There is a long-running lie that the Irish were slaves and got over it, so African Americans should do too. The lie and its spread have been most thoroughly dissected by the historian Liam Hogan, but this is Frederick Douglass on the subject in the 1840s, via the Project Gutenberg edition of My Bondage and My Freedom. He does not refer to exactly the same lie, that of Irish slaves in the Americas, but clearly there was a similar lie flying around in the 1840s, and he had an answer to it.
It is often said, by the opponents of the anti-slavery cause, that the condition of the people of Ireland is more deplorable than that of the American slaves. Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body, and can say with the poet, “The hand of Douglass is his own.” “The world is all before him, where to choose;” and poor as may be my opinion of the British parliament, I cannot believe that it will ever sink to such a depth of infamy as to pass a law for the recapture of fugitive Irishmen! The shame and scandal of kidnapping will long remain wholly monopolized by the American congress. The Irishman has not only the liberty to emigrate from his country, but he has liberty at home. He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs.
The multitude can assemble upon all the green hills and fertile plains of the Emerald Isle; they can pour out their grievances, and proclaim their wants without molestation; and the press, that “swift-winged messenger,” can bear the tidings of their doings to the extreme bounds of the civilized world. They have their “Conciliation Hall,” on the banks of the Liffey, their reform clubs, and their newspapers; they pass resolutions, send forth addresses, and enjoy the right of petition. But how is it with the American slave? Where may he assemble? Where is his Conciliation Hall? Where are his newspapers? Where is his right of petition? Where is his freedom of speech? his liberty of the press? and his right of locomotion? He is said to be happy; happy men can speak. But ask the slave what is his condition—what his state of mind—what he thinks of enslavement? and you had as well address your inquiries to the silent dead. There comes no voice from the enslaved. We are left to gather his feelings by imagining what ours would be, were our souls in his soul’s stead.
Incidentally, he also compares the singing of slaves in the United States to what he heard in Ireland during the Famine:
In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy. I have never heard any songs like those anywhere since I left slavery, except when in Ireland. There I heard the same wailing notes, and was much affected by them. It was during the famine of 1845-6.
James Plunkett was one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of the great Irish novel, Strumpet City. This extract is from The Gems She Wore (1972), his account of some Irish places and his travels to and in them, while he was making a programme for the BBC and RTE.
We set out from Castletownbere by helicopter, filmed here and there for some hours and were, from my amateur grasp of navigational matters, firmly in the middle of nowhere when the pilot asked me if there was any place near in which we could get morning coffee. I looked down. There was a great lump of uninhabited mountain below, forbidding cliffs ahead and the rolling sea beyond. The most I knew about our whereabouts was that we were certainly not over the Phoenix Park, but being the only Irishman at hand I had to pretend to be knowledgeable. Seawards, the nearest coffee shop would be in New York, so we turned inland. Stony fields, narrow tracks and an occasional cottage with hens and domestic animals scattering in all directions at the noise of our approach were the only signs of organised society, until we passed over an isolated building which from the air looked very much like the others, except that it was larger and there were three cars parked fairly near it. I pointed down and said: `There’. We circled, saw a possible landing place about half a mile away and descended near a beach, where a party of men were packing up some land-sea rescue equipment with which they had been practising. They were speaking Irish, but answered the pilot’s inquiry about coffee in English. The pilot, Peter Peckowski, speaks with a slight Polish accent. By all means they said, but doubtfully. Coffee is not very usual in remote Ireland. They led us over ditches and by tracks to the roadway and there, in front of us, was the building I had spotted from the air. It was a public house.
`Tell me’, said one of the men, `did youse ever drink tea?’
I assured him we had.
Inside the women of the house went off to make coffee without fuss, while Peter asked where we were.
`In Ballydavid’, said the owner, `if you go by the map, but the right name is Baile na nGall’.
I was sitting at one of the tables and said: `The town of the Strangers’.
He hadn’t expected that and came over to scrutinise me.
`You’re not foreign’, he said.
`I am not’, I said.
He looked more closely.
`You have the look of a Dublin man?’
`Now you have it’.
`A writer maybe?’
It was embarassing. It was also, quite unexpectedly, deeply moving to be recognised in my own country so far away from my own small world.
`Pleased to meet you’, I said.
If he had presented me with the Freedom of Dingle I wouldn’t have been so genuinely honoured and I felt, not for the first time, that before I die I will speak my native language adequately enough to talk with those of my countrymen who have it from birth, so that they won’t shame me by having to change to English on my account.
So there I was, minding my own business, when I discovered that the Frankfurt School was responsible for giving gay men and women in Ireland the right to marry.
“Well now,” says I, “what else might they be responsible for, these gnomes of Frankfurt.” It turns out they have been the source of the “ideas” for education policy in the United Kingdom for decades. From Dialectic of Enlightenment:
Cultural education spread with bourgeouis property. It forced paranoia into the dark corners of society and the soul. But since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind, education itself became diseased. The greater the distance between the educated consciousness and social reality, the more it was itself exposed to the process of reification. Culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information without permeating the individuals who acquired it. Thought became restricted to the acquisition of isolated facts. Conceptual relationships were rejected as uncomfortable and useless effort. The aspect of development in thought, all that is genetic and intensive in it, is forgotten and leveled down to the immediately given, to the extensive. Today the order of life allows no time for the ego to draw spiritual or intellectual conclusions. The thought which leads to knowledge is neutralized and used as a mere qualification on specific labour markets and to heighten the commodity value of the personality. And so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated. Finally, under the conditions of modern capitalism, half-education has become objective spirit. In the totalitarian phase of domination, it calls upon the provincial charlatans of politics, and with them the system of delusion as the ultima ratio: forcing it upon the majority of the ruled, who are already deadened by the culture industry. The contradictions of rule can be seen through by the healthy consciousness so easily today that it takes a diseased mind to keep them alive. Only those who suffer from a delusion of persecution accept the persecution to which domination must necessarily lead, inasmuch as they are allowed to persecute others.
For resentful white folks in search of a struggle with which to express solidarity, there is a rich seam of oppression to be mined in Ireland. Violence in Ireland has long been assimilated to the violence of national liberation struggles in the developing, or post-colonial, world. At a distance, some of the ambiguities can be fudged: in 1998, I attended a gig which turned out to be in aid of the Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland, at a centro sociale in Rome. The headline act was the Modena City Ramblers, who sound something like the Pogues would have done if they had been a bunch of communists from Emilia-Romagna (but I repeat myself). Their songs have included misty-eyed laments about Irish rain, Bobby Sands’ friends, and Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip. Their last release but one was a concept album about a joint Allied-partisan operation in 1945; on the cover was an SAS dagger and `Who Dares Wins’.
The affection of the Italian left for Ireland, or at least for an image of Ireland, is no surprise: the discourse of `struggle’, armed or otherwise, is a good fit for `solidarity’ with `oppressed peoples’. The mythologization of Ireland on the right is another thing entirely.
Should you ever find yourself near a demonstration in Italy, or watching a football match involving an Italian club, you will inevitably see flags featuring a stylized Celtic cross. The cross is an icon, in the literal sense of venerated symbol, because of its use by French Waffen SS troops, wiped out in the defence of Berlin against the Bolshevik hordes in 1945, but also for its connection to Ireland and Irish mythology. Like Hitler, the neo-fascist movement in Italy has long drawn inspiration from Norse mythology: one legendary street-fighter had a taste for charging left-wing demonstrations swinging a hammer over his head, Odin-like, rather than using the standard issue 36mm spanner. Clearly, a warrior myth is useful for people who use `hierarchical’ and `anti-democratic’ as compliments, and see Tolkien’s books as models of a well-ordered society, so much so that the 1970s neophyte Nazi spent his summers at `Camp Hobbit’.
Dublin, perhaps uniquely, has suffered mythologization by genius and by sentimentality. Caught between Leopold Bloom and the Leprachaun Museum (yes, there is), the city of Dublin, the living breathing people and the physical structures they live in and on, has fallen out of sight. Joyce and Flann O’Brien caught its speech, but the one did it so perfectly people are afraid to read him, and the other was so accurate they think the humour is a laughing matter; James Plunkett wrote Dublin on a human scale and gave it flesh and blood characters, but is little known outside Ireland. We have ended up with Bloomsday and Paddy’s Day, the first now more kitsch than the second.
Karl Whitney has now written a book that gives us back Dublin as a city, not the set of a novel, or the battlefield of dreams of some misty eyed tourist in search of their heroic and downtrodden ancestors.
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In another life I put together a short-lived newsletter on harmonica playing. Around then, harmonica genius Brendan Power was kind enough to let me interview him sitting on the side of the stage at Whelan’s in Dublin. It might be interesting.
IHN I suppose the first question is why did you start playing harmonica?
BP I went to a gig, in 1976 I think, and I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and I was blown away by Sonny Terry’s harmonica style. Went out and bought a harmonica the next day. Got right into blues for about three years or so. A blues fanatic you know, this blues purist. Went out and bought blues albums and Sonny Boy Williamson II, Rice Miller, was someone who really, I loved his sound. Listened to that a lot. So, it was really the blues.
IHN And then you started going into jazz-blues-trad-fusion-psychedelic …