Posts Tagged ‘St Patrick’s day’

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. As they say in Montserrat

17/03/2014, 09:34:16 AM

by Kevin Meagher

There are only two countries in the world where St. Patrick’s Day is a recognised public holiday, the Republic of Ireland (obviously enough) and Montserrat. Yes, that Montserrat, the tiny Caribbean island where, by the mid-1600s, Irish slaves made up two thirds of the island’s population.

Yes, you read that right: Irish slaves. The practice began in the first decades of the 17th Century with the ‘sale’ of 30,000 Irish political prisoners, in what would become a depressingly recurrent theme in Irish history. Between the start of the English Civil War and Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, around 300,000 Irish were sold into slavery, men, women and children alike.

Men at arms went first, then their wives and children were sold separately never to be reunited again. A further half a million Irish were killed during this period, with the country’s population falling from 1.6 million in 1641 to just 600,000 by 1652. It’s hard to determine who were the less fortunate, the dead or the enslaved.

Irish children were stripped not only of their families and liberty, but also their faith and ethnic identity, with many having their names changed for good measure. During the 1650s, over 100,000 of them between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England.

Many young girls were sold into what we would now term sex slavery. Plantation masters bred them with more expensive African slaves to save themselves the transit costs of importing new African slaves from greater distances. This heart-breaking and inhuman practice was eventually outlawed, but it’s fair to say this is a tale we’re not used to hearing.


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St. Patrick’s Day, the flag and Irish America

17/03/2012, 08:00:27 AM

by Kevin Meagher

The green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour, currently fluttering to questionable purpose outside a thousand pubs, has an interesting history.

It was presented to the Irish nation by my illustrious forebear, Thomas Francis Meagher, in Dublin in 1848. Shortly afterwards he, and a gallant band of brothers in the Young Ireland movement, launched one of the many heroic, but ultimately fruitless, insurrections against British rule.

This was midway through the Irish Famine – An Gorta Mor (“The Great Hunger”) in which Ireland’s population fell by a quarter, with a million people starving to death and a million more emigrating to America, Canada, Australia and Britain. Cruel Victorian indifference to the plight of the Irish cast a lingering shadow until Tony Blair’s welcome apology for this disgusting episode in British history back in 1997.

Meagher was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for his sedition – a sentence reprieved after public outcry – and instead he and his comrades found themselves transported for life to Van Dieman’s land in what is now Tasmania.

They were meant to remain there for life, checking in once a week with the authorities and expected to eschew thoughts of escape, on their word as gentlemen. Meagher thought better of it (as you would), procured a rescue ship and set sail for America whereupon he became a cause celebre to Irish immigrants who had reached America in less salubrious confines, usually aboard the infamous “coffin ships”. So great were the incidences of typhus among the starving Irish that a third died on the perilous Atlantic crossing. (It is said sharks could be seen following the ships, such were the numbers of corpses thrown overboard).

After starting an Irish newspaper and working as an attorney (he was on the defence team of Congressman Daniel Sickles, who shot his wife’s lover outside the White House and became the first person to successfully mount a defence of temporary insanity) Meagher became embroiled in the American civil war.


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The worldwide Irish AGM – St Paddy’s day

17/03/2011, 02:30:43 PM

by Kevin Meagher

I have a picture above my desk; a copy of a Punch cartoon from the 1840s. It depicts a monkey-like figure, in ragged clothes, a crumpled hat on its head, long arms thrashing around in the air. The creature smokes a small pipe, a menacing grimace for a face. Underneath, the caption reads: “The Irish hod-carrier. Lower than a Negro”.

It may not be pleasant. And, indeed, it may be a work of its time; but as the son of a bricklayer – and erstwhile hod-carrier myself – that picture is a constant reminder of who I am and where I come from. The struggles and insults that Irish people have endured for generations; depicted, as we were, as sub-human creatures of uncertain temperament.

It helps explain the indifference of a British ruling class to the Irish famine of the late 1840s, where a million people starved to death and a million more were forced to flee the country. But similar views were fashionable on the left too. Check out Friedrich Engels’ The Conditions of the Working Class in England. This otherwise estimable tome sees poor Irish immigrants to Britain blamed for the “filth and drunkenness they have brought with them”. Engels adds: “The lack of cleanliness…is the Irishman’s second nature”.

March 17 – St. Patrick’s day –  is another reminder of who I am, though a happier one.

It may have become popularised in recent years by Guinness’s tawdry marketing – those ridiculous drinking hats a throwback to depictions of the Irish in those wretched Victorian political cartoons – but St. Patrick’s day still means something more significant to the Irish wherever we are scattered. (more…)

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