THE HIBERNIA MYTHOS, THE ORIGINS OF RACISM AND BLACKCURRANT JAM

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The Irish were described during Julius Caesar’s time as a cannibal race who devoured their foes and lived in a land of perpetual Winter. They called that land “Hibernia” . Looking out the window at the bleakest July of sodden rain, I can see the writer’s point, but it is a neat vision like something cobbled together for an episode of “Game Of Thrones” and I suppose , if you lived in the balmy warmth of Rome and had governance over the known empirical world , you’d mayhaps had never have to set foot in the place anyway , already “owning” it in your own mind, in any case.Why bother? If you owned and had defeated everybody and everything else , there’d be no real need to actually go to the very ends of the earth, as it was then, and take a look at this mythical “Hibernia”, so it might hold, within it , some mystery and possibly a modicum of delusion..
The Irish slavers who kidnapped the Welshman who later became Ireland’s patron saint ,Patrick , didn’t realise what they were letting loose either, I suppose .The Patrick who later became both myth and symbol. That’s how stories and legends are made.
I was reading the musician Elvis Costello’s (AKA Declan Mc Manus ) recently published fine memoir “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink” . He has always written well and his song-craft is now legendary , leading to him teaming with such musos as Burt Bacharach , Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint , the Pogues , the Specials , Diana Krall, the Brodsky Quartet and many others, but I was specifically drawn to his exhumation of his own family ‘s roots and that rich Irish, London and Liverpool connection .He writes without sentimentality or schmaltz , easily cutting to the core of the bitter apple.
As something of a scene -setter to sketch some idea as to how some of his antecedents had lived and had been viewed, he wrote ,” English cartoons routinely portrayed the Irish with the features of pigs and monkeys while the Times of London wrote of them with almost genocidal glee….” :
“They are going .They are going with a vengeance.Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhatten…
Law has ridden through.It has been taught with bayonets and interpreted with ruin.
Townships levelled to the ground, struggling columns of exiles , workhouses multiplied and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilised land.”
When Elvis Costello’s parents were first wed in 1952 , the same year I was born, the McManus family name was something of a problem when it came to finding a home in London . His mother wasn’t Irish at all . She hadn’t a drop of the tainted blood inside her but his father,Ross a singer with the Joe Loss Orchestra , had the second or third generation curse of Hibernia in his veins although he was English -born, so it was she who braved the notices on the doors and windows …”No Dogs, No Irish ,No Blacks” . There gradually came a few more showbizzy “Irish” such as the Beatles, Val Doonican , Eamon Andrews , George Best to chip away at the stereotypes (or maybe not ,in George’s case)but the “Irish” jokes and the notion of the thick Paddy prevailed as a substitute for outright racial slur until this very day.
That’s how the Irish were viewed by the latest in world empires right up into the 1960’s and 1970’s. Isn’t this exactly how mythology grows?Isn’t this how racism is first instilled and circulated ?These notions were teeming through my mind in the aftermath of the EU Referendum and the use of fear and the exposure of racism at the heart of the debate ,but also the Chilcot revelations exposing Tony Blair’s evangelic stampede into the Iraq War coalition of terror, on the coat-tails of George Bush’s American adventure. The resulting deaths and chaos are their own testimony but thankfully life does not soley exist to provide an ongoing horrorfest of political knavery to be dissected by pundits.
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There are other more prosaic concerns to be dealt with….

I’ve just grown and literally bottled a fond memory of my late Grandad Joe of Blackwatertown and my late Uncle John of the old Lock House, there.Yesterday when the sun shone gloriously and briefly, I happened to ruffle the leaves of one of my currant bushes in the back garden, filling the air with that remembrance of unforgettable, leafy , pugent herby fragrance, but also exposing the until -then hidden bunches of glossy ripe currants,shining like Elvis Presley’s bluish hair and glinting like round marbled grapes, in some profusion.I soon got down to gathering this newly -found treasure . I was equally surprised at the weight of fruit this one bush had given birth to. It weighed just under one and a half kilos; enough to attempt jam-making for the first time.
I’d planted the blackcurrant cane in my garden a couple of years ago and last Autumn I took several cuttings which have also grown into several bushes.These may be ready to harvest next year but today I had the opportunity to make the first jam I’ve ever attempted. It’s a pity you can’t smell the evocative result ,but it brings back dappled summery images of over forty or fifty years ago for me. I can still see my grandfather’s snowy head of hair and hear my Uncle John’s country twang as he chivvied the wee donkey away from his black currants.There’s nothing quite like that taste and smell of home-made black-currant jam. It’s said that of all our senses , smell is the one that unlocks the secrets of memory. That’s what the smell of blackcurrant jam does for me .It allows me a secret doorway into the roots of my family in Ireland.
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The Romans first heard about this odd little island at the edge of the world when a Greek geographer called Pytheas of Massilia made a journey and visited Britain. A later historian wrote about these travels and it seems that Pytheas learned about the existence of Hibernia around this time and brought the news back with him.You can imagine the gossip he had about this “new” country.It’s not actually known if he visited the place but he knew it was there from hearsay in Britain.Later writers such as Strabo and Diodorus Siculus based their ideas on the earlier Pytheas and Diodorous Siculus mentions in his Greek writings that there was an island in the far north which featured an astonishing spherical shrine to the god Apollo which was adorned with many offerings. There is much speculation that this may well have been our local “Navan” which was visited in the second century by a Greek or Phoenician traveller who had brought with him a gift of a barbary ape. Indeed the bones of this beast were actually found at the Navan Fort site a short mile away.
it would appear that the Romans had heard about Hibernia a long time before anyone actually set foot in the place ,but Latin writers began to sketch out a clearer picture.Trade across the known world was the way that knowledge spread so geographers such as Claudius Ptolemy knew that many of Hibernia’s ports were known to traders and sailors. The general consensus for these warm-blooded Romans appears to have been that Hibernia was much too cold for anyone to actually want to live there. In a summer like the one we are currently experiencing ,as I previously mentioned, you can see the validity of that point of view.
Julius Caesar wrote about Hibernia and was the first Roman to refer to it when he was on his Gaul campaign sometime around fifty years before Jesus Christ appeared on the scene. Pliny the elder mentions that it wasn’t as big an island as Britain and then Strabo mentions what was first -known of the inhabitants of Hibernia.He thought the natives were much more savage than the neighbouring Britons since they were known to be heavy-eaters…trenchermen to a man , I’d imagine, and known to be man-eaters too. He wrote that they thought it an honourable thing when their father died to devour their dead flesh and openly have sex , not just with any woman that couldn’t run away quickly enough, but also to conduct sexual liasons with their mothers and sisters too. You can imagine that these cannibalistic, incestuous, heathen Pans might be a race to be disgusted with by all civilised men and possibly feared too. There was no evidence of any of this , of course, and no witnesses either ,but it certainly must have made a rattling good tale to frighten the children.
There was another one of these Roman scribes with a fertile imagination who also believed that the Hibernians were more savage and less -sophisticated than any other race. He knew that Hibernia was a useless place to grow wheat in ,but it was also so damp and wet that grass grew as high as an elephant’s eye and that cattle, if left unguarded to eat the lush grass, would actually burst by eating too much of the rich green stuff. You can just imagine the scene in the fields full of cows ,lying like bursting over-stuffed sofas.Later in the third century after Christ ,another Roman scribbler called Solinus, probably never having set foot in Hibernia personally, claimed that the natives were a dour and unhospitable lot, but he did at least mention that there appeared to be no snakes in Ireland We know now that that’s because snakes never evolved in Ireland because it had been underwater when snakes first evolved in warmer climes and that the snakes that subsequently developed did not care much for crossing vast stretches of cold ocean. In the event it left the future Saint Patrick with a little less to do when converting the heathen inhabitants to the religion of love.
Rolling on to the fifth century the writer Orosius was to describe Hibernia as being inhabited by “the Scoti” and thought the place was better than Britain for climate. I imagine he never experienced a rainy Summer here ,especially in the furthest northern bit, nor asked himself why exactly all that lovely rich grass turned out to be so many shades of green. It was Tacitus who offered the best description when he wrote that Hibernia and Britain were very alike in civilisation and the character of the people.
To all intents the Roman Empire never stretched physically to Hibernia although some traces of Roman presence ,such as coins, have been found. They don’t appear to have settled in the place and it can be imagined that they were at full -stretch already in Britain and about to begin their decline.They were always being attacked on some front. it seemed that Hibernia wasn’t worth the hassle to invade it and the aforementioned Solinus had already decided that the inhabitants were an unfriendly warlike crew who would smear the blood of their defeated enemies on their faces and seemed to have no real notion of right and wrong. Thought of as savages, with little material worth to plunder, Hibernia never felt the influence of the Roman Empire and what was thought of as the highest civilisation at the time.
Before the seventeenth century frontiers as we might recognise them three hundred years later didn’t actually exist at all. There was no such idea of the concept in Roman times and there was only a vague idea of distance and how far the Roman Empire actually stretched.To have power and influence over the known world was all that mattered to them. They supposed ,like Hitler later proposed with his 1000 Year Reich ,that they’d rule the world for all time. We’ve seen it too in more recent times with the British Empire which was only winding down to the current level of loss and fracture in some of our own present lifetimes. The Romans had little idea of those who were to become “Irish” at a later date but they certainly didn’t allow that to stymie any stereotypes they might have of the inhabitants . Then again, most of those writing were poets and propagandists for the empire and in the case of Juvenal , he was a satirist and a bit of a naughty boy with his ironic exaggeration ,so you can never tell whether or not he’s being serious or simply pulling your leg or whether or not he cared how his words might be misconstrued or misinterpreted.
The problem is that like many jokes , the wry nuances sometimes don’t translate into the cold, hard , literal print.Racism can be a little like that too.Much of it remains hidden from sunshine in the shadows ,growing behind the leaves ,like glossy blackcurrants before picking….until someone shakes the bush.