The Irish Great Hunger or, the famine that never was…

 

“Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people, yet a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo.”

Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849 

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Flowers left in memoriam – Custom House Quay, Dublin

 

My family are survivors. On both sides, we managed to either survive or flee from the destruction of the potato crop between 1845 and 1851, the sole means of sustenance for the poor in Ireland.

How could it be that a nation not 20 miles away from mainland Britain, could be decimated within 3 years, losing approximately 2 million of its people through starvation, disease or emigration?

It seems inconceivable that the catastrophe happened on the doorstep of the world’s richest nation at this time, yet it was the result of a complex set of circumstances both political and economic, which had very little to do with the potato and everything to do with ignorance and bigotry.


1845                                                                       1846

3,251,907 quarters of corn                           480,827 swine

257,257 sheep                                                  186,483 oxen

Ref: Cormac O’Grada: “Ireland before and after the Famine”

 

So there we are. There was no famine. Only the failure of a crop that the poorest had been forced to rely on as the only food they could afford to grow to feed themselves. Whatever your politics, the situation must be seen as one of the biggest failures of a government to address the needs of its people.

 


 

At school, I was taught the very stark fact that in 1945 there was a potato famine in Ireland and lots of people died. As I grew older and learned more about my own family history, I came to realise that we were somehow caught up in this “famine” although I didn’t really know how.

I knew my family came from Roscommon and Mayo, and I learnt that both counties were devastated during the potato failure. So I’m currently tootling around the mid and west counties of Ireland, doing some solo delving into the local history and trying to work out the link between events here and my being born English.

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The far left of Ireland is County Mayo and the dark part in the middle is Roscommon. My family were bound to be affected.

 

To begin with, I had no idea of the fact that throughout the “famine”,  Ireland was actually still producing a large variety of crops and produce such as dairy and meat. The problem was that this was what was known as “cash crops”, for export only.

The potato, which fed the nation, failed.

It would snowball into the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe.

 

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This family would not qualify for famine relief – they still have clothes and some furniture.

 

And what of my own family’s involvement?

The McCarthys were itinerant Travellers in Roscommon. Very little documentary evidence exists other than baptism records in Dysart, County Roscommon however some of them survived the hunger (my existence being testimony to this fact).

Little is known of Irish Traveller history during the time of the Hunger. Indeed, it was thought until recently that Travellers were simply Irish famine survivors who took to the road to search for food and work and simply continued that way of life. We now know that they reach as far back as 17th century Cromwellian Ireland and have a DNA pattern distinct from the settled Irish population.

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A family used to living with the bare necessities of life

I guess being travellers meant they had possession of knowledge and the means to adapt and move with the change in circumstances. They would have been used to living in adverse conditions with scarce resources, having the ability to turn their hand to many different trades in order to feed their families. If they were lucky, they could have earned 8d per day breaking stones to build roads as part of the “relief works”, a kind of early public assistance scheme.

Their tendency to keep themselves to themselves would also help to reduce the chance of picking up the deadly typhus or other infectious diseases. Large family networks would enable them to pick up news about conditions in neighbouring counties with a view to moving on if needs be.  Whatever the reasons for their survival, the McCarthys were able to get through the worst of it and remain in Ireland until more recent times favoured economic migration to the English West Midlands in which I was born.

Another side of my family, the Clarkes from County Mayo, did not fair so well. Such was their plight that 3 cousins, from which I am descended, left the family  in Crossmolina, where there were around 100 cases of Typhus and where starvation reduced the population from 12,000 in 1841 to 7000 in 1851.

 

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Irish Travellers earned a living doing seasonal agricultural work and mending and making tin wear. As the need for labourers and home wears declined, many Travellers were forced to migrate to find work in the industrialised towns of England.

I found my 3x grandfather Thomas Clarke on an 1851 census in a barn in Trysull, Staffordshire, England with his 2 cousins, Michael and John. Their ages ranged from 17 to 19 and they travelled around 200 miles to get from home to that barn. Most of this was across bogland and harsh terrain, in inclement weather and with empty stomachs.

They had first travelled to County Cavan, then down to Dublin to catch a paddle steamer across to Liverpool, where they would have worked their way down to the Midlands, eventually ending up in the Black Country area of Wolverhampton, and the metalwork industry.

The England and Wales census of 1851 finds them living in a barn, separate from other farm workers and employees who lived together in a large farmhouse. They would have been comfortable enough, used to living without a kitchen and the usual amenities. They would have spoken Irish, as 80% of people in Crossmolina did at that time and so communication with their fellow workers would have been difficult. None of the other inhabitants were from Ireland.

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Thomas Clarke aged 20 years, living in a barn in Staffordshire, 1851. The comment underneath the name reads: “The 3 last named persons inhabit a barn or outhouse as a permanent residence”.

 

By the census of 1861, the cousins had split and my ancestor had moved to Walsall, right in the heart of an Irish immigrant population. There is no mention of family members from the old country coming over to join them, and they never went back home to live. It’s hard to imagine what happened to the rest of the family. There are no burial records in Crossmolina. One can only presume that they, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, perished in the disaster.

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From starvation in Ireland to the slums of the English Midlands

 

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Thomas Clarke in 1861, now married to an Irish girl and mining stone. Note the number of Irish residents in the street, the lucky ones who managed to flee disasters back home.

 

The McCarthys and the Clarkes met in the traditional metal working industries of the Black Country in the West Midlands. They had endured hardships beyond imagination. They had left behind them families and loved ones to seek a better life. They had left behind their travelling heritage, customs and way of life. They ended up in the grimy urban back to back squalor of a heavily industrialised part of England.

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A far cry from the fields of County Mayo- the smoke and dirt of the Black Country, England

They became me. And for this and their determination to survive, I thank them

 

 

 

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For I smell of the earth and am worn by the weather…

These beautiful Roscommon creatures were just so chilled. I couldn’t fit them in my car unfortunately…

 

I knew I was home the moment my little car drove me from Strokestown in County Roscommon to the wild lands of North West County Mayo. It was the smell.

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From Roscommon up to Lough Conn, and 2 entirely different geographies…

 

Smell is extremely important to me. I’ve spoken before about the wild garlic of Northern French hedgerows and the assault of chemical perfumery in the duty free shops at airports. I also get olfactory hallucinations- I smell scents that aren’t there- as one of my symptoms of manic depression. My nose provides cues for safety, danger and remembrances of things past.

The north west of Roscommon was turned over from potato fields in the 1840’s to the more prosperous pasture land for dairy herds. This was another reason for the eviction of masses of people who emigrated either to Canada, the USA or Britain.

 

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Strokestown land and lough.
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No sign remains of my family in these fields in Roscommon, but driving through them I was able to imagine the men, women and children, working the land in all weathers…

 

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A remarkable find… this was worn over the soft shoe protect the foot as it pushed the spade into the peaty earth, hour after hour, day after day…
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Often the men left the family for periods of time, migrating to Scotland for seasonal work. Irish families were matriarchal. And the women worked as hard as the men…

 

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I took this photo in the deserted village of Slievemore, on Achill Island, County Mayo. Here can be seen clearly, remains of the “lazy bed” potato fields and a thrilling glimpse into the past life of my family.

 

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Roscommon and Mayo are full of abandoned farm houses…indicative of the mass emigration over the past 200 years…
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Nephin in the background. Potato cultivation was thrown over for pasture farming…and with it went centuries of subsistence farming and thousands of people.

 

I drove 2 hours from the Strokestown Famine Museum up to Crossmolina. I chose the minor roads in order to take in the beauty of the countryside.

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County Mayo has a Brontesque quality to it… I was almost tempted into a bodice and corset…
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The colours of June in Ireland are staggering and a photographer’s dream

 

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It took much longer to complete my journey due to all the beautiful places I stopped to photograph…

 

The north west pastures of Roscommon suddenly become the wilderness  of County Mayo. And the smell. It was a rich smell of soil, stirred up by a recent rainfall and warmed by the sun. A heady, heavy scent of earth, grass and wild flower bloom. Of cows and manure and mould. A smell I wanted to lie down in and sleep forever. And of course it made me think of Mr T.

Seven years have passed since I laid my beautiful husband in the ground. He will now be a part of the land of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. An English man from birth to death. To this day I miss burrowing my nose into his warm, musky armpits whenever I felt anxious in the night. It was my safe place.

And I wondered how many people lay underneath the land on which I was walking. Those who fell foul of the hunger, those who weren’t lucky enough to be able to get away. And I wondered if their bones were adding to the thick, rich, dark dank odour of the Irish peat, reminding me that I too, one day, will be a part of this land. Because it was at that point that I decided I need to complete the family circle. One day I will come home.

 


 

There is no doubt that, travelling alone across this land of my fathers, my connection to the land was cemented. I felt the spirit of my forefathers and their strength and determination to survive. The pull that I have always felt, to return to the motherland was not satiated. Rather, it became stronger as I drove from townland to townland, each recorded in church parish records, with details of my ancestors.

Nothing remains of their homelands. No cabin nor caravan. Just beautiful, rich land. And it’s difficult to imagine the vast numbers of people who lived and died in these counties.

 

 

In 1841 the population of Mayo was 388,847, by 1851 it had fallen to 274,830; the number of homes in the county had fallen from 70,542 to 49,073 in the same period. Within 10 years the numbers of families halved.

The same happened in Roscommon. West Roscommon lost approximately 60% of its population in ten years, between 1841 and 1851. East Roscommon experienced less of a population decline however and I wonder whether this explains why the McCarthy’s were able to continue living in the area until the mid 20th century. It is clear however that the Clarkes were caught up heavily in the Great Hunger diaspora. I have only details of the three Clarke cousins surviving the famine. I have no records of what happened to the rest of the family. I fear the worst.


If you go to West Ireland, go in June. And leave the car behind, and preferably any friends and relatives. Go in June and go alone. Fully embrace the sounds and smells of a land virtually unchanged since pre-medieval times. A land rich saturated with colour and perfume, beauty and the most awful tragedy.  A sublime land of glorious landscape and pitiful sorrow. A land from which I defy anybody to emerge unmoved and unchanged. A land I’m proud to call my motherland.