An Ethnic Irish Catholic Reflects on Gaza

UPDATE (2024/03/18): I feel that my reflections, expressed in the essay below, were ratified by Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Varadkar when he took the opportunity yesterday during his St. Patrick's Day remarks delivered beside Pres. Biden in the White House to call for cease-fire in Gaza and say, "And when I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people, and the answer is simple: We see our history in their eyes, a story of displacement, of dispossession, a national identity questioned and denied, forced emigration, discrimination, and now hunger." (

The essay below was posted 2023/12/05 (completed 2023/11/21, but withheld for submission to publishers).

Irish-Catholic people and Jewish people have something important in common: No matter what we think about the model of God to which our ancestors cleaved, we are defined as peoples by religion. Because I think it might help, I’d like to tell you how I see the world and, specifically, the Gaza conflict.

I miss my Jewish former in-laws. Years ago, I liked the Facebook page of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I often read their posts. They hurt. It’s good to hurt sometimes. I’d love it if a line were added to the Nicene Creed, recited by Catholic people at mass, to prevent future genocide. Nations crumble, beliefs endure.

A decade ago, I made friends with a person from Chile while we smoked outside a castle in France. We were at a dinner celebrating the conclusion of a small scientific conference. Eventually, I learned from him about Bernardo O’Higgins, one of Chile’s founding fathers and a descendant of Irish people.

It may have been on that year’s flight home that I first read the word “estadounidense,” which is what the Royal Spanish Academy prescribes as the way to denote a person of the United States. I’d love it if we, the people of the United States, called ourselves “Usonians” instead of “Americans.” Why should a word I call myself come anywhere near erasing others, let alone a majority of people in the Americas?

A few years ago, I was in the back of an Uber, chatting with the driver. He mentioned that he was from a certain African nation. I told him that I wouldn’t abuse his ears by attempting to speak my pathetic version of French. He said that he didn’t like speaking French.

The several seconds it took me to realize why he felt that way remind me of the decades I spent without deducing that a word like estadounidense had to exist. “Right, colonialism,” I said, like some kind of Rhodes scholar. To save face and express genuine fellow-feeling, I shared an opinion I usually keep to myself: I am appalled at the love affair among Usonians for the British aristocracy.

It may be that the television program Downton Abbey decries the crime of imperialism, by which wealth was concentrated in Britain, making grand manses possible. I have no idea, and I’ll never know first-hand. I don’t watch that show because it would continually remind me of the blood of my ancestors mixed in the mortar holding the building together.

No, the closest I’ll get to Downton Abbey is watching Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen sitting on a couch, watching the show on their sit-com Vicious, talking about McKellen’s character’s bit part on the show, carrying a potato into the kitchens, and I swear to you before God that I just got the full impact of that joke for the first time while typing this sentence. There’s a reason I went into physics.

Potato. The Great Famine of Ireland, or Irish Potato Famine, makes that joke dark and hilarious, like being Irish-Catholic in the first place. Yes, Irish-Catholics are a conquered people who never returned the favor, like most peoples. On the other hand, a DNA test tells me that I’m one-quarter Scandinavian, making me a descendant of Vikings. My middle name is “Lyons,” indicating Norman ancestry. My last name is “Walsh,” which means “foreigner.” At one time, when the Irish sang “Óró, sé do bheatha abhaile,” they may have been talking about tossing my ancestors off the island, but the fact is that invasion increased genetic diversity within an insular people. I’m one of the results, and I’m okay with that and with hurting a little because it’s true. I’m Irish-Catholic at heart because I remember.

When I hear the “Our Father,” I hear an employment contract, or the basis of détente, between humans and God and, by extension, between the poor and the rich. Down here, we’re fine with you up there, as long as we get our daily bread. Forgive us, and we’ll forgive you, even for the famines and the way your children have the wind at their backs and the high road beneath their feet while ours stagger in mud.

The bread, though. Without that, all bets are off.

History is complex, but as a person trained in complex systems science, I can tell you that complexity arises from a small number of underlying principles acting many times over. Here are the two principles that I find explain, in sufficient detail for present purposes, war, oppression, racism, and theology, not to mention the ongoing destruction of life on Earth, which could soon extinguish our own species, along with a million others:

People believe whatever they need to believe to get what they want and keep what they have, and people want more than their land can give them.

In the Middle East, the belief that Israel should be destroyed is like the Lernaean Hydra. If its heads are cut off, new ones spring forth in the persons of new recruits to various groups that attack Israel. If children are killed in the course of the decapitations, more heads will appear than were present at the start. This should be obvious to anyone who is not out to conquer territory, which is usually a fool’s errand but is preposterous in the current conflict, conducted in the crowded Levant.

No, the way you kill an idea is by discrediting it, by showing mercy, by demonstrating justice and demanding, if it’s not too late, that the world step in to support what started out being a just cause.  

Cease fire. Sack Netanyahu. Stop pursuing a doomed course of action. Didn’t the United States demonstrate in Afghanistan that bombs don’t kill hydras? Take time, and come up with a plan that might actually work. Above all, reclaim the moral high ground, if the bombs haven’t replaced it with a field of craters.

Long-term survival requires that you always remember who you are.

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