Bloody Irish. How Miss O'Riordan Won The War.

John Hodgkinson on bilateral relations in the dolorean era.

At school in England we used to tell jokes about the Irish, just like the French tell jokes about the Belgians or the Swiss. Harmless fun ? Perhaps. One joke that particularly made us laugh in our early teens concerned the awful habit these people have of not pronouncing the 'th' at the beginning of words correctly. For example, they don't say 'three', they say 'tree', which is ridiculous, because a tree is not a number, it's a plant. Of course, they know full well the difference between the two, but that doesn't stop them doing it. This is not some anatomical problem connected with the formation of their palate, it's just sheer bloodymindedness, proof of which is that the same Irish person who just gave you an oak in the place where that blessed digit should have stood is perfectly capable of saying 'three' correctly a few seconds later. It's their idea of fun : they like to get your goat by messing about with that bloody fricative. So our joke went like this : what do you get in an Irish maths lesson when you add three and a third to three and a third ? Six and two thirds ? Certainly not. You get two trees with two turds. We used to howl with laughter at such mischief. No doubt it was unfair on the Irish, but when they've just buried you under a "tree tousand tree hundred and tirty tree", you'll do anything you can to get even.

When I was sixteen and I started going out with my first Irish girlfriend in London, perceptions began to change. She was really nice, and so were her parents, and you soon forgot about the damage they were doing to those poor fricatives. When Irish eyes are smiling ...

Then came sixth form and the programme for our 'A' levels. Russian, French and English literature. The world changed. Here were Gogol with 'The Overcoat', Lermontov with 'A Hero Of Our Time', Pushkin's 'Tales of Belkin', and then 'Fathers and Sons' by Turgenev. Nothing would ever be the same again. And Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were waiting in the wings to finish off the job. In English literature we had Orwell's '1984', Huxley's 'Brave New World', 'The Power And The Glory' by Graham Greene, Shakespeare of course and ... and some strange person whose surname I didn't even know how to pronounce. 'Yates', you must say, though it's written 'Yeats'. To top it off, he wasn't English at all, but ... Irish ! Just like my girlfriend.

With hindsight, they certainly knew how to choose a sixth-form programme in those days, be it in English or Russian. Blockbusters all. They 'freaked me out', as the lady pictured above with the guitar is fond of saying, but more of her later, back first to Mister Yeats, pronounced 'Yates'. In our edition, the introduction started off by announcing that "His poetry began by echoing Shelley and Spenser and the pre-Raphelites." God, that sounded boring. Then we got some "Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, the writings of Swedenborg and Boehme and above all Blake, whose works he edited with Edwin Ellis during 1891-93." Aren't you just overjoyed to learn that at age sixteen and a half ? I skipped the rest of the introduction (it was life or death, and I chose life) and started flicking over the pages, searching for something to stop me falling asleep for good. And so it was that I came upon fifteen words, perhaps not very special in themselves, but put together in such a way that the spell was cast, one from which I shall never be free :

"I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea !"

They go up and down, those white birds, God knows how, they just do. It's magic at any age, but when you're sixteen, it hits you right between the eyes. And before you can recover, he hits you again with :

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings ;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore ;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core. "

then :

"Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that's lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost."

then :

"He bade his heart go to her, when the owls called out no more.
In a red and quivering garment, it sang to her through the door ..."

and last, to reduce you utterly, this one :

"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Ouch, it hurts. But you want more. And he gives it to you, mercilessly :

"He stood among a crowd at Dromahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care... "

"An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress ..."

"Nor dread nor hope attend a dying animal,
A man awaits his end dreading and hoping all ..."

"How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!"

William Butler Yeats died in January, 1939, so obviously he never met Dolores Mary Eileen O'Riordan, born in Limerick on 6th September, 1971, some thirty-two (or, as Dolores would say, infuriatingly : "tirty-to") years later, but she went to his grave and wrote a song about it. And well she might. Could the one have existed without the other ? In my opinion, not. In any case, if we must choose two figures who have "changed utterly" our conception of that wet and windy island west of Liverpool, undoubtedly it must be these two. Did he not have an inkling of what was to come, and was he not thinking of the "bossy little lady" from Limerick when he wrote, killing me softly yet again :

" 'I am of Ireland
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on', cried she.
'Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.' "

For that's exactly what we did.

About Dolores.

At home in the mountains in Ardèche, when the weather is too bad for running, you need some good music for gym or aerobics or whatever the latest, fashionable term may describe it as. In 1996 the radio was blasting out 'Salvation' by some Irish group I'd never heard of before (and I was not alone), so at the local Fnac I picked up a videocassette of said group entitled, wholly unoriginally : 'The Cranberries'. It was a big disappointment. 'Salvation' was not on it, the group were singing live (NB : on 14th January, 1994 at the London Astoria 2) with the lead singer dressed like some of the hippy tramps you see hanging around in Lyon city centre with big dogs and bottles of beer in attendance, and what's more she had what seemed to be a set of cutlery hanging from her right ear. That was Dolores at 22. After two or three very slow, very Irish songs, I ejected the young lady with the knives, forks and spoons and got back to some real rock music with David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Guns 'N' ( Roses.

Winter of 2012/13 started for us in mid-October, then seemed to go on for ever. According to the locals, Spring 2013 was the coldest they could remember. We had snow till the (bitter) end of May, so runs were few and far between, with good music for bopping to in heavy demand. You can only take so much 'Modern Love' in a season, even coming from Mister Bowie himself, so I decided to give that Irish group with the strange female singer one last go. I was tolerant towards the extreme Irishness of it all, and watched the cassette the whole way through. Once. Then twice. Then over and over again. It was something about the lady ...

Dolores really is strange. She dances on stage the way you normally dance at home with the curtains drawn. And she has this peculiar way of moving across the stage with her body either stooping forward or slanting back. It's feline, like she's prowling. Sometimes she turns her back on the audience and swings her head about so wildly you're scared it will come off. Is she having fun ? About as much fun as a woman during childbirth, I should say. She's alone, in fact, alone in front of hundreds of people who have paid good money to stare at a singer who hates being stared at. When she starts singing 'Not sorry', you can see some of the front row of the audience gaping at her fearfully, because it's too intense, she's baring her soul when she should be just performing a love song. "I swore I'd never feel like this again", she says, and if ever you have "given all the heart" yourself, you know only too well what she means. It's disturbing, and it moves you to tears. Here is this so vulnerable young woman telling you about the pain she feels over her lost love and you wonder how on earth she can survive in the world on such terms. But she gets under your skin. The whole performance is magic. It's exactly what Yeats had prophesied in his poem :

" 'I am of Ireland
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on', cried she.
'Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland.' "

Dolores not sorry. You just fear that she will never survive in the world. And she very nearly didn't.

"It was really bad, a bit like the film, Jacob's Ladder. I thought people were watching me all the time. Looking back, I went nuts for a while. I didn't want to go out or leave my room and even when I was in the room, I'd see faces looking at me." Read the full interview from 'The Independent' 12th June, 2009. Watch also the videoclip to 'Free To Decide', where an emaciated Dolores O'Riordan sings : "I'll live as I choose, or I will not live at all." She looked like someone out of The Great Famine. Which, in a sense, she undoubtedly is.

A Page of History : The Great Famine.

"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine. "

In 1800, some five million people lived in Ireland. By the autumn of 1845, when the Great Famine struck Ireland, there were more than eight million. Many of them were wretchedly poor, eking out a precarious living on tiny plots of land, and dependent on each year's potato crop. Hunger was no novelty to peasant families, for there had been partial failures of the potato crop in other years. However, these had always been of limited duration, and confined to a small number of counties. The Great Famine lasted from 1845 to 1848, and crop failure affected the whole island.

The cause of the famine was a fungus disease which made the potato plants rot in the ground, giving off an appalling stench. The blight first destroyed crops on the eastern seaboard of America in 1842, then appeared in England in the summer of 1845. In September, the counties of Wexford and Waterford reported the disease. More than half the Irish potato crop failed in 1845. Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, appointed a commission to investigate the problem, but scientists were unable to explain the disease, let alone find a cure. In 1846, the potato crop was a total failure.

John Mitchel, one of the leading political writers of 'Young Ireland', as early as 1844 in 'The Nation', raised the issue of the " Potato Disease " in Ireland, noting how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions. On February 14, 1846, he put forward his views on "the wretched way in which the famine is being trifled with", and asked, had not the Government even yet any conception that there might be soon "millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat ? "

In an article on " English Rule " on March 7, Mitchel wrote that the Irish People were "expecting famine day by day" and they attributed it collectively, not so much to "the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England." He continued in the same article to write that the people "believe that the seasons as they roll are but ministers of England's rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish." The people, Mitchel wrote, watched their "food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth," all the while watching "heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England."

Mitchel later wrote one of the first widely circulated tracts on the famine, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) in 1861. It established the widespread view that the treatment of the famine by the British was a deliberate murder of the Irish, and contained the famous phrase:

"The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine. "

Records show Irish lands exported food even during the worst years of the Famine. When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–1783, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. No such export ban happened in the 1840s.

Cecil Woodham-Smith, an authority on the Irish Famine, wrote in 'The Great Hunger : Ireland 1845 to 1849' that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland as "the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation." Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.

Christine Kinealy writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland.

And Another : Land Issues.

Click here to read Maggie Land Blanck's blog about evictions of Irish farmers in the 19th century.

That's very funny, in a sinister sort of way. The lady entitled her blog 'Land Issues'. What it means is the history of how the English landlords persecuted Irish tenant farmers during the nineteenth century, ratcheting up the rents year in year out until they had bled the local population white, then evicting them from the cottages they had built with their own hands and razing them to the ground to clear the land for more profitable cattle grazing. That's what's happening in the print opposite Dolores with her guitar at the beginning of this article. It's just a guess, but the videoclip to 'Animal Instinct' seems to hark back to all that. Here is the newspaper article that accompanied the print :


"We have little need or wish, after the protracted discussions of so many months past, upon the grievous condition of affairs between the claims of landlord and tenant in the western counties of Ireland, to dwell much on the distressing scene that is here presented. It is obviously the case of a peasant family being expelled, by the aid of the Irish Constabulary, which is a half-military force, and which has the severest coercive duties to preform, from the humble cottage that has long sheltered man, woman, and child. They have failed to pay the rent, and they are consequently ejected by regular process of law but the aspects of this business, in itself, is harsh and threatening; the scanty furniture, rudely cast out upon the ground, the weeping wife and daughter, the terrified babies, the poor old father, apparently stunned by this great affliction, whom a constable is leading from the door, may well appeal to feelings of humane compassion. Such feelings, to their credit, seem to have touched the officer and men employed in protecting those who come to execute this stern decree of forcible removal and who are perhaps themselves less susceptible of pity on these occasions. The neighbours in the village are naturally in a state of high indignation, as may be seen to the right and left of the premises; but we trust that no actual deeds of violence will be committed"

Please remember, when reading this, that the "western counties of Ireland" referred to in the above article include Limerick, which is the home of Dolores O'Riordan and The Cranberries. The "weeping wife and daughter, the terrified babies, the poor old father" could very well be their families. This is what we English did to them and theirs little over a hundred years ago.

I am not aware of any British politician ever having apologized to the Irish for such institutionalized inhumanity as my forefathers practised there in centuries gone by. We should bow our heads in shame. Fortunately for us, the Irish are a peace-loving, forgiving people. God gave us some very nice neighbours - and look what we did to them. Forgive us, Dolores, we don't deserve you. Yet still you come and bless us with your golden voice and beautiful soul. "We have returned to you, sweet London." she announced at the beginning of the videocassette. Sweet London ? Sweet Dolores, rather. She is of Ireland, and the Holy Land of Ireland, and time runs on.

Healing The Wounds.

In September 2012, my son Matthew graduated from Maynooth University with a doctorate in musicology. I attended. It was my first time in Ireland. I expected the poor Irish to be hostile towards a visiting Englishman over those 'land issues' and all the rest of the unpleasantness we had heaped upon them. Not only was that not the case, you even got the

impression it never happened there. In fact, you soon understand that the so-called 'Anglo-Irish question' does not exist, at least not among working-class people. We should not forget that while the Irish were being so persecuted on their own soil by English landlords, our own working class were getting the same treatment back in England at the hands of those very same landlords. We are all served the same religious and racial tittle-tattle to divide and confuse us. It was class war on both sides of the Irish Sea, and the workers got whipped, as usual.

In the meantime, Dolores had been having babies. She says that's what saved her. We can't believe she was smoking 500 cigarettes a day, as is claimed, in 1996, but whatever she was on, it was doing her no good, and she gave it up when she learnt she was expecting her first child. "The love came back, and I wanted to sing again", she says about that first pregnancy. Looking at stills of her recording 'To The Faithful Departed', you don't need her to tell you that she was in a sorry state. This is black despair. She's on the brink. Was it just the gruelling routine, as she would have us believe ? Obviously not. At 25, you don't look like she looked at the time just because you're overworked.

She's got the world on her shoulders, and it won't hold. How painful is consciousness. Being in touch with humanity is a risky business, and this lady is more in touch than most, so however she tries to minimise all that happened in 1996 when she recalls that period now, it's clear that we nearly lost our beautiful prophet. "And I'm not so suicidal, after all", she sings in 'Free To Decide'. Not now, you're not.

Perhaps the most joyous videoclip from The Cranberries is the one to 'Just My Imagination', recorded in 1999, and when you watch it, you wonder if it's the same woman as three years before. Now, she has decided she wants to be beautiful, and she gets what she wants. She is also having fun, at last.

This Mrs Dolores Burton we see here is married and she has rather stern, orthodox Catholic views on moral questions, so we must tread warily when discussing the lady's body, but on 'Just My Imagination' we have the quintessence of Dolores. It's a ball, and very far removed from what was on that videocassette recorded in London in January, 1994. "I used to wear long Indian and Pakistani dresses on stage, just in case you might see a little bump", she recalled later. "Oh, that all changed !" So we noticed, Madam.

First, you get the belly button. Pushkin said that just the curve of a woman's leg could drive a man crazy, and we would be inclined to agree with him. Goodness knows what he would have thought about Dolores's belly. The poor man must be turning in his mossy grave.

For good measure, we get the legs as well. It's not clear what she's supposed to be wearing in the clip, maybe she simply forgot something when she was getting dressed, but in any case those pegs of hers just go on and on for ever. It's all good, clean fun, but you must admit that we are a long way from Pakistan here. Then, there's the eyes and the mouth.

How are you feeling, chaps ? Not so suicidal, after all ? There's a marvellous moment in the Paris concert (Palais des Sports de Bercy) on 9th December, 1999 where, at the beginning of 'Ridiculous Thoughts', she sidles across the stage with a saucy grin on her face, stoops down towards the men in the front row, and announces, pointing rearwards : "Chaps ! My bum !" Upon which she goes jigging away from the chaps in question and gyrating the aforesaid piece of her anatomy in gleeful abandon. It brings the house down, as she knew it would. In fact, she's teasing us primitive males for being interested in parts of her person which have nothing to do with the noble art of singing, but she does it in a lovely, innocent way that is hers alone. It works. That frightened girl from January, 1994 has been transformed into a consummate artist. Still simple. Still herself. But she's in charge now, and we are putty in her beautiful hands. Dostoevsky said that it was terrible ("ouzhasno") to be "in the hand of God", which means facing your destiny. How lovely ("prekrasno") to be in the hands of one such as Dolores. Your mother and your sister, rolled in to one. And on top of all that, she still finds the time to give your libido a little tweak along the way.

"Chaps ! My ... er, sister !

Dolores's family seems to include the whole of the human race. If you buy the CD of 'Roses', The Cranberries' latest album, you get a bonus recording of their concert in Madrid in March, 2010. There she is, chatting to the (huge) audience in between two songs just like she would in the local pub, and the Spaniards who turned up to the concert know ALL the words to ALL the songs. Hang on, it's not your language ! It is now. Listen to 'Animal Instinct', for example. It's the Red Army choir, latin-style. When the boys play the opening bars to 'Ridiculous Thoughts', the audience are off to a false start before Dolores can open her mouth. "You started without me !" she says. And she catches them up. In this respect, nothing has changed since the Astoria in 1994. Even then, frightened as she was of the limelight, she walked up and down the front of the stage, touching people's hands, letting them touch her face, then sitting down on the edge of the stage to sing 'Empty'. "And the fire is here", she said. On stage now in front of tens of thousands of people, she's just like she is at the fireside with her friends and family. Nobody else in the world can do that. She took away the pain and healed the wounds. Hers and ours.

The Cranberries : Noel Hogan, Dolores O'Riordan, Mike Hogan & Fergal Lawler. The best English rock group in the world. And the nicest.

There's an interview with Noel, Mike, Fergal and Dolores where they talk about the sabbatical they took at the end of 1996, when all four of them were wiped out by the punishing schedule they'd been on since they hit the big time two years earlier. What did they do during their time off ? Dolores famously hid in the forest in Canada with her husband, Don Burton. And Mike ? "I took three (he said 'tree' in fact, but he's such a nice chap we don't care anymore) months in Manchester, three months in London - and I went to some matches." By "matches", he obviously means English football, not Irish, and if he chose Manchester and London, that probably means Manchester United at Old Trafford and Spurs at White Hart Lane. Now, as an Englishman who is a big football fan too, going back to Old Trafford or White Hart Lane does sound like a treat, but I could never imagine (or desire) doing such a thing with Mick Jagger or Elton John. With Mike Hogan, on the other hand, that would be just fine. Why ? Because he's what you call a 'regular' guy, with no pretention to be anything other than a very good bass guitarist and ... a big football fan. He's "my family", to quote Dolores, never taking himself too seriously, always ready to break into a smile, world famous, but still one of us. And the point is this : when he said he took three months in Manchester then three months in London, if the journalist had said, "Oh, I see, you went abroad for a while, did you ?" Mike would no doubt have looked at him like he'd got a screw loose. In Manchester, he's on home soil, and in London too. He's one of us, part of that old Anglo-Irish family they tried so hard to break up and destroy. "It's the same old theme since 1916, zombie !" You said it, Dolores.

My conclusion is that Easter Monday, 1916, and all that followed, especially the horror in Ulster, was a big, tragic mistake, a put-up job those in power foisted on us to keep us busy - and to keep them in power. The English and the Irish are in reality one and the same people. Probably, the common language is what makes different cultural groups into one nation, and that is true here too. After Shakespeare, the greatest poet in the English language is undoubtedly William Butler Yeats. Without the white birds on the foam of the sea, perhaps they could have carried on tricking me into believing that the Irish are foreigners. But now the white birds have flown, the embroidered cloths have been spread, and Dolores has told us she's not sorry about giving all her heart. We will never be the same again, and all the claptrap about Catholics and Protestants just won't work any more. All changed, changed utterly : a wonderful beauty is born. Salvation is real !

John Hodgkinson. June, 2013. Lachamp Raphaël.

Author's footnote :

Here, for word lovers, is the whole of Yeats's poem 'I am of Ireland' :

"I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on," cried she.
"Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland."

One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
"That is a long way off,
And time runs on," he said,
"And the night grows rough."

"I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on," cried she.
"Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland."

"The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone," cried he,
"The trumpet and trombone,"
And cocked a malicious eye,
"But time runs on, runs on."

"I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on," cried she.
"Come out of charity,
Come dance with me in Ireland."

This poem is based on a fourteenth-century lyric called 'Icham of Irlaunde'. It comes from a book of poems Yeats entitled : 'Words For Music Perhaps'. With music, perhaps, by the Cranberries one day ? We must go and ask Dolores about that one. And so we will.

I am of Ireland. Dolores at peace with herself, and with us.

Post Scriptum (July, 2013) :

For the stout-hearted, the best way to begin to understand the hideous mess that has been made of Anglo-Irish relations over the centuries is to read Cecil Woodham-Smith's momentous work : ‘The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-1849'. Mrs Woodham-Smith (1896-1977) is a genius, and her book, some 400 pages long, is a work of art. It is, however, appalling in its realism. If you are not of a strong constitution, abstain.

I am a practising Catholic and I consider myself to be a tolerant and forgiving man. However, I would gladly club to death a thousand times over a certain Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan, the Englishman who organized (and I mean 'organized') the Great Famine in Ireland in the late 1840's. Such a combination of stupidity, self-righteousness and calculated evil is difficult to attain. This man was a traitor to my native England, and his malevolent misdeeds poison still relations amidst the great Anglo-Irish family, of which William Butler Yeats was our most illustrious member.

Much is to be said about the Irish character. Drunkenness and fighting are their vices, and they rightly have a bad reputation for such poor behaviour. That aside, I challenge you to find a more admirable people on the face of this earth. Here are a few lines from Mrs Woodham-Smith's book concerning the nature of the Irish people. When reading them, a picture is painted of a passionate and sturdy race who love life and who, for all their culture and talent, remain simple and accessible – in a word, fine human beings. Which picture corresponds exactly to the beautiful lady in the photo above, and no doubt explains her huge popularity among ordinary people. So God bless Ireland, and so too her wonderful ambassador who changed all our lives for the better. Now hear Mrs Woodham-Smith :

‘Wretched though their condition might be, the pre-famine Irish peasants were not gloomy. “Their natural condition,” wrote Sir Walter Scott during his visit to Ireland in 1825, “is turned towards gaiety and happiness,” and the Census Commissioners noted “the proverbial gaiety and lightheartedness of the peasant people”.

Dancing was the universal diversion, and Lord George Hill, who owned property in Donegal, has left an account of removing a cabin with dancing and fiddling. “The custom on such occasions is for the person who has the work to be done to hire a fiddler, upon which engagement all the neighbours joyously assemble and carry in an incredibly short time the stones and timber upon their backs to the new site ; men, women and children alternately dancing and working while daylight lasts, at the termination of which they adjourn to some dwelling where they finish the night, often prolonging the dance to dawn of day.” Arthur Young, at the end of the eighteenth century, commented on the fine physique of the average Irishman and the good looks of Irish women, and even after the sufferings of the famine Nassau Senior, the economist, revisiting Ireland, was “struck by the beauty of the population”.

The culture of the potato required little attention except at springtime and harvest, and through the long winter nights the people sat within their cabins, fiddling, talking and telling stories. Firing, in the shape of turf – peat cut from the bog and costing little or nothing – was plentiful. “Few, if any, had any reason to complain of cold,” records a manuscript, and poteen, illicit whiskey, was plentiful, too. Groups of neighbours gathered for dancing to the fiddle, indoors in the winter, in summer at the cross-roads ; wakes, with liberal potations of poteen, were social occasions ; and crowds gaily travelled immense distances to attend markets, fairs and, above all, races. “If there be a market to attend, a fair or a funeral, a horse race, a fight or a wedding, all else is neglected and forgotten,” wrote George Nicholls, the leading English Poor Law expert, when reporting on the state of the Irish people.

As the main diversion of the women was talking, they disliked living in isolated houses. In schemes of land improvement the houses were separated, since in the old-style Irish settlement of cabins in clusters the women and the men spent too much time talking and quarrelling. The change was always unpopular. Lord George Hill relates a story of an agent who observed to a tenant that he seemed to be doing so much better now that he was living away from neighbours and could “attend to his farm instead of idling and gossiping”. The man assured him that precisely the contrary was true, and “he could not stand it much longer on account of the expense, as he was obliged to keep a servant maid just to talk to his wife”.

Good manners and hospitality were universal among the poorest Irish. “The neighbour or the stranger finds every man's door open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time and to partake of his bowl of potatoes, is always sure to give pleasure to everyone of the house,” wrote Sir John Carr, a Devonshire gentleman who toured Ireland soon after the Union ; and twenty years later, Sir Walter Scott found “perpetual kindness in the Irish cabin ; buttermilk, potatoes, a stool is offered, or a stone is rolled out that your honour may sit down … and those that beg everywhere else seem desirous to exercise hospitality in their own houses”.

A young lady named Elizabeth Ham came to Ballina, County Mayo, when her father, a British Army officer, was stationed there in connection with the disturbed state of the country, following the rebellion of 1798. She was astonished to find that she could roam the wild mountains without fear of molestation, while in England no girl could ramble in the woods and fields alone, even though at this time Irishmen who had taken part in the rebellion were being hanged by the English on Ballina bridge. She would, she wrote, “have fearlessly trusted” the Irish peasantry “in any circumstances”. The intelligence of the people surprised her. “I never met a solitary peasant in my rambles but I addressed him, and by this means got stores of legendary lore. One man I remember told me the subjects of most of Ossian's poems in his own version of English.”

Returning to England after five years she was “greatly struck by the vulgarity of everyone”. Driving from Holyhead in a chaise, “we happened to stop opposite a cottage and … asked for a glass of water. It was brought … and the woman asked for payment. An Irishwoman would have considered it an insult to be offered such.” '  

(Cecil Woodham-Smith, ‘The Great Hunger', pages 24/25/26.)

"Somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies"

(WB Yeats, 'The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland')

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