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4 September 2003 Edition

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Ireland's Living History (Or how I spent my holidays)


I would have preferred writing this piece from the cities of Kilkenny or Cork or Galway, from Clonakility, Baltimore, Bantry, Dingle, Doolin or Lisdoonvarna.

But holidays over, it is from Belfast I write and it is about my holiday and the beautiful part of this country that I discovered this year.

I now know why tens of thousands of people from all over the world visit us, are overwhelmed by what they find, and keep coming back.

I am not a complete stranger to my own country. I know well the beauty of Donegal, especially, Bun Beag, where Gaelic becomes my first tongue, where I go frequently and I would move to Galway city in the morning except that I would end up in permanent tourist mode and would lose that special feeling I get on first sight of Eyre Square.

But there was something about this holiday that opened my eyes to Ireland in a way that has not happened before.

There was a freshness about travelling over one thousand miles and not seeing a Union Jack, kerbstones painted red, white and blue or having to pass under an orange arch.

You can travel from Dundalk along the East Coast to Cork across and up the West Coast to Blacklion in Sligo, passing through twelve counties, before your eyes are again assaulted by a huge military fortification at Belcoo in Fermanagh, reminding you of the ever present reality that part of Ireland is under military occupation.

In past years, my holidays were soaked up on a cheap flight to a sunny resort. I needed to escape from the pressure of being in the middle of an intense political situation and an addiction for listening to the news, hourly, which is the last thing you should do if you are trying to unwind, wherever you are.

However, no matter the holiday destination, I have long ago accepted that I can't escape politics; that's the type of person I am and my friends are the same.

But there is 'politics and politics' and on this holiday I enjoyed the levity, even if the political matters under discussion were weighty.

Still arguing over Collins

Béal na Bláth, the site of the ambush where Michael Collins died during the Civil war 81 years ago in August, was a place I always wanted to visit.

Collins has obviously loomed large in Irish history. His role in the independence struggle and the decisions he took which led to the Civil War and Partition becoming a political reality are massive. Ireland's politics are still shaped by those decisions.

So it isn't surprising that he isn't too far away from discussions I have had with many republicans over the last 30 years. To say those I speak with are divided over his life, the decisions he took and his death, would be an understatement (watch out for the forthcoming edition of the Ógra magazine, Spark, for a resumption of that debate).

You would, therefore, expect that Béal na Bláth, the site of such a momentous event in relatively recent history, would be easily found. Not so.

It is no distance at all from Cork city to the site, yet it requires an ability to read a map well and driving skills not normally called upon unless you are a rally driver negotiating winding roads.

I found the spot from perseverance and a bit of luck. Diamond's house pub sits at a crossroads, a welcome inn for a thirsty and curious traveller, beside a signpost for Béal na Bláth.

As we opened the door, we were greeted by the sound of melancholic songs about immigration being sung by a middle aged American woman and her friends, home to Ireland for a holiday.

We were enjoying the singing when a man next to me enquired, in a light Cork brogue, the reason for our visit.

I hardly had the words Béal na Bláth out and we were in the middle of a full blown history of the assassination, the circumstances leading up to it and the ubiquitous observation that de Valera should not have sent Collins to negotiate with Lloyd George. He should have done it himself.

Quite fortuitously, we had stumbled into Béal na Bláth's equivalent of Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley, whose tours of the City and Milltown cemeteries are renowned.

Kieran O'Callaghan took us to the ambush site and explained, in considerable detail, the layout of the land at the time and the way it has changed. He then took us to Crossbarry, the scene of one of the IRA's most successful operations against British forces, and expertly talked us through it.

And then we were on another journey around small lanes and winding roads in search of the memorial marking out the Upton ambush immortalised in one of my favourite ballads, 'The Lonely Woods of Upton For Sinn Féin'.

We were assisted on our way by another chance encounter with a local farmer herding cattle for milking, who did not pause for breath when asked for directions to the memorial.

And from there, Kieran took us to his home and his partner Jackie very generously made us Sunday dinner.

The conversation revolved around the IRA's operations during the Tan War, Collins and what might have been had he lived; the disappointment of de Valera, who unlike Collins, according to Kieran, had 40 years of power to do 'more about the North' and life in the Six Counties today.

We were in the company of a knowledgeable Collins follower, who did his best to convince us that Collins had no other option but to sign the Treaty.

He put forward some interesting points, which struck me as ultimately being academic, given that the Treaty led to the break up of the national independence movement, the marginalisation of republicans and that I and those who lived before me in the Six Counties had to live in a sectarian and violent society whose existence in large part could be traced to decisions Collins made.

And then it was off to Clonakility, where every street bears the name of a republican martyr from the 1916-'21 period and where the actor Liam Neeson unveiled a lifesize monument to Collins a few years ago, facing the house the Big Fella grew up in as a boy, which is marked with a plaque.

The town also has a monument to those who fought in 1798.

The United Irishmen theme and Wolfe Tone has pride of place in Bantry's town square close by, where there is an impressive statue of Tone at one end with a huge anchor from the French ship La Surveillante, which was scuttled off Whiddy island in Bantry Bay in 1796 and ended Tone's great hopes of a French landing involving 43 war ships and 16,000 soldiers to help him and his rising plans.

The anchor was raised a few years ago.

There is an excellent audio-visual exhibition of the French attempts to land in 1796 and the 1798 Rising inside the grounds of Bantry House, a very popular location for visiting tourists.

Also on prominent display in Wolfe Tone Square are the names of all those who died from the area during the Civil War.

Indeed, there are monuments dotted across both Cork and Kerry to those who died in the Tan War and the Civil War and it is obvious that these memorials are symbols of pride from another era.

They are all in good condition and well kept, an indication that local people retain an active and living interest in the history of the struggle for national independence and those who played a part.

They are part of the nationalist and republican constituency that Sinn Féin has to motivate and tap into.

Bring back Boycott

Euroscepticism, or more accurately the price of living, was on everyone's menu, irrespective of the time of day.

A woman in her late 70s, who moved from Scull to Cape Clear island in 1954 to raise her family, was moved to condemn the Euro and the killing of a West Belfast man by the Real IRA in the same breath. Such contempt is there for the Euro.

But it isn't the currency that is the problem. It is the price hike that has accompanied it and the as yet indifference of the people burdened by the escalating prices.

Seamus Martin, formerly with the Irish Times, now retired, wrote from his holiday villa in the south of France that there he can buy, amazingly, a three-course meal for §11.

Former Mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, told me that he and three other friends spent §64 between them on an impressive meal in a restaurant while on holiday on the coast of Italy.

Another Irish journalist, writing for the Irish Times from Germany, described the boycott movement that exists there since the Euro came in. It is monitoring the price of goods, and has forced the government and businesses to regulate prices downwards, not upwards, as has happened in the south of Ireland since the Euro was introduced.

The word 'boycott' originated in Ireland in the south-west in the 19th century in protest against unpopular landlords.

Perhaps it is time we followed the example set by the Germans and resurrected the boycott tactic here as well?

Fear of Islam

Fear of the Islamic religion was the topic of conversation at a dinner table in O'Connor's pub in Doolin.

A middle-aged Australian couple in Ireland for the first time were so concerned about the Islamic religion in Indonesia that they backed the invasion of Iraq.

They were proud of the fact that in the '60s they were part of the anti-Vietnam war movement and they recently visited the country as a gesture of solidarity because Australian troops fought there.

They supported the Palestinians and the peace process here but the suicide bombing in Bali which killed two hundred people forced them to look to north America for protection against what they called 'Islamic fundamentalism'.

'We need the Americans. Who else will protect us?' asked the husband.

The political fallout of the conflict in the Middle-East is creating an insecurity that does not favour those who advocate a radical view of politics.

Next summer I'm looking forward to spending my summer holidays here, but I'll plan it better.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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