To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.

 

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Westeros

 

(Ireland 2018 – Part 2)

 

Despite having devoured the first 3 books in the series, I cannot really be considered a true “Game of Thrones” fan. Reading to the end of the fourth book ended up feeling like work. I only managed it because of my neurotic need to finish any book I start. The fact is, I never really got over the Red Wedding chapter in Book 3 and I resent that sadist, R.R. Martin, to this day for putting me through it. When it comes to the TV series, I stopped watching somewhere in the first season. I just couldn’t stomach the (seemingly gratuitous) violence and cruelty.

So it wasn’t “The Game of Thrones” that led me to Northern Ireland, but once there, it was hard to escape the connection. There were all sorts of GoT packages on offer; whole sections of Tourist Information offices were devoted to it. Special maps were made, showing all the locations where scenes from the series had been filmed, like this one (notice all the film camera symbols):

Not surprisingly, a lot of the sites that we had chosen out of old guide books (that predated the show) overlapped with those on the GoT tours. And when they did, we slogged through these sites in a massive convoy of people.

At the Giant’s Causeway it seemed there wouldn’t be enough rocks to hold them all.

At the famous Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge, there weren’t enough hours in the day to let all the people who wanted to cross over.

And at the Dark Hedges (Westeros’s “King’s Road”), well, we could hardly see the trees for the forest of tourists passing under them.

 

 

And now I have to confess to being a bit hyperbolic in what I wrote above. I still enjoyed all of the sites despite the many other tourists. They were cool and beautiful and worth visiting. Then again, when I look back at the trip as a whole, my absolute favorite moments were ones when we were almost alone in some gorgeous location – and that cannot be a coincidence.

First we got to the Mussenden Temple and the mansion ruins in Downhill Demesne before the ticket office opened and could explore the places almost completely on our own.

 

This was one of my favorite moments from the whole trip. Me and the sis being in the moment:

 

It was only after I got home from the trip that I started researching the connections between “Game of Thrones” and Ireland. It took me all of two minutes to find an article showing that the fictional country of Westeros is actually upside-down Ireland with some extras:

 

I suppose this all won’t be news to most GoT fans, but I thought it was incredibly neat. The article went on to say:

“Speaking at Comic Con two years ago, Martin revealed that not only was Co. Kerry perfectly redrawn, but the Fingers at the Vale of Arryn were, in fact, the Dingle Peninsula, and several other major Irish cities share their locations with famous Westeros landmarks: King’s Landing as Galway, Donegal Bay as the Sea of Dorne, Belfast as Old Town and Dublin as Casterly Rock . . . . With thanks to the success of the show, many fans are now traveling to the Northern Irish sets to see the amazing locations for themselves, resulting in the Dark Hedges in Co. Antrim, used as the King’s Road in the show, becoming one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the world.”

Source:  https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/rr-martin-reveals-game-of-thrones-westeros-is-an-upside-down-ireland

 Despite the crowds, I think it is great thing that the popularity of GoT has been a boon for northern Irish tourism. For me, the opposite has occurred. While googling “ireland locations game thrones”, I ended up watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos – scenes from the series with backdrops I recognized. I really enjoyed them. I just might start watching the show again . . . . .

A Tale of Two Countries

 

(Ireland 2018 – Part 1)

 

I’ve just returned for the second time from what has become one of my favorite countries in the world: Ireland. The first time I went there was four years ago. When people asked me “How was it?” my two most frequent answers were “Heaven on Earth” (I was talking about Dingle) and “I don’t think I ever came home from a vacation so utterly refreshed . . . physically, mentally, and spiritually!”

That time we toured the southern half of the island, so when we decided to go back this year, naturally we went north. And that means, strictly speaking, we were in two different countries.  But it turns out that the situation is much more complicated than you’d think.

First of all, there is no noticeable border. We picked up our rental car in Dublin (a big nine-seater that immediately got nicknamed “The Beast”) and headed north. At some point, the road signs changed colors, kilometers became miles, and Euros became Pounds. But the Irish stayed Irish. Our first stop was Newgrange – a huge tomb built by Stone Age farmers long before those Egyptian slaves and other sundry folk started working on the pyramids. From there, we drove into Belfast and went straight to the Titanic museum.  Both stops were cool and recommendable, but they didn’t supply us with truly lasting impressions. They didn’t occupy our thoughts and inspire conversations all throughout the next day. No, our final tour of the day did that.

 

We somewhat spontaneously decided to hire a “Black Taxi” and take what is known as “a political tour of Belfast”.  These are also called “Mural Tours” for reasons that will soon become obvious.  These drives go directly into the heart of areas which most travel guides tell you to avoid. They are history lessons about “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland which ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – so almost exactly 20 years ago.

Our guide was a very nice and knowledgeable youngish man whose own father had been one of the Troubles’ many casualties – although he hadn’t learned that until many years later and then through news reports on TV. In the meantime, he had become a father himself and wanted a different world for his own children. One in which Catholics and Protestants can be friends and the Irish can be Irish. One in which politics are not steered by the miniscule radical minority with their sadly contagious resentment and fearmongering. As he guided us through the sites, we could not exactly pin down what his own beliefs were – but he clearly had disdain for the militants and extremists of both sides.

The first stops were in a predominantly Catholic part of West Belfast. There were many political messages and depictions of the history of the Troubles from this side’s perspective.  We saw the still-militarized police vehicles, heard stories of random shootings and innocent child victims, looked at bullet holes in walls and paintings of hunger strike martyrs. We passed the headquarters of Sinn Fein. We saw memorials to the dead – many of them.

 

A short taxi ride later and we were on the other side. Once again there were huge murals, but this time showing William of Orange and Queen Elisabeth among the many tributes to fallen soldiers and victims of violent Catholic extremists. This side had a more militaristic feel to it and the patriotism was much less subtle – maybe because their big holiday – “The Twelfth” had just happened and all the British flags were still flying. Our guide took us past a large empty lot in the middle of this Shankill area where a huge bonfire is lit as part of the celebration. He said every year the surrounding houses are damaged by sparks and smoke and he wondered if such idiocy was allowed to happen in any other major city. His greater outrage, however, was reserved for a particular memorial of a “soldier”, whom he considered nothing less than a mass murderer of random innocent civilians.

 

As we drove through these streets, I watched the families out in their front yards, the children  playing games, their neighborhoods full of these many huge colorful messages of pain and resentment. One man, leaning on his parked car in front of his house, looked up from his cellphone and our eyes briefly met. He seemed a bit irked by our black taxi and I suddenly felt just a bit guilty about this voyeuristic human safari I was on. I wondered if these people sometimes felt like animals in a zoo . . .

In one sense, they truly were caged. Because in the No Man’s Land between these two neighborhoods, there stands a frigging HUMONGOUS wall.

 

I confess, this was the most shocking and disturbing part of the tour for me. I had had no idea that such walls still existed in European cities – to keep people separate from one another.  Our guide pointed out that there were gates along these walls that were closed and guarded at night (and later we actually caught one of them being closed).  I asked him why the wall was still there, seeing as how the peace agreement had happened 20 years earlier. He said it was because the people living there still wanted them.

It occurred to me that that all the murals and billboards and memorials I had passed also didn’t look 20 years old. They were kept up and mostly freshly (re-)painted. They – and I assume the fears and hatreds behind them – were being consciously maintained. Maybe passed on to the next generation, despite the fact that history had moved in a new direction.

I read somewhere a long time ago that the Troubles of Northern Ireland were centered in specific, fairly small areas of Belfast – maybe a few square kilometers in all – along with select neighborhoods in one or two other cities. And that is how it seemed to me during my four days there. From all the people we met and talked to, the vast majority did not identify with one side or the other and most referred to “the northern part of Ireland” rather than “Northern Ireland”. Our next hosts were a lovely mixed Catholic / Protestant couple. She had owned a restaurant in Belfast that had been bombed and more than once, while he maintained that the whole Black Taxi political tour thing was only there for the tourists. They seemed happy together.

I guess people do have some choice in the matter. Some choose truth, reconciliation and the future. Others remain stuck, still fighting the battles of the 1980s, stoking decrepit fears and resentments till the crowds start chanting.

“Build the Wall!  Build the Wall!”

And who’s going to pay for it?

The next generation.