The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh part of Will’s journey.

The Wind That Shakes The Goose Wings

By Will Falk / The Ohio River Speaks

“‘Twas hard the woeful words to frame, To break the ties that bound us, ‘Twas harder still to bear the shame, Of foreign chains around us…”

Robert Dwyer Joyce, The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The Ohio River carried my ancestors to me. Arriving through traumatic memories recorded in history books and through a vivid nightmare, my ancestors’ presence was painful at first. Then, I asked my ancestors for help creating strength from the pain and they answered through wild geese.

When I was researching how settler colonialism affected the original peoples of the Ohio River basin, I also learned how settler colonialism affected my Irish ancestors. I read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She characterizes the Protestant colonization of Ireland (along with the Christian Crusades) as “dress rehearsals for the colonization of the Americas.” During the late 1500s and early 1600s, at the same time English colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were being established, Dunbar-Ortiz describes how

 “the English conquered Ireland and declared a half-million acres of land in the north open to settlement. The settlers who served early settler colonialism came mostly from western Scotland. England had previously conquered Wales and Scotland, but it had never before attempted to remove so large an Indigenous population and plant settlers in their place as in Ireland. The ancient Irish social system was systematically attacked, traditional songs and music forbidden, whole clans exterminated, and the remainder brutalized. A ‘wild Irish’ reservation was even attempted.”

I learned that the brutal practice of scalping originated in Ireland. Dunbar-Ortiz explains:

“The English government paid bounties for Irish heads. Later only the scalp or ears were required. A century later in North America, Indian heads and scalps were brought in for bounty in the same manner. Although the Irish were as ‘white’ as the English, transforming them into alien others to be exterminated previewed what came to be perceived as racialist when applied to Indigenous peoples of North America and to Africans.”

I found a connection with the ancestors of the original peoples of the Ohio River basin when I learned that many Englishmen who were involved in the colonization of Ireland were also involved in the colonization of North America. In the late 1500s, the English Governor of the newly conquered Irish province of Ulster, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, invaded the Irish province of Munster (where my ancestors lived), and ordered that

“the heddes of all those (of what sort soever thei were) which were killed in the daie, should be cutte off from their bodies and brought to the place where he [Gilbert] incamped at night, and should there bee laied on the ground by eche side of the waie ledying into his own tente so that none could come into his tente for any cause but commonly he muste passe through a lane of heddes which he used ad terrorem…[It brought] greate terrour to the people when thei sawe the heddes of their dedde fathers, brothers, children, kindsfolke, and friends.”

Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “The same Sir Humphrey Gilbert who had been in charge of the colonization of Ulster planted the first English colonial settlement in North America in Newfoundland in the summer of 1583.”

Reading this breached a dam within me. I was flooded with ancestral memory.

I saw the gruesome lane Gilbert constructed. I tried to keep my eyes on the path ahead of me. Hurry through, I told myself. These heads are too rotten, too disfigured to recognize. But, some of my loved ones had yet to come home. The desire for closure was too strong.

Why does that nose look so familiar? Is it my brother’s? Is that red hair? My sweetheart’s hair is red. But, she was miles from the fighting. She’s safe. Isn’t she? Each step down the lane became more difficult. Each head I passed made the terror stronger. My grief became so overwhelming that I envied the lifeless eyes staring at me as I passed, oblivious to the horrors they manifested.

Despite my ancestors’ prodding, I was sick of confronting the violent history of settler colonialism. I was still reeling from my writing about Macutté Mong and the slaughtered Christian Delawares. I was self-conscious that much of my writing about the Ohio River, so far, had been dark and heavy. I wanted to write about something beautiful, something hopeful, something that didn’t involve massacres.

Then, my ancestors sent me a nightmare.

It was a sunny afternoon. I stood in waist-high, fragrant grass next to a wide, slow river. Despite my waking mind being fixated on the Ohio River, the shape of the land and the dark, almost mahogany color of the water suggested this was not the Ohio River. I was reminded of a river I spent some time with in Ireland in 2018 – the River Blackwater in Munster, not far from my McCarthy ancestors’ home.

The nightmare began with beauty. I ran my hands through the thick grass. My bare feet sunk pleasantly into damp, warm soil. The grass imitated the river’s face as the breeze rippled in similar patterns over both. As the tune to “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” filled my ears, beauty slipped into melancholy.

Peace shattered when angry men came running over a distant hill. Sunlight glinted off weapons. I ducked down hoping the grass would hide me. The men spread out along the river bank. I saw their hands covered in mud and blood reach into the grassroots. I watched them wrap grass around their hands, intertwining their fingers with grass stalks. Then, they tore the grass up in patches, leaving flayed spaces of naked dirt. Each time they ripped, I felt pain like someone was ripping skin from my body.

I did not want the men to see me. At first, I managed to contain the pain in soft whimpers. Eventually, with each patch of grass ripped from the earth, the pain became unbearable. I screamed. The men noticed me, grabbed me, and rubbed my face in the bare dirt. When they wrapped the hair on my scalp around their hands, intertwining their grubby fingers with my hair, I knew the pain that was coming. They ripped the hair from my forehead to the top of my skull. I woke writhing and screaming.

At first, I thought this nightmare was simply a message to remind my readers of the cruel settler colonialism Ireland endured – especially my Irish American readers who have benefited so much from the colonization of North America. After I wrote the section about the colonization of Ireland being a dress rehearsal for the colonization of North America, however, my ancestors were not satisfied. I felt an itchy determination to bring some beauty out of this terrible history.

While I was researching and writing about this history, several times I found myself absent-mindedly humming the tune of the “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” When I remembered that the tune was in my nightmare, I knew I had to learn more about the song.

“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” is a haunting Irish ballad that was written by Robert Dwyer Joyce in the mid-1800s about theIrish Rebellion of 1798. The song tells the tale of a young Irish rebel who says good-bye to his lover before he joins the rebellion. His lover is shot during the fighting and the young rebel returns home to bury her.

Barley is a symbol of Irish resistance to colonization.

Irish rebels, most of whom were woefully impoverished, often carried barley in their pockets to eat while on the march. Many of these men wore their hair closely cropped as a sign of opposition to the powdered wigs worn by British aristocrats. Because of this, these Irish rebels were called “croppies.” When the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was brutally suppressed, the British threw slaughtered rebels into mass unmarked graves known as “croppy-holes.”

The barley in the pockets of the slain rebels grew from the croppy-holes. And, just as the barley grows every spring from the croppy-holes, fed by the bodies of Irish rebels, Irish resistance to colonization sprouts anew in each generation, fed by the memories of our ancestors – those men and women brave enough to sacrifice everything to resist colonization.

I wept when I learned about the barley growing from the mass graves of massacred Irish rebels. I wept for their courage. I wept for the beauty of their story. I also wept because I yearned for a symbol with as much power as barley that could remind the Irish in America of our ancestors’ legacy of resistance.

When I finished weeping, my ancestors gave me the symbol I yearned for.

I heard the Canada geese before I saw them. My ancestors’ songs carried with the honking geese songs to announce their arrival. The geese swept low in a disciplined formation over the Ohio River. In flying columns, they evoked the rebels of old on the march. They got so close I could see their silver feathers quivering as they descended. I sensed my ancestors on the wind that shook the goose wings.

Originally used to describe the departure of an Irish Catholic army to France after being defeated by William of Orange’s Protestant army in 1691, the term “wild geese” has been used in Irish history to describe Irish soldiers who left to fight in foreign armies. Most of these soldiers fled poverty. Many of them joined foreign armies to fight against the British. Some of these soldiers joined foreign armies to gain valuable training that they could return with and use to defend their homes.

I am American because some of my ancestors fled Ireland in the early 1850s, just after the Potato Famine and British colonial policies killed millions of Catholic Irish. Like the Irish wild geese, my ancestors fled poverty and starvation. They survived. So, I live.

Now, whenever I hear echoes of honking geese, I hear my ancestors. They are with me. They say: Resist.

Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem and a practicing rights of Nature attorney. Rights of Nature advocates work to transform the legal system so that it recognizes the “personhood” of natural beings. Throuout 2020, Falk will travel through the Ohio River Basin asking the Ohio River the two questions he asks any client who steps into his office: “Who are you?” And, “What do you need?”