Michelle O'Neill. RollingNews.ie photo.

KIRWAN: Spanning Divides and Widening Gulfs

Michelle O’Neill’s elevation to become Northern Ireland’s First Minister was a momentous event, full of hope and possibility.

Even in the glory days following the Good Friday Agreement such an outcome was the stuff of dreams. And that the First Minister be not only a member of the Sinn Féin party but a woman, well, that would have smacked of a fairytale.

I’ve always loved Belfast. Had that something to do with the link between the Wexford 1798 insurrectionists and the Northern Presbyterian United Irishmen, or perhaps it was hearing the slashing guitar intro to "Baby Please Don’t Go" by Them?

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At the Europa Hotel in Belfast (l-r): Larry Kirwan, Greg Cowan, Terri Hooley and Aidan Murtagh. Photo by Bridie Donnelly. 

At the Europa Hotel in Belfast (l-r): Larry Kirwan, Greg Cowan, Terri Hooley and Aidan Murtagh. Photo by Bridie Donnelly. 

It’s hard to tell, as my life has been a blur of politics and Rock ‘n’ Roll. And Belfast had both in profusion.

I was not unaware of the sectarianism, barely skin deep in the city, after all I had red hair, freckles, and a “Free State” accent. Still, at the worst of times, there’s always been a zest for life curried by a black sense of humor that knows no divide in this city of churches, chapels and evangelical shop-fronts.

Twice on a rainy night during the 1981 Hunger Strikes I came close to Armageddon: first while straying witlessly into a Loyalist pub, and later when alarming a very nervous British Army unit.

Those days are gratefully long gone, and about a dozen years ago I noticed a thaw in the streets, specifically while bringing people on a tour of Van Morrison’s once forbidden East Belfast. There you go, Rock ‘n’ Roll again!

That thaw continued to accelerate, until last October at a rip-roaring party in the Europa Hotel I realized that I hadn’t even considered who might be Catholic or Protestant. In fact, the only such mention came from Terri Hooley of Good Vibrations fame when he made a scathingly funny remark about his own Methodist background.

Bambie Thug.

Bambie Thug.

What happened? Travel, the broad vistas of the Internet, or the realization that “we’re all in this together” and that while you may live and breathe your cherished background, you can’t eat it.

I have little doubt that the daylong strike of 150,000 public sector workers was the major catalyst that caused the foot-dragging DUP to go back into government. And now it’s up to Sinn Féin to deliver equal pay with other areas of the UK, along with better health care and other long neglected needs.

A united Ireland will come in its own inevitable post-Brexit time, for as my Republican grandfather always pointed out, “In the long run, Unionists are more interested in the half-crown than the crown.” Besides, there are not a few nationalists in no particular rush to become citizens of a 32 county Republic.

And what of the South? Is this the same country I grew up in and left for adventure and greener hills?

With the steady, and sometimes oppressive, hand of the Catholic Church removed, the country has cast off much of its old stodgy conservatism and appears to be flourishing.

Ireland’s secondary school students are the most literate in the EU, while Ireland is now on par with Scandinavian countries in its levels of tolerance for ethnic and LGBTQ+ minorities.

On the other hand, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, with many young people feeling that they’ll never afford a home. This is leading to a renewed surge of emigration, mostly to Canada, Australia, and other EU countries.

No one even considers immigrating here anymore. Under current laws it’s almost impossible, but there seems little urge to come illegally either.

This has already affected Irish America. The only relevant bridge between the two societies now seems to be the semester of foreign study in Ireland that many U.S. colleges offer.

Apart from trips to Disney World and Taylor Swift concerts, tourism is one way, with the Irish-American demographic traveling to Ireland tending towards middle-aged and senior.

There is definitely overall goodwill between the communities, but the cultural gulf continues to widen. Take a look and listen to Bambie Thug from Macroom in rebel County Cork, Ireland’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest with “Doomsday Blue.” Though the Eurovision often tends towards banal Pop, nonetheless, it can offer a glimpse into a country’s soul.

Perhaps the Irish people, North and South, are coming into their own and no longer need to look overseas? Does our fractious, sundering society here in America have something to learn from them?