Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Red-headed step-children

My Dear K,

Redheadedism is not specifically a Scottish trait, we Irish have more than our fair share of redheads and they're not treated any less fair than anyone else in our family...that's why I puzzled over your comment: Red-headed step-children. If anything, the fair-skinned redheads in our family are treated extra-special and allowed more freedom (temper tantrums, etc).

I know that in other cultures, to be a redhead is considered a negative sign or bad luck—but not in Celtic cultures. There's even a specific word in Irish for redhead that's different from ordinary red, and it means magic red as in the red-eared white cattle of the Otherworld. Derg and ruadh. (new blood, old blood). I thought maybe you'd heard the saying somewhere specific. But, I gather that you're using it as metaphor — not folklore. Not something your grandfather told you.

I studied folklore with Alan Dundes at UC Berkekey and have collected a fair bit of it for the archives. If you have specific folklore, it's important to record it—when you first heard it, under what circumstances, Who (age, occupation, place collected) why what when where how come—and an analysis of context. If you want more information on the process I'd be happy to post it.

We should be collecting our own stories of immigration and survival, make them available. Think of it, what's the journey we each took to arrive at this place, this time? Yes! Storyteller Gay Ducey told me that we're hard wired for stories and she's right. We need the stories.

Ahem, I could equally sugges that you do protest too much yourself... but I also glean from your offline email that you're carrying a whole lotta painful baggage too and it's probably hard to sort the emotional response from the oral tradition or historical accounts.

(Yeah yeah, I know the adage: history is written in the eyes of the oppressors. Except there are plenty of other ways to get the news...by artifacts, linguistics and by oral tradition. So you read the lines and your ears and somewhere between the two, are the multicolored facets of truth.

Maybe you never meant to flame-mail me or the group but it sure came across that way, hence the flurry of detailed emails on my part...I was trying to cover the angles and keep a neutral historical stance. Not easy when you were playing fast and loose with facts. Unfortunately arrogance combined with a lack of knowledge is not a useful virtue.

I too grew up in the oral tradition, but I actually was raised (24/7) by my Bantry Irish grandmother so I got a lot of information than I bargained for. Probably why I became a poet was to give a home to all the stories.

Later, I studied Celtic history on my own; only recently did I take formal classes at UCB and SFSU. So I do know both sides of the "historicity" argument. That's why I took the time to write to you to begin with. (Bad, I know to end with a preposition! But it's the Irish syntax coming through.)

And in my family, the English Protestant Crown, especially Cromwell was the antiChrist. (For good reason too, if you knew your history at all...) I had a redheaded Scottish granduncle Michael Ward whose family were originally Donegal Irish (he was a childhood playmate to the Royal Family at Balmoral) and I've got loads o Scottish-American cousins. (The redheads are Irish.)

Our family ceilis in the basement of our old Victorian in SF included Scottish, Irish and Jewish families. Sure politics were discussed. I remember bagpipes skirling, jars of whiskey slammed down on the tables during heated discussions but racial intolerance was never allowed.

I also live with a Scotsman so I know a fair amount of Scottish history and current cultural traditions from that oral tradition too... His response to the gist of your emails was "it's pointless conversing with people like her. I grew up with them. They won't change."

To teach tolerance (and compassion) remains forefront in my book. My grandmother taught me to not harbor grudge against the English or Scots for what their governments did as they were but vessels of the Crown. She did not want me to carry the seeds of bigotry within me...to the next generation. Dear K, do not carry the feud forth.

I don't know how my family managed to survive the Famine but they did survive without having to resort to becoming Protestant in the process... Your slamming Irish Catholics is a bit of a sore spot.

We've really had our fill of it. Did you know some Irish Catholics were fed in Quaker and Protestant soup kitchens IF they gave up their religion? Others chose to eat grass instead and starved to death with green-rimmed mouths. Remember that when you "wear the plaid" and drink green beer to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, a Catholic holiday.

Remember the 2 million Irish who starved to death or were lost on the slave coffin ships destined for Barbados and beyond—all because of the faith they were born into. Those who survived the voyage were sold as slaves to breed more slaves because they were considered sub-human by the Crown. New World Order. It's a pity you chose an anti-Catholic stance in your emails. It reminds me of the xenophobic Scots-American narrowmindedness that led to the foundation of the KKK.

Take a look at how the Irish were treated and depicted by the English and the Americans in the 1860s, by contrast, the Scots fared a whole lot better at the hands of the Anglos. They were not routinely called "white niggers" and "human monkeys" by the British and American press.

I have a blog I recently wrote on the subject after Arby's released the Irish dancing chimps ad, which was, at best, culturally insensitive. Shall I post the link?

My grandmother was spat upon and ridiculed for her ancestry, she was refused a seat on a trollycar and there she was, 9 months pregnant while seated passengers hurled racial slurs against the Irish Catholics breeding like cats. She cried. Her water broke, her firstborn arrived to a world of racial animosity.

As to the Highlanders, they were often Catholic as Protestantism was considered a Lowland religion... Do you know anything about when they became Protestant (I'm assuming this here because of your emails...) And how did they survive the Clearances? Did they emigrate when sheep became more valuable than a human life?

Red-headed step-children aside, I'm puzzled by the comment against the Irish as betrayers of the Scots? I'm fairly conversant with Celtic history and I'd love to know what it's referring to.

Was there really that much dislike for the Irish in your family? Wow. My flabber is gasted. Where did that angst come from and why? What happened in your family that caused such inter-racial animosity? That's how it sounded from your emails.

If so, then I gotta ask, so why are you part of the Irish in CA group? Maybe your interests might be better served with a Scottish group? Although I'm positively certain that you'd get just as much flack there as here for your attitudes.

Or stick around! Another idea would be to collect your own folklore from yourself and then trace the origins of the root myths we carry within that make us all so unique.

I would add that racism and religious intolerance are a result of an incomplete education— enough ammo to fight the "other" but no clear understanding of the larger facts and context. How gangs start... Remember "Birth of a Nation"?

Where does that intolerance come from? Each arriving immigrant group, subjugated by neo-colonialism at home, practices racial hatred on the next arriving group what was practiced upon them... The Scots-Irish intolerance upon the Irish, the Irish intolerance upon the Blacks, African Americans upon the Hispanic, and so on. The model is at hand.

Interestingly, I was once interviewed for a poetry position at UC Berkeley for the African American Studies Dept. (of all things) and one of the questions I was asked, how I would design a course around (Irish) neo-colonialism in the Caribbean. I had to talk fast from the hip. Didn't get the job but it sparked my interest in the stories of "lost" multicultural nations, the Irish-Black families of the Barbados, Monseurat, Trinidad—Irish-Cherokee, Seminole, even Creole-Acadian nations, etc. More than one Trail of Tears.

One time in the '70s, an African American family called us from New Orleans, saying they were related. We said no, regretfully, thinking both sides of out family had only just arrived in 1904 and 1912. Turns out, after the Famine, some of the Reilly family did make it to the Big Easy and to Puerto Rico.

We only just found out a couple of years ago when my uncle went to Puerto Rico and saw a portrait of the governor, his namesake, most likely a great-great granduncle. And now we're sorry we didn't have the foresight to take that New Orleans family's phone number way back when.

I am no closer to understanding what is meant by the phrase: redheaded stepchildren, other than it's clearly a racial slur, meant to hurt, and as such, I can only hope that you'll someday have the ability to step back and see the larger picture—and see the false syllogism of your argument.


Note Bene: this was an email I wrote in rebuttal to a series of rather bigoted flame-mails posted by a young American woman of Scottish ancestry in our Irish in California Yahoo group. The exchanges had me going back and reverifying history to the point that I had material for several blogworthy posts. I did not post her emails as they were rather awful. I tried hard not to flame her, but tried to reach her via fairly neutral language. To no avail. So some good work came out of it. I tried to be gentle, and educational, but she'd have none of it. She was pretty attached to her bigotry.


See also It's PADDY not Patty —a tongue-in-cheeky spoof on St Patrick

St Patrick was a Strathclyde Briton

Letter to Dear Abby on St. Patrick—written before the advent of the internet. Scholarship done with real books. Alors! It took me forever.

THE VIKING IRISH REDHEAD GENE MYTH—my most popular blogpost—19,000 hits and counting) which ultimately was derived from the Scottish Lassie's spiteful flame-mails.

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