A History of Famine in Ireland

Article excerpt

My wife Bridget's Maloney ancestors came from County Mayo in Ireland to escape the great famine that struck, and destroyed a million people of Ireland in the mid-19th century. There had been famines before, but the one of 1845-50 was the worst.

Author John Kelly in "The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People" gives us more than a hint of what happened as the potato crop failed, and relief for the Irish people was slow coming.

In fact, Kelly's description of the starving people is so vivid it caused me considerable discomfort.

While the immediate cause of the crop failures stretching over several years was a potato disease, there were other culprits. Excessive rainy seasons caused the disease to flourish. Dry spells would reduce crops. The small size of many cottagers' fields made it almost impossible to grow a crop that could last a winter.

The lowly potato, more nourishing than grain, filling, easy to grow and store, was the heart of the diet of many poor Irish. And there were many such folk living in rude cottages, some made of anything at hand.

At the heart of many Irish people was their faith. They were for the most part Catholics, though a few adhered to the Anglican faith of the Church of Ireland, which was Protestant. Mr. Kelly is honest to put forward the thought that various superstitions prevailed in some quarters, perhaps in all classes of the population. And, why not? Starving people might reach out to any powers, including fairies, for sustenance.

At the center of this tragic tale are the bumbling and ill- advised efforts of the English to provide solutions. Ireland was in an uneasy union with England, and looked to the more prosperous partner for aid and assistance so that its population could be fed. There were many proposed solutions, but at the heart of the attempts to relive suffering were the Poor Laws, which laid a tax on more prosperous citizens of both England and Ireland. …