Tag Archives: Memory

Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War.

The Beginnings of the Jewish Community in Waterford

According to Louis Hyman, in his history of Irish Jewry up to 1910, ‘At the close of the seventeenth century, the Council of the Waterford Corporation encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants.’ One man who applied to trade freely in the city was Jacob Nunes who was given the freedom of the city to conduct trade in 1701.[1] Thus Nunes has a fair claim to being Waterford’s first Jewish settler. Again, Hyman notes that ‘individual Jews resided in Waterford in the eighteenth century, and some were there in 1805, one of them, surely Josias Jacob, registered with the Dublin Goldsmith’s Company in 1809. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the grandparents of the late Professor James Desmond Bernal settled in the town.’[2] According to the census of 1871, there was still only a solitary Jew in Waterford, however that was all about to change. With the introduction of what are popularly known as the May Laws, many Jews in Tsarist Russia made their way to Britain and Ireland. As Hyman notes, this movement of Jews from what was sometimes called Russian Poland, and Lithuania, had the effect ultimately of strengthening the communities of Jewish settlers in places other than in Dublin and Belfast.[3]

One of the earliest mentions of the new Jewish community in Waterford comes from 1893 with the death of Joseph Diamond at the age of 68, who lived on 8 Manor Street in the city centre, a street in Waterford that would in time form a central part of the Jewish community in the city.[4] Many of the Jews then settled in Waterford were Welsh, and were part of the Jewish community in Britain that were middle-class emigrants from Central Europe, what were known in Ireland as “English Jews”. The lives of these Jewish people were in stark contrast to those who would come to make up the bulk of Britain, Ireland, and Waterford’s Jewish communities in time, those fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia.

Shortly after the death notice of Joseph Diamond, the Jewish Chronicle noted that a congregation had been established in the city, with Mr R Smullian as president, and so prayers were held for the  Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for probably the first time in Waterford’s history.[5] A year later, the Jewish Chronicle again mentioned the new congregation noting that:

Mr and Mrs Goldring presented a Scroll of the Law to the newly-established congregation. In the evening they gave a party to which every Jewish resident of Waterford was invited. Mr M. Simon presided  and great satisfaction was expressed by the Chairman, Mr Hanasan[sic], President of the congregation, Mr R. Smullian, Mr Levy, Mr Diamond and others at the formation of the congregation.[6]

With the congregation up and running in Waterford city, the Jewish community there could do perform rites of their faith in their new home, rather than travelling to other cities in Ireland with synagogues. The development of the congregation breathed life into the city’s Jewish community and it wasn’t long before the city saw its first Jewish wedding, something which attracted a great deal of interest from Waterford people generally:

On Wednesday 14th inst the first Jewish wedding that has been solemnised in Waterford took place in the synagogue 88 the Manor. The couple were Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jack Lappin. The ceremony was performed by Rev J. E. Myers of Cork assisted by the local minister Rev Simon Aarons. The wedding created a great deal of interest  in Waterford and the synagogue was filled with Christians. Rev J. E. Myers  preached on Sabbath morning and also at a special service on Sunday evening, the latter attended by several Christians. Mr Goldring, President, and his wife have made handsome presents to the synagogue. Mr Robinson is Treasurer and Mr J. Levy is Hon Sec.[7]

The development of the community was of interest in particular to JE Myers, who ministered to the Cork congregation, and who visited Waterford on a number of occasions.[8] The community was growing in strength and in no time, there was a plan to open a Hebrew School in the city.[9] As the Jewish community grew and developed, children were born into families in Waterford, like the Sherowitz family. The progress of the community in Waterford was followed closely by the Jewish Chronicle, and many notices, no matter how small, relating to the city’s community, appeared throughout its pages. And so we know that some of the members of Waterford’s Jewish community got involved in politics, like Harris Sherowitz who sent a letter to John Redmond MP on the Aliens Act in 1905, signed by many, in the hopes that he would seek amendments to it. There was a significant difference between the size of the community in 1901 and by 1911. The interwar period was the peak of the Jewish community in Waterford, built as it was by the community that had developed and was captured in the census of 1911. Waterford’s Jewish community was at its most numerous in the city then: there were around 62 Jewish people in Waterford at that date. It was never bigger, before or since. While these numbers obviously pale in their significance when placed next to the Jewish communities of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, nevertheless the Jewish community in Waterford left their mark on the city. These maps show where Waterford’s Jewish community settled in the city (click images to enlarge them):

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

As you can see from Fig. 1 above, the very small community that existed in 1901, was centred in the main around John Street and Manor Street. This concentration would remain in 1911, as you can see from Fig.2, below:

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

To get the full effect, Fig.3 below shows both the 1901 and 1911 settlements overlaid on each other:

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

These few streets then, encompassed Waterford’s Jewish community until the beginning of the Second World War.

The Figure of the ‘Jewman’ in Popular Imagination and Memory in Waterford

Once the community strengthened, and became a more visible presence in the city, centred as it was around John Street and Manor Street, the figure of the ‘Jewman’, in that peculiar Irish turn of phrase, was a figure of curiosity and later, folk memory. In Waterford a song was sung called ‘The Jewman’, and according to Dermot Power was popular at one time with workers in Denny’s Bacon curing factory back in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the community was at its height. If as Hyman’s history of the Jews in Ireland has it ‘they knew no trade but peddling’, a fact contested in Ó’Gráda’s work, then this aspect of Irish Jewry is well summed up in the opening verses of ‘The Jewman’:

 At the top of town, Anne Street, a lady does dwell,

Her name I won’t mention, I dare not tell,

One cold winter’s morning the Jewman did call,

And unslung his bag outside of the hall.

He knocked at the door with his usual grin,

Saying good morning, missus, is your husband within

Says she no he’s not I want nothing today,

Ah take something said the Jewman don’t send me away.[10]

In the song, the woman takes some blankets on the promise of payment the following week, and duly the following week no payment is forthcoming, so the Jewman makes a grab for his goods, is hit over the head with a can by the woman before both are brought before a court, the song finishing with the testimony of ‘a big red nosed Bobby’ and a suitably amdmonished Jewman:

Said the Jew oh your Worship my poor head is sore,

And I’ll never go look for me wool anymore.[11]

As Cormac Ó’Gráda notes of such songs, and this particular one seems to have existed in a variety of versions Dublin as well, were indicative of views among Irish people that were ‘more xenophobic than strictly Anti-Semitic.’ Indeed, he contends that ‘the outlook of most Irish people of all persuasions was blinkered, parochial, and prejudiced by today’s standards.’[12] Such was the power over the local imagination of this figure, the ‘Jewman’, that one of Waterford’s lanes, Kneeff’s Lane, was popularly known as ‘Jewman’s Lane’. Indeed, the popular folk memory of the ‘Jewman’ and ‘Jewman’s Lane’ were revisited in a recent documentary about the Barrack Street area in the heart of Waterford city (the relevant segment is from 36:00 to 38:45):

As we’ve seen, the first Jewish marriages and other occasions were of deep interest to many locals, and something of this interest first present in the 1890s remained in the 1930s, as when the Munster Express carried a small notice relating to the Jewish Day of Atonement in September 1931.[13] Members of Waterford’s Jewish community found themselves in court on occasion, and in a rare display of anti-Semitism, a local District Court judge told a member of the family that he should count himself lucky, given what was happening to his people in Hitler’s Germany, though many rushed to defend the judge saying his comments were not meant in such a way.[14] There was also this joke which appeared in the pages of the Munster Express:

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Still, whether this properly reflects the relationship between the Jewish community and their hosts is difficult to ascertain for certain, perhaps like the figure of the ‘Jewman’ this was more parochial than anti-Semitic. One of the more unusual stories involving Ireland’s Jewish community and Waterford comes from the late 1930s as well. Frank Edwards, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and rugby player with Waterford City RFC and teacher in Mount Sion, took a leave of absence from his teaching duties in the school to join the International Brigade  to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon returning, Edwards was refused his old job and barred from teaching in any Catholic school. Rev. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi in Ireland, gave Edwards a job teaching in Zion Schools, recently established on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin, where Edwards would work for the next thirty years.[15]

The legacy of Waterford’s Jewish Community

Ray Rivlin’s Jewish Ireland: A Social History, contains a chapter on sport and entertainment.[16] The chapter opens with the story of Maurice Woolfson, a Jewish Waterford man who led local club Evergreen, when they achieved great victory on the field in the 1930s. The Woolfson name is an important one in the early history of Waterford soccer. Isaac Woolfson, was in the 1930s, chairman of the Waterford and District Association Football League and a key figure in establishing the first Employer’s League in 1931, forerunner to the factory leagues. Like many of the figures explored in Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, men like Isaac, Maurice and later ‘Duffy’ Woolfson, emigrant Jews from the poor edges of Russia, who were not of the middle-class “English Jew” origins of earlier Jews in Waterford, used sport, and soccer in particular as a means of integration and acceptance. Cormac Ó’Gráda, discussing the wide variety of sporting and other bodies established by Ireland’s Jewish community noted that success in the sporting arena ‘fostered communal pride’ but he also noted that it wasn’t long before many Irish Jews, and the membership of their sports clubs, moved beyond the community itself. [17]In 1938, with Maurice Woolfson as chairman, Evergreen won the FAI Minor Cup, beating Sligo United 2-1 in a game held at Kilcohan Park in the city. On his leaving for Dublin 1940, the loss was lamented by all involved in the club.

The Woolfson family dispersed from Waterford but returned in 1971 for the inauguration of the Maurice Woolfson Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the local Schoolboy League at half time during a League of Ireland game between Waterford and Finn Harps. However, as was noted by a journalist at the time, the contribution of the Woolfson family to Waterford soccer amounted to a lot more than just a silver trophy, ‘no matter how magnificent’.[18] The same might be said of the entire Jewish community, who breathed life into the streets on which they lived in Waterford, leaving a long lasting impression on the city and its people.


[1] Hyman, Louis, The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the year 1910, Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, p.22

[2] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p.79

[3] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p156 and 161

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 September 1893

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1893

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 20 October 1894

[7] Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 1894

[8] Jewish Chronicle, 27 March; 17 July 1896

[9] Jewish Chronicle, 6 November 1896

[10] Power, Dermot, The Ballads and Songs of Waterford from 1487, Waterford: Munster Express 1992, pp.10-11

[11] Power, Ballads and Songs of Waterford, p.11

[12] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socio-economic history, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p.180

[13] Munster Express, September 25 1931

[14] Munster Express, Septembr 27 1935

[15] Rivlin, Ray, Ireland: A Social History, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011, p.110

[16] Rivlin, Ray, Jewish Ireland, pp.209-210

[17] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland, pp.186-187

[18] Munster Express, April 23 1971

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Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Sports History, Twentieth Century

Ghosts of Imagination: A Journey through Landscape, the Land League and the Search for Memory

The modest plaque marking the site of the Irishtown meeting

The modest plaque marking the site of the Irishtown meeting

On a recent research trip I spent a week travelling the N17 each morning and evening. This arterial route stretches North from Galway city, passing through the plain East of Lough Corrib, into County Mayo and on into Sligo. To those from outside the region it is perhaps best remembered as the subject of a song by Tuam band and early nineties hit machine the Saw Doctors, although, then again, perhaps not. It is two and half years since I left Galway and headed South to the sunnier climes of Cork and, while the archives I needed to visit on were quite a while outside of Galway city, it provided an ideal base camp for the week long trip. Waking on a mattress on a friends’ floor in Salthill, most days I would be on the road before the worst of the rush hour traffic and an hour and a half later find myself at the museum in Knock, Co Mayo, just before it opened at 10am. On other days the trip only took me as far as Tuam, a more reasonable 40 minutes north of Galway city.

Snaking between Tuam and Knock the N17 takes you through what was the heartland of the Land War of 1879-82. The land, which once would have been mostly under tillage, is now predominantly pasture. It is not bad by the standards of Connaught, but is poor in comparison to the lush pasture of Leinster and parts of Munster. Stone walls divide the fields and while hedgerows, trees and bushes can hardly be described as rare they are by no means as frequent as they would be in richer, deeper soil. Overall the landscape has a windswept, sodden appearance but is still agricultural land. Modern bungalows and two story houses are reasonably frequent and the towns one passes through are free from the sort of sprawl and expansive estates that surround towns closer to larger cities. One gets the impression they have not expanded greatly in the past century and a half since the Land War when they were the towns which played a central commercial and social role in the life of the region. Improvements in transport and accessibility to larger towns have, if anything, diminished their importance.

A regular sight in the countryside of the area are the crumbling ruins of long abandoned farmhouses. Often standing alone in fields, windowless and roofless, these structures are sometimes reasonably large two story houses, the former homes of large farmers, middlemen or land agents, those who employed labourers and arranged good marriages for their children. In equal frequency, although they would have been more prevalent in the nineteenth century, are the ruins of small cottages. Their thatch roofs long missing, these homes would have been the type most associated with the Irish peasant. Here they are made of stone, in other, less rocky regions, they were more likely to be mud walled. They are a reminder of a period when this was one of the most congested rural districts in Ireland which lead to it being particularly hard hit by the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52. The smallholders who inhabited the area derived the bulk of their nutrition from the potato, which, up until that point had sustained them well on small patches of land. An outbreak of potato blight, brought to Europe from the United states on a shipment of seed potatoes, led to the failure of the potato crop beginning in late 1845, the consequence of which was the death of over one million Irish people in the period to 1852 and the migration of a further million and a quarter in the same period. However the attitudes of the landlord class and the British government are what ultimately turned a crop failure into one of the greatest social disasters to beset any European nation in a time of peace. Early efforts at relief included subsidised maize flour, until this was abandoned in favour of public works, which often worked starving people to death in exchange for a pittance. After this system was abandoned effective relief came in the form of soup kitchens which operated for a spell in 1847, however these were short lived as they flew in the face of the laissez faire economic ideology beloved of British Liberalism. The free hand of the market has never dealt a fair hand to the poor and, unwilling to shoulder the burden of poor relief, the British government cast the responsibility on to the poor law system which administered the workhouses, a system ultimately funded by the rates of landlords, who in order to lessen their contribution, cast tenants out of their homes. Criteria for entering these workhouses were stringent and their conditions were so deplorable entry into them was far from a guarantee of survival. There was food in Ireland as millions starved, some was even exported, but it was felt that state intervention was immoral when it challenged the inherent wisdom of economic liberalism. For many in government the famine was seen as providential, the actions of a just God, in response to the laziness and intransigence of the Irish peasant. It was also hoped that it might clear a little bit of space for more modern and capitalist orientated agriculture, a system which lent itself to free trade and export rather than a sentimental attachment to the land.

After my last morning in the archive at Knock, as I travelled to Tuam for an appointment in St Jarlath’s College, I saw a sign pointing from the road that said ‘Irishtown’. I had time to spare and made a quick decision to make a quick detour. A few kilometres later I arrived into a small town where a sign on the road in said, ‘Welcome to Irishtown, Cradle of the Land League.’ I wasn’t expecting an interpretative centre but felt that surely there must be something here to see, some monument to the monster meeting of 20 April 1879 which is regarded as the starting point of one of the greatest and most effective social movements ever to manifest on Irish soil. When a series of bad summers in the late 1870s once again limited productivity on the land, the famine was still a living memory. Tenant farmers of all sizes faced real fears. None wanted to return to a point where farmers had to choose between feeding their family or selling produce to pay their landlord.

Not all tenants were smallholders, there were a variety of steps on the social ladder between landowner and landless labourer. Often the landlord might rent a large parcel of land to a reasonably large farmer. The large farmer, or middleman, then often subdivided the land between smaller farmers, at a significant mark up, who may in turn rent it out in even smaller parcels. Sometimes even the smallest of farmers would let out a small amount of land to a labourer, or cottier, who for either a cash payment or payment in labour would have a small piece of ground with enough room for a cabin, a small crop of potatoes and perhaps a cow and a pig. The pig was central to the household economy of the small farmer and the cottier. Fattened on potatoes and buttermilk, it was the sale of this animal which provided cash to pay rent or for necessary bought goods. While the tenantry were not a homogeneous mass, every tier felt they had something to gain from reform of the land system. The more moderate demanded what was known as the three f’s, fair rent, free sale (their right to sell their lease) and fixity of tenure. There was also a demand for compensation for improvements made to the land. The more extreme, and increasingly powerful, section of the movement called for peasant proprietorship, while on the far left of the movement a small minority called for nationalisation of all land. This group included Michael Davitt, one of the principal founders and leaders of the movement, but the problem with nationalisation was it was not desirable under British rule. While the system of land reform did not happen overnight the Land War played a significant role in ushering in a series of land acts, up to and including the 1903 Wyndham Land Act, which would oversee the transfer of ownership of the vast majority of land in Ireland.

Grievances with the landlord system were widespread throughout the nineteenth century and tenant right meetings were relatively common. However it was the meeting at Irishtown which came to be accepted as the beginning of the Land War and which led to the establishment of the Mayo Land League in August 1879 and the National Land League in October. We can see a certain level of opportunism in some of those who came to lead the Land League, in particular Charles Stewart Parnell who used it a springboard to establish his hegemony over the Home Rule Party, but it was at its very base a mass movement comprising principally of those whom it sought to represent. It featured an ad hoc mixture of a variety of shades of national opinion, including Home Rulers, Fenians and and even some Unionists. The New Departure, with which it is often associated, was an alliance between Fenians and Home Rulers but in reality the Land League never had the support of the leadership of either movement, yet, commanded the allegiance of the bulk of the membership of each.

The Land War was never a war as such and while officially it was a non-violent movement, violence often manifested itself. It used tactics such as mass meetings, a phenomenon which had been utilised widely by Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the century, the withholding of rents perceived to be unjust, resistance to eviction, and boycotts of landlords, land agents and those who took over evicted farms. Resisting eviction could often lead to violence and could on occasion be successful, not simply in preventing an eviction, but in garnering a PR victory and in galvanising support. Various secret societies had been active in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century and they usually manifested agrarian grievances in the dead of night with attacks on landlords and their properties. Throughout the Land War attacks on the homes and property of landlords and grazers were frequently carried out by these societies and could include the mutilation of cattle. Many landlords preferred to let out their land to large farmers for pasture as it paid better and involved less tenants. For the smaller tenants, the large cattle farmer was often seen as as much of a threat as the landlord, and there was a resentment towards seeing cattle fattened while people went hungry. These agrarian ‘outrages’ were well documented by the authorities and widely reported in the press. However, the new phase of agrarian agitation had taken the emphasis off such clandestine activities and while they still occurred in significant numbers it was the mass basis of the Land League which made it powerful. Grazers and large farmers became involved in the Land League and despite the efforts of some to have its efforts focus on the plight of the small farmer they were to benefit from the eventual land redistribution too.

According to the Connaught Telegraph of 26 April 1879 13,000 people attended the tenant right meeting in Irishtown. They came from Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, Irishtown being close to where these counties meet. The Royal Irish Constabulary were caught somewhat off guard by the scale of the meeting, despite placards being posted in advance. While some policeman were present Dublin Castle was never notified of the event and they communicated with police in the district demanding an explanation. Police in Roscommon seem to have been the most prepared for the meeting with Sub-Inspector Charles Shadwick at Roscrea communicating with his colleague in Claremorris to inform him of it. A report by police in Caslterea, dated 16 April, recorded placarding in advance of the meeting and a memorandum on 18 April informed the police in Ballinlough to post observers on the roads to monitor those attending.1

The lack of a visible police presence was remarked on by John O’Connor Power, Home Rule MP for Mayo,who said that they would be able to keep order themselves. Indeed the police reports say that the Nally family of Balla attended with a ‘contingent of 370 horse.’ P. W. Nally and J.W. Nally were prominent local Fenians and were to play an important local role in the Land War. The police also reported that ‘400 men marched deep into the field from the direction of Claremorris.’ and that there were marshals appointed who wore green sashes.2 One of these sashes, that of PJ Gordon, is now on display in the Knock Museum. While John O’Connor Power may have been present at this early stage of the Land War he did not press home his advantage and was to return to London to focus on his parliamentary activities. In doing so he left the field open to his great rival Charles Stewart Parnell, who having been approached by Michael Davitt and John Devoy was to take on the mantle of leader of the Land League.3 O’Connor Power would eventually lose the support of the Fenians, despite his having been a member of its supreme council, as they came to favour Parnell.

Other speakers on the day included James Daly, editor of the Connaught Telegraph, and Matt Harris, Chairman of the Ballinalsoe Tenants Defence Association and a prominent local Fenian. Daly called for rent reductions and pointed to the poor harvests and rising costs with which the people were faced. He told those assembled to ‘Organise your tenant defence meetings in every parish and let your agitation be- the land of Ireland for the people of Ireland.’ Daly went on to say

it is not on the floor of the English house of commons that the real struggle for independence must be fought (cheers); but as Irish nationalists we should be glad to see the enemies of liberty obstructed and harassed- no matter where or by whom- whether it be in Westminster or in Zululand- whether the attacking party be commanded by a Parnell or a Cetewayo.4

These references to Parnell’s obstructionism and the Anglo-Zulu war were well received and the crowd responded with cheers. Throughout the summer of 1879 land meetings were held throughout the west and began to spread into other regions. By 1880 the Land League had become a fully fledged mass movement which, while beset by flaws and divisions, played a crucial role in implementing one of the most fundamental social and economic transformations ever to take place in Ireland.

Irishtown google map

This screen grab of a google map shows Irishtown as it now stands. The blue area is the site of the land meeting. It is now divided into four fields with a farm yard in the middle. The blue marker is the location of the plaque.

On arriving in Irishtown in December 2012 I did not see much in the way of reminders of the watershed of the Irishtown land meeting. The village had those usual things, a new estate on the way in, a primary school, a church, and in the centre a junction, a pub on one side and a petrol station and shop on the other. As I pulled into the petrol station I realised it was not the first time I had stopped there to ask directions. In a previous life, when I had merchandised for a confectionery company, I had travelled these roads visiting supermarkets and not realising that one day I would be viewing the landscape in an entirely different way. Traversing these roads as a merchandiser I had an interest in history but no in depth knowledge to map on to the landscape, although, the thankless and underpaid work did encourage me to follow my dreams and return to University to undertake a Ph.D. in history. As a historian one sees ghosts everywhere, not in a supernatural sense, but as we try to imagine the past from the scraps of information available to us we transpose it onto the landscape and sights around us. When people view ruins they do not view them just because a ruin is in itself impressive, they view it because it is an impressive reminder of what once was. But not all history leaves ruins, and not all historical figures leave monuments in their wake.

An old ordinance survey map showing the field where the Land meeting took place. Note the village as it now stand stands is absent. There are several buildings in this map which are no longer standing.

An old ordinance survey map (c. 1841) showing the field where the Land meeting took place. Note the village as it now stand stands is absent. I am not sure as to the extent of the village at the time of the meeting.  There are several buildings in this map which are no longer standing.

I entered the shop at the petrol station and asked the lady behind the counter if she could direct me to the site of the land meeting. She, not knowing, asked her colleague who likewise did not know. A customer, a farmer, was asked, he could not tell me either. Just then another man entered, a younger farmer. He was asked and he brought me outside and directed me down a road where, some five hundred metres from where we stood, I found a stone wall on the side of the road with a small plaque bearing the words, ‘Cradle of Land League: Site of Tenant Right Meeting 20 April 1879 which led to Foundation of the National Land League’. In the village a small obelisk stands to commemorate the event, a very small obelisk by the standards of obelisks, standing at less than two metres, but here at the site I found myself looking into a field that looks like many others. There is no sign of spectacle, no sense of thousands of people walking for dozens of miles in a downpour to air their grievances. This site leaves no trace, just as the vast majority of people who participated in the land war left no trace. Leaders and the literate will leave behind papers, documentation which may give us some clue to their lives, methods and motivations but with the mass of people in an age of little property and little literacy all we have are scraps. These people may be our forebears and, for a large section of the Irish population, they most certainly are, but generations have passed and silently they have slipped into history. The streets and squares of cities and towns contain statues of generals and politicians. Often representing the opposing sides in the various struggles fought between different conceptions of nationhood, but here, on a site where a people began to fight for their livelihoods, just a couple of dozen miles from where my own paternal grandparents were born, I stood looking into an empty field, viewing the ghosts of my imagination.

The plaque and the field behind it, originally part of a larger field which was the site of the meeting.

The plaque and the field behind it, originally part of a larger field which was the site of the meeting.

1National Archives of Ireland, Chief secretary’s Office Registered Papers 1879, 8039

2NAI, CSORP 1879, 8039

3Donald Jordan, ‘John O’Connor Power, Charles Stewart Parnell and the Centralisation of Popular Politics in Ireland’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 25 No. 97 (May, 1986), pp. 46-66

4Connaught Telegraph 26 April 1879

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Filed under Irish History, Landscape, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History

Why History Matters

By James Ryan

Last August, I went to Krakow on holiday. It was the perfect city-break: a beautiful old city, bustling but small enough to walk around comfortably; welcoming but foreign enough to realize that you’re away from home; hot and sunny in summer; and cheap Ryanair flights. I didn’t deliberate for long when choosing a holiday destination, and the deciding factor wasn’t just a long-held desire to visit Poland. It was Auschwitz. Located about fifty kilometres from the city centre, or an hour’s bus journey, lies the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by its German occupiers during the Second World War. It is the most infamous place on earth.

I work as an academic historian, researching state violence in Soviet Russia/the Soviet Union. I have spent almost a decade attempting to understand why and how highly idealist political activists come to practice and justify violence on an enormous scale. It makes sense that I had a strong desire to visit Auschwitz (even on my holidays). History for me – as for probably every historian in the world – isn’t just work, it’s a passion. I realized this when I was in school and wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. For some reason, I really liked learning all those dates from the Renaissance period, and thought it would be a lot of fun to teach history myself. Then I thought it would be even better if I could continue studying it as well as teaching, and become a lecturer. When I mentioned this to my teacher, he told me that I would need to do a PhD. I didn’t know what a PhD was, but quickly found out that it came with a title and decided that I wanted one!

The reason I mention this is not narcissism, but because within a few months of having my professional life planned out in my head, I began to have serious doubts. I liked history, but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Why not try to become a ‘real’ doctor, or a psychologist, or something more practical? Or, if I did want a more academic route, why not study something more intellectually stimulating, like philosophy? I’m glad now that I stuck with my original instinct, but those doubts have had an important effect on me. They have ensured that I have always approached the discipline of history with the belief that it should be more than just fun (and anyway I’d rather watch a film or sport for fun), that it should yield important information and understanding, that it does actually matter.

So, does history really matter, and if so, why? There is, unfortunately, a particular need for historians to address this question today. In a climate of financial cut-backs, disciplines in the humanities are more likely to be targeted than the salaries and bonuses of university presidents/vice-chancellors and their retinue. In Ireland, the Department of Education is considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject up to junior cycle (GCSE equivalent) in secondary school, which would likely mean that a majority of Irish students would enter adulthood without any meaningful understanding of national, or global, history. In this context, on the pages of Ireland’s leading broadsheet in recent months appeared an article that argued not only that history is nothing more than mythology, but that it’s actually harmful (The Irish Times, 9 June 2012 ).

It might sometimes be thought that historians live in the past, desperate to work out the details of events long since completed. This would be a mistake, for history as an academic discipline has meaning through the present and its effects on the future. Each of us is an historical being. We can only live in the present, we can only envisage the future, and we can only draw on the past for experience and guidance. We are narrative beings, constructing stories about ourselves in an effort to create a sense of individual identity, with our sense of ‘who we are’ derived from who and where we have come from, what we have done, and what we would like to do. Most of us like to think that life isn’t just a series of random events, that there is some sense of ‘destiny’ or purpose to the universe and our individual lives. What is true of us individually is also true of us collectively, however the collective is defined.

History is certainly potentially dangerous, and one can argue intelligently that historical awareness is perhaps more dangerous than historical ignorance. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) once observed: ‘History is the most dangerous product the chemistry of the intellect has ever concoted…It sets people dreaming, it intoxicates them, spawns in them false memories…keeps old wounds open’. History is often, and has often been, used and abused by those in positions of political power.

However, we cannot avoid the past and should not attempt to do so, for it has formed us in ways that we might not even realize. Our cultures, our political institutions, our political attitudes, our political ideologies, and our individual identities are all bound up with the past. For example, our cherished ‘Western’ institutions and concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are historically conditioned, and it is useful for us to understand their origins. If modern democracy owes its origins to the French Revolution, then it arose with ‘the despotism of freedom against tyranny’, to use Robespierre’s words, the same words that one Bolshevik deliberately chose as the title of a newspaper article in 1918 when justifying the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing reality of post-Second World War global history is the willingness of the self-conscious champions of freedom, led by the ‘land of the free’ itself, to risk global annihilation in pursuit of this ‘freedom’. They should have learned their history.

What does it mean to learn from the past? The famous expression of the historian George Santayana, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, is frequently cited in defence of History. It is, in itself, inadequate.

First, historians don’t just remember the past, they interrogate it. We all remember the past, but it is how we remember it that matters. It is a natural instinct to suppress bad memories, and national histories are often remembered in more or less sanitized, or at least politicized, form. This is sometimes quite deliberate, as indicated by a commission that was established in Russia by President Medvedev in 2009 (and dissolved earlier this year) to combat historical ‘falsification’, but which was seen by many historians and others as a means of enforcing a whitewash of the activities of the Red Army during the Second World War. The purpose is to allow citizens to tap into a sense of national belonging, of national achievement and triumph, to generate loyalty to the state, and to further legitimize the incumbents of state power. The discipline of History, by contrast, should teach us the complexity of the past and, by extension, help us to appreciate the complexity of our own times. The greatest danger associated with history is not historical awareness itself, but the absence of a well-educated, well-trained, professional, independent, and articulate historical profession that assumes the responsibility of enlightening (and when necessary correcting) such awareness.

Second, Santayana’s expression presupposes that there are lessons to be learned from the past. However, these lessons are not always clear. For a start, the mistakes of the past are not always agreed upon, let alone the lessons to be learned. Take the figure of Lenin, for example, on whose political thought I based my PhD. For some, he was the devil incarnate, responsible for setting in motion much of the human carnage of the last century. For others, he represented the purity of the socialist revolution before its ‘betrayal’ by Stalin. This brings us back to Auschwitz. Santayana’s expression is now inscribed above the door of one of the buildings in the camp. Looking up at it last August, I had to look past dozens of young Israeli soldiers in their uniforms. I doubt the lessons that they took with them that day were the same as those felt almost instinctively by so many of us as we walked through the corridors in reverential silence, past horrific and poignant images.

History is the story of human existence. There really is little that is beyond the scope of the historian, and as a discipline it is especially well-suited to cross-disciplinary perspectives. It makes sense for the historian to read up on philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, geography, etc. It is the most comprehensive of the humanities disciplines, and there is no reason why it should not be as intellectually stimulating as any other. It is crucially important to study history, to engage with it deeply, precisely because its significance is rarely fully understood and its lessons are not always agreed upon – nor necessarily should they be. History is contestable. Historians are entrusted with interpreting the past as well as recording it, and these interpretations are then contested and debated by others. History is like a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, individually and collectively. It is intended to encourage reflection, especially on the things we don’t like to see. Those who study it gain a great depth of perspective on what it is to be human, and how societies function. Whether or not students of history (or of any other discipline) are able to change the world for the good of others, knowledge and depth of understanding are inherently good things to have: they enrich our lives. It is unfortunate that all too often historians are content with an ‘ivory-tower’ existence, or brief appearances on TV documentaries as means of ‘reaching out’ beyond the confines of academia. We, as historians, have an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary debates, on a wide variety of issues, and I think we should be a lot more assertive in this regard.

 

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