“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Was it for this the wild greese spread
The grey wing upon every tide?”
William Butler Yeats, 1913
When the late afternoon light bathes the farmland of County Kerry with a warm autumn glow, one can truly understand why Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle. The fields of Kerry shine with luminous shades of brilliant green. The farmhouses are substantial but one is left with the feeling that before the Potato Famine of the 1840s these fields would have supported people, not cattle and sheep.
Ireland today is a prosperous country, far removed from the dire economic situation of 10 years ago. Probably the most stunning evidence for this is the number of foreigners from all over the world who are making a living in Ireland, flocking to a country where work is plentiful.
Whatever the British do about Brexit – and who knows what the outcome of this imbroglio will be? – the European Union has been good for Ireland. Ireland is a small country of just under five million people. The European Union provides a counter-balance to the United Kingdom. The Irish would be foolish to ignore a thousand years of Saxon meddling in Irish affairs.
That is not to say that the Irish don’t have some good feelings towards the British. The Royal Dublin Society (RDS) is only one organisation that has symbolic links with Britain. That most British of private schoolboy sports, Rugby Union, is popular in Ireland. Landsowne Road in Dublin is synonymous with Rugby and Munster still celebrates its glorious defeat of the All Blacks in 1978. Ireland completed the Rugby Grand Slam this year, going unbeaten in the European Six Nations tournament.
Going from being a nation of emigrants to a nation of immigrants has taken some adjusting for the Irish. Polish grocery stores can be seen. People of African ancestry are commonplace. On the other hand, one can still find 16-year-old schoolgirls behind the bars of Irish pubs. The Irish have lost none of their fondness for a jar of porter. Indeed, it is possible to find three pubs side by side.
But Ireland is evolving. Jameson’s whiskey is now distilled in County Cork, not overcrowded central Dublin. The Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland was sold by drinks conglomerate Diageo, maker of Guinness stout and Johnnie Walker whisky, to Mexican tequila giant Jose Cuervo. The Mexican firm plans to double the output of Bushmills.
One newspaper cartoon in the Bushmills function room shows a rough and rowdy bunch of burly builders with names like McAlpine, Wimpey and John Laing emblazoned on their high-vis jackets saying, “I’ll have a shot of tequila”.
Ireland is prosperous. Public spending initiatives like the Luas, Dublin’s tram system, are well patronised. But the painful history of Ireland’s struggle for independence is not forgotten. The 1916 Easter Rising is commemorated at the Dublin General Post Office (GPO).
The Easter Rising was a tactical disaster and a strategic masterstroke. Although many of its heroes did not live to see the day, it put Ireland on the road to full independence from Britain. The shock of “Britannia’s Huns with their long range guns” laying waste to central Dublin stunned the Irish, inciting them into action. “Twas better to die ’neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud El Bar.”
Little appetite exists to restart the campaign against the British in the north of Ireland. The Omagh bombing by an IRA splinter group in 1998 that killed 29 people disgusted people north and south of the border. Few people believe that there is not a connection between the political party Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, although the appointment of Mary Lou McDonald as leader of Sinn Fein has given the party some renewed vitality.
Under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the Republic of Ireland agreed to drop its claim on the “Six Counties” of Northern Ireland. The Six Counties – Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone – are part of the historic province of Ulster, the other three counties being Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, which are part of the Republic of Ireland.
It is likely that within the foreseeable future the nominally Catholic population of Northern Ireland will overtake the Protestant population in number. One might assume that a majority could be formed for unification with the Republic of Ireland, but that would be a facile response.
The Protestant community of Northern Ireland is a unique entity. The many flags flying in Belfast – Union Jacks, St Andrew’s Crosses, St George’s Crosses and even the occasional loyalist paramilitary UDA (Ulster Defence Association) flag – demonstrates that many people are determined to defend their way of life. A substantial Protestant minority within a Republican majority would not solve the problems that have bedevilled Northern Ireland for centuries.
The Conservatives rely on the Ulster Unionists to stay in power in Westminster, which gives the Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority leverage over the British ruling party.
Brexit may inflame tensions between London and Dublin. It may be that few people, apart from Sinn Fein, really want the Republic of Ireland to unify with Northern Ireland. Ireland is prosperous and at peace. The only thing to inform travellers that they are entering Northern Ireland is a sign saying “You are now entering Northern Ireland”. The centre of Belfast, which was once deserted, is now full of activity.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) seems to be at the heart of Irish popular enthusiasms; This year, Limerick was GAA senior hurling champion for the first time in almost half a century. Gaelic football is popular north and south of the border; it’s a form of healthy native nationalism that brings Ireland together rather than pulling it apart.