Friday, May 11, 2018

Kaiser Chiefs – "I Predict a Riot" (2004)

Watching the people get lairy
Is not very pretty I tell thee

Life today is incomprehensibly different today than it was in the 19th century.

If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a bike ride along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which follows the course of the Potomac River between Washington, DC, and Cumberland, Maryland.

Boat on the C&O Canal
Thousands of men equipped only with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows labored from 1828 to 1850 to dig that 184.5-mile-long canal.

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Most of the workers who worked on the C&O were Irish immigrants attracted by advertisements in the newspapers of Belfast, Cork, and Dublin.

Frances Trollope – whose son Anthony was the most prolific and probably the greatest of all the 19th-century British novelists – described the life of these Irish immigrants in her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans:

Of the white laborers on this canal, the great majority are Irishmen; their wages are from ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and the large allowance of whiskey.  It is by means of this hateful poison that they are tempted, and indeed enabled for a time to stand the broiling heat of the sun in a most noxious climate: for through such, close to the romantic but unwholesome Potomac, the line of the canal has hitherto run. 

The situation of these poor strangers, when they sink at last in “the fever,” which sooner or later is sure to overtake them, is dreadful. . . . Details of their sufferings often reached us; on one occasion a farmer calling at the house, told the family that a poor man, apparently in a dying condition, was lying beside a little brook at the distance of a quarter of a mile.  

The spot was immediately visited by some of the family; he was conveyed to the house, and expired during the night.  By inquiring at the canal, it was found that he was an Irish laborer . . . . He did not appear above twenty, and as I looked on his pale young face, which even in death expressed suffering, I thought that perhaps he had left a mother and a home to seek wealth in America. 

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Not surprisingly, many of the canal workers turned to alcohol to assuage their suffering.  (Wouldn’t you?)

The canal company soon prohibited the consumption of spirits by its workers.  You can imagine how well that went over.  (We’re talking about the Irish, after all.)

From National Park Service historian Harlan Unrau’s history of the C&O:

The company had considerable difficulty enforcing its prohibition in the absence of sup- porting Maryland laws, as the contractors continually faced trouble with shopkeepers along the line who maintained grog shops or surreptitiously sold liquor to the men. . . .

Drunkenness had actually increased during the period of prohibition as the men, deprived of a steady supply of spirits during the day, drank excessive quantities of alcohol at neighboring grog shops in the evening.  The intoxicated men rioted throughout most of the night, and morning found many of them lying on the ground where they had fallen exhausted, unfit for work that day.

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Fights among the canal workers were an everyday occurrence.

Harlan Unrau described the most serious outbreak of violence, which took place in 1834:

In 1834 open warfare broke out between two long feuding rival factions of the Irish workers – the Corkonians and the Longfords, sometime called Fardowners – during the idle winter months.

[Note: The “Corkonians” hailed from County Cork, the southernmost county of Ireland.  Longford County in central Ireland was a very small and very poor county.]

The first encounter in January 1834 was the result of a fight between on of the Corkonians and one of the Longfords named John Irons, the latter man being beaten badly that he soon died. . . . The skirmish between the Corkonians, who were working near Dam No. 5 above Williamsport, and the Fardowners from the vicinity of Dam No. 4, below the town, resulted in several deaths and many wounded in the clash before two companies of the Hagerstown Volunteers arrived on the scene to restore order.  The following day the militia returned to Hagerstown with 34 prisoners who were sent to jail. . . .

[A] major battle erupted [on] January 24.  A party of 300 Longfords, armed with guns, clubs and helves [i.e., ax handles], were permitted to cross the aqueduct and march up to Dam No. 5, when they announced that their intentions were merely to make a show of force.  Farther up the line they were joined by 300 to 400 more . . . . In a field on a hilltop just above Middlekauff’s Mill near Dam Mill near Dam No. 5, they met about 300 Corkonians armed with “military weapons.”  

Dam #5 today
Accepting a challenge, the Longfords charged up the hill amid an exchange of volleys that killed a number of men.  Soon the Corkonians fell back and fled before the superior forces of the Longfords.  A merciless pursuit took place until nightfall, and many of the fugitives that were over taken were savagely put to death.  Later five men were found in one place with bullets through their heads.  In addition, the bodies of other dead and wounded were strewn in every direction. . . .

The Maryland House of Delegates passed a resolution asking the President of the United States to order out a sufficient number of troops to preserve the peace at Williamsport.  The Maryland Senate substituted a resolution of its own authorizing the Governor to call out the state militia, but President Andrew Jackson had already issued orders to send two companies of the 1st regiment of the U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort McHenry to proceed to the canal.  Arriving via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the federal force remained along the line of the waterway for several months.

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I recently took a two-day, 60-mile bike ride along the C&O, which ceased operating in 1924 and was eventually acquired by the federal government and turned into a national historical park.  

The first day, I rode from mile 99.8 (Williamsport, Maryland) to mile 72.8, which is just across the Potomac from Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  (I parked in Shepherdstown and arranged for the owner of a local bike store to shuttle my bike and me to Williamsport so I didn’t have to ride that stretch of the canal in both directions.)

The second day, I drove to Williamsport and rode from mile 99.8 to mile 114.5 (where the towpath is adjacent to the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail) and back.  

The most notable canal structure I saw that day was Dam #5, one of several “feeder” dams built on the Potomac to provide a reliable water supply for the canal. 

Dam #5 – which was built by Corkonians – is about six miles upriver from Williamsport.

In December 1861, Stonewall Jackson and his men attempted to destroy the dam, which would have deprived the canal of sufficient water for boats to carry coal from western Maryland to Washington.  But Jackson’s attacks failed to knock the dam out of commission.

The dam currently produces over 1200 kilowatts of hydroelectric power.

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A couple of miles upriver from the dam is the house that was the home of the lockkeeper assigned to operate lock 49.  

Lockhouse 49
Lockhouse 49 is one of six C&O Canal blockhouses that you can rent.  It sleeps eight and costs only $125 a night.  While it has electric baseboard heat, it doesn’t have a kitchen or running water.  There’s a portapotty, however.

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The highlight of my second day’s ride was Fort Frederick State Park, the site of a stone fort built in 1756 to protect settlers during the French and Indian War.  

I’ll tell you more about Fort Frederick in the next 2 or 3 lines.

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“I Predict a Riot” was released in 2004 on Employment, the Kaiser Chiefs’ debut album:

The Kaiser Chiefs aren’t Irish – they hail from Leeds.  (Close enough for government work.)

In case you’re not familiar with the word “fairy,” the Cambridge English Dictionary says it means “behaving in a loud, excited manner, especially when you are enjoying yourself or drinking alcohol.”  

Not surprisingly, the word is almost always used to describe men, not women.

Here’s “I Predict a Riot”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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