Irish Islam - A Brand New Shade of Green

An article on the BBC website on 9 March proved me to have been right in some precocious predictions, but it is not false modesty to say that I would much rather have been proved wrong.

Seven militant Muslims, originally 'asylum-seekers' from Yemen and Morocco (the Irish Times says differently) but now living legally in Ireland have been arrested on suspicion of plotting to murder a Swedish cartoonist called Lars Vilks, who in 2007 depicted Mohammed (I'll skip the now almost-obligatory "Prophet" prefix) with the body of a dog. According to the Gardaí, several of the suspects were in contact with Colleen Renee LaRose, America's "Jihad Jane". Five of these excitable, unintelligent types were arrested in Waterford and two in Cork, two places I once knew well.

Today known chiefly for glass-making, Waterford was founded in 914 by Vikings who came "in immense floods and countless sea-vomitings of ships and boats and fleets". They built walls and intermarried with the locals, adopting the exotic new faith from the east. The town was captured in 1170 by the Vikings' near-cousins, the Normans, under the command of Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke - who promptly married Eva McMurrough in Reginald's Tower (which still survives) whose father had promised her as a gift if he captured the town. In 1173, Henry II came on a state visit. In 1487, Waterford was the only Irish town to remain loyal to Henry VII, withstanding a six-week siege by the Yorkists, and in 1495 was besieged for 12 days by Perkin Warbeck's troops. For this double demonstration of fidelity, Henry awarded Waterford the motto of Urbs intacta manet. Later, the town lived up to this pugnacious reputation by resisting Cromwell for a whole year, ending his hitherto unbroken run of victories. It is a city of long quays (in the 18th century sometimes regarded as the best in Europe) along the River Suir, medieval remnants, lovely Georgian houses and a handsome Church of Ireland cathedral containing monuments going back to the Wars of the Roses, most famously that of James Rice, six times mayor, sculpted with worms writhing in his ribs and a frog gnawing his intestines. Waterford carries the whole history of Ireland in quiet microcosm, and it is this quality, and the now appallingly inappropriate civic motto, which makes this story so depressing.

The history of Cork is even more intrinsically Irish. Further from English eyes and troops, Cork has historically looked towards Spain and France (and the New World), and has often supported revolts, such as the Fitzgerald uprising of 1579, which one Edmund Spenser helped to suppress savagely when he wasn't too busy writing The Faerie Queene. The following century, Cork backed James against the surging Williamites. In the 18th century, the county gave rise to militants resisting enclosure, rack-rents and forced labour, with gangs like the Munster Whiteboys exacting night-time revenge against oppressive landlords. The city's mayor was assassinated in 1920 by Black-and-Tan irregulars, and his successor was imprisoned in Brixton prison, where he starved himself to death after 75 days.

It is a curiously continental-feeling city of wide streets intersected by water ("The spreading Lee, that like an island fayre, Encloseth Corke with his divided flood" wrote Spenser), thriving shops and markets, not beautiful but studded with interesting buildings, most notably St Anne's, Shandon, whose bells are as symbolically important to Cork as those of St Mary-le-Bow are to London. Its people speak with what sounds rather like a Welsh accent, and work in a wide range of industries, from farming to film festivals.

I lived in County Cork for four years and in the city proper for about six months, in the area evocatively called Bishopstown. From the front window of my flat in a high-up, formerly-grand Victorian villa, I had a wonderful prospect - houses sloping down to the heat-hazed train station, the huge ad for Barry's Tea (showing a grinning cartoon man wearing a turban, then the only turban you would be likely to see in the whole country), glints of Lee and cars passing endlessly over bridges, the vale rising up to the red-white pepper-pot of St Anne's and a jumble of roofs and the spire of St Finbar's Cathedral (Church of Ireland). The best place to drink was The Long Valley, a long, narrow premises whose staff wore white overalls as if in a Bierkeller, where a slight, mustachioed, elderly, taciturn man named Humphrey presided over a regime of opera on the radio, broadsheet newspapers fixed to brass-hooked walnut poles, good coffee and Murphy's stout, and what must have been the thickest sandwiches in Munster.

Beyond sight was a rich sleepy country, rolling lazily down to the sea at Crossharbour - where I helped to wean calves, letting them suck my milk-soaked arm and then lowering their absorbed, fragrant heads into the bucket until eventually they were drinking by themselves, and spent a memorable August afternoon peering into cracked open table-tombs in the abandoned Protestant graveyard, to goggle at the skulls and disjecta membra of the ascended Ascendancy.

And then there was the Harbour, one of the best natural havens in the world - studded with shipping, and handsome steep towns like Cobh (where ocean liners used to call en route to America, and there are monuments to maritime disasters, including the Lusitania, in the grassed-over graveyard at the top of the hill) and nodding little Passage West, where I lodged in a damp and ugly house with an impressive address (No. 1, Main Street - it always made me think of the Duke of Wellington's "No. 1, London") that sloped down to Waterford Crystal-clear waters of blue-tinged mullet and following seals, beside which I would often bicycle in the early morning, with the main road to myself for miles.

Wonderful places, filled with personal significance - and incredibly Irish, almost too much so (as an Anglican, I was always a semi-detached Irishman). It was extraordinarily unusual to see non-whites; I remember walking down a street in Cork, and watching a little boy walking hand-in-hand with his mother staring in open-mouthed wonderment at a black man across the road. The man noticed, and gave the boy a wink and a wide grin. There was one black chap I knew in all of Cork, a pleasant half-caste who introduced himself to me cheerfully with "Hi, I'm Tom the Nigger".

Even in the late 1980s, this effective ethnostate was too obviously anomalous. I had often been to England - mostly London, but also Chester and Leicester - and I realized that those places had once been as English as Dublin was Irish. It was so obvious that what had happened there could happen anywhere - and England and Ireland are linked not just historically, geographically, but also culturally, temperamentally and genetically. They had the same kind of intellectuals, the same kind of politicians, the same kind of economy, the same psychological pressures. It was blindingly obvious that sooner or later the Third World would get to hear about Ireland, and that a substantial minority of its peoples would want to come here.

I talked about all this passionately and at length to everyone I knew then - probably too much, often inarticulately. I must have been an obnoxious bore, going on about Enoch Powell, the siege of Constantinople, the Camp of the Saints, why Sinn Féin were fake patriots, declining to go to Chinese restaurants and so forth. My auditors would sometimes get angry, using variations of the same 'arguments'. It'll make life more interesting - it'll never happen here - they would never want to come - we'd never allow it anyway - we owe it to them because of racism - we went out to their countries, and now it's their turn to come to ours. Occasionally, there would be a nasty sort of sub-Marxist triumphalism, about how colonialism meant that the Irish had more in common with the Third World than the First, and 'the fecking Brits had it coming'. Sometimes, I could wear people down by sheer repetition - or occasionally listeners would agree immediately, but then say ah well what can you do about it? Wishful thinking combined with apathy to sedate the Irish patient, and a people once acutely conscious of who they were, and why they were special, snoozed or spent as their country caught up with the rest of western Europe.

There came the Good Friday Agreement, closer EU integration, and the so-called "Celtic Tiger" economy (really a fat tabby, puffed up by EU largesse). Along with peace and credit-card 'prosperity' there came Ireland's own neo-liberal end of history, and thousands of exotic "new Irish" to sample all these delights. Most of these were perfectly innocuous (and Ireland is still much less altered by immigration than Britain) but as elsewhere the Muslim minority presents particular problems.

In 1991, there were fewer than 4,000 Muslims in Ireland, but the following year voters in Clare elected a Muslim TD (Teachta Dála, equivalent of Member of Parliament - so far, he is the only one). This event "seemed like a beacon marking Ireland's entry to a world of cultural diversity" according to an Irish Independent article from December 2006, amusingly entitled "The Muslim-Irish prove to be a surprisingly moderate bunch". By 2002, there were almost 20,000 Muslims. In 2003, the Koran was translated into Irish for the first time, using government money. As of the 2006 census, there were 32,539 Muslims in Ireland, a 69% increase in just four years (all figures from Wikipedia).

Even the Irish Independent's 2006 piece of festive froth contained some cautionary notes:

the idea of cultural diversity is more real, complex and challenging than many might have thought...more than one-third [of Irish-based Muslims] think that Irish morals are poor and do not support freedom of speech that offends religious beliefs...Among younger people, one-third would like to see Sharia imposed in believe that violence is sometimes justified to achieve political ends...World events have shown the dangers of promoting a 'happy ever after' policy of cultural integration.

I have been wrong about many things in my life (and no doubt am still), but unluckily I was right on this. And now Ireland, having apparently outgrown the internecine horrors of the very recent past, has unnecessarily imported brand new pathologies to plague the future of these islands. As even the Irish Independent could see in 2006, and hopefully many more will see in the wake of this latest news, when it comes to Islam in Ireland "there may be some delicate sticking points ahead".