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Family History: The Fight For A United Ireland

by Dillon Meehan

It’s the spring of 1973 and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of The Moon” has been out for a little over a month. My father, Shawn Meehan, a 16-year-old junior attending Hall High School, came home with the hopes of giving it yet another listen. However, after walking into his house on Long Lane Road, he finds his turntable snapped in half and engulfed in flames in the backyard. The culprit? His grandfather, Thomas Barry, a man who 57-years prior put his life on the line to fight for Irish independence in 1916. The former record player-turned-kindling was a Garrard turntable, and printed on the plastic base read “Manufactured in Great Britain.” It was a hatred that nearly every Irish citizen possessed for almost half a millennia of British rule.

Fast-forward 45 years and while that record has become one of the most recognizable pieces of art in England, Europe and the rest of the world, the most popular art in Derry, Northern Ireland are the murals painted throughout the city. Most notably are the ones that surround Free Derry Corner, a mural originally painted in 1969. Across the street, there are several more, most of which carry messages about civil rights and are a tribute to Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers fired at unarmed peaceful protestors, killing 14 and injuring over a dozen more.

It was similar events, which fueled the hate my great-grandfather had over a century ago because he had been witness and victim to the same acts of violence. In 1919, Winston Churchill, who at the time was the Secretary of War, created a special police force named the Royal Irish Constabulary, which had a special reserve more commonly known as the “black and tans.” The force was primarily filled with veterans from World War I, and their sole purpose was to help aid in the fight against the Irish Republican Army.

Growing up, Barry routinely got into fights with the black and tans and suffered a chronic back injury after taking a kick to his lower back with their steel-toed boots. His hooliganism reached a breaking point when he and his best friends stole a prized bull from a wealthy Protestant family; after the theft they butchered the bull and ate it. The cops were after him following the attack which caused his sister Nancy to file paperwork without his knowledge, and in the middle of the night, smuggled him out of Cork and into Cobh, where he was put on a boat to America. He wasn’t told where he was going and never saw or spoke to his friends again.

Two Countries

For many Americans, Ireland is viewed as nothing more than a country filled with a bunch of happy drunks that occasionally get into bar brawls and listen to folk music. The reality is that it’s a nation filled with years of hardship that culminated with a four-decade-long guerilla-style war between paramilitaries and the British Army. From the lens of my family, I saw the more unfortunate reality, how hate could fuel ones to create crimes beyond human understanding.

Since May 3, 1921, the island of Ireland has been split into two separate nations: The Republic of Ireland, which represents the southern and central region, and Northern Ireland. The possibility of unification was thought to be dead and buried years ago after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. However, the vote to leave the European Union, Brexit, has opened to the possibility of a unified Ireland.

In 2016, 56 percent of the votes in Northern Ireland were in favor of staying in the EU, and according to the 2011 census in Northern Ireland, 48 percent of the population is or was raised Protestant, while 45 percent is or was raised Catholic. Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, a member of Sinn Féin and senator for the Industrial and Commercial panel, believes that Brexit is the catalyst behind a unified Ireland and the possible end of the United Kingdom.

“The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay and their wishes are not being respected,” Mac Lochlainn said of how Brexit will fuel the unification process for Ireland. “A few years ago, Scotland almost voted for independence. It was 45 percent of the Scottish people. So it doesn’t take a huge swing for Scotland to say ‘right we’ve had enough of this.’”

“Brexit is a huge threat to Scotland. 63 percent of the Scottish people voted to stay in the European Union, and they were very exercised by Brexit. Brexit could be the dismantling of the United Kingdom as we know it,” Mac Lochlainn continued.

Family Troubles

Thomas Barry had a nephew, Frank Gallagher, who spent 10 years of his childhood living with him. Over time, they grew close and Barry’s extremely pro-Ireland views rubbed off on him. By the 1970s, Gallagher was a member of the West Hartford Police Department and a prevalent figure in a Connecticut-based Irish family organization.

From the outside, he was a genuine, principled member of society, when in reality, he was smuggling weapons and munitions from the police force and funds from the Irish society to the Provisional Irish Republic Army. IRA quartermasters in Belfast were finding firearms and ammunition in pieces of furniture, while oblivious members of the society were donating money to help Irish widows and orphans, when in reality they were creating British ones. Gallagher’s involvement caused issues within the family. While Barry never had the capital to financially support it, he was one of the few who believed in the ideology. His wife frequently vacationed in the British Virgin Islands, but Gallagher never joined. He left the country once to go to Ireland to visit friends and family but was followed by what was believed to be paramilitaries the entire trip. It left him so disturbed he never returned to the nation.

Debating the Future

While Mac Lochlainn is hopeful of a united Ireland, he understands the history of The Troubles and how unification must be done correctly in order to avoid the reoccurrence of violence.

“The numbers are tight, unionists know that this thing is not sustainable,” Mac Lochlainn said. “We will have a united Ireland someday, absolutely no doubt about that. But it is how we get there. We are at that point now where it is obvious we are going to have it. The painful conversations and the fear is setting in amongst the unionists here. So we need to be very careful here with how we handle it, we can’t go back into violence.”

While Mac Lochlainn and other members of Sinn Féin are hopeful, many loyalists have the exact opposite view. James Greer, a former loyalist combatant who fought in the paramilitaries against the IRA during The Troubles, views a unified Ireland as an inevitability, but not something that will happen soon.

“Northern Ireland doesn’t have any kind of industry, and that is where the problem lies. Britain can’t afford Northern Ireland because of the economics, and southern Ireland [Republic of Ireland] cannot afford Northern Ireland,” Greer said. “Southern Ireland would love to have the Island reunified, and maybe it will happen. But it will not happen in my lifetime.”

While some unionists share that view, others believe it is not an inevitability, and that it may never happen.

“A united Ireland? James says not in his lifetime. Certainly not in my lifetime, certainly not in 100 years, I do believe that. You cannot enforce that rule on the majority of people. It’s a recipe for disaster,” Nigel Gardiner said while sitting next to Greer, a former member of the British Army during The Troubles, during a discussion with Central Connecticut students. “We have an issue, it’s called international global terrorism. The United Kingdom needs its borders secured. It needs its river-ways secured. They cannot do without Northern Ireland. And on that basis, I believe that Northern Ireland for the foreseeable, foreseeable, foreseeable future will remain part and partial to the United Kingdom.”

When I spoke with younger Irish men and women, the idea of a unified Ireland is something they do think about, but the focus is much more on economics than religion.

Danny Doherty lives in Buncrana, Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, and grew at the tail end of The Troubles.

“I do find religion is an older generation thing. It shows if you speak to people of an older generation and the stories you hear of them all saying the prayers and stuff like that,” Doherty said. “Ireland being reunited with the English, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t think it will be a big thing as people make out it may be. I do feel that it could cause some issues with the older generation, but I think a lot of sensible people will see it as something that’s happened and just adapt and learn to live with it.”

There has been peace in Ireland for over 20 years now due to the Good Friday Agreement. While unification is something many Irish-Americans want, and certainly something my family wants, it has to be done right if it will happen at all. There is tension in all parts of Northern Ireland, from segregated housing complexes, to murals calling for the end of British Rule, to citizens correcting the name of certain towns, depending on your religious preference. Brexit will change the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in the near future. The only hope is that it isn’t the beginning of a second era of troubles.