A New Ireland: How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became Its Most Liberal – Niall O’ Dowd

odowdIn April 1916, Irish Republicans used the Easter holiday week to launch an insurrection against British rule in Ireland. Through the British regained control of Dublin and later conducted executions of selected participants, the uprising stands to this day as a pivotal moment in the movement for a united Ireland. When I visited Dublin in February 2016, I took a moment to observe murals dedicated to Irish history. I realized that the Ireland I was visiting had changed since the visit of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in April 1963. Ireland was once known was the most conservative country in Europe but had now become the most liberal. As I walked the streets of Dublin, I heard accents from countries throughout the world and the diversity of languages reminded me of my hometown, New York City. But how did Ireland undergo such a drastic change? The answer can be found in this book that captures an important aspect of Irish history.

Books I have previously read about Ireland heavily focused on the conflict known as “The Troubles”. The struggle between Irish Republicans and Irish Protestants loyal to the British Parliament has left Northern Ireland with physical scars and dark memories. There is peace today but tensions between the two factions have never completely dissipated. And Britain’s exit from the European Union raised the question, what will happen to Northern Ireland? The future remains to be seen. It is not necessary to have an extensive knowledge of the Troubles to enjoy this book. The story at hand is truly remarkable but it is also filled with shocking and revolting moments that forced Ireland to look in the mirror.

I appreciated the discussion of Irish history that explains how religion evolved in Ireland. It quickly becomes apparent that Catholicism is viewed with suspicion and to be a Catholic could result in acts of violence and even death. I found myself speechless when I learned of the reaction to and persecution of Catholic Bishops. This part of the book is mortifying and not for the faint of heart. Irish Catholics also faced daily insults and risks but remained true to their faith. However, the potato famine in 1845-1846 resulted in the exodus of over one million Irish citizens. For the new emigrants, America became the primary destination and the men and women who moved to the United States would never forget their brethren back in Ireland. As the 1800s moved forward, the Irish Republican Brotherhood established itself as a new force to lead the movement for independence and freedom for Catholics. No one in Ireland could have known what was in store for the nation during 1900s when Ireland would see bloodshed, scandal, peace, and transformation. And it would not be until 1998 when both sides came together and signed the Good Friday Agreement.

I must disclose that for all the inspiring actions to support the Catholic faith, the dark side of the church rears its ugly head. Readers who are Catholic may find these parts of the book upsetting. I think everyone will find them disturbing. Before I had finished the book, the names Father Michael Cleary (1934-1993) and Bishop Eamonn Casey (1927-2017) were seared into my memory. Their stories form the nucleus of the turn away from faith and towards modernity. I cannot overstate how crucial their roles were in Ireland’s social fabric and readers will need a moment to digest what they learn. However, the darkest moment of the book is the story of Brendan Smyth (1927-1997) a Catholic priest from Belfast whose role is chilling. Frankly, steel yourself when you get to this part.

As a conservative republic, Ireland also faced the issue of gay rights. In an overwhelmingly religious environment, there was no safe have for the LGBT in Ireland and the murder of Declan Flynn (1952-1982) sent chills down my spine. The crime and its aftermath receive a section in the book and will leave readers speechless. But on a positive note, readers will also be surprised to learn of the LGBT community’s role in the Easter Uprising in 1916. I did not know of this previously and was surprised to learn of its involvement. In a moment of tense introspection, Ireland had to confront the subject of same-sex attraction as Catholic leaders fell from grace. As I read, I thought of the 2015 film “Spotlight” starring Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, which I highly recommend.

The church’s fall from grace is only part of the story and Ireland still had to confront sexism and other draconian aspects of its culture that needed to be addressed if the country was going to move forward. The task was not easy, and the past continued to shape the future. Women were seen but still needed a voice. And in a country shaped by the legacies of men such as Eamon De Valera (1882-1975) and Michael Collins (1890-1922), the road to female politicians was filled with obstacles. However, Ireland was changing, and the election of Mary Robinson modified the country permanently. And the arrival of Leo Varadkar ensured that Ireland had passed the point of no return. Women’s rights were another hurdle to overcome but Ireland was up to the task and moved forward haunted by the ghost of Savita Andanappa Yalag (1981-2012) and other women in similar situations.

Today it is hard to imagine Ireland as Europe’s most conservative country. Upon returning to New York after my trip, I knew that one day I would return to Dublin and finish exploring the Irish Republic. I know that the country is far from perfect, and its dark past is never that far away. But Ireland stands as a shining example of a country that understands a fundamental concept: if you do not keep up, you get left behind. Those who want to understand the social fabric of Ireland and its history will find this book to be invaluable. Highly recommended.

“When you travel the world, you have to watch and you have to listen. We’re not going to come in to Ireland without an understanding that there’s a history that’s very sensitive.” – Chuck D


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