Today is the day, Corned Beef and Cabbage is on the table, nested in a tasty berm of boiled potatoes and carrots. It’s the one day of the year when we eat to remember. To remember what was once a serious thing.
In the 1850’s the poor benighted Irish in New York were confined to an area in lower Manhattan known as the Five Points. It was the filthiest, evil, most run down section of the city with open sewers running down the streets and wooden tenement buildings dating back to the revolutionary war. The neighborhood, partly built on land which had filled in the freshwater lake known as the Collect Pond, was generally defined as being bound by Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south. The Five Points gained international notoriety as a densely populated, disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed for over 70 years. Five Points is alleged to have had the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. According to an old New York urban legend, the Old Brewery, built in the 1790s, was an overcrowded tenement on Cross Street housing 1,000 poor. iIt s said to have had a murder a night for 15 years, until its demolition in 1852. The famine Irish immigrants lived there.
“Debauched women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings. Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game… ruined houses, open to the street, the reek of boiled cabbage and corned, ruined beef, hideous tenements which take, their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.” –Charles Dickens
Note that Dickens was long removed from tenement life himself and demonstrated his self satisfied views in his book written about his tours of America. He thumbed his nose at the Irish noting that the Five Points was far worse than the slums of London.
“They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brain and virtue.” The average Irishman is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.” Theodore Roosevelt.
Ireland itself was a major producer of salted meat, going back all the way to the Middle Ages and lasting through the 19th century. Under English rule, the vast majority of the products of Ireland were exported by the landowners. As to the the great famine itself, Ireland produced bumper crops of Beef, Pork and Wheat during the time Irish children were dying in ditches from starvation. One of the causes of the great migration is that tenant farmers were turned off the land in order to cash in on the export market.
“This [the Irish] is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.” – Sigmund Freud
It wasn’t always called corned beef, though. That didn’t come until the 17th century when the English coined the term. The “corned” comes from the use of large chunks of rock salt used in the curing process. These were know in England as corns. Pickled beef is the correct term.
“You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars.”–Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister
While Ireland produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for trade. Corned beef was considered a luxury, and much too expensive for the poor Irish to consume. Instead, they relied on dairy and pork, especially salt pork, a relative to bacon.
Jiggs was born in Ireland. He came to this country expecting to find gold on the streets of New York, but found that he was expected to pave them with bricks and cobblestones instead. He became a hod-carrier. Romance came into his life when he met Maggie, a waitress at a small café, who put heaping dishes of corned beef and cabbage before him. They were married, and Jiggs became thrifty. Instead of carrying bricks, he bought and sold them on commission. Then he manufactured them. Street brawls in the old days in New York provided a great market for Jiggs’ bricks, which were harder than ordinary bricks. He grew rich. He still loved the corned beef though._____George McManus
The Irish use of corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the U.S. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively expensive in the Americas. Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you guessed it: corned beef. What was once a luxury became a food that was now inexpensive and readily available. Cabbage was added because it was the cheapest of vegetables. No New York swell would deign to eat such a coarse vegetable, instead preferring the finest lettuce.
So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day.
The real truth comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “Not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.” Something that can be said of all immigrants.
My personal favorite though is from a man with a very particular set of skills, someone not to be argued with
“I’m Irish, so I’m used to odd stews. I can take it. Just throw a lot of carrots and onions in there, and I’ll call it dinner.” – Liam Neeson
As the quote at the beginning of this story written by that Dublin man, Sean O’Casey states,
“Thats the Irish all over____They treat a joke as a serious thing and a serious thing as a joke.”
Things to know about being “Irish” for Saint Patrick’s day.
In the deepest darkest time of night when Hobgoblins dance about on Branch Street in Arroyo Grande, beware. The wee people are out and about every March 16th. They cast a magic spell and lo and behold a brilliant shamrock green stripe appears. From Ralph and Duanes bar out and up the street, making a slightly tipsy band of brilliance until it arrives at the batwing doors of Old Bill Hendrix’s saloon. The wee man say’s, “Micheal ,ye Feckin’ Eejit it’s O’Conners now and fer taday, it’s a pub.”
My earliest American ancestor arrived in the Virginia colony in 1682 to serve a seven year indentured servitude. A form of debt bondage, meaning it was an agreed upon term of unpaid labor that usually paid off the costs of the servant’s immigration to America. He arrived on the shores of Colonial America and was auctioned to the man who then paid his passage to the shipmaster who brought him. Indentured servants were not paid wages but they were generally housed, clothed, and fed. Daniel Shannon worked off his debt and married Abigail Vaughan at Portsmouth, Virginia in 1689. The rest, as they say is history. Fast forward a few generations and we find the family in western Pennsylvania and owners of a tavern in Bethel township. The family bought it from the heirs of a man named Reynolds who was hanged by the British for the crime of counterfeiting. How Irish is owning a tavern.
Jump another hundred years or so and having somehow survived the Revolution, The Blackhawk war, The war of the Southern Rebellion and various other disagreements including my great-grandfather’s two years in Sing Sing, we arrived in Arroyo Grande in 1888. John Edward Shannon, he of Sing Sing fame and his wife Catherine Shannon, nee Brennan bought a house and small ranch just off Corbit Canyon near the old stage road and settled in. We’re still here 134 years later. Being near the sea, it’s as far as they could go.
If you are not a Gaelic speaker, which few are, the title of this story is the proper name of the Saint, so called, that the particular day of celebration is named for, Saint Patricks Day. According to the autobiographical Confessio of Patrick, when he was sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates and taken from his home in Britain and sold as a slave in Ireland. He spent his days a a herder near Slemish Hill, historically Slieve Mish in County Antrim where my grandmothers family is from. My great-grandparents would have seen it from their homes. He was a Shepard, looking after the woolies.
He lived in the north and west of medieval Ireland. He was captive there for six years before escaping and returning across the Irish sea to his family in Wales. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland where he went about saving souls and dealing with snakes, or so it goes.. In later life, he served as a bishop, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had already come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on 17 March, the supposed date of his death. It is celebrated inside and outside Ireland as a religious and cultural holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemn and holy day of obligation; it is also a celebration of Ireland itself.
He is not actually a canonized Saint as there was no process for making him a Saint during and after his life. He is listed on the calendar of saints but has never been officially recognized by the Pontiff. He is recognized as so by the Irish Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches though. It really doesn’t matter as nearly the entire world does so on a least one day of the year.
About the snakes. There were never any snakes in Ireland; never, ever. The snake story is a metaphor for the banishment of the so-called Pagan religions in Ireland during his lifetime. The Irish tribes of the time likely wouldn’t have known what a snake was if you threw it at them. Snakes and St Patrick first became entwined in the 17th century but it’s hard to kill a good story and if any snakes know different they don’t give a hiss.
The angry old man in the tablet above, wearing his bathrobe is Saint Patrick. A garment never worn in Ireland. The snakes are making their escape, the busty maiden with her hands up in surrender represents the Druids. You can see she is holding a sprig of Oak leaf which are purported to be the symbol of that religion which worshipped trees. The studly guy with the torch is, of course a pagan who Paddy said were fire worshippers. He wanted them all out of Ireland. You can take it or leave it, it’s all likely Blarney anyhow.
The Shamrock was first connected with Patrick centuries after his death. He supposedly used its three petals to illustrate the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The symbolism of three has been used in religion since before time and Patrick would have found it was an easy get. In art, architecture and design the trefoil predates writing.
Now you know a little, and I mean very little about the old guy. There is a field of research that believes he never existed but as we always do in journalism the legend is much more interesting so thats what we print.
The British Parliament passed laws against dissenters and Irish Catholics in 1695. They were forbidden to own land, to school their children, vote, own a horse worth more than £2.50. They could not be a public official, be a lawyer or soldier, or serve on a jury. It was a hanging offense to speak Gaelic. Teachers, called Hedge Masters roamed Ireland teaching, literally in the bushes, another hanging offense if caught. This is the period that saw the end of many Irish traditions, including the wearing of the Irish kilt. It seems unbelievable today that this could have been so, but men, women and children were hanged for wearing a sprig of the Shamrock. These laws were designed to completely stamp out Irish culture. Instead, the Irish sailed away to America. You see, they could own land here, and school their children
And that they did. In the 1880’s our little valley was populated by many, many Irish families. There were Moores, MacGuires, Shannons, Olohans, Rices, Phelans, Donovans, Greys, Corbits, O’conners, McBanes and McKeens, many of them my relatives. My sister in law is a MacConaghy, a strawberry blonde no less.
As to the drink itself. Ireland today doesn’t even make the top ten worldwide. Sort of ruins the image of the two-fisted drinking Irish male doesn’t it. As with the many traits and characteristics of ethnicities the idea that the Irish are drunkards has more to do with politics than fact.
A letter written by then Catholic Cardinal Paul Cullen in March 1870 illustrates the attitude of those who backed the Sunday closing bill of 1905.
“Almost all the crime we have to deplore in Ireland may be traced to drunkenness; and as long as the doors of the public-house stand open during the leisure of the Sunday, it will be very difficult indeed to root out from among our people that degrading vice.” Cullen called for legislation to impose the Sunday ban, for the “spiritual and temporal welfare of our excellent people”.
Mind you though, the bill passed in the British Parliament only targeted the Irish. The Scots, Welsh and British were still allowed to partake of a Sunday. Of course they had slightly better relations with the British government even though they drank just as much. It seems the Brits have had it in for the Irish from, lets see, roughly the year 1169. More on that later.
When the barman asks you what will you have there are some things to know. If you ask for a pint, it’ll be Guiness served at room temperature. Room temperature, not warm, not chilled. Don’t forget, Ireland is not a warm country and room temperature is, well cold. If you think you’re cool and want to be like the locals and ask for a Black and Tan do it in San Francisco not Dublin. The name “Black and Tan” is not used in Ireland as a term for a mixture of two beers. The drink is instead referred to as a half and half. In Ireland, the term “black and tan” is associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, nicknamed the “Black and Tans”, which was sent into Ireland in the early 1920s during the Irish War of Independence and resulted in violent outbreaks between the Constabulary forces and the Irish people. The Black and Tans are thoroughly hated. So half and half it is, half Harp and Half Guiness stout.
One other thing. Guiness is not the only beer in Ireland and in fact the British and, surprisingly, the Nigerians drink more per capita than the Irish. Guiness breweries are now owned by a British conglomerate called Diageo, which until recently was the worlds largest brewer. There is a sneaking suspicion that the recipe for Guiness has been tampered with. Irish have every reason to be suspicious of the British.
The Diaspora refers to the dispersion of any people from their original homeland. There are far more people of Irish descent living outside Ireland than there are in the home country itself. For fourteen centuries the Irish have been starved out, shipped out as criminals, sold into servitude and simply left as my ancestors did. The Shannons arrived in America not long after Oliver Cromwell finally savagely crushed the Irish at Drogheda in 1649, killing upwards of 20,000, murdering the captured on the spot, burning the city and deporting 50,000 Irish to the New World as indentured servants which you may know is a type of slavery. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were also often destinations for Irish fleeing starvation and oppression.
“Oh, Paddy dear and did you hear the news that’s goin’ round? The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground Saint Patrick’s Day no more we’ll keep his colours can’t be seen For they’re hangin’ men and women for the wearin’ of the green.”
In America, before it became the United States there was opportunity unlimited and a people raised under oppressive law took full advantage of it. Big George Washington wasn’t Irish but he would not have survived the revolution with out his master spy Hercules Mulligan who was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry. He was denounced as a spy to the British by that dastardly traitor Benedict Arnold. Hercules used his Irish Blarney to talk his way out of hanging. Obviously the “Gift of Gab.”
James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House was from Callan, County Killkenny. He supervised the actual building of the structure with the blessing of President Washington himself.
We take the phrase “Third Times the Charm” from the marksmanship of Timothy Murphy who on his third try drilled the Scot General Simon Fraser at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. Murphy, from Pennsylvania was a master with the Kentucky Rifle. Serving with Daniel Morgan’s hand picked rifleman, Murphy scaled a tree, took careful aim at the extreme distance of 300 yards, and fired three times. The first shot was a close miss, the second grazed the General’s horse, and with the third, Fraser tumbled from his horse, dead. The deed is credited with breaking the British and ending the battle. “The third Time’s the Charm.”
James Marshall, not Irish, discovered gold at Colma in California in 1848. The “Luck of the Irish” phrase has long been associated with this discovery. Down in San Francisco, Samuel “Sam” Brannon, son of James who emigrated from County Waterford, yes, the crystal comes from there, was the first to hear of the gold strike and spent a few days buying up every thing a miner might need for his store and then walking down Marker street shouting, “Gold, gold found on the American River. It made his fortune and he became, shortly, California first millionaire in the day when a million meant something. The majority of the first miners were of Irish descent and the phrase is said to have originated with the. James Marshall an Englishman had no luck, he died penniless near Kelsey California in 1885. No luck for James.
It doesn’t matter which political party you belong to, there are politicians and presidents of Irish descent in all of them. Eleven Irishmen signed the declaration of Independence, most born in Ireland. John Dunlap who printed the document was born in Strabane, County Tyrone.
There were four Irish born signers of the U S Constitution, two from County Antrim, one from County Carlow and one from Sligo.
Twenty-tthree of our 46 presidents have claimed Irish ancestors including ten of the last twelve. Some who pushed a little such as Nixon who was descended from Irish on both his father and mothers side but did not want the voters to think he was embracing Democrat JFK’s Irish Catholocism. Pat Nixon’s father, Patrick Ryan was from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, so he figured why not use that instead. Very Nixonest. Barack O’Bama is Irish through his fathers family the Kearney’s who hailed from Moneygall, Tipperary. His great-grandfather Fulmore was a wealthy farmer and an Uncle, John Kearney who became the Bishop of Ossory and a Provost of Trinity College in Dublin, Irelands most prestigious university. Joe Bidens mother was a Finnegans of County Mayo. Bill Clinton claimed to be Irish on his mothers side but there is no evidence of that. Sounds like him. I will say that he has the “Gift of Gab,” so there is that.
Al Smith mayor of New York and Governor of the state lost to Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1928. As a son of Ireland he ran as a “Wet” meaning he was against prohibition, naturally. He was also the first Catholic to run for the highest office in the land the opposition made the claim that if elected he would let the Pope run America. Interestingly, the same claim was made in 1960 about JFK. Didn’t work the second time. Al Smith got a better job though. He ran the Empire State buildings construction. Built in just 13 months he ordered construction to begin on March 17th, 1932. By the by, the Empire State is bathed in Green every Saint Pat’s day. Thanks Al.
That brings us to the Blarney Stone. For over 200 years, world statesmen, literary giants, and legends of the silver screen have joined the millions of pilgrims climbing the steps to kiss the Blarney Stone and gain the gift of eloquence. Its powers are unquestioned but its story still creates debate. My Grandmother Hall gave it a smack herself. She did it for fun ’cause she really didn’t need more eloquence than she already had.
The stone is set into the wall of Blarney castle which was built by Dermot MacCarthy in 1446. It is inside a stone shaft affixed to the outer wall of the castle keep. The original use of the shaft was the castelleyne’s private garderobe. The Irish know what it’s original use was an don’t typically kiss the stone, being naturally gifted with eloquence by birth.
Some say the stone was Jacob’s Pillow, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah. Here it became the Lia Fail or ‘Fatal Stone’, used as an oracular throne of Irish kings – a kind of Harry Potter-like ‘sorting hat’ for kings. It was also said to be the deathbed pillow of St Columba on the island of Iona. Legend says it was then removed to mainland Scotland, where it served as the prophetic power of royal succession, the Stone of Destiny.
The Stone of Destiny is also known as the Stone of Scone and resided under the throne of Scotland before being taken by the British crown as spoils of war in 1296. There is a delightful little film titled “The Stone of Destiny” about four college kids who steal it and return it to Scotland in 2008. One of the leads is actress Kate Mara of the Rooney/Mara family an Irish girl. For the sports fan, her great-grandfathers founded the Pittsburg Steelers and the New York Giants football teams.
When Cormac MacCarthy, King of Munster, sent five thousand men to support Robert the Bruce in his defeat of the English at Bannockburn in 1314, a portion of the historic Stone of Destiny was given by the Scots in gratitude – and returned to Ireland.
Others say it may be a stone brought back to Ireland from the Crusades – the ‘Stone of Ezel’ behind which David hid on Jonathan’s advice when he fled from his enemy, Saul. A few claim it was the stone that gushed water when struck by Moses.Whatever the truth of its origin, we believe a witch saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthys who placed in the wall.
The rise of Saint Patricks day has taken fourteen centuries. This greening of the world began with the first recorded mention of a Saint Patricks Day parade outside of Ireland took place in the then colony of Spanish Florida in 1601. It was organized by Richard Artur the Irish born Vicar of Saint Augustine.
About 1 percent of the worlds population claim to be a little bit Irish. That percentage rises to as much as forty percent in Australia, twenty percent in New Zealand, fifteen in Canada, ten in the UK and about twelve in the United States. Ancestory.com revealed that of the fifteen milion people who have taken a DNA test were at least 5 percent Irish. 170,000 Irish born citizens live in the United States and another 50,000 are here illegally. Oh, oh. There are an estimated 80 million people of Irish ancestry living around the world including 31.5 million in the United States. California has the largest number and New Hampshire boasts it has 21 percent of its total population of Irish descent. Every one of our 3,006 counties has at least one Irish person in residence.
Two million Irish march down Broadway on Saint Patricks day. A million do the same in Boston. Savannah Georgia sports a half million marchers. The Chicago River turn green and has since 1962.
The Sydney opera house, the great pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower are all green on Saint Patricks. So is the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the leaning Tower of Pisa, The Taj Mahal, Nelson Mandela’s statue in Johannesburg, The West Bank Palestinian Museum in Ramallah Palestine and that symbol of green, the Welome to Las Vegas sign in Lost Wages, Nevada.
When I lived in Hawaii I belonged to “The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick,” a fraternal organization primarily organized to throw a ball on the great day. Men wore tuxedo’s and the women ball gowns. A beautiful redheaded Aer Lingus stewardess was flown in each year to be the princess and believe you me, all had a wonderful time. Senator Fong, Senator Inouye, Mayor Fosse and even Hilo Hattie became Irish for the day.
George Custer, he of the glossy blonde ringlets went to his death on the Greasy Grass, galloping down Medicine Tail Coulee to the tune “Garryowen” an old Irish drinking song. Captain Myles Keogh was the only Irish officer to take part in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was one of 34 Irish born soldiers who died that day.
At least 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union army, most not yet citizens, many just off the boat from Ireland. 20,000 served the south and wore Butternut including all three of my Hooper kin who died at Bull Run and Malvern Hill. There are no figures as to how many Irishmen died in the Civil War, but it is likely that it ran perilously close to 40,000.
Literature and entertainment are rife with the sons and daughters of the “Auld Sod.” On the list: Walter Disney, Kurt Cobain, Pierce Brosnan, Mary Pickford, the first great movie star and the inestimable Bill Murray. The reigning king of macho, Clint Eastwood is on the list along with Alicia Keyes, Mariah Carey and Judy Garland. Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and J P Donleavy represent some of our Irish American greatest writers.
If you watch British film it’s obvious they have stolen the best Irish talent to stock their films and plays. Saoirse Ronan, Fionnula Flanagan, Stephen Rhea, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis, Peter O’Toole and the brilliant Maureen O’Hara. Yes even that quintessential Englishwomen Judi Dench had an Irish mother, Eleanora from County Dublin.
It is impossible to leave out the great Irish poets, Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats, James Joyce. Olivia Wilde, one of Irelands great poets was the mother of Oscar. Talent ran in the family . Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Seamus Heaney a poet who wrote with such a sublime beauty that his readings caused people in the audience to weep.
W.B. Yeats “When You are Old”
When you are old and gray and full of sleep And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
When you make the walk from Ralph and Duane’s to O’Conner’s on this coming Thursday, remember the stories, legends and Irish folk that have made this holiday what it is. Raise a glass for the Auld Sod and its people wherever they may be. Slainté
My family lived through the depression, the big one. For farm and ranch people that means from the federal governments cancellation of the WWI farm contracts until Adolf Hitler went into Poland. 1918 until 1939, just enough time to grow a new generation of boys. It was hard times, very hard times.
My dads side of the family, ranchers and dirt farmers who lived and worked in the central western part of California, and my mothers side in the states oilfields grew up and lived right through it. Both required hard work, misery and close attention to just getting by. There are numerous family stories about their toughness.
My grandmother made a trip from Bee Canyon east of Arroyo Grande to Madera on the seat of a buckboard. She was eight months pregnant with my mother and had my aunt Mariel who was just a toddler along for the ride. They did it in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley summer. Half way there it got so hot that the family dog Brownie went and sat under a shade tree in the lost Hills and refused to move. They left him and never looked back. The trip took 40 hours nonstop. To this day I don’t know how my grandmother did it. Dirt roads, ruts, pot holes, no shade, shaking and banging all the way. She walked with my grandfather Bruce up the Cuesta Grade because the horse couldn’t pull the loaded wagon with two people in it. Bruce carried Mariel. Eileen carried mom. There are all kinds of toughness.
Toughness. Money was tight. Frugality was the watchword. Nothing was wasted. Everyone in the family worked as soon as they could. Work they did for there was no safety net. No unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no medicare. Most every thing was cash and carry. The Bank of Arroyo Grande was as tight fisted as Scrooge McDuck.
People took a great deal of pride in making their own way. It was the way of their lives and until the day they died they asked for nothing.
Growing up I don’t think I ever heard the name Franklin Roosevelt without some kind of expletive preceding it. The president who held office before Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover was unable to blunt the force of depression in any significant way but in the family this was not held against him, after all he was a good Republican which went a long ways in our house. But Roosevelt, oh my, he was considered evil incarnate though in fact what he really represented was the intrusion of the Federal Government into the lives of people who considered themselves self sufficient. There is that toughness again.
Rural folks simply believed that the government could not properly run anything. Farmers were by this time pretty tight with their money and hated to give it up to an entity they were sure was simply going to waste on some fool project.
My dad used to grind his teeth whenever he saw a bridge or any other construction project that had WPA or CCC stamped on it. It wasn’t that he thought any of the young men in those organizations were bad but that the Federal Government was pouring his money down the drain.
Every time I cross one of those bridges, many of which still exist after ninety years I’m reminded criticisms are no always well founded.
When I was a kid we were used to state and national governments in our lives. Because of the times we lived in we had a different take. I’m not sending my Social Security check back and I’m glad to have Medicare and Veterans benefits but there is always the thought that they were right.
Here is an example of what they meant. My uncle Jackie was a cattleman. A charter member of the California Polled Herefords Association. Like most cattlemen he was pretty conservative. Remember that the root of conservative is conserve. Our ranch had, like most ranches, a shed where tools, feed and assorted junk was kept “In case I need it someday.” This of course was taken to ridiculous extremes. Ours was in what was called the calf shed. It was a little building with three small stalls where newborn calves who needed care could be kept and looked after. In one corner was a small room where tools, nuts and bolts, tractor parts and other assorted machinery was kept. If you needed a square headed bolt for a John Deere side delivery rake built in 1917, why we had it. We had wrenches for tractors long abandoned in the gully where old cars and trucks went to die. There were boxes of square headed nails not manufactured for over a hundred years. But if you needed one, we had it. A farmer or rancher could make the rounds of his friends and sooner or later someone would have what you needed for that old planter. You could age date the boxes they were kept in by the numbers of Black Widows living in them. Conserve, take care of yourself. No one else is going to do it.
I used to believe and I think is still true that every rancher and farmer in the county knew each other or were somehow related either by birth or marriage. Still pretty true. As I was the oldest boy, I used to ride around the county with my uncle while he was involved in buying or selling cattle. We would cruise out to Creston or up to the Cambria area to visit ranches and I listened while he and some cowman leaned on a fence and “chewed the fat.” We’d sit in the stands at the Templeton Stockyard Auction and I’d try and figure out who the bidders were. There was a sort of mystery to how they did that. I mean, the red and white cattle all looked the same and the ranchers did their actual bidding with what looked like telepathy. An eyebrow raised her and slight shift of a folded program or perhaps a hat brim touched with the index finger.
Templeton was where I first met Dick Nock. He was a friend of uncle Jack. This is the part where relationships come in. Though they were over twenty years apart in age, they both knew cattle. Dick was born and raised on the Phelan Ranch in Cambria, where his great-grandfather, Jeffrey Phelan, settled in 1858 after immigrating from Ireland. Our ranch was next door to another Phelan ranch in Arroyo Grande and my great uncle Patrick Moore, also an Irish immigrant was a friend to all the early Irish. I went to school with Phelan kids who are friends today. It’s so small town.
Growing up, Dick worked on the Fiscalini Ranch, went to Santa Clara College and spent the rest of his life here. By the time he was a grown man he knew everyone in the county who mattered in the cattle business. For many years he wrote a column on the ranching business for the San Luis Telegram Tribune. Like most columns with a pretty restricted audience, I mean does the average person really care about salt blocks, feed supplements or the proper application of “Whiz” fly spray. Not likely but Dick had a sly sense of humor and would offer deadpan, tongue in cheek observations that would do Jerry Seinfeld proud.
In the 1970’s he wrote a column that was perhaps a perfect example of how the Guvmint works. Or doesn’t.
It seems Dick was traveling up the 395 highway on the way to Olancha, a tiny town up in the Owens Valley. It’s the kind of place where Gus’s Fresh Jerky is the premier attraction. It’s the back of lonesome is how it is. When Dick took this particular trip he was checking the fences along the highway where the Bureau of Land Management was putting chicken wire along the bottom of the cattle fences to keep the desert tortoise, pretty slow moving even at top speed, from being squashed crossing the highway. The idea was to keep the tortoise off the endangered species list, they being completely inoffensive and harming no one. A noble idea.
In the way of governments, thinking the issue through, trying to see all sides and what disaster might occur when messing with nature for what seemed a good idea…. Well, lets put it this way. The Australians in their wisdom imported rabbits for hunting. A case of incomplete thinking to say the least. Rabbits now infest the country, no natural predators you see. In Hawai’i, rats jumped ship in the early days and became a real problem, destroying vegetation, eating lizards and harboring diseases. The importation of the mongoose in order to eat the rats was the answer. Only one problem, rats are nocturnal and the mongoose is diurnal and never the twain shall meet, hence the almost complete destruction of every bird species in the Hawai’ian islands.
The good thing, saving the Desert Tortoise immediately triggered the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Ravens who live in the desert were denied the tortoise roadkill they took for granted and being very smart Ravens sought out a new source of sustenance, turtle eggs. You can see the dichotomy here. Tortoises are saved from cars on 395 but there are no tortoises because the Ravens have eaten all the eggs. In a perverse way it is the perfect solution, tortoises are squashed, eggs are eaten and all the Ravens starve to death. Problem solved. Except it wasn’t.
What to do? Schedule a conference of course. Bring in the experts put them around a table and let them have at it. After careful study and a great deal of field work it was determined that there were simply too many Ravens. 1500 Ravens were sentenced to death by the BLM. Environmentalists were of course enraged. The Ravens had simply been Ravens, doing what they do. Threats of lawsuits, stakeholders meeting lasting months finally determined that only 56 of the most offensive Ravens would be executed. Furthermore these evil Ravens would be chosen based on observation of a minimum three Raven kills. Hmmm. As my uncle would say, “You’re a Daisy if you can and a Dumb Cluck if you can’t.” Yes, he actually said things like that, being a child of the 1920’s. Some things never left him.
Have you ever been to the lower reaches of the Owens Valley? It’s a vast area, nearly 700,000 acres in size. Only about 18,00 people live there, primarily along the north, south 395. The Mojave desert is its southern neighbor. See the problem? There is no one out there to count tortoises. No one knows how many there are. Millions of dollars in state and federal funds have been spent in studying this issue since Dick Nock wrote the original in the late 70’s. As far as anyone knows there are still 56 Ravens on death row. It’s an interesting turn of events and unfortunately there is certainly much more to come, because in the end the Tortoises are still getting squashed, eggs eaten and the Ravens prosper. The Guvmint men all shook hands, satisfied the problem had been solved. Environmentalists broke out the champagne, another victory notched and if Ravens could smile, the certainly did.
Thanks to Dick Nock and my uncle Jack Shannon who was so delighted by the column that he cut it out of the paper and saved it in his top dresser drawer for thirty years.
And that, my dear friends is why ranchers and farmers hate the Guvmint.
PS: Nothing has changed in the valley. Ravens still rule.
Richard Leo Nock September 3, 1931 – December 28, 2020 Dick Nock had a devoted family and a loyal community of friends, he remains the consummate cattleman (a fighting Irishman) with a never-ending enthusiasm for life.