Theme Layout

Boxed or Wide or Framed


Theme Translation

Display Featured Slider


Featured Slider Styles

Display Grid Slider

Grid Slider Styles

Display Author Bio

Display Instagram Footer

Dark or Light Style

Search This Blog

Blog Archive


Popular Posts


The Great Famine marked Ireland forever

(In the December issue of Celtic Life International, I write about ranging around Ireland while exploring the many dimensions of the Irish famine.)
It's not all that far to Tipperary – not if you start in Kilkenny and make for the Famine Warhouse at the eastern edge of that song-famous county. We simply drove west for about 30 km, which included a short detour because we took a wrong turn and ended up exploring a one-lane road with a ridge of grass down the middle. The Famine Warhouse is the site of an 1848 incident known as the Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch – an episode that to me represented a fourth and final dimension of the Great Famine.
By this time, three weeks into our latest Irish ramble, and somewhat to my surprise, I had come face to face with the politics, the science, and the human suffering of the Great Hunger. I saw the Warhouse as symbolizing the active response – the rebellion. But I have gotten ahead of our wanderings around southeastern Ireland, an area that, during the famine years, fared relatively well. Hence my surprise.
In Dublin we were taken, Sheena and I, with the power of the sculpted famine figures on the north bank of the River Liffey. We spent time at EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum. And we poked around the Jeanie Johnston, the replica famine ship that I wrote about last issue.
But the political dimension didn’t manifest until we went to the Irish Potato Famine Exhibition, mounted upstairs at the St. Stephen's Green Shopping Centre. The exhibition, which included posters, a 15-minute video/DVD, and an hour-long show of panel stills, delivered an overview before turning to specifics. Between 1845 and 1852, approximately one million Irish people died of starvation or disease and two million fled the country, many of them coming to Canada.
Tens of thousands of farmers were forcibly evicted by absentee landlords spouting the free-market doctrine of “laissez-faire.” One photographic image, from County Clare in the west of the country, showed the house of Mathia Magrath "after destruction by the Battering Ram."
Some scholars present slightly different numbers, saying 1.5 million died in Ireland and 1.5 million emigrated. Either way, the three million total explains why some have described the Irish Famine as the worst human disaster of the 19th century – a devastation exceeded in the 20th century only by the Jewish holocaust.
During the decade that followed the Great Hunger, another two million people departed from Ireland. Today, largely as a result of all this, the Irish diaspora encompasses 70 million people around the globe. Among them we find almost five million Canadians and 35 million Americans.
But the politics. This exhibition points a finger at the policies and attitudes of British Parliamentarians, notably Lord John Russell, prime minister from 1846 to 1852, and Charles Trevelyan, the assistant treasury secretary who handled the Irish file. A narrator explains that Trevelyan “believed that God and market forces were on the same side” and that the Irish Famine was “a visitation of God” and a way of solving an overpopulation problem. Bigotry and convenient, self-serving myopia.
After driving due south along the coast for 155 km, we set up in the lively seaport-town of Wexford, cornerstone of Ireland’s “Ancient East” and traditionally a centre of resistance to British rule. At nearby Johnstown Castle, a splendid gem of gothic revival architecture, we walked along beside an ornamental lake and admired a Victorian walled garden. The surprise came when we wandered into the Irish Agricultural Museum, which is housed in refurbished farm buildings. Here we encountered another Great Famine Exhibition – this one lacking a video but comprehensive and notable for its scientific rigor and detail.
Sailing ships from the Americas brought the potato to Europe late in the 16th century. It became a diet staple, especially in agricultural Ireland. Potato blight followed the same route and reach continental Europe in 1843. Blight is a fungal disease that attacks leaves and tubers. Spread by spores in the air, it turns up as a small dark spot on a potato leaf and wreaks havoc. Seed tubers sustain the fungus through winter and so infect a still larger crop the following spring.
The Johnstown exhibition is replete with charts and graphs illustrating and analyzing everything from the decline of small farm holdings to the prevalence of various Famine-related diseases, among them typhus, Asiatic cholera, and scurvy or “black leg.” Up to 85 per cent of those who died during the Great Hunger did so not from starvation but from fever or disease.
Here, too, we read of government-sponsored workhouses, where conditions were so miserable that, by August of 1846, only 43,000 people had taken refuge within. As the Famine intensified, these penitentiary-like buildings came to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, desperate for the three sparse meals a day they could earn by toiling on make-work projects, usually roads. When the famine ended, 40 per cent of the children who entered the workhouses had been orphaned or deserted.
By the time we reached Kilkenny, that medieval town 80 km northwest of Wexford, we thought we understood the human suffering induced by the Famine. But a visit to the sparkling MacDonough Junction Shopping Centre taught us otherwise. In 2005, developers set about creating this contemporary shopping centre out of a prison-like workhouse from the mid-19th century. . . .

(To read the complete article, pick up the December issue of Celtic Life International. To learn how the widespread famine impacted Scotland, and especially the Hebrides, check out my latest book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.)

Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

You Might Also Like

No comments:

Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.