Ireland: Beauty, beer and bitterness

Beneath veneer of calm, there resides in Irish people's hearts an abiding discontent at state of affairs on this windswept island – and some of that is directed at Israel.

Irish coast, Ireland 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Nathan Ginsbury)
Irish coast, Ireland 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Nathan Ginsbury)
The first thing a traveler from Israel notices about Ireland is the green; wide, ambling expanses of rolling hills and serene meadows of forest green as far as the eye can see. In driving from Dublin’s international airport to our hotel in Ballinasloe – some two hours away – we saw many more sheep, cows and horses than we did human beings. Life on the Emerald Isle is spread out, farmland in every direction, resulting in a serene and pastoral atmosphere that complements the easy-going Irish way of life.
Ireland’s natural beauty is stunning – from the majestic Cliffs of Moher, which tower 200 meters above the Atlantic, to the castles of Connemara and the mountaintop fortress of Dun Angeus.
Cruising along the Shannon River and Lough Ree, you retrace the route of the Vikings who once ruled Ireland and see the stone walls and thatched cottages which bespeak an idyllic history of 2,000 years.
We were warned that it would probably rain during most of our 10-day tour – I was told by a local that it usually rains only twice a week in Ireland; once on Sunday for three days, and then again on Wednesday for four days – yet we had magnificent weather with nary a thunderstorm to cloud our travels.
We found the people, for the most part, friendly and engaging. Your average Irishman is ready and willing to hoist a Guinness for any occasion – or none at all – at the local pubs which grace virtually every street in every village, town and city. With just a wee bit of encouragement, he will sing you an Irish ballad or regale you with a tall tale involving some mythical god, fairy or leprechaun.
BUT BENEATH the veneer of calm and carefree, there resides in the heart of the Irish people an abiding discontent, often bubbling over into visceral anger, at the past and present state of affairs on this windswept island.
Villain No. 1, without question, is England. The lives of every Irish man and woman are intertwined with the British. For more than 500 years – at the very least, since King Henry VIII proclaimed himself king of Ireland in 1541 – England raped and ravished the Irish economy and ecology as it robbed and ruined the fortunes of its Irish subjects. Dozens of kings, queens and even commoners – such as Oliver Cromwell, whose decade-long reign of terror beginning in 1649 wiped out a third of the Irish – besieged the population and stripped it of everything of value.
Long before the phrase “ethnic cleansing” came into vogue, the Protestant English sought to purge and penalize the Catholics of Ireland in the name of God, greed and country. For centuries, Catholics were barred from voting, educating their children or owning land worth more than five pounds. Protestant overlords ruled vast estates where Catholic sharecroppers tried to eke out the barest existence. By 1750, only 5 percent of Ireland was owned by the Catholic majority, and the bulk of the crops grown on Irish soil were transported to England, leaving the locals with little or nothing to eat.
As the poet John O’Hagan wrote, in an ode to the British: “Take it from us, every grain, We were made for you to drain; Black starvation let us feel, England must not want a meal! We are poor, and ye are rich, Mind it not, were every ditch Strewn in spring with famished corpses, Take our oats to feed your horses!” Millions of Irish either starved to death or were forcibly shipped off to other parts of the British Empire, such as Canada and Australia, many in death traps known as “coffin ships.” On voyages that lasted as long as three months, with scant food and no medical facilities aboard, at least a third – as many as 1.5 million souls – died en route. Over the course of England’s despotic rule, millions of Irish emigrated, either forced by their English landlords to leave or of their own volition in a desperate attempt to save their lives.
This resulted in an Irish diaspora that today numbers more than 80 million people living across the globe. While Ireland’s population was some eight million in the mid- 1800s, it has experienced a negative growth ever since, resulting in a present population of fewer than five million.
Perhaps the most traumatic flashpoint in Irish history was the Great Famine of 1845-1855, which devastated the potato crop. More than one-third of all Irish tilled land grew potatoes, and the blight, which wiped out 90% of the crop, caused massive famine and poverty. Millions of Irish perished, were moved to squalid “poor houses” or left Ireland.
In more contemporary times, the adversarial relations with England focused on the battle over Northern Ireland, the largely Protestant enclave comprising the upper one-sixth of the country, which remained part of the UK when Ireland finally became an independent state in 1921. Although pitched battles between the Irish Republican Army and British troops have given way to an uneasy truce, emotions run high and the dream of a united Ireland remains.
The second villain in the Irish mind-set is the government, which the average Irishman views as inept, corrupt and totally lacking any vision for the future. While Ireland was the darling of Europe’s economy in the highflying ’80s and ’90s, it crash-landed – along with most of the West – in the sub-prime crisis of the last few years.
Overbuying, overbuilding and overspending, rich on monetary myopia and poor on financial planning, have left Ireland on the brink of financial meltdown, not unlike its icy neighbor to the north.
While many of the locals have departed for foreign shores, immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European nations have come in, availing themselves of Ireland’s generous social welfare program which offers rental, food and unemployment subsidies. Irish politicians, with their long history of backroom wheeling and dealing and self-serving pocket-stuffing, are largely blamed for creating a nation that is living well beyond its means.
ALAS, THERE is yet a third bogeyman on the scene, one that – at least to me – is as misplaced as it is maligned. And that, of course, is Israel. The Irish government has been brazenly outspoken in its condemnation, with an almost obsessive, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts embrace of the Palestinian cause.
While anti-Semitism has rarely surfaced in Ireland – the Limerick pogrom of 1904, which drove out the Jews of that city being a rare exception – anti-Zionism is quite in vogue. In fact, while stopping at a Dublin pub one evening to sample some festive folk music, we spotted a large poster on the pub’s door which announced “an upcoming evening of song and dance in support of the next humanitarian ship to Gaza.” Though the poster mysteriously disappeared a few moments later – my wife refuses to divulge exactly how that happened – the memory of it remains disturbingly with us.
In a visit to Dublin’s excellent Jewish museum, we met with a member of the Jewish community. She informed us that Irish Jewry, which gave rise to many illustrious leaders over the years – the most famous of whom, undoubtedly, was the Herzog clan, which produced an Israeli chief rabbi, president and current cabinet minister – has now dwindled to less than 1,000. She told us that local Jews do not fear for their safety, but they don’t flaunt their religion or love of Israel either.
I remarked to more than one Irishman during the trip that I found this bias against Israel particularly perplexing. After all, we Jews share a lot with the Irish: We, too, suffered from British occupation and brutality in our struggle to be free; we both have a rich history and heritage, with a large Diaspora of our people spread around the globe; and we each inhabit a kind of “island” which we were determined to build despite aggression from our neighbors. Their response was that it is the government, and the press – which continually demonizes Israel – that has set Ireland against Israel; the average Irishman really does not know very much about the situation.
Indeed, I found a quote by Mary Robinson – former president of Ireland and, along with Jimmy Carter, one of the self-appointed “Elders,” who make it their business to single out Israel for criticism – at Dublin’s Famine Museum. It says, “There is a motif of powerlessness and suffering which runs through the Irish national consciousness... we can honor our survival best by deepening our identity with those who are still suffering.”
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Cynically and selectively, while helping drive the bandwagon of revisionism, she has branded Israel as the victimizer and the Palestinians as the victims, with little regard for historical accuracy.
The pity of it all is that there is a great deal which Israel could teach Ireland, which, after all, is our closest neighbor on the list of members of the UN. We could offer it some of our economic savvy, which, thank God, has enabled us to largely weather the economic hurricane. We could share our empathy and hope with a people that has suffered greatly, yet retains a fine character and rich tradition.
Most of all, we could demonstrate to the little nation of the Irish that survival and success are ultimately the result not of luck and leprechauns, but of faith, hard work, the determination to succeed and the absolute refusal to be bullied by those who are bigger than us.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center ( and helps lead tours of Jewish interest to various parts of the world.