Eoghan Harris: Miriam did us all a service by respecting Obama's roots
Published 29/05/2011 | 05:00
MIRIAM O'Callaghan's coverage of President Obama's visit to Moneygall made her only the third reporter (the others being the late Liam Hourican and the current Northern Ireland editor Tommie Gorman) to fully grasp one of RTE's major responsibilities: the remit to respect all the traditions on this island.
An RTE reporter must not merely speak for the majority but must also speak for the marginalised and the minorities. In an Ireland under the shadow of the dissident IRAs, the same duty devolves on all our media -- to remember the positive contribution of the Protestant minority, a minority both in the Republic and on the whole island.
Last week in Moneygall, Miriam O'Callaghan, almost alone in the Irish media, reminded us that President Obama is descended from Protestants so poor they were forced to emigrate. In doing so, Obama's Kearney ancestors were joining an earlier exodus of Northern Protestants and Dissenters who today form fully half of the Irish-American diaspora.
Why was it so important for Miriam O'Callaghan to point this out? Because bad history is the bedrock of the Real IRA, as it was of the Provos before them. If you doubt this, just check out the bulletin boards of bodies who support the aims of the Real IRA, such as Eirigi, some of the Celtic supporter blogs and the madder nationalist sites.
The bloody thread that binds them all together is a twisted version of the past. These sites present Irish history as one long atrocity by Brits and Prods against the poor Roman Catholic people. Historical hatred is the ideology of the Real IRA.
To make peace we have to challenge that bad history. We have to emphasise that English administrators did good work in Ireland. We have to hammer home the truth that many patriotic Irish Protestants were as poor as church mice.
That is why Conor Cruise O'Brien is still my hero. His 1970 States of Ireland shocked me -- and many others -- into seeing Irish history not just through narrow Catholic-nationalist spectacles but also through the lens of Northern Protestants. Alas, we still have a long way to go.
The proof of that is the way we played down the Protestant parts of President Obama during his one day visit. Obama is descended from poor Moneygall Protestants. He is linked by religion to the Ulster Protestant tradition, which makes up fully half of the Irish-American diaspora. But the bluster and ballyhoo in College Green might lead you to believe he was from the Roman Catholic-nationalist tradition.
Here, our national media have questions to answer. If they really wanted to reject the repellent delusions of the Real IRA and reach out to Northern Protestants, they would have made more of both the president's Protestant roots in Moneygall and of his wider links to the Ulster Protestant tradition, which has supplied at least 13 presidents of the US.
Let's start with Moneygall. The story of Fulmouth Kearney, Barack Obama's ancestor, gave the Irish media a golden chance to stress that the Kearney's were poor Protestants -- artisans, wigmakers and weavers -- far from the fantasies of the Real IRA fanatics who want to believe that all Irish Protestants were landlords who lived in Big Houses.
But even poor and patriotic Protestants like the Kearneys were not safe from the bigoted belief that they were not really Irish. In January 1881, the local parish priest called for the word 'gall' ('foreigner') to be removed from the name Moneygall. And even today, faint echoes of these false beliefs can still be heard.
Maureen O'Dowd, who covered Obama's trip for the New York Times, wrote: "Some Catholics here speculate that Kearney got the name 'Full Mouth' because as a Protestant, he had more money to buy food in the Famine years." This may be just a joke, but it's the tribal joke that make it easier to marginalise Jews, Travellers or poor Protestants.
Clearly, the delusion that all Protestants were wealthy dies hard. The only time I met John McGahern, he spoke about the bitter legacy of the political libel that all rural Protestants were rich farmers or linked to the landlord class. In fact, he said, most Leitrim Protestants were small, struggling farmers and shopkeepers.
Given the crucial need to confront the Real IRA version of Irish history, you might think the national media would have followed Moneygall in giving generous credit to the contribution of the Church of Ireland minister, Canon Stephen Neill, the man who first discovered the Obama link and who was given full credit locally in all the Moneygall literature.
But the national media reporting the visit last Tuesday did not follow suit. The Irish Examiner failed to mention him at all. Likewise, the resident Moneygall correspondent of the Irish Independent. The Irish Times confined itself to one namecheck and, like the rest of the media, did not make it clear that Stephen Neill is a Canon of the Church of Ireland, not a Roman Catholic canon -- a necessary distinguishing detail that points up the Protestant dimension.
Canon Neill is probably perfectly happy with his coverage. But with due respect to his clerical collar, my complaint has nothing to do with him. It has to do with us of the majority tradition, with our failure to fully stress the Protestant parts of our heritage and so reach out to our Northern Protestant neighbours.
Miriam O'Callaghan was flying solo when she went out of her way in Moneygall to point up the Church of Ireland connections. She was helped by local historian Michael O'Byrne as well as by Pat Gallagher, the Offaly county manager. The three of them filled a much wider historical canvass than the windy speakers at College Green.
Here, Enda Kenny must examine his conscience. This was his big chance, in the presence of a president of the US descended from poor Irish Protestants, to praise the contribution of Northern Protestants and Dissenters to the democratic traditions of the United States, especially the fight for civil rights.
Instead of criticising this huge hole in Kenny's speech, the media gave us a a lot of guff about how the other Miriam O'Callaghan, Kenny's speechwriter, had allegedly plagiarised an Obama speech. John Waters has already blown this stupid charge out of the water, although it was hardly worth his bother.
The main criticism that can be made of Kenny's speech was that it suffered from the same problem as the reporting of the visit: a lack of historical hinterland, republican resonance, recognition of the role played by Protestants in Irish republicanism and the particular contribution of Ulster Protestants to the Union cause in the American Civil War.
How, I wondered, can you write a speech to be delivered in the presence of Michelle Obama, herself a descendant of slaves, and not mention the name of Lincoln's greatest general, a later president of the United States, the man whose Ulster Presbyterian beliefs made him the mortal enemy of slavery and who smashed the military forces of the southern slave states -- Ulysses S Grant?