Strange bedfellows

Relations between the Irish and the Blacks in America have often been at odds.  When hundreds of thousands of poor Irish fled the great famine and emigrated to America they found themselves at the bottom of society.  Between 1845 and 1852 the starving Irish boarded coffin ships and threw themselves on the mercy of America.

We Irish need to remember this as we observe the flood of refugees and economic migrants who daily put their lives at risk in Libya, boarding unsuitable vessels in their droves and casting their lot on the waters of the Mediterranean.

There are anecdotal tales from America of wealthy landowners hiring Irish workers for dangerous jobs because they didn’t want to risk a valuable slave.

Irish people living in slave states found themselves in competition for work with Negros.  They opposed the freeing of slaves as this would release a workforce in direct competition to them.  Even in the free states of the north the Irish immigrants found themselves in competition with Negros for the lowest and most menial jobs.  These Irish were in ill health, uneducated and many could not even speak English.  The only advantage they held over the Negro was the colour of their skin.

At the same time the Irish could identify with the plight of the American Blacks.  The Irish were no strangers to transportation and slavery.  Many of the original slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were Irish and Scottish petty criminals or indentured labourers.  The tiny island of Montserrat reflects this influx, most of the inhabitants have Irish names despite their dark skin, and the island holds St Patrick’s day as a holiday.

The Irish who arrived in America emerged from a culture of persecution by Absentee British Landlords and their local Bailiffs.  Unlike farm tenants in England the Irish cottagers were little more than serfs, subsisting in a non-monetary economy with no rights of tenure, rent control or free sale of their property.  They understood much about the life of a slave.

This conflict between sympathy and competiton resolved itself in the Civil War of 1861 to 65 when Irish elected to fight on both sides.  Indeed at the battle of Fredricksburg the 69th New York Infantry (The Irish Brigade) was decimated at the Sunken Road below Marye’s Heights.  Their opponents were the 24th Georgia regiment, comprising McMillans Guards, an Irish regiment.

After the civil war the fate of the Irish in America diverged sharply from that of the Negro.  The Irish became educated and worked their way into positions of political power.  Many Irish gravitated to careers in law enforcement and public service.  While the men worked hard the mothers drove their children to education and improvement.  Lace curtains went up on the windows and the Irish integrated.  Eventually, in the 1960’s the scion of an Irish immigrant family became President of the United States.

There was no ‘risk’ of a black president of the USA in the 1960’s.  This was the age of the struggle for civil rights.

In a perverse twist of fate it was the black struggle for civil rights in America that ignited the Catholic struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland.  The Irish learned from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.  Peace protest marches began, and they ended similarly to the marches in Birmingham Alabama, in violence, persecution and death.

Here is a piece of footage and a highly poignant moment from that time.  Muhammad Ali reciting his own poem on an Irish TV show.

Eskimo Days


Depression is a terrible illness not so much because it renders people sad, with feelings of emptiness and worthlessness to the point of being suicidal.  What is so bad about depression is the lethargy of the mind that blocks the sufferer from taking affirmative action to deal with the condition.  You can fight diseases or cancers, you can defy chronic illnesses and battle to live life on your terms.  But melancholy is entropic drawing away energy, order and purpose.  It prospers by eroding the will.  It is amazing how many sufferers manage to rouse themselves for long enough to end it all by taking their lives.

Taking your life is, after all, an action, and a very final one.  It demands a firm commitment to a purpose.  The pain of depression must be phenomenal to rouse the sufferer to such certain closure.

Sylvia Plath was one such, who wrested with the blackness of the mind.  In her poem, Kindness, she speaks of the two things that kept her alive, her children (two roses) and the Blood Jet of Poetry.

Children and depression go hand in hand for many new mothers.  Imagine the utter sense of being out of your depth that is experienced by any new parent being combined with post-partum depression.  And yet, as Plath attests, often in her work, babies give you a purpose, a powerful impetus to survive and grant them care and protection.  Babies are natures anti-depressants.

And so to the Eskimo Days, when we grow old, and toothless, and can no longer chew raw seal.  Depression in the aged is a cruel taskmaster.  Old people live more in the past, as the weight of their accumulated memories overbalances any future potential.  Depression strips them of their ability to store up new memories, and makes it harder and harder to hold onto the old ones.

When a baby cries because it has dirtied itself we are driven by our natural inclinations to protect the poor cute helpless thing and clean it and look after it.  When an aged crone cries with discomfort it takes people with a very special degree of compassion to empathise with them.  Besides, a smack of a crutch can bring up a nasty welt.

So depression wraps a particularly icy talon round the hearts of the aged.  Those claws cut deep.

Candles; by Sylvia Plath

They are the last romantics, these candles:
Upside-down hearts of light tipping wax fingers,
And the fingers, taken in by their own haloes,
Grown milky, almost clear, like the bodies of saints.
It is touching, the way they’ll ignore

A whole family of prominent objects
Simply to plumb the deeps of an eye
In its hollow of shadows, its fringe of reeds,
And the owner past thirty, no beauty at all.
Daylight would be more judicious,

Giving everybody a fair hearing.
They should have gone out with the balloon flights and the stereopticon.
This is no time for the private point of view.
When I light them, my nostrils prickle.
Their pale, tentative yellows

Drag up false, Edwardian sentiments,
And I remember my maternal grandmother from Vienna.
As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef.
The burghers sweated and wept. The children wore white.
And my grandfather moped in the Tyrol,

Imagining himself a headwaiter in America,
Floating in a high-church hush
Among ice buckets, frosty napkins.
These little globes of light are sweet as pears.
Kindly with invalids and mawkish women,

They mollify the bald moon.
Nun-souled, they burn heavenward and never marry.
The eyes of the child I nurse are scarcely open.
In twenty years I shall be retrograde
As these drafty ephemerids.

I watch their spilt tears cloud and dull to pearls.
How shall I tell anything at all
To this infant still in a birth-drowse?
Tonight, like a shawl, the mild light enfolds her,
The shadows stoop over the guests at a christening.