Triumphalism in Boston’s Famine Memorial

November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments

Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy. IMG_0791

I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes.  For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting.  They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc.  The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous. FamineMemorial.jpg

The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World.  Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine.  Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo.  This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship.  In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.

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The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however.  They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland.  But they offer a glimpse of what is to come.  Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.

The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown.  Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s.  The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998.  It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking.  It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.

It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures.  The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.

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But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic.  This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy.  In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream.  But, there are a few gaps here.  First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States.  And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.  IMG_0516.jpeg

Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States.  The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation.  But this was not instantaneous.  It took a generation or two.  It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960.  Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.

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And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today.  And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.

 

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America’s Irish Famine Museum

November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT.  My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring.  May she rest in peace.

I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general.  I kind of regretted this.  Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent.  And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise.  In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums,can make or break the visitor experience.’  Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through.  This is to avoid rote-memorization.  They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.

The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc.  Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.

People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours.  I’m more ambivalent.  Sometimes they’re fantastic.  Other times, they leave a lot to be desired.  My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience.  The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner.  He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this.  He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student.  He made eye contact, he had a presence.  What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice.  He talked in a dull monotone.  And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments.  And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.

As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent.  My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman.  Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course.  But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.

So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.

The museum itself holds so much promise.  The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century.  The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent.  There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.

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The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials.  And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course.  The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered.  I found this bizarre.

One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine.  I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet).  But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.

I don’t disagree.  As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’  It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.

But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part.  Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.

And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British.  The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.

An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000.  And then there’s Trevelyan.  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.’  When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up.  I wish.

At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen.  Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin.  Or to the Foyle in Derry.  But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description.  This is the centrepiece of the museum.  It still haunts me.  A family of 6, victims of the Famine.  Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer.  He began with the infant in the mother’s arms.  He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.  IMG_0791

Was the baby dead?  The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces.  And then as one scans downward, there are no feet.  These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts.  They are the dead of the Famine.  The dead of our ancestors, essentially.

But this is kind of it.  The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art.  The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display.  In fact, almost none of it is on display.  On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War.  The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States.  For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine.  And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.

While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy.  This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora.  And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time.  To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.

Either way.  The Civil War.  I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.

And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine.  And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America.  Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found.  This was the story of the Irish in America.

And then there was the thing I found most fascinating.  Our docent told us the origin story of the museum.  But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so.  And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.

1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine.  And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.

And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing.  That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes.  Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.

At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message.  So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.

Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much.  The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits.  There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.  The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course.  But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.

Captain Charles Boycott and the First Boycott

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.

Monumental History

May 11, 2017 § 19 Comments

I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.  It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story.  Of course, that is bloody obvious.  But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US.  He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War.  The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.

He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War.  And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC.  He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.

And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory.  There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts.  But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials.  Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative.  They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.

sieur_1In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal.  This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance.  And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man.  In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.1280px-Exploit_de_la_Place_d'Armes

The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then).  Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.

800px-National_Famine_Monument_with_Croagh_Patrick_in_the_backgroundAn example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52).  The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million).  It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland.  The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo.  But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.

But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event.  And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event.  How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen?  Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland).  So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?

I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.

 

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.

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.

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