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God Save Ireland March 17, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Anglo-Irish Politics, Barack Obama, Politics, popular culture, Religion.
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irish-shamrock-4Today is Saint Patrick’s Day and if you were raised in an Irish Catholic household like I was, it is one of the most important days on the calendar.  Never mind that my father was 100% German heritage and my mother was 50% German – the other 50% was Irish.  And that was everything.  Especially for my mother, since my grandmother, a classic “Irish Widow”, raised her alone.  My German grandfather went out to work one day and never came home – and my mother became 100% Irish. 

My Grannie came from an enormous coal-mining family in Scranton, PA.  She was one of the oldest of 11 children – 9 boys and 2 girls.  Her only sister, my Aunt Sally, was one of the youngest.  When we were kids, we spent a lot of time traveling between Buffalo and Scranton; I did a few years of college at the University of Scranton.   I have this really great extended family from down there and a couple of summers ago we got together for a big family reunion in the Poconos.  We had really spread out – family was there from Boston, California, and Brazil – and no matter who they had married or what other nationality they had mixed with – they were all Irish that weekend.

My mother and grandmother taught me about being Irish.  When I was five, my mother trotted me out before company to sing “The Merry Ploughboy” and other rebel songs.  My Grannie explained the Great Hunger to me; “They call it a famine, but don’t you believe it, ” she said.  “Those Brits could have saved every Irish life but they’d rather see us starve.”  I now bear a tattoo reminiscent of 1847 – Black ’47 – the year when more Irish died of the hunger or emigrated than currently live in Ireland.

Grannie also taught me the epithet “souper”.  To call someone a souper was akin to calling them a traitor.  During the Great Hunger, some Protestant orders opened soup kitchens – but to get the soup, you had to renounce Catholicism.  “Any time you see a Protestant with a real Irish name – he’s a souper,” she said.  “He took the soup and turned his back on God for a little bit of broth.” 

It was my mother who had me read the  Táin Bó Cúailnge – the exploits of the great hero Cúchulainn -and  the plays of Sean O’Casey, chronicler of the 1916 rising.  Michael Collinswas a hero larger than life and one never uttered the name Eamonn DeValera without hissing.  My mother led me to the poetry of W.B. Yeats and made me read Trinity by Leon Uris – so no matter how much Irish blood I had it would boil.   In my entire childhood experience, I can’t remember learning one thing that the English did that was acknowledged as good, so when I say that I am Irish I really am, even though it’s only about one-fourth by actual heritage.

There are a lot of Irish-Americans who have been raised the same way I was.  The endless struggles in Northern Ireland made sense in the context of the history we had all been taught.  I am generally a very peaceful person, but I certainly understood – if not supported – any armed insurrection by the IRA against an occupying force.  I believed that after 300 years of repression and discrimination, the Irish should have their own, united, country.  When the Belfast Peace Agreement, or Good Friday Accord, was signed in 1998 I did not think that any lasting peace could be achieved.  Especially since it required the Republic to give up on “ownership” of Ulster and rejected reunification unless approved in a Northern Irish referendum. 

For a time, it seemed as though I was right.  Though it was not until 2007 that the two major discordant parties (Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party) made any type of agreement towards progress, levels of violence had been enormously reduced.   It really looked  like it was all going to work.

Until now.

On March 7 and 8, two soldiers and a police officer in Northern Ireland were killed by a splinter group of the IRA.  Yesterday, Des Dalton, a leading diehard from the fringe group Republican Sinn Fein, referred to those who made peace as “traitors.”  Sinn Fein remains committed to the peace process and has said the these groups do not “enjoy popular support” but has also warned the British and Northern Irish governments to resist returning to subversion of dissident groups.  Tension has been mounting – causing pressure for reunification talks – but since the roaring Irish economy has begun whimpering, the appeal of reunification has been tarnished. 

Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, has announced that he will hold conferences in New York and San Francisco in June to get advice from the Irish diaspora on how to encourage peaceful reunification.  Adams also, no doubt, also wants to harness our political strength and fund-raising ability to change the conversation and bring real change to Ireland once and for all.

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