Christina Roden talks about the Irish famine of the 1840's with The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, Black 47's Larry Kirwan, and composer Patrick Cassidy.
1997 marks the 150th anniversary of the worst year of the Great Irish Potato Famine. 1847 was the nadir of a natural calamity that could have easily been reversed. Instead, it was crafted via human agency into a holocaust. Descendants of the victims world-wide still refer to it as "Black '47"
By the middle of the 19th century, the potato was the Irish peasantry's major source of sustenance. It adapted well to growing conditions in Ireland and produced large yields from small plots. Eaten with buttermilk for protein, it was a nutritious complex carbohydrate rich in vitamins and minerals. However, an entire race's hand-to-mouth dependence on a single foodstuff was a precarious thing and presaged disaster.
Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine had a population of 8 to 9 million. Cromwell's Puritans had given the peasantry's landowning ancestors the choice between "Hell or Connacht". They could either be put to the sword or submit to the confiscation of their property and be forced onto inadequate plots west of the Shannon, for which they must now pay rent. The "Hanging Gale" system permitted tenants to defer payment until they built shelter and brought in a crop. While this cut them some slack in the short term, it placed them permanently in arrears and vulnerable to eviction at a whim of the landlord.
The vast majority of the tenant class existed in dire poverty, under conditions little better than serfdom. It is recorded that in a parish in County Donegal numbering some 9,000 souls, there were only 10 beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools. Worse still, homeless vagrants wallowed in flimsily covered ditches, bog holes and river banks. Protestant absentee landlords and their mostly Irish-born land agents belittled the natives as shiftless and slovenly. Of course, any improvements made became the property of the landlords and ultimately priced the land beyond the means of the tenants. There was precious little incentive for a dispirited and oppressed underclass to better their standard of living.
In the summer of 1845, the peasants of western Ireland were looking forward to a bountiful potato harvest. The "lazy beds" that corrugated the steep hillsides and clung to the thin and rocky topsoil were covered with healthy plants, stretching toward the fitful sun and basking in the mist and rain, the famous "soft weather" of Ireland. But by September, rumors were circulating about a mysterious blight of almost supernatural power. Tubers dug up sound broke down into a malodorous black mush. Animals who ate the diseased spuds speedily died. The culprit was a malignant fungus and it spread fast. The potato crop had failed before, but never to this degree or for so long. The peasants held on as best they could and prayed that the harvest of 1846 would be better, but it too was nearly wiped out. The disaster was absolute by 1847, and the next two years were just as bad. All hope of rescue died.
The "Hanging Gale" fueled the apocalypse. The starving tenants were unable to pay their rents and wholesale evictions began. Friends and relations were forbidden to take in the dispossessed on pain of losing their own homes. Families wandered off with no destination in mind. Later, their wizened corpses were found lying by the roads with green mouths from eating grass. Those who didn't starve outright succumbed to typhoid, relapsing fever and other scourges.
Entire villages went under. The destruction at Skibbereen became a Fenian battle cry, but there are many such stories. The dreaded workhouses could not absorb the sheer numbers of people needing help and were choked with the dying. Individual burials were not always possible so mass graves were dug. Some of the victims were never buried at all. There is a legend in County Mayo that the greenest places in the countryside mark where Famine casualties fell and were slowly absorbed into the earth. Anyone who lies down on these grasses will feel echoes of the hunger, despair and loneliness of their last moments.
Ireland during the Famine was producing enough food other than potatoes to feed its entire population twice over. The landlords callously exported this bounty to England and various colonial outposts. Some attempts at relief were made, but the prevailing policy was that too much charity would undermine the character of the Irish people, which the British had a low opinion of anyway. Selling grain to the desperate victims at a lower price would be counter-productive to free enterprise, they reasoned. In any case, the removal of these difficult people, by any means, was an admirable solution to the problem of over-population. The landlords were anxious to get the land under cattle and sheep, which commanded high prices abroad.
It has been stated that laissez-faire on the part of the ruling classes toward the victims was the major problem. However, the evidence suggests that it took aggressive and sustained effort to ensure that one and a half million bewildered and helpless men, women and children died from starvation and disease. As a famous quote by Sydney Smith puts it, "The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots".
Prior to the Famine, very few people willingly left Ireland. There is no word in the Irish Gaelic tongue for emigration, with its implication of voluntary departure. The closest equivalent translates to "exile". The Famine drove two and one half million people to emigrate. Many of these perished in the attempt, as the "coffin ships" were notorious breeding grounds for disease. Still more died shortly after landfall in Canada or the United States, where most of them were headed. The graves at Grosse Ile in Quebec bear eloquent witness to this phase of the tale.
The first immigrant to set foot on Ellis Island in New York was a teenaged Irish girl named Annie Moore. An Austrian Jew politely stepped aside and let her disembark ahead of him. She probably didn't meet with very much gentility thereafter. Most of the Famine refugees came from Gaelic-speaking areas and knew little English. They were confronted with "Irish Need Not Apply" signs when they searched for work and could get only the worst jobs amid degrading circumstances. But they persevered and most became valued members of their adopted societies within the first generation.
Very few of the immigrants returned permanently to Ireland. Instead, they financed much needed improvements at home and made further emigration possible. Leaving Ireland was no longer thought of as a last ditch option. It was virtually a tradition in some areas and the outward-bound hemorrhage of the country's best and brightest young people still continues. Under 5 million people live in Ireland today. This is roughly the same number as just after the Famine. More than 40 million people of Irish descent live in North America. Obviously, the Great Irish Famine was and remains a crucial chapter in the history of the American people.
A shortened version of this article was originally published in Rhythm Music Magazine. This is the author's full text, reproduced with her permission.
Copyright 1997 Christina Roden