BELCOO, NORTHERN IRELAND — On the short bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo stand two clues that the crossing links not only a pair of towns, but two countries. The road-sign speed limits for Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers per hour. In Belcoo, in Northern Ireland, miles are used. Over the last two decades — particularly since the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland — Belcoo, population 540, and Blacklion, population 194, have are effectively operated as one town. “There are no barriers, it’s how people want it,” said Eugene McCann, who runs a well-stocked grocery store and post office in Belcoo, his hometown.
CASTLEBAR — Sometime around AD 600, a handful of Irish monks decided that the rigors of fasting and penance on the mainland were not exacting enough. Waiting until the seas were calm enough, they are believed to have rowed to Skellig Michael, a small, pyramid-shaped island seven miles off Ireland’s southwest coast. There, the holy men built a monastery and found the raw seclusion they were after. A millennium and a half later, the site’s ruins are one of Ireland’s best-known heritage and tourist attractions, an antique allure made all the more vivid by the colonies of seabirds that flock to the island’s crags and crevices, and by the puffins and gulls sheltering in the monks’ long-abandoned stone structures. But since 2015, some of those visitors are as likely to be dressed as Chewbacca and waving lightsabers as they are to be conversant in the ways of early Christian eremites or the nesting habits of kittiwakes or gannets.
DUBLIN – Irish heritage conservationists fear that a rugged island off the country’s southwest coast could lose its prestigious Unesco listing because of a spike in visitor numbers, after scenes from Star Wars: The Last Jedi were shot there. An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, is seeking government intervention over Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastic settlement described as “Ireland’s Machu Picchu” by National Geographic, but which the trust believes has undergone a “commercial re-branding” after being “swamped” by the Star Wars connection. However, Emma Hynes, press officer for Ireland’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said Unesco was informed of each episode of filmmaking and “has raised no correspondence whatsoever on the matter” “The Unesco status of the island is not in question nor is it contingent on a certain visitor level,” she said.
DUBLIN — Ahead of the U.K. exit from the European Union in March 2019, several Asian financial institutions have already set up hubs in other cities within the bloc to ensure continued access to the continent. Ireland is among the countries hoping to benefit from Asian unease prompted by the Brexit vote, with Dublin regularly touted alongside Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Paris as possible destinations for banks trying to reposition due to Brexit. So far, Nomura International and Daiwa Securities have set up hubs in Frankfurt, base of the European Central Bank, to serve their European businesses while still keeping their London presence; Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group has chosen Amsterdam for its new European base; and Bank of China has opened a new subsidiary in Dublin.
DOONBEG — Every time President Trump rails against big “pharma” over the jobs that have been shipped overseas, his pledges to streamline regulations and lower taxes to lure them home prompt grimaces 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. More than 50,000 people are employed with pharmaceutical and medical device companies here in Ireland, with most of the companies refugees from America. Baxter, a medical equipment manufacturer based in Deerfield, Illinois, employs a thousand people in Ireland. Pfizer, Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson all have substantial Irish operations. Dublin’s Silicon Docks neighborhood earned its nickname after Facebook, Google, Twitter and other U.S. tech companies set up in glossy offices, often mammoth European headquarters, close to the River Liffey. They are among an estimated 700 U.S. companies which, attracted by Ireland’s low corporate tax rate and English-speaking work force, have helped drive a multinational invasion on the Emerald Isle that once turned it into the “Celtic Tiger” of Europe, employing around 170,000 people in all.
CASTLEBAR — Voters in Ireland delivered a stinging rebuke to governing parties in elections that reflected concerns that the country’s economic recovery was not being widely felt. In an echo of the sort of voter anger being heard in the United States this year, anti-establishment parties and independent candidates made significant gains, winning about 25% of the vote combined. Sinn Fein, the democratic socialist party that is linked to the Irish Republican Army, won 14% of the vote, making it the country’s third largest party. A center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny will not retain power after seeing its share of the vote fall from 56% in 2011 elections to around 32% in voting Friday, with several seats still to be counted Monday. With no party or alliance close to winning enough seats to form a government, it is unclear who will lead Ireland’s next government. Several government ministers lost their parliamentary seats in the vote, although the prime minister held on. Speaking to media after retaining his seat, Kenny said, “Democracy is exciting, but merciless when it kicks in.”
CASTLEBAR — It was a home crowd, a backslapping gathering in the town in western Ireland where Prime Minister Enda Kenny made his first foray into national politics four decades ago. But despite the warm campaign trail welcome, Kenny could not resist a dig at “whingers” in his hometown, who, despite Ireland’s economic growth — at more than 6% last year, the highest in Europe — nonetheless “find it very difficult to see any good anywhere any time.” Coming less than a week before Friday’s parliamentary elections, Kenny’s undiplomatic outburst astonished many in a country where, despite recent growth, many people are struggling seven years after a devastating economic collapse that put 300,000 people out of work — a parallel collapse to the U.S. subprime catastrophe — and which prompted devastating cuts to health and social spending. Voters in Castlebar had mixed reactions to the prime minister’s outburst. Declan Scully said he knew several former construction workers who have been out of work since the 2008 crash, when the “Celtic Tiger,” as Ireland’s roaring economy was known, went from being one of the most successful in Europe to a near basket case. As a result, he found Kenny’s comments “a bit disrespectful.”
KNOCK – The old parish church remains, while the newer, bigger church — which was named a basilica in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, during his short visit to Knock in late September of that year — has just reopened after a $10-million renovation. The original basilica building was partly intended to shelter the many pilgrims to Knock (sometimes numbering up to 1.6 million a year) from the west of Ireland’s swirling winds and bracing mists. Inside the old basilica, coat-clad pilgrims squeezed into benches that looked designed for primary-school children, as sermons and hymns echoed and faded inaudibly around the expanses of the five-chapel interior. That has all been remedied, however, as Father Patrick Burke, a priest at Knock, explained to the Register during this writer’s visit in April. “It had been talked about for a long time,” Father Burke said of the refurbishment, the physical part of which began after the final Mass of the 2014 pilgrimage season, which was held on Oct. 12 of last year.