Friday, March 15, 2013

1798-1898: Boolavogue

Of late I have been enjoying the rollicking folk music performed by the acclaimed male Irish vocalists, the High Kings.  Their choice of songs, like those of Loreena McKennitt, send me seeking the historic backdrop against which they play out.  I was particularly enjoying the song entitled "Boolavogue" in mid-February when I unearthed it, but only idly absorbing a few of the lyrics (I was neck-deep in elaborate Valentine dinner preparations) when one curious line gripped my attention: "For Father Murphy of the County Wexford sweeps o'er the land in a mighty wave."

The distinctly martial flavor of this line, juxtaposed with the unlikely leadership of an Irish priest, intrigued me.  Dinner plans abandoned, I set forth on an odyssey into the Regency Era and pre-O'Connell attempts at Irish liberation from English rule. The lyrics that captured my attention referred to a rebellion of Irishmen that took place in 1798.  While there was an attempt by the United Irishmen to rally all Irish regardless of religious persuasion to push for reforms of the Irish Parliament during this year (with force if necessary), the plan had been largely unsuccessful and the County Wexford was particularly quiet-- until, that is, the parish of one priest by the name of John Murphy and their near neighbors began to suffer incursions at the hands of the English soldiers.   

John Murphy had hitherto counseled his parishioners to refrain from violence and live at peace with their conquerors.  The articles I read seemed not to agree as to the exact account of what changed his mind, but all were agreed that infractions against his parishioners by English soldiers forced Murphy to change his position drastically.  In fact, so drastically that he took up arms and led them, and the hitherto peaceful county of Wexford rose up behind him in a way unforeseen by the English.  

Murphy proved to be a surprising tactician and won a battle against the English and several skirmishes; this could not last, however, and the uprising was shortlived and brutally crushed.  Other leaders of the uprising (Protestant as well as Catholic) also achieved some victories, but on all fronts they were summarily defeated in the end.  John Murphy, once caught, was sentenced to death.  He was equally brutally killed, and his head, as well as the heads of other Irish leaders in the uprising, were displayed on pikes subsequent to their executions.  The disgusting violations of human dignity via the soldiery during this "polished" era of society was astounding, but the tale of Ireland's struggle for freedom is better known than most so- skipping ahead...

1801.  The backlash of the 1798 rebellion finalizes in an act binding Ireland more closely to England than ever: the Acts of Union, passed in 1800 and coming into effect in 1801 (which acts, notably, have never been repealed by Great Britain, although they have been so by Ireland).  Rather than free Ireland, the attempt only gave an excuse to dissolve the Irish Parliament (already largely a puppet of the English government).

Many of us have islands of history in our memory.  This is a primary reason I like historical works that take a single year or era for their focal point; they unite a lot of the "islands," in that you realize how many things you recall learning about individually actually occurred during the same time and had bearing (or should have had) on each other.  So what else was going on?  

In English literature, the Romantic Period traditionally is dated from the same year: 1798, the year Coleridge and Wordsworth published their Lyrical Ballads.  Think Regency; this was all shortly prior to the rise of our beloved Jane Austen's literature (as we all know, 2013 is Pride and Prejudice's grand bicentennial year).  As far as religious freedom is concerned, in Britain and Ireland even before the Acts of Union, only members of the established church could hold office as MP's and participate in the vote, meaning Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and others had no real representation in Parliament.  To envision the political climate, think Wilberforce; the famed fight for abolition which is central to the wonderful film Amazing Grace, the "Saints" who were so mockingly dubbed because they took their faith seriously and the reformation of society deeply to heart.  Also keep in mind, the powerful Prime Minister who emerged to define an era of history unto himself in William Pitt, a king who went insane, a France marching toward empire under Napoleon, and the young United States, a fledgling nation with a federal constitution of under five years in age, embarking upon threats to newfound ideas of freedom already in the reactionary legislation known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Wow!!!  What I love about history is it's complexity; what I hate about history is also- it's complexity.  As Shakespeare so famously put it, "All the world's a stage,"-- a stage which rivals the most multifarious novel or film with it's tangled skein of narrative.       

So many things can be written here- anyone truly interested in the subject is advised to switch to scholarly articles because there is no way the scope of this post can include all the different factions, parties, convictions, and events of this period.  I am not following one thread because I believe it is all there is to be said on the subject; I am simply doing so for sake of time. 

And my thread, in honor of St Patrick's Day, is to take a peep back at one century of Irish history in broad strokes.  So back to my story: Catholics were, in the course of several decades, given the right to hold office in Parliament.  The "Catholic Emancipation" as it is sometimes called, grew in general favor over time but did not finally and formally come about until the famous Daniel O'Connell, "the Liberator," entered the scene, forcing the issue by running for office in County Clare and being elected twice.  O'Connell fought his battles on the stage of Parliamentary procedure, like Wilberforce; unlike Wilberforce, he did not see his labor come to entire fruition in his day.  Nonetheless, his skill as an orator, his passion for what was right (O'Connell was also an avid abolitionist and spoke out widely against American slavery, which was still in full force), and for me, most commendable of all, his nonviolence, all deserve great recognition and served to bring the issues of Ireland to the attention of many beyond the borders of his country.  

The 19th century for Ireland saw the Acts of Union at it's beginning; it saw the entire career of Daniel O'Connell; and finally, mid-century, it saw the terrible famine that drove millions of Irish from their homeland as immigrants, from which so many American citizens today derive their heritage and which is commemorated beautifully in Boston, MA.

Memorial of the Great Irish famine. Boston 2012.

And at it's close, Ireland was still not free; the issues had intensified, perhaps; the willingness to resort to mutual violence had not ended, nor had the sense of occupation by a foreign power with which the union was imbued for many people.  In 1898, the hundredth anniversary of the rebellion in which John Murphy (by then dubbed "Father" Murphy, retroactively) played such a historic but unfortunate role, the commemorative song "Boolavogue" was written.  The song embraced the strong terms of the United Irishmen and the cause of a completely free Ireland, not least because the issue would not reach it's culmination until the twentieth century.

Fast forward to 2013, and these actual events have become more recessive and distant to our imaginations than the legend as remembered in song and performed beautifully by the High Kings. That legend, however, retains the grain of truth at it's heart: the deeds which can be sparked by the passion of patriotism, the burning awareness of "inalienable" rights, and the fundamental desire of humanity to be free. 

 And that, in the phrase of Paul Harvey, is "the rest of the story."

---Or not?  For further reading, I recommend starting with the article "The 1798 Irish Rebellion" at the following link:

-I also read articles from Wikipedia to get me started, but I don't recommend these as a final source; I would fact-check in other places also.  For information on Daniel O'Connell's role in abolition, and his link with Frederick Douglass, there are articles available freely online from "History Today."  I read two, and they had far more of interest to offer than I could include here: Vol. 47 issue 5, 1997, and Vol. 57 issue 12, 2007.  There are additionally many other resources available online.  I additionally recommend the historical fiction trilogy which takes place in Ireland during the life of O'Connell written by Brodie and Brock Thoene: Only the River Runs Free.  While fiction, this series explores many of the very real aspects of the situation in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century.

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