m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

July 1994

The Roots of My Preoccupations

by Conor Cruise O'Brien

In this, his second autobiographical essay, the author tells of his government career in Catholic Ireland near the end of the Second World War, of his discovery of the major themes of his intellectual life, and of the motives that impelled the Irish Prime Minister to pay a (universally condemned) condolence call on the German legation at the news of Hitler's death

In 1944 I joined the Irish Department of External Affairs. I was transferred there, at my request, from the Department of Finance, where I had served for two undistinguished but instructive years.

Two questions arise: Why did I want to go there? And why did the department accept me?

Let me begin with the second question. Anyone who knew the department as it was in those days, and who knew me, would have thought it highly improbable that the department would accept me. Joseph P. Walshe, the secretary--that is, permanent head--of the department, was an exceptionally devout Catholic, even by the exacting standards of the Ireland of the first half of the twentieth century. He had served thirteen years of the novitiate for the Jesuit order before being rejected on grounds of ill health. Rome, for Walshe, was still the center of the civilized world. And not only papal Rome but also political Rome in the thirties and early forties. Mussolini had been his hero, both as anti-communist champion and as restorer of the glories of Rome. A memo of his, in June of 1940, reveals him as exhilarated by the victories of the Axis (as he saw it; they were of course really German) and implies that Irish neutrality should be revised in a pro-Axis sense. He hoped to see Ireland aligned, after the war, with Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, and Mussolini's Italy, forming a stabilizing Catholic element within the New Order, which he expected would follow the victory of the Axis. By 1944, of course, this blissful vision was fading fast. But Walshe's outlook did not change. He was always an extreme-right-wing Catholic in his personal views. His official position was significantly different. I shall come to that.

To a person holding those views, my CV was necessarily repulsive. My secondary school, Sandford Park, in Dublin, was a nondenominational school for boys. The boys were the children of Protestants, liberal Jews, and dissident Catholics--roughly a third of each description. From Joe Walshe's point of view, this was the most disreputable and morally contagious collection and environment that one could find in Catholic Ireland, with one exception: Trinity College, Dublin, an Anglican foundation, then under ban by the Catholic Church. No Catholic could attend it without a dispensation without committing a mortal sin. From Sandford Park, I went to Trinity College, without asking for a dispensation: a second large black mark in Walshe's book.

Others followed. In 1938, as a delegate from Trinity College to the annual conference of the Irish Labour Party, I made an anti-Franco speech, causing uproar among a section of the other delegates, and therefore hitting the front pages of the Dublin newspapers. This defined me as being on the far left of the Irish Labour Party in those days. From the point of view of the Catholic far right, an anti-Franco activist was just as bad as a Communist. The rumor spread that I actually was a Communist. Few people really believed this, but it clung to me vaguely, as an element in my reputation, and was revived occasionally during my official career. It didn't do me nearly as much harm as it would have done an American. I was to have quite a good official career, ending up with ambassadorial rank after seventeen years of service. Irish people didn't really care much about communism. They were against it when they thought about it, but they seldom thought about it. Catholicism, on the other hand, was something they did think quite a lot about, in one way or another, and it was my real relation to Catholicism, not my rumored one to communism, that was of most interest to people considering my case. That relation was an unusual one. There was nothing unusual even then about not believing in Catholicism. What was unusual then was to acknowledge publicly that you did not believe in Catholicism. There would be nothing unusual about that in the Ireland of the 1990s. It is common form. But fifty years ago it was very rare indeed. About the only people around who were behaving in that way in those days were my cousin Owen Sheehy-Skeffington and me. It is interesting that this did absolutely no harm to my public career around the mid-century--a time when the authority of a triumphant Catholic Church appeared to be overwhelmingly strong, in the media and in public life. But I think many educated people--including many in the public service--already resented that authority and, while being discreet about this themselves, had some respect for a person who publicly rejected it altogether.

However that may be, Joseph P. Walshe, who was secretary of the Department of External Affairs in 1944 (and remained in that position until he became Ireland's ambassador to the Holy See, in 1946) had no respect whatever for such a person. So the question is, How did I get past Joe Walshe? This is not easy to account for. In 1939 I had filled up the cup of my iniquities, in Joe's eyes, by my marriage. My first wife, Christine Foster, belonged to a Belfast Presbyterian family. The marriage was in a registry office and was therefore no marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So from Joe's point of view, I was up to my neck in mortal sin, and even living in the stuff. I was also politically unsound, to a high and heinous degree, owing to my public attack on Franco--clearly no fit person to be a member of Catholic Ireland's Department of External Affairs. Yet I was duly appointed to the department, which therefore was not Catholic Ireland's (only) or Joe Walshe's, as much as Joe would have liked it to be. Why?

My "Dev" Connection

The reason, I think, is that the decision was taken at a higher level. Under God there was only one higher level. This consisted of Eamon de Valera, then Minister for External Affairs as well as Taoiseach (Prime Minister). You may perhaps think it unlikely that so exalted a person should interest himself in a junior appointment: I entered his department, after all, as a third secretary, the lowest form of diplomatic life. But Ireland is a small country, the Department of External Affairs was then a very small department, and Dev would certainly have been consulted about any proposed diplomatic appointment, even at entry level.

Although Joe and Dev were both believing and practicing Catholics, they were very different in their political and social outlooks. The matters that damned me in Joe's eyes would not have hurt me at all in Dev's. Dev would have regarded my religion as my own private affair, and no business of his. He had himself defied the authority of the Church in the matter of the acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and so incurred excommunication during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). Nor would that anti-Franco speech have worried him. Catholic dictators left him cold. At the League of Nations he had supported sanctions against Joe's hero, Benito Mussolini, after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and his opponents had then played the "Catholic Italy" (betraying of) card against him. They later denounced him for failing to support the paladin of the Catholic faith, General Francisco Franco, in the Spanish Civil War. When Joe discussed me with Dev, he would have known better than to raise any such objections against me. After twelve years of serving under Dev, Joe knew his Taoiseach too well for that.

As it happened, Joe Walshe had special reasons for minding his ps and qs where Dev was concerned. If my own past activities were worse than suspect in Joe's eyes, so were Joe's in Dev's. In 1932, the year in which De Valera's Fianna Fáil came into power for the first time, the Department of External Affairs, with Joe Walshe at its head, had been in charge during the general election of a subtle "anti-communist" smear campaign directed against De Valera. This could happen owing to circumstances surrounding the recent foundation of the state. Only a decade before, the state had been founded in civil war. After the war had been won, the winning side naturally had a monopoly on public office at every level. Its opponents, after all, were the enemies of the new state itself. There was no "loyal opposition" around (except for the small Labour Party), at least in the first five years. In 1927 the situation changed significantly when De Valera entered the Dáil (Parliament), thus recognizing the legitimacy of the new state, which he had formerly denied, in 1922 lending his prestige to the challenge of its armed enemies. But there were those who refused to credit Dev's apparent acceptance of the state. The intellectual head of this school of thought was Joseph P. Walshe.

What I Learned From
Joe Walshe

The general election of 1932 was an exceptionally dramatic and exciting affair, pitting as it did the adversaries in the civil war of a decade before against each other once more, this time in a purely democratic contest. That the contest was in general fairly conducted was demonstrated by the result, in that the governing party lost. But there are always some dirty tricks in any election campaign, and in this case the Department of External Affairs was the Department of Dirty Tricks. Under Walshe's personal supervision, the department fed to the press (in suitably laundered form) a number of anti-Dev reports and articles. These did not depict Dev as a Communist (which would have been silly, as nobody would have believed it). They depicted him as "a Kerensky"--a person whose arrival in office would be a stage on the road to communism, because he would be incapable of countering its wiles or of resisting its rise.

This use of a government department for party-political purposes was obviously highly improper, but Joe Walshe didn't think he had to worry about that. He and his friends were quite confident that "the long fellow," as they called him in those days, would lose. But they were wrong. The long fellow won.

I was fifteen in the year of that election, and I remember experiencing a certain sense of liberation at the result, ending as it did the rule of what I felt to be an oppressively clerical government. Joe Walshe's feelings about the same event must have been very different. Joe knew that Dev knew what he had been up to in the campaign, so Joe also knew that Dev was about to sack him unless he, Joe, could come up with something clever. And what Joe came up with, in those stimulating circumstances, was quite brilliant.

As the reader will have gathered, I am not in a general way an admirer of the late Joseph P. Walshe. But I find it impossible to withhold a certain kind of admiration for the man's response to what was certainly the greatest challenge of his official career. He fended off the challenge with an eye for an opening and an uninhibited ruthlessness in exploiting it which would have earned full marks from the author of The Prince.

"The Story of How Joe Walshe Saved the Department" was told to me shortly after I joined that department. My informant was Michael Rynne, the legal adviser, and a close associate of Walshe's. He had been one of the team who pumped out the "Kerensky" stuff, on departmental time and with government money, during the 1932 elections. This team of civil-service politicians made up "the Department" that Joe Walshe saved, and save them he certainly did, along with his own skin. The political context was this: The Irish Free State (as what is now the Republic of Ireland was then officially called) was at this time still part of the British Empire, then evolving into the British Commonwealth. Its status was effectively that of a dominion, and like the other dominions, it had a governor-general. That governor-general in 1932 was James McNeill, who had been appointed on the recommendation of the previous government. McNeill was therefore on the same side, politically, as Joe Walshe. Or rather, he was on the side that Joe Walshe had been on until he studied the election returns of 1932.

For the government of a dominion to downgrade a governor-general was technically and legally impossible. The governor-general was appointed by the Crown, and an attempt to downgrade him without his consent would cause a crisis in Anglo-Irish relations and a constitutional crisis, alarming to Irish public opinion. De Valera wished to avoid this. This is where Joe Walshe saw his opportunity. He went to De Valera immediately after Dev's installation as Taoiseach and asked permission to call on the governor-general and advise him to resign. Permission was accorded, and Joe Walshe duly obtained McNeill's resignation. De Valera was thus enabled to recommend a self-effacing successor, who effectively downgraded the office for him without any trouble, thus fulfilling a campaign promise that had been looking a bit dodgy.

Joe Walshe in this way succeeded in conveying two messages to his new Taoiseach. The first was that Joe could furnish valuable service with remarkable efficiency. The second was that he was prepared to sacrifice his former associates in the service of his new master. Successful politicians value servants of that type, even though they may not particularly esteem them. So Joe stayed on, as secretary of the department he had so deftly saved. He was to spend the next sixteen years in the faithful service of the disastrous "Kerensky" whose emergence he had fought so hard to avert.

In 1944--which is where I came in--Walshe was still secretary, and still a force to be reckoned with. But his star was on the wane; the rising star was his deputy, Frederick Henry Boland, of whom more anon. This was because Joe was known to be pro-Axis--not the flavor of the year in 1944. It was to Freddie Boland, and not to Joe, that the ambassadors who counted in that year--the American and the British--would talk freely. It followed that it was Freddie, rather than Joe, who had De Valera's ear. This had a bearing on my own acceptance by the Department of External Affairs. I shall come to that. But first it is necessary to give a brief account of De Valera and Irish neutrality.

Hitler: Dev's Condolence

Dev was not a neutralist in principle. He had valued the League of Nations, provisionally. Ireland was a member of the League. The League's Covenant, if observed, offered protection to small countries. Dev therefore thought strict observance of the Covenant to be in Ireland's interests. For that reason he supported sanctions against Italy after Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. This was a courageous policy for an Irish leader: the opposition in the Dáil denounced Dev for "stabbing Catholic Italy in the back." If sanctions had been seriously applied--specifically, if Britain had closed the Suez Canal to Italian shipping--war might well have resulted. Ireland, having supported the sanctions, would have been part of that League war. The same would have been true if war had broken out in 1938 as a result of France's adherence to its commitment to defend Czechoslovakia. That would have been a League war too. But after Munich the League and its repeatedly violated Covenant no longer counted. Apart from the actual course of events, the document that started the Second World War was a unilateral British guarantee to Poland. To bring Ireland into war over a unilateral British guarantee to another country was never a possible option for De Valera. If he had tried to move in that direction, he would have had his own party against him, along with most of the rest of the country. So Ireland was neutral, by force in part of its history and in part of the circumstances in which the war broke out. We couldn't just follow Britain into war.

De Valera took care, however, to maintain relations with Britain as good as were possible in the circumstances. He assured the British that he would never allow Ireland to be used as a base for attack on Britain. This meant clamping down on the IRA, which Dev did with a will, interning most of its members and hanging some. The IRA, in its efforts to help Nazis and get them "to help Ireland," was acting on Wolfe Tone's dictum "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity." Tone was the father of Irish Republicanism, the ideology common to Dev and the IRA. But in governing Ireland, Dev ignored ideology and paid heed to circumstances and interests. This was a sound Burkean position, though Dev was not consciously a Burkean. Much later, after having had some experience of how Dev's mind worked, I once asked him whether he had been influenced by Burke. He looked shocked and said, "Of course not. Burke was not a Republican." In spite of that non sequitur, his mind was more like Burke's than Tone's. This, of course, meant that I liked Dev.

Dev was never in danger of acting on Walshe's (implicit) advice and getting on the Axis bandwagon in the summer of 1940. Indeed, in May he publicly condemned the German invasion of the neutral Low Countries, which was about as far from that bandwagon as a fellow neutral could get. After Pearl Harbor, Dev interpreted neutrality in a consistently pro-Allied sense. For example, Allied airmen who crashed on Irish territory were allowed to return to their base, whereas German airmen were interned. The slant Dev gave to Irish neutrality after Pearl Harbor attracted no public attention, which is how he wanted it. But a gesture of Dev's right at the end of the European war, in May of 1945, attracted worldwide attention. Among the victorious Allies it excited universal execration. Dev had called on a bewildered German minister plenipotentiary in Dublin to convey, through him, his condolences to the German people on the death of their late head of state, Adolf Hitler. That was some bandwagon to be getting on at the end of the Second World War!

The usual explanation for this surrealist gesture is that Dev felt bound by pedantic adherence to diplomatic protocol. This doesn't fit. Dev could be pedantic, certainly, but only when it suited him. Why did it suit him in this peculiar instance? I believe that Dev was acting out of political calculation. With the war over, it was time to be thinking about a pending election. There was a presidential election due in the following month, and although the Irish presidency is mainly a ceremonial office, it was important to Dev at this point that his candidate, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, should defeat his challengers. The triumph of Dev's candidate would be seen as setting a seal of popular approval on Dev's conduct of neutrality throughout the war years. Dev knew that that gesture would generate a great volume of abuse from the British against himself and neutrality, and that this could only do him good with the Irish electorate. It worked like a charm. Churchill himself rose to the bait. He delivered a scornful, scalding attack on De Valera and on Irish neutrality. Dev replied, over Irish radio, in a dignified, sweetly reasonable speech, with a gentle, almost subliminal, evocation of Ireland's past sufferings at the hands of the English, combined with an appreciative acknowledgment of Britain's respect for Irish neutrality in the Second World War. He was the Christian statesman to his crafty fingertips, and his speech was hugely successful with the Irish public. With Churchill's help in May, Dev's candidate had no difficulty in winning the presidential election in June.

My Uncle "the Land
League Priest"

I spoke earlier of Dev's having no objection to those aspects of my life and education which were obnoxious to Joe Walshe. But there was a more positive side. Eamon de Valera had reason to be deeply grateful to a member of my family: my maternal great-uncle Father Eugene Sheehy had been his parish priest in Bruree, County Limerick, when Dev was a boy. Years later, in 1961, near the end of my career in External Affairs, Dev himself reminded me of this link. I was then about to leave Ireland, having been seconded by my department to the United Nations, for service as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld's personal representative in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, then in unrecognized secession from the Republic of the Congo (now Zaire). Dev had by now retired from active politics and was installed as President of Ireland. He sent for me to wish me well on my mission, which he knew to be difficult and perhaps dangerous. He spoke to me of his debt to Father Eugene. On a later occasion, after my Congo mission was over, Dev asked my second wife, Maire, and me to bring our adopted son Patrick, then aged three months, to see him. As he welcomed the three of us, Dev spoke again of Father Eugene, and this time he had a present for me: a nineteenth-century daguerreotype of my great-uncle, with the inscription, in Dev's handwriting, "Eisean a mhúin an tírghrá dhom": "He taught me patriotism."

Later that afternoon, walking down a Dublin street, I met a friend, Alexis Fitz Gerald, a senator and a member of the anti-Dev party, Fine Gael. Proudly I showed Alexis that inscribed picture. Alexis commented, "If your great-uncle taught that man what he calls patriotism, then your great-uncle has a lot to answer for!" (This sounds bitter, but was not so intended or taken. Alexis had a sense of humor and occasionally liked to parody the style of his more obtuse political associates.)

Father Eugene was indeed a militant patriot. In the great agrarian upheaval of the Land League (1878-1881), which overthrew the power of the Irish landlords, Father Eugene was known as "the Land League priest." I used to think this was because he was the only such priest, but he wasn't. He was the outstanding figure among a few such priests. Irish bishops had condemned the Land League, and Father Eugene was the most prominent of those who defied the ban. He led the Land League delegation to America in 1881, following upon the delegation headed by the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the previous year. Six years later Father Eugene went one better than defying the Irish bishops: he defied the Pope. The Pope had been induced to condemn the renewed agrarian movement, now known as "the Plan of Campaign." The Pope at this time was in self-imposed seclusion following the unification of Italy and was known to his admirers as "the Prisoner of the Vatican." Father Eugene preached a famous sermon on this topic. My mother told me about it. She enjoyed it. So did I, and so did Owen, my fellow great-nephew. The occasion was the annual collection known as Peter's Pence, a papal benefit. Father Eugene's sermon, in 1887, ran like this:

Dearly beloved brethren:

You will have heard our Holy Father described as "the Prisoner of the Vatican." I am afraid that must conjure up a fearful picture to you. Many of you have friends or relations who are prisoners at this moment for having taken part in the Plan of Campaign, a morally lawful movement which the British misled the Pope into condemning. You know how those prisoners are treated. I visited my own brother in Tullamore Jail last week [this was David Sheehy, M.P., my grandfather]. He was naked in his cell, in this freezing weather, because he rightly refuses to wear the prison clothes, being no criminal. You may have pictured our Holy Father as enduring some such conditions. Let me relieve your anxieties. I visited the Pope in Rome last year. He lives in a splendid and spacious Palace in which he is free to move around. He has whatever he likes to eat and drink. He has many servants. In no way does the Vatican resemble Tullamore Jail.

You are not wealthy people. But you are to contribute whatever you feel you can afford to the support of the Prisoner of the Vatican.

Not one penny reached the Vatican that year from the Parish of Bruree.

Toward the end of his life Father Eugene visited the General Post Office, Dublin, then the headquarters of the Easter Rising, and gave Holy Communion to the besieged garrison.

There is no doubt that Father Eugene did teach patriotism to the young De Valera. But he must also have been important to him in other ways, which the mature Dev would never talk about. Eamon de Valera must have been a very lonely boy in Bruree. He was born in 1882 in New York, of a Cuban father and an Irish mother. His father died during Eamon's infancy. When he was two or three years old, his mother sent him to Bruree to live with his uncle, Patrick Coll. Young Eamon must have felt rejected, and his foreign name can't have helped. In the circumstances, the friendly interest of his parish priest must have been a godsend. In rural Ireland in the nineteenth century (and, indeed, during most of the twentieth century) the local parish priest was a greatly respected and powerful figure. His friendly interest conferred a degree of status and protection. So Eamon de Valera had more than one reason to feel warm toward Father Eugene Sheehy.

Father Eugene, I believe, had something to do with my acceptance by External Affairs. But the immediate instrument of my acceptance was the interest of F. H. Boland, whom I mentioned earlier. Freddie Boland knew me, and thought I would be useful to the department. The bad-Catholic bit didn't worry him. He was the type the French call Catholique, mais pas enragé. I believe that Joe Walshe, who was about as enragé as you can get, had blocked my assignment to External Affairs in 1942--when I entered the Irish Civil Service--without reference to De Valera. But when the matter was formally raised by Boland, now the rising star and with easy access to Dev, Joe knew the game was up in the matter of keeping this godless character out of his department. Both Joe and Freddie knew about the Father Eugene factor. Both were of Tipperary origin, and the Sheehys--my mother's family--were a prominent Tipperary family. My grandfather and Father Eugene were especially well known: almost everyone in Tipperary seemed to know about that "Prisoner of the Vatican" sermon. Maire heard about it as a child from her Tipperary-born mother. Having made it their business to know about Dev, Freddie and Joe would know about the Dev-Sheehy connection, and thus that Dev would not be in favor of turning down Father Eugene's properly qualified grandnephew--certainly not on the grounds that mattered to Joe. So I was accepted.

My Nationalist Lung

Let me now turn to the other question: Why did I want to get into External Affairs in the first place? At the time, I never put that question to myself. I just knew that I wanted to get in. But as I consider the matter in retrospect, as part of this autobiographical exercise, I believe the answer is to be found in my education, and my cousin Owen's education, and the tensions and demands arising from these.

Owen and I, both children of Catholic families, were educated outside the Church. In a country where religion and nationality have gone together since the sixteenth century, being educated among Protestants raised questions about one's relation to the Irish nation. The places we were both educated--Sandford Park School and Trinity College--were places of unionist tradition, antagonistic to Irish nationalism. Protestant and unionist were generally synonymous in Ireland, as were Catholic and nationalist.

My aunt Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was a passionate nationalist, so why did she send her son to be educated among unionists? She did so precisely because she was a passionate nationalist, a Republican. The Catholic bishops had excommunicated the Republican side in the civil war, so Owen would go to no Catholic school. The only alternatives were Protestant schools.

It is not surprising that my first two books grapple with Catholicism and Irish nationalism. The first, Maria Cross (1952), was an exploration of the Catholic imagination in literature. The second, Parnell and His Party (1880-1890) (1957), was a study of a phase of Irish nationalist history.

So when Owen and I went to those Protestant schools, were we then turning into unionists? Certainly not! was Owen's determined answer, fervently echoed by me. Perish the thought! Somewhere in there, at the levels of the psyche I am trying to explore, was the notion that religion and nationality were like lungs. One lung was gone; it might aptly be described as past praying for. If you lost the other one, you would be finished.

Fortunately for us, perhaps, there were rituals available through which we could bear witness to our continuing faith in the nation. Ireland (that is, the twenty-six-county state) was still technically a dominion of the Crown, complete with a governor-general, under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Of course no proper nationalist would sing "God Save the King" or drink the loyal toast. But unionists (alias Protestants) were free to do so, and did. At Trinity College, Owen sat down for "God Save the King" and the loyal toast. In due course I followed suit. The dons were less disapproving than I expected. Owen had broken the ice. The family penchant for sitting down at the wrong times had been established. Also we were in Protestant eyes Catholics by inheritance if not by theology, and therefore knew no better.

Owen was my first cousin, nine years older, and a stronger character. He was my role model. Some things he conveyed to me by both precept and example. Of nationalism he never spoke, but conveyed the force of his commitment to it (at that time) by those symbolic acts. Nationalism must have been a most uncomfortable subject for him. Intellectually he resisted his mother's fanatical, mystical nationalism, but emotionally he could not escape from being powerfully affected by it. That was the force that kept him glued to his seat on those symbolic occasions. And then it glued me, in my turn.

It was as if the ghosts of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, the martyred heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising against British power, were reaching out to both of us through the magnetic medium of Owen's mother, my aunt Hanna.

That's a creepy thought, but creepy thoughts abound while I ponder my early motivations. Ghosts were beckoning. They were beckoning me quite specifically in the direction of the Department of External Affairs. I needed to represent Ireland, proving that one could reject Catholicism and still be accepted by Ireland. And I just made it past Joe Walshe. The year before I was born, 1916, was important, but so was the year after I was born, 1918. In that year my grandfather ceased to represent Ireland at Westminster, and our family came down in the world. By representing Ireland internationally I would be reversing that misfortune, and staging a family comeback.

Having discerned that pattern in my early life, I find it recurring in my middle years. After I resigned from External Affairs, in 1961--in order to be free to write a book about the Katanga experience--I came to be, from 1965 on (after a spell as the head of the University of Ghana), the holder of a cushy, congenial, and tenured job as Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University. I resigned that chair in 1969, in order to run--successfully--for election to the Dáil for Dublin Northeast. This meant a considerable drop in income. But the pull of Ireland--and specifically of representing Ireland--was more than I could resist.

It is a bit disconcerting for me now to see how strong the pull of Irish nationalism has been throughout my life. Since 1971--the beginning of the Provisional IRA offensive--I have been known in Ireland, where I now live, as top anti-nationalist. I have addressed the Friends of the Union--the union, that is, of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. You can hardly get further away from Irish nationalism than that.

Yet I claim an underlying consistency and continuity. I was brought up to detest imperialism, epitomized in the manic and haunting figure of Captain Bowen-Colthurst, who murdered my uncle Frank Sheehy-Skeffington during the Easter Rising. As a servant of the United Nations, I combated a British imperialist enterprise in Central Africa in 1961--the covert effort to sustain secession in Katanga in order to bolster the masked white supremacy of the then Central African Federation. From 1965 to 1969, in America, I took part in the protest movement against an American imperialist enterprise: the war in Vietnam. And from 1971 until now I have been combating an Irish Catholic imperialist enterprise: the effort to force the Protestants of Northern Ireland, by a combination of paramilitary terror and political pressure, into a United Ireland that they don't want. I addressed the Friends of the Union to show solidarity with that beleaguered community against the forces working against them within my own community. And I suppose my Protestant education has something to do with that solidarity.

Perhaps neither Hanna nor Eugene would accept that continuity. But Owen would. He died in 1969, before the Provisional IRA offensive began. But he had made known his uncompromising hostility to earlier IRA efforts in the same direction. So when I first spoke out against the Provisional IRA and its accomplices, in the year the Provisional offensive began, two years after Owen's death, I had the inner certainty that we were at one on this. And that certainty still sustains me.


Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1994; The Roots of My Preoccupations; Volume 274, No. 1; pages 73-81.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture