Historical Figures

Contemporary political figures were also fair game for storytellers. Popular priests or unpopular landlords inspired stories that the people could really relate to. Two of the most popular subjects for stories were Daniel O'Connell, the Irish Catholics' greatest hero, and Oliver Cromwell, their wickedest enemy.

Another famous subject for stories was Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), a great storyteller in his own right. Swift was notorious for using his biting wit to destroy enemies. A true story about him deals with his last will — he left aside money to build a hospital near Dublin for “ideots and lunaticks” because “No Nation wanted it so much.”

Daniel O'Connell's Hat

Daniel O'Connell helped bring political emancipation to Ireland's Catholic population in the early nineteenth century (See Chapter 8). His adoring Irish fans called him “the Liberator” and told many stories about his intelligence, daring, and quick wits.

One story tells about his first days in the British Parliament. It was customary for members of Parliament to remove their hats when they entered the building. O'Connell, however, was particularly fond of his hat, so when he entered for the first time he kept it on, explaining that he had a bad headache. The next day he complained of the same headache, and on the third day he kept his head bowed down the whole time to show the pain in his head.

On the fourth day he marched into Parliament with his head held high, with the hat still on it. Everyone could see that he no longer had a headache, so they asked him to remove the hat. He pointed out the custom that whatever stands for three days in Parliament becomes law, so he kept the hat on. For the rest of his career in Parliament, he wore a hat while everyone else went around bareheaded.

Oliver Cromwell

The favorite bad guy for Irish stories was Oliver Cromwell, the British Protestant general who authorized wholesale destruction in his 1649 Irish campaign (See Chapter 7). From roasting priests to demolishing castles, he inflicted as much mischief in Irish stories as did the worst of the wee folk. It was common knowledge to some storytellers that Cromwell was the son of the devil, or at least a good friend of his. Other stories talk about how the devil himself came to claim Cromwell's soul when he died.

For the Irish storyteller, Cromwell served two major functions: he provided a helpful plot device as the character that everyone loathed; and speaking ill of him allowed the storytellers to express their own resentment of Britain's treatment of Ireland.

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