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Highlanders preparing to march on Toronto


The Introduction begins:

I was an eyewitness of the scene,” the stonemason Donald Macleod wrote. Strong parties of men “commenced setting fire to the dwellings till about three hundred houses were in flames, the people striving to remove the sick, the helpless, before the re should reach them. The cries of women and children—the roaring of cattle—the barking of dogs—the smoke of the fire—the soldiers—it required to be seen to be believed!” Macleod was writing of a Clearance, a forced eviction of families living in a glen or a valley in the Scottish Highlands. He was describing events of 1814, the Year of the Burnings, as they unfolded in Strathnaver, a wide river valley in the Highland county of Sutherland.
The man supervising the destruction, acting for the aristocratic landlord, had already ordered his men to burn the hill-grazing areas so there would be no food for cattle and the people would have no choice but to leave. When this failed, he escalated the action to the destruction and burning of villages. He had the roofs of houses pulled down and timbers set ablaze to prevent rebuilding. In the month of May alone, he dispossessed and rendered homeless at least 430 people.
Those 430 farmers were among the approximately 200,000 Highlanders driven from their ancestral lands during the Clearances, with estimates varying from 170,750 to more than 300,000. To argue that the Clearances were the result of the inexorable advance of capitalism is to ignore the cultural targeting of Gaelic- speaking, Roman Catholic, clan-oriented Highlanders. . . .

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Ken McGoogan
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FIVE STARS times seven for Dead Reckoning


Dead Reckoning has been available in softcover for nine months. How's the book doing over on Amazon?
For no good reason, I suddenly found myself wondering. Turns out we're talking  FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE seven times over. 
Surely that's cause for celebration . . .  as in this pic from a few years back at the John Rae plaque? Below, the details (slightly tightened): 
1. I have read about everything in print regarding the Franklin expedition and this is the best so far. Critical to use the observations of the native people. Does not answer all the questions as some just can not be answered at this time due to lack of information. Looks like there will always be some mystery about Franklin. Essential for placing Franklin, Rae, etc. in context.
2. Great book!
Nothing to not like.
3. High Quality! Perfect.
4. At last, credit where credit is due
In this, his fifth and by far best book on Arctic history, Ken McGoogan examines an aspect that has been largely ignored: the contributions of the indigenous peoples to the many expeditions. At last, credit is being given where credit is due. I doubt that very many people, outside of the First Nations and scholarly communities, have any idea who these personalities are. Now the general public gets to meet Thanadelthur, Matonabbee, John Sakeouse, Akaitcho, William Ouligbuck Senior and Junior, Thomas Mistegan, Hans Henrik Suersaq, Tookoolito and Ebierbing, Tulugaq, Minik and Albert One-eye, as well as modern Inuit such as historian Louie Kamookak.
In an even handed manner, McGoogan also acknowledges those western explorers who recognized the value of native experience and adopted their ways, including Samuel Hearne, John Rae, Elisha Kent Kane, Charles Francis Hall, Frederick Schwatka and Roald Amundsen. Those expecting a politically correct, revisionist treatment of the subject will be sorely disappointed; this is a clear eyed, level headed assessment of lessons learned and passed on by the indigenous peoples to the strangers passing through, and the outcomes of the use the latter made of them, good or ill. . . . .
Ken McGoogan has presented an insightful and unbiased record of the exploration of the Far North from 1576 right up to the present, highlighting the tremendous contributions made by the native peoples to those efforts.
5. Comprehensive history of Arctic exploration.
I found this book to be quite interesting and well written. Not having heard of author Ken McGoogan before, I was unsure what the quality of the writing would be; I was very pleasantly surprised. The book jacket summarizes the book well. If Arctic exploration or the history of the far north at all interests you, I can recommend "Dead Reckoning".
I have my local newspaper to thank for printing a book review of this along with their recommended books for 2018 about Alaska and the North. Thank you, "Fairbanks Daily News-Miner" for the tip, the book should be a winner for my book club!
6. Fabulous story that ties all the loose ends of the Franklin Expedition together!!
7. Good read. Thoroughly enjoyed

Ken McGoogan
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Open Letter to Calgary writers & musicians


Hi, folks.
I know I've been remiss. I have failed to keep properly in touch. And for that I apologize.
The other day, someone from California went asking after me at the Calgary Herald. Folks there had no idea. All things considered -- remember the strike? -- I guess that is not surprising.
But I write to draw your attention to a book called Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town by that itinerant Calgarian Gillian Turnbull. It's published by a small publisher (Eternal Cavalier Press) and might easily escape your notice. May I urge you not to let that happen?
Sure, Sonic Booms is a niche book. But YOU ARE that niche!
And this is also a landmark book -- one that celebrates the Calgary music scene of the past twenty years in the context of your province's social and political evolution. I follow from afar, but Sonic Booms makes everything vivid.
Gillian (all right, yes, we are acquainted) speaks as insider on every front. She is the former editor of Canadian Folk Music Magazine, has a PhD in ethnomusicology and co-founded the Wide Cut Weekend Roots Music Festival in your town. Most exciting of all, she knows how to write. She brings personal experience and voice to what evolves into a driving narrative. And along the way, she offers evocative
portraits of key figures who have hung tough through the lean years, some of whom I remember fondly (hey, Tom Phillips!).
This is not the place to attempt a definitive review. But here's hoping that when awards season rolls around, folks at the WGA will take a peek at this book.
For the rest, my only regret is that Gillian picks up the story a couple of years after I passed through on the periphery of Calgary's music scene. Heck, maybe that's for the best. You decide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeuGZkSNPPQ.



Ken McGoogan
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Celtic Life Meets Most Hated Man in Scotland


The July-August issue of Celtic Life International is turning up at newsstands around the world. It features an excerpt from my forthcoming book Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada. Set it up this way: 
In his bestsellers How the Scots Invented Canada and Celtic Lightning, Ken McGoogan wrote about how, in the 18thand 19th centuries, Scotland (and Ireland) sent Canada numerous talented, high-energy figures who led the way in forging a nation. In his forthcoming book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, Ken turns to the common people, and particularly to those who came to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances. He tells the story of those forgotten Scots who, frequently betrayed by their own chieftains and evicted from their ancestral lands, found themselves battling hardship, hunger, and hostility in a New World they could scarcely have imagined . . . .

Chapter 16: The Most Hated Man in Scotland

In the mid-nineteenth century, Colonel John Gordon lived in the fabulous Cluny Castle in Aberdeenshire. He owned six slave plantations in the West Indies and was said to be “the richest commoner” in Britain. Gordon became “the most hated man in Scotland” not because he was a slave-owner, and not because he was wealthy, but because he stayed that way by ruthlessly squeezing the lifeblood out of poor tenant farmers eking out a living on his massive land holdings—estates that included, as of 1838, the entire island of Barra. . . .
Enter Colonel John Gordon, who acquired not the entire estate but the three outer islands, where a potato famine began taking a toll in the mid-1840s, reducing people to penury. The Reverend Norman MacLeod wrote: “The scene of wretchedness which we witnessed, as we entered on the estate of Col. Gordon, was deplorable, nay, heart-rending. On the beach the whole population of the country seemed to be met, gathering cockles . . . I never witnessed such countenances—starvation on many faces—the children with their melancholy looks, big looking knees, shriveled legs, hollow eyes, swollen-like bellies—God help them, I never did witness such wretchedness.”
By 1848, the rents paid by these people had earned Gordon a return of less than 66 percent on his investment. Meanwhile, he had been compelled to expend £8,000 in famine relief. The colonel had not attained his splendiferous lifestyle by letting this sort of thing continue. He acted, and today one result of his handiwork can be discovered on the east side of Barra at an archaeological site that was once a thriving village.

You won’t find “Balnabodach” listed in the guidebooks or even on maps of the Outer Hebrides. But if on Barra you drive seven kilometres north out of Castlebay on the one-lane highway that encircles the island, the A888, you should be able to spot a series of ruins on the eastern side of the road, down the hill as you approach Loch Obe. You may have to scramble a bit (think trial and error), but you can make your way through marshy ground to stone ruins that once were Barra blackhouses. To wander among them, careful not to do damage, is to get as close as anyone can to those who lived here once upon a time.
Here, along a freshwater stream that tumbles down the hill to the loch, people have lived off and on for centuries. The loch connects to the open sea by a narrow, four-hundred-metre channel that once afforded excellent protection against sea raiders. Peat deposits provided fuel for fires, and cows and sheep could graze on the gentler slopes. In 1996, according to an Isle of Barra website, archaeologists discovered a barbed flint arrowhead dating from around 2,000 BC. And people who lived here during the Iron Age, between 200 BC and AD 200, left nearly 250 pieces of pottery, as well as flint tools and pumice stones used for scrubbing animal skins.
By the time of Scotland’s first census, in 1841, Balnabodach was home to eight households and twenty-six people. They lived in Barra blackhouses built during the previous century, with thick walls and single doors in one long side. Families made do with an earthen floor and cooked and slept around the fireplace at one end. The largest house, designated House A, once had a wooden dresser in one corner. Here, the family displayed their finest pottery, which comprised brightly coloured “sponge ware” from the Scottish mainland and crockery from Stoke and Newcastle in England.
Archaeologists found an abundance of bowls, useful for eating broth, gruel and porridge. They turned up a clay pipe, some glass beads and copper buttons, an iron chisel and knife, and a sharpening stone. They also found a copper thimble outside the front door and could imagine a “woman of the household sitting on a sunny summer day, mending an item of clothing and dropping her thimble between the cracks in the stone.” In an atypical flight of fancy, they surmised that the woman might well have been Anne Macdugald or her sister-in-law, Flory Macdugald.
This they extrapolated from the 1841 census, when Hector Macdugald and his family probably lived in House A, which had a small room added onto one end not as a byre for animals but for human habitation. While most of the households were listed as crofters, one was a cottar (who farmed another tenant’s land) and another a pauper—eighty-year-old Neil Macdugald. These families kept a few sheep and did some fishing, but mainly they subsisted by growing potatoes and barley.
In the mid-to-late 1840s, the horrendous potato famine that devastated Ireland also wreaked havoc in the Outer Hebrides. It starved Islanders on Barra and South Uist and, less acceptably still, rendered them unable to pay their rent. Colonel John Gordon decided to solve this problem by evicting the wretched crofters and shipping them to Canada. He identified Balnabodach as one of the Barra townships to be cleared and in 1851 turned loose his hired thugs.

According to oral tradition, these well-paid hooligans forced the tenantry into boats in the safe harbour. One young woman was out milking the family cow by the loch when Gordon’s agents dragged her off with nothing but the clothes on her back. A few people ran into the hills and were hunted down by dogs. They were hauled aboard in handcuffs.
A Protestant minister named Beatson led the evictions in Barra and the tiny island of Mingulay, which were Roman Catholic. An eyewitness named Roderick MacNeil, remembering in the present tense, described Beatson as “the most vigilant and assiduous officer Colonel Gordon has. He may be seen in Castle Bay, the principal anchorage in Barra, whenever a sail is hoisted, directing his men like a gamekeeper with his hounds, in case any of the doomed Barra men should escape.” One such man “took shelter on an Arran boat which Beatson boarded in a fury, demanding his surrender. The master [one John Crawford] lifted a hand-spike and threatened to split the minister’s skull, man of God or no, if he did not get ashore with his dogs.”
MacNeil, evicted from Mingulay, had never been the same since “my people were scattered, some of them in Australia, some in Canada, and some mouldering in the dust. Oh, the turns of the hard world! Many a trick does it play, and so it was with me. My new house was burned over my head, and I burned my hands in rescuing my dear little children. Oh, the suffering of the poor folk, the terrible time that was! The land was taken from us though we were not a penny in debt, and all the lands of the township were given to a Lowland farmer. He had always wished to have them, and he was not content until he got them.”
Small boats ferried the Barra people to a ship called the Admiral, which then sailed forty kilometres north to Lochboisdale in South Uist. There, on August 11, 1851, a different agent—the hot-tempered John Fleming—invited local tenants to a compulsory public meeting, threatening absentees with a severe fine (forty shillings). The meeting devolved into a surprise press-ganging, as thugs forced people into boats and then onto the ship which lay waiting to carry them to Canada. Forget gathering possessions: they were going aboard here and now.
Two days before, Fleming had written from South Uist to an emigration officer in Quebec. For the last three weeks, he had been “superintending the emigration of about 1,500 souls from this country to Canada.” He had just learned “with regret” that due to the unexpected illness of Colonel Gordon, nobody had previously notified anybody in Quebec.
Fleming wrote that he had already sent two ships—the Brooksby and the Montezuma filled with passengers in late July, and the Perthshire on August 5. He expected “the Admiral to be cleared out a few days hence.” He described the South Uist emigrants as having worked “at draining, ditching, road making, &c., and I trust they may be advantageously employed when they reach Canada in similar work, or at railway operations. . . . Of the Barra people, part have found employment at similar work, and part have supported themselves as fishermen, of which they have considerable skill.”
Fleming noted that a thousand people had been sent out two years before, “and send home encouraging accounts to their friends here.” Colonel Gordon was providing a free passage, clothing and shoes, and hoped that “these that are now leaving the land of their fathers may earn a competency in the land of their adoption.”
Two resources enable us to envision the truth of these events. The first, a relatively recent study, “The Jaws of Sheep” by James A. Stewart Jr., was published in Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium for 1998. The other we have already encountered: Gloomy Memories by Donald Macleod. In the 1850s, Macleod had emigrated to Woodstock, Ontario, some 150 kilometres west of Toronto. Whenever he travelled between Woodstock and Toronto, at about the halfway point he would pass through the town of Dundas. There he interviewed numerous former Islanders, survivors of Gordon’s 1851 Clearances.
 “Hear the sobbing, sighing and throbbing,” he wrote later. “See the confusion, hear the noise, the bitter weeping and bustle. Hear mothers and children asking fathers and husbands, where are we going? hear the reply, Chan eil fios againn—we know not.” One eyewitness, Catherine Macphee of Lochdar, near the north end of South Uist, described the evictions as “loathsome work.” She told Macleod: “I have seen big strong men, champions of the countryside, the stalwarts of the world, being bound on Loch Boisdale quay and cast into the ship as would be done to a batch of horses or cattle, the bailiff and the ground officers and the policemen gathered behind them in pursuit.”
(To read the rest of this excerpt, pick up the July-August issue of Celtic Life International. The book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, is now available for pre-order. It will launch in September.)
Ken McGoogan
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Why Highlanders fled their ancestral lands



Left: HarperCollins; right: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-250-37
Numerous books have explored the Highland Clearances (the forced mass eviction of tenants from Scotland’s Highlands and western islands, mainly to turn land to sheep pasture), which began around 1760 and lasted a century. Many more have treated the arrival of these Highlanders in pre-Confederation Canada, both east and west. Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, explains Ken McGoogan, an author and Fellow of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, intertwines the two stories. Half unfolds in Scotland, half in Canada. Those evicted Highlanders who emigrated after being driven from their ancestral homelands were a marginalized minority.
The sad irony is that, in some locations in Canada, these refugees displaced Indigenous peoples whose way of life depended on wilderness and wide-open spaces. The following chapter of the book, “Creating Red River Colony,” sets up the clash between past and future.
Read an excerpt at cangeo.caFlight of the Highlanders will be available through HarperCollins, in Canadian bookstores and on Amazon and other online retailers on September 17, 2019.

The above is a JPEG from the latest Fellows Journal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. To read a version with links that work -- and a myriad of newsworthy items -- click here.
Ken McGoogan
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Primatologist to lead Madagascar expedition




Toronto-based primatologist-explorer Travis Steffens has been sorting gear for a five-person expedition in Madagascar. Steffens, the executive director of Planet Madagascar, a non-profit organization, will lead a 220-kilometre conservation-oriented trek around Ankarafantsika National Park starting June 28. 
He will fly into the island-country in about one week to make final preparations. Over fifteen days on the ground, the team will hike through rough country along the perimeter of Ankarafantsika National Park. This is a flag expedition under the auspices of the Explorers' Club. 
Steffens, who did his PhD research in the park, and who is incidentally my son-in-law (full disclosure), says he is “very excited to find some lemurs.” The trek will “provide baseline information on species occurrence,” he says, and ascertain local perceptions of forest loss with a view to informing decision making. It will also increase awareness about conservation around the park.
Steffens hopes to introduce Planet Madagascar to people in the most remote communities – to provide information on fire management and share practices that Planet Madagascar has implemented in other areas of the park. 

“We will be setting up a way to follow along,” Steffens says. “So stay tuned.”
The expedition is funded by Primate Conservation Inc., Lemur Conservation Action Fund (SOS – Save Our Species) and conservationist Duane Sharman. Two of the five team members are Malagasy residents and employees of Planet Madagascar Association. 


Ken McGoogan
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The Irish show the way to Canadiana


Fourteen years ago, Canadian authors were producing 27 per cent of English-language books sold in Canada. Today we account for 13 per cent. That is not a misprint: Canadians who write books in English produce only 13 per cent of all books purchased in Canada. Don't take my word for it. Check out this story from the Globe and Mail, which compares extensive surveys from 2005 and 2018. Am I the only one who finds that drop alarming? More than 50 per cent! Globe writer Kate Taylor identifies causes and suggests that the federal government should get involved and I'm on board with that. But surely it's time for individuals who care about what's happening to get active. I'm thinking that writers, publishers, booksellers and serious readers should launch a campaign to follow the Irish model. OK, it's not just Irish. The Scots and the Aussies are also out front on this. But above we see an image of an independent bookseller in Kilkenny, Ireland.
To the right, we discover a wall of books near the front of the shop. Note one thing: these are all Irish books: Irish interest, Irish history, Irish biography, Irish literature and poetry, Irish travel. Why, it's whole separate section with a national focus. If in Canada our booksellers were encouraged to emulate that approach, we could support them in developing a section called, oh, I don't know: Canadiana? Yup. It's high time for us to go Back to the Future. 


Ken McGoogan
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The escape of the beauteous Alice Le Kyteler


In 1324, Alice Le Kyteler -- original owner of this Kilkenny inn -- was accused with various accomplices of witchcraft. Beauteous and clever, the daughter of a Norman banker, Alice had survived four husbands and amassed no small fortune. All this excited the jealousy of powerful contemporaries. Alice was tried, found guilty, and condemned to be whipped through the streets and then burnt alive at the stake. She escaped this fate through the intervention of "certain of the nobilitie" who conveyed her to England, where she disappeared. Her maid, Petronella, enjoyed no such happy flight. Condemned as one of the accomplices, she suffered the horrific fate intended originally for her mistress. Medieval times. That Alice's house had been a place of "merrymaking and good cheer" is the only charge that has stood the test of time. Kyteler's Inn has reverted to its old ways, as you can read on a sign within. It offers those of "the most jaded of appetites" music, home-made food, and a selection of quality wines and beers. True, those who work at the inn have frequently reported ghostly goings-on. Paranormal investigators have felt a presence, and not long ago, four women-friends from Wexford accidentally captured photos of a black shadow heading up the stairs behind them. Was it Alice? Petronella? In Kilkenny, that mystery awaits resolution.
Ken McGoogan
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It's not all that far to Tipperary


It's not that far to Tipperary -- not if you start in Kilkenny. That's what we did. The statue to the left commemorates John and Patrick Saul, two boys abandoned by their parents at the docks in Dublin. The butcher and his wife boarded a ship for Australia after first telling their sons, ages 15 and 13, they had a better chance of surviving if they turned back and made for home in Clonmel, County Tipperary. The year was 1842. The boys, increasingly hungry as they travelled, called in at the newly built workhouse in Kilkenny. Their story surfaced in 2005, when developers began turning the prison-like workhouse into the splendiferous MacDonough Junction Shopping Centre. The statue is one of the highlights of the Kilkenny Famine Experience -- a 50-minute audio-visual tour that takes visitors through the story of the Great Hunger as it unfolded in this location. The big surprise came when excavators came upon the forgotten graves of more than 970 people who died here -- among them 545 children -- mostly between 1845 and 1851. Rations were spartan but few died of starvation. Disease got them first, either typhus, typhoid, diptheria, smallpox, tuberculosis or cholera. Bullying, amputations, riots, death-dealing stampedes, this place had them all. As the potato famine wore on and workhouse conditions worsened, the Saul brothers set out for home. But Tipperary! Sheena and I drove half an hour west into that county, sometimes along one-lane roads with a ridge of grass down the middle. We went not to Clonmel but to the Famine Warhouse, site of an incident known as the Battle of Widow MacCormack's Cabbage Patch. By 1848, not
surprisingly, the never-ending famine -- the deaths, the coffin ships -- sparked a reaction.  Several of the leaders of the rebels, known collectively as Young Ireland, trapped a group of policemen in this house near Ballingarry. The police took the widow's children hostage and held on until reinforcements arrived.  Before long, most rebel leaders were rounded up, jailed, and transported to penal colonies in Australia. Anybody still with me?
Ken McGoogan
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This ship carried thousands across the Atlantic


Here we have the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, County Wexford -- one of the finest memorials of the Great Hunger in all Ireland. I've posted about visiting the EPIC emigration museum, the exhibition at St. Stephen's Green, and the Jeannie Johnston. Since then the biggest surprise has been the Famine Exhibition in the agricultural museum at Johnstown Castle:  who could have guessed that it would be so detailed and, indeed, superb? Even against all that, this replica of the Dunbrody is an exceptional site. The original ship was built in Quebec in 1845, the first year of the Irish famine. It was one of eight vessels owned by W.S. Graves that plied between New Ross and both Quebec City and Manhattan. Relatively large -- 176 feet long and 28 feet wide -- the three-masted barque carried an average of 200 people per voyage across the Atlantic, and on one occasion, during 1847, a total of 313. The ship had two cabins for first-class passengers, but the vast majority were confined below decks for most of the six or seven week voyage. There they slept in 40 bunk beds roughly six feet square, with four to eight people per bunk. Brutal. The dozen crew who manned the ship enjoyed better food and conditions -- after all, they constituted the ship's engine. But they would not be paid until they arrived back in Ireland, because otherwise, whoosh, they might disappear on landing. An excellent tour guide named Mark laid all this out as we set sail in 1849. He introduced two women actors -- one sailing first-class,  the other travelling with us in steerage (see photo below) -- who told their own stories, incidentally
highlighting the class structure of the era. During the famine years (1845-1852), 1.5 million Irish emigrated on ships like the Dunbrody, while another 1.5 million died at home. During the following decade, another 2 million left Ireland. As a result, Canadians who claim Irish heritage today total just under 5 million . . . while in the U.S., the total is a staggering 35 million.
Ken McGoogan
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How the Irish Famine Changed the World


The terrible parallels hit you like a bucket of cold water in the face -- at least if you have been immersed for a while in Scotland's Highland Clearances. Check out the image to the right. Looks like it could be from a Scottish Clearance in Sutherland or Glengarry, or perhaps Lewis, Uist or Barra. In fact, it's from County Clare in Ireland -- Mathia Magrath's house "after destruction by the Battering Ram." I know this because today we checked out the Irish Famine Exhibition at St. Stephen's Green Shopping Centre in Dublin. The exhibition, which runs until Oct. 15, brought the famine experience front and centre for me. Between 1845 and 1851, approximately one million Irish people died of starvation or disease and a couple of million emigrated, many of them to Canada. Many of those were forcibly evicted by landlords spouting the free-market doctrine of laissez faire. The end result: an Irish diaspora that has produced a globe-scattering of something like 70 million people of Irish descent. The decades immediately after the famine brought mostly silence about that trauma. More recently, scholars and others have turned increasingly to the Great Hunger, as it is also called. Today in Dublin, you can see famine monuments in St. Stephen's Green and on the north bank of the Liffey. You can visit the marvellous EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum. And you can spend an hour poking around on the Jeannie Johnston, a replica famine ship. If you have time for only one stop, the exhibition at St. Stephen's Green includes a 15-minute film that summarizes the saga. Millions displaced, not hundreds of thousands. Terrible to contemplate. Preparing to leave Dublin, all I can think about is how the Irish famine changed the world.

Ken McGoogan
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A merciless takedown of Mackenzie King




I was taken with Roy MacLaren's new book about Mackenzie King and said as much in this review that turned up on May 13 in the Globe and Mail.
(Special to the Globe)

After talking privately with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Wailliam Lyon Mackenzie King concluded that the German Fuhrer was a fellow mystic who spoke the truth when he insisted “that there would be no war as far as Germany was concerned.” Hitler’s face, the Canadian prime minister wrote in his diary, was “not that of a fiery, over-strained nature, but of a calm, passive man, deeply and thoughtfully in earnest.… As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc.”
That morning, as Mackenzie King had left his Berlin hotel, he had sensed “the presence of God in all this,” guiding his every step toward this meeting and “the day for which I was born.” June 29, 1937. Before he left Berlin, Mackenzie King wrote a note thanking Hitler for giving him a silver-framed photo of himself – “a gift of which I am very proud.” By this time, the Fuhrer had dispatched more than 4,000 innocents to concentration camps and created laws turning German Jews into secoindnd-class citizens.
With Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators, former diplomat and high commissioner Roy MacLaren eschews biography to focus on the Canadian prime minister’s foreign-policy performance. He delivers an exhaustively detailed, tightly controlled, yet merciless takedown of Mackenzie King’s responses to both Benito Mussolini and Hitler.
If with Hitler we were not confronting the most obscene tragedy of the 20th century – the industrialized slaughter of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust – this encounter could be staged as a farce in which a delusional bumpkin meets the worst tyrant of the age and mistakes him for a holy man.
In March, 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria, an unperturbed Mackenzie King wrote in his diary: “I am convinced he [Hitler] is a spiritualist – that he has a vision to which he is being true … that [his] Mother’s spirit is … his guide and no one who does not understand this relationship – the worship of a highest purity in a mother – can understand the power to be derived therefrom or the guidance … the world will yet come to see a very great man – a mystic, in Hitler.”
Here, Mackenzie King was projecting what Charlotte Gray has described as his “pathological obsession with his mother’s memory” onto Hitler and fusing it with his ludicrously inflated fantasies of his own significance. As he himself saw it, MacLaren writes, “he had played a central, even divinely ordained role in keeping peace in Europe.”
As MacLaren makes clear, many Canadians discerned the truth. Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, made no rush to judgment but, by 1934, according to one contemporary, he had become “solidly, fanatically, anti-Hitler; refers to him as Al Capone and to the Nazis as gangsters.” Around the time Mackenzie King was confiding to his diary, “I am being made the instrument of God,” journalist Matthew Halton of The Toronto Star described Hitler at a Berlin rally as a demonic orator who “turned his hearers into maddening, moaning fanatics.” Over the course of a month in Germany, Halton had “seen and studied the most fanatical, thorough-going and savage philosophy of war ever imposed on any nation.”
When Mackenzie King hailed the Munich Agreement, which ceded to Hitler much of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland), Winnipeg journalist J.W. Dafoe – who had repeatedly warned against the Fuhrer’s hate-filled rhetoric – wrote what MacLaren rightly describes as a “scathing editorial” in which he denounced the appeasers for validating “the doctrine that Germany can intervene for racial reasons for the ‘protection’ of Germans on such grounds as she thinks proper in any country in the world.”
Ian Kershaw, the British biographer of Hitler, summarized with the advantage of hindsight: “None but the most hopelessly naïve, incurably optimistic or irredeemably stupid could have imagined that the Sudetenland marked the limits of German ambitions to expand.” Enter Mackenzie King.
Early on, Canadian diplomat Vincent Massey deplored Mackenzie King’s “ostrich-like policy of not even wanting to know what is going on.” He concluded that Mackenzie King combined an anti-British bias with an extreme egotism, and after Kristallnacht, when Nazi thugs went on a racist rampage and incarcerated 30,000 Jews, Massey wrote to Mackenzie King that “the anti-Jewish orgy in Germany is not making [British prime minister Neville] Chamberlain’s policy of ‘appeasement’ any easier.” Mackenzie King agreed that “the post-Munich developments have made appeasement difficult and positive friendship [with Hitler] for the moment out of the question. That is no reason, however, why the effort should be abandoned.” Unbelievable.
This book assumes a familiarity with the history of Europe in the 1930s. It is a tour-de-force indictment of Mackenzie King and, by implication, the political system that made him the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. For those concerned about the contemporary rise of fascism and neo-Nazism around the world, Mackenzie King in the Age of the Dictators is ominous and terrifying.
In September, Ken McGoogan will publish Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.


Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.