Gods or Fighting Men?

Ireland's Immortals by Mark Williams“…the Dagda, with his overflowing cauldron, Lug, with his spear dipped in poppy juice lest it rush forth hot to battle, Aengus, with his three birds on his shoulder, Bodb and his red swineherd, and all the heroic children of Dana…”
—W. B. Yeats, “Rosa Alchemica”

The style of Yeats’s recitation will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read the myths and legends of Ireland, with their richly allusive lists of characters and the extraordinary deeds for which they are known. But what do we actually know of Tuatha Dé Danann (the Peoples of the goddess Danann), of the Sidhe, of the Fianna? And how were the Tuatha Dé understood by the pre-Christian Irish? As gods? Or as something different? The tales in which they appear come down to us in the form of manuscripts written centuries after the tales were first composed. Moreover, these manuscripts were made by monks, whose fervent Christian understanding of the world must surely have colored their view of these pagan figures. Some stories come to us in multiple, widely varying versions, or are frustratingly incomplete. Others must be inferred from entries in monastic glossaries, or from the dindshenchas, the traditional lore of Irish placenames.

In Ireland’s Immortals, Mark Williams describes the efforts of succeeding generations to frame and define the mythic figures of ancient Ireland. The monastic writers struggled to explain the superhuman feats of the Tuatha Dé and their frequent transformations of physical form without ascribing them some measure of divinity. The writers of the Celtic Revival brought their own agenda. Yeats’s fascination with ritual magic led him to attempt to found an Order of Celtic Mysteries (p.332), modeled on the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with figures such as Lug, Manannán and Brigit as the focus of its rituals. His friend and fellow poet and artist AE (George Russell) was one of several writers who instead saw them as aspects of the gods of Hindu mythology, under the influence of the Theosophical teachings of Madame Blavatsky. The Scottish writer William Sharp developed the fictional persona of Hebridean folklorist and revealer of mysteries Fiona Macleod to express his blend of pagan and Christian mysticism. So successful were Fiona Macleod’s dewy evocations of druids giving tribute to the ancient gods that she received extensive fan mail and even an offer of marriage. Sharp had his sister answer the letters for fear that his masculine handwriting might give the game away (p.372.)

In this ongoing process of reinterpretation and reframing, the errors, conjectures and creations of one generation became part of the corpus of accepted knowledge for the next. Manannán mac Lir is a well-attested figure in the myths and legends, usually associated with the sea. It must have seemed reasonable, given that “mac” means “son of” in Irish, to suppose the existence of a sea god, Lir, as his father and Lir starts to appear in manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards. By the nineteenth century, AE was depicting Lir as no less than the primordial infinite from which the universe emerged. Yet the absence of Lir from the earliest sources strongly suggests that he is a back-formation who would have been unknown to the early Irish. To add to the confusion, an unrelated Lir appears in the story of the Children of Lir, in which a stepmother’s curse transforms King Lir’s four children into swans. The story is evidently of Christian origin as, after nine hundred years, it is the tolling of a church bell that finally returns the children to human form (terribly aged, they survive only long enough to receive baptism.) Yet some identify the two Lirs, exemplifying the confusion and contradictions that surround Ireland’s immortals. Mark Williams is a fascinating guide to their long life and presence in the literature and culture of Ireland.

Lives Less Ordinary: Constance and Casimir Markievicz

Portrait of Constance Markievicz holding a gun

Constance Markievicz takes up arms in a posed portrait.
Courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

Easter Monday marks the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the pivotal event in the struggle for Irish independence from Britain. In Revolutionary Lives, Lauren Arrington details the career of one of the least-likely champions of the Irish nationalist cause, the Countess Markievicz, née Constance Gore-Booth. Born into a landed gentry family from Co. Sligo, she repudiated her upbringing to become a radical socialist voice in Irish politics, fighting with the trade-union based Irish Citizen Army in 1916. Her subsequent imprisonment cemented her standing in nationalist circles and in the 1918 general election, she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, although her official invitation to the opening of Parliament had to be sent care of Holloway prison. She remained a prominent political figure in Ireland, and an enthusiastic propagandist for the republican cause, until her death in 1927.

Unusually, Revolutionary Lives is a dual biography, presenting Constance alongside her husband, the Polish painter and writer Casimir Markievicz, whom she met in Paris in 1898. On their subsequent move to Dublin, the Markieviczs rapidly established themselves at the center of cultural life in Ireland. In demand as a portraitist, Casimir was also closely involved in the theatre, writing a series of political plays and founding his own company. As described by R. F. Foster in Vivid Faces, Ireland at the time was a ferment of new ideas, where nationalist currents mingled with others running the gamut from spiritualism and vegetarianism to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. Her role in women’s suffrage organizations brought Constance into contact with James Connolly’s Irish Transport & General Workers Union, and ultimately into the Irish Citizen Army.

The outbreak of war in 1914 found Casimir stranded in Warsaw, but this enforced geographic separation mirrored increasing separation in their personal and political lives. While Constance became a vocal supporter of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution, Casimir was soured by Red Army raids on his family estates in the Ukraine, and turned to an increasingly conservative Polish nationalism. Constance’s feminism and socialism proved no less awkward to the equally conservative Irish nationalists who dominated political life in the fledgling Irish Free State. After her death, former allies such as Eamonn de Valera portrayed her exclusively as a nationalist heroine and declined to acknowledge her radical political beliefs. Revolutionary Lives rebalances the picture, not only by placing Constance squarely in the context of the political ideas that dominated her life, but also in bringing the often-forgotten Casimir out from her shadow.

“Because it is nearer”—Ireland and Migration

Today, across the entire world, millions of people are observing the feast day of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. But how can we account for the global spread of St. Patrick’s Day, a day celebrating the culture of a small island off the Atlantic seaboard of Europe? The answer, in part, is the extraordinary scale of emigration from Ireland. While this is often attributed to the Great Famine, in his essay on the Irish Diaspora in The Princeton History of Modern Ireland, Enda Delaney paints a more complex picture. He notes that the history of modern Ireland begins with a wave of immigration of Scottish and English settlers, as part of the planned pacification of Ireland through plantation during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Over the same period, the displaced Catholic gentry of Ireland scattered across Europe, founding schools and fighting as mercenaries in wars across the continent.

By the nineteenth century, however, emigration had clearly become the established pattern: “in the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the arrival of potato blight in Ireland in September 1845, approximately a million people left Ireland for North America, and perhaps half that number traveled to Britain, with thirty thousand obtaining state assistance to go to Australia on their
own volition, and another forty thousand sent as transported criminals.” To put these numbers into context, the 1841 census (the first conducted in Ireland) gave the population of the country as 8.2 million. In the desperate years that followed, as many as one million died of starvation and a further two million emigrated. The population of the country continued to dwindle for more than a century, reaching its lowest point in the 1960s at less than three million.

The Famine Memorial, Dublin

The Famine Memorial on the Dublin Quays.
William Murphy on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

The migrating Irish spread throughout the British Empire, on which the sun proverbially never set, but the well-established Irish communities in the United States continued to act as a magnet for many. Delaney recounts a conversation between the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett and a Galway farmer. “When Plunkett asked why the farmer’s daughter chose to emigrate to the United States rather than move within the county where work was available, the response was ‘because it is nearer,’ meaning that she knew more about New York from friends and family than any part of Ireland apart from her locality.” And this in an age when telephones were a rarity, and crossing the Atlantic still meant a lengthy sea voyage.

The last two decades have seen an extraordinary reversal, with Ireland becoming a destination for migrants for the first time in centuries. Recent estimates suggest that there are 500,000 people living in the Republic who were born outside of Ireland, almost one in eight of the population. The Dubliner standing next to you at the St. Patrick’s Day parade could as easily have been born in Warsaw or Beijing as in Ireland. There can be no question that migration will remain a dominant theme in the history of Ireland.

Q&A with Lauren Arrington, author of Revolutionary Lives

Revolutionary LivesIn the period sometimes referred to as the Irish Revolution, upheaval led to unreliable witness accounts and buried historical evidence that has only recently come to historians’ attention. Lauren Arrington explores these untapped resources and the complex biographies of two European activists in her book Revolutionary Lives.

Who were the Markieviczes?

LA: Constance Markievicz is the better known of the pair, because of her political roles but also because she was an expert at self-publicity.

She grew up in a wealthy family who owned a sprawling estate on the west coast of Ireland, but she rebelled against the strictures of Victorian society and left home to study art—first in London and then in Paris. In the bohemian culture of Montmartre she met the dashing Casimir, a member of the Polish gentry, and they were engaged as soon as his first wife was out of the picture.

Constance and Casimir took their bohemian sensibilities back to Dublin, where they became involved in the local art scene that was closely tied to the growing nationalist movement. Constance was more politically radical than Casimir. She imagined that Ireland could be part of an international socialist movement, and national independence from Britain was the first step in achieving that.

Casimir was a nationalist in simpler terms. He hoped for an independent Polish nation-state and fought for the Russian Empire in the First World War because Czar Alexander II promised Poland independence in return for loyalty in the war. Casimir became even more conservative over time, especially after the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the burning of his family’s estate in the Polish-settled Ukraine.

Constance and Casimir split romantically, but they continued to love one another and stayed in touch as much as the political upheavals allowed. Constance was imprisoned on several occasions – and it was in 1918 in Holloway Jail, in London, that she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. This achievement and her leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year, have been the focus of several biographies of her.

If there have been several biographies of Constance Markievicz, do we really need another one?

LA: Absolutely – and I’d say that even if I hadn’t just written one! Previous biographies have been largely hagiographical. Their versions of Constance’s life have been driven by nationalistic commemorations or directed by the ambitions of feminist history. This has resulted in polemical depictions that exaggerate certain aspects of her character and airbrush out what are considered to be her less desirable thoughts and actions.

With Revolutionary Lives, I wanted to write a biography that told the lives of Constance and Casimir in their own time, as free as possible from our politics. So, I looked to contemporary sources that had never been consulted by previous biographers.

What kind of new sources?

LA: Well, first I should say that I consulted but did not really use the Bureau of Military History witness statements, a newly available source that has been plundered by researchers looking for new angles in Irish history.

Why not?

LA: The bureau solicited interviews as part of a project to compile a state history of the series of conflicts that are sometimes known collectively as the Irish Revolution. It’s very clear that certain groups, like the ITGWU – the major labor organization in Ireland – decided on a “truth” about what happened and suppressed any dissent. For example, in their statements to the Bureau, the ITGWU-affiliated witnesses explicitly endorse R.M. Fox’s history of the union’s role in the Easter Rising and refuse to add further details.

The witness statements are also problematic because Constance was (and still is) a hugely divisive character. Witnesses who submitted statements to the Bureau were either friends who wanted to protect her legacy or antagonists who resented her because of her sex or her social class.

So, what new sources did you use?

LA: Newspapers from the period were essential to my book. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but previous biographers have neglected them. Many historians have, too.

Why?

LA: The simplest reason is availability. Very few print copies still exist of left-wing papers such as the Irish Worker and Workers’ Republic, or Republican War Bulletin. Select libraries hold microfilm versions, but the films are very brittle and often difficult to read. It’s an outdated technology, and very little is being done in the way of preservation.

But even researchers who have access to these newspapers often ignore them, due to complex political biases that privilege majority opinion, represented in mainstream papers such as the Irish Times – which has, coincidentally, been digitized and is easy to access.

I also used Russian and Polish newspapers in order to trace down new aspects of Casimir’s life and thought – his opinions about Russian and Polish politics and his ideas about Constance’s activities in Ireland. I couldn’t have done this without the help of two expert researchers in St Petersburg and Warsaw, and a translator at a UK university.

As you mention, 2016 is a big year in modern history. How is your book relevant beyond the Irish commemorations?

LA: Revolutionary Lives is a deliberately provocative title.

The independent Irish nation-state emerged out of a series of conflicts: a major

trade-union dispute known as the 1913 Dublin Lockout; the 1916 Easter Rising; the Anglo-Irish War; and the Irish Civil War. Constance played an important role in all of these conflicts, and she believed that they were part of an Irish Revolution.

That term is debated among scholars and the public. Some believe that the ambitions of the Irish Revolution were thwarted by a counter-revolution in the form of the Provisional Government and subsequent governments, which retracted the socialist policies declared in the 1916 Proclamation, to which Irish Republicans remained loyal. Others believe that the independent nation-state that emerged was the product of a Revolution. (This view involves ignoring, for the most part, the Irish Civil War.) Still others believe that the events of 1913-1923 were not part of a cohesive “revolution”, so the term is inaccurate.

But the “Irish Revolution” is just one part of the story. Constance and Casimir were revolutionaries before their involvement in their respective national struggles. They were part of an avant-garde culture that revolutionized sexual politics and modern art.

Revolutionary Lives tells a story that is much bigger than Ireland or Poland. It’s a story of a couple that refused to be bound by national borders, a story of cosmopolitans whose contributions to culture and to politics created the world in which we live.

Lauren Arrington is senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. She is the author of W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Censorship, and the Irish State as well as Revolutionary Lives.

The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland gets a field test at Birding Ecosse

Birding Ecosse has a terrific article about the usefulness of The Crossley ID Guides in the field. In spite of birders’ best efforts (calls, silent stalking, binoculars and scopes), this is what they are likely to see in the field when they go looking for scoters. And a quick side-by-side comparison shows how The Crossley ID Guide really does represent these real life fuzzy, distant views.

 

scoter equal Scoters-double-page-300x231

The post at Birding Ecosse is part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland. For a complete schedule of the tour, please click here.

New FREE E-Book: Common Garden Birds from The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland

Crossley_Common_Garden_BirdClick here to download the complete e-book, Common Garden Birds [PDF]

This free e-book features Common Garden Birds of Britain and Ireland. This selection of images is drawn from The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland. These images are available to download/use/link, but please provide credit to The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland, Princeton University Press, 2013.

Click on the images below to open a full-sized version.

 

Related: Raptors from The Crossley ID Guide, 25 Common Feeder Birds in N. America

 

Blackbird Blue Tit Brambling
Chaffinch Coal Tit Dunnock
Eurasian Collared Dove Goldfinch Great-spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit Greenfinch Long-tailed Tit
Nuthatch Robin Song Thrush
Woodpigeon