Irishmen in Connemara, Indians in Manhattan.

‘Soon, a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.’

This is one of the most frequently cited quotations in books about the Great Famine, and is used to illustrate the attitude of a large section of British public opinion to the Irish. It is said to be part of an editorial in the Times during the Famine which recommended that English and Scottish farmers be allowed to take up land in the west of Ireland, and it is often glossed with the observation that the newspaper was ‘exultant’ about this.

I was researching a paper recently and decided to find the original context of the quotation. After all, it was possible (though not very likely) that the Times was lamenting this state of affairs. However, none of the books gave a reference to the Times itself – they always referred to other books. The Times has been fully digitised and is available through the NUIG library. It should have been the work of a minute to track down the editorial.

Instead, I discovered that the quotation doesn’t exist anywhere in the entire history of the Times, from 1785 to the present. I tried variations of the wording, of the spellings (Connemara, Conemara, Connamara etc.), but to no avail. Between 1846 and 1850, for example, ‘Manhattan’ occurs four times, each time in the shipping news. There were fifty results in the same period for Connemara, but none of them resembled in any way the quotation.

At this point, I decided to investigate further, and I soon found that my discovery was not a new one. There is a very elegant and comprehensive account of the origins of the phrase here. It’s a website that annotates the work of Joyce, since a similar phrase is quoted in Ulysses. Highly recommended.

 

 – Niall Ó Ciosáin

 

 

 

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