Thursday, December 24, 1998

1998 has been a good year for Ireland. Some setbacks with, for instance, the tragic Omagh bombing. But, with many fingers crossed and many Protestant and Catholic prayers, there is hope of an end to the violence.

1998 has been a good year for Ireland. Some setbacks with, for instance, the tragic Omagh bombing. But, with many fingers crossed and many Protestant and Catholic prayers, there is hope of an end to the violence.

Last April an agreement was signed between the conflicting parties in East Belfast. Two of the main protagonists, John Hume, who has for thirty years stood for a non-violent settlement, and David Trimble, a new breed of Northern Ireland Protestant leader, were awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Hume thanked the European Parliament where he has been a member for nearly twenty years for their inspiration. He said the award was "a very powerful expression of the international goodwill and support for peace in our streets. I have no doubt that it is strengthening the will of our people to continue in the enormous task of ending a quarrel of centuries and bringing lasting peace to our people. "

On November 11, in the Belgian village of Messines, a bloody battlefield of World War 1, the Irish State formally honored the quarter of a million Irish who served - and the 50,000 who died - in the British forces. A monument was unveiled by the Irish President, Mrs. McAleese, in the presence of Britain's Queen Elizabeth and the king and queen of Belgium. "The Irish Times" wrote, "In the village square the pipers of the band of the Royal Irish Regiment, once the Ulster Defence Regiment so detested by nationalists, swapped tunes with the Army Number One band with which it had merged for the occasion."

In October, Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first British Prime Minister to address both houses of the Irish Parliament. Blair, whose mother like mine was born in Ireland, referred to "So much shared history, so much shared pain. And now the shared hope of a new beginning." My grandfather, in 1922 at the time of Irish independence, was told by the nationalists to leave the country or be shot. A family home was burned to the ground. We were all that was unpopular at the time - Protestants, landowners and for several generations in the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police. In fact, it was the willingness of my mother to go beyond resenting the way we had been treated to facing up to why the Catholics felt that way about people like us that put our family on the road to peacemaking. Her first step was to apologize for the behavior of our family over centuries to an Irish catholic senator.

In a way an experience I had a few weeks ago was symbolic of shared history and new beginnings. I was invited to speak about my Anglo-Irish roots to the local branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Oregon teems with Irish. You run into them in unexpected places, whether it is in Frank Mills in his locally produced literary magazine "Brigit's Feast - The Journal of Celtic/Gaulic Thought, Culture, History and Folk-lore" or in Maire Cullen's passionate voice on KBOO's Radio Free Ireland, whether it is in Kathleen's of Dublin store or in Kell's Irish pub. We even have an Oregonian, Professor Bill Meulemans, teaching at Queen's University, Belfast. And, it should be mentioned, that John McLoughlin, the "father of Oregon" was proud of his Irish descent. I met with the Hibernians at Kells pub. They were, of course, on the other side of the fence from my family. When I arrived they were distributing a leaflet about an upcoming occasion to honor one of Ireland's freedom fighters, Robert Emmet. I told them about my mother but I also had to admit that my great, great, great grandfather, Sir Richard Willcocks, was given his knighthood for suppressing Emmet's insurrection! Actually the Hibernians were very welcoming and most interested in artifacts I brought with me - like letters to Willcocks from Daniel O'Connell, Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington. Hosting me was David O'Longaigh, a native Irishman and local engineer who has edited "We Irish in Oregon," an excellent 105-page report of last year's Irish Heritage and Potato Famine Commemoration Day in Portland.

I am glad that this year Prime Minister Blair apologized for Britain's role in that famine. I recommend David's work to anyone interested in the Irish-Oregon connection. Its is available at Kathleen's of Dublin. (KBOO December 24)