Category Archives: Ireland

Ireland in Five Easy Pieces IV: Northern Ireland and British Irish Relations

Seventeen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was brokered between the parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments in talks chaired by Senator George Mitchell.  I was privileged to be part of the Talks Team fielded by the Department of Foreign Affairs for those climatic negotiations. 

The Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was an historic breakthrough, the culmination of a series of statements, principles, declarations, reports and innumerable ingenious formulations deployed on the long road from conflict to peace.  [You can read more about it and the text of the Agreement here https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/the-good-friday-agreement-and-today/ ]  

The fourth piece in this series looks at the conflict in Northern Ireland in terms of its deep origins in Irish history and how the peace process untangled the complicated strands of British Irish relations bequeathed to us by that history.

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The conflict in Northern Ireland lasted over 30 years and cost over three thousand lives, tens of thousands injuries and immeasurable grief to those directly affected.  It was brought to an end by ceasefires in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  The work of realizing the society envisaged in that Agreement goes on, as does dealing with the consequences of the past, the realities of a divided society and the consequences of an island partitioned.

At its essence, the origins of the conflict in Northern Ireland lie in divergent identities, themselves the legacy of our history.  On the one hand there is the Catholic nationalist identity with its roots in an ancient Gaelic society untouched by Roman conquest but subsequently impacted by successive invasions, including Viking, Norman, Tudor, Stuart and Cromwellian.  By the end of the 17th century, Catholic Gaelic Ireland was conquered and a Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry, under the sovereignty of the British crown, ruled the land from their estates and over time increasingly from London.

Nationalist resistance to British rule was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and it adopted the ideas and nomenclature of republicanism; eventually the term ‘republican’ would be synonymous with a commitment to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an independent republic.   The flirtation with the French Revolution and the subsequent rebellion of 1798 came at a price: after the rebellion was suppressed, the local parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Act of Union of 1801 made Ireland part of the United Kingdom.

Nationalist symbols included the shamrock, the harp, the field of green, the Celtic cross, and the tricolour of green, white and orange representing the two traditions joined in peace.

The conquest of Ireland generated several attempts at ‘plantation’, that is the settling of British farmers on land in Ireland.  This only really worked in the northeast, the historic province of Ulster, where Scottish settlers crossed the narrow straits and settled in the four counties nearest the coast.  For them, the Union with Britain was a mark of their identity and their guarantee of safety, prosperity and stability.  Conversely movement toward even limited home rule for Ireland was regarded as a grievous threat to their identity, culture and well being.  For the Unionists in Ireland, some one million concentrated in the northeast, their identity was fused with totemic symbols; the Crown, the Union Jack, the Red Hand of Ulster, and King William of Orange on his white horse defeating the Irish at the Battle of Boyne in 1690.

Once it became clear in 1914 that Home Rule for Ireland was to be enacted, though on hold until World War I was concluded, the Unionists opted for their second choice – partition and their own home rule.  While nationalists fought British resistance to Irish independence from January 1919 onwards, unionists were accorded their own home rule with the opening of their parliament in Belfast in June 1921.  Though the province of Ulster comprised nine counties, this would have given unionists only a perilous majority so they opted for jurisdiction over six counties.   With the unionists catered to, the British Government offered a truce to the nationalists.  Subsequent negotiations resulted in the Treaty of December 1921 and the withdrawal of Britain from the remaining twenty-six counties in January 1922.

Without any options, the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had little choice but to knuckle down.  They suffered persistent discrimination over the years.  Northern Ireland was, as the saying goes, a ‘cold house’ for nationalists.  Against the international backdrop of civil rights protests in the US and student unrest in Europe in the 1960s, a new generation of young and educated nationalists launched their own civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, triggered by a number of high-profile cases of discrimination involving public housing  allocation.  The unionist authorities were alarmed and suppressed these marches, igniting sectarian riots and leading to the re-emergence of the republican movement in the form of the Provisional IRA.

The Provos, as they were called, wanted the British out and partition ended without reference to the wishes of the unionist population. From their perspective, partition had been imposed by the British contrary to and before an act of national (island-wide) self-determination.   After a crescendo of violence in the early 1970s and the collapse of an attempted power-sharing administration in 1974, the Provos settled down to the ‘long war’.  The problem was that neither the IRA nor the British Army could dislodge each other; the long war became in effect the long stalemate.

Meanwhile, the moderate nationalists of the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) under John Hume in Northern Ireland argued that the problem was not solely the British presence but the relationship between the various parties; between unionists and nationalists, between Ireland North and South and between Britain and Ireland.  The formulation that peace could only be achieved through the totality of relationships became the lodestone and eventually architecture of the peace process.

Successive efforts to forge talks between moderate unionists and nationalists foundered under the weight of violence and hard-line unionist opposition.  Throughout these years too brave individuals and groups reached out across the sectarian divide to encourage dialogue and mutual understanding, building a network of contacts and relationships that encouraged an end to the violence and long term peace building.

By the early 1980s, and with London being encouraged by the White House to undertake a political initiative, the British and Irish Governments began to engage with each other diplomatically and politically, a process that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.  This was a major diplomatic achievement and a genuine breakthrough.  It established a formal intergovernmental conference of both governments with a standing secretariat near Belfast of British and Irish officials dealing with an agenda that sought to address the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland.  This process worked assiduously over the years to deal with discrimination, alienation, security issues like harassment and the use of lethal force, prison issues, confidence in the administration of justice, identity issues and economic marginalization.  This strengthened the relationship between Dublin and London and made considerable progress in reducing the causes of conflict.

The political stalemate began to loosen when the leader of the moderate nationalists within Northern Ireland, John Hume, opened discussions with the leader of the republican movement, Gerry Adams in early 1993.  Since the IRA’s campaign was still underway, it was an act of uncommon political courage on Hume’s part.

The outstanding achievement of Taoiseach, Mr Albert Reynolds TD and his advisors was the creation of the conditions for ceasefires by the paramilitary organisations. He did this by negotiating with British Prime Minister John Major what became the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993, a breakthrough formulation of enormous import which led directly to the IRA ceasefire in August 1994.

The Declaration set out principles agreed by the British and Irish Governments: that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was required for unity with the South; that the British Government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”; that it was “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination”; that both Governments would create institutions and structures which reflected “the totality of relationships” and which, while respecting the diversity of the people of Ireland, would enable them to work together in all areas of common interest; that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods.

Even Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the doctrinal expression of nationalism’s view of Ireland’s territorial integrity, was open to reformulation in the event of a settlement, according to the Declaration. For an Irish nationalist leader, this was political leadership of a very high order indeed.

With the active support and engagement of President Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair embarked on inclusive talks in 1997, including those elected to represent paramilitary organizations (though without the participation of the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party).

The talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a comprehensive settlement that mandated power sharing within Northern Ireland, formal North-South cooperation between the Governments in Belfast and Dublin and formal structures for consultation and cooperation between Britain and Ireland i.e. it addressed the totality of relationships.  The Agreement took a rights-based approach approach, grounded in the notion of equality and mutual respect between people and the traditions sharing the island.  The Agreement was voted on by both jurisdictions on the island on the same day in May 1998, thereby expressing self-determination by the all the people of Ireland and enshrining the principle of unity by consent alone.  The Agreement also mandated many reforms, building on those of the AIA of 1985, including an overhaul of policing and the administration of jutice: security sector reform was a critical in the transition from conflict to a peaceful, shared society.  Much time and energy was expended on getting the IRA to decommission its weapons.  New policing and the complete decommissioning of IRA weapons cleared the way for the establishment of a power-sharing government in March 2007.

This is a highly compressed and simplified version of what was a complicated, frustrating, tragic, heroic, futile, and inspiring narrative.  Lives were lost and ruined by injury, the death of loved ones, imprisonment, poverty, alienation, and marginalization.  Much energy that should have been devoted to social and economic betterment was diverted into violence, counter-insurgency, protests, resistance, negotiations without progress, frustratingly slow conflict resolution and many more of the reverberating consequences of a society in turmoil.

However, the forces of history and the imperatives of identity that roiled Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations were deeply rooted and it took much determination, courage, infinite patience and finesse to deal with them.  The violent expression of those forces was finally tamed so that, in Seamus Heaney’s immemorial words, ‘hope and history rhymed’.  The consequences of conflict and division however live on in many ways, much work remains to be done to bridge the sectarian divide, the peace process itself requires consistent vigilance and attention, and the work of peace building goes on.

In the years following the Good Friday Agreement the success of the peace process allowed an historic reconciliation in British Irish relations.  This was epitomized by the visit of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, to Ireland in May 2011, the first visit by a British Head of State to independent Ireland.  During the visit, she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin dedicated to those who had given their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.

The peace process also encouraged within Ireland the recovery of the many strands of Irish identity and experience attenuated by the nationalist struggle, including for example the service of many Irish in the British Army, especially those who had fought in World War I.

In March 2012, the Irish and British Prime Ministers issued a Joint Statement of principles governing the development and enhancement of British-Irish relations in the decade ahead, a decade marking the centenary of the seminal events of the struggle for independence.

The visit of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in April 2014 marked another milestone in British Irish relations.  The President addressed both houses of Parliament, laid a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey and reviewed the Colours of the five Irish regiments of the British Army disbanded in 1922.

[For more information on British Irish relations see https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/northern-ireland/british-irish-relations/ ]

Peace in Northern Ireland, developing concord on the island of Ireland and the deep, multilayer rapprochement between Ireland and Britain are signal achievements when set against our history.  They allow us to approach the centenaries in the years ahead with generosity and confidence, embracing inclusively the richness of our heritage.  And they are too an intrinsic part of mutual understanding that is the ultimate guardian of the peace that we have won.

Eamonn McKee

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Ireland in Five Easy Pieces III: Revolution, Partition and Independence

This third piece in the series is a complicated one but it concerns a tremendously exciting, romantic, tragic and formative period.  In covering the ideological roots of Irish republicanism and unionism, I have to detour you back before the Great Famine and then rejoin the process that created not just independent Ireland but Northern Ireland.

The years between 1916 and 1922 are probably the most studied of modern Irish history, graced as they are additionally by the literary ferment that accompanied the action, most memorably Yeats’ magnificent poem ‘Easter 1916’.  Here Yeats intones some of his most famous lines, including his prescient realization about the Easter Rising;  “All changed, changed utterly:/A terrible beauty is born.”

***

The rebels struck at Easter1916, seizing a ring of key points around Dublin and taking the British completely by surprise.  When the Rising’s front man and ideologue Padraig Pearse read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the steps of the rebel headquarters at the General Post Office (GPO), he set in motion a sequence of events that would reshape Ireland.  In Yeats’ lapidary phrase, “a terrible beauty” had been born.  The fighting between the rebels and the British Army was fierce; the destruction of the centre of the city very considerable; just over half of the 485 fatalities were civilians; and the shock at the turn of events was followed quickly by public distress at the execution of most of the leaders.

Here we must pause to consider an ideological seam in Ireland that had its roots in the French Revolution and survived the 19th century, only to explode into catalytic significance in Dublin in 1916 and in Northern Ireland in 1969, namely Irish republicanism.

The notion of a republic of course dates back to ancient Greece and was adopted by 18th century European revolutionaries as an ideological alternative to the oppressive anciens régimes of Europe.  It was a rights based ideology, vesting in the individual inherent rights to determine the political order through democratic means, to personal liberty and to equality.  America adopted it in its struggle against their British rulers.  It reached its greatest clarity, potency and drama in the French Revolution.  Irish intellectuals in the late 18th century watched the events in Europe keenly and saw in republicanism an ideology that could transcend the inherited divisions between native and settler, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist.

For a brief period it seemed to point the way to the future as the late 19th century Irish Volunteers united in demands for greater powers for the local Parliament in Dublin.  However London wakened to the dangers and played on the fears of the Protestants in Ireland, convincing them that only British rule in Ireland could guarantee their social and economic interests at the top of the social pyramid.

So where the Protestant Scots-Irish settlers became the most ardent of revolutionaries in America, in Ireland they became the chief bulwark of Britain’s colonial rule.  They would sublimate the attractions they found in republicanism in the alternative virtues of the freedoms won in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of King William and his defence of Protestant liberties against the conniving schemes of Roman Catholic ‘popery’.

Such dilemmas did not affront those native Irish who adopted republicanism as the core ideology in their struggle against British rule. Figures such as Wolfe Tone forged links with the French revolutionary regime, notably under Napoleon, and secured the launch of French military expeditions to Ireland; General Humbert actually landed in Mayo in 1798 to assist the Irish revolutionaries who had just launched their insurgency.

The insurrection of 1798 was heroic but too weak against the British and its local Protestant militias.  It was violently repressed and militant republicanism was driven underground, becoming a preoccupation for a very small but determined group that would pass on their ideological commitments down the generations.  Robert Emmet gave revolution one more effort in 1803 in Dublin but it was a small and thwarted affair that led to his execution, his indictment hallowed by his famous speech from the dock.

By then London had connived and bribed the Parliament in Dublin to abrogate itself, the furniture of benches and accoutrements was ripped out (of what is now the Bank of Ireland in College Green) and the Act of Union of 1801 was passed to secure Ireland as part of the British Empire.

Irish republicanism in the form of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood (IRB) aka the Fenians, would subsist and scheme, guided by the motto that “Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.  Fenianism crossed the Atlantic along with the post-Famine emigrants and there form a crucial nexus of support for efforts to support the struggle of the ‘old country’ against British rule.

Back in Ireland, the IRB saw an opportunity with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.  They maneuvered their personnel to take over leadership positions in the new movement.  In 1915, with war raging in Europe, they began to actively plan for rebellion.  Quite accurately1916 has been characterized by historians as having been organized by a minority of [the Irish Volunteers] of a minority of [the National Volunteers] of a minority [of nationalists].

The 1916 Rising was as seminal an event as had been hoped by its organizers.  The rebel leadership had anticipated that their willingness to sacrifice their lives would in some way sanctify and authenticate the claim to independence.   Its impact was more deeply impressed on the nationalist conscience – to what extent is impossible to assess – by the execution of the Rising’s leaders by the British.  Two men the British did not execute would go on to play decisive roles in the ensuing struggle for independence; Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

The end of World War I precipitates a series of dramatic and historic events.  The revolutionary impact of the Easter Rising is seen in the results of the 1918 elections.  The Irish Parliamentary Party is wiped out and Sinn Féin candidates sweep the board: while Sinn Féin had not been involved in the Rising, as the most nationalist of parties it rode the wave of popular support.  For the Rising has caused a paradigm shift in Irish views of its relationship with the British Empire.  The genteel campaign of persuasion for Home Rule was cast aside in favour of an outright demand for independence, validated not simply by the Rising but the landslide election of 1918.

The struggle for independence takes two tracks.  On the political track, Sinn Féin’s successful candidates boycott Westminster and form their own First Dáil (assembly or parliament) in Dublin in January 1919, deemed of course “illegal” but the British.  On the second track, units of Volunteers take action against the British in what was to become the War of Independence.   Eventually those fighting would become the army of the republic, the Irish Republican Army or IRA.  The British responded to the guerrilla war by deploying veterans of the World War in units that became infamous for their savagery, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.  As Minister for Finance in the First Dáil and effective leader of the IRA, Michael Collins embodied both fronts in the struggle for independence.  The President of the First Dáil and leader of the country was Eamon de Valera who spent much of the war in the US drumming up support.

In a blatant contradiction of the ostensible cause of the Great War (defending little Belgium) and respect for national democracies that lay at the heart of the new world order being negotiated at Versailles, Britain fought a bloody war of counter-insurgency in Ireland between 1919 and 1921.  The British priority was to accommodate unionist resistance to Irish home rule, which meant inexorably partition.  When the British convened the first Northern Ireland parliament in Belfast in June 1921 – its jurisdiction over six counties designed to create an unassailable unionist majority in perpetuity – they were free to pursue a truce with the IRA, which was agreed the following month.

The Treaty negotiations with the British continued in London until the end of the year, first under de Valera and then by a team headed by Collins.  British Prime Minister Lloyd George led a formidable British team.  The Treaty was agreed and signed in December.  On return to Dublin Collins and his delegation found two diametrically opposed views of the Treaty.  For Collins and those who supported it, the dominion status offered – Ireland would be the Free State – was short of a republic but a crucial stepping-stone to independence.  For de Valera, Collins had contravened his instruction not to sign anything; and the terms themselves betrayed the republic.

The Government of Ireland Act was passed by the British parliament in December 1921 and the following January Collins oversaw the withdrawal of the British Army and administration from an Ireland that now comprised twenty-six counties as a result of partition.  For republican veterans of the War of Independence the Treaty’s provisions fell too far short of the republic. The “Free Staters”, who supported the Treaty as unpalatable but sufficient for now, were pitted against Republicans in a vicious civil war between 1922 and 1923 that claimed the life of Michael Collins.

Some salient points about the struggle for and achievement of Independence are worth considering.

The first is that the Treaty itself did not survive its own contradiction and de Valera essentially unpicked it with his 1937 Constitution.  What did survive of the Treaty was the caesura it and the ensuring civil war had inflicted on Irish politics.  The split over the Treaty was to become a foundational one and the primary source of political difference between Fine Gael (tracing its roots to the Free Staters) and Fianna Fail (tracing its roots to the Republicans and their leader, Fianna Fail founder Eamon de Valera).  This has been pointed to as explaining the absence of a meaningful left-right divide in Irish politics and the loss therefore of all the attendant socio-economic policy choices.

The second is that Northern Ireland did not really feature in either the Treaty negotiations or as a contributory cause of the civil war.  Indeed, for the opening fifty years of the new State, Northern Ireland did not intrude on the South’s affairs, or even much of its attention.

The third point is that the revolution was a political one without any redistribution of wealth or change in socio-economic relations.  Certainly the 1916 Declaration made fine references to treating all of the nation’s children equally and suggested that the nation’s natural resources were a public good, but these remained declaratory and were never interpreted as directive.  The more radical republican wing of the nationalist struggle had lost the civil war and many of its veterans would quietly leave for America and speak no more of their early revolutionary adventures.  Those who assumed the reins of power in 1922 had had to fight and win a civil war as well as grappling with the demands of establishing a national government.  Earning respect as a nascent state was a vital validation of the long struggle.  Their signal achievement was independence and the establishment of a truly democratic state that could and did weather the ideological buffeting that lay ahead for Europe in the 1930s. Irish revolutionaries were in essence conservative, correcting the aberration of colonization.

The fourth point was that partition left the new state without the industrial base of Belfast and its environs.  There was some small local manufacturing but nothing close to the industrialization in the twenty-six counties.  Independent Ireland’s economy was really one big farm supplying Britain’s urban centres with meat and dairy.  Economic opportunities in Ireland were limited and emigration therefore would continue unabated, independence or no.  By the 1950s, as the State’s population dropped to below 3 million, there would be real fears that the country was unsustainable.

The fifth point, also due to partition, was that the new State was overwhelmingly Catholic in population, with an already entrenched Catholic Church now matched by a pious and respectful national government that was happy to leave education and health services (not to mention youth detention) to the Church, that was relieved to do so, that probably could not conceive of any alternative and certainly believed it could not afford to provide such services from tax revenues.  More broadly, the demographic dominance of Catholicism fused with the nationalism that emerged from the struggle for independence.  The long frustration of the Home Rule movement had led to the emergence of a singular form of nationalism that ignored the fact that Irish society was composed of many strands of identity, tradition and loyalty.

Finally, Independent Ireland had been formed amidst global upheavals and opportunities that would continue for the rest of the century, including the Great Depression, WWII, Marshall Aid, the establishment of the United Nations, the Cold War, the decolonization of former empires, economic development, conflict in Northern Ireland, and the creation of the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union.  Independent Ireland and the apparatus of State would grow and develop as it met each of these challenges, admirably filling the void in self-governance left by centuries of colonization.  By the end of the twentieth century, nationalist Ireland had achieved its long sustained ambition that Ireland take its rightful place among the nations of the world.

At home, two great challenges faced independent Ireland; the unfinished business of Northern Ireland and economic development.  We will look at these two issues in the final two pieces.

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 British Irish Relations’; 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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Col. Patterson Rests Now in Israel

This morning I attended the ceremonious re-interment of Col. John Henry Patterson and his wife Frances.  The event was the culmination of efforts by his grandson Alan Patterson to fulfill his grandfather’s wish to be buried alongside his Jewish Legion veterans in Israel. Guests included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defence Moshe Ya’alon and Minister for Tourism Uzi Landau, my colleague the British Ambassador Matthew Gould, members of the Knesset, and representatives of the armed forces and the Jabotinsky Institute, key supporters of the event.   After the re-interment at Moshav Avichail, we adjourned to the auditorium of the Beit Hagedudim Museum for a wonderfully evocative programme of music, recital and song.  Alan Patterson spoke engagingly of his commitment to the reinternment and his grandfather’s influence in the pre-state evolution of Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke eloquently and movingly, clearly from the heart, of Patterson.  He asserted emphatically that Patterson was the “godfather” of the Israeli army.  Jews had had a great reputation in ancient times as fierce fighters and defenders against aggressors but this martial prowess was lost through two thousand years of wandering.  It was Patterson who instilled discipline in the Jews under his command.  And critically he instilled confidence that Jewish fighting units could distinguish themselves in battle.  Like Herzl’s commitment’s to the Zionist state and Patterson’s to a Jewish army, both notions were initially rediculed.  Yet Patterson had proved a point that Jews could and would defend themselves, fighting valiantly in the Gallipoli and Palestine campaigns.  The Prime Minister spoke too of Patterson’s close relationship with his family, recounted below.  He said that his presence, along with that of his wife Sarah, was repaying a debt of honour owed to Patterson by his family and by Israel.

It is interesting to reflect that if Patterson made his contribution to the formation of Israel through his profession as a British soldier, it was Irish guerrilla fighters like Michael Collins and Tom Barry who inspired the early Zionists to take up the fight through irregular actions during the Mandate period.  Ireland had defied an Empire and won; Zionists could do the same.

In the blog below, I recount Patterson’s life, seeing in its motivation and aspiration a parallel with that other great figure of this region and this era, T.E. Lawrence.

Patterson of Ballymahon, Zionist Hero Comes Home

Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson was re-interred in Israel on 4 December. While not well known in Israel and fast being forgotten elsewhere, certainly compared to that avatar of the British adventurer in the Middle East, T.E. Lawrence, Patterson made an early and significant contribution to the Zionist cause. Indeed in some critical ways, both he and Lawrence shared common impulses that underlay their remarkably picaresque lives in the service of others.

Patterson’s birthplace was Ballymahon, Co Longford, son of an Anglo-Irish Protestant father and an Irish Catholic mother. The year of his birth, 1867, also witnessed the sporadic Fenian Rising that fizzled out ineffectually. Though it would be the last incidence of insurrection by Irish republicans until the Easter Rising of 1916, the Anglo-Irish lived insecurely with ominous signs on the horizon about their future. Demands by tenant farmers for rights and proprietorship, backed up by political campaigns and nocturnal violence encouraged a series of land Acts that weakened the gentry’s hold. More ominously still, Gladstone became a convert to Home Rule for Ireland in 1886.

Patterson’s mixed heritage may have given a personal edge to this sense of uncertainty, lending a certain air of mystery, even alienation that was to surround him all his life. Unlike so many scions of this class, Patterson did not join the British Army as a cadet but as a groom for a cavalry unit, working his way up through the non-commissioned and, over the years, commissioned ranks.

Patterson’s first claim to fame came when he was hired by the East Africa Company to oversee the construction of a railway in Tsavo in present-day Kenya. Local workers were preyed on by man-eating lions, sparking both real and superstitious fears, and posing a threat to the whole project. Having learned big-cat hunting skills while on service in India, Patterson eventually tracked down and killed the two male lions, manifestly huge beasts as evidenced by the trophy photographs. Patterson’s account of this, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, was published to much acclaim and fascination in 1907, becoming a best seller (and eventually a number of films, including the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer).

In the meantime, Patterson fought in the Boer War under General Allenby, winning the DSO and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was also involved in a scandal which drew Ernest Hemingway’s attention to his colourful life: the suggestion of an affair with the wife of a fellow soldier who died from a gunshot wound while they were all on safari. The cocktail of big-game hunting, sexual pursuit and contested machismo forms the basis for his story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Patterson is the inspiration for the safari guide Robert Wilson, a hunter of big game, and women if the opportunity presented itself, taciturn but manifestly philosophical in a manly, rough hewn way. Being Hemingway, the prose is pruned and compressed but a psychological portrait emerges of Wilson which may not have been too far removed from Patterson; courageous, skilled, cool under pressure, tough, self-sufficient, detached.

Patterson, a committed unionist, was drawn back to Ireland during the Home Rule crisis of 1913-1914 where he took command of a unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force. However Patterson’s destiny lay neither in Africa nor even in Ireland but rather in the Levant. That Patterson did not stay to participate in the revolutionary tumult of his native Ireland but opted for the allure of the Middle East and the adventures of fighting the Ottomans says much about his inclinations and interests.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during the onset and course of World War I, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor formed the Zion Mule Corp in 1915 as approved by General Maxwell. Their intention was to help the British wrest control of the Levant from the Turks and stake their claim to the creation of the state of Israel. Having served in Flanders in 1914, Patterson travelled to Egypt where he met with and was evidently impressed by the young and determined Zionists. Jabotinsky made a marked impression on him as did his idea for a Jewish Legion, both as a symbol of resurgent Jewish nationalism (the first Jewish fighting unit for two thousand years) and as a statement of intent to form a nation state..

The Corps fought gallantly at Gallipoli under Patterson’s command (recounted in his With the Zionists at Gallipoli (1916). Patterson wrote: ‘I have here, fighting under my orders, a purely Jewish unit. As far as I know, this is the first time in the Christian era that such a thing has happened.’ (Quoted by Zeev V. Maizlin, in the Jerusalem Post, link herehttp://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/The-man-who-became-Lawrence-of-Judea).

After a stint back in Ireland where he commanded the 4th Royal Irish Fusiliers and fifth Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Patterson went to England where he formed and trained the Jewish 38th Fusiliers, part of what was to become known as the Jewish Legion, the sobriquet of five Jewish battalions in the British Army.

According to one account, “in February of 1918, Patterson proudly led soldiers of the 38th Fusiliers Battalion, one of the components of the Legion, in a parade in the Whitechapel Road, before they were shipped off to Palestine. They met a tumultuous and joyous reception among the Jews of London, as well as generating amazement among other bystanders….” Patterson fought with his battalion in campaigns in Palestine, notably recorded in his memoirs With the Judaeans in Palestine (1922).

Throughout his time with the Jewish Legion, Patterson encountered and resisted anti-Semitism in the British Army, an experience that came to alienate him further from his erstwhile colleagues and increase his sense of identity as one of uncertainty and flux. Increasingly, he came to admire his Jewish comrades. He was becoming a fervent advocate for the creation of the State of Israel, forming life-long friendships with Zionist leaders, including Jabotinsky and Benzion Netanyahu. (Netanyhu would name one of his sons Yonatan in Patterson’s honour: Yonatan died in the famed Entebbe raid and his younger brother Benjamin would become Prime Minister.)

After the war, Patterson helped lay the foundations for what would become the Israeli defence forces. From his adopted home in America, he would advocate for the cause of the Jewish people and was at the forefront of efforts there to save Jews from the Holocaust. He died in California in 1947, a year short of the creation of the State of Israel.

Patterson in many ways was the Judean counterpart to Lawrence of Arabia. Patterson and Lawrence shared a common origin in both having Anglo-Irish fathers. Lawrence’s father was Thomas Chapman, born not far from Patterson’s Ballymahon. Chapman absconded from his first wife and family with the family governess, Sarah Lawrence, to Wales where T.E was born and given his mother’s surname. Both men shared ambiguous or hybridized identity and an outsider status. Both were soldiers and scholars, innate researchers as well as searchers. Both appeared to be compelled to search for inner meaning and outsized causes, Lawrence in Arab studies and Arab nationalism, Patterson in Hebrew and biblical studies and ultimately Zionism.

Patterson lived a life in tumultuous times and his wanderings progressively created a life that became a veritable palimpsest of the times and places in which he lived, stretching from Ireland, to the heart of Africa and the shores of the Mediterranean; a man of Ireland and yet not Irish per se, Anglo-Irish and not quite British enough, ambitious and independent, a tough disciplinarian and spiritual, worldly and erudite. Above all, his experience of life never dulled his capacity to strive – not for himself but for others. It is a deeply appealing quality that he shares with Lawrence (and which distinguishes him from the fictional Wilson).

Ultimately Patterson would find a sense of belonging with his Jewish comrades, outsiders like himself, looking to fashion their own home and indeed their own identity through the Zionist cause. If there is one place for Patterson to finally rest, it is surely here in Israel.

Eamonn McKee
Ambassador of Ireland

Tel Aviv

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