MAYO’S PAIN The simple stone memorial to the Great Hunger in Doolough Valley. Fr Brendan Hoban’s new book focuses on the diocese of Killala in north Mayo and west Sligo, which was devastated by famine.
In one six-week period in 1847 an average of 22 people died from starvation every day in Ballina parish. That’s 924 people. That horrific scenario was replicated in many Mayo parishes between 1845 and 1852.
In 1845, the population of the country was about 8.5 million. In the following six years more than 1 million people died from hunger and related illnesses. Over 1 million emigrated. The population was reduced by over 25 percent during this period. Some Mayo parishes lost over 50 percent of their population.
Frontline staff were mainly medical and clerical. Both suffered consequential losses. While ‘souperism’ was a feature, clergy from both Catholic and Anglican and associated traditions worked together for the good of the majority.
It is hard to understand how the enlightened British establishment allowed over 1 million of the people over which it ruled to die ‘by implementing a policy which insisted that local resources must be exhausted before an external agency would intervene’, as Christine Kinealy writes in ‘This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52’. Thus, Kinealy says, the British government made ‘suffering an unavoidable consequence of the various relief systems which it introduced’.
We are the Great Hunger survivors. Our ancestors, only a few generations back, were the ones in the thick of it.
There are those who decry the use of the word ‘famine’ because it denotes a lack of food. We know that as millions of Irish people starved, food produced in Ireland was being exported to Britain from Irish ports.
The Great Hunger, or its Irish equivalent, An Gorta Mór, are apt descriptions. There was plenty of food, but not for everyone. And there were plenty of ‘famines’, especially from the 1820s onwards.
Mayo is one of the counties most affected by the ravages of that terrible time. Only now are some of the most serious effects of that time being compiled. A new book, ‘Ocras: The Great Famine in Killala Diocese, 1845-1852’, by Fr Brendan Hoban, will become a major reference work about the Great Famine in the county, especially its northern part. The book’s area of focus, the diocese of Killala – north Mayo and west Sligo – was devastated by the Great Hunger.
To date there has been no comprehensive regional study of that time. ‘Ocras’ is the first volume of a two-volume set, told through the eyes of newspaper reports, manuscripts, clergy and visitors to the area. First-hand accounts have been meticulously researched and drawn together along with the supporting documents and bibliography.
‘Ocras’ is a general history that explores life in the diocese in the years leading up to 1845 and the subsequent years of hunger. Volume One includes ‘Perspectives 1800-1844’ and ‘Hunger, 1845-1852’. The former is an examination of the memory of want, how people lived, the lives of priests and the optimistic ‘joyous prospects’ of the year 1844. The latter focuses on each individual year after that. It features the blight, conversions, evictions, ‘rich seas and starving people’ and the notion of cannibalism.
The book is augmented with numerous photographs and illustrations, footnotes, sources, a generous index and 12 appendices, featuring James Hack Tute, Asenath Nicholson, Martin Harte PP, James McDonagh CC, Rev Michael Brannigan, Rector George Trulock, writer Matthew James Higgins, botanist William Bennett, Robert Jocelyn (Earl of Roden) and Polish Count Paul de Strzelecki.
The second volume, ‘Hunger, The Great Famine in the Parishes of Killala Diocese, 1845-1852’, focusing on the 22 parishes of the diocese, will be published on 19 April 2022, to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Black ’47.
‘Ocras’ demonstrates the extent of the suffering in Mayo between 1845 and 1852. This book is laden with social history. It is full of stories of our people, those gone before us. It will enlighten you, anger you but also greatly encourage you. It is written in a beautiful style that easily draws the reader in.
It is a difficult subject for some people but one will be most gratified upon reading its pages. It is a powerfully enlightening work by Brendan Hoban and deserves its place in the lexicon of local and national history books. It doubtless will become the yardstick for ‘famine’ studies in Mayo.
‘Ocras, The Great Famine in Killala Diocese, 1845–1852’, by Brendan Hoban, is published by Banley House and is available in local bookshops (€35).