By John Kelly
One of the most apt quotations attributed to the former President of Ireland Eamon de Valera was reputed to have been an off-the-cuff remark when many impoverished farmers, west of the Shannon, were presented with the option by his government to obtain new holdings in the rich cattle pastures of County Meath.
Many jumped at the offer and many of their grandchildren formed the nucleus of several All-Ireland-winning football teams in recent years. They are also successful farmers, if that can now be said of any farmer in Ireland at a time when depressed prices and set-aside land, designated by the European Union to trim food surpluses, are driving young Irish people from the land in increasing numbers.
That resettlement program of the 1930s was one of the few genuinely revolutionary policies ever pursued by the Fianna Fail party. And Valera is reputed to have justified it with the oft-quoted remark concerning the farming families who chose to move: "Sure, they’re only going back to where they came from."
They were indeed. Centuries of conquest and resettlement, especially during the Cromwellian period, had pushed the native Irish inhabitants to the farthest extremities of the west coast, which, although beautiful, is just barely capable of providing sustenance from the land.
In more recent history, the policy of successive British governments toward Ireland can be bluntly described as ethnic cleansing or naked racialism.
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Historically, it was one of the worst tendencies of the British Empire, this policy of settling a territory with its colonials while also systematically driving the indigenous inhabitants into remote, barely sustainable ghettoes. Ultimately, it helped to partition vast territories across the globe, laying the seeds for many current conflicts.
In the nine counties of Ulster, it was carried to the extreme. The plantation was obscene. A similar policy was implemented in the Scottish Lowlands from whence the native clans were brutally driven farther and farther north.
The descendants of those Irish settlers are the loyalists of today. The religious and racial bigotry that many continue to harbor as a perverse means of self-defense has been internationally witnessed at Drumcree Church and in the center of Portadown.
Despite it all, the Irish are going back to where they came from. And they are going back as successful business people and entrepreneurs. Not alone are they doing this in the wider context of Europe as well. In relation that particular migration, de Valera’s statement still holds true. The Irish are going back to where they came from.
Nobody is quite sure about the exact place of origin of the Celtic people. All that is certain is that they were the most widespread race in Europe for many centuries. They constituted an empire without any of the aggrandizements of empire.
What is also certain is that they were a nomadic tribe of people who farmed extensively as they ranged across the continent. Within the pages of Julius C’sar’s account of the Gallic Wars, we learn that they were large, long-boned people, fearsome in battle but poorly equipped apart from their horse drawn chariots, spears, swords and shields. They were also poorly organized in the military sense against the well-trained Romans.
We know little enough of those Celts who eventually settled in Ireland, where, relatively secure as an island people, they established a culture that shone like strands of gold through Europe’s dark, barbarian age.
If we know little about them, we know even less about the Neolithic peoples who had settled in Ireland before them. We know the little we do because of the strange edifices they left behind: the passage graves, ring forts, and astoundingly technical sacred structures like Newgrange in County Meath.
All that we know is that they came from Europe, perhaps through Britain, although, curiously enough, apart from the characteristic circles of stones at Stonehenge, there is little evidence of their habitation on the sister island.
And now, as we approach the turn of the century, the Irish are going back. Indeed, one of the most refreshing features of the so-called Celtic Tiger is that young Irish people have embraced enthusiastically the notion of a new Europe. Unlike the English, there is not the slightest trace of any insular inferiority in the new relationships that are being forged.
And the Irish do their business well. There is scarcely a capital city in Europe that does not contain at least one Irish pub staffed by young Irish people, who, it can be said, are the best possible ambassadors for their country and for the products of their country. They are at the forefront of aggressive, but welcome, business interests reaching out into the European Community.
Europeans have come to like the Irish. They like the image. They like the music, the confident humor, and the craic. They prove this by visiting Ireland in increasing numbers.
The Irish are going back to Europe and they will also go back to all parts of the North. In the long term, it is the reality of economics and not the jaded cries of ancient history that will solve the Irish problem.
Whether diehard loyalists like it or not, it is the bottom line of a checkbook, and not the muzzle of an armalite or a pound of Semtex, that will forge ultimate unity on this island. Business people of all religious persuasions will not suffer partition in silence if it gets in the way of profits.
The decision of the Scottish people to opt for their own parliament was based as much on hard-headed financial considerations as on anything else. The Scottish simply concluded after the rapacity of the Thatcher era that that they would be better off handling their own affairs.
A similar realization will dawn on all of the people of Northern Ireland at some juncture. The island of Ireland has always been a natural geographical and economic unit. The interests of farmers on both sides of the border are similar. Tourism, one of the great successes of modern Ireland, is another obvious common factor.
D Valera will prove to be correct. The Irish will go back to where they came from.