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“The Last of a grand, ancient race.” The Irish Famine.

“The Last of a grand, ancient race”
The Irish Famine



By
John William Tuohy

   The rise of Fenian movement in America was the outgrowth of a collection of often breath taking tragedies linked over the ages to create the inescapable prison of Irish history. A history of half myth and undeniable truths, one as equally important as the other in the creation of the Irish and Irish –American culture. 
   The great Irish famine of 1848 is a part of that chain of collection of events that has become both myth and truth filled legend. But unlike almost any other event in Ireland’s long history, the famine and its aftermath would hold the greatest effect over the Irish-American culture and mindset. The Irish-Americans would adopt, reshape and recreate the famine as a cornerstone of their heritage. The famine would become, as much as the
Ruddy faced parish priest, the tough but sympathetic cop on the corner and perpetual politician, a definitive part of Irish-American legend and lore. 
  Although in reality, the famine had little actual effect on the great mass of ancestors of the average Irish-American, in the sense that we understand the famine today. Most of them, the immigrant class, were modestly stable, literate working class. The poor and wealthy either died in the famine or prospered from it. The working class fled to America with most of them arriving well after the famine had subsided. 
    But this is Irish history, where legend and lore are as equally important to the facts and actual events transpired. Over the next century and a half, the Irish-Americans, who would largely learn of the famine through the generations, would use the famine as their battle cry for a free and united Ireland. Tens of millions of American dollars would find its way into the coffers of the Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and eventually the Irish Republican Army. A highly practical tribe, they would seldom use their considerable political clout to influence the course of those events; although certainly that same political clout forced Britain to carefully examine it’s every move in Ireland.  
        
   In 1848, Ireland’s economy was in ruins. Five hundred years of British rule, often brutal, occasional­ly barbaric and invari­ably indifferent to Ireland’s needs, had created a nation that existed in perma­nent despera­tion. 
   Despite its near hopelessness, the rural population was growing at an alarming rate. By 1840, Ireland had one of the youngest and largest popula­tions in all of Europe. Its density was almost unimaginable and despite the poverty, the population continued to grow. The danger, of course, was that, Ireland, under British mismanagement, could barely support the population that it had. The English, who took almost everything out of the country that could be taken, including the trees, invested almost nothing back into the country.
As a result, in the large rural communities, in this largely rural land, was reduced to a "potato culture".  Tiny patches of earth were apportioned and reappor­tioned amongst family members through generations until a mere couple of hundred feet of farming soil provided for an average family of five.  This practice, as aged as Ireland herself, was eventually prohibited by the British government who attrib­uted it, and by doing so exonerating themselves, for the domino effect that the great famine had in killing off one third of the islands cottier class. But the law was placed in to effect two decades after the famine, too late to make any substantial difference for Ireland. All it did was to effectually sound the epilogue to the ancient Irish peasant way of life.
     Early marriages between the impoverished class, proved another factor in developing the fragile house of cards that was Ireland. For Ireland’s middle class and the city dweller, early marriage was frowned upon. For some, because they would have more to lose then to gain by the union, and for others because it carried the stigma of the labor classes and was avoided.  But, for Irelands poor, and there were millions of them by then, early marriage was a way out of a deadening poverty. As a Catholic Priest wrote "Small land holders are induced to marry by feeling that their condition cannot be made worse, or rather then can lose nothing, and they promise themselves some pleasure in the society of a mate”   A young man in Galway wrote "If I had a blanket to cover her, I would marry the women I liked and if I should get potato's enough to put into the mouths of my children, then I would be as happy and content as any man" 
    Also, Irish farming cultural didn’t loan itself to the single life.  Marriage produced children and children worked the fields and cared for their parents in later life. Contraceptives were, essentially, unknown, and in the Irish view, sinful, children were considered a blessing.
    For the unmarried female, life was dismal. For them employment and opportunities were almost nonexistent. They were virtually assured of living out their lives in the homes of their parents until the parents died and then with a widowed brother or sister. As a result, for tens of thousands of these unmarried women, immigration was the only answer. Two decades before the start of the great famine, 38,000 singles were already pouring out of the rural portions of Ireland every year. Over a half a million of them could be found in living in England or Southern Scotland. In one decade alone, 1831 to 1841, five hundred thousand young Irish rushed out of Ireland to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.    

  By 1841, Ireland held 691,000 privately owned farms. Of that number, well over half were less than five acres in size. The remaining farms were massive tracts owned by absentee English landlords who, realizing cattle ranching was far more lucrative than farming, pushed more and more Irish from the land to make way for grazing lands.
     On the near microscopic parcels of land the peasant Irish still owned, grew the lowly but God almighty potato. "No vegetable" it was written "ever affected the same amount of influence upon the physical, moral, social and political condition of a country as the potato exercised over Ireland"
     The potato, imported to Europe by way of the Peruvian highlands, seemed to be created for provincial Irish life. Although it had floundered many times in the past, it was, more or less, a sturdy, reliable crop. A seasons harvest could, and frequently did, sustain a brood of eight for an entire year.  It could be boiled, baked, mashed or fried and it retained ample nutrients to nurture crimson-faced robust youngster and fill their appetites. If the potato held out, life went on.
     This was Ireland in 1848. A defeated and occupied land, trounced into servility by the mightiest empire on earth, an empire that suppressed Ireland’s once proud destiny and ignored its welfare. An island nation that was home to a popula­tion of eight million, young, poor people who lived out an archaic, feudal existence. Then the potato failed and the starving began
   The potato crop of 1846 was expected to deliver a record yield. However, on June 3, a smattering of farms in County Cork described a curious, "blight" on some of their yield. The infestation appeared harmless and brought no concern from the government. However, in July the infestation reappeared in Cork and a myriad of different locations. Virtually overnight, a potent stench, a rankness of sulfur, shrouded the countryside.
    By August, the potatoes were black and encased with inky ooze; however, the plants stalks were firm and hardy, causing farmers hold out against hope that the crop for the following year would be good. Then, seemingly overnight, even the potato stalks were affected with a corrosion that eventually killed them. Panic set in.
    By the end of the summer, the blight was reported in Cork, Mayo and Sligo and was said to be spreading across the country. By September, the year’s provisions were gone. Starvation positioned itself for its attack.  Pilfering others crops, unheard of before the famine, became rampant. Others blended the rotten pulp of the year’s crop with water, milk and oatmeal and baked it into cakes, causing sickness and death.
  Farmers who owned cattle and horses, slaughtered them for food, or drained their blood to make "Relish cakes", a mixture of mushrooms and cabbage.  However, the animals couldn't sustain the bleeding, there is no food to regain strength, and, one by one they died off. Those families without livestock to bleed, eventually took to eating the bark and leaves of particular trees. Others are seaweed, and as a result died from food poisoning. Some of their skeletons would be unveiled in shell piles or in farmer’s fields; years after the famine had ended.
     It was be one of the coldest winters in European history. Across the country whole families, and then entire villages, starved to extinction. English landlords well fed on Irish beef and living in London, set up a nationwide system of evictions. The Irish Constabulary, assisted by Irish workman desperate for food or funds, rampaged across the countryside and ripped down Irish homes on rented land that have tumbled into the rears, which was, essentially, everyone.  In some districts, complete villages that had existed on that same place for centuries were ripped down in a day.
   By the start of 1847, 400,000 people were dead or would die of hunger or famine associated disease. At the same time, the British people and their government exported hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of food grain, cattle, pigs, eggs and poultry from Ireland to feed themselves. By December of that awful year, there was still time for Great Britain to rescue Ireland from annihilation. England had the resources in science, money and manpower to turn the tide. However it lacked the will, and Ireland and her people were sentenced to extinction.
    Scurvy reared it monstrous head against the already famine ravaged Irish masses. Gums turned purple, swelled and became spongy and ulcerated and bleed at the touch, tumors set in on the lips and ravage them. Teeth loosened and fell out. Deep sores cut into the throat, purple like patches appeared on the skin from massive infusions of blood that gushed into the muscles and joints that doubled them over in pain. The bowls and mouths hemorrhaged legs give out from inflated tissue in the ankles and turned the skin black. Then Dropsy set in causing the body to retain water, bloating the victim to hideous proportions, with the skin eventually breaking open from the pressure.   This was followed by Typhus, the deadliest of all the diseases, bred on filth from the lice that crawl from body to body, sucking blood from its victims, spreading the infections across the land. Its victims fell with headaches first, then back pain, then fever. On the fifth day, body chills came, then a rash across the face and internal bleeding. It usually ended within 14 days in death.
   Thousands, and then tens of thousands, commit acts of petty crimes in hopes of being sent to prison where there was food. In Bantry, County Galway, 4000 died in thirty days. The hunger left 500,000 dead, since the first of the year. There are virtually no births in Ireland.
   "A calm, still horror is over the land.”  An Irishman recalled “Go where you would, in the heart of the town or in the suburb, on the mountainside or in the level plain, there was stillness and heavy pall like feel of the chamber of death. You stood in the presence of a read, silent, vast dissolution. An unseen ruin was creeping round you. You saw no war of classes, no human agency of destruction. You could weep, but the rising curse died unspoken within your heart, like a profanity. Human passion there was none, but inhuman and unearthly quite"
    In some places, the dead outnumbered the living. Families use furniture to make coffins, then sheets, and finally mass burials sites. In Belmullet, County Cork, a husband left his wife and three-year-old child in their hovel to search for food. When he didn't return within a few days, the wife assumes he has died.  Her child now dead in her arms. She did the unthinkable to stay alive. Weak with hunger she crawled away from the dead child's face and begins to devour his feet.  By December, there were to many dead bury. Corpses were left in the mud huts and roadways where they fell.
  "In a very short time, there was nothing but stillness" wrote Hugh Dorian "a mournful silence in the villages, in the cottages grim poverty and emaciated faces.  The tinkers. . Fled to the cities, the musicians disappeared and. Never to return. Many of the residents too made their escape at once, finding employment or early graves elsewhere. There were no more friendly meetings at the neighbor’s houses in the afternoons, no gatherings on the hillsides on Sundays, no song no merry laugh of the maidens, not only were the human beings silent and lonely, but the brute creation also, for not even he bark of a dog or the crowing of a cock was to be heard."
   "Anybody's house you come into, talk is all of misery and starvation" said an English Traveler "there is no fun at all among them now their natural vivacity and lightheartedness has been starved out of them"
    An immigrant to the states recalled, "They saw a man coming along the road. Scannlon was his name and a load on his back. My Grandmother asked him what he had there, and he said was his wife that was dead and he was taking her to Leitrum graveyard to bury her. He had her sitting on a board fastened over his shoulders and she was dressed in her cloak and hood just as she'd been when she was alive. His little son was with him. My Grandmother went into the house and brought them food and milk. Scannlon wouldn't take anything, he said it would overcome him and he wanted to have his wife buried before the dark. The little boy drank the milk. Every time my mother would talk about that she'd cry."   
 It was a 13th century famine cast in to a modern world.  Before the genocide of the Irish people was over, and it was genocide, one and half million Irish men, women and children were dead. Another three million were expatriated from their country, and at least one million more simply vanished from this earth. Perhaps the hunger or the typhus or the dysentery killed them, their bodies dragged off by dogs, mad from hunger themselves, the remains left to the hordes of rats that roamed the land towards the end. Maybe they were thrown in mass graves or laid themselves down to die in fields to be forgotten maybe the immigrated.
   “I fear,” wrote a reporter from the London Times as he watched the famine Irish board ships from Ireland to every port in the world “That we are seeing the last of a grand ancient race”









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