They Starved to Death on Ireland’s Green Hills
Once upon a time in Ireland, one million people starved to death. On the land. Under bridges. On the sides of rural roads. In barns.
It’s been seven generations since the Great Famine, but the Irish and their diaspora cousins around the world have never forgotten.
Will never forget. Can never forget.
It was a time when the Faith of the Irish sustained them. When not even food offered during a time of hunger would induce an Irishman to renounce his Faith.
by Harry Stevens
Our story begins two generations before the Famine, when an Irish political uprising against the occupying British was brutally put down in 1798. Still smarting from their defeat in America, the British Empire deployed about 100,000 troops to Ireland; by 1800, they had assumed utter control.
By the 1840s, when the Famine struck, 95% of Ireland’s land was in British hands, mostly owned by absentee British landlords employing Irish Protestant overseers.
How the Catholics Lived
Catholics were laborers, working small farms rented from the British, usually of several acres. They were ‘tenants- at-will,’ never secure in their homes, vulnerable to eviction at any time.
Whole families lived in single room mud huts. Some kept livestock; sometimes the livestock was sold to help pay the rent. Many lived in poverty, barely sustaining a living on these farms. Not surprisingly, homeless beggars abounded even before the Famine struck.
Plenty of food for those who could pay
The Irish starved in the midst of plenty. During the Famine times, Irish farms produced record crops such as oats and barley, but these were earmarked for export and making alcohol — all profits to be made by British landowners. Irish cash crops did not fail during the famine years. There was plenty of food for those who could pay.
How, then, did people starve? The potato was a staple of the diet of the Irish peasant, providing vitamin C plus the carbohydrates and protein needed for a day. A family of six would consume five tons of potatoes a year.
A farmer could feed his family and his livestock with potatoes from just an acre for one year, as an acre would yield 12 tons.
Nothing to Fall Back On To Survive
The potato famine struck in September 1845. At the time, many theories were advanced as to the cause: the fanciful imagined toxic vapors from underground volcanoes, the evangelical invoked divine punishment for the sins of the people, the environmentalists blamed static electricity from newly-arrived locomotives.
The Famine’s actual cause, we now know, was an airborne fungus, phytophthora infestans, a contagion carried on ships from the Americas and spread through the wind in damp conditions throughout Ireland.
Between 1815 and 1842, there were fourteen complete or partial potato crop failures, but never in successive years. The Irish farmer and his family were always bordering on lean times; starvation always hovered like a specter during many of these years, with nothing to fall back on to survive.
The British government did provide some relief; the 1838 Poor Law Act began helping some poor by opening workhouses and soup kitchens. Initially single women and widows, the infirm and elderly, and orphans were admitted to the workhouses.
But workhouses did not solve problems; they only made things worse by splitting up families, as men, women, and children were separated and forced to live apart. The Irish family, the strength of the community, began to crumble.
Government workhouses were, in effect, penal institutions. The Irish gave up everything they had upon entering, and were forced to wear penal-like clothing. They endured long work hours, short family visitation hours, enforced silence, meager wages, minimal food.
The Irish considered workhouses to be fever-ridden prisons for the innocent. The choice for the poor was stark – starve to death outside or of fever inside the squalid workhouses.
A Perfect Storm of Evil
Ultimately, the Famine was a perfect storm of wind-borne infestation and politics-borne evil. Some in the British government viewed the Irish plight as a visitation of Providence, arguing that British taxpayers were tired of supporting the chronically poor Irish peasantry.
‘Irish property must pay for Irish poverty’ was the slogan for a new law which laid the responsibility for providing for tenants squarely on the shoulders of the great landowners in Ireland. Before the law went into effect, however, the landowners had one last chance to evict unwanted tenants.
Especially in the West and the South of Ireland, tenant families were ordered to destroy their own miserable huts, and then turned out into the rural roads to starve.
Other landlords and their overseers decided that it would be cheaper to put their former tenants on a ship bound for the Americas rather than to continue to feed a starving family. Indeed, some looked at this as an act of mercy.
The Coffin Ships
With the hunger came disease, and typhoid fever which threatened anyone who came near. Emigration ships became known as ‘coffin ships,’ carrying the starving and disease-ridden Irish away.
Because NYC regulations were stricter and fares there more expensive, many of the coffin ships burdened with their forlorn human cargo made their way to Canada via the St Lawrence River. Of those that survived the passage, many died on Grosse Ile, a quarantine island about 30 miles from Quebec City while awaiting medical care.
Twenty heroic Catholic priests caught typhoid while ministering to the desperately ill there; six of them died. In 1847 alone, almost 5500 Irish men, women and children were buried on Grosse Ile.
The Famine’s Honor Roll
They were not alone. Back in Ireland, “In 1847 alone, at least thirty-six priests died in Ireland from Famine related disease, sixteen of them during the month of May.” The evidence from County Kerry alone is staggering. The Kerry Examiner reported the obituaries of Father Jeremiah Falvey, curate Patrick Tuohy, Reverend Thomas Enright, and Reverend Michael Devine. The Kerry Evening Post reported the death of Reverend John Gallivan from fever. The Tralee Chronicle reported the death of Fr John O’Donoghue, and noted that “at the present moment, in this diocese, there are no less than eight Roman Catholic Clergymen on the bed of fever, contracted during their ministrations.”
“All this great work by the Presentation nuns took its toll on their health. Worn out by sheer exhaustion, many caught fever and some died. Amongst those who paid the supreme sacrifice were: Sisters Angela Love, Mary Joseph O’Kane, Philomena Moriarty, Ignatius Martin in Listowel; (and) Sister Catherine Vize, aged 27, Castle island.”
A global relief effort was launched by the Vatican, with Catholics donating from every continent, including remote outposts such as missions in Madagascar. The archdiocese of Boston contributed a whopping US$150,000. A poor curate in a rural parish in Scotland donated one pound. All of this relief money was carefully accounted for, and honestly distributed through parishes and Orders. Some Anglican and Quaker organizations also helped, donating money generously to help the desperate Irish.
Contemporary sources tell us that this money kept millions from starving. But it was not nearly enough.
The Famine’s Wall of Shame
The British Government spent £8.3 million to relieve the Great Famine. Putting this into context, this amounted to less than 0.5% of the gross national product of Great Britain for one year.
Why such a tepid response? To understand this, one must see Great Britain as she saw herself in the mid-19th century. At the height of her Empire, Great Britain considered herself to be the most enlightened Christian nation in the world. Queen Victoria was on the throne, and her long rule oversaw great advances in science and technology.
London and Dublin were full of ‘scientific’ theorists, some with great influence in government circles. Hence, many saw the potato blight as a welcome opportunity to reform Irish agriculture. Some actually argued ‘scientifically’ that the blight would clear out ‘surplus’ population, creating a smaller, more prosperous class of farmer.
A Special Kind of ‘Christian’ Cruelty
Incredibly, against this backdrop of misery and callousness, Evangelical Protestant missions were set up around Ireland to take advantage of the Catholics’ desperation. They offered food and clothing if Catholics would renounce their ancient Faith.
Dr. M. Slattery, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly reported during the Famine that “614 Catholic houses have been thrown down and their inmates thrown out into the world, and an easy prey to the Protestant seducers, who offered money, food, and shelter in exchange for their religion; some 300 people have died of starvation within one period of six months . . . hundreds preferred to be evicted onto the roads rather than give up their faith; many have died for their faith.”
Genesis of the Diaspora
The statistics are stark. Ireland was populated by about eight million people in 1840. Massive emigration and starvation reduced this population by 25% in just six years.
From a distance of 167 years, the Famine appears to have been gross negligence bordering on genocide. Powerful Whig politicians such as Robert Peel, Charles Trevelyn, Lord John Russell and Sir Charles Wood, as well as wealthy Irish landholders such as Lords Clanrickard, Lansdowne, Mounteagle and Palmerston have gone down in Irish history as those who oversaw the death of a million plus – and the forced emigration of nearly all the ancestors of today’s diaspora Irish.
The 1840s and 1850s and beyond saw millions of Irish fleeing to England, Scotland, the Americas and Australia. Their descendants, raised in Protestant education systems which give scant notice to the Famine, are often ignorant of the true story of the genesis of the Diaspora and the experience of their own family.
The truth is that the Irish are a wonderful, courageous, tough lot. Politically, they survived brutal years of British occupation. In terms of religion, Irish Catholicism survived everything the British threw at them — from the depredations of Oliver Cromwell in 1649 to those of Peel and Trevelyn during the Famine.
Everyone with Irish ancestry is part of this story, and everyone has a story to tell.
(Editor’s Note: Harry Stevens’ Irish Catholic family left before the Famine — see here for the story. Regina Magazine writer/photographer Michael Durnan’s family survived the Famine and emigrated to Liverpool in the 1880s. Regina Magazine’s webmaster Jim Bryant’s Irish family survived the Famine and emigrated to America in 1922.)
2. Calender of the papers of Dr. M. Slattery, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, 1834-1857, made by Dom Mark Tierney, original documents in the Cashel Diocese archives 1 September 1965
3. The Kerry Archeological and Historical Society: The Famine in Kerry, 1997 pp.28 and 57
4. Donal Kerr. The Catholic Church and the Famine.