Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sweet and Low


Sweet and low, sweet and low,

Wind of the western sea,

Low, low, breathe and blow,

Wind of the western sea!

Over the rolling waters go,

Come from the dying moon and blow,

Blow him again to me;

While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,

Father will come to thee soon,

Rest, rest, on mother's breast,

Father will come to thee soon;

Father will come to his babe in the nest,

Silver sails all out of the west

Under the silver moon;

Sleep my little one, sleep my pretty one, sleep.



Barnes Readers, Illustrations by Mabel D. Hill, copyright 1916 and thus now in the public domain. The works of Lord Tennyson are in the public domain.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

An overview of the famine, and Irish in America

I'm starting to realize what an overwhelming project this is, trying to blog about such a large event in history. I'm not one to just gloss over important details because I feel the actual story lies in those details. I'm sure not enough of you are interested to follow what would need to be ten posts probably - I haven't really even started properly, really - so I think I will just summarize as best I can and hope those of you who are indeed interested will follow up and do some research on your own.

I wanted to go into more detail about the land system in Ireland, touch on Plantation Ireland set up by those British who followed Henry VIII's Church of England; touch on how some of those things were the seeds of the division in Ireland we see today.

I wanted to talk about the important people and the politicians that were in power during the famine. The relief efforts. The work houses. The road projects where three-quarters of a million people were put on public works. I wanted to tell how the people didn't know about the strange foods being given to them through the government's programs to relieve their hunger; how, as my friend mentioned in an earlier comment, the Indian corn purchased from America was totally strange to these people and they didn't even have the proper mills to mill the hard kernals fine enough to make porridge of it, so, finally, a lot of it was brought over from America already milled. They still didn't know how to cook it or what to make with it.

I wanted to talk about the gradual weakening and the dying of the children; how people were found next to roads and in the fields and on their farms, just lying there. The death carts, reminiscent of the Black Plague or of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. But I probably couldn't describe that adequately anyway.

And I wanted to try and explain the fearful emigration to unknown lands, that vast diaspora of the Irish people. I wanted to convey how fearful they were as they left Ireland forever, how terrible were the ships and the voyage, almost like slave ships, packed with people not used to the sea, fearful, still not fed, dying still from hunger and disease on those ships. How they must have wanted to return to their homeland even to face starvation there instead of those terrible ships!

I wanted to try and describe how they were received like animals, placed in quarantine, taken advantage of, made fun of, made to live in dungeon-like tenements in filthy New York City in double basement tenements that were below the water and sewer level.

I wanted to try and tell of their humiliation and how they were ridiculed and discriminated against in their new land of opportunity.
But I also wanted to try and tell the story of human survival, and how America was made so much better because of the arrival of the Irish (as well as many sons and daughters of Scotland - Scots like Andrew Carnegie who would build his enormous steel empire in Pittsburgh. Incidentally, Pittsburgh doesn't rhyme with Edinburgh.)

These things are not for a small blog, but for several books. I hope you will investigate some of these things on your own. I think few of you realize, even Americans, the incredible impact these people, these survivors, had on America. The Irish cleaned our toilets and built our railroads. They tended our children and became maids and worked in our mines. They fought our wars, some taken right off the ships into the army.

The story of the Irish in America is truly the real story of America herself. A story of survival. A story of renewal. A story, eventually, of redemption.

Finally, in January of 1961, a descendent of those exiles walked into the Oval Office of the White house and became our president.

In the U.S. today, 11.9% of the population (36,278,332) self-identifies itself as being of Irish descent. I don't know how many of them have been back to Ireland to visit the land of their ancestors, and I know most non-Americans reading this don't consider them Irish at all, and put them in the same category, or even further removed, as today's Irish who have voluntarily left Ireland to live in Great Britain or Europe due to hardship and living conditions in modern Ireland. But, in America, these people are Irish still. You see, they didn't leave Ireland because they didn't like Ireland, or because they wanted to live somewhere else and morn for Ireland like today's transplants in England. These left Ireland because to stay in Ireland was to die.

John F. Kennedy; Maureen Ohara; George M. Cohen

James Braddock; Michael McGivney; Ronald Reagan

Victor Herbert; Eugene O'Neil; Ed Sullivan

Grace Kelly; F. Scott Fitzgerald


"It is that quality of the Irish--that remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination--that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not. It matters not how small a nation is that seeks world peace and freedom, for, to paraphrase a citizen of my country, 'The humblest nation of all the world, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of Error.'" —President Kennedy's address to the Irish Parliament, June 1963.

All 8 of John F. Kennedy's great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland during the general time period of the Great Famine. On his mother's side, the Fitzgeralds were from rural County Limerick (Bruff.) His father's line, the Kennedys, were from County Wexford (Duganstown.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

A bit of potato talk

I could get hopelessly bogged down by delving into things like the folly that brought on the famine and righteous indignation against who should be blamed, but I really would prefer now to do a simple post talking about the center of attraction in this saga, the potato itself.

First, it should be noted that the potato is not a plant indigenous to the island of Ireland. It was introduced there and elsewhere during the reign of Elizabeth I, supposedly by Sir Walter Raleigh.

Before the potato came, other crops were grown, obviously. Grains were grown after the arrival of the potato, too. Remember, we talked about the difference between the larger farms, run as joint enterprises by the mainstream tenet farmers and the landowners. Remember also that the landlords were often nobility who had perhaps come into the land by way of grants from the crown, or bought as investments by their wealthy ancestors, and sometimes these landlord-owners were absentee. Remember also that the potatoes were grown as the main or sometimes only crop by the lowly farm laborers. Not everyone ate only potatoes by any means.

The potato caught on because it grew well in Ireland's mild and damp climate, grew well on marginal land (which Ireland had an abundance of), were tasty, nourishing, pigs liked potato peelings (still do) and, perhaps most importantly, one didn't need to be a rocket scientist to learn how to grow them successfully.

Of course, the very poor were not the only group of people who liked to eat potatoes, so they were also grown on the main farms as cash crops and for local food. However, potatoes weren't the only crop grown on the main farms by any means.

The farmers grew enough potato acreage to use horse-drawn farm implements for the planting and harrowing, and the farm laborers were there to weed and dig them in the fall. The laborers on their small plots of land, however, grew only enough to feed their families and perhaps enough to sell to buy a pig now and then or to purchase supplemental food for the hungry summer between potato crops. Because of the much smaller plots, the potatoes were planted by spade. That is to say, they pushed a spade a few inches into the ground, pushed it forward and dropped a seed potato piece behind the spade, then simply pulled the spade out of the ground leaving the seed buried. Fertilizer was simply farm manure and/or perhaps seaweed, depending on where they lived. Life was not exactly good, but there was survival and Ireland's population managed to double from 4 million to 8 million, largely because of the potato. Well, not ONLY because of the potato, but you get my drift.

Obviously they had experienced blights to their crops before over the years, but these had been localized and didn't happen every year, and didn't affect entire crops. These blights happened frequently enough so that none of the peasants ever got rich or overweight. In retrospect, one would have thought that the landowners would have done a bit more research into investigating these warning blights, but since the crops were mostly always better the next year, apparently they didn't bother thinking about it too much. Some men did, but were not paid much attention. If it's not raining, you don't worry about fixing your roof.

Potato blight is caused by a fungus. Fungi are propagated, often, by wind-borne spores. These spores attach to and begin "infecting" the potato plant's stalk and the tubers themselves. Since these parts are underground, the farmers didn't know (at least at first) until they began the harvest and saw the blighted tubers when they dug them. It didn't take the farmers long to identify the blight by the leaves discoloration and the mold on the underside, but since this is a symptom of the disease and not the cause, that was too late.

Here we should point out that potato blight is common worldwide, right up to the present day, a drawback of a moist climate, mostly. It was sad, though, that it wasn't until 1880 that agricultural scientists discovered that a simple solution containing copper sulfate sprayed on the stalks effectively repels the spores.

Another reason for the large failure was the continual growing of the same variety of potato over and over each year. In the plant kingdom, as in the animal kingdom. interbreeding is never conducive to good genes, and the plants' natural resistance to disease was lowered. They DID know about other varieties of potato, but grew the one which produced the largest yield.

Most historians believe that the blight came from the American continent, probably from diseased potatoes in ships from South America also carrying cargoes of guano. Guano (bird manure) had recently been discovered to be, and was prized as, a superlative fertilizer. I don't know where they got the guano. The only guano in any quantity I know of is "mined" from caves where bats live. Another fine job, I'm thinking.

The blight showed up first in Belgium, they say, then to the Isle of Wight (air-borne spores) and very soon thereafter to southern England proper. This happened in only a matter of months, of course, and it was in September of 1845 the the disease was verified in Ireland.

The first year of blight, 1845, saw a third of the crop unfit; later years were much worse. In 1846 only a quarter of the normal crop size came in edible, and the next 2 years saw only about a third of the normal crop. People on the edge quickly began to starve. The relief response by Britain and the rest of the world was eventually pretty massive, but not immediate.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Great Hunger

In the early 1840s, the population of Ireland was something over 8 million people.

Then came famine, starvation, and the attendant mass emigration. That population figure has never been equaled since. Today, after 170 years, the Irish population has recovered to about 6.2 million (4.5 million in the republic and something under 1.8 million in Northern Ireland.)

This subject is very interesting to me because the exodus of the Irish to many parts of the world, including my own country, had such a dramatic affect on our history.

This story will take more than one post. The main source for most of my facts is the collected newspaper stories, recorded oral histories, and official documents of the time which have been collected by the National Library of Ireland, Dublin, in a rather startling book called The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. To read this book and look at the reproductions of the old documents and read the first-person accounts is to almost hear voices speaking from a century long past.

I will keep this first post confined to the introduction of the circumstances that led to the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.

"The Irish famine of 1845-52 was the greatest catastrophe in recorded Irish history. It was caused by the repeated failure of the potato crop, the main food source of the poorer classes. The failure resulted in hunger, starvation, and ultimately death or emigration for a quarter of the population. One million died and over a million emigrated. The emigrants formed the main basis for the Irish diaspora, in Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia." [From the above mentioned book, The Irish Famine.] (Diaspora means the dispersion of large numbers of people from their homeland.)

Irish society in the early 1840s was mostly rural and agricultural, with 7 of the 8 million inhabitants living in rural areas, largely sharecroppers on tiny plots, growing their own sustenance, living on the very edge.

In rural Ireland were three classes or categories of people. First were the landlords who owned the often hereditary estates; second were the tenet farmers who grew the crops and paid a share to the landlords; third, the farm laborers. This last were most often living at a bare subsistence level. Their main staple food was the potato. They were given a plot of land on the main farm to grow their potatoes. Potatoes were the mainstay of their diet and often the ONLY item on their diet for some time until they could slaughter a pig or the like. Potatoes were mostly stored in lofts over the main room of their small house. Potatoes would last until June, having been harvested in the previous September. So there were a couple months when they subsisted on mostly Indian Corn (maize) and what other vegetables or meat they could obtain. Summer was a time of hunger for the "peasant" farm laborers. There was nothing held in reserve. They lived from hand to mouth from one crop to the next. If the potato crop were ever to fail, the result would be catastrophic on this class.

In 1845, the potato crop failed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ireland comes under full British rule; then independence

So it was that English rule was expanded and consolidated in Ireland, the Tudor reconquest resulting in near-complete control of the country by the turn of the 17th century. So many wars and religious conflicts occurred during this time, it is difficult to list all the various factions involved, but one underlying theme seems always to be the resentment of the English and their domination, coupled with the constant friction between Roman Catholics and their influence, and the Church of England of Henry VIII.

I started this series of posts to try and discover the roots of the still-simmering animosity that continues to this very day. I can't really find one thing that could be considered the root of the conflict, and I don't believe there is one single event that one could point to as a genesis. Rather, what we have in Ireland is the age-old resentment of conquest and occupation, and a guerilla violence which often surfaces - and never really goes away - born as a result of helplessness and impotence to rid one's land of what is still perceived by [much of] the Irish population as a foreign usurper. For this, I see no answer any more than others have. From a neutral vantage point, or as neutral as I can be, it seems to me that Great Britain has given what the Catholic Irish wanted: home rule and then entire independence - retaining only the 6 counties that chose to be and are (and this I don't know for sure) pro-British. What else can one do? One cannot abandon those with long-held ties with the British. I tread lightly here, and am not entitled to an opinion since I am a foreigner to both lands.

There is no need to talk about how the Republic of Ireland came about, or of the Time of Troubles in the 1960s and 1970s. These things are recent enough that most readers are already familiar with how they played out.

I do want to talk about some specific events that happened in Ireland, though, and in the next couple of posts will do that. I will in the process get to Boston.

Monday, August 23, 2010

At this rate, Boston Irish knowledge is many miles down the road

When one tries to give an overview of a country's history - say, Ireland's history - it is important not to go too far back in time. People don't want TOO much information, after all. This would seem to be especially true if the information were being given in a blog post. Accordingly, we are going to skip right over the Ice Age and the Bronze age and like that.

Actually, since this is really trying to be a history of only Ireland's POLITICAL association with England and, later, Great Britain, I am also going to skip right on over St. Patrick and the Norman Evasion. (I think the Normans more or less evaded Ireland; it may have been an oversight.) A few years after the Norman invasion of England, though, they DID begin to take notice of Ireland. You must understand this was back when Ireland still had trees.

Would that I could also skip right over the Roman Catholic church in Ireland. Or ANY church. No offense.

I DO want to fast-forward as much as possible, though, trying desperately to fly right up to Henry VIII's time, which, I think, at least, was quite a turning point for Ireland.

In order for me to do that you are just going to have to fill in the mental blanks about Ireland being invaded with some regularity by this or that king, resulting in various English kings more or less just assuming Ireland was, well, THEIRS.

You did have your Normans, accompanied by your assorted English. The Norman aggression in Ireland was led by Richard de Clare, I declare, who was also known as "Stongbow" due to his prowess with...... arrrrgh! don't make me say the obvious.

As you probably surmise, Norman/English history does not call this land grab an "aggression." It was more like, "We-just-wanted-Ireland-so-we-took-it." Like that.

Then there was more fighting and more treaties and finally some Bull by a papal, and, boy, when the papal bulled, the Normans listened, and you can take that to the bank, Betty.

Still not getting much closer to Henry VIII. I must leave even more out.

In the 14th century, following the Black Death, the Normans went into decline in Ireland. This was largely because they had all died in the Black Death. That's not precisely true, of course, since only 60% of Europe died of the Black Plague. But enough Norman descendants died so that a kind of hybrid Hiberno-Norman culture evolved. ::shudder::

To combat this cultural invasion-by-proxy, if you will, the Irish Parliament decreed that those buggers must speak only English and observe English laws and customs, so as to keep themselves obviously apart from the "real" Irish. No assimilation wanted, thank you very much. These were known as the statues of Kilkenny. Ummm... Statutes of Kilkenny.

The English paid as much attention to the Irish Parliament as they usually did, though, and, by 1494, everything the Irish Parliament did was subject to an okey-dokey by the English Parliament.

This brings us, historically-speaking, much closer to an event known as the Tudor reconquest of Ireland. If the name Tudor rings a bell, then you are up to speed with me.

There is even more.

You betcha.

Note: You would be wise not to click on Sue Thompson's album cover. Just a casual warning.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Learning Irish: Why there are so many Irish in Boston

Of the islands of the world, Greenland is the largest.

Great Britain is number nine and Ireland is Number 20.

Unless you don't count Greenland, then GB is 8th and Ireland is 19th. (There is some dispute over Greenland really being 3 smaller islands under all that ice. Don't let it bother you; Ireland will always be 19th in my mind.

This post is not about islands, but if I had started out with corks and rebellion, you wouldn't have read this far down.

First, there is a difference between nationalism and republicanism. Nationalism is simply identifying with one's land and culture and being proud of it. Patriotism, even. On the other hand, republicanism is the desire to be an independent country, a "republic," technically, but independence is at the core.

One can be a happy nationalist and still be a part of a larger union. One would think.

The Act of Union of 1801 (I am writing this by memory, so please point out any inaccuracies) created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This is not something I learned in any American school, more's the pity. I had to learn it from you from before on this blog, or from researching posts for this blog - the origins of my meager knowledge are murky at best.

Be that as it may (you probably weren't taught that much about the Missouri Compromise or the Kansas-Nebraska Act, either) there was a union created between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. Of that we may be sure, just as sure as Marley was dead at the beginning of A Christmas Carol.

Some say (some Irish say) that union was not completely and willingly two-sided, that they ("they" being the Irish) were sold out by bribe-taking turncoat politicians. Well, you know how it goes. Always the sour grapes from a minority. No one can say Ireland didn't benefit greatly, in many ways, over the years.

I need to go back to researching now to find out why Great Britain wanted a union with Ireland. The last time I did that, I got sidetracked by Henry VIII. That won't happen this time.

Probably there is more to come on the subject of Ireland. Didn't get very far this time.

Making new friends and influencing people of other lands

I have long ago abandoned the narrowness of my raison d'être for this blog, having expanded my interests to include the lasting effects of your language on many far-flung countries all over the globe. Canada. Australia. Some South Africa. Not NZ. Not India. Enough to where I feel I can expand even further and speak of Ireland.


Soon I shall. Just a warning shot.

I vow my usual painstaking attention to detail and accuracy. After all, this is a learning experience for me.

(I didn't mean you didn't have any language influences on NZ, only that I hadn't talked about them on this blog.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Scotland, Part II

1300 - 2010:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scotland, Part I

This one web page I read says that the recorded history of Scotland began in the 1st century AD when the Romans invaded Britain. I don't know. Surely some few could write earlier than that, but why argue if you can't prove it?

Well, the Romans added the south to their far-flung dominions and called it the provence of Britannia, though they may have spelled it "province" who knows, but they were unable to subdue the fierce tribes of the north. So the Roman head guy built a wall (much like George Bush would do later) all the way across the island to protect the civilized south from the fierce golf-playing tribes of the north.

The emperor's name was Hadrian. I forget what he called his wall.

The Romans called the land north of the wall Caledonia. He was going to call it Gaul II but that didn't quite have the proper ring to it. He called the people who lived up there Picts. You probably don't know why, and I could tell you if I wanted, but there is no use leaking all the secrets of Scotland all in one post.

In my little web article I am getting this from, it says, "parts of Hadrian's wall still stand on the Scottish border." Is it just me, or do you also think the author could have simply put a period after the word "stand?" Yeah. The Scottish Border. Ok.

Unfortunately, the author of the biography of Scotland tends to ramble on too much, and the result is total confusion. For example, he talks about Celts called Scots coming from Ireland in the 5th century. Let's be frank: is that REALLY important?

Then he babbles on about a Kenneth MacAlpine and absorbing the Picts and the River Clyde and right on up to William the Conqueror. Trust me, you wouldn't be reading this if I had put all that in.

In 1290, Margaret died, leaving 13 claiments to the Scottish throne. Jesus, but it was a mess. Later, one of Margaret's descendents became PM over all of the United Kingdom. Amen. (It doesn't actually say that, I'm only making the obvious inferrence.)

One of these 13 people who wanted to succeed Margaret was Eddie Plantagenet from down south of the wall. Eventually he prevailed. There was a sidebar about one William Wallace that wasn't all that clear. It may have been Mel Gibson.

The spirit of the Scots remained unbroken (though their collective arsi remained fully kicked for some time afterward.)

Not much really happened between 1300 and 2010, so I will pick the narrative up again next time starting with that latter date.

Who among you are knowledgeable enough about these parts to say with resolute certainty whether or not the photographer who took the above picture is standing on Scottish soil? I thought not.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Happy Woman's Day

Today is Woman's Day in South Africa, a national holiday.

During the days of Apartheid in South Africa, black Africans were required to carry special papers to be in certain parts of their country, in white areas. These papers came to be known simply as "the pass."

The 9th of August commemorates the national march of South African women when, in 1956, they came to parliament to petition against that law which curtailed their movement in their own homeland.

On this day, the women stood in silent protest outside the Union Buildings, many with children on their backs. They sang a song that had been composed especially for the occasion, Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo! which means, Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!

Today, 54 years later (and 16 years after the culmination of the long struggle to make South Africa a free nation) the phrase is still heard, in remembrance. In its current incarnation:

"You strike a woman, you strike a rock!"

Happy Woman's Day to all of you.


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