December 3, 2020
“So, I'll sing farewell to Carlingford
And farewell to Greenore
And I'll think of you both day and night
Until I return once more
Until I return once more”
Every nation has a stake in US presidential elections and no country had more at risk this year than Ireland. Counties and towns along the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, whose fragile peace process and economy are threatened by Brexit, were the most exposed. One such town, Carlingford, Co. Louth, on the Cooley Peninsula, is the ancestral home of Joe Biden’s great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, who emigrated in 1849.
In Owen’s time, many families in Louth raised a small number of pigs to sell at market. In rural Ireland, where the lives and livelihoods of tenant farmer families were precarious and money was always in short supply, pigs could generate cash to cover the lean months of the year. Ancient Gaelic expressions of the area often refer to them. In America, we would describe a winner who “has the world by the tail” or is “on top of the world,” but in Louth, Monaghan, or Armagh, they might say “ar mhuin na muice,” which literally means “to be on the pig’s back.” Biden’s victory clearly put him, and all the people of Louth, on the pig’s back. I will let the reader decide who the pig is.
The history of Louth
is the history of Ireland
Louth, known as the “wee County” due to its diminutive size, is located on the Irish Sea, an hour’s drive from both Dublin and Belfast. Carlingford is a medieval town reputed to be one of the oldest in Ireland, the location of St. Patrick’s second landing in Ireland in 432 AD, the site of a 9th-century Viking settlement, and a 12th-century Norman town. Oliver Cromwell’s conquest wrought destruction across Louth in 1649. Catholic churches and abbeys were torched and converted into graveyards, and vast swathes of Louth were awarded to Cromwell's foreign warlords. In 1690, the Battle of the Boyne was fought on the Louth/Meath border. Adopted Bostonian John Boyle O'Reilly was born nearby in 1844. Louth's long, rich history, which includes conquest, dispossession, landlordism, the great hunger, risings and rebellion, emigration, independence, partition, long simmering sectarian conflict, and economic stagnation tells the story of Ireland in an intense geographic microcosm.
“Meitheal” through the Troubles,
and the Good Friday Agreement
According to Seamus Kirk, who served Co. Louth in elective office for 42 years (34 of them in the Dail), including as Minister for Agriculture and as Ceann Comhairle (the equivalent of Speaker of the House) until his retirement in 2016, the rebirth of Louth and Carlingford is due mostly to “meitheal,” an ancient Irish Gaelic word that denotes a cooperative labor system in Ireland. The closest English term is “teamwork” for tasks like bringing in the crops that are best accomplished with collective effort. Put another way, Seamus told me, “The community pulled itself up by its socks'' achieving the “Tidy Town” recognition in 1988, winning a grant from the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) in 1992 (the first border town south of the border to receive such a grant), European Heritage Town designation, and a European Destination of Excellence in 2008. In 2009, Carlingford even secured a European Habitat and Protected Species Directive as a protected habitat zone for Leprechauns!
Seamus describes the key turning points in modern Irish history that set the stage for Louth’s and Ireland’s flourishing: “The country secured independence from Britain in the early part of the last century. We became members of the European Economic Community in the latter half of the same century. Our economy has benefited enormously from its membership. Foreign direct investment from the US has been a huge help in stemming the hemorrhage of emigration. In some ways we are closer to Boston than Berlin.”
In recent times, the event that benefited this corner of the Island of Ireland was the Good Friday Agreement, and the outbreak of peace. As a border county, Louth endured more than its share of violence and the economic stagnation that was a consequence of an endless volley of atrocities and reprisals. Says Frances Taylor of Carlingford, who has worked in tourism in Carlingford for many years: “Before the agreement, it would have been thought unsafe to visit, but now they come in their droves.”
International awards along with investments in infrastructure and cultural amenities put Carlingford on the tourism map. The Good Friday Agreement and the open border morphed the town’s location from a liability into an advantage. According to Margaret Harold from the Carlingford Heritage Center, residents of both communities in the North began travelling to Carlingford in large numbers on the weekend of July 12, when annual Orange marches intensify in the North. Protestants and Catholics alike, seeking respite from the antagonism of the marches, “came to Cooley, enjoyed the peace and charm so much that they started visiting regularly.” Margaret herself commuted from Carlingford to Belfast throughout the Troubles and experienced firsthand the difficulty of the cross border commute with car searches, intimidation, and anxiety created by an armed border.
Initiatives championed by activists and political leaders inspired philanthropic, corporate, government investment, and the peace after The Good Friday Agreement opened up tourism, massively transforming Carlingford into a national, and even international, tourism mecca in Ireland’s northeast.
US vote coincides with
key moment for Brexit
The UK remains, for the moment, in an “in-between state” like the opposite of purgatory. Purgatory is the “condition” after death where one requires further “purification” before admission to heaven. The Brexit transition period maintains the benefits of EU membership, which may look like heaven after the perpetual self-punishment of exiting the EU begins on New Year’s Day.
Tory infighting, Covid-19, and gaming the US election results have left the negotiations for a new EU/UK trade deal unfinished at this, the 11th hour. Boris Johnson attempted to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol by introducing an Internal Markets Bill in the UK to satisfy his extreme right Brexiteers. Those of his own ministers with any vestigial integrity or instinct to leap from a sinking ship admitted it was breaking the law and resigned.
Boris was warned. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Ways and Means Chairman Richie Neal, and presidential candidate Joe Biden all stated that there would be no trade deal if the Good Friday Agreement is jeopardized, but Boris the chancer and bluffer decided to see how the American election played out.Yet he was the first foreign leader to congratulate Biden on his victory. Bullies are always obsequious when the big brother of their victim appears. Like Biff from “Back to the Future,” Boris is now ready to polish Mr. McFlys car. But Biden remembers Boris calling Obama a “Kenyan” and, more importantly, Joe knows Irish history and his own family’s origins in Louth.
Brexit’s harm to Ireland
Brexit is principally, but not exclusively, British self-harm. Even an expertly negotiated trade deal that reaffirms no hard border will have severe negative impacts for the entire island, especially in counties along the 300-mile border from Dundalk to Derry. In 1849, Owen Finnegan walked from Carlingford a few miles west to Newry in Co. Armagh (now in the North), boarded a ship that then sailed by Carlingford and Greenore. Prior to the GFA, during the era of the closed border, that same walk would have been much more difficult. In the 1980s, at the depth of the Troubles, Newry’s unemployment rate was 28 percent, Eamonn Connolly, the managing director of the Newry Business Improvement District, noted. A measure of how far the economy has advanced in peacetime is that in early 2020, before the Covid crisis, a revitalized Newry was approaching nearly full employment. Brexit imperils this progress. Adds Connolly: “Whatever Brexit deal is arrived at, and we believe that there will be one, will inevitably lead to more cost and time to business.” A no-deal crash-out favored by right wing Tories would lead almost inevitably to a hard border.
Empathy, knowledge will accompany
Biden back into to the White House
The great hunger, An Gorta Mor, killed 1 in 8 people in Ireland, even while food exports from Ireland actually increased during the potato blight. Two million others left. Joe’s interest in his Louth origins helped him to internalize Ireland's historical suffering and the special challenges that border communities currently face. As Seamus Kirk reflected, “It is easy to understand how Joe Biden's political philosophy and understanding of the needs of those less well off in society formed and developed with forebearers from Ireland of the great famine years.”
Cultures respond to mass suffering in different ways: a desire for revenge, a competitive victimhood, or solidarity. Ireland is not a perfect society, but in general, Irish culture leans to solidarity (“meitheal”), as does her great-grandson, Joe Biden.
Many Americans feel relief at Biden’s win, but that solace is blended with the horror of Trump’s strong showing, refusal to concede, and Republican gains in the US House. A friend /activist/ Biden campaign worker in Pennsylvania emailed me her reaction on election day: “My chest feels hollow, caved in. Half of my country actually endorses racism, sexism, classism...2016 was not a fluke, after all.”
So, it's a mixed bag for Americans: Conservatives are angry Trump lost, progressives are gutted that the Republicans will likely retain Senate control and that the election was even close after more than 260,000 Covid deaths. Even so, Biden won. Many danced in the streets and got a good night's sleep for the first time in years.
Joe Biden’s win is a
landslide – for Ireland
Vice President Biden made an official visit to Cooley in 2016. The entire region turned out and called him “Cousin Joe,” meeting at Lily Finnegan’s pub, one of the oldest pubs on the island. “Joe’s granddaughter is named Finnegan Biden” says Sheila Boyle of Carlingford “We know that when he says he loves Ireland, he means it.” His victory gives Louthians the confidence that they will have a renewed ally in the White House and, as local Fianna Fail activist Andrea McKevitt told me:
“There is a feeling of euphoria with everyone, given these dark times. And that so many met Joe in his 2016 visit as vice president, where he met his relatives and took the time to engage with so many, makes it all the more special. He visited ancestral graves dating from famine times, and studied old family photos, many of which he said he recognized as hanging in his own home. I think” Cousin Joe” will share Nancy Pelosi’s views on taking a hard stance on future trade deals with Boris Johnson.”
About timing: The GFA
and final Brexit talks
Sometimes timing really is everything. The Good Friday Agreement was completed in 1998. Attempting it after 9/11/2001, in a world suddenly sorted into George W. Bush’s binary “with us” or “against us,” would have been impossible. Similarly, with the Brexit transition period ending at the end of this month, now is the precise moment (not 6 months ago, not 6 months from now) that Ireland needs a US president-elect who understands both the agreement and Ireland’s history of abuse by its larger neighbor.
Of all the candidates that have ever run for president, the best possible person for Ireland at this moment is Joe Biden. Cooley held its breath on election day (week really) until John King’s magic map totals reached 270 for him. Victory! The best part is that Joe does not have to do anything else. Like the sponsor at your confirmation, a reassuring hand on Ireland’s shoulder is all that’s required to change the dynamic of UK/EU negotiations. Johnson knows now that he cannot undermine the Good Friday Agreement
Congratulations on the landslide, Ireland. "Yer man Biden, as well as Ireland, Louth, Cooley, and Carlingford are all on the pig’s back now!