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Fully 18 months ago I gave an update on my famine project, which consists of two slim volumes. The first was A Purgatory of Misery and the second The Poor Law Inspector. In that post I indicated that the initial draft of the first, an entirely non-fictional account of the events in British and Irish history that led up to the famine, was complete and that I was then embarking on the second, a fictionalised account of the work of Captain Arthur Kennedy in West Clare between late 1847 and mid 1850.
A Purgatory of Misery was published at the end of 2017 but work on The Poor Law Inspector stuttered on and off throughout last year. I finally reached the end last month and passed it to a first reader. At only 50,000 words it is a novella, rather than the full length novel I had hoped to create. That it is so short after such a long time is down to several factors, the main one being the difficulty of presenting the real horror of conditions in that place and time in a way that is not too depressing to read.
The opening chapters were posted to Chapter Buzz at the end of 2017. The book now has a new title, Called to Account, which relates to the fact that Kennedy and the man who came to be his arch rival were involved, in 1851, in a court case as a consequence of an insult delivered in public by Kennedy to the other, who then sued him for libel. I have now structured the book around the court case and Kennedy’s recollections of significant events in his life up to that point.
Once again, it is being posted on Chapter Buzz whilst I work on revisions, including those suggested by my first reader. Follow this link to find it. Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can post them there or here.
Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such recently came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence. The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.
The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardly happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting.
Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.
It is true that the final settlement achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.
I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where war over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.
Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland
and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.
Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border on the island of Ireland”, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”.
Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.
Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.
I suppose it is a truism that the most of these one can have is nine. I just reached my seventh. Seems like a good time to look back at the others and see what I was doing.
My first, 11 in 1952, saw me just commenced at boarding school. About six weeks into my first term in this new and strange environment I can’t honestly recall what I was feeling. I do know that I was not particularly happy in that first year. Looking back at the whole of the six years I spent there I do think the experience was good for me. Over the last few years, thanks to the magic of the internet I have been able to make contact with some of the men who were fellow pupils there. In the last couple of days we have been discussing the effect on us of the religious education we received there and it seems that the majority are, like me, either atheist or agnostic, certainly sceptical about religions.
My second double digit birthday, 22 in 1963, happened six weeks after my marriage and 3 months after completing my apprenticeship. Definitely a happy time, excited at the life ahead of us as a couple and the interesting work I was already doing in a small design drawing office.
My third, 33 in 1974, I was in South Africa, embarking on what would become a very happy and fruitful period. There will be more about this in forthcoming installment in my Monday Memories sequence.
By double digit birthday number four, 44 in 1985, I was a County Councillor in North East Lincolnshire, then part of Humberside. One of 4 Liberals holding the balance of power, I was struggling to keep up with the enormous work load and my full time job. A year later I accepted a generous severance package which allowed me more time for political activities and, or so I fondly imagined, writing.
On my fifth double digit birthday, 55/1996, you would have found me working as a Project Planner at a steel works in Scunthorpe. Knowing the job would not last beyond the following summer, I attended a recruitment fair staged in Leeds around that time by British Aerospace. Later I would be invited to attend a selection day, and at the end of June 1997 I joined that company, still in the role of Project Planner.
Eleven years ago, my 66th birthday on November 2nd 2007, I was beginning my second year resident in Ireland, retired, painting, writing and looking for opportunities for volunteering. The following year I began work as a volunteer with the local community development company, a move which subsequently led to both of us becoming volunteers with a local support group for cancer patients and their relatives, which we still are.
If I make it to an eighth double digit birthday I shall have out-lived my mother by a week – she died the day after the 7/7 bombings, five days before her 88th birthday. As for 99, that’s too far in the future to contemplate!
It could have been any street in any industrial town or city in England that winter evening early in 1970. Almost fifty years later it is impossible to recall with accuracy the nature of the buildings that lined it, illuminated in the orange glow of sodium lighting. I imagine most would have been closed and shuttered except perhaps for a launderette or a tobacconist. A dress shop, hardware store and pharmacy would have ceased trading an hour or two earlier. A fish and chip shop would have announced its presence long before I reached it.
It was around 7pm and the traffic was light. The number of working class families with motor cars then was much fewer than now. But it was an feature of the traffic that served as a reminder that this was not just another English city. In fact, it was not even England.
At just turned 28 I had been working for my then employer for a little over a year and a half. Much of that time had been spent producing drawings for a plant to be installed at the company’s synthetic fibre manufacturing facility at Carrickfergus a few miles north of Belfast. With design work completed I had been assigned to another project. Now construction of the plant was completed too. The task of starting up and handing over of the plant had been allocated to a young management trainee from Northern Ireland. I had been delegated to accompany him to Carrickfergus where my role would be to acquaint him with the various parts of the plant and their intended functions.
It was the availability of accommodation for him in the family home that left me alone in a small hotel for the night. I decided to take a bus into the city and take in a movie. The local paper I found in the small reception area of the hotel told me there was a film that might be worth seeing at a cinema on this street. Not knowing how far along the street the cinema might be, I decided to walk out from the city centre.
The name of the street was all too familiar. Six months previously it had featured regularly in the evening news as the scene of rioting. I don’t doubt that my decision to walk was influenced by a morbid desire to see first hand the scene of those riots. For me and, I imagined, the majority of young Britons, those riots had revealed a shocking truth: that there was still, in the United Kingdom, a group of people who were denied certain basic human rights. They did not have the vote, they were denied access to certain jobs, and they were, or so it seemed, being treated by the majority of their fellow Northern Irish residents as second class citizens. We felt that, whilst some of their activities could not be condoned, they did have right on their side.
Now the government had acceded to some of their demands. The rioting had ceased and life in the province had returned to normal. Except that some of the army personnel that had been deployed to quell the riots were still present.
The passage along the street of two grey painted Land Rovers, bearing distinctive military registration plates, was my reminder that tonight I was on a street unlike any other in the Kingdom. Their windows were covered with steel plates in which narrow slits provided the only means for the occupants to see where they were going and to observe other road users.
Once arrived at my intended destination I discovered that the programme had changed mid-week and that the film I wanted to see was no longer showing. I didn’t fancy what was on offer and recalled that I had also considered the possibility of going to the “arthouse” cinema at Queen’s University where a film by Jean Luc Godard was promised. There was not sufficient time to walk back to the city centre but it occurred to me that I might get to the university before the film began if I took a bus.
I crossed the street and waited at the bus stop opposite the cinema. Soon I was joined by a couple of young men who stationed themselves behind me at a discrete distance and indulged in some idle chatter. I recall nothing of these exchanges. I took no notice, lost in my own thoughts until the re-appearance of those army Land Rovers on their return journey to the city centre.
One of the men behind me let rip an expletive laden torrent of invective against the “F***ing bastard British army”, shouted at the top of his voice. No sooner were the Land Rovers past than he must have regretted having expressed his anger within earshot of a stranger. He could hardly have failed to note my reaction: the reddening of my neck and ears, the agitated shuffling of feet.
“Are you English?” he asked in calmer tones.
Denial was not a viable option. I turned to face the men. I guessed from the way he looked me up and down that it was the younger of the two who had posed the question. I didn’t doubt, either, that it was he who had uttered the tirade.
“Yes,” I said, already beginning to doubt the wisdom of venturing this far from the city centre alone.
“I’m an Engineer. Doing a job for Courtaulds.”
“What part of England are you from?”
“Ah. I’ve been to Coventry. I have relatives there. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. Can you imagine how you’d feel if Coventry was bristling with soldiers the way Belfast is just now?”
I resisted the temptation to point out that Coventry had not been the recent scene of civil disturbances. Grateful for the imminent arrival of the bus I moved closer to the kerb edge. I climbed the spiral stairs to find a seat on the top deck. The two men ascended and sat in the seat immediately in front of mine. Turning to lean on the back of his seat, the young man repeated profuse apologies and went on to regale me with a story about a friend who had, he claimed, been brutally beaten by a soldier using the butt of his rifle to administer the blows. The soldier and his colleagues were just teenagers like the victim and his friend. Their vicious show of power was the cause of his anger.
As the conductor arrived to collect our fares the young man insisted on paying mine for me. When we arrived at the city centre he provided directions to Queen’s University. It was there that I was to receive the second shocking revelation of the night.
As the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland had grown during the preceding summer, echoing the similarly named movement demanding equal rights for African Americans in the USA, one of the people who had emerged as a popular leader was a young woman from Derry called Bernadette Devlin. She had grown rapidly in popularity among the population of Derry City, sufficiently so as to be elected to the British parliament, where she had become the youngest member of that body, earning widespread admiration for the way she had articulated the grievances of her fellow citizens.
That admiration plainly did not extend to all parts of the province. As I approached the university campus I passed a series of timber hoardings upon which I was able to read in graphic detail, not so much a critique of her rhetoric, as a libelous account of “Bogside Bernie’s” sexual proclivities and the crudest imaginable descriptions of various parts of her anatomy. Alongside this shockingly pornographic writing were equally lewd, rude and crude illustrations.
I don’t remember much about the movie. It concerned a group of people stuck in a traffic jam as they joined the annual summer exodus from Paris. I vaguely recall that it featured some horrific pile ups involving numerous vehicles and some strange antics, around a camp fire, involving a fish.
The two examples of sheer unforgiving hatred that I experienced on my way there will, however, live with me forever. I recalled them repeatedly over the next two decades of violence that beset Northern Ireland and frequently spilled over to England with bombings of pubs and shopping centres in Birmingham, Guildford and Manchester among others.
In recent years the warring factions within the province have arrived at something of an accommodation and I have the greatest admiration for those like Mo Mowlem and George Mitchell whose patience and persistence made that possible. But it remains difficult for ordinary outsiders like me to understand what drove such bitterness and hatred. My belief is that fear born of ignorance is the root cause of conflict wherever it is found.
I often wonder what became of those two young men that travelled on the bus with me that night forty eight years ago, or the authors of the evil graffiti on the hoardings near Queen’s University. Did they join a paramilitary organisation? Were they driven out of their homes because they were of a different religion to that of their neighbours? Did they serve time in the infamous “H” block high security prison, perhaps participating in the hunger strikes or “dirty” protests? Did they become active participants in one or more bomb plots? Did they achieve positions of power within local or national government or in some covert organisation?
Above all, did they pass on their hate filled beliefs to their children and grandchildren, or did they discover, as some of their leaders seem to have done, an understanding of the importance of tolerance and forgiveness? I hope the latter is true.
My thanks to Sally Cronin for featuring Strongbow’s Wife on her blog, along with an excellent review.
For anyone that’s interested, there are two ways in which the Strongbow story connects with Archbishop Becket. Both he and Henry II were close friends with the Bristol merchant Aoife’s father first turned to for help in regaining his kingdom. And, once Beckett had been murdered in Canterbury Henry felt the need to atone. His mission to Ireland, suggested by the Pope some years earlier probably seemed like a good way of doing so.
I’m planning a live launch of A Purgatory of Misery next month. I created a Facebook event and have been putting up daily posts about Irish history.
I was going to repeat them here but I hit on a better idea. A quiz!
If you know the answers it won’t take you long. If you don’t, you will find them over on the event’s FB page.
Unfortunately it’s not interactive. I’ve researched several quiz widgets but WP requires me to upgrade to the business version in order to install them.
Here are your questions. You can enter your answers in the comments if you want to show off.
- Workhouses were introduced into Ireland by the 1838 Poor Law (Ireland) Act. How many were built in this first phase?
- The book launch is to be held in a former workhouse. It is one of how many additional workhouses that were authorised for construction during the famine?
- The book’s title is taken from a speech by whom?
- 1848 saw rebellions across Europe. What was the name of the Irish man who led the Chartist rebellion in England?
- My co-author’s ancestor was one of how many orphan girls shipped from the workhouses to Australia?
- One of those girls is an ancestor of which former Australian Prime Minister?
- Name the Island off the coast of England where St. Patrick founded a religious community.
- What is the title of my historical novel based on the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century.
- In which century did the brother of a Scottish king invade Ireland during an earlier famine?
- Name the English poet who took part in the bloody siege of Smerwick.
All the answers can also be found, along with many more shocking facts, in the book. If you can’t get along to the launch – and I know most of you are too far away – you can download the e-book here for Kindle and here for all other e-readers.
The spring and summer of 1848 saw failed rebellions in England and Ireland, both led by Irish men. And the Irish tricoleur, a symbol of peace, made its first appearance. In May, 170 years ago this month, the leaders of the Irish rebellion were sentenced to transportation.
One of Daniel O’Connell’s proteges*, Cork land-owner and lawyer Feargus O’Connor, was elected MP for Cork in 1832. Shortly afterwards he fell out with O’Connell and in 1835 lost his seat in Parliament. He then embarked on a campaign for political reform in England. Founding a newspaper, The Northern Star, he was joined by William Lovett and others.
Their People’s Charter was published – in May 1838 – as a draft parliamentary bill. It contained six points: manhood suffrage; the ballot; abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections. Thousands of working people had rallied together on the basis of this charter, and hundreds of them had gone to prison for their beliefs.
In the 1847 general election O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham. By the spring of 1848, inspired by events elsewhere in Europe, the movement was ready to make it’s mark. A petition had been raised, signed, it was claimed, by over 5 million people. A meeting was arranged for April 10th on Kennington Common just across the Thames from Parliament.
The government were well prepared with 170,000 citizens signed up as special constabulary and army units stationed at the entrance to each of the bridges and protecting ministries and ministers’ homes. Despite an expected turn-out of 200,000, a mere 20,000 congregated.
When it began to rain heavily, most quickly disbursed. O’Connor and his henchmen crossed Westminster Bridge in horse drawn carriages and presented his petition which was found to contain only 2 million names, many of them forged, invented and duplicated. The name of no less a figure than the Duke of Wellington appeared 17 times.
Meanwhile, 1848 was a year of turmoil across Europe, with revolutions taking place in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands. In February the last vestige of the French Royal family fled France never to return. Inspired by this, a Young Ireland delegation led by William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher, went, in April, to Paris to meet with representatives of the new French Republic.
Symbol of Peace
Whilst there, they were given a flag modeled on the French Tricoleur on which the three colours that were represented were green, the colour of Catholic nationalism, orange, the colour of Protestant unionism, separated by white to signify the desire for peace between the two traditions. Since 1922 this has been the national flag of the Irish Republic.
For leaders of the Confederation, the fact that the 1848 French revolution had been relatively bloodless was an inspiration and they hoped to be able to mobilise people from all strata of Irish society in a bid to return government of the Irish to Ireland. One of the ways they set out to achieve this was via a newspaper called The Nation. However, the authorities quickly took action to nip the Confederation’s activities in the bud.
The attempted English revolution descended into farce, but the authorities were alerted to the possibility of something similar occurring in Ireland. Three of the leaders of the Irish Confederation were arrested and charged with treason. In May, having been found guilty, they were sentenced to 14 years transportation. Before this punishment could be put into effect, its imposition provided the impetus for a recruitment campaign leading to a potential rebellion.
On 29th July O’Brien led the siege of a cottage in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, in which some members of the constabulary had taken refuge. One of his men was killed by a random shot fired from within the cottage and O’Brien led his men away. He was arrested shortly afterwards at Thurles railway station.
One of the men who had accompanied O’Brien to Paris in April, Richard O’Gorman, was organiser for the rebellion in Limerick. A few days after the Ballngarry incident, a group of about 200 men, supposedly acting on behalf of O’Gorman, held up the Limerick-Tralee mail coach at Abbeyfeale. They confiscated the arms and official dispatches it contained but returned private mail to the postmaster. They considered mounting a siege of the town but, when they heard the news from Tipperary decided to call a halt.
O’Gorman disappeared. Two different speculative accounts of his escape from arrest, include the possibility that he traveled via Kilrush. Indeed, two men were arrested and accused of transporting him aboard a steamer bound for the town. A less likely tale has him aboard another Kilrush bound steamer disguised as a woman.
Whatever the fate of O’Gorman and the other conspirators, there can be no doubt that the rebellion, if not quite as farcical as that in England, nevertheless fizzled out for lack of support. It did nothing to help relieve the suffering of those who had neither food nor the means to acquire it except by sacrificing what few possessions they had. On the contrary, it served to harden public opinion in England where the Irish were already being viewed as ungrateful.
This post contains extracts from chapters 11 and 12 of A Purgatory of Misery.
*For those who may be unfamiliar with the man who gave his name to Ireland’s central thoroughfare and whose statue stands at its southern end, Daniel O’Connell was the leader of a movement seeking repeal of the Act of Union which bound Ireland to the United Kingdom.