A New Ireland: How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became Its Most Liberal – Niall O’ Dowd

odowdIn April 1916, Irish Republicans used the Easter holiday week to launch an insurrection against British rule in Ireland. Through the British regained control of Dublin and later conducted executions of selected participants, the uprising stands to this day as a pivotal moment in the movement for a united Ireland. When I visited Dublin in February 2016, I took a moment to observe murals dedicated to Irish history. I realized that the Ireland I was visiting had changed since the visit of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) in April 1963. Ireland was once known was the most conservative country in Europe but had now become the most liberal. As I walked the streets of Dublin, I heard accents from countries throughout the world and the diversity of languages reminded me of my hometown, New York City. But how did Ireland undergo such a drastic change? The answer can be found in this book that captures an important aspect of Irish history.

Books I have previously read about Ireland heavily focused on the conflict known as “The Troubles”. The struggle between Irish Republicans and Irish Protestants loyal to the British Parliament has left Northern Ireland with physical scars and dark memories. There is peace today but tensions between the two factions have never completely dissipated. And Britain’s exit from the European Union raised the question, what will happen to Northern Ireland? The future remains to be seen. It is not necessary to have an extensive knowledge of the Troubles to enjoy this book. The story at hand is truly remarkable but it is also filled with shocking and revolting moments that forced Ireland to look in the mirror.

I appreciated the discussion of Irish history that explains how religion evolved in Ireland. It quickly becomes apparent that Catholicism is viewed with suspicion and to be a Catholic could result in acts of violence and even death. I found myself speechless when I learned of the reaction to and persecution of Catholic Bishops. This part of the book is mortifying and not for the faint of heart. Irish Catholics also faced daily insults and risks but remained true to their faith. However, the potato famine in 1845-1846 resulted in the exodus of over one million Irish citizens. For the new emigrants, America became the primary destination and the men and women who moved to the United States would never forget their brethren back in Ireland. As the 1800s moved forward, the Irish Republican Brotherhood established itself as a new force to lead the movement for independence and freedom for Catholics. No one in Ireland could have known what was in store for the nation during 1900s when Ireland would see bloodshed, scandal, peace, and transformation. And it would not be until 1998 when both sides came together and signed the Good Friday Agreement.

I must disclose that for all the inspiring actions to support the Catholic faith, the dark side of the church rears its ugly head. Readers who are Catholic may find these parts of the book upsetting. I think everyone will find them disturbing. Before I had finished the book, the names Father Michael Cleary (1934-1993) and Bishop Eamonn Casey (1927-2017) were seared into my memory. Their stories form the nucleus of the turn away from faith and towards modernity. I cannot overstate how crucial their roles were in Ireland’s social fabric and readers will need a moment to digest what they learn. However, the darkest moment of the book is the story of Brendan Smyth (1927-1997) a Catholic priest from Belfast whose role is chilling. Frankly, steel yourself when you get to this part.

As a conservative republic, Ireland also faced the issue of gay rights. In an overwhelmingly religious environment, there was no safe have for the LGBT in Ireland and the murder of Declan Flynn (1952-1982) sent chills down my spine. The crime and its aftermath receive a section in the book and will leave readers speechless. But on a positive note, readers will also be surprised to learn of the LGBT community’s role in the Easter Uprising in 1916. I did not know of this previously and was surprised to learn of its involvement. In a moment of tense introspection, Ireland had to confront the subject of same-sex attraction as Catholic leaders fell from grace. As I read, I thought of the 2015 film “Spotlight” starring Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, which I highly recommend.

The church’s fall from grace is only part of the story and Ireland still had to confront sexism and other draconian aspects of its culture that needed to be addressed if the country was going to move forward. The task was not easy, and the past continued to shape the future. Women were seen but still needed a voice. And in a country shaped by the legacies of men such as Eamon De Valera (1882-1975) and Michael Collins (1890-1922), the road to female politicians was filled with obstacles. However, Ireland was changing, and the election of Mary Robinson modified the country permanently. And the arrival of Leo Varadkar ensured that Ireland had passed the point of no return. Women’s rights were another hurdle to overcome but Ireland was up to the task and moved forward haunted by the ghost of Savita Andanappa Yalag (1981-2012) and other women in similar situations.

Today it is hard to imagine Ireland as Europe’s most conservative country. Upon returning to New York after my trip, I knew that one day I would return to Dublin and finish exploring the Irish Republic. I know that the country is far from perfect, and its dark past is never that far away. But Ireland stands as a shining example of a country that understands a fundamental concept: if you do not keep up, you get left behind. Those who want to understand the social fabric of Ireland and its history will find this book to be invaluable. Highly recommended.

“When you travel the world, you have to watch and you have to listen. We’re not going to come in to Ireland without an understanding that there’s a history that’s very sensitive.” – Chuck D


Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 – Susan Campbell Bartoletti

PotatoesJoseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) frequently reminded those he knew that his ancestor had come to America to escape the “potato famine” in Ireland.  While Kennedy was certainly well versed at re-writing his family’s history, the famine did indeed exist and caused death and destruction across southern and western Ireland.  I had known of the famine and it resulting in the mass exodus of Irish families who made new lives in North America.  However, there was much about the famine that I did not know and felt that this book was the perfect choice to learn about a historical event that changed Irish history.  Those of you who follow this blog might recall some of the reviews I have posted regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”.  Here, I am shifting gears a bit and taking a step back further in time.  And the first question I had for myself before reading this book was just what exactly did happen during the famine?   Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti provides the answer to that question and a wealth of information that will allow any reader of this book to fully understand the cause of the famine and the events that transpired. 

The story begins in 1845 as farmers begin to notice that their potato crops are turning black in color without any reasonable explanation.  Without the benefit of modern science, the farmers were at a loss trying to figure out the cause of the widespread devastation of their crops.  The actual cause is revealed by the author but the farmers could not have known in 1845 that it even existed.  Their response was to try all sorts of remedies that did nothing to stop the growing menace.  The diminishing of potatoes resulted in widespread panic and Britain began to take notice.   The relationship between Ireland and England has always been filled with tension and the cause can be traced back hundreds of years beginning with the actions of Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1536 that gave the Crown a stronghold over Ireland that lasted until 1921 when the Republic of Ireland was formally created and instituted the persecution of Irish Catholics.   And in 1695, the archaic Penal Laws pushed the Catholic population into further destitution.   By 1845, Henry VIII was a distant memory but Queen Victoria was faced with a dire situation in the Irish colony.   Yet, even she could not have predicted just how deadly the famine would become. 

Before purchasing this book, I honestly do not think I had a fully accurate picture of life in Ireland during the famine. To say that life was hard would be an understatement.  It was nothing short of brutal and the average life expectancy was nothing to admire.  As the famine begins to take hold of Ireland, British officials realize that trouble is brewing and implement a series of relief measures to feed the population and prevent the outbreak of deadly viruses and diseases.  Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) was the first to act upon realizing that the famine was causing a staggering number of deaths.  However, his efforts while heroic in many ways, were not enough and his successor, Lord John Russell (1792-1878) did not share the same beliefs.  Russell diverted from his predecessor’s path and took actions that only enhanced the misery of the Irish Catholics.  But in spite of the laws that are passed by Britain, we are left to ask the question, could the famine have been prevented in the first place?  

Bartoletti highlights a tragic irony of the situation that will make readers question why the famine was not prevented?  As I read through this section, I felt a sense of anger at British officials and empathy for the Irish families that starved and died horrific deaths in living conditions that were beyond sub-human.  And the descriptions of their lives will help readers understand the reason why even today, Irish Catholics want the British government to fully relinquish all control of Irish territory.   You might be wondering what the Irish did to help themselves and take action against Britain? Well, there are interesting facts presented in the book and the section regarding the Young Ireland revolutionary group is of particular interest, for it serves as a premonition to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Republican Army. 

I do want to warn readers that the descriptions of the living conditions in Irish slums is not for the faint at heart.  The author thoroughly discusses each and how the human body is affected until death is the end result.  The memories provided in quotes are equally as macabre and readers sensitive to descriptions of the deceased may have a difficult time with those sections in the book.  However, to fully understand just how deadly the famine was and just how miserable life was for Irish Catholics during the famine, it is necessary to know these stories.  Further, religion enters the picture as well and actions taken by the Protestants who are there to “help” the Catholics are in some cases, repulsive.  The divide is sharp and sadly continues to this day.  These tragic conditions are supported by the actions of Britain that is not sure how to save the Irish and compounds the problem in some situations.  Its official policy of laissez-faire is put under the microscope and its effect on the problem will have readers staring in disbelief.  Of course, there is far more to the story and this book is mainly a primer on the situation.  

Conditions continued to deteriorate and the Irish were left with one choice: emigrate.  Many families do leave Ireland and the journey they take to reach North America is simply surreal.  Large numbers did not survive the journey and the reasons for which are explained in the book. Further, conditions aboard the vessels are explored as well, in addition to the reality that awaited the new Irish settlers.  The romanticized image of Ellis Island welcoming new immigrants to America does not apply here and the reality for the Irish was far darker and without glamour.  The policy of many places against hiring the Irish immigrants is a sad example.  Today, we know that the Irish have prospered in America.  John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is considered by many to be proof that the Irish had reached the top of American society.  Kennedy is only one person and there are many Irish men and women who have contributed greatly to the American experience.  But for all of them, their ancestors’ lives were stories to be remembered from an era when death was more widespread than life and an entire generation of people were subjected to the tyranny of the Crown’s rule, while enduring unimaginable living conditions in an ugly class-base system. The potato famine amplified the inequality between Irish and British and left Ireland a very different country.  If you are looking to understand the Irish potato famine from start to finish, this is a great place to start. 

“The Great Irish Famine changed Ireland forever. It swept away whole families and villages. It nearly wiped out the Irish language and centuries-old traditions and folk beliefs. Some even say it killed the fairies.”