There is broad anti-war sentiment in Ireland itself, highlighted by the protests at Shannon Airport, where U.S. military transport planes have landed for refueling on the way to the Gulf.
Many Irish Americans have attacked this sentiment, accusing the Irish of not standing by the U.S. at this serious time.
Brian O’Hare from New York, writing on an Internet bulletin board was typical: “Last I checked there were more Irish in America than in Ireland. If that nation wants our support, then I propose the age-old idea of ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.’ “
But a picture of a patriotic Irish America angered by the antiwar stance of some Irish is not a complete one. Within the Irish and Irish-American communities in the U.S. there are sharp divisions on the expected war as well.
The issue has prompted some to ask searching questions about where Irish people should stand on the issue of a war that the Bush administration and its supporters have called an essential preemptive strike and their detractors have styled an act of aggression to seize Iraq’s oilfields.
“I fear nuclear weapons, that’s what,” said Kevin Minehan, an Irish-born veteran of the Vietnam War who served in the First Marines from 1965-66. “It’s people killing people.”
Minehan will travel to Afghanistan on Feb. 14 with three other Irish Americans, where they hope their visit will encourage the U.S. troops there, fighting in a war that Minehan says he approves of, “but this Iraq thing, no, I’m not convinced.”
His trip, he said, will hopefully help dispel anti-American feeling in Afghanistan and anti-Muslim feeling in the U.S. — and it was important, he said, that the voices of veterans like himself, people who know what war is like, be heard.
Another veteran has been prominent in the anti-war movement in New York: veteran peace activist Daniel Berrigan, who along with his late brother Philip helped define a particular form of antiwar protest as far back as the Vietnam War, when they burned draft cards.
The Berrigans went on to found the Plowshares movement and broke into U.S. military establishments where they attacked vehicles and airplanes and damaged them.
The action led to lengthy jail sentences for both brothers.
Berrigan has praised the actions of Mary Kelly and other activists who were arrested recently in Ireland for damaging a U.S. Navy aircraft at Shannon.
Berrigan stood silently with other protestors last Saturday in Union Square in a group numbering about 25. The small number, the protestors said, was not indicative of the weakness of the movement, but, rather, that it was not a scheduled protest such as the one that will take place on Saturday in Manhattan which various sources say could be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 strong.
“We will assemble at 52nd Street and Second,” said John McDonagh, a “Radio Free Eireann” host who is helping to organize an Irish contingent in the rally.
“We are encouraging veterans to wear a part of their uniform,” he continued. McDonagh is a veteran also, having served in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany from 1973-75.
“Our banner will read, ‘We will serve neither Bush nor Mobile,’ ” McDonagh added, “after the 1916 banner that said we will serve neither King nor Kaiser.”
McDonagh said he expected “maybe 50 to 100 people” under that banner.
Rebellion and resolve
There are many Irish voices raised in protest, but it seems likely that there are many more who support military action against Iraq.
Said McDonagh: “We are under no illusions. We are the minority. I remember Larry Kirwan and Malachy McCourt going into Woodside in Queens in the 1960s to have an antiwar concert and having bottles thrown at them.”
Woodside, according to some local historians, was the U.S. neighborhood that experienced the highest number of casualties during World War II, showing the sense of service and duty to their adopted country that is strong among the Irish in America.
Yet two traditions clearly rest uneasily within the one community: patriotism and protest, rebellion and resolve.
“I think the Irish oscillate between integration and segregation,” said Mike Phelan, a union organizer for the CIRSEIU, the son of Irish immigrants who was raised in Inwood and who said he would attend Saturday’s rally.
“This is a community that produced both Dorothy Day and Father Coughlin,” said Phelan, referring to the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and remembered for her progressive social thinking, and the notorious 1930s priest who broadcast anti-Semitic rants while praising Hitler and the Nazis.
“We have a dual impulse in our first encounter with America,” Phelan said. “It took us a long time to get acceptance. And there is something in the Irish that says no, that resists and rebels.”
Phelan noted that the two sides he could see in Irish America each had elements of Catholicism in them, illustrated by the chasm that exists between Day and Coughlin — both were staunch Irish-American Catholics.
A bloody fight
One person under no illusions about the looming war is Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at Columbia University, whose expertise is defense issues and defense spending.
O’Hanlon has been busy in the news recently arguing in favor of military action but highlighting the fact that U.S. casualties could well be high.
Asked if the case for war had been made by the Bush administration, O’Hanlon said, “Yes, the case is pretty good. Americans would stand by Bush [even] if there are significant casualties.”
He noted that the need for a second United Nations Security Council resolution was arguably a gray area, because the most current one on Iraq, UNSCR 1441 “requires resolution of this situation one way or the other.”
Writing recently, O’Hanlon said: “The United States could plausibly lose . . . as many as 5,000 troops if the Republican Guard fights as hard and as effectively as its size and weaponry would plausibly allow within the urban settings of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.”
He continued: “While such a war would not become a quagmire under even the worst of circumstances, it could be rather bloody.”
A multiplicity of Irish and Irish Americans are raised vehemently pro- and anti-war. But, said Mike Phelan, “that is just a reflection of society as a whole right now.”