The Highlands of Virginia, along the Appalachian Mountains in the Jefferson National Forest – like the Highlands of Scotland – are frequesntly stilled by a thick fog, as is so in the foothills of the Blue Ridges Mountains where Kevin Donleavy has made his home for in past several decades, not far from the George Washington National Forest.
In an interview with me yesterday, Kevin described a bit about his adventures over more than a decade that had brought him to places in the Commonwealth of Virginia both far and wide: “The research took me all over Virginia, intermittently – over about 15 years – from Roark’s Gap to Kinsale, from Dungannon to Lynchburg.”
A musician himself, and longtime co-host of the international music program “Atlantic Weekly,” which airs on 91.1 WTJU-FM and on wtju.net every Saturday morning for the past 15 years, as well, and for at least that length of time Donleavy has remained in close contact with a many traditional musicians back in Ireland, where he’s spent a good part of his life. Combining his skills as a “musicianer,” with his gifts of observation and formidable talents as a storyteller, Kevin expresses himself both on-the-air and through his writing in a language most unique. His most recent book: “The Irish in Early Virginia 1600-1860,” was just published by Pocahontas Press.
These locations, to which Donleavy’s interests had led him, since the turn of the 21st Century now, each has a storied significance in the links between the first Irish immigrants in America in the early 17th Century who were predominantly Catholic, and the Scots-Irish immigrants who originally are said to have been sent from the Highlands of Scotland to raid and plunder Ulster, in the north of Ireland; and from there, came here to North America – to both Canada and the most western lands in America, itself, that were still available: the ancient mountains and meadow plains of Appalachia. All the land along the Atlantic coast was spoken for. In those days, it’s said that a squirrel could move from tree to tree all the way from Maine to the Great Smoky mountains of Georgia.
The first town Donleavy mentions here is Roark’s Gap. In the “History of Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia 1748-1920,” author William C. Pendleton provides a backstory of his own:
“James Roark lived at the gap of the dividing ridge, between the waters of the Clinch and the Sandy Rivers, through which passed the Dry Fork road, and which has since been known as Roark’s Gap. Early in 1789, a band of Shawnee Indians left their homes in the west, and ascending the Dry Fork, fell upon the defeseless family of Mr. Roark and killed his wife and several children.”
In the French and Indian War, both the French and other Europeans who allied with the native tribes to suppress the English and Irish settlers, had encouraged the Indians toward extreme tactics, to strike fear in their adversaries, even against civilian women and children. Earlier, in 1784, Governor Dinwiddie and the Virginia legislature understood that French rejection of British demands in the Ohio River Valley disputes had been “a hostile act,” and had dispatched 21-year-old George Washington to send the message to the French to that effect.”
Complicated by a series of misunderstandings, and misinformation, the skirmish that resulted in the death of a gentleman called Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, at the the hands of a Native American called Tanacharison, the ‘Half-King,’ over the native communities then under control of the Iroquois Confederation. That defeat led Jumonville’s half-brother, Captain Coulon de Villiers to seek revenge, which he chose to do at the quickly-established fortification — dubbed “Fort Necessity ” which Lieutenant Colonel Washington had hurriedly put together, but could not hold.
Captain de Villiers is the only military officer in history who ever forced George Washington’s surrender, and he or his compatriots later inserted a sentence in the formal document which served as a memorandum of understanding, which said that George Washington, as a representative of the Crown, was responsible for “the assassination” of Jumonville. The document was written in French and was actually signed by Washington, in which he therein — either knowlingly or unknowingly — acknowledges responsibility for the death of Jumonville — who was said to have been on a “diplomatic mission,” to make matters worse. It is this incident that propels the events toward an international stage.
It is not clear whether Washington had enough French to have been aware of what he was signing, but it is that event that British adversaries and others point to as having led to the Seven Years’ War, which was fought in North America and also abroad. Both the British and the French sought to “curry favor” with native American Indians living in the region, and the Indians understood their being aligned with the French as a “necessary evil.”
From the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian:
“The French and Indian War was the North American conflict that was part of a larger imperial conflict between Great Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War. The French and Indian War began in 1754 and ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The war provided Great Britain enormous territorial gains in North America, but disputes over subsequent frontier policy and paying the war’s expenses led to colonial discontent, and ultimately to the American revolution.”
Also located in Westmoreland County, Virginia, is the homeplace of Presidents George Washington and the homeplace of President James Monroe, as well as General Robert E. Lee and his father “Harry Lighthorse” Lee. Just about 26 miles south, along the Potomic River, lies the town of Kinsale, which was established in Colonial times, as a tribute to its namesake in Ireland — the “historic port and fishing town,” at a distance of more than 5,000 miles. in Counry Cork. The Kinsale Foundation website — Lynn Norris, Director — provides a wealth of information about this special place, which in many ways has the same characteristics through the passage of time.
In Ireland, the government of Kinsale was established in 1333, under King Edward III. Kinsale in Ireland was significant in military history, not least as the point of departure of the Roman Catholic King James II of England – also known as James VII of Scotland – bound for France in 1690, following the defeat of his forces by the Protestant pretender to the throne, William of Orange – later known as William III of England – in the Battle of the Boyne, which then led to the ascendency of Protestantism in the North of Ireland thereafter, and the beginning of what the English and Irish call “the Troubles.”
In Virginia, Kinsale is the oldest customs port on the south side of the Potomac River, where taxes on harvests from fishing, farming and forestry were collected for nearly a hundred years, until the early 1930s, and the harvests from beans and grains are still shipped today on the same waterways, by barge. The town itself survived an attack by the British during the War of 1812 – when the Royal Marines besieged the entrance to the Yeocomico River in 1814 – and was then raided again during the Civil War, which was likely due in part to its location as a deep-water port.
The settlement at Dungannon in Virginia is an even tinier town located in Scott County, along the border shared with Tennessee, not far from Johnson City. The population as of the year 2000, boasted 332 individuals, and ’twas named after the town of Dungannon in County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, which came about then as was mentioned before now, as a nation divided, with the very line of demarcation going straight through Ulster at the town of Dungannon.
According to the Encyclopedia Britanica:
“In 1782, the town was the location where the independence of the Irish Parliament was declared by members of the Protestant Ascendancy who controlled the parliament at the time.”
Another location Donleavy mentions where his research had led him was Lynchburg, Virginia, named for ferryman John Lynch who began at the age of 17, carrying folks across a ford in the James River to New London, in Campbell County, which was founded in 1750; and was the site of the New London Academy that had been established in 1795, and still has the distinction of being the only public school to have been chartered by the Virginia General Assembly. John Lynch was also the individual most responsible for the bridge that spans the James, at that specific location, constructed in 1812.
Records of the region in and around Lynchburg show that in 1670, an explorer by the name of John Lederer had come upon the Sioux village of Saponi, which was located on the Staunton River, just southwest of Lynchburg, where the Monacan tribe had thrived for time beyond memory, by fishing and by hunting game, and gathering wild edibles, for more than half a milenium. Upon the arrival of the English and Irish settlers in Virginia after 1702, the Iroquois became dominant, eventually ceding control to the Colony of Virginia in 1618, and formally declaring it in 1721, with the Treaty of Albany.
In his book, “The Irish in Early Virginia 1600-1860,” Kevin Donleavy has told the story of these places and the “immense numbers of indentured servants and other Irish settlers who came to Virginia in the mid-1600s, fleeing the massive death-and-destruction caused by the English forces in Ireland.”
Donleavy also quotes William Petty, a Physician-general to the English, from Petty’s book “The Political Anatomy of Ireland 1609:”
“About 504,000 of the Irish perished and were wasted by the sword, plague, famine, hardships and banishment between the 23rd October, 1641, and the same day in 1652.”
“There are some 80 or more places in Virginia with Irish names that are marked on modern modern maps and gazetteers. The first Irish settlers stayed in small communities near rivers and the Atlantic ports of Norfolk and Alexandria; only later did they spread out and begin to farm the land.”
As for the music tradition that was carried over from the Irish homeland, Donleavy explains:
“The fiddle was unquestionably the only instrument that emigrants brought from Ireland till the mid 1800s. The earliest Irish in North America were Catholic and mostly Gaelic-speaking. There weren’t considerable numbers of Protestants till the 1700-1775 period. And then the Catholic/Gaelic Irish soon flooded during the Great Hunger era. Kerby Miller, a historian at the University of Missouri estimated that in the period 1600-1920, some 7 million Irish came to North America.”
The Irish Great Hunger era is also known as An Gorta Mór, and The Great Famine – a very tragic period of mass starvation, and dreaded disease which led to the forced emigration of men, women and children from their home;and in Ireland for a period which continued relentlessly for seven years, between 1845 and 1852.
A brief overview of the related history of Ireland from the Irish Hunger Museum, located at Quinnipiac University, and founded by Dr. John Lahey, whose scholarship has greatly contributed to a better understanding of how this came to be; and as the President of Ireland said following the 2012 dedoction,,”to assure that the history of this great human tragedy will continue to be reflected on and appreciated by current and future generations:”
“Ireland possessed its own distinctive culture, language, religion and people prior to England’s repeated invasions. During the 16th and 17th centuries, England not only conquered Ireland by military force, but under Oliver Cromwell (1649–53) and his forces killed tens of thousands of Irish, and drove hundreds of thousands more off their land in Northeastern Ireland (Ulster). These Irish Catholics were then forcibly relocated to rocky, desolate areas in the West of Ireland (Connaught), where the land was suitable only for the potato crop. The land taken from the Irish Catholics in Ulster was offered to Protestants from Scotland and England to entice them to relocate to Ireland. This policy created a sizeable group of Protestant settlers in Northern Ireland loyal to the British government. In 1695, England enacted a series of Penal Laws that denied civil and human rights to Irish Catholics, and for all practical purposes outlawed the Catholic religion in Ireland, the religion of more than 90 percent of the Irish population. Ireland’s Gaelic language also was outlawed.
Finally, the 1801 Act of Union abolished the independent Irish Parliament and officially made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. As a result, all of Ireland was governed by the British parliament in London during The Great Hunger (1845–52) and the years following, until 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided Ireland. Of the 32 counties that make up the island of Ireland, 26 eventually became the independent Republic of Ireland in the wake of 1948 legislation, while the 6 counties that make up Northern Ireland, remain part of the United Kingdom.”
With an expertise in folklife and folklore, in his previous book, “Strings of Life,” Donleavy tracked the history of two Grayson County fiddlers through the mid-1700s, covering “more than 1,300 “musicianers” in about 13 counties of Virginia and North Carolina,” he noted, finding that perhaps as many as 10% of them were women players. Those “musicianers,” as he has describes them, were essentially “fiddlers and banjoers” born from the early 1800s through about 1930
Kevin Donleavy has been a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in Charlottesville and can be heard on Saturday mornings, on “Atlantic Weekly,” — on 91.1 FM and live streaming everywhere, at wtju.net — the listener-supported community radio station at the University of Virginia.