We reel from the impact of violence, persecution, massive migrations and political divisiveness, yet similar tribulations plague humanity over the millennia. History’s lessons unlearned, like demons, repossess the house from which they were driven. If we find ourselves too close to modern conflicts, a visit to another time and place may allow a dispassionate consideration of the root causes of social evils.
The setting: County Mayo, Ireland, 1798, a century and a half after the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Roman Catholics, depriving them of property and citizenship in their own country. “A system more ingeniously contrived, first for the debasement, and then for the continuance of that debasement, of an entire people cannot easily be imagined.”
Flanagan speaks through the voices of characters such as Anglican vicar Arthur Broome who describes his Irish neighbors, “I have myself seen families huddled in the sides of hills where they had hewn out holes, entire families where the small ones cowering and rooting beside the gaunt form of a woman.” He expresses the Malthusian sentiments of the time, “Thus I have heard it proposed by men, no more inhumane than most, that the recurrent famines are Providential, and will in time bring down the population to a proper size.”
Broome identifies the source of the English Protestant attitude toward the Irish and Catholics: “All their lives, from the first stories told them by mothers or nurses or school-fellows, they had been instructed that the Papists were a dark and mutinous race, wedded to violence as though to a witch.” A people steeped in “idolatry and superstition.”
“What business have Papist peasants learning to read and write?” says Captain Cooper, descendent of one of Cromwell’s troopers, a member of a long line of magistrates, who keep the Papists under control, forbid citizenship, ownership of property, the right to participate in government or study law. Over the centuries, Red-coated Protestant yeomen are given a free hand to burn, whip and torture until they extract confessions and arrest anyone they suspect of rebellion.
To boost profits from his farm, Cooper turns his acres to livestock grazing, evicting a tenant family with no concern for their survival. The “Whiteboys of Killala”, a militant organization of aggrieved Catholic peasants, nail a letter to his door with the words, “You count your cows in children’s lives.” They promise retaliation against his cattle, escalating a vicious cycle of mutual reprisals.
The long repressed Catholic peasants want the “triumph of the Gael,” the restoration of the Irish nation. It is said, “They didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they hated.”
The United Irishmen, composed of wealthier, better educated Protestants, Catholics and agnostics, share ambitions with the Whiteboys, but work for the creation of a republic in the image of the French Revolution. They plan to rule Ireland in place of the English. The time is ripe for rebellion, especially when the regicidal Directorate of the French Republic promises soldiers and weapons, aiding the Irish and annoying the English.
Flanagan’s narrators represent both the English and Irish points of view. The English are benevolent but firm. Insurrection is a capital offense: high treason. General Cornwallis, of Yorktown fame, expresses interest in Catholic Emancipation. Meanwhile the principal absentee landlord of County Mayo supports abolition of the African slave trade and attempts to better the life of London chimney sweeps. He funds his charities on the backs of his starving Irish tenants.
The Irish narrators reflect the ideals and then the dreadful reality of the conflict. The Catholic Church is largely ignored, although the bishops and most of the priests preach against rebellion and urge loyalty toward King George. The Orangemen’s rhetoric dwells on the exceptions, such as the famous Fr. Murphy, who rouses the Irish peasants, armed with pikes to attack the Redcoats, despite their muskets, bayonets, cavalry and the cannons with their grape and chain shot.
Owen Ruagh MacCarthy, poet, drunkard, wanderer and teacher gleams as the most brilliant thread in Flanagan’s tapestry. From the first sip of the morning jug to the parting glass, Owen steals the show. Well loved, especially by women from Kerry to Mayo, his friends among the poets recite his works in Irish and English. The reader will not forget MacCarthy.
Flanagan weaves some seventy characters, some historical, some fictional, into the texture of this saga of the pre-diaspora Irish. His account of their suffering and survival over hundreds of years sensitizes us to the plight of racial, religious and ethnic groups that share a parallel history of repression and inequality. When we see them today on their trek to freedom, remember that the Irish made a similar journey.