The mists of Ireland are a strange thing for a person accustomed to the climate extremes of the Upper Midwest. Where I live, it doesn’t mist. Here, clouds gather in a black mass and lightning forks and thunder booms and the clouds dump fat drops that splat on umbrellas and whoosh into gutters and rush down storm drains and swell rivers until they crest and flood. Midwestern rain is rain and no mistake.
Irish rain is softer, and Irish mist is softest of all. If it’s night and you’re looking at mist in a street light, you can see it swirling like wet dust, lighter than the air.
If you’re out in it, you feel it on your face like the fine droplets that hover near your morning shower before you step into it to start your day. Irish is mist is normal air, only wetter, unless the wind is up; then the droplets get shoved together, and that becomes rain you can feel and see and hear.
An old saying, "You don't go to Ireland for the weather," means it can be sunny one minute and raining the next—sometimes for three whole minutes, then the sun comes back out. Ireland’s climate is moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, so storms can blow in without notice. Temperatures range between 40 and 50 degrees (4 to10 Celsius) in the winter months and 60 to 70 degrees (16 to 21 Celsius) in the summer months. Irish weather is mild and wet, one reason the Irish favor wool, which keeps a person warm, wet or dry, but also breathes. Wool, of course, comes from sheep, of which there are 3.3 million in Ireland.
You can’t turn around in rural Ireland without seeing herds of sheep. A sheep is not the national animal of Ireland (that honor goes to the stag), but it should be, because every rolling hill is clotted with them.
Sheep feed in fields that are never more than half a day from a good misting.Hill after rolling hill is blanketed in lush grass and tufted with white sheep all the way into the green distance. The Irish flag is green, white, and orange for a political reason (green for Catholic, orange for Protestant, and white for the peace between them), but one can easily imagine those colors were chosen to represent sunrise over a sheepfold.
Most sheep farms are small, family-run enterprises. At Kissane Sheep Farm in Moll’s Gap, County Kerry, next to Kilarney National Park, John Kissane raises 1,000 Black Faced Mountain sheep. We stopped there to see the dogs herding the sheep and watch a shearer remove a sheep’s fleece for the winter.
We took our spots on the viewing bleachers after meeting the herding dogs, Pepper and Dash, who quivered under our hands whilst they awaited their chance to work. Sheep think dogs are wolves, so the dogs’ low-bellied runs frighten the sheep into forming a massive white cloud that turns and flows on the hillside whichever way the herder wants, very like the way humans are manipulated by the nearest reward or punishment without seeing that we’re being herded (which is a tale for another time). Kissane says his dogs are fed protein but never any raw meat as it might turn them into sheep-killers. Pepper and Dash did seem to particularly enjoy the times their job required them to streak in for a quick nip.
Inside the shearing barn, the shearer sat the sheep on its rump like a drunk in a corner of a pub. He kept the beast moving, which kept it calm while its coat was shorn away. It was the sheep’s last shearing of the season. Each sheep must be sheared before it is turned out to pasture for the winter—if the wool is left on, the lanolin gets hard like butter and the creature can’t move.
Each sheep gets shots, oral medication, and a blob of paint before it is turned out, but Kissane mentioned the economics of sheep farming more than once during our visit. He worries about keeping the farm going. He says that one shearing from one sheep used to bring in $7, but now it brings in $2. Costs have gone up and regulations have gotten tougher. Kissane says there are 130,000 family farms in Ireland now, but in 20 years, there will be only 20,000 left. Smallholdings are being bought up by conglomerates, and farmers are forced to sell due to changing European Union regulations, increasing food and medical costs, and declining prices of lamb and wool.
Paying visitors like us take Kissane away from his work, but they keep him in business, as does his program that allows a visitor to “adopt” a sheep.
The past shaped the present
Stereotypes about the Irish abound: They’re drunk all the time. They eat mostly potatoes. They all sing or play a musical instrument. They’re all redheads. They have leprechauns and pots of gold. They’re great talkers. They’re greater fighters. They love to party. A 2012 Huffington Post blog about Irish stereotypes by an Irishman concludes, “We really aren’t drunk all the time (I’m only half-cut right now, for example), and we usually fight with each other instead of strangers - we pride ourselves on our hospitality (another cliché that is true: the Irish really are welcoming)...Sure we’re harmless really.”
It’s said that many stereotypes have some basis in truth, but what’s at the root of these stereotypes about the Irish?
Edna O’Brien, one of Ireland’s great modern writers, tries to explain herself and her countrymen in her memoir, Mother Ireland. O’Brien says being Irish is a state of mind as well as an actual country. “Being Irish is being at odds with other nationalities,” she says, because the Irish have a “quite different philosophy about pleasure, about punishment, about life, and about death.” A hundred years and more of austerity, fear, and persecution will do that. The stereotype of the merry Irishman dancing a jig then cooling off with a pint may have some basis in fact, but the Irish don’t party just because they’re happy.
The history of Ireland is the history of a land whose ports and proximity to (yet safe distance from) the rest of Europe have attracted the attention of everybody from the Vikings to the Nazis. You also can’t talk about Irish people without referencing Catholicism, brought to the island by one of the world’s favorite saints, Patrick.
Patrick was born in Roman Britain. As a teen-ager, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and sold as a slave to tend sheep in pagan Ireland. Patrick's captivity lasted about six years, then he escaped and was reunited with his family. He returned to Ireland where he spent 40 years as a Christian missionary.
One of the saucier stories about Patrick is the one about his lighting an Easter fire that could be seen by the pagan king, Loigaire. Because he had lived in Ireland under a Druid master , Patrick knew the rules of pagan life, one of which was that on Beltane, the High King's fire on the Hill of Tara had to be lit before anybody else's Beltane fire. But instead of waiting for Loigaire to go first, St. Patrick lit a fire on a nearby hill to commemorate Easter. Patrick should have been attacked and killed by Loigaire’s men for breaking the rules, but Patrick somehow persuaded the king to let him preach instead. Because of Patrick’s efforts, Catholicism sent deep roots into Ireland.
But England was only a short sailing distance away, and having a Catholic neighbor made the English nervous. England’s Henry VIII had booted the Catholic Church out of England and made himself head of the (Anglican) Church. Both Henry and his daughter, Elizabeth I, labored to bring Ireland fully under English control partly by pummeling them on the battlefield but mostly by planting hundreds of Protestants in the country and giving Catholic natives’ lands to them. By the time Elizabeth’s successor, James the I and VI came to the throne in 1603, the native Irish were hemmed in by transplanted Englishmen.
Then came a systematic campaign, the Penal Laws, designed to subjugate them and other non-Protestants entirely (the last Penal Law wasn’t eliminated until 1920). Viewed from our own time, the Penal Laws are so horrible they seem to have been imagined by a sadist, even though it’s sadly true that man’s inhumanity to man is played out every decade in every corner of the globe, including our own country.
The Penal Laws said Catholics couldn’t marry Protestants. Catholics couldn’t go to college. They couldn’t buy land. They couldn’t be judges. They couldn’t adopt Protestant orphans. They couldn’t own a horse. They were fined heavily for pretty much anything Catholic-related.
Catholics couldn’t serve in the government or in the army (until England needed troops later on during the Revolutionary War). Catholic priests had to register with the authorities and swear allegiance to the Crown. They had to take an oath that the Pope had no authority, that Purgatory didn’t exist, and that other normal aspects of the Catholic faith were humbug. Catholics could worship only in private, yet if a private Catholic service were leaked to the authorities, the priest, if unregistered, could be taken up and turned in for a bounty.
The reward rates for capture varied from £50–100 for a Bishop to £10–20 for the capture of a priest. To give you an idea of how much money that was, and why a bounty hunter would risk the hatred of his neighbors to narc on a priest, the average yearly wage in the 1700’s in Ireland was £17 for a farm worker and £22 for a miner. So a man could earn double or quadruple the average laborer’s salary if he turned in a bishop and nearly a year’s wages if he turned in a priest. The Priest Hunters by Colin C. Murphy delves into this practice.
The persecution of the Irish in their own land by the English carried on through the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, when plenty of food was grown in Ireland to feed all the people, but they were not allowed to eat it because English lords required it be exported for profit.
One person who believes the English consciously committed genocide is Ciarán Ó Murchadha. In his latest book, The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845 – 52, Ó Murchadha says, “Between 1845 and 1855, approximately one-quarter of the inhabitants of an entire European nation, amounting to some 2.1 million persons, were permanently removed from their homeland.” More than a million died, and more than a million emigrated. Over 95 percent of emigrants came to America, which now has 39.6 million citizens (including Scots-Irish) who claim Irish heritage. That number is almost seven times larger than the entire population of Ireland (6.3 million) today. One woman of Irish descent I met recently told me she couldn't forgive the English for what they did to her ancestors more than a hundred years ago, and she is not the only person I met who still feels the pain of being Irish.
It's true that the past is past--but it also is true that you can't circle back to take the road not taken. A theory called epigenetic memory says that traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ pasts, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. According to this theory, the Irish share a genetic stamp related to being persecuted and starved generation after generation. The descendants of the Irish who came to America have done pretty well for themselves here, but when a million Irish people came to America with nothing but hope in their hands, they might well have begun to wonder whether being persecuted was assigned to them when they saw signs everywhere saying. “No Irish Need Apply.”
Edna O’Brien says of her native land, which she left in 1958, “it warped me, and those around me, and their parents before them, all stooped by a variety of fears—fear of church, fear of gombeenism [the practice of looking to make a quick profit at somebody else’s expense or by accepting bribes], fear of phantoms, fear or ridicule, fear of hunger, fear of annihilation, and fear of their own deeply ingrained aggression that can only strike a blow at each other, not having the innate authority to strike at those who are higher.”
Before you get your dander up at what O’Brien says, know that even before I visited that beautiful land, I’d been warned not to contradict an Irish person, because doing so summons an anger that whips up fast like a briar out of a hedge, an anger rooted in being foiled again and again by plunderers that have come in waves for hundreds of years to steal what is not theirs. “Scratch the surface,” O’Brien says, “and underneath you will find Irish hearts on the boil.”
But a heart on the boil does not boil itself dry. The Irish pour life back into themselves in the form of art: Poetry. Legend. Music. Song. Hearts broken generation after generation must make art of the brokenness or die away utterly.
The Irish refuse to die. And so they sing. Music is woven into the fabric of the country, whose symbol is the Irish harp. Any pub you walk into is a strange pub indeed if it doesn’t feature live music played and sung by people who very likely work during the day at something else but must make music at night, like a pressure cooker must let off steam or a kettle on the hob must have water poured in or be ruined.
Tourists go to Irish pubs and clap along with the music, smiling, perhaps imagining that it is joy that drives the Irish to make music. But watch the pub performers as they sit shoulder-to-shoulder, together, facing out at the rest of us, making a joyful noise. Watch their eyes, and you may see the fever behind the twinkle. You may see that the passion that drives them is not entirely founded in joy.
Check out the People’s Gallery murals that decorate the gable ends of houses along Rossville Street near Free Derry Corner. Drive through the Shankill Road area of Belfast and see the gates still standing that used to shut tight every night to contain citizens during the Troubles (1969-1998).
Hire a guide, let’s say in Derry. Ask him to tell you about The Troubles. He will gather himself. He will tamp down…something…and he will tell you about the years Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants turned on one another. Killed one another. His voice will be carefully controlled as he recounts the Bloody Sunday massacre of 30 January 1972 in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment (internment meant the army could arrest you without cause and hold you “at her Majesty’s pleasure” as long as they liked). Fourteen people died, many of the victims shot while fleeing from the soldiers or trying to help the wounded. After Bloody Sunday, support for the IRA rose. It took the British government nearly 40 years to admit the killings had been unjustified.
“Never again,” the Derry guide will say as he wraps up the story, “we won’t go back to that.” But his body hunches over its broken heart, and his eyes are hooded just a bit, maybe masking something he won’t admit unless he’s cornered: if they push us, we will push back. We will always push back.
Because love of freedom beats in every Irish heart, as common as sheep, as certain as rain.