Stopped. At home. In bed. Hard to stop. Yet stopped. Necessary for survival. Worn out. Two weeks hard travel. Clothes in the wash, including my passport, oops. TSA opened my checked bag, damn them. There must be a simple way to boobytrap a case. Like those snakes made of coiled springs that jump out of cans. Surprise!
Went through the mail, no personal letters, mostly magazines, one item posted to France 8 months ago returned as undeliverable. Clearing off the desk.
Flew in last night at 9 to SFO, ate a mini-cheeseburger at Burger Joint as per ritual, collected my bag, got in a shuttle, hurtled toward the Zoo conversing with some Londoners here for two days after a Hawai’ian vacation during which they ate at McDonald’s. I told them not to try that here.
My second pot is a Russian Earl Grey, loose leaf, but my first was Bewley’s Dublin Morning, bag. I was weened on Bewley’s at the Charles Stewart Guesthouse and had my last cup out in Dublin at Bewley’s Oriental Cafe on Gratton Street before going mad in Cleary’s, a last-minute spending spree on Barbour, a British brand, the enemy, I know, but I fancied their merchandise.
This morning I picked up my disintegrating copy of The Great Hunger by Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1962, purchased for 50 cents at the Irish Cultural Center. The Great Hunger is of course the Famine, when the potato crop failed, decimating the population. I’d never understood the history, but seeing Tom Murphy’s poetico-political naturalist epic, Famine, at the Oxford Playhouse last month, made me shed bitter tears.
Woodham-Smith tells of the enmity twixt Brits and Irish, due to the former’s enslavement of the latter, and the latter’s attempts to self-emancipate, and the former’s implacable resistance to the notion of Irish pershonhood or statehood. The few pages I’ve read so far have blown my mind. I had no idea.*
My personal DNA is woven of this rift, an idea clarified by my recent bifurcated travels to Oxford/Dublin. My family consists of mixed marriages. Businessmen and bohemians, Protestants and Catholics, Angles and Celts.
Whose side are you on?
It’s a lifelong struggle to reconcile this heritage, of which, growing up, my immediate family was fitfully aware. To choose one side is to betray the other, an unwitting practice of self-torment, a never-ending teeter-totter of self and loathing, played out through every relationship.
Now I’ve seen a bit of Ireland I can finally read the books that made no sense before. How could they? I wanted to believe each side, I wanted to like everyone. I refused to recognize the stakes, the struggle, the hatred. The Potato Famine was a life-and-death proposition imposed by an occupying force.
The British aren’t nice people, starting with the Queen. Even Elizabeth I, my sheroe.
All my life I’ve been under the spell of British propaganda, in all its insidious forms, starting with the language I speak. Damn them. Damn me. Damn us all.
…the British government recognized the scope of the crisis but didn’t address it. John Mitchel wrote, “I have called it an artificial famine, which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English call the famine a dispensation of Providence, but potatoes failed all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” (1860)
…the British government’s response reflected its attitude to the “Irish Question”. An Oxford economics professor wrote that the Famine “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.”
Someone suggested Prime Minister Russell adhered to Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser’s calculation “how English colonisation might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation.”
Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant responsible for Britain’s response, described famine as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, laying bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil,” and “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected.”
Speranza, Oscar Wilde’s mother-to-be, wrote this poem in The Nation:
Weary men, what reap ye? Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger’s scoffing.
There’s a proud array of soldiers—what do they round your door?
They guard our master’s granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping? ‘Would to God that we were dead—
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.