Feb. 7th, 2012

hawkwing_lb: (DA 2 scaring the piss)
Warning: long post ahead.


Ireland, 1740-1741.

This isn't a famous year. Outside of a handful of historians, it's hardly ever mentioned or discussed, unlike 1798 (rebellion), 1803 (abortive rising headed by the romantic idiot Robert Emmet), 1845-1847 (Great Famine), 1916 (Easter Rising).

The context: in 1719/1720, the Dependency Act (6 Geo I, c.5) had defanged what independence the Parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland possessed.

The complete disenfranchisement of Irish Catholics had taken place in 1728. An earlier law, in the reign of Queen Anne, the Gavelkind Act, required Catholic landholders to divide their lands equally among their heirs, which contributed to the drop in Catholic ownership of land from 14% (1703) to 5% (1770s). Catholics were in addition barred from most of the professions, and barred from ownership of a lease of more than 31 years.

Bear in mind, dear friends, that Catholics made up over 70% of the population of Ireland, with Protestant Dissenters (Presbyterians, Calvinists) at perhaps another 15%: the Protestant Ascendancy comprised 15% or less of the total population, and less than 30% of the (male) population had any say whatsoever in the then-kingdom's political administration. To boot, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the mechanism of administration was answerable not to the Irish establishment, but to the monarch (king, as it would be from the death of Queen Anne to the coronation of Queen Victoria) in England.

1739. Temperatures that winter dropped as low as -12C. The country remained frozen for weeks. Grain export was interdicted to all destinations save Britain. The established Church solicited donations from the propertied and arranged parish relief in the towns, but Catholic clergy had no such reservoir of monied interests to draw upon for their relief efforts. A dry spring followed in early 1740. Drought and cold took a toll on sheep and cattle. The summer of 1740 saw food riots in the towns. Autumn brought a poor harvest and strange temperature fluctuations: blizzards in October, followed by a warm spell, followed by November snows, and heavy rainfall in December. Disease had already been widespread: during the foul weather and starvation, it reached epidemic proportions.

For the period between the spring of 1740 and the late summer of 1741, estimates of the death toll vary. The first Irish census did not take place until the nineteenth century, so what demographic information we possess is limited, but one believable calculation places the death rate at over 30% of a total population of somewhere between 3 and 4 million souls. The impact on population is even greater when one considers the role played by migration: at least 150,000 people left for good.

As a percentage of population, this is even worse than effect of the Great Famine of 1845-1847. Of a population around eight million, something like one million died and another million emigrated.

This is part of the history we live with.


We're all products of our upbringing. Culture, location, history: whether we choose conformity or defiance, what ways we choose them, why. To be Irish and Anglophone, to be Irish and European, is to stand in the intertidal zone of history, subject to many conflicting currents.* On one side there's an Anglophone heritage that gave birth to Jonathan Swift, Maria Edgeworth, W.B Yeats. The same heritage gives us Punch cartoons such as:

"The British Lion and the Irish Monkey"

"The Irish Labourer as the English Labourer's Burden"

"The Irish Frankenstein"

a heritage that historically characterised the non-Anglophone or unassimilated Irish as a "rude uncivilized race, totally uneducated and without the means of acquiring instruction," (Alexander Dallas, churchman, 1840s), savage, violent, dirty, lazy, primitive: all the epithets by which a dominant set of cultural assumptions degrades an unassimilated other.

The reverse of the medal: Irish myth-making and history elides the accommodations made in and with Anglo Ireland, romanticises local or elite power-struggles as part of a history of revolutionary nationalism and neglects to mention that many of our "revolutionary" heroes were themselves part of the elite ascendancy (Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Charles Stewart Parnell). Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats come out of a "romantic" reclamation of "Gaelic" Irish literary culture, a movement that sought to make its influences acceptable, conformable, to Anglo literary culture. Yeats, constructing himself as a national poet in the 1910s and 20s and 30s, remained conflicted about the dirty business of revolution and independence, but himself unable to refrain from romanticising it, too.

"Was it for this Edward Fitzgerald died/And Robert Emmet, and Wolfe Tone/All that delirium of the brave?"

The urge to romanticise nationalism, to not look closely at its accommodations with power, remains part of Ireland today, in its relationship with modern Britain, with Catholicism, with Europe, with America. It's a dangerous tendency, but an understandable one: if we're the plucky underdogs, the survivors, the beacon of learning in the soi-disant Dark Ages, the baptismal font of a pan-European Celtic heritage (we're not), we don't have to think about the real consequences and compromises of our history.

The fact that I am writing this in English, and couldn't write a similar blogpost in Irish, is one of those consequent compromises. (Ní feidir liom Gaeilge a labhairt go líofach. Níl a fhios agam conas a bheith ag abair ná ag léibh ná ag scríobh an teanga seo.) But that puts me in an interesting position vis-a-vis modern Anglophone literary and popular culture, which is dominated on one side by the United States and on the other side by the United Kingdom.

(For the moment, let's leave aside Canada and Australia, both still Commonwealth nations, both with their own colonial histories and modern infelicities. While they're still larger presences than any of the other Anglophone nations/places, they're not as dominant as the US and the UK.)

The UK (probably I should say England and Scotland and Wales and the Channel Islands and Northern Ireland and up to 1921 all of Ireland, because hi regional differences!) has its place thanks to history, a history which means a fair proportion of writing in English before the last two centuries took place there, and up until the end of the nineteenth century, probably more than a strictly fair proportion. America has more native English speakers than any other nation, these days, and owes its present Anglophone popular culture hegemony to the fact that it produces - and exports - a hell of a lot of the stuff.

The UK has had (still does have, I suppose), and the US still has, a disproportionate amount of military and political influence on a global scale. Colonial powers, with internal and external divisions, inequalities, injustices. Happy to believe their own myths (see Doctor Who's episodes set in wartime London, or pretty much any piece of American popular culture dealing with the military).

But what about we few, we Anglophone few caught on the horns of history, who cannot see ourselves either in the literature of these cultural megaliths or in the internal critique thereof? Me, I suppose I'm saying. Me, me, me. I don't see my experience reflected in Anglophone or Irish literary or popular culture, either. There is so little of it, in comparison, and what there is rings to me false or narrow, smugly self-congratulatory or overly-romanticised, complacently middle-class or far too cynical.

On one side I'm the child of colonisers, of middle-class norms and easy romanticised answers: on the other, child of a single-parent with a struggling-class experience of the world of work and politics, radically suspicious of binary choices, deeply unnerved at the interplay of language, culture and politics, heir to literature and myth that's been borrowed and bowdlerised, tamed on occasion, sometimes turned back to reinforce narratives of dominance.


There's a third side, a fourth side, a tetrahedon of sides.

At least one of them is where I've chosen to locate myself. A reader of fantasy and science fiction: an opinionated reader, moving in a milieu dominated by American assumptions, American voices, American experiences: sometimes - more rarely - English voices, UK experiences. The product of one of history's many intertidal zones, I love a literature to which I'm largely invisible.

My inheritance is the farmer starving in the fields, the revolutionary on the barricade shot dead by his cousin, the artisan family shunned by a converted sister, the thousand secret shames and compromises, the slow dying of a native tongue, the awkward accommodations and corruptions born of "going along to get along" and of being a nation of nepotism and cute hoors.

Lost heirs here became potboys, died as mercenaries in exile, accepted resettlement and loss of three-quarters of their lands in order to keep their lives, converted, resisted, accommodated. Women preserved family histories, brought the children of convert marriages up as secret Catholics, hid unregistered priests. The Irish Home Rule struggle wasn't a war that was ever won. It was as much civil war as revolutionary struggle, as much legislative process and centuries-slow changing of minds as it was tension between local "terroristical" violence between landlord and tenant, state and mob.

My inheritance is also instruments of state violence, the appropriators of peasant property: knights and soldiers and servants of the Crown, relationships riven with tension and faction and division and compromise. People who loved and hated and swallowed misgivings and struggled with doubts and bureaucracies, who were (some of them) convinced of their god-given rightness or arrogant in their humility.

There is very little in SFF that reflects my experience of history. Mary Gentle, Elizabeth Bear, Amanda Downum, Marie Brennan, Alma Alexander, Charles Stross, Daniel Fox/Chaz Brenchley: in fantasy they come close. In SF I can think of fewer: something of Samuel R. Delany, perhaps, or Roger Zelazny; Bear and Stross again, that one adult SF book by Scott Westerfeld, what I've read of Walter Jon Williams' futuristic SF.

I've spent the evening writing this (I write it out in a verse -/MacDonagh and MacBride/And Connolly and Pearse). It's less a thesis than a meditation, I suppose. Like Eavan Boland's poem, "That The Science of Cartography is Limited," these aren't thoughts that lend themselves to easy synthesis, or to cut-and-dried argument. "That The Science of Cartography is Limited," Boland wrote:

-and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

*This may only be true for me. It may true for more than just an Irishperson. I don't know: I'm only speaking from my own experience.


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