Part of every journey is always the end, and that is what we are going to present in this last article about our stay in Ireland. Do you want to know what was the Great Famine and the indelible mark it left on Irish people since then? Would you like to travel with us through the prehistory of Ireland, the history of Dublin and its most emblematic places Do you want to know how was the way of life of the Celts for whom Ireland is famous? If you’re curious, read on. We’re sure you’ll be surprised
Celts in Ireland
The National Museum of Archaeology of Dublin is the ideal destination to immerse yourself in the prehistory and history of Ireland through the visualization of the material remains that the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle have bequeathed to posterity. From our visit we were able to conclude that Ireland has been inhabited since 7000 B.C., a period to which the oldest archaeological evidence belongs. The arrival of the first settlers occurred very possibly through the northeastern tip of the island, the closest to Great Britain, belonging today to Co. Antrim, because it is where the oldest archaeological evidence has been unearthed. It is in fact the most practical way, because millennia ago the strait of sea that separated both islands did not exist but were united by a tongue of land. However, the increase in the water level due to the deglaciation flooded that connection and allowed the relative isolation of Ireland.
Those first settlers were, as one might expect, the typical nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic period, the prehistoric transition period in which sedentarism, agriculture and livestock began to settle, in short, the seed that would sprout in the great civilizations of the Neolithic period, which would begin three thousand years later. Once again we find the oldest Neolithic remains in Antrim.
The Neolithic is a very dynamic period in which numerous technical and artistic advances are introduced. Around 3000 B.C., humans begin to bury their relatives in a totally new, magnificent and impressive way: building megaliths. It is now, therefore, when megalithic culture emerges, that has left works that defy time, such as Stonehenge in England, Newgrange in Ireland, Nabta Playa in Egypt, etc. In Ireland, two types of these megalithic constructions stand out: dolmens, that is, a chamber formed by several vertical orthostats that support a horizontal slab, and the fascinating passage tombs, funerary chambers adhered to long corridors delimited by orthostats. The most famous funerary passage in Ireland is Newgrange. However, it is a mistake to highlight only the funerary purpose of these monuments and forget about their other functions, perhaps more transcendental, because it is common that megaliths are not oriented in any way, but pointing to some astronomical or cosmic milestone, such as sunrise or sunset, solstices or equinoxes, or to a particular star or constellation. We don’t know for sure why they did this. Indications point out that these constructions served as a kind of agricultural calendars to ensure good harvests, but undoubtedly also had their spiritual function. Perhaps they served as shuttles that communicated the spirits of the dead with the kingdom of their gods or as ceremonial centers that housed all kinds of rituals and sacred liturgies. Be that as it may, megaliths are immortal testimonies of the advanced knowledge of our ancestors, who mastered astronomy, engineering and mathematics as well as agriculture, hunting and cattle ranching.
On the other hand, Neolithic was the host of two new periods that would mark a before and after in the history of humanity: the Bronze Age, which arises around 2000 BC, and the Iron Age. New tools and artistic elements formed by the new materials begin to see the light. Also new weapons that determine the future of different peoples: those who do not modernize end up succumbing to those who have. The gold industry also gained unusual strength during the Bronze Age, as we can testify thanks to archaeology. From 1000 B.C. the Bronze Age progressively gave way to the Iron Age and with it a collective was established that would leave an indelible mark in much of Europe, especially in Ireland: the Celts. We are not going to talk profusely about Celtic cultures, since it is a subject that would give for an entire article. Instead, we will limit ourselves to clarify certain points and briefly describe the activity of the Celts on the island.
The Celtic term still misleads many people. Celts were not a unified civilization. Unlike the Roman Empire, Celts were a group of tribes that today historians and anthropologists group on the basis of linguistic and artistic similarities. But what is certain is that Celts lacked a centralized policy. Their arrival in Ireland was not an invasion, but the continuous flow of Celts determined their establishment on the island and the consequent coexistence with the existing population that, as usually happens, ended up being displaced by people who possessed a more sophisticated technology. As we said, Celtic tribes had their differences. Celts battled among themselves and while some tribes retreated others advanced depending on the outcome of the different battles. Thus, around 200 B.C. the Gaelic tribe (the same ones that introduce the vernacular language of Ireland) established their predominance on the island. It could be said that the Celtic legacy of Ireland comes mainly from this tribe, in fact they were the ones who unified Ireland linguistically (and later also culturally) through the vernacular language of the island: Gaelic or Irish.
Like other tribes, Gaelics were organized into small kingdoms (“tuatha” in Irish) ruled by warlords or lords who were part of a military aristocracy. The power could be accessed by any man who shared the same great-grandfather; the system of primogeniture did not work. Gaelics shared cultural elements and beliefs, but not a politics or a unifying idea of nationhood, and this would be a constant that would determine the loss of their power in the future. Hill forts, that is, walled “villages” in which they settled, are proof that clashes between Gaelic kingdoms were frequent. However, the Celtic period should not be seen as a bloody and violent episode. Quite the opposite: although it is true that violence was common in these societies, it is no less true that there was also solid legislation and that many conflicts were settled diplomatically. So much so that Celtic aristocracies were formed not only by the king or the warlord, but also by lawyers who advised the rulers and who were dedicated to interpreting and generating new laws, as well as preserving the oral tradition. Moreover, the Celtic legislative system was one of the most advanced in all of Europe, because contrary to what happened in most European kingdoms, Celtic lords did respond to the law.
The Gaelic aristocracy was also composed of the religious elite, i.e. the famous Celtic priests or Druids, and the poets, artists who not only worked on the elaboration of the sagas and Gaelic mythology but also helped lawyers to preserve and protect the mythology and history of their people which, as we have said, was transmitted orally. The problem of not having written Celtic sources forces historians to resort to later texts by chroniclers from other cultures, often enemies of the Celts, such as the Roman. Without going any further, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars is one of the most consulted to understand the Celts, but it contains several distortions and exaggerations. However, the fact that we do not have Celtic written works does not mean that they did not know writing. Returning to Ireland again, the oldest recorded writing is the Ogham scripts, whose origins can be traced back to 400 A.D. It really is an ideographic system based on the Latin alphabet of Romans and composed of a series of linear symbols arranged on both sides of a baseline. Most inscriptions have been found on stone stelae and refer to proper names, so it can be deduced that their use was restricted to a commemorative function or perhaps to mark territorial boundaries.
The main economic activity of the Irish Gaelic was livestock farming. Second place went to agriculture, which, as mentioned in previous articles, was hampered by the scarcity of fertile soils and the humid climate. In fact, the wealth of rural landowners was measured on the basis of the heads of cattle they owned. So much so that one of the priorities of Gaelic warlords when they invaded and absorbed other tribes was to seize the heads of cattle in order to increase their personal wealth. Gaelic society was therefore a rural society. We would exaggerate even if we said that Gaelics lived in villages, because that is not the case. Their establishments were the fort hills, the village as such would not arrive until centuries later.
Over time, the different warlords understood that they could govern larger territories if instead of fighting they allied with their counterparts. This is how the provinces of Ireland would be born, large tracts of land governed by collectives of warlords. From these unions would later emerge important dynasties and Gaelic families, such as that of the Uí Neill, ancestors of the O’Neill, who formed part of the Connachta coalition (which would give its name to the province of Connacht), lords and custodians of the upper half of the island (while the Eóganachta coalition governed the southern half). To some extent, there was relative cultural unification in Ireland in that tribal diversity was reduced for the sake of coalitions and alliances. The different collectives manifested their pretensions to unify the whole island under their command and, on occasion, some did so, but only symbolically. We insist: during the Celtic era there would never be a political unity.
The Celtic decline and the birth of Dublin
As we have already seen, in the 5th century Christianity entered Ireland under the hand of Saint Patrick, although perhaps we should say that, in the last instance, it was the Gaelics themselves who introduced Christianity into their own domains, since the reader will surely remember that Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland as a slave of Celtic pirates. The establishment of Christianity in the form of a network of monasteries was a real revolution for the peoples of the Emerald Isle. Monasteries became nerve centres around which population centres began to grow. As we have already seen, Gaelics showed little resistance to the advance of the new creed and the various missionaries progressively managed to convert the pagans.
The new social organization remained more or less unchanged until the eighth century. At this moment there is another important turning point in Ireland, as it is when the arrival of new peoples and cultures is inaugurated: the Vikings. As with Celts, Vikings were not a unified civilization under the same policy, but a set of tribes with some features in common but differentiated from each other. The powerful Viking fleet allowed these tribes from Scandinavia (a territory formed by Norway, Sweden and Denmark) to emigrate from their places of origin to colonize and terrorize half of Europe. The Viking era began in 793, when they organized the looting of the Lindisfarne monastery in Great Britain. From there to Ireland there was only one step, and so it was. Shortly afterwards, in 795, they reached the Irish coasts and began the colonization process. The results were quite positive: although they encountered Celtic resistance, some dynasties decided to collaborate with the new visitors to gain more power over their rivals, so to some extent they were relatively welcome. It was not an abrupt incursion, but rather a progressive one.
The Viking armies that dominated Ireland until the 12th century were of Nordic and Danish origin. There was a first phase in which men from the north dedicated themselves to looting and destroying that lasted until they managed to settle solidly on the island. This happened around 841, the year in which Nordics laid the foundation stone of the place we are interested in for this article: Dublin. Indeed, Dublin is of Viking origin, as is Cork, Limerick, Wexford, etc. The future capital of the Republic of Ireland began as a “longphort” on the banks of the River Liffey, that is, a naval fortress with an outlet to the sea. This first settlement would now be the first settlement as such in Ireland. The Vikings brought many other positive elements, such as the commercial openness of Ireland, especially between Dublin and the main British Viking establishments, strengthening relations between the two islands.
It would not take long for the first Nordic and Danish tribes to see their power weakened, mainly for two reasons: the strengthening and expansion of the Gaelic kingdoms, against which they were increasingly at a disadvantage, and internecine wars. On top of that, Irish hero Brian Ború struck an almost fatal blow to the Vikings in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, in which he perished. Some say that Brian Ború expelled the Vikings from Ireland, but the truth is that their influence continued to be appreciated for several more years although greatly diminished. Be that as it may, Dublin would change hands definitively in the 12th century with the arrival of the (Anglo) Normans.
The English dominion begins
The 12th century was a very turbulent time for Ireland, so much as a determining time for future events. Somehow, the 12th century was the breeding ground for the gestation of future nationalist passions and movements, and the reader will now understand why.
Towards the end of the 1160s, Anglo-Normans landed on the island. These are also descendants of Vikings, more specifically of the Normans, Scandinavian tribes that began their conquests in Normandy, in the northwest of France, where they would later establish a duchy. The Normans played a fundamental role in the spread of the feudal system (to the detriment of the tribal system), the social organization characteristic of the Middle Ages. However, the Normans not only forged the duchy of Normandy: such was the power of their armies that they snatched Sicily and southern Italy from the Saracens, forming the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, participated in the First Crusade in Palestine, conquered England in 1066, dismissing the Anglo-Saxon leaders to give way to the era of Anglo-Norman domination, and so on.
How do they get to Ireland? Once again, the Gaelics, weakened and focused on their internal disputes, paved the way for them. In the 1160s, the king of Leinster province, Diarmait Mac Murchada, kidnapped the wife of a regional chief named O’Rourke. The latter, willing to restore his sullied honor, asked Rory O’Connor, king of Connacht province, for help in giving Mac Murchada what he deserved. Pressed by the coalition of kings, he was forced into exile. His thirst for revenge led him to meet the Anglo-Norman king Henry II Plantagenet of England, from whom he asked for military support to recover his lands in exchange for the vassalage of Leinster and the hand of his daughter Aoife for any military leader of his army. To the king it seemed a good deal, however, at that time Henry II had his troops concentrated in Aquitaine (which would eventually become his duchy), so he could not allocate too many assets. Even so, he ceded some land so that Diarmait could recruit and train his troops. On top of that, the papal bull Laudabiliter of 1155 gave Henry II permission to conquer Ireland and to conclusively institute a series of ecclesiastical reforms of the Church of Rome. From Wales, troops under the command of Diarmait arrived in Leinster in 1167, from where they would carry out their unstoppable conquest throughout Ireland. Commanded by the Anglo-Norman nobleman Richard Fitz Gilbert, a.k.a. Strongbow, who would marry Diarmait’s daughter, the Anglo-Norman army would eventually conquer Dublin, Waterford and Westford, the three main towns in the province of Leinster. This milestone would mark the beginning of the Anglo-Norman era of Ireland and the beginning of British rule of the island, in other words, it is then that a long period of time begins which will inevitably lead to the independence of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 and all the events of which we have spoken in the previous posts.
Henry II thus turned Ireland into a lordship (we cannot speak of a kingdom until the 16th century). Dublin grew progressively. It increased its fortification and in the 13th century Dublin Castle was built to protect the settlement from occasional raids by the natives. After the Anglo-Norman settlement, what is known as the Pale was erected, a large barrier that isolated much of Dublin and other counties’ territories from the possessions of the natives. All this passed into the hands of the British crown, as there was no fief to govern it. This division ceased to make sense when the natives began to accept English influence from the sixteenth century.
The Anglo-Normans carry with them trade and guilds, causing an economic boom on the island and, consequently, a demographic growth that would stop in the fourteenth century with the arrival of the deadly Black Death. Dublin therefore had to expand its walls to accommodate a growing population. The Anglo-Normans also introduced their fundamental political institution: the Parliament. The first Irish Parliament was installed in Castledermot in 1264, but eventually moved to Dublin.
The Black Death wreaked havoc throughout Ireland. Dublin succumbed and was shattered for three centuries. It was not until the 17th century that the port town began to resurface again. Thanks to James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde, the Wide Streets Commissioners and the architect James Gandon among others, Dublin was completely reformed. Its new face, totally renovated and modern in the Georgian style, attracted the Irish aristocracy. The Parliament was also established in Dublin at this time, laying the foundations for the future capital of the Republic of Ireland.
However, the phenomenon that definitively determined that Dublin became the nerve centre of Ireland was the railway. In the 18th century, the main railway routes started from Dublin to the rest of the counties, with all the commercial and economic consequences that this entailed.
Visit to Dublin’s most emblematic places
The cathedrals of Dublin. The capital of the Republic of Ireland has two cathedrals that must be visited and that are located in the heart of the city: Christ Church Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, and the cathedral of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Both are truly ancient, but the oldest is the first, which was erected around 1038 and is of Nordic manufacture. The second dates from 1191 and is of Norman manufacture. Both buildings are really close to each other, just over 400 meters away. Of course, both are Protestant since the Anglican Church of Ireland was imposed as the official church on the entire island in the sixteenth century.
The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, as is often the case, began as a humble parish. It was founded by the first bishop of Dublin, Dúnán, supported by the Nordic Viking king Sitriuc in 1030. In the 12th century, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, a.k.a. Strongbow, the aforementioned major Anglo-Norman hero who led the colonisation of Ireland for Henry II, proposed replacing the humble temple with a much larger one for the greater honour of Christianity and to be completed in 1230. As is common with these monuments, the cathedral we can contemplate today is different from that of the 13th century, first of all because of the various damages it has suffered over time. For example, in the 16th century its roof, the west wall and the south of the nave fell, an event whose tragic reminiscences bring us back to the Paris of today, where the Cathedral of Notre Dame suffered significant damage to its roof due to a fire. Consequently, an important part of the dress of the church that we see today is from approximately 1870, when it was restored and some Victorian elements were added to it. However, none of this detracts from this stupendous sacred building being one of the oldest (if not the oldest) buildings in Dublin that has been in operation since its inception. Until the arrival of the Protestant Reformation, the members of the cathedral followed the doctrine of the Augustinians, introduced by the archbishop and patron saint of Dublin Laurence O’Toole in the twelfth century.
It has a Latin cross plan and, as is usually recurrent, is oriented from east to west: the altar, at the east end, in the apse, welcomes the Sun every day, symbol of divinity, while the entrance to the temple at the west end functions as the beginning of the path that the faithful initiate travels from darkness (where the Sun sets) to light. At first it began to be built in Romanesque style but with the rise of the Gothic in the twelfth century were incorporated elements of this architectural style, such as the classic ogive windows and portals or buttresses and flying buttresses.
Be that as it may, we penetrated into the bowels of the temple knowing that we were going to know a multitude of stories. And so it was. There were monuments and sepulchres that paid homage to people of all kinds related to the cathedral or the Protestant confession. Probably one of the most important is the tomb of Strongbow, “ideologist” of the cathedral. It is easily recognizable with the knight lying and praying surrounded by his shield and sword. As is often the case, those who have contributed in some way to the renovation or improvement of a temple are often buried within its walls. Not in vain, being buried in a sacred enclosure is a guarantee of passing through the gates of heaven. However, this is not the original sepulchre, which was destroyed with the collapse of the roof. This is from the 14th century. We recommend the traveler to spend some time enjoying the temple and all its sections, to appreciate the art and its history. And of course, after seeing the main part of the temple it is imperative to visit the crypt before leaving.
It is said to be the oldest crypt in all of Dublin and one of its first constructions. Although it has been partially restored, it still preserves several original parts dating from the 11th-12th century. It is a very spacious room: it includes part of the nave of the cathedral and the choir. When the traveller descends to the crypt it is impossible to dissociate oneself from the medieval effluvium emanating from the ashlars and which takes you back to that time, much brighter than many want to recognise. The crypt itself is an extremely interesting museum, as it houses collections and monuments. For example, the visitor will be able to contemplate a series of stocks previously placed in the cathedral courtyard. In a display case rests a precious gold plate donated to the cathedral by King William III of England and his wife Queen Mary II after the victory in the Battle of the Boyne in the context of the Glorious Revolution (we refer the reader to the previous post to learn more about this episode), which at that time also functioned as a royal chapel. Decorated and carved with the smallest detail, this tableware consists of two candlesticks, two flagons, a chalice with its cover, two plates, one of them with an exceptional size, and an alms dish.
Another showcase shows a pair of crossed swords with a very curious and somewhat horrifying story. Before the restoration, the crypt was used to store coffins with their respective corpses, although it also served as a market and even as a pub. According to one account, a young soldier was trapped in the crypt in 1822 without being able to leave after attending a general’s funeral. To make matters worse, his regiment forgot about him after embarking for England. Three days later, they realized that they lacked a companion and decided to return to the cathedral to look for him. However, it was too late: all they found was his shattered corpse nibbled by numerous rats that were also lying dead around the young soldier’s body along with the sword, which he had used to try to defend himself from the rodents and which was broken by one of its sides. And yes, you have read well, the soldier only had one sword. So where does the second one come from? The poster in the display case tells us by way of an anecdote that the sword was hung for decades in the chapter hall as a tribute to the fallen soldier. However, one day in the 1930s the cathedral custodian saw a couple of boys playing with a broken sword very similar to that of the soldier. Believing it had been stolen, he promptly dispossessed the children of their “toy”. However, when he returned to the chapter house the original sword was still in place, so with the passage of time both ended up being exposed.
In another display case, accompanied by a set of dishes, a very striking silver ampoule in the shape of a pigeon from the beginning of the 20th century is displayed. Its function is thought to have been to stylise, but it has also been used as a container for the chrism. By removing the head of the silver bird one could access its contents.
However, the stars in the crypt are other animals: a cat and a mouse whose bodies rest in another display case… mummified. It seems that, possibly while the predator was chasing the prey, they were both trapped in one of the pipes of one of the cathedral’s organs. In the 1860s, during some maintenance work on the instrument, the workers found both animals, whose corpses found the ideal environmental conditions to end up as mummies that, by the way, are very well preserved, because the feline still has its whiskers. These mummies have attracted the attention of writers of the stature of James Joyce, who dedicates a few lines to them in his comedy Finnegan’s Wake.
And since we’re talking about animals, let’s continue with another cat, although this one is well identified. Its name is Laurence MagnifiCAT and it was adopted in 2017. It is now part of the religious community and it seems that so far it doesn’t have much work, or at least it has enough free time to keep its Twitter account up to date with everything that’s going on in the cathedral. Its name was not chosen at random, but pays tribute to St. Laurence O’Toole, Archbishop of Dublin and to whom we owe the cathedral. As the “co-creator” of the temple, his heart was stored in a wooden reliquary, which in turn was protected by a metal cage. We speak in the past because in 2012 it was stolen. It was a strange robbery, because among all the treasures of great value housed in the cathedral the thief opted for the relic, demonstrating that he felt some interest in it. Fortunately, the archbishop’s heart was found abandoned last year in Dublin’s Phoenix Park without any damage.
To emphasize another important element of the cathedral (although we have many left in the inkwell), we will talk about the exhibition on the Magna Carta that is in the crypt. The Magna Carta Libertatum is one of the most important handwritten documents in history, because what it manifests is the need that there should be in any state of law that prides itself on subjecting power to the law. And this legislative manuscript became necessary at a turbulent time, 1215. The British king at that time was John I, a very unpopular character among his subjects, so much so that he had to face a rebellion organized by several barons fed up with the despotism of their king. It was a time when many writers and scholars also demanded stronger legislation to prevent the king from being above the law and doing what he wanted. The fact is that John I was at war with France and needed money with which to finance such a company, so what better source of income than to increase the tax on barons. He did so, but the problem came in 1214, when he lost the war and much of the popular trust. And it was in this context that the Magna Carta emerged as a claim to recover what the monarch had extracted. The king repealed the Magna Carta in a decision that cost him a civil war promulgated by a group of barons. After his death in 1216, the document was resurrected. Therefore, a manuscript capable of unleashing wars is a document of incomparable value, but it has more value in the knowledge that it had a significant influence, for example, on the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And what does the Magna Carta have to do with the cathedral? Because Christ Church has a copy of the manuscript that is inserted in a codex known as Liber Niger or Black Book, currently exposed in the crypt. This type of medieval codices are known as cartularies, chartularies or codex diplomaticus and served as compilation documents of transcriptions of other documents in the legislative field that refer for example to the foundation and the rights of certain collectives.
After visiting this wonderful building, we head towards Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, 400 meters to the south, which does not lag behind in splendor and beauty. To know the origin of this iconic temple we must go back to the time when Saint Patrick was evangelizing the pagan Emerald Island. Tradition has it that the first Irish Christians were baptized right here in the grounds surrounding the temple, today called St. Patrick’s Park. Somewhere in this area there was a well that intercepted the underground section of the Poddle River, a tributary of the Liffey River, and which continues to cross the subsoil of this area. In the twentieth century, a series of buried sepulchral slabs were found in the vicinity, among which was the one that allegedly covered the well in which the baptisms were carried out, and a well. With the waters of the river Poddle, the patron saint of Ireland baptized the first Irish. To commemorate this event, a humble wooden church was erected near the well known as St. Patrick’s in insula, as it was situated on a small islet bounded by two branches of the Poddle River, now extinct, and whose first records date from 890 AD. Its next evolutionary leap occurred in 1191, when John Comyn, Dublin’s first Anglo-Norman archbishop, granted it the status of collegiate. However, it was not until 1213 that it would acquire its current title of cathedral, although it is true that it lost it after having undergone a series of reforms because of a fire that knocked down the needle of the cathedral in the fourteenth century (similar to what has happened in Notre Dame de Paris). It was during the reform that the north wall tower was added. In 1555 it would temporarily regain its cathedral title.
The stony cathedral as we see it today is from the first half of the 13th century and we owe it to Archbishop Lucas. Without a doubt, it is a Gothic construction. Its high ceilings are a call for the traveller, unfailingly obliged to raise his eyes towards the abode of God. It is not only high, but also the largest in all of Ireland.
It seems that these two cathedrals achieved a historical milestone, because it was the first time that a medieval village had two cathedrals, although the one of St. Patrick was located outside the walls, which allowed the archbishop to exclude some laws present in the village including the cult that was professed, based as we have already mentioned in the Augustinian canons whose seat was Christ Church Cathedral. Its status as Anglican church was unstable due to the succession of kings and queens defending the Catholic or Protestant faith (in fact, the restitution of its title as a cathedral occurred at the time of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor). It was not until the Irish Church Act was enacted in 1869 that it became the national cathedral of the Anglican Church of Ireland, a title previously held by its twin, Christ Church Cathedral.
As always, we recommend to the traveller that, if he has time, he must visit its interior to marvel at its art and architecture and the great amount of curiosities it houses. For example, few know that the prolific writer Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, is buried here. And why inside a temple? Because Swift had a role that few people know about, and that is that he was the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 until his death in 1745. In the cathedral there are many objects that recall his passage through it, such as two mortuary masks, early editions of his great work, the act with which the queen gave him the title of dean or a curious mold of his skull that was used in studies of phrenology (the pseudoscience that tried to determine the character of a person through certain physiological traits). It is said that he loved to exercise, and for this he repeatedly climbed and descended the stairs of the cathedral tower. He is buried next to his good friend Esther Johnson, alias Stella, with whom he secretly married, according to evil tongues. Close to his tomb is his epitaph, written by himself. Jonathan Swift was a fascinating and eccentric character.
Other churches in Dublin. If the traveller has been left wanting to see more religious buildings, Dublin has plenty. To mention two more churches we had the opportunity to visit, we will talk about St. Teresa’s Church and St. Andrew’s Church.
The first, in Romanesque style, was founded by the Discalced Carmelites (which is why it is consecrated to Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, better known as Santa Teresa de Jesús, founder of this order). Its location is a hyperbolized contrast as it is trapped in the consumerist and materialistic heart of the city, as the surrounding streets are the main shopping streets of Dublin. It rose between 1793 and 1808 and can be proud to have been a constant protector of Catholicism in Ireland. In fact, Daniel O’Connell, the famous lawyer who achieved Catholic Emancipation, gave some lectures inside.
On the other hand, St. Andrew’s Church is no longer such (we are referring to that located at St. Andrews Street, as there is another located in Westland Row). In 1993 the cult ceased and since then it has served for multitude of purposes. It has been intended to be used as an estate agency or even as a food market. In fact, it used to be a tourist office. Also, the building we see today is not the original, but a reconstruction of the nineteenth century, as the seventeenth century building did not withstand the violent fire that consumed it.
Molly Malone statue. However, if this church has reappeared on the maps is thanks to the photogenic statue that was installed a few decades ago on its edge. This sculpture commemorates one of Dublin’s most iconic characters, to such an extent that it has songs in his honour and even a commemorative day. We are talking about Molly Malone, a woman who, although very much loved by Dubliners, her very existence provokes heated debates. Today it is not known for sure if she existed. The most skeptical say that she is a character of popular culture born out of a song of the nineteenth century that is now considered the unofficial anthem of Dublin by the Dubliners entitled Molly Malone or Cockles and Mussels. So famous is the song that today has dozens of versions and is a popular element very integrated in Dublin, a symbol.
According to this song, Molly Malone was a beautiful Dubliner woman who, like any other, struggled to get ahead and survive during the conflictive seventeenth century. Daughter of fishermen parents, it’s said that in the morning she was a fisherwoman and walked the streets of the city with a cart full of seafood and fish shouting “cockles and mussels alive, alive!” But at night, in order to make some extra money, she was a prostitute, a very famous prostitute in fact, as her clients held her in high esteem for how good and affable she was. Fevers ended her life in the middle of the street and, according to the song, since then her ghost has been pushing the fish cart through the streets of Dublin. Specifically, it is said that she died on 13 June, or at least that day a woman with the same name died, and that’s why that’s Molly Malone’s day. As we say, it is not certain that a woman with these characteristics ever existed, so the most skeptical say that this character of popular culture is a tribute to all those prostitutes and fisherwomen who did their best to survive. Here is a cover of the song by The Dubliners:
This particular bronze statue is from 1988 and was made to commemorate the first millennium of the city of Dublin. As with other monuments in other countries, there is a tradition around Molly’s statue that the traveller has to touch her conspicuous neckline to increase the chances of returning to Ireland.
Trinity College. Also known as College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, or simply as Dublin University, Trinity College now stands as one of the most important universities in the world. Of the 1000 universities indexed in the world ranking elaborated by the prestigious Center for World University Rankings (one of the most consulted and prestigious) in the year 2018-2019, this center occupies the position 228, which is not bad at all (in 2016, for example, it occupied the 175).
It is the oldest and the most important university in Ireland. It was founded by Queen Elizabeth I of England by royal charter in 1592, a time when stablishing a university in a city meant giving it great prestige, not in vain universities were machines producers of wise people that in one way or another brought progress and benefits to society. Trinity College established its headquarters in the former Priory of All Hallows, so it should come as no surprise that its first Provost was Archbishop Loftus. During the first decades, Trinity College, like other universities, was the nerve center of formation for clerics specializing in philosophy and theology. In fact, its foundation was intended to lay and strengthen the foundations of Protestantism in Ireland. On the other hand, there was a motivation to resemble the educational system of the continental Europe (as we explained in the previous post, the introduction of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland was the definitive impulse for this nation to begin to integrate into Europe). Although the disciplines in which the corresponding official degree could be obtained were theology, philosophy and mathematics, in the nineteenth century there was an explosion of new disciplines in both Science (geology, zoology, physics), Humanities (history, contemporary literature) and Engineering. It was also in this century when the institution ceased to be confessional. Be that as it may, this university generated some of the most brilliant minds in history, such as George Berkeley, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the aforementioned Jonathan Swift, Henry Grattan, etc.
Many of its buildings and small parks and squares date back to the 18th century, a period of relative socio-political stability in Ireland since the establishment of the Protestant Ascendancy following William III’s Glorious Revolution, such as the Dining Hall, the Printing Press, the Provost’s House, the Public Theatre or the Chapel. Since then, the rest of the elements have been incorporated up to the present day.
But if anything attracts from Trinity College it is the treasure held by the Old Library (although any bibliophile would speak of “the treasures”), one of the fractions of the Trinity College Library, the largest in all of Ireland (as a curiosity, it was one of the first buildings to be erected at the university). We are referring to the Book of Kells, which has been there since the 17th century. It is one of the most sumptuous and eye-catching illustrated or illuminated manuscripts in history, that is, a lavishly decorated and illustrated book depicting scenes from different themes. In the case of the Book of Kells or Great Gospel of Saint Columba, the four canonical Gospels in Latin, based on the texts of the first Bible translated into Latin, the Vulgate, several prefacies (the “covers” that precede each Gospel look like authentic tapestries) and the canonical tables of Eusebius of Caesarea among other elements are represented with indescribable beauty and with a sublime technique. Such is the magnitude of the ornamentation of the texts that many times they are illegible. And if the reader is quick-witted, he will quickly notice the influence of Celtic art in the ornaments, especially in the interlacing.
The material of which the document is made is calfskin and it seems to be that before it was of greater size and that later it was trimmed until acquiring its present size, of approximately 33×25 cm. Its 340 sheets were bound and its edges gilded in the 19th century. It would have been produced between the eighth and ninth centuries in the abbey of Kells (Co. Meath), hence its name, although its alternative title refers to St. Columba of Iona (521-597), one of the most important missionaries that Ireland has given to the world and who helped revitalize Christianity in Europe through the spread of Celtic monasticism, because the group of monks (or rather we should call them artists) who produced the manuscript (it is estimated that there were at least three authors) belonged to the monastic community of Iona (one of the Hebrides Islands of Scotland), founded by the aforementioned Saint Columba. While it is true that for a time experts thought that the missionary may have been its author, this hypothesis became false when calligraphic analysis dictated that the style of the Book of Kells is subsequent to his death. Its function was possibly liturgical: due to its original dimensions, it was probably exposed during masses for the priest to read, although it is surprising that someone could decipher some passages of the manuscript.
Today there are several unknowns surrounding this illuminated manuscript. The first of these is the mystery of why it is unfinished or why some pages (some of the beginning and end and a part of the Gospel of John) were torn out in a remote past along with the cover. The first unknown is important to highlight, as it could provide clues about the place where it was written, a question that has yet to be resolved, as experts discuss whether the work was completely produced in Kells or whether it began in Iona and continued in Kells, where it was unfinished for various reasons, etc. As for the matter of the torn pages, it is known that the manuscript was stolen in the ninth century, so it is possible that the thieves had caused these damages. Or perhaps it happened during his transfer from Kells to Trinity College in the 17th century (where it has been guarded ever since) because of the use of the Abbey of Kells as a refuge by a Cromwellian garrison. Who knows?
This manuscript is not unique, but was part of a sort of “collection” elaborated during those centuries in the “scriptoriums” of the various monasteries and abbeys. Even so, if it is true that it has some features that make it unique among the rest of its brothers, such as its abundant polychromy, made up of various pigments, many of them sumptuous and expensive and coming from very remote regions, such as lapis lazuli, extracted from Afghanistan. Be that as it may, the Book of Kells is one of the greatest exponents of medieval sacred art and Celtic Christianity in Ireland, an invaluable work and a heritage in itself.
Dublin Castle. We have spoken of several buildings and monuments in Dublin, but if we have to point to the most influential place in the history of Dublin and, in part, of the whole of Ireland, in which the English and British aristocrats and rulers have made decisions that affected the future of this land, that is Dublin Castle, sometimes known as the “heart of Dublin” because of the vital role it has played. The site was previously used by Danish and Nordic Vikings. It was not until the early 13th century, when the Anglonormans were already solidly settled in the fortified town of Dublin that this huge monument was erected. Therefore, we are talking about one of the earliest constructions of this city of which, by the way, some of its medieval structures still survive, such as the Record Tower, which survived the fatal fire of April 1684. That fire also determined the change of castle’s face: due to the destruction caused by fire, the castle had to be restored, losing much of its medieval essence to the Georgian style that we can see today.
It was originally built by the Normans as a fortress against possible assailants. In fact, Dublin Castle served as an additional reinforcement needed after the failed siege of Connacht Gaelic King Rory O’Connor, one of Ireland’s most powerful 12th century characters, although his power could not overshadow Strongbow, who defeated O’Connor during the Dublin siege. Shortly afterwards, however, Dublin Castle lost its function as a defensive bastion to that of an administrative centre. From here, the links of the Anglo-Norman and British kings governed and administered the city and from 1541, the year in which Ireland became a kingdom dependent on Great Britain (functioning as a viceroyalty), the castle functioned as the main residence of the Viceroy of Ireland.
Obviously, problems and confrontations arose between the British administration and the Irish Parliament, whose decision-making power was very limited and directly dependent on the British will, a hostility that gradually grew and that was already very evident in the eighteenth century (when there was a first attempt at independence in Ireland led by the Society of United Irishmen). As we have already pointed out, for many centuries the Irish Parliament could hardly pass any legislation or reform without Westminster’s consent, and Westminster’s representative in Ireland was housed precisely in Dublin Castle. This was the case until the Republic of Ireland gained independence in 1922. Specifically, on 16 June of that year, the last Viceroy of Ireland relinquished his post to Michael Collins, Minister of Finance of the alternative administration during the Irish War of Independence and Director of Intelligence of the Original IRA. Since then, the castle has become a ceremonial centre rather than an administrative centre where state commemorations, dinners and celebrations have been held regularly, or where the presidents of the Republic of Ireland have been invested since 1938.
As an anecdote, it should be noted that Dublin Castle has received a variety of illustrious guests, such as Benjamin Franklin, Daniel O’Connell, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Charles Dickens, John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle or the writer Bram Stoker, who spent some time working on the castle.
Saint Stephen’s Green Park. If the traveller wants to rest briefly from so much monument, marble, concrete and granite, the best idea is to rest in one of Dublin’s parks, small alveoli that give life and oxygen to the big city. We opted for Saint Stephen’s Green Park, located south of Trinity College in central Dublin (although in the past it was on the outskirts, when Dublin was much smaller), a green space of 9 hectares really quiet and peaceful in which to take a walk or simply sit on one of the benches which surround its lakes and gardens.
The history of this place begins in 1664. From medieval times, these 9 hectares were a pasture in which cows and horses grazed, until it was renamed as a leisure area in the seventeenth century. This reform was part of a set of innovations to modernize Dublin protected by James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde, a famous figure during the War of the Three Kingdoms who sought the modernization of Dublin to acquire an optimal and suitable state to house the capital of the Kingdom of Ireland. To this end, various urban reforms and restorations were carried out: repair of streets and buildings, adaptation of certain areas for leisure and ornament, expansion of their limits… All this, as we say, under the patronage of Butler, who elevated Dublin to a category never seen before, because since the meddling of the Black Death in the fourteenth century the city looked more like a dunghill than anything else.
The park began to be popular among the high society once it was fenced in 1664 and when Georgian style residences were built around it. However, its current design takes us back to the 19th century, in the middle of the Victorian era, when its aesthetics impregnated the architecture of Anglo-Saxon countries. It was then that the park underwent the Victorian redesign we enjoy today, which was financed by Arthur Guinnes (owner and founder of the Guinnes brewery company), another of Dublin’s great public works sponsors to whom we owe its current splendor (Arthur Guinnes also financed St. Patrick’s Park of St. Patrick’s Cathedral).
The park is home to a number of attractions and monuments worth visiting. Among others, we could highlight the garden of aromatic plants adapted for blind people, where the posters that identify the different plant species have an inscription in Braille; a tour that shows and commemorates the events that took place in this place in the context of the Easter Rising of 1916, when a group of revolutionaries sheltered here during the seizure of Dublin and led several violent clashes with the Dublin Metropolitan Police that resulted in several deaths; one of the monuments commemorating the victims of the Great Famine; another honoring those who fell in the First World War (although not very well known, Ireland contributed about 160000 men who helped the British navy, of which it is estimated that at least 35000 perished). In short, St. Stephen’s Green is a place where history and nature come together to satisfy the traveller.
Just as additional information, another park worth visiting is Phoenix Park (where the city zoo is located), among other things because it is the largest urban park in Europe, with 700 hectares.
Temple Bar. One option to rest during the travel are the parks, but another very interesting is Temple Bar, the place that best emanates the personality of people from Dublin and their popular culture. It is a place that exudes color, positivity, fun and camaraderie. It appears in all the tourist guides as one of the destinations that undoubtedly must be visited when you are in Dublin.
Temple Bar is Dublin’s most famous district. Here it is possible to have some drinks while listening to good Irish music live in one of the many pubs and thanks to which it is well known. James Joyce said, trying to express in words the essence of Temple Bar, that
“A good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub.”
As we have seen repeatedly so far, what we see today is quite different from what it was in the beginning. Temple Bar was originally a private property acquired by Sir William Temple (1555-1627), a high society character very popular at the time. His curriculum is quite extensive: he was a member of Trinity College, professor, philosopher and Master Chancellor of Ireland. Due to these charges he moved to Dublin, to the current Temple Bar on the banks of the river Liffey in the early seventeenth century, where he built a house and several gardens. The expansion of his property would continue with his son, Sir John Temple, who was able to do so thanks to the construction of a dike on the river Liffey that allowed the recovery of extensions of land to build on them. Thus was born the popular Dubliner district. It is obvious what is the origin of part of its name, but what is the origin of “Bar”? Anyone would think that it is due to the abundant pubs that give life to the neighborhood, but nothing further from reality. “Bar” is an abbreviated Irish term that comes from “Barr”, and whose meaning indicates the characteristics of the place where Temple Bar was built, which, as we have said, was on the banks of the Liffey River. Well, “Barr” refers to an elevation of sand in an estuary where one could walk.
If Ireland is associated with alcohol and alcoholic beverages, it is not only because of the production of famous brands of these products, but also because of the existing habit in the country. The consumption of alcohol in Ireland is frequent, abundant… and also worrisome. Different surveys, such as those conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) or those conducted by national health institutions show that drinking above healthy limits is common in Ireland. For example, according to the WHO, alcohol causes 88 deaths per month, and one in four young men aged 15-39 dies from alcohol, which would also be the cause of half of all suicides among the Irish population. These are truly alarming figures, no doubt, and against which there is a need for a policy that in some way limits alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, however, there will always be interests that want to sabotage these reforms.
Dublin’s doors. Although it may seem somewhat superficial and lacking in interest, let us now look at the doors of the Dublin dwellings. They show very varied colours, something that is not usual in other parts of the world, where doors do not usually attract attention and are all more or less similar, with muted colours. The fact is that we don’t know for sure why Dublin’s people contrast their doors with those of their neighbours. One of the versions is based on the aesthetic hypothesis, that is, to reduce the monotonous colour of the dark bricks of Georgian buildings or that of the frequently leaden sky, Dubliners decided to give a little colour to their streets and personalise their houses. Others say they were a symbol of rebellion against Queen Victoria, who ordered to paint all the doors in black to mourn the death of Prince Albert. The anglophobia of that time would have prompted some sectors of the population to rebel by doing the opposite.
On the other hand, there is a well-known legend according to which a drunk found his wife with another man in his house and murdered them both in fit of anger and jealousy. However, the reality was very different: he had confused his home and had got in the home of his neighbors. To avoid similar accidents resulting from excessive alcohol consumption, neighbors decided to paint their doors in different colors to facilitate the identification of their homes. Another similar story tells us that the authors were the women of Dublin. In order to prevent their drunk husbands from “confusing” their houses and maintaining relations with other women, they decided to paint their doors in bright colors. Who knows, maybe all versions are a little bit right…
The Great Famine: the plague that traumatised Ireland
On our last day we had only planned to visit the so-called Dublin Migration Museum. However, before we arrived something caught our attention. Walking along the banks of the Liffey River we unexpectedly came across a group of lithic figures with the intention of moving but completely immobilized. When we approached, we were able to notice their spurious and cadaveric faces, the faces of hunger and despair. They were six bronze people separated from each other, independent, as if they had nothing to do with each other, eternal strangers who shared nothing except a couple of things: their painful physical and health condition and an inevitable destiny: death or migration. Between their skeletal arms they carried the few belongings they had left. One of them carried a body on his shoulders, perhaps that of a dead relative. A dog lurks crouching, like a vulture, waiting for one of those unfortunates to finish surrendering and leave his body to the scavengers. Some of them are crestfallen, looking lost, who knows if because they no longer have just enough energy to continue their journey or because they have lost all hope. This monument is called Famine and recalls one of the worst episodes in the history not only of Ireland, but of all humanity: the Great Irish Famine (“An Gorta Mór” in Irish), which lasted from 1845 to 1849. The bronze sculpture is located on the quay at Custom House. There could not be a better place for this work of art, because this is one of those points in which the collective sadness was chewed, because it was here where the citizens forced to move from country embarked and said goodbye to their loved ones, often definitively. Monuments of this style dot the Irish geography (there is another one in Saint Stephen’s Green Park) and that of the countries that hosted the million Irish refugees (Canada, Australia, United States). This episode takes place in the middle of the 19th century, but to understand it in its totality it is necessary to go back three centuries and get to know the main protagonist of this humanitarian catastrophe: the potato.
The potato was brought to Europe for the first time in 1537 by the Spanish adventurers of America (if its popular name is assimilated so much to that of the sweet potato it is because the Spanish conquistadors confused them). Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), the famous pirate and New World adventurer, brought the potatoe to Ireland and England in 1586. As it happens with novelties, around the potato grew diverse and very curious superstitions. For example, in some fields it was associated with the devil, because it did not appear in the Bible and, to make matters worse, it grew under the ground, that is to say, in the domains of the Lord of Evil. It was also associated with witchcraft because it belonged to the same family as the plant par excellence of witches: the belladonna (Solanaceae). In Ireland, for example, some people still grow potatoes on Good Friday and sprinkle them with holy water to ward off evil influences. However, when its nutritional properties and growth capacity in poorly fertile soils began to be tested, superstitions were banished to the anecdote.
The success of the potato was not immediate, either because people did not know how to cook and eat it (the appropriate gastronomic methods did not yet exist) or because the population was accustomed to other types of crops and food. In Ireland, there were several reasons for the popularisation of potato monoculture: on the one hand, the British administration added more taxes to several agricultural products but not to potatoes (the aim was to undermine the production and export of agricultural products from Ireland in order to avoid competitors). On the other hand, landowners replaced tillage with stockbreeding, as it brought them more benefits. The landowners and their farmers migrated to the mountainous areas, where a better quality pasture for livestock grew, although they were of poorer quality for cultivation, unlike the lowlands, which were abandoned. The potato was chosen instead as it showed a better ability to grow in adverse soil conditions. In addition, larger hectares of land were devoted to livestock, so crops that needed large tracts of land to obtain a satisfactory amount of food for people (such as cereals) began to lose functionality and be replaced by potato, of which, being more nutritious, less is needed to satisfy a family. As we will see below, this agricultural structure would be a fundamental catalyst for future famines.
Let’s go back to the 19th century, when the other protagonist of this story lands in Ireland. Potato mildew arrives in Ireland in mid-September 1845, or at least it is when the first signs of its presence begin to appear. Farmers began to identify a series of dark, black or brownish necrotic spots on potato plants and tubers. When a potato was opened in an advanced stage of infection, black and viscous spots were seen inside. The foul smell was also a sign of rot. The plant died when the infection reached the stem. Therefore, the etiological agent of this plant pathology was called late blight, although its scientific name is Phytophtora infestans. It is an oomycete, an organism very similar to a fungus but not such (in fact, the Oomycota class is encompassed in the Protista Kingdom and not in the Fungi Kingdom). They are also known as aquatic molds because they are closely linked to aquatic biomes. Many of them are very generalist parasites, capable of infecting both animals and plants, in fact this particular species is capable of parasitizing tomatoes and eggplants as well.
His arrival on the Emerald Isle was obviously through the importation of infected potatoes. However, what is not known today is the route of introduction: some authors believe that it could have arrived by sea infecting cargoes from North America, others suspect that it could have arrived from Europe, specifically from Belgium, where it arrived from Germany in June 1845, a country in which there were already cases of contamination by late blight in 1842, or it could have arrived from Canada, which had also registered cases as early as 1844. However, a study published in 2014 in the prestigious PNAS by a team led by Erica M. Goss, associate professor of plant pathology at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences of Florida, has discovered the origin of the strain that arrived in Ireland (HERB-1): Mexico (experts were debating between Mexico or the Andes). Be that as it may, we can label this oomycete as an invasive exotic species due to its characteristics (we dedicate an extensive article to this topic in this link) which, in fact, continues to wreak havoc at a global level. It is estimated that it generates annual losses of 6 billion dollars in the agricultural sector.
As with the Black Death of the 14th century, ignorance and superstition played a negative role in preventing further spread of the infection. Initially, the causes of the disease were attributed to all kinds of etiologies except the real one. It was said that it was a divine punishment to give a lesson to Irish; that were the gases and vapors that emerged from underground volcanoes, or the static electricity supposedly generated by the newly introduced locomotives (click here if you want to know more superstitions attributed to trains), or to the electrical overload of the clouds by the few storms that, according to Sir James Murray, found a relief in the wet leaves of the potato plant. They really didn’t know very well how this plague worked. At first it was believed that it did so by chance, affecting very specific fractions of plantations or those plants close to roads or located under trees for example. However, the passage of time would end up proving the opposite.
The reports issued during the first weeks of the infection called for calm and assured that the plague was a trifle and that abundant harvests were going to be obtained, not in vain until then “only” a third of the harvest of that year had been lost, since the infection had appeared late, when great part of the harvest already had been collected. But by the end of October 1845 the alarm began to go up and the forecasts in the reports began to be more defeatist. The worst predictions began to see the light. It was the first time in the history of Ireland that an entire crop was going to fail at the national level. And the nonsense of administration began. The export of the other staple food that relatively satisfied the Irish, cereals, continued as if nothing, even when the effects of famine were already unquestionable. Critical voices had to be raised calling for more food imports and an end to grain exports. But the administration took too long to respond. If the cereals had remained in the country, possibly the effects of the Great Famine would have been much more reduced. To make matters worse, the price of food had been inflated, so the less well-off began to see their chances of surviving. After this great blow to the crops, the parasite seemed to have desappeared, but it was only an illusion. In 1846 there was the point of no return, as Phytophtora infestans resurrected again, but this time very early, affecting the entire crop.
There was another factor without which the magnitude of the Great Famine could not be understood: extreme poverty. In general, Great Britain and Ireland had been suffering from a severe shortage epidemic for many centuries. The situation was so serious (countless people survived from the alms they received on the streets or in monasteries) that the monarchy and Parliament were forced to take action. Thus, from the end of the 16th century a series of English laws, the Poor Laws, were enacted. Broadly speaking, these laws (which changed over time according to the monarch who was on the throne) in some cases gave a small subsidy to the poor so that they could get something to eat and so that they could access to some work. In other cases, they directly withdrew the vagrants and the unemployed from sight to give the impression that poverty was diminishing. This aid came either from the tax system or from state subsidies to Anglican parishes and local churches. Monasteries used to help alleviate poverty in a remarkable way, but after their dissolution in the 16th century, when Henry VIII reneged on the Church of Rome and founded the Church of England and Ireland and confiscated monastic goods, a source of poverty alleviation was nullified. Subsequently, the new 17th century Poor Laws resolved the construction of a network of workhouses, first in England and Wales and then in Scotland and Ireland (the first Irish workhouse is from 1839 and the first Irish Poor Law was enacted in 1838 in response to the more than 2 million poor who suffered constant hardship on the Emerald Isle), to house the poorest, sickest and orphans and provide them with basic necessities (accommodation, food, clothing, education). However, workhouses were not five-star hotels, far from it. In fact, the dynamics within the walls were very similar to that of a prison. Families were often separated from the beginning, women from men and children from their parents, as the accommodations were divided by sex and age. Food rations were scarce and everyone had a very strict schedule from 6 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., when the lights went out and the “curfew” was given. Hygiene left much to be desired: on many occasions, dozens of people had to share a dirty urinal located in the bedroom.
In the period of the Great Famine, however, there was a problem: that the Emerald Isle was overpopulated (at this time an estimated population of about 8 million inhabitants). In addition, a significant part of the population was poor, they had just enough to survive. On the other hand, these workhouses had been built to accommodate a rather limited number of people without taking into account possible exceptions such as the Great Famine. Administrators thought that the other alternative of aid to the needy, public works, would moderate the entry of people into the hospices. In this way, they stopped accepting more people when they overcame the quota, leaving them to their fate in the unhealthy Irish streets. Even so, hospices were not synonymous with survival. The effects of the Great Famine chased their victims into the workhouses. During the implacable winter of 1846-1847 it is estimated that an average of 2500 people per week died (adding the casualties of all the workhouses), although more than by famine it was by associated diseases, intensified by general malnutrition and whose incidences grew due to the overpopulation in the workhouses, with the children being the first casualties.
Several analysts had already warned of a similar event and suggested a modification of these unproductive laws in order to promote subsidized emigration and thus alleviate the pressure of overpopulation. Unfortunately, what the law did not do, the Famine did… Countless human lives were lost, close to one million. On a cultural level, its effects were also felt, as for example in the number of people who spoke Gaelic. If by then this language was already in a downward spiral due mainly to the Industrial Revolution imported from Great Britain, as we explained in the previous article, the famine gave it an almost fatal blow. So much so that after 1849 less than a quarter of the Irish population dominated Gaelic.
But it was not only abundant poverty and dependence on potatoes that fed back into the Great Famine. It also had a climatic cause. In the 14th century, at the end of the Middle Ages, a climatic recess began in the temperate zone of Eurasia characterized by falling temperatures and rising humidity and known as the Little Ice Age, whose echoes would extend well into the 19th century. It is believed that this phenomenon determined to some extent important socio-political and economic changes in the affected regions. Among other things it is blamed for the French Revolution. While it is true that in the nineteenth century the effects of this climate hiatus had been reduced, it is no less true that they were intense enough to be noticed. Experts believe that the low temperatures of the Little Ice Age would have negatively affected crops in Ireland and that increased humidity would have favoured the growth and expansion of Phytophtora infestans. But not only this, because this icy period was one of the causes of the devastating famine of 1739-1740, because unfortunately the Irish already had some experience in this regard.
This year is known as the Year of the Slaughter, because 20% of the Irish population succumbed (of the 2.5 million inhabitants), so in proportion, this was more devastating than the Great Famine. The intense cold, the excess of humidity and several insufficient harvests were the triggers. The winter of that year was atrocious, so much so that it is considered the greatest frost recorded on the island so far. It has remained in the collective memory with the nickname of the great frost, black frost or hard frost. We are talking about rivers and ports being frozen, so naval transport was interrupted, birds and fish died frozen almost instantly, several crops were destroyed, including potatoes, livestock and people died from freezing and lack of food, the price of food fell, so that the wealthiest classes were also affected. The people came to depend on the solidarity of their bosses and leaders, which was often insufficient, to which must be added the damage caused by the agrarian reform that we explained at the beginning of this section.
Food shortages gave way to fevers, dysentery, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, scurvy, which ended up depleting the population (diseases that would reappear during the Great Famine). Entire villages were depopulated. Crimes and looting were a constant, so prisons became saturated. Overcrowded prisoners were victims of disease and violent punishments from the authorities. Decomposed corpses and the dying intermingled in the streets. The administration acted insufficiently. If it wasn’t the extreme cold, it was the droughts or floods that gave the Irish no truce. Finally, in mid-1841 the climate returned to “equilibrium”. The Irish drew strength of will from where they could to return to their chores. Recovery was quick and dynamic. Taking advantage of the recovery of relative well-being, marriages began to produce more children. It could be said that at the end of this famine the situation that would favour the Great Famine of the mid-19th century (increase in population, greater dependence on potatoes, etc.) began to gestate.
Unfortunately, before reaching the Great Famine, the Irish would have to endure another one in which the climate also played a part. In 1822, a series of impoverished harvests and inclement weather, especially torrential rains that drowned potato crops (on which since 1780 many Irish depended exclusively), again made a dent in the health of the inhabitants. The diminished nutritional status diminished the defensive capacities of the immune system to fight against dysentery and other diseases that vent its rage on the population.
Although we have already talked about the Poor Laws, we have briefly mentioned an alternative that was put in place to alleviate poverty in Ireland: public works. A number of public job offers were called for, particularly in the construction sector, so that the destitute could obtain minimum economic benefits that they could spend on food. It must be borne in mind that Ireland’s unemployment rate was very high from the 17th century onwards. Ireland used to have a prodigious textile industry based on wool and other materials, to such an extent that it competed with Great Britain in the export of these products. Thus, King William III, in his eagerness to leave Ireland in a third-world state that had already had other many rulers, established a series of prohibitions and taxes to sabotage this market and eliminate competition. Since then, thousands of workers in this sector lost their jobs and joined the then large list of poor.
But let’s get back to the Great Famine. In the previous post we gave the keys to the socio-political context during which the Great Famine broke out: Daniel O’Connell had achieved Catholic Emancipation and had tried to repeal the 1801 Union that united the Kingdom of Ireland with Great Britain, but in this case he failed. Nationalism was taken over by an organisation of young bourgeois known as Young Ireland who, unlike O’Connell, defended the use of arms to achieve political objectives. This is when the Great Famine comes into action, and if we have spoken of politics it is because the consecutive blunders of the leaders only intensified its effects.
Let’s start with the Irish members of the British Parliament. The serious mistake they made was to focus on other problems which, while also considerable, were not as urgent as the plight of the people. And this is directly linked to the land laws that dominated Ireland since the colonisation of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. As already mentioned, a landowner, usually a New English (i.e. Protestant English descendants of the Cromwellan settlers), owned certain hectares that were worked by tenant farmers. In this relationship, the landowner ceded his land and gave a fraction of the products and/or the capital obtained to his farmers, who worked the land and paid a series of rents. However, there was one factor that destabilized these relations: the absenteeism of landowners. In other words, the landowner hardly visited or was present in their possessions. This intensified when the figure of the intermediary appeared, agents hired by landowners to collect the rents and monitor the lands. In this way, landowners gave up their responsibility and worked less while obtaining a constant flow of benefits. In addition, these guys often exploited the tenants on their own and increased incomes at will. They behaved like real social parasites.
For their part, the problem the tenants had was that, in addition to being exploited, they did not earn enough to pay the rents to their landowners and support themselves and their families. In addition, the rents they had to pay were often unmanageable, so they had to choose between eating or satisfying their lord (it is estimated that an Irish farmer paid 70% more than his counterpart in Britain), and if they did not pay the taxes they ran the risk of being evicted. In fact, intermediaries could increase rents if they wanted to. All this explains Ireland’s extreme poverty: while a few landowning families owned almost the whole island, the vast majority had nothing.
However, there were also Catholic landowners. Let ‘s remember that Catholics had a very restricted freedom by the Penal Laws that Parliament (then mostly Protestant) had imposed against them after the Glorious Revolution of William of Orange. Among other things, they had no access to politics, no voting, no access to certain jobs and, of course, no right to buy or lease land (remember that land ownership largely determined social status). Another detail of these punitive laws was that surviving Catholic landowners were obliged to divide their possessions among all their descendants, regardless of whether they were legitimate or not. The consecutive subdivisions of land meant that a large part of the farms were very small, so much so that practically the only viable crop to feed a family enough was, as the reader will have appreciated, the potato, thus increasing dependence on potato and the inherent risks of monocultures. The same thing happened in the Protestant fraction, but in a different way. Intermediaries and landowners were interested in dividing their plots into fractions in order to obtain more income. To make matters worse, farmers could be evicted when the landowner wanted to. If they could not pay the rents or the landowner wanted to change the type of farm, the contract could be cancelled without further delay. Moreover, if tenants implemented any improvement in the farm they were not rewarded for it (in Ulster on the other hand they might received some compensation) and, once their contract ended, those improvements passed to the landowner. With such an abundant peasantry in ruin, would it be strange for a plague to destroy this country?
The fact is that the Irish parliamentarians sought to change this situation, something which was indeed necessary but which was not indispensable during the Great Famine. People were starving because a plague was ravaging potato crops. Then there was no need for a change in agricultural policy, but for aid to feed and keep the hungry. Unfortunately, some parliamentarians were also landowners and were not interested in taking on such responsibilities. Another example of the hypocrisy of the Irish leaders was given by William Smith O’Brien, one of the founders of Young Ireland and who allegedly sought the best for his people through independence. In 1848, with famine ravaging the island, he thought to ask the dying Irish to return to their homes and gather as much food as possible to sustain the revolution for a few days….
On the other hand, the vision acquired by Westminster (who since 1846 was led by the Whigs of Sir John Russell in collaboration with Daniel O’Connell) was also criminal. They were supporters of what is known as “laissez-faire”, that is, of the doctrine that defends that a community is capable by itself of getting out of any quagmire without any type of external interference, only with the help of the dynamics of the market (whose leaders already followed the doctrine of free trade) and the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth. A series of completely inopportune measures, such as not reducing or ceasing food exports or repealing the public employment programmes that Robert Peel’s previous administration had promulgated (who, foreseeing what was to come in 1845, managed to send a batch of Indian corn to try to alleviate the incipient hunger in Ireland), only did more damage. In addition, they placed all their trust in the Irish landowners who, as we have already seen, a large percentage of them felt completely alienated from the problem. In the end they had no choice but to intervene through the administration of the workhouses through the Irish Poor Law and through public work programmes (in those years were built what are known as “famine roads”, roads that led nowhere and that served as an excuse to employ the hungry, although the harsh working conditions and malnutrition of the workers fomented the death of the workers by starvation), although they did little to diminish the already advanced famine, since this interventionism would begin practically two years after its beginning. As if that were not enough, the management of these welfare systems fell into the worst hands: those of Sir Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, an unscrupulous Protestant chatacter who thought that the Great Famine had been the wise work of Providence to reduce Ireland’s overpopulation and for the backward Irish to learn the lesson of abiding by the rules and modernization promulgated from Westminster:
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated… The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Trevelyan, a staunch supporter of the “laissez-faire” doctrine, had no qualms about continuing to motivate grain exports or preventing food prices from rising. He did not want Ireland to become too dependent on Westminster, so external interventionism had to be kept to a minimum. Furthermore, as a bad joke, in 1847 he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his “contribution” to the relief of the Great Famine.
Another great mistake made by the political elite was to devise all these measures so that they would work in the short term without taking into account that harvests could continue to fail. Administrators thought that the oomycete would leave soon. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the beginning of 1846, the people hoped that the newly planted potato crops would thrive because they no longer showed signs of infection… until spring arrived: the humid and warm environment created the ideal breeding ground for the oomycete to regrow with great virulence. Again, the vast majority of potato crops throughout the country went to the dogs. The people, unlike the politicians, were already realising that their plight was going to last a long time.
Food riots followed one another. The administration continued to export cereals and take them away from the hungry. Instead of food, Westminster sent British troops to quell the riots. People were left with nothing but eating grass, looking for berries or drinking the blood of their animals. The grain became more expensive, its price tripled towards the end of 1846 making it impossible to obtain for the poor, because public works barely served to keep minimum savings for how badly paid they were (and when they were paid, because it was normal for payments to be delayed, so imagine a population dead of hunger, women and children even, working arduously with a malnutrition accumulated from days and unable to buy food). In the end, what these public works did was to reduce the life expectancy of the Irish.
Moreover, the climate continued unabated, as at the end of 1846 a disproportionate frost arrived, which lasted until April 1847. Intense snowfalls buried the tattered “houses” of the poor. The population’s diminished immunological defenses could not face the diverse pathologies that ended up consummating the tragedy. Authentic zombies and ghosts plagued the streets. Skeletons sick of dysentery that seemed dead but that still resisted in their last rales of life begged for protection with the little breath that they had left. Few people listened to them. The administration, of course, continued to look the other way, and not only that, but they committed one foolishness after another. In 1847 an extension of the Irish Poor Law was passed along with the Gregory Clause (so called by Dublin MP William Gregory), which established a filter to determine who could access workhouses based on how much land they had. Only those tenants who occupied less than a quarter acre (about 1000 m2) were valid (presumably because they proved they were completely poor, those with more were not considered destitute). But here was the trap, because if they wanted to receive help from the workhouses they were forced to leave the land that gave them sustenance never to recover it again. That is to say, as if that were not enough, they had to leave the little that gave them benefits in order to survive and also without any signs of safety, because we have already seen that workhouses were not very safe either. It was either that or being evicted by their absentee landowners, because in those years someone could hardly pay the high rents they demanded. This was good for landowners, because they could reorganize their land to use it for cattle grazing, which brought them more benefits. There are therefore very plausible suspicions that this clause was really a manoeuvre to introduce new agricultural reforms that advocated the reunification of land subdivisions into large estates, and for this it was necessary to evict the tenants.
Tenant farmers never stopped suffering affronts. When they were evicted, landowners or intermediaries ordered the demolition of the shelters in which they lived to prevent their return, condemning them to certain death, especially when the workhouses ceased to allow income because they were saturated. It is estimated that between 1846 and 1854 half a million peasants were evicted. Ireland therefore became a large cemetery. Corpses and the dying, hungry and sick were crowded together on the roads, in the streets, in the houses, at the gates and inside the workhouses, in the fields, on the ships that were supposed to take them to the “promised lands”… In total, two million souls were destroyed, half dead and the other half trying to survive in other countries. Hundreds of thousands buried in mass graves as if they were waste (such was the number of dead that it was impossible to bury them all with dignity). Hundreds of thousands of names that would never see the light again, of unknown corpses. Entire families extinct. That was truly the Great Famine, for many a synonym for genocide.
The province of Ulster did not fare much better, although the opposite could be expected as it was more closely linked to Britain. In 1847 the United Kingdom suffered an economic recession that left behind many unemployed, many of them in Ulster, who, in addition to illness and food shortages, now had to deal with the inability to buy a minimum of cereals in order to stay alive.
In 1847, Prime Minister John Russell finally reconsidered when he learned that a multitude of people were dying in public works (that year an estimated 700000 people, including children, worked in those programs). Thus, he ordered to restructure the system of assistance for the hungry Irish. His reform became a reality in February 1847 with the Poor Relief Act. The idea was to reduce dependence on the public work programs through the establishment of locally managed soup kitchens, although due to Ireland’s poor economic situation, this system was ultimately maintained thanks to philanthropic donations (such as those of the great French cook Alexis Soyer, who established a well-organised soup kitchen in Dublin and who fed nearly 9000 hungry people every day) and state subsidies. But not everything was rosy. The food offered in the establishments was of poor nutritional quality (in some places more than in others) and it was impossible to feed the hordes of hungry people who came desperately (we are talking about tens of thousands). Moreover, the digestive system of a hungry person is much more sensitive than that of a fed person. On many occasions, the recipes did not take this problem into account, causing various digestive problems such as diarrhea that only worsened the situation. A criterion had to be established to classify those who would receive free food rations (those who literally had nothing) from those who could pay a minimum amount of money in exchange for food to contribute to the maintenance of the soup kitchens. The problem was that these evaluations were carried out in centres that were often located miles away. The exhausted hungry had to travel these distances if they wanted access to the soup kitchens. Of course, many of them died in the attempt. In addition, the management by the State left much to be desired, to such an extent that many soup kitchens had to be closed at the end of 1847 because of bad management and because they could not cope with the hordes of hungry people. The intention of the soup kitchens was good, but they did not succeed.
Other notable charity events were those of the Irish Quakers (also known as the Religious Society of Friends), a Christian community founded in England in the 17th century. Based in Dublin, they donated and distributed seeds to farmers, fishing nets to fishermen, food, clothing and money and promoted employment in the textile industry. In western Ireland, Protestants played a similar role.
Fortunately, in this kind of situations not only the worst of the human being is manifested, but also the most solidary part. However, all these efforts were of little use, largely because they were implemented badly and late. Ireland lost almost two million people among deads and emigrants. The Great Famine continued until 1849, the last year in which the potato mildew was present. The donated seeds could hardly be grown: farmers were extremely weakened and on the verge of collapse. Phytophtora infestans had left a trail of 5 years of hunger and death and an extremely weakened population, especially the sector at the base of the social pyramid. Its effects lasted for several more years after 1849: a multitude of Irish had to abandon their lands forever in an unparalleled diaspora in search of a future, fleeing from poverty, the impossibility of finding work, immeasurable incomes and eviction. Now the reader will surely understand why the Great Famine served to enrage nationalists and why it served as the engine of change that would give way to the events of 1922.
The Great Famine left a truly sad legacy, although it was also the patron of a new dawn. In addition to the drastic population reduction, which has not yet recovered, it is estimated that the agricultural landscape changed greatly, as a large percentage of small farms were absorbed and reconstituted into larger plots. Farmers learned the lesson and opted to grow a wider variety of products and reduce their dependence on potatoes. The system of land inheritance was changed: instead of subdividing plots among all children (which was another cause of the success of the Great Famine), parents bequeathed their land only to the eldest son, while the rest had to get by on their own. This was a determining factor for emigration to be maintained in the time after the Great Famine until the end of the twentieth century. There was a wave of new landowners, many now Irish. The rate of marriages was drastically reduced: now people waited until their spouses could guarantee the future of the family through the possession of land or a job. Thus, the age at which couples married increased considerably and a significant percentage of people would never marry.
However, the Great Famine also had positive consequences. Emigration was also a means of making Irish culture and values better known and appreciated abroad (St. Patrick’s Day has since become famous around the world). And of course, the well-known uprisings and social changes that took place since then and that were partly financed by expatriates abroad.
EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum
Taking advantage of our last day in the wonderful Ireland and since we were about to emigrate, what better than to visit the museum of emigrations, located a few meters from Custom House. We have already talked about what emigration means to the Irish: it is a symbol of strength and overcoming adversity and a reminder of the harsh situations they have had to live through. It is also a symbol of the fear and hopelessness experienced by many Irish who were forced to leave their country either fleeing some catastrophe or some unjust persecution. They were heading towards the unknown, towards new nations where they did not know what they were going to find and how they were going to be treated. That is why it is normal to find places dedicated exclusively to this matter.
This museum is one of those places that must be visited. It is essential for us to understand the history of a people that were not far from being nomadic. Dozens of stories and biographies are presented to us by doctors and nurses, politicians, soldiers, missionaries, scientists, sportsmen, poets, teachers, painters, actors and actresses who have left their Irish imprint and part of the idiosyncrasy of their country of origin in the places that received them. This is how Irish values and culture have reached every corner of the world: through its protagonists. Edel Quinn, Denis Burkitt, Agnes Clerke, Joseph Barcroft… are some of the names that the visitor will know in this museum. However, not all of them are natives of Ireland, some characters have Irish blood running through their veins thanks to their parents and ancestors, and among them some well-known names such as John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Grace Kelly, James Watson …
What this museum teaches us is that migration, in the end, has been an integral part of human history, and that in the case of the Irish it has played an essential role in their historical development and in that of Europe. Without going any further, the Christian missionaries of Ireland played an important role in the revitalization of Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe. Some authors argue that a group of evangelists from the Emerald Isle arrived to America even before the Vikings and, of course, Columbus. Moreover, Irish have also helped to forge legends and myths abroad, such as that of the island of Saint Brendan, the eighth islet that would be part of the Canary archipelago and that would have been discovered by the Irish monk San Brendan of Clontarf after an odyssey of seven years, always according to the myth.
Now it was up to us to emigrate, as well as others with sorrow to leave this fascinating place. Undoubtedly, Ireland and its people, as they have done for centuries, have left a mark on us, a sort of souvenir that reminds us ceaselessly that the Emerald Isle calls us and encourages us to return. We will return without hesitation.
If you haven’t visited our previous posts, we invite you to do so; soaking up the history of Ireland is a unique experience!
Ireland. Experiences in legendary lands (part 3). Brief foray into the history of Ireland and visit to Belfast
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