Ireland in Five Easy Pieces II: Ireland in the Empire

Ireland by the end of the 19th century was than just a Catholic strong farming class and a deeply embedded Catholic Church. There were small farmers and large ones too; there were the estates of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and their hybrid British Irish families straddling two worlds; there were members of the Protestant elite fascinated by the ancient native lore and archaeology around them, and therefore part of a general European intellectual fashion that discovered (or created) Celtic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon antecedents; Unionists, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, were concentrated around industrialised Belfast and its rural hinterland in Antrim, Down and Armagh.  

Dublin, second city of the British Empire, had lost some of its Georgian glamour when the Irish parliament was abrogated with the Act of Union in 1801 (obliging Irish members of parliament to travel to Westminster when it was in session) but it retained its bustle and intimacy.  The British crown was represented by the Lord Lieutenant whose viceregal court was based at Dublin Castle, a focal point for executive power and for the aristocracy’s social calendar.  Many of the strands of Irish and British Irish hybrids mixed in the capital city and gave a rich texture to its daily life: lords and ladies, aristocracy and peasants, protestant professionals and the rising Catholic middleclass, a vibrant Jewish community, colourful Irish Regiments in the British Army, Anglo-Irish and Irish writers (Gregory, Yeats, Synge, O’Casey) and artists of many cultural hews (Orpen, Henry, Clarke, Jellet, Sheppard, Hone).  Politically and artistically, Ireland was in ferment as it neared the end of the century.

If the strong farmers were the bedrock of nationalist Ireland in the closing decades of the 19th century, its leadership came from the emerging Catholic middleclass.  While academically minded members of the Protestant Ascendancy had done the pioneering research on ancient Irish society and culture, it was this Catholic elite, aided certainly by nationalist-minded Protestants, that would adopt that knowledge for their own ends and use it as a reservoir from which to draw strength in many forms; as nationalist imagery, as a source for literary inspiration, as native language for a renewed nation, above all as a justification for the political independence that they sought.  In short, a new identity was being actively created to put a face on the nationalist Ireland emerging from the social and economic forces at work since the Famine.  And it was this energy that continued to strain Ireland’s relationship within the Empire in a way not evident in either Wales or Scotland.

The struggle for electoral reform (Catholic Emancipation) and then home rule (overturning the Act of Union) in the first half of the 19th century was led by Daniel O’Connell, a democratic agitator of European significance.  As the Great Famine had taken hold, one of his last political acts was to plead in the House of Commons for relief for the starving Irish in a voice sadly diminished by age and illness.

Charles Stewart Parnell, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (though having an American mother), took up the reins of the political struggle in the second half of 19th century.  His aloof charisma, strategic sense and organizational skills as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party forged a new and ruthless political discipline that revolutionized the conduct of politics on the floor of the House of Commons at Westminster.  Parnell combined parliamentary action, the agitation for land reform led by Michael Davitt, and the tacit support of the physical force movement under the secret Irish Republic Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians.  Alas Parnell would not win Home Rule, despite the support of the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Gladstone who tabled the First Home Bill in 1886.  Parnell’s fall from grace because of his love affair with Kitty O’Shea and his death shortly thereafter in 1891 would rend Irish politics and society apart for a generation.

Rebuilding the constitutional nationalist movement in the wake of Parnell’s death was the great achievement of John Redmond who brought legislation granting Irish home rule to passage but not enactment; enactment was postponed in 1912 for two years and was then overtaken by the outbreak of World War I. Why had the obstacles to Home Rule proven so obdurate?

Most native Irish were nationalists in the broadest sense of the term, happy to lend their support to the political campaign for what was genteelly called ‘Home Rule’.  Home Rule as a term conveyed the notion that it was only reasonable and efficient to have a local say in one’s internal governance, that it was not a threat to the integrity of the British Empire and that it did not pose any revolutionary threat to the political or social order.

The gentility of the term could not however disguise its implications.  For the loyal Unionists in Ireland – the very instrument of British control – Home Rule would mean becoming a political minority to the Catholic majority and set the clock ticking on the loss of their social and economic supremacy.

The British could see this too but far more worryingly granting Home Rule to Ireland presented a potential inspiration to every society ruled by its Empire.  For just as surely as the overseas Empire had begun in Ireland, its ruin would be spelled by Irish self-determination and its salutary example around the world.

For there was an abiding contradiction at the heart of the British Empire and its flattering notion that it was the bringer of progress to less developed societies and far corners of the world; its message was that you may enjoy social and economic progress but you can have neither democracy nor autonomy.  This contradiction between being free but not free enough to leave the Empire bedeviled Anglo-Irish relations, with tragic consequences.

The Conservative Party in Britain forged an alliance with Unionists in Ireland to oppose Home Rule as a mortal danger to the Empire.  There was political opportunism here too in that Home Rule had been an objective of the Liberal Party since Gladstone had adopted it in the 1880s.  What became known as “playing the Orange card” – a reference to Willian of Orange, the 17th century hero of Irish unionists – combined then a number of Conservative Party ambitions.

The Conservative Party openly flirted with the notion of extra-parliamentary pressure and even insinuated that opposition to Home Rule justified the use of force.  Unionists in Ireland would take matters into their own hands to form the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in January 1913, a part-time military outfit that today seems distinctly odd: private citizens organized into an army with uniforms and eventually weapons, thanks to the successful gun-running in April 1914 through the small port of Larne, just north of Belfast.  Irish nationalists thought that this was a great idea and promptly formed the Irish Volunteers, organizing its own gun-running through Howth harbor, just north of Dublin.

These were, to be sure ominous developments. Ireland shared in the widespread European enthusiasm for militarism, a kind of boyish eagerness that set the scene for the romantic welcome given the outbreak of war in 1914.  Throughout Europe, the war was seen as an occasion for the assertion of male virtues and martial values like courage, glory, sacrifice and love of one’s country.

In Ireland both unionist and nationalist volunteers paraded openly, both illegally imported arms, and both had diametrically opposed objectives of preserving the Union and breaking it.  All this parading and weapons training was done cheerfully assuming that it was to be used as leverage against the British and little thought seemed to be given to the possibility that the UVF and Irish Volunteers might actually face off in a dreadful confrontation pitting the million-odd Unionists against the native Catholic nationalists.   Had that happened, it would have most assuredly been a bloody, cruel and sectarian episode.

Predicting an armed clash between them would have been logical enough had not the outbreak of world war intervened.  The UVF saw the war in Europe as a chance to prove their loyalty.  The sacrifice of the Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 would become an iconic rallying point for unionism.

For Irish nationalists, it was a more complicated decision:  Fight for ‘Little Belgium’ and the rights of all small nations; or stay at home and keep your powder dry for an assertion in arms against Britain if required.  The question split the nationalist movement.  The majority National Volunteers heeded Redmond’s advice and went to war believing that it was a form of down payment on independence.  The Irish Volunteers however stayed at home, its ranks filled with men more inclined to fight for Ireland if it came to that.

For now, the assumption shared my most people in Ireland of whatever political hue or opinion was that the Irish question would only be addressed once the war was concluded. Only then would the two great questions raised by the momentum toward some form of Irish autonomy be addressed, namely the precise relationship between Ireland and the Empire and the relationship between Irish nationalism and Irish unionism.

Reflecting on19th century Ireland, it is striking how political were the course of events.  Though the Fenians had given insurrection one more chance in 1867, it was a paltry and even farcical affair.  Between the rebellion of 1798 and 1916 nationalist energies had focused on parliamentary politics to achieve its aims.  Certainly there were agrarian ‘outrages’ associated with the campaign for land reform that ran in parallel with Parnell’s campaign for home rule but neither it nor the Fenians ever amounted to a serious security threat to the Union.

The Irish Parliamentary Party had held the field of Irish nationalism for more than thirty years and, despite the frustrations of British resistance, had managed to put Home Rule on the statute books, if not enacted, by 1912.  The suspension for two years brought the Party under Redmond tantalizingly close to its goal, only for the outbreak of European war to postpone it once more.  All the Party had to do was to hang on until the end of the war to implement the Home Rule Act.  And yet by 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party had ceased to exist as a political force.  How had it been so dramatically displaced?  We’ll look at that inIreland in Five Easy Pieces III.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces I: Famine, Church and Society

Explaining modern Ireland must start with the impact of the Great Famine in the middle of the 19th century.  Certainly around the Irish countryside you will see a lot of remnants of older times, from the megaliths of the Boyne and tall Norman towers of the early medieval period to the squat late 18th Martello towers that dot all but the northeast coast to warn the British of any Napoleonic invasion.

However it is the Great Famine between 1845 and 1851 that laid the foundation on which modern Ireland was built socially, economically, politically and in many ways psychologically.

We start with Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  For the bulk of the population it was a tough but free wheeling existence, deeply rooted in its Gaelic language, culture and traditions.  The potato crop grown in small plots was nutritious enough to sustain a family.  That allowed early marriage and high fertility rates. It required repeated subdivisions of the land to accommodate and feed the growing population that would reach well over eight million by the eve of the Famine (the island’s population today is six million). By all accounts it was a healthy diet, providing strong bodies and many a stout recruit for the British Army.

Hedge schools convened outdoors by wandering schoolteachers, a tradition from Penal times when Catholic education was outlawed, provided much of the basic education.  The Gaelic peasants spoke Irish and enjoyed a rich oral tradition of songs, poems and Homeric-style tales from older, even ancient, times.

Wandering musicians, poets, story tellers and dancing masters, all orphaned by the loss of the Gaelic aristocratic courts since the Flight of the Earls in 1607, mixed and mingled with the peasants, earning enough to live on through sharing their lore and skills and recalling the great days when Gaelic chiefs ruled.

Old beliefs and superstitions founded on pre-Christian belief systems – sometimes disguised as Christian saints – still competed with Catholic orthodoxy.  The parish priest would have had to contend with this and without a clear social role would not have enjoyed great local authority or status.

The potato had proven an unreliable crop subject to over twenty recorded prior failures due to weather or disease.  One damp morning in 1845, the peasants awoke to a sickly sweet smell wafting from their potato drills.   This time the crop was struck by blight, a fungal infection, which had begun in North America, crossed to devastate the crop in Europe and had arrived in Ireland to a uniquely vulnerable population. Even tubers that were fine when freshly dug soon rotted. Reserves were used, even the seed potatoes held for next year’s crop; what goods were to hand were sold to buy food, for food was plentiful other than the potato.  Some who had money or capital sold up and sailed to England or America.

The following year, the crop failed again as it would for successive years.  By 1851, the pre-Famine population of eight million had lurched downward with one million dying of starvation and disease and another million leaving, most taking ship to England and America.  Those who crossed the Irish Sea flocked to cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London.  Those that survived the journey across the Atlantic disembarked malnourished and barely clothed, taking shelter in whatever base accommodation they could find in Boston, New York and other east coast ports. The soil of Ireland had let them down; they would make their new lives in cities.

The conveyor belt of emigration was now in train and would endure to this day as a response to poor economic opportunities at home.  By the 1950s, the population in the south of Ireland would fall below three million.

British culpability in turning an ecological event into a humanitarian disaster was clear enough; the economic ideology of the time was that market forces must rule supreme even if it meant exporting food at a time of starvation, that dependency on charity be avoided at all costs, that the system of peasant landholding was demonstrably unsustainable and that the population had to be allowed to crash to a new equilibrium.

Ameliorating actions were taken at various levels by landlords and charities but too little and too late. Would the callous adherence to ideology have prevailed if starvation stalked England? The Great Famine was for many Irish the confirmation of the evils of imperial rule, a belief seared deep into the hearts of those forced to leave.

As the immediate tragedy passed in the 1850s, its social and economic impact created new imperatives for land holding and marriage that would fundamentally reshape Irish society. The subdivision of land to provide a smallholding for the next generation came to end and small landholdings were consolidated into larger units.  Unsustainable holdings were cleared by death and emigration, consolidated often by the local Irish agents of the absent Anglo-Irish landlords, descendents of the English who had conquered Ireland in the 17th century.  The Catholic ‘strong farmer’ class was being born by the revolution in land holding.

It should be said that the actual impact of the Famine is a matter of ongoing debate amongst Irish historians. Changing patterns of landholding had begun to emerge well before the disaster. But in my view the disaster accelerated them catastrophically and the social trauma vastly reinforced their economic rationale and created the kind of shock that would reshape social mores like marriage and inheritance.

Affinity with the land (where virtually every knob and hollow in the landscape has a name), the extraordinary salutary example of what the famine had wrought amongst the landless, and continuing uncertainty about tenure under the landlord system, fused to created a virtual obsession with land possession.

The emerging strong farmer held the land in lease arrangements from the landlords but would use their increasing political greater leverage to look for better terms over the coming decades.  As successive generations deepened their hold on the land, they would wage a long battle – sporadically violent, mainly political – to secure ownership, culminating in the Wyndham Land Acts of the early 20th century that gave them title to their land and sounded the death knell of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy.

The Famine dealt a near fatal blow to the Irish language not just because many of those who died as a direct result of the failure of the potato crop were native Irish speakers but because speaking English became a skill for survival, advancement and, for many, emigration: the Irish language was now burdened with the stigma of failure. Census returns would show the children of Irish speakers becoming bilingual and their children monolingual English.

Beyond its demographic impact, the Great Famine shaped Ireland through its impact on landholding and inheritance. The imperative was now to pass the farm on intact to one son, not subdividing it between two or more. If the non-inheriting sons were lucky and well educated they could get a job in the civil service or the bank, become a teacher or even a priest in the newly elevated Church; become a barman or shop clerk; join the British Army. If not, the emigrant ship beckoned. Women faced reduced marriage prospects because marriage now depended on inheriting the farm. They had far fewer local economic opportunities than males.   No surprise then that in the last quarter of the 19th century more women than men would emigrate.

In Ireland, a new Irish piety emerged, reflected in the iconography of the landscape (Churches and statues), of the home (Sacred Hearts, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary) and of the person (rosary beads, miraculous medals, scapulars). Mass going, recitations of the rosary, pilgrimages and reverent observance of Holy Days would condition the rhythm of life, reinforcing submission to Catholic morality.

Obedience to the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics was fused with the imperative of preserving the integrity of the family farm; an unexpected pregnancy and forced marriage would upset the careful sequence of inheritance. Family and Church interests were now firmly forged together. The impact of the new pattern of inheritance on male-female relations had myriad personal, familial, psychological and cultural consequences.

For men with limited chances of marriage or marriage at a late age when the farm came under his control, social life was to be focused on the pub. Land possession, church and pub formed a solid and enduring triangle that defined the parameters of economic, social, cultural and political life.

When they emigrated to America, the Irish would recreate in their new communities a similar structure, rapidly sponsoring the building of Catholic Churches, associated schools and of course frequenting a local the pub established by one of their own. Their deep sense of social reciprocation – born in an Irish village but now a vital coping mechanism in the New World – would evolve into and shape local politics, leading to the eventual development of the famous machine politics of Irish America.

The important role of the priest in rural Ireland was reciprocated by the farming classes who provided the funds for the erection of the classic high-walled rural parish church and who politically supported the British Government’s co-option of the Church as a partner in the provision of education and health.

The Catholic Church then, backed by the strong farming class, emerged in the latter half of the 19th century as a key national institution, pre-dating independent Irish government by half a century, and accruing the kind of status and power that would influence (or intimidate depending on your perspective) the fledging native governments for most of the twentieth century.

Once the question of landownership was settled by the end of the 19th century, attention turned to the politics of sovereignty. The strong farming class combined with the growth of the Catholic middle class and the evolution of the ideology of romantic nationalism to forge a renewed effort to reset relations with Britain that had been defined by the Act of Union of 1801.

The cultural definition of Irish identity and the contest between parliamentary agitation and militant republicanism would shape the struggle for independence and with it many of the identifying features of independent Ireland. We’ll look at that in the second piece.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces

As a diplomat you are often called upon to speak on Ireland.  This usually focuses on the economy and the Northern Ireland peace process; sometimes too on aspects of Ireland’s literary heritage with Yeats the reigning star, followed by Joyce and Beckett.

Irish history can feature in talks too but compressing it into a presentation is always something of a challenge.  Explaining Ireland means of necessity compressing our history into a narrative that traces our development as a society in fairly broad patterns.

However the exercise can have a value in helping to organize our complex history. Many people around the world, charmed and intrigued by Ireland and Irish culture, delve into our history. However while they find episodes of our history fascinating and compelling, at times the overall historical narrative can be elusive and confusing, and joining the dots can become a real challenge.

I will blog over the coming weeks Ireland in Five Easy Pieces as a modest attempt to knit together a broad explanatory narrative.   It begins mid-19th century because that I think is when modern Ireland really takes shape.

The five easy pieces are ‘Famine, Church and Society’; ‘Ireland in the Empire’: ‘Revolution, Partition and Independence’; ‘Northern Ireland’; and ‘Economic Development’.

It is necessarily an act of compression, excision and simplification. It is too, obviously, a wholly personal perspective. All comments welcome.

I hope you enjoy them.

Eamonn

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Visit of Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan to Israel and OPT

Ambassador’s Message, 24 February 2015

In the life of an Embassy a visit by a member of the Government is an important event, second only to a state visit by the President.  Visits by members of the Government are critical to maintaining bilateral relations.  They signal that the relationship matters and they provide direction and energy into the portfolio for which the Minister is responsible.  There is an added significance when it comes to visits of the Minister for Foreign Affairs given his or her preeminent role in diplomatic relations.

We at the Embassy were delighted then to host the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan T.D., on his first official visit to Israel last week.  He and his delegation of officials from Headquarters had just come from Lebanon where the Minister had visited our troops serving with UNIFIL in south Lebanon.  In Israel, he had a substantive exchange of views with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, toured Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in the Memorial Hall there, visited Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva (employing over 400 in Ireland), discussed current issues with Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog and met with key contacts of the Embassy at a reception at the Residence.

The Minister’s programme also included a visit to the OPT organized by our colleagues in the Representative Office Ramallah.  The Minister met with President Abbas and Prime Minister Hamdallah, laid a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat, and toured Bethlehem and other sites in the West Bank.

The Minister and party visited Gaza to see conditions there and meet with officials of UNRWA and UN OCHA who are providing vital services and humanitarian relief.  It was certainly sobering for the delegation to see how little progress had been made in reconstruction.  The Minister’s main impression was the hopelessness of the people, something that needs to be addressed he felt by political dialogue within Gaza and by unblocking the flow of goods into and out of Gaza so the economy can start to grow.  The party also visited a Moshav outside Gaza to hear views and stories from its perspective of life lived with the threat of rockets and tunnels.

The Jordanian part of the visit regrettably had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm and related travel difficulties so the Minister did not have the chance to meet contacts there and visit Syrian refugee camps.  Departing instead from Ben Gurion we ran into Quartet Representative Tony Blair which allowed for the Minister and Mr. Blair to exchange notes on the crisis in Gaza and on the prospects for the MEPP.

These were the highlights of a visit that was workman-like, balanced and focused on key issues.  Along the way were a range of meetings and encounters with officials and others who gave insights and analyses into the situation here that are critical to fully understanding the complex dynamics and powerful forces at work.  As the programme rolled along, it was also really productive to spend time with the new Secretary General at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Niall Burgess, and colleagues from Headquarters working on the Middle East, examining ways in which we can best use our resources in this area.

A personal highlight for Mary and me was the reception for the Minister at the Residence in Tel Aviv where he had the chance to meet our contacts from business, culture, peace building and from the Irish community.  A special thanks to Mary and David Lee from the Embassy for all their hard work on the visit: I would also like to pay tribute to the officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose professionalism and courtesy made everything run smoothly, especially when dealing with the usual feature of every visit – the unexpected!

The Minister’s interview with the Irish Times on his visit is here http://t.co/7AHil1CcSm

You can find some photos and links from the Minister’s visit on the Embassy’s website at www.embassyofireland.co.il

Best wishes,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador

Tel Aviv

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News from Ireland as Spring Beckons, Ambassador’s Message, 11th February 2015

My colleagues and I in the Irish diplomatic service are the swallows of St Patrick’s Day, necessarily planning ahead for the celebration of our National Day.  I thought this article in the New York Times was a delightful preview of the coverage of Ireland that comes with March 17th.  Initially I feared that it would be twee reportage of quaint rural Ireland with twinkly-eyed natives.  In fact it captures the new and old Ireland, the impact of social media in rural matchmaking, the accommodation of gay rights and reflections on an Ireland where “lol” can still mean “lots of land” when it comes to finding a romantic partner: http://t.co/WmPlnWzuYI

It seems apt too to remark at this time of year that there is a spring to the Irish economy.  The European Commission is predicting 3.5% GDP growth in Ireland in 2015, possibly the strongest in the EU.  Since 2012, an extra 80,000 people are at work and unemployment has fallen from 15.1% to 10.6%.

This is some achievement against a background of austerity at home and either sluggish growth or real deflation across the EU, our largest trading partner: press report here http://t.co/Nd8pfcRgbY.

The government has set a new target of full employment by 2018. Measures in place include regional enterprise strategies with competitive funding initiatives of up to €25million; a new SURE tax incentive for start-ups; a National Talent Drive, including a 60% increase in the number of ICT graduates by 2018; Enterprise Ireland to support exports by Irish companies, expected to hit a record €19 billion during 2015.

What unites these initiatives is that they are all focused on the real economy.  Ireland has progressed far in sorting out our banks, though at a heavy price to our taxpayers.  We have also taken steps to ensure that banks are there to serve the economy, not the other way around.  The focus on the real economy – jobs, exports, innovation, and productivity – is the only way to generate sustained growth which is turn is the only way to lower debt-GDP ratios and keep the national finances on track.

One hundred year commemorations are now fully in train, though 1915 in Ireland was a quiet year compared to what had happened just prior with the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1912 and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914.  One major event however happened just off the coast of Ireland: a commemoration on 1 February last in Cobh, Co Cork remembered the sinking of the Lusitania one hundred years ago by a German U-Boat, killing 1,198 on board:  http://t.co/TRrPqVWsTI

Yeats 2015 (www.yeats.com) is a celebration of our greatest national poet.  This Op Ed by Adrian Paterson (University College Galway) from the Irish Times captures his greatness and significance http://t.co/XyIxP1aOK2  As Paterson writes: “However we think of Yeats, poetic achievement must be at the heart of any commemoration. But Yeats was more than a poet. He was a cultural revolutionary who became a cultural entrepreneur. He began things, co-founding the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Literary Society and, with his talented family, the Cuala Press, producing designs and books from a single hand-press in Dublin.”

The writing tradition remains as vibrant as ever in Ireland.  At a reception on Thursday, 29 January Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, announced that the Arts Council has selected Anne Enright as the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction (www. http://www.artscouncil.ie/laureate )  She will hold the post for three years.

Irish literature has extended our cultural reach across the generations and the globe.  Irish diplomats are acutely aware of this rich dimension and it is a source of great pride to us when serving abroad.  A key element in our outreach has been the partnership between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Ireland Literature Exchange which has been going on now for twenty-one years.  The Irish Literary Exchange promotes the translation of Irish works through grants, bursaries and outreach (www.irelandliterature.com ).

Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan marked this collaboration with a reception at Iveagh House where he noted that “From small beginnings in 1994, the organisation’s output has grown from a modest 12 works of Irish literature in its first year of activity to an impressive current total of 1,650 books in 55 languages.” (link here  https://t.co/PYxh2a5Quz ).

Our newly minted Laureate Anne Enright attended the event and wrote about Irish writing in translation in this wonderfully meditative piece here  http://t.co/ZobskYxdUQ.  As she concluded “I think it is good for Irish readers to have a group of writers who come home to them with the smell of fresh air still trapped in their coats, who write for the whole world, starting here.”

Best wishes,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

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Remembering the Holocaust: Ambassador’s Message, 6 February 2015

Though it’s freezing in Ireland at the moment, the delightful weather here in Tel Aviv tells us that spring is not far off.  Even in Ireland the days are getting longer and the cold snap is really winter’s reluctant goodbye. 

In Israel, spring is preceded by remembrance of the Holocaust.  In the slight chill of January here, it seems appropriate that we remember those lost and indeed those who survived the Shoah.  If you check out our new Embassy website (www.embassyofIreland.co.il) you’ll find my tweets and links to a number of interesting articles on the Holocaust.  Here is the link to the story of how an Irish documentary led to the arrest of a former Nazi guard stationed at Bergen-Belsen and Gross-Rosen Concentration Camps: http://t.co/Fa0UHRoVNf

On International Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January, Irish Ambassadors around the world attended commemorative events.  Our Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan attended the commemoration in Auschwitz, the brutal cold a faint hint of what it must have been like there in winter for the starving and ill-clad victims of Nazi cruelty and genocide: coverage here http://t.co/7KalW4vwus

Here in Israel I attended a morning event held at the Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies in Natanya, north of Tel Aviv.  The speakers included Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and HE Ms Vivian Bercovici, Ambassador of Canada.  As the generation of survivors dwindles now and in the years ahead, the theme was the second generation of Holocaust survivors.  Ambassador Bercovici for example is one such and she gave a moving and powerful speech about her perceptions since childhood of the Holocaust; the lack of relatives, family mementos, the knowledge of a terrible event in the recent past that had resulted in her being raised in Canada.  The event concluded with guests laying a white rose in and around the standing stones in the memorial hall.  Music was provided by the young and evocative Moran Choir.

The evening event was held at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.  Speakers included Prime Minister Netanyahu, Thomas Geve, Buchenwald survivor, Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the MEPP, and Dr Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director, International Institute for Holocaust Research.  We began at an exhibition: “The Anguish of Liberation as Reflected in Art, 1945-47”.   Mr Geve reflected with direct and simple charm on his memories, at times resisting the curator’s opinion that his art was important.  His strongest memories were the arrival of the Americans, which he thought of as friends not soldiers and his wonder at seeing ordinary civilian life when he left the camp.

We then moved to the Yad Vashem Synagogue where Dr Nidam-Orvieto spoke eloquently of the research she has undertaken on the letters of survivors.  During their time in the camps, the survivors focused solely on staying alive, repressing their emotional response, she said.  After the war, the survivors had to face the emotional impact of what they had endured, aswell as the loss of family.  Over time, however, the word ‘happiness’ creeps into their letters, a metric she thought of their eventual adjustment to their delivery and the life they could now expect to live.

So even as we recalled the unfathomable crime of the Holocaust, we could acknowledge that the survivors were more than survivors, that they embraced life again, even if it was life lived with great loss and sorrow.  And it was that embrace of life that revived them, gave them the energy to start new lives around the world, most symbolically in Israel where they found a refuge and place where it is never quite winter.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

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Of Christmas Truces and Peace Deals: Ambassador’s Message, 31 December 2014

On the brink of Christmas, peace building in Northern Ireland received a major boost with agreement between the parties on how to resolve outstanding issues on the budget, parades and dealing with the past. Minister Flanagan and his team worked hard with the parties and their British counterparts to bring this about.

As the Minister said, “On one of the darkest days in the bleak mid-winter we have forged a broad agreement that will undoubtedly give rise to brighter days in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland and indeed throughout the island of Ireland.”

After twenty-six hours of continuous negotiations, the Irish Times summarized the deal thus:

STORMONT HOUSE AGREEMENT

Key proposals include:

  • The creation of a Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into killings during the Troubles;
  • A commission to enable people to privately learn how their loved ones were killed;
  • The creation of an oral history archive where experiences of the conflict could be shared;
  • A commission to report on flags within 18 months of being established;
  • Devolving responsibility for parades from the Parades Commission to the Northern Assembly;
  • Slimming the size of the Northern Assembly from 108 to 90 members by the time of the 2021 Assembly elections;
  • Reducing the number of Executive departments from 12 to 9 by the time of the 2016 Assembly elections;
  • The potential to create a formal opposition at Stormont.

This deal builds on a succession of negotiations and benchmark agreements, for a peace process is a living system of adjustments as conflict and mistrust is gradually replaced by concord and cooperation. The origins of this very dynamic diplomacy can be traced back to the early 1980s. The private story is being revealed thanks to the release of British and Irish archives under the thirty-year rule. Arguably it begins with the relationship between Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

What the record shows of their relationship is explored here; http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/love-hate-the-haughey-thatcher-relationship-revisited-1.2047899#.VJs1hfRCmqI.twitter …

This was of course about more than personalities. It was in effect a strategic shift whereby Dublin and London began, tenuously but necessarily, to find common ground in trying to solve the conflict in Northern Ireland. President Reagan, leveraging his own relationship with PM Thatcher, gave an important impetus to the negotiations in nudging her forward. After a decade of violence, Britain and Ireland now embarked on more or less continuous negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the ceasefires in 1994, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and each successive agreement, down to the Christmas deal this year.

The first great diplomatic breakthrough was the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, negotiated by Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald, his government and senior officials from the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs. It was a major achievement: In forging a structured and agenda-driven relationship between London and Dublin which began to tackle many of the underlying causes of the conflict, the AIA laid the essential groundwork for the peace process and the1998 Good Friday Agreement. The archival material from both Irish and British sources being released under the thirty-year rule makes for fascinating reading; examples of the coverage are here:

http://www.irishtimes.com/state-papers-fitzgerald-criticised-thatcher-s-rejection-of-new-ireland-forum-report-1.2042568#.VKGQm1Wl4ac.twitter …

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/anglo-irish-agreement-a-triumph-of-persistence-and-backdoor-diplomacy-1.2043042#.VKNMruwFouA.twitter …

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/30/national-archives-thatcher-vetoes-anglo-irish-agreement

For more coverage, go the ‘State Papers’ section of the Irish Times here; http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/state-papers

Of course the roots of the conflict go back deep into British and Irish history. Looking back just one hundred years, against the backdrop of the Home Rule Act, the European war offered for unionists an opportunity to prove they were vital to Britain just as nationalists saw it as an opportunity to prove that they deserved a state of their own. There was too a more widespread notion abroad, tragically innocent, that the European war would be a short, even romantic opportunity for beleaguered manhood, displaced by machines and sensing the assertion of women to rights and equality, to reassert martial prowess. Ironically, the war would prove the destructive capacity of machines to kill vast numbers of even the most heroic of men while women were called upon to do man’s work at home, boosting their confidence and their claims.

These developments lay in the future as soldiers settled down for their first Christmas in the trenches. That Christmas one hundred years ago saw the famous truce between troops in the British and German armies facing each other along the Western Front. To mark its anniversary, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Against the background of her own pioneering peace building efforts as President, she explores the truce’s meaning, particularly for Irishmen serving with the British Army, and its implications for peace building in Ireland.

You can read her speech, thoughtful and significant, here; http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/mary-mcaleese-the-christmas-truce-1.2048413#.VJ0ydmPanac.twitter …

For Ireland, expectations that the war would be a proving ground for both traditions were doubly trumped; by a war far removed from heroic expectations, one that became in fact a gross caesura with all that had gone before; and by the Easter Rising in 1916.

Thanks to the 2014 Christmas Deal, the Northern Ireland peace process moves forward. As we look back one hundred years, and thirty years and now with this latest achievement, we can be reassured that our complex dialogue with our shared past continues to be a positive one for the present and the future as we encounter the coming anniversaries and commemorations.

On a more festive note, and perhaps because I am not a big New Year reveler, I found traditional Irish wariness about the New Year appealing. I enjoyed this charming piece from the Irish Times on Irish New Year traditions here; http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/irish-new-year-s-day-traditions-looking-to-2015-in-the-shadow-of-the-past-1.2051343#.VKOZvTdDycs.twitter

Every best wish to you and yours for 2015.

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ambassador Tel Aviv

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