Friday, March 11, 2011

"Helena, Las Vegas and the hills of Donegal"

I just made it back to Atlanta after a whirlwind trip around Arkansas and Mississippi, and quite a few places in between. We covered 1500 miles (thanks Susan!): from Atlanta to Memphis;  Memphis to Little Rock, Arkansas; then on from Little Rock down to The Delta, namely Helena and Wilmont, gazing on at all those long flat old flood plains that stretch out seemingly forever, to an Irishman at least. God knows what it's like out west! Perish the thought.


From the delta we eventually made it to Indinanola, Mississippi, then through Alabama and eventually back to Atlanta, Georgia.
Helena, Arkansas is a delta town that is hard to categorize, one thing is for sure, though -- it has seen better days. Helena is in Philips County, one of the poorest counties in Arkansas. The town is situated poised on the Mississippi with all that has to offer. It has seen commerce, music, and trade flourish in the past, but partly due to the receding importance of the Mississippi river as a vital vein of trade, its star is faded. Meth-Amphetamine addiction is also a big problem as it is in many another small town in the States. Helena is also a racially divided and divisive area. On the other hand Helena does host one of the south's best blues festival, the "King Biscuit Blues Festival," a harking back to Helena's hey day (in the first half of the 19th century) when it was full to the brim with juke joints, bars, businesses and beer gardens, which fed (and watered) local musicians and patrons alike.
Passing through the town of 15 000 people at 9pm on a Monday night in March, not one bar could we find, though the huge Casino "The Isle of Capri" was doing steady trade -- free drinks if you play the slots.  The casino is just across the river in Mississippi. The absolute negation of imagination that abounded in that giant behemoth made me fear for Tipperary, which the Irish government has made good for a €460 million worth Las Vegas-style Casino (wait for it....) in the style of "The White House" deep in the Irish countryside. You couldn't make it up! It makes my blood boil that we in Ireland feel we constantly have to be trotting after America and the U.K.  The one thing that's for sure is that people do not come to Ireland for a Las Vegas-style fix -- many of the people who'll probably end up propping this thing up will be our own socially disadvantaged, like the poor blacks and "rednecks" crowding around slots in "The Isle of Capri" of the Mississippi. As our new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) said recently, "We're open for Business." We, being "Ireland Inc." (another God-awful homegrown expression that has recently gained prominence). "We're open for business" --  It makes me think of a "lady of the night" with her legs spread wide. They could call the Tipperary development "The Lady of the Night," perhaps.
Back to Helena! The Confederate cemetery there, high above the Mississippi, commemorates their Confederate dead, foremost of whom was General Cleburne of protestant Irish stock, born in County Cork, Ireland.


We also visited the African-American Cemetry which has fallen into disrepair, which has a sad charm of it own. As far as I can gather, it has just recently been rediscovered and is soon to be restored to its former glory - if that can be said of a graveyard!


We passed a Jewish cemetery, too. Helena had quite an active Jewish community that has only recently dwindled in importance. Helena's Jewish mayor in the 20's was challenged by a Ku Klux Klan candidate who was sorely defeated -- in a time of great popularity for the KKK in the South.
We also walked around the Catholic cemetery, which held the remains of many diverse ethnic groups, including Irish.


It's amazing what you can learn from cemeteries!
Helena has a lot to draw on from in its history, but for quite a few reasons, recently it has fallen on hard times.


Though it may see better days yet!


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