Clergy and the Famine


Sir, – Anne Harris writes that during the Great Famine, “only the bravest doctors and mainly Protestant clergymen walked into the abyss of poverty, wretched housing and the paucity of everything” (“If we want to hold on in the crisis we must let go”, Opinion & Analysis, March 16th).

Anne Harris is correct that Protestant clergy did act courageously, but she is being unfair if she means to imply that their Catholic counterparts failed to tend to the sick.

According to the late Fr Donal Kerr, the principal authority on Irish Catholicism in the first half of the 19th century, “Many priests, religious brothers and nuns certainly died as a result of the Famine”. Fr Kerr’s The Catholic Church and the Famine (1996) quotes the Bishop of Kerry as reporting in January 1847 that five of his clergy had died of Famine fever. A few months later, a Kinsale priest reported seven or eight similar deaths among the clergy of his diocese. In Killaloe, five Catholic clergy died of cholera or other diseases in 1847-8. The Catholic Directory for 1847 listed 18 priests who died from fever for May alone.

Clearly the need to administer the last rites would have brought many priests into close contact with the sick and dying. – Yours, etc,