Dan Breen was an integral and powerful man in Ireland’s long fight for independence. He was a husband and father, a gangster, a politician, a speakeasy operator, and an author, but first and foremost he was a self-described soldier who was dedicated to freedom.
Politics in the north of Ireland are a tricky thing. For generations words, weapons, petrol bombs and more have been tossed from one side of the divide (and the border) to the other in an ongoing struggle for power. On this day in 1967 a different sort of projectile was thrown into the mix (ahem) when Rev. Ian Paisley launched snowballs at Jack Lynch, the Taoiseach of Ireland.
In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
Once upon a time, the American government worked. Bipartisan agreements made sure laws and budgets were passed, the court system wasn’t overloaded and exhausted and Presidents were kept in check by legislators, rather than the other way round. I know it sounds like a faerie tale in today’s day and age but it is true. People in government once did their jobs. America even had a law on the books that refused support or arms to any country that was designated as a human rights abuser and it could actually take a stand against others in that arena without being a complete laughingstock. To be sure, these embargoes always depended on which lobby had the most influence on the American government at the time, but occasionally the U.S. actually lived up to its own hype. On this day in 1979, the U.S. even stood against one of its biggest allies when it refused to send arms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC) in the North of Ireland on the grounds that the British government was violating the human rights of the citizens who lived there. To say that the powers that be on both sides of the puddle were upset by this stance would be an understatement, but there was no easy way to get around it thanks to Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs.
Well, I almost made it. I almost made it through the season without posting another one of the pieces I write every single year about the sectarianism and the hatred that fuels the flames of bonfires throughout the north of Ireland annually. I guess I was hoping that it was all going to be fine this year, despite knowing it wouldn’t be. I suppose I thought if I didn’t talk about it, then it wouldn’t make me so angry. It doesn’t work like that though. In fact it might be more infuriating to watch it go all down without commenting – especially when it looks like this marching season buildup has been increasingly worse than those in recent memory.
Charles Parnell and Katharine O’Shea had a love that was so strong it survived even when it destroyed both of their lives. It was able to withstand scandal, headlines, and pressure from the population, the politicians, and the church. Their affair was “the worst kept secret in London” and it torpedoed Ireland’s best chance for Home Rule. Nevertheless, they chose each other and were married on this day in 1891.
I can’t seem to focus on my regular, historical content these days and I apologize for the sporadic nature of the last couple of months. My state of mind can be summed up in a brilliantly tragic tweet by a certain Tim Grierson who says: “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry all the time feels morally irresponsible.” He’s right – this is life in America (and other places too I’m sure) these days. But before I attempt to return to my regularly scheduled Irish history program, I have to publicly lose my mind for a minute so that my little corner of international readers understands one very important thing. Americans are not OK.
On May 25th, 2018, Ireland will have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment of its constitution in a referendum. This amendment was adopted in 1983 and it asserted that a fetus had the same rights as the woman who carried it. It’s no surprise that this law came into existance, since Ireland was still pretty synonymous with the Catholic faith when the Amendment was passed and while it allowed for pregnancy termination if the life of the mother was shown to be at risk, it made proving that exception more difficult. It also didn’t allow for the mental health of the mother – only the physical. The Eighth strengthened penalties for seeking an abortion both in Ireland and abroad and it ensured that community groups and organizations could not legally help women who wished to explore those options. It took decades of hard work to rectify the latter circumstances but abortion in Ireland was and is still illegal.
This is not to say that women (and girls) don’t get abortions. Recent statistics estimate that more than 150,000 Irish women have had abortions since the eighties. About a dozen have them every day – either by traveling to the U.K. where abortion is legal, by using the outlawed Plan B pill, or getting an illegal (and sometimes unsafe) abortion in Ireland itself. These women risk a prison sentence of up to fourteen years if they are caught having an abortion on the island, but they do it anyway and that is really the only point that should matter in the upcoming referendum on whether the Eighth should be repealed or not.
The Irish have always flocked to America’s shores for one reason or another. Some have argued that the Irish built America itself, despite its inherent distrust and discriminatory attitudes toward them. And just how did the U.S. repay them for their work? Not well. America treated the Irish horribly. There were anti-Irish riots. There were “No Irish” signs. The Irish people were used and abused for years but they kept coming and eventually they became part of the fabric of the country where many thrived. It’s safe to say that without them, the United States would be a very different place.
Today there are 34.5 million people in the U.S. who claim an Irish heritage, which is nearly 30 million more than the entire population of Ireland itself. This includes the few hundred thousand Irish-born people who currently live and/or work in America legally but it doesn’t count the estimated 10,000-50,000 Irish people who are not legally supposed to be in the country. These folks usually settle in so-called “Sanctuary cities” like New York, Boston, and San Francisco where there are large, established Irish communities and city law enforcement agencies that do not contact or cooperate with immigration officials unless absolutely necessary. It creates an illusion of safety but the pervasive threat of discovery is serious and it’s getting more dire every day.
There are a lot of strong, inspiring women throughout Irish history and one of my main goals when I started this project was to honor a lot of them. Sometimes that leads to highlighting women who aren’t Irish at all but who had a profound effect on Ireland whether they loved it, hated it, or were forced to endure it. I believe all of those descriptors and emotions applied at one time or another when it came to the indomitable Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam.