Friday, March 17, 2017


(This post previously appeared in El Rrun-Rrun. We reprint it here in honor of St. Patrick's Day for our fellow citizens of Irish descent and other like-minded readers.)

By Juan Montoya
The readers of this blog know by now that we have a soft spot for the Irish, that mad and joyful race from the Emerald Isle.

But even though there are commonalities of religion and cultural persecution, we generally know only a superficial history of that suffered people. Everyone knows about the Potato famine and the persecution by their English masters. Ireland, as was Scotland, was, in effect, a colony of white second-class citizens under the British.

And history buffs along the US-Mexico border know of the San Patricio Battalion that fought on the Mexican side during the Mexican-American War. There is even a monument to those soldiers (some who were hanged upon the fall of the Castle of Chapultepec) in the Mexican capital commemorating their valor on the battlefield. Those not hanged by Gen. Winfield Scott were branded with a "T" on their cheek to indicate they were considered traitors by the invading U.S. forces.

Yet, it isn't until you study this historical situation closer that you realize the true extent of that subjugation and its incredible human toll that both the famine and British imperialism took on these people.

I recently stumbled across a book written by Thomas Keneally, the same writer who wrote Schindler's List. The book is called The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World.
Written by a master novelist, it depicts 19th Century Ireland and the privations and subjugation imposed upon Catholic Irish in their native land. Keneally's own ancestors (one Hugh Larkin) was "transported" to Australia for his role in protesting the land tenancy practices of Irish landlords that starved their 
tenants and drove them to the brink of famine and death, and rebellion.

As a result of these pressures on the Irish, in the 19th Century Ireland lost half of its population to famine, emigration to the United States and Canada, and the forced deportation of convicts to Australia.

Keneally documents the full story of the Irish diaspora through the eyes of political prisoners, many like his ancestor who left Ireland in chains and eventually found glory, in one form or another, in Australia and America.
Keneally traces the Irish struggle for liberation through the Emancipation when Irish natives were ostensibly granted the right to vote and hold office. Those rights had been taken from them since the defeat of deposed King Edward James II and his Catholic Irish allies at the battle of Boyne River in 1690.

The victors were the Protestant army of James's son-in-law King William of Orange, who had been handed the British throne by Parliament in 1688. After the battle, a series of penal laws were passed to prevent further Catholic uprising aimed at keeping the native Irish powerless, poor and stupid.
Some of those laws were not repealed until the Emancipation in 1829.

Keneally writes that "Under the Penal Code the Catholic Irish were barred from serving as officers in the army or navy, or from practicing as lawyers – a profession for which they would later prove to have an appetite. They could hold no civic post or office at all under the Crown.
At the death of a Catholic landowner his land was to be divided among all his sons unless the eldest became a Protestant, in which case he would inherit the whole.

A Catholic could not own a horse worth more than 3 (British) pounds, was prohibited from living within five miles of an incorporated town and from attending or keeping schools. Edmund Burke called these laws "a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of the people, and the debasement of human nature itself as ever proceeded from the perverted imagination of man."

Reading and writing, if any, was acquired by the peasantry by so-called hedge-schools that were carried out in the shade of tall windbreaks in the countryside. Mass was held on Mass stones instead of altars by finding a suitable flat rocks atop of which were placed the sacraments and other objects of Catholic worship.
The landlord was upheld by law, was validated in the seizing of the livestock and furniture against "hanging gale" – a lateness in paying the heavy twice-yearly rent – and was supported if he evicted tenants.

In that era, the droit de seigneur – the right of the landlord to deflower the peasant bride before she was handed back to her husband – existed on many large estates. There was also the common requirement before marriage that permission be sought, cap-in-hand, at the big house. Although the Irish natives were forced by law to bear these indignities, they did enjoy some advantage over other European peasants of the day in that they did not face hunger as did many others on the continent.
This was the result of the introduction of the New World tuber into their diets.
The lowly potato, a native plant of Peru, not only provided the 3,800 calories per day, but also an extraordinary armoury of vitamins, twice the recommended daily intake of protein, calcium and iron, and a low fat content.

Potatoes were the only cheap crop which could support life when fed to a peasant as the sole item of a diet. They were also suited to the conditions of land tenure, under which the peasants could not afford to build barns or sheds in which to store the food.
This staple of the Irish diet also helped stave off the common scourges of hunger found elsewhere around the world – scurvy, pellagra and malnutrition blindness.
In face of this meager existence and the propensity of landlords to hike their tenants' rents on a whim, the Irish formed secret societies to help themselves.

Variously called WhiteboysRockites, and Ribbon societies, they came into existence to threaten both the landlords and the bailiff who evicted, as well as any tenant rash enough to take up an evictee's house and land.
The resulting laws against these types of uprising and membership in these societies included death, imprisonment and "transportation" to the penal colonies in South Africa and, most often preferred, Australia.
LarkinKeneally's ancestor, was arrested and convicted of threatening his landlord with a group of Whiteboys protesting the eviction of a fellow peasant. He was sentenced to "transportation" for 12 years.
The beginning of the end came in September 1845.
As the Irish chafed under the British yoke, the air over Ireland as filling with the spores of a mold which would work a ferocious change. The first rumors had come from the fields of Britain and Belgium of a blight that turned the potato flower and stalk black and which cause the potato itself to putrefy.
By October, the potato crop everywhere in Ireland was rotting. When the Irish peasants went out to the garden, Keneally writes, "for potatoes for a meal. They stuck the spade in the pit, and the spade was swallowed. The potatoes turned mud inside. They shrieked and shrieked. The whole town came out."

Dubbed the "vampire" fungus, it would later be identified as Phytopthoma infestans, treatable by spraying with copper compounds, and reduced to an agricultural nuisance. But for the Irish then, it was a momentous force, a strange visitation.
As hunger stalked the land, Irish legislators pleaded with the Crown for the suspension of the export of Irish grain and provisions and a prohibition on distilling and brewing from grain. They also asked for the suspension of the so-called Corn Laws to open Irish ports to free import of rice and Indian corn from other British colonies.

Irish ports were not open and subject to the special provision of the laws designed to peg the price of the grain at the highest possible level and to keep out other, cheaper grain until the entire British crop had been sold at artificially pegged prices. There are reports of starving children lining the banks of the canals as boats loaded with food and grains sailed out for exportation from Ireland, their lips stained green from eating grass.

And so, though a combination of hunger, official recalcitrance to open markets, and imperial edicts, began the period in Ireland called an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, or simply, an droch-Shaol – the

Bad Life, the Bad Times.
By February 1846, in Lismay, a survey of the destitute populations in five townslands found that 211 persons were "absolutely starving," and correctly seen as the apex of a great pyramid of hunger where the victims were reduced in some cases to the skeletal conditions where the body feeds necrotically on its own substance.
Hand in hand with the extreme hunger came its companion, the Black Fever, typhus. Marching side by side with hunger, typhus darkened the swollen faces of the victims, and finished them. People collapsed from it in the fields, and in ditches along the road.

Lice infected with Rickettsia communicated the disease from sufferer to sufferer. The mere squashing of an infected louse on the skin permitted the invasion by the minute bacteria. The excrement of the louse contained Rickettsia also.

The extension of a helping hand to the ragged elbow of a sufferer's coat could release the invisible and fatal powder of dung. Hence, clergy, nuns and doctors who tended fevered patients, handled their tattered clothing, comforted them with a hand to wrist, shoulder or forehead, readily became victims.
Many witnesses mentioned the mousy stench of the disease, how it drove one backwards when the door of an infected house was opened. Simultaneously, a deadly relapsing fever emerged. It was sometimes called Yellow Fever, fiabrhas buidhe, because it produced a jaundiced appearance.
Relapsing fever was also transmitted by lice, but the bacterium was carried on the body and limbs of the louse, not the stomach. The fever raged for four or five days, but then passed. But perhaps after a week it hit again. There could be as many as four or five relapses, any of them fatal.

Their generic name was Famine Fever.
Along with the ravages of hunger and pestilence came the hardening attitude of the colonial government to famine-fed unrest.
Evictions became violent.
The poor lived along the roadsides and under trees. In one account, a bystander witnessed the evictions of more than 60 tenants – nearly 300 people – by the 49th Infantry at the request of one Mrs. Gerrard, for unpaid rent.

"It was the most appalling he had ever witnessed – women, young and old, running wildly to and fro with small portions of property."
That night the ejected families slept in the ruins of their houses; their neighbors were warned on pain of eviction against taking them in. Like the evicted throughout the country, they now had to live in scalps, burrows roofed over with boughs and turf, or in scalpeens, holes dug in the ruins of a "tumbled" house.

"There is a horrible silence;" reads a narrative of the day, "grass grows before the doors; we fear to look into nay door...for we fear to see yellow chapless skeletons grinning there; but our footfalls rouse two lean dogs that run from us with fearful howling, and we know by the felon-gleam in the wolfish eyes how they have lived after their masters died. We stop before the thresholds of our host of two years before, put our head, and say with shaking voice, 'God save all here!' – No answer. Ghastly silence and a mouldy stench, as from the mouth of burial vaults! They are dead!
"The strong man and the fair dark-eyed woman and the little ones, with their Gaelic accents that melted into the music two years ago; they shrank and withered together until their voices dwindled to a rueful gibbering, and they hardly knew one another's faces, but their horrid eyes scowled at each other with a cannibal glare."

By March 1847, nearly 3,000 were dying each week in Ireland's workhouses.
People huddled together by any turf fire, and lice and typhus traveled from one another. By day, the roads were full of desperate travelers who conveyed the infected lice from place to place.
Once or twice a a day – in a form of quarantine and not desertion – "relatives of sufferers would feed the ailing ones inside by tying a can of water and a bit of hot gruel to the end of a long pole. When there were no more tugs on the pole, the house would be pulled down on top of the corpse and burned, an unprecedented method of disposing of a body."

The result of these incredibly cruel and tragic conditions in Ireland drove the great migration to the Americas.
The British government never acquiesced to attend to the plight of the starving masses, preferring instead to protect its markets and impose its imperial will upon the Irish.
Out of that migration of the hungry "masses yearning to be free" and from other peoples throughout the globe the United States has emerged as the best "poor man's country in the world."

What would have happened to the Irish people if the doors to America had been closed to them then? We would all have been much the poorer for it because the Irish, despite their tragedy and their own prejudices toward their fellow Americans like Afro-Americans, women, and Latinos, have contributed an invaluable addition to the tapestry and culture of this great nation.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the Emerald Isle!


Anonymous said...

The Irish are a bunch of fuckin' drunks. Cannot be trusted!

Anonymous said...

LONG LIVE The Honorable "St. Patrick's Batallion" ERING GO BRAGH. (Ireland forever!!)
Our IGNORANT local politicians could make an Irish holiday/historical celebration, but nah, let's honor the confederacy instead.

Anonymous said...

Always remember when applauding Los San Patricios, they were deserters from the United States Army. There were turncoats and traitors to their adopted country and breakers of their oaths. Scott was right to hang the treasonous bastards.

Mexico may want to honor them, but they will never have any honor in the United States of America.

Anonymous said...

Erin go bragh, bullshit. Erin go fuck yourselves.

Anonymous said...

Mexico celebrates St. Patrick's Day because of the San Patricio Brigade that fought with the Mexicans against the U.S. The Irish were originally sent to the U.S. as slaves by the British King. "Anonymous" is surely a man with no reading habits and poor understanding of American and Mexican history. This nation is going to hell because of the ignorance of people like "Anonymous".

Anonymous said...

The "Irish Catholics" which I proudly proclaim heritage cannot be grouped into a typical anglo saxon mentality. We are a much more tribal lot. England needed Ireland much more than Ireland needs England.
Hence the name "Ire-land" meaning = 'LAND OF RAGE"
An Irsh poem, prayer or toast, all the same on this day....
May you always walk in Sunshine.
May you never want for more.
May Irsh Angels,
Rest their wings,
Right beside your door.


Anonymous said...

Not every Irishman is like McHale...

Anonymous said...

The English did not send Irish slaves to the US. England did send Irish slaves to some British Islands in the Caribbean.

The mid-1840s were the height of the potatoes famine and huge numbers of Irish immigrated to America and Australia. Some of those who immigrated to America join the Army right off the boat. It was these bastards that became the turncoat San Patricios.

The quality of a man is determined by how he keep his word. When a main raises his right hand and takes an oath to serve a country truth and faithfully, he damn well better keep it. If he betrays that oath and goes over to the enemy, he should be hung from the nearest tree.

No honorable man or woman who served in the armed forces of the United State will honor such men.

Anonymous said...

I will remind the fellow who took a swipe at the Confederate States of America, that in 1961 the issue of whether or not States could leave the Union was unsettled and untested. Both side thought the Constitution and the law were on their sides.