Fr Kevin Hegarty
Since 1973 the Trócaire box has been a staple on the kitchen tables of Irish Catholic homes.
Trócaire was established in that year by the Irish Catholic bishops to help alleviate poverty and distress in the third world. For the last 45 years Irish Catholics have responded generously to the organisation’s annual Lenten collection.
Deep in the Irish psyche, due mainly our experience of the Great Famine 1845-49, is an appreciation of the immorality of human degradation. Lent is an opportunity to deepen that sensitivity by reflection on the story of our 19th century experience.
In 1945 Máire ní Grianna from Ranafast in Donegal, then 81 years old, told the Irish Folklore Commission of memories of the Great Famine she heard in her childhood:
“The years of the Famine, of the bad life and the hunger, arrived and broke the spirit and 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 surrounded in the dark grey of despondency. Death begins to stalk the land. The majority of Irish communities have stories of starvation from 1845 – the grimmest ones are from what we now call the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.
In 1847, the Quaker philanthropist James Hack Tuke, along with the journalist William Foster, investigated famine conditions in the west of Ireland. They found the situation more horrific than they had expected.
Foster observed that: “Westport was a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities, the streets crowded with gaunt wanderers.”
At Clifden he was ‘quickly surrounded by a mob of men and women, more like famished dogs than fellow creatures, whose figures, looks and cries all showed they were suffering the ravening agony of hunger’.
Devastation in Erris
Noting that many English people believed that newspaper reports were exaggerating the extent of the famine, he stated that ‘no colouring can deepen the blackness of the truth’.
Tuke was aghast at the devastation he witnessed in Erris. He wrote that ‘human wretchedness seems concentrated in Erris’.
The population of the barony in 1846 was estimated at 28,000 at least 2,000 had emigrated, 6,000 had died of starvation, dysentery and fever and 10,000 were on the verge of starvation. He found it incredible that ‘10,000 people within 48 hours; journey of a metropolis of the world were living or rather starving upon turnip tops, sand ells and seaweed, a diet which no one in England would consider fit for the meanest animal which he keeps’.
One horrendous scene affected him deeply. In December 1847 a local landlord, John Walshe, evicted tenants from the villages of Tirrane, Mullaghroe and Clogher because of their failure to pay rent.
A woman told Tuke what happened when the soldiers arrived:
“The first day they made a ‘cold’, a makeshift fire, the second day the people were all turned out of doors and the roofs of their homes pulled down. That night they made a bit of a tent, or shelter of wood and straw; that, however, the droves threw down, and drove them from the place. It would have pitied the sun to look at them as they had to go head foremost under hail and storm. It was a night of high wind and storm and their wailing could be heard at a great distance.”
Today the cries of extreme distress are in the Third World. Lent is an opportunity to respond generously.