Trumping a sense of decline. Guest appearance by Abraham Lincoln.

Malaise. Decline. Erosion. Much ink has been spilt over the question of whether the US, the EU, the West, the World is declining. Is decline, as in Gibbon’s famous title, always the predecessor to the fall? Is it at the expense of another? Is the public interest in zombies some sort of popular manifestation of this impending doom? After an election cycle as divisive as this recent one, especially one in which the political pendulum swung hard in one direction, there are few certainties. One such certainty is that there will continue to be much more written and spoken about “decline” in the coming months, especially when so many feel like they have suffered a severe and personal loss.

Whether this is the case time will tell, but until then perhaps a quote from that staunch defender of the Republic, Abraham Lincoln, might soothe the troubled mind… For context in the following quote, the Know-Nothings were a popular nativist political party in the mid-nineteenth century who despised all immigrants who were not white, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. They were particularly fearful of the hordes of Irish Catholics who arrived to the US in the wake of the Great Famine.

I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.hypocrisy.[1]

There are some interesting points in this quote I think are worth pointing out, the first being Lincoln’s overwhelming disgust with those who sought to degrade and oppress others. It is obvious that for Lincoln politics is something personal because it deals with morality. In that sense divisions exist and for good reasons. In his disgust Lincoln threatens to emigrate from America, a popular idea among many in this post-election season, but quickly turns it into a joke, saying at least dictatorships are honest about their bigotry. I wonder, what would Lincoln have thought had he known that the Know-Nothings failed in their goals of excluding and disenfranchising the Catholic masses that entered the US in the nineteenth-century, and that less than eight years after this letter was written in August 1855 he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation? I can imagine him horrified but also unsurprised that it would take the sacrifice of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville to settle the question of Catholic loyalty to the American Republic and the bloodiest conflict in US history to settle the question of slavery. Of course the war did not succeed in creating an egalitarian paradise for all, but it did mark significant change.

Many of us think just as Lincoln did in those autumn days in 1855, that progress should or must be inevitable, or else we are sliding back, falling inexorably towards decline. Progress, in its broadest sense of the term, does seem unsettled by this past America election. But maybe the niggling sense of decline that Lincoln felt, as so many feel now, is instead the harbinger of major changes to come. Perhaps sooner than we think.

[1] Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography with Pen-pictures and Personal Recollections by Those who Knew Him (Browne & Howell, 1914), p. 153.

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Integrating Public History and Public Space – An example from Philadelphia

In my wanderings I sometimes come across interesting examples of how works of art, public murals, commemorative plaques educate the public in interesting ways. Usually these spaces contain a statue, or a brief description of the person, place or event but while meandering around Philadelphia many months ago I came across an interesting little example using public space.


Education using public space on 16th St. and Wharton in Philadelphia at the G.W. Childs School.

On the walls of the G.W. Childs school on 16th Street and Wharton they had place four panels explaining and exploring the definition of the word “culture.” It caught my attention, making me slow, and then pause to read each entry. I began to smile as I read them and then took a photograph of the wall so I would not forget it. There is much you could say much about the photograph of the school, the pretty patterns and the way a tree is bursting forth across the door, or the contrast between the iron grating protecting the windows forming a barrier and the mural attempting to reach out to the community. However I want to focus briefly at the topic of the mural; culture and the way it is presented to the public.


The colorful patterns draw your eyes while the writing challenges you to think about what you see and how you see it.

Each panel explains culture to the reader in different ways, how it is transmitted, understood, and influences people. The only thing I would suggest they add is a panel discussing how culture is often contested. One person might define a culture one way, whereas another person might define it in a very different way even if they hail from the same cultural background. At present this is particularly easy to observe in a contentious election season.

But what I want to congratulate the authors of this work is the way that they challenge the reader to think about the idea of culture in several different ways. Often these public art works speak to the viewer simplistically. These sentences offer very little context and are likely to be quite challenging for a member of the general public to read. When I was very young I hated when people needlessly talked down to me because I was young. I often see similar efforts to interact with the public on the front of buildings or schools to be very superficial, to the point of banality, in a needless effort to simplify their message. In my humble opinion one such public work is the Spire in Dublin. Before I completely retreat from the dangerous tangential path of art criticism I expect there are very few people out there who could suggest the Spire challenges us in an interesting way. Certain it is not as interesting as this little work on a school building in Philly.

Mostly I would encourage you to wander and perhaps you will likewise find interesting uses of public space. I feel that schools that do this in interesting ways should be commended and thus the inspiration for this brief rambling post.

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Mugshot Histories: Send in the Clowns

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century an interesting form of biography became popular called mugshot histories. Publishers advertised their book with grandiose titles in states or regions to people who could then purchase an entry for themselves. Along with a glowing account of their lives they could pay more to get their photograph included in the book with their entry, thus the name mugshot. One Chicago based publisher A.W. Bowen & Co. released several of these books, including Progressive Men of Montana (1902), Progressive Men of Southern Idaho (1904), and Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming (1903). While doing some research on the Wyoming edition I came across the story of the traveling clown J. H. Foster.

The entry on page eighty-six opens with the usual glowing endorsement of Foster’s heritage. “Combining in his veins the chivralic devotion, gallantry, grace and geniality of France, and the rugged virtues of the Scotch-Irish race…is one whose life and career present unique features.” The phrase unique features vaguely hints at the difficulty the writer had of portraying his life in positive terms when it ran so contrary to societal expectations. His father fought for the Confederacy and “fortunes of war” had driven them from Kentucky. His mother was a native of Paris and there were ten children in the family when the father died and there is so little mentioned about those exact circumstances that it raises some questions.

When he was fourteen years old Mr. Foster joined an uncle who was “a celebrated clown connected with John Robinson’s circus” and the entry reports that he proved gifted enough to take over from his uncle with a scarce two-months experience. The difficulty of the work and his aptitude for it is emphasized in the piece as he toured the country “acquiring a high reputation and a great popularity.” These commendations were  secondary to the later assessment of his clowning career which was that “[he] demonstrated that ‘a circus man,’ could be a man of character and good morals, for during his life as a clown he never used tobacco, never used intoxicant and never used profane language.” The implication that a clown would do both is obviously implied.

In the late nineteenth century Americans developed an increasing mistrust of the traveling worker with some states drafting laws against hoboes and wandering laborers. An offshoot of this seems to have been a growing mistrust of all mobile workers and entries like the one for John Foster seem to indicate this is the case. They also set the stage for the vitriol against the Okies in the 1930s, so perfectly detailed in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. From Chapter IXX, “Sure, they talk the same language, but they ain’t the same. Look how they live. Think any of us folks’d live like that? Hell, no!” As the unknown writer for the Progressive Men of the State of Wyoming noted this is a unique entry and in spite of its bias it offers us a valuable and rare insight into the life of a clown at this time and the ways that wider society perceived them.


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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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