Since I discovered the shelves to travel narrative at the Mercantile, I have stayed right there with my choices. Last trip, I picked up a Thomas Carlyle book called Reminiscences of My Irish Journey in 1849, published in 1882 – another one that had to be tied together.
I knew Carlyle was a famous English writer of the period, and of course Irish in the title would get me, being 200%+ Irish. And I knew 1849 was right in the middle of the devastation of the potato famine, which cost a million Irish lives and caused perhaps 4 million to flee the country. Ireland today, in fact, has fewer people than it did in 1840.
So I felt the book promised to enlighten me with another point of view of that sad period. I have never been able to finish a book about the famine, and how my ancestors died eating grass.
I didn’t finish this one either. Nor do I expect ever to read another word of Thomas Carlyle’s. The writing seemed stylish rather than real, he seems to have been a major hypochondriac / insomniac / and perhaps drug user – and he barely noticed the Irish while complaining about the food and his Anglo hosts.
He didn’t like the weather, he did like just a bit of the fabled scenery, even managed to insult the beautiful lakes of Killarney. His comments about the Irish are insulting in general and in particular, with no understanding in him. ‘She hadn’t the groat in change ready’ constitutes a major problem for him. He noticed that this one was clean, as a surprise – that one was dirty-clean, another like a washed blacksmith, yet one more a washed old humble citizen.
Now I can understand how the English continued to take all the food that wasn’t potatoes and oats out of Ireland to their country while we starved. And I can understand how we can watch as people are allowed to be violated and die in Darfur.
Perhaps loss of compassion is the great failure of modern Western cultures.