In Search of the Northern Refugees

PICTURE this. It is 3am on the 12th of July, 1972. 43 years ago. The gardens of the Benedictine Monastery of Glenstal Abbey in rural Limerick are quiet.

A bus carrying Belfast women and children arrives at the monastery, fleeing the conflict taking place on the streets where they live. They have few clothes or other possessions with them. So on they drive, through the dark, with nothing, to Glenstal Abbey, as their homes burn behind them and riots erupt on the streets their children played along. When they arrive, the locals will call them the Northern Refugees.

Imagine this. The monks get a phone call in the mid-afternoon of the 11th. The bus is in motion. They have less than a day to prepare the empty dormitories of the boy’s boarding school housed within the Abbey, order food, and figure out what to do with that many people for what might be up to a month. The monks have no idea what awaits them.

Remember this. The burnings of the North and the battle of the Bogside in 1968 and 1969 had taught a generation of Catholics and Protestants to leave their homes as tensions ran high between Catholic nationalists, Protestant loyalists and the RUC in the run up to the celebrations of the 12th.

The annual marches on the 12th of July by the loyalist Orange Order, celebrate 1688’s Glorious Revolution and the victory by William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. The celebrations had become touch points in a cycle of violence which would come to be known – much later – as the Troubles, an anodyne name for a turbulent and volatile period in sectarian relations.

Like many great movements of history, the Troubles began with civil disobedience in the late 1960s, and would end after protracted negotiations with the Good Friday Agreement. In the meantime ordinary people have to try and cope as best they could.

Escape was the most logical option. Escaping to a monastery in rural Limerick, not so much.

Think of this. The monks of Glenstal are, to put it mildly, not equipped to cope with the long term residence of several hundred women and children, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old at the time. Some of the children are sick.

A local nurse takes one child to her own home to give her mother a break and bring her back to health. The monks rise to the challenge of accommodating and entertaining them.

The Civil Defence unit in Doon drafted in help from the surrounding towns and packages of food, toys, clothes, even prams begin to rain down on the monastery from towns and districts including Murroe, Boher, Doon, Newport, Cappamore, Killaloe, Limerick, and Castleconnell.

The parents and children are stunned by the local generosity, later writing letters of thanks to the monks now recorded in the Annals of Glenstal.

Consider this. On the 8th of August 1972, the last of the refugees returned to their homes, some of which had been burnt during their time away. Perhaps the stay at Glenstal saved some of their lives. According to Bew and Gillespie’s Chronology of the Troubles 1968—1993, 1972 was the bloodiest year in the conflict.

In one day, July 21, 1972, as the children of the Northern Refugees played in the fields around Glenstal Abbey, within the space of 75 minutes, 22 bombs exploded in Belfast. The bombs of 21 July were planted by the Provisional IRA. The Shankill Butchers are believed to have killed their first victim, a Catholic, that same day. Ten days later the British army began one their biggest operations of the Troubles, Operation Motorman, when they cleared ‘no-go’ areas in Belfast and Derry. The period during, and either side, of the refugees stay in Limerick is a microcosm of the whole conflict.

It has been 43 years since the Northern Refugees went home. They have grown up through the period we now call the Troubles, and are most likely in their fifties and sixties now.

I’d like to tell their story for an RTE documentary I’m making. I want to understand what happened when they arrived here in Limerick a little better, and I want to hear their stories.

If you remember those times, or happen to know these people, please drop me an email at
Published on:

Terrorism comes with more than one cost

Let’s call terrorism what it really is: political violence. Terrorism as a concept only became widespread in the 1960s – after the advent of mass media. Before then, acts of politically inspired violence were routinely described as bombings, assassinations, hijackings and so forth. It is impossible to find a recognised definition of what terrorism is. In the US, international terrorism is “any act intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”. The US has a separate definition of domestic terrorism. In Saudi Arabia, terrorism is defined as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Continue reading

Brexit Stage Left

If Britain does vote to leave the European Union, the biggest losers will be the 4.68 million Paddies living a few hundred miles due west of them.

The risks are enormous. The ESRI’s recent report is probably the best work done so far on just how hard of a whack we’ll get if the denizens of perfidious Albion give the EU – an organisation so bureaucratic it once standardised how bendy a banana can be – the flick.

The ESRI’s report is largely speculative. It begins with the impact of a full Brexit on trade, on foreign direct investment, on energy, and on migration.

The report analyses the strength of the economic links between the two countries and asks what might happen to these links should Britain leave the common trade area. Ultimately, we’ll lose on all fronts. The depth of our intertwining with Britain’s economy is profound – far more than I had realised before reading the report.

Continue reading

A tale of two prodigals

We all know the story of the prodigal son. The young chap hits the road after cashing out his share of the family farm, lives it up, blows it all, crawls out of a wheelie bin in his underpants and then comes back to his family, chastened and fully expecting to be treated as one of his father’s many servants. Instead, his father throws him a party.

Continue reading

I'm afraid of sandcastles

I keep worrying about our fiscal sandcastles. Since the 1950s we have built these sandcastles, until something comes along, usually an external shock like the oil crisis of the 1970s or the global financial crisis of the 2000s, and kicks it over. Rather than asking ourselves why we spent so much time making sandcastles in the first place, we get stuck in immediately, clean up the mess, rapidly forget about the stupid thing falling over, and get right back to building our castles again, sometimes even using the same sand.

In Ireland, we have a curious tendency to treat short-term (and potentially transitory) increases in taxation revenue as if they will be there long-term, and usually at levels we can rely on to fund the expenditure of the social system. While we’re not alone in this behaviour, we certainly are an extreme, perhaps even cautionary, example.

Continue reading

Top Tips For TTIP

Tip 1

We’ve heard almost nothing about it, but the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is important for Ireland

Ireland needs trade the same way French cooking needs butter. By value and volume, we export about the same amount as we produce in the rest of the economy. Given the need we have for trade to keep the lights on throughout our small island, it is pretty surprising how little public debate we’ve had during the negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Continue reading

An election special or a missed opportunity?

Let’s draw up a list of the groups most likely to vote en masse in the next election. Homeowners, private sector workers, public sector workers, older people, families, farmers, employers, and our vitally, vitally important start-up people.

Now let’s look at Budget 2016. The deferral of any local property tax re-valuation until 2019. Homeowners? Check. Money for more teachers, nurses, and gardaí; more money for existing public sector workers. Public sector? Check. Money for workers, especially those earning up to €70,000 via tax cuts and an increase in the national minimum wage to €9.15 per hour. Workers? Check.

Continue reading

The pageant of impossible promises

Budget day. It’s like Christmas, but designed by drunken, bitter economists. The ministers will come into the Dáil with their bags of sweeties and, depending on whether the little interest groups have been naughty or nice, the bags will open. And out will pour the sweets. Not as many as the little interest groups would like, but hey, let’s not spoil them. The little interest groups will have to behave, of course, and promise to behave for a good while afterwards. In particular the little interest groups have to promise to show their love for the sweetie-doling ministers in the election, a kind of beauty pageant for impossible-to-fulfil promises.

This election will be coming up not so long after the budget, so the little interest groups will have to be on their extra-best, super-best behaviour. They have all asked for much, and they will all be given little. But that will have to be enough.

Continue reading

Throwing away all the hard work

Good news is hitting the government like a man in a safari suit getting slapped in the face with a massive halibut. It’s not that big of a deal unless the hapless safari-suited chap is standing at the edge of large body of water into which he can fall.

Well, this government can fall.

So much more tax is coming into the state’s coffers that, for 2015, the gap between government spending and income from different taxes is €2.1 billion compared to around €6.1 billion in 2014. That’s quite the halibut. Our exchequer is run like a GAA club’s accounts, so we tend to just look at money in minus money out as a good measure. It is roughly in balance. We took in €41 billion, and spent €41.1 billion.

Continue reading

Everyone should pay their fair share

Nobody likes paying taxes. We hate income taxes such as the USC. We loathe consumption taxes like Vat. We truly hate even the idea of a wealth tax.

Everyone feels like someone else should be taxed to pay for the services we are all provided by the state. If you are blessed with a high income and lots of property or financial assets like bonds and shares, you’ll point out, correctly, that people like you - the top 5 per cent - already pay well over 50 per cent of all taxes. You’ll point out, again correctly, that after the next budget, far more than half a million workers will pay almost no income taxes, and surely will receive more in benefits from the state than they contribute in taxes.

Continue reading


In Janet We Trust?

World economic growth is slowing. The 3.3 per cent world growth projected by the IMF for 2015 is now only a fairy story. It will be closer to 1.5 to 2 per cent when the data comes in during the middle of 2016. Slowing growth has huge consequences for the world. Where is it coming from, and what can anyone do about it?

The eurozone’s economy is faltering, with its core inflation level below 1 per cent, despite quantitative easing and a host of other unconventional monetary stimulus programmes, including a promise by Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, to keep interest rates as low as possible for as long as necessary.

Continue reading

That old chestnut: it’s the economy, stupid

We like to feel that we’re special, that in Ireland things run differently because we aren’t like other countries. We’re a little better at some things. Our welcomes are more welcomey. Our smiles are broader. Our grass is greener. Even our booms are boomier and our busts are, ahem, bustier. The ould sod is a special place.

But it just ain’t so. We are not unique or special, and when it comes to voting patterns, Irish people confirm the old adage that it’s the economy, stupid. The economy is on the up, and voters are responding to this increased economic growth by appearing to prefer the incumbent government who will naturally enough claim they created the conditions for that growth.

Continue reading

Bet on it -the house will always win

Markets are forward-looking. There are three sides to the ‘markets’ story. There are savers, investors and middlemen, who make their money by connecting savers to investors. Over the last 30 years, the middlemen have exploded in size and ambition.

Writing in the 1990s, economists could credibly buttonhole ‘financial intermediaries’ into simple categories: banks, pension funds, insurance companies and ‘other’, where ‘other’ included hedge funds, venture capitalists and a few other specialised money management services.

Today, any categorisation of the ‘other’ column quickly runs into ‘angels on the head of a pin’ territory. Everything from derivative traders to vulture funds to exotic investments like sovereign debt of defunct countries to shadow banks to algorithmic traders to guys sitting in the basement of their mother’s house in their underpants staring at a screen ‘prop’ trading. It’s all there and it is huge.

Continue reading