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A Frenchman’s take on Famine-era Mayo

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat and intellectual who, in the 1830s, published a major work, entitled ‘Democracy in America’, the fruit of a nine-month visit to the United States. This analysis of American society and politics remains of value to the historians and political scientists.
Less well known is a visit he made to Ireland in the summer of 1835, with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. Though he did not publish a book on Ireland, the notes of his tour have survived and were edited for publication by the historian Emmet Larkin in 1990. They provide a thought-provoking insight into Irish affairs in the decade before the Great Famine.
While in Ireland they travelled to Newport, Co Mayo, where he described the conditions that prevailed there during the partial famine of 1835. During his stay they also visited Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Carlow and Kilkenny. They covered a lot of ground in six weeks.
Three themes run through his reflections on Ireland. The first is the gruesome poverty of the majority of the people. He wrote to his cousin, Countess Grancy, on July 26: “I defy you, whatever efforts of the imagination you may make, to picture the misery of the population of this country. Every day we enter mud houses, covered with thatch, which do not contain a single piece of furniture except a pot to cook the potatoes.”
The second theme is the hatred most of the people have for the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who they blame for their woes. He also commented on the contempt that the aristocracy had for their tenants. “The nobility not only distrusts the people, but hates them, that the people not only hate the nobility but damns them. If you wish to know what the spirit of conquest, religious hatred, combined with all the abuses of aristocracy with out any of its advantages can produce, come to Ireland,” he concluded. It is the result of the ‘complexity of miseries, five centuries of oppression, civil disorder and religious hostility have piled up on this poor people’, he added.
As a Catholic himself, de Tocqueville was impressed by the deep attachment that Irish Catholics had for their priests and Church. It is the third theme of his observations. Priests had become the natural leaders of the people because, unlike the aristocracy, they had become defenders of their spiritual and material concerns.
He was drawn to visit Newport by the letters of one of these priests, Fr James Hughes, the parish priest of Burrishoole. In June and July, he wrote a series of impassioned letters to the Freeman’s Journal, describing the hunger of his people as the potato crop had failed and pleading for help. Fr Hughes had the pastoral care of over 10,000 people, most of whom were on the abyss between starvation and death.
Travelling from Castlebar to Newport, de Tocqueville noted ‘hills stripped of trees, valleys with peat bogs at their bottoms. Miserable huts scattered here and there. A severe and desolate appearance, even with a beautiful harvest afoot’.
He also described Fr Hughes: “A man about fifty. An open and energetic face. A little stout. A little common. Dressed in black with riding boots, his residence [a] small white house covered with white slates. One storey. Three windows in front. A little stove peristyle. At the side of a little meadow. The walls are covered with coloured engravings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Pope and one or two religious scenes. Among all these pictures are tattered political caricatures. On the table are newspapers. The furniture is old but comfortable.”
On their arrival at the house, they found it surrounded by over 200 people looking for help. Fr Hughes told them that his pleas for aid in the Freeman’s Journal had netted £350, which he had used to purchase oat meal, which would be distributed tomorrow. Hughes placed the blame for the plight of his people firmly at the doors of the local landlords.
He claimed that they ‘do nothing to prevent this unfortunate population from dying of hunger’. His commitment impressed de Tocqueville, who concluded “All his passions, all his ideas, clearly tended to democracy.”