WAUCONDA – Robert West has dedicated 40 years to spreading accurate information on Irish history. Before major holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, the 88-year-old Wauconda resident makes hundreds of copies of his histories on Irish enslavement, music and other topics to send them off to newspapers and Irish organizations around the country.
In the basement of his Wauconda home, West’s office contains multiple file cabinets filled with histories and primary documents he uses to write his articles. The walls are lined with prints of Irish political posters dating back to when candidates’ head shots were drawn on silk in India ink.
“It’s important to note that the history books were written by Englishmen and Anglophiles,” said West. With Irish blood on both sides of his family, West makes it his goal to correct the misinformation he says many American children grow up learning in history classes.
Referring to the Great Hunger as the potato famine is a common mistake because the famine was really a political issue, West said.
“There was plenty of food in Ireland, but England shipped most of it out,” he said.
In a historical article on Irish music that West distributed for St. Patrick’s Day this year, he wrote: “The history of Ireland is told in song. …In these songs the Irish heart speaks of enduring sacrifice and hardship; of genocide by the English oppressor and his artificially created famines; of sorrow in the forced transportation and exiling of loved ones from their native land forever; and of ordinary people, their resistance against oppression and their deep desire for real freedom.”
West, a World War II Marine infantry veteran, started doing research on Irish history – in particular, Irish enslavement prior to the American revolution – while working at Great Lakes Naval Base in electronics system command. “Prior to World War I, two Irishmen who lived in Lake County donated the property that the Great Lakes Naval [Station] is on today,” West said.
Diane Dretske, Lake County Discovery Museum historian, said the whole strip along Lake Michigan was mostly settled by Irish people because earlier settlers in the 1830s and 1840s looked for land they could farm more quickly out in the Libertyville area. “The Irish got the last of what was available,” she said.
West became curious in Irish history after learning that the Irish were sold as slaves in the West Indies. “The more I get into it, I think of the hundreds of years in the quest for Irish freedom,” he said.
West, state director of the American Irish Political Education committee, is also a member of the Irish American Unity Conference, which has the goal of a peaceful unification of Ireland, he said. “Ireland was partitioned by England [divided into two territories] back in 1920 and every generation has been uprising, peaceful or violent,” he said. In 1980, he co-founded a chapter of the Irish National Caucus.
West sends Christmas cards to Irish political prisoners each year. “Everyone likes getting Christmas cards,” he said.
When West and his wife moved to Charleston, North Carolina, he utilized the library to compile his research using inter-library loans, sometimes waiting up to six years for information, he said. He continued the research when they moved back to Wauconda 50 years ago.
Dretske said Lake County residents interested in doing their own historical research can use the Lake County Discovery Museums resources like the Curt Teich postcard archive, which includes postcards from all over the world. “In 1918, students in Lake County put together community histories by interviewing people. Many people talked about Irish settlers,” she said.
Despite his interest, West said he’s never been to Ireland. “There’s an awful lot to see here first,” he said.