Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Tale of Four Visits and Two Songs

Fredrick Douglass -- Famous Abolitionist and Former Slave.

American President, Barack Obama, is coming to Ireland in May, and he may visit Cork to unveil a statue to Fredrick Douglass. Obama has been petitioned by, among others, two African-American and two Irish-American Senators. Though it is not the main reason for his visit, the unveiling of this statue is, in my opinion, the most important thing he will do on his visit, and I for one welcome the whole endeavor. As regards Douglass, he was a leading figure in the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and was a former slave himself. His autobiography, "Narratives of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave," was a bestseller in its time. He traveled Ireland in 1845 and was greatly influenced by his time there. By all accounts, he met some very like minded people in his travels and was treated with equanimity everywhere he went. God knows would he be so lucky now! The statue of Douglass is to be erected in University College Cork.

Below are some quotations concerning Ireland, from Douglass's letters to William Lyod Garrisson, another notable abolitionist and founder of the paper "The Liberator" -

"Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man." (A chattel is a slave).

"One of the most pleasing features of my visit to Ireland was a total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color."

"The limits of a single letter are insufficient to allow any thing like a faithful description of those painful exhibitions of human misery, which meet the eye of a stranger almost at every step. I spent nearly six weeks in Dublin, and the scenes I there witnessed were such as to make me 'blush, and hang my head to think myself a man.' I speak truly when I say, I dreaded to go out of the house. The streets were almost literally alive with beggars, displaying the greatest wretchedness—some of them mere stumps of men, without feet, without legs, without hands, without arms—and others still more horribly deformed, with crooked limbs, down upon their hands and knees, their feet lapped around each other, and laid upon their backs, pressing their way through the muddy streets and merciless crowd, casting sad looks to the right and left, in the hope of catching the eye of a passing stranger—the citizens generally having set their faces against giving to beggars. I have had more than a dozen around me at one time, men, women and children, all telling a tale of woe which would move any but a heart of iron. Women, barefooted and bareheaded, and only covered by rags which seemed to be held together by the very dirt and filth with which they were covered—many of these had infants in their arms, whose emaciated forms, sunken eyes and pallid cheeks, told too plainly that they had nursed till they had nursed in vain. In such a group you may hear all forms of appeal, entreaty, and expostulation. A half a dozen voices have broken upon my ear at once: 'Will your honor please to give me a penny to buy some bread?' 'May the Lord bless you, give the poor old woman a little sixpence.' 'For the love of God, leave us a few pennies—we will divide them amongst us.' 'Oh! my poor child, it must starve, for God's sake give me a penny. More power to you! I know your honor will leave the poor creature something. Ah, do! ah, do! and I will pray for you as long as I live.'"

Douglass's visit to Ireland coincided with the first outbreaks of the Irish famine -- an event that changed, irreparably, the whole social, cultural, and political map of the country. We would do well to remember that the great conflagrations of the Famine's fire raged after he left, and in the west -- not in the cities. It is indeed sad to think that the people Douglass walked among, in those streets, were the lucky, and those he associated with, the blessed. Many of the beggars he saw were refugees from beyond the pale -- our own little wild west. The fact they had made it at all to the cities counted them lucky, and that self same "luck" held their agony prolonged. "The Luck of the Irish," as the saying goes. Douglas himself was lucky to escape slavery. Due to his own drive and ingenuity, he gained freedom and associated with some of the great thinkers of his time (including our own Daniel O' Connell). O' Connell called Douglass "the Black O' Connell of the United States."
To give another insight into the lie of the land in Ireland in the time of Douglass's visit there, this following quote is from French sociologist Gustave De Beaumont. He wrote it after he had visited Ireland in 1835 -- a decade before the onset of the Great Famine.

"I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the negro in his chains, and thought as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the pitiable condition of unfortunate Ireland... in all countries more or less paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers, is what was never seen until in Ireland."

One other notable visit to Irish shores is to occur in May -- that of the Queen of England. It looks like both the visit of Obama and The Queen will occur in the same week. Personally I'm opposed to the Queen of England coming to Ireland. In Killarney, our local councillors were all clamouring for her to visit, namely to commemorate Queen Victoria’s sojourn in Killarney in 1861. Victoria -- who is the self same Queen that presided over the Great Famine and visited Dublin in that Famine's worst year. The security involved then was huge and I'm sure to avoid violence this time round the same treatment will be rolled out for Queen Elizabeth, damn the cost. Of course, all those calling for this Royal Visit are hoping it will bring some much needed money to the country! It is viewed by those in power as a kind of coming of age for Ireland, where she finally grows up and joins the first world and western culture fully and completely. It also ties the ribbon of partition neatly in a bow and legitimises completely that fabricated border.
The whole visit throws out whatever ounce of shame or vestige of collective consciousness as regards history we might possess. Only last year the "National Famine Commemoration Center" was opened in Mayo. Invitations were sent out across the world to representatives of many countries, including the U.K. The U.K. sent no representative -- though 14 other nations did, and there was a representative of the E.U. to boot. So what do we do this year? We have the Queen herself invited for "A Royal Visit," and in Killarney, our representatives in local government call for a commemoration of the visit of Victoria of 1861 hoping Elizabeth will come in tow.
Of course this visit is planned with making money in mind, rest assured our local representatives care naught for Queen Elizabeth, nor Ireland for that matter. They are only hoping to fill up their coffers with English gold, namely gold of the tourist variety. They would do well to remember that Victoria's visit to Killarney bankrupt the Herbert's of Muckross. Victoria stayed with them for a mere two days. Don't build your castles on sand.
Although it seems we probably won't, after all our heartfelt entreaty, be graced with Elizabeth's presence in Killarney, we will have her paraded around Dublin. As if her's was not the same line that denied us the Republic we fought and died in droves for in successive rebellions from 1798 to 1921 -- that Republic upon which our whole state is supposedly based upon! Not to mind the carnage her line perpetuated in Ireland for long centuries before 1798.
Let the Queen come and commemorate the Great Famine this year -- let her come up to Mayo. This of course is not what is planned, instead we have to uphold a pretense. How can we ever have a country that respects itself and others if it sells itself out for silver and forgets its history at the drop of a hat? for a few pound? "We're bought and sold for English Gold," as Robbie Burns said of his own tribe long ago.

This is a telling picture by Windsor McKay Ca. 1920. It reminded me of "clamouring forth their heaped praises" in the song lyrics I wrote below (though the lads in the picture above look a tad more confused than those in the second verse of the song!).

I wrote a song about all this furore entitled "The Famine Queen," below are the lyrics. Heres a link to the track on Bandcamp.

The Famine Queen
Come gather round people what ‘er your persuasion,
be it pirate, a pauper a prince or a thief.
I'll tell how my mind lept in wild consternation,
to hear of Elizabeth’s visit, and Victorias adoration -
Oh the feats and travails of the Famine Queen!

One evening of late into Killarney I strayed,
Hearing men in high places all highly esteemed -
Pouring out their libations, clamouring forth their heaped praise,
gladly queuing in columns they rallied in oration -
for the Mighty Monarchs of England and the Famine Queen.

They sent out the word to Elizabeth doting
to grace us all with her presence so calm and serene.
Like in Killarney of old with the Bold Victoria -
Unfurl your banners for stern commemoration
of the feats and travails of the Famine Queen.

Ladies petticoat’s, plumes in all style and variety,
Soldiers marched of all rank and station replete.
Never was seen a vision of such pomp and piety
when the butcher's apron hung from each pole and station,
And waved on heaving throngs by O' Donnchú’s keep.

Up went new constructions in style and precision,
her regal self we regaled all the while.
Paupers and peasants were ne’r seen so industrious,
such loyal respect and royal dedication,
Resound bugles bursting for the famine queen.

Her coaches and retinue with ladies in waiting
All dazzling, all dappled by lakes so serene -
They peeked into valleys then up mountains so glorious
Ladies ner’ viewed them before of such high station,
Oh the feats and travails of the famine queen.

No let’s not have starving ghosts haunt our praises
Let Gods castigation quell our scurrilous pride.
A lazy insolent race, so seditious,
Sir Trevelyan was right, shure he received commendations
from the Bold Victoria the Famine Queen.

No lets not hear tell of her paltry contribution
to starving men through the country in dire need replete.
Drink a health to Elizabeth's visit,
Let us toast merrily Victoria's high station,
oh the feats and travails of the Famine Queen.

In the year of Eighteen Hundred and Forty Eight
Victoria was in Dublin, crowds submissed at her feet,
Banquets and praise were lavished for the visit,
Elizabeth now graces us for commemoration,
resound bugles bursting for the famine queen.

The Ottoman King in his regal seat,
10 000 pounds he promised for famine relief,
"1 000 will do," Victoria instructed.
They tried to turn back his boats at Drogheda in contention,
oh the feats and travails of the Famine Queen.

The Choctaw nation gave forth lavish contribution
16 years after their own Trail of Tears.
Let us all now sing out their praises.
Ring out resound in stark oration,
and damn the accursed Famine Queen.

Now for songs of a nations wrongs,
starving labour once a groan, now a true voice,
ring out resound in stark oration,
Ours was no tempest of distant location -
but a hell of lightening under the Famine Queen’s sea.

Lord Tennyson of Victoria was much in her favour,
He praised her to the heights of our own lovely reeks.
As he wove in loom of rhymes and of reasons,
from the west gloom and shadow then conflagration -
Famine raged its like ne’r before seen.

Let Elizabeth come and commemorate the Famine
Up in Mayo each year crowds gather with grief.
Men came representing many nations
opening the national famine commemoration -
Not one from the home of the Famine Queen.

This image is mainly composed of graffiti etched into the window of Dinis Cottage -- a 200 years old hunting lodge in Killarney National Park. That photo was taken by my girlfriend Alice -- here's a link to the rest of the window graffiti in that cottage. This graffiti was engraved into the window with a knife by a British army soldier. The opposite corners of the image contain -- an engraving of Victoria's 1860's visit to Ross Castle, Killarney, and a 20th century photo of the Royal Irish Constabulary marching through the town. 

The image above forms part of the inlay card of "Where Splendour Falls," an album of songs concerning Killarney that I have in mind to make. The references to Tennyson in the last few verses of "The Famine Queen" is mainly due to his being the Poet Laureate of Britain during Queen Victoria's reign. He wrote this poem, for instance, in praise of her. Lord Tennyson wrote the lyric "The Spleandour Falls" on a visit to Killarney in homage to our lakes. This is a beautiful choral version of the lyric. My own musical version was composed before I knew of any musical accompaniment to the lyric. My version and the coral piece are different beasts entirely, as you can imagine!

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