The Burning of Bridget Cleary

November 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

My students in my Irish History course read Angela Bourke’s fantastic The Burning of Bridget Cleary and wrote a paper on it.  The essay question asked them to situate Bridget Cleary’s murder within the context of Irish politics at the time, as this is what Bourke does, and why her book is so powerful.  So much so that I assign this book every time I teach Irish History.

In reading the essays this semester, my students were particularly struck by the comparison of the Irish Catholics of the late 19th century with ‘Hottentots’ and Catholic Ireland with ‘Dahomey’ by both the British and Irish Unionist press.  This was, of course, code for dismissing Irish claims to the right to Home Rule by comparing them with what the British regarded as ‘savage’ African nations.  Leaving aside the racism inherent in this construction of Africa for another day, what struck me this year with the papers was the very fact that my students were so struck by these comparisons.

The major theme of my course is the way in which Ireland existed as a British colony, and the ways in which the British colonial discourse worked in keeping Ireland separate from, and excluded from, the wealth that accumulated in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by the 19th century.  This is obvious in moments like The Famine, especially when the Under Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, declared The Famine a gift from the Almighty and celebrated the change to reform Ireland away from the ‘perverse’ character of the native population.

For me, teaching Irish History, this has become de rigeur, I see this discourse and I don’t, it’s so deeply embedded into my brain.  Thus, I really enjoyed seeing my students’ response to the discourse of Irishness on the part of the Unionists and British in 1895, when Bridget Cleary was murdered.  I suppose it’s one thing to imagine Trevelyan’s cold response to The Famine as something that happened a long time ago.  But, sometimes 1895 doesn’t seem like so long ago.

Bourke’s book has pictures of the inside of the Clearys’ cottage in Ballyvadlea, Co. Tipperary, and we see their poverty laid bare.  However, the Clearys were not, actually, poor by Irish standards.  But, because we can see some comparison between the Clearys in 1895 and our world today, they don’t seem so far away.  Michael and Bridget Cleary were in their 30s and were childless.  But perhaps more than that, they both had careers, so to speak.  He was a cooper and she a milliner.  Bridget, unlike many women of her era, especially in rural Ireland, was more or less independent.  Thus, the Clearys look more like us than Trevelyan, and therefore, closer to us.  So to read this comparison of the Clearys’ people, Irish Catholics, with African tribes dismissed as ‘cannibals’ is shocking (again, leaving aside the racist assumptions implicit in the dismissal of Dahomey as the land of cannibals).

And this is why I love teaching, I love the opportunity to get refreshed and re-enforced by my students as they discover something for the first time.

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Expensive Bikes and the sud-ouest of Montreal

June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

I was in Montreal for a nano-second last week, in and out in 22 hours.  As I sat Friday morning sipping a proper café au lait and a croissant amande at Pain D’Oré at Atwater Market, a woman kitted out in cycling gear pulled up outside the boulangerie.  She took off her gloves and helmet, and then leaned her very expensive bike up against the shop’s window and came in to get her coffee and croissant.  I thought to myself that things had changed in the sud-ouest of Montreal.

Not too long ago, in response to a post on this blog about gentrification, my friend Max, who is a gentrifier, and has bought a place in a gentrifying neighbourhood, chided me for being so dead-set against gentrification.  I am not necessarily.  But I think we need to problematise the process, to recognise what we’ve lost, and so on, to not simply jump into the future unquestioningly.  But.  He pointed out some benefits about gentrification in his neighbourhood: he could find a decent cup of coffee and he said hipsters, as annoying as they generally are, are safe.  He doesn’t have to worry about his wife walking home at night.

I thought about that as I watched this woman leave her expensive bike outside the boulangerie, unlocked.  When she came back out with coffee and croissant, she moved her bike to her table on the terrasse.  I lived in the sud-ouest for the majority of my time in Montreal, mostly in Pointe-Saint-Charles, but also in Saint-Henri on the Last Ungentrified Block in Saint-Henri ™.  The rue Saint-Ferdinand, north of Saint-Antoine remains ungentrified.  I drove up it last week just to make sure.  But the streets on either side of Saint-Ferdinand ARE gentrified, so, too, is the block on Saint-Ferdinand below my old one.  So are large swaths of Saint-Antoine.  And so on.  The first place I lived in the Pointe wasn’t.  There are housing projects on the block, and my place backed onto the asphalt back lot of a project (Montreal’s projects, I might note, at least in the sud-ouest are not great towering cinderblock apartments, they are usually no more than 3-4 story apartment blocks.  They usually fit into their neighbourhoods).  My second place was definitely gentrified, as, by that point in my life, I was no longer a struggling student, but a tenured CÉGEP professor.

And still.  There is no way in hell I would ever leave an expensive bike outside a boulangerie at Atwater Market.  I never left my car unlocked.  Or my front door.  I keep a close eye on my computer bag.  Do I just trust people less?  Or had I just lived in the Pointe longer than this woman?  But, yet, her bike was completely safe, and not because I was sitting in the window.  About 15 people passed it as she got her coffee and croissant.  And no one even gave the unlocked, very expensive bike a second look.

Has the sud-ouest changed that much? Or was her bike simply in a high traffic area and safe?  I can’t decide.

I should also point out, for American readers, that gentrification in Canada tends not to get caught up in questions of race like it does here in the US.   Most gentrifying and gentrified neighbourhoods of Canadian cities are places where inner-city working-class white people lived.  So while class is still a very prevalent issue, race tends not to be.  There are exceptions. of course, such as in the traditional Anglo Black neighbourhood of Montreal, Little Burgundy, which is undergoing a massive shift right now.  But, on the whole, discussions surrounding gentrification don’t centre around notions of race.  Then again, few things in Canada do, at least publicly.  But that doesn’t mean that race and skin colour aren’t central components to Canadian life.

Irish Slums

December 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last month, I met Michael Patrick MacDonald at an Irish Studies conference in Rhode Island.  He was the keynote speaker.  I didn’t know much about him beforehand, other than he wrote All Souls about growing up in South Boston in the 70s and 80s.  I knew All Souls was a story about heartbreak, drugs, and the devastation suffered by his family.  But MacDonald’s talk was one of the best I’d ever heard, he spoke of Whitey Bulger, drugs, Southie, his work in non-violence and intervention, and he talked about gentrification.  He was eloquent and fierce at the same time.  He is, of course, an ageing punk.  He was also pretty cool to talk to over beers in the hotel bar later that night.

I finally got around to reading All Souls last week.  I’m glad I did.  I was stunned that MacDonald and his siblings could survive what they’ve survived: three of their brothers dead due to gangs, drugs, and violence.  One of their sisters permanently damaged by a traumatic brain injury brought about due to drugs.  And another brother falsely accused of murder.  It was a heartbreaking read, at least to a point.  I know how the story ends, obviously.

It was also interesting to read another version of Southie than the one in the mainstream here in Boston.  The mainstream is that Southie was an Irish white trash ghetto, run by Whitey Bulger, terrorised by Whitey Bulger, but all those Irish were racists, as evidenced by the busing crisis in 1974.  And while MacDonald tried to revise that narrative, both in his talk and in All Souls, pertaining to the busing crisis, it is hard to argue that racism wasn’t the underlying cause of the explosion of protesting and violence.  But, MacDonald also offers both a personal and a sociological view of how Southie was terrorised and victimised by Bulger (and his protectors in the FBI and the Massachusetts State Senate).  And, today, he talks about gentrification in a way that most mainstream commentators do not (something I’ve railed about in my extended series on Pointe-Saint-Charles, Montréal, his blog, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, and Pt. 5).

But something else also struck me in reading MacDonald’s take on Southie.  I found that he echoed many of the oldtimers I’ve talked to in Griffintown and the Pointe in Montréal about their experiences growing up.  Griff and the Pointe were the Montréal variant of Southie, downtrodden, desperately poor Irish neighbourhoods.  And yet, there is humour to be found in the chaos and poverty, and there is something to be nostalgic for in looking back.

MacDonald writes:

I didn’t know if I loved or hated this place.  All those beautiful dreams and nightmares of my life were competing in the narrow littered streets of Old Colony Project.  Over there, on my old front stoop at 8 Patterson Way, were the eccentric mothers, throwing their arms around and telling wild stories.  Standing on the corners were the natural born comedians making everyone laugh.  Then there were the teenagers wearing their flashy clothes, their ‘pimp’ gear, as we called it.  And little kids running in packs, having the time of their lives in a world that was all theirs.

This echoes something journalist Sharon Doyle Driedger wrote of Griffintown, where she grew up:

Griffintown had the atmosphere of an old black-and-white movie.  Think The Bells of St. Mary’s,with nuns and priests and Irish brogue and choirs singing Latin hymns.  Then throw in the Bowery Boys, the soft-hearted tough guys wisecracking on the corner.

The difference, of course, is that MacDonald’s ambivalence runs deep, he also sees the drug addicts and dealers, and the grinding poverty.  Doyle Driedger didn’t.  But, MacDonald is standing in Southie as an adult when he sees this scene, Doyle Dreidger is writing from memory.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and it’s not something to be dismissed, as many academics and laypeople do.  It is, in my books, an intellectually lazy and dishonest thing to do.  Nostalgia is very real and is something that tinges all of our views of our personal histories.

But what I find more interesting here are the congruencies between what MacDonald and Doyle Driedger writes, between what MacDonald says in All Souls and what he said in his talk last month in Rhode Island, and what the old-timers from Griff and the Pointe told me whenever I talked to them.  There was always this nostalgia, there was always this black humour in looking back.  I also just read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, about a kid growing up in Dublin’s Barrytown, a fictional inner-city neighbourhood.  Through Paddy Clarke, Doyle constructs an idyllic world for a boy to grow up in, as he and his mates owned the neighbourhood, running around in packs, just like the kids in Southie MacDonald describes, and just as MacDonald and his friends did when they were kids.

I don’t know if this is something particular to Irish inner-city slums or not.  But I do see this tendency as occurring any time I talk to someone who grew up in such a neighbourhood, or read stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, to say nothing of the music of the Dropkick Murphys (I’m thinking, in particular, of almost the entirety of their first album, Do Or Die, or the track “Famous for Nothing,” on their 2007 album, The Meanest of Times),  I’m not one for stereotyping the Irish, or any other group for that matter, I don’t think there’s anything “inherent” to the Irish, whether comedy, fighting, or alcoholism.  But there is something about this view of Irish slums.

Urban Redevelopment: Getting it Wrong, Springfield, MA

October 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

As regular readers of this blog know, I am interested in urban redevelopment, especially when it comes to questions of doing it right and doing it wrong (and chances at redemption).  For the most part, the wave of urban redevelopment that hit North American cities in the 70s and 80s was the wrong way, in that it left us with neo-brutalist architecture in the midst of our cities that is cold, uninviting and intimidating.  A case in point of this would be City Hall Plaza in Boston.  It’s a desolate, soulless urban square that people use for one of three purposes: 1) official events, because they have no choice; 2) to sit on the fringes of to eat lunch; 3) to get to the Government Center T station.  Many cities have this problem today, these horrid, horrid neo-brutalist buildings.  In some places, like Boston, it doesn’t so much matter, because the downtown core of the city is bustling, Government Center lies between Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and the stately Boston Common.  Government Center is the site of, well, government in Boston and so this site is full of civil servants, but also tourists and Bostonians crossing between the tourist centres, the North End, and the downtown core of the city.  In other places, like nearby Worcester, this 70s/80s wave of urban redevelopment led to a massive #fail.

But, the legacy of deindustrialisation is also very real, especially in small formerly urban centres, like Worcester, but also Springfield, Mass.  Springfield is about 100 miles west of Boston and it feels about as faraway from Boston as one can get.  Springfield is a depressed, sad little city.  It has a high crime rate, nearly double that for the rest of the Commonwealth, including Boston.  It’s murder rate, .13 per thousand, is almost triple the national average (perhaps unironically, Smith & Wesson’s corporate headquarters are in Springfield). The same is true for robbery and assault.  Its property crime rates are also well above the national average.

It wasn’t always like this for Springfield.  Until the 1960s, it was a bucolic industrial city, surrounded by natural beauty.  It had a low crime and unemployment.  It was the very first Springfield in the USA, and was the birthplace of basketball.  Indian Motorcycles were from Springfield.  So was Charles Goodyear.  Merriam-Webster’s first dictionary was published there in 1805.

I-91, downtown Springfield and the Basketball Hall of Fame

Springfield experienced decline due to a combination of deindustrialisation, the closing of the Springfield Armory in 1969 (the target of Daniel Shays and his rebels in 1786), and poor urban development decisions (most notably the running of I-91 through the downtown core and cutting off downtown from the waterfront of the Connecticut River.  Various attempts to redevelop the city have failed miserably (like the basketball Hall of Fame).  And recently, the city decided that it was going to open a massive urban casino to flag the failing fortunes of Springfield.  Why they thought this would work is beyond me.  Certainly, people will now come to Springfield to shop and gamble.  But, the casino will also siphon off jobs and hurt what business still exists in the downtown core.  And now, even that appears to be at risk.

How Terror Works

September 26, 2013 § 16 Comments

Yesterday, there was a stabbing on my bucolic New England college campus.  A male student (on leave from the university after an arrest two weeks ago) approached a female student on a campus shuttle bus and stabbed her.  When the bus driver intervened, he also got stabbed.  The wounds were not life-threatening, the woman was treated at the scene for a laceration to the top of her hand and the bus driver was taken to hospital for his wounds.  The suspect then fled across the street and jumped in his car and escaped.  This all happened about 150 yards from the campus police station, and the suspect fled past the station.  Campus police then pursued him, but gave up the chase for safety reasons.

The university community was apprised of this about an hour later in an email sent out to everyone.  I give the university full credit here.  When I was in undergrad, there was a serial rapist on campus.  The campus police and the university administration did not consider that to be information that the students, staff, and faculty had a right to know.  Times have changed.

About half an hour after the email, someone resembling the suspect was spotted on campus.  This led to a lockdown, or “shelter in place”, as it’s called, beginning around 12.30pm.  For the next two hours, there were police crawling around campus from both the campus and city forces, there were at least two helicopters in the air (whether media or police, I don’t know) and there was a generally tense atmosphere in my building.  My colleagues and I speculated on whether or not the suspect might have returned with guns.  Who knew?

Around 2pm, classes were cancelled for the rest of the day and evening.  About half an hour later, the lockdown was lifted.  No one had any idea as to whether or not the suspect had been captured, but we presumed he had been.

But.  A few hours later, it became clear that this was not the case, as an arrest warrant had been issued for the suspect, who had obviously fled.  This morning, we learned from the news that he was arrested a couple of hundred miles away from here in Upstate New York.

So, in essence, campus experienced a two-hour lockdown and students, staff, and faculty experienced an unnecessary trauma.  Looking at the suspect’s mugshot, he’s pretty generic looking and one can see a dozen or two young men who look vaguely like him on any given day around campus.  It’s easy, of course, to conclude that the campus police and the administration over-reacted.

But did they?  I’m not so sure.  What happened yesterday on my campus appears to be the end result of terror and terrorism.  Since 9/11, Americans have obviously become much more vigilant.  And with mass shootings happening at an alarmingly frequent rate in the past couple of years, this only makes people, military/police/civilians, all the more vigilant (as an aside, I’ve noted the media, especially in Canada, likes to point out that gun deaths are down in the US, which is true, but then this is used to argue that mass shootings are no biggie.  That’s false, there are more mass shootings now than ever).  And, in pursuing this vigilance, the campus police and the administration yesterday erred on the side of caution, calculating the chance of a real threat to the campus community.  The suspect had apparently attacked his victim(s) completely randomly.  Thus, the threat was real, if he was indeed back on campus, he could conceivably randomly attack again.  Or maybe he had a more destructive weapon?

And this is how terror and terrorism works (yes, I consider mass shooter and those who enable them terrorists).  It causes terror, and it causes massive overreactions like we had yesterday because it is better to be safe than sorry.  What if the campus police and administration did not react in the manner they did yesterday and the suspect had returned to campus and caused more damage?  Imagine the lawsuits and negative reaction.

I’m not saying I like this, but I am interested in how terror works like this.  I am presently teaching a course on the History of Terror.  And while the course is centred around the very fundamental fact of the terror of history, that we’re all going to die, terror on a smaller scale (like 9/11, the Boston Bombing, these massacres) works the same way and makes us more vigilant, easier to scare, easier to over-react.

It’s all rather depressing, yeah?

Misogyny in Action

September 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

This article from a TV station in Texas is unconscionable.  A truck decal business in Waco, TX, created a decal for the tailgate of a pickup truck of a women tied up and looking like she’s been abducted.  I will not re-produce the image here, it doesn’t deserve it, but you can see it if you follow this link.  The decal is bad enough.  But the article on the TV station’s website is even worse.  After noting that the majority of the feedback for the decal has been negative, moron journalist Matt Howerton  says that the feedback leads to the question as to whether or not the decal is “‘Poor taste or good business?'”

I’m gobsmacked at how this question is even asked.  An image of a distressed women tied up and looking like she’s in the back of a pickup truck is never good business.  It’s beyond poor taste.

A few days ago that I know we live in a misogynist society, but sometimes it just hits me in the face how misogynist.  This is one of those moments.  By now, everyone in Canada has heard about the students during frosh week at St. Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia (my alma mater, I’m ashamed to admit) chanting about underage rape.  Seriously.  It’s not funny, it’s never funny.

Pretty much every single woman I know has been the victim of sexual assault at least once in her life.  And yet we as a society accept that, we even encourage it with idiocy like KWTX’s question about the truck decal.  This is a nothing less than a disgrace.

Diaspora and Terrorism: The problem with relativism

July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist.  Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up.  He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid.  As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons.  But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.

Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth.  UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school.  Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes.  But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader.  Williams, says Reitman,

believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.

I find this comment interesting.  Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA.  Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications.  Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for.  What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed.  If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly.  Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.

And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did.  He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan.  He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight.  So he brought the fight home.  I shudder at the consequences.

But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point.  All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation.  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.

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