Nestled between bog and gorse, infused with the omnipresent, intoxicating aroma of burning peat, Mayo is the home of Knock Shrine, civil disobedience and my father's family. The West of Ireland is awash with symbols of defiance in the face of oppression. Though most bear no witness to what they represent. The circus masters that spawned the Celtic Tiger saw no benefit in safeguarding our cultural heritage. There's no profit in that.
The Connaught landscape is dotted with almost indiscernible white crosses in remote areas, usually on high, inaccessible land. They are unconsecrated burial grounds where many famine victims were buried.
The bell, from the hedge school that my ancestors attended when the penal laws were introduced in the 17th century, still exists. During this time, catholic schools were abolished with the intention of forcing children into protestant schools where they would learn to speak English and develop loyalty to the crown. In defiance of this law, hedge schools emerged in barns, outbuildings or on the side of the road, which meant the Irish language, culture and religion could be preserved.
The persecuted poor of Ireland, like the persecuted and poor around the world, have had to be creative in their resistance to injustice. The tax on chimneys was circumvented by making a fire in the middle of the room. The tax on outbuildings saw animals that needed shelter brought into the house and tethered to the wall. We resisted glass tax, or tax on light, by using horse placenta over the windows and split doors, hence the expression, day light robbery.
Despite the rampant, abject poverty and starvation in the wake of the famine, landlords, most of whom were English and absentee, showed no mercy in their demands for ever exorbitant rent. Mass emigration was a feature of the famine. Those that didn't die of starvation were forced to leave, never to return. Despite the fact that Ireland was described as "The breadbasket of the Empire" at the time, it's estimated that Ireland lost 3m people due to starvation and emigration.
There are haunting resonances between the Ireland of the past and present. A profusion of People begging in the streets, half built houses abandoned and boarded up. Rural towns, once vibrant are now jaded and deserted. Young people yet again are leaving in their droves to seek gainful employment abroad. The window tax has been replaced by a roof tax. Anyone lucky enough to be able to keep their home is being punitively taxed for that. The burden of austerity is hitting the poorest the hardest. Ordinary Irish people have their begging bowls out again. The St Vincent De Paul occupying the role of soup kitchen for the homeless and destitute.
The indignity of destitution and hopelessness is spawning an epidemic of alcoholism, depression, marital breakdown and suicide. But we can't blame the English for this. Today's starvation, evictions, mass emigration and destitution is home grown, caused by the greed of Irish bankers, Irish property developers and corrupt Irish politicians.
If ever there was a time for ordinary Irish people to harness that spirit of defiance, so adeptly employed by our ancestors, now would be it.