By Aine Ní Shionnaigh
Like most people who leave their country of origin, I first became aware of my national identity when I moved to New York from the West of Ireland.
Living in Ireland, the concept of Irishness had never passed my mind, not once.
When one is born in Ireland, it doesn’t constitute any sort of achievement in comparison to here in America where being Irish-born is constantly met with infectious enthusiasm and interest.
It’s almost like being a first class relic.
Ensconced in the midst of New York City, the ultimate "melting-pot" of culture, language, and heritage, I discovered my Irish identity.
I began to appreciate and cherish every aspect of Irish culture including my national language.
I inhaled Irish culture with an urgency, energy and enthusiasm that it might just evaporate if I didn’t capture its essence and quickly redistribute it to others who would appreciate and nurture it.
Overnight, I became fiercely loyal to Ireland, particularly my native “West of Ireland” which, because of its history and demographics tends to get forgotten about.
So imagine my thoughts last week when the phrase #SaveRoscommon became a hashtag on social media.
My home county colors of blue and yellow flooded social media accompanied by somewhat emotive catch phrases: “Save Roscommon,” “Land grab.”
One risk with social media is that things are often taken out of context and without supporting factual evidence.
Therefore, things become highly emotive very quickly.
I have an insatiable need to know all the facts before I discuss anything, possibly why I avoid discussing politics as the facts are often clouded by personalities and personal loyalties.
However, the ironies that color both sides of this debate are too dazzling to ignore so I tried to extricate some facts from a very cloudy issue.
I have come to the conclusion that no one seems to know enough about what is involved, myself included.
I feel that the deadline for submissions – which is today as it happens - is premature and I am disappointed in the way the whole issue is being handled, especially around what will be a highly emotive election time in the weeks ahead.
Perhaps County Roscommon has always suffered from a type of identity crisis.
Recently, whilst attending an event in the Irish Consulate in Manhattan, I was asked where I was from by a fellow Irish person, just as the event was about to start.
I hurriedly whispered back “The West of Ireland.” Not to be deterred, the rather inquisitive woman repeated her question with an addendum, “but where exactly are you from?” “County Roscommon” I whispered back even more urgently hoping she would detect my no further conversation tone.
“County Roscommon,” she shouted, barely managing to conceal her disdain. Surely County Roscommon is not considered to be in The West of Ireland. I nodded enthusiastically, concealing my grimace with a grin. “Yes, it is,” ….and that is where the story begins.
What are counties? Counties geographically demarcate areas of local government in the Republic of Ireland. These land divisions were formed following the Norman invasion of Ireland in imitation of the counties then in use as units of local government in England.
The English governed Ireland using a structure similar to that used in England, by dividing the country into shires or counties in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
The Tudor administrations finalized the division of Ireland into counties.
However, counties are so much more than markers for areas of local government and that is what makes this issue so complex and more than a little confusing.
Since the creation of counties, Ireland has always been defiantly defined by county identity.
Counties are inextricably linked to a person’s identity, traditions and sports. Unlike America, we don’t pride ourselves so much on our country’s identity, rather our counties’ identity.
So what’s at stake here?
The independent committee appointed by Environment Minister Alan Kelly is to review local government boundaries in Drogheda, Waterford, Carlow and Roscommon.
In relation to Roscommon, this would mean to move part of the townlands West of the Shannon that are currently in County Roscommon into County Westmeath.
Athlone is near the geographical center of Ireland which is 8.85 kilometers northwest of the town, in the townland of Carnagh East, whichas it happens, is in County Roscommon.
The land re-zoning plans would see areas including Monksland, Bealnamulla, Cloonakille, Drum, Rooskey Cross and Barrybeg given to County Westmeath.
In essence 30 square kilometers and 7000 people would be moved from County Roscommon to County Westmeath, from Connacht to Leinster.
This poses serious long term implications for the 7000 residents of County Roscommon in terms of the loss of cultural identity, sporting identity, possible prosperity and connectivity.
Possibly the biggest outcry has been from two of Roscommon’s leading GAA clubs: Clan na nGael and St. Brigids.
The change will destroy the clubs according to all involved.
Teams will end up playing for a county they are not from.
Says Shane Curran, former Roscommon goalkeeper and businessman: “This has never ever happened before. We are Roscommon people from West of the Shannon. This would be a historical change and we are totally and utterly opposed.”
And it’s not just the sporting factor that are speaking out. Roscommon County Council are vehemently against the proposed changes. One of the largest areas proposed to be moved out of County Roscommon is an area called Monksland.
Monksland is unique is that it has become a hub of international business.
Huge U.S. conglomerates such as world renowned “Alexion Pharmaceuticals and Jazz Pharmaceuticals are thriving here.
They provide local employment, income for the County Council and a prosperity for a young generation of Roscommon people.
Due to the fact that Monksland in particular is one of the more populous and better-off parts of Roscommon, where the County Council has invested millions in the areas of infrastructure, community and sports centers, sewerage and water facilities, it seems only logical and fair that it remains in Roscommon.
Monksland thus enjoys the youngest population in Roscommon who live in the surrounding housing estates.
This, for a county such as Roscommon - which has the oldest population in the country and whose main towns such as Boyle, Ballaghadereen, and Castlerea are struggling to survive as they remain largely untouched by Ireland’s economic prosperity - is not something that can be ignored lightly.
According to the people who approve of the proposed changes, the main rationale would be administration jurisdiction, to bring Athlone and its surrounds under one local authority, therefore improving efficiency.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said: “We’re in the middle of a process so we don’t know what the recommendations are.” Perhaps they should get the facts and communicate them before people are asked to submit opinions for and against being moved out of their native counties.
Perhaps the Department of the Environment is adopting a current growing trend amongst companies, the “maintaining operational secrecy” trend.
This may work in Apple, but it won’t work in a situation where people are being asked to move counties and provinces that they, and their families, have belonged to since time began.
Cromwell famously said “To Hell or To Connacht.”
Would he now say “To Hell or To Connacht or To Leinster?”
One thing I’m sure he would say is “I need more information.”
To quote Paddy Lohan's verse, “Oh land of the O'Connor, the county of my birth. Roscommon you mean more to me than any place on earth. It was within your fond embrace I gave out my first cry and your warm earth will cradle me when I bid this world goodbye.”