On Watching Clark’s ‘Civilisation’

Clark outdoes Rex Harrison as Professor ‘iggins.  He rolls and rounds his r’s as if they’re chunky pieces of wood that must be honed into spheres.  He manages to have four distinct syllables in ‘naturally’.  Each word quickly takes its place on the stage of his sentence and takes a bow.

Like his sentences, his body is unhurried and he takes his time to prop or fold himself into position no matter where he is; at the foot of David, on a mountainside, on a rock beside a river that flows by a Roman aqueduct, or wandering a country lane in sight of Urbino.

Clark is unhurried in mind and body.  There are longeurs where he does not speak, where the visuals and music are allowed time and we time to pause.  And when he does speak it is to offer a lifetime’s distilled thinking, the essence leavened with his personal insight, connecting at the right time the nature of the subject he is addressing with the lived life.

Yet unhurried, he covers so much ground under elegant and resonant titles that show a deeply organised approach to his massive subject: Romance and Reality, Man: The Measure of All Things, The Hero as Artist, Protest and Communication, Grandeur and Obedience, etc.

Clark wistfully admires the men of the twelfth century, all those pious cathedral building kings, those erudite churchmen, those anonymous stonemasons full of reverence and craft.  He admires them because they laid the foundation of modern European civilisation and did so with energy and confidence.  We are, even if we know it or not, still in their debt.

Clark wanders around renaissance Italy recounting the ferocious conniving of popes and princes, and the equally ferocious will of its artists, like the volcanic creative force of Michelangelo, the sword-wielding-book-loving Duke of Urbino, and the standalone and out of time genius of da Vinci with his demonic curiosity and boundless genious in all things.  But you sense too that he would be rather afraid to have lived amongst them.

In The Light of Experience, you find yourself eventually in territory that he ill-favours.  Under the protection of the subtitle ‘a personal view’, Clark lets you know what he thinks of the preoccupation with money and the beginnings of industrialisation.  After admiring one of the finest rooms ever built, he points to an untidy dirty smudge of buildings lurking behind the spacious grandeur of Greenwich naval hospital.  If his pronunciation of capitalism is odd (ca’pit’ilism) you grasp clearly that a preoccupation with making money as a supreme societal endeavour rankles, even as he admits that some extra cash is a necessity of art.  The problem is that an excess of money, no less than an excess of state power, is incompatible with an art or architecture to which the individual can relate.  He points to Versailles and the neo-classicism of 17th century Paris. Hard to fault him.

No disguising his delight in the period of his supreme episode so far, The Smile of Reason.  Here is a time of men and women (pointing to the tactful ladies of the French salon who nurtured civilisation in conversation) in which Clark would have happily lived. Their preoccupations and inspirations are close to his own. No surprise because Clark wears the smile of reason throughout the series.

Next he turns to The Worship of Nature and one of Britain’s few genuine contributions to Europe, the English garden, an insult he throws off with so light a touch you hardly notice it.

Eamonn

 

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Fake News: The Sinking of the Athenia, not the Titanic, is the Metaphor of our Time

The sinking of the Titanic is the most popular maritime disaster, an endless source of fascination and metaphor.  Yet it tells us less about our times than the fate of the Athenia.

Depending on the time of year, the SS Athenia of the Donaldson Atlantic Line regularly plied the route from Glasgow to Montreal or Halifax carrying passengers and emigrants.  This time she was headed to Montreal.  After a stop at Liverpool, she made her way around the Irish coast and headed northwest setting a course to take her between Rockall and Inishtrahull, well off her usual track.  This was because it was September 1939 and all merchant ships had been ordered off their usual routes since 22 August.  Though Captain James Cooke and all aboard knew that war had just been declared between Britain and Germany, the trip was deemed safe because as a passenger ship the Athenia was protected by the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which Germany had not ratified but had agreed to abide by its terms.  Under those terms, passengers and crew of merchant ships and passenger liners were first to be put in places of safety before their vessel was sunk.

Oberleutant Frist-Julius Lemp was in command of U-30 based out of Wilhelmshaven on patrol in the North Atlantic since 27 August.  He spotted the Athenia in the late afternoon and followed her for three hours.  It was by all accounts a beautiful evening with a sky shimmering with moonlight and stars, though a heavy swell surged.  As passengers finished the first dinner sitting, they had no idea that their lives depended on what one man would do in an iron vessel in the sea beneath them.

We do not know what went through this young man’s head (he was twenty-six at the time).  All we can say is that Lemp claimed that the zigzag course and its unusual location indicated to him that the ship in his sights was an armed merchant cruiser.  He ordered a torpedo attack.  On board the ship, Quartermaster Bowman saw the silhouette of a submarine against the moonlight.  Some passengers heard a hissing sound as if something passed under the hull.  Then a second torpedo found its mark near the engine room, killing many there,  in the nearby main stairwell, and on the deck nearby.  It was Sunday evening, at 8:50pm, and the second sitting for dinner had just begun when the explosion occurred.  The lights went out and the passengers rushed in panic onto the decks.  The ship was doomed, and the lives of its remaining passengers from its complement of 1,103 passengers, including some 500 Jewish refugees, and 315 crew were in serious jeopardy.

Captain Cooke and his crew were calm and professional.   A distress signal was sent.  They restored calm and the evacuation was orderly.  Mercifully the safety systems on board contained the damage and the ship stayed afloat for hours, though listing.  This certainly avoided a far higher if not almost complete loss of life.  In heavy seas, lifeboats were readied.  Witnesses spotted the submarine on the surface and reported that it fired one or two shells at the stricken vessel, blowing off a mast.  A lifeboat already loaded with passengers broke from its davits causing more fatalities.  Passengers jumped into the sea. The heavy swells meant that lifeboats had to be rowed and bailed; women grabbed oars and used their shoes to bail. Exposure was likely as passengers lacked overcoats and were soaked; some were over ten hours on the open sea.

The destroyers HMS Electra, HMS Fame, and HMS Escort, a Swedish yacht called the Southern Cross, a US cargo ship City of Flint, and a Norwegian tanker the MS Knute Nelson arrived at the scene within hours.  HMS Fame was dispatched to find the U-boat.  Lifeboats were by then spread out, lit by flares, and while calling for help made their way to the  ships nearest them.  One lifeboat tied up only metres from the exposed propeller of the MS Knute Nelson and in the confusion the ship started up her engines.  The great thrashing propeller sucked in the lifeboat, pulverising it and killing fifty.  Some hours later another lifeboat capsized behind the Southern Cross, with ten fatalities.  A Jewish-Russian couple saw their two sons drown.  A young woman was pulled from the water into another life boat but screamed “my baby” and leapt back into the sea. At one point a great school of whales “plunged around the boats”. Others died in the transfers to the destroyers as the sea jostled the lifeboats against the towering hulls.  At 10 am the following morning, the Athenia’s bow reared up and ship sank vertically beneath the waves. In all, 98 passengers and 19 crew died.  28 of the fatalities were U.S. citizens.

The MS Knute Nelson made for Galway with 441 passengers and 90 crew on board.  It arrived at 9:30 am on Tuesday 5 September.  Ten were stretchered off the tender City of Galway, four seriously injured.  The survivors were greeted by a warm reception from hundreds of well-wishers along the dockside.  Nurses from Central Hospital Galway and the Army Medical Corps were on hand and a local committee had prepared food and accommodation in local hotels and guest houses.  VIPs included Dr. Browne, the Bishop of Galway, the Mayors of Galway and Limerick, and the U.S. Minister to Ireland, John D. Cudahy.  Cudahy comforted J.D. Wilkes who broke down, having lost his wife and two children. The Irish Times reported: “It was a motley and somewhat hysterical crowd that trooped down the gangway to the tender…. Men, women and children were in almost every stage of undress, having lost their clothes and belongings.  Seven women were attired in men’s dungarees and trousers lent them by the crew of the Knute Nelson.”

Passengers arriving in Glasgow told similar stories; of the explosion, seeing the submarine, of the shelling, of the desperate rescue and the heaving seas.  Some spoke avidly, some were too traumatised to say anything.  Some smiled at the memory of the whales.  All were sure that is was a torpedo, not a mine or an aircraft.

In London, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy was already swamped trying to organise the evacuation of U.S. citizens from wartime Britain when news arrived of the sinking of the Athenia.  It hugely complicated the effort to get Americans home from Europe.  Since he could not leave London to help the survivors landing at Glasgow, he dispatched his second son.  John F. Kennedy toured the hotels to visit the survivors, get first-hand accounts and assure them that America was there to protect their interests.  With cameras filming, he met with 150 survivors in a hotel and assured them that a liner had been dispatched from America to bring them home.  They would be safe under an American flag.  They protested, not surprisingly, that they would only travel home in a convoy.  JFK’s assurances were to little avail initially.  As reported by The Irish Times: ‘“We definitely refuse to go until we have a convoy,” declared the American college girls among the rescued.  “You have seen what they will do to us.”’  Another pointedly referred to Amilia Earhart saying “a year ago the whole Pacific fleet was sent out for one woman flier.”  Kennedy said he would inform his father.

Eventually most of the survivors were convinced to travel on board the Orizaba though only after its sides were painted with the Stars and Stripes and it was flood lit during the night. They landed at New York on Wednesday 27 September, met by a large crowd some of whom hoped that their loved ones were not in fact lost, that some good news might be discovered.  American Express doled out cash and the Red Cross was on hand to help the survivors who had arrived without luggage or passports.

The news of the sinking quickly headlined around the world.  Details of the attack and the fate of the survivors were followed closely.  The attack was condemned as barbarous and contrary to the laws of war.  The news created a sensation in the United States and Canada.  The finger of blame pointed firmly at Germany but Germany claimed that it did not have a submarine in the area.  Grand Admiral Raeder appeared to believe this in the absence of any confirmation from a U-Boat.  Germany issued a statement pointing to the likelihood of a mine.  The New York Times editorialised; “Now it is real.  In the first twenty four hours of general hostilities….we saw the pattern set…. Part of the ordeal will be waiting for the truth behind conflicting claims, confused reports and veils of military secrecy.”  It noted Churchill’s announcement of German culpability but also Germany’s written assurance that the ship must have struck a mine: “It would indeed have been crass stupidity for Germany on the first day of the war to engage a great neutral Power by torpedoing a ship carrying Americans, and it is equally hard to believe that a British liner under naval escort, in waters presumably well charted, should run into a British-laid mine.”

On board U-boat 30, Lemp appeared to have realised his mistake almost immediately.  He did not enter the action in the log and swore his crew to secrecy.  Escaping the anti-submarine searches, he continued his raiding.  On 11 September he torpedoed and sunk the cargo ship Blairlogie.  All thirty crew survived.  On 14 September Lemp spotted the Belfast built and registered Fanad Head.  He gave chase and seized the ship after putting a shot across its bows.  With the crew and passengers safely dispatched on life boats, Lemp took a risky course of action by pulling alongside and sending a prize crew aboard.  British destroyers and aircraft arrived and in desperate hours of attacks and evasions, crashing aircraft and blasting depth charges, U-30 finally sunk Fanad Head and escaped, heavily damaged and with two RAF crew members on board captured after they had ditched.

After a stop at Reykjavik, Lemp arrived back at Wilhemshaven on 27 September.  He confessed his unwelcome news to Admiral Doenitz.  He had sunk the Athenia, claiming that he thought it was an armed merchant ship.  Doenitz knew he had a problem and that admission of Germany’s responsibility might have the gravest of consequences.  He sent Lemp to Berlin to explain himself to Raeder.  Raeder then briefed Hitler.  In the propaganda war for world opinion in which Germany sought to paint Britain as an antagonist and to ensure that America stayed neutral, it was best to cloud culpability in confusion.  Hitler decided to continue the denial.  The log was altered and Lemp escaped a court-martial.

It hard to know what to make of Lemp’s claim.  The Kreigsmarine were well aware that shipping out of Britain had been ordered to avoid established routes. He had followed the Athenia for three hours.  He had ample time to identify the nature of the craft he was tracking.  Other U-boat captains were well aware of the rules of war under which they operated and they were in many instances commended for their gallantry is ensuring that the crews of merchant ships were seen to safety.  Lemp’s behaviour in ensuring the safety of the crews of the other ships he attacked in the following weeks observed the norms of ensuring the crews’ safety.  Perhaps he had genuinely made a mistake and only realised it when he approached the Athenia after the torpedo attack.  Then why shell it as witnesses reported?  Lemp did not survive the war to tell his version or face justice.  His death was shrouded in some mystery with claims that he was shot by a boarding party or that he committed suicide by going down with his scuttled vessel, U-110, in May 1941.

In the following weeks, Germany conquered Poland and signed the Pact of Steel with Russia.  Hitler turned his eyes to the unwelcome western front and the British Expeditionary Force in France.  If he was to expand the Third Reich eastward, he had to safeguard his rear.  British forces had to be expelled from continental Europe before he turned the full might of the Wehrmacht against the Slavs.   Yet he feared antagonising the U.S. to the point that it might abandon its neutrality.  Like the Lusitania before it, it was feared that the sinking of the SS Athenia might tilt the balance of American opinion.  Yet like the Lusitania, it was hoped that it might not.  For weeks Germany maintained its innocence, contrary to all the eye-witness evidence.

With plans afoot for a major offensive on the Western front, Hitler and Goebbels conferred; it was time for the big lie.  In a national radio broadcast on 22 October, Goebbels presented himself as the prosecuting attorney, in the description of The New York Times.  He declared that the British had sunk the Athenia on Churchill’s orders and that his silence would be his shame.  Goebbels gave a detailed account of how it was done.  A bomb on board was exploded on a radio signal from Churchill.  But it was botched and Royal Navy ships were sent to sink it.  He declared that Churchill stood condemned in the court of public opinion and that he answer the charges that Britain had been responsible, that Royal Navy destroyers had not come to the rescue of the Athenia but had fired on it and sunk it.  Goebbels asserted that German passengers had been refused boarding in Liverpool as part of the conspiracy to ensure that blame affixed to Germany.  Smoking had been banned to avoid setting off the bomb prematurely.  Churchill’s conspiracy, he explained, was designed as part of its war with Germany, to turn opinion against it and induce the U.S. to join Britain and France as an ally.  Germany, he declared, would not let the matter rest until Churchill confessed.  “Stand rascal, and answer us!” They knew it would take time: Churchill, he asserted, “belongs to that type of man who has to have his wisdom teeth knocked from his head before he will give up lying.” The broadcast was repeated on radio wavelengths, disseminated widely in a number of languages, and the ‘account’ published in Germany.

The fake news had its effect in sowing doubts. Maybe it was a Russian submarine, some speculated. As Germany claimed credit for sinking further merchant ships and tankers and as U-boat commanders who sunk the HMS Courageous and HMS Royal Oak (with combined fatalities in excess of 1,300) were treated as celebrity war heroes on return to Germany, the significance of the denial about the Athenia was lost.

It is an odd thing that getting caught out lying about a crime can be seen as a greater shame than an outright admission of a crime.  The more elaborate the deception, the more determined the incentive to avoid exposure.   For the Nazis, it seemed that to get caught out in one lie might lead logically to doubts about its whole ideology. The further removed belief is from reality, the more insistent the doctrine and the denial of inconvenient facts.  Despite all of the atrocities committed by Germany during the war, including the Holocaust, there seemed to be a particular shame attached to the sinking of the Athenia, or perhaps more accurately about the lying about it.  Germany maintained the lie even in defeat.  It was only in 1946 during the Nuremburg trials that Doenitz, faced with the testimony of a U-30 crew member who was on board when the Athenia was attacked, finally admitted the obvious truth that Germany had in fact sunk the ship, that the accusations by Goebbels to the contrary were part of an audacious bid to disseminate what today we’d call fake news.  By then of course, what constituted war crimes had taken on a whole new dimension.

At the time, the sinking of the Athenia convinced many that the war had started in earnest, that headlines about peace offerings in the weeks that followed were mere posturing.  The reports in the Irish press from Galway, like those in media around the world, were detailed and graphic, well conveying the telling dishevelment and trauma of the disembarking survivors.  War was a brutal affair not just for the military but for the innocent civilian, if anyone needed reminding.  There were to be no safe hiding places beyond the jurisdiction of the neutral state.  The rules of war did not necessarily apply and the headlines did not necessarily reflect the reality. In this, the U.S. and Ireland as neutral states shared a perspective.  The U.S. clamped down on its citizens travelling to Europe.  American liners increased fares to Europe by as much as a third.  As more ships were attacked in the Atlantic in the autumn of 1939, and more survivors were rescued and landed at Irish harbours around the coast, the Irish public could not but be aware that they lived in proximity to a deadly struggle between European superpowers.  Neutrality, fragile and all as it was, must have seemed like a good option.

The sinking of the SS Athenia is largely forgotten today.  It has not entered the popular imagination.  Maybe the fake news surrounding is a complicating factor or maybe the fact that the mystery of its fate was revealed in 1946.  Even the Lusitania retains some public fascination.  At almost 1,200 the fatalities were far higher.  Compared to that ‘only’ 98 died on the Athenia.  Questions hovered unresolved about whether in fact the Lusitania carried ammunition; unanswered questions have a long life.

Yet even the fate of the Lusitania pales beside the luminous light cast by the Titanic over the public imagination.  The Titantic’s combination of fate, coincidence, and the morality of class deciding the preponderance of fatalities mesmerises us.  We see in her a microcosm of a form of society that was doomed.  The iceberg is the metaphor for all unbidden and unforeseen calamities in the face of human fecklessness.  How fitting that her distress flares were thought to be celebrations. The random things that sank the Titanic churn in our heads – the ship’s speed, the calm waters, the lack of binoculars, and the attempt to wheel away that just magnified the damage to a fatal degree.  Change one of these things and the ship might have stayed afloat.    She was on her maiden voyage, the fresh paint still pungent.  They said it was unsinkable.  In the sinking of the Titanic, we detect the revenge of the gods.

None of this applies to the Athenia. Its story is human and venal.  There is no fate, just bad luck.  There are no gods, only one man with the power to sink a ship who opted to use that power.  Some weird confluence of impulses compelled him to a great crime.  An instinct for survival, for exculpation after the exhilaration of the act, led him to conspire with his crew to conceal it.  Perhaps he too realised that the consequences for his country might be grave if responsibility was admitted.  And while he was driven to admit what he did to his superiors, albeit he had little grounds to deny it, the system found common cause with him in maintaining the fiction.  You can sense in Goebbels’s insistent accusation against Churchill the audacity, the glee of the big lie. And you can see too that other governments and the public hesitated to apportion blame in the face of the denials and the counter accusations, even in the face of overwhelming testimony.  The power of the big lie is that it begs the question ‘what if…?’  And of course back then there was a widespread and deep faith in government.

From this perspective, the sinking of the Athenia is a more compelling tale for our times than the ineffable qualities of the Titanic.  The Athenia, not the Titanic, is the true metaphor for our time.

 

Eamonn

 

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The BBC’s Battle of Civilisations: Simon Schama takes on Kenneth Clark

I am an admirer of Simon Schama.  He is one of those commentators whose fluent writing and mode of expression conveys depth with ease, not surprising in so accomplished and erudite an historian.  His social media commentary is sharply hostile to nonsense and the dangers he sees around him today.  His presence in front of a camera is impishly charming and in front of a work of art or historical significance is filled with wonder that is both boyish and wise. He grapples with the Holocaust as a great moral indignation that yet remains unknowable, its evil ineffable. In another age, he would be regarded as one of the great humanists.

Kenneth Clark likewise comes across as a both learned and gentle.  His toffily clipped sentences and rolling r’s segment and condense his insights into how Western civilization came about.  I’ve been watching, if you haven’t guessed already, the first couple of episodes of his ground breaking and sensationally popular 1969 documentary series Civilisation, courtesy of YouTube.  He covers the period I’ve been reading and blogging about recently, the transition from the Dark Age of Vikings to the early Middle Ages of the Nomans and Capetians.  Clark pinpoints the difference as that between wandering and permanence, as crystalline and all-encompassing an explanation as you’re likely to find anywhere.  I’ve been fascinated by how formative the 12th century was to so much that was foundational to Europe; attitudes, religion, laws, government, nation states, culture, even science.  As he concludes in episode two, Clark himself believed that it was this century that imparted the impetus to the development of Western Europe in subsequent centuries.

The connection between Schama and Clark? Schama, alongside Mary Beard and David Olusoga, is hosting a new BBC series called Civilizations, to be broadcast between March and April.  In his FT column last weekend, he does pose the question what they can add to Clark’s achievement.  The hint is in the added ‘s’: “And of course the answer is the rest of the world.”  He assures us that the intention is not to replace the Judaeo-Christian with the ‘citizen of nowhere’ but to find the truth in the fruitful connection.  To be fair Clark looked for that too, seeing the rise of Marian devotion as an inspiration from the Byzantine church, for example.  And he pointed to the statues of Chartres Cathedral as being inspired by the draperies on Roman statues that the sculptor must have seen, possible in southern France.  Yet it clear that Schama and his colleagues are taking on much more, squeezing into a mere nine episodes man’s civilisation across the globe from the Stone Age “to last week”, as he put it: Clark, he says, had thirteen just for the West.

Such differences notwithstanding, we’re in for something of a show down.  In the meantime, I’m going to sit back in the company of Clark before getting the popcorn and watching Schama.  Great stuff!

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What did the Normans Ever Do For Us?

Asked of the Romans, it could equally be asked of the Normans.  England, France and Ireland have all tended to ignore or sideline the influence of the Normans.  For all their glorious achievements the Normans loom smaller than they should in our histories.  To understand this, we need to consider how a Viking leader established mutiple dynasties that shaped European history at one of its most formative times.

Rollo the Viking may have adopted the outward form of the Franks, feudal obeisance, even Christianity but it is unlikely that he internalised much of it.  In granting him extensive lands along the Seine, the Franks had made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, to the immense benefit of both sides.  The next generation born in Normandy would be immersed in the ways and mores of the Franks, beginning with his son and heir, William Longsword.  William would die young in an ambush but he was a devote Christian and emphatically confirmed his people’s transition from Viking to feudal aristocracy.  The duchy of Normandy would survive minorities and successfully negotiate the transition from the Carolignians to the House of Capet as the new kings of France.  Indeed, the duchy of Normandy would be the best administrated region of France and a model for the emerging nation state of both France and England.

Rollo may have hoped that he was founding a dynasty but his settlement in the Seine valley was a move wiser than he could have realised.  Though Vikings were well informed of the ebb and flow of power within Europe, no one could have grasped the immense changes underway as the Dark Ages drew to a close and a new form of polity began to emerge, the nation state.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries were profoundly formative ones.   They would define much of subsequent European history across the spectrum of politics, religion and culture.

What was the basis of this society and how did it differ from the one in which Rollo was born, raised, and in which he had risen to such prominence as a Viking?  To return to our original question, how did the Normans become so different from the Vikings they would encounter in Ireland?

Let us start with something so natural to us that we take them for granted – cities.  Notably Rollo and his kin established themselves in Rouen.  This had been a Roman city, much reduced by Viking raids until refortified and repopulated by the Frankish King Odo.  It would prosper and become the capital city of the duchy of Norman and the lynch pin of their domain.  Cities are more than just population centres or bases from which to concentrate and deploy military forces.  Cities make possible the bureaucracy of government, the collection and storage of tax revenue, the administration of criminal justice and punishment, the recording of laws, regulations, land ownership, and information about population. All of these activities require and therefore create professional classes which in turn generate and expand cities as centres of administration, trade, learning and intellectual life.  Cities make government possible, they make nation states possible.

Critically in Europe, cities were also the bureaucratic centres of the Church.  Bishops, as the princes of the Church, along with their scribes formed the civil service of the emergent nation states, notably in the Chancellery which provided the secretarial office of the king.  The Chancellor at this time took the notes, wrote the charters, issued the king’s letters and filled the key documents.  Invariably he was a bishop and did his work in Latin.  This bureaucratic drudgery was essential to the projection of power won by warrior kings in battle.  Cities were also essential to commerce and acted as accelerators of industry, technology and skills.  The tax and wealth they generated, combined with the machinery of government, allowed for the creation and maintenance of professional armies.  For the Roman Empire, cities were the pinions of civilisation.  As cities declined with the empire, Europe fell into chaos, civilisation reduced to that preserved by the great monasteris (see Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilisation).  As the cities revived, so did Europe.

Castles served a similar purpose, though they were purposefully military in intent, a way of projecting power and defending territory.  In that, they were problematic for they allowed local magnates resist central power.  Castles were in effect a measure of civil strife.  As the nation state developed, kings would over time limit and eventually eliminate castles not directly in the service of the state.

True, Vikings established their own cities and the Danes were the first to concentrate populations and establish kingships, well ahead of the Norwegians and Swedes.  But they remained primarily ports for trade and raiding, not centres of laws, taxes, and bureaucracy. In taking Rouen as their capital, Rollo and his followers were adopting a new way of holding power, grafting themselves onto a system of organisation maintained by the church that had its roots in Rome.

It may not have been clear to Rollo, but the Church itself, notably under Gregory VII, was engaged in a vast exercise of reform, a key aspect of which was to partner with secular leaders in bringing political stability from the chaos of the Dark Ages.  This was to forge an alliance of church and state that would endure into the twentieth century.  The fortunes of Norman conquerors from England to the further edges of Christendom would turn on the ebb and flow of their relationship with the Papacy for the Papacy granted legitimacy to kings and nobles.  [Note: The partnership of the kings and the Church was particularly formative for Western Europe, influencing the development of feudalism as system of contractual rights, setting a limit to the reach of the state, and inculcating a sense of the dignity inherent in all irrespective of social status however much its observation was fitful and incomplete: for more on this see Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order.]

If castles were inimical to the interest of the emergent nation states, land was the great lever in the hands of kings.  Normans might win land through the sword, but they could only hold it and pass it on if they stood in favour with the king.  The possession of land was a function of feudalism.  Rollo may have been granted the duchy of Normandy as a heritable gift but when he placed his hands within those of the king, Charles the Simple, in his act of homage, he was submitting to the king’s favour.  To break his fealty would forfeit his possessions.  Holding onto land was no longer simply a function of military might and supportive kin but a matter of politics and the assertion of legal rights within a system controlled by the state. To accept this and to assume feudal obligations meant the end of the Viking way of life, the free booting independence of traders and raiders.  Unlike the Vikings, the Normans would pay tax.

The Normans took to law and governance with surprising alacrity. They were punctilious about observance of laws and the honouring of rights.  In this they were following in the tradition of Charlemagne and in turn the Romans.  William the Conqueror deployed the power of law as an instrument of power in England.  Indeed, like the Romans before them, the Normans were great adopters of good practice.  William would use elements of Anglo-Saxon law and administration that suited his purposes, notably sheriffs and this new institution, the Exchequer, an office he would export to Normandy.  He knew too the power of information and commissioned the Domesday Book to record the details of the kingdom he had seized, the better to control it.  His great grandson and royal heir, Henry II, consciously repeated this, insisting on the establishment and fair administration of law throughout England, using it to resolve the bitter land disputes that were inevitable after the years of anarchy in bringing stability to the realm.  So successful was he in this that the capriciousness of his son, King John, led the English magnates to reign him back to the rule of law through the Magna Carta.

Holding land was essential to the Normans and their manors were organised to be as self-sufficient as possible.  As the Lord of the Manor the Norman aristocracy became a vital part of the feudal chain of organisation, owing obligations to the king just as peasants owed obligations to them, these obligations in turn were reciprocated by obligations of protection.  The Manor imitated the form of monasteries which in turn echoed that of the Roman villas.  Lords of the Manor were part of the judicial system.  They operated their own courts under public law and following local customs of tenure and did so until the 19th century.  Holding fairs, developing trade and markets, establishing towns and villages, and investing in the infrastructure of roads, bridges and harbours were all hallmarks of Norman life and colonisation.    Where we see these in Ireland they are part of our Norman heritage, alien to Gaelic Ireland.

You had of course to get land before you could hold it.  The Normans were a fecund bunch and illegitimate children were recognised, at least in the first hundred years until the Church clamped down on it.  For male offspring, the challenge was to get land. The eldest son would inherit two-thirds but the younger sons had to fend for themselves.  For most of them this meant winning land through the sword.  Sword land was recognised as a legitimate way of seizing land and it was this drive to acquire land that generated Norman expansion into England, Wales, Ireland, Italy and the Middle East.

Being a member of the landed aristocracy conferred on Normans a key advantage in battle.  It allowed young boys and men to devote their lives completely to soldiering.  From the time they could walk, they were taught to ride horses and to fight.  In an age where most soldiers were part time, earning their living as farmers or fishermen, the Normans had a clear advantage – at war, they were professionals.  Their speciality was as armoured mounted soldiers, in other words knights.  They were the armoured divisions of their day, using mobility, ruse and the shock of the well timed charged to win the field.  This advantage outweighed their often limited numbers; again and again, the fortunes of Normans turned on their martial prowess in the field and their skill as cavalry against larger odds.  (The association of cavalry and landed gentry would endure for centuries.)  They combined this with the rapid establishment of fortified bases, motte-and-bailies, which were very effective means of territorial control.

A further and critical dimension to the Normans was their Christian faith.  Most warrior casts need the assurance of a strong belief system and Normans were zealous in their religious commitment and their submission to Rome, notwithstanding the odd politick defiance, was par for the course.  It took its most obvious form in their support for the establishment of religious orders (Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries most notably) and the building of churches and Cathedrals.  Endowments and land grants were undertaken as a matter of course by Norman lords and their wives. Family members would become princes of the Church, though Rome increasingly asserted its sole right to do this. And of course Norman lords played leading roles in the first three Crusades.

All of these elements were on display when the Normans landed in Ireland and established their presence here.  As Cambro-Normans, they were well versed in fighting the native Welsh whose organisation and style of warfare was similar to the Gaelic.  All this guided the nature of the force they assembled in Wales, including of course mounted knights but also mounted Welsh bowmen, Breton allies, and Flemish mercenaries.  They numbered no more than a few hundred but were well prepared and organised.   Their alliance with MacMurrough gave them precise intelligence about the opposition they would face and the terrain in which they would be operating.  They quickly seized Waterford and Wexford, securing these as their bases and sources of resupply. Dodging the High King’s forces at Castleknock, they stole up through Wicklow and most likely approached Dublin via Rathfarnham, seizing Dublin from the Danes who uncharacteristically fled in panic.  As they pounced on Gaelic armies, they secured their holdings with motte-and-bailey fortifications, soon replaced stone towers and castles.  They established their manorial system and set about building villages, towns, ports, bridges and abbeys.  In all of this one can see the outlines of what a Roman invasion would have looked like.

There was one likely critical difference.  The Romans tended to do things completely when it came to invasion.  Their conquests of Gaul and England were complete.  The Normans in Ireland were opportunists.  Strongbow’s rapid success in Ireland was still only partial by the time Henry II arrived in 1171 with a show of force.  Yet Henry’s intention had as much to do with checking Strongbow and ensuring that Ireland would not become a rival kingdom.  Rather Ireland would be a held as a Lordship, under the suzerainty of the crown.  It was a partial conquest only that left Gaelic society in possession of much of the land and itself pretty much intact as a way of life.  The point of English policy in Ireland was to control it at minimum cost to the Exchequer.  This meant that Norman and Gaelic life would endure side by side for the following centuries.  The fortunes of the colonists who came from England and settled around Dublin and the other cities would ebb and flow, more often ebbing as the influence of the Crown shrank back to Dublin and the pale during the later Middle Ages.

Contrast the style and success in Ireland of the Normans with that for their Viking forebears.  The Vikings were raiders, initially in small groups and later in larger formations that became armies.  But their success was in surprise attacks and in the weakness of those from whom they sought to plunder.  Where they faced concerted defences and opposition, they faltered.  This was true of Western Europe under Charlemagne and it was true too in Ireland where the Vikings were confined to their city ports by the Gaelic Irish.  After the battle of Clontarf, the Gaelic did not seize Dublin but the establishment of a Danish kingdom in Ireland was checked.  Vikings prized individual martial prowess. Normans, on the other hand, prized command, discipline, and coordinated movement.  Their amour of conical helmets and chainmail were commonplace and had been so since Roman times; so was their weaponry of shields, swords and lances.  Yet combined with disciplined cavalry (aided by the stirrup which allowed them leverage the power of the lance) and a tireless inventiveness on the field, they were formidable, well capable of besting far greater forces arraigned against them.

Finally, the Normans understood the value of building alliances in the lands they conquered, following the early example of Rollo.  Through marriage – generally Norman men marrying local women – they formed alliances and secured their holdings.  A key part of the deal between Strongbow and Dermot MacMurrough was that Dermot would give his daughter in marriage to him.  Their daughter in turn was given by Henry II in marriage to William Marshall in reward for a lifetime of service.

The most successful contingent of the Normans who arrived in Ireland were not however associated with Strongbow or Marshall but rather the FitzGeralds.  It was the FitzGeralds, descendants of the fabulous Welsh Princess Nest, who over the coming generations through war and inter-marriage with the Gaelic Irish became the leading family of Ireland.  They artfully mediated relations between Ireland and the English crown for centuries, until that role was made redundant by the imperialist ambitions of the Tudors in the sixteenth century.  The 10th Earl of Kildare, “Silken” Thomas FitzGerald, was executed along with five of his uncles at Tyburn in 1538 by order of Henry VIII. It was only after the rebellion of Silken Thomas and his execution that Ireland was declared a kingdom in 1542 and ruled by the English crown.

The two and a half centuries between the founding Normandy in 911 and the arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169 saw an extraordinary evolution, the measure of which was evident in the rapidity with which the Vikings collapsed militarily and Viking Ireland disappeared with the arrival of Strongbow and his knights.  The critical distinction was Norman capacity for organisation, from the preparation for the campaign, its execution in the field, the manner in which they turned victories into facts on the ground, and their assiduous creation of functioning administrations.

Yet the irony of the Norman invasion of Ireland was that it came just as Norman power was fading.  Norman glory was well past its high point by then, its influence in its closing chapter as both England and France went their separate ways and Norman lords assimilated. In Ireland, much like the Vikings before them, they would enter a kind of time-warp, lingering as an anachronism until the arrival of the aggressively Protestant New English in Ireland with all their imperialist certainties and ethnic fury.

What then of Norman identity?  Why did it fade when other identities endured like the French, English, Irish and Italian?  The most obvious answer is that the Normans never founded a nation state that was purely Norman.  Moreover, one of their great strengths was adaptability to local mores the better to secure their positions.  Yet the explanation is more complex than that for it is hard to imagine either England or France without the foundations laid by the Normans as state builders – in the administrative and legal systems they developed, in the stability they brought, the trade they developed, the urban developments and centres of respite and learning in religious houses and the Church that they sponsored.

In France, Normandy remained a duchy, subservient to the Frankish king in Paris.  Notably Henry II had had a chance to challenge Louis VII, the Capetian King of France and his feudal overlord.  Yet he declined to capture Louis at the siege of Toulouse in 1159, too punctilious about his role within feudal society and the fearful of the audacity of a strike for kingship of France. Henry might be kind of England and control more than half of France but he was a vassal of the king.  In historical terms, the glory of France would not admit of a major contribution from Normans and they would remain in the nation’s narrative secondary to the Franks.

In England, the Normans were never numerous enough to impose their Anglo-French language and their spoken word retreated in favour of the emerging English language.  However much English was profoundly influenced by the Normans, the historical narrative could not admit it.  Nor could it admit the fact that the Normans built the common law system and the baronial society so fundamental to English society.  This was in part because the Normans were regarded as conquerors where, oddly enough, the Anglo-Saxons were seen as a foundational influence.  Much of this can be attributed to 19th century historians who looked to the Dark Ages for ‘racial’ origins; the English found the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans the Norse, and the Irish the Celts.  The Normans, protean and liberal (wherever they went but most decidedly in their multicultural kingdom of Sicily), didn’t fit into this dangerously romanticised search for pure antecedents.

The lack of recognition of the Norman contribution was repeated in Ireland.  This is partly too to do with the fact that they came as conquerors but assimilated into the fabric of our nation.  They merged into the local society where the cliché captured at least half a truth: they became more Irish than the Irish themselves. Their true assimilation as Irish would only really occur when they, as the Old English, opted to adhere to Catholicism in face of the Protestant Reformation and the pressure of the Tudors.  With that decision, they finally cast their lot with their Irish identity and in many ways eroded their own distinctive contribution.  It is also partly I suspect to with the fact that we find it hard to imagine what Gaelic life was life before the Normans.  How can we imagine a society that did not have all the vestiges of a state that the Normans brought with them?  We have to imagine a nation state that existed in the mind, as an intellectual feat of memory and custom.

So for complex reasons, the Normans faded as a distinct identity.  If you ever wonder what the Normans ever did for us, remember that their contribution to the development of Western Europe was both critical and enduring, even if unacknowledged.  By a strange elixir of circumstance, their Viking character grafted onto the remnants of Roman civilisation, revivifying a host of characteristics that were Roman – the centrality of cities, the devotion to the rule of law, the adoption of complex bureaucracy, the professionalization of armies, and the alliance with the Church in stabilizing Europe, the building the nation state, and the audacity of their drive to conquest.  In all of this, the Normans were the new Romans, setting in train a new age for Europe. This new age was founded on the nation states and nation states have a way of simplying their historical narratives.  In helping to create the nation state, the Normans ironically created the means of their own erosion from the record.

 

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The Mysterious Genesis of the Normans

Gaelic Ireland very different from its European neighbours in that it had not been colonised by the Romans and was in many ways a pre-early modern society without the typical Roman imprint of cities, bureaucracy or even much church organisation, either local or ultramontane.  But like its neighbours it was ruptured by two shocks in the early medieval period.  The first was the arrival of Vikings in the ninth century and the second the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth.  Indeed, the Normans fought the Vikings for possession of Dublin, itself a product of Viking settlement like all the other cities and towns in Ireland at the time – Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.

Yet here’s the odd thing: the Normans were originally Norsemen, in other words Vikings.  They had settled on the Seine in 911.  By the time the Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169, they were profoundly different from their forebears.  The spoke French, were aristocratic, fought in highly disciplined formations, used fortifications as primary means of conquest, were socially organised by feudalism and held land as feudal magnates, were highly literate, and were the avatars of European chivalry.  The Norman kings and lords were engaged in a symbiotic and powerful partnership with the Church that was fundamental to the rise of the nation state as we know it.  By the time Strongbow had landed in Ireland in 1170, the Normans had ruled England for over a hundred years and the Angevin domain under Henry II ran from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees.  Norman lords had captured (and lost) Jerusalem, had established a maritime state at Antioch, seized control of Calabria and Sicily, and established footholds in North Africa. When the Normans faced off against the Vikings in Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, it was as if across a vast evolutionary leap.  By what mysterious process had this leap occurred?

Quite why Vikings turned from farming, fishing, and trading to raiding and plundering remains a mystery.  What we know of Viking society comes from archaeology, sagas and runic inscriptions, none of which shed much light on socio-economic dynamics.  But raid they did where societies were weak and unable to mount adequate defences.  After the death of Louis the Pius, Charlemagne’s son and successor, the civil wars that engulfed the Carolinginian Empire allowed the Vikings to raid again Western Europe. The long coastline of Neustria Province (in the new kingdom of West Frankia) was particularly vulnerable as Charlemagne’s grandson and now king, Charles the Bald, was unable to mount an effective defensive system as his grandfather had done.  Vikings repeatedly raided up the Seine from the 840s to the 890s, driving monastic settlements out of the valley and repeatedly threatening Paris.  Charles paid them off with Danegold (a tribute to ensure departure).

Of course the Vikings came back, wintering regularly on the Seine and raiding south and west deep into the Provinces.  By 860 Charles the Bald had learned that the most effective way to stop the raids was for to fortify towns and bridges; in other words to rebuild the Roman fortifications.  He did this with the help of the Church which had, ironically, often stripped Roman walls to build churches during the rule of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious when the region had been was stable and protected.  Roman local government structures and models of bureaucracy had survived in the form of Church and it was the Church and its educated bishops that provided the officialdom for Charlemagne and later kings to manage their realms.  Charles now looked to strengthen local government, replicating his grandfather’s efforts, the better to organise defences against the Vikings.  West Frankia was, however, damned to endure Viking raids because of leaders too weak (with names like Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Bald and so on, not greatly surprising) to wrest control from powerful local magnates.

It is generally held that the Viking migrations occurred in three phases.  The first was raiding and plundering; the second the extortion of Danegold; and the third settlement. At some point during the transition from the ninth to the tenth century, Scandinavians settled along the lower Seine.  This may have been facilitated by the withdrawal of the local population, under the orders of King Odo, to repopulate and fortify Rouen.  Rouen was the first place along the river where fortification was possible and a key to the defence of Paris, the emergent capital of an emergent nation state.  Be that as it may, the settlement was associated with one leading Viking figure, Rollo, “the founder of Normandy”. [Francois Neveux, A Brief History of the Normans, the conquests that changed the face of Europe (Robinson, 2006) p. 57.  My account is drawn from Neveux’s mainly, supplemented by the more circumspect Leonie V. Hicks’ A Short History of the Normans and W.L. Warren’s magnificent biography of Henry II.  For the Angevin context, see my previous blog on this.  For the role of Normans in teh evolution of chivalry, see Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshall, The Greatest Knight, the remarkable William Marshall, The Power behind Five English Thrones.  Marshall was of course a major figure in the early phase of the Norman conquest of Ireland.]

According to Neveux, based on a history of Normandy commissioned and written between 1015 and 1026 by Dudo of Saint-Quentin, Rollo was a Norwegian leading a war party of Danes supported by some Anglo-Saxons.  In a pattern that the Normans would repeat over successive conquests, including Ireland, Rollo was granted an extensive tract of land in exchange for protection from other enemies while he married into the local Frankish aristocracy.

It was not a smooth process – Rollo left for many years only to return and attack Paris.  When he was defeated at the battle of Chartres, it was politic to sign a deal, the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. The lands granted to him stretched from the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, to the sea.  To sweeten the deal, Rollo was given permission to plunder Brittany, paving the way for its eventual incorporation into Normandy.  Rollo also agreed that he and his followers would convert to Christianity; indeed conversion was a seen a key factor in sealing alliances not least because the state itself was a product of the partnership between secular leaders and the Church. Conversion was, notes Neveaux, “a sine qua non of integration into the Frankish world”. Rollo paid homage to the king, Charles the Simple, and was granted the lands not in fiefdom but as hereditary, a critical distinction and sign of Rollo’s leverage.  Rollo, in another act that would be repeated by the Normans, granted lands to the monasteries in his new domain.  (In subsequent years, Frankish magnates bordering Normandy granted lands to monasteries to block Norman encroachment.)  In return, Rollo agreed to protect the Franks from attacks by his Viking kinsmen.  In this way, the Franks plugged a major gap in their defences as their new Scandinavians allies and Frankish locals settled down in what would be henceforth known as the duchy Normandy.  An additional advantage for the Franks was that the growing power of the Normans would finally put manners on the troublesome Bretons further west.

Rollo personally manifests an amazing transformation from pillaging Viking to resplendent feudal lord, integrated into Frankish aristocracy, sworn in fealty to the king, servant of the Church, and master of an autonomous principality with Rouen as its capital.  He did not know it at the time, but his acceptance of this new role was a key development in the evolution of both England and France as nation states.

Neveux writes that Normandy would soon grow “to include almost the whole ecclesiastical province of Rouen, the former second Provincia Lugudensis” of Roman Gaul. It is as if the palimpsest of Roman civilisation was flooded again with energy, its circuitry revivified by the energy of Rollo and his Norsemen.  Is this the key to the transformation of the Normans and the awesome power they wielded in the following centuries?  Were the Normans the second coming of the Romans?  And if so, can we see in the Norman conquest of Ireland a glimpse of what might have been had Roman legions landed in Hiberia?  More anon.

 

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On Reading Woodham-Smith’s ‘The Reason Why’

I cannot leave a second hand bookshop without a book.  Or rather I probably can but I never do. It is usually a hardback, probably history.  The impulse to buy an orphaned book is an irresistible mix of discovering a gem combined with a gleefully low price pencilled in by hand on the inside cover like a wink. To my mind, it’s a kind of rescue.

I pulled a handsome navy hardback from the shelf. I recognised the author as Cecil Woodham-Smith who had written an admired history of the Great Irish Famine. The title did not give much away: ‘The Reason Why’ seemed incomplete to all  but the uninitiated, speaking to something I should know but couldn’t place. There was no subtitle, no contents page, no foreword, and no introduction. ‘Theirs is not to reason why’ dimly stirred at the back of my head, a fragment of Kipling’s famous eulogy. A print of Lord Cardigan riding in the Phoenix Park clinched it; the charge of the Light Brigade. My brain flashed an image of Trevor Howard, the salty and coiled British actor playing Cardigan with mad exuberance in an old movie.

Woodham-Smith writes like a cavalry officer, with flash and verve, which charges the narrative forward. It’s said that she finished the book in a great, non-stop, thirty-six hour gallop. Yet this characterisation would do the book (and her writing) a disservice, for it has many treasures and surprises. Her descriptive writing is compressed in length but expansive in suggestion. She captures that odd transition in British society from a largely rural agricultural society at the opening of the 19th century, dominated by the landed aristocracy, to an industrial behemoth. The charge of the Light Brigade was a comic-tragic imbroglio made possible by that transition.

With unerringly deft touches, and great psychological acuity, she captures the personalities of the two principle authors of the disaster at Balaclava, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan. She quickly but richly sketches the histories of the respective Brudenell and Bingham families of which they were the most arrogant scions; the Brudenells long associated with British royalty, the Binghams as ferocious colonisers of Mayo.

Her description of George Charles Bingham, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, and his attempts to clear his estates around Castlebar of the starving peasantry after potato blight stuck is shocking: “Starving and dying, the people came to Castlebar and roamed the streets, begging for food…. Dead bodies lay by the side of the road… men and women who had fallen by the wayside were seen struggling in vain to rise until, with a low moan, they collapsed in death…”  She goes on: “To the Earl of Lucan famine horrors were so many convincing demonstrations of the urgent necessity of clearing the land.” Here was a man so convinced of his plans for consolidation and improvement that his actions likely led to the deaths of hundreds, and the wiping out of whole families.

Though he argued the point, it seemed clear that Lord Lucan had ensured that the workhouse – that much feared, last and cruel bastion of hope – ceased to function and the unfortunate inhabitants – homeless, sick, and starving – were turned out to their certain death. True, he poured his own wealth into the effort to improve his estates, but the price in misery and death was high. And it was true too that no landlord alone should shoulder all blame when the British Government was so determined to avoid landing the British taxpayer with the cost of relieving millions of starving Irish. Yet at this remove and judged from today, his actions would surely approach the threshold of crimes against humanity. Though censured by public opinion, he was incapable of reflection and remorse if at any cost to his pride. His brother-in-law, Lord Cardigan, lived life with immense wealth and without a moment’s self-doubt; a great, handsome empty-head. No surprise then, when locked in ambiguous command of the cavalry, their mutual antagonism set the springs for the action that led to the destruction of the Light Brigade.

As for Woodham-Smith’s climatic chapters on the Crimea campaign and her final passages on the battle of Balaclava and that fatal charge, her concentrated marathon of writing paid off in an exhilarating tour de force. All of the personalities and forces at work that she had detailed throughout the book converged in that valley, itself so clearly visualised for the reader, and played out in pomp, heroism, stupidity, and butchery.

The Reason Why was a popular history when published in 1953. If you happen to find it when browsing dusty bookshelves, it’s worth its pencilled price tag and some time in a comfy chair.

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A visit to Grosse Ile and the Irish Memorial, Canada

They put the granite Celtic cross on top of a cliff overlooking the southern passage of the St Lawrence river. That way every passing ship on its way to Quebec and Montreal could see it. The members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians had commissioned a sixteen meter high monument in memory of the five thousand Irish emigrants who died on Grosse Ile in the summer of 1847, “Black ’47”, one of the worst years of the Great Irish Famine. The blocks of the cross are rough hewn and its cruciform top is cut square and unadorned. It is defiant and solemn, and has stood there since 1909.

My wife and I visited Grosse Ile during the summer.  Since we had lived in Washington many years ago and become familiar with the history of Irish America, we had been aware of the small island’s place in the history of famine emigration to North America.  The day we boarded the ferry the weather was cold and blustery, with heavy cloud cover.  The great St Lawrence river churned under a whipping breeze. The ferry captain spoke briefly in English and at length in French about his family’s connection with Grosse Ile.  As we slowed on the approach to the island, we could see the Celtic cross loom atop a short rocky cliff.  It was a stirring moment.

Once landed and past the informal guidance about your visit, you approach the monument up a hill through a copse of short trees and stubby pines. If the cross looks grim and defiant from the deck of a passing vessel, it has an intimacy on the landward side.  The cross stands in a gentle cusp of rock and grass, surrounded by the low trees.  Beyond it as backdrop flows the wide expanse of the St Lawrence. It is a tranquil and intimate space, as if a ritual or performance has just taken place or is about to begin.

When you continue through the woods, the hill descends to a picturesque meadow, furrowed with oversized lazy beds. That it is dotted with small white crosses tells you that this is the mass grave, final resting place of desperate Irish emigrants fleeing a home now ravaged by starvation, disease and despair.  Packed mercilessly into ships ill-fitted for their human cargo, many of the passengers died crossing the Atlantic, their bodies cast into its depths.  Up to thirty percent of the 98,000 crossing on the cheaper route to Canada would die on the passage or shortly after arriving. 

The complete failure of the 1846 crop was followed by the failure of new crop of potato in 1847.  The impact on Ireland assumed the character of an apocalypse.   Hope evaporated as the land and governmental indifference betrayed the peasant population to death by starvation and disease.  Those who had the means realised that the future was bleak and cashed in to buy passage to America.  Landlords seized the opportunity to clear their land of peasant holdings and offered money to leave.  As death rates soared coffins to bury the dead became so scare that reusable ones with hinged bottoms were made. Mass graves became common place.  Social norms of hospitality broke down, family bonds of affection broke as a morsel of food meant the difference between life and death.  Even the instinct for rebellion was quenched by the imperative to survive as whole-scale demoralisation swept the land.  As Kirby Miller writes in Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America: “Finally, and perhaps most revealingly, ancient rural customs surrounding death fell into disuse as the island degenerated into a vast charnel house….. Wakes disappeared from apathy and fear of contagion…”  Those who fled were no longer emigrants but refugees and the 1847 exodus, as Oliver MacDonagh noted, “bore all the hallmarks of panic and hysteria.”

Whole families lie here in the lovely meadow of Grosse Ile  Now their names float eerily over the grave when seen through the glass panels of the modern commemorative placement. It was their misfortune to die of disease here, mainly typhoid, but at least their names are now recorded as lying in the largest mass grave outside of Ireland.

Today Grosse Ile is a wonderful commemorative park, a gently immersive but profoundly moving experience about a terrible chapter in our history. Just about this time of year, some 170 years ago, Grosse Ile would be closing for the coming winter after its grimmest summer.  

 

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