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Tullaroan Cemetery, Ireland, ©2011 Janet Maher

Thank you to the Mattatuck Museum for hosting my second talk and book signing in Connecticut, and thank you to everyone for coming out for it — especially my extended Sullivan clan and my miraculously discovered cousin and her husband, all the way from Nantucket!

Back home in time to organize for the imminent hurricane and prepare for school tomorrow, and pleasantly grounded after quality days in Connecticut with family and friends, I write this.

My talk at the Mattatuck was about the history of Catholicism in Ireland and the persecutiions suffered over time that led to massive emigrations even before the Great Hunger. History itself condemns Imperialist England of that time. I aspired to be even-handed and factual in my book, laying out the history interwoven with the history of some surnames, but not outright condemning anyone. I chose to focus on uncovering the links between New Haven County, Connecticut and the Kilkenny/Laois/Tipperary section of Ireland with a suggestion of wave migration, and to put in place the history of the earliest Catholics in New Haven County, with a particular focus upon Naugatuck.

My caveats in both my book and talks note that the tragedy of Ireland is a catastrophic story within all of global history wherein nations, races and privileged groups of all kinds have claimed power over others, sought to take away what others have established, and prevented them from being who they were or from living safely within their own cultures and practices. Sadly, this story is still being played out today as religious ideologies continue to trigger and fuel wars and undermine the political systems of countries.

Perhaps I should also add to my caveats that my work is not meant to privilege Catholicism over any other religion, nor even to support organized religion. Although I was a devout Roman Catholic from childhood through my early adult years, now in my fifth decade of life I feel more identified with the tenets of Buddhism, which are broader and do not constitute a religion at all. The story of Ireland, however, is entirely about issues surrounding Catholicism, which was eventually used as a weapon against the majority population to strip away their land, language, culture, and ability to survive. There is no way around facing religious persecution when studying the history of Ireland.

By the nineteenth century many of the important rebel leaders and martyrs for the cause of Irish freedom, in general, were open-minded idealist Protestants. They were also among the supporters of the early Catholic settlers in Connecticut and other parts of New England, even amid anti-Catholic majority sentiment there. It has always been necessary for successful leaders to rise above personal spiritual beliefs and support the larger cause of social justice for those who are actively being oppressed, working collectively for a larger common good. Likewise, there have always been extreme radicals at the far edges of opposing sides, unwilling to compromise and, instead, willing to kill and be killed for their religious causes. A vital part of Irish history then, it is also an important aspect of world history to keep in mind today.

On our way out of town, we visited Hamden’s new Musaem An Ghorta Mor, recommended by my brother, a local resident. Quinnipiac University’s Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum on Whitney Avenue is an absolute gem! They have turned a former library into a museum of art, featuring historic through contemporary works honoring the victims of this most devastating early example of lack of social conscience among people who had at one time shared the same religion. In seeing exhibits such as this it is difficult to remain emotionally neutral, even as one tries.

When you visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which you MUST, watch the Famine video on the first floor, then look at the artwork. Upstairs, likewise, sit down and take in fully the digital projection, then traverse the display. Here is an endeavor to break the silence about the event begun when the Phytophthora infestans virus destroyed the Irish potato crop of 1845 and led to more than one million deaths, double that in emigrations, and continued beyond the worst years, 1847-49, into 1852. While immigrants of other nationalities also began to come to America as a refuge throughout history, many eventually returned to their home countries. For most of the poor, evicted and starving Irish who survived the Great Famine, however, there was nowhere to return to.

It could be that I had already shed enough tears that arose unexpectedly regarding this and other aspects of my self-education in Irish history such that viewing the Hamden exhibition, though a very powerful and sobering experience, did not require Kleenex for me. I expect that it might, though, for others encountering this topic for the first time. Particular films and Irish museum displays such as those at the Blasket Center, in Dingle, and the Cobh Heritage Center, in Cork, had begun to awaken my emotions about my own ancestral history, and the subliminal sounds of keening and chaos accompanying the latter, in 2002, had me overcome within the first minutes of viewing the exhibits.

Visit the non-tourist areas of Ireland someday and witness the large expanses of land that had once been populated by farming families. See evidence of property still walled off as currently private or public space that had been owned by aristocracy brought in to colonize Ireland against the will of the people who had lived there for centuries. Imagine all the small buildings that had dotted the rural landscape, where now exist a roofless one-room structure here, the lower portion of a protective tower there, on grounds that may have been saturated by the blood of war or had absorbed the bodies of the starving. In Hamden, Connecticut, you may glean the sense of that devastation at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum. Its mission is to break the silence and address a “national disaster” from which it “takes seven generations to assimilate.” Like the Native American tribes who were decimated generations earlier, the refrain remains, even as the stories are mostly ignored or forgotten.

Especially in times like these I feel that it is important to re-learn the history of national mistakes so as not to continually repeat them. We must evolve and grow forward, embracing diversity and honoring the spirit of our common humanity. It seems that those with Irish ancestry should understand that better than many. Whomever has had immigrant relatives that settled in America, (ie. any of us who are North American) needs to consider the health and continuation of our entire planet when taking sides about human issues.

May we leave a better world for those who come after us in honor of our ancestors who survived discrimination and the inability to live freely as guided by their own social ethics. May we break the chain of discrimination in kind, as one nationality after another continues to achieve solid ground from which to begin again and again, as the Irish and Irish-Americans have so beautifully done.

Author of From the Old Sod to the Naugatuck Valley, at Mattatuck Museum, Oct. 25, 2012

No Irish Need Apply, performed by Alan Lomax, Chet Washington, Odetta Gordon, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Steve Stanne & Tommy Makem.

©2012 Janet Maher/Sinéad Ní Mheachair

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