by Christopher Winn
Things I Never Knew About Ireland
There was an awful lot I never knew about Ireland before I went there to research my book – I never knew that the center of Ireland was made up largely of peat bog and that peat provides 20% of Irish homes with their heat. Or that the west coast of Ireland is possibly the most beautiful place on earth – I had the best swim of my life, alone in a calm, clear, warm turquoise sea off the coast of Galway – or that the drive along the Antrim coast from Larne to Portrush is perhaps the most spectacular in Europe, or that Newgrange burial chamber in the Boyne valley is 500 years older than the Pyramids, the oldest solar observatory in the world, and that to witness the sun flooding into the central chamber at dawn on the winter solstice makes any other life experience superfluous.
There were some things I thought I did know about Ireland which proved to be true. Guinness tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else, there is no better place than an Irish pub for hearing fantastical stories about Ireland, Irish music is addictive, and it rains a lot in Ireland, which is why Ireland sparkles forty shades of green, as Johnny Cash sang, and is known as the Emerald Isle – something I never knew was that the first person to so describe Ireland was physician, patriot and poet Dr William Drennan, in his poem ‘When Erin First Rose’, in 1795. The rain also renders the air so soft and moist and soothing that it wraps itself around you and makes you drowsy and contented, which is why things undeniably move at a slower, more agreeable pace in Ireland.
I also knew that Ireland was the nearest European country to America, Achill Island off County Mayo being a mere 2,507 miles from Hamlin in Maine. But while I knew that there was a well documented connection between the people and history of Ireland and America I never knew how close, almost spiritual, it was.
For instance, any Irishman will tell you after a pint of Guinness that it was an Irishman who discovered America, nearly 1000 years before Columbus. In the middle of the sixth century St Brendan the Navigator climbed a mountain on the Dingle Peninsula, a sliver of land on Ireland’s west coast that points across the ocean to America, and through the sea spray saw the Garden of Eden. With a score of companions he set out in a currach to find the Promised Land and after numerous adventures, fighting off fire-breathing sea horses, being pelted with rocks by giants and serenaded by birds singing psalms, finding Judas Iscariot clinging to a rock in the middle of the sea and celebrating Mass on a whale’s back, they discovered a beauteous land of lush vegetation, with ‘grapes as big as apples’ and ‘a perfume like that of a house filled with pomegranate.’ That sounds as good a description of America as any…. St Brendan’s story was certainly enough to encourage Columbus to sail off in search of this paradise.
Likewise, I never knew that so many people from Ireland were so intimately involved in the founding and early history of America. Flame-haired Hugh O’Conor from County Roscommon, known as Captain Red, descendant of the last High Kings of Ireland, left Ireland for Spain, became a Colonel in the Spanish army, was sent to defend New Spain (now the South West US) and built the presidio of San Augustine de Tucson, which grew into the city of Tucson, Arizona.
I never knew that the Great Seal of America was designed by an Irishman – permanent secretary to the Continental Congress Charles Thomson from County Derry, who emigrated to America when he was 11 years old – he also wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, before it was refined by Thomas Jefferson.
I never knew that the print workshop where John Dunlap worked his apprenticeship can still be seen in Strabane, County Tyrone. He emigrated to Philadelphia and printed the first copies of the Declaration of Independence.
I never knew that 3 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence were born in Ireland, George Taylor in Ulster, James Smith in Dublin and Matthew Thornton in Derry. At least 9 more signatories were Irish Americans, including John Hancock, President of the Congress and the first to sign, whose family were from County Down, and Charles Carroll the Signer, whose grandfather was Charles Carroll the Settler from County Offaly. Charles Carroll the Signer was the only Catholic to sign and was also the longest living signer and the last to die, in 1832, at the age of 95.
I never knew that George Clinton, first Governor and ‘Father of New York’, Vice President to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, was the son of Irish parents from County Longford or that they came over to America on the same boat as the ancestors of Tom and Frank McLaury, gunned down by Wyatt Earp at the OK Corrall.
I knew that 22 of the Presidents of the United States, that is half of them, had Irish roots, but I never knew that so many of those presidents with Irish roots were pioneers in some field – 7th president Andrew Jackson, ‘Old Hickory’, whose parents emigrated from County Antrim just two years before he was born, was the first president to ride a train and survived the first assassination attempt on a president, 17th president Andrew Johnson, who grandfather emigrated from near Larne in 1750 was the first president to be impeached (he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote), 22nd and 24th president Grover Cleveland, the only president to be elected for non-consecutive terms and who had Irish roots on his mother’s side, was the first and only president to be married in the White House and the first to have a baby born there, 25th president William McKinley, after whom America’s highest mountain is named and whose grandfather came from Balleymoney in County Antrim, was the first president to ride in an automobile, 26th president Theodore Roosevelt, who gave his name to the Teddy Bear and whose maternal ancestors came from Larne, was the youngest ever president, 35th president John F. Kennedy, whose family famously came from County Wexford, was the first Catholic president and the first sitting president to visit Ireland, 37th president Richard Nixon, whose mother’s family came from Carrickfergus, was the first and only president to resign from office and 44th president Barack Obama, whose great great great grandfather was a cobbler’s son from Moneygall, County Offaly, was the first African American president.
And I never knew that the White House was designed by an Irishman, James Hoban of Desart in County Kilkenny, and is based on Leinster House in Dublin, then home to the Dukes of Leinster and now home to the Irish parliament.
But now I know why New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade, first held in 1762 even before the Declaration of Independence, was the first St Patrick’s Day parade ever and is now the biggest St Patrick’s Day parade in the world.
Christopher Winn is the author of numerous “I Never Knew That About” books, including I NEVER KNEW THAT ABOUT IRELAND, covering the people and places of the British Isles (as well as New York). He is a writer, quiz master, and producer for theater and television who has written for many of England’s most prestigious papers. He lives in London with his wife, who is also his illustrator.