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From the archives:
"All Ireland's Bard" (November 1997)
Tied by birth to unionism, memorialist of the executed Nationalist rebels of 1916, W. B. Yeats mirrored Ireland's divisions in his self-divisions—yet saw the island as a single cultural entity sprung from common roots in common myths. By Seamus Heaney
From Atlantic Unbound:
Interviews: "Passion's Progress" (April 20, 2000)
"It has been said that growing up in Ireland one learns sin from the priests, Latin from the nuns, and passion from Edna O'Brien." In an Atlantic Unbound interview, Edna O'Brien discusses her latest book, Wild Decembers.
Soundings: "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems.
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.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Ireland's Troubled North
October 30, 2001
n a dramatic effort to salvage the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which established a Catholic and Protestant power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army agreed to destroy a portion of its hidden weapons last Tuesday. The move prompted a wave of optimism from politicians on both sides of the decades-old conflict, despite a historical propensity for political failure in the region. Articles assessing "the Irish Question" have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in response to some of the most momentous events of the Troubles and help to place the current easing of political tensions in perspective.
In April, 1916, in the midst of World War I, Irish revolutionaries attacked the British army in Dublin, declaring an Irish Republic free from British rule. In December of that year, Henry W. Massingham wrote "Ireland, 1916—And Beyond." In it, he addressed the political reasons for the revolt—and its possible ramifications. "Had time marched a little slower," he suggested, "had Anglo-Irish reconciliation gone a little further, all might have been well... But there were violently hostile elements." With these elements in mind, Massingham proposed a plan for Ireland's political future:
Absolute independence is a dream. But independence on the scale or after the likeness of Canada, or New Zealand, in which thousands of Irishmen have a share, is no dream, but a possible, and even a near, reality. Only in this way do we attain a solution of the mixed problem of nationality and empire....
Writing in September of 1970, Brian Moore, in his article "Bloody Ulster: An Irishman's Lament," described the North bleakly as he examined the potential efficacy of a burgeoning civil-rights movement in this "backward fief of a conservative oligarchy." Moore, a Catholic disillusioned by the strife on the streets of Belfast, drew this conclusion:
Our Ulster government is incapable of change: we are incapable of founding another. We must now become wards of the English state. England must, at last, accept its responsibility toward us, which is to rule us, directly, totally, as part of that "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" which our passports proclaim us to be. Forever and ever. Amen.
In January of 1972, thirteen civil-rights protesters were shot and killed by British paratroopers in the Northern Irish city of Derry. In articles appearing in May of that year, Denis Donoghue ("The View from Dublin") and Mary Manning ("A Visit To Belfast,") both examined the context of this event, ever after known as "Bloody Sunday," and the perilous political period that followed.
Writing from different perspectives, both authors portrayed the situation in Ulster as a desperate one. Donoghue described the Northern Irish government as "a grossly unrepresentative institution, the result of intransigence and electoral corruption." He also offered little hope for peace among Catholics and Protestants:
The hostility between the murderers is tribal warfare, the result of aboriginal enmities so deeply rooted now that they have become instinctual. 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.
Manning, in Northern Ireland as a theater critic, gave a haunting depiction of Belfast as "a dying city, a broken city, a city almost without hope." She described a community tormented by riots, nightly car-bombings, and undisguised sectarian hatred.
All I could think of as I sat on the train ... was the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." And I didn't know then that thirteen people were to die in Derry that day.
More than ten years later, in May, 1986, Padraig O'Malley wrote "Ulster: The Marching Season." O'Malley wondered how durable the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 would be in light of the upcoming marching season—the period in early July in which Unionists display their loyalty to the British crown with parades that sometimes turn violent. The Agreement was a landmark: it officially recognized the right of the Irish government to participate in the political affairs of Northern Ireland while also ensuring that the region would remain a part of Great Britain as long as the majority of its citizens voted to keep it that way. Its ultimate success, however, would be judged "on the extent to which ... it promotes peace and stability ... and helps to reconcile the Protestant and Catholic communities." O'Malley suggested that its ability to do so would likely be challenged by extremists on both sides:
It is a pathetic irony of the conflict: Protestants vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to maintain the union with Great Britain, the IRA vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to break the union with Great Britain.
This irony has helped cripple the North's political institutions in the past. It remains to be seen whether the IRA's bold move will rescue this most recent effort to establish peace or if democracy will once again fall victim to sectarian hatred.
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Timothy Lavin is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.