Recalling the Great Famine

Second Reading
“When famine strikes, music, laughter and dancing are the first casualties. The landscape is shrouded in the dank grey of despondency and, ultimately, the darkness of death”

Fr Kevin Hegarty

During Lent I often reflect on accounts of the Great Irish Famine as a sort of spiritual reading. It helps me make the connection between our historical experience and present conditions in many third world countries.
Take, for example, a little piece I read the other evening of the effects of the Famine in Rannafast in North West Donegal. In 1945 Máire Ní Grianna, then 81 years, told the Irish Folklore Commission, of the memories she heard in her childhood: “The years of the Famine, of the bad life and the hunger, arrived and broke the spirit and the strength of the community. People simply wanted to survive. The spirit of comradeship was lost. Recreation and leisure ceased. Poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been. The Famine killed everything.”
The poet, Brendan Kennelly, telescoped that kind of experience when he wrote of the woman who ‘danced at ebbing tide, because she loved the flute music’. When the ‘green plant’ withered, ‘she heard the music dwindle and forgot the dance’.
When famine strikes, music, laughter and dancing are the first casualties. The landscape is shrouded in the dank grey of despondency and, ultimately, the darkness of death. Every community in Ireland has its stories of starvation from 1845-8. They are most vividly grim along the western seaboard. James Hack Tuke, the inspiring Quaker philanthropist, wrote on conditions in the Mullet peninsula, where I now work.
In his book, ‘A Visit to Connaught in the autumn of 1847’, he described an eviction that took place, just before Christmas, in the villages of Mullaghroe, Tirrane and Clogher. The occupants were tenants of Mr John Walshe, an absentee landlord, who in one of the ironies that make Irish history so complex, was actually a Roman Catholic. His drivers, with the help of the 49th regiment of soldiers, sent forth over 600 men, women and children into the cold and rain of winter.
One of the victims outlined how it happened: “The people were all turned out of doors and the roofs of their houses pulled down. That night they made a bit of a tent, or shelter, of wood and straw; that however the drivers threw down and drove them from the place. It was a night of high wind and storm, and their wailing could be heard at a great distance. They implored the drivers to allow them to remain a short time as it was so near Christmas but they would not. A fountain of ink would not write our misfortunes.”
At a dinner party, that evening, Mr Walshe boasted that this was the first time he had seen his estate or visited his tenants. As James Hack Tuke commented wryly, ‘their first impression of landlordism was not likely to be a very favourable one’.
Cries of despair, like those that rent the air of the Mullet Peninsula before Christmas 1847, are uncommon in Ireland now. We should not, however, be over confident that we have conquered poverty. Our newspapers are stuffed with lifestyle supplements on how to spend the fruits of economic success. We could do with fewer intense analyses of our gourmet restaurants and more on those seeking to survive on scraps from the Celtic Tiger’s table.
Fr Peter McVerry is prophetic in the way that he reveals the hidden pockets of poverty that continue to exist in our society. In a stark, one sentence letter in ‘The Irish Times’ recently he asked is it right that on ‘these cold nights, in this very wealthy country’, that homeless people in Dublin were told that there was no emergency accommodation for them?
We have moved on but many people in the third world are where we were in 1847. That is where Trócaire, with other like-minded agencies, comes in. Against the background of failure and decay, that characterises the Irish Catholic Church in the last three decades, Trócaire, founded in 1973, is a shining success. The Lenten Trócaire box has replaced the Sacred Heart picture as an icon of Irish Catholicism.
This year’s Trócaire campaign concentrates on the need to remove gender inequality in third world countries. The statistics speak for themselves. Over 70% of those living in poverty worldwide are women, 75% of illiterate adults are women and women produce nearly 80% of the food on the planet but receive less than 10% of agricultural assistance.
When the euro was introduced five years ago most of us found the little cent coin a nuisance. The Trócaire information leaflet makes the point that every cent counts.