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Catherine Durkin Robinson: Advocating – quietly – for a united Ireland

Bród na nGael (Irish Pride)

I never knew I was poor until my 15th summer, when I visited Scranton, Pa. and hung out with relatives who could afford frozen fruit snacks and automatic dishwashers. Back home in Florida, I got Breyer’s ice cream twice a year as a treat and used this new contraption that squirted liquid detergent while I scrubbed the dishes.

My relatives had thick carpeting and cable television.

But I had beaches and palm trees, so it didn’t feel so bad.

Some relatives could afford to bring over cousins from Ireland for summer vacation. Irish cousins were worse off than me, because they had to deal with the Troubles.

The Troubles made a summer in Scranton seem appealing.

From what I could understand — in between watching Duran Duran videos — the Troubles had to do with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the north of Ireland.

My family, Catholics, said that with irritation: the north of Ireland.

Finola, an Irish cousin visiting that year, said the north with the same irritation, but her brogue encouraged the words to roll off her tongue in a sing-song way. I followed her everywhere, just to hear more stories.

Until then, I’d never been particularly proud of my Irish heritage. Whenever our school had an Ethnic Day, my Italian friends brought in lasagna and lively music. I brought in boiled potatoes and cabbage, because who needs flavor, and Danny Boy depressed the hell out of everyone.

Being Irish wasn’t cool. Then I met Finola.

She had a tiny rosary called penal beads with only a single decade made of stone from Galway, and a tarnished ring attached to it. She wore the ring on her thumb and hid the rosary in the palm of her hand so no one could see it.

When she finished a decade of prayers, which is how long it felt to say each cycle, she’d move the ring to the next finger. Five decades, five cycles of prayers, five fingers. Nearly half a century earlier, when being Catholic was a crime in Ireland, saying the rosary could get you arrested or killed. This beautiful little relic allowed people to say their rosary safely.

All of a sudden, being Irish was badass.

Finola once sat in a car driven by her older brother and a Protestant police officer pulled them over. He asked everyone in the car to get out and say the alphabet. When they got to “H,” he’d know if they were Catholic or Protestant.

Protestants said “H” the regular way. Catholics said it like my Nana and her siblings. It sounded like “Haytch” and that was all the police officer needed before kicking the shit out of all of them – including Finola.

The Troubles.

At the end of the vacation, a few things had changed. Finola discovered a life that didn’t include looking over her shoulders.

And I discovered a taste for boiled potatoes and cabbage.

“You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.”

Joe Doherty and I were pen pals. I looked forward to his letters and read each one at least five times when they arrived, which seemed like every other week. He was funny and insightful, with a point of view I admired and tried to emulate.

We didn’t have much in common. I was a 20-year-old college student living in Florida. Joe was 35 years old, spending his days in a Manhattan jail, awaiting extradition to Belfast.

Although Joe had been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison for killing a British soldier, he’d escaped and found his way to New York. After being captured while tending bar at Clancy’s, Joe held the distinction of being the longest-held prisoner in America without being charged with a crime.

He was my friend.

An active member of various organizations supporting a united Ireland, I had a habit of befriending people who shared similar ideological views. Some were known, but most were not. These were heroic types doing anonymous work. You won’t read about them in history books, but they are responsible for a great deal of good in the world.

I was often urged to be more anonymous, quiet. Always for my own sake. Only now do I see the value in such a lifestyle.

For a long time, I went the other way.

I wore a baseball hat with IRA printed boldly on the front. I wrote articles, spoke loudly, organized demonstrations, and worried my mother and boyfriend on a daily basis.

An outspoken demeanor can be its own kind of powerful protection.

I put a bumper sticker on my car proudly proclaiming that the 26 counties in Ireland, plus the six in the north, equaled one country. Not two. Someone scribbled NEVER on the sticker (“Math major?” my boyfriend asked) but in pencil. Typical.

I erased the remark and the message lived on.

Joe appreciated my views and answered my questions with thoughtful contemplation. He, too, believed in a united Ireland and told me stories about what life was like in the north for the Irish. It sounded difficult and demeaning. But Joe was never bitter.

When I wrote screeds denouncing his treatment in America (political prisoners were often given asylum here, but our government was too concerned with its relationship with Great Britain to do the right thing), Joe called for patience. He loved the United States and its people. He suggested I feel pride living in a place where I could freely organize and rally to right injustices. Joe never missed an opportunity to encourage within me patriotism and hope.

Two years later, my country shipped him back to Belfast.

I almost never see disappointment coming, and that’s why it hits so hard.

Anonymous and not-so-anonymous heroes continued to work diligently. In 1998, Joe Doherty was released from prison as part of the Good Friday Peace Accords. If Ireland is to be united, those accords decreed, it will come as the result of a majority vote.

The struggle continues…quietly.


Catherine Durkin Robinson co-parents twin sons, organizes for advocacy purposes, writes syndicated columns, mentors kids, runs a few races and will lift a pint to Joe and Finola and all our Irish brothers and sisters this Thursday for St. Patrick’s Day. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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