It hasn’t just been about singing ‘Danny Boy’: in Ulster it’s meant death and destruction

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, visiting Boston, gave a brave interview in that great, and very Catholic, City last week. Brave, because it contained the following response to the question as to whether or not he felt a connection between Ireland and Boston:

“I have no relatives in the United States of America, which is unusual for an Irishman. My father’s eldest brother’s children all emigrated to Canada . . . So I have no feeling for Irish-Americanism. I don’t understand it . . . American sentimentalism for a country they don’t know, it’s not my dish.” I, as it happens have some direct experience of Boston “Irish-Americanism”.

I had gone there for a discussion with the then Archbishop, Cardinal Law, who was in overall supervising control of the Anglican Use semi-jurisdiction, a kind of forerunner of the Ordinariate (I’ve been involved in all this for years).

The Cardinal introduced me to his secretary, then said, mischievously, Dr Oddie is an Englishman. Mrs so and so is Irish, he explained, as she glowered at me, she doesn’t like the English. Why not, I asked, puzzled: well because of the way you persecuted Irish Catholics, she said. Yes, I said, but they cruelly persecuted English Catholics, too, probably worse; I’m an English Catholic”. This was not a part of Catholic history of which she had been previously aware. She just knew that the Irish are supposed to hate the English.

Nor had she ever been to Ireland, about which she clearly knew nothing at all. I was an undergraduate in Dublin (one of the best decisions of my life) over fifty years ago, long before the vast improvement in Anglo-Irish relations that has taken place in recent years. In all my time there, including an extra postgraduate year, despite my evident Englishness I never once encountered anything but friendliness and courtesy.

From Irish Americans, I have through the years encountered a certain amount of discourtesy. “I’m Irish”, was the explanation, the first time I came across this phenomenon. “Really” I replied, genuinely puzzled, I wasn’t being a smartass; “you sound American to me: what part of Ireland do you come from?” He, too, had never been to Ireland. Neither had his father or his grandfather. But they all called themselves simply “Irish”, tout court.

“I don’t understand it”, said Archbishop Martin last week; “American sentimentalism for a country they don’t know, it’s not my dish”. Well, it’s not my dish, either. It can be entirely harmless, of course (though the real Irish do sometimes regard the phenomenon with puzzlement) and it does help the tourist trade. I remember, one St. Patrick’s day, in the entrance hall of a Dublin hotel, watching in astonishment as a group of Irish Americans, all dressed in bright emerald-green suits, stood drinking pints of bright green beer and smoking huge bright green cigars.

I expressed my amazement to the Hall porter, who simply replied, “Ah, sure, they’re enjoying themselves, and it does no harm”. Well, to be fair, it’s part, I suppose, not just of Irish American sentimentalism, but of a general tendency in the American mind to generate Disneyfied versions of other countries; but I’m not sure (certainly in countries which become over-reliant on the tourist trade) that that does no harm. Americans are a great and creative people. When you’re in America, the very many reasons there are to admire, respect and like them a lot quickly become very evident. That’s not always true outside the US (mind you, foreigners don’t always love the Brits who visit them, and neither do I).

Back to Ireland. Irish-American sentimentalism has been responsible for very much worse things than emerald-green suits: until 9/11 (when the penny finally dropped in the US, that you can’t on your own soil allow open and unimpeded support for terrorism abroad, either) it brought death and destruction as well. Only Libya supplied more financial aid and more weapons and logistical support to the Provisional IRA than Irish Americans did. The Provos were responsible for the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 630 civilians. But it was OK to collect money on the streets of Boston and New York for the funding of all this death and destruction as long as you knew the words and music to “Have you ever been across the sea to Ireland?” (answer, in most cases, no) and “Danny Boy”.

Archbishop Martin again: “Irish-Americanism… it’s not my dish”. Your Grace, many others feel the same, including (quite literally) thousands of widows and orphans in the six counties and throughout the rest of the UK, too. “Ah, sure, they do no harm”. Well, even about that small, peaceable, fuddled group of green beer drinkers, I begin to wonder: had none of them, perhaps walking down Fifth Avenue, ever reached into their wallets for a ten dollar bill, as someone approached them, smiling, with a bright green collecting box?