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A Yankee Notebook

March 17, 2014


MONTPELIER – We’ve had some wonderful travel moments in the past several decades, Mother and I. One of the best was the day we traveled to the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The weather gave us a break; a fishing trawler turned excursion boat carried us across the lively three-mile sound; and a Zodiac ferried us ashore, to an island where Gaelic-speaking people had survived for centuries on the meager scavengings of turf, birds’ eggs, sheep, and whatever they could gather from the sea and occasional shipwrecks. They’d had a hereditary king until the 1950s, when the Irish Government relocated them nearer to “essential services,” and at one time had the highest percentage of published writers of any community on earth.

The Baskets are the part of the British Isles closest to the United States. In the visitors’ center back on the mainland hangs a large photograph looking west from Great Blasket Island. On the horizon, the haze-shrouded towers of New York City rise improbably from the sea, capturing poignantly the yearning that consumed the islanders’ imaginations as their life wound down.

Nobody ever yearned for the New World more keenly than the Irish. And why not? Europeans, in an early expression of manifest destiny, had pushed them westward into their island home, and the English had finished the job, expropriating east-coast Ireland for the King and granting vast estates to Anglo-Irish lords not known for their generosity to poor tenant farmers. The farmers’ religion, dating from the days of Saint Patrick in the 5th century, was outlawed by the English, and their occasional rebellions against the Crown or Cromwell were brutally suppressed.

Mother and I also visited a moorland farm in Connemara, not far from Croagh Patrick, the mountain sacred to Ireland’s patron saint. A stream trickled through the fields, feeding a string of tiny ponds. Beyond that on the far hillside, peat cutters were harvesting fuel. In a brambly field half a mile from the farmhouse, the farmer showed us a rustic altar – a single block of stone – where priests once celebrated Mass in secret. Nearby stood a grove of trees surrounding a dozen or so graves of famine victims. “They’re only a foot down,” the farmer said. “Poor devils left alive hadn’t the strength to plant ‘em any deeper.”

That great famine of 1845 was caused by a blight that utterly wiped out the single species of potato upon which the poor had depended. (To this day, the Irish point out that it’s quite possible to live on mashed potatoes alone, if you have to.) At the same time, Ireland was producing quite enough grain to feed the population through the crisis. But grain had become a commodity; at least 30 shiploads were exported daily to England. The practice was truly genocide by neglect, chronicled powerfully by Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and most recently by Ciarán Ó Murchadha in The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845-1852 . About a million Irish died of starvation, and about a million more emigrated, most to North America. Reports from earlier emigrants, while not describing a land of milk and honey, spoke at least of work to be had there.

By coincidence, their immigration coincided with a boom of railroad construction in the United States. Irish women went into domestic service, and their men onto the section gangs. The Irish went west with the Union Pacific and through the mountains of New England. Many New England towns had a neighborhood called “Paddyville.” A century later, we sang the railroad songs in summer camp. “Patsy Ory Ory Aye” was a favorite.

The Irish in America, while they had escaped outright starvation and oppression in the old country, suffered from American Hibernophobia on this side of the ocean. The sign reading “No Irish Need Apply” was common in the windows of businesses seeking help. The Irish, of course, responded by making a virtue of Irishness, founding the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Roman Catholic fraternity that’s still active today. The commanding general of the the 69th New York Infantry, the so-called Irish Brigade, once refused to march his men in a parade honoring the visiting Prince of Wales. Later the brigade went on to become one of the three most damaged units in the Civil War. But the stigma lived on: My grandparents, staunch Calvinists and Republicans who smarted under the notorious O’Connell Machine in Albany, New York,, despised Catholics, Democrats, and Irishmen – I could never tell in which order – well into the 1940s.

But the Irish were accustomed to mistreatment and prejudice. When they weren’t fighting each other, they went into American politics and voted for each other. They paid passage for their kin back home to join them. Joe Kennedy became rich in steel during the First World War and (mostly) legal booze after the end of Prohibition. He later became Ambassador to Great Britain. And his son John broke the taboo against a Catholic becoming President.

I’m writing this on the anniversary of Saint Patrick’s death, the day that everyone’s Irish, or wishes he were. This evening we’ll celebrate with corned beef and cabbage and pause to remember the optimistic saint who, armed with only conviction and an obvious gift of blarney, ventured into a wild country ruled by fierce warlords and transformed it forever.

A song I heard once long ago on a 78-rpm record went in part, There’s a typical Tipperary, a typical Dublin Bay; a typical County Kerry in the good old USA....On the stage are Irish stars, all of the Irish runnin’ the cars...They’ve got Irish on the screen; even the money here is green.....Irish judges and police. Begorra, the Irish are keepin’ the peace! Imagine how much poorer American culture would be if the Hibernians hadn’t come to join us. Éirinn go Brách!

Photo by Willem lange