A bit of Irish history with some sightseeing thrown in too

Today was a less tiring day than yesterday, so I feel equal to writing about both Dublin and the Waterford/Kilkenny area. I’m still fairly tired, though, so I’ll be briefer than usual.

We actually saw very little of Dublin, since we took a very concentrated tour. A graduate student at Trinity University makes a bit of extra money leading history tours around Dublin. These tours cover very little geographic ground, but they also involve two hours of Irish history, told by someone with deep knowledge, good wit, and a nice, lively way of speaking. In my academic career as a history major, I only had one professor as good as he was.

Ireland’s history is simple: The island is first occupied by an unnamed, prehistoric people who left enigmatic, but amazing ruins. The Celts may have arrived after they vanished, may have conquered them, or may have assimilated them. No one knows. The Vikings arrived and, after wearying of pillage and conquest, opted to stay, trade, and inter-marry. Indeed, Ireland was a trade center, with the “black Irish” allegedly being the descendants of Moorish traders.

In the late 12th century, Henry II’s Normans began the first mainland British effort to take over Ireland. The Normans, rather than making Ireland more British, instead assimilated and became Irish. Henry VIII tried again, although more brutally. His brutality eventually merged with the fight between Protestants and Catholics and led to four hundred years of English efforts to eradicate Irish Catholics, by genocide if necessary.

Ireland’s Hitler came in the form of Oliver Cromwell, whose soldiers murdered 10-12% of the Irish population. Those who survived his depredations were subject to laws that allowed them to do little more than much about in the dirt for potatoes. Their churches were destroyed and they were not allowed to rebuild; they were denied any form of trade; they could not own property; and they were barred from educating their children. They were denied access to Dublin, with Cromwell establishing a thirty mile perimeter, called the Pale, around the city — hence our phrase, “beyond the pale” to describe something that is outside of good civilization.

Two asides: First, regarding Cromwell, Cromwell was asked how he planned to invade Ireland. He chose the Waterford area, which had two possible landing areas — the Hook and the Crook. Rather than make a choice between the two, he said that he would conduct the invasion “by Hook or by Crook,” a phrase you probably recognize.

Second, Hitler’s brother Alois moved to Ireland and married an Irish woman named Bridget. They had a son whom they named Patrick. Patrick Hitler was a true Irishman and an enemy of the Nazis. He tried without success to join the Royal Navy. Eventually, in 1944, he joined the US Navy and was wounded in the service of our country. If you doubt me, go online and look for an August 2012 article that John McEntee wrote for The Irish Times telling Patrick’s story.

Back to Irish history — what initially seemed to save the Irish was the potato. It grew wonderfully in Ireland’s soil. So did other nice crops, such as wheat, rye, etc. Cows and horses did well too. The problem for the Irish people was that their English landlords demanded as rent everything BUT the potatoes and the milk their cows produced.

Fortunately, for quite some time, the Irish were able to survive on potatoes and milk. They survived so well that their population swelled to something around 8-10 million by 1845.

Because the land fed them, the Irish abandoned the practice of primogeniture, which saw a man’s entire estate pass to his eldest son. Instead, the farmers divided their land amongst all their sons, so that landholdings got smaller and smaller. The Irish labored on the great estates, producing food for their British landlords (who sold it at a profit), while they grew potatoes on their microscopic pieces of land.

In 1845, the potato blight hit, rotting the crops in the ground. Even as the Irish labored for the Anglo-Irish producing food crops, they were starving to death on their own farms. The British provided NO relief, believing that the blight, which harmed only the potato, was a punishment from God because of the Irish folks’ pernicious and perpetual Catholicism.

During the five-year famine, one to three million Irish starved to death. Another million or so immigrated, with three-quarters going to America. Even after the famine ended, the Irish continued to emigrate, going to all sorts of former and current British colonies: America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc. (Several hundred thousand also ended up in Australia when the British sentenced them to serve out time for crimes in what was then a penal colony.)

Between a continued exodus and changes in social mores brought about by a reinstated primogeniture (only the eldest son inherited land and could afford to marry), the Irish population continued to decline. In addition, ongoing grinding poverty meant that, until the 1960s, the Irish still had a 19th century mortality rate. For example, tuberculosis was a scourge that killed whole families into the 1950s. As a result, Ireland is the only country in the world that has a smaller population now then it did in 1845.

Going back a little in time, beginning in the 1790s, the Irish began to agitate for independence. The British brutally repressed these efforts. The Irish didn’t gain independence until 1921, at which time they promptly engaged in a bloody, but mercifully brief, Civil War.

The result of this terrible history with the British, which flared up again with “the Troubles” that began in the 1960s, is that the Irish really don’t like England. They tolerate it as a neighboring nation. They don’t have a problem with the average Englishman, who they know is not responsible for their sufferings, but they deeply dislike the British government. Churchill is especially hated, because he released the incredibly brutal “Black and Tans” on them, a regiment culled from military prisons, with an emphasis on murderers and rapists.

And that’s my quicky version of the Irish history I’ve learned. Ninety percent of it comes from the graduate student, and ten percent comes from our driver today, a 70 year old man who lives and breathes being Irish.

The Dublin history talk covered only a small geographic area around Trinity College, so we didn’t see much of the City. After that, we visited an old gaol (pronounced jail), which housed ordinary criminals in dreadful conditions through WWI. In 1916, it housed members of the unsuccessful 1916 Easter Rebellion.

The British executed 14 rebels, including a man whose only crime was that his brother was a revolutionary; a seventeen year old; a school teacher: and a man who was a day away from dying from blood poisoning brought about by an untreated bullet wound. He was strapped to a chair so that he could be shot to death.

These executions were a big mistake, since people who had been uninterested in the uprising were so disgusted by the executions that they became radicalized. That’s how the Irish achieved home rule in 1921.

Yesterday was about history. Today, which we spent in the Waterford/Kilkenny region (Ireland’s south coast) was about beauty. In no particular order, we saw an 800 year old castle (Kilkenny) that was a home until the 1950s; a vast manor house that was also a home until the 1950s, and is now a luxury hotel, golf course, and stud farm; a three hundred year old pub that’s been open continuously during that time; a medieval village; and a windswept coast. The sights ranged from charming, to beautiful, to breathtaking. It was a good note on which to end our cruise.

Tomorrow, we’re at sea, and the next day we’re in Amsterdam, where we’ll tour around for three days before finally heading home.