Reagan and Rosaleen

John Horgan

  • Prince of Spies: Henri Le Caron by J.A. Cole
    Faber, 221 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 571 13233 2

A little over ten years ago I found myself in a gloomy basement in Detroit talking to a small and very confused group of rather elderly men about Irish politics. They were the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the source of their confusion was Bernadette Devlin. Excited by media images of Bernadette on the barricades, hurling abuse (and more) at the ancient enemy, they were pulled up short by the ideological content of her discourse. Was she – they wanted to know – a Communist? Later in the same week, I was scheduled to give another talk on contemporary Irish politics in a small suburb of Boston. The hall was jammed, and suitably garnished with cops and clerics. My lecture was not the only item on the agenda, but it was the finale. It was immediately preceded by ‘Mother Machree’, sung with a passion and a longing that would have seemed de trop even in a Galway tourist pub. By the time I reached the podium, I was almost catatonic with culture-shock.

The audiences on both occasions undoubtedly included descendants of the men who, no less than three times in the previous century, had mounted invasions of Canada in the name of a then non-existent Irish Republic. The intervening period, it seemed, had magnified rather than dimmed their fervour. Henri Le Caron, who successfully spied on this expeditionary force for the English, would have been quite at home in either setting. The phenomenon of the Irish in America, which forms the backdrop to much of J.A. Cole’s fascinating book, is still an important political reality, though it has changed dramatically from the days when those ragged armies charged across the Canadian border in an attempt to seize an entire British dominion and thus force recognition of Irish statehood on the other side of the Atlantic. In the late 19th century, the period about which Cole writes, the threat that they posed to Britain was seen as real enough, and his book conveys very well the turbulence and violence which could be taken for granted in a country which had recently experienced a civil war.

The Irish-Americans concerned were, of course, Catholic. They were not the only Irish-Americans, nor are they today. There are, in fact, three reasonably distinct groups of Irish-Americans. One of them is known as the Scots-Irish, descendants for the most part of Irish Presbyterians and Dissenters who emigrated to the new colony from what is now Northern Ireland to escape the oppression and discrimination of the Established Church in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They are not much heard of nowadays, partly because they have become more assimilated into the fabric of American political and social life, having had a longer period of residence. They also travelled more widely within America – perhaps because they were economically better-off – and did not congregate in the cities, as their Catholic fellow-countrymen tended to do. From time to time, attempts have been made, notably by Northern Ireland politicians, to claim for them the same sort of coherent group-image that Catholic Irish-Americans have traditionally enjoyed. One Northern Ireland politician, Basil Brooke, had the misfortune to be spurned by an American President who found it opportune to be absent from Washington when Brooke arrived. Terence O’Neill, more persistent, actually managed to have his photograph taken with President Johnson, and subsequently used it as a Christmas card. At a time when Northern (and Southern) Irish Catholics were not slow to invoke what they saw as traditional Irish-American links, Northern Unionists, in this counter-offensive, claimed that their tradition had provided as many as 11 US Presidents (including Grant and McKinley) before John F. Kennedy had ever been launched into public life.

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[*] Oxford, 369 pp., £6.95, 6 December 1983, 0 19 822776 0.