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Wednesday, November 28, 2007


When I last came to Ireland, our tour took us to the Belleek China factory in Northern Ireland, allowed us some time to browse and buy, and then the coach scurried back to the safety of the Republic of Ireland. This trip enabled us to spend several days in Northern Ireland wandering the countryside and spending time in the cities of Londonderry and Belfast. What a difference even a tenuous peace can make. What a difference the media can make.

Our first stop was tremendously enlightening. We visited the Ulster-American Folk Park which traces the exodus of the Irish to America. The indoor museum explores the culture, economics and other situations that lead to 200 years of immigration, primarily to America. The potato famine constituted four years of that period. In fact, while the Catholic to Protestant ratio of immigration varied with the times, the land in Ireland was hard on everyone, and many of both religions had to leave in order to survive.

The Folk Park also chronicles the accomplishments of the Irish immigrants in America. There we went outside and traveled a path to different exhibits. We saw, for instance, the actual, pitiable cottage in which Thomas Mellon was born. He immigrated to America with his poor parents who farmed and lived in a small town in Pennsylvania—a luxurious abode compared to the house in County Tyrone. Mellon studies Ben Franklin’s advice, deciding not to farm but to go to the University of Pennsylvania. The rest is financial history.

Some of the accomplishments may seem a bit prejudiced—lauding Tammany Hall, for instance, although in all fairness, those political bosses did get the jobs and benefits for its people.

The point is, one tends to hear less about the many facets of the problems over many years that spurred immigration and more about a relatively short period of time. That really seems an oversimplification. We did come away, I think, with a much better understanding of Irish immigration and Irish successes.

Our second stop was a tour of Londonderry—Londonderry to the Protestants, Derry to the Catholics, London/Derry on the maps, and, jokingly, “Stroke City (/)” to many of the inhabitants. Goes to show how complicated life can be.

We took a coach and walking tour lead by Ronan McNamara, a man in his mid-30s born in the Republic of Ireland to a Chinese mother and an Irish father. He joked that he would give us the Buddhist view on things. He was educated in the University of Londonderry and decided to stay. He teaches and also works in the fledgling tourist industry.

Ronan’s take is that today Northern Ireland is calming. A new government was installed last spring. The position of mayor alternates yearly between a Catholic and a Protestant. There are Catholic and Protestant and Mixed schools—a real attempt at integration. If there is to be a lasting peace, it must begin with the children, he says.

People here as everywhere are interested in better lives, and as the atmosphere calms, effort has been put into reconstruction, education, and equality. Murals on the bogside recall the cry for equal rights. We heard from Ronan and from others that the media played up the Catholic vs. Protestant aspect and extremists on both sides responded to the attention and sought to keep it by perpetuating the violence. The media did not stress that the 1960s’ problems were primarily economic and voting rights oriented. No one who was not a landowner could vote, and that included all the poor regardless of religion.

Today the children of Northern Ireland have the highest grades in the UK in their University exams. The economy is better though the country’s restrictive tax structure prevents the Celtic Tiger from reaching across the border. People cross the border to buy gas.

Ronan told us that while changes are occurring, it will take time, but he did invite us to return in ten years to see how things develop. That sounds good to me. Remember, ten years ago, tour companies did not venture here.

I might add that we crossed the border from the Republic of Ireland as easily as crossing a street. No British soldiers or guards or warnings. That’s only a few months old. It was one of the last things Tony Blair did before leaving office. What a positive and uplifting change that one is.

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