The Irish Potato Famine - 1847

They are going, going, going from the valleys and the hills,
They are leaving far behind them the heathery moor and mountain rills,
All the wealth of hawthorn hedges where the brown thrush sways and thrills.
They are going, shy-eyed cailins, and lads so straight and tall, From the purple peaks of Kerry, from the crags of wild Imaal, From the greening plains of Mayo, and the glens of Donegal.
They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay,
Their fields are now the strangers, where the strangers’ cattle stray, Oh! Kathaleen Ni Houlihan, your way’s a thorny way

(The Passing Of The Gael.)

During the 19th century, when my new novel ‘The Devil’s Ribbon’ is set, the Irish population in London grew rapidly, the result of forced migration and poverty following the devastating Irish famine in the 1840s, which saw a million Irish die and another million leave their homeland forever. The Irish born population of London reached its peak around 1851, when the census counted their number at over a hundred thousand. This large population, in combination with London’s role as the centre of British politics (and hence, in the 19th century, of Irish politics), ensured that the city was a tinder box for both Fenian political agitation and violence. The memories of the famine with all its pain and suffering was burnt into their memories and passed on as nationalist fervour from one generation to the next. Meanwhile for those who set sail for the shores of North America, Irishmen shook off their colonial shackles and found a new found sense of Irish pride and above all, freedom. These men – the Irish had always been excellent soldiers - fought in the American Civil War and later, in the 1860s, 70s and 80s would use their new found military skills and growing influence and wealth in the “New World” to bring terror to the streets of the Old World and their enemies in London – the dirty British.

Aftermath of the Clerkenwell bombing

The Nineteenth Century saw the beginning of the Irish National Brotherhood who would later become the IRA. Almost all of the bombs that exploded in London over the course of the next twenty years (starting in the 1860s with the Clerkenwell bombing) can be traced back to America, where Fenians plotted revolution in safe havens like Boston, New York and Chicago. No surprises then, that it was during this time that we also saw the rise of what would become the British Secret Service, and the beginning of the first covert war waged between a standing government and a terrorist organization.

But what about the Irish back in Victorian London? Many of these Irish were the poorest of the poor. They lived in squalor and rat infested tenement blocks in the rookeries (slums) of London. They worked as casual labourers and costers in places like St Giles in the Fields – a sprawling area of blind alleys, narrow streets and passages which ran from The Seven Dials northwards up towards the edges of Warren Street and then onwards to Camden – still a haven for Irish culture today. Back then, the rookeries were stuffed to the gills with Celtic speaking Irish with their own laws and customs. They looked to their church and their Catholic priests for governance, not the Crown and very quickly these desperate Irish ghettoes became no-go areas as far as the police were concerned. Cut off by language, poverty and religion, many of these poor Irish communities lived in a parallel universe to the rest of Victorian Society.

And is it any wonder they didn’t integrate?

A London slum

English attitudes to the Irish during the Victorian period were deeply bigoted and tension was rife. Cartoons of thuggish looking Irish peasants appeared regularly in The Times and Punch magazine and the general view was that the Irish, apart from being Catholic (bad enough in Anglican England), were lazy, feckless and drunk. This little snippet from a book of 1855 looking at the “Wild Tribes of London” and in particular, the Irish:

Turn whichever way you will, the same "wild, Milesian features, looking false ingenuity, restlessness, misery, and mockery, salute you" on every side. Glance down these narrow courts and filthy alleys that open upon you at every step, and again and again you recognise the race; "there abides he in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder."

Or here’s Charles Kingsley writing to his wife on a view many held about the Irish:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don't believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . ."
This was the period of social Darwinism and the beginnings of ideas about eugenics. The idea that different races had evolved into a hierarchy of intelligence and worth and that the white man (the Englishman in particular but also the Germans) were superior to everybody else. Indeed, in many Victorian articles on the emerging science of anthropology, the Irish were seen at the very bottom of the heap. With their low slung brows and jutting jaws, according to many racial scientists and phrenologists, it was the Irish and not the Negro, who was the missing link between man and ape.

I must own up to a particular interest in what was termed, until very recently, as The Irish Question. I’m half Irish and romantically inclined, as far as the Emerald Isle is concerned. I spent idyllic holidays on my grandparents’ farm in County Cavan when I was a little girl. Hopping over stepping stones across the tawny River Erne, eating wild strawberries from the hedgerows, collecting fresh speckled eggs from underneath hay stacks, walking for miles, across boggy fields of wild flowers, with no adult supervision whatsoever, my early experience of Ireland set my imagination alight. My family, being border people, were highly politicised and I still love to join in singing the old rebel songs whenever I get the chance. It runs in my blood, this nationalist fervour, as it did for the generations of Irish immigrants and their offspring all the way back to the Victorian times. It’s this sense of injustice, romanticism and angry fervour which I wanted to explore in my new book.

Hatton and Roumande ‘s second case – The Devil’s Ribbon – is set in 1858. This is a time when forensic science was in its infancy and in The Devil’s Ribbon Professor Adolphus Hatton and his doughty *assistant* (though he’s far more than that) Monsieur Albert Roumande must track down a ruthless killer, set against the back drop of Irish politics in London. When the novel opens, London has been hit by a cholera epidemic and an Irish girl lies dead on a slab, her waxy form lit by a flickering gas lamp. Minutes later, the foppish Inspector Grey of Scotland Yard arrives with the body of a murder victim,an Irish MP and appeaser to the British, who has a strange calling card in his mouth – a green ribbon. This is the beginning of a case which takes Hatton and Roumande deep into the heart of the Irish community in London, as a radical priest and his band of Fenian followers plan to set city alight with a bombing campaign. The Devils Ribbon has been great fun to write, fascinating to research and has allowed me to explore what it meant to be Irish in the Nineteenth Century, as well as look into my heart and think what it means to have Irish and English blood.

D E Meredith

1 comment:

  1. It's Irish REPUBLICAN Brotherhood, not "Irish National Brotherhood"!