April 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last week, I was teaching the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Great Chinese Famine in my Modern China course. One thing that struck my students was that this wasn’t really a famine, it was a manufactured crisis. The granaries of the People’s Republic of China were full, and yet, Mao and his underlings refused to open them up. Rather, this was an attempt by Mao Zedong to remake the Chinese countryside and peasantry, to increase industrial output, and to modernize the nation. This came in the wake of a purification campaign in the country in the early 1950s, as the Communists attempted to stamp their imprint on the nation.
As we discussed the manufactured nature of this famine, and we discussed Mao’s insistence on ideological reform of China, something struck me. Famines are rarely just that, famines. They are often manufactured crisis. One of my students is a interested in the Soviet Union and Russian history in general, and he noted that the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 was a man-made one, too.
This led to a discussion about ideology, reform, and the costs of absolutism, though both of our examples were communist. But then I thought of the Irish Famine. Like China and the Ukraine, the Great Hunger was a manufactured crisis. And, of course, the United Kingdom was, in the mid-19th century, the most powerful nation the world had ever seen.
In both China and the Ukraine, famine was the result of collectivization, but this was not the case in Ireland. There, famine came because the potato crop failed for several years, beginning in 1845, due to a fungal infection. But the failure of the crop became a humanitarian crisis due to the policies of the British government.
Charles Trevelyan, the assistant Secretary of the Treasury, was very clear in his response to the Famine He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’
And thus, as a devotee of laissez-faire liberalism, Trevelyan was slow to respond to the Irish crisis, seeing it as a gift from the Almighty. And while he was only a civil servant, ultimately, he was backed by his political bosses. That this was so was acknowledged by Tony Blair when he was the British Prime Minister in the late 90s. On the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Famine, he issued an apology for the role of the British government in the Famine.
The Great Hunger of Ireland was a manufactured crisis, and as Irish food continued to be exported to Great Britain, the Irish starved. The United Kingdom, thus, is no different than Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union.
And so, famine is often used as a political tool, as a means of forcing reform on a recalcitrant population.
And Sir Charles Trevelyan, knighted for his ‘services’ to Ireland, along with the leadership of the UK at the time, most notably Lord John Russell and even Queen Victoria, fit right in there with Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.
January 8, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last week I wrote a post about the conundrum we face in dealing with President Trump, hockey rumours, and global warming. The basic problem is the response of us as individuals, and our feelings of powerlessness, vs. the fact that we can band together to form interest groups in response. In the case of the latter, I always think of the original boycott.
The original boycott occurred in 1880 in County Mayo, Ireland. Captain Charles Boycott lent his name to a campaign against him by the Irish Land League. The Land League was a political organization in late 19th century Ireland with the goal of alleviating the plight of poor Irish tenant famers. The League’s ultimate goal was to abolish the great landowners of Ireland to allow these poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked. The Irish Land League was a central component in the radicalization of Catholic/Nationalist Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, following its mobilization by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century. And this radicalization, of course, led ultimately to the Irish Revolution and Irish independence in the early 20th century.
In 1880, Boycott was the land agent for Lord Erne in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo. He became the object of ire of the Land League due to his enthusiasm for evicting the poor tenant farmers of Erne’s land. Thus, the League encouraged his employees (most of whom were Irish and Catholic, as opposed to the Englishman Boycott) to withdraw their labour. And then the League and its supporters in Co. Mayo encouraged local merchants to not serve Boycott. Of course, some merchants required some encouragement to participate, which the local peasantry was only happy to provide.
Boycott, frustrated by his treatment, wrote a letter complaining of his plight to the Times of London. And the boycott became national (and international, the Irish diaspora in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand followed the news closely) news. This led to an influx of reporters from London, who interviewed the locals and explained the issue (not always fairly) to the readers of the London papers.
With no one to serve him in the local stores, and no one to work for him, Boycott was forced to rely upon gangs of Orangemen, protected by the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Irish Constabulary, as well as the British Army, to harvest the crops. In the end, it cost over £10,000 to harvest around £500 worth of crops. The boycotters won, at least locally.
What was the long-term effect of the first boycott? Not much, at least locally. Boycott left Lord Erne’s service, but he was replaced by another agent. And evictions continued apace around Ireland. And the plight of tenant farmers did not improve all that much.
But, the first boycott was a symbolic victory. It brought greater exposure for the Land League, though it was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign for the Three Fs: fair rent, free sale and fixity of tenure. But, even then, the Land League was, as noted, part of the radicalization of Catholic Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, which led to the birth of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and, ultimately, the Irish Republican Army (the first one, led by Michael Collins, not the re-constituted IRA that was behind the Troubles in Northern Ireland).
So, ultimately, taken together with other events, the first boycott was ultimately successful. And maybe this speaks to something else. We seem to expect that our actions against whatever we see as oppressive to be immediately rewarded, which is no doubt a response to our general belief in immediate reward/punishment in our world today. Our actions as individuals need to be part of a larger movement, and we need to be patient in that larger movement in order to effect change.
For example, where I live in Western Massachusetts, a collection of like-minded people have created a culture where creativity, tolerance, and inclusivity is central. But this was’t created overnight. While Western Massachusetts has a history of alternative subcultures and communities, our present culture was carefully and slowly created and reinforced over the past 30-40 years, beginning first down in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, and that has slowly crept up into the hilltowns on both side of the river valley. In other words, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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 Way, last 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.
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.
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.
December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments
I 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.
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.
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.