Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Middle East could learn something from the Irish

Once upon a time in the greenest land you'll ever see, a boy of 16 became a slave. He dwelled in this land for six years before escaping and returning to his homeland, but something called him back.

It was the fifth century. That green land would come to be known as Ireland. That boy became a priest and converted the pagan island into Catholicism, which eventually made him a saint (though he has never formally been canonized by a pope.)

In the late twelfth century, the pope, an Englishman, was upset that the Irish Catholic Church would not fully integrate into the Roman Catholic Church, so he supported the sending of Norman/English troops into Ireland. (The reality was he was angry because the Irish wouldn't send soldiers on the Crusades.) Under Norman/English occupation, Ireland became a feudal state. A few centuries later saw the Protestant Reformation, which set off a wave off brutality and murder against Catholics in England and 130 years of religious war across much of Europe. Irish Catholics became subjected to all sorts of discrimination under the Norman/English Protestant rule, including being barred from sitting in parliament.

That was not the worst thing to happen to them.

In 1740, the first failure of the potato crop, which was the staple food of Irish Catholics due to their oppressed, impoverished conditions and the prohibition against them owning pasture land, wiped out 400,000 Irish. One hundred years later, the Great Famine wiped out a million Irish, and another million emigrated, mostly to America. However, there was plenty of food besides potatoes at this time, but much of it was exported by wealthy English businessmen and the British government. As the Irish patriot John Mitchell said,
"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."
About the same time, Irish nationalism was on the rise. By the turn of the century, there were two armed militias. In 1916, there was an unsuccessful revolution. By 1921, the British, having been exhausted by World War I, gave Ireland its independence. Well, three-fourths of its independence, thus setting off nearly eight decades of conflict.

But you know what? They stopped fighting. It was a quiet Easter Sunday in 1998. I walked the empty streets of Belfast on that day, wondering if at last, peace would come to the troubled island. It's been twelve years since that peace treaty was signed and there's no sign of conflict coming back.

It took courage on both sides to bring peace. War and hatred are the activities of cowards. After 800 years of British rule, Ireland made peace with their oppressors, even though they didn't get all they wanted. It's called compromise, the bravest of ideas.

It's time for some courage in the Middle East.


By the way, for all the Lebanese who've asked me, the reason St. Patrick's Day is important to so many people is because it was the day when all of the emigrants who had left their beloved Ireland to never see it again could get together and celebrate their Irish heritage. It's why Paddy's Day in Boston and Chicago and New York is a bigger deal than it is in Dublin (although these days, it's a big commercial day in Dublin.) Today, it is celebrated worldwide by the 80 million people of Irish descent. And you thought the Lebanese diaspora was large...

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