Friday, October 31, 2008
On November 2nd Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (we have many in Lake County, Ohio) celebrate el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This might involve a trip to the cemetery, decorating the graves of those who have passed on, and the eating of a meal (with a plate left for the dead) at the cemetery.
Here's a bet you can win. Bet your friends that they can't correctly pronounce the Irish words for Halloween. It's something close to EE-huh HOW-nuh, believe it or not!
Thursday, October 30, 2008
From the Chardon Road hill, I can see the November Lake,
Gigantic and wild, the color of Euclid Bluestone,
Material for sidewalk slabs, foundations, millstones,
Quarried just a mile from here by relatives,
Refugees from the grinding poverty of Ireland--
The sky steel gray, a thousand shades, and
Lake Erie clouds rolling in from the north,
Blanketing this hard-ass city,
Spitting sleet and bitter-cold rain.
I love this wildness and toughness:
This is our history
Our present reality
Our very lives.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Last night I heard it--the pounding of wind-driven sleet on our windows. This morning there was just a small amount accumulated on our roofs and lawns; the temperatures are still too warm for the sleet and snow to hang around very long. That will change, we know. We have stiffened our necks and girded our loins. This is what makes us snowbelters tough! We still vividly remember November 10th-16th of 1996 when about 6 feet of snow fell on the Chardon-Hambden snowbelt. We are ready for anything!
Monday, October 27, 2008
The Gospel reading, Mark 12:28-31, also had a stunning statement when Jesus responded to someone who asked him what the most important commandments were (trying to trap him):
28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'[f] 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[g]There is no commandment greater than these."
There is almost nothing you can add to that: that is "the law and the prophets" wrapped into a brief and powerful utterance.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
By Linda Pastan
Because of the menace
your father opened
like a black umbrella
and held high
over your childhood
blocking the light,
your life now seems
to you exceptional
in its simplicities.
You speak of this,
throwing the window open
on a plain spring day,
after such a winter.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
Toward the end, the poem says:
God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
I find this poem both comforting and humorous. I love the lines "God, who thinks about / poetry all the time." Well, that's nice to know! Poetry is such a human thing, so full of fallibility and pain and hope and beauty and transience and eternity, transcendence and immanence. Are you like that, God? If you, dear God, can understand poetry, then you can understand us humans. Let me recommend to you, O Lord, the work of Galway Kinnell, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney. These folks understand the human heart!
Monday, October 20, 2008
This past Saturday (October 18, 2008), I read a column by Regina Brett that addresses these perplexing issues very well. Brett is one of Cleveland's (and the nation's!) best, most thoughtful writers. Here are some of her comments (for the entire column, visit http://www.reginabrett.com/):
"For the first time since John F. Kennedy, we might get a Catholic in the White House, so the abortion issue is hotter than ever. Forget Joe Six-Pack and Joe the Plumber. Sen. Joe Biden stands to win or lose the Catholic vote.
Is he a good Catholic? Depends on how you measure that. Some use abortion as the only gauge, as the only way to measure the value a candidate places on life.
Yet the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago urged us to have a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond the womb.
'Our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth,' he said. 'Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.'
Abortion is a crucial issue, but it isn't the only one that should influence our vote.
One of the best guides I've ever seen on voting showed up in my mail four years ago. Spiritual author Megan McKenna wrote it.
She suggested looking at all the issues: war, poverty, health care, jobs, immigration, housing, education, the environment, the death penalty, abortion and same-sex marriage.
Here's her best advice:
Vote for the person you think will do the most amount of good on all issues.
Vote for the person you believe will do the least amount of harm on all issues.
Vote for the person you believe will allow you to do the most good.
Talk to others about what the priorities should be for our country and the world.
Pray alone and with others.
Reflect on the needs of the common good, not just your own.
Look at a candidate's values and their overall record.
Then, vote for a candidate you believe is 'the best hope for the human race, inclusive of the U.S. and every other country in the world.'
Anyone who is undecided should ignore the ads and e-mails and collect the most accurate information. Take McKenna's advice, then listen to that small, still voice inside and answer this:
Which candidate offers the greatest hope where it is needed the most? "
I have weighed these many life issues and have made my decision. I understand that many friends and family members will do this calculus differently--and I respect that.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Recently my daughter Carolan and three of her friends cimbed 4 of Colorado's "14-ers"--mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. These peaks were not technical climbs, but they were at a very high elevation, and that alone is pretty challenging. I could probably make this climb myself, providing I had oxygen tanks and a helicopter at my service! The peaks climbed were Democrat, Lincoln, Cameron, and Bross. They are near the town of Eagle, Colorado. They parked at the Kite Lake trail head, which is near Alma (and Fairplay and Breckenridge) and climbed the four peaks in one day.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Back in the lagoons, I headed for the storage building dock. I never ever dock this boat by myself. I usually have all hands on deck to dock the boat. And even then I sometimes screw up! This time, I brought her in slowly to my starboard side. And then just before my bow would smash into the dock, I put the throttle into reverse and turned the wheel hard clockwise--a counterintuitive move that really works. My boat nudged up against the dock; I threw it into neutral, found my hook, and grabbed the dock and halted the boat. Then I tied her down to the cleats, put her canvas back on. And that was it. Done for the year. Like the last pitch of the baseball season, I was a little sad. We know what's coming around here!
Friday, October 10, 2008
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Are we at the end of the world as we know it? I know that this question has been asked over and over through the millennia. Most often the answer is no. But occasionally the answer is yes, we are at the end of something and the beginning of something new. The crash of the world economic engine this month has made me ask the questions: Is this it? What is our future? How do I protect my family?
Sometimes, as the country song goes, impossible things fall, mountains are moved. Caesar is murdered; Rome yields to the barbarians; cultures are torn to the ground by war, disease, or forces we don't even understand. Are we at that point right now?
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Dr. O'Neill was the obstetrician, and what amazed me was his calmness throughout the whole labor and birthing process. I think at one point he was sitting on Linda's bed talking about skiing. I was in full-panic mode, and Dr. O'Neill's wonderful demeanor calmed me (and maybe Linda) down. This was a natural childbirth, no anaesthetics, and Julia was born as I stood at Linda's head (and I might add--proudly--I didn't faint). Julia was in some distress at birth, having aspirated some meconium. But the doctor and nurses aspirated her lungs and brought her back to Linda--and she was OK.
I remember holding her at birth and looking at her dark, intense eyes. She seemed to look right back at me. I should have known: this was going to be a competitor, a person who could focus and concentrate on the tasks ahead--a smart kid with a powerful will. That was the potential and that's what she has become. What a kid! What an adult! Happy Birthday, Julia!
Postscript: When we brought Julia home, we were met by Linda's brother Steve Sanders, who seemed as happy as we were. We have always been grateful for Steve's help and support. There was also an odd natural sign there to greet us: a beautiful fall crocus, purple in color, had bloomed in the garden. This struck us as a miraculous sign, a good omen.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
in northeast ohio
the buckle of the snowbelt
does not rust slowly into
the freeze and gloom and white permanent winter.
crimson orange flames bursting from the branches
fireworks, a sunset, a campfire
the glory and celebration and excitement
sustain the hidden embers of Warmth
of Color of Life.
when the snow doesn't stop falling and the sun forgets to visit
we will grasp tightly to the fire of fall
and the eternal glow will keep us strong.
October 27, 2003)
October Morning on the Yellowstone
The sky was overcast, bearing down, pushing
The wind, spattering raindrops.
Our kayaks slipped
Darkly over the undulating waters of the Yellowstone.
Cottonwood trees lined the river and with steady splatter
They dripped butterscotch,
Decadent and heavy,
Glowing against the melancholy of the day.
Leaves swirled down,
Scattered with the raindrops,
And then with one quick flick and flutter
They changed into birds and flew.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
The line makes me think of my Irish and German ancestors: the poor of County Cork Ireland and of the Rhine/Alsace region of Germany. My family may not exactly be the cornerstone of Ohio, of America. But we are significant contributors to this land. America was built by the "rejected"--the poor, the refugees, the hungry, even at times the banished, the accused. And yes, the enslaved.
What an astonishing thing! The stone the builder rejected has become the cornerstone!
Sugar maple leaves
Are falling orange against black
Monarchs heading south.
(Linda & Bob Coughlin)
Haiku for Jake-the-Beagle
Snowy mud on boots
I dig your grave, poor dog,
And think of my own.
October 24, 2006)
October in Willoughby, 1958
the two sugar maples
glisten in the crisp pure sunlight
efflorescence of yellow, orange, red
against the cloudless blue sky:
Hayes Avenue looks like heaven
Grampa rakes the leaves into a grand pile:
Denny, Mary Ellen, Bobby play king of the hill,
somersault, stuff leaves into flannel shirts
the radio is omnipresent
blaring out the Browns struggle against the Giants,
Jimmy Brown against Sam Huff
Grampa lights the pile of leaves,
a fragrance that will linger in memory
Gramma calls out for dinner:
roast beef, mashed potatoes, green peas
October 18, 1991)
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Nobody knows exactly how many people in Ireland were killed because of hunger and the inevitable diseases that followed the famine. A reasonable guess is about a million people; another million people were forced to emigrate from Ireland, and the ripples of this forced emigration continued for years and even decades. My family, the Coughlin side, came over around 1858, some years after the official end of the famine. Millions of peasants who survived the famine were jobless, landless, and still on the edge of starvation for a long, long time after the famine ended. The majority of those who died and those who emigrated were Irish-Gaelic speakers--a near death blow to the ancient language.
B. Causes of the Famine
1.--population growth in Ireland [coming]
2. Monoculture of the Potato
As astonishing as it might seem, a very large portion of the Irish population (perhaps one-third), especially in the west and south of the island, survived principally on a diet of potatoes. Potatoes were supplemented by a little butter, milk, some eggs, and in places close to the sea, by cockles, mussels, oysters, and other seafood. The poor had very little meat to eat, and the largest portion of their calories came from potatoes. Estimates of how much potatoes the Irish peasantry ate challenge credulity. It is thought that some people ate about 12 to 14 pounds of potatoes per day--and very little else (see the Cormac O'Grada source, pages 17-18). Estimates are that a third of the population of Ireland (nearly three million of an estimated 8 to 9 million people before the famine) survived principally on potatoes. Why didn't they have beef or pork when many of the Irish lived on some of the world's greatest grazing lands? It's because this precious meat was for the rich or for export. Believe it or not, during the Great Famine, Ireland was an exporter of food! While a million people died from hunger and disease! And why a potato monoculture? Because potatoes were the best hope of staving off hunger and disease; potatoes had the nutritional value of maize, but at a fraction of the cost. The Irish fields were incredibly productive in the amount of potatoes that could be grown per acre of land, and potatoes are very rich in vitamins and minerals. By the way, much of these potatoes were fed to pigs and cattle--the export foods. To a great extent, the Irish peasantry did not own the lands they farmed. They had to devote a good portion of their farming and labor to making the rent payments. This land ownership situation combined with many other factors to make the lot of the Irish peasantry very fragile indeed--always at the edge of disaster. And Between 1845 and 1851 (and beyond), in the very grip of tragedy.
3. British Land Policies.
I don't know all that much about the impact of land policies on the Great Famine. But I do know that by the mid 1800's Ireland was mostly a country of renters. Because of the English "Plantation" [this involved ethnic cleansing; removal of Irish Catholics from the land; and in many cases, genocide] and various Penal Laws, it was rare for Irish Catholics to own their own land. The laws were created to keep Irish Catholics landless and in poverty. In the best of times, the Irish peasantry (and that's who many of us are descended from) was that close to disaster and starvation. Some Englishmen said the lazy Irish deserved their fate. But if you take a ride around Ireland today you see the stone walls, fields, and structures built by these "lazy" people. In many cases, they actually "built" the soil. They carried by hand sand, seaweed, and cow droppings and created soil where there was none before. The Great Hunger was not caused by Irish laziness!
4. The Blight Vector.
The vector that caused the potato blight, Phytophthera infestans, apparently arrived in the summer of 1845 and was first noted in the press on September 6 of that year (O'Grada, p. 32). this particular fungus had already infested potato crops in the USA and continental Europe. But the impact on Ireland was particularly devastating because a third of the population utterly depended on the potato for life itself.
C. Impact of the Famine.
Nobody knows exactly how many people died of the famine in Ireland. I've seen estimates up to 1.5 million people (the New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1974, estimated mortality at 2-3 million!). The most common estimate I've seen is about a million dead. Some proportion of these died directly from starvation; but a more typical situation involves contracting diseases while in a weakened state: typhus, cholera, "famine fever." Children under 10 and adults over 60 were the first to die and the most vulnerable.
2. Emigration and Overall Population Crash
It is estimated that there were about 8 million people on the island in 1845 (estimates go up towards 9 million). The famine (and diseases related to the famine) are thought to have killed about a million people. Another million people emigrated--to the USA, to England, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. Even after the famine was over, the population continued to crash: the situation in Ireland was still quite desperate, so much so that entire families fled for their lives (including my own!). This emigration continued until the population of the island was about 4 million people at its nadir, around 1940--half of what it had been in 1845. Whole areas of the south and west had been depopulated. Until this day, Ireland has fewer people than it had in 1845. The population of the Republic of Ireland is a little over 4.4 million people right now; the population of Northern Ireland is around 1.75 million people. Altogether, around 6 million people live on the island in 2008, where once 8 to 9 million people lived there.
3. Impact on the Culture.
A culure doesn't come through as devastation so great as the Irish Famine without being changed. I don't think I have the perspective to comment on the cultural impact definitively, but I have some guesses. My guess is that the famine, and especially the British response to it, played a role in Ireland attaining independence from Great Britain. The great Irish patriot John Mitchel once said, "The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine" (see O'Grada, p. 3). Independence didn't come right away, but the die had been cast.
I also think that the famine had an impact on Irish cultural and moral values. It probably led to even later marriages and the enshrinement of celibacy--how can you get risk having children outside of marriage in an era before birth control when children are the first victims of hunger. O'Grada states, "Earlier historians usually painted a very bleak picture of social life in Ireland after the Famine. Pre-Famine Ireland, by contrast, seemed a gregarious and cheerful place, where family ties extended far and people were neighborly, where puritanical scruples counted for little, and where peasant life was rudely egalitarian" (p. 65). I wonder if an extreme puritanical Catholicism emerged after the Famine, extending its reach and influence into our own times. I am almost positive that this is the Catholic atmosphere I was brought up in. Recently I've come to think that maybe the American refugees of the Famine have a more intense puritanical Catholicism than even the Irish living in Ireland. How could that be? The conservatism and puritanism seems more intense the farther you get in time and place from the homeland.
4. Impact on the Irish-Gaelic language.
The percentage of people who spoke Irish-Gaelic had been declining before the Great Famine.It is said that one-third of the Irish population could speak Irish in 1845 (still, that's close to 3 million people!). In the generation previous to that, about 40% could speak Irish (O'Grada, p. 67). Already by that time, Irish had faded in the area around Dublin known as "The Pale." And in many parts of Ulster, where the British and Scottish plantations were thriving, Irish was in steep decline (in some parts of Ulster, the language remained very vital and dynamic--think of Donegal). The reasons for the decline are hardly mysterious. If survival demands that you speak English--you will speak English, and you will encourage your children to speak English.
Irish also declined because it was, in some situations and times, illegal to speak the language. And children were often physically punished--beaten-- for speaking the language.
A hugely important reason for the decline of Irish is the cultural imperialism of English (and this is still a powerful factor!). Everything important and many things that are fun, especially these days, appear in English. Newspapers, magazines, textbooks, instructional manuals; music, radio, television, every aspect of pop culture. English is a cultural bully all over the world.
Despite this thousand-pound gorilla, Irish didn't totally disappear. But it did become more like the language of the poor, of the peasantry, and no longer the language of law, business, or the powerful and influential tools of culture. That is why the famine had such a devastating effect on Irish; the people killed or forced to emigrate were, to a large extent, the speakers of Irish. Those who stayed behind had to learn to speak English to survive. The result was an ever-shrinking pool of native Irish speakers who used Irish in their everyday lives.
D. Never Again
There are times when we cannot do anything about a disaster. But often we can do something to prevent, to mitigate, or to clean up. We are currently able to feed everyone on earth--at least at the level of sustaining life. Let's not mistake the "the invisible hand" of capital or the "hand of God" from something we can deal with or have caused. We are God's hands and legs on earth. If people are hungry, let's feed them--even if we think that somehow their starvation is their own fault. "An Gorta Mor"--never again!
Here is a poem I wrote, imagining the anger of the Irish after the Great Famine:
An Gorta Mór, The Great Hunger
Most of the world just watched
As a million of our poor starved to death,
Another million forced to flee to other lands:
They said, “This is the hand of God!” or
“The ‘invisible hand’ of capital will set things aright.”
We won’t forget who gave us bread
Who put their prayers into action
Who gave us shelter—
And who let our mothers and our babies die.
Who could blame us if we slit the throats
Of those who held the “invisible hand” of fate?
Our knives will be cold hard steel.
We’ll make the invisible visible!
(Robert M. Coughlin
12 April 2007)
References. Despite the reputation of Wikipedia as an untrustworthy source, I suggest you check it out on this topic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Potato_Famine
Here's a scholarly resource: O'Grada, Cormac. The Great Irish Famine. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.