Gather round ye celebrants of St. Patrick's Day and listen to what it's really about. Not your green beer or your green river or our downtown parade. Not about pubs and the Emerald Isle. It's about the English, even more than it is about St. Patrick. Because you can't tell the story of Ireland without telling the story of the brutal English oppressors.
Quinn had wanted to shoot a Brit. At least that's what he
told Lee, master of Friends Good Will, as they sailed toward the godforsaken
Fort Dearborn. "Probably won't be a Limey in sight. I'd a preferred to stay
put, and pick them off one by one."
What he didn't tell Lee was that he had never killed, or
even shot at anyone.
Lee, of course, guessed as much. "You've got quite a chip on
your shoulders, lad. Do you hate the Brits that much?" Lee asked. "What did
they ever do to you lad?"
"Just murdered my uncle, that's all. My father's brother; he
was my godfather. Took him out on the street and shot him like a mad dog. He
was one of hundreds, maybe thousands who were slaughtered like that. Scores
murdered and maimed. More dragged off to rot in some godforsaken English jail.
I was just a kid...nine then. Saw it for myself."
"Why'd they do such a thing?"
"Why? You might as well ask why they shot the Irish just for
being Irish. My uncle, Will--I'm named after him--stood up to them. Demanded that
he had rights, just like they did. They thought we had no more rights than a
dog pissing in the street."
"Can this man
really not know why the Irish hate the English?" Quinn asked himself. Quinn
didn't figure he had a whole lot of time to explain; it was one of those rare moments
between the arduous tasks of sailing a sloop through the choppy Lake Michigan
waters that Lee and Quinn sat together on the forecastle. Quinn had a sense
that Lee, despite his gruff manner, had a growing interest and concern about
the young Irishman's dark ghosts that sometimes showed themselves. "Well,"
Quinn told himself, "if he wants to hear the whole story, I'll tell him." Quinn
was only too glad to take an opportunity to inform the world about the vile,
barbaric English who subjected the Irish to centuries of exploitation and
"Where to start?" Quinn wondered. "How do you sum up
centuries injustice in just one sitting?"Quinn started: "Will, my uncle, was a part of the Uprising,"
referring to the one of a series of revolts that bubbled up over the centuries
of English oppression, torture and murder.
"I was nine when my folks just gave up on any hope they had
left, and came to America. My father was an expert linen weaver in Dublin, but
his business was failing through no fault of his own."
explained, was an ideal product for Irish manufacture, thanks to Ireland's
welcoming climate for fax, which produced the fabric's cloth. But his father
had little chance against the linen-makers of Ulster in Northern Ireland, who were
transplanted English Protestants. The English favored them with boon after
boon, virtually driving the Irish weavers out of business. Tariffs and import
policies that discriminated against linen made by Catholics and the growing
competition of cheaper cotton produced in America's South brought the elder
Quinn to the conclusion that he slowly, but surely, was being strangled.
He sold his looms, his house and his furniture to pay for
passage for his wife and four sons--Quinn being the third of them--and the
youngest, a daughter no more than a toddler, to begin a new life of opportunity
and freedom in America. The cruelties the family suffered on their crossing to
Baltimore were as harsh as those suffered at the hands of the British. Cramped,
damp quarters; meager rations; hostile crews. It was fertile ground for
pneumonia, scurvy, violence and death. Tens of thousands perished during their
crossings. Including Quinn's young sister.
"I'm sorry to hear of such things, lad," Lee said.
"There's more," Quinn continued. Leaving Ireland was more
than a business decision, he explained. English conquest and domination of
Ireland were a centuries-long endeavor. The English stripped the Irish of
countless human and civil rights, including the right to vote, own property and
arms, serve in the military, sit in Parliament, receive equal education,
assemble in the name of representing the Irish people, habeas corpus and, most
notably, to practice religion. Cleansing Ireland of the Catholic faith was a
priority; church property was confiscated and priests sometimes were driven
into hiding to celebrate mass or teach the catechism. Catholics were required
to tithe to the established Protestant church, and in an additional slap at the
nation of Catholics, the Anglican Church was officially named the Church of
"The Irish had their own language, you know?" Quinn said.
"It was called Gaelic, but the English couldn't tolerate even that much. They
suppressed it everyway they could. English became the official language.
"You talk about slavery in America? Tens of thousands of
Irish Catholics were sold into slavery." Quinn now was on a roll.
"You of course remember the name of Oliver Cromwell, don't
you? He was called the First Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Some protector. While he was running the country, a half million Irishmen died.
That was about two-thirds of the Irish population."
Quinn went on to describe how English farmers, installed on
confiscated Irish land, found more lucrative or friendly markets for
Irish-grown grains, meats and poultry in England, depriving the Irish of the
most nutritious foods produced on their own lands. An imported native-American
plant, the potato, eventually became the main, if not the exclusive, mainstay
in the diets of most Irish households. As the Irish became more dependent on a
single crop for their sustenance, they fell more in danger of massive crop
failure and, consequently, famine. In 1740, it killed about a tenth of the
"The English fools joke about how the Irish love their
potatoes. Fuck 'em. What choice did we have? They took everything we had. We
were reduced to eating roots. That's what potatoes are.
"Mark my words, Master Lee. We haven't seen the worst yet.
Potatoes in every field. If a blight gets loose like in did 70 years ago, it'll
turn every spud to mush, and my countrymen will be dying in the streets."
"Sometimes," Quinn said, "you might think that compassion
might touch the damnable English. Only when they got too busy fighting the French
In those rare moments when English protectionist interests
didn't require Irish oppression, or, more likely, when England was occupied
with fending off foreign threats from the French, Spanish and such, some of the
punitive measures against the Irish were relaxed. But only temporarily.
Basically, economic gain was the engine that drove any of the hotly debated
reforms to ease the pressure of the English boot, and as soon as the economic
motive removed, the boot was reapplied.
"I'll tell you Master Lee, it was those brief moments when
the English briefly let up that we tasted freedom and wanted more of it." Quinn
described how the crushing disappointment with the on-again, off-again promises
of reforms by the English eventually led to yet another uprising, this one in
1798. It was preceded by the Catholic Relief Act, which gave Irish Catholics
the right to vote, as long--practically speaking--they voted for a Protestant. Of
course, any Catholic who was miraculously elected to public office could not
serve in the London Parliament anyway, having to content himself to serving in
the Irish Parliament, the toothless cat's-paw of the British Crown. As word of
growing Irish discontent spread, the British military resorted to various
tortures and hangings to gather information and suppress sedition. "One of
their favorites was pitch capping. Ever here of it Master Lee? They'd soak a
man's head in tar and set him on fire."
Quinn stopped long enough to see Lee's expression turn to
horror. Or was it disbelief?
"So, about a dozen years ago, they all said they had enough.
No more half measures; no more empty promises. This time, a real rebellion.
Freedom! Everyone said it.
"But when the time came...nothing. They thought that everyone
would rise up to support the rebellion. A terrible mistake. Everyone was
afraid. So. when the leaders were out on the streets, exposing themselves, the
rest stayed home. Everything unraveled. The plans that were never carried out.
People on one side of the city didn't know what the other side of town was
doing. It all unraveled."
"What happened to the men out on the streets?"
"Instant retribution. Thousands were tracked down and killed
like pigs on their way to market. They took more Irish property, the little we
had left. Fewer jobs. A few still could squeeze a subsistence out of the
lands--their own lands once--leased to them by the English who took them. But
their rents went higher and higher. Have you ever seen a Dublin poor house?
Unbelievably vile. It's where you went to starve to death."
The old emotions now were rising in Quinn and he fell into
silence. For a moment, the bow cutting through the water and the wind strumming
on the gaff rig were the only sounds heard. Lee averted his eyes, as if to
allow to privately renew the horrors.
"My uncle was a part of the uprising," Quinn said suddenly.
"He risked all by going into the streets at the appointed hour. Trouble was,
not everyone showed up. Some didn't have the guts. Some didn't get the word
that the uprising had begun. Some turned traitor; the rats told the English
whom to look for and where.
"There was no trial for Uncle; no last words uttered. We
left in ignorance. We found out after folks found his body, lying in the filthy
gutter. The rats had eaten his eyes and were working on his guts.
"Then they came after us. T'was nothing so bold as dragging
us out onto the street and bayoneting us right there. Even for them, it was too
open, too unprovoked. But they made their threats. They'd come in the night;
burn us out. Kill us in our beds.
"They had us good. When my father sold everything, they'd
knew he couldn't dicker. They had him by the balls; and they got everything
real cheap. Pretending they was doing him a favor because otherwise he'd have
to leave everything for the poachers."