Fr. Daniel O'Rourke
Saint Patrick’s Day has come and gone, but it’s still with me. I don’t
mean those phony brogues, green beer and all that ersatz Irishness. I
mean “the Troubles,” as the Irish poetically name them. I mean the
diminishing conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day reminded me of another artificially divided land,
of another suppression of one religious group by another. It reminded
me of the civil war now already begun between Iraq’s Sunnis and the
Shiites. Different groups divided by class and clout, prestige and
power but whose overarching identification is religion. In Iraq two
sects of Islam, in Ireland two divisions of Christians fearing, hating
and killing each other.
Listen to W. B. Yeats’ verse from his poem Remorse for Intemperate
Speech. It cries out from the heart of a tortured people.
Out of Ireland we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
When Yeats wrote that, he “had witnessed the birthing of a new Irish
nation through insurgency and civil war. He had served as a Free State
senator, and after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, was the
country’s public man of letters.”
As Thomas Lynch, the poet and author of Booking Passage: We Irish and
Americans, has also observed, Yeats’ poem admits that intelligence and
good intentions are often overcome by hatred and enthusiasm for a
cause. ”It is what links enemies, what makes terrorists ‘martyrs’ and
‘patriots’ among their own ‘ -- the fanatic heart beating in the breast of
every true believer.”
I inherited some of that hate. As a boy I heard those songs of
rebellion from my grandparents. Experience, education, travel - life
itself have leached that hate from my heart. But even three generations
removed from Ireland, I heard suspicion, distrust and hate for the
English Protestant landlords, who forced my famished ancestors onto
“coffin ships” and into steerage for passage to a distant land.
Is such religious hatred destiny? Can experience and education cure
fanatic hearts? They did mine; can they do so in Iraq? Only history
will tell, but here’s a story that gives me hope.
Some years ago fundraisers from the Irish Republican Army stopped to
see an American executive. He was an Irish Catholic CEO of an
international company. They went to his office in his up-scale
Manhattan headquarters. They spoke of the prejudice, injustices,
killings and suppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland and requested
money for arms. He refused them.
“All right they said, but what then do you intend to do to help?” The
CEO did not answer, but long after the IRA terrorists left their
question haunted him.
Weeks later he flew to Belfast and began making plans to build a plant
in Northern Ireland. Eventually, with instructions that his people
hire both Catholics and Protestants as workers and managers, he built
it. The plant prospered and its non-discriminatory personnel policies
were widely praised.
A few years later this same CEO was in London on business to meet with
an English counterpart. Their work had brought them together and they
had become friends. Their different religions and ethnic backgrounds
were hardly noticed. Over lunch in an exclusive club they were
discussing the Belfast plant and its hiring practices.
“What made you build it?” asked the Englishman. The American told him
of the IRA soliciting money for arms. “But why did you do it?” his
English friend persisted.
“My grandparents were tenant farmers in Connemara. Their landlord
forced them to leave Ireland during the famine.”
Curious now the Englishman asked, “What part of Connemara?” When the
American named the remote, mountainous village, the Englishman paled.
“What’s the matte?“ asked his friend.
Shaking his head, the Englishman said quietly, “My grandfather owned
Generations from now will the descendents of today’s Shiites and Sunnis
have similar conversations -- will they meet as friends? Will they sit
at table to share a meal to discuss business? Or will that hatred,
which today rips Iraq asunder, still maim them? Will the grandchildren
of today ‘s Sunnis and Shiites still carry fanatic hearts?
It can happen, if visionary statesmen like Senator George Mitchell who
nurtured the historic Good Friday Irish agreement bring similar
diplomatic skills to the Sunni-Shiite conflict. (I must say, however,
that presently I find the Bush administration ‘s Iraq policy is not
long-term and visionary but short-term and delusional.)
In Ireland economic prosperity, cultural cooperation and
interdependence have drawn Catholics and Protestants closer. Full
peace has not yet come to Ulster, but most fanatic hearts are have been
silenced. Iraq desperately needs such modernization.
The reformation of the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council
helped greatly in Ireland. That council broke down many Catholic and
Protestant prejudices. Islam too needs a religious reformation.
Eventually modernization and reformation will come to Iraq but it will
not happen quickly. As in Ireland, it could take generations perhaps
And how long will our troops be there? God only knows; President Bush
doesn't. We should set a timetable and start bringing them home. As
the Quakers have told us “if our troops leave, then an independent
Iraqi government, free of external control, could open the door to
discussion and reconciliation between groups.”
We should again remind ourselves of Ireland and the transitional Irish
Free State, which was also born out of insurgency and civil war. It
struggled from 1922 to 1937. Americans must take the long view of
history and not, as politicians instinctively do, think only of the
next congressional election.
One more comparison: in Ireland women jump-started the struggle for
peaceful cooperation. In 1977 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams
received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Iraq too needs to
hear the voices of its women who have lost too many children, husbands
and brothers. If the Iraqi constitution gives a real voice to women --
and not only a nominal presence, the chances for peace between Sunni
and Shiite will increase.
That’s what Ireland can teach America about Iraq.
Daniel O’Rourke is He’s a married Catholic priest, retired from the administration at State University College, Fredonia. A mediator for the Center for Resolution and Justice, he lives in Cassadaga. His column appears the second and
fourth Thursdays of each month. Comments may be sent to