In preparation for this, the final edition of The Green Dragon, I’ve looked back over the previous nine issues.
My first encounter with the magazine was on February 8, 1997 at the Day School at the University College of Wales Caerleon campus to commemorate the emigration to Wales of those escaping the ravages of the famine in Ireland. The Editor, Barry Tobin, sold me a copy of the first edition, December 1996, saying that he would welcome contributions for future issues.
During the course of the years since it first appeared its subtitle, ‘A Magazine of the Irish in Wales’, has lived up to its originators’ intention of not only fostering the campaign to raise funds for a permanent memorial to those who died during the famine and those who emigrated to Wales but also to show how the latter fared and fitted into Welsh communities and those who made their mark in this and in other parts of the UK.
Certainly, anyone embarking on a quest for knowledge of that era and the subsequent years of integration would, by reading the ten issues of this publication, acquire more than a solid basis and understanding of how the politics of both countries were symbiotically interwoven.
The problem with history is that there is such a lot of it, and as each generation arrives the quantity is piled higher and higher, presenting them with the difficult task of prioritising the most important from which to draw lessons as a guide with which to grapple with the questions of their own time.
On accepting what was in effect a challenge from Barry to write something for The Green Dragon I drew upon my own experiences of growing up in Belfast in a Northern Ireland, a compromise in the 1920s to settle the then ‘Troubles’ which also set up the boundaries of the ‘Irish Free state’, covering 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland, the latter only became a republic in 1949.
As far as the period of ‘The Famine’ is concerned I have no family anecdotes to relate. My maternal grandfather was born in 1846 and my maternal grandmother in 1838. I have no knowledge of when my paternal grandparents were born but I suppose they were born around the same time.
I only met one of my grandparents, my mother’s father, who, I recall, died when I was about 11 years old. He died in the Union Hospital, Belfast, which was linked back to the old workhouse system, used during the famine years. He visited us from there sometimes, but I didn’t get to know him very well.
I do remember that on occasions he brought with him some of the served to him there. It was a miniature of the standard batch loaf of the day with a domed crust at the top and a flat one at the bottom, roughly about two or three inches square.
I went to school aged three and three quarter years. It was formerly classed as ‘National’ but this was blanked out on the notice board after Partition and simply designated as Ravenscroft Public Elementary School. It was however only 90% maintained so each family had to pay fees for each member who attended to cover the cost of heating and lighting, School text books, pencils and paper, copybooks etc. also had to be paid for, unless parents were unemployed.
The back door of the school was in the street where we lived (Ulsterdale) until we moved to the Strandtown area in 1930. I was a pupil there from January 1923 until June 1933, aged fourteen years two months.
The famine was only briefly touched on in the curriculum. Irish history stopped with Brian Boru, the rest consisted of the Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Cromwell, William the Third and Mary, the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ etc., the basis of the Loyal Orange Lodge which has been a dominant factor in Unionism.
It was only after leaving school and being involved with the National Council of Labour College Movement that I obtained a wider perspective on Irish history.
Thus I began to understand the politics of the UK, Northern Ireland, and to some extent the southern Irish state as it underwent development. We don’t always realise, as we become involved in decision making or policy formation on a day-to-day basis, that we ourselves are making history as we try to shape events, but I became increasingly aware of this.
As The Green Dragon progressed from its inception in 1996 events in Northern Ireland’s peace process, which certainly were of historical significance, began to take shape. The IRA ceasefire had been in place since 1994 and although denied by John Major, the British Tory Prime Minister, contact between his government and Republican paramilitaries was routinely taking place.
Prior to this, in the early nineties, I had been involved with ‘Initiative 92’ which laid the ground for the independent Opsahl Commission dealing with and examining various views and options which might contribute to a settlement. I too made my own comments and proposals which are briefly summarised on page 227 of the Commission’s report, published on 9 June, 1993.
I donated a copy of the report, ‘Northern Ireland - a Citizens’ Inquiry’ to the Cwmbran branch of Torfaen Public Library from which it can be borrowed in the usual way. All the submissions (including mine) and records of public meetings held under ‘Initiative 92’ are in the Linen Hall Library Archives, Belfast.
Over many years I have written comments and suggestions to British Labour Party spokespersons on Northern Ireland and Dick Spring in the Irish Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Paul Murphy, Kevin McNamara, and Tony Benn, usually receiving replies or acknowledgements, but strangely none from Tony Benn who prides himself on replying to all correspondence.
So, following the General Election in 1997 when the Labour Government was elected, I found The Green Dragon a most valuable medium through which I could outline my views on how a just settlement might be achieved and to discuss my assessment and interpretation of the Good Friday (1998) Agreement and events thereafter.
As the stop go, interspersed with crisis from time to time, slow, quick quick slow dance towards an end to the long war and perhaps towards long peace staggered on I expressed my thoughts, optimistic and pessimistic, in articles in the magazine.
In the long pause between issue No 9 and this the final publication, I was and still am very grateful to be afforded the opportunity of continuing my appraisal of Northern Ireland politics through the good offices of Barry who has set up The Green Dragon website. Not only has he facilitated my comments (at : http://www.geocities.com/Athens/ Forum/1719/shboyd.html), but I understand that he has put all the nine editions of The Green Dragon on the web also.
Therefore, not only do we have a memorial stone to commemorate ‘The Famine’, printed copies of The Green Dragon in many important libraries across the world with Irish connections but a record, using up-to-date technology available to anyone who logs on to the internet.
History not only recorded but made and I wish to express my sincere thanks, as we sign off in the last printed issue to those who started the project and in particular the Editor, Barry Tobin, and his associates who produced a high quality, excellently presented magazine which gave me personally an opportunity of a lifetime to mix current history with eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries of Ireland and Wales.
To all those who made this bit of history, best wishes for Christmas and the New year, a numerical palindrome and the fire of The Green Dragon will remain – even Harry potter’s magic tricks won’t extinguish it.