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How the Irish Famine Changed the World

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.

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Ken McGoogan
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A merciless takedown of Mackenzie King

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.


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Ken McGoogan
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Fur-trade rascals are making for McMaster

Fur-trade rascals are making for McMaster



So here is an early heads-up on a Hamilton event where I will be giving a talk on June 4. What happened is that the library at McMaster University acquired an extraordinary collection of papers from the estate of the late Dr. William Bensen. Dr. Bensen was a medical doctor with a passion for Canadian history, and especially for anything related to John Rae or the fur trade. I had the privilege of meeting him over dinner some years ago and we had great fun chatting. He showed me a box of china that had been on board Franklin's ship the Terror.
Anyway, I am quite excited to investigate this collection of papers, which comprises letters and documents pertaining to such figures as James McGill, Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, William McGillivray, and Simon McTavish, all of whom were associated with the fur-trading North West Company based in Montreal. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not to put too fine a point on it, these ex-Highlanders -- renegades, rogues and rascals almost to a man -- used fur-trade profits to build the Golden Square Mile in Montreal and swanned about like kings. I was thrilled to discover that the men who figure in this archive turn up in five of my books (if we count Flight of the Highlanders, coming this September).
I'm calling my talk Rogues, Rascals and Kings: Fur-Trade Adventurers Spring from the Archives. It kicks off at 7 p.m. in Convocation Hall and is open to the public. BUT space is limited so you have to register by clicking here. If you're within hailing distance of McMaster, come on down!
(Pictured here: William McGillivray (above left) and Simon McTavish.)

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Ken McGoogan
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Writers' retreat set to go at Tamarack in July

Writers' retreat set to go at Tamarack in July


So that one-week writing-workshop-retreat in the Haliburton Highlands? I have been remiss in not reminding folks that it is happening from Sunday July 7 to Friday July 12. Yes, I will be serving as writer-in-residence at Tamarack Lodge Cottage Resort and Art Centre, which is two and a half hours north of Toronto. Situated on a motor-free lake, the lodge comprises four cottages and a “big house” with a separate meeting space. Last July, Anne-Marie Marais took these wonderful images.
This July, I’ll lead workshops for five mornings (Monday to Friday) from 9 to 12. You can spend your afternoons writing . . . or you can go swimming, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, or forest walking. Or you can mix and match. Evening activities will include a campfire reading, a presentation by the writer-in-residence, and an evening of student readings.You will stay in one of the four cottages. Tamarack will provide lunch and dinner and supplies for a continental breakfast.
The idea is to check in on Sunday July 7 between 3 and 5 p.m. Check out will be after lunch on Friday July 12. The cost will be $1150 per person, single-room accommodation, meals included. If anyone wants to share a room with bunkbeds or twin beds, the cost is $ 995, but you have to register with a roommate from the beginning.
We still have some spots available on a first-come first-serve basis. The person to contact is Barbara Kraus, co-owner of Tamarack Lodge. She can be reached at info@tamaracklodge.ca or 705-559-5972. 
In the workshop, Telling True Stories, we’ll focus on writing memoir, autobiography, travel articles – or whatever it is you happen to be writing. We’ll look at point of view, creating scenes, handling flashbacks. And we’ll do some in-class freewriting and sharing. You will need to bring a laptop to make this possible (no printer available).
Also, after you have registered with Barbara, I hope you will send me a 1,500-word work sample which I will distribute for workshopping among all participants. I will send out a call. Meanwhile, if you have any workshop-specific questions, you can drop me a line at ken.mcgoogan@gmail.com.
For the record, our writer-in-residence (that would be me) has earned a teaching-excellence award from University of Toronto (continuing education) and serves as a mentor in the low-residency MFA program in creative nonfiction at University of King’s College in Halifax. You can find out more than you need to know at: www.kenmcgoogan.com. Come on down!

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Ken McGoogan
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Celtic Life International looks to Highlanders

Celtic Life International looks to Highlanders


The latest edition 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, which is now available for pre-order. The excerpt begins like so:
In his bestsellers How the Scots Invented Canada and Celtic Lightning, Ken McGoogan wrote about how, in the 18th and 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 3: The Old Way of Life

In the Celtic tradition, “Thin Places” are sites where the natural and spiritual worlds meet and intermingle, separated by the merest veil. The ancient Celts would visit these sacred sites, among them Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, to experience the presence of their gods. For avowedly secular types, the concept works better historically. I think of the reconstructed Gaelic village in the Highland Folk Museum 45 miles south of Inverness, where you can wander in and out of blackhouses and see people at work in the clothing and spirit of another time. The same goes for Auchindrain Township, six miles south of Inverary. It is the only stone-built settlement to survive essentially unaltered from among hundreds that existed before the Highland Clearances. And what of the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village at a beautiful waterside location on the Isle of Lewis?
All three of those sites provide a sense of how most Highlanders lived in the decades before and after the mid-1700s, when the Battle of Culloden marked the beginning of the end for the Old Order. Political and military historians of the Middle Ages focus on kings and aristocrats and the battles they fought, won, or lost. But most Highlanders were farmers who stayed home in small townships made up of extended families.
They lived in “blackhouses,’ so-designated because they were dark, windowless, and blackened by peat-fire smoke.  The term distinguishes them from the “white houses” which came later and introduced such amenities as windows and toilets. In Thatched Houses, author Colin Sinclair identifies three types of blackhouses according to their roof styles. The Hebridean has four walls of the same height and a ledge running around the edge of the roof. The Skye has four similar walls but no ledge: the thatch runs over the edge. And the Dailriadic has a Skye-style roof but pointed walls at two opposite ends providing for a pitched roof.
The common features among these three types tell us more about how people lived. Besides their thatched roofs and walls made of stone or peat slabs, blackhouses were usually oblong and divided into three compartments. You would enter the house through a flimsy door that opens into the byre or cow-house that forms one of the two end compartments. You would see two small black cows reclining on a bed of straw. But the place stinks of cow dung and chicken droppings so why tarry? You turn right and, through an opening or pass door, step through an internal wall into the main apartment. The third compartment is straight ahead, divided from this room by a wooden partition containing another pass door covered with a blanket.
You can’t help but notice the smoke, which gets thicker higher up, and you crouch to avoid the worst of it. The smoke curls upwards from a peat fire which sits on a stone slab in the middle of this dirt-floor apartment. It drifts eventually through a hole in the thatch located off-centre so that heavy rains do not douse the flames. A three-legged iron pot hangs over the fire from a chain attached to a beam in the roof. You sit down on a bench that occupies a side wall and notice a dresser neatly displaying rows of plates. Beneath it sits a washtub and beside it a wooden bucket.
Welcome to the house of the Gael in the Old Highlands. It allows for conversation and conviviality around the glowing peat fire, but mainly it provides shelter from the storm – though the roof of the blackhouse is not water tight. In rainy weather, heavy drops of inky black water make their way through the thatch. This happens often enough that people have a name for those falling droplets: snighe.
When weather permits, not surprisingly, the common folk spend most of their time outdoors. They tend their crops and their cattle. When James Boswell passed this way with Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1773, he wrote, “we had not rooms that we could command, for the good people here had no notion that a man could have any occasion but a mere sleeping place.”
(To read the rest of this excerpt, pick up the June issue of Celtic Life International. The book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, is now available for pre-order.)


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Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Expedition makes John Rae history

Arctic Expedition makes John Rae history



THEY MADE IT! Today at 3:45 p.m. Mountain Time, David Reid and Richard Smith called me in Toronto from the John Rae plaque overlooking Rae Strait. They had just completed a 650-km trek from Naujaat (Repulse Bay) to Point de la Guiche. They took just 29 days to complete this prodigious feat in blizzards and with temperatures falling to 30 and 40 degrees below zero.
Today, they left early and covered about 16 km to reach the site where in 1854, accompanied by his indigenous companions William Ouligbuck Jr. and Thomas Mistegan, Rae built a cairn marking his discovery of the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage.
Reid and Smith were in high spirits as they chatted with me for about twenty minutes. Two other team members, Frank Wolf and Garry Tutte, had been forced to evacuate en route by foot problems.
(Wolf took the photo above before departing.) "It was a shame to lose them," Smith said. "But their feet . . . . the journey was quite arduous on the body."
He and Reid have both lost a fair bit of weight, exact amount to be determined.
Reid, a veteran explorer, reminisced about the Arctic Return Expedition being conceived in September 2017 during an Adventure Canada voyage in the Northwest Passage. He and I and Sheena Fraser McGoogan and a few other people got talking over dinner about what he should do next. One idea led to another. . . .
Back in 1999, the late Louie Kamookak led me and one other man in erecting the plaque honoring Rae and his companions. Reid and Smith put up their tent nearby just before they called. The temperature was a balmy 20 degrees below zero, and they will camp on site for the next couple of nights. Gjoa Haven is about 80 km to the southwest. The men have arranged for an Inuk named Marvin to lead a team in picking them up via skidoo from Gjoa on Tuesday. They will give a presentation to the community on Wednesday evening and on Thursday, will fly south to Edmonton, so beginning their journey home -- Reid to Ottawa, Smith to Scotland.
From outside their tent, the two men looked across the white expanse of Rae Strait. "On the far side of Rae Strait," Reid said, "we can see King William Island. Just as John Rae did 165 years ago."
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Ken McGoogan
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Arctic Return Expedition nears objective

Arctic Return Expedition nears objective


Veteran explorer Frank Wolf took this classic shot of the two still-active members of Arctic Return dealing with rough ice. After a tough day of slogging through foggy conditions, David Reid (in red) and Richard Smith got their first glimpse of Rasmussen Basin, which lies off the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. Translation: they are within a few days of attaining Point de la Guiche, where in 1854 John Rae built a cairn (now in ruins) overlooking Rae Strait -- the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage. The expedition left Naujaat almost one month ago. Frank and Garry Tutte had trouble with their feet and -- like two of the four men who initially accompanied Rae -- had to withdraw. Folks, this is no walk in the park. It's a grueling test in one of the most extreme environments on the planet. David and Richard are forging ahead. You can follow their progress on this blog. Fantastic expedition!

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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.