"Famine," Thomas Delaney's
stark sculpture in Dublin's St. Stephen's Green, recalls Ireland's
interview, part 1
By the 1840's, says Dr. Kevin Whelan, the British saw the Irish as backward "papists."
Great Potato Famine drained Ireland of hope. The resulting
immigration brought hope and strength to the youthful Church
in the United States. This year, a century and a half later,
a stronger Ireland and a stronger American Church remember
the years of Famine. Text and photos by Judy Ball
- It was a cruel act of nature that got out of control.
- It was a disaster destined to happen given a centuries-old history of oppression.
- It was a social trauma which festered due to callous indifference, if not bad faith, on the part of the British government.
- It was a calamity permitted to degenerate into widespread misery under the prevailing economic notion that the market would correct itself.
- It was a signal from God.
- It was a natural event that created an opportunity for the British to engage in social engineering, fast-forwarding the primitive Irish into civilization by weaning them from the poor mans crop, the potato.
- It was the Irish potato famine.
The Great Famine of 1845-1850 is one of the most highly charged chapters of Irish history. Whatever lay behind and beneath the so-called potato famine that wracked Ireland 150 years agothe viewpoints are many and often contentiousthe Famine has moved to center stage. Following decades of limited, cautious, sometimes circumspect discussion, Irish voices are increasingly being heard on the subjectthose of historians, writers, poets and social commentators as well as everyday citizens.
Six million emigrated from Cobh, near Cork, between 1790 and 1950, as commemorated in this sculpture of Annie Moore and her brothers.
Hearing Irish Voices
past summer I traveled to Ireland to listen to some of those
voices through a program sponsored by the Institute of Irish
Studies. As a participant in the Institutes course on
The Culmination of Horror: The Famine in Ireland,
I was there to get a firsthand perspective on the impact of
the terrible blight which infested the potato beginning in
learned about the estimated 1.5 million Irish people who died
of starvation or disease during the Great Famine and of the
approximately 1.2 million more who left their homeland in
a frantic attempt to outwit death, often boarding the infamous
coffin ships bound for North America and Australia.
Most of the names of those who died will forever remain unknown
to us; it was the most vulnerable and the least important
who did not survive in Ireland or on the long, precarious
journey by ship. But many of us know well and, indeed, revere
the names and memories of our ancestors who managed to outlast
the Famine in Ireland or survive the weeks and months at sea
on their way to new lives in a new land.
our two-week course, based at Trinity College Dublin, I had
the opportunity to hear some of the Irish voices who are speaking
and writing about the Famine. (The year 1997 marks the 150th
anniversary of so-called Black 47, considered the worst
year of the five-year disaster.) The course, which included
interdisciplinary lectures, also took us to Famine museums
at Cobh, County Cork, and Thurles, County Tipperary, and to
the now-thriving town of Skibbereen, one of the most well-known
and well-documented victims of famine and fever in the 1840s.
today the stories, sights and sounds have a dreadful potency:
ghostly potato ridges along otherwise picturesque rural landscapes;
cemeteries with simple unmarked stones where individual Famine
victims lie as well as mass burial pits holding thousands
of nameless dead; documented accounts of weakened children
and adults, thought to be dead, almost buried alive; remnants
of Famine era walls and roads carefully constructed but leading
nowhere, ill-conceived legacies of the public works program;
shells of disease-infested workhouses where the most destitute
were housed and where dependency was discouraged through a
harsh regime of work and segregation of families by sex and
age; accounts of the breakdown of a nations entire social
fabric, including its most treasured rituals and customs.
Safe to Look Back Now?
one can only commemorate when one is at a safe distance,
says Dr. Margaret Kelleher, who teaches English at St. Patricks
College, Maynooth. The silence has been tenacious
at many levels, she notes, including in the popular memory,
in literature, among historians. She understands that, in
the past, the Famine has been used to fuel anger and political
resistance, and that there is a reluctance on the part of
many in Ireland today, both in the Republic and in the North,
to go down that dangerous road. But the silence stems from
more than political sensitivities, she believes.
discuss the Famine, says Dr. Kelleher, is to risk tapping
immense depths of pain, including the reality
that during the Famine some people gained as some people
suffered. The kinds of choices people had to make, for
example, about what to do with the limited food available
is not easily talked about even now. But, she says, our
duty is to remember with a complexity that does not dilute
the horror or avoid it.
A bit of local history enlivens the guided tour of modern Skibbereen, West Cork, being conducted by area citizen Phil ORegan (center).
Dr. Donal McCartney, ascribing blame is not the point. The
professor emeritus of history at University College Dublin
sees a complex picture in the official response to the Famine:
a mixture of stupidity and incompetence,
but good intentions as well.
Great Famine, Dr. McCartney says, pronouncing
the words slowly and solemnly. Its bad enough
at that. As one concerned that the Famine is used to
fill young Irish minds with a hatred of the British government
for its sometimes anemic and ineffective handling of the disastrous
upheaval in its nearby colony, Dr. McCartney is equally opposed
to avoiding the subject in an effort to eliminate all
the tears and stresses from history.
the benefit of hindsight, social historians can now offer
convincing evidence that significant portions of rural Ireland
in the 1840s were ripe for trouble. Indeed, ominous
social undercurrents had been churning for hundreds of years,
beginning with what Dr. McCartney calls Britains ultimately
successful conquest of Ireland dating from the
confiscating Irish-owned land and planting the
island with Protestant English and Scottish landlords, the
British introduced a new landed class politically loyal to
the Empire. The social gulf and the divided political and
religious loyalties between landlord and worker would only
grow over the centuries to come.
Penal Laws of the late 17th century forbidding Catholics to
own, purchase or inherit land left a bitter taste. Then, in
1800, came the Act of Union that officially abolished the
independent Irish Parliament in Dublin; henceforth the British
Parliament supervised affairs from London.
disappearance of Irelands own Parliament is no idle
historical point of interest, says Dr. Kevin Whelan, research
scholar with the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. It means,
he says carefully, that the Famine [of 1845-50] did
not occur in Ireland, but in the United Kingdom of Great Britain
and Ireland that had been created by the Act of Union.
But that was not all.
socioeconomic hierarchy created by the 16th-century plantation
efforts left landlords, mostly Protestant but some Catholic,
at the top of the ladder. Below them were ever smaller farmers,
including so-called cottiers who lived in one-room cabins
and, on the lowest rung, the utterly vulnerable tenant farmers.
many of the landlords were absentees living in England or
in Dublins Georgian houses, they or their sub-landlords
were only too happy to have their on-site agents parcel out
the land in increasingly smaller plots. The landlords
ultimate goal was to get as much rent as they could from as
many tenants as possible.
pre-Famine Irish unwittingly cooperated, marrying early and
having large families. The population, which had doubled between
1750 and 1800, doubled yet again in 1841 to just over eight
million people. Among them were two million landless laborers.
As the population escalated and the gap widened between rich
and poor, so did the latters dependence on the ecological
miracle crop of the day: the potato. On the eve of the Famine,
approximately 25 percent of the population lived off the potato
while another 50 percent were virtually dependent on it for
Poverty, Population, Potatoes
in 1845, came reports of potatoes going black in some fields.
One third of the crop was lost. What was dismissed by some
as just a bad year was followed in 1846 and again
in 1847 by a decline in three quarters of the potato crop.
The potato fungus (phytophthora infestans) which had
migrated in the late 1500s from Peru and ultimately
moved from the United States to Europe, had planted itself
deeply and disastrously in the Irish soil.
cruelty of the timing of the Famine, says Dr. Whelan,
was that it came precisely when the economic and demographic
curves were most out of synch. The irony continued.
In response to the disaster, impoverished farmers sold any
cash crops they could, becoming ever more dependent on the
unmistakably, Ireland was facing the worst famine in European
history. The odor of decaying potatoes pervaded the land.
Hardest hit was the vast impoverished underclass, outwitted
by three potent enemies: poverty, population and the diseased
gruesome realities haunted the tiny island which soon was
overrun with hunger and disease. What few farm animals there
were died off. People sold their boats to buy food and ate
the following years seed potatoes. Entire families desperately
turned to anything they could consume, including grass, in
a futile effort to stay alive.
riots erupted as people saw grains and other foods being exported
or grew impatient for long-awaited relief works. Typhus and
cholera were rampant, inducing a fear and dread not experienced
since the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Dead bodies rotted
in fields and along roadsides, or were eaten by rats and dogs.
Entire families succumbed to famine and disease behind their
cottage doors in a final attempt to preserve a sense of privacy
the end, some made their final journey to mass graves on carts
stacked high with bodies. Still others were transported via
hinged coffins which, ingeniously and insidiously, could be
used time and again.
Irish and the British and, indeed, the world, were caught
off guard and scrambled to respond. A number of temporary
relief programs were immediately introduced by the British
to alleviate the suffering. Donated food arrived, often at
the initiation of Irish-Americans. British Prime Minister
Sir Robert Peel made arrangements for Indian corn (maize)
to be imported from the United States. Even those who were
alarmed at the growing disaster misread the scope and strength
of what would prove to be a five-year assault on the Irish
economy, to say nothing of the Irish spirit.
to that, says Dr. Whelan, was the pre-Famine British conviction
that the Irish were Celtic and other,
that they were papists who were backward and primitive
and who needed to be fast-forwarded into civilization. The
British saw the potato as a root crop for a primitive people.
Furthermore, the notion of so-called providentialism was powerful
at the time. People who held to it, Dr. Whelan explains, believed
that the Famine would do permanent good out of transient
evil.... God was delivering a signal to Ireland, and they
should not interfere too much with the will of God.
They included Charles Trevelyan, who served during the Famine
as assistant secretary of the treasury and had major responsibility
for relief efforts.
the predominant laissez-faire economic policy (meaning let
be) held that it was simply not governments job
to interfere with the free market or to provide aid for its
citizens; people were to be self-sufficient, and charity would
only weaken them.
Safety Nets Destroyed
response to the Famine was a patchwork of on-again, off-again
relief programs too often administered with a when-is-this-ever-going-to-end
attitude. These included so-called workhouses for the utterly
destitute but which, in fact, became punitive, oppressive
and disease-ridden facilities dreaded by all but the most
programs designed to employ men at such tasks as building
public roads faltered for many reasons, including halfhearted
support on the part of landowners as well as greed and inefficiency.
As the crops failed again in 1846 and food prices rose higher,
an increasing number of people, often starving, were employed
building roads which often led nowhere or were located in
deserted areas where they were not needed. As more and more
men scrambled to earn a little moneyif they had the
energy to workmillions more were succumbing to starvation.
Some former soup kitchens still stand in Skibbereen, identified by some historians as "the hellhole" of the Famine.
Soup Kitchen Act of early 1847 sought to replace the overburdened
relief works system with temporary feeding facilities. The
kitchens were to function only briefly, until the harvest
in September offered relief. Meanwhile, the number of people
engaged in relief work was drastically cut even before the
soup kitchens had been established. In some areas, angry,
despairing crowds demanded work and rejected the idea of queuing
in public for food that, in many cases, was of such poor quality
that it offered little nutrition.
small number of privately run soup kitchens engaged in souperism,
distributing food to people only if they promised to give
up the Catholic faith and become Protestant, or trying to
induce the masses by serving meat-filled soup on Fridays,
when Catholics were still forbidden to eat meat.
some of the official relief programs worked miracles, extending
if not saving lives. Also, the St. Vincent de Paul Society
sprang into action. Particularly noble and successful efforts
were made by the Quakers, who numbered only 3,000 out of a
population of more than 8 million. Still, they succeeded in
saving many lives through their organized distribution of
food and their refusal to proselytize. We will never
know how many lives were saved as a result of these
efforts, says Rob Goodbody, a member of the History Committee
of the Society of Friends, but in the folk memory of
Ireland, Quakers are known as people who helped during the
the time the soup kitchens were closed in September 1847,
three million people had been fed each day, but the systems
that had been put into place grew less effective while the
desperate masses grew weaker. Famine and disease overrode
the land, and large numbers of poor tenant farmers were evicted
from their small plots of land.
families took shelter wherever they could, including roadside
ditches. Others lurched to the nearest workhouse if it was
not too distant and if room was available. A limited number
of the evicted were given a small sum of money by their landlords
for the purpose of emigrating. While these landlords were
initially praised for their generosity, the practice soon
came to be seen as enforced exilenothing like the pre-Famine
emigration among the mostly young and strong who were leaving
Ireland by choice. The estimated 1.2 million people who emigrated
in 1846-52 were further induced by newspaper ads and placards
urging them to leave.
certainly were in no position to be selective about the conditions
under which they traveled. Many of the so-called coffin ships,
often unseaworthy, were stuffed with humans themselves unfit
for the difficult journey. An unknown number died at sea as
the sick and the healthy were cooped up together for weeks
on overcrowded ships with unsanitary conditions, rotten food
and foul water. Typhus was so prevalent it became known as
who crossed the Atlantic more likely landed in Canada, which
charged lower fares and which offered more relaxed immigration
rules than did the United States. But most of those who survived
the weeks at sea and successfully passed through the quarantine
station ultimately headed for the United Statesby the
back door, if necessary. The immigrants were lemmings
rushing to America, and nothing was going to stop them,
says Joseph Robins, a retired social historian in Dublin.
did not readily welcome what they saw as hordes of impoverished
and diseased immigrants unfit for almost any kind of work.
Still, the new arrivals flocked to the large cities, where
they lived in slum areas and picked up work as unskilled labor.
Only 10 percent headed to the familiar rural areas in search
of a life with which they had been familiar in Ireland. The
land had betrayed them once; the fear was that it just might
in Ireland, the Famine continued with a vengeance and the
torrent of emigration continued. By 1850 the worst was over
and the potato crop had recovered some of its strength. But
some provinces within Ireland had lost 25 percent of their
populations to starvation and disease, with three fifths of
the deaths among children under 10 and adults over 60.
declined by 36 percent between 1841 and 1851. An estimated
10,000 Famine victims were interred in a mass burial pit.
The other losses were harder to calculate, but of equally staggering dimensions. No modern historian would argue the case for genocide, says Kevin Whelan, but the Famine was certainly ethnocidal in that it led to the destruction of a culture and the unraveling of so much of what had been. The Famine, he says, ripped gaping holes in the moral membranes of Irish society, leaving only the biological husk. It was a bomb that left demographic shrapnel.
Bonds between people had come apart. Solidarity, neighborliness, the safety nets of Irish life were destroyed. The Irish experience of death, once a communal affair, was replaced by a numbness, according to Whelan. People were isolated and devoid of direction, drained of hope. There was a pervasive sense of sadness and despondency in the culture. Even the Irish language came close to dying out: Of the estimated 1.2 million who died, three quarters of them spoke Gaelic, as did a significant number of emigrants. The Irish language was increasingly marginalized. It came to be something which belonged to the private world, to family, to home only.
Melancholy Comforts of the Church
the vacuum created by the trauma of the Great Famine stepped
a more public and assertive Roman Catholic Church. The Famine
helped to give birth to a new form of Catholicism in Ireland,
one characterized by an emphasis on devotional practices and
forms of piety not formerly seen. Mass attendance increased,
devotion to the rosary flowered, seminaries and convents were
built to prepare ever-growing numbers of men and women seeking
to give their lives in service to God.
same devotional revolution, as historians call
it, also could be found in Americas newest immigrants
who had fled their famine-ridden land. Upon their arrival
in the 1840s and beyond, they found an existing Church
made up of people who were better educated and of a higher
socioeconomic class than they, says Dr. Jim OToole,
associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts
in Boston. The established American Catholics of the
day were of a more intellectual bent and found themselves
drawn to reading the spiritual classics or the Bible,
Dr. OToole told St. Anthony Messenger in a telephone
The Famine ripped gaping holes in the moral membranes of Irish society, leaving only the biological husk.
freshness and vigor of the new immigrants faith and
the depth of their religiosity had a strong impact on the
still-new Catholic Church in the United States. Not surprisingly,
says Dr. OToole, the new immigrants brought a
more devotional, a more emotional approach to religion.
Practices like Forty Hours, the rosary and the Sacred Heart
spoke to them. Such devotions tapped into the melancholy strain
of Famine immigrants.
emphasis on piety helped the immigrants cope with their hard
lives, the uncertainty with which they lived, their limited
leisure. Most of them were blue-collar, working-class laborers
whose lives were hardly glamorous. They built the tenements,
streetcars, railroads and sewers of Americas growing
such people, says Dr. OToole, religious piety gave
them emotional directness, a way to feel they were in
close communication with a God who was with them in their
everyday struggles. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, for example,
is bound up with suffering, he points out. It
is not surprising to find such devotional and theological
emphasis from people undergoing what they were. For
the post-Famine immigrants, religion was used as a direct
more surprising, at least at first glance, is the number of
Famine and post-Famine Irish who quickly rose to the highest
ranks within the Catholic Church in America. Clearly, says
Dr. OToole, who served as the first archivist for the
Archdiocese of Boston (1978-86), the hierarchy in America
is dominated by the Irish, many of them immigrants or certainly
first generation, from the Civil War at least to World
War I. Studies of parish clergy also reflect the Irish influence.
the Church, he points out, was a way of serving God as well
as advancing the fortunes of the family. As Famine
and post-Famine families began to move into the middle class,
it was almost common for them to include a priest among the
other professions represented, such as lawyer and doctor.
possibility of advancement was even more true
for women who entered religious life and thereby received
a better education than would have been available. The religious
life allowed women to become professional teachers and
hospital administrators, says Dr. OToole, to
enter careers otherwise closed to women.
Church leaders included John Hughes, archbishop of New York,
a pre-Famine immigrant who served during the mid-19th century
and began the construction of St. Patrick Cathedral. John
Ireland, who served as archbishop of St. Paul, arrived in
the U.S. from Ireland at age 10. He gained a reputation as
an outspoken enthusiast for American freedom and activism.
William OConnell, the early 20th-century cardinal-archbishop
of Boston, is the subject of Dr. OTooles book,
Militant and Triumphant: William OConnell and the
Catholic Church in Boston (University of Notre Dame Press,
son of Famine immigrants, OConnell represents
the maturing of the Famine children and their generation,
says Dr. OToole. While the numbers of young Irish women
in America who gave their lives to religious service were
many and they provided the most direct, personal contact with
their fellow immigrants through the parish school, the hospital
and the orphanage, their names are less known to us.
Remembrance and Revival
the Church flourished in America with the new blood provided
by Famine immigrants, the same was occurring in Ireland itself.
Indeed, as neo-Gothic churches, seminaries and convents became
part of the landscape, the entire country was beginning to
reinvent itself through a Celtic revival, a literary revival,
the return of Irish dance and sports.
Whelan characterizes it as a delayed response to the
Famine which succeeded in putting Ireland on a
new plane. And we are doing the same today, he says.
The Ireland of today is born out of the Famine. Until
recently, we have been under its shadow, but now we are revisiting,
reinterpreting, reimagining it. Maybe now we have sufficient
distance to look at it.
the British, through their Prime Minister Tony Blair, are
looking anew at the 150-year-old Famine. In a letter to organizers
of an event which commemorated the Famine earlier this year,
Mr. Blair spoke of the deep scars that had been
caused and expressed regret at his countrys response.
who governed in London at the time failed their people through
standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human
tragedy, Blair said shortly after his election last
May. That one million people died in what was then part
of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something
that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.
looking for an apology, heard close to that in Blairs
statement. But Irelands former president, Mary Robinson,
who participated in many Famine commemorations during 1997
before taking up her new post as U.N. high commissioner for
human rights, sees no room for bitterness. Let us not
be prisoners of our history, she insists. The
best possible commemoration of the men and women who died
in that Famine, who were cast up on other shores because of
it, is to take their dispossession into the present with us,
to help others who now suffer in a similar way.
The Institute of Irish Studies will again offer courses through Trinity College Dublin from June to September 1998. Tentatively scheduled are such courses as "The Odyssey of St. Columba," "The Women of Ireland," "The Drama of Ireland" and "The Monastic Tradition in the West of Ireland." Information is available from Noelle Cleary, Director, at 6 Holyrood Park, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Judy Ball, whose ancestors hail from County Tipperary and County Cork, is the managing editor of Millennium Monthly, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, and the managing editor of American Catholic Online.