If there is an ambiguous word for the Irish, it is paradoxically the appellations « Ireland » and « Irish », which depending on the circumstances refer to the country or to the island as a whole. With Ireland’s very special history, the proper name « Ireland » has an often-confusing reference even to the Irish themselves. An attentive ear and context will make it possible to decide whether we are talking about the island or the country. On the other hand, if it is Northern Ireland that the Irish are talking about, it will always be specified, Northern Ireland or NI.
You should know that the island of Ireland is divided into 4 regions and 32 counties. As for the 32 counties, the republic has 26 and Northern Ireland has 6 of them, and I was stunned when I asked my students how many counties Ireland had (I was making a comparison with Germany), to hear 32 as an automatic response, the whole island, before picking up and announcing 26-6. Oh yes I get, but it’s not the same, is it?
As for the four regions, Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster it is a historical division, which no longer has any administrative justification, but still very present in the conception that the Irish have of Ireland, and which remains abundantly used in popular language and crosswords. Moreover, with all due respect to the crosswords experts, Ulster is NOT synonymous with Northern Ireland, because 3 counties of the Irish republic belong to Ulster: Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. In addition, the northern tip of the Irish republic is further north than Northern Ireland itself. All this adds to the ambiguity that the use of the word Ireland may have for the Irish.
From a foreign perspective, it is difficult to understand why an island does not equal a country. It’s not that simple, alas. Touchy subject, for both the British and the Irish. Relatively speaking, Northern Ireland is the equivalent of the French overseas territories for the British. No head offices of large groups in Northern Ireland, they are all in the UK, strong British subsidies for the local economy, although Northern Ireland has expertise for shipbuilding, engineering and textiles mind you. There is a lot of agriculture, a fact that is always proudly marked on the packaging of the products. (In this case, the made in Ireland refers the whole island, always insularity, more on this subject another week). Moreover, the myth of the late Titanic that was built in a Belfast shipyard attracts a lot. It brings to life tourism along with the ourstanding coastline facing Scotland, which is worth a visit on its own. But from the top of the Giant Causeway, 4 centuries of divisions look at you!
By the 16th century, the whole of Ireland had already been under British ruling for centuries. As a result of the Anglican schism, Irish Catholics in Ireland, but also Scottish Calvinists in Scotland, the dissenters, suffered increasingly discrimination. In order to establish the political and religious domination of the crown of England, the process of anglicization (understand the annihilation of Celtic culture) and colonization was accelerated. Dispossessions took place throughout Ireland (and it is understandable why the Irish do still not like the English very much…), but it was in nearby Ulster that most of the land was confiscated, and many English and Scottish settlers (the famous dissenters) settled there, gradually recreating a British culture. « From a rebel, Ulster became a devoted auxiliary to the crown » (Pierre Joannon, History of Ireland and the Irish, 2006:87)
It is in the arrival of these many settlers, British and Protestant, that the origin of the separation of the two Irelands is to be understood. It was, relatively speaking, a bit like the numerous French colons of Algeria. Except that in Ulster the settlers did not leave but have been there for 4 centuries with political and economic control. I spare you the details, I just go right to the end of the War of Independence in 1921, when 6 counties, mostly Protestant, decided to remain in the United Kingdom.
Loyalists against unionists, Catholics against Protestants, discrimination and sectarianism, things got heated. Protests and counter-demonstrations in line with American civil rights movements but also in the aftermath of May 68 in France, until the beginning of the terrible Northern Ireland conflict in 1969. The Troubles, as the Irish nicely call it, ended with the Good Friday Agreements in 1998 (NB: the Easter weekend is a recurring component of Irish history). This conflict, both a conflict of religion is of civilization is still very present in the collective unconscious and the collective conscious. If you ever go to Belfast, you will see that the walls that separate the different districts of the city, are still there and are not the only witnesses of the past like the Berlin Wall, but still functional. In short, as much divided Germany has always been 2 states but only one nation, here we have rather one island and 2 nations. In the event of a referendum, it is not certain that the two Irelands would vote for reunification.
In order to maintain this peace, it is important for the Irish to feel welcome throughout the island of Ireland, which is why the border between the two Irelands has been a major hurdle in the Brexit negotiations. For the record, Brexit has led many Northern Irish people to apply for an Irish passport, a right they are constitutionally granted, that makes you feel Irish and British.
Thus, even if the three colours of the Irish flag are loaded with symbols: Green for the Republic, Orange for the victory of William III of Orange-Nassau in 1690, and White to symbolize peace between the two, when you see Belfast and (London)derry igniting in spring 2021, you realize that there is still a way to go. « The day will come, it is almost there when the Irish will make peace around the cross » as Michel Sardou sang decades ago, let’s hope he was right.