By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Throughout the three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, those on both sides have looked to America as one of their greatest resources.
And why not: There are more than seven times as many Irish-Americans as there are Irish.
“They’ve played an important part in the conflict for decades,” said Dr. Seamus Metress, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toledo and a longtime activist for a united Ireland.
The famous potato famines of 1845 to 1851 reduced the population of Ireland from 8 million to 4 million. More than 1 million died, and many of the remainder fled to America.
In the 15 decades since, Ireland’s population has struggled back up to about 5.3 million. In the U.S., 42 million Americans are of Irish descent, according to the 1990 census.
Irish-Americans have been supporting the republican cause throughout this century. But beginning with the Irish civil rights movement in 1968 – when images of British soldiers beating Catholics with batons made their way onto the nightly news – more and more Americans decided to get involved.
Some raised money for human rights organizations and wrote articles about the crisis. Others went further, and shipped arms and money to groups such as the Irish Republican Army. A 1973 FBI report stated that the Irish conflict had been largely paid for with American dollars; that trend has continued throughout the bloody times since.
The violent aspect of the Irish-American connection was in the news in August, when four men were arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and charged with attempting to export more than 40 handguns and several hundred rounds of rifle ammunition to the IRA. The IRA has denied it was involved in the gun-running operation; the four men are awaiting trial.
John Finucane, national president of the American Ireland Educational Foundation, estimated that 100,000 Americans have been involved in the Irish conflict over the years, from writing letters to members of Congress to shipping guns to the IRA. That’s a tiny percentage of the total number of Irish-Americans, but still a substantial number.
“It’s hugely important to have that American backing, whether it’s money or just moral support,” said Mr. Finucane, who was born in the United States to Irish parents.
Mr. Finucane’s group advocates a united Ireland, but only through nonviolent means. On some issues, he said, his group can mobilize enough American support for 10,000 letters to reach Congress in a few days.
But Dr. Metress and Mr. Finucane agree that most Irish-Americans have stayed out of Irish politics entirely.
“Most people get in touch with their Irish roots once a year, on St. Patrick’s Day,” Dr. Metress said. A few others get fired up about the British occupation while drinking Irish beer at pubs, he said; he calls them “Guinness commandos.”
Most Irish-Americans concerned about their homeland have had no links to the violence there, they agree.
“Not everybody was sending explosives and guns to the IRA,” Dr. Metress said. “Most of the people who were involved were working with groups aimed at peace and justice in Ireland, not the violent end of things.”
No doubt many Irish-Americans believe that IRA stands only for Individual Retirement Account.
But with the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein achieving greater standing through their inclusion in the peace process, many Irish-Americans are making their support of the cause more open. In September, Sinn Fein leaders held a $500-a-plate dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York. The dinner raised more than $500,000 for the party, Mr. Finucane said.
Some Irish-Americans have worked individually for the Protestant side of the fight, but the Catholic republican side has received much more American support over the years. That’s in part because Irish Catholic emigrants to the United States in the 1800s outnumbered Protestant ones. Because they shared a single church, Catholics were more likely to remain an organized community than Irish-American Protestants were.
“There’s never been an organized movement on our side in America,” said Anne Smith, the Washingtonlobbyist for the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant party.
Ms. Smith said that the work of Irish-Americans has been “very important” to the republican cause. “It’s a fairly small number of people, but they’re very passionate,” she said.
Dr. Metress, 66, is one of that small group. He became interested in Irish history as a child, when his Irish grandmother sang him songs and told him stories about the British occupation of the North. A self-described “radical republican,” Dr. Metress has been to Ireland almost a dozen times and has written dozens of articles on the island, as well as a book, The American Irish and Irish Nationalism.
In Toledo, he leads the local chapter of Clan Na Gael (the name means “band of the Irish”) and has sometimes created controversy. In 1981, at the dedication ceremony for International Park in East Toledo, members of the clan lowered the Irish flag to half-mast in front of a British consul to protest the death of Bobby Sands, an IRA hunger striker.
Dr. Metress said he’s been visited twice by FBI agents as a result of his work, which he said has never involved violence.