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Sunday 5.15.05: Irish history lessons

I've been reading Irish history again. I run hot and cold on history. I wish I knew it, but it's usually a tough read. Historians make their arguments through careful recording of facts, but I'm a fan of the eloquent synopsis and grand interpretation, nevermind who won a particular battle. Historical fiction doesn't do much for me either. Just give me a nifty summary of why things turned out the way they did. This makes me prey to bad history, I guess -- books that don't bother to pin their sweeping conclusions to facts -- but I try not to lose too much sleep over it.

But, since I'm exploring family history, I figure that I will understand my few facts better if I can visualize the world my ancestors lived in. I'm not only interested in why they left home but why they left when they did. The Barretts were motivated by the Great Hunger in the 1850s but the Dunnes stuck it out in the same miserable west of Ireland till the 1910s. Here, I'm not satisfied with the sweeping generality. Of course they were tired of being dirt poor and looking for opportunity. But how was the 1850s world as seen by Patrick Barrett different from the 1910s world as seen by Bridget Dunne and her sisters?

Emigrants and Exiles is not easy to read, but the reviews promised answers to my questions.

I'm only on page 33, but it's clear why the Irish have a chip on their shoulder about the English and why the English looked upon the Irish as a completely different race of savages. The grand English imperialists had a devil of a time trying to integrate the Irish into the kingdom. The Irish lived communally, continually dividing up land so that everyone could have their fair share, an nice but inefficient system which kept them pretty poor. In England, the first-born inherited the land, which kept estates together and gave them a very different outlook on how the world worked.

The English tried to crush the Irish by dismantling their ancient systems but mostly the Irish remained "beyond the Pale." The Pale, I discovered, referred to a strip of land around Dublin where the English were able to dominate in the 1600s. 

What's interesting is that in the century before the Famine struck, things began to click between the English and Irish. But it's a scary tale that reverberates today as traditional societies try to catch up with economic leaders. How I understand it, England "helped" Ireland join the "global economy." In the name of efficiency and prosperity, they smashed the traditional Irish organizing principles. The old Irish farming culture was cashless and poor, but stable. They responded to the economic opportunity of exporting linen, grain and cattle. This new prosperity helped to further dismantle the old Irish institutions.

I'm not up to the part where everything crashes but I have a feeling that it's a variation on a familiar story. Like, American companies trying to reshape the traditional Mexican societies so they can provide cheap labor in American-owned factories on the northern border -- then, poof, the factories move to China. It's the grand dilemma. Message to rural Chinese, remote Indonesians, religious Islamics: "Your traditional culture and institutions are standing in the way. Become Modern. You, too, can have satellite TV and a cell phone. We'll help you get started, buy up all your resources, exploit your cheap labor, and sell you cigarettes and blue jeans, but don't expect us to worry about your stupid social problems. Haven't we given you enough?"






Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America by Kerby A. Miller



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