Too rough for verse? Sea crossings in Irish culture

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Connolly, Claire
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Memories of Oliver Cromwell’s bloody Irish campaigns were long-lived. In the late 1930s, as part of a national project run by the Irish Folklore Commission, a school girl named Annie Morgan of Coaghill, Williamstown, County Galway, heard this account from John Gaffey, a forty one year old farmer: ‘When Cromwell died the earth refused to take him. Three times and each time the corpse was found near the grave. At last the people decided to throw him into the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. They did so and the part of the sea that Cromwell was thrown into, is rough the hottest day in Summer’. Some of these details are repeated in another story that tells ‘how Cromwell died in Ireland and was buried there, but the Irish soil rejected his body and the coffin was found on top of the grave each morning. Finally, it was thrown into the sea and sank down between Dublin and Holyhead, thereby causing that part of the Irish sea to be very turbulent ever since’. These stories understand the waters between Ireland and Britain as fomented by violent conflicts. They are a reminder of how the Irish Sea shapes a connection with an expansionist Britain, from the early modern period onwards. But even as conditions at sea are given a political explanation, we see the makings of a more intimate history of rough weather. To consider sea crossings in Irish culture is to encounter both certainty — enduring environmental realities experienced over centuries — and unpredictability, as weather events set plans awry and made haphazard work of history. Across the centuries, a great mass of people (soldiers and adventurers, landlords and migrant workers, businessmen, students, members of parliament) and goods (letters, books, wine, weapons, live cattle) moved between the islands. Individual experiences, sometimes colourful, sometimes mundane, can be found in disparate sources—state documents, inventories of goods, memoirs, diaries and correspondence. Composed of stories that can be retrieved, at least in part, culture offers a special kind of archive of Irish sea crossings: richly textured, patterned, often voicing the views of elites but sometimes able to give us the trace of ordinary lives. To track such perspectives is to move with history itself, as crossing the Irish sea became a necessary, even routine, aspect of colonial modernity — so indelibly present in Irish and British history as to be almost invisible to us, barely marked , difficult to locate as a distinct cultural phenomenon — though that is just what I attempt here.
Irish Sea , Crossing , Conflict , Britain
Connolly, C. (2020) 'Too rough for verse? Sea crossings in Irish Culture', in Leerssen, J. (ed.) Parnell and his Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 243-267. doi: 10.1017/9781108861786.017
© 2021, Joep Leerssen. Published by Cambridge University Press. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works.