Rending the Soul of Ireland

Carrying the Bones of the Ancestors – Nancy Lee-Evans, PhD

My father’s face came into view as I surrendered to a ceremony of ancestral remembrance.  He had died when I was almost four.  In recent years, I had become particularly aware of the spaces left by his absence.  I told him of my longing to have known him, to have the gift of his love and his guidance as I came of age.  Rather than responding with the tenderness I had yearned for, he looked me straight in the eye and said with intense earnestness, “I have given you everything you will ever need.  You are a Lee.  You have intelligence, courage, determination and heart.  It’s in your blood.  It’s in your bones.  You are a Lee.  That is all that you will ever need.  Now go do something with it.”

My father was a third generation Irish-American.  You will remember that his grandfather, James Lee, made the great Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1857 at the age of twelve and that with his ten year old brother Martin’s departure, he never saw his brother, father or mother again.  He remained in Brooklyn, eventually marrying Josephine Evans, and raised a family of twelve children as an illiterate street sweeper.

Prejudice was strong against the Irish then.  Signs were commonly posted saying, “No dogs, No blacks, No Irish.”  Nonetheless, his children prospered.  My grandfather, Joseph Lee, became a very successful builder in Brooklyn, gaining social prominence and even becoming commandant of the yacht club.  As I look at my extended Lee family, and my mother’s Irish family as well, I see an extended family of immigrants who applied their “courage, intelligence, determination and heart” to make good lives, strong families and a valuable contribution to the world.  We are good people.  What is it about these qualities that is in the “blood and our bones” of our Irish ancestry?  And why was the prejudice against my ancestors encountered so?

The Irish are a deeply spiritual people of great courage, determination and heart, who have lived in close relationship with the natural world for millennia.  They have an ancient history of artistic excellence and scholastic acumen that was renown throughout the late classical to early medieval Europe.  Their most honored citizens were poets, warriors, scholars and saints.  They accepted challenge and bore adversity through centuries with a singleness of purpose that has carried them from the grip of British oppression to the restoration of their freedom, culture and sovereignty.

Everywhere an Irish person looked, the landscape marked the legacy of their ancestors’ lives.  The legendary history of the people was preserved in the names and places of their land.  The genealogies kept by their bards assured them that they had belonged to this land for thousands of years.

The sacred permeated everything. There was no separation between the physical and the spiritual, this world and the Otherworld, the living and the dead.  Souls of the dead were reborn in the Otherworld and from there, born again in this one.[1]  Irish were so comfortable in this belief that repayment of debts could be promised in the afterlife.[2]  The land, seas and sacred balance maintained through spiritual practices provided abundantly for people, leaving time and resources to support the arts and music for all.

The poets, bards, doctors and druids were called the sacred class, because their art and practice stemmed from a twelve or more year study of the sacred principles of existence.[3]   Education was supported by patronage and was free to all men and women able to attend.  Education in the druidic colleges was renown throughout Europe for studies in Latin, Greek, philosophy, astrology, poetry, history, art, prophesy, divination, healing and medicine.  Education was supported by patronage and open to all men and women able to attend.[4]  With conversion to Christianity, many druidic colleges transformed into monastic colleges, and the tradition of outstanding scholarship continued.

Christianity was a remarkable fit for Ireland, but it was not without its darker side. The disciples of Christ had a great impact on indigenous Irish tradition by extinguishing the earth-based religion of the druids and eventually separating the Irish from the sacred oneness with All that Is.  While Irish tradition and the animist influence of converted druids kept the early Celtic Christian church of Ireland in close relationship with nature, the druids and their practices were viewed as wicked and blasphemous.  Eventually the druids were converted, killed, exiled or driven underground by the Christian clergy. Druids kept their oral tradition unwritten, even though Patrick is reported to have burned 180 druid books, and their spiritual practices and wisdom have been all but lost to us.  What remains is reported in grossly-distorted Christian perspective.

 Irish historian Seumas MacManus explains, in The Story of the Irish Race, that St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish had a profound effect on the nature of the people of Erin.  Within a hundred years of Christian conversion, military raids across the seas all but ceased as the Irish people attuned to Christ’s message of Peace.[5]  In very real terms they turned from martial warriorship to spiritual warriorship.  Sadly, this made the Irish as vulnerable to the Viking raids that plundered their monasteries as the British had been to Irish raids after the fall of the Roman Empire.  

From fortified compounds around royal seats, Irish life transformed to a focus around monasteries where clergy, monks, nuns and lay people lived in common.  Many monasteries became centers of ecclesiastic study, earning Ireland the title, “The Isle of Saints and Scholars.”  Ecclesiastic art took center stage as the focus of artistic expression. Chalices and patens used to celebrate the Mass became surfaces of exquisite Celtic design.  Bibles, staffs and bells of the aesthetic Irish Celtic saints became valued treasures once these mystics passed on.  To express veneration, their sacred tools were encased in jewel-studded silver and gold,[6] all for the glory of God.

Without fortification, the Viking raided, raped and plundered the monasteries and their people in pursuit of these treasures.  A rein of terror persisted for 200 years.  The Viking Danes established the first and only foreign settlements on Irish soil, building the cities of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.  Among other things, the Danes brought the concept of private ownership of land.  In 1014, Brian Boru defeated the Norsemen at the Battle of the Weir of Clontarf, restoring Irish sovereignty once again.[7]  However, at its greatest point of union since the end of the O’Neil dynasty, Brian’s death at Clontarf left Ireland without leadership.

 Rome had great issue with Irish laws regarding divorce, child baptism, marriage customs and the persistence of the independence of the decentralized, monastic organization of their bishoprics, rather than submission to the papal authority in dioceses.[8]  By the mid 1100s, Norman King Henry II of England had designs on Ireland and requested that his brother, Pope Adrian IV, grant him lordship over Ireland.  In the Papal bull Laudabiliter issued in 1155, Adrian IV gave consent to Henry II to “extend the boundaries of the church, to restrain the prevalence of vice, implant virtue, propagate Christian faith among the Irish people.”[9]  This was said of a country that had been known as “The Sacred Isle” for 1500 years and whose devotion to Jesus Christ was second to none.

During a period of extended regional strife, Dermot Mac Murrough, deposed king of Leinster, persuadedthe Norman “Strongbow” Richard de Clare Earl of Pembroke to aid him in reclaiming his throne and conquering any other territory they could subdue. [10] Their success laid the foundation of the invasion of Norman King Henry II of England in 1172, which secured Leinster, Meath, Dublin, Waterford and Wexford under English claim.[11]  A Norman aristocracy was established to oversee the Irish territories.

Using the Church as their instrument of governance, the Roman Catholic Normans consolidated lands, built castles, assaulted the Celtic Church and suppressed its clergy.  Culturally, it was another matter.  The Norman aristocracy soon found the Irish culture to their liking.  To the consternation of the English, their Norman colonizing force took on Irish manners, speech, customs and laws.  Irish Historian Seumus McManus slyly comments, “the truth is the free-spirited, culture-loving, gracious comity of the Gaels and Gaelic civilization insinuated itself into the mind and soul of the Norman French [now governing England] and won from them eager capitulation.”[12]

Irish land ownership was tribal; the Norman system of land ownership was feudal. Under the Irish tribal system, tribal lands were sovereign and owned by the clan members collectively.  There were private holdings within tribal lands that could be bought and sold, but only to other members of the tribe and with the agreement of all members of the owner’s finé.  Tenants could rent land from the tribe or a private landowner.  Brehon law protected the rights of the people in the exchange of property.  In the feudal system, all land belonged to the king, who granted lands, baronies, to his nobles as “tenants-at-will,” who could be removed from their lands at any time without cause.  The tenants-at-will status extended to all landholders within the land grant area, who then became tenants of the noble. The common tribal lands were subsumed by the land grant and removed to the nobles' use.  When the O’Flaherty lands of West Galway were given to the Burkes, all tribal lands held privately within that area became tenants-at-will.  Property was paramount; the rights of the people were secondary.  The English conquest of Ireland had begun.

The English purpose would employ diverse means in their conquest of the Irish over the next 700 years.  Its colonization efforts would be thorough, brutal and nearly complete, had it not been for the strength of the Irish spirit.

1. Redefine the personal and national character at the Irish.

2. Remove all basic human liberties that would elevate the mind, heart and spirit of the Irish people.

3. Separate the Irish people from their God.

4. Criminalize all aspects of Irish culture.

5. Confiscate their property and land.

6. Implant English citizens in confiscated Irish land.

7. Transport native Irish to foreign lands.

8. War.

9. Genocide.

English justice was entirely designed to protect privilege, station and property of the English aristocracy.  Between the 14th and 18th centuries, English efforts to subdue Ireland became increasingly stringent.  In 1367, with the failure of the Normans to subordinate the Irish, the English parliament passed the Statute of Kilkenny, which outlawed Norman engagement in Irish language, customs, dress, religion, laws and marriage to an Irish person.  The King’s army enforced and dispatched offenders.  English law found the Irish were not subject to protection under the King’s law and allowed that Irish Catholics or “papists” could be beaten, punished or killed for any cause found by an English citizen.

To justify their ends, the English invented a fictitious Irish character, which was undisciplined, vice-ridden, licentious, dishonest, criminal, and incompetent. In outrage, the Irish took up armed resistance.  Their success and internal Norman division contributed to a loss of Norman control that minimized the impact of the Act of Kilkenny for another 200 years.

By the time of the reign of Henry VIII, the Irish were solidly and devoutly Roman Catholic.  The monasteries had lost much of their former glory, but nonetheless retained considerable wealth and land holdings.  Upon separating himself from the papacy, King Henry VIII ordered that all monasteries, monks, nuns and priests convert to the Church of England.  Many who refused were put to death; others were tortured, or turned out with nothing as the monasteries were dissolved and their resources confiscated.[13] 

Religion now became the dividing line between the Irish citizens.  The indigenous Irish were Roman Catholic, and their English landlords were Protestant.  King Henry VIII pressed for the utter subjugation of the Irish will and identity by passage of the Penal Laws.  Under this system of oppression, the Irish Catholics were forbidden to:

vote; practice their religion; receive an education; enter a profession; hold a public office; engage in trade or commerce; purchase, lease, or receive a gift of land; accept a mortgage on land to secure a loan; live in a corporate town or within five miles of one; own a horse worth more than five £; reap from his land a profit exceeding a third of the rent; be a guardian to a child; leave his child in guardianship to a Catholic; educate his own child; employ a Catholic teacher to come to his child; send his child to be educated elsewhere.[14]


Being among the finest horse breeders in Europe, the Irish could no longer legally own a horse worth more than five £.  Any Englishman could demand that an Irishman sell him his horse for five £ and, if he refused, was entitled to take the horse without compensation. The people who for millennia had held the highest standards of intellectual scholarship were forbidden their schools.  They held their schools anyway in the hedges, learning Greek and Latin as they always had.[15]  Even during these harsh times, farmers could be overheard bargaining a sheep sale in Greek.  Clandestine masses were held in the forests and hills.  Priests and teachers alike were hunted down, hung and then drawn and quartered.  Colonization had begun in earnest.

Colonization seeks to destroy the humanity of a people for the purpose of exploiting their bodies, lands and resources.  The story commonly told by colonizers to justify their actions and salve the conscience of their own citizenry is that their innate, more civilized superiority justifies and entitles them to subdue and civilize the barbarians in question.  Some English actually claimed that the Irish were not quite human and therefore base, untrustworthy, uncivilized and unable to govern themselves.  The English portrayed the Irish in speeches and tabloids as vice ridden and, above all, ungrateful for the paternal direction, guidance and discipline of their betters, the British.[16] 

 Professor William Edward Hartpole Leckey, a Protestant Irishman of British heritage and loyalty, in his History of Ireland in the 18th Century, wrote: 


The object of the penal laws was threefold: to deprive the Catholics of all civil life, to reduce them to a condition of most extreme and brutal ignorance and to dissociate them from the soil.[17]  [The Penal laws were] intended to make them poor and to keep them poor, to crush in them every germ of enterprise and degrade them into a servile race who could never hope to rise to the level of their oppressor.[18]


Mac Manus quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson's description of the Penal Code:

It was not the persecution of a sect . . . but the degradation of a nation.  It was the instrument employed by a conquering race to crush to the dust the people among whom they were planted.  And indeed when we remember that the greater part of it was enforced for nearly a century, that its victims formed at least three fourths of the nation and that its degrading and dividing influences extended to every field of social, political, professional and intellectual and even domestic life, and that it was enacted without the provocation of any rebellion, in defiance of a treaty which directly guaranteed the Irish Catholics from any oppression on account of their religion, it may justly be regarded as one of the blackest pages in the history of persecution.[19]


 In Laws Against Popery in Ireland, Edmond Burke describes the Penal Codes as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well-fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement of human nature, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”[20]

And then came Cromwell . . ..

In response to Irish resistance to the increasing oppression of their people, The First Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell and his legions rolled through Ireland in a scorched-earth policy that killed every living thing in its path.  It was a campaign of genocide. 

MacManus quotes Pendergast in his “Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland:”

Ireland in the language of Scripture lay void as a wilderness.  Five-sixths of her people had perished.  Women and children were found daily perishing in the ditches, starved.  The bodies of wandering orphans, whose fathers had been killed and whose mothers had died of famine, were preyed upon by wolves.  In the years 1652 and 1653 the plague, following the desolating wars, had swept away whole counties, so that one might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature.  Man, beast and bird all dead, or had quit those desolate places.  The troops would tell stories of places where they saw smoke, so rare to see . . ..  If two and three cabins were met with, there were found none but aged men, with women and children . . . and their skins black like an oven because of the terrible famine. [21]


 Thirty thousand to eighty thousand of the remaining young Irish men, women, girls and boys were shipped off to slavery in the West Indies.  One hundred years later Gaelic could still be heard among the slaves of the Caribbean.[22]  In 1653 the English Parliament declared all native Irish lands to be the property of Cromwell’s troops and their financiers.  All Irish Catholics were to leave their lands and move to the rocky northwestern province of Connaught or die.  Removing the indigenous Catholic population opened the way for The Cromwellian Plantation.

The plantation system had begun in Ulster 30 years earlier when the Ulster kings fled the choice of loyalty to the English crown or death, a time know as the Flight of the Wild Geese.  Now it took on real force as the officers of Cromwell’s successful brigades, and those in the Crown’s favor, were rewarded for valued service with Irish land grants.  The Irish became tenants to the English landlords on lands they had once owned.  They were now subject to paying an annual rent and any improvements to their property, even if paid for by the tenant, increased the rent.  The indigenous population was displaced from the best lands with what they could carry to the bogs and mountaintops to eek out an existence.  It was land fit to grow little other than the hearty potato.

The Irish had always been a forest people.  Dense hardwood forests covered much of the island and was integral to their indigenous spiritual traditions.  Even the ancient Ogham language was based on trees.  To fuel the industrialization of Northern Ireland and remove a refuge for Irish resistance, the English leveled the forests of Ireland, to the devastation of her people.

By 1800 The Act of Union, passed by a Protestant Parliament of Ireland, had joined Ireland to Great Britain.  Among the provisions of the act was the continued disenfranchisement of Irish Catholics.[23]  Nonetheless, the persistence of the Irish struggle to regain sovereignty achieved small concessions during the 1700s.  Many of the penal laws had proved ungovernable and been repealed.[24]  They regained the right to an education, to hold a profession and to attend Trinity College in Dublin, opening the door to one of the most remarkable leaders in Irish history.  Daniel O’Connell became one of the first Catholic lawyers and the first Catholic elected to parliament.  He effectively defended Irish clients in English courts by brilliantly articulating the injustices of the English legal system to the jubilation of the Irish Catholics.  As his popularity grew, O’Connell led a successful fight, known as Emancipation, to restore the vote to the Irish Catholics.[25] Thus empowered, he campaigned to repeal the Act of Union that joined Ireland to England and the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  Years of organizing culminated in massive public meetings in support of Repeal all over Ireland.  From a population of 8,000,000, O’Connell drew 400,000 in Kilkenny, 300,000 in Mullaghmast, 400,000 in Mallow and 1,000,000 at Tara.  For four years of inspired Repeal solidarity, Ireland was sober and crime free.[26]

At this moment of greatest national unity and hope, the Great Potato Famine struck.  The potato blight fungus could decimate an entire field or turn a bin of harvested potatoes to mush overnight.  The blight hit the west coast hardest and lasted an interminable six years.  Wild resources were quickly exploited or withheld by the Baron.  Under English law, every living thing on the land belonged to the owner of the property.  Therefore all the game, wild edible plants and fish belonged to the Lord of the Manor, famine or no famine. 

Christine Kinealy reports, in This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-1852, that “at the beginning of the 19th century, Britain was the leading agricultural, industrial and commercial power in the world."[27]  Although potatoes accounted for one-third of all food grown in Ireland in 1845, a variety of other foods, including grains, were produced and exported from Ireland to Britain.[28]  As its major supplier of grain to England, three-fifths of the food produced in Ireland in 1845 was shipped to Britain.[29]  Exports sufficient to feed the Irish people were shipped to England faithfully throughout the famine. 

In times of crop failure, people usually turn to subsisting off another crop. Population had grown so rapidly and land had been divided into such small parcels that, for one-third of the Irish, potatoes were their only crop.  It was a significant staple for many more.[30]    With the failure of the potato crops, freeholders petitioned their landlords to postpone the rents due each year.  Many landlords agreed.  Many did not.  As the famine continued through six desperate years through 1852, rents mounted, landlords grew desperate, and starvation and disease claimed 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 Irish.

The British only kept death records of the famine for three years, from 1845 to 1848, reporting 700,000 deaths.  However, these numbers are generally considered to be an underestimation as entire families died leaving, no one to report their death.   Kinealy reports that “one million appears to be the most accurate calculation to date”[31] of additional unreported “excess deaths” estimated by Cormac O’Grada.

 The British Parliament, operating on a laissez-faire economic policy advanced by Adam Smith, maintained that supporting relief programs for the poor incurred indolence and abuse of the program.  Conservatives argued that relief should be withheld on the basis that it would interfere with the free market and compete with Protestant businesses.[32]  They justified their actions on the basis that the Irish economy and famine were a product of the flawed Irish character.  Having oppressed the Irish for 200 years with penal laws intended to thwart all enterprise and commerce and reduce them to destitution, the English Parliament failed to recognize their own contribution to the situation and provide sufficient resources for the aid the starving Irish.[33]  The conflict of compassion and economic philosophy would fatally compromise any effective response for Ireland, which was, at that time, part of the Great Britain.  Stephen Howe comments that,

Ministers and officials were ill-informed, slow and inconsistent in their reactions, riven and hobbled by dogma: free market dogma which insisted that state intervention must be counterproductive, providentialist religious dogma which saw famine as punishment for sins, and cultural-cum-racial dogma which blamed the supposedly idle and feckless Irish peasantry for their own ills.  Emergency relief and public works schemes were frequently a shambles, and food often did not reach those most in need.  Many died, quite simply, because of bureaucracy.[34]


The aid that was given was delivered in the form of grain distribution for purchase, soup kitchens, work projects and workhouses.  Workhouses were designed to be so unpleasant, so debasing, that only the absolutely destitute would avail themselves of the relief.  During the heart of the famine, only able-bodied people were admitted to the workhouses, and they died at a rate of 1,500 to 2,500 per week.  Thus, the workhouse became the death house, riddled with disease engendered by the famine; tuberculosis, typhus, and cholera.[35]

While the world responded to the Irish famine with an outpouring of money, food and organizational support, the English guarded their profits.  There was much concern in England about the financial liability of the growth of poor Irish populations before the famine.  As poverty increased, landholdings were divided down to be more affordable to rent.  Leased to the poorest cotters and laborers at as little as one-half acre, they had become marginal, cumbersome and inefficient . . . and fit for growing only potatoes.  A reorganization of the Irish economy was deemed necessary.  By raising Poor Taxes, Parliament shifted responsibility for sustained famine relief increasingly to the Irish Protestant landowners, who protested, and then acted.  The solution was simple; the land would be cleared of its Irish tenants to make way for other uses, such as cattle.  Starvation and emigration were acceptable means.[36]  Mullhall’s Dictionary of Statistics reports from official British statistics the eviction of 482,000 families from 1849 to 1882.[37]

The English response to the Irish potato famine was nothing short of the practice of genocide and dispossession of the indigenous people of their native land.  Having exhausted all means available to feed themselves, hundreds of thousands of Irish families were unable to pay their rents and were evicted.  To ensure that the destitute farmers would leave, their homes were “tumbled,” the chimney was torn down, and the house set afire.  Now in the cold and wet, the walking skeletons of the evicted died by the thousands on roadsides, their mouths green from eating grass.  Mass graves awaited them.  Those with the strength to travel found their way to the port cities of Dublin, Belfast, Waterford, Cork and Galway.

Some landlords paid the passage for their evicted tenants, but most of the emigrants relied on international charity to board ships bound for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  The Emigration Commission estimated emigration from Ireland at 1,880,000 from 1846 to 1855. [38]  Another 6,000,000 left over the next 60 years, as those who had left succeeded and supported the passage of others.[39]  The most likely to survive, the strongest and brightest sailed away carrying the hopes of the people with them.

Many did not make it.  Ocean transports, dubbed “coffin ships,” often arrived with one-third to one-half of their passengers dead, and those who survived arrived penniless without community or family to turn to.  Many died soon after of malnutrition and disease carried along with them.  The exodus was as wrenching for the Irish people as the starvation of the famine.[40]  The exiled would write and sing of the loss for their homeland for generations to come.  Exile had always been the greatest punishment for the Irish.

I was sitting at the base of the Twelve Bens, a cluster of mountains in Connemara, County Galway, with Martin Walsh.  Martin is an Irish history scholar and the owner of a small Celtic park and museum.  One of his attractions is the former home of Dan O’Hara, the subject of a famous Irish song about the famine.  Galway was one of the hardest hit counties during the famine.  Martin told me Dan’s story:  He had improved his farm cottage by adding larger windows at his own expense in 1844.  For this contribution, his landlord raised his rent.   Unable to make the payments two years later, Dan, his wife and seven children were evicted.  They made their way to a ship bound for America.  His wife and three youngest children died on the Atlantic crossing.  Arriving in New York penniless and brokenhearted, Dan fostered his four remaining children out and soon died selling matches on the street corner.  Martin finished his story by saying he had looked around a few years before and found an Irishman or woman as head of state of Ireland, England, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  “Not bad for a bunch of penniless, incompetent, savages,” he added with fire in his eye.

  Three branches of my own family emigrated from the west of Ireland during these times. My maternal great-grandmother, Winifred O’Harrahey, met her husband, Tommy Townsend, from a neighboring sept in Donegal at an Irish social club in Brooklyn.  To the extent that they could, the Irish brought their culture with them.  They also brought the ravages of colonization.

The shadow of war, prejudice, famine and exile stalk us today.  My family has experienced the symptoms of post traumatic stress from the cultural, psychological and spiritual colonization: depression, anxiety, alcoholism, suicide, family violence and undermining issues of self worth.[41]  We have a recurring pattern of early parental loss and a complete ignorance of our heritage.  Like countless others, I grew up knowing only that my people left Ireland because of the potato famine and that Irish people were drinkers -- nothing more.  This story is part of the healing.

What, you say?  These symptoms are common, typical of Americans -- nothing unusual.  Yes, precisely.  We may hale from different eras and countries of origin, but the most common experience of America’s tired and poor is the fact of their colonization and emigration.  We have simply not looked back far enough for the source of our grief.

By the end of the 19th century, English cultural colonization had nearly succeeded in Ireland.  The Irish language was heard only in pockets of the western coast.  The proud history and great legendary tales of the Irish were all but forgotten.  The English had rewritten the Irish history to reflect the values and influence of the English occupation.  Had the story ended there, it would simply be another tragic tale of cultural annihilation and the extinction of a people in the name of progress and civilization.

Instead, the Irish continued to fight with “intelligence, determination, courage and heart” for their sovereignty, souls and homeland.  Supported by their prospering exiles, the Irish continued the battle for repeal of the union with Great Britain and independence. After the famine, world opinion became substantially sympathetic toward the Irish cause. With their rights to education restored, her intellectuals ignited a Celtic Renaissance that brought Irish culture back from the brink of oblivion.  Gaelic was reclaimed as a national language.  The heroic legends were translated and staged at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Music, art and prose honored the Irish spirit as their journalists promoted the Irish struggle for independence before the international community of nations.

World War I provided the opportunity to force a weakened, exhausted Britain to the negotiating table.  In 1922 Ireland accepted the compromise that would grant her self-governance as a free state.  In the bargain the Northern six counties of Ulster, with a large Protestant population and industrial base, would remain part of Great Britain. The lower 26 counties would become the Irish Free State.  Advancing the strategy again during World War II, Ireland became fully independent as the Republic of Ireland in 1948.[42]   After 50 years of continued violence over the status of the northern six counties, the Belfast Agreement brought about a coalition government of Catholics and Protestants governing side-by-side in Northern Ireland.[43]  Peace and sovereignty had been restored to Ireland and the prayers of my ancestors were answered.  The long road to healing could begin.

When I truly understood the horror of the Irish experience under English rule, I found myself telling the tale of injustice, enjoying occasions of Irish success and superiority.  Britain became to me the brutal tyrant, and I relished the occasion of British losses.  Hatred was finding root.  Then I realized what I was doing.

My husband is of English descent.  His forefathers arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, holding land grants from the English Crown. They took part in battles that defeated and displaced the American Indians of Virginia.  One ancestor received his grant as a reward for service in putting down an Irish rebellion!  I had married the descendent of the oppressor of my people because he is a good man.  His family is loving, strong, courageous, tolerant and compassionate.  They fight for human rights and justice as decedents of the founding fathers of the United States. 

Hate my husband?  Hate our children?  Hate anyone, for God’s sake!  How could I live my life that way, and what would it serve?  Hatred had dug enough graves and broken enough hearts.  The blood of my people was spilled in the name of sovereignty, respect, tolerance and love of life.  The best way to honor their sacrifice is to live those values and tell their story.   

When I went to Ireland with my mother in 1996, I had this conversation more than once with an elder along the way:  “So are you visiting now?” an older gentleman would inquire. “I am,” I replied.  “And would you be Irish, now, and have family from here?” he would continue.  “Yes, I would.  My mother’s people are from Donegal, and her father is from Carrick-on-Shannon. My father is Irish, too,” I replied. “Well, now, that’s grand.  It’s just grand.  It’s so good that you’ve come home,” he said with a twinkle.  I realized then that the return of the lost generations is as important a part of the healing for the Irish left behind as it is for those of us returning.  

This is my prayer for forgiveness and healing of my people and all of those who have known the bloody knife of colonization.

Great Mother Anu, Brigit, Shining Ones and Ancestors.

May the wounds of our people be healed by the truth that can now be known.

May the ones crushed under the heel of oppression know that they are remembered. 

We hear your voices.  We are your dreams.

I reclaim your lost humanity and my own as I remember and live.

I will not trade hatred for hatred or blow for blow.

May all the generations together stand at the altar of forgiveness,

As a force for freedom, justice, truth, equality, peace and love.

May we shine this Irish blessing into the world

For the restoration of all to belonging in the Great Cauldron of Life.


[1]  Caitlin Mathews, The Way of the Celtic tradition (London: Element, 1989) 12.

[2]  Daithi O'hOgain, The Sacred Isle: Belief ands Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland (Whilton, Cork: Collins Press, 1999) 100. 

[3]  Mathews,  68-72.

[4]  Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 217-218.

[5]  MacManus, Story of the Irish, 89.

[6]   Angus Konstram, Historical atlas of the Celtic World,(New York: Checkmark Books,2001) 146

[7] MacManus, 279.

[8]  Mary Condon, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Pub., 1989) 136.

[9]  MacManus, 320.

[10]  Ibid., 323.

[11]   Martin Wallace, A Short History of Ireland, (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1986) 28

[12]  Ibid, 334

[13]  Macmanus, 402.

[14]  MacManus, 458-9.

[15]  Gearoid O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine 1798 - 1848 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1972) 99.

[16]  David Harding, "Objects of English Colonial Discourse: The Irish and Native Americans," Nordic Irish Studies (Center for Irish Studies Aarhus) 4 (2005): 37-60.

[17]  William Edward Hartpole Leckey, History of Ireland in the 18th Century, as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 454.

[18]  Ibid., 461.

[19] MacManus, 454

[20] Edmond Burke,  Laws Against Popery in Ireland as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 454.  

[21] John P. Pendergast, Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland as found in Seumus MacManus, The Story of the Irish Race (Old-Greenwich, CT: The Devin-Adair Co., 1921) 430.

[22]  MacManus, 429.

[23]  O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine,   34.

[24]  Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 34.

[25]  MacManus, 551-559.

[26]  Ibid., 580-1.

[27]  Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity:The Irish Famine 1845-52 (Boulder, CO: Roberts Rhinehart Pub., 1995) 10.

[28]  Ibid., 5.

[29]  Ibid., 4.

[30]  O'Tuathaigh, Ireland before the Famine, 1972) 203.

[31]  Kinealy, This Great Calamity, 251.

[32]  Ibid,  7.

[33]  Ibid., 7.

[34]  Howe, Ireland and Empire, 39.

[35]  Ibid., 252.

[36]  Ibid., 216-217.

[37]  MacManus, 635.

[38]   Kinealy, 298.

[39]   Ibid., 297.

[40]   MacManus, 609-610.

[41]  Betty Bastien et al., "Healing the Impact of Colonization, Genocide, Missionization and Racism on Indigenous Populations," in The Impact of War Trauma on Civilian Populations, ed. S. Kripner & T. McIntyre (New York: Greenwood Press, 2001). 2-3.

[42], History of Ireland, April 1, 2009, History_of_Ireland#Free_State_ and_ Republic, (accessed April 1, 2009).

[43]  Republic of Ireland, " Northern Ireland Peace Agreement," Government of Ireland Department of the Taoiseach,, (accessed March 31, 2009).