Letter from Wicklow: Plumbing a ‘seismic’ election …lamenting ‘culture wars’


WICKLOW – In the run-up to and following the May 5 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the word “seismic” was employed repeatedly.  There was some justification for its widespread usage in that, as forecast, Sinn Féin has become the largest party and has more seats than its chief rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Consequently, the former political wing of the IRA can nominate its leader in the north, Michelle O’Neill, to be the assembly’s first nationalist First Minister.

Regrettably, for a variety of reasons – mainly having to do with the Northern Ireland protocol that was agreed upon to prevent the reintroduction of a hard border on this island – the DUP is not playing ball and refuses to put forward a deputy first minister.  The historically dysfunctional assembly faces into an uncertain future.

A striking aspect of the campaign was the extent to which a broad swath of the electorate, young people especially, declined to define themselves as either “green” or “orange” and did not cast ballots based on their religious or community background.  This partly explains the very strong showing of the Alliance Party, which captured an unprecedented 17 seats in the 90-member assembly.

Once aptly described as a “soft unionist” voice, Alliance is now neutral on the topic that has forever been to the fore in the politics of the six counties.  It espouses socially liberal views, champions integrated education, and focuses on “bread and butter” issues, like improving the health service.  They lament the power-sharing structure of the assembly that is predicated upon an inevitable, intractable nationalist vs. unionist divide.  This impressive performance suggests that plenty in Northern Ireland are coming around to Alliance’s guiding principles.


A leaked draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito and apparently endorsed by a bare majority of his colleagues on the United States Supreme Court would overturn the seminal Roe v. Wade decision, which created a constitutional right to abortion.  The reaction of Irish pro-choice activists, who succeeded in repealing the 8th Amendment prohibition on abortion here, has been one of shock and dismay.

Ironically, though, the case they made persuasively ahead of the 2018 referendum – abortion should be taken out of the judicial/constitutional realm and instead legislated for by elected representatives – is precisely the argument abortion foes in the US have articulated for decades.  Indeed, it underpins Justice Alito’s analysis.

Word of the impending demise of Roe came just as serious controversy erupted in Ireland regarding ownership of a badly needed new National Maternity Hospital (NMH).  A 300-year lease agreement between the state and the Sisters of Charity at a nominal fee has been attacked because the state would not own the land the hospital is to be built on, and because of language in the new hospital’s constitution that only “clinically appropriate” medical procedures would be carried out in it.

Understandably, those who object have cited the Irish Catholic Church’s track record of malfeasance when it comes to women and children and allege that access to abortion and other treatment could ultimately be denied at the facility.

Conversely, medical professionals, lawyers, and politicians robustly assert that the long lease is akin to ownership and that the scrutinized phrase is offset by wording to the effect that all “legally permissible” services will be provided.

Notwithstanding the opposition, the cabinet has approved the movement of the NMH to the land owned by the Sisters of Charity.

That element of American politics so disdained in Western Europe – the “culture wars” – animated much of the public discourse, particularly on social media.  Speaking personally as a practicing (yet very imperfect) Catholic, it was disheartening to see protesters holding signs that said “**** the pope” and more.

Additionally, the openly left-of-centre Irish Independent journalist and supporter of the removal of the 8th Amendment, Ellen Coyne, was subjected to vicious abuse from ex-fans when she opined that their concerns about the NMH lease were misplaced.  Much of the invective concentrated on the fact that, despite her profound misgivings about lots of its teachings, Coyne remains a Catholic.  That is apparently a crime per se, in the eyes of a vocal minority.

I get why so many in Ireland loathe my Church.  But witnessing their hatred in full flow during the debate on the NMH still saddened me, deeply.


The Irish people greeted the news of the most recent mass shooting in Buffalo with horror and with anger, but without surprise.  Two burning questions are in our collective consciousness.  How could 18-year-old Payton Gendron be so consumed with hate that he would shoot 13 innocent individuals, killing 10?  And how could he get his hands so easily on an assault-style rifle in a state with relatively strict gun laws, at least by American standards?

Neither question is amenable to a straightforward answer.  But it is tough to push back against a succinct assessment once offered to me by a man in a Wicklow pub – “yYur country is completely messed up” – when prominent political and media figures won’t condemn white supremacists, subscribe to the great replacement theory, and balk at even modest gun control measures.  They should be ashamed of themselves.



One of my favourite things about summer in my adopted home is that the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is in full swing.  Weekends in our house are dominated by Galway football, hurling, and camogie matches, and, to a lesser degree, by the hurling fortunes of my wife’s native Limerick (the top team right now).  GAA sports are played by an extraordinary cross-section of women and men, boys and girls in Ireland and everywhere else where the Irish have gone.  Given its amateur ethos, it is refreshing to see participants competing at the highest level – the All-Ireland Championships – for the love of the games and community, rather than the almighty buck.

The situation is fairly promising for Galway at the moment.  Larry Óg has inherited his father’s passion for the Tribesmen that was bequeathed to me by my cousin, Paddy Murphy, shortly after I relocated to my ancestral county many moons ago.  The maroon and white have already delivered us some thrills in 2022.  Fingers crossed that my namesake and I get to enjoy several glorious afternoons this June and July at Croke Park, the GAA’s magnificent headquarters on the north side of Dublin.  Gaillimh Abú!


Lastly, seemingly everyone I know has itchy feet and is planning an overdue break in the sun after Covid-19 restrictions stopped us from leaving this island.  We have booked a family holiday in Spain in late June.  I am also getting to spend ten days in Boston in August.

It is directly at odds with what might euphemistically be termed my penchant for frugality, but I have been perusing websites and pricing flights and hotels to return with my wife to what I believe is a slice of heaven on earth: Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where we honeymooned and later commemorated our tenth anniversary.  We marked in subdued fashion our lucky 13th anniversary on May 7..

A weekend in Amalfi to celebrate properly should be doable.  We were locked in and/or kept on guard by the pandemic for long enough.  That’s my excuse and I am sticking to it.  I hope Boston Irish readers make the most of their summers, too.


Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.  His critically acclaimed book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – can be purchased at easons.com/bostonian-larry-donnelly-9780717190423.