My own introduction to the Irish famine came not from my old-country mother and father whose own parents had lived through it. My father was born in 1897 in the village of Hospital near Limerick, my Uncle Ed in 1887, yet I never heard one word about the famine.
After attending Mass one Sunday morning at Old St. Patrick’s in Chicago, my family and I visited a traveling exhibit on the famine in the courtyard next to the church. An Irish group promoting knowledge about the Great Famine had assembled artifacts, including blow-ups of the records from the British Museum of Irish exports to England during the five terrible years. Most menacing was a drop-lid coffin made of varnished pine or plywood with a hinge at the bottom for release of the body into the grave. This one coffin dropped members of an entire village into her graves.
The display piqued my interest, especially since I had not heard of the famine in our family history, which seemed to go back only to the time of the Black and Tans, the British irregulars the English dredged up to terrorize the Irish while the real soldiers were fighting the Germans in The Great War. With their uniforms of khaki and black, the Tans brought murder and mayhem to the Irish, to the extent that England finally had to withdraw them.
Dragged off to Irish dances at Carpenter’s Hall on Chicago’s south side, my brother and I stuffed with hot dogs and soda pop listened to fiery speeches about the Easter Rising and the evils of the Black and Tans. We learned no history before that, perhaps because those events were more recent, more than sixty years after the Famine, and the war with England spoke of Irish bravery. My mother never told us of her childhood in Ballyristeen, a townland outside Dingle. If there were skeletons in the family closet, my mother kept them firmly in there. We kids never heard them. My general sense is that the grinding poverty that drove my mother and aunts to America to work as cleaning ladies and my two uncles to England to labor in the steel mills was so much to bear, that my mother had to be coaxed into returning to Ireland for a visit in 1969.
As kids, my brother Dennis and I had to cart in our red “Radio Flyer” wagon what we called “care packages” for my Irish cousins to the post office at Easter and Christmas—with money sewn inside the labels of clothes and once a canned ham. On visiting Ireland with both my parents, I was shocked to find my cousin wearing my graduation suit from high school ten years earlier, part of a care package.
Because my mother was from Kerry where Mother England had been unable to extirpate the Irish language (not for want of trying), she lapsed into her native tongue on the phone when discussing the failings of my brother and me or when talking of family secrets we were not supposed to hear.
Robert Scally has a wonderful book: The End of Hidden Ireland Even in my own family, there was a hidden Ireland. Twelve years after my father’s death, I learned from a cousin in Ireland that in 1921 as a young man my dad was as an IRA man who had taken part in the arrest and execution of an informer to the Black and Tans who were searching for IRA leader Liam Lynch. My father also helped burn down the British barracks in Kilmallock. Wanted by the British, my father had to flee the country. Neither my brother nor I had heard of this, perhaps not even my mother.
Small wonder then that the famine was “hidden.” The historian O’Garda explains, “people would be glad if the famine were forgotten so that the cruel doings of their forebears would not be again renewed and talked about by neighbors.” And again “. . . echoes of half-forgotten conflicts probably persisted until recently, subconscious or half-forgotten. Ignoring the guilt and the shame leaves the way open in due course for a version of famine history in which the descendants of those who survived all became vicarious victims.” O’Garda goes on to say that “all the information you’d get from the old people was their graves are there (they died in the year of disaster) , while in Ballymoe, County Galway, those who had witnessed the horrors of the famine were reluctant to give details, and only an occasional incident was handed down.”
This view of hidden Ireland stands in sharp contrast to what others say of Irish memory. De Tocqueville points to “a terrible exactitude of memory among the Irish peasantry. The great persecutions are not forgotten.” And this is also my sense. We Irish don’t forget.
“We wouldn’t die, and that annoyed them. They’d spent centuries trying to kill us off, one way or another, and here we were, raising seven, eight, nine of a family on nothing but potatoes and buttermilk. But then the blight destroyed the potato. Three times in four years our only food rotted in the ground. Nothing to eat, the healthy crops sent away to feed England. We starved. More than a million died—most of them in the West, which is only a quarter of the country, with Ireland itself just half the size of Illinois. A small place to hold so much suffering. But we didn’t all die. Two million of us escaped, one reaching back for the next. Surely one of the great rescues in human history. We saved ourselves, helped only by God and our own strong faith. Now look at us, doing well all over the world. We didn’t die.”
Honora Keeley Kelly, born 1822. Told to her great-granddaughter Agnella Kelly, Sister Mary Erigina, born 1889, and reported to the author, Honora’s great great granddaughter.
Galway Bay, Mary Pat Kelly
Famine Ghost is a work of historical fiction; the history is true, the plot and characters created to serve as a framework for telling of the Great Famine. I have used eyewitness accounts such as Whyte’s Famine Ship Diary, Nicholson’s Annals, De Vere’s account of life aboard a famine ship, and quotations from Trevelyan, Russell, and others. British newspapers like the London Times and provide the British side of things while Irish papers, The Nation and The Freeman’s Journal the Irish point of view. Much of the material about the Quakers I have gleaned from Hatton’s invaluable The Largest Amount of Good.
It’s difficult to write a book about an event that was both complicated and relentlessly depressing, like writing about the Holocaust, but there were heroes aplenty, chiefly the Quakers, many of whom literally worked themselves to death. Asenath Nicholson is another as well as many Anglican and Catholic priests, the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers, and the Dominican Fathers.
Though there are no exact figures on either mortality or emigration, we know that Ireland had a pre-Famine population of eight million. According to a modern scholar, Norita Fleming, “it is commonly accepted that from Ireland to Grosse Ile, in the ocean graveyard, bodies could form a continuous chain of burial crosses.” By 1911 Ireland’s population was four million, half of the number before the potato blight.
Those interested in the more scholarly works may consult the bibliography. My purpose has been to tell the story of the Famine in a way to draw the reader’s interest in much the same way as the drop-lid coffin and other exhibits moved me in Old St. Patrick’s many years ago. In the end, only the individual reader can judge whether or not I have succeeded.