SAINT Patrick’s Day is a chance to celebrate the Irish contribution to the world. We can be found in every walk of life, every field of endeavour and every nation around the globe. A conservative estimate of the diaspora is around 70 million. More importantly March 17 is an opportunity to raise a glass to progress within Ireland and dismiss the tired clichés that so many choose to pedal because they are too lazy to see the truth. The green beer, the leprechaun hats, the Orange and rebel songs have nothing to do with a youthful, modern Ireland.
Ireland’s greatest gift to the world has been the ability to embrace change and offer hope to other conflicted peoples.
The Irish Republic of my youth was a poor and backward place. In the 1960s we visited my grandfather’s friends in Donegal. McFadden’s pub, where we stayed in Churchill, had no electricity and I vividly recall going to bed by the light of a paraffin lamp. There was a hole in the road outside Gallagher’s Hotel in Letterkenny that could swallow a car and there were still horses and carts in the street. Few homes in the countryside had clean running water and everything was warmed over a turf fire. The new nation was stagnant and young people were leaving by the thousand to seek opportunity elsewhere in the world. Society was ossified by De Valera’s constitution of 1937 with its ‘comely maidens’ confined to the kitchen and a ‘special place’ for the Roman Catholic Church. He was President and the bishops were all powerful. Few politicians were brave enough to cross the hero of 1916 or risk a belt from the crozier.
Resistance to change was deep rooted. Oliver J Flanagan stood in the Dail and told the plain people ‘there was no sex in Ireland before the television.’ Hundreds of books and films were banned. Suicides and sex crimes went unreported. A papal encyclical made the front page of the Sunday Independent but Mike Scrivener’s skilful interpretation was refused a by-line because he was a Protestant. Children were torn from the arms of unmarried mothers by nuns and priests and sent overseas or put to work in industrial schools and laundries that were little better than concentration camps. Women had no control over their fertility because the church banned divorce, contraception and abortion. Medical help was beyond the means of most and higher education was available only to the gifted few or the wealthy. Relations with Northern Ireland and Britain were at best frosty and plunged to their nadir when the north imploded in violence after years of unionist discrimination and poor governance.
Ireland’s failure was most acute in Northern Ireland where Catholics were excluded from government, decent housing and good jobs. There were even places like Craigavon where they couldn’t get their dustbins emptied because of the bigotry and ignorance of their sectarian neighbours. Orangemen tramped passed Catholic doors on a regular basis damning the Pope and waving ceremonial swords. The statelet was born and sustained by gerrymandering and Irish nationalism was considered a treachery punishable by murder. The legitimate demand for civil rights and equality were answered by violence and the arrival of British troops added fuel to the fire igniting a Provisional IRA campaign of murder and destruction. In the tragic conflict between 1969 and 2001 around 3,700 people died including 186 children. Four children were killed with their pregnant mothers. The oldest person to die was 91 and living in a Salvation Army home. There were also deaths in Britain, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Gibraltar. It is hardly surprising that the victims are not forgotten and survivors find it hard to forgive. Suffering has left a terrible legacy of mistrust and mental illness. Yet even the North has shown itself capable of change and a five-party power-sharing administration is back in place at Stormont. Unionist and nationalist leaders are working together again to tackle outstanding issues like dealing with the past and cultural equality in addition to health, education, housing and economic concerns.
As a journalist for 43 years it has been my good fortune to meet Irish people of all kinds, the narrow bigots of Orange and Green and the visionary leaders who have struggled to drag our people from complacency and despair. I cannot forget my first murder in 1978. A policeman was shot in a butcher’s shop in Castle Street, Belfast. I stood and wondered if the blood among the sawdust was animal or human. It is an image that haunts me yet. My colleague Martin O’Hagan was shot and killed as he walked home with his wife. Another was left with a bullet in his back. Several were struck by army baton rounds. Yet I have enjoyed lunch with Ian Paisley and John Hume and shaken the hands of Martin McGuinness and David Ervine. I have seen death and destruction, grief and injustice at close quarters. I have shed tears or sorrow and raged in anger. But above all, I have witnessed change.
In my 20s, like so many millions before me, I tried to walk away from the land of my birth to seek a better life elsewhere. But instead, I stayed and tried to make my small contribution to this process of change. In my 60s now, I am glad that I did. Despair is a base thing and hope is precious. Change is inevitable and relentless. The growing success of moderate parties at the polls in Northern Ireland is refreshing. Even the strong election result for a left wing Sinn Fein in the Republic is a good sign, a sign that today’s voters want a break with the past and the old parties forged by civil war.
I am more hopeful today than I have ever been. I believe the people of tomorrow’s Ireland, my children and grandchildren, can rise above their differences and work together to solve their problems, that they will stay and continue the good work of my generation, create a peaceful, prosperous and progressive land for all of us who are proud to call themselves Irish.
On St Patrick’s Day, I will drink to that.
© Maurice Neill 2020