Irish History

April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments

It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers.  I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years.  Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides.  The Famine, in particular, gets me down.  The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well.  It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora.  Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.

It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas.  But, Irish history is massively complicated.  My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up.  I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic.  But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously).  So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.

My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Waylast week.  It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did.  But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers.  And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin.  He’s confused.  He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland.  When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused.  And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders.  This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.

One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history.  He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland.  But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated.  He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.

Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation.  And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.

And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.

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The International Museum of Folklore

February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province.  This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.

Beiner argues that

It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture.  Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.

Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores.  But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story.  This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache.  Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995.  In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.

Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere).  Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture.  And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists.  Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized.  It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.

In Defence of Irish Revisionist Historiography

February 11, 2015 § 3 Comments

I’m reading Guy Beiner’s masterful study of the folk memory of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland for my Irish Public History class. In it, Beiner, like nearly every single Irish historian of the past two decades, goes off on Irish revisionist historiography.  For those who are unfamiliar with the wars of Irish Historiography, revisionism in the Irish context dates back to the 1920s.  In that decade, young scholars, educated at English universities, became frustrated with the fundamental lack of critical studies of the Irish past.  Thus, centred around T.W. Moody and R. Dudley Edwards, they began to re-assess Irish history.  They eschewed myth and folk tale for fact.  They abhorred Irish nationalism for its warping of Irish historiography.  They sought a dispassionate, “value-free” national historiography.

Revisionism became the dominant vision of Irish historiography for a period from the 1930s through to the 1990s.  In the late 1980s, however, revisionism came under attack for its inability to deal with the more traumatic events in the Irish past.  One of the problems with revisionism, critics charged, was that in its desire to view Ireland as un nation comme les autres, it whitewashed calamity: 1641, 1798, 1847, 1916, 1922, etc.  At its fundamental core, revisionism is incapable of processing the fact (I know, ironic) that Ireland was an English, and then British, colony from roughly the 13th century until the 20th (there is also the complicating factor of Northern Ireland, still a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland).

I certainly have no great love for the revisionist project, in part because it denied the colonial fact of Ireland.  This means that those moments of atrocity, most notably the Famine, get played down.  Revisionism tends to shy away from criticising the English/British for their actions in Ireland.  But sometimes, as during the Famine, it is simply the fact of the matter that Britain did little to alleviate the starving and misery in Ireland whilst at the same time continuing to export food from the nation.

However.  In reading Beiner’s devastating critique of revisionism, I am reminded that it DID serve a purpose.  Once.  A long time ago.  When Moody and Edwards were organising their critique of Irish nationalist historiography, their corrective WAS a necessary tonic.  Moody argued that nationalist histories were harmful to an understanding of the Irish past, arguing that it was a matter of “facing the facts of the Irish past” as a means to countering the falsehoods of mythology.  In the 1930s, for a newborn nation, this was an essential process.  The problem is that revisionism went too far and was never able to accord to its internal contradictions.  But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once necessary.

A Storm of Witchcraft: Salem in 1692 & Ballyvadlea in 1895

December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments

IMG_0629I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend.  Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here.  My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw

upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials.  I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem.  Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover.  Some of the trials took place here, though.  Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.

But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events.  I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria.  But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England.  Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs.  In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts.  There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica.  The economy was suffering.  Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.

Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace.  Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston.  In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts.  All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.

The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that.  Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries.  Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.

Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland.  She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title).  But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.

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.

The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

10724719_716131381768977_171791364_nMarc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever.  An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s.  The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time.  They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.

Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France.  Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942.  He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo.  He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured.  It was a sad end for a great man.

Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars.  He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940.  That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day.  The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.

Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940.  In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War.  In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself.  By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday.  The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.

I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage.  I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is.  Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.

I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week.  O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829.  He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  In this, he failed.  He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different.  In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary.  Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV).  In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.

We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.

Immigration in the United States, plus ça change

August 7, 2014 § 8 Comments

I am doing a bit of research into the Know Nothing movement of the 1840s and 50s in the United States.  The Know Nothings were a secret society that eventually evolved into a political party, based on the premise that immigration was bad for the United States.  In short, the Know Nothings, who also formed one of the bases of the nascent Republican Party in the late 1850s, were nativists.  They believed in a United States for Americans only.  We could, of course, note the irony of that statement, given every person not of Native American heritage in this country is of immigrant stock.  But, we’ll leave that alone.  They were called Know Nothings not because they were ignorant (as my students always suppose), but because, as a secret society and asked about the society replied that they “knew nothing.”

I came across this list of things that Roman Catholics hate about the United States from the Boston Know-Nothing and American Crusader in July 1854.  The Know-Nothing and American Crusader was one of the main newspapers of the Know Nothings, and Boston was a major centre of the nativists.  Boston was ground zero, in many ways, in the ‘invasion’ of Irish immigrants and refugees in the years of the Famine and afterwards.  Here’s the list:

  1. They HATE our Republic, and are trying to overthrow it.
  2. They HATE the American Eagle, and it offends them beyond endurance to see it worn as an ornament by Americans.
  3. They HATE our Flag, as it manifest by their grossly insulting it.
  4. They HATE the liberty of conscience.
  5. They HATE the liberty of the Press.
  6. They HATE the liberty of speech.
  7. They HATE our Common School system.
  8. They HATE the Bible, and would blot it out of existence if they could!
  9. The Priests HATE married life, and yet by them is fulfilled the Scripture, to wit: ‘more are the children or the desolate, than the children of the married wife.’
  10. They HATE Protestants, and are sworn to exterminate them from our country and the earth.
  11. They HATE the name of Washington, because he was a Republican and Protestant.
  12. They HATE all rulers that do not swear allegiance to the Pope of Rome.
  13. They HATE to be ruled by Americans, and say “WE WILL NOT BE RULED BY THEM!”
  14. They HATE to support their own paupers and they are left to be supported by the tax paying Americans.
  15. They HATE, above all, the ‘Know Nothings,’ who are determined to rid this country of their accursed power.

The author of this wonderful list signed his name as “Uncle Sam.”  Newspapers in general allowed correspondents to use anonymous pseudonyms in the 19th century, so this isn’t surprising.  But the nom de plume of our correspondent is telling of the cause of the Know Nothings.

As I am doing this research, I’m thinking back to my experiences in June, when I was told by a table mate that the AP Reading I was at that I don’t belong in the United States because I “don’t love America” (I don’t “love” Canada, either, for the record).  And, thenthen, on the way home, at a layover in Dallas, another traveller, watching the news, told me that all immigrants should be rounded up and deported (this one didn’t know I was an immigrant).  And as I watch the drama unfold about the refugee children from Central America in this country, and see the horrible rhetoric coming from the right wing, I can’t help but think that, even if 170 years have passed since “Uncle Sam” published his list of things Catholics hate in The Know-Nothing and American Crusader, in some ways, nothing has changed.  The rhetoric of “Uncle Sam” echoes that of some far right politicians, commentators, and regular citizens I’ve seen on Twitter in the past month.

Of course, the Know Nothings were never a majority of Americans, any more than those so violently opposed and hard-hearted to the plight of children today are even close to a majority.  The overwhelming majority of Americans then and now do not have a problem with immigration and immigrants.  But, then as now, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

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