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Atlantic Mythos: Of Titans, Tricksters and Irish Saints

What better place to start with the story of the Irish in Canada than the great North Atlantic Ocean that separates and unites us. Our relationship has been define by the crossings of the North Atlantic, or more accurately the north-North Atlantic. The shortest distance between Europe and Canada is between Ireland’s south western County Kerry and Newfoundland.  It is a storied place, the Atlantic. 

What’s in a name?  Quite a lot actually when it comes to the Atlantic Ocean. Though often crossed, few know off-hand the origin of its title.   The story of how the Titan Atlas gave the ocean its name takes us deep in humanity’s earliest culture, linking ancient Greece with the trickster Coyote, rabbit and raven of First Nations’ origin stories, with the heroes of Irish mythology and the saints of early Christian Ireland.

Atlantic means the sea of Atlas, a Titan from Greek mythology. The Titans were an early race of gods.  The Titan Cronus had deposed his father, the sky god Uranus, at the urging of his mother, the earth goddess Gaia. Uranus was an intolerant father, to put it mildly, and as soon as his children were born he imprisoned them in their mother’s womb.  This, naturally, annoyed Gaia.

Cronus was the last and only one of Gaia’s twelve children to take up her challenge to overthrow her despotic husband by castrating him with a diamond sickle. He had his chance when Uranus came to lie with Gaia (such a Freudian image of a sickle bearing son in the womb would give the stoutest man pause). Uranus’s severed genitals were cast in the sea. From the sea foam of semen and blood Aphrodite appeared.

Cronus ruled heaven and earth with his sister Rhea. The fallen Uranus had cursed Cronus to suffer too an overthrow by his children so Cronos took the precaution of eating them.  Rhea, with help from her mother Gaia, saved Zeus from this fate through trickery, so that Zeus could in turn overthrow Cronos. While Atlas, a grandchild of Cronus, sided with his grandfather, Atlas’s brother Prometheus joined with Zeus. Instead of condemning Atlas to the abyss of Tartarus, however, the victorious Zeus commanded Atlas to hold up the sky from the far west.  The Greek world view explains this choice.

Up to the time of Homer, the Greeks believed that the earth was a flat disc, surrounded by a circular river, Oceanus, a primordial soup from which all things came. The Mediterranean was an internal sea to the Greeks and Oceanus lay beyond the Pillars of Heracles, the straits of Gibraltar. Hades, the world of the dead, lay on the banks of Oceanus. Helios, the sun god, drove his chariot each day from beneath Oceanus in the east over the earth and descended in the west, where day met night and the sky the sea.

In all this, Oceanus was a cold and forbidding place outside the Greek world. It was a fitting location for the banishment of a Titan.  So that part of Oceanus then came to bear Atlas’s name, the sea of Atlas. Atlas’s connection with the sea was established early since his mother was an Oceanid or sea-nymph named Clymene and his father lapetus or Japetus (later appropriated as a son of Noah, Japhet).

The Titans were intimately bound up in the story of the human race, succoring them even at great cost to themselves.  Atlas’s brother, Prometheus, gifted humanity fire stolen from Mount Olympus, along with knowledge of metallurgy, architecture, mathematics, medicine, and much more.  He was also said to have given man a portion of the gifts of each animal.  In punishment, Zeus condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock and his liver eaten every day by an eagle.  In further punishment, Zeus gave Pandora as a wife to another brother of Atlas, Epimetheus.  She had been created by the Olympians on Zeus’s instruction with all the qualities of beauty and cunning. Prometheus, who had the power of foresight, had warned Epimetheus not to accept any gift from Zeus, but he ignored the advice and accepted Pandora.  Epimetheus had a box or jar in his house which he had been told never to open.  Pandora however could not resist the temptation and opened it, just enough time to release disease on mankind but not long enough to release hope.  In his wisdom, Prometheus took foreknowledge from mankind but gifted it hope.

Since Prometheus had the gift of foresight, he knew the forthcoming punishment for helping humanity.  His affinity with humans may be explained by one legend that he was in fact their creator.  He moulded them from mud and water while Athene blow life in them with the wind. In another telling, Zeus decided to destroy humanity but Prometheus saved his son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha by telling them to build a ship to withstand the coming flood. When the flood receded, their ship was perched on Mount Parnassus. Their son Hellen was the progenitor of all the Hellenes, hence the term Hellenistic. Another version has Zeus ordering Prometheus and Athene to recreate mankind after the flood.

That the role of the Titans in the Western creation myth has been lost to the public narrative is largely due to its appropriation by Christianity.  Like all successful religions, Christianity built on existing belief systems and world views, reshaping them to its own ends.  You can see Eve, man’s fall, the great flood, and motif of saviours crucified in the Greek stories. Focused on the Holy Land, Egypt and Rome, Christianity had no place for the Atlantic.

You can see too the resonances with origin story of the First Nations and the creation of Turtle Island.  The avatar of the trickster that is Prometheus was not original to ancient Greece. As Joseph Campbell recorded in his landmark analysis of global mythologies, The Masks of God, the trickster was common throughout the creation myths of the world.  He was an archetype of the world maker from the Palaeolithic era, a common cultural pool from which societies continued to draw even as they spread around the world and created distinct civilizations.

The trickster in North America, variously the Coyote and Crow in the prairies, the Master Hare in the woodlands of the North and East, and the Raven in British Colombia, can be both noble and malevolent.  Where Algonquin Wisakedjak causes the great flood, Coyote is the fire stealer. The Raven is a guide.  They make the world from soil scooped by a lowly but heroic creature from the ocean depths, make humans from the mud too.  These world-makers bring fire and knowledge to mankind, lift us from the caves and burrows.  Like the Titans, they suffer and gain shamanistic knowledge, earn wisdom and foresight, allowing them endure because they know what is coming, the end of times and even of the gods themselves.

In Irish mythology, Lugh is the closest approximation to Prometheus with much the same qualities; warrior, trickster, master craftsman, skilled in the arts, saviour and bringer of knowledge, full of defiance and guile.  He is the grandson of the one-eyed Fomorian god, Balor.  Like the Titans, the Fomorians were earlier primitive gods, emergent from nature, the earth and the sea.  Lugh is one of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a new race on the rise like the Olympians.  As in Greek mythology, the Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Dannan inter-marry but ultimately it is a competition for supremacy which the Fomorians lose. 

Fosterage was characteristic of Gaelic society and Lugh was fostered to Manannán Mac Lir, the god of the sea. No surprise of course that Ireland has a rich mythology of the sea, from Hy-Brasil, the phantom island off the west coast, to Tír na nÓg, also across the sea to the west, where the Tuatha Dé Dennan live in eternal youth and feasting.  Irish tales tell of men taking mermaids in human form as wives.  The half-god, half-man hero Cú Chulainn is a close approximation to the Greek Heracles.

Over time, Atlas was seen as holding up not just the heavens but the earth from his domain in the far west (which actually does not make much sense; what is he standing on?) His name translates as ‘he who endures’ and strength and fortitude were his main attributes.  Not surprisingly, Atlas was a useful motif in architecture so that Atlantids were the male version of Caryatids. In medicine, a pain in the neck might well start in the atlas vertebra that joins the spine to the cranium.

With the expansion of knowledge in the Medieval period, Atlas was seen as a sage and the weight of knowledge his burden.  Atlas’s place between the earth and sky meant he came to be seen as father of geography and astronomy.  During the Renaissance, his burden was that of government and statecraft. That Atlas could act as a conduit between celestial forces and events on the ground meant that he was associated with astrology too.  Nostradamus accordingly used an image of Atlas on the frontispiece of his prophecies in 1568. Mercator named his collection of maps in 1578 ‘Atlas’ which then passed into common usage for collations of maps and indeed compilations of other kinds of guides.

On a clear day, the view of the Atlantic from Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula is breath-taking.  There, in the sixth century, St Brendan and his fellow monks must have looked up from their boat-building to the vast sweep of ocean that they were planning to cross. It was literally a journey into the unknown.  They would certainly have been aware of the Irish tales of heroic travels to mystical islands.  They might well have been acquainted with Plato’s description of Atlantis, the utopian island lost beneath the waves. They may not have been the only ones to attempt it but we know that they returned, at least according to saga the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. Like the Titans and the Tricksters, the monks believed that on the far side of suffering, at the end of dangerous journeys, lay the spiritual knowledge they sought.  That’s a story for another day.


Ottawa, 17 November 2021


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Confluence, Divergence, and Convergence: the Irish Window at St Bart’s Church, Ottawa.

Remarks at the Remembrance Service

7 November 2021

Thanks to Rob and Joanne Nelson and Rev Canon David Clunie for bringing this masterpiece to my attention.  Thanks to Tim Piper, the church’s musical director, for allowing Mary and I to see it. We walked by one day and Tim very kindly let us in to see it. We had seen pictures of it but nothing prepares for its presence, illuminated by the sun. It is stunning, such a dramatic narrative, impossible to capture its beauty in reproductions.

This extraordinary masterpiece by an Irish woman artist, Wilhelmina Geddes, is a product of a confluence of influences and connections in Ireland at the opening of the twentieth century.

Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Connaught Prince Arthur, scion of the British royal family, turned to friends in Ireland to commission a commemoration of those dear to him lost in the war, many fighting for Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, names in honour of his immensely popular daughter.  It was 1916, the bloodiest year yet in the Great War.

Ireland had earned a world reputation for stained glass thanks to Sarah Purser’s studio, An Túr Gloine, the glass tower.  Purser had recruited Wilhelmina Geddes to the studio after she’d seen her work as an art student in Belfast. Geddes herself was born in Leitrim, raised in Belfast, and worked there and in London and Dublin. Purser recommended Geddes for the commission.  Geddes was an inspired choice. The window was installed here in 1919, one of the first Great War commemorations erected in Canada.

Those years between 1916 and 1919 were ones of profound change in Ireland. Frustrated at the lack of Home Rule for the past four decades – arguably the past one hundred – and inspired by the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force to resist Home Rule, the rebels of 1916 created a new reality, what Yeats called ‘a terrible beauty.’  By that he meant, in part, the beauty of simplicity, the ditching of complexity. A singular Irish identity was forged by the 1916 Rising. Ireland was transformed politically, the execution of the rebel leaders adding tremendous force to that process.

The Irish soldiers who fought in the British Army, at the behest of moderate nationalist leaders in Ireland, believed they were advancing the cause of Home Rule in Ireland.

This belief was widespread in Canada too among the Irish Catholic community here. In Canada, the Irish Catholics who flocked to the Canadian Expeditionary Force also fought for King and Country, believing that Ireland deserved home rule so Ireland too could become like Canada.  They believed, and they were not wrong in this, that only self-government could provide the political accommodation of diversity that was key to a stable and prosperous nation state. They came home heroes, their loses and sacrifices contributing powerfully to the evolution of modern Canadian identity. The Irish soldiers came home to a new Ireland in which their heroism and sacrifices had no place in the new narrative.

Since the 1990s, Ireland has been recovering the diversity of Irish identity, including those from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, those who fought in the British armed services, and those who hold to the unionist tradition and identity. Like Canada, Ireland embraces diversity and inclusiveness, sees richness in those values, and believes that they are the signposts to a better future.

This is the great narrative of the convergence in Ireland today, a process recovering the rich tapestry that is our history and is the reality of Ireland today. It has been energized by the Northern Ireland Peace Process.  Our rapprochement with the British crown was tangibly expressed by the visit of the British monarch and Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, to Ireland in 2011 and the official visit of our President, Michael D. Higgins, to Britain in 2014.

I want to pay tribute to General John de Chastelain who is with us today. As chairman of the International Independent Commission on Decommissioning, his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process was critical. Without the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, a return to normality, acceptable policing and democratic politics would simply not have been possible.

This window is not simply a masterpiece of Irish art.  It is a symbol of the extraordinary journey of Ireland in the twentieth century.  More than that, it is a signpost to a future of British Irish relations in the twenty first century. Notwithstanding Brexit, we will build a new bilateral relationship with Britain. It will the work of a generation.

That this ‘Irish Window’ is here in Canada is particularly significant given the challenges and promise of what lies ahead in the next chapter in the peace process in Ireland and our relations with Britain. Canada’s story provides Ireland with an inspiration for what our futures can be in an island of Ireland finally at peace with itself and with its neighbour.

Thank you.


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Reasons to Read the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies

What a lovely volume, from its easy grip and illustrated cover, to the clarity of its structure and font. Contents, from articles to reviews, are delivered by fine minds and fine writers, under the astute eyes of its editorial team led by Editor Director Professor Jane McGaughey of the Canadian School of Irish Studies at Concordia University. Michelle Holmgren of Mount Royal University, Alberta, now takes over that role and we can look forward to her upcoming issue.  I learned a lot from this volume. If there was a theme I picked up, it was that of identity: as a complex and evolving motivating force for good and bad.  The contributors share a common fearlessness in exploring this.

The cover illustration takes its cue from the transatlantic cable that was laid in 1858 (and again more successfully in 1866) between Valentia Island in Co Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.  Chris Morash of TCD thrillingly anatomizes its significance, contrasting the hyperbole at the time about how the revolutionary technology collapsed space and time, with the desperate poverty in the surrounding areas of both terminal stations. His is an eloquent plea for ethical remembering about the gap between progress and lives lived, about the need to temper hyperbole with more grounded perspectives. There’s a beautiful and informative visual essay to accompany it.  Check out too the website of the project, supported by the Embassy, to have the cable and its terminal stations declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site

On the theme of identity, Jackson Tait’s article on the Canadian AOH reminds us that the Irish of Canada were proud of their nationalism, religion, contribution to building (settler) Canada and loyalty to the crown, a combination squeezed out of our national narrative at home because of the duration and intensity of the struggle for independence against an imperial centre that offered little but resistance. 

Natasha Casey deftly explores how Irishness in the United States has been stealthily used to advance white supremacy and the alt-right.  She reminds us of the dangerous and profoundly wrong notion that the Irish American experience was equivalent to the African American. 

Both Tait and Casey testify to the complexity of the Irish Diaspora.  To be sure Irish emigrants were the exiled colonized while in many instances too colonizers in the new lands in which they found themselves. Much of their success lay in their deftness in moving between divergent worlds, something of a survival skill in conquered Ireland. We have to be careful in drawing parallels with other experiences, such as the indigenous.  There are certainly resonances over the long arc of history but complexity and contentions too.

At the same time, their contributions in the volume capture too some of the excitement in Ireland’s national intellectual life as we recover this complexity of roles and identities in our own history.  As we face into debates of profound import like the prospect of Irish unity, the emergence of a diverse and tolerant post-Christian Ireland, and the challenge of forging a new bilateral relationship with Brexit Britain, this conversation is of the utmost value.  To navigate the future, we can no longer afford the simplification demanded by past national struggles and ethnic assertions.  Complexity, self-awareness, and empathy are our essential allies.

Andrew Sanders and F. Stuart Ross name-check the high-level contribution of Canadians Hoyt, de Chastelain and Cory to the Northern Ireland peace process but the focus of their work is at the activist level of support to both the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries emanating from Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. I look forward to more research on high-level support because I indirectly got Hoyt involved by writing the Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material on Bloody Sunday (which made the case for the new inquiry*)  and directly engaged Justice Cory to investigate allegations of collusion which was a commitment under the Weston Park Agreement. Peter Cory was a wonderful person and Canadian hero, a rare combination of gentleness, determination, absolute integrity, and passion for true justice.  I was honoured to know him.

Joanna Bourke looks at another aspect of identity, namely gender and the history of sexual violence in Ireland from the 1830s to the 1890s.  This is a much-neglected aspect of our history only now being being seriously examined, with a few rare exceptions. Bourke explores her themes through specific cases that from the victim’s point of view must have had a nightmarish quality from the uproarious laughter in court, the use of euphemisms, and the allegation that rape accusations were merely means to leverage marriage. Washed through all of this is the influence of Ireland’s colonial status and its needful stereotypes.

In terms of the book reviews, I was very taken with Eimear Rosato’s review of Mark McGovern’s Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland.  As a traveller (DFA officers who travelled to the North and reported back) and eventually Director of the Justice and Security Section of Anglo-Irish Division, I was heavily involved in this aspect of the NIPP so I look forward to getting a copy of the book itself.

There is so much more in this volume, including articles on poetry, drama and literature generally, not to mention nineteen reviews of recent publications all of which I look forward to reading, preferably beside a fire with a Jameson to hand.  I cannot recommend it highly enough as a volume to snuggle down with as the winter draws in. 


Eamonn McKee


Ottawa, 6 October

*Legend has it that Tony Blair gave Cheri, who had just taken silk, a copy of the Assessment and asked her to read it with her barrister’s eye to see if she thought he could still stand over Widgery.  Oh, were that true!

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Canada’s Capital and the Rideau Canal: The Irish Connection

My remarks for the Annual Commemoration at the Rideau Canal for those whose labours created this wonderful feat of engineering and the many hundreds of Irish and other emigrants who died in its construction. The commemoration is held on the first Monday of August, organized by the Irish Society of the National Capital Region in association with the Bytown Museum. Lieutenant-Colonel John By was the military engineer in charge of construction. It was an engineering masterpiece, as can be seen to this day. However allegations of budget overruns unfairly cost him his reputation. His legacy and that of all of those who helped build it is not only the canal. Without the canal there would be no Ottawa. He constructed a town for the workers which became Bytown. When Queen Victoria had to chose a capital for the Province of Canada in 1857 she faced a tricky choice. The provincial capital had since the creation of the Province in 1841 bounced from Kingston to Montreal, to Toronto, to Quebec, reflecting the inherent political turbulence of relations between the English and the French of Canada. The Province was split between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. The great and good of Canada had deadlocked on a choice for the capital and with it the building of a parliament. It was left to the ‘Queen’s choice’. To the dismay of many, she boldly but wisely chose Ottawa, a small and rough town dominated by the lumber trade. Far from the threat of a US invasion, defensible and connected to much of the Province via the four valleys of the Ottawa, Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence, Ottawa was half-way between Anglo Toronto and French Quebec. John By certainly deserves the various landmarks in Ottawa called after him, most notably the lively Byward Market. In honoring him, we remember those who laboured in the mud and rock to turn his engineering expertise into reality. Canada owes them all their capital city.

A dhaoine uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dia dhaoibh go leir.

I am pleased to be with you all today for this important annual commemoration of those Irish workers and their families who tragically lost their lives during the construction of the Rideau Canal.

I would like to thank all those involved in organising this event today, particularly Sean Kealey, President of the Irish Society of the National Capital Region.  Thanks too to our MC Clare O’Connell Noon and piper Bethany Basillion.

I would like to welcome  Sean McKenny, President of the Ottawa & District Labour Council: and Robin Etherington, Executive Director of Musée Bytown Museum.

As we can see here today, the Rideau Canal is a wonderful piece of civil engineering.  We marvel at its ingenuity, at the harnessing of the power of water.  Looking at the locks lifting and lowering boats is almost hypnotic.

Today it is used for pleasure craft.  But when it was conceived and constructed it was designed as a strategic part of the defence of Canada against an attack from the United States.

The canal also formed a key link in Ottawa’s economic life, enabling the transportation of heavy goods from the Ottawa catchment to Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence and from there to the wider world.

If we were to build it today, we could all imagine the massive machinery involved, the heavy equipment, and the safety standards to protect workers.

It is virtually impossible for us to imagine constructing this with human labour alone.  Yet every load of soil, every stone hoisted, was moved by human energy and muscle at some point in its journey.

That energy and muscle was provided by emigrants and many of those were from Ireland. 

They came to Canada from an impoverished Ireland.  They came to build better lives for themselves and their families. 

Often too they sent money home.  These remittances sometimes made the difference between life and death.

They earned that money anyway that they could, often working in the most brutal and dangerous of environments. 

In many ways, their story is a timeless one.  It is, too often, still the story of immigrants today around the world. 

When work began on the Rideau Canal in 1826, it provided employment for thousands of Irish immigrants for the following six years.

The death rate here was high, as those workers succumbed to illnesses such as malaria and cholera.  Work-place accidents took a heavy toll.   

For those families left behind, such a death would be a disaster in a society that did not provide much if anything by way of support.

This Celtic Cross is a symbol of Ireland.  Its form dates back to the early Christian period beginning when St Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century.

These crosses have always told stories, carved in stone.  This cross tells the story of the hundreds of people who died building this wonderful canal.

In helping to build it, they helped too to build Canada as a free, strong, and prosperous country.

It is right that we enjoy the canal today.  It is right too that we recall the price paid in human toil and toll in its construction.

Many more Irish would come to Canada and find shelter here and a new life.  Today, some 7 million Canadians have Irish ancestry, 14% of the population overall.  Some 40% of Quebecers have Irish ancestry. This cross reminds us of one part of that epic story. 

May all those who died here rest in peace.

Go n-eirí libh go leir.

Thank you.

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Matonabbee and Mr Dobbs: How an Irishman Accidentally Helped Create Canada

Arthur Dobbs exercised his influence on Canada without every setting foot here.  His relentless campaigning in London against the Hudson’s Bay Company eventually forced it to sponsor explorations not just of Hudson Bay but of the vast interior that lay to the north and west, terra incognita to Europeans. 

Dobbs’ campaign against the HBC also inadvertently created one of the most successful exploration partnerships in history, that between the great Chipewyan Chief and explorer Matonabbee and the Englishman Samuel Hearne. By inadvertently bringing these two together, Dobbs also unknowingly created a partnership that forged indigenous and western knowledge as a means of exploration and critically mapping.  This set the template for the exploration of the vast interior that lay beyond what was then considered Canada, the hunk of the east coast and the course of the St Lawrence known to Europeans. 

Dobbs himself was the personification of the imperialist and mercantile mind-set, holding to the beliefs of white and European superiority that dominated European thinking in the 18th century.  He would have been askance that someone like Matonabbee could possibly be considered one of the most significance men of his generation and one of the greatest explorers of the 18th century.

As Stephen R. Bown records in new history of the HBC, The Company, The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay’s Empire,[1]  Dobbs was keen to end the Company’s monopoly.  He was obsessed with the discovery of what he believed to be the Northwest Passage from Hudson’s Bay to Asia.  He was convinced that the Company was either indifferent to, or at worst concealing its existence, the better to preserve their exclusive domain and their trade monopoly. For Dobbs, the only way to open up exploration was to end the Company’s monopoly and encourage the prospects of trade that could finance exploration.  Dobbs would prove to be a relentless and formidable opponent, forcing the HBC on the defensive.

Dobbs hailed from an illustrious family in County Antrim. As an engineer and Surveyor-General of Ireland, he oversaw the construction of public buildings including the Irish Parliament in Dublin (during the golden age of Dublin before the catastrophe of the Act of Union in 1800).  High Sheriff of Antrim, MP for Carrickfergus (1727-60), an amateur scientist, sometime soldier, and a friend of Jonathan Swift, Dobbs represented the energy, confidence, imperialism, entitlement, and boundless ambition of the 18th century gentleman.[2] 

Dobbs was very much a man of his age in his obsession to find the Northwest Passage, the conviction that there existed in its eponymous direction a route from Europe to Asia.  This dream had spurred Europe’s great Age of Discovery (discovery at least for Europeans), including the voyages of Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus.  The source of most global economic activity and therefore wealth was Asia and its great arterial supply line, the famed Silk Road.  Western Europe, something of a global backwater, was desperate to get direct access to that trade.[3]

The Hudson Bay Company had been founded in 1670 by a Charter granted by Charles II to his family, friends and powerful figures in England during the Restoration, including Prince Rupert, the king’s cousin. [4] Its vast domain encompassed the rivers draining into Hudson Bay. The Charter therefore granted exclusive trading rights over an incomprehensibly large territory (later discovered to be four million square kilometres, about 40% of modern Canada[5], containing possibly ten million beavers).  That it was known as Prince Rupert’s Land says something of the presumption behind the enterprise; as if it was a vacant and uninhabited lot there for the taking. 

Though it was a commercial rather than imperial project, the Charter also bid the company to find a route to Asia.  The Company largely ignored this minor obligation though it did in 1690 sponsor a young explorer, Henry Kelsey, to head west.[6]  Thereafter and for the next sixty years it lost interest in the vast lands to the west and north of Lake Superior.  The Company stayed huddled in its trading posts in Hudson Bay where the main rivers of the interior drained into the sea on their great east-west journey across what was to become Canada.  The Company felt had no need to go inland since First Nations hunters and traders brought the supply of beaver pelts to them in exchange for the goods shipped from England (those most valued by the First Nations and Inuit being metal pots and kettles, axes, guns, fish hooks, blankets, beads, tobacco, brandy, sugar and the like).  The HBC would remain in complete ignorance of the complex diplomatic, trading and logistical system that operated across the country to bring the beaver pelts to them.

The indigenous were amused by the value that Europeans put on the beaver pelt and all the coveted goods they could get for them.  In fact, their own worn out coats of beaver skin were even more valuable since the rough outer hairs had been removed by use, exposing the soft interior fur.  It was this fur that made the best felt, in turn making and shaping hats that resisted rain.  Europe could simply not get enough felt to feed the fashion for hats, everything from tricorns to top hats. In fact, the trade in beaver pelt was the single most important factor is the creation of nation state of Canada.  And most of that was controlled by the HBC, albeit with some lesser competition from the French. So the history of the HBC is inextricably bound in the history of Canada’s foundation.[7]

Enter Arthur Dobbs, coming to London from Ireland with his obsessions and the manic energy and influence to pursue them. Bown writes:

“The biggest threat to the company’s monopoly in Hudson Bay emanated from the geographical musings and political agitations of a choleric Irishman named Arthur Dobbs.  The wealthy son of a prominent civil servant, Dobbs moved to London and became an intimate of the city’s prominent courtiers and financiers.  His favourite topics were free trade and the Northwest Passage, and the Company blocked the pathways leading to both of his dreams. An amateur hydrographer, he had analysed the tide levels in Hudson Bay and fixated upon the prevalence of whales that seemed never to exit into the Atlantic through the Hudson Strait.  Therefore, he concluded, the Northwest Passage must exist, in spite of the [failed] explorations a century earlier by Button, Foxe and James.”

As Bown recounts, Dobbs managed to convince the Royal Navy to fund a voyage of exploration which set off in 1741.  When it turned up nothing, Dobbs convinced the British Government to offer £20,000 to anyone who could find the Northwest Passage from Hudson Bay in 1745.  No one took up the offer so, ever relentless, Dobbs put together an expedition of two ships.  When that failed, Dobbs persuaded the Government to investigate the HBC in 1749 in a bid to break its monopoly.  Amidst wild claims and exaggerations, Dobbs lost credibility and returned for some years to Ireland.[8]

However, Dobbs’ hullabaloo about the HBC’s monopoly and the lack of any attempt to explore and exploit their enormous domain put them on the defensive.  To head off criticisms that they were failing to build Britain’s mercantile reach and protect their monopoly, the HBC was open now to opportunities to fund explorations. In 1754 the HBC sponsored an inland trip by Anthony Henday and his guide Attickasish. 

However, it was a report in 1767 from a Chipewyan chief and regular supplier to the HBC’s factories[9], the famed Matonabbee, of his travels deep into the interior that got the attention of Moses Norton, the commander of Prince of Wales fort in Hudson Bay.  Matonabbee was a natural born leader, diplomat, explorer, and multilinguist with a vast reservoir of indigenous knowledge that allowed him to traverse and survive the land’s unforgiving geography, tribal tensions, dangerous predators, and brutal climate (there were a lot of ways to die in Canada).  He reported to Norton that a river flowed into the sea out west. More than that, Matonabbee brought with him a hunk of copper.

The incentive to possibly find mineral wealth and just maybe the Northwest Passage finally stirred the company into action.  The sense of pressure and competition from French traders moving north and west added another rationale.[10] By 1770, Matonabbee was teamed up with Samuel Hearne, a hardy, intelligent, and experienced Royal Navy sailor trained in navigation and astronomy. On their epic trip of some eight thousand kilometres there and back, they reached the Arctic Ocean and concluded rightly that there was no Northwest Passage.

Shoalts: “Although Matonabbee and Hearne might not be anywhere near as famous as Lewis and Clarke, they ought to warrant serious consideration of as rival claimants to the title of the greatest exploring duo in North American history.”[11]

However, Bown makes an important distinction between their roles:  “The expedition was conceived by Moses Norton, financed by the Company and led by Matonabbee following his well-trodden commercial route.  Hearne was the map-maker and chronicler.”[12]

Yet what distinguishes travel from exploration is map-making and there was no doubt that their epic adventure succeeded as exploration because of the combination of the skills and knowledge of both men.  They established a template of cooperation that later explorers would follow, mixing indigenous and western knowledge to map and open the vast interior between the known east and the unknown lands between the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Along with the technology of mass violence, perfected by Europeans, map-making is the key tool of empire, the means to control and exploitation.

As for Arthur Dobbs, having bought some 400,000 acres in North Carolina in 1745, he moved there in 1754 to take up the position of Governor and encourage Scots-Irish settlement.  He had further adventures dealing with the French and Indian War, the start of the American Revolution, making the first recorded observation of the Venus flytrap and, inevitably given his personality (what in Northern Ireland they call ‘thran’) , engaging in running battles with the State Assembly.

In 1762, at the age of 73, Dobbs married a fifteen year old and got a stroke some months later (no comment). Though in a wheelchair, he resolved to return finally to Ireland but died in 1765 before making the journey home. 

By this time Matonabbee was a seasoned traveller and trader across the vast interior but his epic adventure with Samuel Hearne lay in the future.  Dobbs died without knowing of his contributions, designed and unwitting alike, to a key chapter in the creation in modern Canada.

Matonabbee’s end was tragic.  In 1782, a French raiding party destroyed the two HBC trading posts of Prince of Wales and York, taking as prisoners Hearne and most of the HNC employees to England.  Bereft of his status as the key between the supply of beaver and the supply of western goods, convinced that he would never see his friends again, without a home or supplies for the winter, with six wives and four children to feed, he committed suicide, a very rare occurrence among the indigenous. 

Hearne returned to Hudson Bay to rebuild but his heart was no longer in it and he died in England before his account of his epic adventure was published, to lasting acclaim. Though Hearne was in effect a passenger of Matonabbee on the exploration, it was he who won fame because he was the European and he wrote it down.

As for the HBC and their French rivals in the fur trade (the Nor’Westers), the competition drove them inexorably to explore, map, trade and settle their way across the interior in their hunt for beaver pelts. The western frontier of Canada moved inexorably westward as the hunt for the beaver continued, fueled by the insatiable European demand for its pelt.

So if there is a central character in this, it is in fact not the hunter or trader that made Canada but their prize, the industrious beaver.  In 1975, the National Symbol of Canada Act gave the beaver official status as an emblem of the national sovereignty of Canada.



March 2021

[1] (Doubleday, Canada 2020), 105


[3] See Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, A New History of the World.

[4] See Mark Bourrie’s Bush Runner, The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, for an engaging biography of a remarkable man and a remarkable life: Radisson tried to sell the idea of trading from Hudson’s Bay for beaver pelts to the French who passed on it.

[5] Ibid, 42

[6] Ibid, 88-89: see also Adam Shoalts A History of Canada in Ten Maps (Penguin Canada, 2018), 125-6.  Kelsey’ trip lasted three years and took him as far as the plains.

[7] Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada, first published in 1930, represented a revolution in historical thinking, flipping the causal narrative from ‘great men’ to the beaver. See Charlotte Gray, The Promise of Canada, pp 104-123.

[8] Ibid, 155-8.

[9] Known as such because they were led by ‘factors’ or managers but they were simply trading posts.

[10] After the fall of New France, 1759, French competitors set up the North West Company and pushed exploration north and west.

[11] Shoalts, 178

[12] Op cit, 173


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The Fews, South Armagh (Féa, woods): A place name and a potted history of a legendary Area

I have an interest in The Fews of South Armagh for family and professional reasons.  My paternal grandfather, one of seven brothers, came from Newtownhamilton, and fought for the IRA during the War of Independence.  After partition, he came to Dublin and set up a successful business.  When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, security normalisation in South Armagh was a challenging part of my brief in Anglo-Irish Division.

“Fiod is one of the words meaning ‘wood’ and is Anglicized as fee or fi,” writes Flanagan (p.88). In the case of the Fews in South Armagh (and Waterford), it is the Irish plural féa with the English plural ‘s’ added. 

As Joyce notes, Ireland was covered in woods so there are a host of words in Irish to describe them.  He gives fiod as fidh, or in Old Irish fid.  So covered in woods was Ireland that he records that one of the Bardic names for Ireland was Inis-na-bhfiodhaid or woody island (vol I, p 491).  Feenish in Co Clare is another way of saying woody island.  Fiodhach means a wooded place, hence Feagh, Feeagh, Feenagh.

Fee can have white (bán), big (mór), small (beg) and high (ard) added to it: Feebane, Feemore, Feebeg, Fethard and Feeard.

The Fews of South Armagh was historically a dangerous place whose locals fought to preserve their independence from invaders and interlopers.  None were more famous than Redmond O’Hanlon, a 17th century Gaelic Chieftain and, perforce, an Irish outlaw who, in a manner of speaking, helped preserve order, admittedly at a price.  The protection money he received he paid back out to his supporters and informants. He was a rapparee or tóraidhe, an irregular; ironically tóraidhe mutated into Tory as a name for the British conservative party. O’Hanlon was of noble Gaelic stock whose family was displaced of land and status by the Elizabeth and Cromwellian conquests.  He was betrayed and assassinated in 1681 but his name lives on in legend.

The North is naturally cut off from the rest of Ireland by the Erne river system, a band of steep ovoid drumlins (left behind by melting glaciers after the ice age) and the Mourne Mountains. There is a gap in the mountains that allows passage into Ulster from the south.  For that reason, South Armagh has featured as the focal point of wars and power struggles from mythic to modern times (see blog on Slieve Gullion). 

Faughart marks the southern end of the Gap of the North.  St Brigid was born here in 451, daughter of Dubhtach, a king of Leinster (we don’t know what he was doing there at the time of her birth). St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. The shrine to her at Faughart is a popular attraction for pilgrims and tourists.

In Louth to the south, the land is flat and fertile, in contrast to South Amargh whose terrain was buckled by a volcano (now the famous Ring of Gullion).  Louth represented the northern reach of the Anglo-Norman Pale around Dublin. So the Fews of South Armagh were at the heart of a ferocious and prolonged struggle for control between the native Gaels, led by the O’Neills of the Fews, and the Anglo-Norman and later Elizabethan invaders. 

Mountjoy, Elizabeth I’s most successful soldier in Ireland, built Moyry Castle to hold the Gap of the North. As Toby Harnden points out in his book Bandit Country, The IRA and South Armagh, the castles built to control the area were the forerunners of the British Army Observation Towers erected during the Troubles.  

South Armagh became infamous as the redoubt of the local Provisional IRA, a ferocious and bloody conflict between local paramilitaries and the security forces. It was the scene too of sectarian atrocities.  There are both Protestant and Catholic McKees in Newtownhamilton.  James McKee (70) and Ronald McKee (40) were killed by a republican attack on Tullyvalen Orange Hall, along with two other civilians.

For the security forces, the fifteen Observation (surveillance) Towers and concrete sangers dotted around South Armagh were critical as far as the British Army and Northern Ireland police were concerned.  They would not or could not patrol without them. Troops moved and were resupplied by helicopter between them to avoid roadside ambushes.

For locals the Towers, and the constant helicopter traffic, were a serious imposition giving rise to all kinds of concerns about lack of privacy, noise, constant surveillance, possible health effects, and the fear that going about their daily lives meant they were at risk of being mistaken for paramilitaries.  I recall Séamus Mallon, SDLP Deputy Leader, MP and a modern day local chieftain (the peaceful variety), from nearby Markethill, saying that the Towers were the bane of his existence as a politician.

When I was a traveller in Anglo-Irish Division during the Troubles, there was always a sense of alertness as you entered the Gap of North, under the gaze of the Observation Tower on Camlough Mountain.  There was equally a sense of relief when you passed through it heading south.  Rosemary Nelson and I used to talk about this.  A human rights lawyer from Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Rosemary represented the Garvaghy Road residents during the Drumcree standoff.  Times were tense: contentious parades surged as new flashpoints in the conflict in the wake of the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires. Rosemary felt the relief acutely, either heading to Dublin or across the border for a holiday in Donegal.

The bitterest of all standoffs was between the Orange Order and the Garvaghy Residents of Portadown. I was the Government’s point-man on this and got to know Rosemary.  In 1994, the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Ray Burke, dispatched me north to meet the Residents the day after they were beaten off the Garvaghy Road to allow the Orange parade to pass. As I approached the Gap of the North, I could see trails of black smoke from burning tires spiral skyward across the north. The north had erupted into riots the previous evening. A burned-out bus lay athwart the Newry by-pass. When I reached the massive steel gates that separated the Garvaghy Road from Portadown centre, the RUC officers open the gates with barely a nod. They knew I was coming. As the tires crunched over broken glass, my first thought was that getting a puncture leaving Portadown was probably not a good idea wearing a suite and tie and driving a southern registered car. I was glad I had left my DFA ID on the desk.

The Orange Order itself was founded in County Armagh at the end of the 18th century where the balance between Catholic and Protestant populations ramped up sectarian tensions and inter-communal violence. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1995, the line was held on the Garvaghy Road by the security forces and over time the tensions around the parades issues were managed into de-escalation. Rosemary paid the price for her high profile role as a human rights defender and was assassinated by car bomb outside her home in 1999.  

After the Good Friday Agreement achieving security normalisation was part of my brief in DFA’s Anglo-Irish Division.  Progress on security normalisation in South Armagh was very challenging but the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and Prime Minister Blair kept working at it with the determination that marked all their effects to bring peace to Northern Ireland. 

That the Observation Towers were eventually demolished along with all the security architecture at the border crossing was an emphatic demonstration that peace in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the legendary Fews of South Armagh, was here to stay.  Today, it is hard to spot the border, save for a keen eye on the colour of the road markings.  The determination to preserve this gain, so essential to the Northern Ireland peace process, has been a driving force in the Government’s efforts to manage the challenge of Brexit to the progress we have made.


Ottawa, 7 March 2021

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The Beauty, Magic, and Mystery of Slieve Gullion – Sliabh gCuillinn

Slieve Gullion, Armagh’s highest peak, is surrounded by a natural dyke, formed by a collapsed volcano, the famous Ring of Gullion.  This made it a great place for outlaws and rebel locals to hide since time immemorial and a dangerous place for travelers (particularly taxmen and other officials).  The dramatic pass between Slieve Gullion, and the Mourne Mountains was the traditional gateway between Leinster and Ulster, the famous Gap of the North. A narrow defile between steep slopes, it was easy to hold against an invading force.  For centuries, even millennia, competition for control of South Armagh and its pass has played a major role in our history. 

The Gap of the North was a focal point of conflict for centuries between local Gaels and the invading Normans and English. It has been said that during this struggle, south of the frontier wealth was measured by land, the English way, and north of it measured in cattle, the Gaelic way.  South Armagh earned a new reputation during the Troubles as a redoubt of the Provisional IRA. 

As one of the Department’s travelers during the Northern Ireland conflict, I would regularly drive north to meet contacts.  As you crest the elevation just south of Dundalk, Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains would loom ahead, the Gap easily spotted as your entry point to the north.  I have a vivid memory of that skyline ominously strung with plumes of black smoke curling into the air after clashes around the parades issue in the summer of 1997. Soon you were speeding through the Gap of the North, hilly shoulders either side: on that trip heading to Drumcree, at the behest of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke.  When you traveled north, there was always a subtle sense of relief, of unguardedness, on the return journey as you scooted out of the Gap and were back south.

The European Union Single Market removed the need for a border and opened the way for the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  To spot where the border is today, you have to keep an eye out for a change in the colour of the road markings.  Thanks to a lot of diplomatic ingenuity by the Irish Government and the EU Commission, the open border has stayed open despite Brexit.

Today, the Ring of Gullion, the Mourne Mountains and the Carlingford Lough are great destinations walkers, hikers, and day trippers.  For when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, check out its history and ways to explore it here

Slieve Guillion’s beauty comes from its physical appearance, the conical hill of Armagh’s highest peak surrounded by crags and set beside the Mourne Mountains. Its magic comes from the fact that it is the epicentre of Ireland’s ancient saga, the Táin Bó Cuailgne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mystery comes from its place name.

Sliabh is straight-forward, meaning a mountain (or moor or mountain land) and always comes with a qualifier, like mór (big) or rua (red). The spectacular Slieve League in Co Donegal is Sliabh Liag, mountain of the flagstones (Flanagan). Slievenamon in Co Tipperary is Sliabh na mBan, Mountain of the Women. However, there is no certainty as the meaning of Gullion. It appears that Gullion could mean one of three things; Culann (a name), cuillean (a slope) or cuileann/cuillinn (holly).

The uncertainty around the meaning of Gullion is all the stranger since it is so central to the action of the great Irish saga, the Táin, when Queen Maebh of Connaught launched her raid to seize the Brown Bull of Ulster from the Cooley Penninsula. To get there she and her army had to pass through the Gap of North at Slieve Gullion. She had one problem.  The mythic hero, Cú Chulainn, stood in the gap determined to save Ulster and win eternal fame by defeating her army single-handedly.

Cú Chulainn got his name from Culann, the smith who forged the weapons of the King of Ulster, Conchobhar MacNessa. Culann was hosting a feast for the king and his knights at his fort and had released his ferocious hound () to guard them.  Setanta, the young Cú Chulainn, was late for the feast and killed the attacking hound, much to Culann’s anger.  To assuage him, Setanta offered to become his hound, Culann’s hound.

Since Culann’s forge was at Slieve Gullion (pretty appropriate given its volcanic origins), it would seem logical to assume that it translates as Culann’s mountain, with Gullion an Anglicization of Culann. Not so fast.

Flanagan does not shed any light on it directly. does not throw much light on it, simply noting that it is a non-validated name. Joyce, however, proposes and then disposes of the notion that Gullion refers to Culann.  If so, he writes, it would be spelt Sliabh-Culainn.  Rather he thinks that it is Sliabh-Cuillinn “which admits of only one interpretation, the mountain of the holly.” 

Flanagan does say that Cuilleann means ‘steep unbroken slope’ and appears as Cullion in Cos Down and Tyrone.  But she does not reference Gullion, even though to me it sounds close and of course as Armagh’s highest peak certainly has steep slopes. Since topography predates vegetation which predates human habitation, perhaps logic suggests that Gullion is Cuilleann.  She goes go on to say that cuilleann is close to cuileann, meaning holly: “and as a result many names have been erroneously constructed as referring to ‘holly’. We may never know for sure what Gullion means but unravelling its mystery is a good way to reveal the rich heritage of this beautiful area.


Ottawa, 13 February 2021

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St Brigid’s Day Festival Vancouver

Welcoming Remarks

First of all, I want to say thanks and pay tribute to Maura Freitas, founder of the Irish Connection and Irish Benevolent Society of BC.  Maura and her team have put together an excellent and impressive programme of speakers.  Thanks to all the volunteers who made this possible, including my colleagues at the Consulate General in Vancouver, Jennifer Bourke and Frank Flood.  Also special thanks to the sponsors for making this possible. 

Brigid’s Day is going from strength to strength.  It has met a need for women to be recognised and to connect.  It brings balance to the celebration of our heritage in St Patrick’s Day which has traditionally been very male orientated, from St Patrick himself to the often male-dominated Irish societies over the centuries.  Celebrations of our National Day have expressed great pride in being Irish. They sustained not only the fight for independence back home but inspired love and support for Irish heritage within our Diaspora.

St Brigid’s Day adds a whole new and vital dimension to the celebration of Ireland and continuing epic story of the Irish.

There seems to me to be a number of distinct phases in the celebration of St Brigid, well captured in this programme this week.

There is the goddess Brigid from pre-Christian times.  Goddess of spring, fertility, poetry and blacksmithing. She was clearly a very powerful figure in Gaelic society. This reflects the fact that women had agency in Gaelic society and, accordingly, feature as key players in the ancient Irish mythology and sagas. Think Maebh in the Táin and the Morrigan, the great queen of the otherworld who commands war and fate. Marriage was a fluid contract: Divorce was available, relations were formed and reformed. 

I think the fluidity of marriage, its dependence on the quality of the relationship, was because marriage was distinct from property.  Property in Gaelic Ireland was held communally.  You could not alienate it from your kin and their territory, the tuath.  On your death, it reverted to the kin for re-division.   

Then there is the Saint Brigid of Christian times.  There is no doubt that St Brigid was a very powerful figure in early Christian Ireland.  We know this from the fact that she is one of our three patron saints (along with Patrick and Columkille). The order she founded began modestly as a wooden building under a magnificent oak tree that Brigid loved it.  This of course recalls Brigid’s intimate relationship with nature.  So attuned was she to nature that it was said that she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam.  Her cell was situated on a ridge overlooking the grassy plains of the Curragh.  This was probably at the close of the fifth century.  Her convent was a great success and soon expanded, and around it grew the the town of Kildare.  Kildare as a place name means the Church of the Oak.

For centuries after her death in 523, the influence of Brigid’s religious order and its convents around Ireland endured.  There are thirty-four townlands and parishes in Ireland called Kilbride, the church of Bríde.  Indeed, the legacy of St Brigid was so powerful that the episcopal heirs St Patrick in Armagh refrained from imposing their will on her domain.  When Armagh was trying to establish its position as the archiepiscopal head of the church in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries, it stepped back from a confrontation with Kildare because of the power of St Brigid. In the Book of the Angel (part of the Book of Armagh), the angel that appears to Patrick and grants him and Armagh leadership of the church in Ireland, says:

“Between St Patrick and Brigit, the pillars of the Irish, such friendship of charity dwelt that they had one heart and one mind. Christ performed many miracles through him and her.  The holy man therefore said to the Brigit, your paruchia in your province will be reckoned unto you for your monarchy: but in the eastern and western part it will be in my domination.”

As the historian Kathleen Hughes notes, “Armagh would not forego her universal claims to sovereignty in these areas, but she recognised the area of central Leinster remained under Brigid’s authority and except from Patrick’s universal claims” (The Church in Early Irish Society, pp 113-114.)

Devotion to Brigid is then eclipsed by the cult of the Virgin Mary in the second half of the nineteenth century, in other words after the catastrophe of the Great Famine, 1845-51. Before this Irish Nakba, the peasantry of Ireland still revered the natural environment and all the invocations of ancient beliefs that came with it – the reverence for holy wells, trees, and sacred places with their immemorial traces of previous occupation, the old churches and pilgrimages.

However, after the Great Famine, the Marian cult takes hold, and St Mary’s popularity grows immensely in Ireland.  Think of those iconic statues of St Mary in churches and grottos around Ireland.  Mary was a new icon befitting the new social imperatives after the Famine. The brutal lesson of the Famine was that the unity of the farm was a matter of life and death.  No more the subdivision among sons, no more the reliance on a single crop. Survival meant having a sustainable farm.  Passing on the farm intact to one son was the highest desideratum. This imperative redefined marriage not as a relationship but as a critical mechanism for inheritance. 

The Catholic Church, already active to secure for itself control of Irish education since the Act of Union of 1800 which abolished the Irish parliament, found a new and vital role for itself in policing sexuality morality and protecting the lineage of property and the integrity of the farm. This meant policing women’s bodies.

The iron relationship between property and marriage, and the influence this in turn provided for the Catholic Church, triggered a grim period for Irish women.  It meant the repression of sexuality. Sex outside marriage was a threat to this new order. Pregnancy outside of marriage was a disaster.  The very allure of women, the pull to form loving relationships was now a threat to the existential need to preserve the farm and to conform to the social dictates of the Catholic Church.

Thus begins a long and difficult period for Irish women. Eligible men are rare and older because they must wait for their fathers to retire to get the farm and marry.  If a son is not to inherit the farm, he can join the British Army, the civil service, become a priest, or a barman.  If not, he will most likely have to emigrate.  For women, the options were far fewer.  By the end of the 19th century, in the tidal wave of Irish emigration to America, more Irish women than men were emigrating. 

In the 1911 census, my great grandmother, Mary Kirrane from Roscommon, is recorded as having had twelve children and she would go on to have another one.  She was forty-five years of age and her husband Michael was sixty-eight.  This was a very typical pattern of the time, late but fertile marriages.

For women who found themselves pregnant outside of marriage, their fate was grim, as was that of their children.  Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Babies Homes, orphanages, adoptions overseas and industrial schools.  The fathers concerned became the great invisible men of Ireland.

The partition of Ireland in 1921 meant a homogenous and triumphant Catholic Ireland after independence in 1922. It also created a new role for the Church and religious orders in the provision of health services. It was a hard and often cruel society for those girls, women and children outside of marriage.

Even in the liberal 1960s, the stigma and shame of relationships outside of marriage were powerful forces.  Young women had to emigrate to find some form of freedom.  Edna O’Brien became the voice and symbol of young Irish women.  Irish women like Bernadette Devlin, Mary Robinson, Nell McCafferty, Nuala O’Faolain and countless others in the suffering rank and file of women led the fight for change.  The Ireland in which I grew up is now no longer. Ireland is a better place across virtually all social and economic metrics. The weight of history has been removed but its impact and costs have yet to be assessed.  

I am delighted to see Monica McWilliams on your roster of speakers, whom I know from Stormont’s Castle Complex during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.  The Women’s Coalition, like the women before them in the Peace Movement, played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process.  They were a vital ingredient in the successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement because they made sure everyone’s voice was heard, made sure the Agreement represented everyone’s hopes and aspirations.

Enough of me, I do not want to interpose myself as a white male in your programme and discussions. I am delighted and honoured to welcome you and to reiterate my thanks to all those involved in making this happen. Check out the festival’s programme for this week here

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Kill (Cill, a church but also Coill, a wood)

Kill (also Kil, Kyle or even Cal) is second only to Baile as a common root word.  Care is needed because Kill can also derive from the Irish word for a church, Cill, or a wood, Coill.  Joyce reckons about one-fifth of 3,400 Irish place names with Kill refer to a wood. Telling the difference can come down to pronunciation in Irish or a church ruin. #Irishplacenames

Kill is directly taken from the Latin Cella (a room in a building) and marks therefore the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century.  Other names in Irish for church all come from Latin: Eaglis, teampall, and domhnach.

Another indicator that Kill in a place name refers to a church is association with a saint’s name: St Canice (Kilkenny), St Columba or Colman (Kilcoman).  St Brigid gives us Cill-Bhrighde or Kilbride and Kilbreedy   Kilmurray might come from a surname but could be Cill-Mhuire, the church of Mary.

As Flanagan points out, if Kill is associated with a parish, the chances are it refers to a church.  Kill as a church is often joined with a local feature; Kildare (Cill-daro, Church of the oak tree), Kilroot (Cill Ruaidh, Church of the red [soil]).

The mellifluous Killashandra, Co. Cavan, is Cill na Seanrátha, the Church of the old fort. Shankill is simply Seanchill, old church and may mean that its original name, likely associated with a saint, is lost.

Tulach is a hill which gives us the parish of Kiltullagh in Co Roscommon.  As Joyce records, it could be the hill of the wood but the ruin of a church on the hill provides the solution. My grandmother Winifred Kirrane was born in Cloonfad East in the parish of Kiltullagh. Recall Cluain fáda, long meadow or pasture, often near a river or a marsh: that indeed is the topography of Cloonfad. 

Christianity in Ireland arrived in three ways. There were small colonies of Christians in the east of Ireland, thanks to the Irish influence in southwest Wales and the traffic across the Irish sea, including the slave trade. Palladius was sent from Auxerre (Burgundy) by Pope Celestine to Ireland in 431 as bishop of the Christians in Ireland. Palladius focused on the south, possibly with Cashel as his base. After his famous six-year stint as a slave, St Patrick returned from Roman Britain around 432. His activities were concentrated in the northeast, central and western areas (see Kathless Huges, The Church in Early Irish Society). His base is traditionally associated with Armagh. Where Palladius was learned and steeped in continental christianity, Patrick declared himself unlearned, speaking a rough Latin without a wide or sophisticated vocabulary. He never refers to Palladius or to any Christians in Ireland before his mission to convert the Irish. Accompanied by young Gaelic nobles and bearing gifts, he was a remarkably successful missionary.

The arrival of Christianity in Ireland was a profound event in Ireland’s history. It brought with not just a new religion but writing. This began a process or recording Gaelic society’s language, laws, literature, history and genealogies. Up to that point, the vast corpus of knowledge and culture was memorized. It is an incredible thought that a whole society lived essentially in a mind-palace. Christianity itself adapted its form to Gaelic society, its power-structures, laws and landholding. Irish monks left their churches and monasteries in the C7th and C8th centuries to establish monasteries and centres of learning in France, Germany and Italy, playing a critical role in saving Western civilization.

In the ruins of churches and monasteries, and in their associated place names, monks prayed, meditated and wrote (and illustrated) the books that changed the course of Irish history and saved western civilization.



30 January 2021


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Bally – Baile (place, home, town, townland)

Bally is one of the most common components of Irish place names, numbering some 6,400.  However, precisely what it means is complicated.  It takes Flanagan some six pages to explain.  Originally it appears to have meant simply a place.  It might even have meant a fort.  Joyce records that that may be why the lighthouse at Howth is called the Bailey because it was built on a promontory fort know as baile. In Cormac’s tenth century Glossary, Flanagan notes, baile is glossed as ráth or fort.

From ‘place’ baile evolved to mean homestead or settlement, referring most likely to the cluster of settlements rather than the unit of land around them.  The arrival of the Normans and the phonetic similarity to villa may have helped ensure its survival as the Normans settled in and adapted to Gaelic society.

Perhaps more directly, the new monastic orders that arrived in Ireland in the mid-12th century, prior to the Normans in 1169-70, had used baile to record grants and endowments of land, content that the term meant a specific unit of land. These are the first records of the use of the term for that purpose.

By the middle of the 11th century, then, when these records began to be kept of who had title to what land, Bally came to describe geographic units.  Again the size was not standard, reflecting the fact that baile was being used to describe the land around settlements of any size.  This evolved so that townlands, the smallest geographic unit, were often called Bally-this or that. Very often baile or bally was associated with a family name, presumably the chief who had possession of the land.  As villages and towns were established, it came to mean one.  The town in question could be of any size, echoing its loose definition of scope and its original meaning of place. 

In the east, as Joyce notes, Bally can be shortened to Bal, as in Balgriffin, Baldoyle, and Balbriggan.

In modern Irish usage, baile means home as in ‘tar abhaile’, come home, or ‘mo sheoladh baile’, my home address. 

So identified with Irish towns and villages that writers often resort to it when dreaming up fictional towns.  Tom Murphy’s 1985 play, Bailegangaire (Baile-gan-gaire, town without laugher) earned its name from the plot.  The BBC’s series (1996-2001) was set in the fictional Ballykissangel which somehow derived from its Irish fictional place name Bally Coisc Aingeal, the town of the fallen angel.  Go figure.  I never watched it so I can’t help there.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, W.B. Yeats used it when creating the name of the Norman tower he purchased and restored near Gort, Co Galway: Thoorballylee, Túr (tower) baile Ó Laoigh (surname).

The biggest Baile needs a separate blog: Baile Áth Cliath, Dublin.


23 January



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