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
The third thing you can’t ignore—or, more accurately, can’t stop thinking about—is the history of the Irish people. 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.” The stereotype of the merry Irishman dancing a jig and then cooling off with a pint may have some basis in fact, but the Irish don’t necessarily party because they’re happy.
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 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. For centuries, Ireland has endured plunderers coming in waves to steal from and enslave her people. A further complication embedded in the Irish national psyche is the Catholic religion, which teaches forbearance in the face of suffering. Catholicism was brought to the island by one of the world’s favorite saints, Patrick.
Patrick was born at the end of the 4th century 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, and then he escaped and was reunited with his family. He later returned to Ireland as a Catholic missionary. Since Patrick had worked for a Druid master, he knew pagan traditions. He knew that the first fire lit during the spring festival of Beltane was supposed to be kindled on the Hill of Tara by the high king. Instead, Patrick lit a fire on a nearby hill to commemorate Easter. Somehow, this in-your-face act led to High King Loigaire’s granting Patrick permission to preach Christianity, which he did for the next 40 years, and Catholicism took root in Ireland.
But England’s Henry VIII booted the Catholic Church out of England and made himself head of the (Anglican) Church, and having a Catholic neighbor only a day’s sail away made the English nervous. 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 bestowing upon the transplants lands belonging to native Irish Catholics. By the time Elizabeth’s successor, James the I and VI, came to the throne in 1603, the native Irish were hemmed in by 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 their English landowner 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. Many people descended from Irish ancestors still haven’t forgiven the English for what they did nearly two hundred years ago—and this longstanding ire might be more than a grudge. It might be genetic.
A scientific theory gaining popularity, epigenetic memory, says traumatic experiences in people’s past, or their ancestors’ past, can leave molecular scars that adhere to a person’s very DNA. If this theory is true, the Irish and their descendants share a genetic stamp related to being persecuted and starved generation after generation.
Whether nature or nurture, Edna O’Brien recognizes the lingering sting of being Irish. She 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 of 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.” Not that the Irish take abuse lying down. Between 1534 and 1998, there have been 20 uprisings on the island, including the 1916 Easter Rising and the Troubles.
The Bogside Artist murals that cover whole sides of buildings along Rossville Street near Free Derry Corner in Derry, Northern Ireland, commemorate a time in Irish history when the Irish rose up against their oppressors. In the Shankill Road area of Belfast, the gates still stand that used to shut tight every night to contain citizens during the Troubles (1969-1998), a time some Irish say is forgiven—though it’s hard to forget, which you find out if you speak to anybody who holds the Troubles in living memory.
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 indefinitely “at her Majesty’s pleasure”). 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 may hunch over and his eyes hood just a bit, masking something he won’t admit unless he’s cornered: if they push us, we will push back. We will always push back.
“Scratch the surface,” O’Brien says, “and underneath you will find Irish hearts on the boil.”
But Irish hearts don’t boil themselves dry. Instead, 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.
For the Irish, music is whistling in the dark. It’s thumbing your nose. It’s the howling of the pack. It’s a language one Irishman speaks to another like birds in a forest calling back and forth: the rest of us hear the song, but only the birds themselves take in the meaning of every note. Irish music is fun as well, of course, and so are Irish musicians. Traditional music icon Seamus Begley sang in Irish (Gaelic) for us at Siopa Ceoil (the Dingle Music Shop), but paused mid-performance when he got the giggles. He explained, “The funny thing about singing Irish songs for Americans is that if I repeat a verse, they don’t know the difference.”
True enough, although it’s also true that people who listen carefully may hear what simmers under the words.
In Kinsale, a local advised me to ask the Auld Ones performing that night at Dalton’s Bar to sing “Waltzing Matilda”—but what I heard wasn’t the version performed by Tom Waits. There were no instruments. No clapping along. Just the voice of a white-bearded gentleman keening the lament of an injured soldier who comes home to no parades, no family, no glory, carrying his loss and regret like a permanent pack on his shoulders. Nobody in Dalton’s spoke, nobody poured a drink. The place was quiet as the grave. Everyone present became, for a few minutes, more than a spectator. The song pulled us in, our breathing became a part of the story, and we felt this soldier’s homecoming as though it were our own.
Tourists go to Irish pubs and clap along with the music, smiling, perhaps imagining it is purely joy that drives the Irish to make music. But watch the pub performers as they sit shoulder-to-shoulder, together, facing the crowd. Watch their eyes. Listen to the lyrics of “On the One Road” or “The Ballad of James Connolly.” Try not to sing along with “Dirty Old Town” or “Will You Go, Lassie?” on your Wicklow Mountain pub tour. If you let the music in, you may begin to twig why the Irish make a joyful noise.
Irish music underscores that the need to be free burns in Irish hearts, as common as sheep, as certain as rain, as fierce a fire as ever burned on the Hill of Tara in days of old.