[The following is adapted from a post I wrote on Refudiate This, Sarah! in July 2010 when the controversy surrounding the proposed Cordoba House Community Center was in full swing. Although the original post dealt primarily with that issue, much of what I wrote back then applies equally to the current controversy involving the hearings being conducted by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and the House Homeland Security Committee into alleged “radicalization” of American Muslims. My original post is here.]
My mother was a Durkin and her family came from the Land of Heart’s Desire, County Sligo in Connacht on the northwest coast of what is now the Republic of Ireland, where William Butler Yeats spent much of his youth. In other words, the Moms was Irish. For my part, I’m a mutt; but being part Irish and growing up in the Chicago area in close proximity to literally hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics, it was hard not to identify with them.
Consequently, I grew up with the idea that all thirty-two counties of my mother’s ancestral homeland should once again be a single nation; that after 800 years or so of British oppression, it was time for the Ulster Defence Regiment to head back across the Irish Sea where they’d come from and to leave Ireland to the Irish. That’s most likely what you thought if you were Irish Catholic in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s. Even if you were only part Irish.
But, anyway, the rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice in this country – from last summer’s business with Sarah Palin and the proposed “mosque” in Lower Manhattan to what’s come to be known on Twitter as Rep. King’s “Muslim Un-American Activities Committee,” or “MUAC,” hearings this month – has got me thinking about growing up (partly, at least) Irish Catholic in a heavily Irish and heavily Catholic part of the world. (By the way, I say “mosque” in quotation marks in the preceding sentence because Cordoba House isn’t a mosque at all, but “a proposed community center in Lower Manhattan that would be founded by Muslims but serve all New Yorkers.” It just so happens that the community center includes a prayer room, which explains why our conservative friends’ heads nearly exploded last summer.)
But, anyway, back to the Irish thing …
As it happens, when I first started frequenting the Madison Street bars in the early 1980s (Madison Street in Forest Park, Illinois, that is – it being the place where just about all the taverns were located in the vicinity of once-dry Oak Park, my home town), the Troubles in Northern Ireland – what the Irish call Ulster – were in full swing. And if you frequented taverns with Irish-sounding names back in the early 1980s in places like Forest Park, or in, say, Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood or in the Southwest suburbs, you were likely to see, as I often did, pro-Irish Republican Army graffiti on the walls of the men’s rooms – nasty things about the personal shaving habits of Queen Elizabeth II, and even nastier things about Margaret Thatcher, Ian Paisely or the UDA – the kind of things that seemed oddly out of place in America in the age of Reagan; things that were darkly threatening and bigoted and ugly, and militant in the worst sense of the word.
And what’s funny is, in places like Chicago – and, I’m sure, New York and Boston and any big city with a large Irish Catholic demographic – support for the IRA was not only not uncommon, it was often fairly out in the open. For example, back then my late brother Tom was the lead guitarist in a British Invasion-themed band – you know, four guys in matching white-shirts-with-skinny-ties-and-pointy-shoes type outfits, playing Beatles and Stones and Kinks tunes in front of a huge Union Jack – and, ironically, on at least a couple of occasions they were booked to play private parties that turned out to be (I kid you not) benefits for NORAID. Maybe the party organizers figured the Union Jack provided cover, or maybe they just didn’t care. But, in any event, according to Tom these were parties with automatic-weapons-toting armed guards at the door, that sort of thing; and at one particular NORAID function at a tavern in the Southwest Suburbs, during a break between the band’s sets, the organizers passed around a black coffin-shaped box with an infamous bit of IRA graffiti scrawled on it:
13 Gone and Not Forgotten
We Got 18 and Lord Mountbatten …
into which party goers stuffed wads of cash.
And I don’t think any of that money was declared on anybody’s tax return, if you catch my drift.
In fact, in the late ’70s and early ’80s support for the IRA and its sectarian cause was so wide spread, a young Republican Congressman from New York, Rep. Peter King – yes, that Rep. Peter King, he of the “MUAC” hearings – openly embraced the terrorist organization:
[King] forged links with leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and in America he hooked up with Irish Northern Aid, known as Noraid, a New York based group that the American, British, and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA. At a time when the IRA’s murder of Lord Mountbatten and its fierce bombing campaign in Britain and Ireland persuaded most American politicians to shun IRA-support groups, Mr. King displayed no such inhibitions. He spoke regularly at Noraid protests and became close to the group’s publicity director, the Bronx lawyer Martin Galvin, a figure reviled by the British.
Mr. King’s support for the IRA was unequivocal. In 1982, for instance, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.”
That’s worth repeating: In the early 1980s, Rep. Peter King’s “support for the IRA was unequivocal.”
And lest anybody should forget, the IRA was often involved in the business of killing people – innocent civilians, civilian politicians and civilian police officers among them – for the purpose of effecting political change. That’s what we call “terrorism” – using violence against civilian targets to terrorize a civilian population and pressure its political leaders to act in accordance with the terrorists’ wishes. Say what you will about the Irish Republican cause – I, for one, have always supported it – the methods of the IRA were despicable and unacceptable, as were the methods of their Unionist opposition in Ulster.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but more than 3,000 innocents died in Northern Ireland’s Troubles from the early 1960s until the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998. And that’s a number that ought to resonate with Americans today.
Three thousand innocent men and women killed in the name of sectarian extremism. That’s pretty close to the number of people killed on September 11, 2001; and while the IRA and their Protestant extremist enemies may have been less efficient at killing than al Qaeda, they proved they could be no less deadly over time. So, you’d think support of the IRA – as I say, once common in the U.S., at least in the big cities – would carry the same sort of stigma as support for Islamic extremism. You’d think that, but if the political success of Rep. Pete King means anything, you’d be wrong.
But I digress. My point is, all this anti-Muslim sentiment, from the dust-up over the proposed Cordoba House in New York City to Rep. King’s anti-Muslim inquisition, has got me thinking how some forms of violent sectarian extremism are, apparently, acceptable in the United States and some aren’t. And it’s equally got me thinking how oddly inconsistent we are in terms of how we deal with broader religious communities that include small, usually negligible, groups of extremists within them. Last summer, conservatives were offended that a Muslim group wanted to build a community center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center, where an unrelated group of extremist Muslims killed thousands of innocent people, as if all Muslims are to be held accountable for the actions of the lunatic few. But no one has ever suggested that all Catholics, or all Irish, or all Irish Catholics, should be held accountable for the actions of the IRA and/or their American supporters.
Just imagine if someone were to contact Rep. Peter King and demand that St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located on Madison Avenue in Midtown, be moved out of Manhattan because it somehow represented or symbolized the IRA’s thirty-five year reign of terror. The very idea is absurd; what does a cathedral named for the Patron Saint of Ireland have to do with sectarian violence in Ireland, after all? Nothing, of course, because we don’t do that in America: We don’t blame the actions of a few extremist Catholics or Irishmen on all Catholics or all Irishmen, even though we know that some American Catholics and some Irish Americans in fact supported those extremists.
Some American Catholics, including Rep. Pete King.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.