Potatoes. They’re the reason I’m here in North America.
I was born one hundred years after An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger) began. I live in a world of material abundance, secularity, instant – and constant – communication, automobiles and airplanes. I can pick up a phone and reach friends across the sea as quickly as those down the street. It would be as impossible for my Irish great-grandparents to comprehend my world today as it is for me to understand the world they knew as children when the blight hit.
But I try anyway. I read and wonder and struggle to peel back the years to catch a glimpse of what they might have seen or heard or felt. I imagine there is an echo of their memory somewhere in mine.
The story of the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845 – 1851 is not a story about potato blight. It’s a story about poverty, about the role of government and about a chasm between socio-economic classes so great that those at the top and those at the bottom may as well have been living on different planets. Continue reading →
In the south end of Evanston, Lee Street comes to an abrupt dead-end at Sherman Avenue. Appropriately, it was Sherman whose scorched earth “March to the Sea” was the beginning of the dead-end of any hope for General Lee’s confederate army in the U.S. Civil War. Not to be forgotten up on the north end of town, General Grant and President Lincoln are duly honored with dignified tree-lined streets.
Our city’s original street names – in addition to the customary Main and Central – commemorate war heroes, local founders of the city, landowners and several varieties of trees. Some American cities and suburbs get more creative: I used to live in University City, (the location of Washington University) just west of St. Louis. University City’s founder had big dreams of creating a utopian place of learning and named every street after an American college or university.
What goes into naming a place? Who gets to decide? What was the original meaning and what does it mean now? Continue reading →
My first encounter with maps was through TripTiks – Triple A’s wonderful little travel guides that our family always took along on road trips. From age 8 – 12 or so, being the only kid at home, I got the role of navigator. Or at least I assumed that role. For the uninitiated, the TripTik was a vertical spiral bound booklet that followed your road plan – address to address – with tips along the way, places to stop for dinner or lodging. They are still available from AAA, online and interactive of course. (and you can find the old ones on eBay.)
I loved following the road, flipping the page, looking for the town signs coming up, watching for the rivers, train tracks, any sites of historical importance along the way. We should have had a bumper sticker that said, “this car stops for historical markers.”
Flat maps, globes (spin it and you’ll go where your finger lands) and huge atlases you could only read on the floor – all promising adventure for the taking. They were the stuff of imagination and the inspiration for travel-lust. Continue reading →
National Famine Monument at Murrisk, Co. Mayo, Ireland
Hard to let this day go by without a mention. Another motivation, not that I needed one, was an article in today’s New York Times, by Peter Behrens, author and resident of Maine: It’s About Immigrants, not Irishness.
It is about Irishness, but in America and Canada and Australia, it’s also very much about immigration. And that’s the point Behrens is making. The Irish National Famine Memorial (above) by John Behan, a moving sculpture of the infamous “coffin ships,” immortalizes the experience of many immigrants during the Great Hunger – the “potato famine” of the mid 19th century.
This was when my great-grandfather came to America, a sixteen year old laborer at the tail end of the calamity. It’s remarkable that he got here at all. Continue reading →
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” ~ Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
An Irish judge recently fined a Kerry farmer 25,000 euro for destroying a protected ancient ringfort and souterrain on property he had purchased two months prior. The earthen ringfort, estimated to be 1,000 years old, was identified on the register of national monuments of historic importance. This was the first ruling of its kind to be brought in Ireland based on the 1994 National Monuments Act. It is hailed as a major victory for preservationists.
Did the excesses in building during the Celtic Tiger years, and subsequent loss of landscape integrity in the countryside play a part in the decision of this ruling, and the seriousness in which it was taken? Perhaps. And yet…there was also a recent proposal to de-list any post-1700s buildings nationally due to budgetary constraints. So what to keep and what’s expendable remains an ongoing conversation.
One of the many things I loved from the first moment setting foot in Ireland was the comfort level of people living alongside and sometimes directly within physical references to the past. Fields with signs inviting you to climb over a fence to walk among the ruins of abbeys, farmers with beehive huts, passage tombs, ogham stones, and yes, ringforts in their fields, who left out a small bowl or box with a handwritten sign asking a euro for the trouble of allowing you a closer look, but often just inviting you in. Ancient monuments in the landscape with no fence surrounding them (as Stonehenge has sadly needed), no seeming worry about graffiti or destruction. Continue reading →
‘Terroir’ is the effect that sun, soil and strata – the history and substance of the earth – have on things like wine, coffee and tea. It is the “sense of place” from which they come. Something you can taste. Brought right up through the roots.
It makes you wonder…do people have it too? Is there some kind of human terroir?
We are such a mashup in America, our gene pools must look like some sort of DNA jambalaya. Not everyone is interested in sorting it out, in separating the strands Continue reading →
Last week was the National Week of Migration, officially declared by The U.S. Catholic Bishops. I’m thinking we need more than a week, but I appreciate the effort. And it made me think again about the migratory routes of my own family.
I was also thinking what a luxury it is to spend time researching this migration story – what were the reasons for, where are the records showing, etc. And how baffling this would be to the very people I’m trying to understand. I figure they would either think I was crazy or hopefully appreciate a little, that I cared. Their livelihood and sometimes their very lives were at risk, while I’m in my warm home (thank you, central heating), curled up in a comfy chair, cup of coffee by my side, pouring over essays with titles like “The Transfer of Land and the Emergence of the Graziers during the Famine Period.”
It’s been said that there are only two stories on earth: “a stranger comes to town” and “a person goes on a journey.” Either way, someone’s leaving home. Continue reading →
So two American tourists are hunting in the highlands and it’s really misty and they come across this bridge and when they walk across it, they walk into a village where everyone is dressed as if it’s two hundred years … Continue reading →
It was an unusually warm day in Dublin. Stephen’s Green was full of people enjoying the sunshine and warmth. And I was spending the day in the National Archives reading first person accounts of the famine.
The National Archives of Ireland sits at the back of a short nondescript street called Bishop’s Street. About a block away is Whitefriars Street, home to a hostel and an excellent coffee shop. Whether it was the Whitefriars or the bishops karma, I don’t know, but I surely felt the presence of something. Continue reading →
Monday evening I’ll be heading out over the Atlantic; “coming home” as our Irish friends say. 3,673 miles in just under eight hours. I’ve been fortunate to make this trip several times for work and for a kind of travel-pilgrimage, and it always has a feeling of homecoming. There’s the temptation on long flights to complain about cramped seats and airplane food. But that’s quickly suppressed once we’re airborne and I look out the window. That’s when I remember that a million and a half Irish men, women and children made the Atlantic crossing in the unfriendly belly of ships most often designed for non-human cargo during what we in the U.S. call the potato famine, and what the Irish call an Gorta Mor: the Great Hunger. Continue reading →