In 1982 I was in the land where the Irish jokes used to come from. I knew I was there by the time I got to a little village in Leitrim on the north-western coast.
The place was a crazy mix of narrow streets, tiny shops, trucks, cars, bakers’ vans, donkey carts and prams by the dozen. I have never seen so many babies and prams, a sure sign of the grip the Catholic faith had still in this land.
We stopped our van to buy food and I found myself looking into the window of a butcher’s shop. There was the butcher crushed inside the narrow space with one of his customers.
He was holding up for her inspection a great string of raw grey sausages, and she was pointing with a gnarled finger: ‘I’ll have that one an’ that one an’ that one, but not that one,’ she said.
Ireland was an impression a minute, and the people generous and kind in the midst of often grinding poverty.
We were there to track down some of my husband’s relatives, but I found in that search an increased understanding of why the Irish stand together against the world, and just how much Irish history and the injustices meted out to them over centuries colour Irish thinking, even far away in Australia.
Family solidarity for the Irish has been crucial against oppression, and is an automatic response for large Irish Catholic families now spread throughout the world. Many decades of struggle against the English, and such catastrophes as the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s were still ingrained in the Irish Catholic memory in 1982.
In 1982, we dared not venture into Northern Ireland, a few kilometres away, because there people were still shooting each other.
These were the innate forces that fashioned my Irish/Australian husband and I began to see him anew. I looked again at the rigidity within his family which required each member to obey unwritten rules: Thou shalt amass assets for future generations. Protestants and those of religions other than Catholic are not of equal value. A woman party to a mixed marriage can not attain the status of one of their own, especially if she did not bare a Catholic child.
Dozens of forlorn piles of rubble scattered in stoney wild areas of the Irish Atlantic coast, seemingly left there as memorials, made their mark on me. The rubble was the remains of small stone cottages, destroyed when their tenants could not pay rental to the absent English landlords following the potato famine.
The famine killed by starvation more than one million Irish and, together with the landlords’ actions, scattered many more as migrants to Australia, North America and Britain.
There is a conspiracy theory that the fungal disease which destroyed the crops disastrously in two successive years was introduced by the English to help maintain their rule. It is true that political agitation among the Irish was very much subdued in the twenty years following the famine.
The ravished little cottages I saw were wrecked easily by simply removing the lintel – the support beam above the only door – and the entire structure crumbled.
This in an area buffeted by screaming winds from the Atlantic Ocean, and where holdings were tiny pocket handkerchiefs of land more limestone than soil, where families could not have achieved better than subsistence living.
Those picturesque stone fences you see in National Geographics were built to clear the little farms of stone as much as to create boundaries. To me, the sight of cows standing on sheets of limestone when there was no grass said it all.
© June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.