News of Ireland and the Irish

This is the time of year when we get to hear a lot of news about the Emerald Isle, its denizens, and the Irish diaspora.

Lots of Irish bands tour the United States around St. Patrick’s Day, and the Pogues have started an annual tradition of making short tours of cities in the Northeast. Susan and I saw them last year in Boston. While it was great to finally see the band I love perform live, I left the performance feeling a bit uneasy. First, despite their reunion it appears that the Pogues who were once so revolutionary in combining traditional Irish music with punk are now pretty much a nostalgia act. Second, while Shane MacGowan is know to be a kind man and a talented songwriter, the effects of his alcoholism make him look pretty pathetic. Maybe he can handle it better than other people but it was clear that the rest of the band was much less tense when MacGowan was not on stage. What bothered me more is the majority of the audience who seemed to enjoy MacGowan’s drunken act as if he was but a comic caricature and not a human being and an artist.

Anyhow tickets were too expensive this year but I read that MacGowan is in better healh this year. The New York Times ran this piece A Ramble Through the Mind of the Pogues’ Poet which offers some nice insights beyond the typical drunk caricature. I liked reading MacGowan’s views on literature and politics, especially the last bit about Ian Paisley.

Asked about the prospect of Irish reunification, he cited Ian Paisley, the Unionist leader in Northern Ireland and a staunch opponent of the republican cause: “Ian Paisley is one of the best agents the I.R.A. ever had. He’s done more for returning the six counties than anyone else

Ian Paisley is also in the news of late (full disclosure: Rev. Paisley would rank high on a list of my least favorite people). Northern Ireland recently held elections which for Northern Ireland actually had a fairly low turnout, partly because of competition with football matches. The election turned out to be a good day for the more extreme parties on each side of the conflict, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party headed by Gerry Adams and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. In a unique situation, one that would have been impossible even ten years ago, these parties may end up power-sharing and forming a devolved government separate from the rule of London. Michael Levy observes in the Britannica Blog that this is an historic dilemma for Paisley.

Now, Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom (and the world) await Paisley’s next move. Some warriors are able to turn in their swords for olive branches while others find it extremely difficult to let go of old animosities. At age 80 Paisley has precious little time left to write the final chapter and epilogue of his legacy. Does he remain steadfast to his past statements and refuse to negotiate with Sinn Féin or does he take a leap of faith and risk splitting his party by entering a government with them and taking the reins of power?

History will–and should–judge Paisley by his actions over the next two weeks, and let’s hope that he misses this chance to miss this chance.

According to the Guardian, none other than UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is using his influence to affect Paisley using a surprise tactic, a shared interest in religion.

Downing Street refused to comment last night. However, Lord Bew, the professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University Belfast who has good connections at the highest levels of government, believes the Blair/Paisley dialogue on religion has transformed their relations, even though they come from apparently contrasting denominations.A fierce Protestant, Mr Paisley is the founder and moderator of the Free Presbyterian church, who has outraged Catholics by denouncing the Pope as the anti-Christ. Mr Blair is an Anglican who attends mass with his Catholic wife.

“Blair is brilliant at seducing Paisley,” Lord Bew said. “This is the most amazing love affair, the last great Blairite romance.They are even exchanging books on religion. It is fantastic stuff. It is religious; it is romantic. It is brilliant. You have to hand it to him. Once again, when we thought the old maestro was fading, his capacity to seduce, politically speaking, is phenomenal.”

One would expect that neither MacGowan nor Paisley would be all too pleased by studies that state that the majority of people in Britain and Ireland are genetically of the same ancestry with little effect on the gene pool by later invaders to the two islands. The New York Times reports on this research in A United Kingdom? Maybe.

If the people of the British Isles hold most of their genetic heritage in common, with their differences consisting only of a regional flavoring of Celtic in the west and of northern European in the east, might that perception draw them together? Geneticists see little prospect that their findings will reduce cultural and political differences. The Celtic cultural myth “is very entrenched and has a lot to do with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity; their main identifying feature is that they are not English,” said Dr. Sykes, an Englishman who has traced his Y chromosome and surname to an ancestor who lived in the village of Flockton in Yorkshire in 1286.

Dr. Oppenheimer said genes “have no bearing on cultural history.” There is no significant genetic difference between the people of Northern Ireland, yet they have been fighting with each other for 400 years, he said.

As for his thesis that the British and Irish are genetically much alike, “It would be wonderful if it improved relations, but I somehow think it won’t.”

Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer also writes on his research in Myths of British Ancestry in Prospect Magazine.

Finally, while the Irish have long been know as emigrants settling as a diaspora in nations around the world, and creating vibrant communities, appear to be heading back home. The Boston Globe reports that the Wave of Irish immigration to Boston begins to slow due to affluence in Ireland and a post Sept. 11th crackdown on immigration into the United States. The second part of the article is called Going Full Circle.

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