This St Patrick’s Day, among the throngs of Americans who claim some degree of Irish descent, I am not unusual in turning my thoughts to the salient points of essential Irish-ness. Joyce, Guinness, fiddles, Yeats, Slane, Green, Shamrocks, etc. But among the frankly embarassing amount of “Irish” music I have lined up on my Ipod today, a lot of it is rather sombre, tragic, and martial. And that gave me pause to reflect upon Ireland’s rather contentious history, which is a good deal darker than even beloved Guinness porter.
Ireland’s history, language, culture, and popular imagining is very much wrapped up in war, probably because great tracks of that beautiful country are rich agriculturally and fit for pasture. Ireland’s beauty is perhaps its curse, for the land seems to command men to butcher each other for possession of it. Surrounded by the sea lanes, Ireland has never been insulated from military significance as part of the British Isles and cannot be hidden from the eyes of conquering peoples and ambitious dynasts.
From times pre-dating written records, there are the great legends of the Heroic Age of Ireland, the time of Finn and the Feanna in Leinster and Cuchulain and the Tain of Ulster, which form the basis of the subsequent literary tradition of the Irish. These are tales of warriors, notably the Frenzy of Cuchulain during the cattle raid of Cooley, in which the warrior was said to have screamed a battle cry so loud that “his lungs rattled and beat together in his throat”, and the stories continue through the coming of the Viking Settlers who are responsible for many of Ireland’s place names (Dublin comes from the Norse for Dark Water) and the eventual O’Brien triumph over the Norse at Clontarf in the eleventh century.
What came next, the arrival of Norman-Welsh mercenaries in the 1160’s, and the subsequent incorporation of portions of Ireland into the Kingdom of the Angevin Kings of England, of course takes us all the way forward to the bitter contention and sense of adversity of comparatively recent history between “the Irish” and “the English”, whatever sense those two terms make historically over the course of nearly 800 years. The issue at stake here was one of language, culture, and faith: a division between the religious tenets of Irish and Roman Catholicism and their respective clergymen, a divide in the customs of tenancy, kingship, and authority between the Irish “High Kings” and the English Kings, and of course the relative distance in aspects of dress, manners, livelihoods, and the language of the two populations. The cultural alienation was the cause of bitter divisions in the Middle Ages, culminating in the Statutes of Kilkenny, which forbade English settler populations from engaging in Irish practices on pain of fines and death. Rivalry and coexistence did ebb and flow over the next centuries, but underlying tensions between the two over the question of tradition and ancestry remained. A very unscientific form of racial divide was placed between the two groups; ethnic identity was given connotations of wicked and good, civilized and barbarian, Anglo-Irish ploughman and Gaelic Irish ‘felon’.
The coming of the Reformation simply drove divisions further as the official application of English military force to Ireland over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries officially brought the English Monarchy into proper control of the whole of Ireland for the first time. The results of the Reformation in Ireland were grim; the country still bears the scars of it. Catholics against Protestants, “Old” Anglo-Irish nobility against the “New”; in the 1530’s, in the 1590’s, in the 1640’s, in the 1690’s, in the 1750’s, and in the 1790’s the Irish the English and killed each other in long-remembered wars.Resettlement and forced plantation was answered by massacres, rebellions, and the militarization of Ireland as a potential threat to English security for the next two centuries. The further identification of the Gaelic Irish with the Catholic threat to English and Scottish Protestantism led to repressive and dehumanizing measures that spilled over to America, and met Irish immigrants who arrived there during the famine of the 1840’s.
With further racial furor, the divide between the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon ethnicity strengthened resolves on both sides to fight for an identity rooted in their respective ideals of what was true Ireland. The United Irishmen of 1798 were Catholics from Wexford and Protestants from Armagh, but later the Catholic Irish Republican Forces would meet Protestant Black and Tans allied with the British government in the bloody struggle for Independence, and then the bitter Irish Civil War over the question of the size of the Republic of Ireland, ultimately devoid of the Northern areas dominated by Protestant authorities who feared that the Irish Republic and its “Catholicism” might threaten their lives, liberties, and economies.
What followed there was the period known as the Troubles, which has been in abatement but still serves to provoke nervousness every now and then. Bombings, shootings, blockades, patrolling soldiers, paramilitaries, and murder marked these long decades of violence on the streets of what obstensibly was a first world country. And while Ireland now is largely at peace, the land is covered in battlefields from Clontarf to Kinsale, from the Boyne to Vinegar Hill, from Cashel to the Grand Post Office in the very heart of Dublin.
The Irish military experience was also not limited to Ireland; the Gaelic Irish who fled the imposition of English power served in Irish regiments for the Catholic Monarchs of France and Spain, while Irishmen who remained served in the ranks of the British Army from the Wars of Marlborough to the fields of the Somme. They fought across the Empire in India, South Africa, and Egypt, and during the First World War over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British Army.
Irish immigrants also packed the ranks of America’s army throughout the Republic’s history. In the Mexican-American War, Irish soldiers fought on both sides. During the American Civil War, units North and South marched under Green Banners and the Harp of Erin. The Irish Brigade, composed of regiments from New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts charged positions held by fellow Irishmen at the Battle of Fredericksburg. After the war, ex-Union soldiers of Irish descent even gathered an Army and invaded Canada in an effort to lead their war against the British proxy state.
So on this St Patrick’s Day, loud and happy when Irish eyes are smiling, one should remember that Ireland’s vibrant culture and its strong sense of identity (however commercialized and over-hyped it is) has a foundation in struggle. It is a history of division and conquest, resistance and violence, and a testament to the profound and stirring beauty of Ireland, its land and its poets, who derive a beauty from a history of troubles.
“The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,
Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;
Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies,
But we have hidden in our hearts the flame out of the eyes
Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.”