Is Pierce the Name of a Peasant?

We went to Wexford in part because some of Our People are from here — namely Pierce Michael Sinnott, who came over sometime around the Potato Famine and established a family in Boston (see Where’s the Little Guy?). Pierce was from Wexford but we don’t know which part of the county, which makes it hard to figure out anything else about him.

In the absence of further information, I decided we should “get in touch with our roots” by going to the pub. Namely, Sinnott’s Pub, in the little town of Duncormick, about half an hour from Wexford. We can’t prove we’re related to these particular Sinnotts — it turns out there were a lot of Sinnotts in Wexford back in the day — but we can’t prove we’re not, either! Also, I happened to know from the internet that it’s in an adorable old building with a shaggy thatch roof.

IMG_3687

In the absence of further information, Cathy indulged in a favorite Anderton pastime: creating and promoting a ridiculous theory. Pierce’s name, she postulated, proved that he wasn’t among the poorest of the poor.

“Is Pierce the name of a peasant?” she asked me rhetorically while we had a drink at the hotel bar across from our B&B (she, her usual Guinness; me, a glass of Red Breast whiskey).

“Of course it could be,” I said. “We lack any context to draw a conclusion about that.”

Dissatisfied with my response, she addressed the bartender. He offered no opinion but was happy to recite a litany of English crimes against the Irish over the centuries.

So on our drive around County Wexford, we stopped in Duncormick, which consists of a clutch of houses, a pub or three, and a church. The first time we went through, Sinnott’s was closed and nobody answered the door. But a passerby with a dog and a thick Irish accent advised us that the proprietor, 87-year-old John “Sammy” Sinnott, had gone out for a while and would be back later. So we took a photo, had a wander through the church graveyard, and headed on.

sinnots(3)

IMG_3696

On our way back to town at the end of the day we stopped by again. This time Mr. Sinnott was home. He had recently been released from the hospital and everyone in Duncormick, it seems, was stopping by to drop off food and wish him well.

Not wanting to drive after dark, we only stayed for a short time, but it was clear why everyone loves him: he’s a great talker, and a good listener too. He told us about his trips to Texas and California, and his friendship with a rock band manager, which led to a friendship with Jerry Garcia.

sinnotts

While he knows a lot about local history, he wasn’t able to tell us anything about “our” Sinnotts — including whether Pierce is the name of a peasant. But that was all right. For me, just taking photos in front of Sinnott’s would have been enough. Meeting the man himself was icing on the cake.

Devils, Monks, and Sailors Lost at Sea

In Wexford we resolved to rent a car, because the town is small (population: 20,000) and it’s hard to get out and see much without a vehicle. After discovering that Enterprise had thoroughly botched our reservation, we walked down the road to Hertz, rented a little VW at half the price, and ventured forth.

We headed first to Kilmore Quay. Along the way we admired the ridiculously pretty Irish countryside and the improbably blue sky. This would turn out to be the only completely rain-free day of the whole trip.

The Quay has a beautiful coastline, with a memorial to those lost at sea.

sailormemorial
Kilmore Quay memorial.
IMG_3671 (2)
Rocks overlooking the coastline.

Beth volunteered to take the wheel and said it was actually fun driving on the left. Other than a brief game of chicken with a large truck on the back roads outside the Quay, she did a thoroughly admirable job.

bethparking
Successfully parked at the Quay!
IMG_3684
Wind farm on the road to Duncormick.

Then we turned up through Duncormick to the Hook peninsula. First stop: Tintern Abbey, established in the 1200s by Cistertian monks, and not the Tintern Abbey Wordsworth named a poem after.

Henry VIII kicked all the monks out in the mid 1500s and gave the property to an officer in his army (“Sorry old chap, bit short on cash for your wages — take this monastery instead.”) The place stood empty for a generation in the mid-20th century. It wound up in the hands of the government, which has restored the ruins to a more presentable state of ruin.

tinternfull

tinternbirds

The garden out back is being painstakingly returned to its exact layout from 1838 — clearly a labor of love, with beautiful results.

tinterngarden

Then we went down to the Hook Lighthouse, which is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the world. The structure was built in the 1200s but has since been covered over with an exterior layer.

lighthouse

The lighthouse keeper and two assistants shared rather tight quarters inside; they were rotated out and scattered to different lighthouses every four years to keep them from sneaking out of bed to strangle each other in their sleep. You can climb up to the top and get a great view.

coast

lighthousetop

You can also get a truly delicious seafood chowder in the cafe, with amazing Irish brown bread and butter.

chowder

Then we went to Loftus Hall, “one of the most haunted houses in Ireland.” The property was taken from its owners by Cromwell and given to some English people (perhaps you’re sensing a pattern here). They knocked down the castle that was standing here and replaced it with this admittedly rather malignant-looking mansion in 1870.

Loftus_Hall_2-filtered
Loftus Hall. (Photo stolen from AbandonedIreland.com.)

Among the horrors that allegedly occurred on the place after that: the devil appeared in the form of a comely young man and won the heart of the daughter of the family; when his true nature was revealed he shot up like a rocket through the upper floors and roof, leaving unrepairable holes; the daughter went mad and was locked up in a small room until her death, whereupon she began haunting the place; the snooty Loftuses bankrupted themselves renovating the home in anticipation of a visit from the Queen, but she never came; in the process of renovating they hired two Italian craftsman to lay a custom tile floor and then chopped their hands off to prevent them ever making another one.

By then the afternoon was dwindling away. We headed back to Wexford town with a stop at Sinnott’s Pub in Duncormick (more on that in a future post). Beth heroically navigated several traffic circles in a row. Even though we’d spent the day in the car, we managed to rack up 15,000 steps or nearly 8 miles of walking, so after dinner at the hotel bar across the street from our B&B, we collapsed gratefully in our beds.

“Every Day was a Holiday”: The Irish Peasant Diet

When I posted the photo above from the Agricultural Museum on Facebook, several people raised interesting questions, such as: Did they put anything on the potatoes? What did they drink with them? And simply, how is it possible to eat that many potatoes in a day? So I decided to look into things a little further.

First, if you’re appalled by the idea of daily potato consumption on this scale, you’re not alone. Even back then, outsiders were amazed. “An Englishman would, I take it, find considerable difficulty in stowing away this enormous quantity of vegetable food,” sniffed L.H. Spooner in the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1846, “and how an Irishman is able to manage it is beyond my ability to explain.”

But they didn’t just manage — they thrived. “For all their wretchedness, they were admirably nourished — better, maybe, than the mass of the people of any other country during any recent century,” wrote historian K.H. Connell in 1965. More than one 19th-century observer commented on the heartiness of Irish peasants: “the general food of the lower orders is potatoes and milk,” wrote one, “and the wholesomeness of this diet is proved by the health and robust appearance of those who use it.”

My mom, true to her heritage, always said if you had to live on just one food, the potato was a pretty good choice. It turns out she was right.

41d34cd4e3
A potato-eating family in County Kerry. Pictorial Times, February 1846.

What did they eat them with? Fresh milk or buttermilk, butter, salt, perhaps some onion. Along the coasts, especially, people added seaweed or fish when they could. In an oral history from the book Famine Echoes, William Torrens of County Donegal paints this colorful picture of a family gathering around a basket of boiled potatoes in the era before the blight:

The people of the house sat round in a circle on stools, with some salt on another stool near the basket, and noggins of buttermilk which they balanced in their laps or set down on the earthen floor. No knives or forks were used. The potatoes were boiled in their jackets and peeled with the left or the right thumbnail, according to the hand which the person engaged was most accustomed to use. The nail was kept at a certain length for this purpose, and so expert were the people at peeling potatoes in this way that nobody with a knife and fork could divest a potato of its jacket half so quickly. A meal of salt, buttermilk and potatoes was called ‘dip-at-the-stool’, a term fairly expressive of the performance of dipping the potato in the salt which reposed on the stool.

And here’s something crazy. When a laborer expected to work all day without lunch, he would eat potatoes “with the moon in them” — that is, with a sphere of hard undercooked potato in the middle. The half-raw portion was supposed to digest more slowly and keep hunger pangs away.

As for what they drank, beyond dairy products: tea was entrenched among Ireland’s poor by the 1830s. English reformers clucked that the brew would “deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland,” and give women thoroughly unbecoming notions of equality as well, but their eradication campaigns failed to catch on. (I can’t imagine why.)

10604qq
Poitin still, 1901

Any alcohol would likely have taken the form of poitin or poteen — a robust moonshine which, though illegal, was widely produced.

Interestingly, people looking back on this diet didn’t describe it as a deprivation. In the years just before the potato blight struck, the country had seen two bumper crops of spuds. By many accounts, even the poor enjoyed a sense of plenty.

“Every day was a holiday during that time and plenty of poteen drunk,” said John Murtaugh of County Longford in another oral history. Indeed, there was a widespread notion that the crop failure was a punishment for wasting food. “Old people said it was God’s will to have the Famine come,” recalled William Powell of County Cork, “for people abused fine food when they had it plenty.”

Even after the Famine, Irish people went right back to eating — and loving –potatoes. They continued being major consumers until the last decade or so, when sales dropped off, presumably because of the anti-carb craze. Nowadays Ireland ranks 16th in potato-eating worldwide (you’ll notice a trend among the top countries: Belarus, Turkmenistan, Poland, Estonia, Russia and Kazakhstan.) Remarkably, the EU recently announced it was launching an ad campaign to get the Irish to eat more potatoes.

Saving Lives, and the Opposite

The next morning we took the train down to Wexford, arriving in plenty of time to Do Stuff in the afternoon. After winning a battle of wills with the Tourist Office lady, who was determined to send us to the national heritage park, we took a taxi to the Agricultural Museum at Johnstown Castle.

The museum starts you off gently with cheerful displays of antique farm and sailing gear. I especially loved the coastal life-saving cart.

coastalsaver

The cart carried a rocket launcher(!) that fired a rope attached to a projectile. They’d shoot it out to ships foundering by the shore.

Breeches_buoy_(PSF)
Image: Wikimedia

The sailors on board would tie the rope to the ship, allowing the crew and/or passengers to be pulled ashore one at  a time in a breeches buoy, which is basically the world’s largest pair of shorts suspended from a pulley.

This must have been no mean trick to carry out in stormy weather or at night, without any means of communication between ship and shore. Gazing at the cart, I imagined stalwart locals standing in the driving wind and rain, firing the lifeline to the desperate crew and hauling them to shore. It made me feel kind of warm and fuzzy and slightly hopeful about the state of humanity.

And then we got to the Famine exhibit.

The Famine exhibit isn’t particularly high-tech or interactive. It has a reproduction of a typical tenant farmer’s hovel–a dark, smoke-filled, thoroughly depressing mud hut not much larger than a parking space, where the parents, a passel of kids, maybe a grandparent or two, and the family pig would all bed down.

faminehovel

It has some audio recordings of first-hand accounts of starving villages. It has potatoes. But otherwise, it tells the story the old-fashioned way–with words on panels. And it does a powerful job.

The exhibit hits the key causes of the Famine (there’s longer description here by the BBC for those who are interested):

  • export laws that stole much of the profit from tenant farmers,
  • bad land policies that forced them to feed their families on small plots of poor soil,
  • over-reliance on a single strain of potato,
  • a remote London government more interested in respecting the so-called “free market” than in preventing starvation.

(Of course the market was far from free. It had been constructed in the 1600s to keep native farmers impoverished and powerless.)

The sparse visuals are well-chosen. Knowing that Irish peasants subsisted almost solely on potatoes is one thing. Seeing the quantity they consumed is another.

20160330_145811

If this is what you eat every day, and then one morning you wake up and every single potato you’re depending on for the winter has literally rotted in the ground overnight — who can imagine the feeling?

I definitely recommend the museum if you’re ever near Wexford, even though it brought me down from my buoy-breeches high to right back where I was after the bog bodies:

People. Are. Terrible.

I Asked Again Last Night for Your Love So Divine

Cathy had astutely noticed a fiddle on the sign at O’Donoghue’s pub, just around the corner from where we were staying. So after our whirlwind extra day in Dublin and an excellent dinner at Green19, we went to see if they had traditional music. And did they! O’Donoghue’s turns out to be an icon of Irish music and the pub where the Dubliners got their start.

session
Everyone but the accordion player — I couldn’t fit him in.

The players were seated on low stools at a table in the front. Three stools right next to them were empty so Beth and Cathy boldly claimed them while I was at the bar getting drinks. We sat for at least two hours, listening to rousing stompers by the whole group, haunting ballads and bawdy tunes sung solo, and the odd poetry recitation. In between we chatted with the players, who were kind and friendly. And of course we gave generously to the kitty.

The young guy playing an assortment of flutes and whistles was terrific, and he told us the banjo player was among the best in Ireland. Honestly, I couldn’t hear the banjo very well since we were on the opposite side of the room.

Here they are doing “I’ve Waited as Long as I Can.” Doc Watson also used to do this song, and that’s never a bad sign.*

When we left the older guy in the white shirt was very gracious and thanked us, saying an attentive audience makes all the difference. But the pleasure was definitely ours.

*It’s an interesting song, too, because the lyrics are both charming and weirdly uncomfortable. The guy seems to think he has a right to this woman’s love and she’s just being unreasonable in withholding it. Just when I start to worry that he’s going to assert his “right,” he walks away.

Also, nobody asks someone else for their love anymore, right? It sounds pathetic, like Jeb Bush asking people to applaud.

Butter and Other Bog Things

Beth did an excellent job of booking our various rooms in advance, but we’d left one day open in Galway so we could be flexible about our plans. We thought about renting a car to go to the Cliffs of Moher, which the guidebook called “stupendous” and “dazzling.” But when the day dawned with an unstupendous and undazzling rain, we were less enthused — especially since the trip would involve driving on the left side of narrow winding roads in poor weather to some cliffs we might not ever see through the clouds.

We discussed boats and buses and cars and itineraries and after, in the words of the immortal Frank O’Hara, “practically going to sleep with quandariness,” we decided to head back on the train for an extra day in Dublin before going down to Wexford.

This turned out to be a good decision because we got a lot out of our added time in the capital. First we went to the archaeology museum, which was fantastic. My favorite thing was this stone head from the 1st or 2nd century AD (or whatever we’re supposed to call AD now, which I’m too lazy to look up).

headrect

The head had three faces, each more evocative than the last.

 

headsquare

We also learned about bog butter, which I assumed was some kind of rare substance produced by the intermingling of liquids in peat bogs over the centuries. In fact, it turns out to be that rare substance known as — butter. Long-ago people would churn more than they needed and store the excess in clay jars in the bog (“Hey! Here’s a big slough of centuries-old decaying vegetation; let’s keep our food in it!”) Sometimes they would forget it, or die before they used it, and modern archaeologists get to dig it up and study it.

But the bogs have more than butter in them. They also have bog bodies, which are corpses that have been preserved for centuries due to the highly acidic water, low temperature, and a lack of oxygen in peat bogs. Many of them appear to have been executed, perhaps as a ritual sacrifice — but they also appear to be wealthy, which seems odd, since I would think the kind of people who get turned into fodder for the gods would generally be poor. They’ve been strangled, cut, possibly bludgeoned, and their bodies pinned down in the bogs. I got some photos of bog bodies but I won’t post them here out of a heartfelt concern for your dreams tonight (and mine).

The basic lesson I took away from this part of the exhibit is that people are terrible.

After the archaeology museum I ran around doing errands and taking some pictures I wanted for the blog. And then we went out for a terrific night of music, which shall form the subject of a future post.

F— Trump

After pie we headed out to one of the two pubs in Galway that offers a traditional local music session with an early start time. Taaffes was packed so we went across the street to Tig Cóilí.

galwaypub

I had a Connemara, a deliciously peaty whiskey, like an Islay scotch. Beth had a Green Spot. Cathy had her usual half-pint of Guinness.

The musicians filtered in — first a banjo player and flute (I was surprised how many banjoes we saw in Ireland), then a guitarist and fiddle player.

galwaysession

The music was good but everyone in the pub was talking really loud. At first we strained to hear the music over the chatter. Then we became part of the chatter.

We started talking to a couple of guys in the bar. A lot of the locals seemed to know each other so people cycled in and out of the group as the conversation went on. Sadly, I realized after I left that I didn’t get a photo of us all. I wish I had.

Inevitably the talk turned to politics, and everyone expressed their horror of Trump. Our new friends couldn’t understand how anyone would fall for his childish boasts and inane sloganeering. (This was a sentiment we would hear from almost anyone we talked to for more than a few minutes during our week in Ireland.)

“Some Americans like Trump, though,” said one of the guys, pointing to a dollar bill stapled above the bar. It read “Kansas loves Trump. Easter Rising 1916.” A few inches away, another dollar read “Fuck Trump.”

This could not stand. A 50-50 split was unacceptable. Someone found a dollar and I produced a Sharpie from my bag.

We didn’t hide behind something as vague as a state affiliation. We wrote “Fuck Trump” and signed it. We took down the pro-Trump dollar and tore it up, and a nice expat named Troy (from Salt Lake City, of all places) posted ours in its place.

FTrump

Long may it reign. Because, seriously — Fuck Trump.