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The Great Hunger, and the last taboo

County View

County View
John Healy

The RTÉ documentary on the Great Hunger provided a sweeping evaluation of the profound changes that the catastrophic event visited on Irish society. Our population was decimated, and Irish culture and song and literature ceased to exist. Hamlets and villages disappeared without trace; tillage was wiped out; grazier pastures replaced cottiers’ smallholdings where the potato had provided sustenance for millions.
The landed gentry disappeared, only to be replaced by our own indigenous landlord class, no less oppressive and grasping than those they replaced. In the words of Fr Browne of Ballintubber, the Catholic landlords turned out to be the most cruel and heartless of all.
And the Irish Catholic Church was transformed; no longer the old folk religion of holy wells and pilgrim mountains, of pattern days and time honoured rural rituals. Now we were to have a centralised and strictly conformist institution, where grandiose church buildings and cathedrals would be the outward expression of that new dispensation.
But, above all else, as the programme carefully noted, there was the silence. For decades after the scourge of the blight had receded, those who remained continued the old tradition of meeting and visiting and sharing each other’s company. But now, they sat in silence. Numbed by the trauma of what they had experienced, the unspeakable horror of what had befallen their race rendered them incapable of expressing feeling or emotion.
For the most part, it was a silence that continued to the present day, as if the memories were too painful for closer examination. It was best, it seemed, that we lived with the image of a noble people cruelly mistreated and neglected, condemned to starve to extinction by an alien and heartless government.
And so, for the most part, it was. The poor helped each other out, but came the time when the unrelenting hunger and starvation, allied to the forced eviction of the poor from the miserable hovels they called home, caused the bonds of civilised behaviour to break.
Unhinged and demented by starvation, long-held norms of decency were abandoned. Crime rates soared, murder became commonplace, people killed for food. Infanticide became the only escape for many parents, child desertion increased, the living were no longer able to bury their dead. Workhouse paupers were consigned to mass graves. In Connemara, the dead were left on the seashore in the hope that the receding tides would carry the corpses out to sea.
Brutalised and dehumanised, stripped of all dignity, the starving population of the countryside resorted to food that was once not regarded as fit for human consumption. Donkeys, dogs and domestic animals became human food for a people driven to once-unthinkable extremes in the struggle for life.
The documentary makers spare no feelings as layer after layer of human desperation is stripped away, and then comes the final taboo, when the starving are reduced to consuming human flesh to survive. It is an abhorrent image, when the last vestige of human decency is renounced. And, much as we would wish it to be otherwise, it is a reality of the Famine, documented by – among others – the Parish Priest of Partry.
There are many who will argue that historical accuracy demands that all sides of the record, repugnant as they might be, should be open to examination. But equally there is a case that a people forced by dire circumstances into aberrant behaviour, deserve the charity of our silence and that, having suffered once, they should be spared the condemnation of those who will never be called on to endure the cruelty and brutishness imposed on our forefathers.