Each visit to Ireland runs deeper than the last. Back in the 1980s, I met distant relatives before hitching around The Republic. When I felt the Atlantic’s chill, I retreated south towards the equator and finally home to The Great South Land.
From August to early October 2022, I crisscrossed Ireland, listening to RTÉ and talkback radio gauging the nation’s pulse. Like a sponge I absorbed monuments, antiquities and tales of medieval castles, abbeys, passage tombs and countless battles.
Landscape old and new
Depending who you talk to, Ireland’s built form is either being protected from, protected by, or abandoned to the constant march of time. Some relics prevail, whilst others peer out beneath the incessant creep of Irish Ivy, rapaciously smothering antiquity. In formal gardens and the demesnes of the gentry, elongated trunks all look the same, as if mundane monocultures, shrouded in Hedera hibernica.
It’s hard to miss the massive wind turbines whirling like dervishes, generating up to 40% of Ireland’s energy needs. Though they don’t please everyone. A local paper cited American tourists complaining their romantic vistas of rolling green hills, field walls, castles and quaint cottages were being spoiled, vowing never to return with their US dollars.
Into dusk on fertile fields, farmers made hay whilst the sun shined, preparing for the long winter ahead. Gargantuan 4WD tractors, stacked high with bales rolled in plastic and silage, navigated narrow lanes and villages.
As winter looms, peatlands / bogs, anaerobic time capsules interring sacrificial bodies and artefacts, Ireland’s most effective carbon sinks, are being burnt on an industrial scale to generate electricity. 1 in 7 households continue the centuries old tradition to heat their homes. Special Areas of Conservation are not immune, despite steep financial penalties from the EU.
Catholicism ambivalence and passion
Detached observations morphed into up-close encounters when least expected. A discreet morning visit to The Black Abbey in Kilkenny, a Dominican Priory established in 1225, was subsumed by friars and the faithful praying and reciting the rosary, rituals performed there, give or take a few wars, for around 800 years.
In a simple camper’s kitchen overhanging a creek feeding Lough Ree on the Shannon, Co. Westmeath, a priest was performing Mass when I arrived. My cup of tea would wait. In Ennis, Co. Clare a priest and the faithful quietly recited the Rosary beneath foreboding skies and a towering monument to The Liberator Daniel O’Connell in the town square. Only visitors seemed taken aback.
In An Gaeltacht, at Spiddal, Co. Galway, an innocuous chat with a businessmen about a broken table took a turn. Admonishing my ambivalence towards Catholicism, he threw down his rosary beads on the table, as if to declare his hand in a poker game. I recalled the sins of Irish missionaries that accompanied them Down Under. ‘I hate the English, they took our land’ he viscerally exclaimed. We found common ground and traded accommodation for a book.
In Co. Mayo, I shouldn’t have been surprised Roman Catholics can still gain Plenary Indulgences at Ireland’s holist mountain, Croagh Patrick, on certain conditions. This ancient and controversial doctrine, which helped spark the Reformation by promoting the ‘remission of the entire temporal punishment for sin’, was writ large in colourful signs beside a gift shop and paid parking.
Parallel universe India and Ireland
Just like I read Freedom at Midnight, about India’s struggle for independence, whilst crisscrossing the subcontinent, I read We Don’t Know Ourselves – A Personal History of Ireland to better understand the country since it became a Republic.
Journalist Fintan O’Toole speaks of how his country functioned within a parallel universe – of both the said and the unsaid. Of politicians professing morality whilst acting corruptly, of the dark patriarchy denouncing condoms whilst conceiving children. Of beseeching little children to come unto thee, unless you’re born out of wedlock and we decide to quietly sell you to Americans or bury you in an unmarked grave. Of a people critical of England, whilst willing to move there for more progressive lives and better pay. What we say is not always what we do.
Commentators speak of a country on the edge of Western Europe trying to extricate itself from centuries when church and State sung from the same script, to a fully functioning secular and responsible member of the EU. As Ireland’s Finance Minister recently proclaimed, we’re’ talking European, walking American, sounding Irish’.
An example is the Republics’ generosity to around 50,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian kids join Irish schools mid semester. Hotels and hostels are booked out in a country already lacking affordable housing with skyrocketing energy prices. The Irish know how it feels to be invaded by a bigger neighbour. By comparison, British Northern Ireland (NI) has welcomed around 1,200.
The North shifting identities
Now 25 years since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, it’s quieter in the North. Less Rat Tat Rat. Perhaps too quiet given the NI Assembly isn’t sitting to debate contentious policies like officially recognising the Irish and the Ulster Scots’ languages, and the devil in the detail of the poisonous Brexit protocol.
A copy of Irish Pages, obtained at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, provides plenty of food for thought. Edna Longley suggests The Belfast / Good Friday Agreement ‘perhaps should have been signed on All Souls Day to keep all ‘Lost Lives’ in mind.’ David Park compares the upbeat mood for peace on polling day 1998 that evaporated as politicians retreated back into their respective tribes, unable or unwilling to lead. Brexit not only undermined The Agreement, but threatens a fragile peace. Locals in Derry and Belfast spoke of tensions simmering below the surface, wishing their elected representatives would turn incompatible ‘aspirations’ into pragmatic outcomes.
All sides revert to the ballot box to try and work within a multiparty Assembly to deliver for the North, and will do so again soon. Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) is now the largest political party represented in the NI Assembly and the joint-largest party and the main opposition since 2020, in the Republic.
The release of the NI Census made for informative talk back radio. For the first time more people identified as Catholic than Protestant. Significantly, over 20 percent now identify neutrally as ‘Northern Irish’ and a record high number identify as having no religion. That all sides are now minorities maybe a good thing. No more crude sectarian headcounts based on tribalism to predict hegemony.
The Census also revealed a surge in people in the binational North applying for Irish passports, to accompany their British one – a pragmatic move to remain in the EU post Brexit’s finger to NI. Those born in the North are citizens of two nations connected by the most neutral participant in The Troubles – the Irish Sea.
Australia a longed-for tidal wave
Returning to Australia, it seems the tribal nature of politics in both countries is fracturing as more Independents / Non-Partisans are voted in. Meanwhile both countries remain plagued by the legacies of Rule Britannia. Colonial Ireland begat colonial Australia.
England’s collective indifference to the plight of NI (read Brexit) is similar in a way to some Australians’ indifference towards recognising our First Nations people through a Treaty and a formal Voice to Parliament. It’s a truism – minorities in both countries need to feel protected and respected in order to co-exist.
Our newish Federal Government could benefit from looking closely at what Ireland achieved for 26 of its 32 counties – a functioning parliamentary system within a Republic, with a symbolic figurehead kind of President weaved in. Irish on both sides of the border voted overwhelmingly to change their constitutions to cool simmering ancient wounds. So could we.
Seamus Heaney’s much quoted words still ring true for both nations: ‘History says, don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.’ Let’s hope.
Dr Patrick Morrisey has a Science Degree and a PhD in Environmental Politics. He is the author of Australians of the Great Irish Famine – One Clan’s Story (pjmpublications.com.au). Reviewed in Tinteán.org.au. October 2021.He is married with 2 children and divides his time between Sydney and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. firstname.lastname@example.org