Sunday 25 February 2024


 Michelle O’Neill’s elevation to become Northern Ireland’s First Minister was a momentous event, full of hope and possibility. 

Even in the glory days following the Good Friday Agreement such an outcome was the stuff of dreams; and that the First Minister be not only a member of the Sinn Fein Party but a woman, well, that would have smacked of a fairytale. 


I’ve always loved Belfast. Had that something to do with the link between the Wexford 1798 insurrectionists and the Northern Presbyterian United Irishmen, or perhaps it was hearing the slashing guitar intro to Baby Please Don’t Go by Them?

It’s hard to tell, as my life has been a blur of politics and Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Belfast had both in profusion.

I was not unaware of the sectarianism, barely skin deep in the city, after all I had red hair, freckles, and a “Free State” accent. Still, at the worst of times, there’s always been a zest for life curried by a black sense of humor that knows no divide in this city of churches, chapels and evangelical shop-fronts.

Twice on a rainy night during the 1981 Hunger Strikes I came close to Armageddon: first while straying witlessly into a Loyalist pub, and later when alarming a very nervous British Army unit.

Those days are gratefully long gone, and about a dozen years ago I noticed a thaw in the streets, specifically while bringing people on a tour of Van Morrison’s once forbidden East Belfast – there you go, Rock ‘n’ Roll again!

That thaw continued to accelerate, until last October at a rip-roaring party in the Europa Hotel I realized that I hadn’t even considered who might be Catholic or Protestant - in fact, the only such mention came from Terri Hooley of Good Vibrations fame when he made a scathingly funny remark about his own Methodist background.

What happened? Travel, the broad vistas of the Internet, or the realization that “we’re all in this together” and that while you may live and breathe your cherished background, you can’t eat it.

I have little doubt that the daylong strike of 150,000 public sector workers was the major catalyst that caused the foot-dragging DUP to go back into government. And now it’s up to Sinn Fein to deliver equal pay with other areas of the UK, along with better health care and other long neglected needs.

A united Ireland will come in its own inevitable post-Brexit time, for as my Republican grandfather always pointed out, “In the long run, Unionists are more interested in the half-crown than the crown.” 

Besides, there are not a few nationalists in no particular rush to become citizens of a 32 county Republic.

And what of the South? Is this the same country I grew up in and left for adventure and greener hills?

With the steady, and sometimes oppressive, hand of the Catholic Church removed, the country has cast off much of its old stodgy conservatism and appears to be flourishing.

Ireland’s secondary school students are the most literate in the EU, while Ireland is now on par with Scandinavian countries in its levels of tolerance for ethnic and LGBTQ+ minorities.

On the other hand, the cost of housing has skyrocketed, with many young people feeling that they’ll never afford a home. This is leading to a renewed surge of emigration mostly to Canada, Australia, and other EU countries.

No one even considers emigrating here anymore; under current laws it’s almost impossible, but there seems little urge to come illegally either.

This has already affected Irish-America. The only relevant bridge between the two societies now seems to be the semester of foreign study in Ireland that many US colleges offer.

Apart from trips to Disney World and Taylor Swift concerts, tourism is one way, with the Irish-American demographic traveling to Ireland tending towards middle-aged and senior.

There is definitely overall goodwill between the communities but the cultural gulf continues to widen.

Take a look and listen to Bambie Thug from Macroom in rebel County Cork, Ireland’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest with “Doomsday Blue.” Though the Eurovision often tends towards banal Pop, nonetheless, it can offer a glimpse into a country’s soul.

Perhaps the Irish people – North and South - are coming into their own and no longer need to look overseas? Does our fractious, sundering society have something to learn from them?

Thursday 8 February 2024


 They were called The Silent Sentinels. Members of the National Woman’s Party, 33 of them were sentenced to prison in November 1917 for protesting outside the White House.

Their mission was to convert the US into a legitimate democracy by gaining votes for women, though they were not without sympathy for the many disenfranchised African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in various states.

The National Woman’s Party (NWP) had broken away from the more conservative National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and called for direct action to gain the vote.

Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, they began their campaign on March 3,1913 - the day preceding the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson - by marching through Washington DC.


They were attacked by spectators on Pennsylvania Avenue, 100 women were hospitalized, and eventually cavalry troops were summoned to restore order. Ironically, a decade later, the Klu Klux Klan held a huge DC march without incident.

Born in Brooklyn to well-to-do Irish-American parents, Lucy Burns was tall, flame haired, and a devout Catholic. She was studying at Oxford University in 1909 when she met Alice Paul in a London police station. Both had been arrested at a suffragist protest.

They bonded and worked together in the British Suffragist movement for some years before moving back to the US.

Here they gathered a formidable group of fearless women, including Dorothy Day, a young writer from New York with many admirers in bohemian circles, including Eugene O’Neill. Described back then as “a frail girl,” she had indomitable will and would go on to found the Catholic Worker Movement.

By 1916 nine states had granted women the right to vote but President Wilson opposed a federal amendment.

Paul and Burns resolved to force his hand. In January 1917, as Wilson was about to begin his second term, the NWP called for women to picket daily outside the White House, regardless of the weather or Wilson’s displeasure.

They wore distinctive gold, white and purple sashes and were at first tolerated as a curiosity. Wilson often smiled at them as he passed, though like many he disapproved of their “unladylike behavior.” However,

Fueled by patriotic fury, onlookers attacked the silent protesters and ripped up their signs and placards.

By mid-summer the women were being arrested, but usually released without charge. Eventually the courts sentenced them to short prison sentences. The silent women fought back by carrying more aggressive signs that labeled the president as “Kaiser Wilson.”

Paul was arrested in October and sentenced to 7 months in Occoquan Workhouse. She went on hunger strike, was brutally force-fed and detained in the psychiatric ward.

Burns and Day were among 33 women brought to Occoquan on November 14th – since known as The Night of Terror. 

They demanded to be treated as political prisoners, but instead guards dragged them down the hallways and threw them into filthy, dark cells.

Lucy Burns was shackled, hands outstretched above head, and forced to stand all night. 

Dorothy Day, the “frail girl”, was twice slammed down onto an iron bench, and various others were either knocked unconscious or injured – one suffered a heart attack.

Many of the women went on hunger strike but their demands for political status were ignored.

However, word leaked out about their brutal treatment, and by the end of November all the protestors were released.

The oldest, Mary Nolan, 73, who had also been injured during the guards’ assault, published an account of the night and national outrage ensued.

President Wilson, sensing the change of mood, demanded legislative action and Congress passed a federal suffrage amendment on June 4, 1919. The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, and women were finally granted the right to vote.

Lucy Burns retired from public life soon after to raise an orphaned niece and lived quietly in Brooklyn.

Dorothy Day’s reputation as a leader of Catholic social action continues to grow. Though a confirmed feminist with left-wing and anarchist influences, she is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

And the indomitable Mary Nolan, who refused to be silent, is buried in Jacksonville FL. Her tombstone contains her own quote “I am guilty if there is any guilt in a demand for freedom.”