Above all else, to be Irish is to be Catholic: genuflecting, chest-pounding, church-going Catholic. The devout Catholicism of the Irish people is a phenomenon to move the stoutest skeptic, even even when he is full of Guinness and song in the Dublin night. Under cruel English occupation the Irish fought for their religion. They suffered grim privation because of it. And today, they observe it fervently in their polity and in their churches.

With the possible exception of the Poles and the Spanish, no other European people is more profoundly Catholic. When the pope sends his emissary to an Irish Catholic, it is almost unthinkable that the emissary would be rebuffed, especially when the gravamen of the prelate's request is that the Irish Catholic obey Catholic law. So much for Bobby Sand's love of church.

And what of his love of country and of democracy? He and his bullies were out to bring ruin not only to the government of Northern Ireland but also to the government of the Irish Republic. He was a revolutionary and a criminal. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was, of course, correct to resist his demands for special status in Maze Prison. He and his cohorts in the Irish Republican Army are responsible for hundreds of murders. Many of their victims have been defenseless citizens, some fellow Republicans, some Protestants. Others have been soldiers working to maintain peace in Ireland, and it ought to be borne in mind by Americans that peace in Ireland is the only condition upon which any sort of political solution can ever be built.

The Irish Protestants in the North outnumber the Irish Catholics by two to one. Though there is friction, both groups are mixed together in an Irish stew of enormous complexity. Any rearrangement of the political constitution of Northern Ireland will have to be based on trust and mutual acceptance. It is not merely a question of drawing different borders; nor is it a question of handling the North over to the Irish Republic. The prerequisite for a political settlement is peace, and it is not the British who disrupt the peace. Rather, it is revolutionaries like Sands and the pig-headed Protestants in the Rev. Paisley's camorra.

Ireland is a pleasant land with a troubled past. The Irish are an agreeable people, and even when that mysterious stormy humor comes across an Irishman's otherwise smiling eyes, he is a fascinating specimen. These anthropological observations come from one who has traversed the land many times, pausing from his exertions only for a scholarly probe into one of the island's fabled pub -- Kavanagh's "highest pub in Ireland" being a particular favorite. Not many of the Irish share the aspirations of the IRA. Only sentimental Americans, living in blissful isolation from IRA violence, would think otherwise.

As T. E. Utley has written in an admirably penetrating book that quite properly placed blame on all sides, the present troubles began in 1968. They "were in essence a protest by the Catholic population against its unendurable lot," Utley said in "Lessons of Ulster." "They were inspired by nothing more sinister than the demand for elementary justice and 'British standards.' They had erupted into violence partly because of the ferocity with which these demands have been met and partly because, as was always the case, agitators and revolutionaries had rushed in to exploit discontent."

Today the problem in Northern Ireland is that a violent terrorist group has created a crisis, now aided and abetted by other ultra-nationalists. From this crisis they hope to win the political power that has eluded them through democratic activity. Americans who compare Ireland today with America in the 1770s are simply ill-lettered in both areas. They are given over to an indulgence that afflicts more and more of us -- namely, the tendency to see life in terms of grand abstractions and neat slogans rather than in terms of the way it is actually being lived.

Life in Ireland is Catholic. When the pope's emissary, Msgr. John Magee, visited Bobby Sands and his fellow IRA terrorists, he reitereated the obvious -- the church disapproves of suicide. Had Bobby Sands been an Irish patriot rather than a terrorist and friend of the PLO, he would have followed the moral strictures of his church.