Wednesday 11 December 2019

Celtic Roots Craic 61 – Irish export – good and not so good!

Sunset in northern Manitoba

You’re most likely listening to this because you love Celtic music and culture. There’s a bit of a sad story behind why that’s so popular around the world – we’ve exported Irish and Scottish culture and music because so many people from this part of the world felt they had to leave here and go somewhere where they felt free from oppression. 

The ‘Highland Clearances’ in Scotland resulted in mass emigration to the New World. The English ruled in Ireland for centuries and anyone who didn’t worship in the English way was persecuted – in other words Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. 

During Penal times, Catholic priests were forced into hiding and would come out to a mass rock in remote country to serve their people communion. If they were caught, those who weren’t executed were imprisoned on an island in the west. Presbyterians, likewise, were forced to hold their ‘hedgerow schools’ out in the wilds and the English mocked them and called them ‘blackmouths’, because the children would have stained mouths from eating wild blackberries. For a time both Catholic priests and Presbyterian preachers had a bounty on their heads.

In Oliver Cromwell’s time many Irish people were forcibly transported to the Caribbean as indentured labour in the sugar and tobacco plantations. These Irish labourers were the first European settlers on the volcanic island of Montserrat in 1632, and it’s had an Irish culture ever since – an Irish scholar in 1831 reported that the Irish language was still spoken by both black and white inhabitants. Unfortunately, the Irish later became owners of imported black African slaves and didn’t treat them any better than they had been treated.

The same sort of thing happened in the US and Canada. Many Scots and Irish went there to find religious freedom, and in the early days, some Highland trappers married native women and became full natives themselves – so that today there are native tribes in Manitoba and Saskatchewan with Scottish names like McGregor, Spence, Tait, Macdonald, Calder … Some became what were known as Anglo-Metis, even developing their own ‘Bungee Creole’ language – which was a mixture of Scots Gaelic, Cree and Ojibwe that is still spoken today in certain parts of Manitoba. 

By the way, we passed on to native Americans a form of music and dance, now known as ‘Jiggin’.’ 

But most Irish and Scottish settlers interpreted the native traditions they observed as ‘pagan’ and eventually laws were introduced to ‘civilise’ these people – the ‘Indian Acts’. In Canada the churches were brought in to manage these ‘Residential Schools’ in an attempt to drive the native out of these children – that’s where the term ‘Final Solution’ first came into use! 

Physical and sexual abuse were rife and nearly 50% of the children didn’t survive their Residential School experience. Those that did had been divorced from their traditions, their language and normal family relationships and that often led directly to alcohol, drug and other ‘substance’ dependence of many native people. When I first travelled to a Manitoba reserve in 2004 I apologised on the local radio station for what people from here had done in our name – I got a very positive response. If you want to know more about this check out my ‘Broken Treaties’ podcast on

So, nearly anywhere you go in the world you’ll find Irish people – 50 million of them in the US! As like as not they’re involved in building something – and likely spending the proceeds on quenching their thirst and loosening their vocal chords for a wee bit of a ’session!’  But the reason they originally left here to travel to these far off places was maybe not so pleasant. 

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