St Patrick & the Slave Trade

Read any biography of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and you’ll find that he was born in the late 4th century somewhere on the island of Britain. Patrick was kidnapped while still in his teens, and sold as a slave in Ireland. Some histories place the blame on Irish pirates, while others blame the Romans who had conquered the island centuries earlier. Whoever was responsible, for six years Patrick was a slave, and then he escaped back to Britain.

Twelve years after his escape, having studied at a monastery and being ordained, Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle as a bishop and missionary. After twenty years, he left behind an organized church under the authority of the See of Armagh, and an island that was nearly completely converted to Catholicism.

Little did Patrick know that, over a thousand years later, those conversions would be the justification for a new era of slavery.

By the sixteenth century, Ireland had long been under the control of England. When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1533 and established the Church of England, he dissolved and destroyed the monasteries throughout Great Britain. And where previous kings had taken the title of Lord of Ireland, Henry declared himself their King. But his influence was largely confined to an area surrounding Dublin and Drogheda, known as The Pale.

It was Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who extended English authority throughout the Emerald Isle. At that time, any practice of the Catholic religion was considered both heresy and felony, and hundreds of Irish Catholics were hung or imprisoned every year thereafter.

Holding all those Irish Catholics prisoner became a costly affair for the Crown. And there was another problem — lack of labor in the British possessions in the New World. Killing two birds with one stone, in 1625 King James II of England officially ordered Irish political prisoners to be sold as slaves in the new world. From 1641 to 1652, 300,000 Irish men, women and children were sold as slaves. And that was just the beginning.

Irish slaves were “transported” on British slave ships to the British West Indies and the Colonies. They were packed in as closely as possible, because either the ship owner or the prisoners themselves had to pay for the voyage. Thousands died from lack of food and air, communicable diseases, and scurvy. Historical records show that in at least one case, live slaves were thrown overboard when food stores got low. It’s interesting to note that British ships would not sail at night, so the number of casualties increased accordingly, with some estimates going as high as 1 in every 3 passengers.

Many historians estimate, at the time of the American Revolution, up to one-half of the non-native population of the new United States of America were Irish slaves. English records reveal that, for over a hundred years, at least 1,000 “convicts” were sent each year to the American colonies, and about half went to Virginia, to work or be sold there. Yet in 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote that Irish slaves:

“were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America. It was at a late period of their history that the practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of its commencement. But I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves & their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants.”

Following in the trail of Jefferson’s paradox, US history books usually refer to the Irish slaves as “indentured servants”, meaning that the period of servitude was limited to the time required to pay off their debts. In truth, many of the Irish were sentenced to 7 – 20 years of slavery. But how do you convince your owner that your freedom has been earned when the sentencing body is 3,000 miles and two months of travel away?

Most of the Irish slaves died before they were ever freed.

After the American Revolution, the colonies no longer accepted “indentured servants” from Ireland; so began a new era of transportation to Australia that lasted until 1839.

My acknowledgement and thanks to the following resources:
The Daily Kos
Irish Genealogy toolkit

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Broken Treaties, Broken Lives – Part 1: Promises to Keep

When I started this blog, I had no intention of getting into current affairs or social commentary. Really. But recently, a couple of issues have changed my mind. What is a writer if she doesn’t write about what’s most important to her?

As you all probably know, the US has a very long-standing tradition of making pacts and treaties with Native Americans, and then ignoring those agreements when some new, “better” idea comes along. What you may not have heard is that the US Government is currently in the process of doing it again.

Not once, but twice.

The first of the new, “better” ideas to come along is the Keystone Pipeline (KXL). KXL is the brainchild of TransCanada Corporation, a Canadian fuel company that is currently in the process of extracting tar sands oil in Alberta, with the intent of transporting it via pipeline to Houston, Texas, to be refined. The US House of Representatives has voted several times to pass the project.

Proponents of KXL have assured us that many (up to a million) high-paying permanent jobs will be created in the US; that the pipeline will do no harm to the environment; and that KXL will lower American dependence on “foreign energy sources”.

However, TransCanada has already let it slip that most of the jobs created will be temporary construction jobs, and makes no secret of the fact that the refined oil will be exported.

And while the pipeline itself may be ecologically sound (I for one find that very hard to believe), tar sands oil is the dirtiest fuel known at this point in time, and I can find no public records of any plan for clean-up.

But that’s not enough to stop KXL’s proponents, and the fact that the pipeline, as currently planned, will cut diagonally through the Sioux Nation’s land doesn’t stand in their way, either.

The Yankton, Cheyenne River, Rosebud, Standing Rock, and other Sioux tribes stand in opposition to KXL. As reported by Indian Country Today Media Network, the Sioux Nation is working in conjunction with NOKXL Dakota, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club, and many other groups and individuals, who promise “continued opposition … (we) will not concede lands to a foreign entity or compromise the climate for generations to come.”

The basis for their opposition is the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Article 2 grants lands to the Sioux (about half of what the Treaty of 1851 promised them), and states it shall be for the “…absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians named herein.”

The Treaty of 1868 is irrevocable, and cannot be changed by the President, Congress, or Supreme Court unless it violates the Constitution of the United States. Therefore, if the Sioux do not want the pipeline on their land it, quite simply, should not be built.

Which brings us to the second problem, concerning the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Slipped into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act at the very last minute, was a provision to give 2400 acres of the Tonto National Forest to Resolution Copper Mining (commonly referred to as Rio Tinto), an Australian-English company. Rio Tinto plans to mine these lands for copper. This plan had been struck down several times in the past, which is why a certain Republican Senator (who didn’t get to be president) and his cronies attached it to the must-pass Defense budget.

The bill actually “swaps” those 2400 copper-rich acres for 5300 acres of sub-standard land. But those 2400 acres are considered sacred ancestral lands by the San Carlos tribe. Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler made this statement to Huffington-Post:

Since time immemorial people have gone there. That’s part of our ancestral homeland. We’ve had dancers in that area forever — sunrise dancers — and coming-of-age ceremonies for our young girls that become women. They’ll seal that off. They’ll seal us off from the Acorn Grounds, and the medicinal plants … and our prayer areas.”

The land swap includes Oak Flat, Devil’s Canyon and Apache Leap, where 75 Apaches were massacred in 1870. Popular history says that 50 of the warriors were killed in battle, while the remaining 25 ran their horses over the cliff to prevent being captured. However, the recently-discovered diary of one of the settlers of the area records that the 25 warriors not killed in battle were actually thrown over the cliff by local ranchers while the Army stood by.

But the facts of the massacre don’t matter. The wrangling around KXL is not important. What matters is the notion that Native Americans are somehow unworthy of being considered when their land and religious rights are being violated. That they are somehow lesser citizens, whose land should be forfeit in a way NOT ONE of those instigating these plans would accept if the land were theirs.

Have we learned nothing from history?

Have we not progressed beyond the “only good Indian” philosophy*?

How can people who huff and puff about religious freedom be so willing to ignore the religious beliefs of its first citizens?

KXL is a mockery wrapped in a lie, wrapped in the flag.

The RioTinto swap is a no-holds-barred land grab that I’m betting Congress thought no one would notice.

There’s little we can do but raise our voices and pens, sign petitions and write editorials. And hope that greed doesn’t triumph once again.


See the map of KXL here.

One of the petitions to oppose KXL is here.

A petition to stop the copper mining swap deal is here.

*The only good Indian is a dead Indian — Popular 19th century adage


A couple of weeks ago, I started sending query letters out. Yesterday, I got my first form rejection. I fully expected to be upset when this happened, and it took me a little while to understand why I wasn’t.

When this novel was first completed and I was looking for a literary agent, the internet was still a baby: computers were primarily used in business for billing and inventory control. At that time, I saw an ad for a literary agent near my home. I sent her an inquiry and I was thrilled that, for a fee, she agreed to represent my book.

How was I, a neophyte in the publishing arena, to know that no respectable agent charges a fee for representation? and for phone consultations? and for postage? I couldn’t Google her and I didn’t have a way to ask anybody about her, except for the “satisfied client” references she provided (all family members, as it turned out).

What did I know? I signed on, happily paid the fee, and she started sending out a form letter to various publishers with a tear-off at the bottom where they could check “yes” or “no”. It wasn’t a query letter — just a couple of sentences indicating the name of the book, page count and genre, and a single sentence bio. I assumed this was the way everyone did it, and as the “no” stack got bigger and bigger, I got pretty discouraged. After two years of fees and “no” forms, I just gave up.

Last year, when I took my manuscripts out to dust them off and try again, the first thing I did was Google my previous agent. Lo and behold! A Worst Literary Agents list popped up! There she was, in all her splendor. One of the phrases used to describe her was “highway robber”! “Incompetent” was about the kindest word I read.

So it wasn’t that the book was bad — the agent was! And as I went on to research how to write a query letter, synopsis, and all the other stuff agents might want, I realized that my manuscript was nowhere near ready for publication. In the first place, it was too long and I had to cut almost 20,000 words. In the second place, it wasn’t as tight and polished as it should have been. If my previous agent had been any good, she would have been able to tell me these things.

But now, after several months of editing, I have a tightly woven story, with polished sentences and an appropriate amount of tension, and I’m very proud of it. And I consider that first rejection a badge of honor. “Dune” got 23 rejections before someone picked it up, and “Gone With the Wind” got 38!

So I’ll hang in there and stay confident, because it only takes one agent to say “yes” — and this time I know how to make sure it’s the right one!

an Gorta Mor (or The Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852)

Most of the time I find history boring. But every once in awhile, I stumble over something fascinating. And usually, that something makes me cry.

I’d heard quite a bit about the Irish Famine at different places along the way, like in English class in high school when we read Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal (if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. It gives an incredible satiric look at the British government’s feelings on “the Irish problem.” The problem, in short, was that there was such a thing as “the Irish”.)

At any rate, the subject cropped up now and again. But it wasn’t until I started writing my Donovan series that I realized how closely related I was to it. My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 20th century, chased out by the British Army (or so the story goes). As I started my research into Irish history, it suddenly hit me: my father’s family must have lived through the famine.

Wow! When you consider that a million Irish citizens perished within that eight-year period, it’s kind of amazing that I exist at all.

So what happened in Ireland in 1847? What caused the famine? The simple answer is “potato blight”, a fungus that causes the tuber (the edible part of the potato) to turn to black stinking mush underground. (Ever had a potato go bad at the bottom of the bin — yeah, that black, stinking mush!) But the stems and leaves of the plant aren’t affected, so no one knew of the damage until harvest time.

The blight hit many countries in Europe. Belgium, Poland, even Western Russia were badly affected. But in those countries, the failure of the potato crop was not catastrophic (unless you count the impact on vodka production for a few years). Why? Because those farmers raised other crops as well, and had other sources of food.

In Ireland, the staple crop for tenant farms was the potato. In many cases, it was the only crop they grew to feed their family. There were a slew of social, economic and political factors that caused this, and I won’t enumerate them here, but the upshot was that the potato could meet a peasant’s dietary needs all by itself. It was easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to prepare and tasty. So it was grown almost exclusively and became the diet for hundreds of thousands of people.

“But Ireland is an island, surrounded by water. Why didn’t they just eat fish?“ I can’t count the times I’ve heard that question, and sometimes from people who think they’re being funny.

But the fact of the matter was that the fishing industry was controlled by the English, as were the livestock industry, the grain industry, and the flax and wool industries. And the English weren’t about to give up their rich diets and fancy clothing just to save a few Irish peasants. (After all, they are a problem, aren’t they?)

During the famine, some scholars estimate at least thirty shiploads of food were exported to England per day. That’s right, per day. During a former potato crop failure in 1782-1783, Irish ports were closed to exports, despite the objections of merchants to falling prices. By the time of the Great Famine, up to 75% of Irish soil raised crops or animals for export. This time, Queen Victoria and the Parliament took no action to close the ports.

Ireland raised enough food to feed its people, but exports were the money makers and the overlords simply refused to sell their crops in Ireland.

Not everyone was completely blind to the disaster. The Society of Friends ran soup kitchens, and American corn farmers sent their grain free of charge to Ireland. The Choctaw Nation of Native Americans donated to the cause, remembering their own history of starvation on The Trail of Tears just years before. Most of the cash contributions, however, were made through the British Government, and we all know what “administrative fees” can do to charity.

On top of all of that, the British overlords began a systematic eviction of tenant farmers from their land. In History of Ireland, John Gibney tells us that, in 1847 alone, one family named Mahon evicted 3,000 tenants, but still dined on lobster soup.

And the Mahons were by no means alone. Thousands of peasants’ houses, cabins and shacks were razed. Hundreds of thousands throughout the Isle were dispossessed, and they trudged in weary lines to the port cities, hoping to find passage to America. With no food and little to no money, inestimable thousands died along the way and were buried in mass graves.

In the annals of history, it seems to me that this entirely preventable tragedy stands in a class of its own. So it makes me wonder why, among so many deaths, my family survived.

Perhaps so that the story gets told once more.