March 12, 2009

Postcards from Ireland: An American’s Search for Indigenous Roots.

Postcards from Ireland: An American’s Search for Indigenous Roots.

“Even the rocks, which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore in solemn grandeur, thrill with the memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.” ~ Chief Seattle 1854

Jim Tolstrup and Great-Great-Grandfather, George Tanner.
Colorado is a great place to live, and it is easy to appreciate the beauty of nature here. But unless we happen to be of Native American heritage, it is unlikely that we experience this land as the flesh of our ancestors. As the children of colonialism and immigration, Euro-Americans have been able to do things to the land that the indigenous conscience would not allow. And even ecologically minded Americans rarely cite “sacredness” as a reason for not disturbing the land.

Our separation from nature has given us a false sense of freedom from responsibility to our ancestors, the land and the many living things that are part of the land. In short, it has allowed us to dismantle nature and live in a way that is virtually devoid of feedback from the environment. I say “virtually” because we’ve only managed to delay the feedback—but feedback is coming on a grand scale nonetheless, in forms such as global climate change.

Though we have gained material advantages, the cost of this separation from nature has been extraordinarily high. In the midst of unprecedented wealth and ease we experience anxiety, depression, aimlessness, alienation, frustration and anger. Indigenous people experience many of the same things in their own fractured, post-colonial, world—but many retain a strong sense of personal authenticity and connection, a knowledge of who and where they are that is enviable in these rootless times. Perhaps this is a reason that America continues, consciously or unconsciously, to thwart the rights of Native Americans to protect their hereditary lands and their rights to self determination.

Is it possible for the rest of us to regain that kind of authenticity and connection for ourselves? I have pondered this question for over 30 years. When I graduated from high school in 1977, I made a bee-line for the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. I was determined to go out on a vision quest such as I read about in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks.

I have maintained very close connections with my Lakota friends ever since, and have learned many things in the process. Among those lessons, I’ve learned that I am deeply connected to and resonate strongly with the Lakota culture and world view (my Indian friends in their unique style of simultaneously respecting and teasing have bestowed on me the honorific title of “white savage.”) I have also learned that I am not an Indian, but I am starting to find out who I am.

In that summer, 32 years ago, a Lakota man told me that when I died my spirit would go back to the place that my ancestors came from. Where was that I wondered, Norway? Ireland? The idea did not appeal to me very much.

Growing up in Boston, I went to school with a lot of Irish-American kids and while I never really identified with shamrocks or green beer I have loved traditional Irish music for as long as I can remember. I play Irish flute and whistle with a group of friends at Mulligan’s Pub in Fort Collins on Wednesday nights and have become very interested in learning to sing traditional songs over the last few years.

One song that I learned, Skibereen, tells the story of a father and son. The father is an Irish immigrant and the son is too young to remember what the old country was like. The son asks his father about Ireland “Her lofty scenes, her valley’s green, her mountains rude and wild, they say it is a lovely land wherein a prince might dwell, then why did you abandon it? Oh the reason to me tell.” The father’s answer is a heartbreaking litany of bad crops, bad luck, death and brutal oppression.

Even now, as I write these words, it wrenches my heart. When I first heard the song and tried to learn it, I could not get through it without choking up. “Why this tremendous emotional impact?” I wondered, “It’s an okay song, but what’s the big deal?” The heart has its secrets, its wisdom and its own sense of time…and that was definitely my “Irish” talking.

Later I was to learn that my ancestor, George Tanner, left Cork, Ireland, not far from Skibereen, during the same period that the song describes. His son (my great, great, grandfather) also named George Tanner was 12 years old when they left and would have remembered Ireland very well.

My family learned some amazing personal information about the younger George Tanner by way of a distant relative that we met on ancestor.com. The information was so personal it was almost like meeting the man himself.

It seems that Tanner was a complex, multi-faceted character. Although he was a Protestant (Church of Ireland,) he married Sarah Hoban, a Catholic. And he was no Orangeman either, he was known to be “staunchly anti-British.” He was intelligent and well read; he could quote Robbie Burns by heart and was great fan of Charles Dickens. One of his prized possessions was a complete set of the works of Dickens. I have one volume of his original collection in my possession.

George Tanner became a staunchly patriotic American. He enlisted in the 12th Massachusetts Volunteers in Boston on June 26, 1861 and fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War along with his brothers James and William and he is quoted as having said that “A country that will take in homeless refugees is worth fighting for.” This gives a very strong impression of who the Tanner’s understood themselves to be, they did not come to America seeking their fortune but rather as “homeless refugees.” The hardships they endured make our current economic woes seem like a mere hiccup.

Between 1845 and 1852 more than a million people died of starvation and related diseases in Ireland. Over a million more left the country and Ireland’s population of 8 million in 1840 was reduced to 4 million by 1900. Today the population of the island is still only about 6 million people.

It had been pouring rain for days before my arrival in Dublin where I would join my cousin Sandy on our ancestral pilgrimage. Flying over Ireland for my first time the clouds parted and I saw brilliant green pastures separated by neat hedgerows and an abundance of cattle and sheep. I wondered how anyone could ever starve in the verdant “land of plenty” that I saw below me.

A first and lasting impression of Ireland for me is the smell of burning peat. The Irish have burned dried peat out of the bogs for millennia. To this day burning peat provides a fuel source that reduces Ireland’s dependence on foreign fuels, one of Ireland’s many sustainable features, although some are concerned about the environmental impact of peat mining on bog environments. I must admit that at first I took the unfamiliar smell of peat for burning plastic until I learned what it was. Now my informed nose has decided that it is a good smell, a smell that I associate with the earthy color of Guinness.

Ancient megalithic sites were another theme of this trip. My brother Dave in his research into our genealogy did a DNA test which revealed that our forbears have been kicking around the North Sea rim for about 30,000 years. For this reason I felt connected to the builders of these ancient sites, which began to appear in Western Europe around 8,000 years ago.

Of all the ancient sites that we visited in Ireland many of my favorites were in County, Sligo, in the Northwest of Ireland. Carrowmore has been called an ancient graveyard: it is a circle of dolmens, each one created by stacking one huge rock on top of five base stones. However, it seems likely that the grave connection is more of a symbolic one. These were family shrines that once contained artifacts and fragments of human bone relics but not burial remains.

Sandy and I commented on how our interest in connecting with our ancestral past was not a new impulse but rather it seemed to be one of the earliest needs of human beings. For the next 8000 years, from Carrowmore to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Irish would repeat these themes of death, spirit, remembrance and immortality.

Dolmens at Carrowmore. In the background is the slope of Ben Bulben.

We walked around the site for three hours after exhausting our tour guide, a landscape archeology student, with our questions. Watching a neighboring farmer separating weeds from the hay drying in the hazy afternoon sunshine I thought “there is a man who knows a thing or two.” I would like to have stayed and talked to him, to learn what it is that he knew but I realized instinctively that those who know the secrets of land hold them closely and like my Lakota friends it would have taken years for this man to gauge my intentions and my sincerity before he would begin to tell me anything.

One of my favorite experiences in Ireland came later that same day when we climbed Knocknerea, a hill that is crowned with the burial cairn of Queen Maeve, the legendary Warrior Queen of Connacht. Queen Maeve is memorialized in the legend called Tan Bo Cuailnge (The Brown Bull of Cooley.) The story is also a testament to the powerful status of women in ancient Ireland.

According to the legend Maeve and her husband had an argument about which one of them possessed the greater wealth. After making a list it was determined that Maeve had one bull less than her husband. Infuriated, Maeve set out for the province of Ulster with her army to capture the famous “Brown Bull of Cooley.”

To a Coloradoan, Knocknerea is little more than a bump but it was still a good steep walk. Due to the ferocity of her reputation, or more perhaps more due to its inaccessibility, Maeve’s mound was never excavated by the English archeologist who dug up other ancient sites in the occupied Ireland of the 1700s.

The Irish themselves avoided these mounds for many long centuries knowing them to be the places of the faeries and to this day ancient raths or burial mounds can be seen in farmer’s fields, surrounded by hawthorn bushes, another sure sign of faery habitation. These are sacred natural sites that must never be violated. Thus far into the 21st century the psyche of country people in Ireland remains deeply tied to the land.

Like many ecologically-based belief systems around the world this practice has an environmental logic to it as well, leaving spaces whether it’s for faery habitation or for badgers that eat rodents tunneling in the farmers fields, makes good sense and good neighbors. I’ve heard that the Irish also avoid trimming the hedgerows, whose wild growth chokes the narrow roadways in Ireland, until young birds are fledged and have left their nests.

Traditional Irish culture delights in the beauty of the natural world as many Irish songs reflect “As I went out walking one morning in June, to view the fair fields and the valleys in bloom.” This is also a tradition that places an importance on having a relationship with and giving back to the natural world. Similar to other indigenous cultures around the world there is a sense here that human beings don’t simply dominate nature but are co-creators of the world and that we can glimpse the divine in the natural order of things.

In County Sligo, many local people still carry a stone to the top of the Maeve’s mound when they make the climb, as well as leaving other offerings.All over the West of Ireland there are similar sites, hills, trees or holy wells where people leave bits of clothing and other items. Ancient pagan traditions and Christianity seem to have blended in Ireland in a unique and seamless way.

Jim and Cousin Sandy at the foot of Maeve’s Mound on Knocknerea, County Sligo.

On top of Knocknerea the wind whispered softly and the only other sound was the lazy, hypnotic drone of bees in the ethereal Irish afternoon, which always has a touch of twilight about it (at least when compared to Colorado’s cobalt-blue skies.) Another world, unseen yet palpable, was close at hand.

Down the slopes of purple heather and across the bay we could see Ben Bulben another important site in Sligo’s magical landscape of which W.B. Yeats wrote, “A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain is a small white square in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand, no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it, there is no more inaccessible place on earth and few more encircled by awe to the deep considering. It is the door of faery land.”

At the Famine Museum in Strokestown, County Roscommon, we came face to face with the terrible suffering that drove our ancestors out of this land. The causes of the Great Irish famine were complex, over-population, limited food sources, chronic poverty, social oppression and changes in weather, were all contributing factors.

Wealthy land owners were slow to respond to this crisis which was the greatest social calamity 19th century. There were also attitudes of cruel indifference toward the suffering of the Irish People held by some of the wealthy (mostly British) landowners. Even at the height of “the Great Famine” tons of meat, grain, vegetables and fish were exported from the country.

Lord Trevelyan who was appointed by the British government to head the famine relief effort is known to have been strongly anti-Irish and is quoted as saying. “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent nature of the (Irish) people.”

At the Strokestown Museum, looking down at a list of people who would get a slice of meat on Christmas day, with several names crossed off, we wondered if they had received their ration, or if they had displeased the Landlord somehow and had their names removed as a result, or if they had died. I remembered the things that we had learned about George Tanner “staunchly anti-British,” “homeless refuges.” I imagined what Dickens writings on the cruelty of industrialized society would have meant to him.

It was a bleak moment and we were happy to walk in the sunny Irish garden at the Strokestown Museum, glad to be who we are now, with free and full bellies but we couldn’t quite shake the oppressive feeling of the place.


Over a million Irish people died of starvation between 1845 and 1852.

I wondered sadly, how people could have ignored this catastrophic suffering. Then I remembered suddenly that fully one-third of the people on earth live at or close to this level of poverty everyday. In fact the issues of over-population, distribution of wealth, reduction of diversity in food sources and climate change began to sound very familiar as the precise situation that we have in the world today. Whether the Irish famine could have been prevented suddenly seemed a far less important question in light of the question, “what are we doing to prevent the world-wide famine that is brewing now?”

On my last days in Ireland I walked the streets of Dublin alone, visiting several museums and the National Library, as well as Grafton Street, an area famous for music. I watched Dubliners eating huge portions of fish and chips while I nibbled on crackers out of my backpack. The irony of my meager American dollars buying little in the land of the Euro was not lost on me and I wondered if the Tanner’s would come back to this newly prosperous Ireland if only they could.

Or was I witnessing the beginning of a new kind of famine, one of spiritual nature that presented challenges the majority of the Irish have not had to contend with before, the challenges of material wealth. The well-heeled young Dubliners that whizzed by me talking on their cell phones seemed much more interested in fair market value than faeries. As I pondered this I thought of another favorite moment in Ireland, one that happened at the Hill of Tara.

As a result of joining the E.U. Ireland has received a lot of funding to build bigger highways, which seems to be happening all over the country at once, sometimes with disastrous results. The M3 in County Meath is going directly through parts of Tara, the seat of the ancient high kings of Ireland.

A group of people protesting the highway construction have been camping there for over a year, keeping a fire going constantly (burning peat presumably.) Some of the local people view this group as malcontents and obstructionists, other see the protestors as protectors of local culture and tradition. One farmer offered his land for the encampment when the Irish government tried to remove the protesters and one old woman told some members of the group that as little girl she had been told that there was an ancient cemetery on that hillside (the M3 is going through a Neolithic cemetery and the ancient dead have recently been removed.)

Elsewhere in Ireland, as well as in Iceland and other modern countries, roads have been moved when a series of accidents indicated the local nature sprits disapproved of the location. Tara’s fate it seems will not be so fortunate.

Protesters at Tara gathering signatures for a petition to reinter the ancient dead

At Tara I met a group of poet/musicians that I will always think of as the Poetic Champions of Tara. They formed a small circle just inside the entrance to the site where they recited Irish poetry. I don’t know if they wrote these poems or if they learned them elsewhere but they could go on for ten minutes or more, bearing witness to the fact that oral tradition is alive and well in Ireland.

One long poem ended with “And the anthem of Tara is the Foggy Dew” and it was then that I saw my chance. The Foggy Dew is a song that commemorates the Easter Uprising of 1916, which led to Ireland’s independence.It’s a song that I know well and I sang it with abandon, my new Irish friends joining in heartily. At the end of the song a woman in the circle said “You sing that one all the way in Colorado do ya?” And my status with this group instantly went from “some tourist” to “a brother from America.”

Singing with “The Poetic Champions of Tara Hill”

Returning to Colorado I am certain that our spiritual home can be in more than one place and when I play traditional Irish music now, like my Lakota friends when they sing and drum, I feel my ancestors swirling around, smiling. But I still wonder whether Americans are ready to be “from here” yet, not the country but the land. Have enough ancestors gone into the ground to make this land our ancestors flesh? And are we ready to arrive, not in the America of Columbus but on “Turtle Island” the original land that we have never quite discovered? I have a deeper empathy with Native Americans who have tried for centuries to protect the sacred places of their ancestor’s, having seen those of my own and I wonder if the wisdom of our ancestors is still strong and viable enough to graft onto the taproot of this land.

Who is to say whether faeries, nature spirits and the like exist or not? Or whether the long dead ancestors, asleep in distant lands, care about what we do, or fail to do?And when materialism leaves no unspoiled natural place on Earth for “the sacred,” where will we find ourselves? It would be a deadly world indeed, devoid of dreams and mysteries, a world that I hope I will never live to see.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center [HPEC] in Loveland, Colorado.HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play: www.suburbitat.org

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