Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
"Tell me of
,” an Irish Mother wrote to
her son. America
?" replied the son. "Its
filled with great hope and glory, with terrible tragedy and sadness and endless
potential. It’s much like us, it’s very Irish" America
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
The man who was dividing
didn't leave himself last. Irish proverb Ireland
The word invasion isn’t exactly accurate, not in the sense we know it today. The
Normans, and for that matter, the
English, never actually invaded Ireland,
a more apt description would be that they entered quietly through the backdoor
and never left.
With Henry’s permission, MacMurrough enlisted Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, the would-be earl of Pembroke,
Wales, other wise known as
Strongbow, a mercenary, of sorts. In exchange for leading his army of Cambro-Norman
barons into Ireland
and regaining MacMurrough’s kingdom for him, Strongbow was promised the Wexford
and two adjoining areas, as well as Dermot's daughter, Aoife, in marriage and the whole
upon Dermot's death. province of Leinster
Between 1168 and 1171 the Cambro-Normans not only reconquered all of Leinster with Dermot MacMurrough, including
but invaded the neighboring as well. When Dermot
MacMurrough died in May 1171, Strongbow established himself as lord of province
of Meath Leinster, after crushing a general revolt of the Leinster
Irish and Ostmen. (The descendents of Ireland’s other quasi-invaders, the
Several problems grew out of Strongbow’s ambitious march through
The first was matter of cultural values. In Strongbow’s view, since he had
conquered the lands, the lands were his, and, technically, now part of the
English empire. In the Irish view, colored by centuries of self- imposed
isolation from the rest of the world, one’s influence mattered, and not the
ownership of property. Simply put, the earth belonged to the earth, it had no
value. The concept that land could be owned by a foreign power somewhere
outsides of Ireland’s
shores and that the people who occupied that land for untold centuries, were
now, essentially, the private property of a foreign dictate was almost beyond
The other problem was Strongbow himself. He was, at best, a slippery fellow of questionable moral character and deeply ambitious and not a man to be trusted.
Henry II, watching Strongbow’s remarkable success in
fearing his growing power in southwestern Ireland,
a short step from England’s
shores, landed with a large army near Waterford
on October 17, 1171. Strongbow and his Barons quickly relented and swore
allegiance to the crown. In return, Henry gave Strongbow control over
Leinster and but kept the city and
and all seaports and fortresses
from himself. With that, the English conquest of kingdom of Dublin Ireland, her first colony and
probably her last, had begun.
It was an inevitable conquest. For
was simply in the wrong geographical location, it was to close to Britain’s
shores to stand alone as an independent nation. The English paranoia of a
foreign power using Ireland
as a steppingstone to invade England
wasn’t without some foundation. Over the next several centuries, a series of
English enemies would use Ireland
for just that very purpose. But the
English would do more then simply occupy Ireland to protect their flanks.
They would never apply a live and let
live policy there as they would in their other colonies. In Ireland,
the English would, over hundreds of years, crush Irish customs, tradition, and
language. It would strip the Irish of their religious freedom, and drive its
It was an inevitable conquest. For
By the 1800s,
Ireland was, effectively, a 16th
century nation populated largely by peasants who lived on the break of economic
and physical ruin.
In some cases, although it was rare, the English would use force to impose their will on the Irish people. More often, they used the legal system to take what they wanted.
Through out its long history,
had used several types of legal systems including the tribal system, the oral
tradition, and the written law. But no matter what the system, the laws had remained
almost constant for several centuries.
Traditional Irish law was, originally, not compiled in a single work, it was passed orally from generation to generation and taught by the Druidic class and was, occasionally, written in various literature and judgments.
During the time of St. Patrick, the law was written as a single document, a codification that became known as the Brehon Laws.  Only four copies, in various degrees of completeness, exist today. The Brehon laws remained, basically, unchanged from the original for eight centuries. They were Irish laws, written by the Irish in the Irish language. They were not conceived or enforced by foreign hands. Irish law was conceived and written by those who the Irish and because the laws were written and enforced by Irish men, the laws were, in an Irish sort of way, respected and followed.
The largest portion of the Brehon law was a section called the Senchus Mó¢r (pronounced Shankus mor), better thought of as a collection of customs rather than one of statutes already widely known and observed by the Celts since the dawn of their time.
Unlike the British law that would later rule over their lives, the Senchus M¢r didn’t
use an imperious tone. The laws were written to be understood and were based in wisdom.
It’s been argued that
had no uniform means to enforce the law and undoubtedly, in Ireland vast history, there were
Kings or others of vast power, who broke the law. But overall, the law was followed
because the law based in logical, fair tribal custom.
Through a series of invaders who would rule over
Ireland, the Viking, the Normans, the English, the old Irish legal
system was eventually beaten down and never able to reemerge. When the English arrived
in full force, they brought their own laws with them. Written in Norman-French,
not in the Irish or Latin as were the Irish laws in place before them, the
English laws were combined with a series of repressive acts written in 1367
during a parliament session held in Kilkenny. These news acts recognized the
Irish, in their own land, as rebels and enemies of the state and were intended,
over a period of time, to crush and kill off Irish society. These new laws
later termed the Irish Penal Codes, punished Irish dress, manners language, and
Essentially, the laws, enacted in 1695, were designed and written to deny almost all rights to the Irish Catholics in
and to eventually eradicate the catholic religion in Ireland. Protestant England had no
intention of sharing its power with in Ireland
with the Pope in Rome.
But that would be on the higher end of the Penal Codes. Without question, the
basic role of the Penal Laws was to legally take the land from the people under
the questionably noble guise of saving the Irish on behalf of the Protestant
King of England.
Civil liberties were crushed. Catholics were denied education, land ownership, and medical practice and treatment. The Catholics were not allowed to enter the legal profession, nor could they hold government offices. The laws were enforced simply enough; to hold any position or wealth in
the Irish were forced to repeat and sign an oath which no catholic would take.
A typical oath was;
I do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess . . . that I do believe, that in the sacrament of the lord's supper there is not any transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ . . . and that the invocation or adoration of the virgin Mary, or any other saint, and the sacrifice of the mass, as they are now used in the church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous . . .
The French Jurist Montesquieu described the Penal Laws as having been "conceived by demons, written in blood, and registered in Hell"
Not content with stripping the Irish of their basic legal rights, in about 1697, the English followed up with "The Bishop's Banishment Act." which forbade the Church from practicing any ecclesiastical jurisdiction in
and called for all Catholic
Clergy to leave
Ireland by May 1st, 1698 under the
penalty of “transportation for life” 
If the Priests returned to
the law allowed them to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
A lock is better than suspicion. Irish proverb
Gradually, the laws were lifted. In 1778, the Catholic relief act allowed Catholics to enter leases for up to 999 years as opposed to the previous 31 years. By 1782, Catholics were "allowed to become schoolmasters and private tutors, to own horses exceeding the value of 5 schillings and to acquire land in socage tenure" With the passage of the so-called relief laws of 1792 and 1793, Catholics were allowed to enter into low levels of legal practice, earn degrees from universities, and become commissioned in the military.
But the English closed, flatly and without debate, Irish Catholic entrance into Parliament.
Te effects of the laws crushed the spirit of the Irish people who were now subject to a foreign power within their own land. It devastated a people who took such pride in being Irish and in their ancient culture. By 1800, to be Irish was to be ashamed of what the once proud Celt had become.
Further, the Penal Code succeeded in alienating the population, especially the large poor rural population against law and government. They became, slowly a nation who scoffed the laws since there was no pride or sense in obeying laws that were designed and enforced to take away their lives, liberties, and property and left them with out a single benefit that wasn’t stripped to its marrow or impaired enough to be useless.
By 1800, the British had had accomplished in Ireland what they had set out to do with the introduction of the Penal Laws in 1695; they had, essentially, stripped the Irish people of all things Irish and, essentially, replaced them with all things British.
Any united opposition to the laws, or even the threat of opposition brought around a cry in
for even more repressive laws.
While the Crown was willing to repeal an enormous portions of the Penal Laws, largely those that were either unenforceable or unproductive, under pressure from the State Clergy, they were far less willing to repeal the Tithe Laws.
Under the Penal Laws, anyone working the Irish land was required to pay an annual tithe (or religious tax) of 10% of the agricultural produce for the upkeep of official state church, the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church of Ireland despite the fact that the vast majority of the population were Roman Catholic.
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
Often, a cow does not take after its breed. Irish proverb
The need for repeal of the Tithe Law brought around the rise of Daniel O’Connell, a member of the Irish Catholic aristocracy who was elected to the House of Commons in 1828. Despite Daniel O’Connell’s achievement of having most Penal Laws repealed in 1829 in the Great Catholic Emancipation, stupidly, the Irish obligation to pay tithes remained and was enforced, collected in the form of goods, especially livestock.
There had been a largely peaceful resistance campaign against the collections since 1829, and it was, for the most part, successful, with the credit for the non violence going to O’Connell, a vocal critic of violent insurrection in
, always repeating his call Ireland
that the freedom of
was not worth the spilling of one drop of blood. Ireland
But the Anglican Clergy, sorely missing their money, pushed the Crown into action, first by gathering lists of defaulters, “Tithe Defaulters” some 30,000 in all, largely concentrated in the rural counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Wexford. The clergy pressed the Irish Constabulary, established only a few years before in 1822 as a sort of Militia paid for largely by the Tithe collections, to track down the defaulters.
Between 1831 and 1834 a bitter and bloody war between the unarmed peasantry and the well-armed state forces broke out over the payment fees. Starting as strikes, the resistance spread from county to county and eventually grew from small riots to
The three year uprising was one of several successive revolts of the rural poor across
the rural poor, wage laborers, male and young, often mere teenagers.
The organizations were secretive and underground, and also fairly libertarian, with independent groups in each town networked with others to form an entire movement across several counties. Each had an extensive ritual initiation oaths, elaborate pseudonyms, and occasionally uniforms or secret insignias.
Largely unarmed, these groups fought the military who were eventually sent to collect tithes, with sticks and stones. The military more often then not answered the assaults with rifle fire killing score of resisters. The killings did little more then to further organize the movement across the country. Finally it wasn’t save for landlords, their agents and tithe
Collectors, called proctors, to leave their homes without being shot at or killed in ambush. In turn, these attacks brought even more harsh reprisals by government troops.
The first clash of the Tithe war took place on March 3, 1831, when a force of 120 heavily armed police took cattle belonging to a Catholic priest, in lieu of Tithes. It was a test case. The priest, with the approval of his bishop, had organized a local resistance to the tithe. The incident was widely publicized, and the fact that priest had resisted the collection was a tacit approval for the general population to resist.
Several weeks later, in the town of
Newtonbarry in Wexford, the police once again
rounded up a hard of cattle as a seizure. This time snipes fire on the police
back. Twelve people were killed and twenty fatally wounded. The Wexford massacre as it was called, further organized resistance. In the rural town, the accepted signal for approaching police became the ringing of the town bells. This forewarning led to the
Ambush of 40 man police detachment in the town of
in Kilkenny on December 14, 1831. Locals killed 14 militia including the Chief
In 1832, the English government credited 242 homicides, 1,179 robberies, 401 burglaries, 568 burnings, 280 cases of cattle-maiming, 161 assaults, 203 riots and 723 attacks on property directly to tithe-enforcement in 1831. That year, in the general election, all 82 Irish members returned to parliament pledged to campaign for the abolition of tithes forced the British government to concede. Although tithes were still collected the amount demanded was nominal.
In 1835, in the town of
in Cork, military-police
killed 17 and wounded 30 others in an attempt to collect a tithe of less then
40 shillings from a widow. An investigation of the massacre, the troops fired
point blank into the crowds, proved that the order to fire was given by a
Clergyman. But what troubles the Crown was the fact that the villagers had
withstood several volleys and at least one charge by the troops without
breaking and running.
Collections were suspended and a Tithes Commutation Act was introduced which reduced the amount payable by about a quarter and made the remainder payable to landlords who would, in turn, pass payment onto the Clergy. At that, the uprising more or less ended, but the people were still forced, in a manner of ways, to pay for the upkeep of the
until it was finally outlawed in 1869.
It’s important to note that this was not, completely, a nationalist uprising against Anglo-Irish rule. Although the Tithes were a factor, most rural violence was class-based, dirt poor Catholic Irish versus the wealthy Catholic Irish. Rich farmers made up about 3% of the population, followed by a larger group, about 12% of the population, of wealthy but not rich farmers and extended families. At the bottom of the pile, were the cottiers and labor class, about 76% of the population. About 10,000 landlords owned virtually all of the land. But this was by design of the crown, which, lacking sufficient armies to dominate every corner of its empire, ruled by a divided and conquer mentality.
In 1841, Daniel O’Connell organized the Repeal Association, a movement dedicated to removing the repeal of the
This is sometimes misinterpreted as an act of national independence. However O’Connell
was never an advocate of complete national independence. Instead, he campaigned
for Repeal of the 1801 Act of Union which merged the Parliaments of Great
Britain and Ireland.
O’Connell advocated a recreation of the Kingdom
of Ireland with Queen Victoria, then reigning
Monarch, as the Queen of Ireland as well.
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
The Irish forgive their great men when they are safely buried. Irish proverb
To achieve Repeal of the Act of Union, O’Connell had launched a series of so-called Monster Meetings, wherein tens of thousands of Irish met in mass meeting to protest in favor of Repeal. O’Connell had planned the biggest demonstration in the history of
Ireland to support his version of a free Ireland.
The meeting was scheduled to be held at in Clontarf, the crowd was expected to
number at least a million strong. But the Crown outlawed the gathering and
poured thousands of troops into the surrounding area forcing O’Connell to back
down. It was the worst thing he could have done. But calling off the mass
meeting at Clontarf, he deprived himself of his most potent weapon, an organized Irish populace
appearing in vast numbers. It was, effectively, the end of O’Connell. He failed
to make any further progress in the campaign for Repeal. His followers deserted
him under the cry "He should have
called us out"
Among those leading the cry were the Young Irelanders, a pocket of young idealists, named after similar group on the continent who advocated radical overthrow of the crown. The group worked quietly within the otherwise loyalist Repeal movement, biding their time for the right moment.
The core of the Young Ireland group was Thomas Davis, Charles Duffy and Thomas Dillon, who founded a newspaper, The Nation, which promoted the O’Connell aims of Repeal but the political line of the paper, was liberal nationalist and more often then not; it was used to stir up its readership with a national awareness. Gradually, this group went one small step beyond O’Connell, calling for “repeal or else separation” which worried not only the British government but, O’Connell who was concerned with the growing influence and political outlook of the Young Irelanders and their effect on his progress for
With the vast disappointment in O’Connell limp resistance to the English, his supporters turned to the Nation and its more militant means of winning Irish independence. O’Connell did everything in his power to shit the Nation down and throw off the growing popularity of the Young Irelands but the Young Irelands refused to back down. Thomas Davis, the Young Irelanders leader and O’Connell’s most vocal critic, died suddenly and unexpectedly, giving O’Connell a short lived respite, giving O’Connell and his son John the opportunity to drive the Young Irelanders out of the Repeal Association and having the Nation closed down. But soon O’Connell died, at age 71 while on a pilgrimage to
Rome in 1847 and the Irish resistance movement seemed to
revolt seemed to flicker and die, in large part beaten under by the enormity of
the great Irish famine of 1845, the rest of the European continent of 1848 was
thrown into revolt. There were a popular rising in Sicily,
Paris and Vienna,
and even though Ireland
herself showed no signs of revolt, the Young Irelanders reconsidered their
non-violent position and they rejoined the radical John Mitchell, the son of a
Minister, openly advocated that the people arm themselves. Mitchel gambled on a
mass rising in the autumn, but the Crown, terrified at the events throughout
the rest of Europe and based on the recent
violence in the Tithe Wars, acted swiftly. Mitchel was arrested, tried and
convicted under the new Treason Felony Act and exiled to Australia.
The rest of the Young Irelanders leadership scattered in shame as a nation watched them allow their leader to be taken away in chains without a struggle. Regardless of the easy win by the Crown, enrollment in the Young Ireland organization tripled after
Mitchel’s arrest, with most of the new members being barely out of their teens.
The group was now taken over by the Protestant William Smith O'Brien, a descendent of Brian Born. O'Brien, Educated at
he had been elected to the British Parliament in 1828 and was otherwise a strong
supporter of British rule over Ireland.
That view changed in 1843 and O’Brien changed his allegiance to the Irish
freedom movement. With
natural leadership qualities, he rose quickly rose to a leading role in the rebellion
forces. O’Brien tried to raise the county in insurrection, but few joined.
Undaunted, he formed a Council, made up of himself, John Blake Dillon and Thomas Francis Meagher. The rebellious Kilkenny would be their headquarters and it was there that they set up their Provisional Government and issue their first manifesto. They toured the rural countryside trying to rouse the starving people into revolt, but the famine and its after effects had beaten them down.
The local Catholic clergy, fearing a slaughter by the English, begged the Young Irelands to give up their fight and return home. The Priests pointed out that they were unarmed; ill prepared and were completely ignorant of military strategy. But at Boulagh Commons, O’Brien found coal miners who were eager volunteers, some of them already armed, others prepared to fight with their mining tools.
With less then 50 followers and a few handguns the group attacked a police outpost in the rural countryside but were beaten off and eventually arrested. All of its members were rounded up and sentenced to death but later had their sentences commuted to life in Prison in concentration camps in
As was the case in nearly ever Irish revolt, the uprising was poorly planned,
hopelessly equipped and lacked native support to succeed. William Smith O’Brien and his lieutenant,
James Stephens, and a small force of men attempted to capture some local
policemen at the small town of Farrenrory.
At best it was an impromptu battle. They succeeded in holding the British
forces down for a short while until, as usual, British re-enforcements arrived
and the Irish scattered and ran.
As was always the case, the leadership was quickly rounded up and arrested. O’Brien was arrested on a train platform in a nearby town and Thomas Meagher was captured walking causally along a road near Cashel.
O’Brien’s revolt, the so-called rising of 48, ended in a crushing and humiliating defeat for the Irishmen. The rebels, even if they had won a few initial skirmishes, who were ill prepared to stand against the thousands of troops the Crown poured into
in advance of the uprising.
The British had moved to swiftly. Tried for treason, and of course found guilty.
Before passing sentence, the judge asked if there was anything that anyone wished to say. Meagher, speaking for all, said: "My lord, this is our first offense, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise, on our word as gentlemen, to try to do better next time. And next time ---sure we won't be fools to get caught."
The judge, indignant at Meagher’s speech, sentenced them all to death "To be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution on the 13th and there hanged until he be dead, his head then to be cut off and his body to be cut into 4 quarters, then disposed of as her majesty shall think fit."
What the English hadn’t banked on was outrage over the sentence from the American government, pressured in part by an already massive and continually growing Irish American voting block. Queen
Victoria commuted the sentence life in
Twenty six years later, Queen
that Sir Charles Duffy, the newly elected Premier of the colony of
was the same Charles Duffy who had been transported in chains, by her order,
the penal colony there in 1848. In 1873 Duffy
accepted a knighthood from Queen Victoria, much to the anger of his Irish
cohorts. He retired
to Southern France and died in 1903 - his remains were sent to Victoria, Australia Ireland
where they received full national honors. The Queen's demand to
know what had happened to the others from the rising of 48. A report showed
that Thomas Francis Meagher became a Brigadier General in the Union Army and
was appointed Governor of Montana. Terrance McManus became a General as well. After
escaped to New York,
Richard O’Gorman set up a law practice which flourished. He became a member of
the elite and in 1869 became a counsel to New York Corporation and was appointed to
the Superior Court of New York in 1880. Morris Lyene was Attorney General of
Australia and would be succeeded in that office by Michael Ireland. Thomas
D’Arcy Mcgee was a member of the Canadian Parliament, as well as its Minister
of Agriculture and President of the Dominion of Canada Council. John Mitchell
was a power house in New York
politics. His son, John Purroy Mitchell would serve as Mayor in 1914. John
Blake Dillon escaped to New York
disguised as a priest. He distanced himself from other Rebel living in the US and was eventually admitted to New York bar at Albany
in 1849, and was delighted by the lack of formality (no wigs, gowns etc) He set up a law practice which flourished and
became rich. He returned to Ireland
due to ill health in the family, stayed and was elected to Westminster
Parliament. He died suddenly 12 moths later
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
“The Last of a grand, ancient race”
The rise of Fenian movement in
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
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
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.
Despite its near hopelessness, the rural population was growing at an alarming rate. By 1840,
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, to 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
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.
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
held 691,000 privately owned farms. Of that number, well over half were less
then 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
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
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.
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
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 County
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
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 hundred of millions of dollars worth of food grain, cattle, pigs, eggs and poultry from
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,
4000 died in thirty days. The hunger left 500,000 dead, since the first of the
year. There are virtually no births in County Galway 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 out numbered the living. Families use furniture to make coffins, then sheets, and finally mass burials sites. In Belmullet,
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. County Cork
"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."
Available on Amazon and at all Barnes and Noble
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
to every port in the world “That we are seeing the last of a grand ancient
I saw God. Do you doubt it?
Do you dare to doubt it?
I saw the Almighty Man. His hand
Was resting on a mountain, and
He looked upon the world and all about it
I saw him plainer then you see me now,
You mustn't doubt it.
He was not satisfied
His look was all dissatisfied.
His beard swung on a wind far out of sight
Behind the world's curve, and there was a light
Most fearful from His Forehead, and he sighed,
"That star went always wrong, and from the start
I was dissatisfied"
He lifted up his hand-I say He heaved a dreadful hand over the spinning Earth.
Then I said, "Stay, You must not strike it, God; I'm in the way;
And I will never move from where I stand"
He said, "Dear Child, I feared that you were dead,"
And he stayed his hand.
James Stephens, 1862