The shadow that hung over our time in Ireland

Of course, the threat of Brexit didn't keep us from having plenty of craic. Here a couple of ladies from our group celebrate with some local lads on the evening of March 17.

Of course, the threat of Brexit didn’t keep us from having plenty of craic. Here a couple of ladies from our group celebrate with some local lads on the evening of March 17.

While we were in Ireland recently (March 13-22), we didn’t follow news all that closely — and we never let it spoil our fun — but we were aware that the biggest story in the Republic’s media was Brexit. Not just because it was a big drama playing out right next door, but because it was an issue with ominous implications for Ireland itself.

It might even, we kept hearing, bring back the Troubles. Here’s a fairly succinct description of the situation:

Brexit, in its most basic sense, means that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will exit from the European Union and, as voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum were told, will “take control” of its border. Brexiteers promised that the U.K. would be able to restrict the free movement of goods and people—thus abandoning the central commitment of E.U. countries—and discard E.U. regulations.

But the U.K.’s borders also draw a line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is—and will remain—a member of the E.U. The Irish border meanders for some three hundred miles through towns, villages, and the countryside, separating twenty-six counties in the Republic from six counties in the North—a division that emerged from the Irish War of Independence and the creation of the Irish Free State, in 1922.

Here’s the problem: the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland are parties to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which relies on the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland. For example, the accords created common Irish cross-border institutions, such as a joint parliamentary association, and removed the checkpoints and watchtowers at which British soldiers had been stationed during three decades of strife known as the Troubles. During those years—chronicled in Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, “Say Nothing”—the Irish Republican Army conducted a violent campaign to push the British out of Northern Ireland; unionist paramilitary groups, whose goal was to remain part of the U.K., committed their own acts of violence; and British forces were frequently complicit with the unionist paramilitaries and, at times, engaged in torture and illegal killings. Sinn Féin, the political party associated with the I.R.A., is also a party to the Good Friday Agreement, as are parties associated with unionist paramilitary organizations. The accords have worked, bringing peace.

This is the paradox and the tragedy: Brexit fundamentally conflicts with the Good Friday Agreement, but the U.K. government is in a state of denial about that conflict. It insists that it is committed both to Brexit and to the peace accord: Brexiteers claim that they can maintain a “frictionless” open border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit—in the same place that the newly hardened border with the E.U. will be….

Ireland doesn’t need that kind of tension on its border with Ulster, a place that will be freshly seething over what Britain has wrought upon them. Britain doesn’t either. Yet the U.K. keeps staggering toward what increasingly looks like a ragged, disorganized exit, with little provision made for the aftermath. That’s what government by referendum gets you.

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting that beautiful country, and hope and pray its future isn’t like its past. That past was always with us, and not just because of our tour manager, a bluff, ruddy Englishman who sometimes seemed to forget that this American tour group contained a healthy proportion of Irish Catholics (you’d think my brother-in-law’s name, Patrick Cooper Phelan, would have been a reminder to him). He made a number of references to the IRA, only he always said “IRA terrorists.”

But that’s nothing compared to the carelessness of his countrymen who voted for Brexit.

A Kilkenny street scene...

A Kilkenny street scene…

11 thoughts on “The shadow that hung over our time in Ireland

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    That headline is bothering me. It seems to belie the fact that, being on holiday, we felt no particular shadow, and had a great time day and night.

    The truth is that loads of craic was had, and had by us.

    But at the same time, we are not to forget the words from that refrigerator magnet in the gift shop behind the Dublin Writers’ Museum on Parnell Square:

    Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

    — W.B. Yeats

    1. Norm Ivey

      I’ve always liked this quote, but I am suspicious of it. I’ve just spent a fair amount of time searching, and while there are plenty of websites out there attributing this quote to Yeats, not one (that I’ve found) cites the source.

      There a ridiculous number of quotes attributed to Twain which he apparently never uttered or wrote. I wonder if this is a similar circumstance.

      I would hope, in a world not gone quite mad, that this would be easy to resolve. The UK is going to have to negotiate deals with each of the member countries of the EU, correct? It would seem a relatively simple thing to negotiate a deal that essentially keeps the agreements between Ireland and the UK as the status quo.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It may be a simple thing, but Parliament has been unable to figure it out.

        The problem is that the people who wanted Brexit don’t give a damn about Ireland.

        I like what Tom Friedman had to say about the situation:

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for the Yeats quote, note that I didn’t say Yeats said it; I said it was on a refrigerator magnet. 🙂

        That said, do you think the Dublin Writers Museum would foist a fake Yeats quote upon the world?

        Seriously, that place oozed legitimacy. There were just these artifacts in an old house that seemed like it might be inhabited by the two old aunts who host the party in “The Dead.” Aside from the headset things that allowed you to do a self-guided tour, the exhibits seemed very late 19th or early 20th century. No modern razzle-dazzle. I expected to round the corner and run into Leopold Bloom.

        It was so appealing to my fondness for anachronism that I wanted to take pictures, but they had the usual stupid rule against that. Seriously, what harm is done by taking pictures in a museum, and posting them so as to make other people want to visit the museum as well? I don’t get it. What is being protected?

        I’ve always assumed (and could be wrong) that this was related to the idea of protecting intellectual property — that somehow, showing pictures would keep people from coming to pay to see it. This seems fallacious to me.

        I’m reminded of this passage from that same Friedman column:

        Over centuries, notes John Hagel, who currently co-heads Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, business has “been organized around stocks of knowledge as the basis for value creation. The key to creating economic value has been to acquire some proprietary knowledge stocks, aggressively protect those knowledge stocks and then efficiently extract the economic value from those knowledge stocks and deliver them to the market. The challenge in a more rapidly changing world is that knowledge stocks depreciate at an accelerating rate. In this kind of world, the key source of economic value shifts from stocks to flows.

        “The companies that will create the most economic value in the future,” Hagel says, “will be the ones that find ways to participate more effectively in a broader range of more diverse knowledge flows that can refresh knowledge stocks at an accelerating rate.”…

        OK, the comparison’s not perfect, but I think it would be better for museums to let the stuff they have flow outward. I think that would increase, rather than decrease, the value of the collections…

        1. Norm Ivey

          I, too, enjoy places that strive to maintain authenticity to the period. My bride and I toured several Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Pennsylvania last summer (including Fallingwater), and a couple of them exhibited that level of authenticity–like the occupants who lived there 60 years ago had just stepped out for the moment. Another is owned by some British lord or something. He’s an art collector, and it was full of more recent art items, so it felt less cohesive. On the other hand, some of the art was impressive, including a couple of John Lennon original sketches, so that aspect was pretty cool. The Wright house near Beaufort (Auldbrass) is owned by Joel Silver (film producer, DieHard, among others), and there are several movie awards in the home, and they look glaringly out of place.

          Fallingwater had the same prohibition against photography unless you paid for the in-depth tour (which we did). We were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted. I think you’re right–the reason for the prohibition is to protect the value of the intellectual property. The owner or foundation expects to be paid for images of the interior. Pay extra for the tour, or buy this beautiful coffee table book.

          We’re going to be staying in Price Tower in Oklahoma this summer. It’s the only Wright-designed skyscraper ever completed (or something like that).

          I know I read The Dead in school, and I remember liking it, but I can’t recall anything about it now except the ending. I need to re-visit it.

          There’s a story that has been sticking in my head, and I can’t recall the title, the author or even much of the plot. I just remember that one of the characters lived his entire life believing that something extraordinary or remarkable was going to happen to him, and it never did. Does that sound familiar to you?

        2. mottemom

          as a volunteer at HCF here in town, I’m aware now that many objects in museums are ‘on loan’, ( privately owned ) hence the no photos dictum. It is a pity, though. Of course, there are those who take them anyway, blithely ignoring or missing the signage requests. Like the sign on the dam walk…. ‘no dogs allowed’ …. though I know my fur friend would love it.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    As for the Irish sense of tragedy….

    I went over there determined not to talk about my ancestor Strongbow, who started the Norman/English domination of Ireland back in 1170.

    But I didn’t have to. Everyone else did — including our English guide, who as I say was not a master of tact.

    Which of course made me even MORE resolved to be quiet about my connection. After all, this was the old country, where people might very well hold you accountable for what your forebears did….

    I’m going to do a separate post about that at some point, as much as that will bother people who get tired of me and my genealogy obsession…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The place is littered with reminders, to the point that people paid little mind to them.

      There were so many medieval towers scattered across the countryside that our guide stopped pointing them out. And when my wife and I walked around Limerick on our own (which may or may not have been wise in “Stab City“), we kept running into large sections of the city wall dating back to the time of King John’s castle. There were no historical markers. People just lived their lives right up against those stones, as though they were natural parts of the landscape…

  3. Mr. Smith

    “That’s what government by referendum gets you.”

    Not necessarily. Your assumption conflates two different things: the referendum and what’s happened since. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a referendum followed by agreement about what should happen as a result of it. The fact that in this particular case Parliament – more specifically the Conservative Party – has been unable to agree does not flow automatically from the referendum itself.


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