Thursday, April 20, 2023

Past and Present

This was given to me by one of these guys, right here. He was a hell of a rugby player. He beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.
 —President Biden speaking of his distant cousin Rob Kearney and confusing the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, with a brutal British military force of a century ago, in Dundalk on April 12
In Belfast this past week, there was a reunion of major figures commemorating the quarter-century anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (called the Belfast Agreement by Unionists). The hosts were Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, by virtue of being head of government of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is part, and Hillary Clinton, as chancellor of Queen’s University, which hosted the event.

Prominent attendees included former U.S., British and Irish heads of government, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who were key participants in negotiating the agreement credited with ending Northern Ireland’s violent period known as the Troubles. Also on hand was Gerry Adams, whose pivotal role had been to bring the insurgent Provisional Irish Republican Army on board even while ostensibly denying that he had any connection to them.

Tributes and testimonials were paid to key figures no longer with us, including Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and David Trimble, major Nationalist and Unionist political leaders of the time who risked everything for peace and whose political parties subsequently paid the price of perpetual exile in the electoral wilderness. Ironically, political benefit was reaped instead by more extreme parties led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, both of whom are also no longer with us.

Particularly inspirational among the guests was former U.S. Senator George Mitchell who, at 89 and in poor health, made the journey to Belfast. He did more than any other outsider to bring the various parties together for the historic accord.

The anniversary exercise was in turns moving, nostalgic, edifying and educational, particularly for a generation that has come of age since those days. It is once again a tricky time in the North—it’s always a tricky time in the North—as the main products of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its meticulous power-sharing arrangement, have not functioned for 31 months since it was brought down by the Democratic Unionist Party over unhappiness over the UK implementation of Brexit. Elections were held nearly a year ago which saw, for the first time, saw Sinn Féin overtake the DUP as the largest party, putting Michelle O’Neill in line to become the North’s first ever First Minister.

Despite a new agreement negotiated by Sunak between the UK and the European Union that goes as far as the DUP could realistically hope for, the unionists still refuse to go back into government. Nationalists suspect, not unreasonably, that unionists simply don’t want to go back into a government they would no longer be in charge of.

Many hoped that the DUP would feel pressure to revive the assembly amid all the attention brought about the Good Friday anniversary. Frankly, though, the DUP didn’t get where it is by paying attention to opinions and attitudes outside its own community.

There were hopes that the logjam might be broken during a mid-April visit by President Biden, ostensibly also to commemorate the Good Friday accord. It quickly became apparent, however, that the chief purpose of Biden’s trip was to indulge in a nostalgic plastic-paddy victory lap. He spent the briefest amount of time possible in Northern Ireland, giving a perfunctory speech at Ulster University’s new campus, before heading to the republic for several days of visits to his ancestral homes in Louth and Mayo, bringing along a huge delegation of U.S. government officials and family members, including his sister Valerie and his son Hunter.

At each stop, including an address to the two houses of the Irish parliament (Oireachtas), he gave a variation of the same emotional, rambling speech. There were the obligatory platitudes about peace and the future and doing the right thing, but mostly it was about himself. How much he loved Ireland. How much he missed his mother and wished she could be there. How at home he felt—at least until the last night when he said he couldn’t wait to get back to Delaware.

Everywhere he went, he ran late, partially because of necessary rest breaks but also because he seemed determined to shake every last hand in the country, kiss every baby and pose for every selfie. The fact is, for all his professed love of Ireland, he can’t hold to a candle to what his contemporary Senator Mitchell accomplished 25 years ago when it really mattered.

At one point in his Oireachtas speech, he became somber, saying, “I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning,” adding, “The only thing I bring to this career—and you can see, how old I am—is a little bit of wisdom.”

Biden didn’t sound like someone getting ready for another presidential campaign. By the time he finished the tour in the Mayo town of Ballina, however, with a speech that followed an impressive array of Irish musical talent, he seemed newly energized. Yes, it was more or less the same speech we had heard a couple times before on this trip, but it had more pep this time.

The over-excited Irish press speculated he might actually announce his reelection bid in Ballina. It was amusing to see the country collectively go all fanboy crazy for yet another Irish-American presidential visit. On the ground, though, real people were a bit more measured. They marveled at the vast expense to bring so many people from the U.S. for what amounted to a personal holiday. Even in our own corner of the countryside, we did not escape the roar of the presidential tour in the form of overlying Chinook helicopters.

Perhaps the best example of Mayo practicality came from radio presenter/podcaster Laurita Blewitt, one of the president’s many distant cousins here. Her husband, a well known sports pundit, recounted her exchange with Biden during a banquet in Dublin Castle.

In his usual impulsive manner, the unfailingly affable president said to her, “Laurita, you guys have gotta come with us to Knock [Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Mayo] on Air Force One tomorrow.”

Her reply: “I can’t. I have to get my hair done in Foxford at 11 am.”

Friday, January 20, 2023

Another son of the auld sod

After 15 Grueling House Speaker Votes, America’s Long National Nightmare Can Finally Begin
 —Headline on the satirical news website The Babylon Bee, January 7
It may have taken 15 votes, but Kevin McCarthy finally did become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. His road to this position was long and not always promising. He first got elected to Congress during the Bush 43 Administration as part of the Republican class of 2006 in which he was one of the so-called Young Guns, along with Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Those two are long gone, but McCarthy somehow managed to adapt, survive and hang on through the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and the winds of change that elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

There is much to ponder about the constitutionally prescribed process that resulted in so many ballots for Speaker becoming necessary. Much of the press coverage focused on the fact that such a number was unprecedented—unless you went back a century. There were suggestions that this was symptomatic of fundamental disarray in the Republican Party, if not in the entire U.S. political system. Perhaps it is, but such wrangling after national legislative elections is not unusual in other countries.

For example, here in Ireland, as I wrote three years ago, the 2020 general election resulted in three different political parties having a theoretical shot at forming a government but only after a complicated negotiation for a coalition. Voters went to the polls on February 8, and though the results were quickly known, it was not until June 27 that Micheál Martin was sworn in as Taoiseach, roughly equivalent to Speaker of the House in the U.S. system. The following year, the Netherlands took nearly 10 months of negotiations to form a government after its parliamentary elections.

In other words, protracted post-election negotiations are often the norm in many countries. Usually in the U.S., though, because there are only two viable national parties, such negotiations tend to happen mostly out of the glare of intense press coverage. After the 2020 U.S. elections, Democrats had a similarly thin margin in the House, but they managed to make all their intra-party deals before the official vote for Speaker. Is that better than how the Republicans did it? Is it preferable to keep political messiness more out of the voters’ view or is there some value in having the in-fighting in public view?

As it happens, I have a couple of strange connections to the new Speaker of the House, and not just deriving from the fact he and I were both born in Bakersfield, California.

I do not know the man and have never met him, but with a name like Kevin McCarthy he obviously has an Irish connection, and I have a way of running into those. Back in 1998—before McCarthy was first to elected to office (to a seat on the Kern County Community College District Board of Trustees in 2000)—he was in charge of Bakersfield’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. That was the one for which my bride of three days was drafted to be the queen. She was given no choice in the matter by an Irish-American family friend from my home town, who had a penchant for latching onto any visiting Irish people. He had previously secured the parade queen’s crown for the visiting niece of our town’s Irish priest, who hailed from Donegal.

Once McCarthy’s struggle to be elected Speaker began dominating the worldwide airwaves, it was inevitable that local Irish genealogists would go to work. American presidents’ Irish connections have been a fascination here since John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, followed by his sentimental and celebrated visit to Ireland a mere five months before his tragic death. No other U.S. president has had as close a connection to Ireland, but a surprising number of them have at least had Irish in their DNA. Subsequent visits here have been made by Richard Nixon (Quaker roots in Kildare), Ronald Reagan (Antrim, Tipperary), both presidents Bush (Down) and Barack Obama, whose maternal ancestors were traced to the village of Moneygall on the Offaly-Tipperary border. Obama’s visit, in particular, caused great excitement here and to this day is commemorated by an elaborate service station complex called Barack Obama Plaza near Moneygall on the Dublin-to-Limerick motorway.

Nixon’s 1970 visit is of particular interest in this house. It included a visit by First Lady Pat Nixon (born Thelma Catherine Ryan) to meet distant cousins in the South Mayo town of Ballinrobe and to see her “home place” very near where my wife is from. The local story is that the land owner, on short notice, had to locate a likely structure (a mucky old shed as it happened) and quickly clean it up and make it presentable for the visit. Mayo is also home to cousins of President Biden, who (not unlike the man who made my wife a queen) delights in his Irish connections, which also includes cousins in County Louth.

So what have the genealogists come up with for Speaker McCarthy? An article in a local newspaper informs us that his great-grandfather was Jeremiah McCarthy from Cork. It turns out that Jeremiah married a fellow Irish immigrant named Mary Heskin. A 24-year-old widow, she was from a family with 15 children in a South Mayo village. In other words, she was from just down the road from us.

Jeremiah and Mary were married in the Kern County town of Tehachapi, 40 miles from Bakersfield. For some reason our local paper spells the town’s name Tihachiopia.