Akron Irish: Northern Exposure
By Lisa O’Rourke
This happens to everyone; you run into someone you haven’t seen in months and you run into them at least three more times that same day. So, it has been with Northern Ireland and myself this last month. Of course, the recognition is totally one-sided, but every time I looked, there it was again, asking for attention and showing a side of itself a little different than the last.
The first time it popped up was on Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club page in the guise of a new chick lit thriller. I was excited to have my indulgent read be set in Northern Ireland, a rare setting for that type of thing.
The plot centers on two sisters; one a new mother, the other shown on the evening news robbing a bank with known IRA operatives. One sister tries to prove the other’s innocence while being pulled into dangerous territory. The book is called “Northern Spy” by Flynn Berry.
I began this book with the hope that pop culture might shed some light where often it has proved heavy-handed and biased. It bore the marks of research, noting things like the reflex of people in the North to take shelter when they hear a loud noise, being unsure of the source.
About a third of the way in, my hopes were sunk. The author took the stance that the Irish discontent in the North was kind of vague and had more to do with the stereotypical depiction of the Irish forgetting everything but a grudge. The author did not mention a single Unionist paramilitary group, the Orange Order, nothing.
I don’t expect anyone to be an apologist for either side, but to act like this is a randomly motivated group of thugs is dishonest. And okay, I already said that it was chick lit and it is not every author’s job to delineate the political landscape of their novel, but they ought to be responsible in their approach, or set the book in South Carolina.
Good Friday Agreement
Just as I was stewing about the anglophile spin that so much literature puts on their depiction of Ireland, the Unionist side raised their collective heads. Rioting in the streets broke out in Belfast on, no less, than the 23rd Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. While the target of mob anger was gates and walls instead of people, it was a sad refrain of things past and the worst violence that has occurred in the North in years.
The cause of the turmoil was Brexit. The anger was really a feeling of abandonment. Despite the multiple assurances that came from Boris Johnson to the contrary, a hard border has emerged as a result of Brexit, in the Irish Sea. Great Britain’s separation from the European Union has forced the placement of import tariffs on some goods that come from England. Products coming into ports in Northern Ireland undergo European Union import procedures, since Ireland is in the EU and it is an island. These procedures may sound superficial, but they have caused product delays and accompanying frustrations there which are only exacerbated by the pandemic frustration.
It is impossible not to sense the panic that the hard-right Unionists must feel, being lumped with the Republic instead of England. Odder still is the notion that they asked for it, since they were the group in the North that voted for Brexit.
Since the hundred-year anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016, I find myself reminded more of what Yeats called “the birth of a terrible beauty” as Easter arrives each spring since. This year marked another anniversary. If Easter signals the anniversary of the birth of the terrible beauty, May 3, 2021 was the anniversary of the birth of the proverbial red-headed stepchild of that beauty, one hundred official years of partition, the birth of Northern Ireland.
I don’t think that anyone celebrated. It is a crazy thing to look at a map and see that arbitrary border on such a small island and try to make sense of it. It looks more like the solution of a frustrated parent dividing the backseat of a car on a too long road trip.
The conclusion seems as inevitable as the resolution of those road trip fights. Clearly the day will come when the invisible lines disappear, and it will be the one small country that it is to the eye.
But the resolution should not come too quickly, as I was convinced by an essay that I read this last month. Taking on the six counties now is a mug’s game. I completely understand that this idea is heresy and flies in the face of the entire WolfeTones’ catalogue, but I think that reunification of the country is an idea whose time will come, eventually.
Why? Because the North is a mess, and the group that broke it can buy it and own it for a while longer. It is currently an expensive and fractious place in which to maintain order.
Police service in the North cost €900,000 just on the high holy day of the Orange Order, July 12 last year. Why should the Republic take that on, especially when they are still finding their financial feet? If and when the country becomes reunited, there will be many angry, mobilized Unionist paramilitary groups who are already prepared to provide years of trouble. Time wounds all heals and needs to pass to allow tensions to diffuse, rather than be forced into the open.
The full implementation of Brexit seemed to put the North in the news. It just kept popping up, looking for attention and demanding a look, a reflection. That is the way with the place; it’s not easy and it probably won’t be so anytime soon. Beautiful, but complicated, angry and unpredictable would be the six counties’ dating profile.
Collage seems to be the only way to look at it, a prism to try to view all the contradiction in the six counties. It is a collection of divergent facets much more than it is any one thing, at least for now.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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