I can’t seem to focus on my regular, historical content these days and I apologize for the sporadic nature of the last couple of months.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.
Everyone has that place in their head. One place that they’ve fallen in love with whether or not they’ve ever been there. One place that serves as a goal or a dream and becomes a fantasy location where everything would suddenly be perfect. Many never reach that imagined place or if they do, they quickly find that the perceived nirvana in their head doesn’t match the reality in any way. We often romanticize or fantasize about other places because after all, the grass is always greener on the other side.
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.
On this day in 1981, Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament. His candidacy was a risky maneuver, given that he was in prison and on hunger strike at the time and while his win ended up being a masterful propaganda tool, it did not save his life.
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.
Humans are animals. It’s not something we like to admit, but it is true. Our animalistic instincts come out when we are hurting and angry, when we need to protect ourselves or our loved ones, or when we are desperate and afraid. Over time we learn to control them, not letting that dark side rear its ugly head just because our toy was taken away at the playground and if we’re lucky that animal fades into the background of our minds, never needing to come out.
When James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was growing up in Derry a lot was wrong in his world. The boy who would come to be known as Martin was partially named after a pope in a society that was violently sectarian and discriminatory against Catholic communities like his. He saw things most of us thankfully never will. War raged in the streets as he grew up. He witnessed friends being mowed down by soldiers without consequence. He saw authorities break the law over and over without punishment. That animal inside him grew and raged, like many others in the region and Martin found his way into the Irish Republican Army at a relatively young age. He stayed for a heavily disputed amount of time. Let’s just call it many years.