For St. Patrick’s Day here is the text of a talk I gave to the Maryland Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in March 2019. I was scheduled to present it again at the Maryland Irish Festival in the fall of 2020, but for obvious reasons that never happened.
I’m going to tell you about a long and winding road of research and travel in search of my Irish family. But first a confession, unlike perhaps most of you I’m not Irish-American, I’m Irish-Flemish. I grew up in England with an Irish father and a Flemish mother. My mother grew up during the Nazi occupation of Belgium and my father was born to Irish immigrants in the northern English town of Manchester. My parents met when my father was a soldier with the British troops who liberated my mother’s town of Ghent in Belgium after D Day. They had a classic wartime romance, married in Ghent in 1947, and settled in the suburbs of London. My brothers and sister and I are quite proud of our unusual heritage. I once met a Flemish history professor from the University of Louvain. Of course I told him I am half Flemish. He asked what was my other half? When I told him Irish he reared back in mock horror and said “What a volatile combination.” Both peoples are known to be hot-headed and argumentative. Anyway that’s my family’s excuse for any number of sins!
Growing up in England my Irish grandmother Bridget Byrne lived with us. I knew her maiden name was Carney, and that her family had called her Bridie. We knew her as Nanny. She was a very quiet, nervous woman, very religious. Her bedroom was like a little chapel, full of religious pictures and statues. She had a statue of a rather obscure saint, St. Philomena, by her bed. Later on I would learn its significance. Every morning before school we would kneel by her bed to say our prayers and then she would give us a mint, holding the round white candy out to us almost like the host at Mass. She never talked about Ireland or her family. When I was about 12 she had a nervous breakdown with paranoid delusions that my mother was going to run away and take us to live in Belgium. She was in a mental hospital for a time and when she recovered she went to live in a convent retirement home. My mother told me this was perfect for her; when she was a girl she had wanted to be a nun but her family couldn’t afford the dowry you had to pay to convents in Ireland in those days.
In the church of San Antonio in Milan in 1630 a frail elderly man who had been kneeling in prayer rose to sit on the pew behind him. Before he sat he used the edge of his cloak to wipe off the seat. Seeing this, a woman seated near him jumped up and pointing to the man cried out “Look, that old man is anointing the pews.” Despite the worship service in progress members of the congregation attacked the old man, grabbing him by the hair and dragging him outside the church where they beat and kicked him to death. The mob was acting under the influence of a bizarre, false conspiracy theory about how the plague was spreading through their city. When I read this in The Betrothed, a classic Italian novel by Alessandro Manzoni, I immediately thought of the way Americans of Asian descent were attacked in the street during the COVID pandemic. Just because the virus originated in China was no reason to blame or fear any individual Asian American, but the perpetrators of the violence were acting on an irrational conspiracy theory just like the mob in Milan four hundred years before.
The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi in Italian) is on my list of favorite reading of 2022. Written in the early nineteenth century it is a story of star-crossed lovers set against the background of historical events in seventeenth century Lombardy; famine, war, and plague. The chapters that describe the Milan Plague of 1630 are famous and considered one of the best accounts of the plague ever written. Manzoni based his account on memoirs and histories, notably those of Giuseppe Ripamonti and Alessandro Tadino. Dr. Tadino was deputy to the Chief Medical Officer of Milan and a member of the Tribunal of Health during the plague. He personally witnessed the attack on the old man in the church of San Antonio; it is not fiction.
If you’ve had enough of the Windsor family dramas you may be surprised to learn that they are far from the worst in the annals of dysfunctional British royal families. Meet the Hanovers! Forget the scandal of divorce; they just threw a discarded queen in prison for the rest of her life. Feuding fathers and sons? They set up rival courts. And no voluntarily “stepping back” from royal duties; one prince was thrown out of the palace, his belongings dumped in baskets outside the gates. As for royal babies, they weren’t always greeted with open arms.
It all began when the last of the Stuarts, Queen Anne, died without an heir in 1714. She had endured seventeen pregnancies, all but one ending in miscarriage, stillbirth, or babies who died very young. Her only child to survive infancy, William, died age eleven. The question of who should succeed her came down to religion. By the Act of Settlement passed in 1701 Catholics were disqualified from inheriting the throne. That excluded James II’s son and grandson, James Francis, known as The Old Pretender, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Instead the throne passed to the descendants of James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart, whose daughter Sophia had married the Elector of Hanover, a tiny German province. Sophia died shortly before Queen Anne so the throne passed to her son who became George I, the first king of the House of Hanover.
I read a lot of books in 2022, some wonderful, some so-so, and a few just plain dreadful – yes I did try a Colleen Hoover. Here are my favorites in three categories – fiction, suspense, nonfiction, and a bonus classic. I hope you find something here to enjoy in 2023.
A word on the suspense category. Genre fiction is divided into so many overlapping categories – crime, mystery, thriller, spy, suspense. I chose suspense as the most inclusive. My favorites have elements of each but all are suspenseful.
My favorite books of course reflect my own reading preferences. It wasn’t until I had winnowed my list down to five in each category that I noticed all my nonfiction choices are history or literature. I did read other subjects, but those are certainly my favorites. I also noticed that of my sixteen books thirteen are by women and half are by British authors. My reading list certainly reflects me!
If you have opinions, pro or con, on any of these books please share in the comment section at the end of the list.
Fellowship Pointby Alice Elliott Dark. How refreshing to find a book where the main characters are in their eighties and the author treats them with dignity. Agnes and Polly are lifelong friends who met at Fellowship Point, a retreat in Maine where their parents owned summer homes. They remain close though their lives took different paths. Polly became a traditional wife and mother while Agnes never married and is the famous author of a series of children’s books about a girl called Nan. Each summer they meet up at the Point and this year there is a looming crisis. A developer wants to build a resort on the Point, part of which is a wildlife sanctuary, but Agnes determines to fight it. The women must deal with the younger generations of their families who have differing ideas about the future of their inheritance. Meanwhile a young woman who works for Agnes’s publisher visits the Point, triggering revelations about the past and the inspiration for the character of Nan. I found this a thoroughly engrossing read full of appealing characters, drama, humor, and a realistic picture of aging. I still find myself sometimes thinking “What would Agnes do?”
Santa came early to our house this year. He didn’t enter stealthily down the chimney. He announced his arrival with a ring of the doorbell. He had a white beard and wore a jolly smile, but not a red suit. He handed me the most unusual Christmas gift I’ve ever received – the moon. Or at least a moon.
After I published my sad story about the missing moon I learned that Brian and Caryl, artists who live on my street, had acquired some of the dismantled lamp globes. They repurposed them into beautiful hanging lanterns of many colors.
As darkness settled over our house a pure full moon, hanging low in the sky, cast its calm and comforting light through our family room window. It seemed a good omen on our first night in a new home. No sound of howling wolves or other nocturnal creatures disturbed the quiet. Just a lovely silent moon shining it’s gentle light across the garden.
We’d lived in the house several weeks before it finally dawned on us that there couldn’t be a full moon every night. A moon that never waxed or waned or hid it’s face behind a cloud. We laughed when we realized that our moon was no celestial body but the globe shaped lamppost on the path beyond the garden fence. The ground slopes upward toward the path giving our moon the illusion of hanging in the sky.
We endured these taunts and more, delivered in the broad Cockney of our neighborhood and accompanied by sneering laughter, as my sister and I walked home from the bus stop. Our Catholic school uniforms already made us a target of derision for the local kids, but now at the end of term we carried our lacrosse sticks with us. What else could these odd things be but fishing nets? The kids seemed delighted to have something new in their arsenal.
Our experience of playing lacrosse at school wasn’t much more positive. On the playing field up the hill behind the school we ran back and forth in miserable grey English weather. Shorts were not allowed for convent school girls and sweatpants were unheard of. We wore gabardine divided skirts, shorts disguised as skirts with box pleats, and Aertex blouses. Our formidable games mistress Miss Sands wore a below the knee tweed skirt and a sensible cardigan with a whistle on a ribbon around her neck. For some reason lost to history we called her Daisy. If the rain was too heavy for outdoor sports she took us to the gym and made us dance the Highland Fling. I’m not sure which activity we dreaded most.
Cradle girls! she would cry, Cradle! This referred to the back and forth swinging motion of the stick we had to perfect to keep the ball secure in the net. Up and down the field we ran cradling and dropping the ball, and cradling some more. It seemed a very tedious business. There was occasional drama when the dangerously hard ball would hit some unfortunate girl in the head. No one in those days seemed concerned about concussion though. My sister remembers an incident when a too generous application of the stuff used to condition the leather netting caused her ball to be firmly stuck as she ran cradling away. Miss Sands called out Oh well held Byrne! in her fluting Queen’s accent. But of course my sister was unable to pass the ball so her sporting triumph was short lived.
It was the most memorable speech I’ve ever heard, though I can’t remember a single word of it. Let us enter the scene at about the one hour mark when the audience gathered on the sun dappled lawn broke into sustained applause. Though a passer by might have taken the applause for appreciation, for the families perched on uncomfortable folding chairs the vigorous clapping had a desperate air. Surely this time the speaker would take the hint and wind things up. It was about the fourth or fifth time that the audience had broken into spontaneous applause at any small break in the torrent of words, some even standing, to try to bring the agony to an end. But each time the speaker, a tiny man whose head barely peeked over the podium, waited patiently until the clapping ceased and then resumed speaking in his barely audible whisper of a voice.
This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.
They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.
More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.
The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.
During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.
Note to my American readers: If the word estate makes you think of a grand English country house be advised. In England council house developments, the equivalent of American public housing, are called estates.
In 1955 when I was seven years old we moved into a brand new house on Marks Gate Estate outside London in Essex. We were a family of five, my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I. Because my mother was pregnant with a third child we were moved up the waiting list for a council house. The wait was long. My parents had been on the list since shortly after I was born.
I remember the excitement of that day. The estate still had the raw appearance of a building site, our road not yet paved. The back garden was a patch of dirt, graced only with a washing line. My sister and I ran through the empty rooms. The front door led into a narrow entry hall with a small storage room at the back. Off the hall in front was a kitchen with an eating area and in back a living room with fireplace. Outside the kitchen door was a covered space for dustbins and coal storage. Upstairs the bare board floors were stained in places where it looked like the builders had mixed their materials. There were three bedrooms, one not much bigger than today’s closets, a lavatory, and a bathroom with something known as an airing cupboard where the hot water heater sat. By today’s standards it was a tiny house for a growing family but to us it seemed a mansion. It was one of over a million council homes built in Britain between 1945 and the late 1950’s.