by Willem Lange
IRELAND – The cities of Ireland – Killarney, Limerick, Galway, Dublin – teem with traffic and obvious benefits of membership in the European Union. BMWs are in as high a percentage as Subarus in Vermont. It’s against the law to beep your horn unnecessarily. All seems merry and bright.
But then you notice – shades of Quebec – that all the road signs are in two languages, English and Irish, the latter a language inscrutable to the traveler’s eye and often printed in an ancient type font also called “Irish.” A sign that in English may read simply, “Next Exit,” appears also as “an chéad sli amach iele.” What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that you’re in a milieu characterized by a sense of oppression. It may be overt or implicit, powerful or whispered, but it’s there. It’s glaringly evident in many of the “reservations” set aside in our hemisphere for Native Americans or First Nations people, as well as in the history of their gross mistreatment. It’s less noticeable, perhaps, in other settings, but a little peeking beneath the surface reveals the deep irony and skepticism of those who have suffered. The oppressors – the victors – often miss it, but the victims live it; they watch, and make notes and jokes. An Inuit man once said to me, “You want to make a white man look at his watch? Ask him if he’s hungry.” I’ve tried it, It never fails. He knew more about us than we do ourselves.
Back in the late 1940s the late Bing Crosby recorded a hit song called “Galway Bay.” He changed some of the lyrics to make them “less political” (read “upsetting”), but a hint of the English-imposed apartheid comes through nevertheless:
…And the women in the upland digging parties
Speak a language that the strangers do not know.
For the strangers came and tried to teach us their ways;
They scorned us just for being what we are.
But they might as well go chasing after moonbeams,
Or light a penny candle from a star.
It’s hard to believe the ferocity and brutality of the oppression of the native Irish, especially the Roman Catholics. At one time it was a capital offense to be a “Papist,” and many are the songs of Irish rebels marching bravely to their hangings by English troops.
Those were the themes of much of the music, stories, and history that my friends and I imbibed over the course of our visit – oppression and rebellion. There never seems to have been anything that crushed the Irish desire for freedom – though the Great Famine of the 1840s, when millions died while the grain that would have saved them was sold abroad, came close.
There’ve been two responses to the frustration of dealing with vested foreign interests backed by overwhelming force. One is a pervasive irony so deep it seems genetic: Pat, an executed Irish rebel in Heaven is asked by God to tell a joke. I’ll tell you a joke about the Easter Rising, says Pat. There’s nothing funny about that, says God. Well, says the Irishman, I guess you had to be there.
The other alternative is open rebellion. If you google “Irish risings,” you’ll see a list that goes back to the 16th century. But the most effective, which finally led to serious negotiations about Irish sovereignty, was the 1916 Easter Rising, a well-coordinated, well-led rebellion headquartered in the Dublin Post Office, now a museum that we visited. The rebels were doomed, of course. A song called “The Foggy Dew” foretells their fate: “…while Brittania’s sons with their long-range guns sailed in through the foggy dew.” The post office was all but demolished; the leaders of the insurrection were arrested, executed, and buried in quicklime; but the spark had been lit that, shortly after the World War I armistice, flared into a (controversial, naturally) treaty of independence. Our last night in Dublin, inflamed by a terrific quartet, we found ourselves singing along with their songs of freedom and independence, the most precious of our possessions.