UPPER JENKINSTOWN, Ireland — When my widowed great-great grandmother left her small farm here in March 1853, sailing first to Liverpool and then to New York, she and her children were among the 1.5 million Irish who fled to America during the potato famine.
As was the case with most Irish emigrants, the land she had to abandon in the Cooley Mountains didn’t belong to her. She had to pay rent to Lord Clermont, whose vast 20,000-acre holdings were part of the extraordinary confiscation of Irish lands by the British. By 1800, Irish Catholics owned less than 5 percent of the land in Ireland and their plight under British domination, well before the famine, was such that a French anthropologist visiting in 1835 called them “more wretched than the Negro in chains.”
But if she could come back through time, she’d be baffled by modern Ireland, especially now as the North and the South launch a month of elaborate centennial commemorations of the mythic “blood sacrifice” of the Easter Rising of 1916.
Awkwardly, even though 100 years have passed since a ragtag group of rebels in Dublin tragically failed to pull off a coup against the British, but symbolically sparked the drive toward independence in 1922, six counties containing 1.8 million people remain under British rule.
And what’s not being said during all the sentimental ceremonies is that many Catholics in both the south and in British-ruled Northern Ireland no longer seem to care about the lost land.
Recent polls would mystify anyone not steeped in the warped impact of more than 800 years of British rule in Ireland. A joint BBC/RTE poll indicated that only 25 percent of Catholics in Northern Ireland (where for years they were the often-oppressed minority) want unification and only 36 percent of the largely Catholic south favor it right now.
The figures haven’t changed much since the Belfast Telegraph conducted a poll in 2012 which asked if “Irish unity is a dead issue for at least a generation.”
Imagine the reaction of iconic Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, who made a name for himself during the Easter Monday insurrection and was assassinated by his own people in 1922 amid anger that he’d failed to get northern Ireland included in the Anglo-Irish Treaty that marked the establishment of the Free State that year.
“I reckon all those rebels back then would be ragin’ if they could see us today,” says Paul Mitchell, 59, of Ballinasloe in the west of Ireland. When I knew him just 10 years ago he would stand with a hot whiskey in front of his house and point bitterly across the River Suck at the ruins of the English lord’s estate while railing against the British. But things change.
“We don’t even want the North anymore,” Mitchell says. “It’s an old issue. I know a lot of former IRA guys who did time in prison and they don’t care much now either. When you’re younger you fight more. Plus you also see disturbing stuff, like all these English coming to Ireland to retire and they get treated better by the Irish than the Americans who come over.”
Catholics in Northern Ireland are loath to give up the financial cushion afforded by life under British rule and such perks as the National Health Service, which is much less expensive than the American-style health insurance system in the south.
Those in the Irish Republic no longer see their Catholic counterparts in the north as comrades, and indeed a recent term, “Northern Irish,” has taken root in Belfast to describe both Protestants and Catholics. It’s a term not discouraged by the once-fearsome Loyalists and Unionists in Ulster and Belfast who know that Catholics may be the majority in the North by the 2021 census and have to figure out more accommodating ways to retain power.
“The days when everything was framed by the six-county question is long over,” Winston “Winkie” Irvine, 40, widely reputed to have been a leader in the paramilitary, pro-British, Ulster Volunteer Force in Northern Ireland, told The Daily Beast on Saturday.
“The Irish question is no longer about the land,” said Irvine, who has been described as a “terror boss” in some media accounts but now, bizarrely, also works for an NGO in Belfast run by a prominent member of Sinn Féin.
“It’s about the people, about building relationships. I trace my roots back 400 years here to the Ulster Plantation. I identify as British. There’s not a part of me that feels Irish. But that’s OK. People care less and less about those ancient divisions. Ten years ago me working for Sinn Féin royalty would have been unthinkable.”
In an era when ISIS has raised the bar on terrorism, the 30-year Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland that killed more than 3,600 people now seem quaint, almost forgettable to the outside world—along with the rest of the tangled politics on an island an Irish friend in France calls a “floating madhouse.”
It still comes as a shock to many visitors, including shamrock-wearing Irish-Americans bused between the Blarney Stone in the south and the Giants Causeway in the north, when their mobile phones suddenly read “United Kingdom” on the motorway and they need pounds sterling to buy a pint of Guinness at the pub in Antrim or Belfast.
But the border, once filled with snipers and checkpoints is still there even if you can’t see it. One possible fallout if Britain votes on June 23 to leave the European Union is the specter of a new, physical international border being erected between the North and the South that could set off long-buried hostilities.
The 1998 Good Friday agreement was predicated on both entities being part of the EU, and “Brexit” could upset that delicate balance.
The political parties in Northern Ireland are divided on the referendum question, with a major Unionist party on each side of the debate.
The Irish nationalist parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin, want to remain in the EU; pro-British unionists mostly want to leave.
For now, Catriona White, a former child psychologist from Dundalk, like many in both the North and South interviewed for this story, is not bothered by the border that exists today and sees no reason to remove it. She cannot even envision what will happen post-Brexit.
Give Ireland back to the Irish, as Paul McCartney sang in 1972? Ask that question in Ireland today and you’ll sound positively uncool.
“We couldn’t care less about Northern Ireland because it doesn’t benefit us,” said White. “There won’t be any money in it for us. The South can’t afford to take on all those people. We can’t afford to give them the same lifestyle they enjoy under the British.”
Some of White’s sentiments stem from her wariness of the Catholics of Northern Ireland, especially during the Troubles, which ended with the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.
“Yes, they had very hard lives, but you notice a lot didn’t leave for the South,” she said. “Why? Because there was money to be made. I remember barely making enough to make ends meet and you’d read about all these scams in Northern Ireland. You’d see a bus-full of women go up to a big shop in Belfast and there’d coincidentally be a bomb scare and they’d run out carrying all these expensive clothes and shoes. Some people lived off false insurance claims. There were so many tricks to living up there even though the conditions were horrific.”
Following the money is key to understanding the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today. Many people on both sides of the border in recent years have profited more from the partitioned country than suffered from it—especially certain members of the once proud IRA.
No one personifies the new Ireland as much as Thomas “Slab” Murphy. He’s invariably described in Irish media accounts as a “ruthless” IRA godfather whose farm straddles the border in south Armagh and who reportedly amassed a $50 million fortune through fuel laundering and smuggling pigs, cattle, grain, and cigarettes between the North and South—all while allegedly organizing some of the most violent paramilitary operations during the Troubles.
Though Murphy was recently sentenced to prison for tax evasion, the eternal “it’s complicated” status of Ireland is why Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who denies ever being a member of the IRA himself, backs up Murphy’s claims that he’s a “wee farmer” by referring to him as a “good republican.”
Maureen Kelly, 61, who lives just south of the border near the so-called “Bandit Country” or “no man’s land” of County Armagh, just rolls her eyes at the mention of Murphy’s name and says that “back in the day we would have done anything to get the six counties back.”
“But now it just doesn’t matter,” said Kelly, who remembers hearing bombs and sniper fire from her home during the Troubles. “We have peace and that’s more important than anything. Besides we’re Europeans now. We can cross the border freely and there’s no hassle.”
Máiría Cahill, who was raised in a prominent republican family in Belfast and is now a Labour Party politician, says she grew up “steeped in the same type of romanticism that came out of the Easter Rising. But no beautiful poetry and writing came out of the Troubles. It was a bloody hard rebellion and that’s one of the reasons why there is no real appetite for reunification today.”
A spokesman for Sinn Féin, one-time political arm of the IRA, disagreed, insisting that the dream of a united Ireland is still very much alive.
“We don’t believe that Irish people don’t care about Irish unity. In fact the increased vote for Sinn Féin in the recent election is a sign that more and more Irish people want a united Ireland,” said Shaun Tracey. “We are confident also that we will also see an increase in our vote in the upcoming election in the North.”
Sinn Féin was born out of hatred for the British but these days it’s difficult to find Irish citizens in the South who openly admit to hating Protestants—like an acquaintance in County Louth, not far from the border, who yells about the “f———g Proddys” in front of the fire at his home while his 9-year-old daughter watches him in delight. But of course they’re still there.
Down the road, at the Blue Anchor pub in Bellurgan, one of a pair of brothers recently released from prison after serving time for a series of bomb attacks in London in 2001, blends in with the crowd of other Guinness-drinking locals, declining even an off-the-record talk.
“People will tell you they don’t care anymore but they still hate the Proddys, they just won’t admit it,” says my friend. “Why would they tell you the truth or talk to you at all? Listen to the ones who don’t say anything.”
Like the indomitable Adams, who’s led the increasingly powerful Sinn Féin party since 1983 and has long since dialed down his revolutionary rhetoric in favor of the more boring but more effective strategy of winning electoral votes in the North and South, Ireland may be playing a long game that no one except those deep inside the system can predict.
“It’s true,” said Catriona White. “You can’t always trust what the Irish tell you or even what they do. It comes from centuries of pretending to obey the British and then the priests. We learned to say one thing and then do something else. We’re sneaky. We live by our wits. We’re survivors.”