Unspoken realities: The Great Famine eroded moral values in Ireland

Hunger and suffering drove attacks on food carts and murders for bags of meal

Famine victims: Protests, food riots and lawlessness were common. Sheep were stolen. Courts were busy. Perpetrators were imprisoned and  transported to Australia.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Famine victims: Protests, food riots and lawlessness were common. Sheep were stolen. Courts were busy. Perpetrators were imprisoned and transported to Australia. Photograph: Frank Miller

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Regional studies of the Great Famine afford historians writing about the larger picture a wider and more detailed canvas against which to check their overall appraisals.

My own study – “Ocras, The Great Famine in Killala Diocese, 1846-52” – which covers north Mayo and west Sligo is offered as a contribution to that endeavour. Its value, I hope, is not just in telling the local story of that traumatic experience – important as that is – but in suggesting a number of conclusions contrary to accepted narratives.

A first finding is the impression, created by churchmen like Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin, that the Catholic Irish – in the face of incredible suffering – bore their condition almost to the point of acquiescence and were not susceptible to the breakdown in moral values that usually accompanies widespread starvation and death. The evidence does not support that unlikely thesis.

Fr Brendan Hoban is a priest of Killala diocese

Along the Erris coastline, piracy was rampant with soldiers having a very public presence. In Belmullet, in September 1846, a crowd estimated at 500 were dissuaded by local clergy from breaking open food stores. In Ballina, the guardians of the workhouse were confronted by a group demanding that export of corn from the quay be ended.

In Ballycastle, a public notice advertised a meeting to organise relief and threatened landowners who didn’t attend with being “sawed and quartered”. In Ardagh food carts were attacked by a large mob. In general, protests, food riots and lawlessness in various forms were common. Sheep were stolen. Courts were busy. Perpetrators were imprisoned and sometimes transported to Australia.

Theatres of death

The usual parameters that supported family and social life fragmented. What historian Breandán Mac Suibhne called “the grey zone of the Great Famine” surfaced unspoken realities. Murders were committed for a bag of meal.

The parish priest of Partry, in a letter to the Quaker Central Relief Committee, detailed an instance of cannibalism ending with the words, “These are true words.”

A second finding is that the northwest of Ireland has not been well-served by either local or national studies – despite a generous archive including seven local papers – even though on any comparative basis it deserves more attention.

While not to minimise, say, the Famine history of Skibbereen, a moot question might be whether it would have received the attention it did without the stunning visual record of suffering by artist James Mahoney, so graphically highlighting its extremes.

There were other Skibbereens, as I discovered, notably the barony of Erris in west Mayo, theatres of death that demand similar attention.

With the coming of blight the occupants of fourth-class houses in Erris died in their thousands during the Famine years

In Erris, as elsewhere, the poorest of the poor comprised the cottier class, an imprecise group of landless labourers, beggars and drifters, living on the brink and the first to succumb in the Great Famine.

They lived in fourth-class houses, a barometer of poverty in pre-Famine Ireland – one-roomed dwellings, dark airless spaces open to wind and rain, with no doors or windows, just small apertures to facilitate access and the release of smoke.

Filthy, unhealthy conditions

Those who inhabited such filthy, unhealthy conditions often had straw for a bed and little in the way of furniture or household utensils apart from a pot to boil potatoes.

Of two civil parishes in Erris, 77 per cent of houses in Kilmore and 61 per cent in Kilcommon were fourth-class, either cabins or cut out of bog.

A population surge of 50 per cent in the 40 years before the Famine, coupled with almost complete dependence on the potato, meant that with the coming of blight the occupants of fourth-class houses in Erris died in their thousands during the Famine years.

A third finding concerns the role of clergy (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian) particularly in areas such as Killala diocese where the “Second Reformation” – a crusade to convert Catholics to Protestantism – was in full flow.

While the resources and personnel applied to the evangelical Protestant campaign, and the support it received from individual Church of Ireland clergy, provided a constant irritant to Catholics, an important truth was that in the main Catholic and Church of Ireland clergy co-operated in providing relief.

Charges of souperism had some purchase, notably in the activities of the Presbyterian “anti-popish” settlement in Ballinglen, near Ballycastle, and was captured in the telling phrase “the softening influence of affliction” used by a Presbyterian divine to describe success in converting Catholics.

Even the respected Presbyterian clergyman Dr John Edgar, though not “advocating proselytism in the bad sense”, noted the opportunities presented by a “mysterious providence”.

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