Sadlier and Irish History
Sadlier's concern for contemporary Irish and Irish-American issues was linked to her interest in Ireland's past. If Sadlier's polemical writings about the evils of Protestant schools and intermarriage and her distrust of Protestant reformers and charity organizations seems bigoted, perhaps that is because it is grounded in centuries of distrust between Irish Catholics and the Protestant British. Sadlier's hometown, County Cavan, borders on what is today Northern Ireland; suggesting the possibility that Sadlier's distrust of everything Protestant could have originated in the hostility common between ethnic groups in border areas. A brief look at the Irish history about which Sadlier wrote will help explain the nationalism, as well as pessimism about the future, that is so critical to novels such as The Blakes and Flanagans and Bessy Conway. In 1690, the British government overthrew the last Irish revolt at the Battle of the Boyne, and nearly all of the land in Ireland was given to 10,000 Protestant families during a period called the "Protestant Ascendancy." Catholic landowners were transformed into tenants on their ancestors' lands, and were forced to grow cash crops in order to make their rent payments. A series of Penal Laws were passed that forbade Catholics from purchasing land, inheriting land on equal terms with Protestants, voting or holding elected office, engaging in certain trades or professions and owning or carrying firearms. Many Catholic churches were also destroyed. By the late eighteenth century, many of the harshest Penal Laws were relaxed or repealed, but Protestant landlords continued to dominate the countryside, collecting high rents and protected by a British police force. The British statesman Edmund Burke, of Irish Catholic ancestry, wrote that the Protestant Ascendancy had transformed Ireland's Catholics in a "race of cringing slaves," a central image of much of Sadlier's writing (Miller, 18-19).
The greatest devastation came with the Famine of 1845-1850, which forever altered the demographic makeup of Ireland, Irish politics, as well as Irish family and religious patterns. In the 1840s, 75 percent of Irish farmers were dependent on potatoes, one of the only crops that could grow with any profit on the small parcels of lands most farmers owned and that were nutritious enough as a dietary staple to support subsistence living. In 1845, however, a new fungus blighted the potato crop, and continue to destroy harvests for five years. As one historian writes, "the result was mass starvation on a scale not witnessed in the British Isles or in Western Europe for more than a hundred years" (Miller, 26-7). Unable to pay their rents, more than a half-million Irish were evicted from their cottages, a scene vividly portrayed in Sadlier's Bessy Conway . All told, more than a million died from starvation, typhus and dysentery, and three million were reduced to charity (Diner, 2). Bessy Conway's young sister Ellen, sick in a corner of the cabin when the police come to evict the family, was most likely from from dyserntery. Some Irish launched a futile rebellion in 1848, hoping to shake British power at a time of European turmoil, but were unsuccessful (Miller, 109).
The Famine depopulated Ireland's population. In the years during and after the Famine another three million people -- nearly 30 percent of the island's inhabitants -- left Ireland (Miller, 29). A total of about seven million Irish immigrated to the United States in the last two hundred years (Miller, 8). The Famine accelerated the pace of immigration. Between 1847-1854, more than 100,000 Irish immigrated every year, with 200,000 immigrating in 1851 alone. By 1860, the Irish made up 51 percent of all the foreign-born people in the country (Hueston, 138). Ireland's western provinces, historically one of its poorest regions, were especially hard-hit by the Famine. In 1979, Ireland's westernmost counties had scarcely 600,000 people, less than a third their population before the Famine (Miller, 89). The west's devastation might have inspired Sadlier to set New Lights; or Life in Galway there.