Return of hard border would put an end to dream of united Ireland

My grand-uncle drilled with the UVF in Donegal in 1912, writes Victoria White.

Return of hard border would put an end to dream of united Ireland

Or it could have been his father because they were both called Samuel Woods but his father would probably have been too old. It was a family affair in any case, because Samuel is recorded drilling with Thomas Kee, a relation by marriage.

I discovered this by accident while doing a bit of idle research into my family’s roots. I found it shocking. I hate to think of any relation of mine drilling with a paramilitary group. It doesn’t fit with what I know about that educated and generous family.

And it sure as hell doesn’t fit with me. I was brought up as a constitutional nationalist. My parents’ hero was John Hume and my father’s favourite historical figure was Wolfe Tone.

How does this all add up? How does Samuel Woods become me? Easily, if you think about it with the imaginative empathy which has been lacking in the conduct of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, UK prime minister Theresa May, and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in the past week.

Samuel Woods felt threatened by the Home Rule Bill of 1912 and I would have felt the same in his place. Ever since his tiny Presbyterian community had settled in Ballybofey/Stranorlar

sometime around 1610 they had felt threatened by the “natives”.

The Mayflower sailed in 1620. The English and Scottish Dissenters who were “helped” out of their homes by a British administration had much the same sense of being settlers in alien territory.

I have always been fascinated by this migration, ever since an aunt told me her ancestors brought their gravestones with them because they knew they weren’t going back.

When the Woods family arrived in Ballybofey/Stranorlar they had no church, though theirs was the second Presbyterian community established in Ireland, in 1649.

There are records of the community requesting a Presbyterian minister as early as 1675 because “they have of late become more willing to receive the Gospel than before…”

Today their website ascribes the reason they didn’t get a minister until 1709 to their “wretched poverty” as well as the scarcity of ministers and ongoing repression by the Church of Ireland.

The informal “Meetin’ hoose” was replaced with a church in 1800 and the current church, still on Meetinghouse St in the village of Stranorlar, was built in 1906, just in time to house the community as they endured the horrors of the first world war.

My granny’s family is all buried there and the graveyard is full of the names of families into which her family married and with whom they traded and went to school.

This was an incredibly cohesive community despite large-scale emigration to the US. In fact, that very cohesion must have sent many adventurous and original souls packing.

Such an emigrant was Samuel Woods’s uncle Matthew Woods, who was sent a copy of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a 14-year-old schoolboy and promptly ran away to fight in the American Civil War with seven other boys from Ballybofey.

It is through him I have gained an insight into the psychology behind Samuel Woods and his UVF drilling.

I found through an antiquarian bookshop in the US a two-volume travelogue which Matthew Woods wrote when he returned as a middle-aged, successful doctor to the village of Stranorlar in the 1880s.

It is a fascinating, but terrifying, memoir. This man who ostensibly ran away from home to fight to free black slaves is shocked by the poverty he sees in Ireland.

But 30 years after the Great Famine he ascribes this poverty simply to the poor moral fibre of the natives.

Travelling around his home village with his brother Samuel, he describes “the contracted cabins of more contracted people” and adds: “Now and then we encounter groups of two or three barefooted women sitting on the naked rocks, or squatting on the roadside, knitting and exposing their lank, measly shins to the knee.

"You come upon them so unexpectedly, too, that you are startled, as their scant clothing is the colour of the rocks and the ground and they are as motionless as lizards, except their hands, and as quiet as mutes or else, with faces entirely void of expression, as irresponsive as stones.

"They keen, weird, melancholy strains that pierce you to the soul, like the wail of lost spirits mournfully crying from the dust for vengeance.”

My forebear wrote that and not so distant a forebear either — my Granny knew Uncle Matt in his old age.

In his discussion of Home Rule he says, “What is the use of Home Rule without homes?” and adds that if he were an Irish patriot he would start by teaching the people to use soap.

This throws a certain light on my Granny’s description of the reason for The Troubles: “jealousy.”

Donald Tusk and Leo Varadkar discuss the future of the Irish border earlier this month.
Donald Tusk and Leo Varadkar discuss the future of the Irish border earlier this month.

Imagine what it was like for this community to find itself suddenly cordoned off in the Irish Free State in 1921, despite the advice of the Boundary Commission that Stranorlar should be in the North.

My grandparents, teachers, were faced with an incomprehensible — and inferior — National Curriculum.

They would have been asked to provide for the teaching of a language which they regarded as a peasant patois spoken by the poor people who lived in frightening numbers beyond the mountains.

Partition was a bomb which exploded under the family and they begin to scatter, some north and some south. Bitterness and bigotry remain.

I have seen and heard absolutely no emotional empathy with this history from British or Irish politicians in the past week.

If it is really true that Arlene Foster’s DUP did not see the text of the proposed agreement between Britain and the EU that there would be “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the EU in the event of a hard Brexit, that was not only a diplomatic failure, it was wrong.

It is true, as our columnist Gerard Howlin wrote yesterday, that the DUP “has the mentality of a frontier people” and that is not suprising.

We are simplifying their history if we add, as he did, that they regard anything emanating from continental Europe as “a cess pit”: my uncle Matthew Woods laments the “scattering” of his mother’s Huguenot ancestors from their native France by religious repression.

His descendant, this writer, dreams of a united Ireland which gives full expression to Samuel Woods’s history and culture.

But if chance had thrown me into a Presbyterian home north of the border I would be a Unionist.

I might not be out drilling with paramilitaries. But I would be hurt by the vision of the prime minister of the UK clashing glasses with the EU over a deal which could make Ireland a customs union and create a border between Ireland and the rest of the UK.

I would be threatened by a Taoiseach celebrating the deal and a Tánaiste who says he may see a united Ireland in his lifetime. Hurt and threatened enough to care little for the economic consequences of pulling the whole deal apart.

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