Friday, March 20, 2015

Tagged under: ,

Not Cowboys & Injuns

On Wednesday evening the Old Drogheda Society was hosting one of its monthly lectures, Irish Soldiers in the Plains Wars: Irish Soldiers, American Wars From Appomattox to Wounded Knee. Initially I felt too tired to go to and with a trapped nerve playing me up, I was even less inclined to venture beyond the kitchen. A friend sent me a Facebook message about an hour before inquiring if I fancied it, so reluctantly I heaved myself out of the chair and dutifully tagged along with her.

What a rewarding experience it proved to be. Ian Kenneally delivered a lecture of such brilliance that I told him from the floor during the following Q & A session that it was comparable to being at the cinema for a great movie. He somehow managed that in spite of the laptop he was using for his projections having powered out half way through the evening.

Over thirty years ago during the 1981 hunger strikes we gained access to books for the first time in years. With little else to do, banged up 24/7, reading was a big thing: for most of the day behind the doors, the only thing. While men were dying over in the prison hospital and the jail was a crucible of molten hatred seeking to consume Margaret Thatcher in its furnace - although the relationships between ourselves and the screws who worked the wings wasn’t overly fractious - cell life had to go on. I recall picking up a Dee Browne book, The Fetterman Massacre, on the recommendation of a cell mate but with no great expectation of anything much. A lesson was learned: never judge a book by its cover -  it might be good.

The jail policy at the time was not to allow protesting prisoners access to anything other than fiction, a practice that endured beyond the end of the blanket protest. The anomaly was that once we had access to our own clothes and could use the prison library, although still on no-work protest, there was no insistence on library books being works of fiction. The library screws were quite efficient in obtaining requested factual literature pretty quickly. The Fetterman Massacre was not a library book but had made its way in from the outside. Somebody down at the censor’s office probably thought the books by Dee Browne were good old fashioned Cowboy and Injun ones where the bible-thumping cowboy would triumph over the Injun heathen. That might have been considered the type of literature capable of inducing a desire for redemption among the troublesome Injuns in them thar blocks.  Maybe the calculation was not that profound, and Dee Browne books were just regarded as Westerns of the JT Edson mode, safe enough for the most dangerous prison population in Western Europe - as officialdom liked to term the recalcitrant lot in its keep - to read without us being driven to even more sedition than we already needed cured of.

I was amazed at the sense of intellectual excitement generated by first The Fetterman Massacre and then Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by the same author. That feeling returned on Wednesday Night listening to Ian Kenneally as he weaved his way with atmospheric potency through the hills, shrubbery, rivers and trails that became battlefield landmarks in the later historiography. He conveyed fear, incompetence, courage, cowardice, cynicism, strategic under-achievement, over active egos and real people, plotting it all on a mental map that was read with the consummate of ease by an engrossed audience.

It is possible that I have attended a more riveting lecture at some point in my life. If I did I can’t remember it. While the focus was on the Battle of Little Big Horn, Ian Kenneally's purpose was to bring out the Irish dimension to the Plains Wars. He sought to explain the moral and practical terrain through the eyes of the Irish soldiers - often the sick and the lame - who fought in the ranks of the US Army.

The only thing I have read since 1981 with a strong Native American angle was Cormac McCarthy’s dry, dusty and uncomfortable novel, Blood Meridian. While great writing, it failed to hit the same cerebral spot as both Ian Kenneally and Dee Brown did.

For me, in spite of the sciatic pain, there was ecstatic gain. Lectures and talks - they don't come better than that.

12 comments :

larry hughes said...

Really enjoyed that read. Must see if there's local historical society here.

Michael Mahoney said...

Somewhere in Kenneally's lecture there was doubtless some mention of Lil' Phil Sheridan, who like William Tecumseh Sherman slashed and burned his way through swathes of the Confederacy before turning that aggression on the tribes of the plains, post-Civil War. That son of a Cavan man was a piece of work, one of that rough breed who had no fear of Bobby Lee, the aristocrat of Arlington.

What's fascinating about men like Sheridan is their involvement, more from circumstance than choice, in causes now viewed as morally antithetical: Sheridan fought for the Union and with it the abolition of slavery but then participated without compunction in the eradication of the Indians. Reminds me a bit of Frank Ryan rubbing elbows with the Nazis after the Spanish Civil War. Purity be damned, and damned it must be.

There was a mural in Belfast that always fascinated me, a gigantic image of Sitting Bull, maybe, at the top of Whiterock Road in Turf Lodge, I think. This American wondered at the reason, the connection to republicanism, but your recollection, Mackers, of the reading material in the H-Blocks was a reminder of the underdog's sympathy and respect for the noble "Injun" - outgunned, hemmed in, but still proud and defiant. The screws should've snatched that stuff right up.

Hope the sciatic pain is soon on the wane.

AM said...

Larry,

it is a worthwhile venture if you have the time to become involved with one.

Mike,

he did indeed cover Sheridan, quite a bit. He very much avoided any photoshopping of his characters. We got them as he felt they were, with no shortage of warts. It was not a romantic portrayal of the situation.

He focused very much on circumstance rather than choice which prompted me to ask him at the end if there was no ideological aspect to soldiery.

If he was doing the same lecture tomorrow night I would go again. I am going to read some of his published work when I get a chance.

Michael Mahoney said...

AM

That's certainly the question that never goes to sleep. The life of a soldier, with its demands and pressures, seems far removed from the abstractions of ideology. Sounds like the lecture was pitched in just the right way - definitely need to go hunt down a copy of Irish Soldiers in the Plains Wars. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

Simon said...

AM, Did he mention Myles Keogh?

If he did was the story of Keogh's horse retold and the link to the 1916 Rising?

Fascinating story. A family with a wealth of History.

I have read Dee Brown's books. I have read most of them apart from his fiction. I also have a great oversize copy of Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee. A devastatingly sad story.

AM said...

Simon,

yes he was mentioned but I don't recall the link to the Easter Rising now - but it is possible as there was so much there

Simon said...

One of his descendants was a nurse killed by the British by accident as she went down a flight of stairs during the rising. Eamonn Ceant, I think it was, claimed her as the first martyr although she was a civilian. Nurse Keogh.

Simon said...

AM, Just checked my original reference which is Ray Bateson's "They Died by Pearse's Side".

Margaret Kehoe was from County Carlow and her granduncle was Myles Keogh who was famous for his part in Ancona under the Papal Army IX.

Captain Keogh was at Custer's side at the Battle of the Big Horn and Bateson's reference is quote from a book which erroneously states that Keogh's horse Commanche was the only living thing left on the battle field.

In fact it was one of the very few things left living. It and another horse were retired after the battle and Commanche lived many years and was stuffed and placed in the Smithsonian Museum after he died.

The book quoted by Bateson also erroneously mentioned that Sitting Bull lead the Native Americans into battle but from all accounts he was recovering from self mutilation to bring forth a vision. The vision that came to Sitting Bull was of "many falling soldiers". He was too sick from his many wounds to fight.

The Kehoes also took part in the 1798 Rebellion.

AM said...

Simon,

I am sure Ian Kenneally would be pleased if he knew the discursive spin off his lecture prompted!

Simon said...

AM, I have a great interest in books on the American West. I have a little collection of books on the subject.

The Native American history is a tragic one.

I guess if there is life on other planets we, as a species, will make short work of eradicating anything we find.

The Native Americans had a horrific time under the white man. Unfortunately the Irish contributed more than their fair share. Which is a particular pity when you think of how the Irish were mistreated by others.

AM said...

Simon,

Ian K explained that very well on the night - whatever stood in the way of "progress" was crushed or swept aside. He made the point that while there was no Wannsee Conference the results of "progress" were brutal in the extreme.

Simon said...

It sounds as if it was a great talk. The speaker must be very skilled and knowledgeable.

The remnants of that mentality exist today towards anything that stands in the way of economic "progress". The environment, human rights and concepts of equality or responsibility go out the window.