I was on the top floor - more a ledge, really - of a picturesque lakeside medieval ruin in Kerry when a couple walked into the old castle. It was a small place and the woman’s loud, confident voice carried easily to the stone ledge just above, where I stood admiring the view.
“Really, though, the Irish were just followers, weren’t they?” she declared.
Her male companion murmured something.
The woman made another disparaging remark about the general lack of initiative and mojo on the part of the Irish race, but much of it was lost in the great boiling which rose up in my ears.
After a while the couple started up the ancient stone stairs towards me. The stairway was so narrow that there was no room to pass, so I had to wait for them to come up. The man was first. Probably because I was standing quietly at the top of the castle I suppose, he greeted me genially, in what, I realised with some amazement was an Irish accent: “You’re the McCarthy Mór, the King, are you?”
I looked him in the eye, then. “Goodness no,” I said coldly. “I’m just a follower. You know, us Irish; all just followers?”
In the silence that resulted I went down the stairs and left the ruin without looking back. I was seething.
How dare she? And how could he, who at least appeared to be as Irish as myself, allow her to speak about his own people like that?
Here’s what I would have said to her, had I the opportunity.
We’ll start, Missus, with the Voyage of St Brendan. This is the monk, who legend has it, discovered your own good land of America around 1,500 years ago. Some serious scholars believe that St Brendan the Navigator and a small band of fellow monks travelled by curragh from the Kerry coast to North America in a boat built of wattle and covered with hides which had been tanned in oak bark and softened with butter. Brendan set up a mast and a sail and was gone for years.
Sceptics dismissed even the possibility that such a small, frail vessel could have sailed right across the open Atlantic – until the mid-1970s, when Tim Severin proved it could be done.
Others of note: Christina Noble, who dedicated her life to helping children in Vietnam and Mongolia. Wolfe Tone. Mary Robinson. Robert Emmet. Katie Taylor. Mary McAleese. John Tyndall, the scientist who discovered infrared radiation. Anne Devlin, who refused, under torture to give information to the British about Robert Emmet. Gráinne Mahol. James Joyce. William Butler Yeats. Rosie Hackett, who founded the Irish Women’s Workers Union 1911 because the Irish trade unions of the time wouldn’t include women. Padraig Pearse. Anne Bonny, the Cork-born pirate. Mary Harris Jones or Mother Jones who emigrated from Cork to the US as a child and worked as a schoolteacher and dressmaker before becoming a renowned orator and union organiser, community organizer, and activist.
The hundreds and thousands of starving souls who had their land and homes grabbed from them as part of what we have yet to publicly acknowledge was a brazen policy of genocide and ethnic cleansing; the poverty-stricken, abused and victimised hordes who struck off without a bob across the Atlantic - many on board the notorious coffin ships - to carve out new lives and find freedom and fortune in America.
And of course, let’s not forget what happened a few centuries earlier. Between 1652 and 1659 the 50,000-plus Irish men, including priests, women, including nuns and children of all ages were transported to Barbados and Virgina to be branded and sold at public auction for a life of hell - work on the plantations and for use as sex slaves and on human stud farms.
As part of his policy of the ethnic cleansing of Ireland, and on hearing that the British-born planters in Barbados were “weary” of “maroon” sex slaves and would pay any price for a white woman, Cromwell volunteered to supply their needs.
Gangs of his soldiers pounced on women and girls and drove them in gangs to Cork, from where they were taken to Bristol, publicly sold in the market, and thrust on board ship for the West Indies. This initiative only stopped when Cromwell realised his man-catchers were running out of Irish prey and were starting to kidnap British people living in Ireland.
One of these white Irish slaves was a man called Red Legs Greaves. In the 1600s, Greaves was among those who fought against Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. He was defeated, became an outlaw, was captured and eventually shipped out with 300 others to Barbados as part of Cromwell’s plan to provide slaves to the English sugar planters.
Sold to a planter notorious for his extreme cruelty, Greaves was frequently flogged for insubordination and was eventually sent to hard labour on the Bridgetown docks.
Despite the tight security maintained at the wharves, Greaves and three friends spotted a likely vessel and slipped their chains by greasing their legs with tallow. They killed the watchmen and set sail for the notorious pirate haven of Tortuga, with only some bread and a cask of water they found on the ship.
Meanwhile, the Irish, both servants and slaves, were at the centre of many of the rebellions in Barbados up to the end of the 17th century – this was born out by several statements from governors who warned that the Irish were continually trying to incite their fellow field-workers to rebellion. And did. And suffered horribly for it.
Anyway Missus, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Followers, are we?
Bad cess to you.