PART I: TO BE IRISH IN IRELAND
Under the Bootheel
For the better part of seven centuries, to be Irish in Ireland was to live in a land not your own. You called a lake next to your family home by one name, and the occupiers gave it another. You knew a town had been built by the hands of your ancestors, the quarry of origin for the stones pressed into those streets, and you were forbidden from inhabiting it. You could not enter a court of law as anything but a criminal or a snitch. You could not worship your God, in a church open to the public, without risking prison or public flogging. You could not attend school, at any level, even at home. And if your parents sent you out of the country to be educated, you could not return. You could not marry, conduct trade or go into business with a Christian Protestant. You could not have a foster child. If orphaned, you were forced into a home full of people who rejected your faith. You could not play your favorite sports—hurling was specifically prohibited. You could not own land in more than 80 percent of your country; the bogs, barrens and highlands were your haunts. You could not own a horse worth more than £5 sterling. If you married an Englishman, you would lose everything upon his death. You could not speak your language outside your home. You would not think in Irish, so the logic went, if you were not allowed to speak in Irish.
Your ancient verses were forbidden from being uttered in select company. Your songs could not be sung, your music not played, your Celtic crosses not displayed. You could be thrown in prison for expressions of your folklore or native art. One law made it a felony for “a piper, story-teller, babler, or rimer” to be in the company of an Englishman. Another six statutes banished bards and minstrels. You could not vote. You could not hold office. You were nothing. “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic,” said John Bowes, an eighteenth-century lord chancellor of the island. “Nor could any such person draw a breath without the Crown’s permission.”
The melodies of this nation and its favorite instrument were a particular target of English hatred. At one point, your fingernails could be removed if you were caught playing the harp. The Irish married to the sounds that came from that instrument, and they grieved in some of those same keys. But the indigenous music came to be seen as subversive—too nationalistic, too connected to the old stories. In 1603 it was proclaimed that “all manner of bards and harpers” were to be “exterminated by martial law.” That same year, a few months before her death, it was said in Ireland that Queen Elizabeth had ordered her troops to “hang the harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments.” The Virgin Queen allowed Shakespeare and Marlowe to reach great heights during her long reign, but Elizabeth had not a thimble of tolerance for a people she considered primitive. To encourage the elimination of one musical aspect of that culture, the government paid a bounty to anyone who turned in outlaws of the harp. The musicians were easy to round up; many of them were blind, music their only refuge and source of income.
What had the Irish done to deserve these cruelties? They had refused to become English.
Thomas Francis Meagher was born on August 3, 1823, in one of the largest houses of the oldest city in Ireland—Waterford. The workaday port on the River Suir was founded in 914 by Vikings with ambition and a talent for on-shore piracy. Thomas grew up just steps from where conquerors had tramped through and a tower that had withstood a siege by the hated Oliver Cromwell. As a boy, he climbed up the chapped hills across the river, looked down at the port and seethed at the sight of British warships in the harbor. He imagined the last gasping breaths taken by Francis Hearn, hanged from the Waterford Bridge until his neck snapped for his role in a failed 1798 uprising. He played inside the eleventh-century round tower of the Vikings, said to be the oldest surviving building in Ireland.
The town motto was Urbs Intacta—Unconquered City. But Waterford was the most conquered of cities, evident throughout the bundle of strong buildings, shoulder to shoulder along the quay. Every street and structure bore some scar of defeat. A cannonball was lodged inside that Viking tower, left over from Cromwell’s rampage of 1650. King Richard II had landed there in 1394, leading the largest armada ever to sail into an Irish port—duly noted on a much-vandalized plaque. King Henry VIII had converted a monastery in the center of town into an almshouse. For 350 years, poor inmates were obliged to pray for the soul of the wife-killing king, as a condition of the charity. Thomas knew all of this, in great, gritty detail, not because of his schooling, which was formal and devoid of passionate obsessions, but because it was passed down—an inheritance of memory. The systematic savagery, the stripping of ethnic pride and religious freedom, the many executions of men of conscience: he carried these stories throughout his life, the weight increasing with the years.
The seven-plus centuries of organized torment originated in a letter from Pope Adrian IV in 1155, which empowered King Henry II to conquer Ireland and its “rude and savage people.” It was decreed that the rogue Irish Catholic Church, a mutt’s mash of Celtic, Druidic, Viking and Gaelic influences, had strayed too far from clerical authority, at a time when English monarchs still obeyed Rome. Legend alone was not enough to save it—that is, the legend of Patrick, a Roman citizen who came to Ireland in a fifth-century slave ship and then convinced many a Celt to worship a Jewish carpenter’s son. Patrick traveled with his own brewer; the saint’s ale may have been a more persuasive selling point for Christianity than the trinity symbol of the shamrock. There followed centuries of relative peace, the island a hive of learned monks, masterly stonemasons and tillers of the soil, while Europe fell to Teutonic plunder. The Vikings, after much pillaging, forced interbreeding, tower-toppling and occasional acts of civic improvement (they founded Dublin on the south bank of the Liffey), eventually succumbed to the island’s religion as well. They produced children who were red-haired and freckled, the Norse-Celts. But by the twelfth century, Ireland was out of line. Does it matter that this Adrian IV, the former Nicholas Breakspear, was history’s only English pope? Or that the language of the original papal bull, with all its authoritative aspersions on the character of the Irish, has never been authenticated? It did for 752 years.
So with the blessing of God, a Norman force landed not far from Wexford in 1169, followed by an invasion of Henry and his army two years later in Waterford. He was the first English king to leave a footprint on Irish soil, and would not be the last to pronounce the people ungovernable. He could have learned from the Romans, who called the island Hibernia and deemed it not worth the lost lives needed to force it into their empire. After Henry’s march, the chieftains and family leaders who pledged fealty were allowed to hold on to their estates, and a degree of self-government was granted to those residents with Anglo-Norman lineage.
Still, the indigenous culture—lively, excitably clannish, infectious&mdash...