Akron Irish: The Thing with Feathers
By Lisa O’Rourke
“What is Irish Alzheimer’s? You forget everything but the grudges,” goes the clichéd joke. The image of that Irishman is easy to conjure, epitomized in my mind by the character “Bull” McCabe from the “The Field,” a taciturn old farmer, estranged from almost all of humanity because he hasn’t missed a second of keeping score and he knows or thinks he does, what everyone owes him.
This type certainly exists and the Irish soul, for all its reported glee, can also be hardened to slow-burn, stubborn solitude. Maybe rightly so. After all, Irish history is so littered with injustices that a few souls are bound to take it personally.
In twenty-five years of attempts to play catch-up with Irish history, I thought that I had at least heard of all the trapdoors, double-crosses, and downright nastiness that it contains. And then a new one popped up.
The Treaty of Limerick
The story that I happened upon was about the Treaty of Limerick, the treaty which ended the Williamite wars in Ireland. The battles are arguably some of the most controversial ones in Irish history, since they set the stage for religious division that haunts the country to this day.
The Williamite war, a war fought in Ireland, contained both the infamous Battle of the Boyne, and the decisive Battle of Aughrim. Both battles were victories for the Protestant forces.
The William of this story is William of Orange, the infamous Protestant king, who is so reviled by Catholics that it is still hard to find an Irish William. He is still so celebrated by Protestants that the Orangeman in the North march annually throughout the month of July in commemoration of the defeat of the Catholic forces.
I am going to try to summarize a topic that has been the basis of many books, go easy on me. Seventeenth century Europe was awash in religious wars, primarily between Catholics and Protestants.
So, in 1685, Catholic James was installed as King of England. Although Catholic, he is ancient for that time, at 58 years old, so the Protestants, think, how bad could it be?
Well James decided to find out how bad he could make things and he got busy all over the place. The scariest thing he did was have a son in 1688. That birth gave possibility to Catholic succession in the slightly tolerant but very Protestant England, and the Protestant lords decided that they needed to get busy themselves.
So, in 1688, James was replaced on the throne by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William. Yes, it is that William, the Orange guy who the war was named after. Fighting had broken out in Ireland at that time. It seems like fighting in Ireland was a pervasive rumble, since the Catholic majority were strongly in favor of a Catholic king.
The Jacobites, so named supporters of a Catholic king, James, were not confined to Ireland. They were found in several countries, particularly France and Scotland. Both countries were happy to help the cause with soldiers and money, hoping to win and to keep the colonizing English off of the continent and out of European business.
William, heroic Dutchman that he was, decided that he would go to Ireland himself to sort out this Irish conflict. His goal was to be victorious as quickly as possible and get home to Mary.
The Catholic leader was Patrick Sarsfield, who was an ally of King James. It might be worthwhile to look up his portrait. You would hope that he was fierce and had something to prove, because he was silly looking.
Apparently, he was not the sharpest sword in the sheath either. He had loyalty and determination on the plus side.
While some Irish historians portray Sarsfield as heroic, he was consistently outmaneuvered. The numbers at most battles were pretty evenly matched, but the losses were higher on the Catholic side every time.
The Battle of the Boyne
Ireland paid dearly for those losses. Not only were lives lost, but the countryside was pillaged. The Battle of the Boyne, in 1690, was a victory for him. The Battle of the Boyne is the one that everyone remembers, and I thought that it was the battle fought on July 12. However, the decisive victory, the Irish Waterloo, is the Battle of Aughrim, on July 12, 1691. That is the Protestant High Holy Day in the North of Ireland to this day.
Aughrim, outside of Galway, was a particularly egregious loss. The battle was decisive, and its effects persist. After the defeat at Aughrim, William quickly wanted to negotiate terms. He did not have much interest in destroying Ireland, more in settling at modest terms.
The Flight of the Wild Geese
After Aughrim, the poetically named Flight of the Wild Geese departed. The “Geese” were Sarsfield and thousands of Irish soldiers who left Ireland for France, never to return. While they did not go back to Ireland, they kept the Jacobite cause smoldering, until it was brutally squashed sixty years later in Scotland, at Culloden Moor.
The Treaty of Limerick that was signed at that time was OK, not great, but OK. However, it didn’t last past the ink drying period. The Treaty of Limerick had not sought to be overly punitive to the Catholic cause. The initial terms had allowed for Catholic land ownership, freedom of religion and inheritance of property.
Penal Laws Set the Stage for the Famine
The Penal laws crept in by degrees and set the stage for the Famine. In under a hundred years, Catholic land ownership moved from 50% at the beginning of the century, to Cromwellian levels of 14%, to post Limerick levels of 5%. There were other “laws” which not only treated Ireland like an English piggy bank, giving land away as bonuses for service, they simultaneously changed inheritance laws in such a way as the average farmer had a field the size of a backyard.
Kind of easy to see the thing about the grudge. It would be a small wonder if the Irish did little more than fester. Thatdidn’t happen though. What I found myself wondering more about was how a person got out of bed, put on their shoes, go out, and made the best of it, when the cards were so stacked against them? What reality pushes a person forward?
It must be the thing with feathers, hope. Love and the ability to help those that live in your shadow, were traits forged in the furnace of the Irish soul. This being the dark time of year, it seems a good time to think about that. Celebrations have faded and spring seems so far away. It is the time to find your own feathers.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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