How many of you know about the 400+ year conflict that simmered, raged, then (mostly) fizzled out in Ireland? If you do not know about the tension between the Irish Catholics and Protestants — no worries — I didn’t know very much either aside from the “highlights” that I learned in college and as a teaching assistant (still learning 🙂 ), including the rise of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Good Friday Agreement, and the official divide between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (one of the UK’s four constituent countries).
Today, I write to you from a Wild Rovers tour bus in the Irish countryside. I am on a short solo vacation and this morning our bus departed from Ireland’s capital city Dublin toward the Northern Irish capital Belfast. Along the way, our very knowledgeable and patriotic tour guide, Richard, began to recount to us the long and troubled history surrounding his homeland.
The division between Ireland and Northern Ireland is more than just a border (in fact, crossing over the dividing “line” is no more difficult than driving between Massachusetts and New Hampshire). Regardless, Richard quickly disabused us of the notion that the Irish and British are more or less the same people. In ancient times, Great Britain and Ireland were close — there was even a land bridge connecting the two. However, the Roman invasion of Britain (beginning in 43AD) led to rapid modernization with the erection of roads and other city infrastructure. Ireland, conversely, with its Celtic population remained largely rural even after the Viking invasion beginning in the 800s. Ireland and Great Britain grew apart until English speakers began to emigrate to the island in the 1500s, bringing Protestantism with them. Religious wars ravaged Europe in the 1600s and changes in the British monarchy led to a state-sponsored impoverishment of the Catholic population.
The southern, agricultural part of Ireland was hit hard by the Irish potato famine (which they call “The Great Hunger”) in the late 1840s (one million died and two million eventually emigrated), while the more industrialized north fared better. Around WWI, “Home Rule” was passed, which led to the incorporation of six counties in Ireland’s northern province of Ulster under British rule, partitioning the country. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were persecuted — they lost their right to vote and own land, which effectively made them second-class citizens in their own country. The tensions accelerated in the 1950s and peaked in the early 1970s (this overarching period is known as “the Troubles,” which is characterized by violence, and notably bomb threats — consider that the next time you order an “Irish Car Bomb” at the bar and remember that more than 3,500 were left dead).
The conflict gained more international attention in 1981 when ten hunger strikers, led by the well-known political figure Bobby Sands perished in a Northern Irish prison. In 1985, a law was passed to allow Northern Irish citizens to choose their citizenship — Irish or British (this provision, which still exists, is, perhaps, even more significant now, as only Irish citizenship comes with EU membership as a result of the 2016 Brexit referendum). The conflict came to an end of sorts in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which spelled out the governance structure of Northern Ireland. Regardless, today, many in Northern Ireland still live in segregated neighborhoods and the 20-foot wall dividing Belfast still stands. On our tour, one guide proudly announced that the Nationalist party (representing the Catholics) won the parliamentary majority for the first time in history, which signifies more support for Irish re-unification. The guide conjectures that Irish reunification is only a matter of time, basing his prediction on the fact that despite its continuingly important strategic position on the North Atlantic, Northern Ireland is no longer as economically significant to the UK as it once was. The guide went on to say that he believes (or just hopes) that Ireland will be whole again maybe not in his lifetime but in his children’s.
On the tour, we visited west Belfast, viewed the political murals, and stopped on Bombay Street to see the infamous Wall. Although the streets are quiet, the conflict in Ireland has not ended. If you get a chance to visit Ireland, do consider extending your travels to the north to learn about these tensions firsthand while those who lived through the Troubles are still around to tell their side of the story.