America and Ireland After Sept. 11

I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life in 1965. I left Dublin, where I had studied for three years, and flew to Chicago. From there I went by train to Iowa, where I was to do graduate studies. Like many Irish people, I was treading a well-worn path. Not far away, in Illinois, there lived at that time a grandaunt and granduncle. The first had come to work in New York when only 14 years of age. Her brother, who arrived in New York in 1917, was almost immediately conscripted into the American army and posted to France. The army taught him how to operate locomotivesan occupation he took up as a civilian in peacetime on the Rockford line. But while following in the path of my ancestors, I was also a new breeda formally educated Irishman coming to America to do further studies, at which I was to spend six years altogether. I went on to Duke University in North Carolina and then taught at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for two years until my student visa expired.

In 1971 the Fordham University quarterly review, Thought, published an article of mine entitled Nationalism: Ireland: A Case Study. In it I tried to explain (as only a young man would dare to do) Ireland, past and present, to an American readership. At that time, the north of the country was about three years into the agony that nobody could guess would last for more than 30 years and would be the only happening in Ireland to be relayed to the wider world by television.


At that time too, the economic plans developed along Keynesian lines within the civil service (chiefly by Kenneth Whitaker) were coming to first fruition, but the bounty of that harvest was, as with the Northern crisis, unimaginablealthough in a positive rather than a negative sense. Amid the depression that characterized an often falteringbut by the 1950’s a clearly totteringpeasant society, whose main exports had been cattle on the hoof and desperate people like my grand-family, there was in the making the other Irish phenomenon that has also now come to world attention: the Celtic Tiger economy of Southern Ireland.

But in my article I noted that no matter how improved the Irish economy was and might become, there would always be dominance by larger and richer powers over smaller and poorer, and therefore peripheral countries, like Ireland, and that this dominance would provoke nationalist feeling. I queried, though, whether the frequently bitterly resisted and always resented political and cultural dominance by Britain, which had marked Ireland, was likely to continue into the future. This colonial influence had been at its most profoundly disorientating and undermining with the change of language from Gaelic to English at the end of the 18th century. The correlative English attitudes that developed through the 19th and into the 20th centuries were caught in a satirical article written in 1939 by an Oxford student born in Ireland (who was always insistent on her Irish identity). The student was Iris Murdoch, now famous as a novelist and philosopher. Her article was entitled The Irish, Are They Human?

By 1971, I could note that world political and of late cultural hegemony was perceptibly shifting from Europe to America and that Britain’s leadership in world affairs had been greatly undermined by its mishandling of the Suez crisis. From an Irish point of view, it began to matter a great deal less whether the English considered them human or not. I could see that American mass culture and multinational economic activity was likely to penetrate Irish life and thought. Symbolic of the new realities as far as Ireland was concerned was John F. Kennedy’s election as president and his visit to the ancestral homeland in 1963.

And so, indeed, it has proved to beand in a specific way with respect to the two areas I had identified in the late 1960’s that have come to international attention since. First, as regards the Northern crisis, it seems that the decisive American influence, mobilized by Senator Edward Kennedy, Representative Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and carried through so energetically by President Clinton’s special envoy, Senator George Mitchell, is now set fair to bring closure to the Troubles. But I must note that the approximately 3,300 untimely deaths over 30 years are still not much more than the latest estimate of the holocaust on one September day in New York City.

Second, with respect to economic development, after an extremely rocky time in the 80’s, Ireland was for most of the next decade among the strongest economies in Europe with an average annual growth rate of 8.2 percent achieved over eight of its years. In its latest Economic Outlook report (published twice yearly), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts Ireland will achieve the world’s highest national economic growth rates for the next three years. These are (with U.S. rates in parentheses): 5.6 percent (1 percent) , 3.7 percent (2.75 percent) and 6.4 percent (3.5 to 4 percent). Here it is proper to stress how uncertain such predictions must be in the present circumstances and that they measure Gross Domestic rather than Gross National Product (thus excluding repatriated profits). But the fact that the O.E.C.D. now includes Ireland among the strongest economies in the world would be astonishing from the perspective of 30 years ago. The poor man of Europe may become the rich man of the world.

Here again, corporate American involvementespecially through investment in the information technology and pharmaceutical sectorshas been crucial. There seem to be three main kinds of reasons why Ireland has been chosen by the Intels, Dells and Elans of this world. These reasons pertain to finance, human resources and culture:

1. the exemption of profits made by foreign corporations in Ireland from local taxation, together with a generous industrial grants regime nationwide;

2. the availability of a young workforce, when such has not been available in rival locations elsewhere because of a different demographic age structure. This workforce is well educated through secondary level by a system that since 1968 has charged no fees to secondary students and, in recent years, charges no university or college fees either. Moreover, adversarial industrial relations have since 1987 been substantially replaced by a partnership model involving government, employers and employees, and

3. the fact that, ironically in light of the cultural trauma associated with the loss of Gaelic, Ireland is English-speaking.

All of the above have made Ireland a very attractive place for American corporations to locate their European staging posts so as to reach the 380 million-person European market. The Irish Industrial Development Authority has been very persuasive in bringing the benefits of Ireland to the attention of these corporations.

As far as Ireland is concerned, its participation (as a full member since 1973) in the European Community project to create a free transnational market has meant huge resource transfers in the interests of equalizing economic, social and educational opportunity across the community. In addition to propping up the once-dominant farm sector until it could stand on its own in a slimmed-down version, enormous infrastructural projects in transportation and especially in telecommunications have been undertaken. Peripheral geographical location no longer means gross economic disadvantage vis-à-vis the center. Indeed, it may be that the very notion of a center, with its connotation of physically concentrated economic activity that destabilizes all attempts to withstand its vortical effect, is becoming outdated. Certainly the long-term impact of the technology of informatics on the geography of work is far from played out.

It is hard to resist the view that the concept and development of the European Community has been much inspired by American example. There is no doubt that the reconstruction of Europe after World War II was primed by the American Marshall Plan, which ensured a quite different outcome from what followed the Versailles settlement after the First World War and provided a model for infrastructural subsidization. Certainly, the American free-enterprise economic model and less clearly in the political sphere, federalism, have been influential in Europe. We cannot forget that it was American intervention that defeated the alternative political model of Fascism in Europe, restoring many of its countries on democratic foundations. And it was the affluence of the West that acted as the lure to defeat Communism on Europe’s eastern flank.

So it is that at this time of crisis, a world made free from tyranny by American action and influenced in its development by American example is rallying around to protect civilization from the forces that would attempt to destroy the freedoms it cherishes. I refer especially to the freedom to travel, do business, seek opportunity (educational, social and economic) and to live in peaceable and secure communities.

What Ireland has to offer in the present crisis is a very long and close experience of coping with terrorist action and a growing recognition as an honest broker between the haves and the have-nots, as instanced by our successful campaign to be voted onto the U.N. Security Council this year. Historically, many people in Ireland have used terror, and even refined some of its weapons. Many more have accepted such tactics as necessary and/or productive. But perhaps many also have come to realize that such activity is the fruit of despairspecifically despair of ever being heard, attended to, taken seriously or treated on an equal footing as human beings. Most chillingly, the Irish experience, well-attested to elsewhere, is that it is a genie that, once released, is very difficult to put back in its bottle. Perhaps some day Irish participants in these campaigns will feel free to say openly what they have traditionally done only in an intimate settingi.e., acknowledge the burden of guilt that has beset many of them for the rest of their lives. What the Irish also know is that terrorism cannot be defeated by military, security or covert intelligence measuresbut only by the draining of the water in which the revolutionary fish swim, to use Mao’s metaphor.

This can happen only if we in the rich North accept the present challenge to make a fundamental review of our relationships with the third world. These relationships are widely considered to be exploitative both of the human resources of third world countries and of the finite pool of common natural resources on this planet. Citizens of our own countries echo these concerns. They also bear testimony to the experience that in our drive for wealth we ourselves have paid too little attention to the fragile yet ultimately more important resource of the quality of our own community lifethe community we craveand increasingly, it seems, too little experience.

America has acted as an honest broker in Ireland and taught us the lesson that we have to be willing to listen, negotiate and change our wayswhile not being hog-tied by those whose only words are No! Never! In the present crisis, Ireland is one of a number of credible mediators whose good offices can be drawn upon. This credibility and accessibility flow from Ireland’s experience with colonialism, its successful transition to nationhood, its long-standing record of involvement in peacekeeping operations, as well as its missionary efforts in many third world countries (now built on and continued through its very active aid agencies).

On Sept. 11, forces beyond understanding struck at the chief symbols of American power. The world stopped, as it was intended that the world should. But there is no stopping the unfolding of history, no freezing of the clock or turning it back. Life relentlessly moves on, and I believe that the dynamic of Western civilization is far from exhausted. This dynamic has three foundations:

1. the Greek respect for reason and the science and wisdom that educated reason can achieve a heritage preserved and developed by Islamic scholars when post-Roman Europe went through its Dark Ages;

2. the Roman respect for the rule of law extending not only to citizens but to the gentes beyond the imperial boundaries, and

3. the revelation of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, shared by the peoples of the bookJewish, Christian and Islamic. This revelation is that there is a God; that God has created the worldmankind included; that God loves all human beings and promises to bring us to himself. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas built his Summa Theologiae on the Platonic master-idea of exitus/reditus: each and every human lifeand the whole sweep of collective human achievementsprings from God and returns to God and so is immeasurably valuable.

Since the founding of the United States, its people have meditated upon and acted out of each of these major sources of inspiration. For each source there is a great American exemplary figure. Thomas Jefferson’s designs for his home in Monticello and for the University of Virginia were self-consciously drawn from the architecture of the Greeksan architecture replicated in the key public buildings of every American city and town. This evokes, and is intended to evoke, a politic devoted to debate, democracy, balance, order and reason. Of course, this challenges the gross unreason manifest in the history of the 20th centurya manifestation that has led many, perhaps a majority of intellectuals, to believe that our classical political ideals were naïve. But in the absence of an alternative, this is a counsel of despair and offends the human spirit.

The truths of the equality and dignity of man have been the foundation stones of American jurisprudence. Here one thinks of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose obiter dicta are accepted as models of judicial wisdom. The proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court have been influential worldwide and attest to the value of the doctrine of the separation of powers. Finally, no Western nation is now more energetically and publicly committed to the practice of religion. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and actions are prime examples of nonviolent social action inspired by the Christian Gospel. More widely, a practical activism characterizes the many religious communities to which America is host and whose common motto is In God We Trust.

What all of this amounts to is a resolution and a method to solve human problems by dialogue, eschewing physical force. I think it’s a fair guess that the American meditation on and reworking of the great streams of Western civilization, symbolized by Jefferson, Holmes and King, have much to offer yet and are even likely to be reinvigorated by the events of Sept. 11 rather than be undermined by them.

Meanwhile, be of good heart. Bound by ties of kinship and beneficence, we are with you in friendship and love, affection and gratitude. Americans can, I feel sure, rely on our Irish experience and good offices, freely offered to what I can attest are the courteous, generous and warm people of the United States.

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11 years 12 months ago
My gratitude to John Hayes for his penetrating story (1/21) of Ireland’s long struggle with deprivation and with the horrors of terrorism, especially over the last 30 years. And now—marvel of marvels—this land of his is on the threshold of the prosperity and peace that justice and forgiveness have so dearly earned.

It is balm for the recent wounds of our own nation that Mr. Hayes acknowledges so graciously how much American principles and generosity have helped make such a difference in Ireland.

It is also balm for our wounds that other peoples who struggle with deprivation and terrorism can look to the Irish experience and find their hope in these same American principles and generosity.


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