Is mise Shiobhain Ní Shúilleabháin

June 1, 2017 Published by Julie Arrison-Bishop

by Diana Dunlap

In her first language, Joan Sullivan could introduce herself in two different ways: “Siobhain Ní Shúilleabháin is ainm dom” (“Joan O’Sullivan is the name at me”) or “Is mise Siobhain Ní Shúilleabháin” (“It’s myself Joan O’Sullivan”). In the course of many months of discussion with the writer-director of the theatrical experience, I Am Joan Sullivan, I’ve come to think of this project as “Is mise Shiobhain Ní Shúilleabháin.” We know little of Joan Sullivan’s life story outside of her brief indenture with Captain John Turner (builder of The House of the Seven Gables) and subsequent transfer to the Quaker, Thomas Maule. Her appearance in our local court records testifies to her willingness to use her own voice to negotiate for her own position in the world. Through the court records, we see her adeptly use the language and customs of the strangers who deprived her of her liberty even as she attempts to preserve some sense of her own language and religion.

Although we don’t know where exactly Joan was born, her last name offers a strong clue: the Uí Shúilleabháin clan belongs to the far southwest of Ireland, in modern-day counties Cork and Kerry; their name literally means “descendants of the one-eyed.” For almost a century and a half before Joan’s birth, Ireland was periodically devastated by a series of colonial wars as the British Crown attempted to consolidate its control over the island. England already had a centuries-long colonial presence in Ireland, but the Protestant Reformation added the brutality of religious warfare to the mix, and the Crown made Irish lands available as “plantations” (land grants) for English and Scottish settlers. Joan’s parents would have lived through the brutal pacification of the native Irish and “Old English” Catholics under Oliver Cromwell’s English Puritan forces, some of whom had connections in New England or later migrated there themselves.

While the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 reversed some of the Cromwellian regime’s most oppressive policies, Irish Catholics were increasingly impoverished and deprived of civil rights in their own country. Some emigrated to the American colonies, as many as 60% as indentured servants. Most probably sold themselves in order to pay their own passage, while a small minority were transported as criminals. Very few of these migrants appear to have journeyed to New England. Considering the hostility of New England Puritans to Irish Catholics, this isn’t surprising, and it makes Joan’s appearance in Salem a bit of a mystery. Why on earth did she find herself bound for a colony whose people detested her ethnicity and religion, and why would any New Englander purchase the indenture of an Irish-speaking Catholic? Unfortunately, the court records do not tell us, but they do perform the small miracle of preserving the voice of a seventeenth-century Irish immigrant woman.

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This post was written by Julie Arrison-Bishop