Erin's Web Weaves
An Irish Short Story
Erin's Web Weaves Directory

An Irish Short Story -Written by Jim Orgill
(a resident of the Town of Erin )

The Irish of Erin

It might as well be a hundred and fifty light years ago, they are that far removed from us. The Irish men, women and children who settled Erin are as separated from us as the hardscrabble potato farmer is from the couch potato.

How to capture what it was like for them? What they were like who made the desperate journey here beginning in 1841? Why did they come?

They were hungry, if you want it abridged. Not "I'm simply famished" hungry. Not "I haven't had a bite to eat all day" hungry or "I'm on a diet" hungry. Not our kind of hungry. Their kind. Famine. The kind of hunger that produces crippling lethargy, hearts that beat so feebly that they atrophy - followed by the diseases that dug the graves: diarrhea , cholera, typhus. (They lumped the sicknesses that scythed them under one name, "Famine Fever. " )

So hunger and disease drove them away. But you know all that. You've heard of the potato disease that started it all, decimating the crop and the Irish who planted it. But did you know of another blight called Brits?

Will Durant spent a long lifetime writing eleven volumes on the human condition from 5,000 BC to modern times called "The Story of Civilization." Hear him:

"Rarely in history has a nation been as oppressed as the Irish."

The oppression was made possible by repeated victories by British armies, notably by Oliver Cromwell's who, in 1749, nearly a century before the Irish exodus, savaged Ireland in a campaign of what we would today call genocide. This was followed up by the infamous Penal Laws passed by the British Parliament which went into effect the latter part of that century and carried over into the time period of the flight of the Irish to America and Wisconsin and fueled that flight. The effect of these laws was profound:

  • Catholics were forbidden to purchase land
  • No Catholic could hold office or serve as jurors or teach school
  • No Bill of Rights or Freedom of the Press for Ireland
  • No Catholic could vote for municipal or national office
  • The destruction of export and industry by tariffs

Ireland was not simply conquered but occupied and Irish society was no more. Durant again:

"By and large, the scene was one of most shameful in history. The Irish tenants, racked by rents paid to landlords and tithes paid to the hated Established Church, lived in mud hovels with leaky roofs, went half naked and were often on the edge of starvation . . . degrading poverty, chaotic lawlessness, countless thieves roaming the countryside . . . "

There was in the British landlords and overlords at that time a famine of another kind and as severe as the Great Hunger of 1845 - a famine of human feeling.

Leaving home

The Penal Laws prevented all Irish exports except people. This trade boomed. They departed in two great waves, in the famine year of 1841 and the more devastating one of 1845. The population of Ireland fell from 8 1/2 million to 6 1/2 million. One and a half million died, 200 thousand fled. They departed with few belongings and fewer dollars. The cost of the voyage to America was $3 to $5 per person for steerage (less than the cost of the journey inland to Wisconsin!). Passage took six weeks or more. For some, the voyage meant more hardship, some of it terribly familiar: poor food, poor sanitation, typhoid and death. Others, the truly wretched, in mishaps that exhaust all understanding, died en masse and went down with their ships in storms at sea.

Westward ho?

Upon landing at an eastern port such as Boston or New York in the early 1840's, it was decision time for many of these raw newcomers to America. They could choose to stay among kin or friends and put new roots down right there. They might tarry awhile, checking out prospects and then either stay on or decide to head west. Or they might strike out for places like Wisconsin immediately.

It sounded good to them: Virgin land at $2.50 an acre, low to no taxes, markets for the production of their farms. To Irishmen with fresh memories of British outrages, it was also good to hear that government agents of any stripe as well as government apparatus of any kind would be some distance from them if they took up residence in remote Wisconsin.

Looked like Ireland, felt like freedom

The land that greeted them was beautiful, a ravishing mix of forest and prairie and of rolling hills. Topographically, Erin ran to extremes. There were the "miniature mountains" of the southeastern part of the area, to the undulating hills of the northern part to the virtually flat section later named "Toland's Prairie."

The highest peak was a cone-shaped hill (Holy Hill) at 1,409 feet. As a matter of fact, geologists would later establish this hill as the highest in Eastern Wisconsin, the second highest in the whole state. The hill of the area were a part of a long range that stretched, looking like sugar loaves in a row, toward Green Bay.

All in all, it hinted of the green home they had left and must have struck some with waves of nostalgia that felt like blows. Still, better something familiar rather than the utter strangeness that would have made them feel like total aliens.

Lynch pin

There was a countryman already on the scene and ready to welcome them who would mitigate some of the nostalgia. Michael Lynch bought the first parcel of land in what became our town of Erin in November, 1841. Eleazor Rowley must have accompanied Lynch to the land office in Milwaukee because he bought the same day. These were followed by the Quinns, the Daleys, Fitzgeralds, Welches and Murphys. Land was made available in multiples of 40 acres. Most bought 80 acres, with a few "land barons" opting for 200 acre parcels.

In 5 years - 1841 to 1846 - all of the land was taken. It was said that Michael Lynch was instrumental in more than a few sales, touting them in gaelic, laced with blarney. There are hints in the record that he might have been a pre-cursor of the snake oil salesman of the American west. But that's putting it mundanely. A contemporary of Lynch did better, skewering him with an arresting bit of Irish imagery: "Michael Lynch," the unknown poet said, "had enough tongue for 6 rows of teeth."

Only God can . . .

Leaving the land office in Milwaukee, the new property owner wagoned 35 miles west by north west, threading his way over narrow trails through immense virgin forest. He did not feel the awe and reverence we feel for majestic trees. If he felt intimidated and even a little fearful, it was understandable. If the acreage he had purchased was as full of trees as some of the land he was passing by, he might have wondered if he would have the strength and the time to clear enough earth from these oak and hickory goliaths to get a crop in? Felix de Tocqueville, a visiting Frenchman and acute observer writing about America at this time, notes with surprise the pioneers' hatred of trees. Clearing the land of heavy forest was an immense task, the greatest most would ever be called upon to do as a homesteader.

Tocqueville, in his 9 month tour of America made it to Green Bay. He would have been able to sympathize with our Irishman arriving at his Wisconsin property and looking with horror at the tree cover. As he unloaded his wagon he must have felt disheartened at the puny weapons he had - axe, broadaxe, adze, froe, hoe, crosscut saw, prybars - with which to make war against these . . these Godzillas!

But engage them he did, simply because he had to. There was a positive about the trees. They would conveniently furnish him with a house, and even some crude furnishings for same. A log house was the most quickly erected shelter for the frontiersman and, of course, the cheapest.

Once the house was built the real work began. One method of removal of trees was to girdle them. A deep cut was made around the circumference of the trunk near the base. This incision would starve the tree and let it die. It would dry out in the process and lighten the task of removal after felling. Faced with an oak or maple stump of daunting dimension, they might choose (as if they had a choice!) to let it rot. Other stumps were chopped out or burnt out or chained and twisted out with ox or horsepower. In any event, it is certain that the settlers knew what it was like to be "stumped."

It was, at best, knuckle-skinning, shin-barking, callous-building, back-straining, bone-breaking work. It went on for months at minimum and could go on for years, depending on the number of trees. While 'tis true that "only God can make a tree," there must have been many Irish farmers in our parts who wished that He had not used so lavish a hand. But a people who had endured so much in Ireland could and would conquer the trees.

On the rocks

And then there were those mineral deposits known in that day as "cement potatoes" and later as "Washington county apples." These, too, were in more than ample supply and, as a matter of fact, in the hundred and fifty years since Erin was founded we have hardly made a dent in the crop. If they could have been dissolved by curses, they would have long ago disappeared. Instead, they had to be moved to the side with grunt work (the term may well have originated at this time). These first Irish farmers were the first to bear witness to a kind of perverse miracle regarding the rocks. Often, when a farmer picked up a rock, staggered to the edge of the field to dispose of it and returned to the spot where he'd removed it he would find that two more had appeared in its place!

Yo, Sisyphus! . . . you of Greek mythology - you who were condemned to rolling a stone up a hill only to have it plunge to the bottom each time and then to repeat this task for eternity . . . Sisyphus, shake hands with Paddy O'Leary.

A crop of trouble

A question has been raised - perhaps at the time, certainly since: why did the Irish founders choose this difficult land to farm? In addition to a zillion trees and rocks it was, for the most part, roller coaster terrain. It has been pointed out that the Irish "walked right past" rich, flat, relatively rockless and treeless land to get to Erin.

There are a number of answers. Pick one.

  1. The Irish were poor farmers and didn't know any better. A story has it that some Irish thought that the presence of rocks signified rich soil!.
  2. The Irish were more inclined to animal husbandry than to raising extensive crops. (Their skill and considerable old world experience was in sheep raising and the hilly, rock-filled terrain presented few problems for that kind of farmer. And early settlers in the area spoke of Irish-raised work horses, bred to pull wagons and carriages and for farm duty.)
  3. It was a beautiful area, beautiful as Ireland they left and the sight of this new Erin resonated in them like the sweet notes of the lyre. (Who ever heard of a poor, worn farmer choosing land for its aesthetic value alone? No one, but if it ever did happen, it was very likely a lyrical Irishman who made the choice.)

For most of them, the real answer may be "all of the above."

The Irish revival

Crushed in Ireland, the Irish who came were down but never out.

There was something in them that ordained victory, some buffer against failure.

It's called character, but of a special kind, perhaps?. An inbred comic sense? An ability to laugh at life and themselves?

Whatever it was, let's sing the names of those heroes (they would laugh at that!) of a century and a half ago. Whelan and Toland, Foley and Garvey, Kelley and Kenealy, Mountin and Murphy! Shinners and Scollard and Sullivan! Fitzpatrick, yes! Fitzgerald, of course, and Buckley, Courtney and Daley. O'Connor, O'Brien, O'Healy and dozens more!

Those Irish. Those unconquerable, unsinkable, invincible, indominatable, unbeatable Irish of Erin.

 

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