The Irish drive on
By Ken Root
I was a tourist in Ireland for a week this summer. It was a delightful experience because of the differences in their rules and customs, similarities in the faces and demeanor of the people and the relationship of Irish people to those of the United States. There was no holding back on the hardship faced by their ancestors, who stayed in Ireland during famine and conflict, or the challenges faced by the Irish who left to settle in other countries around the world. Like it or not, there is a parallel in their immigration with that of Hispanics
I didn’t drive during the Irish excursion; in fact I sat in the jump seat near the door of our motor coach (not a bus), buckled my seatbelt and prayed quite a bit! We had an excellent driver and guide, Brian Hanrahan from County Tipperary. He did the equivalent of steering an elephant through the Lilliputian countryside and made some amazing maneuvers that garnered respect from the farmers on board. The roads have few stoplights but lots of “roundabouts” where opposing traffic has up to four chances to hit you at every intersection. They weave and dodge but generally keep out of each other’s way as drivers sit on the right side of the cars and drive on the left side of the road in a manner that my mind sees as backward. The coach was big enough to keep everything but the trucks bluffed out but it did not fit on the very narrow roads that traverse mountainous areas. At one point, our driver got out and took over a car from a German lady who was unable to get over far enough to allow us to pass. He wedged her vehicle into the rocks and, with pleasant assurance, slid by her with an inch to spare.
If you go to Ireland, touring on a bus is the best way to “see” the landscape because from car height you would only see organic hedges or rock walls that line almost every roadway. That brings me to my first similarity: marking territory. The Irish define their property very clearly. Some fields have stone fences all the way around. They have to tear down the stones to put cattle or sheep out to graze and then close up behind them. The question is whether they are fencing something in or something out? There is no doubt that this European practice spread to the United States as the colorful proverbs go back hundreds of years: “Love your neighbour yet pull not downe your hedge.” American Translation: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
According to our guide, each family split the land among their sons and the farms became smaller and smaller. Today, Irish agriculture is challenged by the small size of individual holdings. The 2010 census showed 139,000 farms with an average size of just 81 acres. Farm size in Europe is a product of the Common Agricultural Policy that pays farmers to remain on their land and to farm in a smaller fashion than efficiency dictates. The cost has been very high to the governments and may be reduced as the post war fear of hunger and need for self-sufficiency decline.
Ireland has been hungry and that set up their long-term contempt for Britain that lasts to this day. The Irish numbered 8 million in the early 1800s, on an island about the size of the state of Maine. Potatoes were the staple food as they were already oppressed by British landowners who controlled the majority of cropland and planted grain for export back to their home island. The Irish, so we were told, ate as much as 12 pounds of potatoes per day! They were the tallest people in Europe at the time due to their diet. But when the potato blight destroyed their crops, the masses began to starve. England did nothing to help and the grain from Irish fields was shipped out, even in the face of famine. It was justified by the political view that Ireland had too many people and this was just an unfortunate situation that would rebalance the landscape and the population.
In the period from 1845 to 1852, about a million people died and about a million more scattered to the four winds and migrated off the island. Sculptures at the port in Dublin show emaciated, skeleton like people with small sacks of possessions coming to board ships to America and any country that would take them. Many died at sea from diseases that ravaged their weakened bodies. Those who lived to make the crossing may have faced a worse fate than those who passed on.
Irish on American shores were viewed as the lowest form of human life. There were too many of them with too few resources, no skills and professing a religion (Catholicism) that caused them to be rejected from literally every established community. They took the lowest level jobs and they grouped together in slums. Over time, Irish became more prosperous and dominant to the point that they were hated by others for their camaraderie, culture and production of offspring. Our guide proudly pointed out that the first Irish, Catholic president of the United States was John F. Kennedy but it took over a hundred years from the first of his countrymen coming to the United States for him to achieve that office.
The kinship the Irish show to people of the United States was the highlight of the trip. Our country abused and exploited the first generations or Irish who came here but we gave their children the opportunity to become middle class citizens, to become wealthy and to hold the highest office in the land. The Brits, on the other hand, are still held in contempt by the Irish. Cemetery tours and monuments clearly showing the Irish martyrs who gave their lives for the level of independence they have today. News reports still give accounts of weapons caches and “Marching Season” showing the Protestant and Catholic divide and the resentment of “British occupation.”
Here in the United States, few pay attention to Ireland’s ongoing strife and skirmishes. In fact, here, Irish heritage is in vogue. We have pride in our Irish ancestry, and every year on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), everyone claims to be a little Irish. A sign on a bike trail in Des Moines announces a party: “September 17, Half Way To Saint Patrick’s Day.” It appears that the joy and libation of the pub environment of Ireland has been adopted here while leaving their history and troubles on a distant shore.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.