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16 March 2000 Edition

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Surviving the Penal Laws

Grace's Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800
By Charles Chenevix Trench
Published by Mercier Books
Price £12.99

The survival of Irish families through 100 years of sectarian oppression that was enforced by the Penal Laws (1693-1793 approx) is the subject of perennial fascination. In Grace's Card, Chenevix Trench focuses on a range of Irish Catholic landowners whose families survived and on how the Penal Laws affected them.

The wholescale emigration of the younger sons of these families is particularly noted, once the law as a profession had been forbidden to them in 1727. A lot of the book's interest lies in letters written by these younger sons from abroad back to their relatives in Ireland. Daughters do not figure in this book, since they did not constitute a political threat to the new Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

The iniquitous law of gavelling is also examined, showing how estates were broken up by legally by allowing every son a share, unless of course the eldest son and heir became a Protestant.

Also shown was the nasty work of `discoverers', who could discover a Catholic landholder, denounce him and get his land. The benign part played by a few decent Protestant neighbours who helped Catholics to hold their land by making false declarations and concocting legal stratagems for them is also clarified. The fact of the matter is that in 1703, approximately 14% of the land of Ireland was in Catholic hands and by the 1770s this had shrunk to 5%.

The style of the book is anecdotal and makes easy, pleasant reading. Eighteenth Century Ireland was not a pleasant place for any Catholic, but we see here that they made the best of it. A few changed their religion, but the book clearly shows how the seeds of the `98 Rebellion were sown in the intolerable legal conditions of the relatively peaceful 18th Century.

References to published works in Irish seem to be missing from the sources listed. This is a great lack, for the execution of Sir James Óg Cotter in 1720 is dismissed with a few throwaway witticisms (p161-2), while Cullen (as quoted by Ó Buachalla) says: ``It was the most traumatic political event of the first half of the 18th Century.''

Chenevix Trench seems to have no idea of how seriously Cotter's contemporaries viewed his death. Ó Buachalla (Aisling Ghéar) says ``is beag file Muimhneach nár scríobh tuairim ar an bhfeillghníomh''. He gives quotations from at least ten of these poets.

This makes one wonder if by being given only evidence based on the side of the story being told in English, are we being given only half of the story? After all, in the 18th Century about two-thirds of the people of Ireland spoke only Irish.


Take me up to Monto

Monto - Madams, Murder and Black Coddle
By Terry Fagan & The North Inner City Folklore Project
Price £5

Terry Fagan and his band of interviewers from Dublin's North Inner City Folklore Project have built up an impressive collection of books documenting Dublin tenement life in the North Inner City over the last century and beyond. This latest publication, however, is their most entertaining and professional work to date.

To be fair, we are dealing here with a treasure trove of Irish social, economic and political history. The Monto, Dublin's notorious red light district, celebrated in the ballad Take Me Up To Monto, was a fascinating place indeed. Run by a matriarchy of madams, one more flamboyant than the next, its clientele ranged from sailors and dockers to James Joyce and the Prince of Wales.

But this area of Dublin was also something of a cockpit for the Tan War and the Civil War which followed it. It was home to famous republicans such as Phil Shanahan, who owned a pub in the area, and Peadar Kearney, who penned the words to the Soldier's Song/Amhrán na bhFiann, as well as to a great many of the looters of 1916, many of whom paid for their opportunism with their lives. This was literally one of the poorest places in Western Europe at the turn of the century. It was also the area where the Legion of Mary made its reputation, its charismatic leader Frank Duff personally leading the campaign to shut the brothels.

The overwhelming impression of this book is one of great humanity. Despite the grinding poverty of the area, people's memories are of small acts of kindness common is such close-knit communities, many of these acts gestures by ``the poor unfortunate girls'', who are fondly recalled in testament after testament. Chrissie Hawkins, born in 1907, recalls, for example, how country men and seamen ``went into the bad houses with the girls''. She displays a typical moral ambivalence born out of the knowledge of how tough it was to survive, an ambivalence which was to disappear with the arrival of the Legion of Mary and their Catholic certainties. Many people, she said, ``did not like what was going on in the street. They were poor, but they never resorted to that sort of carry-on''. She adds, however, that the girls were ``very good. If anyone was being evicted from their house for not paying their rent and the girls got to hear about it, they would get together and give the money to stop the eviction''.

Terry Fagan is the consummate self-taught historian, a man driven by a passion to unearth the history of his area in all its facets. His books are the products of hundreds of hours of taping of interviews with local people, collating a broad oral history of their experiences and their family memories. All this is backed up with meticulous archival research.

The Monto is an invaluable working class history. This is people's history in the words of those who lived it and is all the more exciting and relevant for it.


An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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