There are estimated to be over 40 million Americans of Irish or (in most cases) partly Irish origin. Of these, rather more than half are descended from Irish Protestants. But very few of these think of themselves as Irish. Being white, Protestant, and English-speaking, they were eligible to join the long-dominant WASP club in American society and they duly joined it. They stressed their Protestantism to the exclusion of their Irishness, for the simple reason that Protestantism was advantageous in America, Irishness disadvantageous. Irishness was especially disadvantageous from the midnineteenth century on, when it came to mean “famine Irish.” So in America, as in other parts of the English-speaking world, Irish came to mean Catholic Irish, exclusively.
Of the 20 million or so Catholics who are of Irish or partly Irish (and often mainly Irish) descent, most are no more than vaguely and intermittently aware of the Ireland of today. Few are actively sympathetic to the IRA. But many are conditioned, by the Irish Catholic folk-memory, to believe a large part of the IRA’s case, whenever they happen to think of it. They can readily believe that anything bad that happens in Ireland is caused by the British. And they are conditioned not to believe that the reason why Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom is that this is what a majority of the population of Northern Ireland want.
The more sophisticated, among those who take much interest in these matters, know the politically correct Irish-nationalist answer: Northern Ireland is an artificially created entity (unlike the island of Ireland) and therefore has no right to exist. The less sophisticated (among those who know the facts of the matter) have a less complicated and more honest answer: that the people who want to remain part of the United Kingdom are Protestants, descended from settlers, and so have no right to be in any part of Ireland in the first place. A white American might find that argument a bit incongruous, coming from people who are themselves descendants of settlers. And as it happens, the ancestors of the Ulster Protestants settled in Eastern Ulster at about the same time as the first whites settled in North America.
Other nationalist interpretations of Northern Ireland are available. Near the beginning of the present troubles, in the early Seventies, I heard the New York lawyer Paul O’Dwyer offer one such, in a radio interview. He had been going on, at first, in an accustomed vein: that all the deaths in and around Northern Ireland, including those inflicted by the IRA, are “caused by British imperialism.” Then his interviewer’s line of questioning led him to break some new ground. “What,” the interviewer wanted to know, “about the Ulster Protestants?” “What about them?” said Paul. “The Ulster Protestants are fine, hard-working people who can make a great contribution to a united Ireland.” “Why aren’t they making it, then?” the interviewer wanted to know. O’Dwyer’s answer was: “The British won’t let them.” Paul O’Dwyer is an intelligent, well-informed man, and he knew that statement to be untrue. But he also knew that many of his listeners were so poorly informed about Ireland that they might believe what he said. And what fervent nationalist, of any nation, would refuse to tell at a thumping lie, in the good cause, if there was even an outside chance that somebody out there might be fool enough to believe it?
The actual news from modern Ireland finds it impossible to pass through the grid of the Irish American folk-memory, to reach modern Americans of Irish descent. Certain events that occurred in Ireland in late March of this year stuck in that grid and caused pain to some Irish Americans. The New York Times carried a report of these events, dated March 28, under the headline: “20,000 Rally in Dublin for Peace in North and Against I.R.A. Killing.” The report datelined Dublin and signed James F. Clarity opened as follows:
An estimated 20,000 Irish men and women rallied today in favor of peace in Northern Ireland and against the Irish Republican Army, whose bombs eight days ago in Warrington, England, killed two children.
Since Monday, throngs have come to downtown Dublin to sign condolence books and leave gifts of teddy bears and bouquets in memory of the two boys, 3-year-old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry. The successive demonstrations, including the one today, have been the largest and most intense public expression of anger at the I.R.A. and of demands that politicians work harder for a peaceful settlement of the Protestant-Roman Catholic conflict that has killed 3,053 people since 1969.
The events faithfully chronicled by Mr. Clarity are of course exceedingly distasteful to fervent Irish nationalists. I can see vividly in my mind’s eye the scornful grimaces with which they hear of “condolence books…. teddy bears and bouquets,” all from Irish people, in tribute to a couple of British youngsters who happened to be killed in the course of an action undertaken by brave Irish patriots. The correct response of proper nationalists to Warrington is of course: “The two deaths are deplorable, but the IRA is not to blame for them. The boys, like all the other victims of the violence, are victims of British imperialism and the British occupation of Northern Ireland.”
Yet there is no doubt that the actual response of most Irish people to the deaths of the boys was not the “correct” one, but that described by Mr. Clarity. For Irish American nationalists, contemplating such developments, the lesson is that the Irish in Ireland have grown soft, and out of touch with their own history. And on April 5, a little more than a week after that report from Dublin, The New York Times carried an article which interpreted the events described in the report precisely along those lines. Whether or not the article was published in response to Irish American nationalist pressure I cannot say, but it was certainly satisfactory to that section of opinion.
The New York Times article was published under the headline “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” with the more pointed subheading “British policy sustains the cycle of terror.” The article was by Andrew O’Hehir, described as senior editor of San Francisco Weekly. At first sight it might not seem clear why The New York Times should turn to San Francisco for an authoritative interpretation of a report from Dublin. Yet there is a kind of logic in the choice. If the Irish living in Ireland are as dopey a lot as the author of “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” depicts them as being, then if you are in quest of clear Irish thinking, the further you can get from actual Ireland the better. Mr. O’Hehir, at a distance of six thousand miles from the scene is, on this reasoning, exceptionally qualified to interpret it. And he does so with confidence, and a spicy dash of radical chic:
The rally represented a repudiation of the shadowy organization that claims to represent the Irish soul, that proclaims its legacy of bloodshed and martyrdom to be entwined with the deepest Irish sense of self.
But the I.R.A.’s claim, I’m afraid, is not easily dismissed. The group is best understood as the product of two forces; centuries of British colonial oppression and Irish denial of the meaning of that experience.
Respectable Irish opinion has long opposed the I.R.A. campaign of violence aimed at ending British rule in Northern Ireland. However, the relationship between the Irish and the I.R.A. is a complicated psychological transaction that can’t be addressed by speeches or captured in opinion polls. Many who oppose I.R.A. terrorism privately admit to halfburied feelings of anti-British resentment and to a grudging admiration for the group’s resolute defiance.
In this light, the guerrillas’ brutal acts can be seen as the stirrings of a dark medieval unconsciousness behind the facade of contemporary respectability. As long as Ireland refuses to confront the post-colonial trauma that distorts virtually all aspects of its social, cultural and political life this dysfunctional pattern is unlikely to end.
This in-depth analysis contains no reference to the basic fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom because most of its citizens want it that way. O’Hehir ignores that, even when he is speculating about Britain’s reasons for remaining in Northern Ireland:
Rational British policy would dictate jettisoning Northern Ireland. But nations rarely act on a rational basis alone. Perhaps abandoning the final lump of empire is too bitter a pill for the British Establishment to swallow.
In reality, Northern Ireland is one “lump of empire” that the British establishment, and most British people, would happily do without, as indeed the present secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, acknowledged in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit. But it would be difficult, and without international precedent, to expel from the United Kingdom a million people who want to stay in it, and who are in a majority in the province they inhabit. O’Hehir never refers directly to the existence of the Ulster Protestants. Anyone who thinks of the British “occupation” of Northern Ireland as sustained by force alone would find nothing in “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep” to disturb this illusion.
There is just one reference in the article, very near the end, to the sectarian-political divide which is at the heart of the violence in and around Northern Ireland. The reference is obscure and portentous, like much else in the article. It runs: “And Ireland must face its history of violence and victimhood if Catholic-Protestant peace is ever to be possible.” Immediately after providing that hasty and confused glimpse of the reality, O’Hehir goes happily back to his Britbashing theme, with this peroration: “But that process must not obscure a central fact: British policy created and feeds the cycle of hatred and killing in which the Irish and British remain trapped.”
When I read “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep,” I asked The New York Times, through my agent, to give me space for a reply. They told my agent that they were willing to publish an article by me about Northern Ireland, but stipulated that I was not to refer to Mr. O’Hehir’s article. This was no use to me, since what I wanted to do was to expose that specific and blatant exercise in disinformation. So I turned to The New York Review of Books. Hence the present article.
The thesis of “Ireland’s Troubled Sleep”—“British policy sustains the cycle of terror”—is untrue in the sense intended in the article. If Northern Ireland were to be expelled from the United Kingdom, and British troops withdrawn in consequence, the processes of “ethnic cleansing” already at work in Northern Ireland would speedily attain Bosnian proportions. The Protestant and unionist leaders would declare the independence of Northern Ireland and send their security forces into Catholic and nationalist areas to flush out the IRA, thus ending the “kid glove methods” and “no-go areas” for which Protestants at present denounce the British government.