The Famine Plot (book review)


The following book review appeared on BOOKSLUT, an edgy lit-blog for up and coming writers. Unfortunately the site is closing down this week, so we though it would be a good idea to blog it here.  Enjoy!



Outside of Ennis, in County Clare in the west of Ireland, the wind kicks upon the hills under the same gray sky where once starved children, women and old men were buried callously, if not left by the ditches. Where the weakest of the agrarian poor were communally laid in what are now mere humps of turf. Paupers’ graves that for over 160 years have not been fully honored by truth nor been properly acknowledged. Even if two million of them perished of starvation and common disease, over a million more died jumping desperately into coffin ships. The facts had never made a difference as to the truth of their demise, such as numbers as stiflingly affecting as up to twenty-five percent of a country’s population dead or dispersed.

Now finally comes The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy. This seminal work and its stance on Ireland’s most titanic event, written by its most famous historian, Tim Pat Coogan, has been bantered about for many years: A formal condemnation or blame on English policy and policymakers for the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 and the “extermination” of so many poor by starvation, disease and emigration.

It has traditionally been with great difficulty for this story to be told, even though the Irish are known as epic storytellers. My grandfather, a gentle man of little emotion, tried but had such a hard time recounting the oral stories that were passed to him from his grandparents and parents that he found it necessary to turn away from me as he continued. In my family’s longshoreman saloon in Greenwich Village around the turn of the century and in our home where the cause of Irish freedom was still debated in my childhood and where copies of Coogan’s biographical work on the Irish Republican Army sat at my grandfather’s table from my earliest memories, I heard story after story of the Famine. Passionate stories, angry stories, and irrefutable facts to support the emotion behind it. Yet in my formal education in the United States, I never heard a mention until I reached university level.

For too long, there has been much gray over the past like the gray skies over the paupers’ graves in the hills of western Ireland. It seems Coogan’s greatest contribution to this calamitous event is to sum up the condemnation for us. To focus in on the intention of those with the ability to help the sufferers, rather than to allow history to remember it as an act of nature. Not to fan the flames of war or rally the revolutionaries, but to explain discreetly, truthfully, and in an Irish voice, why today there is still an open wound.

For all those Americans with surnames such as Connolly, Donnelly, or Kennedy; Australians with Fin, Finnigan, and Flanigan; and Canadians with O’Hara, O’Neill, and O’Leary, the reasons for their original arrival has too often been shaded in gray. But the fear, the death, and the struggle endured by those families of the Great Hunger, condemned to a fate worse than stray dogs, were not gray at all. Ignored by governments, they were forced into the slums of the New York docks in stitched rags or settled in South Boston and other places (and many others died in the Port of Quebec). They recovered quickly, and then went to work and helped build through toil and hope the great cities we know today. Much of their own memories of Ireland were of a sad place where sad things happened. Unnerved, uneducated, traumatized, disenfranchised, these Famine Irish, as they were known, often found more struggle and racism in their new homes.

In time, the frame of their story would be obscured by the politics of the ruling classes. And in telling their own tragic story, the reasons for their arrival in new lands were all too often dis-remembered in guilt, clouded by an oral tradition and a need to not dwell on the past while instead planning for the future.

In The Famine Plot, Coogan explains that it wasn’t until 1916 that Ireland began its true push for freedom and to govern and to express itself of its own history. But during the Eamon de Valera era, much of the academic class in Ireland was still heavily influenced by London and the soft-spoken, non-Republican Dublin professors that did not want to add their voice to the violence occurring in the north.

Coogan’s work is not the first on the topic, though it is the brightest and most obviously damning. There have been many works. Of note is Cecil Woodham-Smith’s 1962 affective work, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 (also on my grandfather’s table), which outlined blame particularly on the English civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan who administered “relief” during the Famine, but fell short of condemnation, stating instead that Britain’s record was simply “hard to defend.” But even that was too much for most academics, who criticized Woodham-Smith’s work for being biased.

Many works have followed, but not quite with the effect of Coogan’s sharp pen. In the opening chapters, The Famine Plot outlines the brewing of a catastrophic event. Religious oppression after Henry VIII’s abdication from the Catholic Church, the outlawing of education for Catholics; English landlords that spent their rent profits in London; failed rebellions including that of 1798; and a tradition of English racism for the Celt as being a lazy, popish, tribal, and feckless people. By the year 1800, after hundreds of years of invasions and oppression from their English neighbors, Ireland was brought under the umbrella of the Kingdom of Great Britain with the Act of Union like Scotland and Wales. But as Coogan rightly specifies, even important English Parliamentarians on the eve of disaster admitted that Ireland was not governed like a kingdom, but instead was only occupied by colonial soldiers that protected English businesses to extract Ireland’s natural resources. There was little governing of the people, especially outside of the Dublin Pale. In reality, the majority of Irish families, supposedly benefiting from the wealth of Great Britain’s economy, were solely dependent on the harvest of one crop: the potato.

However, Coogan saves his best argument for the most pertinent players during the Famine. Taking apart the philosophies of these royal English policymakers and their economic and religious treatises that prevail still today, he points directly to the heart of the matter. Breaking it up with the precision, with the gentle heart of an Irishman and putting it back together with the coolness of an historical analyst, he begins with providence.

“Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong confront the weak. It was an era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: Manifest Destiny,” he writes.

In this religious invocation by English political economists, God divinely chooses who shall live and who shall die and governments are not to intervene against His will. That God rarely chose them for death and instead chooses the most vulnerable of the peoples was certainly convenient for the powerful. The effect of policymakers interpreting God’s will and pointing it at the poor would, as we find out, be a large factor in causing Ireland to never again reach the population levels of the 1841 census.

After providence, Coogan points to laissez-faire capitalism as affecting how English colonial rule could justify standing by while a famine raged next door. Years before the Famine, English economists decided that raising cattle in the Irish land would be much more fiscally productive than depending on the feckless Irish to pay rent on it. A plan was needed to exchange the Irish people for cattle. English policy during this time was smitten with the ideas of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and “moralist” who famously outlined the philosophy of capitalism in Wealth of Nations. The notion that “greed is good,” as director Oliver Stone sarcastically underscored in the movie Wall Street, was the prevailing economic philosophy then, as it is now. As is documented, even Smith was shocked at the perversions that accompany power within capitalism when he witnessed his own countrymen rape the Virginia tobacco fields and garner outlandish profits on the backs of free labor from African slaves without government regulation. In Ireland, the perversions of an economic doctrine guiding morality would justify extermination.

The interpretations of God’s providence coupled with laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t explain by itself how so many people could have been allowed to perish by hunger, and this is where Coogan takes his boldest step.

In recent years, on numerous blogs, Facebook, and in general conversation, there has been great cynicism toward the use of the term “famine” to describe what actually happened. As Coogan points out succinctly, a famine occurs when there is no food to be eaten, which was only true of the potato. But Ireland under Britain’s colonial rule exported grain, corn, cattle, and many other foodstuffs on a regular basis. “Ireland had no shortage of food,” Coogan writes. The London political economists of the time, however, termed these exports from Irish lands “cash crops,” which effectively meant they were the lawful property of the business community and not to be allocated for relief. With evidence such as this, the debate in Coogan’s book turns the description of the Great Hunger from “famine” to “extermination” and even “genocide.”

Early on, in chapter three to be exact, Coogan outlines his thesis when he quotes the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. One of those terms of genocide in particular rings with a great clarity here: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Coogan’s intent here is not to say that England caused the blight of the potato. That was a matter of nature, of course. Instead he points directly to allowing its people for which it was responsible within the terms of the Act of Union, the Kingdom of Great Britain, to be so vulnerable as to be completely dependent on one crop. Furthermore, the deliberate attempt to utilize a natural disaster to “inflict conditions that bring about its physical destruction” is another powerful and ringing interpretation of the United Nations charter.

Here, Coogan levels his stare adroitly on the prevailing economic philosophy and the political economists in London at the time when he uses a famous quotation from the Irish Nationalist John Mitchel, who described the situation at the time as “God sent the blight, but the British sent the Famine.” The Famine Plot then describes Trevelyan’s followers in London as imposing an absurdity when they enforced, sometimes with soldiers and ships, the policy that “Ireland’s property should pay for Ireland’s poverty,” therefore expunging responsibility from London’s colonial lap with no more than a stroke of a pen and fatally placing care for the Famine in the metaphor of the economic market’s cold “invisible hand.”

To impose an illogical, calamitous condition such as Irish taxes needed to pay for Irish relief, Coogan states, is the perfect analogy to the idiom “extracting blood from a stone.” The taxes levied on Anglo landlords in Ireland were high, but when the poor could not pay their rent, they were evicted. Often by force, these starving families were sent to the countryside while their homes were destroyed to make way for cattle grazing. The consequence of eviction was devastating, and the poor were often too weak to travel and so desperate that they tried eating the grass, like cattle. In enforcing this policy, Coogan declares, genocide can be interpreted.

At the time, even some Englishmen agreed that “famine” could not be a truly intellectual description. As Coogan underscores, one English parliamentarian resigned in indignation feeling as though he is “an unfit agent of a policy which must be one of extermination.”

This policy of extermination went on to include the “work scheme,” such as road building, which didn’t pay a laborer enough even to fill his own belly, never mind the rest of his family. Also, the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 that “effectively undid much of the benefits of the soup kitchens and brought an incalculable amount of suffering and death upon the starving.” The Workhouse, which became only a place for the sick to die, at one point, only allowed “fit” people within its gated doors. This meant that those considered too weak, such as children, the elderly, and women, were turned away, often by force.

All of this in the name of improving the economy and allowing God’s divine will to take shape was well within Trevelyan and many of his peers’ direct plans when he described the Famine as a “mechanism for reducing surplus population.” Trevelyan is also quoted as saying, “The greatest evil… is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.” And finally, “The judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”

There are many ways to describe what happened. Famine, genocide, and extermination are only a few. But Coogan does well in outlining the motivations and the actions of those responsible under the Act of Union. But the legacy of the Great Hunger still survives today. Nothing can bring back the dead or the dispersed, but some things can be acknowledged. In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a halfhearted, politically motivated apologia in order to help talks between his government and the IRA. But still today there are stains that remain on British officialdom. Particularly its chivalric code and order. Sir Charles Trevelyan, at this very moment, is still honored as Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, a distinction awarded to him during the middle stages of Ireland’s greatest tragedy in 1848. The means of removing him from the Order is outlined by Queen Victoria’s 1847 process for revocation due to, “felony, or any infamous crime derogatory to his honour as a knight or gentleman.” Though he is long dead, Trevelyan is still credited as being a Knight Commander of the Bath, even as modern history has uncovered the horrific intentions his quotations reveal or, at the very least, his indefensible failure or lack of willingness to properly manage funds for one of the most devastating colonial catastrophes ever recorded. For him to remain honored as a gentleman is an open wound for Ireland and its great diaspora.

The effect of the Famine on the world has been long lasting and is still quite alive today. The symbol of hunger has persisted in Irish politics and the “hunger strike,” which has a pre-Famine Celtic history called, in Irish, the troscadh. Pádraig Pearse, the poet executed by the British for being a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising mentions it in his famous poem “The Rebel,” when he turns red in shame and anger for his people who “have gone in want, while others have been full.” This symbolized hunger was utilized as an allusion much more directly when in 1920 Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, died in a British prison after seventy-four days on a hunger strike. In 1981 ten IRA prisoners, including Bobby Sands, also died on a hunger strike that radicalized the nationalist movement of the time.

Today, as Coogan prepared for an American tour, the barriers that were propped against him seem to reveal that there may still be discontent over the interpretation of his book and his previous works. It took multiple attempts for Coogan to procure a visa for the American tour, and as he explained on his blog, “Somebody somewhere it appears did not want me to visit the United States to publicise my book on the Famine. It was suggested to me that some securicrats in the U.S. embassy had decided to do a good turn for their buddies in the British ‘Spookdom’ by blocking my attempts to enter the United States on a Book Tour.”

But with the intervention of New York Senator Charles Schumer and a raucous Irish-American community that was outraged by the terrible treatment of an esteemed author, Coogan was eventually granted a ten-year non-immigrant visa.

Maybe the most glaring reminder today of the Great Hunger of 1845-1852 is the cold, factual daily evidence of the Irish surname in foreign lands. Although emigration from Ireland continued in the nineteenth century after the Famine and through much of the twentieth century, what comes to mind when an Irish surname is attached to a cockney accent, or an Australian twang, or the drawl of the Southern United States is the curtain of history that remains mostly veiled. With The Famine Plot, we now have a platform in which to understand the intentions of the policies and the policymakers of an occupying force that helped exacerbate a blight on potato crops that had no business devastating an entire European country, sending the weakest and most vulnerable into shallow graves, onto ships bound for inhospitable countries with purpose and intention as its means. And with this book, my grandfather, who has since passed, raises his chin high in my memory now that the reasons for our family’s arrival is described in terms that are grounded in reality, not politics.

The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230109520
288 pages

Eamon Loingsigh’s book, “Light of the Diddicoy” about an Irish-American gang in Brooklyn circa 1916 is due for release in

Irish-American, What does it mean?

The past has always spoken to the Irish. With a legacy of anguish, the Irish often see the past in the frustrations of the present. A people under attack. Over four hundred years since the introduction of the Penal Laws. One hundred and seventy years since The Great Hunger. Exactly one hundred years since the Easter Rising. Eighteen years since the Good Friday Agreement. . . Ireland has spent hundreds of years trying toleprechaun maintain a semblance of its own culture.

But for the diaspora, Ireland is not exactly a place trying desperately to retain its culture. On this St. Patrick’s Day, 2016 let’s ask ourselves, what does it mean to be Irish-American?

There has long been a tradition in the Irish-American community of the United States of forgetting. During The Great Hunger (or “Potato Famine”) the Irish tenant farmers that arrived on American shores shoeless, starved to desperation and emotionally broken brought with them the shame of their caste. So many relatives recount stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents who refused to speak of where they came from.

“My grandfather came from (County) Mayo. He never talked about it. . . For me, I saw him coming out of a blank past,” Historian Thomas Fleming once said. “One can only guess from his silence that there was a history of horror there.”

In America, the land of hope, an organic yet wholly unnatural portrait of the Irish has been created by Irish-Americans. Somewhat born from truth, in America the Irish are seen as happy fighters who love to “have a drop” (drink alcohol). Love to gab (talk). And with the cutest accent! Are humbly Catholic. Have wonderful writers and quite a few excellent actors and on St. Patrick’s Day, Americans have an excuse to drink, often to excess while wearing four-leaf clovers.happy St. Pat's

This has served the Irish-American community well. To be Irish is to be proud, now. The Irish-American community as a whole see that success in America comes to those who assimilate to its Anglo-American strategy of hard capitalism and strict adherence to economic policy.

If I could do anything for this St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to be able to help Irish-Americans understand that there is, and has been a fight for survival of Irish culture. If Irish-Americans can’t, or won’t look at history, then look at the present.

Easter Rising – An embarrassing banner was recently placed by the Irish government in commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising, which began the successful Bannerindependence movement from Britain. The Irish government, still to this day, is obviously heavily influenced by England in its treatment of the signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence. The banner, hung up in Dublin, is an attempt to affectively whitewash those that organized the Easter Rising. Erase them from history. Instead of including Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Countess Markievicz, Roger Casement and the other revolutionaries that inspired Ireland to stand against their British oppressors, they put up men who had nothing to do with it. Grattan, Parnell and O’Connell, all who fought for Irish independence well before 1916 are somewhat understandable (though they all died before 1916), but John Redmond was the head of the Irish Parliamentary Party that lost power due to the revolution and was considered pro-British in his attempt to string Ireland along with failed Home Rule acts. A recent video about the centenary to the 1916 Easter Rising features (as Orwellian as Orwellian can be) the Queen of England, Ian Paisley (a vehement anti-Catholic Evangelical minister), musicians Bono and Bob Geldof, and British Prime Minister David Cameron.  For most Irish people, to ignore the true Irish revolutionaries of 1916 is to Anglicize Irish history, once again.

Gerry Adams – The struggle for Irish independence and the culture can be summed up simply by looking at Gerry Adams. Effectively tainted as the political wing (Sinn Fein) of a terrorist organization in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) by conservative English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Adams was eventually given an American passport and met with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. But for many Irish, Adams “sold out” the independence movement by signing the Good Friday Agreement, which leaves power in the six northern counties to Britain. Adams has certainly benefited politically from the agreement, but the movement for Ireland to rule all of Ireland, including the northern counties Gerrycurrently ruled by England, has not. The violence mostly ended, it’s true. But what about freedom to rule one’s own territory?

Water – It should be a right. In many countries it is free, though we do have to pay for it in United States, though it’s quite cheap. In Ireland, a policy charging people exorbitant rates has been attempted to be put in place over the last couple years. Great protests have taken place against utility workers and politicians to no avail. After the recession of 2008-2009 crippled the “Celtic Tiger” economy, many Irish people cannot afford to pay their rent, no less expensive water. But the government is having to pay large sums to European banks for the bailout it agreed to and large cuts in social services due to the “austerity” movement have continued to make things worse.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, if you claim Irish heritage, have a green beer. Wear a shamrock and a stovepipe hat, but remember. Don’t forget. Try to remember that you are here because of the brutal English policy in Ireland that forced your ancestors to flee from their homeland. That although there was a famine on a crop of potatoes, England (the facts cannot be disclaimed) exported food that was harvested in Ireland to India and many other countries while millions of Irish died of starvation, millions more emigrated or died in “coffin ships” along the way, all while England ruled Ireland (see the Act of Union 1800). Remember that you are the result (offspring of a survivor) of what many historians call a genocidal economic policy by England to enforce the message that the famine “was sent by God to teach the Irish a lesson.” (Sir Charles Trevelyan).

Have you learned your lesson?











Patrick Pearse: Poet

“My eyes have been wet with the tears of children.”
~Patrick Pearse

As we’ve ended the centennial celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising, the beginning of Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain and hail the release of Divide the Dawn, one name stands above all the rest: Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais, more commonly known by his anglicized name, Patrick Pearse (1879-1916).

Pearse was the mind behind the Easter Rising. A teacher and writer, he brought together different factions in Irish society before the Rising. A monumental task in an inherentlyPearse1 divided people. And after he was executed by British authorities, brought the entire country into balance. In the words of one of his famous poems which foresaw the independence movement,

“I say to my people that they are holy,
that they are august,
despite their chains…
That they have but need of courage.”

No better literary foreshadowing could ever have been laid out.

Although Pearse is famous in Ireland as a poet and a leader, he is virtually unknown outside the island nation. This, I believe, is a grave mistake. The world should know and celebrate Pearse as a great poet. One of the world’s greatest.

There are a few reasons why Pearse is not considered a poet outside of Ireland. I will attempt to outline them, but in doing so I believe the reasons he is excluded are at the same time, reasons he should be included.

He chose sides – Unlike Seamus Heaney, one of Ireland’s greatest poets or W.B. Yeats, Pearse took a very clear stance against the British as his people’s greatest oppressor. Both Heaney and Yeats were on the side of Ireland, there is no mistaking that, but Pearse took an active role. This turns him into much more than just a poet, which leads to the second point.

The Rebel – I have already referenced Pearse’s poem The Rebel, which to me is his best and most definitive work. Pearse took this label to a very bloody culmination. Why rebels are never considered famous poets is a topic for another story, but Pearse would have to be one of its main references. Traditional society requests the poet to stand back and watch with an objective eye. Pearse was anything but objective. He wanted to give his blood to start a revolution. Then he did give up his blood, and the revolution soon followed. This makes him a rebel, which is to say a believer in anti-establishment. But considering what Britain had been doing to Ireland for seven hundred years (again, a topic for another story), to fight as a rebel for his people against an establishment that was based on the repression of religion, language and culture made legal by the laws of invaders is, to my point, the greatest and most patriotic lover of establishmentarianism. But it’d be quite a task to convince a British citizen of this, and since Britain has a long history of making and breaking those who carry the label of “poet,” Pearse won’t soon be considered. He broke the law, it can be argued. This makes him a criminal or a member of a secret society or, even worse, a Fenian. Therefore, Pearse will remain a mere rebel in the establishment’s perspective.

A close up of Patrick Pearse at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, August 1, 1915.

Other works – Pearse not only wrote poetry and other works of art, he also wrote Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence and read it aloud to bewildered passersby one April afternoon after he and some 1,200 militant rebels quietly overtook strategic points in Dublin while British colonial forces were at the races. This is not the work of a poet, one might say. But Ireland’s call for independence, in the form of this proclamation, is in itself ground breaking and thoroughly poetic. Irish people are known for their love of words, and in this work of art Pearse did not let down. Phrases such as “august destiny” and the summoning of God and “the dead generations” who fought for freedom against Britain in the past, along with references to the diaspora in American cities as “Exiled children in America,” this independence movement was not just demanded, it was inspired by the work of a poet. Pearse also became famous for a fiery speech he gave at the funeral of an old Irish rebel (O’Donovan Rossa) that had been banished from Ireland and organized Fenian strikes and secret organizations from New York City.  Again, these are not the actions of a traditional poet.

There are a number of people I believe should be considered poets, but because they were a rebel or a socialist, a felon or even a rock singer, they won’t be entered into the vaunted, saintly category of poet due to their means.

As you come across news reports in the coming months concerning Ireland’s Easter Rising, you will undoubtedly hear the name Patrick Pearse along with James Connolly, Thomas Clarke and others, please think of the poet, Patrick Pearse. A poet who took action against terrible wrongs and organized cruelty, instead of retiring to a desk and complaining through academic, feeble poetic “plaints.” Pearse was a man who injected life into his words. A poet of vigorous soul.

What else but a poet could understand the powerful use of symbolism than he who chooses Easter, the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of god’s son from the dead, as the time of year for a rebellion?

Below I have attached a Youtube video of Ronnie Drew, the famous Irish singer from The Dubliners reciting Patrick Pearse’s poem, The Rebel. The actual poem is copied below.


The Rebel

I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,
That have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory
Of an Ancient glory.
My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs;
The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten,
Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,
And, though gentle, have served churls;
The hands that have touched mine, the dear hands whose touch is familiar to me,
Have worn shameful manacles, have been bitten at the wrist by manacles,
Have grown hard with the manacles and the task-work of strangers,
I am flesh of the flesh of these lowly, I am bone of their bone,
I that have never submitted;
I that have a soul greater than the souls of my people’s masters,

I that have vision and prophecy and the gift of fiery speech,
I that have spoken with God on the top of His holy hill.
And because I am of the people, I understand the people,
I am sorrowful with their sorrow, I am hungry with their desire:
My heart has been heavy with the grief of mothers,
My eyes have been wet with the tears of children,
I have yearned with old wistful men,
And laughed or cursed with young men;
Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it,
Reddened for that they have served, they who should be free,
Reddened for that they have gone in want, while others have been full,
Reddened for that they have walked in fear of lawyers and of their jailors
With their writs of summons and their handcuffs,
Men mean and cruel!

I could have borne stripes on my body rather than this shame of my people.
And now I speak, being full of vision;
I speak to my people, and I speak in my people’s name to the masters of my people.
I say to my people that they are holy, that they are august, despite their chains,
That they are greater than those that hold them, and stronger and purer,
That they have but need of courage, and to call on the name of their God,
God the unforgetting, the dear God that loves the peoples
For whom He died naked, suffering shame.
And I say to my people’s masters: Beware,
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!

Tanner Smith’s

A great new bar & restaurant has opened in Manhattan, and it’s closely related to the Divide the Dawn.  Tanner's 1

Based on the real life West Side gangster Thomas “Tanner” Smith (1887-1919), who is also a character in Divide the Dawn, the new establishment mixes classic early 20th Century charm with an elegant modern touch.

Tanner Smith’s, Located in the Theatre District on 55th street between 7th & Broadway (N, Q, R trains @ 57th St. station), is a perfect place to land after a show and share a cocktail with your group.

The food is great quality as well. The “Small Plates” section of the menu is perfect for groups and friends to share a communal meal. The Lamb Sliders and the Buffalo Chicken Spring Rolls were excellent. Of note also was the Artichoke Sun-dried Tomato Dip, a tasty Cheese Board, Duck Confit Spring Rolls and the House-Prepared Beef Jerky. All of the food is very fresh and five-star quality.

Albert doing what he does, looking good and having fun.

The staff is loads of fun. Albert, our bartender, an Irishman from Kildare is a handsome fella with a perma-grin who brings a charm and positivity that is infectious. There were lots of girls and their friends lined up along the bar who seemingly came just to spend time with him.

All in all, the atmosphere was positive and everyone seemed generally excited. But speaking of the atmosphere, what you’ll notice first about Tanner Smith’s is the old-world charm and the new world cleanliness, haha. Along one wall is the classic old NYC brick facade with extra seating and the other is lamp-lit with a clean-lined modern style.

Tanner's 2
Photo by Laura Motta

The lighting is fantastic, especially at night. As a big fan of dark Irish bars, Tanner Smith’s does not disappoint. But there is classic and romantic gas-light styled lighting in remote and centrally located spots everywhere, including a stairwell to a semi-private back room, or what was termed during the early 20th Century, the “rear-room” where thugs used to play cards (Tanner Smith was shot and killed playing cards).

The flooring is old-styled and classic and the booths and seating, as well as the wallpaper brings you back to pre-prohibition times.

The drinks, however, were quite possibly the best part of the experience. Albert concocted for a friend and myself an incredibly tasty and interesting “smoked” cocktail called the “Winona.” Mixing bourbon with orange peel and a few other ingredients, then smoking it in a separate, enclosed bottle and allowing us to pour it into a rocks glass on our own, which had one large round ice-cube in it.

Tanner's 3
The “rear room.” (photo by Laura Motta)

After enjoying the Winona, I had my favorite drink Jameson & Ginger Ale with a lime, then washed the food down with an ale.

The next time you’re visiting New York City, or going on a date or looking for a cool spot before or after a show in the Theatre District, check out Tanner Smith’s. You can thank me later.

Excerpt: Exile on Bridge Street

A small excerpt from:
by Eamon Loingsigh

Listen here:


Ch. 13
Scalpeen Memories

January and the bite is murderous. The whipping wind whistles off the water where under the bridges we huddle, hands covering ears. The sky is as hard looking as the cement under our feet, and the same color too. Broken only by the Brooklyn Bridge above us, that sky over the city is as mean and thoughtless as some of the men that show hungry on the docks looking for a day’s wage. Same look in the gray eyes of them.2146 new york old days boy preparatory drawing

From inside the tenement walls come skirling flue pipes wheezing in the gales, and glims of light flash through crevices as if the tenements, whelmed with many families, were out to sea rudderless. Children bunch in front of the coal fire and the potbelly stove, if they have it. In memories, and the bones of our memories where reside the unconscious thoughts and recognitions in the marrow, is a feeling where remembrances are signaled when our bellies rattle with the hunger and when the weather attacks the skin.

It is a silent song that voices rarely dare to share, and no one cares to disturb the silence of it, for it is no more than a cognizance in our blood. But we all know it as it truly is: the past speaking to us. Coming out in our eyes and our need for fight. We know, even as most stories were withheld us due to the shame of our caste, we know of and are haunted in the mind’s eye of our fathers and our mothers and theirs, the elements hard on our bodies and the hollow yearn for alimentation. Evicted from the land. Evicted from our community and the closeness for which our people so long had found strength. Remember in us the scalps dug in the onset of winter under some stray hill a few miles from the icy Shannon. And the scalps and lean-tos of the shanty emigrants of Jackson Hollow south of the Navy Yard here in Brooklyn. And those shoeless and gaunt in Darby’s Patch before Warren Street was ever paved and before Dinny Meehan had come to it. The seasons of cholera and yellow fever that swept through Irishtown from the human cargo dumped on the shoreline, amassed there.

BK fog
The piers under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Unsaid. Simply known, we work in the wintry conditions and the empty air that strips the body to a barrenness where survival is top of the mind. Just how we like it. With two bailhooks, I dig into the work. Piercing wheat sacks. Picking them up with my back and legs and thrusting them up into a traincar shadowed by the long torso of a transport steamer. Dinny working right alongside us, watching over us and reminding us that in this work we live. Down here. Below the Anglo ascendency and his laws, forever. Forever reminding us where we come from. Forever living by the underbellies of ships, outside in the weather, with memories remembered only in the distance of our blood.



Sitcom from Purgatory

On January 1st of this year, myself and many others were shocked of news that a British television outlet (Channel 4) is funding a sitcom about the “famine in Ireland.” Hugh Great Hunger 1Travers, an Irish writer is behind it, was quoted as describing it, ““we’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland.” (Showtime’s series called Shameless chronicles the comic tribulations with a family led by a drunken father of six).

I wasn’t planning on writing this topic as I’m deep into writing the second book in the Auld Irishtown trilogy, but the controversy hasn’t gone away. When I heard the writer behind the Irish show Father Ted, Graham Linehan, was supporting the British network’s plans, I tweeted my opinion to him after he tweeted about “the idiots protesting the famine sitcom.”

In response, he tweeted back:

For which I tweeted back again:

Not that the world is concerned about my opinion, but I would like to say just a few words. First off, describing this as a sitcom about a “famine” in Ireland is very quickly offending many people. There was a blight on the potato in Ireland in the 1840s, yes, but there was not a famine on food in general in Ireland. In fact, it is extremely well-chronicled by mainstream writers all over the world that England, who used Ireland as one of its colonies, exported millions of dollars worth of grain, beeves of cattle, ham, oat, provisions and much more during the worst years of what the Irish have come to call The Great Hunger, or An Gorta Mor.

Here is a video of Christy Moore, a famous Irish musician listing off the British exports on the day of September 14, 1847.

It due to this Great Hunger that so many Irish came to port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other countries such as Canada, Australia and more. Boney, starved, sick from more than a month-long journey in the worst ships in the British empire owned by profiteers that sought to make money from the catastrophe. These horrid vessels became known as Coffin Ships because so many Irish died in the hulls (30% mortality rate) or, being left on the deck to the elements of the sea, died on the way to America and were dumped overboard unceremoniously. Some ships even sunk on the way. Great Hunger 2

Worse off were those that were stuck in Ireland. More than a million having died a very slow and horrifying death due to hunger and related diseases such as yellow fever, cholera and typhus. To add shame on top of these shames, many were evicted, often during the winter and left to die on roadsides alone. Children were the most vulnerable and died in the worst poverty Europe had known in centuries. Drawings of women gaunt and crying for their babies, themselves dying not long afterward. Homeless and despised.

The Acts of Union, forced upon Ireland by the English in 1800, clearly outline that Ireland was part of the British Empire and therefore responsible for the welfare of its people. But the British mercantilists, closely associated with the English Parliamentarians, strictly believed in the economic philosophy of Laissez Faire. Or, most agree, at the very least abused this “hands off” economic approach to the benefit of the landlords and to the detriment of the subjects. Irish tenant-farming peasants renting English-owned lands (within Ireland’s proper border) did not procure the type of profit grazing cattle would, and so the landlords lobbied against helping the starved and dying and got their cattle fields.

Those in power also used God against the peasants in Ireland, stating that the famine was a divine intervention, and sited His Providence as a reason the Irish suffered because of their supposed laziness, feckless nature.

During this time period, the British Parliament made half-hearted attempts to help with schemes such as road building. Though many died working on these roads that didn’t payGreat Hunger 3 enough to feed families in any case. Workhouses were supposed to be places to shelter the evicted and the starved, but instead came to be nothing more than a covered area to die in. There were also the soup kitchens, some of which became famous because of the requirement of the starved and dying to renounce their Catholicism for Britain’s Protestantism in exchange for the soup.

During this time period, some of the more well-off Irish took advantage of the situation and gave food loans out to the desperate and needy at ruinous interest rates. These Irish became known as gombeens and were reviled by the survivors in Ireland for generations.

These are all true stories. Even the English do not deny their truth. And cannot deny it. But still to this day, the Great Hunger is mostly ignored and oftentimes made fun of by some rude and overly-entitled English. It is, without being divisive or polarizing, a horrible chapter in world history as reprehensible as the enslaving of Africans or a Holocaust against Jews. And for the Irish (and even some Americans like myself), it is still as inflammatory.

Can you imagine it? A British television outlet funding a COMEDY about the Great Hunger? Wait though, can you imagine a British television outlet funding a comedy about the Great Hunger WRITTEN BY AN IRISHMAN? There could be nothing more inflammatory than going through with this, unless of course Germany planned to fund a comedy about the Holocaust written by a self-hating Jew. Or if Americans fund a sitcom about slavery, written by an Uncle Tom because writing a comedy about the Great Hunger by a gombeen will cause great and very divisive chaos.

I believe it is my right, and yours too, to voice my opinion about this idea, which I believe  is in very bad taste. I do not feel as though I am restricting someone else’s right to free speech. In fact, I am exercising my right to free speech in speaking out against it. Of course, being a believer in free speech means that if this really, really bad idea does come to fruition, I will allow it without any action against it. Accept for my right to protest it.

Interview: Portraits of Faith

Here is an interview done back in March on location in Brooklyn. The sit-down part of the interview is at Rocky Sullivan’s bar in Red Hook. The poem about Irishtown is read right in front of the gang’s headquarters at 25 Bridge Street, the old “Dock Loaders’ Club.” Other shots are taken on Plymouth Street in DUMBO where the old freight rails are dug into the rough cobblestone streets and in front of the Empire Stores under the bridges. The last shots are at Spoonbill & Sugartown Booksellers in Williamsburg.

I had a great time doing this interview and special thanks goes out to a lot of people in their efforts in getting this together, but Three Rooms Press had a particularly powerful vision and really succeeded here. Terence Donnellan and his film crew were exceptional, as well Kevin Davitt and many more.

Check it out! The Brooklyn Irish in focus via Light of the Diddicoy.

A Night of Pete Hamill

Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Pete Hamill.

I had a great time last night at Irish American Writers & Artists Inc.’s Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award.

This year’s honoree is the legendary writer of fiction and New York Post columnist Pete Hamill. The man who defined, with wonderful words, the Brooklyn childhood of my parents and grandparents’ time was honored by many speakers, planned or unplanned.

One of my favorite New York Irish personalities Malachy McCourt said kind things about Mr. Hamill and promptly broke into a Northern Ireland song (where Mr. Hamill’s parents malachy_mccourtwere born) of Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?.

Martin Scorsese autobiographer and famous writer of books like Galway Bay, Mary Pat Kelly came to the stage and honored all the great work of the women in the Irish arts and beyond.

The New York Times’ Dan Barry gave a wonderfully symbolic speech called “Scones for Pete Hamill,” about the time many years ago Mr. Hamill asked for a scone, which sent the young Barry on a frantic search.

IAW&A president Larry Kirwin, who is also the legendary frontman of the Irish rock/punk band Black ’47 also gave a nice and very typically Irish/NYC speech about how wonderful it is to be a liberal, and how hard it is to be a writer due to the commercialization of the arts.

Governor Andrew Cuomo was a surprise guest-speaker.

Then, out of nowhere came Governor Andrew Cuomo! Governor Cuomo swooped in to say a few words for Pete Hamill who so influenced his thoughts as a young man.

Then! Legendary Irish actor Brian Dennehy came up to the podium and read from Mr. Hamill’s work, causing everyone in the crowd to grab a tissue.

Finally, famous sportswriter Mike Lupica introduced Mr. Hamill with more praising. When Mr. Hamill was finally brought up to the stage, he grabbed the microphone and in typical Irish-NYC black humor, says:

“All these nice words and there’s no corpse in the room?”

Classic night.

For me, I will always remember Pete Hamill’s book The Gift. A young man coming back to Brooklyn after bootcamp with only two wishes, to marry the girl he loves and to be loved by his father. Both ignore him throughout the book, but when his father recognizes and shows love toward the young man, the gift is given sweetly.

Pete Hamill is a man who has defined what it is to be a writer for me. When I received my degree in journalism and wanted to be a novelist and to write about the Irish in New York, I was following Mr. Hamill’s path who was very popular in my Irish-American, New York household.

Thank you to the Irish American Writers and Artists Inc. for a great night of Pete Hamill.


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