“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

So said – or words to that effect – an army officer named Ludlow during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of persecution throughout Ireland between 1649 and 1653.

And what was he referring to? The Burren – located in the west of Ireland, in County Clare, and one of the most impressive – and ostensibly bleak – landscapes anywhere. I have visited Ireland three times, and each time I made a beeline for the Burren.¹

The Burren is a landscape of limestone pavement, or karst, one of the largest expanses of such in Europe, covering an area of more than 200 km². The Burren National Park – the smallest in Ireland – covers an area of only 1500 ha. Although ‘devoid of trees, water and soil’, it is nevertheless an incredibly biodiverse environment, with an impressive array of wildlife.

Dryas octopetala

Botanically, the Burren is fascinating, with Arctic-alpine plants growing alongside those more typical of the Mediterranean, as well as both lime-loving (calcicole) and acid-loving (calcifuge) species. One of the signature species of the Burren is the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) which is found throughout the Alps and far into the north of Europe. But here on the Burren it grows almost at sea level. There is also an impressive list of orchids that have been recorded here.

The Burren attracts many tourists wishing to have a special ‘botanical experience’ to discover all manner of plants among the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement. And it was in July 1968 that I first visited the Burren, participating in an end of first year undergraduate field course from the University of Southampton. Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna (famous for its annual matchmaking festival), the course was led by tutors Mr Leslie Watson (a plant taxonomist) and Dr Alan Myers (a plant physiologist/ biochemist). We were a small group of only about 19 students who had survived the end of year exams when several of our colleagues who had failed were required to withdraw from the university. There were no re-sits in those days! The group included four students (including me) studying for a combined degree in botany and geography, and one zoology student who would continue with botany as a subsidiary subject into his second year. The others were all ‘single honours’ students in botany.

Back row (standing), L to R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul ?, Gloria Davies; John Grainger; Peter Winfield. Middle row, L to R: Alan Mayers, Leslie Watson, Jenny ?, Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barron, Diana Caryl, John Jackson, Stuart Christophers. Front row (sitting): Jill Andison, Janet Beazley (?), Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

Spending two weeks on the west coast of Ireland could have been a disaster, weather-wise. But how fortunate we were. Almost two weeks of perfect sunny and warm days. Apart from several days exploring the Burren – in clear weather and in fog! – we had day trips to the mountains of Connemara, along the beaches close to Lisdoonvarna (where I did a short project on brown algae), and a ‘free day’ to search for ‘Kerry diamonds‘ – actually quartz crystals – on the Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Lisdoonvarna.

Close to Lisdoonvarna are the spectacular Cliffs of Moher², rising over more than 120 m from the Atlantic Ocean – next stop North America! Part of our interest was to look for fossils in the shale layers that make up the cliffs.

But all work and no play makes Jack(son) a dull boy. We had plenty of opportunity of letting our hair down. Every day when we returned from the field we were pleased to see a line of pints of Guinness that had been already been poured in readiness for our arrival, around 5 pm. In the evening – besides enjoying a few more glasses of Guinness – we enjoyed dancing to a resident fiddler, Joseph Glynn, and a young barmaid who played the tin whistle. Since I had spent the previous year learning folk dancing, I organized several impromptu ceilidhs.

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

All too soon, our two weeks were over, and we headed back to Dublin via Limerick to catch the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and on to our homes from there. We arrived in Holyhead in the early morning, and I had to travel to Stoke-on-Trent where my parents would pick me up. Leslie Watson also came from Leek, and we were headed in the same direction together as he was taking the opportunity of visiting his parents there. I remember that we cheered ourselves up around 6 am or so on Crewe station, taking a wee dram from a ‘smuggled’ bottle of raw poteen, a traditional spirit distilled from potatoes or grain, whose production was outlawed and remained illegal until the 1990s.

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¹ Landscapes photos of the Burren used from Wikipedia under its Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burren, where all attributions are filed.
² Photos of the Cliffs of Moher used from Wikipedia under the respective Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliffs_of_Moher, where all attributions are filed.

Orange and Green: tribal loyalties and conflict in Northern Ireland

A story in The Guardian a couple of days ago caught my eye. It was a piece about happiness across the UK, the results from a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Those surveyed were asked to comment on their personal well-being, two components of which were ‘happiness’ and ‘anxiety’.

What surprised me, given its turbulent and uncertain past, were the apparent high level of happiness and low anxiety among those surveyed in Northern Ireland (relative to other regions of the UK). Now this interested me because I had just finished Michael Farrell’s detailed (and I have to say rather depressing) account of the birth of Northern Ireland, and the ethnic and religious conflicts and violence (tribal even, at least on the part of the Protestant community) that have characterized life in that province since 1922. Incidentally, the ONS survey provided aggregated data for Northern Ireland with no further breakdown across counties, some of which have a Catholic majority.

Northern Ireland: The Orange State is a comprehensive account of how partition and its aftermath shaped political, cultural and economic development in Northern Ireland, and how the domination of the Catholics by the majority Protestant Unionists or Loyalists was bound – eventually – to culminate in The Troubles that came to define the late 60s, the 70s and 80s.

The bald facts cannot be challenged. There was systematic and ‘official’ persecution of the Catholic population, collusion between the Unionist State and Protestant organizations like the Orange Order at the very least. With the backing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (now disbanded and replaced with Police Service for Northern Ireland, PSNI), the Specials (particularly the violent B Specials) and other groups, the Northern Ireland government was determined never to let the Catholics improve their lot. Legislation, gerrymandering and discrimination (and thuggery) were used by the State as tools of repression of the Nationalist (Catholic) minority, and to prevent – as far as possible – the power and influence of the Protestant community from ever being assailed.

It’s no wonder then that at the end of the 1960s, a vibrant civil rights movement sprang up among the Catholic communities. And although I unreservedly condemn the violence that both sides of the conflict perpetrated on their fellow Irishmen, I can understand better the causes of that violence and what motivated the Provisional IRA to take up arms. And so Northern Ireland was subject to assassination and reprisals, often at ransom and against civilians not engaged in any form of political or civil disobedience or violence. Violence was used to inflict terror per se and, if Farrell’s analysis is to be believed, the Protestant community and its various bodies (including state bodies) has to carry the bulk of the blame. Even the British Army may have colluded with the Loyalist organizations to maintain the status quo.

In 1970 I was a young man of 21. Northern Ireland and its growing conflict didn’t really register on my radar. I was abroad for much of the 70s so didn’t fully appreciate what was happening in Northern Ireland. The 1980s (when I was back in the UK for a decade) were the Thatcher years, and the industrial conflicts seemed perhaps more newsworthy than what was happening across the Irish Sea. Frankly, my memory is now quite vague about those 10 years. And during the 1990s, when finally progress was being made in the Peace Process (with the active involvement of US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and their representatives) I was again out of the country, and got my news second-hand, so-to-speak.

I cannot – and don’t – claim to be a pundit on the affairs of Ireland. That would be naïve and presumptuous. As I have pointed out in other posts in this blog, I have been trying to understand my Irish ancestry and how the history of Ireland would have affected my family.

What I see today (simplistically or naïvely perhaps, and from afar it has to be said) is a more settled Northern Ireland, that is trying to come to grips with is turbulent past, trying to develop economically, and move forward. For several years the Peace process has led to a more stable democracy in which former arch enemies are working together, or at least giving the appearance of working together, and that can only be a positive thing. Unsavoury individuals like the Rev. Ian Paisley (whose bigotry and promotion of violence during the 60s and 70s must be roundly condemned), who formed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is the majority party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, eventually mellowed and did sit down in government with Sinn Féin. The signs of progress are everywhere to see. Derry-Londonderry is one of the 2013 European Cities of Culture. Who would have thought that would have been even thinkable several decades ago when Derry was the heart of the struggles.

But one of the iconic moments of the whole Peace Process in a broad sense happened in when HM The Queen visited Northern Ireland and was introduced to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Not only were its Assembly Leader Peter Robinson (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (Deputy, Sinn Féin, and a former commander of the Provisional IRA in Derry) standing side-by-side, but McGuinness shook hands with Her Majesty. Who would have predicted that?

Nevertheless serious tensions lie just below the surface, old wounds are opened, and violence breaks out between the two communities, as we see during the annual Orange Order marches (how they still remain so insensitive – indifferent  or disdainful might be better descriptions – beggars belief). And of course the Protestant community (or at least one hard-line element) came on to the streets in December 2012 to protest the ending of the flying the Union Flag above Belfast City Hall. Memories are long, and prejudices run deep in Northern Ireland, it seems. Even today, letter bombs have been sent to the Chief Constable of the PSNI, reportedly by dissident Republicans. And so it goes on.

Is there hope for the future? There has to be, and surely increasing economic prosperity – and a new generation – will bring about the lasting positive changes that most (but not all, I’m convinced) cherish. Even Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has visited Northern Ireland recently to understand more about the Peace Process. Nevertheless, I think I’ll have to leave Irish history for the time-being – it does begin to get to you after a while.

A tale of Dublin soul . . .

North Dublin.

A young man, Jimmy Rabbitte by name, walks through a street market, a horse fair, across a desolate 1960s housing estate, trying to sell merchandise – mainly videos – that he carries in a bag on his shoulder.

He’s on his way to a wedding reception, although he’s not one of the guests. No. He just wants to meet the members of a band who, as he arrives at the reception, are performing a dreadful interpretation of The Searchers’ 1964 hit Needles and Pins. Just as he enters the room, a group of children are running about, and in the melee, one little girl collides with the outstretched leg of an elderly gentleman dozing at one of the tables, no doubt having had one pint too many.

Woken from his slumber, ‘Fuck off’ he snarls at the child, almost the first dialogue in Alan Parker‘s classic 1991 film The Commitments – probably one of the best movies of the 90s.

Well what an interesting way to start a film. And so it went on. If you have ever read any of Roddy Doyle’s brilliant tales of Dublin life, you know that ‘effing and blinding’ is just part of the Dublin vernacular.

Well, I was reminded this past week of when and where I first watched The Commitments because it has just translated to the London stage, to quite favorable reviews.

It must have been about 1992, I guess. Saturday night in Los Baños (in the Philippines). Having finished dinner, we (Steph, Hannah, Philippa and me) sat down to watch a video we’d rented that afternoon from the local store on Lopez Avenue, Dis ‘n’ Dat.

The Commitments? Roddy Doyle? I’d never heard of either, so had no idea what the film was all about. Not a wise move, in some respects, since Hannah was only about 14, Phillipa 10. There was strong language from the outset, as I described earlier. What to do? Switch off or continue as though there was nothing untoward? We carried on. And we all enjoyed the movie.

So what is Alan Parker’s film (co-written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Roddy Doyle) all about? Young Jimmy Rabbitte wants to form ‘The World’s Hardest Working Band’ and bring soul music – black soul music – to the masses.  As one of the prospective band members reacts to this revelation: ‘Well like, maybe we’re a little white?’

Alan Parker’s genius was in casting a group of youngsters who had never acted before, but who could really sing. Take Andrew Strong, cast as lead singer Deco, for instance. Only sixteen when The Commitments was made, he had an acting and singing maturity way beyond his age. And what a romp the film turns out to be. Needless to say, without spoiling the plot for anyone who has not yet seen the film – but I urge you to do so – it’s all about the formation and trials and tribulations of the band, and its ultimate break-up. It’s too successful.

Don’t worry about the strong language; that goes with the territory. A few years later, when a student in St Paul, Minnesota,  Hannah attended a reading by Roddy Doyle of some of his works. It was held in one of the local Lutheran churches, but true to form, Roddy pulled no punches, ‘effing and blinding’ his way through the various excerpts. Even though it was a church venue, the audience loved it. There’s a time and place for everything – I wish some of today’s so-called stand-up comedians understood the power of the appropriately chosen ‘eff and blind’ rather than sprinkling their acts with gratuitous profanities. I should add, I’m no prude when it comes to strong language on the TV. It can be used impressively to enhance a drama, as the recent series set in Birmingham, Peaky Blinders, has demonstrated. Also, I’m a great fan of Billy Connolly, whose language, for some, leaves a great deal to be desired. But it’s all part of his Glaswegian vernacular, just as Roddy Doyle’s use of this language reflects the reality of life in Dublin.

Ireland’s turbulent history

I guess I first became aware of Ireland’s turbulent past when I was studying Advanced Level (pre-university) English Literature between 1965 and 1967. Our English teacher, Frank Byrne, had family from Co. Roscommon in Ireland, and on the curriculum the years I studied was the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (Nobel laureate in Literature for 1923). Through his famous poem Easter, 1916, in which three of the four verses have as a final line ‘A terrible beauty is born‘, Yeats emphasizes his belief that the genie was out of the bottle, so-to-speak – Ireland would be changed forever.

Martin HealyElsewhere in this blog I have written about my own Irish ancestry, and often wondered how my Irish family reacted to – or even took part in – the events that shook Ireland in the early and mid twentieth century following the April 1916 rebellion. My maternal grandfather, Martin Healy, had served in the British army in South Africa and on the Northwest Frontier in India, and afterwards served as a policeman in London’s Metropolitan Police. As a Catholic, did he ever suffer from any sort of discrimination while in the Army or the police? Of course from his birth in 1876 he was a British citizen of Ireland. The Irish Free State was founded in 1922. I assume he retained his British citizenship throughout. But his roots were Irish. He and my grandmother came from large families. Were any of their brothers or sisters involved in the various struggles in Ireland from 1916 onwards: the Easter Rising, the civil war, and the various bombing campaigns carried out by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) both in Ireland and in England? A family anecdote has a great uncle of mine serving in the IRA and being executed by the Black and Tans, but I have no further evidence for this.

I’ve often wondered what and who the IRA was, are. And during a visit to St Paul, MN a couple of years ago I picked up a secondhand copy of Tim Pat Coogan’s tome The IRA – A History. I recently had a second stab at reading this. When I bought it I managed just a few pages – it’s not the easiest of reads. But having just finsihed T. Ryle Dwyer’s Big Fellow, Long Fellow – A Joint Biography of Collins & de Valera, I decided to give Coogan’s book another go. This time I managed about one fifth (it’s a long book, >500 pages, small font) before giving up. There is little attempt I felt at synthesis. Instead one is bombarded with fact after fact after fact. Indeed, I quite lost track of the overall narrative. Nevertheless I did begin to understand the origins of the IRA, how it became a proscribed organization in the Irish Free State and Republic, and its role in destabilizing society and politics in Northern Ireland more recently in ‘The Troubles’. While Coogan’s text is undoubtedly of considerable value to the serious scholar of Irish events – because he interviewed many of the leading characters in the IRA story – getting to grips with the big picture is not something that this book achieves.

9780717127870On the other hand Dwyer’s joint biography of Irish patriot Michael Collins and elder statesman Éamon de Valera is a much more accessible read, and one I enjoyed from cover to cover.

One thing that came though quite clearly to me is that both Collins and de Valera at various times of their careers were rather unsavory and ruthless characters, not averse to ordering the assassination of opponents when necessary. However, Collins seems to have been the more pragmatic of the two whose life and contribution to an Ireland on the road to becoming a republic was cut short when he was killed in an ambush in 1922. As a member of the negotiating team that agreed a treaty in 1921, leading to the partition of Ireland into the 26 counties of the south and the six counties of Northern Ireland, Collins was vilified by Republican purists, among whom was then numbered Éamon de Valera. But as Collins emphasized in debates about the Treaty to establish the Irish Free State, ‘In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire … but the freedom to achieve it.’

de Valera had commanded a unit during the 1916 rebellion but was saved from execution by the fact he was actually born an American. From Dwyer’s book I had the distinct impression that de Valera was never consistent in his opinions or deeds, and certainly changed tack as and when it suited him politically. He did help found the political party Fianna Fáil, led nine governments, and became President of the Irish Republic in 1959, serving until 1973 when he was 90. He died in 1975. He did become father of the nation.

I’m still looking for that one book that will give me the overview and honest interpretation of recent (well, the last century) Irish history.

Children of the Irish diaspora . . .

My English roots
After my father died in 1980, my eldest brother began to research our family history, particularly on my father’s side. We come from quite humble backgrounds, of working class and farming stock, in the English Midland counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

Through his shrewd and determined genealogical detective work,  Martin has been able to trace the BULL line (my paternal grandmother’s family) directly back to the 1480s, some 18 generations if I have interpreted his data correctly. But for several of the branches of the ‘Jackson’ family tree (JACKSON specifically, TIPPER, and HOLLOWAY) he’s also been able to trace back our ancestry to the 17th and 18th centuries. Surprisingly, it’s only a few generations back to the 18th century, to my great-great-great grandfather John Jackson, born in 1793. And, as someone with a keen – if amateur – interest in history, I find it fascinating to try and understand events contemporaneous with my family’s ancestry.

The Irish connection
My mother’s family came from Ireland, but making genealogical progress for this side of the family seems much more problematical. Even before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Irish had already begun to move away from the island of their birth in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. Emigration accelerated dramatically as a consequence of the Famine, but the everyday politics and economics of life in Ireland had their effects as well. So finding where everyone might have ended up would take some serious genealogical research – if indeed it is possible.

My English teacher at high school, Frank Byrne, had family from Co. Roscommon, and on the syllabus the year I took my exams was the poetry of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. Mr Byrne brought this poetry alive, with tales of Irish kings, and patriots and literati, friends of Yeats, such as Maud Gonne, John Macbride, and Lady Gregory, among others.

I’ve often delved into Irish history, and most recently finished reading Story of Ireland – In Search of a New National Memory, by Neil Hegarty that accompanied a series on the BBC in 2011 (I’m not sure how I came to miss that at the time). It’s a well-written, easy read that takes you through the ages of Irish history: the ravages and early impact of the Viking raids and settlements; the shenanigans of the Plantagenets and Tudors; the brutality of the Oliver Cromwell years; the ‘Glorious Revolution’, King James II and the Battle of the Boyne; the advent of Presbyterianism and rise of sectarian politics and intolerance in the north; the aspirations of many generations for Home Rule; and the incompetence of successive British governments during the 19th and early 20th centuries in addressing and managing the Irish question, sometimes simply neglect, that ultimately led to the rise of nationalism and its consequences.

My Irish grandparents, Martin Healy and Ellen née Lenane, hailed from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford, respectively. Like many young Irishmen, my grandfather – at the age of almost 16 it seems – joined the British Army (controversially, as seen through nationalist eyes), serving in the Royal Irish Regiment for 12 years, seeing service in India (in the North West Frontier) from 1894-99, and also in South Africa during the Boer War for almost three years from November 1899. He took part in the Defence of Ladysmith in Natal Province. What is particular ironic is that he probably faced fellow Irishmen, members of an Irish Brigade, fighting on the side of the Boers. Still legally ‘British citizens’ they risked being shot as traitors if captured. However, they were offered Boer nationality at the outset of the campaign.

After military service, my grandfather moved to London and joined the Metropolitan Police, marrying my grandmother in 1905. She was living in southwest London – in Wimbledon – at the time of their marriage, and had probably moved to England some time before looking for work. Her father was a farmer.

While serving with the police, my grandparents lived in London’s East End in Stepney, where my mother was born in 1908. Granddad took part (so my mother once told me) in the ‘Battle of Stepney’ gunfight in 1911 (also known as the Siege of Sidney Street). He left the police force in 1928, and retired to Epsom in Surrey; he died in 1954. My grandmother died two years earlier.

Making sense of the Healy-Lenane family tree (including the PHELAN and FITZGERALD lines) will be a challenge, although my brother has made some progress. My grandfather, born in 1876, was the fourth child of seven, and my grandmother (born in 1878), eighth of nine (I’m not sure how many survived childhood). And no doubt their parents had many siblings who joined the diaspora in waves to find new lives in the USA, Canada and the Antipodes, as well as mainland Britain.

But through the horrors of the Famine, the various disturbances related to the Home Rule campaigns culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916 and its aftermath, and the founding of the Irish Free State, I do wonder how my Healy-Lenane family fared, which side they supported during the year-long civil war of the early 1920s, whether they joined the IRA, and if they suffered violence at the hands of the Black and Tans? And how did my grandparents, living in England, view the events taking place in their native Ireland at this time?

I was born a little over 100 years after the Irish Potato Famine had ravaged the Irish countryside, bringing untold miseries to hundreds of thousands of the rural poor. Redcliffe Salaman recounted harrowing tales of the Famine in his seminal The History and Social Influence of the Potato (originally published in 1949). For 20 years from 1971 my own research focused on the potato. I had opportunity to see for myself the immense damage caused by potato blight (Phytophthora infestans), researching new sources of genetic resistance to this devastating fungal disease. Perhaps my Irish ancestry predisposed me to work on potatoes.

When we moved to Leek in 1956 we became very close with one Irish family in particular who came from Youghal, near where my grandmother was born. But there were several other families of Irish origin who sent children to the same Catholic primary school; and at high school (run by Irish Christian Brothers) in Stoke-on-Trent, I encountered even more.

In recent months I’ve tried to understand more about the recent history of the island of Ireland, and what were the circumstances and origins of the Troubles that blighted our country for more than three decades from the late 1960s. Irish history is complex and convoluted. Memories are long, and wounds take a long time to heal. Uncovering how my family played a part in this story is the beginning of a long voyage of discovery.