I recently took part in a community cross-border Irish project which provided a unique view for those on both sides of the partition of Ireland.
The last part of the project was a bus journey through the heart of Northern Ireland where we made our way to the final resting place of Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney.
The project had begun six months earlier, involving a range of people who met every fortnight on Zoom to listen to a variety of opinions on the current situation in Northern Ireland, and was finally concluding.
Speakers on those calls included MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, TD Neale Richmond, as well as representatives of the Catholic Church, the Orange Order, business community, and the community sector. The scene was set in an opening lecture by two historians, Philip Orr and Sean Collins, one from either side of that great Irish divide, giving their perspectives on the “road to partition.”
It was for the most part respectful, with one standout moment of acrimony. This was when an Orange Order member suggested that Catholics were Christians in error, to which one exasperated southern participant questioned the origin of the Church of England saying it was formed because of an appendage of Henry VIII. Thankfully, calmer voices persevered on that occasion.
However, on Saturday, as we picked up our northern brethren in Belfast having started in Drogheda, all was harmonious. What was evident was the good-humored banter between representatives of nationalism and unionism.
The project did, however, highlight that despite shared experiences, differences of perspective exist at all levels.
Initially, it was about the better soccer club, Linfield or Cliftonville, the latter mainly supported by Catholics and currently top of the Irish league although beaten by Protestant supported Linfield last weekend.
Then, as we left Belfast heading towards Magherafelt, we passed Cavehill, a prominent cliff that was supposedly the inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which one side calls Napoleon’s nose. Not so said the other side; it’s known for its place in Gaelic mythology, a story involving Fionn McCumhaill.
As we drove through Toome and close to its famous bridge, a lively discussion developed as to whether Roddy McCorley was hanged there because he was a United Irishman or because he was a common thief. Again division, not an inch given by either side.
Just as we began to notice the divisiveness in the signposts for Derry/ Londonderry, with the London defaced in most of them, there was a moment of hilarity. A cryptic question from the nationalist side as to how in that rich Ulster countryside we could identify Catholic houses.
A self-confessed “taig” among us suggested that it was because of untidy gardens and that Catholics had two baths. To perplexed expressions, he explained that the second one was used to store the coal outside.
No major arguments then about the one topic that had dominated discussions over the previous months; the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol and its effect on north-south relations.
Unionists believed it had damaged those relations as well as undermined their Britishness. Donaldson, who had just become leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), outlined his strategy of pulling the plug on Stormont well before he went public on it.
Other unionist speakers slammed Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and Tanaiste Leo Varadkar for being arrogant, condescending, and out of touch.
For his part, Richmond, an Irish government TD, skillfully and expertly dealt with objections and defended the Protocol and the role of the Irish government.
In a subsequent Zoom meeting, former Irish Ambassador Ray Bassett gave his own perspective of what he believed were government mistakes in its dealings with the U.K. in the run-up to Brexit. Pointing out that the U.K. was still our biggest trading partner, he said that had recent concessions been made to the British prior to the Brexit referendum or when Theresa May was U.K. prime minister then we would not be in this mess. It was a thought-provoking analysis on what he termed “missed opportunities and lack of strategic thinking.”
During these debates, there was agreement with a demand from a representative from the DUP to “take the poison out of the Protocol,” though what that actually meant was not clear.
But we all rallied around the call to the current crop of politicians not to squander the precious gift they had been given: the gift of peace.
As we arrived in Bellaghy, where Heaney was brought up, our first stop was to the magnificent Seamus Heaney HomePlace exhibition. The irony of the location was not lost on us all, a poet raised a Catholic, celebrated in a building that was a former RUC station. If only the walls could have talked as eloquently as the Heaney recordings available in the exhibition, what a story we would have then.
Our next stop, however, raised the question of which was mightier, the pen or the sword?
The graveyard in Bellaghy adjacent to St. Mary’s Church has an old section and across a narrow country road a new section. Heaney’s grave, in the old section, is modest, in a corner a plain headstone adorned with the words he quoted when accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature: “Walk on Air against Your Better Judgement.”
We all filed past that grave aware that he will be remembered for his poetry long after the engraved epithet is faded. Heaney lived by the pen.
Across that narrow road in the new section are the graves of some who lived by the sword. At one stage during The Troubles, Dominic McGlinchey and Francis Hughes were considered by the British as the most dangerous men in Ireland. McGlinchey was gunned down in Drogheda and is buried with his wife Mary who was shot dead in Dundalk.
A few short yards away are the graves of Hughes, the second hunger striker to die, and his cousin Thomas McElwee who also died on hunger strike. They were aged 25 and 23 respectively.
Hughes’ funeral brought tens of thousands to that small graveyard. Their legacy is not shared by all and not everyone on our trip visited their graves or read their tombstones.
Back to Belfast then for a final get-together in a local hotel. No more talk of politics, and the lasting benefit of such events became evident as business cards were exchanged and promises made to keep in touch from those on all sides and none.
With some time on my hands, I visited the Christmas Market in front of City Hall, delighted to see a sign in Irish flashing from the top of that magnificent building. Nollaig Shona, it said, Happy Christmas.
As I entered the market, I was stopped by an earnest young man with a child in tow. He asked me to sign a petition against Covid passports.
In a broad Belfast accent, he said that if I had worn a poppy with pride the previous week, I should have no trouble signing to protect the right of free speech and free assembly. I politely declined, no need to ask him if he had two baths.
The cross-border project was funded by the EU’s Peace IV Programme, supported by the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, and managed by Drogheda Civic Trust.
*This column first appeared in the December 1 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brother to Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.