Saint Patrick and The Goat

I came across an interesting folk legend in Skerries last time I was home, which tickled my fancy. Like much of our native topographical narratives, the story relates to Saint Patrick (many of the pre-Christian cultural sites including holy springs, wells, and others were renamed for him by the Christian Church as their influence grew in Ireland).

This story relates to a cluster of islands off the seaside village Skerries, in County Fingal. The local and most common version of the story tells how St. Patrick was expelled from the Wicklow region by the (cough) pagan natives. Disgruntled, by his lack of success, the Saint headed north and landed on a small island (“the outer island still called by his name” – Inis Pádraig or St. Patrick’s Island) off Skerries which he intended to use as a safe base from which to convert the ‘natives’. Accompanying him on this new mission, was a goat which he used for companionship and as a source of milk.

One day, while he was off on the mainland haranguing the locals, a separate bunch of them turned up on the island where they found Patrick’s goat. Feeling hungry, and having forgotten to pack a picnic lunch, they killed the goat and ate it before heading back to the mainland.

Patrick, returning to the island after a hard day at the pulpit, was upset (inconsolable) to find his goat missing. Full of fury, he took two giant strides (the first, taking him to Colt Island, the second to Red Island) to step back onto the mainland to confront the people living in modern-day Skerries.

Gathering the natives on the beach, he accused them outright of eating his goat and when they attempted to deny it, the guilty locals found themselves unable to speak and could only respond in bleats. When they were finally ready to confess their sins and drop to their knees before the Great Saint (and the Superior God, of course) their voices finally returned.

This story is pretty typical of the religious propaganda of the day but there are also several very familiar mythological constructs running through the story (and I haven’t included all of them). Overall, the current story is pretty typical of ‘Lazy Man Folklore’ or ‘Tourist Folklore’ (where the focus is more on the entertaining and fantastical elements of the story rather than the more interesting facts behind it).  It’s a fun story but it’d still be nice if the Tourist Board could get off its butt and add a bit more of the actual history next time around.  

Facebook and Captain Boycott

Given the growing commercial boycott of Facebook as a result of the swelling volumes of hate speech and misinformation, I thought people might be interested in the story of where the word ‘boycott’ actually comes from. In some ways, it’s actually quite a funny story.

Needless to say, it was from Ireland:

 

The Story of Captain Boycott

In 1870, almost eighty percent of all the land in Ireland was owned by the descendants of British colonists, most of them absentee landlords who hired Land Agents to manage their properties to ensure the maximum ‘dividends’ were transferred back to their owners in the ‘home country’. The native Irish, meanwhile, were often obliged to make a living by leasing their old ancestral lands (annually), a task hampered by the fact that at least 50% consisted of holdings less than fifteen acres in size. The hardships that this caused led to great tension, a situation inflamed by the risk of famine and  the behaviour of predatory Land Agents who pitilessly instigated rack-renting and mass evictions to make a bigger profit for their masters.

In an attempt to counter these injustices, a political organisation called ‘The Land League’ was established in 1879 by individuals including Charles Parnell, Andrew Kettle, Michael Davitt and others. This organisation hoped to improve the lot of poor tenant farmers by abolishing landlordism in Ireland and enabling those farmers to buy the land they worked on over time.  Soon after its establishment, during a famous speech in Ennis (on September 19, 1880), Charles Parnell proposed that individuals who took the farms of evicted tenants should be ostracized by the community rather than resorting to violence.

Several years earlier, Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (a retired British army captain) took the position of Land Agent for John Crichton, 3rd earl of Erne near the Neale in Co. Mayo (a block consisting of about 2,184 acres). As the Land Agent, Boycott was responsible for ensuring a regular profit from the land (which included collecting rent from 35 tenant families),a task he did for several years.

In 1880, due to poor harvests, many of the tenant farmers in Mayo were simply unable to pay their rent and sought relief from Lord Erne (though Boycott). Lord Erne offered a ten percent reduction but the protesting tenants pleaded for a twenty five percent reduction, which Lord Erne refused. With the tenants unable to pay, Boycott immediately attempted to evict eleven tenant families from the land.

When the alarm was raised about the evictions however, the Land League’s new tactics were applied and Boycott soon found himself socially, and professionally, isolated, unable to obtain labourers to work on his lands or to access local services (as businesses refused to trade with him). At night, huge damage was carried out on the farm’s infrastructure with equipment broken, trees felled and various crops stolen or destroyed. To make matters worse, the heightened tensions meant Boycott and his supporters had to be escorted anywhere they travelled, by armed police.

This concerted action proved remarkably effective and soon Boycott was reduced to writing a letter in the London Times (on 14 October 1880) to seek assistance to harvest his substantial turnip crop. He subsequently received support from the Dublin Daily Express (controlled and predominantly read by his peers and other members of the Protestant Ascendency who were concerned at the Land League’s success). This helped to establish a fund to help save Boycott’s crops and a ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’.

Although Boycott only required ten to twelve men to harvest his turnip crop, during the first week of November, 50 volunteers from the Ulster ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’ (predominantly made up of Orangemen volunteers from Cavan and Monaghan), arrived at Claremorris railway station to ‘get in the Captain’s turnips’. Arriving on a particularly stormy day, the volunteers (and the large company of soldiers escorting them), had to walk all the way to Boycott’s land in driving rain as none of the local drivers would transport them. There, over the next two weeks, housed in tents on the lawns and guarded by several hundred soldiers, they harvested the turnips. During that time however, a large number of sheep, fowl and other foodstuffs ‘disappeared’ and Boycott’s carefully manicured gardens were trampled to a muddy quagmire. By the time the ‘volunteers’ and the soldiers left (27 November 1880), the crop (worth less than £350 at market) had cost the English Crown and other financial interests almost £10,000 to harvest.

In December 1880, unable to sustain the financial losses and the damage to his reputation, Boycott sold his house and left Ireland. The affair in Mayo made headlines and by the end of 1880, the word ‘boycotting’ had spread throughout Ireland and overseas. Twenty years later, the word appeared as a verb in English dictionaries

An Irish Adventure Story with Cultural Depth

I’m always a bit wary when new films, books or games that use Ireland or Irish culture as a core part of their story are released.  Many of these tend to target the “Oirish” market (the overly romantic Irish-identity market that flows from the Irish diaspora) or the “Celtic fantasy” market, which joyfully whips key elements of Irish/Gaelic culture and uses them out for context for entertainment purposes. Overall, it’s rare enough for Irish creatives to have genuine control of a large budget production, not to mind one that actually reflects their culture with any degree of accuracy or authenticity.

I was pretty stoked then, when I finally got around to watching Lance Daly’s “Black 47”, a film that had been on my peripheral vision for over eight months prior to its release. At the time, it had struck me as a bit odd to choose two Australian actors for the main roles and the thought of a commercial release around something as culturally sensitive as An Gorta Mór (The Great Famine) seemed incredibly insensitive, particularly given the British Channel Four’s misjudged attempt (in 2015) to do a comedy series based on that traumatic period. Fortunately, all baggage aside, “Black 47″confidently and competently stands on its own.

A grim, broody “Irish Western” and revenge thriller, “Black 47” follows the adventures of Feeney, an Irish soldier who deserts the British army in Afghanistan and returns home, only to discover the true scale and effect of colonisation. Learning of his mother and brother’s death and observing first-hand the evidence of his family being allowed to die in squalor and misery, Feeney ends up opposing the people and the administration that has allowed this to happen.  Repurposing the military skills gained in Afghanistan, Feeney follows a trajectory of violent opposition to the landlords, land agents and their constabulary, becoming an almost “Rambó Gaelach“,  an implacable force of justice against the rampant greed and cultural prejudice of that period. Soon, a ‘posse’ consisting of reluctant English hunter, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), and Pope (Freddie Fox), a fanatical British officer and Empire enthusiast, are set on his trail.

Fortunately, the movie is not just a simplistic revenge thriller. The Australian actor James Frenchville is impressive as the brooding Feeny, his immense physical presence and ready use of Irish language adding real depth to his character, but the real strength of the narrative is the cleverly-woven social commentary provided through the supporting characters. Conneely (Stephen Rea), a wry translator hired by the pursuing party, serves as an excellent foil to the over-privileged and obnoxious Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) who frequently releases statements such as:

‘Soon, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.’

When Kilmichael boldly states:

“I love this country. The scenery. You peasants are all the same, no appreciation of beauty. “

Conneely slyly replies:

“Beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten.”

It’s the wry and insightful gems like these, hidden throughout the script that give this movie it’s real resonance. That, the smattering of Gaeilge, the historical accuracy and the melancholic but beautiful scenery of Connemarra.

Overall, Black 47 can be enjoyed as a simple action movie but there really is much more going on than that. The film also serves as a subtle reminder of the ongoing cultural-PTSD that pervades Irish society as a result of 300 years of colonization and why most Irish people speak English today.

You can find the official trailer here: Black 47

 

 

 

New Book News

It’s been a tough few months with challenging workloads on all fronts but fortunately I’ve had the chance to work with some fascinating and talented people this year. As a result, I’m hoping this year’s output is going to be one of our most substantial and best to date.

The second book to appear this year will be the next LIATH LUACHRA adventure (THE SWALLOWED) which should be out sometime in the next 3 months. This follows the experiences of the 2nd century Irish woman warrior Liath Luachra (the future guardian to Irish mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill) and her fian (war party) ‘The Friendly Ones’.

The draft blurb outlining the story currently reads as follows:

Ireland: Second century.

The Lonely Lands: Ireland’s shadowy centre, a desolate region of dense forest and swamp where unwary travellers are swallowed up … to disappear forever.

Caught up in a tribal conflict when their latest mission goes sour, the woman warrior Liath Luachra and war party “The Friendly Ones” find themselves coerced into a new undertaking:

* Lead a mismatched group of warriors into the Lonely Lands.

* Find ‘The Swallowed’.

But intra-tribal rivalry is never what it seems, old enemies bear fresh grudges and predators move in the dark heart of the forest …
Awaiting their moment to feed.
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PRAISE FOR THE LIATH LUACHRA SERIES

“The thinking woman’s warrior!”

“This is an Ancient Ireland that is entrancing and savage, much like Liath Luachra herself.”

“Liath Luachra is an engaging protagonist – deliciously sensual, yet calculatingly violent when the cause demands it. Never a dull moment, difficult to put down.”

“You don’t often come across such a compelling hero(ine), written with such depth and understanding.”

“She’s intriguing – fierce and capable of killing…but loyal and gentle too at times. I love the picture painted of old Ireland and the wildness of it – and the occasional use of the Irish language adds another dimension to the story – a kind of authenticity. I’m looking forward to reading more.” (less)

Further details on our expected output this year should appear in the next edition of Vóg (our monthly newsletter). You can find a copy of last month’s edition here: Vóg