Irish Potato Famine Colors Politics, Attitudes...


There are lush, green fields in Ireland that no one will plow, vacant lots near derelict or long-vanished workhouses where builders never build, empty stretches of road where passersby bless themselves and murmur a prayer.

Cast a sad eye on death, stranger. Thousands lie buried here in unmarked graves, victims of the great potato famine and government ineptitude and indifference that 150 years ago by death and emigration reduced Ireland’s population by more than a third.

Some died in the drainage ditch that was their final shelter after the landlord, aided by the bailiff and Her Majesty’s troops, burned down their cottages and evicted them from their tiny farms for falling behind in the rent. Others died along the road, too weak to make it to the churchyard with the corpses of their children--already nibbled by dogs and rats--in their arms.

More than a million people died of starvation and fever during the Great Potato Famine of 1845-49. Some 800,000 were evicted from their homes. Nearly 2 million sought a better life in the New World, but many of these, in the words of the Rev. Patrick Hickey, a famine historian, “found instead afterlife in the next world"--buried at sea from a fetid “coffin ship” or dying of fever in a quarantine station.


The ghosts of that great hunger a century and a half ago haunt the “peace process” that for almost a year now has brought about a tentative truce between the British government, which rules six northern counties in Ulster, and activist Irish Republicans with bitter handed-down memories of what they still regard as “official mass murder” and “Crown genocide.”

The famine “is not within living memory anymore, but a handing down of what your grandparents told you keeps anti-British awareness alive,” said the Rev. George Aggar of Cobh, the port for County Cork. There his father and uncle worked the tenders that until the middle of this century delivered thousands upon thousands to the Atlantic liners.

“The Irish today find it hard to understand and harder to forget that while people were dying in the fields, eating grass and boiled nettles, food was leaving the country under military escort,” Aggar said.

Prime Minister Lord John Russell, recounted curator Luke Dodd of the Famine Museum at Strokestown, “declined to interfere with the natural course of commerce. His Whig government was not prepared to allocate what was needed to head off starvation, but was always ready to dispatch police and troops of dragoons to help a landlord evict destitute tenants or protect a shipment of cattle or grain for export.”

Director Robert Scally of Ireland House at New York University notes “there were strong humanitarian strains in Victorian society, witness the anti-slavery movement, but clearly their sympathies did not extend to the Irish.” In Parliament, in the magazine Punch, in the music halls, even among liberal thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli and Friedrich Engels, the Irish were viewed as lazy, violent, hard-drinking, superstitious but comic products of a degenerate race and religion. In a word: Paddy.

“It will be difficult for most of our readers,” opined the Times of London in a famine editorial, “to feel near akin with a class which at best wallows in pigsties and hugs the most brutish degradation.”

In Ireland, the past is always present. Despite the persistence of memory, the Dublin government has allocated more than $1 million to commemorate the famine anniversary and pledged that events will not be “sanitized” in deference to the delicate peace talks.

“We will not go softly, but tell it like it was,” said Minister of State Avril Doyle. While blaming the famine’s terrible toll on “inadequate response by the authorities,” she feels relations between England and Ireland have “reached a maturity which allows looking back objectively.”


Looking back without anger requires tight control of the tear ducts as one travels the length and breadth of Ireland in search of its vanished population.

Begin at Abbeystrewery in West Cork, near the bottom of Ireland, in a vacant green field the size of a football field beside the ruins of a Cistercian abbey. More than 9,000 famine victims lie in this pit grave, many of them children from the workhouse in nearby Skibbereen where in the bitter winter of “Black ’47" the infant mortality rate reached 50%.

“Revenge for Skibbereen” is a rebel cry still heard at Irish Republican Army rallies. It was first raised by nationalist leader O’Donovan Rossa, who lost his father in the famine, after the family was evicted, and took part in the traditional “American wake,” a parting ritual of sobbing, drinking, fiddle-playing, dancing and priestly blessings, when his mother, sister and two brothers left for the New World.

Disaster first struck on a morning in late September in 1845 when “a queer mist came over the Irish Sea,” as one farmer put it, “and the potato stalks turned black as soot.” Next day the fields were “a wide waste of putrefaction giving off an offensive odor that could be smelled for miles.”


Phytophthora infestans, an airborne fungus, rotted one-third of the crop that fall. Next season the blight claimed the entire harvest.

Easy to grow, rich in vitamin C, potatoes were the sole source of nourishment for half the rural population. They flourished in a bog or on a mountain, on tiny tenant holdings averaging four acres and often only half an acre.

Potatoes were a staple at every meal--a burly farmer would down 15 at a sitting. Families now scavenged to survive on seaweed, sea gulls, boiled nettles and turf, soups of dog and fox meat, “boxty bread” baked from rotting “lumpers,” the watery spuds previously fed to the cattle, congealed blood extracted from the landlord’s cows or pigs and an occasional stolen sheep, being careful first to bury the skin in the bog to avoid “transportation” to Botany Bay as a convict.

The census of 1851 recorded “an excess mortality of over a million” for the years 1845 to 1849, but the toll may have been much higher. As census commissioner William Wilde, the father of the playwright Oscar Wilde, noted: “No pen has ever recorded the numbers of forlorn and starving who perished by the waysides or in ditches: Whole families lay down and died.”


The dying were more than just rows of government statistics to be argued over at Westminster as various relief schemes were tried and discarded: road works, importing corn from America, soup kitchens, workhouses, even sending in 60 agricultural advisers who in the desolate west sometimes found no surviving farmers to advise.

The Rev. Lawrence O’Sullivan at Kilmoe reported that his parishioners were “dying at the rate of 100 a week.” His colleague at Schull “gave the last rites to at least 15 persons a day, not including children.”

“Frightful and fearful is the havoc around me,” wrote the Rev. Robert Traill, Schull’s Protestant rector, “children disappearing with an awful rapidity and to this I add the aged who are almost without exception swollen and ripening for the grave.”

That year the artist James Mahony visited Cork to report on famine conditions for the Illustrated London News. Arriving at Clonakilty, his mail coach was “met by a woman with a dead child begging the price of a coffin.” Leaving town, he encountered “either a funeral or a coffin every 100 yards.” At Skibbereen he saw the “workhouse undertaker in his horse and cart sitting on four coffins and smoking his pipe with much apparent enjoyment.”


Mahony’s stark sketches raised angry voices in Parliament, which were soon muted by events transpiring at Strokestown, where the Famine Museum depicts a harrowing story of eviction and murder.

Located in the midland county of Roscommon, the museum centers on the estate of Maj. Denis Mahon, a British cavalry officer whose misfortune it was to inherit the 9,000-acre property, with a still-standing Palladian mansion, just as the famine broke out.

The estate had been poorly managed and plunged further into debt as the 12,000 tenants on mostly three-acre potato patches fell behind in their rent. Mahon’s agent urged clearing out two-thirds of the occupants to raise oats and cattle. It was “cheaper,” he advised, “to ship the surplus off to Canada than maintain them in the Roscommon workhouse for years to come.”

“A passage to Canada cost 6 pounds,” explained museum curator Dodd. “Supporting someone in the workhouse, which a landlord was bound to do under the Poor Laws, was 12 pounds a year.”


Mahon chartered four ships. Two became infamous as “coffin ships.”

“The Virginius from Liverpool, with 496 passengers,” the Toronto Globe reported, “had lost 158 at sea and she has 180 sick. Above one-half of the whole will never see their home in the new world.”

Quebec medical officers described the survivors as “ghastly yellow-looking specters . . . no more than six or eight being able to disembark on their own.”

Of the 352 who boarded Erin Queen, 78 died at sea and 104 arrived with fever. “The captain had to pay sailors a sovereign apiece to drag bodies from the hold with a boat hook. Their relatives would not touch them.”


In all, including many who declined to “go or pay up,” Mahon evicted 3,006. “Most of them now dead,’ lamented George Browne, then Catholic bishop of Roscommon. A local curate, Michael McDermott, denounced the major from the pulpit as “worse than Cromwell.”

Mahon, who had borrowed heavily to finance their passage, saw himself as “a humane and generous landlord,” a leader in local relief schemes. In fact, he was returning from a meeting of the Roscommon workhouse board of governors when unseen assassins fired two shots as his carriage passed over a bridge.

Hit in the chest, he died instantly. That night bonfires burned on the hills in celebration. Two suspects were hanged for his murder. “Their funerals were well attended,” noted the local paper.

Strokestown became synonymous with eviction. Today its almost intact estate records constitute a prime source of famine research. The museum even retains the murder pistol. Dodd is convinced the major was the target of a secret society, such as the Molly Maguires, which sought vengeance against evicting landlords, magistrates and “grabbers"--anyone taking over the land of a dispossessed tenant.


The Roscommon workhouse still stands, converted to a retirement home. “Anywhere in Ireland,” said Dodd, “you’re within 20 miles of a workhouse. At the peak of the famine, there were 173 of them.”

In Black ’47, the Galway Vindicator counted 2,513 occupants in the Limerick workhouse built for 800.

Late that year, emergency soup kitchens set up by the government or private charities were doling out one meal daily to 3 million.

On “Silver Mondays,” a shilling was handed to Catholics seen at Sunday’s Protestant vespers. British Bible societies offering food, clothing and even jobs to “jumpers"--those who switched religions--interpreted the famine as “God’s judgment on an indolent, hard-drinking, sinful people.”


Recent famine research, however, reveals a degree of Protestant-Catholic cooperation seldom seen in modern Ireland. “Protestant clergy bartering soup for souls were the exception,” Hickey said. “Most were very generous to all in need, working alongside the priests in relief work and in the fever wards.”

Mary Robinson, the president of Ireland, has characterized the famine as “an event which more than any others shaped us as a people. It defined our will to survive and our sense of human vulnerability. The nightmare images of the bailiff, the workhouse and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents for other people at this very moment.”