St. Patrick's Sad Division

JAMES F. BURNS

March 17, 1992|By JAMES F. BURNS

Gainesville, Florida. -- Yes, St. Patrick, there is an I.R.A. -- An Irish Republican Army which masquerades murder for patriotism your old island. Irish nationalism makes for good culture but poor politics. Clinging to the old sod as one Ireland, when it's two, twists a warm Irish welcome into the cold, hard steel of a gun barrel.

What went wrong? How is it that someone named O'Rourke or O'Reilly can feel and be more Irish living in New York, Sydney or South London than a lad named Douglas, Graham or Bell living in Belfast? Does the turf turn less green the farther north you on on this island, while strangely getting greener the more distant you are from its shores? Ah, the quintessential Irish paradox.

Being British-born yourself, St. Patrick, you can easily understand the mass migration that moved so many British, mostly Scots, into Ulster a millenium after your own sojourn there. The Reformation split your Church, giving us two types of Christians and two types of Irish. The Ulsterman up north was a solid, serious, dour, determined Protestant whose Calvinistic core coalesced into a crucible of love and loyalty to things British. Shamrocks and Leprechauns were not his cup of tea. The Irish Catholic was warm, witty and loquacious, clinging to the rule and ritual of Romanism with a tenacity rivaling his hatred of English ''authority.''

Thus no one really begrudged the southern Irish, almost all Catholic, for breaking away from Britain earlier this century to celebrate their Irishness in a British-free zone. But banning British influence wasn't so easy for a people who felt Gaelic but spoke English. So maybe the constitutional bans on abortion and divorce, evils of an English secular materialism, were a 'u reactionary and institutionalized form of anglophobia. Contraception was as banned as bad books. The state's moral mandates reinforced religious rules if not practice. A certain cynicism of the primacy of ''appearances'' came into vogue.

The South's becoming a Catholic enclave could only antagonize the Ulsterman's own anguished identity as certainly not Irish but not fully British. Thus, you had your British-Irish up north, playing

TC rugby and cricket and bowing to the queen, often with closed minds and an innate suspicion of the Ulster Catholic minority as ready-made rebels. Meanwhile, the Irish-Irish in the south had drawn a line in the sod by formally claiming Northern Ireland as their own sovereign territory, a final effort to exorcise eight centuries of ''English occupation.'' The I.R.A. took heart.

The recent case of a 14-year-old Irish rape victim seeking a

British abortion focused worldwide attention on the pro-life article of the Irish Constitution. One girl, perhaps contemplating suicide, initially could not exit the island for medical reasons, even though some 5,000 other Irish women do so each year. Appearances, you know -- the old wink and nod.

Ulsterman would argue that more attention should be focused on what they see as the pro-death articles of that same Irish Constitution. Articles 2 and 3 enshrine the I.R.A.'s goal of driving ''the Brits'' off the island. That claim may be as anachronistic as the old book ban since a vast majority in the North want to remain British and a clear majority in the South are willing to let them. It further makes little sense in the modern European context and, if not removed outright, should at the least be modified from a mandate to an aspiration.

What is lacking to make these modifications of Irish law is political will. But a new day has dawned with the election of Mary Robinson as president of Ireland and the forced retirement of the old war-horse Charlie Haughey, who's helped block reform for nearly two decades. The recent rape case and IRA bombing spree bring headlines, but not necessarily results.

St. Patrick, we know you keep an eye on Ireland, both parts, from your heavenly perch. I don't doubt that there's a tear or two in that eye from time to time. So, on this Patrick's Day, maybe you can help. And, of course, in the meantime, ''May the road rise to meet you and may the wind be always at your back.''

James F. Burns, a University of Florida professor, teaches and writes on the Ulster Troubles.

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