In 7th grade, Mrs. Fyke taught our class about the Irish potato famine through an experiential exercise. Like a real-life Mrs. Frizzle (minus the amazing school bus), she encouraged us to step into the shoes of a contemporary historical subject; to relive their lives as though they were not so distant from our own. We created paintings of what our subjects looked like, gathered first-hand accounts of their experiences, and even listened to contemporary music during class.
Although I’ve forgotten the name of my subject I do remember her face and how, through her very personal accounts, she guided me through her painful history. At 12, I was but one year older than her when she lost both parents to famine and was forced to live in a poorhouse.
It’s perhaps an odd thing to be permanently affected by, but that young girl inspired a curiosity and empathy in me that hasn’t diminished. It followed me throughout university as I studied history and political science, and quietly inspires the work I do today.
Ireland has thus always held a unique place on my “list,” and it would take a certain opportunity and feeling for me to finally decide to go. Without an outright declaration of my reasons, the past few months (and even years) finally precipitated that journey, and I’m glad to say I was accompanied by the one and only, Helen Heath – a.k.a. my grandmother.
Now, let’s be clear: I didn’t see any dancing leprechauns, fairies, mystical beings or pots of gold (although I did see a rainbow and a controversial “fairy tree”), but there is something unique about this island. Perhaps one could describe it as magical or fantastical, but I find “charming” to be more accurate. Its rolling hills, steep cliffs, aging pubs, and buttery, smooth Guinness sipped by charming Irish men and women, captures you from the very beginning.
Whether or not this charm is a façade for all the tourists like me that seek it unabashed, it works…very well. (An Englishman once told me about his frustrations traveling with his Irish friend because he had an uncanny ability to “twinkle” his eyes whenever beautiful women were around. Difficult competition for a bloke from London’s east-end.)
Although Dublin is full of tourism hot spots (like “Temple Bar”) meant to offer some culture-for-profit (just like any capital), the “Irish candor” so infamous across the globe was sincerely emanated by the local musicians that peppered every street corner and bar. Often singing ballads that always felt a bit haunting – like there were hidden messages behind every note. In some ways, this (combined with the countless monuments around the city marking the sacrifice for independence and famine) led me to believe that the struggles of the country still seep into every aspect of creative genius.
Never afraid of a bus tour, my grandma and I embarked on the Wild Rover Bus Tour to the Cliffs of Moher and Galway along the Atlantic Coast our second day in Dublin.
A trek of over 12 hours, it was well worth it thanks to the excellent commentary by our guide Noel, and his welcomed banter with the bus driver amusingly nicknamed, Captain Jack. Ending most sentences with “It’s grand!” Noel’s voiced punctuated the quaint yet striking green hills and colorful houses that surrounded us. Originally from Dublin, he taught us local phrases (like “go ask me bollix” and “I was scarlet”), and also thankfully explained why “feck” (a replacement for f*ck) was technically not a curse word and therefore could be plastered on boards everywhere.
He also shared hilarious tales of his youth, including the time he and some friends drunkenly broke into a house in Galway only to rearrange the furniture and then leave.
In between the ballads of U2 and Mary Black, his voiced finally dipped to a somber tone once we began seeing rows of stone walls appearing in the distance. Sectioning the various hills and farms surrounding the narrow roads. These were built primarily during the great famine and are even locally known as “famine walls.” They were created by starving men employed through the “Work Schemes” developed by landowners (primarily British), church leaders, etc. as a means of offering some type of employment to local people. The British, who controlled Ireland at the time, believed creating these types of schemes, as well as workhouses, were better than just offering charity to the starving population. To the British, despite starvation the Irish needed to work for their food.
The backbreaking, and rather meaningless work however did not offer the relief that was perhaps intended. After all, if you’re starving physical labor isn’t the best means of providing assistance.
Today, these walls stand as a stark reminder of the suffering Ireland endured during the famine of 1845-1849, when over 1 million people died and a million more emigrated.
At the end of the tour, my grandma remarked that she enjoyed it but wished Noel would’ve focused more on the positive aspects of Irish history, not just the negative. Always one to have an alternative opinion, I replied that the negative part of Irish history is inseparable from its positive history. The struggles of war, famine, slavery and oppression that have ravaged Ireland molded its society and ultimately led to victories, such as the country’s eventual independence in 1922.
It’s this simple fact that turned my rather simplistic description of Ireland as “charming” into something more complicated, and reflective of their long history.
Now I not only brand Ireland as “charming” but also as “resilient.” An example of what human beings, and in fact a nation, can not only survive through, but live through. And even flourish despite of.
As Irish-American, Bryan O’Conner explained:
I think there’s a certain resiliency with some or most from an Irish perspective. You know, it never happened to me, but it wasn’t that long ago when the signs of ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ appeared in Boston. So, I think that from that, there is a resiliency. There’s a spirit. To me, there is an inherent desire to move on, pick yourself up…
As an American, we’re often not obliged to seek lessons from the experiences of other nations or countries (think of that what you will) but I believe there are lessons we can pull from the pages of Irish history. The most important (as of late) being resilience to the power of divisive politics. In no way have the Irish completely figured this out, there still remains divisions between religious and political groups in the country, but one could argue that on an individual level, those divisions have largely dissipated with time as the younger generation naturally encounters one another without the derogatory assumptions of the past.
When asked whether he thought “The Troubles” will be repeated in the future, Noel replied, “I’m eager to hope not. Because the younger generation no longer thinks of themselves as simply Protestant or Catholic, Northern Irish or British, but simply as Irish. They haven’t grown up with it. It’s just a memory of their parents and grandparents. And they think it’s pretty useless.”
To many Americans, on all sides of the aisle (I hope there are more than “two sides”), today seems impossible. Terrible. Dramatic. Beyond anything we’ve ever experienced. The “worst it’s ever been.” Well, any student of world history knows that argument holds no weight, and it doesn’t take long to see that many other nations have experienced times of turmoil and division (including the United States). The question is, will we seek lessons from their (and our) experiences? Are we able to humble ourselves enough to see that we are not the perfect democracy we envisioned, or even, the ideal society? That we’re not above the petty divisions of our friends elsewhere, and even our own ancestors succumbed to?
Can we be resilient, and introspective?
And finally, (and I also say this as a student of history) it’s important that we reflect on our past in order to give ourselves perspective on the present and the future, but we also shouldn’t be bound by it.
This is something I’m not sure any nation, society, or individual does very well. But we have to keep trying.
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