Sad Tale in Irish Famine Victim’s Diary
In the fever sheds of a Canadian quarantine island, Gerald Keegan wrote his last, shaky words “in reverent memory of all those who have perished in this holocaust.”
He survived the ravages of Ireland’s great potato famine, when desperate peasants ate dogs and donkeys and died by the roadside chewing mouthfuls of grass.
He survived the storm-lashed Atlantic crossing on a coffin ship, with its daily burials at sea. Then he tended his young wife on the quarantine island of Grosse Ile until she died in his arms.
Now his “Famine Diary” has been rescued from obscurity and published in Ireland for the first time. Written in clear, simple prose, it gives a moving account of the disaster that struck Ireland in the mid-19th Century when the potato crop failed.
Between 1846 and 1850 famine and fever killed about 1 million people. Another million fled the land.
“As a result of the loss that I have suffered, the prospect of death on this field of battle is not at all frightening,” Keegan wrote after his wife’s death.
At last struck down himself by the fever that killed thousands of fellow emigrants, he was buried beside his wife in 1847 with a simple cross to mark the spot.
Keegan was a village schoolteacher in County Sligo in western Ireland. The diary was salvaged from his body by a priest.
“We have come to the end of our rope. The twin specters, famine and pestilence, hold sway over the land,” Keegan wrote.
Cursing the English landlords who ruled their lives, he and his wife Eileen took up the offer of a passage to Canada in return for paying off rent arrears.
His land was turning into a nightmare. “Some have been found dead with grass in their mouth. Dogs and donkeys have become common items of diet. Scores of bodies lie along the roadside.”
He reluctantly closed the school and embarked on the grueling journey to Dublin. “The children have lost their normal youthful appearance. They look like old people. They do not laugh and play anymore.”
On the trek to Dublin, he wrote, “I think I have acquired a deeper understanding of the Israelites’ long and painful march from their captivity in Egypt to a Promised Land. I have seen a never-ending stream of gaunt, dejected, ghost-like figures.”
Humans became Ireland’s biggest export. Aboard the packed ship Naparima, he said farewell to his homeland, “viewing the landscape in respectful silence, getting a last look at what is for all of us the dearest place on Earth.”
Conditions aboard ship were appalling. The stench of excrement filled the hold. No medicines were available. Fever broke out. Bodies were constantly thrown overboard.
“If crosses and tombs could be created on the water, the whole route of the emigrant vessels from Ireland to America would have looked like a crowded cemetery,” said one emigrant commissioner from the United States, reflecting on the estimated 20,000 people who perished on these ships.
The survivors staggering up through the hatches “looked for all the world like specters coming out of tombs with their ghastly complexions and gaunt, emaciated bodies,” Keegan wrote.
Once ashore he suffered the agony of watching his young wife die.
“I am alone now and I feel I have nothing to live for. Eileen is dead. I only wish I were her.” He kept her shawl as the only memento of their brief marriage.