Welcome Niall O'Donell, Emigrant!

Chapter One


The successive British governments never would study the Irish nature - and hence never could govern it. They despised our history and insisted on it that the caricatures of cockney imagination were true portraits of Irish character. They shipped us laws ready made and punished us because we were not patient with the misfit." Thomas d'Arcy McGee, A History of Irish Settlers in America, 1867

Though I have lived in Canada for close on seventy years, I was born in Ireland and one never entirely leaves behind one's native land. A part of me is Irish yet and the links between the Old Country and Lower Canada, Quebec now of course, have kept that memory green.

Let me begin, then, by taking you briefly across the Atlantic to that unhappy land, racked since earliest times by private wars and hereditary blood feuds. By the Sixteenth Century it saw its leaders turn to the English Tudor invaders for help against their warring brothers, to be in their turn forced to submit to alien rule.

The Act of Union in 1800 deprived the country of a native legislature. Her aristocracy and artists emigrated to London. High rents produced hardness of heart in the 'middle man', extravagance in the Anglo-Irish landowners, and extreme poverty in the peasantry. Between 1820 and 1830, two thirds of all manufacturies in Ireland were abandoned as ruinous investments. In the late '30's, over two million of its agricultural labourers were paupers, and even those immediately above that rank were considered "the worst clad, worst fed, and worst lodged" peasants in Europe.

You can imagine the devastation of the great potato famine in the '40's upon such a destitute people. The British authorities refused to stop the exports of grain - "could not interfere with the ordinary currents of trade", they excused themselves! - and the peasants died of starvation or emigrated by the hundreds of thousands, while the schisms of religion and politics continued to lay waste the country. Sydney says that today you can count more sheep than people in her hills and valleys.

Still, at no time since the English conquest in the days of Henry VIII have my countrymen submitted tamely to England's superior might. Within my lifetime I have watched across the Atlantic, reading one set of facts in the London Times and a far different story in the Fenian newspaper, The Irishman, and the Freeman's Journal.

The English army viciously squelched the 'troubles' of 1798, when the French failed in their promise to come to the aid of the rebels. In the thirties, O'Connell was elected to the British Parliament and tried to bring about peaceful change. Then followed the 1848 rising, and in the 1850's, James Stephens, 'an seabhac' - the Hawk.

The Fenian movement, which for a time a few years back caused unrest along our border, was a more serious affair in Ireland, though badly organized and destined to fail. The '70s were quiet years until the harvest failures, leading to the bleak year of '79, brought fears that famine would strike again. The Land League was formed, 'Boycotting' recalcitrant landlords, shaking the countryside from its lethargy into excitement and a fearful hope of change. Charles Stewart Parnell, the 'uncrowned king' of Ireland was elected to Parliament in 1876. He ferociously attacked the British policy in the Commons, led the 'land war', and was thrown into Kilmainham jail with a few of his closest colleagues. From his cell he negotiated a 'treaty' with Gladstone, and in 1886 - just ten years ago! - swept the Irish seats, soundly defeating the old Whigs and Liberals, and leading eighty members to Parliament, holding the balance of power between the Liberals and Conservatives, forcing Gladstone to win his support in order to stay in office.

Those were heady days, even for us New World Irish Canadians who had long since left home. While I heartily disapproved of the Fenian nonsense on our borders, my heart thrilled at the thought of Parnell and his supporters, bolstered by the Land League, most of the Bishops, the common people, even the Fenians. Home rule - independence - seemed assured.

There were set-backs, to be sure. The other side fought hard: the Coercion Act to destroy the Land League, the Times publishing articles that seemed to prove Parnell was linked with the terrorists and that ghastly assassination in Phoenix Park. Parnell fought back, triumphantly cleared himself, leaving his opponents and the Times in tatters, Gladstone firmly in Parnell's grasp, and Home Rule in the palm of his hand. And then disaster struck - the scandal of the leader's long, clandestine relations with Catherine O'Shea, the wife of one of his supporters - and the whole brave edifice came tumbling down in that tragic election of 1891. As the divorce proceedings were blazened across the country, the Church turned away first, of course, and the party split into Parnellites and Anti-Parnellites. In the ten months that followed his defeat and sudden death, the country split - Loyalists, Fenians, Catholics, Protestants, a crescendo of ferocity that the English could never have hoped for or even dreamed of. Today Ireland lies dormant again, her visions shattered, her leadership in disarray. I weep for her, and as I look around at my adoptive country, struck by its quiet progress, the sturdy contentment of its people, in spite of its great problems - two races, two tongues, a vast sub-continent still largely unexplored, that seething, turbulent nation to the south still threatening - I feel a deep anger towards the British government, towards the hypocrisy and vainglory of the English mind.

Here in Canada, it was the ocean that freed us in the end, the 3000 miles that even modern steamships cannot bridge - and our powerful neighbour. The British have had no choice, though they have acted often only with very bad grace. They have had to give us a large measure of independence - while they still hold Ireland captive.


And yet I was happy there as a boy in my small corner of Ireland. I can still close my eyes and see Tipperary - the blue mountains of Galway brooding in the north, the great, dark woodlands and the bright green of the fields in the springtime, soft and misty and mild, the not unpleasant odour of marsh gas in the lowlands and the characteristic smell of peat smoking in the hearth - our valley, cut by the river Suir, and the old stone bridge where we often played, so ancient no one knew its beginnings.

I recall the earthen floor and thatched roof of our shanty on the edge of Lord Glengall's huge estate. He was a resident landlord, and his tenants were better cared for than most. His ancestors had encouraged the Quakers to settle in the ancient town of Cahir, with its great waterwheel and Celtic ruins. They built its famous flour mills, which gave employment to most of the young people of the region, and established the free school. Their soft, grey homespun and wide-brimmed hats were much in evidence in the town.

My father Hugh, Lord G.'s coachman, was a dark giant of a man. Quiet and reserved, he loved children and horses and was good with both.

I was his shadow, trotting along beside him with his old dog, Puck, helping with the chores and learning to understand the animals. I've always loved the smell of horses when you rub down their sweaty flanks after a good run. The hot, steamy stink of fresh droppings often takes me back -. "Niall, mavourneen," my father would say, "all the beasts have their ways of conversing, though it's few among us humans take the trouble to learn them. Horses sense our fears and our needs and we must do the same for them if we wish to manage them."

When it was quiet at the stables, and at home at night around the low peat fire in the cottage, he could be coaxed into story telling - old tales and Irish history, handed down to him by his father. I learned of the O'Nialls, High Kings of Ireland for two hundred years before the coming of St. Patrick and Brian Boru; of how, in the Thirteenth Century, our family of O'Donells left Donegal in the north and moved south across Ireland to Tipperary, following the defeat of Black Hugh O'Donell, Earl of Tyrconnell - praised by the bards for - never having given hostages, pledges, or tributes to English or Irish' - and Hugh O'Niall, King of Tyrone. He told it so it seemed only yesterday, though it happened in the time of Queen Elizabeth. (Of the plantation of Ulster which followed those events he spoke little. It was from Joe Leary, Jennie's husband, that I learned how the English Protestants were settled in Northern Ireland.)

I liked best the story of a later hero, a second Hugh O'Niall, who had led the Irish of Munster against Cromwell at the Siege of Clonmel. His name, encompassing both my father's and mine, had magic for me, the more so since the ruined castle was not in Clonmel at all but was part of Lord Glengall's property on the river as you entered Cahir. I often played in its old stone keep with other boys from school, reenacting those ancient battles.

Black Hugh became engraved in my mind in the likeness of my father himself. A tall, muscular man with unruly black hair and green eyes, my father seemed more like an Irish chieftain than a coachman, though he loved caring for Lord Glengall's handsome horses. I learned that love from him and spent much of my childhood there, expecting to follow in his footsteps.

When the job of apprentice became vacant, I felt my chance had come. I asked Mr. Mallinson, the head groom, if he'd take me on.

He smiled, shaking his head a little. "Arra, lad, I'd be happy to but you'd better talk to your father first. I have me doubts he'll agree."

Da, when I finally approached him rather offhandedly, was stricken. I wanted to take my words back, seeing the pain dampen his eyes.

"No, no, Niall," he was almost pleading with me.

"But I want to help. I'm big and strong and I love the horses. And I could earn a wage."

I felt rebellious even as I knew I would do as he wished. Most of my friends had left school and were working. How long would I stay on to put up with their teasing, be treated like a baby?

Da understood my mood. He put an arm around my shoulders. "I'd be happy of the pleasure of having you by me, mavourneen - and God knows the money'd come in handy - but ye're a good student. The teachers speak well of you. A man with instruction can go far - and I'd like to see you do the things I've been unable to do."

So stay I did, though I was not above playing hooky, often slipping off to visit Jennie and Joe's apartment in town, where exciting things seemed to be happening - or at least being discussed vociferously - by the gang of youths who hung out there.

I did love books, as I always have since. The teacher at the Quaker school was encouraging and promised to arrange for me to sit for the University scholarship examinations when the time should come, so I went willingly enough to school most days.

Mam - what can I say about Mam? A small, thin, fretful woman - I came to understand later how hard her life had been. She spent long hours at her two looms - one for wool and one for flax - cared for the house, worked in her garden, and looked after us all. She bore several children, of whom only four were alive in my last years at home. Jennie was the eldest, seven years older than I, married and living with her husband, Joe, in Cahir where they both worked at the flour mills. She had finished at the Quaker school just as I started.

Don't speak ill of the dead, who cannot defend themselves, but it was Mam's fretfulness, her nagging, her continual going-on at Da which led to Jennie's leaving home, marrying Joe when she was not yet ready, led to the whole sad story and to our emigrating from Ireland. Jennie was small and dark like Mam, thin and intense, unhappy at home. She would rail at Mam for her saving ways and complain about the cabin before she finally moved out. "How can you stand it, Mam? Earthen floors forever dirty. You can't keep them clean. The pigs practically members of the family. Oh I know you keep them out under the stoop, but -."

She loved Da and tried to keep her feelings from him but she thought he'd given in to the Establishment - working for an Anglo-Irish Lord - that he seemed to have put his old patriotic views behind for ever. It was from Jennie and Joe I learned of the 'troubles' of 1798, that unsuccessful rebellion which had thrown Ireland into the hated union with England. I listened to tales of the Americans winning their freedom from British rule, of the French Revolution which was to lead to a new era of equality for the working man, and of Napoleon who would have helped us win our independence if he himself had not been defeated by the combined forces of repression in Europe.

"Our fathers fought," I recall Joe's eyes alight with the glorious memory, "your Da and mine, alongside 20,000 others. They held Wexford and Carlow and Wicklow and parts of Kilkenny. If they'd had the leaders, my Da says, they'd have freed the whole of Ireland!"

"And what came of it all?" Jenny was scornful. "The English marched in their regiments with their blood-red jackets, their rifles, and their cavalry, and swarmed over the countryside. Bagenal Harvey's skull still hangs skewered above the Wexford gaol and we're slaves in our own land. We lost even that poor excuse of a parliament -."

"Hush woman! The Fates were against us. Pikes and staves against artillery - and the French let us down, promising an army and sending a few poor ships. But we'll try again - and this time we'll succeed!"

"We'd better learn how to work together, then." Jennie was not intimidated by her husband's fierceness. "Da was sickened by the attacks of the Whiteboys and the Catholic mob as they turned on the Protestant burghers on Wexford Bridge and butchered them all. So much for the 'United Irishmen'."

"Things are different now. O'Connell's sure to be elected to the English Parliament for County Clare. And how can they refuse him, even though he's Catholic? They'll have to change the laws against our religion, he says. The Whiteboys and United Irishmen have joined forces and are working together."

"O'Connell!' Jennie spat out the name. "I saw him the day he came through Cahir and all you louts stood around and cheered. There he was - fat! - a nice, plump little man who has a way with his tongue. He didn't look as if he'd suffered for Ireland. He stirs up the young men and then regrets their acts, accuses the English for the deaths of those who heed his words."

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