The following is from the second chapter (first draft) of a new historical fiction book I'm starting, titled An Irish Odyssey. You are the lucky few to see it first!
With a maiden name of Emilia Rene Haas, most people would assume my ancestry is German, but that’s only partly true. My father’s mother was one hundred percent Irish, which makes me one quarter Irish on his side. On my mother’s side, there is mostly English and Scots-Irish.
These Scots-Irish ancestors of mine were Protestant Scots and English from the Borderland--southern Scotland and northern England--to whom King James I of England in 1610 offered free land in the northern counties of Ireland. This was done to create a buffer between Catholic Ireland and Protestant Scotland and England, and it came to be called The Plantation of Ulster--the 9 counties of northern Ireland. His plantation of Protestants on seized Catholic lands wasn’t the first, however. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I also planted Protestants in Munster, the six southwest counties of Ireland. My Irish ancestors came from this region. In fact, English political attitudes toward Ireland as The Irish Problem date all the way back to Henry VII, father of the better known Henry VIII.
By the 1800s very few landowners were native Irish, and the majority of Catholics in Ireland were tenant farmers, who relied almost solely on the lowly potato as their source of food. As time passed, their potato crop became their only source of revenue to pay rent to their Protestant landlords. In addition, they were required to pay a tithe of their earnings (ten percent) to the Protestant Church of England, a church they didn’t belong to and gained no benefit from.
As time passed, these seeds planted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to sectarian violence that has lasted into the twenty-first century. The roots of the problem still haven’t been fully resolved, but are simmering beneath the surface like a dormant volcano. The conflict has always been more about political power and less about religion, and those plantations by English monarchs have borne much bitter fruit.
Four days after our tour of Derry/Londonderry, our tour group settled for two nights in Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland. In 2022, it’s a bustling city with a harbor on the River Liffey, which runs through the center of the city. The old dockyards have been given a make-over into a pleasant pedestrian way, paved with gravel and concrete stones and a lane of shade trees running parallel to the riverbank. We didn’t see any of the graffiti which we’d seen in Northern Ireland.
As my husband and I walked along an esplanade, we saw a three-masted sailing ship moored by one of the quays.
“That’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said John. “It reminds me of the tall ships we sometimes saw sailing on Lake Huron, when we lived in Michigan.”
“It would be interesting to sail on a ship like that,” I said.
“Of course, the sailing wouldn’t be nearly as smooth as on modern cruise ships.”
“I know. You’re right,” I nodded. “We’ve been spoiled by our two cruises on Radiance of the Seas. Cruising was a relaxing way to travel, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, sure. But I’m not ready to go cruising again until we see if Covid is really over and done with,” he said. “I don’t want to be stuck on a quarantined ship.”
By this time we were standing right above the gangplank leading to the tall ship. A chain stretched across the entrance with a sign showing prices and times of tours. Printed above an archway were the words: This is a replica of the Famine Ships which carried thousands of Irish overseas during the Potato Famine in the mid-1800s.
“I remember my dad talking about how his grandparents and their families came to America during that famine,” I said, looking down at the rough planking of the deck. “Those must have been very difficult voyages.”
John nodded, “Crossing the stormy North Atlantic is seldom smooth sailing.”
The ship didn’t show any signs of life, as we stood and gazed down on her. “They must not be doing tours today,” I shrugged.
“Maybe they will before our group heads back to England.”
“That’s tomorrow morning, though.”
John reached over and took my hand. “Let’s walk some more.”
We strolled away from the ship, and soon came to some statues arrayed along the walkway. They were unlike any statues I’d ever seen. The first two we came upon were a man and a woman. Each clutched a small bundle to their emaciated frame. Their clothes were rags, and their feet were bare, but the faces captured me most. They had the most haggard features and haunted-looking eyes. The man was gazing slightly upward, and in the midst of the fear and desperation on his face, I thought I sensed a tiny ray of hope. To his left, though, the woman’s face showed only bewilderment and despair.
“I’ve never seen statues like this in my life,” I murmured to John. “They look so forlorn and hopeless.”
“From what I’ve heard of the Potato Famine, over a million Irish starved to death,” he whispered. “Those who could manage, left this island forever. Here, look at this sign.”
A few paces beyond these first two statues, a placard read, “In 1844, the Earl of Tullamore evicted all his 120 tenant farmers, tore down their rough stone cottages, and left them to find their own way to Dublin. Those who survived the 100-mile walk boarded ships like the one moored here, in hopes of finding a better life in America, Canada, or Australia.”
Just beyond the sign was a small statue which was merely a pair of worn-out shoes. Near these, another placard displayed a map, showing the road many had taken. It was labeled “The Famine Memorial Trail.”
I stood rooted to the spot in silence for what seemed a long time, until my husband spoke, “Are you all right?”
Turning to him in a daze, I murmured. “I’ve heard Dad talk about the famine and his family’s emigration from Ireland many times in my life. But it never hit me until today what a tragedy it was. To think that the landlords refused to help their own tenants, and just left them to starve or fend for themselves--if they could.”
“I remember a saying from one of my literature classes in high school. Our teacher often talked about stories that showed ‘Man’s inhumanity towards man.’ This is a classic case, I think,” said John.
“Come to think of it, our tour guide mentioned a field we passed on the coach tour in County Kerry last week. He said it was full of unmarked graves of victims of the famine. No one even knows how many graves there are scattered across the country,” I said. “People were so poor they couldn’t afford coffins, and many were buried in mass graves
“I’ve read that the blight which killed the potatoes was worst in the western counties, like Kerry,” added John.
“I’ve done a little genealogy research,” I said. “My Dad’s mother’s family name, Cantlon, comes from County Kerry.”
We stood gazing at those sculpture shoes, as a cool breeze began to whip the trees above our heads. Yellow leaves scattered in the autumn wind. I shivered, and pulled my sweater tighter around my chest. “Let’s head back to the hotel, okay.”
As John took my hand again, he squeezed it and said, “We’re lucky we have a warm shelter. The poor people that these statues commemorate had no place to go.”
“And no coats, either,” I sighed.
That night, after a rich and filling dinner, we settled into our luxury hotel room. As I stared into the darkness above me, I tried to imagine what my ancestors must have experienced during the famine and their journey to America. What challenges they must have faced when they arrived dirt poor in the place they hoped would be a land of opportunity. Lying there, gazing at a barely visible ceiling, I decided I needed to learn more about their story.
It needs to be told and not forgotten, I said to myself. In many ways, it reminds me of things I’ve heard said about the Jewish Holocaust. We must remember so these grim parts of history won’t be repeated.