Celtic Illumination, part 319, A rose by any other name.
Clogherhead being so close to Drogheda, and the location of the Battle of the Boyne, allowed me to indulge in one of my favourite past times which was wandering around graveyards taking notes. I also loved diving into local libraries and learning more about the history of my lovely little country. I can remember flicking through a book in a local church, with James getting rather bored, when I came across a period of Irish history that I did not know about. In fact I was hugely embarrassed that I did not know about it and I was also angry that I had not been taught about it. In Ireland it is known as An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, but it is more widely and incorrectly known as The Potato Famine.
I promise you I was deeply shocked to learn that enough food was produced in Ireland during this period that could feed every person on the island three times over, there never was a famine. At the time the British were in control, Irish Catholics were not allowed to own or lease land, they were not allowed to vote, to hold political office, to live in a town, to be educated or to enter a profession, sure they weren’t even allowed to speak their own language. The food was produced and taken, under protection of the British Army, and delivered to British colony’s abroad. The potato blight which was affecting most of Europe, devastated Ireland as the poor Irish Catholic depended on the potato, it was the one crop that produced the most food, given the small amounts of land they could cultivate. But it was only in Ireland where millions starved to death. The potato blight, which had decimated the potato crop in America for two years, now spread throughout the greater part of northern and central Europe. It was only in Ireland where three million people were totally dependent on potatoes for food that so many died because of the British Empire’s boot on their throat.
A fellow called Charles Trevelyan was the civil servant responsible for administrating the colony of Ireland. In his opinion the potato blight was an act of God and he claimed that if they stepped in to feed and save the Irish, they would be going against God’s will. So his advice to the British government was to stand back and allow the Irish to die, and not just to die, but to starve to death. He also considered, what he and the British called, the famine as an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population. Trevelyan has to have been one of the most evil men in history and perhaps one of the most hated men in Irish history. The most hated man in Irish history would have to be Cromwell, who sacked Drogheda and it excited me being there, the place is dripping with history. I had also thought that Cromwell was so hated for his barbaric acts of mass slaughter, which like his evil mates he considered to be the work of God, but as I worked my way through the local history books, I began to learn of another practise that sickened me to the core.
Cromwell was heavily involved in, and a great supporter of, slavery and a little known fact is that, food was not the only product that the British drained from Ireland, they also took the people. The British like to refer to them as ‘indentured servants,’ but they were slaves, nothing more than human cattle, sold to the highest bidder in places like the West Indies, Virginia, New England, Barbados and Jamaica. I couldn’t believe the huge scar in Irish history that I had uncovered and I was angry that these facts had not been taught to me in school. I couldn’t stop reading about these periods. An Irish slave could be bought and sold for five pounds but an African slave was worth fifty pounds so you can imagine the savage treatment the Irish received. People like the Duke of York would send his troops over to Ireland to gather one or two thousand children around the age of ten. They would then be taken and shipped abroad where they were sold. That is bad enough but what really turned my stomach was the fact that he would have the letters ‘DOY’ branded on their necks to show that they were his property.
I can remember confronting, my mother, Seamus and Margaret and asking why I had never been taught about these crimes. They knew all about them but thought it best that they were forgotten about, that they should be left in the past, for if you spoke about it you would only cause trouble. I can tell you that I was very angry, not just with the British for their barbaric treatment of the Irish, but for an education system that had not taught me about these episodes. It really was Orwellian, history being re-written, polished and covered up. But real Irishmen, and women, will never let these periods be forgotten about and my hat goes off to the Taoiseach, our name for Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. Bertie refused to talk to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, until the portrait of Oliver Cromwell, who Bertie referred to as “That murdering bastard,” was taken down and away from the room they were in, in Westminster.
I didn’t want to leave the Drogheda area as I needed to learn much more about what I had discovered, but my little vacation was coming to an end and we went back to Warrenpoint. I was surprised to discover that many people knew about what I had discovered but simply accepted it as something that happened years ago and moved on. People were not really that interested although I have to admit that I was ‘all fired up,’ about it. Everyone else was ‘all fired up,‘ about Ireland winning the World Cup. I had never seen anything like it in my life, every pub, club and hotel was heaving with people supporting the Irish soccer team, and most of them wouldn’t normally even watch football. This time we had an Englishman as a hero, Jack Charlton, a very famous English footballer who had played for Manchester United, and who now managed the Republic’s football team and was considered to be an honorary Irishman.
The player most talked about would have been the goalkeeper, Paki Bonner, who they say had a kick as long as a ten day week. Suddenly everybody was an expert on football. I can remember sitting at a bar with the head good ol boy himself, Phelim, who wouldn’t even give a football match a second glance, like myself, and the pair of us whooping and cheering along with every other person in the pub. As they say, the craic was mighty, I think the whole of the Island was drunk with joy, and a fair bit of the back stuff too. I couldn’t remember who we played, who we beat, or who eventually beat us, but they did and the party dissolved and Ireland returned to normal, well; as near normal as possible, just think laid back and then relax that a little bit more.
For example one morning James and I went down the street to get James a new pair of shoes; he had ruined one pair on the beach the previous day. It was just before nine o clock in the morning and most shops were flinging open their shutters and doors. We were heading for O Hares, gentleman’s outfitters, not because it was a fancy shop but because I used to live with the O Hare’s, a beautiful family, and I would normally be given a bit of discount. Pat, the second oldest of four boys was opening the shop. “Ah Hello Peter,” he says, adding “And who’s this?” I introduced James; I probably wouldn’t have seen Pat for maybe four or five years. Which is why some people might think that what happened next might be a little strange. Pat seemed to be somewhat agitated, he couldn’t stand still. With the small chit chat out of the way he turns to me and says. ”Here Peter, would you look after the shop for us for twenty minutes.” With which he runs off down the street leaving James and myself in charge of the shop.
The last thing we needed would be a customer, I’m not taking the inside leg measurement of some beast of a farmer, in town for the market, for anyone. I’m pleased to say that we did get a customer, well; customer would be the wrong way to describe this fellow. In Ireland we have a habit of just popping in to shops for a bit of craic, a bit of a chat, and that’s what this fellow as doing. I was a wee bit gobsmacked as he came in and asked if, “The Boys were around?” This was not referring to the IRA, but the three O Hare boys who worked in the shop. “No,” says I, reaching out my hand to him. “Pat’s just away down the street for something.” We stood in silence as I tried to work out which question I should ask him first, for this was none other than John Hume, the politician. The man who was to become a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and who was named as ‘Ireland’s Greatest,’ in a poll organised by RTE to find the greatest person in Ireland’s history.
From the worst to the best I was meeting them all during this trip and it was a golden opportunity to square the circle as I turned to John and asked his opinion on the Irish slave trade. As they say in Ireland, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you this and I’ll tell you no more,” the most famous person in Ireland stood there and gave me an impassioned speech about our history that I have never forgotten and that made a lasting impression on me. Pat returned to the shop soon after that and we all reverted to good natured banter. I am sure Pat and the other boys are very proud that the greatest man in Ireland’s history often popped in to their shop for a bit of craic, but I wonder how he will measure up when they discover that the King of Ireland, didn’t just pop in for a bit of craic, but actually lived with them for a while?