Category: Archive

Inside File Battles over history’s word

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

California State Senator Tom Hayden has, once again, taken up the pen in defense of Irish America’s role in the shaping of these United States.

Hayden has written to California’s Board of Education objecting to "false and misleading passages" in a Houghton-Mifflin high school history book currently being examined by the board. The book, as mentioned here last week, deals with all things Irish in just three paragraphs.

"Ireland lies just west of Great Britain. Because of poor soil and harsh weather, Ireland is a hard place to farm. In the early 1800s, the Irish were particularly poor. Most families lived almost entirely on potatoes. In the 1840s, however, a disease attacked Ireland’s potato crops. From 1847 to 1854, around 750,000 Irish starved to death. At the time, a Roman Catholic priest called the Irish ‘the poorest and most wretched population that can be found in the world.’

"Without money or food, the Irish had little choice but to leave their homes. Between 1830 and 1860, nearly two million Irish people made the difficult trip to America. Aboard ship, the immigrants faced many horrors. Because they often could afford only the cheapest tickets, immigrants filled the lowest, dampest part of the ship. Many Irish immigrants died while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The ships that carried these people were often called ‘swimming coffins.’

"After they arrived, the Irish settled first in New York, Boston, Cincinnati and other large cities. Most had no skills other than farming. However, many Irish immigrants began to find unskilled jobs in factories. Irish women and children worked in the textile factories of New England. Some Irishmen did hard labor digging the Erie Canal and building roads and railroads."

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Hayden’s letter blasts this scanty treatment of the Irish for not including any mention of British responsibility for Ireland’s sorry state. Hayden further laments the fact that "there is no mention of the fierce bigotry, discrimination and poverty that the Irish immigrants faced in America."

He also disputes the book’s figure of 750,000 deaths and its failure to include British land clearances and economic policies as additional reasons for emigration, starvation and disease.

Hayden concludes: "The impact of this misleading history is to reinforce images of the Irish as a helpless people whose suffering was caused by fate. . . . To reduce the largest upheaval of the 19th century, which caused the massive emigration of Irish Catholics to America, to such superficial stereotypes as those found in the Houghton-Mifflin text is a grave disservice to the education process. I urge you to reject this biased and misleading text. We cannot and should not wait several more years before beginning to correct its errors."

Hayden’s battle over the historical record is reflected in several others currently stretching across the country. And it’s not always the written word that is at the center of the conflict, as illustrated by the still heated debate in Boston over the controversial Famine Memorial, recently visited by President Mary McAleese. The memorial was trashed in a Boston Globe review. This, in turn, prompted letters, an op-ed and a column by the Globe’s ombudsman, Jack Thomas.

At the center of the row is wealthy businessman Tom Flatley. Flatley chaired the Boston Irish Famine Memorial Committee. Whatever about varying opinions on the merits of the memorial as art, Flatley pretty well hit the nail on the head as regards why the Famine itself is such a jarring issue 150 years on and thousands of miles of miles away from the place it played out.

"It took 150 years to place a fitting Irish Famine Memorial in Boston," Flatley said in a letter published in the Globe in response to the critical review. And that’s just it. Frustration over both the recording and interpretation of what is in fact a joint Irish and American historical occurrence has been bubbling under the surface for a century and half. Irish America has been mad as hell. But only relatively recently has it been able to shout — loudly enough to be noticed — that it’s not going to take it anymore.

The tyrant’s advantage

Amazing indeed how quickly the British legal system can move if the accused is considered important. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet must have been mightily impressed when the lord chief justice almost broke the sound barrier last week in granting him immunity against extradition to Spain.

Equally amazed, no doubt, are the members of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, not to mention Elaine Moore. Their fault, of course, for not mounting a successful coup and slaughtering all that opposed them. Hey, if you’re going to get respect in this world, don’t cloak yourself in lowly innocence or call yourself a mere citizen — or indeed subject. Get yourself a country, knock the bejaysus out of it and look forward to a golden retirement, not to mention tea for two with the odd Baroness.

Spare a few

Mention was made here last week of the large tax bill that Richard Clark Johnson is facing from the dubious comfort of federal prison in Pennsylvania. Funds are now being raised to help him meet the demand for $7000 from the IRS. Anyone interested in helping can send a donation to the "Boston Three Defense Fund," c/o Larry Downes, 15 Park Row, New York, NY 10038.

Dear Bob

"IF" was thinking that some of you might want a peek at Conor Cruise O’Brien’s letter of resignation to United Kingdom Unionist Party leader Bob McCartney.

Here are some extracts: "Since the analysis in my memoirs adumbrates the view that in certain future circumstances the preferred outcome might be a negotiated United Ireland, I appreciate that even though this is merely opinion it has occasioned opportunities for the distortion of the Party’s policy in the media.

"I know that many members of the party appear to be genuinely dismayed by the trend of the section of my memoirs published in the Sunday Independent. This dismay is in part the result of misapprehension, but it is genuine. If I remain in the party it will be — indeed is being — exploited by the party’s enemies. This exploitation would in turn operate to restrain my own utterances, lest they be further exploited in that matter. This would be a bad situation both for the party and me. The clear-cut solution is for me to resign with immediate effect."

Did anybody feel the earth shake?

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