Story Of The Story Week 8

Briefing Note 19

The Irish Famine – A Telling 

Tom Fitzgerald

We have seen how the Penal Laws stripped Irish Catholics of their rights including; to hold any government office, vote, buy land, practice law, attend school, serve an apprenticeship, possess weapons, and practice their religion. The Catholic Church was outlawed. The Gaelic language was banned. Export trade was forbidden as Irish commerce and industry were deliberately destroyed. While many of these laws were relaxed by 1829 their impact, on top of marked absence of their former natural leaders and 95% of the land in Ireland now owned by Protestants with the Catholic farmers now merely tenants of the land which was being farmed in ever decreasing divisions, a once proud people were deeply wounded and highly vulnerable. Furthermore Ireland lost its own Parliament in 1801, a British initiative which was to have huge impact on commerce, trade and potential development of industry throughout that century.

There was one “positive” development in Irish agriculture and that was the introduction of the Lumper potato which thrived in the Irish soil and climate. By 1750 the potato had acclimatised to the Irish weather and its use began to spread, particularly to counties along the western seaboard where the poorest land was farmed and it was found to be particularly responsive to the use of seaweed as a fertiliser. There had been a successive number of excellent harvests in the early decades of the 19th Century and food was generally plentiful. The population of the country had more than doubled from four million to over eight million people, the vast majority of whom were living off small plots of land. A survey carried out in 1835, however, showed that 75% of Irish labourers were without steady employment.

 On the eve of the famine around a third of Irish people, concentrated in Munster and Connaught, depended on the potato almost exclusively. As it could not be stored or transported well, a new crop had to be grown each year. The precarious land holding of the tenant farmer on parcels of land were just about sustainable when harvests were good. The living conditions of pauperised and highly vulnerable large families was unspeakably primitive and unsanitary. These were mostly mud huts of often one roomed hovels, very little or no furniture, where straw, when available was laid on the ground for the family to sleep. One description of an eye witness, an American sea captain reporting his visit to Cork City in 1847:

I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me, hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity” 

These huts, of which there were up to 500,000 in use at this time were often densely located, became the private place for dying or dead Irish men, women and  children between the years 1845 – 1852.

So what happened? The answer to that question is layered and shocking. A potato blight spread from the United States into a number of European countries but only in one country did this result in a national catastrophe. Given, that there was complete dependence of at least a third of the population on the nourishment provided by the potato up to now and its rapid spread to about half of the country’s harvest in its first year this destructive blight impacted the small tenant farmer and farm labourer and their families who immediately suffered. The potato crop was to continue to fail over the next number of years. Starvation, combined with an increased susceptibility to disease such as typhoid, dysentery and cholera devastated the vulnerable population. 

Another eye witness in the town of Skibbereen wrote :- 

“ I entered some of the hovels…and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what once had been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious either from famine or from fever. Their demonic yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed on my brain.” 

(Nicholas Cummins, justice of the peace in Cork, December 1846)

Another account reported:-

“ The children were like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular, being much emaciated, and the happy expression of infancy gone from their faces, leaving the anxious look of premature old age

(William Forster, a Quaker, 1846)

We have identified a number of factors that ensured that this agricultural disaster had a catastrophic and tragic impact in Ireland. However, it would be remiss of us to ignore many of the “initiatives” that the British government had taken over the previous years that we averted to earlier. All of these had the desired and accumulated effect of weakening a whole people, the Irish Catholics, to a state of dependent vulnerability. Most important of these was a system of land ownership that had been intentionally created that primarily benefited a Protestant land owning class, many of whom did not even live in the country, administered by unscrupulous middlemen, and paid for by the tenant farmer whose responsibility to pay annual rent to their landlord was a disproportionately huge percentage of their annual income. Administration of the country in Ireland was reduced to messenger boy status where all significant decisions were taken by an alien political government in London, the Act of Union having assured of that. The first British Government response, which was under Prime Minister Robert Peel was fast and not an unreasonable one but was unpopular with his cabinet colleagues. He purchased £100,000 of Indian corn from the United States for direct distribution in Ireland. He also proposed the abolition of the Corn Laws, much to the anger of the land owning classes. which provided for high tariffs for imported grain thus keeping grain at a high price, Early in 1846, as stories of the first deaths from starvation were being reported, he commenced a series of public works to enable the poor to earn sufficient money to purchase the grain. The wages that came from these public works proved insufficient to buy food as prices soured at that time.

Such was the sentiment of the British people of that time that Peel had to resign in the middle of 1846 as his liberal attitude towards relief for victims of the Irish was heavily criticised. A new Government under the premiership of John Russell was to manage or more correctly mismanage the Irish famine until it ended in 1852. This was a Government that epitomised the doctrine of non-interference in matters of economics, especially if such intervention might disturb the Protestant land owning class in Ireland. It was also captivated by the mindset of the acceptance of Providence and if the wisdom of Providence meant that thousands of Irish Catholic peasants were to die of starvation and disease then so be it.

Charles Trevelyan, the under Secretary in the British Treasury was charged with oversight of the Famine Relief in Ireland. On assuming his Office he ordered the about turn of a ship that had set sail from England carrying grain for relief in Ireland and return to its English port. Later he wrote:- 

“For a numerous people like the Irish to be fed from foreign countries is a thing unheard of “

However the Government did agree to the construction of 130 workhouses where the most desperate of the famine victims could be assisted. As a matter of policy these institutions were purposely designed to be very harsh environments where families were separated from one another, food was limited and work was very arduous. They also became completely overcrowded and were a significant source of disease where the death carts visited daily to transport the unfortunate inmates. In February1847 the Government was forced to provide for soup kitchens for the starving destitute, albeit on a temporary basis and at one stage these kitchens were feeding up to 3 million people per day. They then proceeded to abolish this successful initiative by September of that year as it clashed with the policy and mindset of laissez faire. Charles Trevelyan, was of the opinion that :-

The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on Government is to bring the food depots to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes it more necessary”

Some charitable organisations such as the Quakers attempted to fill this gap. It was this policy of laissez faire that also resulted in food exports being allowed to continue while the population starved. They changed the operation of the Poor Law whereby from August of that year all financing of famine relief would fall on the local rates which were increased. This eventually led to the landlords engaging in mass evictions of their non-rent paying tenants who were too weak to resist and this contributed to a substantial increase in deaths as well as emigration of these dispossessed starving peasants. There was no attempt, at Government level, to prevent these abominable evictions which had such lethal consequences and it is estimated that 500,000 people were evicted over a 5/6 year period. It is important to state that it was never a question of insufficient food being available in Ireland as records show that there certainly was. There was no will on the part of the British to arrange for any meaningful or effective distribution of this available food. 

It is not unreasonable to say that the Irish Catholics, at that time, were despised by the British elite and were viewed as less than human. Their plight was responded to with disgust and shocking levels of indifference to the suffering of these people. In fact in the opinion of many evangelical English Protestants the Irish were deserving of the horrors of famine that had fallen on them as they had stubbornly adhered to their idolatrous faith. The devastation and misery was seen as an act of divine providence and therefore did not require intervention by the richest and most powerful empire in the world of that time. The highly influential  illustrated Punch publication often carried cartoons showing civilised John Bull, an Englishman, addressing a monkey faced Irishman with belittling contempt and comments of how ungrateful such people were for English generosity. 

It is estimated that over one million people died of starvation and disease in Ireland during the years of the famine. Well over a million people sought refuge through immigration, often on overcrowded ships that were known as coffin ships where many were to die on their journey to the United States, Canada and Australia as well as to England. Not only did these refugees carry disease, illiteracy and suffering with them they were also to carry bitterness and anger towards the British Government and this they passed on as their folk memory that remains to this day.

How the survivors in Ireland coped with the nightmare of Famine that had caused so much death and population loss is for another story but it is clear that they fully understood that they were not among the Chosen People.   

Briefing Note 20

Irish Catholicism pre and post the Famine

Ellen O’Malley- Dunlop

In his book The Best Catholics in the World – “The Irish, the Church and the end of a Special Relationship” Derek Scally examines the past with disarming honesty and a sense of compassion. 

Scally questions and explores why up to relatively recently we as an Irish society ignored the horrors that were happening in plain sight. Horrors that were revealed in the Ferns and Murphy Reports, of clerical child sex abuse, scandals of the  Industrial Schools of the Ryan Report, the Magdalene Laundries, the Tuam Babies and may other scandals of domestic violence and familial child sex abuse. 

The Catholic up to the 1970s and even into the ‘80s demanded that deference be shown to all priests and their bishops. The Dublin Archdiocese saw itself as beyond the law. The priest in the Irish parishes across the country held all the power and they were not to be questioned and demanded unquestionable deference.

Showing or refusing to show deference assumes the freedom to decide which ordinary people in Ireland particularly Catholics lacked for a long time after the Famine. 

Looking beyond the details of abuse and, alongside the phenomenon of silence, there is often a common denominator of confusion. The legacy of the laundries often triggers a wrestling match in minds between guilt and shame. Mastering this past requires that we define our terms. Scally writes: The simplest way I have found for differentiating guilt and shame is this: people feel guilt for what they have done but feel shame for who they are, or how they are made to feel. A religious Sister who bullied a girl in a laundry infringed the girl’s human rights and may feel guilty. The girl who spent years there being told she was filth may feel shame. 

Guilt is a wrong that can be righted by the wrongdoer; pay a parking ticket, serve a prison term; while shame is what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘a haemorrhage of the soul’. People often feel guilty about involvement in a negative, controllable event and shame about a negative, uncontrollable event. It is possible to feel guilt and shame for one’s own misdeeds but also for others. 

The idea of collective guilt comes into play, researchers say, when a negative event is perceived as relevant to the group and thus individuals within the group. But any feelings of collective guilt depend on one’s own perception of control over the system. Many in Catholic Ireland, for instance, had no control over structures and events and thus feelings of guilt are correspondingly low. Things are more complicated with collective shame, however: this can be experienced irrespective of control over events, when the negative event or behaviour of others in the group threatens the image of the group as a whole, and you as a member of the group. I can still remember my flush of shame in a Berlin cinema almost two decades ago as the credits of The Magdalene Sisters rolled. The laundries were not my fault, my responsibility, but I felt strongly that it was my shame, as an Irishman, facing the dumbfounded stares of my German friends. 

No one in Ireland wants to be made to feel guilty for abuses in Catholic Ireland if they had no means to change things, nor should they. But it is normal to feel collective shame at the ongoing negative effects of the negative events beyond their control or before their time. Many years of life in Germany have taught me to separate things: the laundries are not my responsibility. But understanding what made these institutions possible, and the consequences of such systemic oppression in the past, consequences that are still palpable now, is my responsibility and the responsibility of every Irish citizen.

A new emerging Irish Catholicism

Irish Catholicism pre the Famine was very different for the ordinary people of Ireland. It was much more in keeping with the seasons and with nature – Mass was said in people’s houses the priests were of the people.

Now let’s go back for a moment to Scally’s definitions of guilt and shame and keep in mind in particular what he said about “collective shame which is felt – when the negative event or behaviour of others in the group threatens the image of the group as a whole, and you are a member of the group.” This describes very well the collective feeling of shame that surrounded the Famine in Ireland.

After the Famine Irish Catholicism changed radically. While Ireland’s rural poor starved en masse or emigrated, the aspiring middle classes craved respectability and modelled themselves on respectable Victorian ways.  According to Joe Lee, an Irish celebrated historian, this mid-nineteenth century Ireland was a sluggish society where ‘envy, jealousy and spite became rampant.’ After Catholic emancipation in 1829 Catholics constructed facades of moral respectability behind which they obsessed over sex, the sin of sex, how best to control sex and how best to deal discreetly with sexual accidents – make them disappear or emigrate.

In August 1850 a  Synod of  bishops  was held in Thurles Co. Tipperary. The gathering of 300 religious men came together in pomp and ceremony while the rest of the country was still feeling the aftershocks of the Famine. The man leading this synod was Archbishop Paul Cullen who is credited with spearheading the development of a different kind of Irish Catholicism; and it was at this synod that the bishops among many other changes, voted against inter-denominational education which continues to cause problems for us in Ireland to this day. In Cullen’s 25 years from 1852-1878 religious orders opened over 37 institutions, hospitals, schools, convents and laundries. After centuries of humiliation the remodelled Catholic Church in Ireland offered promise and pride. Sadly many of the old traditions began to fall away because there were so many new ones. It was much more attractive to go to the new church buildings with calendars of events and slated rooves than go to the holy wells in the rain. 

Under Cullen Ireland’s Catholic Church identified and moved quickly to fill deep seated needs in the people for order, safety, pride education and economic security. This institution now offered the promise of status, salvation and consolation in the desolation of post famine Ireland. For Famine survivors, what was offered to them after Thurles would have seemed like a give them new hope. 

However where the British failed with the stick, Paul Cullen succeeded with a carrot that was as much Confucian as Catholic. The Chinese philosopher wrote centuries before Christ ‘ Lead them with excellence and put them in their place through roles and ritual practices and in addition to developing a sense a shame, they will order themselves harmoniously.’1

Briefing Note 20

Into the 20th Century: a Literary Revival and the ReEmergence of 

Cú Chulainn

After 400 years of occupation the ancient culture of oral storytelling was all but destroyed – except, that is, in remote rural areas. Increasingly, it came to be thought that the ‘pure’ form was to be found on islands off the West Coast, in particular Irish-speaking islands. Research indicates that this was often more imagined than real. But what is imagined can be as, if not more, important than what is actual.

What is intended here is a brief overview of the “Story of the Stories” into the 20th century. We will look at the period before independence, then move forward into the post-independence world.

After 400 years of occupation by the Tudors, Stuarts and onward there was little left of the Gaelic Tradition and the Bardic Order. The Bard Schools were long closed, and the big houses of the Gaelic Chieftains and Anglo-Normans were gone. It was thus in remote, rural, Irish-speaking areas and islands that remnants of a once-living tradition were sought.

However, in the period up to the end of the 19th century, the Irish Literary Revival became a powerful force and inspiration for an emergent Irish nationalism. The myths and legends became an area of focus for those who shared the agenda of separation and independence. Cultural Nationalists sought to build a new Ireland by reviving selected ancient values.

The Gaelic League had 58 branches in 1898. By 1908 there were 600 and a membership of 100,000. It was more active in towns than rural areas but many were sent to the Gaeltacht. At the central Oireachtas and at county fairs, singing, dancing and storytelling competitions took place. The source of inspiration was a ‘noble past’.  One of the important publications was by Standish James O’Grady: “the legends represented the imagination of the country; they are the kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambition and ideal of the people and, in this respect have a value far beyond the tale of actual events and recorded facts”. (In WI Thompson ‘The Imagination of an Insurrection’ 22). Irish Nationalism cultivated a ‘tradition’ of a Golden Legend of heroes and martyrs, ancient symbols, and a narrative of an on-going struggle for eternal principles.

The Irish Literary Revival, an Irish Renaissance, began in 1890 and ran in parallel with the drive for independence. These writers would use a combination of ancient mythology and what they could of oral traditions. Yeats proposed in a letter to United Ireland: “can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life, by translating and retelling…all that is best of ancient literature”. And what was produced were translations of ancient Irish Literature. It was to be a source of inspiration, even if for Yeats this was to be in English. The image of the rural storyteller was also part of the movement. “If Douglas Hyde and his league sought the peasantwe sought the peasant’s imagination” (Explorations 400-1).

Lady Augusta Gregory was an important figure and like Yeats a collector, but also a transcriber of Irish folklore. The first of her books, CúChulainn of Muirthemne (1902) pulled together the ‘Ulster Cycle’ material she mainly found in 19th century publications by scholars. Her folklore research had found that the stories of the Ulster Cycle were no longer part of the repertoire of the people. Her second book, ‘Gods and Fighting Men’ (1904), contained stories of the Tuatha de Danann and the Fianna Cycle. She tells that these stories were mainlypart of the repertoire of the ‘thatched houses’ of the rural folk.

John Millington Synge, who was of Anglo-Irish descent, was also attracted to the traditional Irish world.  Between 1898 and 1902 he spent 4 1/2 months on the Aran Islands. He loved the sense of primitiveness, but his portrayals were far from idyllic or picturesque. ‘Playboy of the Western World’ presents a demoralised people whose only source of narrative food was news items. This portrayal of the Irish on the stage did not suit the idealised image of the Irish people.

One of the most significant people from this period was Padraig Pearse, founder of St. Enda’s School in Rathfarnham. It was here that we ran our first Bard School in 1995 and have worked since in the Museum that is now there. Pearse believed storytelling was an essential part of education. The walls of the museum show pictures of re-enactments of the Fionn and CúChulainn stories. He saw these myths as the way to understand the mind of the people.

For Pearse the ‘hero’ was an active defender of the native tradition. That was what he was to fight for. As a boy he had heard a grey-haired Seanachai, one of his mother’s people. He was to join the Gaelic League in 1896 and explore the Gaeltacht. In terms of Irish history it was his living out the blood sacrifice of the CúChulainn figure that was to be so significant. In the museum they show the cups from which he and his brother were to drink a ‘tea’ with their mother before cycling down to the GPO in April 1916 to take on the might of the British Empire. Their sacrifice as they and the other rebels were executed was to stir the feelings of an otherwise largely ambivalent nation.

It was the way the rising was crushed, and the repression that followed, that was to turn the tide of public opinion in favour of the defeated insurgents. Poems and songs about the events were to multiply. Events were seized upon imaginatively to create ‘heroes’ and ‘heroic events’ to become the stuff of legend in ‘story and song’.

Importantly, it was the myth of CúChulainn and the Tain that was to become the best known of the cycles of myth in the 20th century. The myth of the warrior, of the blood sacrifice, was to be part of popular translation by Thomas Kinsella, Ciaran Carson and Liam MacUistin. It was also the figure to be picked up by both the Protestant and Catholics in the Troubles in the North, and was the subject of murals as the great defender of the tribe. The Bard Global Myth Study revealed this Myth to be the best known.

The Tain and CúChulainn had gone from missing from the repertoire to being the best known of what was still a largely marginal body of literature for much of the 20th century.

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