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For All Nails #44D: Ireland's End

by Randy McDonald

La Presse, 4 October 1972
Section E: "Dun-na-gael; or, Ireland's End"

Ireland is a country that has suffered a hemorrhage of people well-nigh unprecedented by European standards. The Bretons complain about the departure of a half-million of their fellows in the generation before Fanchon, out of a population of three million at the beginning of the 20th century, but at least Brittany's population has grown since then. Ireland's population, though, has consistently and constantly fallen: In 1841, it was 7,345,421; at its peak in the mid-1840's it was an estimated 7.5 million; in 1901, 3,985,577; and in 1971, according to the recently released census reports, 2,785,143. FN1

Ireland is a country that has selflessly provided labourers for the industrial revolutions of a half-dozen countries: England, Scotland, Québec, the Confederation, Mexico, Australia. It has neglected, however, to do anything for its own industries, its own labour force. Ireland is an island that -- by and large -- lacks industry. The old shipyards of Belfast have mostly died; the milltowns of Ulster have perished; the mooted plans for the relocation of British industry from the vulnerable east and centre of England to Ireland have failed, given the range of the new German bombers and the enormous strength of atomic warheads. As in times past, Ireland's major exports to England are cattle (though North American, Mexican, and Argentine beef shipped across the Atlantic is cutting into this market) and assorted other foodstuffs, but even these industries depend upon the British state's massive subsidies to food production in order to ensure some degree of self-sufficiency. And so, the Irish have no choice but to leave Ireland, as they have for the past three centuries.

This Ireland, then, is the Ireland that I saw over the duration of my week long stay, in Dublin and in Donegal, tracing our ancestors' paths as they left their native land to join our nation, and in so joining, change it utterly.

Irish blood fills the veins of Québécois. Even in the middle of the French era, dozens of families were of Irish descent, refugees from the cruelties of the Commonwealth in the service of France. More Irish arrived in the 18th century in the great Anglo-French wars, as Irish soldiers -- enlistees in the service of France, prisoners of France, deserters from the British ranks -- poured into Canada, remaining even after the Conquest by their British enemies. These Irish were soon absorbed: They learned the language of their hosts, and they married into French families and became identified with the French, very often revealing their origin only in their Celtic names.

But then, in the 1820s, came the major flood, arriving in our country every season in sailing vessels, wooden tubs most of them that had been used in the Québécois lumber trade. These Irish -- numbering in the tens of thousands, arriving in Québec and in Montréal in vast numbers every year -- were not ones to accept the injustices of the Québec of the old order: the unrepresentative government of commercial elites, the ethnic stratification that threatened to make we Québécois a powerless minority dominated by North Americans. The Irish played a role well out of proportion to their small numbers in our rebellions -- in that long period of bitter fighting interspersed with awkward truces and utter lack of knowledge of what to do. The Irish were, in a way, Québec's urban proletariat before the opening of the western frontiers in Upper Québec and the urbanization of the old population of French stock.

The Irish of Québec need no longer possess their own social and religious organizations on account of this admixture into the broader Québécois population. They attend alongside us in our churches, schools, convents, colleges, and orphanages; they take full part with us in our religious life (bishops, priests, charity and teaching orders of both sexes); they number among our best writers and musicians and cultural figures of all sorts; they are, in short, represented in every avenue of public life. Need we forget Prime Minister Étienne Finnegan just nine short years ago? FN2

Ireland is an international society beyond compare. It is Ireland, indeed, which is responsible for Christendom's existence: It is Irish monasteries which preserved Classical learning during the Dark Ages, it is Irish monks who brought this learning back to Europe in time for the Carolingian renaissance. Even after Ireland's conquest, Ireland fueled the growth of an international society: Irish immigrants helped people the world, Irish soldiers fought wars for Britain and France and Spain and a dozen other countries, Irish missionaries are to be found even now in the Chinas and India and Germany's former African colonies.

But Donegal, like all Ireland, is turning away from this internationalist tradition. Québec's statistics record a massive drop in immigration from Ireland over the 1960's; Mexico, North America, Australia, the different countries of South America, all record similar sharp declines. Yet, Ireland has not done a better job of holding onto its population: The Irish themselves record an outward movement in the 1960's not much diminished from that of the 1950's.

Where do the Irish go now? England, almost all of them. England's cities are wanting for labour, between the emigration of England's young and the refusal of Englishwomen to bear as many children as their mothers. Germany absorbs the surplus workers of the European continent and leaves none for England (never mind that German security demands and English prejudice demands that Poles not settle in Manchester and Italians make themselves scarce in London); Scandinavia likewise absorbs Lithuanians, who themselves are unwilling to venture further west than Bergen. Scotland is poor, but the Scots have reached their particular national demographic equilibrium which precludes mass emigration south.

So: No more shall Irish come to our shores. This is a shame, but at least we have accumulated enough over the past centuries to satiate our needs. Irish blood, like Breton blood, is deeply blended with our own. It is not possible for any Québécois to single out a single ancestor as responsible for the entirety of one's ancestral Irish or Breton inheritance, not in the same way that one can with Lithuanian or Flemish ancestry. I have a single Leonas Malinauskas, I have a single Andrius Maeterlinck, but Gaels? Too many spread too thinly to trace definitively. Irish blood has been infused into the dominant French race, and proved to be a rare asset to the Québécois people. One could, without excessive generosity, describe the Québécois nation as one formed by the union of French and Irish blood under British auspices on the banks of the St. Lawrence.

The Dubliners I talked to on the Irish capital's streets were quite unaware of this history. I had decided beforehand that, while in Ireland, I wouldn't try to cultivate any particular experts, but only interview the people on the streets, the everyday people, to try to produce an unexpected angle on Québécois links. Alas, no one knew anything of this; indeed, few people knew anything of Québec apart from its location to the north of the Confederation and the fact that our nation's dominant language is French. One bright student, in her third year at Trinity College, said, when I asked her, that she was from Derry, and that -- she thought -- some of her father's relatives, three or four generations before her birth, had gone to Sainte-Anne-des-Pins FN3 to make their way as miners deep in the boreal forests. She was the exception. But then, her family name was also Berlinguetti, and she told me that she had travelled with her solicitor father and socialite mother to Germany, Italy, and the Argentine several times before college, though never to Limerick or Cork never mind Donegal. FN4

But then, Donegal always was foreign. The very name is derived from the Gaelic "Dun-na-Gael," which itself means "Fort of the Foreigners." The irony of this name lies in the fact that Donegal -- certainly the most self-consciously and traditionally Irish county of Ireland's thirty-two -- is the county most alien to the fabric of modern-day Irish life. Donegal is the only county in the whole of Ireland, for instance, where a large majority of the population continues to speak Gaelic; everywhere else, English prevails. FN5 Donegal is perhaps the most rural county in an Ireland that is now three-quarters urban, half that population in Dublin and Belfast. Donegal is, in relation to its land area, the most underpopulated county in an Ireland that is fast emptying. If Donegal is -- as the few fervent Irish nationalists would have it -- the repository of Irish identity, then Ireland is a country of the past with no role in the world of the Kramerite bomb. And Donegal? It barely exists to the political nation of Ireland, in Parliament clinging on to only one of Ulster province's 20 seats and that only because Donegal's vote is strongly Nationalist, distinct from the Liberal stronghold of Derry with its mixed Catholic-Protestant population and dead industries.

Either at the very end of the 19th century or at the very beginning of the 20th century, a student of urbanization whose name escapes me (Saint-Jacques FN6 was a long time ago, let us not forget) wrote a book contrasting the development of cities in all of the nations of the Western world. In almost all of those nations, populations of nations grew; urbanization accelerated only because the populations of cities grew more quickly. In Ireland, the populations of the cities stayed the same, yet urbanization accelerated in Ireland only because the Irish countryside was emptying at a record rate. Dublin, I fear, impressed me as little more than a slum, with a potentially elegant central town by the Liffey worn down by generations of poverty and vast dreary suburbs stretching north and west and south; the Liffey itself would likely be colonized by the refugees from the Irish countryside if only a way could be found. Escaping into the Irish countryside in a rented locomobile was one of the most enjoyable instances of my stay; and what could be more Irish, I thought to myself, than foreign-encrusted Donegal?

Ireland began its history as a land peopled by nomadic Celts, who raised cattle and raided one another's encampments. Under the Tudor and Commonwealth plantations, these Celts were forcibly settled as peasant agriculturalists, and their landlords took over the land. Under the first century and a half of Hannoverian rule, Irish numbers continued to grow and forced a shift to agriculture, though then only a highly intensive agriculture depending on the potatoes planted closely together by the Celts' huts and the buttermilk produced by the lord's cattle. And then, when the numbers of the Celts began to recede, the cattle once again took priority. Apparently now, in the year 1972, cattle outnumber people by a factor of five to one.

Central and western Ireland are marked by their locopistes. After the Global War, when the British government feared that the Germans would try to assault England from the air and sea and smash those few industrial centres which remained, great plans were afoot to relocate English industry and the British people generally to Ireland. The Irish weren't consulted until the plans had been announced in London by one ministry or another. The most recent histories of the period suggest that despite the probability of a skeptical-to-hostile reception among the locals of west Ireland, the locals would have been bought off since their needs were few, and the parliamentarians in Dublin would have liked the taxes that they could skim off of the new towns. The locopistes were built during this time, to knit the old towns of the west and the centre and the new towns that were to be built in the east of Ireland and wider Britannia. The land was only beginning to be bought up by the state combines, however, when the Germans announced that they too possessed big bombs that could shatter Ireland as easily as their predecessors could a single London or Midland industrial district. The project quietly died, leaving Ireland with its superb locopiste network penetrating deep into every one of the 23 counties identified by the Dublin government as the "West Ireland Development Zone."

There isn't much traffic on the locopistes; at least, on the locopistes that run northwest from Dublin. Perhaps that's because they were built to connect populations two or three times denser than exist now; perhaps that's because the fine locopiste network permeated to every small village and hamlet and helped drain still more people away; perhaps it's because not very many west Irish peasants can afford their own motorized vehicles. That doesn't mean that the driver's view of Ireland from the locopistes is unattractive, because it certainly is not; the soft green meadows, deep blue lakes ("loughs," the Irish call them) and the quaint stone farmhouses left in disrepair when their owners went to England are just as romantic as the ballads and romances FN7 claim. It just means that the driver's view is astonishingly barren of traffic, or people generally. This can be a good thing, as in the districts of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, noted for being dominated by hills of granite and stunted heath and marshland; the emigration histories published in Manitoulin and Lac St. Jean and Cataraqui reveal that the Compagnies des terres du Haut-Québec recruited many of its settlers there.

The towns -- like Donegal town, centre of the county of that same name--are the only places where abundant human life is present. Donegal town itself looks from the locopistes to be poorer than many of the other county towns I passed. Leaving my vehicle in the care of the town's only major hotel (the linens are Ireland's best; one can hope that the rooms themselves aren't), I saw differences. The biggest difference to the outsider's eye, I suppose, lies in the abundance of signage in Gaelic, and even of conversation. Walking into a store for directions, or going into a pub to hear the local music (Québécois fiddlers can trace their craft to Ireland, incidentally, if not their style), or strolling down the street, words murmured in that soft-toned dying language can be heard everywhere. You realize that Donegal -- if not Ireland, not any more -- is the repository of a distinct Celtic civilization of its own.

I had no local contacts in Donegal. To some extent, that is because I needed none: I do not speak either Lithuanian or Flemish, and my contacts in the intelligensia of Brittany were essential in letting me into that corner of Germany's greater empire, whereas I do speak English. To a larger extent, though, my isolation in Donegal (town and county both) came because I wanted to spend my week in the county uninfluenced by people here; I came here because I wanted to experience what it was like to be a foreigner.

When I think back of Donegal, I'm reminded of my visit to Manitoulin Island a decade before. That island far in the west of Québec had been reserved for displaced Indians (some from Upper Québec, some from the Confederation's campaigns in Michigan) for a generation's time before it was opened to white immigrants. Almost all of the immigrants were Irish Catholics; North Americans were scarcely to be found, and Québécois were attracted to the richer and closer lands along the Ottawa river and on the northern shore of the Great Lakes. The Irish who had settled that island have remained distinct from the Francophone Catholic majority that lives to their north in Sainte-Anne-des-Pins and Sault-Sainte-Marie and the Anglophone Protestants scattered here and there to their south and east; they, more than any of the other Irish colonies brought to Québec, have remained Irish. Manitoulin district is a land apart from the rest of Québec; there is a lilt even to their English, an awkwardness to their French, and a sense that they are a people forever separated from us. (This is true, incidentally; the census returns from 1970 reveal that twice as many people emigrate than immigrate, and that intermarriages with off-islanders remain low.) Manitoulin is an enclave on Québec's soil representing an earlier time and a different mode of society; Manitoulin islanders know each other intimately, are suspicious towards outsiders, and share folk customs that include a spectacular local form of fiddling music, full of energy and vivacity. Poverty, for Manitoulin, is but a tax that the island's people accept if they want for their distinctness.

From what I saw in Donegal, almost all of the factors that prevail to keep Manitoulin distinct from the rest of Québec keep Donegal different from the rest of Ireland. The critical difference, unfortunately, is the one that does not follow in Donegal's case: Donegal is dying as a distinctive civilization, and Ireland with it. Two centuries ago, most Irish still spoke Gaelic; most Irish still lived in their peasant communities, desolate and ignorant as they were; most Irish, in short, remained Irish as the romance novelists of our day define it, as a scion of a Celtic civilization distinctly different from the English. That Ireland is close to an end. Its people are Celts no longer; how can they be, when they do not speak a Celtic language, when they retain all too few of the traits of the ancient Celtic civilization, when they think only of emigrating to England?

Some unusually creative and imaginative historian might have tested his talents by composing a history where Ireland had managed to thrive in the past thousand years. I fear, though, that it would have been impossible to write for anyone's talents, never mind his; so long as Ireland was near larger and more powerful neighbours like England, it was doomed to become a colony, a source of raw material and raw labour. As it was even for our Québec, as it was for every area in the world which could be said to have fallen under the influence -- direct and otherwise -- of England.

The Donegal town archives are old and dusty, shut up in a building constructed of local granite before the Bloody Eighties, perhaps even before Québec's drawn-out revolution. Once you convince the archivist -- a frail old man, educated (so he told me) in Rennes before the Global War -- to let you in, you can page through the archives, bound and free sheets of yellowing paper lined up down the aisles. Most of the papers are official documents, council meeting minutes and the like, but there are some letters bequeathed to the archives by families long since dead or departed. In the stacks, illuminated faintly, I read the letters sent by Québec's brave Irish pioneers back to their families a century and more ago.

The pays d'en haut FN8 was empty before the Patriots began their campaigns against the Northern Confederation settlers who had briefly dominated the region, and it was even emptier after. When that conflict died down and the Compagnie des terres du Haut-Québec was founded in 1861 under Laurier, the colonization movement began again, as for the first time in a generation French Canadian settlers began moving south of Cataraqui FN9. There were not nearly enough French Canadians willing to pioneer the pays d'en haut, land for the voyageurs; at least as many Québécois of native or assimilated immigrant blood chose to move to the cities for industrial work. Where were the settlers to be found? Simply look across the Atlantic at another society, a Catholic society under some form of British rule, one much less successful than our own ...

Some of the letters sent back by proud pioneers talk about how grateful they were that the Compagnie set up recruiting offices here in the northwest of Ireland, in the heart of Ireland's poverty: Derry, Galway, county towns like Donegal, market centres now barren. Different things attracted the settlers to Québec instead of Mexico or Australia: The Compagnie's propaganda -- pamphlets, posters, even staged plays -- were popular among the Gaels of west Ireland, themselves strongly attached to their oral culture. In Québec, the settlers were told, they could own vast tracts of land and be rich and well fed. "How could you keep from fleeing ahead of the tyrants?" one man who founded a prosperous farming dynasty in Niagara asked his brother who had chosen to stay. The tax officials without feelings of humanity, the petty village gossips with nothing better to do than spread misery, the younger sons who were kept from inheriting their land, even the young women who were forced to decide between confinement to cloisters without a calling and escape to the west -- Québec meant freedom for so many. The letters that I read in Donegal town attest to that hope, and to that fact.

That link is defunct now. The locals were quite friendly to me, and they were interested in my accent, but whenever I mentioned that I was from Québec and that I was looking in the archives for traces of the emigration, they nodded and gave their assent without any recognition. Québec -- French-speaking, far away, an alien land -- no longer had any hold over Donegal, nothing like what it did in the days of the Compagnie. And in truth, Québec has no need of more Irish to open our empty territories, simply because we have no territories that anyone would want to open, not with plow, not with pick and shovel. The Gaelic civilization of Ireland -- the Gaelic clade, as some would call it -- has died, assimilated into a British clade; Québec was lucky enough to profit from that clade's last century or two of independence.

But what profit came to us of that brief encounter!

Forward to FAN #45: A Paper Tiger Revealed.

Forward to 4 October 1972: Fallout.

Forward to Maeterlinck: East or West? Minsk at the Crossroads.

Return to For All Nails.