From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Ireland's Troubled North" (October 31, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles on Northern Ireland helps put the current easing of political tensions in perspective.

Flashbacks: "Peace for Ireland?" (December 1995)
Articles by Robert Coles, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and others consider the political, social, and psychological aspects of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Atlantic Monthly | May 1972
The View from Dublin

by Denis Donoghue
n March 24 the British government suspended home rule in Northern Ireland, fifty-one years after it had begun. It was a month and a day since the Irish Times had informed its readers that seven people had been killed the previous night and seventeen injured when an explosion ripped the front of the Officers' Mess at the headquarters of the 16th Parachute Brigade at Aldershot, forty miles south of London. The dead, with the exception of a British Army Catholic chaplain, were all civilians, five of them women. The Official wing of the Irish Republican Army claimed responsibility for the explosion and described it as a reprisal for the killing of thirteen people by the British Army in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday, January 30.

Some hours after the explosion, police in Dublin arrested Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the IRA, and three other leading Republicans—Sean Garland, Michael Ryan, and Tony Heffernan—on the authority of Section 30 of the Offenses Against the State Act. These events were widely reported in Irish newspapers, and the explosion was almost universally condemned as an outrage, but few people who have lived in Ireland during the past year could profess themselves shocked by the news. Enraged, yes, but not shocked. Such events, monstrous at any time, issue from the logic of a malignant situation. They are no longer exceptions to the rule of peace.

I should declare my interest, so that readers may make whatever adjustment they deem proper, taking account of my natural bias. I am an Irish Catholic, born in Tullow, County Carlow, but I spent most of my early life in the North, my father being the local police sergeant in a small town, Warrenpoint, in County Down. As a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in a predominantly Catholic and Nationalist area, my father had a difficult life. He was a loyal police officer, he did his duty, and he avoided all discussion of politics or religion. He died in his bed, peacefully. On the other side of the family, my mother's brother was a revolutionary leader in County Tipperary, and he spent several months in English jails after the Easter Rising of 1916. We were a typical Irish family.

My own sentiments are nationalistic, in the sense that I hope to see Ireland united, the wretched Border removed, but I do not believe that a political cause of that nature is worth a drop of any man's blood.


n Bloody Sunday, a few hours before the events in Derry, I happened to be in Belfast, and I attended Mass in St. Mary's Church, Chapel Lane. The first reading was from the prophet Zephaniah: "I will leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord." The second was from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians: "And God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong." The Gospel was the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." It was hardly necessary for the priest to comment on these texts; they spoke for themselves to the Catholics of Ballymurphy, Andersonstown, the Falls Road, and the New Lodge Road. Afterward, I drove through streets which I had always disliked. Belfast was never a handsome city; we thought it a dour place by contrast with Dublin, and we were right. But it was now a desolate place, living from day to day as if under siege, entire streets burned out in sectarian rage. If the Catholics made common cause along the Falls Road, the Protestants held the fort in Tiger's Bay, Sandy Row, the Shankill Road, Silverstream, and Old Park Road.

Reluctantly, I call them Catholics and Protestants. If the issue were strictly political, I would call them Nationalists and Unionists, and that would be a happier situation because at least it would maintain a political terminology to deal with a political quarrel. But it would be wishful thinking, although not every Catholic is a Nationalist, not every Protestant a Unionist. A year ago it might still have been possible to speak of Nationalists and Unionists without identifying these sentiments with Catholic and Protestant convictions. But impossible now. A Catholic who joins the Ulster Defense Regiment stands a good chance of being shot by the IRA. A Protestant who supports the Civil Rights Association is in grave danger.

About three years ago I debated the question of Northern Ireland with its then Prime Minister, Captain Terence O'Neill, on William F. Buckley's television program, Firing Line, and we disagreed, but it is a nostalgic occasion in my mind because we both assumed that a solution was possible given goodwill on both sides. We thought that we could speak of Nationalists and Unionists as if these were terms fully adequate to the occasion, like Republican and Democrat, Labor and Tory, right and left. Perhaps it was feasible at the time but not after thirteen Catholics died from British guns at Derry.

Of course, religion as such has little to do with the case. A Catholic youth throwing a gasoline bomb in Belfast would not spend much thought on the theological difference between himself and his Protestant enemy. Members of the Shankill Defense Association who appeared on the David Frost Show to display their venom had nothing to say of Luther or the Reformation. Reverend Ian Paisley confines his theological debate to a reflection on Pope Paul as "old Red Socks." Catholics and Protestants have murdered each other in Northern Ireland for historical reasons which have nothing whatever to do with theology; they have as little to do with theology as with God. The hostility between the murderers is tribal warfare, the result of aboriginal enmities so deeply rooted now that they have become instinctual. I grew up in that jungle. Though my parents were the gentlest people, I grew up with the knack of spotting a Protestant at a hundred yards. We knew instinctively not to trade in a Protestant shop. If the situation in Northern Ireland is incorrigible, the main reason is that the passions engaged on both sides are primitive forces, operating far below the level of intelligence and debate. That is why I have never been convinced by the proclaimed objects of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Ostensibly, their aims are tangible, empirical: they want a fair deal for Catholics, so that the meek may inherit at least a portion of the earth—specifically, better jobs, better houses, influence commensurate with their numbers in a town like Derry. But even if these rights were granted at once by an intelligent government, and embodied in new legislation backed by the courts, there would still be violence in the North. Tribal war needs very little empirical cause to keep it going; it lives by ancient resentment and exacerbation. The wrongs for which Catholics in Northern Ireland appeal for justification were committed three hundred years ago; the modern Border and the Unionist government's genteel tyranny were merely reminders of old transgression. The declared aims of the Civil Rights Association are therefore disingenuous, since they propose local satisfactions for age-old feeling; or they are dishonest, if they are mere excuses for stirring up ancient woes. I am not sure, either way. But it is certain that the passions aroused on the Catholic side cannot be assuaged by empirical means: legislation, jobs, houses, electoral change. Feeling has run far beyond its local occasion.

This is true of both sides. It is hard to conceive of Ian Paisley and John McKeague being so devoted to the British Crown that they would go to civil war to assert their love, especially since it was clear to everyone that the Crown would have been delighted to be relieved of such devotion. Do these gentlemen really think that in Dublin today Home Rule means Rome Rule, that we dance to Rome's tune? These questions are beside the point; extreme Protestants like extreme Catholics, follow an antique drum, the call of the tribe. I sometimes think that to understand these passions, we should ponder not the lessons of politics or of history but of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind may be more instructive than the Plantation of Ulster or the Battle of the Boyne. But above all, we need to know how to deal with ancient feeling which, incited by local events, has acquired so much momentum that it cannot be halted or satisfied short of some ultimate limit or end.


have spoken of two sides, but this is misleading. There are several actors in the Northern tragedy, and the range of motive is wide. The Protestants are not a monolithic group accurately represented by the Shankill Defense Association; there are many Protestants who calmly foresee a time when the two parts of Ireland will be united. Equally, there are Catholics who do not find their spiritual home in Creggan, the Bogside, or the Falls. Many Catholics have long accepted the division of Ireland and feel no great desire to join their Southern neighbors. Then there was the Stormont government, a grossly unrepresentative institution, the result of intransigence and electoral corruption, driven further toward the end by its diehard members to the tune of "No Surrender." Some said it could not survive much longer; but it had the law on its side, and Britain's big battalions to defend the Unionist cause. It was widely believed that the British government, having calmly allowed India to leave the Empire, would not weep over the loss of Northern Ireland, a puny jewel in any crown. Harold Wilson's plan put the unification of Ireland on the agenda, and was generally welcomed for that reason, but he did not proffer his plan while he was in power, and Edward Heath thanked him without adopting his suggestions. Mr. Heath's government was remarkably slow in taking the Northern Ireland problem seriously. Until recently, Mr. Heath himself spoke of it as if it could be resolved by a disposition on all sides to return to the gentlemanly days of Captain O'Neill. He evidently found it inconceivable that Irishmen should repudiate the Stormont government and the British Crown in a single act.

As for our government in Dublin, its record is not impressive. Since the foundation of the state in 1922, the abolition of Partition has been the first of our official aims. And in the early days it was keenly felt. But gradually, especially when Eamon De Valera became President and the late Sean Lemass became Prime Minister, our official eyes began to turn away from the question of Partition. There were more urgent problems: economic expansion, for instance, the necessity of luring foreign businessmen to our shores. Mr. Lemass was a businessman, not a poet or a visionary, and he found it entirely possible to live from one day to the next with the Border still intact. Unification remained our official policy, the object of occasional flourishes of rhetoric, but it became a long-term ideal and, for most people, a secondary issue. The government party, Fianna Fail, continued to preach that gospel, but it did not spend much energy on its practice. As a result, the keener republican spirits soon felt themselves estranged from official politics and went underground. Some important members of the government took a dangerous line: officially, they endorsed the government's policy of securing the end of Partition by peaceful means, but unofficially they conversed with the wild men of revolution. It is now clear that several influential Fianna Fail men encouraged the Provisional wing of the IRA to pursue a violent campaign in the North, with consequences which they may not have foreseen.

In fact, our government has been in a weak moral position since it arose from violence and civil war: it could not completely dissociate itself from republican violence without incurring the charge of senility and cowardice. Prime Minister John Lynch tried to hold his party together by declaring a peaceful policy with an occasional rattle of the drum. He is a man of peace, but he had to try to retain those members of his party who called upon him to defend the Catholics in the North. For many months, he avoided taking any action against the IRA, even when its leaders taunted him with charges of ineptitude. When the British government demanded that he curb the IRA, he did nothing until the gunmen started using their guns in the South. Eight men were arrested after a gun battle with Northern forces along the Border; they were brought to trial in Dundalk, but information was refused against them, and they were released. The minister for Justice then announced that the men would be rearrested and tried. It seemed certain that Mr. Lynch had been driven to the point of taking action against the IRA, but we did not know how much action was intended.

The prestige of force

he real difficulty is that the prestige of "physical force" is very high in Ireland. Many peaceful men think that Ireland never achieved anything, along the path of freedom, without violence. The rule of law is a recent attribute, as everyone knows. An Irishman who speaks of peaceful methods, nonviolence, and passive resistance is never entirely convincing. This does not mean that we are gangsters at heart, but we find it hard to refute the argument that without our revolutionaries and Fenians we would still be England's slaves. The IRA is strengthened by this argument, even though many of its members despise the Nationalist aim as trivial. In many Catholic areas in Northern Ireland the Provisionals are revered as heroes and martyrs because they alone stood up to the British Army when paratroopers went on the rampage. The fact that the Provisionals are mostly bigoted Catholics of the right, with no more significant policy than that of furnishing an appropriate hell for British soldiers, is not taken seriously. These men were present when they were needed; there is nothing more to be said. The Official IRA, on the other hand, is not revered; it speaks a Marxist idiom which is an exotic bloom in Ireland, a poor translation of the German text, not at all indigenous to Irish soil. For a long time now, the Officials have been losing ground to the Provisionals: if they were responsible for Aldershot, it may be that they were reminding the Irish people that the ability to place a bomb is not confined only to the brigands of the Provisional wing.

The IRA is, of course, an underground movement, whether its colors are Official or Provisional. It is an illegal organization, and therefore beyond the bounds of debate or communication. In recent months, however, it has moved up into the otherwise respectable Civil Rights Association. This is a most important development. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) has now been virtually taken over by the Official IRA, and there is no doubt that it will work closely with the left, wherever that direction is Marxist or Leninist.

The Official position is that Irish Nationalism is merely a bourgeois indulgence, of no significance in itself; the old-style Nationalist is despised. The Provisionals, on the other hand, have established close relations with the Civil Resistance Movement; their aim is national unity, provided it takes the form of a socialist republic. This was the aim proposed by Bernadette Devlin, Frank McManus, and Michael Farrell, a more Trotskyite group than the NICRA. And the last players in this desperate drama are the Social Democratic Labor Party, a bedraggled group nowadays, divided among themselves. These were the duly elected Opposition members of the Northern Parliament, and for a while they bore the heat of the day at Stormont. But when it became clearer than ever that they could serve no real purpose in that gross assembly, they withdrew and set up their own little parliament in Derry. They are good people, worried sick by events in the North, powerless to prevent the worst excesses on both sides. But they were stranded. Wild men had stolen their cause, and forced it through the barrel of a gun. No wonder the SDLP men like John Hume were conversing with Mr. Lynch in Dublin and his orthodox colleagues; peaceful men can only huddle together.

It was easier for the SDLP, even a year ago. They could still hold a moderate position, asking for justice and fair play, grateful for any crumbs that fell from Stormont's table. The British Army came to bring peace, standing firm between Catholic and Protestant, no man's enemy, no man's slave. John Hume went about his daily life helping people, an energetic social worker. Catholics brought the British soldiers in for a cup of tea and a chat. But in twelve months the stance of the Army changed. The blow of Internment fell only upon Catholics; only Catholic homes were wrecked in the military search for arms. Gradually, the soldiers began to torment the Papists. John Hume could only protest, but the Provisionals answered the Army in the more audible language of guns and bombs. They could not hope to beat the Army in a pitched battle, so they resorted to the guerrilla warfare of the streets. The Provisionals were natives in that region, they had the support of tormented Catholics, they could hardly be defeated. The soldiers became Stormont's militia, and they gave up their neutrality to pursue Catholics into the back streets. The Catholics felt that their only recourse was the Provisionals; Dublin was useless. John Hume's humane words had no bearing on the question.

In these circumstances, the tragedy of Derry was inevitable. The circumstances are still in dispute, but the weight of impartial evidence suggests that the confrontation between marchers and soldiers was already over when the paratroopers pursued the remnants into the Bogside. Within an hour, thirteen Catholics were shot dead; another act in the tragedy was complete. The following day, a Stormont Cabinet minister expressed his satisfaction that there had been no British casualties. Brian Faulkner, then Northern Irish Prime Minister, told the marchers that they must expect this consequence of their activities. A member of the Shankill Defense Association said that Bloody Sunday was Good Sunday, unfortunate only because the Army had not shot enough Catholics. A colleague of his said it was Good Sunday because "for the first time, the British Army has taken the kid gloves off."

In the South, Mr. Lynch declared the following Wednesday, the day of the funerals, a national day of mourning. The day began in grief and ended in rage, at least in Dublin, where a vast crowd protested outside the British Embassy in Merrion Square. By the end of the day the Embassy was burned to a shell. Some people, including myself, thought the burning an outrage, and were not convinced by those who defended the act as a single symbolic deed, once for all. It still seems to me an outrage, our day of grief spoiled in mayhem, and nothing I have read in Gaston Bachelard's The Psychoanalys of Fire redeems the act of its barbarity. Some fools tried to mount a boycott of British goods, a proposal swiftly denounced by a government alive to the fact that of British goods only 5 percent is exported to Ireland, while of Irish goods 65 percent is exported to Britain. In this matter, even a sporadic raid, not to speak of an economic war, would ruin us. In the British House of Commons Miss Devlin rushed upon Reginald Maudling and scratched his face; in a calmer mood, an hour later, she said she was only sorry that she had not seized his throat.

Then, at the end of March, the British made their move. The immediate reactions were swift. Brian Faulkner denounced it; the leaders of the IRA denounced it. It was left to Mr. Lynch in Dublin to call the British assumption of control "a step forward."

One hand

he recital of events is complete, or as complete as I can bear to make it. There are more important questions at large in the world than anything Ireland proposes.

"Teach us to care and not to care." T. S. Eliot's prayer from Ash Wednesday keeps coming to my mind these days in Dublin when I talk of the North to friends and colleagues. A year ago, such people were eloquent in defining positions of some complexity: "On the one hand," they would say, "and yet on the other. We all had two hands then. Now, after Derry and all that followed, the same people have given up their complexities, only one hand is visible, and it is not entirely fanciful to imagine it holding a gun. Abroad, there are signs that the cause of Irish unity is about to be turned to the purposes of radical chic, supported by Vanessa Redgrave in Newry and John Lennon in New York. "Burn, baby, burn," the arsonists screamed in Merrion Square when they destroyed the British Embassy and one of Dublin's finest streets. The criminal folly of Aldershot reduced if not deleted the moral advantage of Derry. It is difficult to assume, these days, that there is any point in teaching literature. A few days ago I gave a lecture at the University of York to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land. I could not think of anything better to do, though I have never believed that literature could save us.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

Copyright © 1972 by Denis Donoghue. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1972; Ireland: The View from Dublin; Volume 229, No. 5; page 12.