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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 4 - Ireland

Oh the breezes blowing o’er the sea from Ireland,
Are perfumed by the heather as they blow,
And the women in the meadows digging pratties
Speak a language that the strangers do not know.

For the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways,
They scorned us just for being what we are,
But they might as well have tried to catch a moonbeam,
Or light a penny candle from a star.

And if there’s going to be a life hereafter
As somehow I am sure there’s going to be
I will ask my God to let me make my heaven
In that dear land across the Irish Sea.

Galway Bay*

“So near to home, - so far from care”.  Thus the Irish tourist board describes the Emerald Isle to potential visitors from Britain.  Despite its turbulent history and troubled present (in some parts of the north), Ireland has been and remains a happy country with a delightful people. The Irish are welcoming, and hospitable.  They love to sing and to converse, and are at their best when expressing their priceless humour. They are a down-to-earth people, generally unsophisticated and unpretentious, but that does not mean they lack perception, and if Paddy senses you are trying to trick him, he will string you along as though totally unaware of your intentions, but in the end will turn the tables on you with remarkable skill.

I used to visit Ireland during the summer holidays from school when I was given a much prized opportunity to serve as a cabin boy on the family boat.  I remember fishing in Galway Bay when sailing hookers carried peat around the Arran Islands and Connemara, and when curraghs were rowed out into the Atlantic to fish for basking sharks.  The curragh was a light canvas covered boat with a high stem and flat stern, and fine seaworthy lines for coping with the Atlantic swells.  The master boat builder with whom I was privileged to work on Lake Kanba, Dick Heath, chose the lines of the curragh as a basis for the planked canoe he designed for Zambia’s fisheries.  It proved to be an excellent boat for the sometimes short sharp waves on the large lake.  But back to west Ireland, - we spent the odd night in Kilronan in the main Arran island of Inishmore.  At the home of Mrs Joyce, a prominent lady of the island, we sat around a peat fire on a stone floor under an oil lamp, and were served tea and home bakes.  As a special treat I was given a glass of milk.  It tasted odd to me, till I realized it was goat’s milk. Connemara was another fascinating area where houses and dress had changed little in centuries. When I go to Ireland now, it amazes me that there seems to be not a single old thatched cottage left there, - just one large modern bungalow after another. 

Old Galway harbour

Aran Isles, the town of Inisheer

My father’s family loved the Irish.  Four of the family boats fished round the coast there several years for a Dublin firm.  Every port they went into, they were met with kindness and friendship.  In the 1940’s and 50’s Ireland was a poor country, - a far cry from the ‘yuppy’ society one sees in Dublin today.  I used to think it surprising that those Scots fishers, - mostly fundamentalist, non-conformist types, were so drawn to the devout Catholics of the Republic, - and the Irish Catholics to them. But so it was. Mercifully, the tensions in Ulster did not affect their relationships.  The Scots were regarded as fellow-Celts, and if their home-spun religion appeared strange to the devout Roman Catholics, they still recognized a common bond of faith, uncontaminated by political agendas.

Ireland suffered from the time of Henry VIII due to it being regarded as a potential enemy or supporter of the Catholic powers in France and Spain that threatened England from time to time.  Not that England did not threaten Europe also. – reading the history of those costly and pointless wars with France and Spain, - it all appears so foolish now.  But through the reigns of the Henry’s, Elizabeth, James 1st, Charles 1st, Cromwell, Charles 2nd, and on to King William of Orange and the George’s, - how Ireland suffered, - used by the continental powers, and punished in return by England.  All this led to much absentee landlordism, and prevented the development of truly representative local  government. 

The four vessels operated by H J Nolan’s and the Thomson family, 1949 to 1956.  They were Moravia, Casamara, Kincora and Kittiwake.

The country was never wealthy, it had an exploitative land-owning class, and there was little industry except in the north, and that developed after the plantation of protestants from the Netherlands and Scotland first by James 1st, and later by William of Orange.  Then came the dreadful potato famine of the early nineteenth century, when hundreds of thousands died of starvation, and many thousands emigrated.  Yet through all those troubles, Ireland supplied much cannon fodder for English or British armies, and much cheap labour to further the industrial revolution.  The surprising thing to me, is not the strength of Irish nationalism, or the growth of a small but murderous IRA, - the surprising thing to me is the amount of goodwill towards England that still exists throughout the emerald isle.

The horrors of the potato famine are largely forgotten today, yet they occurred a mere 150 years ago. Whether the potato blight caused by a fungus Phytophthora infestans could have been prevented or controlled at that time is doubtful, but what most certainly could have been avoided was the death by starvation of close on a million persons, and to some degree, the emigration of close to another million in desperation for survival in foreign lands.  Four and a half million pounds left Ireland annually at that time, in payment of rents to absentee landlords, - far more than was needed to feed the population during famine.

A glimpse of the Irish famine, 1846 – 1851

In a report to the British Parliament, one of the first to put on official record the stark facts arising from the starvation of thousands upon thousands of Irish peasants, told of the horrors taking place that till then were largely hidden from the British public, and tragically ignored by authorities :

“Tipperary is in insurrection, Clonmel in a state of siege, government bayonets displayed.  The people’s food is locked up.  Hilltops are covered with thousands of men, livid with hunger.  Provision boats are boarded, mills and stores ransacked.  Galway, Cork, Clare and Limerick are counting their deaths from starvation.  Families in Cavan are resolved on a suicide of starvation to escape beggary.  Thousands wait for typhus or other hideous phantom to rescue them from the griping horrors of want.  Meanwhile the British Government vacillated and observed complacently that ‘in many of the most distressed districts, the patience and resignation of the people have been most exemplary’,”. 

An eyewitness reported more graphically, “We are here in the midst of one of those thousand Golgothas that border our island with a ring of death from Cork to Loch Foyle. There is no need of enquiries here, no need of words.  Grass grows before the doors and we fear to look inside lest we see yellow chapless skeletons grinning there.  We walk amidst the houses of the dead and out at the other side of the cluster, and there is not one where we dare to enter.    They are all dead: the strong man and the dark-haired woman and the little ones with their liquid Gaelic accents. They shrunk and withered together till they hardly knew each other’s faces. The father was on a ‘public work’ and earned the sixth part of what could have maintained his family, which was not always paid to him.  But it kept them alive for three months, and so, instead of dying in December, they died in March”. [Quoted in chapter 8, ‘What Parliament Did’, in The Trial of Patrick Sellar by Ian Grimble, R Paul, London, 1962.]

Tradition tells us that it was an Irish monk who first brought the Christian gospel to Scotland.  He was Colum Cille or Columba as he is now known. His original settlement in Iona has been restored and now functions as a non-denominational centre of Christian ministry and concern for the third world.  Irish monks preserved the Christian faith through the dark ages, in their lonely abbeys and hermitages built in the most isolated rocky islands or remote hillsides.  Irish priests and poets enriched European culture for centuries.  And some surprising non-Catholic Irish writers and theologians had an influence on Britain.  It was a Church of Ireland cleric, John Nelson Darby that founded what came to be known as the Plymouth Brethren.  Their first meeting place was in Merrion Hall, Dublin, - not in Plymouth.  Another prominent evangelical, brilliant Irish lawyer and theologian, Sir Robert Anderson, was head of the Scotland Yard CID in Queen Victoria’s time.

                         Connemara in the 1950’s.                        An old Hooker sailboat in Galway Bay
                   (It does not look like that today)

My favourite Irish poet is W B Yeats, who was also a playwright and a mystic.  I spent some time around his beloved Sligo when fishing out of Donegal Bay, and often thought of him when admiring the heights of Ben Bulben beneath which he is buried at Drumcliffe.    Most of Yeat’s poetry is pleasant and romantic. “When you are old and grey and full of sleep”, is one of the most touching of love poems.  But Yeats had his mystic and prophetic side somewhat like Blake and Shelley, and there are a couple of lines from his poem, “The Second Coming”, that I feel are sadly relevant to these dark modern times :

                        “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
                         Are full of passionate intensity.”

Irish music also stirred me as did Scots plaintive songs and pipe tunes.  The Irish have an abundance of folk songs (of varying quality), that are best heard in a singing pub of which there are many scattered throughout the land.  When I first visited the country, it was a common place event to have a young lad wander off the street and start to sing in a corner of a pub, with no musical accompaniment, and in some cases, rather little ability.  I guess it was one of the few ways they could pick up a few pence then.  Public houses had their own character in Ireland.  They were not the hard drinking places that one found then in Scotland, but neither were they the more genteel tavern – restaurants for which England is renowned.  Most Irish pubs served only drink, but they were social centres where people gathered to share the news of the day.  They also served delicious ‘club orange’ and ‘club lemon’ drinks.  I have tried them since, and somehow they don’t taste the same today.   

Of Irish historical and non-fiction books, I have mentioned two in the following box.  Both were written out of hard experiences of poverty and injustice, - one in the North and one in the South of Ireland. Both have been recognized as classics in their own way. Reading them even today is a moving experience.

Pogue’s Entry, Antrim,  birthplace of Andrew Irvine.   His moving book My Lady of the Chimney Corner

Above : Andrew Irvine

Memorable Irish Books and Films

If there is a book that portrays the beautiful side of the Irish people more than any other, to me it is Dr Alexander Irvine’s poignantly inspiring portrait of his mother who lived in Pogue’s Entry in Antrim. – “My Lady of the Chimney Corner”. [My Lady of the Chimney Corner, First published in 1913. Republished 1993 by the Appletree Press Ltd, Belfast]. His parents, of poor peasant stock, were unusual in Ireland – from opposite sides of the religious fence, - farm labourer Jamie a Presbyterian and Anna a Catholic.  In consequence, neither attended their churches much thereafter, but both displayed remarkable Christian faith and character through periods of severe poverty.  For years, their little house was a haven of consolation and encouragement to the local people in Antrim, hospitality and counsel being administered liberally with rich helpings of couthy Irish humour. 

The home is now a museum, and Anna and Jamie are buried in the churchyard nearby.  Irvine described his moving book as only “the torn manuscript of the most beautiful life I ever knew”.  He wrote, “I have merely pieced and patched it together, and have not even changed or disguised the names of the little group of neighbours who lived with us, at ‘the bottom of the world’.”

Another book, less well known outside of Ireland, is “Paddy the Cope”, [My Story – Paddy the Cope, Patrick Gallagher’s autobiography, c.1947, reprinted 1979, by The Kerryman Ltd Tralee, for the Templecrone Cooperative Society, Dungloe.] the amusing yet instructive autobiographical story of Patrick Gallagher who founded and ran one of the country’s most successful rural cooperatives. Gallagher was illiterate, and the book is written as taken from his verbal accounts, with all the grammatical forms and the pronunciation he used.  But the book is a remarkable account of the resilience of a community intent on achieving some control of their economic future, in the face of powerful local vested interests.  I referred to it often when encouraging poor fishers in Africa and Asia to work together to improve their lot.  It was surprising how well they related to the Donegal farmer, and the constraints and obstacles he overcame in life.

One of my treasured possessions is a concert programme signed by all of the actors in the film The Quiet Man, and by its Director John Ford.  The family boats were fishing out of Galway and Connemara in 1952 when the film was made, and they lent some of their new fish boxes to make a stage for the concert which was a kind of a thank-you by the cast to the local people.   John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McClaughlin and Barry Fitzgerald were among the stars of this light and entertaining picture of life in rural Ireland in the 1930’s.  When first released, the film played to packed audiences in Dublin, night after night, continuously for three years.

Much later I was to see the film “Michael Collins” on the Irish struggle for independence and the tensions between De Valera and Michael Collins (played by Liam Neeson) which led to Collins death.  It is a moving film, spoiled for me by the way the crowds were dressed – they were attired more like middle-class Americans than Irish of 1922 – few black shawls and no homespun trousers.

We were often in O’Connell Street Dublin where much of the early IRA / British fighting took place, and in the main Post Office which still bears the bullet marks from 1916 when it was held for a period by Patrick Pearse and a contingent of the Irish Nationalists.  In the middle of O’Connell Street was a huge stone column with a statue of Lord Nelson.  We used to climb the steps inside to get a glorious view of Dublin from the top.  Nelson’s Column is gone now, blown up by the IRA over 30 years ago.        Below : the Post Office and Nelson’s Column.

            Dublin Post Office, O’Çonnell Street, where                Nelson’s monument O’Connell Street,
       much fighting took place in the early 1920’s              1955, later blown up by the IRA

On a visit to the House of Commons in 1990 at the invitation of Lord Winchilsea [Sir Christopher Denys Stormont Finch Hatton, the Rt Hon the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, Liberal Peer.], we went to get a cup of tea at one of the many bars in the House, I found myself face to face with a bust of John Redmond, the highly respected Member of Parliament for Waterford, and Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party who did much to facilitate the granting of self-government and later independence to the Irish Republic.  I had stayed with the MP’s niece, Maud Redmond, for a summer holiday in 1954.  She was a retired music teacher who had worked in that capacity for the Austrian Empress and her family in Vienna before the outbreak of WW1.  Miss Redmond’s cottage was full of priceless antiques, and she was kind and patient enough to introduce me to that world.  She taught me how to recognize gold and silver stamps, Sheffield plate, Adam’s fireplaces and Chippendale furniture.  She was secretary of the local RSPCA and loved animals, her favourite being a Shetland collie that my father had brought over from Scotland. Miss Redmond was never happier than when she would fill her room on a Saturday evening, with the finest musicians from Waterford, plus the motley crew from our fishing boat.  She was as delighted with the crewmen’s attempts to serenade or recite doggerel poetry, as she was with the accomplished performances of her musical friends.

Dunmore East harbour light with the Hook lighthouse in the background

Looking back, the fishing system used in Ireland over 50 years ago, compares well in terms of quality and freshness of produce, with any in use today.  The four Scottish boats that supplied H J Nolan’s with fish, would gut, wash, select by size, and pack, whiting, cod, haddock, hake and flatfish in 7 stone (98 lbs) boxes with ice, and cover them with a sheet of greaseproof paper.   When fishing in the Atlantic off the Arran Isles, the four boats would inform the Galway agent daily by radio of the catches and he would telephone Dublin for an appropriate amount of empty boxes and ice. The fleet would come inside the islands to put all their catches on a single boat that would then take them the 3 hours to Galway where the fish truck from Dublin would be waiting.  After unloading, the vessel would take ice and boxes back for all four boats.  Each boat would take its turn in making the Galway trip.  In this way, there was fresh fish on Dublin market at 6.00 a.m. each weekday morning, that had been caught the previous day in the Atlantic off the west coast.  I doubt if any market in Europe can surpass that standard for fresh fish, even today.

My best personal friend in Ireland was Sean Cotter of Castletown Berehaven in County Cork.  Along with myself he was an apprentice deckhand on my father’s boat in the mid-1950’s.  A gem of a fellow, Sean (Johnny) had a rich store of tales from that wild and remote south-west part of Ireland, which he would relate with appropriate colour and exaggeration.  He was as cool as a cucumber when encountering more sophisticated society.  I will never forget him bargaining with a draper in Dun Laoghaire for the purchase of a suit.  No Jew or Arab could have beaten the price down better or gotten more extras out of the draper than Johnny did.   He was a fine seaman, and later went on to become a successful skipper of a French-built trawler fishing on the wild Porcupine Bank in the Atlantic, west of the Arran Isles.  After a gap of forty years I had an opportunity to go to Castletown and look him up, and found him aboard his vessel in the harbour.  He did not recognize me at first.  When I said I was “one of the Thomsons from Lossiemouth”,  he responded, “do you know David?, - how is David these days?”.  Within minutes I was given the royal treatment, and ended the evening in his bachelor house round a roaring fire while his crew brought up huge fresh Irish ham sandwiches from the shop and Sean poured mug after mug of hot steaming tea. He had given up drinking for health reasons some time before, but had never married. He lost his life a few years ago, sadly, but somewhat appropriately, at sea.  He had semi-retired to a one-man boat, the Kyle Mhor, which he fished with skill, but something went wrong that last morning, 31st May 2000.  The vessel capsized south of Black Bull Head, and he was drowned.  The fishermen of Castletown called me and gave me a moving account of how they bid Sean their last farewell.  His sister and brother-in-law in England, also wrote of him with deep affection and admiration. Sean was the third of three young Irish fishermen I knew in 1955 who all lost their lives at sea.       

Another fine young Irishman I got to know was Pat Kelly-Rogers.  Pat was the son of Captain Kelly-Rogers, then the head of Aer Lingus, the Irish airline.  During the war years he had been Winston Churchill’s personal pilot.  I had the privilege of meeting Captain Kelly-Rogers through his son Pat.  His daughter Aine also became a friend of my wife’s.  Pat could have had any career he wished I think, but he loved the fishing.  He had served in the US Navy during the Viet Nam war, but came back to Ireland to pursue his real interest. He served for a while as a crew member on a herring trawler I operated for a year  in Ireland.  Later he acquired a boat of his own, and fished well for a period, but lost the vessel following a collision at sea when pair trawling for herring off the south coast.

Pat Kelly Rogers on left helping with a mixed bag of mackerel, herring and haddock on the Dayspring off Donegal.  The Mate, Peter Smith of Buckie is on the right.  Peter later became a successful skipper of inshore, coastal, and deep sea vessels around Scotland and abroad.

Taking locals out for the blessing of the bay, Galway, 1950 

In Dunmore East there was an interesting character engaged in both fishing and the sale of nets and chandlery.  He was Alan Glanville from England, who had served with FAO in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the early 1950’s, along with Einar Kvaran of Iceland with whom I worked years later in Indonesia.  Alan had also worked with John Garner and Gourock trawls on the early development of wing trawls in Britain. Alan was regarded as a “gentleman fisher” by other fisherman as he went to sea only when it suited him and when it was profitable.  However, he did well in Dunmore East, both at the herring fishery and in selling nets and gear.  I was to meet Alan occasionally at fishery exhibitions and when visiting the south coast.  At the age of 75 Alan was operating a steel vessel off the south-west coast, fishing for bluefin tuna by deep sea rod and line.  He was then thinking of establishing a tuna ranch in one of the Irish bays.  Following the tsunami disaster in SE Asia, at the age of 80, Glanville had some fishing boat hulls of suitable design built in Chile and sent from there to the fishermen of Sri Lanka.

Other fishermen in the Republic who I came to know and admire included James McLeod,  a qualified merchant navy captain and airplane pilot, who pioneered herring fishing in the west, and set up a net factory in Killybegs.  James lived to over 90 years of age, and when he was no longer permitted by age to fly aircraft, he took to piloting gliders.  Albert Swan was another skilled fisherman, who established the large Swan net company.  Then there were the McAllig brothers from Dunkineely who operated several trawlers.  Willie McCallig was a crew member on my father’s boat when we fished in Ireland.  He was killed in a car crash along with a relative, in 1994.  In Castletownbere there were the O’Driscoll brothers, and in the Aran Isles, Pat Jo O’Donnell, Pat Jennings and Keiran Gill.

Ulster, (Northern Ireland), was not a part of the island I visited much, though my father had fished before from Ardglass and Portavogie.  There was one family in the north we knew well, and sometimes visited, as they had many connections with Scotland and with my father and his brothers.  They were the Chambers family of Annalong, a village beside Kilkeel in County Down.  Jack Chambers was the oldest brother, but Victor was the leader, and a real pioneer in Irish fisheries.  He had four vessels in succession, each breaking new technological ground in the capture of demersal fish and herring.  The family boats had names like Green Pastures, Green Isle, and Green Hill.  Recently I met a grandson of Jack Chambers in Malaysia where he was serving on an ocean going mission ship.

Ireland is a favourite holiday destination for our family.  My wife and I particularly enjoy a week on the Shannon – Erne waterway where you can rent a small cabin cruiser for less than the cost of a bed and breakfast room for two, and cruise up or down most of the length of Ireland, in leisurely fashion and surrounded by pleasant scenery and interesting bird life.  Truly, - so near to home, and so far from care.

All of the above, I hope, paints a cameo picture of the land of the shamrock and its much admired people.  But it is a background against which I would like to consider the problems of Ulster and the bloody work of the IRA and the UDA.  Sadly, few national symbols are more prophetically accurate than the ‘red hand of Ulster’.  I knew many Irish nationalists, - in fact there are few in southern Ireland that would not fit that description.  I also knew several members of the IRA, and more indirectly, some members of the UDA.  Once I sat beside the formidable MP and Free Presbyterian Minister Dr Ian Paisley on a flight from Rome (of all places) to London.  He was a most courteous and congenial traveling companion, and I was surprised to learn that we had some acquaintances in common.

Structural injustice has led to civil disobedience and violence in many countries.  The cries of Unionists in the North, for Irish Catholics to obey the laws of the land, reminded me very much of similar injunctions (in pre-Apartheid days) from whites in South Africa, to their disadvantaged black citizens. The attitude of hard-line whites in the American south to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is another example.  Historical injustices have to be rectified.  That is why the root cause of the Irish troubles are often referred to as “the sins of our fathers”.  

A bag of saithe (coley) west Ireland, 1949

Domination of Ireland by successive English and British Governments from the time of Henry the 8th, has caused untold sorrow.  The fierce vengeance of Cromwell’s and later King William’s armies, and the plantation of Protestants in Ulster, centuries ago, sowed the evil seeds of the current tensions and conflicts.  While British attempts to create coalition governments in Ulster have been regarded with suspicion or lack of cooperation by political parties there, a sea change is taking place as the Republic is no longer the ‘poor brother’ since it joined the EU and became a prosperous financial centre.  Unionist determination to stick with the United Kingdom has been weakened by Britain’s industrial decline, and by the coolness of UK governments towards Ulster.

I recall sitting next to a young red-headed IRA activist in London airport in 1965 while he railed to his lawyer about the British Government having killed his father, and how he owed them no allegiance and they held no authority over him.  I had another zealous IRA man join my crew on a trawler I fished briefly from Killybegs, but he turned on the organization when it tried to get his brother to go on a hunger strike to the death.  The problem for Eddie was that those who wanted his brother to die that way, in his opinion, would not miss a meal themselves for the cause.

One of the fishing boats part-owned and operated by my uncles when working with H J Nolans in the early 1950’s, the Casamara, was used to carry arms shipments from Libya to the IRA in 1985.  That was long after Nolans sold the vessel.  Commanded by an Adrian Hopkins of Dun Laoghaire from where we often fished, Casamara was reported to have made three arms shipment voyages in the year in question, carrying from 10 to 16 tons of weapons and ammunition, including AK 47 rifles, pistols, anti-aircraft machine guns and rocket launchers.  Also in the cargo were a million rounds of bullets and thousands of mortar shells.  General John de Chastelain who inspected arms that the IRA had put out of use, identified some as coming from the Casamara shipment.  I find it hard to believe that that lovely 65 foot seiner built by Tyrrell’s of Arklow in the late 1940’s, which was manned by such fine crews of fishermen and which had harvested fish all round the emerald isle for 30 years, was to be used for the murderous weapons trade in the 1980’s. 

The Casamara when operated by Nolan’s and the Thomson family.
Some 20 years later it was used for gun-running by the IRA.

Hopkins was reported to have used three different vessels over a 2 to 3 year period, - the Casamara, the Villa, and the Eksund.  At one time he changed the Casamara’s name to avoid detection.  He and his Eksund crew, including IRA member Gabriel Cleary, were arrested by French authorities in the Bay of Biscay in 1987, and spent the next 3 years in French jails.  Released on bail, Hopkins made his way to Ireland where he was picked up by Gardai police in Limerick.  Numerous reports, including Ed Moloney’s 2003 book, The Secret History of the IRA, claim that the arms shipments were financed and organized by one Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a wealthy pig farmer whose property adjoined the Irish Republic border.  These reports describe Murphy as a veteran IRA commander, and its most lucrative smuggler. It was also suspected that he was behind the brutal murder of Eamon Collins near Murphy’s farm.  Collins had been a witness against Murphy in a British court case.  

Thomas Murphy was said to have been on the beach at Clogga Strand in County Wicklow when the Casamara discharged her cargo of weapons and ammunition.  In 2006, Northern Irish and Republican police raided Murphy’s farms after British police had searched over 240 properties in England, valued at £ 55 million, that were believed to be part of an IRA money-laundering operation.

Most Irish Catholics supported the movements to rid all of Ireland from the UK, though only a few would agree with the violent means of the IRA.  So it was hardly possible to have a Catholic Irish friend who did not harbour national symathies.  Rather, I suppose as it would be difficult to find ordinary Arabs in the Middle East who did not want their lands to be free of American or Israeli domination.  Despite all of the violent background, and the historical injustices that have beset Ireland, rather wonderfully, even avowed Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists can be great friends cooperating effectively and in harmony.  I knew some who were in that category.  Two who come to mind, Paddy Smyth and Bobby McCullough, a fish merchant and a skipper of a large vessel, worked marvellously together, though they constantly teasing, and playing practical jokes on one another. The core problem of Ireland is political, not religious, and it relates to basic justice.

Nevertheless, the political divides are drawn largely along denominational lines, and so Catholic – Protestant tensions live on in Northern Ireland where it would seem that the Reformation and the European religious wars occurred only yesterday.  Elections in Ulster are seeing a polarization of votes for the extremist parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.  Both the propagators of armed struggle and armed resistance, use religion for their political ends. For all the sworn adherence of the IRA to the church, or of extreme Protestants to Biblical truth, both parties in Ulster would do well to take to heart the words of Pope John Paul II in Drogheda 1979 : “Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity, the life, the freedom of human beings.  Violence is a crime against humanity for it destroys the very fabric of society. O my hearers I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.”

The solution to Ireland’s problems lies with the Irish, with the thousands upon thousands of peace-loving men and women and young people, and with those who once practiced violence but have since renounced it.  Men like former loyalist para-military Billy McIlwaine, and women like former republican para-military Mary Smyth, and the Soldiers of the Cross movement they supported.  Billy McIlwaine, former man of violence has written:  “I appeal to the men and women in the various paramilitary organizations to examine in their hearts what they hope to achieve by violence and bloodshed in Northern Ireland. …  Is there not a better way?  Is there not another way than the bomb and the bullet? I love this country and its people, and I pray that Catholics and Protestants, Loyalists and Republicans, might  live together in peace”.

A peaceful future is being carved out of the landscape of bitterness by courageous people like the women who campaign tirelessly for peace, and organizations like the the Corrymeela Community of Christians for justice and peace. There are also outstanding men like Dr John Robb who as a surgeon at Lismore Hospital Ballymena, had often to repair the horrendous damage done to human bodies by the indiscriminate bombs.  His father Dr John Charles Robb, a pioneer in medical and hospital work, served in Downpatrick Hospital for many years.  My father was placed under his care in 1953 when he was landed unconscious from a brain hemorrhage due to excessive hours at sea without sleep.  Thankfully, my father recovered, and in the process he got to know the Robb boys, Johnny and Jimmy, both of whom spent some time at sea with us later when on vacation.  They were great fun, keen rugby players, and real gentlemen.  Both graduated as medical doctors, though Jimmy had intended a different line of work, but changed to medicine after a life-changing visit to Calcutta where he observed human misery and suffering to an extreme degree.

Johnny became a renowned surgeon, often operating on bomb victims at Lismore Hospital as mentioned above.  He was made an honorary Senator by the Dublin Government in appreciation of his efforts to promote peace in the north.  I mentioned his name to the Rev Iain Paisley during the conversation we had on a flight to London.  The leader of the Democratic Unionists said, “ah, ...  - he’s all mixed up.  But, … he is a very good surgeon”.

MFV Dayspring en route Ireland from Norway

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