persuaded him that he could make my mother happy by marrying her in church without compromising in the slightest his own socialist commitment. “And if you want to convert her to our views, it would be a fatal mistake to impose upon her a principle which is merely one of the conclusions to which Socialism leads, and not in itself a fundamental part of our creed.”

In the end my mother’s Christianity lasted longer than my father’s Communism. My father had been working as the editor of a communist-leaning government journal (the Communists were the largest party in a four party coalition at the time). However he was also a patriotic Czech who believed that Czechoslovakia had a key role to play as a link between Soviet Russia and the West, and more particularly, in June 1947, that his country, like the rest of post-war Europe, should accept the bountiful offer of Marshall Aid from the USA.

When the Czech leadership was summoned to Moscow and was ordered to have nothing to do with this brazen act of  “American imperialism,” my father took a brave decision that would change the course of his life. He published an article in an independent Prague journal in which he attacked the emergence of a new wave of nationalism in both East and West; made fun of Soviet claims that all the great technological inventions of the previous 80 years were Russian, and of the new trend in Russia of condemning Western art and literature as ‘decadent’ He wrote afterwards: “I had no illusions that such an open attack on Soviet policy would place me beyond the pale in the eyes of every ‘disciplined and loyal’ Communist and would have the most serious consequences.”

And so it proved. On 24th February 1948 the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in a bloodless coup. That evening my father was informed that he had been sacked from his job. He decided that my mother, pregnant with me, should go back to the safety of Northern Ireland. He was visited by the security police who offered him a deal: become a spy for the Communist police or face the consequences of becoming ‘an enemy of the people’. He did neither: a short time later he walked under cover of night across the border into Austria and took a flight to London.

My father finished his 1951 memoir, Strange Land Behind Me, with the following words: “Some time after, the telephone in an empty flat in Bilkova Street must have rung peremptorily and persistently. My visitor probably drove along to the quiet old street opposite the Altneu Synagogue and, finding the place empty, made his report and then turned his attention to other men who had been foolish enough to oppose ‘the will of the people.”

We are all creatures of our backgrounds. In politics I am a social democrat and an Irish nationalist with as small an ‘n’ as you can find. In religion I am a Unitarian, from the kind of  liberal Presbyterian tradition the United Irishmen came from, which believes, above all, in freedom, reason and tolerance.  My father’s democratic socialism and my mother’s Presbyterianism have both greatly influenced me. I have supported left-wing causes and left-of-centre political parties all my life. I have also tried to follow my mother’s example of involvement in peace and reconciliation movements: in her late sixties she was one of the Greenham Common women who protested against nuclear weapons at that US military base outside London; in Northern Ireland she was active in the Corrymeela Community.

My family background – Presbyterian, Jewish, socialist – makes me very suspicious of extreme nationalism, of the kind I see espoused by many in Sinn Fein. It is ahistorical, idiotic and dangerous to believe that all the evil in Ireland comes from one source: Britain. We need to tread very carefully and very slowly when we contemplate the possibility that the old nationalist dream of Irish unity may become a real prospect in the not-so-distant future, albeit at the cost of trying to incorporate a large, deeply hostile Northern unionist community.

We would do well to remember what happened in Central and Eastern Europe when irredentist nationalism met the stubborn remnants of people who still believed in old empires and old religions. As Robert Gerwarth, Professor of Modern History at UCD and author of a highly-regarded book on the aftermath of the First World War  in Europe¹, wrote recently about that region in that period: “Populated by large, resentful minorities that felt oppressed by the new dominant majorities, most of the successor states [to the old pre-World War I empires] proved unstable and eventually gave way to an authoritarian dictatorship of one kind or another.”

¹ The Vanquished:Why the First World War Failed to End.

Posted in General, Views from abroad | 4 Comments

Time to face reality? A new hard(ish) border is on the cards

It is an outcome filled with deep dangers for this island, but I wonder if it is time to face the unpalatable reality that a new, hard(ish) Irish border is the most likely outcome of the current labyrinthine talks between the EU and the UK over Brexit.

On 20 April the Daily Telegraph’s lead story was that the British government’s plans for avoiding a hard border had been subjected to a “systematic and forensic annihilation” by EU officials. It quoted senior EU diplomatic sources as saying that “none of the UK’s customs options will work – none of them.” The always well-informed RTE Brussels correspondent, Tony Connelly, doubted whether the British had even got as far as tabling any new proposals. He suggested what had been rejected were reheated elements of the old UK package of proposals from last August, with its offer to collect EU import tariffs on Brussels’ behalf and its untested high-tech and ‘trusted trader’ customs solutions, which was dismissed then by the EU side as “magical thinking”.  The EU’s hard line stems from its anxiety that its ultra-strict trade rules will be enforced and will be seen to be enforced by the post-Brexit UK.

If the British haven’t come up with anything new in the past eight months to deal with the Irish border conundrum, one wonders how likely they are to do so in the two months before the next EU Council in June – a key target according to Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – or even in the six months before the effective final deadline for agreeing the overall Brexit treaty in October.

The Irish government has put a huge amount of steely determination into securing the so-called ‘backstop’ option. This is that, if all else fails, there will be alignment on the island of Ireland between the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union which “now or in the future support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement.” This will apply unless alternative proposals (from the British) are agreed. EU (with Irish) and UK officials are currently involved in intensive talks both to decide what those proposals might be and, in their absence, what this ambiguous and perhaps unworkable alignment might mean in practice.

Katy Hayward, the Queen’s University Belfast sociologist who (along with QUB political scientist David Phinnemore) has become the acknowledged expert on the Irish border and Brexit, thinks the Northern Ireland/Ireland issue is a litmus test for the UK’s whole approach to its future relationship with the EU. What it puts forward in terms of avoiding a hard Irish border demonstrates its grasp of the implications of leaving the single market and customs union.¹

She says British ministers’ focus on preventing a ‘hard’ Irish border by having checks and controls that are not physically at the border misses the main point. This is that if the UK is heading for a ‘hard Brexit’ – i.e. withdrawing from the arrangements that serve to make EU member state borders frictionless – this by definition means a hard Irish border.

She believes one likely outcome is that ‘specific solutions’ (to use a phrase from the 8 December ‘Joint Report’ EU-UK agreement) will be found for Northern Ireland. This is the very thing the DUP, with its paranoia about the slightest differentiation between Britain and the North, will fight tooth and nail – using its temporary hold on the balance of power in the House of Commons to do so. However these ‘specific solutions’ could bring about just that kind of different treatment for Northern Ireland: i.e. a ‘Canada-plus’ deal for the UK as a whole (leaving the customs union and the single market in the hope of getting some relatively generous future trade agreement) alongside a ‘European Economic Area-minus’ for the North  (Northern Ireland abiding by EU rules so that, for example, its goods have tariff-free access to the EU’s common market). A crucial requirement here would be the return of a fully functioning NI Executive to help manage the mechanisms to ensure that the North doesn’t lose out as the EU and UK go their separate ways in the period ahead. It all sounds fiendishly complicated and problematic.

Of course neither government really wants this ultra-complex and highly charged solution. On the British side the ‘backstop’ proposal was roundly condemned by Theresa May at the end of February when she saw the legal text of the draft Withdrawal Agreement promising “a common regulatory space” between both parts of Ireland on the grounds that it would create “a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”. In the end she reluctantly went along with it before the March EU Council because the offending section in the colour-coded Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was in white, meaning it had not yet been agreed.

For its part, the Irish government simply wants the whole of the UK to stay in the customs union, which would avoid any difficult, controversial special treatment for the North. This has led to right-wing Brexiteers claiming that there is an infernal alliance of British ‘remainers’, the Irish government and the EU which is using Northern Ireland and the Irish border as a weapon to force the UK to stay in the customs union.

Hayward notes that the ‘backstop’ option shows that the EU is holding true to its commitment to be “flexible and imaginative” on the issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  For in this option, the EU offers de facto European Economic Area membership to the sub-national region that is Northern Ireland, but to cover just one of the Union’s four freedoms (i.e. movement of goods). Avoiding a resulting economic border down the Irish Sea is the UK’s problem, its negotiators say.

The colour-coded version of the draft Protocol indicates that there is little which is currently agreed between the UK and the EU on Ireland/Northern Ireland. What has been agreed is the continuation of the Common Travel Area; the need to “maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation” across several areas (such as education, tourism, justice and security); Britain’s freedom to build on the Belfast Agreement (we’ll be waiting a long time for that!) and the creation of a specialised committee, probably involving both Irish and Northern Irish officials, for the implementation of this protocol.

The objectives of protecting Irish citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland, the rules on state aid for the North, and a Single Electricity Market are agreed, but the manner of their achievement is not. In the coming weeks, the UK and EU officials have to find agreement on a wide and complex range of issues for the two Irish jurisdictions, including free movement of goods across the border, agriculture and fisheries, the environment, and the application and enforcement of EU regulations in Northern Ireland.

Hayward believes that “a strong starting point would be if the UK comes out and clearly states that ‘specific solutions’ are necessary to meet the commitments it has made to Northern Ireland, both in the [8 December] Joint Report and in the Belfast Agreement.” Will Theresa May have the bottle to face down the DUP and Tory right to make such a statement? I doubt it.

However I agree with Hayward that, as things stand, there is a real risk that – far from enjoying the best of both worlds of continued UK sovereignty and tariff-free access to EU markets – Northern Ireland could fall between the rock of the EU’s determination not to bend its rules and the hard place of the UK’s refusal to allow it to have special treatment. And that will almost certainly lead, to the dismay and distress of the great majority of Irish people, north and south, to a hard border (or perhaps a hardish border with a ‘backstop’ protocol that is interpreted by the British in the most  minimalist manner possible) .

In the event of this outcome, I fear for the Good Friday Agreement. For despite its honeyed words, the current British government (like most of the British people) thinks or cares little about this miraculous, peace-bringing 20 year old accord, and the DUP (which never signed up to it in the first place) would be happy enough to see it fade away. In the words of a recent Guardian editorial, Brexiteers’ “pursuit of the ideological chimera of absolute trade sovereignty blinds them to the reality of a fragile peace treaty that demands respectful, judicious handling.” Not for the first time in our history, a major threat to the peace and well-being of Ireland may be about to happen as a result of British ignorance of and indifference to this island.

PS  I was delighted to see my home town of Ballymena, which too often makes headlines as a bastion of obscurantism, showing an enlightened side earlier this month. The DUP Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Paul Reid, hosted a special event in the town to celebrate Irish Language Week (Seachtain na Gaeilge). He singled out for particular praise the East Belfast language activist Linda Ervine, who he said had explored the links between the Protestant community and “one of the oldest and most historic written languages.” He was following the example of his party colleague Paul Hamill, Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, who spoke Irish when welcoming guests to an Irish language event in a local theatre in March. There is hope for the DUP yet!

¹ For a fuller exposition of Dr Hayward’s arguments, see  http://qpol.qub.ac.uk/author/qpol_hayward/  ‘Avoiding a hard Irish border: Time to move from magical thinking to specific solutions.’

 

 

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world | 1 Comment

Sadly, rugby is one of the few things that unites all Irish people

I was intending to write about Brexit again this month, but the dreadful conundrum of Brexit and the Irish border is going to be with us for some time, so I am going to turn to a far cheerier and more immediate subject: our magnificent all-Ireland rugby team.

On St Patrick’s Day in Quinn’s bar in Newcastle, Co Down, I watched the demolition of a powerful English fifteen by the finest Irish team I have ever seen (I attended my first England-Ireland rugby international in 1962). Judging by the number of tricolours in the pub I was among a largely nationalist crowd. But Irish Times reporter Amanda Ferguson quoted unionists in Belfast pubs saying adamantly that there was no contradiction in people from their background cheering for the Irish team. “I’m Irish first, British second. I don’t see why anyone would find that strange. I support Ireland,” was a typical comment.

As Trevor Ringland – former international winger, Ulster Unionist parliamentary candidate and reconciliation activist – puts it: “We in Northern Ireland are able to move between different identities. I support Ulster rugby, all nine Ulster GAA counties, Northern Ireland football, Ireland rugby, the British and Irish Lions and Europe’s Ryder Cup team.” It’s a sporting version of what the poet John Hewitt said over 40 years ago: “I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago are offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

There is a real richness and reconciliation in these overlapping and multiple identities. One of my happiest sporting memories was watching Ulster rugby fans, the great majority of them from a Protestant (and therefore unionist) background, being warmly congratulated and embraced by people on the streets of Dublin after their province had become the first Irish team to win the Heineken Cup European championship at Lansdowne Road in January 1999, nine months after the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call, is another example of this. Ken Blaney, a Belfast businessman, introduced himself to Amanda Ferguson as an “Irish-British person from a working class unionist background,” adding that Irish rugby, unlike GAA and soccer, transcended the North’s political divide. “I find Ireland’s Call emotional: rugby gets everyone together, it galvanises everyone.”

Again I agree. As a proud Irishman, I sing my national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, even though I consider it a 19th century dirge with outdated and vainglorious militaristic lyrics. On the other hand I sing “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland”, by Phil Coulter, with enormous enthusiasm. I believe its inclusive words would make it an ideal anthem for his fellow Derry man John Hume’s dreamed-of “agreed Ireland” (whenever that might happen). I get really cross when smart assed Irish Times sports writers, utterly indifferent to the need to find new symbols to help overcome this country’s deep historical divisions, launch inane attacks on the IRFU’s unifying all-Ireland song.

Look at the pluralism of this wonderful team, now close to the almighty All Blacks as the second best in the world.  It features three Ulsterman: captain and County Armagh farmer Rory Best; the rampaging Belfast beanpole Iain Henderson; and the record-breaking young try-scorer Jacob Stockdale, son of an evangelical Protestant prison chaplain. It also has two contrasting imported stars: C.J.Stander, a strong candidate to be the world’s finest Number 8, who is a white South African, and Bundee Aki, the Connacht centre who is the son of a poor Samoan family from South Auckland in New Zealand. Add in 10 ‘ordinary’ Irishmen from Leinster and Munster, and can anyone think of a better symbol of the open, pluralist, multi-cultural and successful country that 21st century Ireland has become than this team?

But here comes the sad bit. Can anyone think of any other institution, event or symbol around which all Irish people – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, men and women, native and foreign born, black and white – can unite? As somebody who has spent a lot of time working to bring Irish people, north and south, together through practical cross-border cooperation, I can’t (apart, maybe, from St Patrick’s Day itself). Indeed one of my great disappointments is that in the 14 years I worked as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh – during what some would see as a post-1998, EU-funded  ‘golden age’ of peace and cooperation – I saw very few new all-island organisations and structures emerging. We in the Centre were instrumental, with others, in bringing together those involved in training teachers, running universities and spatial planning into new all-Ireland networks. But I’m hard pushed to think of any other examples from that largely hopeful and fruitful period – now, I fear, ending with the collapse of the Stormont institutions.

There are others, of course, left over from pre-partition years. Groups as different as accountants, traditional musicians and lifeboat crews have stayed together through the bleak 20th century, practising their arts and crafts and professions as if the border didn’t exist. Smaller sports like cricket and hockey and boxing have done the same. But they are relatively few and far between. So let’s celebrate our marvellous rugby team and congratulate the Irish Rugby Football Union for its determination to uphold sport’s ability to transcend the tragic barriers of our history. Let’s not forget that while the IRA were blowing up international rugby players on the road to Belfast (prematurely ending the international career of one potentially world-class player, Nigel Carr), the IRFU, with the assistance of an Garda Siochana, were making sure that at least one RUC man was protected at the height of the ‘troubles’ to come south to represent his country.

My vision of Ireland – as a pluralist, consensual and world-beating combination – is closer to the IRFU’s than Sinn Fein’s. If that makes me irredeemably Dublin middle class, so be it. When I put the joy people have experienced this year – and for several years – because of the exploits of our rugby team, beside the murder and misery inflicted on Irish people for 30 years by the Provisional IRA, I am unapologetic.

PS  Talking of Sinn Fein, do I detect a cosying up by that most middle class and non-republican of political parties, Fine Gael, to the party of the Provisionals?  I have noted in previous blogs the surprisingly ‘green’ recent declarations of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein agreed on the use of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to take over Stormont’s powers if there was no agreement between the Northern parties on a return of power-sharing. Then this week I was erroneously copied into an email from the Taoiseach’s adviser on the North, former senator Jim D’Arcy, in which he commiserated with Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney on having to suspend Senator Máire Devine for re-tweeting an ugly remark about Brian Stack, the Irish prison officer murdered by the IRA. D’Arcy emailed: “Tough day for you, Declan. You did well! Sorry for your girl…A nice person!”

 

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 3 Comments