Brooklyn: Expertly filling gaps in our historical memory

In capable hands fiction can be a powerful tool for learning about the past. It can help humanize the past, making it more real for viewers, it can touch upon themes and ideas that are sometimes bogged down in dizzying historical narratives. While historians rightly wrestle with their own demons in an effort to try and engage people about their work sometimes movies are simply that much more accessible to the wider public. It is refreshing when a film so sensitively engages with the past. The new movie Brooklyn is a simple story, very familiar to Irish people, a young woman (expertly played by Saoirse Ronan) emigrates from Enniscorthy to New York in the mid-twentieth century. I left the cinema a little stunned at how completely it portrayed the people, the place, the challenges of the period.

One scene in particular stood out for me, one in which the young girl works at the parish hall in Brooklyn to give scores of local homeless men a Christmas meal. The priest, a relation of hers who organized a job and documentation for her to come to the US (illustrating the ties within the Irish diaspora), tells her that these elderly, unwashed men are all Irish. Looking at the disheveled crowd he educates her  “These are the men who built the roads, the bridges, the skyscrapers.” When the woman asks why don’t they return home, to Ireland, the priest looks surprised, “What home? Everyone they knew is dead…” A touching rendition of Casadh an tSúgáin by one of the men closes out the scene and references the Irish language some of emigrants would have spoken as their first language hinting at the jarring disconnect between their present and a past that they can never return to.

I cannot think of any other movie that so accurately depicts the life of Irish migrants and while it would have been easy for the film to become overly sentimentality at several points it never does and credit goes both to Director John Crowley and Screenwriter Nick Hornby for so expertly adapting Colm Tóibín’s book. I would put this alongside The Field and The Wind that Shakes the Barley as essential viewing for anyone hoping to gain some sort of perspective on twentieth century Ireland without ever opening a history book. Of course, after you finish watching them you should open up a history book!

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Newspaper clips: “You dirty rat” in the mines

Certainly mining and industrial history isn’t everyones cup of tea – my friends decided to prohibit me from chatting about it whenever we talk – but I find history fascinating and so whenever I see weird anecdotes popping up as I browse nineteenth century newspapers I have to tell someone, so here is this post! Almost everyone is aware that nineteenth century mining was tough, dirty, and dangerous work. They usually aren’t aware that  mines in the United States were some of the most dangerous mines in the world at this time. Anthracite mines in eastern Pennsylvania were even more dangerous than the the notoriously deadly mines of Transylvania where workers were little better than serfs. If you can imagine such conditions allow one newspaper clipping to further colour the scene down in the bowels of the earth.

In the 1870s Eastern Pennsylvania was wracked with waves of strikes as miners tried to improve their pitiful wages. During these strikes the mine companies tried desperately to protect the mines from sabotage by their workers. Apart from dynamiting the mine the workers could also target the water pumps, as without pumps the mines would fill with water and it was costly in time and resources to reopen a flooded mine. On 13 September 1877 the Elk County Advocate reported there had been a stoppage of the pumps at the Van Storch mines. The paper continued “droves of large rats came out of the mine in search of dry land.” So far, so disgusting. “It was estimated at least ten thousand were thus drowned out.” That number should add a little more fuel to your imagination when you think of the sights, sounds, and smells of work down, down, down in the mines.

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Liam Cosgrave: A paragon of Irish political ‘me féinism’

There are several remarkable features about Liam Cosgrave. None to do with his political career mind, I want to focus on his life after politics. It is a life that perfectly illustrates the rotten mindset at the heart of a corrupt civil and political administration in Ireland. The first surprising feature about Liam Cosgrave is that he is, as of the 8 May 2015, still alive. This will come as surprising news to most, who probably thought he had long ago shuffled off his mortal coil. But it leads to the second and more shocking feature of his life; that this man has used the Gardai as his own private security and transportation since he retired from politics in 1981. The fact that he neither sees this as a gross misapplication of state resources nor as a tragic example of heightened self-importance reveals the true character of the man. Like the vast majority of Ireland’s twentieth century political leadership he gained his political office through fortunate circumstance of birth (the son of W.T. Cosgrave) rather than merit, and was four years as Taoiseach between 1973-7.  He is a largely forgotten figure in Irish politics, his term as leader was sandwiched between Jack Lynch’s time as Taoiseach. All former Taoisigh and Ministers for Justice are entitled to Garda protection 24/7, as well as a Garda driver, supposedly for their protection. Again, let’s remember, if he ever needed Garda protection that time is long gone, since no-one knows he’s still alive.

Let’s do a few rough calculations. There are four Gardai stationed in a little hut in front of his house every day and every night. These Gardai are paid approximately €30,000 a year (that’s after the government claws back its share through taxes). Every day the Gardai “work” in the little hut guarding Mr. Cosgrave they are also paid a subvention of €10 a day. Multiplied by four and then 365, we get the figure of €14,600 a year for subs. So, four Gardai is €120,000 plus the subs of €14,600 and we come up with a modest figure of €134,600 a year to protect Liam from the public of Ireland that he so dutifully served. He retired from politics in 1981, which is 34 years to this date.

Liam Cosgrave has cost the state AT LEAST €4,576,400 (‘at least’ because I am not including the use of a driver and the state car which he availed of for decades). The waste is simply staggering even if we try and ignore the wasted manhours. It is this sort of waste and privilege amongst the elites in Irish society through generous pay, cushy pensions, golden parachutes and, most remarkably, a corresponding dearth in culpability when things do go wrong. This attitude covered in a thin cowl of patriotic credentials they inherited from their parents allows Liam Cosgrave and others like him ate greedily out of the trough and continue to do so. If the man ever had a patriotic bone in his body he would have done the right thing and refused his Garda protection decades ago.

Is it any wonder that 86 percent of Irish people believe that corruption is a serious problem in Ireland? I believe the Irish people are not just talking about the old brown envelopes famous during the Haughey and Bertie years but also more broadly about the general sense of entitlement and me féinism that is so prevalent in the political system.

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“The disparity in years between you”: A random letter about marriage from nineteenth century Philadelphia

The Dustbin of History

In 15 years, she will be in the prime of life – and you will, most probably, be a feeble old man.

While combing through collections in archives I often come across random letters and documents that may be interesting independent of their relevance to the project at hand. One such letter was in the Malcolm Hay Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I came across it during a fellowship with the Library Company and decided to transcribe the letter and present it here in its entirety for those who might be interested in questions related to marriage, reputation and social etiquette in nineteenth century Pennsylvania.

The letter in question was sent by Peter Hay in July 1858 to his son Henry Hay. The collection is named after Henry’s brother, Malcolm. A prominent family of lawyers, the Hays were influential Democratic Party members at both a local and state level. Elegantly written…

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Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

The Dustbin of History

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834…

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New post on the Dustbin of History – The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I was invited to write for the excellent history blog the Dustbin of History many months ago and have recently decided to take the plunge and throw up some more detailed articles than I would usually pack onto my own blog. My first post titled “The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920,” apart from being a mouthful, is something of a meditation on transnational history. As the blog post itself states the title harks back to one of Eric Hobsbawm shorter but important pieces “The Tramping Artisan” and outlines some important questions that need to be answered by this growing sub-field of history.

I look forward to writing up other pieces in the future for the Dustbin of History, especially a few posts that will be slightly less historiographically orientated, and I encourage anyone who might be interested in some of the more overlooked episodes in history to check out some of the other great pieces on the blog by emerging historians.

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British spies report on Jim Larkin’s speeches in New York, 1914.

By the nineteenth century the British government was well aware of the importance of intelligence gathering in the effective administration of its territories. As part of its security apparatus Britain maintained a vast spy network which regularly reported on the activities of dissidents throughout the Empire and the rest of the world. Intelligence gathering was especially effective in Ireland, where Dublin Castle acted as a central hub for a network that reached into every urban and rural corner of Ireland through networks of local police and their informers. This enabled the British to smother any rebellious embers before they caught fire, however at the opening of the twentieth century Ireland remained a restive section of the union. Of particular concern to the Dublin Metropolitan Police was a certain Jim Larkin, a labour leader and one of the primary actors in the 1913 Lockout.

The extent of this unrest and Larkin’s oratorical skills made him a dangerous man in the eyes of the police and one who should be watched closely. In the wake of the violent suppression of the striking workers in 1913 the major trade union in Ireland decided to follow the lead of the Ulster Unionists and create an armed wing, the Irish Citizen Army [ICA]. Under Larkin’s leadership the ICA increased in numbers into the hundreds. On 24 October 1914 Larkin left James Connolly in charge of the ICA and travelled to the United States to collect funds and to ship arms back to the growing organisation in preparation for the next round of confrontation between workers and big business in Ireland. The following is a spy report sent to Dublin Castle on Larkin’s activities after he arrived to New York.

33B Reports:- New York, Monday, November 16th 1914.

Having learned through an informant that James Larkin, the Irish labor leader, had arrived in this country on November 3rd, Lexington Avenue, and 85th Street, New York, Sunday night, November 15th, at 8:00 P.M. I sent two operatives to this meeting who report that Larkin began his address with an [sic] eulogy of the Manchester Martyrs and a short description of his career in the City of Manchester, England.

He speaks with the accent of a South Lancastrian and tries to give the impression that he was a native of Dublin as he speaks in the highest terms of the Dublin Irishmen, and contemptuously of John Redmond, Sir Edward Carson and their followers. Lord Aberdeen was ridiculed and referred to as a leprous representative of the British Premier, Mr. Asquith, and considered him the real power behind Sir Edward Carson. Also accused Asquith of keeping the Ulsterites fully informed of the intentions of the British Government and allowing the Ulster Volunteers to arm, while using the British Army to prevent the Nationalists from arming. He accused Asquith, Carson and Redmond of secretly working together to prevent the Nationalists getting justice while passing a Home Rule Bill that was lacking in every essential condition in order to placate the Nationalist. That the Nationalists would fight the British Government before submitting to conscription, and expressed the hope that the Germans would defeat the British in the present war. This statement was loudly applauded but no [sic] unanimously.

Larkin appealed for funds for the use of the Society in Ireland and left the Hall. There were about 400 people in the Hall who heard this address. The audience was one of respectibility. The meeting was under the auspices of the Clan-na-gael.

If sending two ‘operatives’ to attend a Larkin speech seems excessive it indicates the strong British presence in New York. Given the tense situation in Ireland, the strength of Clan na Gael in the United States and of course, that it was wartime, this overreaction makes more sense. It is somewhat surprising that the agent reported ‘the audience was one of respectibility’. Whatever prejudices the British operatives might have had against the crowd does no come through in their reports. This contrasts with private detective reports from agencies such as the Pinkertons, where some agents sneered at their subjects in the reports to their employers, possibly trying to endear themselves to their employer, possibly demonstrating primitive hate, but certainly revealing an innate lack of empathy with the people they spied on.

Also interesting to note was that the crowd did not unanimously applaud the possibility of a German victory. The average attendee at these rallies have often been perceived as a singular voice in support, however here is a good example that the audience at such talks held a diverse set of opinions and did not blindly agree with every pronouncement from the speaker. There is also the possibility that some in the crowd remained cautious about endorsing someone like Larkin and his message. While they would attend and listen to what he had to say (after all, Larkin was a celebrity after the widely reported Lockout) they may have worried that the meetings was being closely watched by the authorities, and if so, they would have been right.

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