The two faces of Eire

The southern Irish people are lovely, warm and friendly people. Cheltenham comes alive during the Gold Cup week in March when the town becomes Irish almost overnight and the streets (as well as the racecourse) are alive with boisterous, noisy but very courteous people. We frequently have Irish guests in Hanover House to stay, and they are very welcome, well-behaved, softly spoken and interesting. The original resident of the house (discussed in an earlier blog), Colonel William Croker was an Irishman from Tipperary, and other occupants have included Dublin-born Reverend Murphy in the nineteenth century.

Although southern Ireland became independent from the United Kingdom in 1921, following years of turbulence and strife, the citizens of Eire are virtually treated as British citizens too, they have the right of abode, work and voting.  Many thousands work in England and serve in the Armed Forces. When I was a Sandhurst cadet in 1970, the year after the ‘troubles’ revived in Northern Ireland, stimulated by the desire of a minority in the north and a majority in the south for re-unification, one of my best military instructors was a southern Irishman, a loyal career soldier.

However Ireland also has another side to its character, highlighted on the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning. Clearly there are long memories (common in the Gaelic nations – I should know, I’m a Scot), mostly racial and nationalistic. The programme discussed the treatment of southern Irishmen who deserted Ireland to come to England and enlist to fight Hitler’s attempt at European and perhaps ultimately world domination. Thousands fought and died for freedom, but on return to Ireland, instead of being treated like heroes they were tried, imprisoned, excoriated and shunned, as were their families and even children. Indeed apparently, childrens’ school registers were often marked with ‘SS’ meaning they were to be given ‘special (unpleasant) treatment’. Even the Irishmen who had deserted to take to crime or even fight for the Waffen SS, were not treated as badly on their return. Many of these brave southern Irishmen who went to fight, may have done so out of a sense of excitement and adventure; which goes well with the Irish temperament (they have provided mercenary armies across Europe for hundreds of years, some fighting for Napoleon, one even becoming one of his Field Marshals), but others out of a sense of duty, partly to stop the Fascists, but also often because their fathers and grandfathers had done so too. During the First World War, and all previous wars back to Waterloo in 1815, and during the conflicts in our former colonies in North America, India and Africa, large bodies of Irish troops fought under the Union Jack.  Only recently, when the Queen visited Eire, the first British monarch for nearly 100 years, she paid homage to a rather neglected monument to the many Irishmen who fell in the Great War, as well as making a placatory visit to a memorial to the Republicans who fell fighting the British.

This slightly unbalanced trait of the Irish, which contradicts all I know about them as individuals, is also reflected in the scandals surrounding the treatment of children and young women in vulnerable positions, by elements of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which traditionally was extremely influential in the education and direction of the country. This attitude perhaps reflected the hubris of people in positions of long-term unassailable power I discussed in an earlier blog. Hopefully, however,  in this more enlightened age, these national characteristics have been significantly ameliorated and are on their way out and there is a far more outward-looking, conciliatory and ‘live and let live’ attitude.

I very much look forward to greeting our lovely Irish guests in Hanover House in future, especially during the next Cheltenham Gold Cup, and indeed to making our first visit to Ireland, particularly to the Georgian city of Dublin and the beautiful west coast.  After all, Cheltenham is only a couple of hours’ drive from Fishguard in Wales and another two hours on the ferry to Rosslare across the Irish Sea….


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