The Unlucky Irish

Michiganders are some of the worst people when it comes to complaining about the weather. Every winter in Michigan is like being trapped in a dark refrigerator for 6 months. Winter sucks and I definitely contribute my fair share of whining: “I haven’t seen the sun for a week, I’m moving to Hawaii!,” “If I have to scrape ice off my car one more time I’m going to just drive with my head out the window!,” “I’m sick of soup but its the only thing that keeps me from hypothermia!,” etc. Even sex sucks because it takes a half hour to remove all the layers of clothing; nothing gets me turned on more than seeing my wife strip off her seasonal-big-fluffy-bright-pink socks. Most people would agree that Michigan winters are worthy of complaints but Michiganders take weather misgivings to whole other level. Once the snow begins to thaw, the pink-socks get retired, and the sun begins to shine, Michigan becomes the most beautiful place in the summer. Here’s the thing though, Michigan fricks still complain about the heat, humidity, stickiness, brightness, and bugs. I mention all of this complaining because I just read a book that makes Michigan seem like a paradise no matter what season it is. Hungry for Home: A Journey from the Edge of Ireland by Cole Moreton tells the story of the people who once lived on the inhospitable Blasket Islands off the coast of Ireland.

The Blasket Islands are a collection of six islands that are situated off the west coast of Ireland (click here for map). The original settlers of these islands were monks seeking solitude in the medieval ages; eventually more inhabitants would make their way in pursuit of safety from threatening land owners on the mainland. The population of the Blaskets at its peak was 160 people. The islands were very hard to live on because there was little natural shelter, few trees, insignificant arable land, and extremely harsh weather. During the winter, the Blasket Islands were pounded by unrelenting rain storms which made it impossible to cross the channel to the main land. Because the island was such a harsh environment, the community was isolated from the changing politics of Ireland and hence preserved their original Gaelic customs. Irish was the spoken language on the island and it was one of the last places on earth where Gaelic was used in its ancient form. For this reason, in the early 20th century many language scholars visited the island to document the islanders dialect and customs to preserve the culture. Beginning in the mid 1800’s, as a result of the potato famine, a large portion of Irishmen began to immigrate to the United States. The inhabitants of the Blasket Islands followed suit and by the 1940’s the island only had half of its peak population.

The dwindled population was primarily made up of older men and women who were too poor or too stubborn to leave their inhospitable lifestyle. Few youth remained and without their strength it was almost impossible to do the daily work required to survive on the harsh landscape. In the 40’s, extremely-severe winters forced the inhabitants to send out emergency messages for food and many died because of malnutrition. The last remaining islanders were removed by the government in 1953 to a nearby settlement on the mainland; close enough to still see the Blasket Islands but safe from future threats of starvation. There were only 22 inhabitants left in 1953 during the evacuation and almost all of them were extremely relieved to be getting off the cursed island. Today, the Blasket Islands are a popular tourist destination during the short summer season. I thought this story was amazing because it made me appreciate where I live. Compared to the Blaskets, Michigan is a paradise. I have food, shelter, health-care, security, and a great community. As the winter approaches we should realize that there are places much colder, darker, and inhospitable. Think of these places and find contentment-I guess those fluffy-pink socks aren’t all that bad 🙂

The Labor of Adversity

Happy Labor Day everybody! Today most of us are eating a bounty of grilled food, spending time with family, and catching up on well needed rest. In honor of Labor Day, I wanted to write a post about my most recent book All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick Macdonald. This book is a memoir which tells the author’s story of growing up in the south Boston projects during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The area he specifically grew up in was referred to as “Southie” and was primarily inhabited by poor white-Irish Americans. The name Southie was given to this area because of its geography and because of its long history of racial tensions. In the 70’s, the city of Boston decided that Southie needed more integration and subsequently started busing black students into neighborhood schools. This led to riots, murders, and a host of drop outs by Southie teens who didn’t want to deal with dangerous race wars in between class hours. In addition to school integration, Boston began to give Southie housing to immigrants which added fuel to the already racially hostile neighborhood. The race riots and integration protests eventually subsided but the tight-knit Irish community had one big problem that would never go away. That big problem was Whitey Bulger. Whitey ran a drug syndicate that brought more cocaine per capita into Southie than any other neighborhood in the country. This cocaine led to a plethora of drug related violence, deaths, and jail time for all age groups in the Southie projects. The author grew up with 10 brothers and sisters who were all raised by his single mother. The book is full of tragic stories about his siblings and their involvement with illegal activities. In the end, four of his siblings died because of murder, suicide, or negligence by the healthcare system. Sadly, all members of the Southie neighborhood directly knew of someone who was affected by drugs. The ironic thing about Southie was that people refused to talk or snitch to the police and most upheld Whitey Bulger as a celebrity. The FBI would eventually pursue Whitey and force him to flee his beloved Boston. The hardships of this book are quite depressing but the author decided to stay in Southie and would lead support groups for those who had lost loved ones and bring out the truth of Southie’s violent inner workings.

The story of Southie is a sad realization that there are places in America where kids and families are constantly surrounded by hate, violence, and addiction. The beautiful thing about America is that people have opportunities to move up and out of neighborhoods like these and make better lives. The author of this book lived in Southie but chose a different path then his drug dealer friends.  I commend all those people who have worked hard to overcome adversity and they are the ones I will think of this Labor Day. No matter what your current condition is, you can work to improve yourself and your environment. I have been blessed with a very privileged life and I know it is easy for me to say these things; T\that is why I loved this book because MacDonald is a perfect example of someone who lived through the worst and came out of it with his head held high. This Labor Day let’s assess our own situation, work towards a better future, and always believe that we can make the best out of any circumstance.