Feeding the spirit and the body


PROFESSOR Donal Kerr is an authority on the 19th-century Irish Catholic

Church. He has previously written two works studying the Irish policy of the Peel and Russell administrations covering the period 1841-1852. In this new short but useful work Prof Kerr examines a neglected theme of Famine research, namely "the largely story of the Catholic Church's response to the Famine".

Kerr makes use of eyewitness accounts of the Famine drawn from contemporary priests' letters, - in particular the letters of priests writing to Archbishop Murray of Dublin seeking financial aid - to bring home something of the true awfulness of that, traumatic experience, described here as the "greatest calamity of 19th-century Europe".

Indeed, the priests' reports of evictions, wailing voices, bodies in the streets etc., make for harrowing reading. Priests were constantly on calls to the sick in their parishes - one priest in Co Limerick asserted that he made between 200 and 300 pastoral visits to the dying in one week in March 1849. No Catholic wanted to die without receiving the Last Rites of the Church. Priests put their lives at risk answering calls to attend the dying. Over 40 priests died off famine fever in 1847.

Pope Pius IX on March 25th, 1847, issued an encyclical letter to the universal church calling for financial relief and prayers for the famine-stricken Irish. "His appeal," writes Kerr, "made a powerful impact on the Catholic world." Money poured into Dublin, the best-known See, from the church's worldwide organisation. Especially notable were the relief efforts mounted by Catholics in America and in Europe, particularly France and Italy. Kerr states that this "largely unknown Catholic relief work kept thousands alive during the worst periods of the Famine".

The role of the Catholic clergy in quelling potential disturbances by hungry peasants is stressed. The priests, however, were attacked by the British press and accused of being agents provocateurs in the murder of landlords, notably the murder of Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown House, Co Roscommon, in 1847.

Rome under British pressure - and influence also seemed to take a similar view, much to the anger of several members of the Irish Hierarchy. The opposite of what was alleged was true and in 1848, - the clergy played a prominent role in preventing Smith O'Brien's rebellion from becoming anything more than a moral gesture.

During this period, the Catholic Hierarchy was divided on a number of issues including repeal of the union and education. Fundamentally, they were split between those who trusted the good intentions of government and those who did not. Because of its internal divisions, the Hierarchy was slow to issue a collective statement on the Famine. They eventually did so in very strong terms in October 1847 though it had no effect on influencing the government. In 1850 at the Synod of Thurles, the Hierarchy issued a ferocious denunciation of state policy during the Famine.

It seems ironic now that Russell had been voted into office with the help of O'Connellite MPs and that he began with such goodwill in Ireland. Indeed, he hoped to being a golden age to Ireland. Not only did he fail to realise the cornerstone of his Irish policy - state payment of the Catholic clergy, perhaps fortunately for the cohesion of the Catholic Church - but he ended up presiding over an administration which saw 1 million die in Ireland and another million flee the country.

Kerr's monograph is written with his hallmark of fairmindedness and balance. It is a valuable addition to the growing number of new studies on the Famine period and deserves to be widely read.