Young Ireland: assessed

It isn’t easy to define why one is left with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling at the conclusion of the Young Ireland: Rebels and Loyalists display/lecture/musical nights series. But it is important to try.

First, the plaudits: the illustrated display boards in the Carlingford Heritage Centre were numerous, interesting and historically accurate. The musical soiree could hardly be improved upon. The six eminent speakers last evening were disparate, interesting for the most part and occasionally illuminating. A great deal of work and skill went into the preparation and execution of this series, for which we should all be grateful. Much effort was invested in publicity yet crowds were notable by their absence: last night we had three dozen including the panel of six and organisers.

The least important reasons for disaffection first. Passing allusion only was made to an essential component of our legacy from that highly talented group of individuals, the Young Irelanders – their literary contribution to 19th century Ireland. We heard a little of the (uninspiring) poetry of D’Arcy Magee but nothing of Mangan’s, Ferguson’s and no mention at all of Williams. W B Yeats considered Ferguson the greatest living Irish poet. Ingham’s ”98′ was reproduced in The Nation, but though he never regretted the poem, he disagreed vehemently with the  contemporary physical force adherents.  All the major figures, especially Davis, Dillon and particularly Mitchel were journalists of the highest calibre and Mitchel a polemicist without peer.

That Ulster Protestant Sir Samuel Ferguson also reorganised the Irish Public Records Office, wrote extensively (in Irish as well as English) on many topics, particularly antiquities and became President of the Royal Irish Academy as well as gaining a knighthood. We remember also his contribution (with his wife) in collecting ancient Irish airs, to some of which (The Coullin, Lark in the Clear Air) he added definitive lyrics. 

Why do I repeat all this? Because Ferguson defines all that is good in the radical Ulster  Protestant tradition, an absolutely essential ingredient in the future development of our peoples and our country, more today than ever. One speaker, local Brian Patterson made mention and denounced Daniel O’Connell (representing Old Ireland) for opening a huge religious divide and separating Irish nationalism/republicanism from its Ulster Protestant radical roots.

Ferguson travelled a political journey (as do most politicians, even those who vociferously deny it) from unionist to nationalist (he formed the Protestant Repeal Association, for example) and then back to Unionist, the latter in disgust at the violence of the Fenians and the ‘Invincibles’ (the latter responsible for the Phoenix Park murders of 1882.)

The most absorbing panel member was the Rev Chris Hudson of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church (Elmwood Avenue) who, interestingly, came from a Southern Catholic and Republican background, but during the Peace Process served as conduit between the UVF and the Southern government.  Like the Rev Dunlop who was the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church’s representative at the Newry ‘Rebels and Loyalists’ show, he spoke lucidly both about his Church’s theology and the tenacity and self-reliance of the members of ‘the smallest denomination with the longest name’.

The audience wanted to know where Young Ireland figures might have stood today, in relation to the Peace Process and the ‘dissident Republicans’. Though the panel insisted that self-respecting historians ought not to indulge in such speculation, it did! And not to its credit. Almost all showered praise on the Stormont politicians of today, without attempting in any way to explain how they are faring vis-a-vis the Young Ireland vision.

This commentator was left wondering in whose hands the spirit of Young Ireland now rests!

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