Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ancestral Territory



It has been over 8 months since I became Intentionally Homeless.  At the time, I had no real idea of what I would be in store for me.  I simply knew that I had to try something different.  An opportunity arose to make a complete break from the past, to thrust myself into the unknown.  A comparison I've heard is to The Fool of the tarot deck, who happily wanders right off the edge of the cliff...

But now I realize that this journey is one of destiny.  It is something that I was uniquely prepared for, without having any knowledge of it at the time.  The circumstances aligned in such a way that I was ending my way of life as I had previously known it, selling off my posessions and attempting to live for 1 year out of a backpack.  I did this with the vague notion that by doing so, I would help kick start discussions about barter economies and intentional communities as viable alternatives to the present system.  The Occupy Movement was launched and now these ideas are common discourse.

What I didn't realize was how deeply the issue of rent is tied to my family history.  The position I've taken to not pay rent for one year is not about some disagreement I had with a landlord.  It is about the very concept of landlords and about our relationship to the land itself.  This relationship also happens to be deeply tied to my ancestors, who were Gaelic Cheiftans that ruled a portion of Ulster for countless generations before their land was confiscated by the British.

As an American from a family that had been in the U.S for several generations, I grew up far removed from the culture of my ancestors.  I only knew that my father's side of the family was from Ireland, and that my grandfather was born of immigrants but had died when my father was 16.  My father didn't retain the customs of the homeland apart from Catholicism and love of beer, but when I enquired as to how Irish we are his response was, "Irish-Irish."  As Irish as it gets.  He was correct, moreso than he even knew.  Had he known how to speak Gaelic, he may have said "Chomh Gaelic le Toin Ui hAnluain".

As it turns out, my Irish ancestors have their own Wikipedia entry:

The O'Hanlon Sept was one of the most well-known and powerful indigenous Gaelic clans.  They are recorded in the earliest written histories of Ireland, appear in folklore and songs, and British royal documents.  The O'Hanlon Sept were among the Roydama, or elite families of the Gaelic aristocracy eligible to be declared "Ard Ridgh" or "High King."  The sept was originally part of the O'neil clan, the Irish clan descended from Ireland's most famous High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, but later split off to form a distinct clan.  Their territory was located in Southern Ulster, where they ruled as kings of Orier for over 500 years.  The area was synonmous with the clan and known as "O'Hanlon's Countrie."  In Tandragee the clan had a castle which was the centerpiece of their stronghold.  Over a period of 90 years (1560-1650) during the Plantation of Ulster the O'Hanlon's along with many other native Gaelic clans lost much of their lands through confiscation and plantation by settlers supported by the British crown.  After the Battle of the Boyne, much of the land passed into Protestant control and Tandragee became the seat of the Orange Order.  The 1641 Ulster Rebellion saw the O'Hanlon's attempt to retake their lands, but it ended in disaster and the castle burned down and remained a ruin for 200 years before eventually being rebuilt by the Duke of Manchester.

In the 1596 book "A View of the Present State of Ireland," the English planter and poet Edmund Spencer noted in the popular expression, "Chomh Gaelic le Toin Ui hAnluain" which means "As Irish as O'Hanlon's breech."  The local Gaelic folk would have understood it as "Irish as O'Hanlon's arse."  This was a phrase used to describe people who are very Gaelic in there appearance or manners, or for English folks who adopt the customs of the native population.

The O'Hanlon's often had members on either side of a rebellion.  Sometimes they sided with the authorities in the English Pale if it served their interests, often they were on the side of the Gaelic aristocracy in opposition to the British crown.  Two of the most famous examples of how the O'Hanlon's dealt with colonial forces can be seen in Sir Eiochaidh O'Hanlon and Redmond O'Hanlon.

Sir Eiochaidh "Oghy" O'Hanlon was Chief of the O'Hanlon's, and in 1595 married the sister of the Earl of Tyrone.  His son and heir, Oghy Og was the great-grandson to the Earl of Kildare and thus a blue blood of the Plantagent Kings.  The Tudors had a policy of "surrender and regrant" in which Gaelic kings would swear allegiance to the crown and be allow to keep their lands.  Although Oghy had placed his people's land under English rule, and although he was knighted, he never made the cultural transition and remained an archetype of the Gaelic nation.  Redmond O'Hanlon on the other hand, rightful heir to the castle at Tandragee, would become a folk hero and something of an Irish Robin Hood.  He attempted to organize a French army to remove the British, and when those negotiations failed he became a notorious bandit who sought redress for the wrongs done to his ancestors.  He robbed the rich English landlords and was admired by the largely Catholic peasantry.  Redmond became Ireland's most famous outlaw and a symbol of the injustices of land confiscation.  He legend is recounted in numerous poems, ballads and folk songs, such as the one below:

  • Song: Redmond O'Hanlon
    (by P. J. McCall, 1861-1919) A shepherd that lives on Slieve Gullion
    Came down to the County Tyrone,
    And told us how Redmond O'Hanlon
    Won't let the rich Saxons alone!
    He rides over moorland and mountain,
    By night, till a stranger is found,
    Saying, 'Take your own choice for a lodging:
    Right over or under the ground!'
    If you whistle out 'Whoo!' like a native
    He leaves you the way to go clear;
    If you squeeze out a 'Hew!' like a Scotsman,
    You'll pay him a guinea a year.
    But if you cry 'Haw!' like a Saxon,
    Och, then, 'tis your life or your gold!
    By stages Count Redmond O'Hanlon
    Gets back what they plundered of old!
    Old Coote of Cootehill is heartbroken;
    And Johnston beyond in the Fews
    Has wasted eight barrels of powder
    Upon him, but all to no use!
    Although there's four hundred pounds sterling
    If Redmond you'd put out of sight;
    Mind, if the heart's dark in your body,
    'Tis Redmond will let in the light.
    The great Duke of Ormond is frantic -
    His soldiers get up with the lark
    To catch this bold Redmond by daylight;
    But Redmond caught them in the dark.
    Says he, when he stripped them and bound them.
    Take back my best thanks to his Grace
    For all the fine pistols and powder
    He sent to this desolate place!'
    Then, here's to you, Redmond O'Hanlon!
    Long may your Excellency reign
    High ranger of woods and of rivers,
    Surveyor of mountain and plain!
    Examiner-in-Chief of all traitors!
    Protector of all that are true.
    Henceforward, King Charlie of England
    May take what he gets, after you.
  • Tandragee Castle, former seat of the O'Hanlon.  Now headquarters for Tayto brand.

I had no idea I was descended from Gaelic High Kings until very recently.  I was raised as a middle class American, completely assimilated into the culture in which I was born and ignorant of my heritage.  And while it confirs no titles or landrights, I feel a sense of honor carrying on the name of the ancient tribal chieftans who lived on and defended their homelands for generations.  I also feel a sense of indignation that the castle that belonged to my ancestors is now owned by the Tayto company, the 3rd largest snack producer in the UK - http://www.tayto.com/about-us.html.  It is distasteful, a mockery of Irish history that a corporation, that a cartoon character potato is in possession of the ancient homelands of a proud people.  But then again, this is what corporations do all over the world.  Displace the indigenous population and erase their history.  I hope to have an opportunity to visit "O'Hanlon Countrie" and research my ancestry.  And maybe even OCCUPY THE CASTLE.

I am not sure if I am descended from either Sir Eochaidh or Redmond O'Hanlon, or if I am one of many who share a common last name. At any rate, I feel it was my destiny to embark on this path. If I started as The Fool from the tarot deck, I've arrived now as the Emperor. I feel it is my task to establish a new Kingdom. One in which all people are Self-Soveriegn, in which the land is cared for as a living being, and the natural ecosystems is protected and preserved.  In this sense, my protest against paying rent for 1 year is a statement in solidarity with my ancestors, who were tortured, killed and forced to pay rent on lands that belonged to them.  It is a statement in solidarity with all indigenous populations, who have had their land stolen from them.  The Earth is a living being.  It is our source of life.  It is not a commodity to be bought and sold, treated as an investment by wealthy landlords.  The lands we are living on are ancient ancestral lands.  Generations have fought and died to protect these lands.  Many of the people who live here in this country have come here because their ancestral lands were stolen from them.  What has been done is in the past.  But we can remember whose land we are living on, and make an effort to be a good steward of it.  We can start the process of healing by changing our relationship to the land we live on.