The Berkeley Six Are Part Of A Long Line Of Irish Lost

Let us mourn them all with dignity, solidarity and love, says regular columnist, The Whole Hog…

How do we come to terms with the deaths of six young Irish people in Berkeley?

Their identities and faces and stories revealed our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, friends and companions. We saw ourselves. We’re close. Blood is thick.

Networks of belonging and loyalty thread themselves around us. School and sport and village bind us.

This is what we do. We work hard and play hard. We leave, we return, we see the world. The Irish have so long traversed the globe that travel or, more precisely, mobility is in our DNA. But so too is home. We may be scattered but we’re still attached.

They were on the J1 programme. This is an Irish specialty. The J1 summer is not easily understood by many cultures. But for many reasons of history and instinct it has become a rite of passage for young Irish.

And so, there they were, in California, at the outset of another great adventure, another stage on the great wheel of life. What a wonderful prospect. They were doing what we do, celebrating each other and life alike when they were cleaved away: plunged brutally to the ground in a way that not one of them could ever have imagined. I guess that’s why everyone feels the tragedy so intensely: we are all so familiar with that Irish way of getting together and sharing the emotions of a celebration.

Some years ago The Hog and his beloved drove to San Francisco along Route 49.

This, as you might guess, follows the trail of the prospectors who chased their fortunes in the Gold Rush of 1849. It’s a cool journey, slipping through small western towns like Downieville, largely unchanged since the miners left.

They’re quiet little places and there’s not much to do at night, which is how we found ourselves wandering around the graveyard. And there they inevitably were, the Irish.

Many were young – sixteen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty – when they died. Much the same as the Berkeley J1ers though, of course, their lives and the forces that drew them to California were very different.

Some of them had died of diseases like TB, from infections and from food (and other) poisonings. Others died from injuries sustained in mining, cattle herding (and theft). And there were those who died from knife and gunshot wounds.

Back then, in the 19th century, there was no Irish consul in San Francisco to help their families. Indeed, many died unmourned and were soon forgotten. Their families may never have known their fate.

And these were the ones who were buried in a graveyard with headstones. Many weren’t, and not just in California. There was a gold rush in Colorado and another in Alaska. There were those who died a-working on the railways. There were the soldiers too that fought on both sides in the civil war, so many of whom perished.

In Colorado, the town of Leadville had an area known as Irish-town and each county had its own block. Oscar Wilde famously visited in 1882, lecturing the silver miners on aesthetics; afterwards he out-drank his audience in the Silver Dollar Saloon. (It’s still there and serves excellent craft beers.)

In many ways, while this emigrant experience is pretty well understood (as also is the huge flood of Irish that headed for Britain permanently or seasonally) we have yet to fully acknowledge another strand of emigration: the large numbers of Irish who served in the armies of the British empire, France and Spain and, as I said, on both sides of the US civil war.

To take but one example, at the battle of Waterloo, which took place two hundred years ago last week, the Irish may have made up as much as 40% of Wellington’s

troops. (70 years previously, of course, the Irish Brigade played a pivotal role in France defeating the English at Fontenoy).

Ironically, the man they defeated at Waterloo was a central character in Gaelic Irish yearning for a white knight, turning up in ballad code as the Green Linnet and in dance pieces such as Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, the Downfall of Paris and The Salamanca Reel. The songwriters of the time would have given anything for the European Union as an antidote to the British empire… but I digress.

This military adventuring in both times of war and peace took the Irish everywhere.

A mountain-climbing friend told me of meeting a group of mountain guides in Nepal amongst whom was a local man with red hair, freckled fair skin and blue eyes who spoke the local dialect and no English. “The Connaught Rangers was here!” was the climber’s wry observation.

Or perhaps it was a missionary. Or… well, who knows? But for sure the Irish have coursed across the world for hundreds of years and are to be found just about everywhere. The late Lady Hog went to Istanbul to find the grave of her great aunt from Dundalk, who died while working for a well-to-do Italian Jewish family. With her on the journey was a friend whose grandfather had died at Gallipoli as a member of the Australian army.

And so it goes.

What all this means is that we are an unusually mobile people and the idea of migrating and travelling is ingrained as deeply as the intense loyalty to place and community. That’s why the J1 visa programme has such traction in Ireland and why the students who died and were injured are so emblematic of the Irish and the young people of Ireland – and why their tragic deaths have resonated so deeply with so many.

Let’s mourn and mark their loss. But let’s also remember the others, people like 40 year old Limerick man Trevor Loftus, a father of two, who was killed in New York in April 2015 when a crane arm collapsed on top of him. His family live here; he had bought a pub and was renovating it with a view to moving home. When there are so many of us away, there are so many hostages to fortune.

May they all rest in peace.

The Hog


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