FOR almost a quarter of a century I used to spend my St Patrick’s Day in the United States talking to Irish America and political leaders in Washington. It’s important to understand that the St Patrick’s celebrations in the USA usually last a week – not a day. Consequently I could be in New York to take part in the celebratory St Patrick’s Day breakfast with hundreds of others before heading off to Philadelphia, followed by a couple of days of meetings in DC. I have some very fond memories of meeting Irish Americans at these events where they joyfully celebrated their Irishness through music and dance, poetry and craic. (YouTube video from New York parade in 1996 below.)
On one memorable occasion we arrived in Syracuse in upper New York State for a St Patrick’s Day parade in the midst of a blizzard. We were not dressed for a blizzard. I walked shaking with the cold beside John Aherne, the Grand Marshall, who was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was wearing a top hat as he waved enthusiastically to all the heavily muffled spectators. John’s riposte to the fact that you could barely see twenty yards down the road was, “We parade in March because we are hardy. Anybody can walk in July.”
Richard and I only survived thanks to the generosity of DeDe Walsh, the wife of the then Congressional representative for the district, Jim Walsh, who graciously lent us some coats and gloves. Rita O’Hare delighted in telling us off for ignoring her warning that it was going to be a cold walk in the snow. She still delights in telling that story.
While no-one was able to travel to the USA this St Patrick’s Day because of the pandemic restrictions it was still nonetheless a good couple of weeks for the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, the demand for the referendum on unity and for the campaign for a United Ireland.
Friends of Sinn Féin successfully fund-raised the money to pay for major adverts in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Irish American papers. Under the banner headline: ‘A United Ireland: Let the People have their say’, the message was clear.
The Good Friday Agreement has changed Ireland for the better. Challenges remain but twenty-three years on Ireland continues to seek the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The Unionist electoral majority in the North is gone. Their rights, and the rights of all, are guaranteed in a United Ireland. It will be a welcoming home for all... It is now time to have an inclusive, informed and respectful discussion. We appeal to the Irish Government to promote and plan for Unity. As Americans, we call upon our government and public representatives to urge the British Government to set the date for the Unity Referendum.”
The initiative was supported by the Ancient Order of Hibernians; the Brehon Law Society; Friends of Sinn Fein, USA; Irish American Unity Conference; James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition; Ladies’ Ancient Order of Hibernians.
A few days later a cross-party group of Senators introduced a resolution in the Senate reaffirming bipartisan support for the Good Friday Agreement and for the Protocol. Senator Bob Menendez, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was joined by Senator Susan Collins and 13 other colleagues. They said: “This bipartisan resolution signals our support for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as subsequent agreements including the Stormont House Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Subsequently, Úachtaran Shinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald and joint First Minister Michelle O’Neill briefed the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill. And later still Michelle joined with DUP leader and joint First Minister Arlene Foster in a conference call with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Once again the US administration made clear its support for the Good Friday Agreement. However, more telling was the administration’s public backing for the Irish Protocol. Normally US administrations play with an even-handed diplomatic bat when talking to parties in the North, but in this instance it came out against the DUP demand for the Protocol to be scrapped.
One DUP response to all of this was given by Sammy Wilson who last October in the midst of the Presidential election tweeted: “Joe Biden is a parrot for Irish Nationalism and their falsehoods re the Belfast Agreement. I would far rather have an American eagle in President Trump than a nationalist parrot in the White House.” Having failed to achieve that goal Wilson plumbed new depths in a recent interview with Russia Today where he referred to President Biden as “the bigoted ignoramus who has now taken over in the White House”.
An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, in response to the Irish American ads, again rejected any possibility of planning for the unity referendum or even planning for a united Ireland.
Instead Martin stuck to the line that now is not the time to talk about unity. He told an audience in Washington: “I think it is divisive and puts people back into the trenches too early.” His strategy – if it can be called that – is to put reconciliation and a unionist majority in favour of unity as preconditions to any discussion or planning on unity. This is a clear breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which require a simple majority in favour of unity. It is undemocratic and would hand to unionism a veto over future constitutional change. Martin’s stance fundamentally subverts a key component of the Good Friday Agreement.
Micheál Martin’s approach – which I suspect has more to do with his electoral fears about the growth of Sinn Féin in the South – is also unpopular within his own party. In an unusual move, Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan addressed Cambridge University on Tuesday. O’Callaghan made a number of proposals aimed at reunifying Ireland. These include the Dáil or Seanad sitting in Belfast and unionist parties given positions as of right in a future all-Ireland Cabinet.
Whatever the merit of these suggestions they have now become part of the necessary debate that is urgently needed. However hard Micheál Martin pushes back against the public clamour for a public debate on a united Ireland the issue is not going away. Has he the political sense to set aside his antipathy towards Sinn Féin and do the right thing? Now that he has gone international with his negativity I suspect not, but I live in hope.
The big cat and dog debate
I’M a doggie man. Ever since two of my uncles went to Canada aeons ago and I inherited Darkie, my first madadh, dogs have been a constant in my life. In fact, it is possible to measure your life journey by the dogs who have befriended you along the way. Cats? I know lots of cat lovers. Some were converted to cats as a consequence of their amorous relationships. The cats came with the partner. So needs must. Men who woudn’t look sideways at a feline quickly embraced them as well as their female mistresses. I mean the cats’ mistresses of course.
I’m not allowed a cat. When Colette was young someone threw a cat at her and it landed on her face. She has had an aversion to our feline friends ever since. Hardly the cat’s fault. Her umbrage should be agin cat throwers, not the unfortunate cat. But sometimes logic doesn’t get a look-in. Not that I am very anxious to get a cat. I’m currently trying to prepare the ground for a wee terrier. That’s a challenge given that we have two dogs already.
I love dogs. I have a slightly different relationship with cats. I respect cats. They are independent, haughty, sometimes arrogant. They could live without us humans. Some behave like aristocrats. No part of the house is out of bounds to them. One of my pals regularly turns up covered in cat hairs. He seems oblivious to them. Sometimes I have an urge to comb him.
A neighbour of ours the late Frances Forte used to feed all the cats in the street. Frances was an amazing old lady. She supplied me regularly with pasta when it was less popular than it now is. That and stories of how her family came to Belfast from Italy to be part of the Forte icecream family business away back in the 1920s. They were chased out of York Street by a unionist gunman. Cats used to lounge about Frances’ front garden at meal times.
Then some feral fellows joined them. They were like bad boys. Corner boys. Sprawled out on her window sills. Sullen and slightly menacing. Kittens followed. Eventually Frances’ cat community got out of hand. The appropriate agencies had to intervene to disperse them.
There were feral cats in Long Kesh. They used to hoke in the bins. Maybe they are still there. Like wee ghosts haunting the place. The odd time a few were persuaded to accept titbits from cat-loving or mice- and rat-hating political prisoners who looked to the cats for rodent control. That was in the Cages. I think of them when I see a cat slinking along the yard wall in ambush mode for the wee birds feeding at the birdtable. A bell around the cat’s neck would even things up. Make it a fair dig.
So why do I tell you all this? It’s on account of Twinkle. Twinkle is Sorcha’s cat. Sorcha is Sara and Flair’s daughter. Twinkle went missing on March 9. I know this because of the poster which was distributed around this neighbourhood. It said: ‘Lost Cat. Twinkle. A grey and white tabby.’ A photo of Twinkle was
included along with a request to check gardens, sheds and hedges. So that’s what I did. I looked everywhere for Twinkle. I remember when I was Sorcha’s age my dog of that time, Rory, Darkie’s
predecessor, went missing. I searched all over the Murph for him for days and cried myself to sleep every night for months. So I know how Sorcha must have felt about Twinkle. Rory never came back. Thankfully Twinkle did. We got the good news a few days after she went absent without leave. I wonder what adventures she had? But all is well that ends well. I suppose this is a shaggy dog kind of story. About a cat. With a happy ending. Well done Twinkle. And well done Sorcha.
Here is a poem written by Sorcha’s mummy Sara about Twinkle.
Saol an Pangur Bháin
After Seamus Heaney
Pangur Bán had it easy,
Living his life in a monastery.
Child-playing around some mouse’s den,
The diligent monk, hunting with pen.
The master was poised, the cat was curled,
Both inoculated from this world.
Not demanding much from each other,
They worked well without care or bother.
Pangur has been praised in four-line rhyme,
And interpreted many’s the time,
His name bestowed on countless white cats
And I can’t help but wonder – for what?
Our cat Twinkle’s living through a plague!
She’s the real hero, fearless and brave.
Still ventures out in the darkest night,
No way did Pangur get it this tight.