Irish History 101

Most of my knowledge of Ireland’s history before I lived in Ireland was informed by the movies. The 1845-52 potato famine where the poor in Ireland left in their droves for a better life in the new world (Tom Cruise moved to America in “Far and Away”).  The Irish struggle for independence from England in the early 20th century (Liam Neeson in “Michael Collins”). Then continuing armed internal conflict in Northern Ireland (Brad Pitt was smuggling guns for the IRA in “The Devil’s Own” and Daniel Day Lewis was wrongfully convicted for a bomb blast in England in “In the name of the Father”).

2016 marked the 100-year anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising where Irish republicans fought for Ireland’s independence from England while England was a little preoccupied with World War I. There were posters and tours about this uprising all over Dublin.  The uprising only lasted a few days and was crushed swiftly and brutally by the English. The leaders of the rebellion were rounded up and a number of them executed before international pressure brought an end to the executions. One of the sparks leading to internal outcry was the tragic love story of a betrothed couple, Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett, who got married in Kilmainham Goal seven hours before Joseph’s 6am execution in front of a firing squad. The repercussions of the uprising eventually led to an independent Ireland in 1922 but with 6 counties in the north insisting to remain part of England forming Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland

I did a day-trip on a Saturday from Dublin to Northern Ireland seeing all the main tourist sights: The Dark Hedges, the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, Giant’s causeway, Dunluce Castle and Belfast. It was a beautiful tour with breath-taking panoramic views of green cliffs and the cold black, choppy ocean with Scotland in the distance. A fascinating part of the trip for me was the hexagonal inter-locking basalt columns that form the Giant’s causeway.

The name of the Giant’s causeway originates from the story of a bridge between Ireland and Scotland built by the Irish giant, Finn McCool, who challenged a Scottish giant to a duel. There are similar hexagonal basalt columns on the Isle of Staffa at the edge of Scotland inspiring the idea of a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland.  When Finn McCool approached the Scottish giant on the bridge and realized how big he was, Finn ran back home in fright. Finn’s cunning wife dressed him up as a baby and when the Scottish giant followed him, knocking on his door, and saw this massive baby, he was too afraid to stick around and fight with the baby’s much bigger father. The Scottish giant ran back to Scotland destroying most of the bridge on the way.

The science of the hexagonal rocks was a bit fudged over in the visitor’s centre explained in broad strokes by the expansion and contraction of molten lava. Not satisfied with this explanation, Google revealed that the basalt rocks were formed in long cylinders pushing against each other as they expanded with no space between each column forcing them into hexagonal shapes. For me there are some similarities with these rocks and the reasons behind the hexagonal shape of the honey comb. For one of my Irish work colleagues, the mystifying and inexplicable Giant’s causeway stones hints at the existence of aliens.

The Troubles

The other interesting part of the trip was our tour guide’s explanation and stories about The Troubles. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and things have been relatively stable since the 1998 Good Friday agreement which brought an end to the thirty-year conflict between the nationalists (IRA) who wanted to become part of Ireland (also catholic) and the unionists who wanted to remain part of England (and were protestant). A period euphemistically known as “the Troubles”. During the Troubles the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was highly militarized and it took hours to drive from Dublin to Belfast on windy roads. Construction on the super highway linking Dublin and Belfast was only finally completed in 2010 and now it takes about two hours.

Brexit has brought the fragile peace in Northern Ireland into question with most of Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU and the real possibility for reconstructing the physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It’s easy to forget that the conflict was only recently resolved. But for our tour guide, a former long-haul truck driver, who lost friends in a bomb blast at a popular petrol station along his route, it felt like just the other day.

As an outsider, it’s difficult to understand why Northern Ireland would want to remain part of the UK and not try to unify with Ireland or seek its own independence. But driving through many roads in Northern Ireland with Union Jacks waving proudly for the passing Irish tour busses there is clearly still a proactive strong pro-British sentiment amongst many. Some cite the religious divisions between the protestants and the Catholics as fueling the simmering underlying tension. But the reality is that Northern Ireland is heavily subsidized by Britain, health care as part of the NHS is free (in Ireland it costs up to  60-75 Euros per consultation) and a large number of its people are employed by the Northern Ireland government sponsored by the British. It’s still a sensitive topic for most Irish and although one can really not predict the future I hope for the best. But then again we once thought that the tales of Brexit and Trump were the stuff of myths and legends…