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Dublin, Part 2: A long struggle to escape the past

Published
March 24, 2023
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AFTER Trinity and Georgian Dublin, you might wander south toward St Stephen’s Green, a comparatively new park by Dublin standards, formed in 1880 from a much older patch of commons.

On my way to St Stephen's Green, I came across this pink beauty parlour, which rather caught my fancy!

Closer to the green, there is an amazing shopping arcade called Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, minus the ‘St’. It was developed from the mid-1960s onward. It reminds me of pictures that I have seen of the famous Crystal Palace in London, erected in Victorian times and then burnt down in 1936.

A selfie at Stephen’s Green

Here’s a short video:

In Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, I came across Chef Chang’s All You Eat Buffet, a highly regarded Chinese restaurant. And, somewhat incongruously, a sign pointing to an exhibition about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, also known as the Great Famine.

Initially caused by a blight, the Great Famine killed roughly a million Irish out of an Irish population of eight million at the time, which was not far short of that of Great Britain at the time of the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 (10.5 million), and drove another two million to emigrate in crowded and dangerous ships sometimes called coffin ships.

Emigration continued afterward, so much so that the population of Ireland never fully recovered to the pre-famine level, while the population of Great Britain grew to 37 million in 1900 and 67 million today.

Because of the Great Famine, Great Britain grew even greater while Ireland became one of Europe’s small countries, even though the population of the two islands had been nearly equal at one time.

Along with the actual blight that was its trigger, the Irish potato famine of the 1840s was also caused by British misrule (following hard on the heels of Dublin misrule), both regimes marked by a lack of sympathy for the poorer and more Catholic sorts of Irish, who tended to live in the remoter, western parts of the country in those days.

Potato crops failed everywhere in Europe, including England, but generally with less severe consequences than in Ireland. Even in the eastern half of Ireland, closer to England and more Protestant in those days, things were not so dire.

Especially notorious was the initially penny-pinching response of the British, as well as the way that Ireland continued to export food, since other crops and animal farming were unaffected by the potato blight. This information panel says it all about Britain’s official priorities at the time.

Another reason the Great Famine is keenly remembered is that it was the last great famine to strike a poor, remote part of Western Europe.

Few remembered Europe’s earlier famines. Indeed, there was an even worse famine a little over a hundred years before, in the days of the Dublin Parliament, which has been all but completely forgotten.

That famine was not caused by blight but by an unusual spell of Arctic cold, which froze Ireland’s lakes to a depth of more than a foot and a half and sent ice-floes down the Liffey, right through the middle of Georgian Dublin.

There were also a couple of minor Irish famines later on in the 1800s, also largely forgotten because by that stage the British authorities were better at organising large-scale relief efforts.

It is fair to say that quality of British rule improved after the Great Famine. After further agitation, including the so-called ‘Land Wars’ of the late 1870s, the British enacted some surprisingly radical reforms.

These included the acquisition of much of the land of absentee landlords living in Great Britain — an especially hated class — and its redistribution to the peasants.

Irish Land League poster (1880s) uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Jtdirl. Public domain image. Sharpened for this post.

Gradually, it seemed that Ireland was becoming more and more of a normal country rather than a starving and misruled colony: albeit in the form of a province of the United Kingdom and not a nation once again.

Still, Ireland seemed to be fated to a renewed struggle for independence one day. To achieve the same degree of independence as Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. As I mentioned in my Cork post, this objective was called Home Rule at the time.

Home Rule might have been achieved peacefully, were it not for the fact that many Irish Protestants were militantly committed to the idea of staying in the United Kingdom.

Even before the Easter Rising, Ireland was on the verge of civil war over the issue, largely as a result of Protestant resistance to Home Rule, which would otherwise have been granted.

The leader of the pro-UK faction at that time was Sir Edward Carson, a senior figure in the British government, who came from Dublin but ended up campaigning militantly against Home Rule in the more heavily Protestant north of Ireland. A man who, as this Belfast mural states, presented colours to South Belfast (pro-union) Volunteers in 1913, that is to say, three years before the pro-independence Easter Rising in the south.

Mural honouring Sir Edward Carson in Belfast. Photograph taken 1 January 2004 by Fasach_Nua, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

These days, the cause of remaining in the United Kingdom, known as unionism or loyalism, is associated with Northern Ireland and its Orange parades, led by people bashing huge drums called Lambeg Drums on the twelfth of July each year., the anniversary of the Protestant King William III’s victory over Catholic James II at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, which I cover in my next post.

Lambeg drumming contest in Coagh, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland on 12 July 2002. Public domain image by Aughavey via Wikimedia Commons.

The loyalists, those who wished to remain in the United Kingdom, feared falling under the extremely conservative rule of Catholic zealots, who did indeed hold sway throughout the long years of de Valera’s leadership, as evidenced by attitudes to divorce and contraception, never mind abortion or gay marriage.

Not that the extreme Protestants who came to dominate the new state of Northern Ireland were keen on anything that smacked of free love, or indeed any sort of hedonism, either.

For instance, playgrounds were chained up on Sundays in Northern Ireland lest children use them to play on the Lord’s Day, even if it was the only day some people had off.

The joke told of such black-stockinged clergy was that they were against fornication in case it led to dancing.

An equally popular joke was that there was no future in Ireland, only the past happening over and over again.

Which seemed to make sense in an era when everyone was going on about the Battle of the Boyne as though it was yesterday.

The prospect that the British might be booted out only to be replaced by backward-looking people and clerics in particular, in much the same way that the Iranians would free themselves of the Shah only to come under the Ayatollahs at the end of the 1970s, had even bothered one of the aforementioned instigators of the Easter Rising, James Connolly.

In 1914, Connolly had warned of a “carnival of reaction” in the event that Ireland was partitioned into a mostly Catholic part that had finally obtained Home Rule and a mostly Protestant part that was still in the United Kingdom: most probably the North a region also known as Ulster. Ulster was where most of the Protestants lived at the dawn of the twentieth century though there were many in Dublin as well.

If the island was partitioned, Connolly warned, the most extreme Protestant and Catholic factions were liable to end up running the North and the South respectively, while more practical matters would be forgotten about; the poorest people in both parts of the country thus remaining poor, even if they weren’t starving to death anymore.

That is indeed, broadly speaking, what happened, right through to the Troubles in the Northern Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s and the more recent liberalisation of the South.

Until 1973, for instance, women in the Irish Civil Service were legally required to give up their jobs once they got married, and contraception and divorce were banned until 1979 and 1996 respectively: never mind abortion.

(On the other hand, the Irish Free State — the independent Irish state under the Crown that existed between 1922 and 1937 in the boundaries of today’s Republic — was more progressive than the United Kingdom on votes for women. British and Irish women first got the vote under the Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted the vote to all men over 21, and to women too but only if they were at least 30 and owned substantial real estate or were married to such an owner or were university graduates. As one of its first sovereign acts, the Irish Free State extended the men’s franchise to women in 1922. British women, on the other hand, had to wait a further six years for their electoral equality.)

Ironically, almost nobody who lived in Ireland wanted their island to be partitioned. Carson, who was an Ulster Protestant but no bigot, who spoke Gaelic, and called himself proud to be Irish albeit British as well, certainly did not want Ulster split off from the rest of Ireland, no more so than Connolly. On the other hand, how could the irreconcilable goals of Union and Home Rule otherwise be met?

Loyalism remained the cause of many in Dublin, the former colonial capital, even after it became the capital of an independent Ireland. Whence, the following lines from a song called ‘Come out Ye Black and Tans’, about a boy growing up in the years after independence:

I was born in a Dublin Street

Where the loyal drums do beat

In the song, the remaining Dublin loyalists are called ‘black and tans’: a reference to the mixture of khaki and black (or dark green) worn by Irish troops in the service of the United Kingdom.

These days, Dublin is more contented with being the capital of the Irish Republic. Every Easter, the famous proclamation also gets read out in full.

Having said that, a degree of the misrule to which Ireland has so often been subjected by the British and its own local grandees continues in the form of wildly gyrating rents and house prices, the latest challenge to good government.

Rents have doubled in Dublin in the last ten years, and it is now 1,500 Euros a month for a single-room flat.

This outcome would have brought a tear to the eye of Connolly, the 1916 rebel that many people now regard as the most clear-sighted and, also, the most relevant to the present era, since he had a fair idea of how everything was likely to go wrong and was also the most focused on bread-and-butter issues.

Connolly was not a conventional sort of nationalist, recalling the days of the High Kings of Ireland or some other such sentimental cause. Instead, Connolly was one of the three principal founders of the Irish Labour Party in 1912, the party of the recent Irish president Mary Robinson.

The Irish Labour Party was modelled on the British Labour Party. It was a sign of Ireland’s growing modernity and, in a certain light, of the effacing of differences across the British Isles.

Connolly went along with the Easter Rising, not because he was sentimentally attached to ancient lost causes but because he thought an independent Ireland would yield a better deal for the workers. “The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland,” he wrote, and “The cause of Ireland is the cause of labour.”

The symbol of the Irish Labour Party and movement from Connolly’s time to now has been the starry plough, the idea being that the Irish people should own Ireland ‘from the stars to the plough’.

In Dublin’s Beresford Place, Connolly is commemorated by a statue unveiled in 1996: a rebuke to a present-day Dublin parliament still dominated by the parties of the de Valera era, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, a Dublin parliament that has let rents and house prices get out of control as if the Irish people still do not own Ireland yet and are each being kept, as far as possible, from even owning a little bit of it.

Statue of James Connolly in Beresford Place, Dublin, August 2006. Public domain image by Sebb via Wikimedia Commons. Trimmed slightly from the original for this post.

These days, more than a hundred years after he lived, Connolly still appeals as a hero to many young Irish people. Far more so now than people such as de Valera and the two main parties of his time, now tainted by association with the “carnival of reaction” that Connolly predicted.

President Éamon de Valera kissing the episcopal ring of the Rev. Dr. John Charles McQuaid in the 1960s, Archbishop of Dublin. Image copyright the Digital Library of University College Dublin.

Not to mention subsequent economic misrule that would have shocked de Valera almost as much as Connolly. In a famous 1943 speech about “the Ireland that we dreamed of,” de Valera stated that:

"The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit — a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live."

Paying 1,500 Euros a month for a one-bedroom flat does not sound like “living the life that God desires that men should live” to me.’

And so, many say that Ireland’s centuries-long revolution against one form of misrule after another is not over, that the crystallised FF / FG duopoly in the present parliament, now devoted to kissing the episcopal ring of the bankers instead of the church, must itself soon shatter.

And that when that happens “Connolly will be there,” and perhaps even the shade of old Dev, on tap but not on top.

What else can I say about my trip to Dublin? Well, I went to see a movie from 2022 that was mainly in Gaelic, called The Quiet Girl. It was set in the Ireland of the 60s and 70s, and very well done.

The Irish language, a form of Gaelic, is still quite widely understood, if not spoken, in Ireland, especially in the Western part of the country.

‘Proportion of respondents aged 3+ who said they could speak Irish in the Ireland census 2011 or the Northern Ireland census 2011.’ Image by SkateTier, 5 April 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The picture looks rosy for Irish in most parts of Ireland according to that map. However, far fewer people speak Irish every day than say they can speak it.

Even in Victorian times, only a minority spoke the language in the eastern part of the country, including the Dublin area and today’s Northern Ireland. A map first published in 1871 shows the position as it was then.

The Distribution of Irish Speakers in 1871. From E.G. Ravenstein, “On the Celtic Languages of the British Isles: A Statistical Survey”, in Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. 42, no. 3, (September, 1879), p. 583. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

What you can also see from the 2011 map is that Irish is far more widely understood in the Republic, today, than in Northern Ireland.

The Irish language was promoted in the Irish Free State, which made Irish an official language from the granting of independence in 1922, and in the later Irish Republic, which shared the boundaries of the Free State

As of 2022, a hundred years after the founding of the Free State, Irish became an official language in Northern Ireland as well.

Next week, I visit the Little Museum of Dublin, on St Stephen's Green.

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