The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”    4:28 AM – 28 Apr 2014

We reel from the impact of violence, persecution, massive migrations and political divisiveness, yet similar tribulations plague humanity over the millennia. History’s lessons unlearned, like demons, repossess the house from which they were driven. If we find ourselves too close to modern conflicts, a visit to another time and place may allow a dispassionate consideration of the root causes of social evils.

The setting: County Mayo, Ireland, 1798, a century and a half after the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Roman Catholics, depriving them of property and citizenship in their own country. “A system more ingeniously contrived, first for the debasement, and then for the continuance of that debasement, of an entire people cannot easily be imagined.”

Flanagan speaks through the voices of characters such as Anglican vicar Arthur Broome who describes his Irish neighbors, “I have myself seen families huddled in the sides of hills where they had hewn out holes, entire families where the small ones cowering and rooting beside the gaunt form of a woman.” He expresses the Malthusian sentiments of the time, “Thus I have heard it proposed by men, no more inhumane than most, that the recurrent famines are Providential, and will in time bring down the population to a proper size.”

Broome identifies the source of the English Protestant attitude toward the Irish and Catholics: “All their lives, from the first stories told them by mothers or nurses or school-fellows, they had been instructed that the Papists were a dark and mutinous race, wedded to violence as though to a witch.” A people steeped in “idolatry and superstition.”

“What business have Papist peasants learning to read and write?” says Captain Cooper, descendent of one of Cromwell’s troopers, a member of a long line of magistrates, who keep the Papists under control, forbid citizenship, ownership of property, the right to participate in government or study law. Over the centuries, Red coated Protestant yeomen are given a free hand to burn, whip and torture until they extract confessions and arrest anyone they suspect of rebellion.

To boost profits from his farm, Cooper turns his acres to livestock grazing, evicting a tenant family with no concern for their survival. The “Whiteboys of Killala”, a militant organization of aggrieved Catholic peasants, nail a letter to his door with the words, “You count your cows in children’s lives.” They promise retaliation against his cattle, escalating a vicious cycle of mutual reprisals.

The long repressed Catholic peasants want the “triumph of the Gael,” the restoration of the Irish nation. It is said, “They didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they hated.”

The United Irishmen, composed of wealthier, better educated Protestants, Catholics and agnostics, share ambitions with the Whiteboys, but work for the creation of a republic in the image of the French Revolution. They plan to rule Ireland in place of the English. The time is ripe for rebellion, especially when the regicidal Directorate of the French Republic promises soldiers and weapons, aiding the Irish and annoying the English.

Flanagan’s narrators represent both the English and Irish points of view. The English are benevolent but firm. Insurrection is a capital offense: high treason. General Cornwallis, of Yorktown fame, expresses interest in Catholic Emancipation. Meanwhile the principal absentee landlord of County Mayo supports abolition of the African slave trade and attempts to better the life of London chimney sweeps. He funds his charities on the backs of his starving Irish tenants.

The Irish narrators reflect the ideals and then the dreadful reality of the conflict. The Catholic Church is largely ignored, although the bishops and most of the priests preach against rebellion and urge loyalty toward King George. The Orangemen’s rhetoric dwells on the exceptions, such as the famous Fr. Murphy, who rouses the Irish peasants, armed with pikes to attack the Redcoats, despite their muskets, bayonets, cavalry and the cannons with their grape and chain shot.

Owen Ruagh MacCarthy, poet, drunkard, wanderer and teacher gleams as the most brilliant thread in Flanagan’s tapestry. From the first sip of the morning jug to the parting glass, Owen steals the show. Well loved, especially by women from Kerry to Mayo, his friends among the poets recite his works in Irish and English. The reader will not forget MacCarthy.

Flanagan weaves some seventy characters, some historical, some fictional, into the texture of this saga of the pre-diaspora Irish. His account of their suffering and survival over hundreds of years sensitizes us to the plight of racial, religious and ethnic groups that share a parallel history of repression and inequality. When we see them today on their trek to freedom, remember that the Irish made a similar journey.

Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

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Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.

To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.

If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”

Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.

At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)

His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.

Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce

While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.

Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.

Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.

*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Before the Sultan’s Fortress

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In the glow of amber twilight,

Dugan, the local Sultan donned

His red fez, with tassel bright

To stroll about the pond,

Before the evening’s curfew ban,

Would ring its final tolls,

Dugan, in his right hand,

As was his habit on these strolls,

Grasped a worn tin-pail,

By its wire-handled arch.

It rocked as if by its tail,

On the Sultan’s forward march.

Dugan briskly onward strode,

Quickening his paces,

Across field, bank and road,

Toward “The Four Aces.”

This pub, from its windows and its door,

Wafted clouds of smoke,

And the fragrance of the wooden floor,

In which stale beer did soak.

The Sultan set his lidded tin,

With a spigot at its base,

Jauntily, beneath the fountain:

Before the Irish Ace.

“Fill’er up O’Shaughnessy

And spare me all the foam.”

Smiled, the Ace, to his majesty

As he filled tin to the dome.

“I’ll not return” The Sultan chirped,

“To the Missus with half a pail,

She’ll think I stopped and sipped,

Somewhere along the trail.”

“There’ll be hell to pay,

So see you take care.

Listen, hear what I say,

O’Shaughnessy. Beware!”

O’Shaughnessy, the Ace,

Always the wily diplomat,

Looked Dugan in the face,

And blessed his shoulder with a pat.

The Ace, he smiled and gently bowed.

He precisely aimed the amber draft.

Milwaukee’s golden Finest, flowed

To please the Sultan, oh so daft.

The barman, with one “bon mot,”

Warned, “Dugan, could it be,

‘Tis broke your tin’s spigot.

You’re watering the trees?”

“The patch through which you’re tottering,

Betwixt the pub and home,

Looks all the better for your watering,

Your ministrations of me foam.”

The Sultan, upon the moistened counter

With a splash and a rebuff

Slapped a shiny silver quarter:

“O’Shaughn, none of your guff.”

“Look here, your price, I did meet.

You’ll be sure I get my due.

Or I’ll take my quarter down the street

And deal with Marylou.”

“Adieu to you O’Shaughnessy.

I’m sure my spigot’s tight,

For home I’ll speed my tin of brew

And to all a pleasant night.”

Dugan tipped his fez to all.

Then skipped with much delight.

He took noticed of the blooms so tall,

Glowing softly in the pale twilight,

“Be buying your own beer, tutt, tutt!

You shamed-faced forget-me-nots.

So tight my spigot’s now been shut,

Against you thieving sots.”

Now onward, Dugan and his tin,

Both dripping of the sweat,

He was now near done in,

And not near home as yet.

He, by the left flank marched,

Up the front path of his estate,

Between a towering spruce and larch

And through the open gate.

Up the bricks, he did track,

Pulling the screen door.

Lest closing, it hit him in the back;

He quickly stepped in before.

Upon frame, the door soon crashed

With a characteristic “swack,”

Against the posts and lintel dashed,

While the spring twanged in its slack.

Upon her wicker rocking chair,

Dugan’s Missus sat enthroned.

She’d set the table, oh so spare.

Chilled mugs, stood all alone.

The tin between the glasses,

The Sultan, he did wedge,

With spigot perpendicular,

To the wicker table’s edge.

Before the spigot, chilled mugs

Curtsied one by one,

Savoring the golden chugs,

As freely beer did run.

Mugs billowing with foamy crowns,

So full of bubbly life,

Then to bow before the laughing lips

Of Dugan and his wife.

A toast, a clink of glass,

A sip, then silent repose,

Upon the wicker furniture to sass,

And maybe soon to dose?

But first the cavalcade of clowns,

Will step beneath the lights…

To drive away the frowns,

The Dugans, to delight.