The Darker Side of life in Ireland of Old

Part I

Recently I had the opportunity to read a book called ‘The Peeler’s Notebook’, concerning the work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) from its formation until the establishment of the ‘Garda Siochana’. To my surprise I read a snippet about the activities of men involved in the ‘Sack ‘em up’ trade, more commonly known as ‘Grave Robbing’, or ‘Resurrectionism.’ Looking further into such activities I was surprised to discover that ‘Resurrectionism’ had been a long-established practice within Ireland, which appeared to reach its peak in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There was, at this time, a growing demand for reasonably fresh cadavers to the anatomy schools that had been established in Dublin and Belfast, the surplus supporting the burgeoning export trade to those supplying the anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere within Britain. In the northern part of Ireland, the gruesome trade was not as widespread as that in the south and was largely carried out for export purposes. However, it was the criminal actions of two men from Northern Ireland, Burke and Hare, that brought the practice into the light and hastened the demise of the trade.

Grave Robbing 2The methods employed by the ‘Resurrectionists’ in obtaining the cadavers were greatly facilitated by the common practice of the shallow interment of the dead, and the marking of their last place of rest marked by a mound of earth. To combat the practice various efforts were employed, such as putting lamp posts in graveyards, establishing corpse-houses, constructing iron frames to guard the coffins, watch-house, and the building of ‘mort-safes’. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s old graveyards there were rows of iron cages standing like so many animal enclosures to prevent newly buried bodies from being stolen.

Researchers have pointed out that it was the early years of the nineteenth century that saw the ‘Resurrectionist’ movement peak, and finally began to decline after the revelation of the murders committed by Burke and Hare, both of whom were originally from Ireland. This blog has been written to outline what I have discovered about this dark era of ‘Resurrectionism’, with the emphasis being on the Irish experience and the events that led to the passing of ‘The Anatomy Act’ in 1832.


We who live in a modern Ireland can see that anatomy is an essential medical subject that is, in many cases, studied by the dissecting dead bodies. For many hundreds of years, however, superstitious beliefs, religious objections, and completely blind acceptance of existing medical teaching combined to erect a huge obstacle to practical studies by anatomists that would give us new understanding on how the human body functioned. It is also a sad reflection on humanity that from the days when men first took to burying their dead, graves have been robbed of anything of value that had been buried with the corpse. In fact, I can recall that some thirty years ago there was a widely reported case of thieves being disturbed in an old churchyard as they attempted to steal the heavy lead that had been placed around some corpses almost two centuries previously to prevent those bodies from being taken by body-snatchers.

Andreas Versalius, Flemish anatomist, physician was born in Brussels in 1514, and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, authoring ‘De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)’. He was professor at the University of Padua, and later became Imperial Physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. At this time most anatomical studies were carried out upon the bodies of animals, but Versalius would change this practice. It could also be said that Versalius, who was the man who established the foundations of modern anatomy, was the first grave-robber to use his talents to expand human understanding anatomical science. There are many stories about Vesalius and his activities, one of which describes how he smuggled the body of a hanged criminal into his lodgings, with the help of a friend. Such stories, concerning the development of anatomy in Europe, are many and a considerable number of pages could be filled with them. We shall not do that but will simply state that the trade in supplying fresh cadavers for dissection flourished widely throughout Ireland and the British Isles from the mid-eighteenth century until The British Parliament passed the ‘Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

Grave Robbing 4In the middle of the sixteenth century, while all students of medicine were required to be thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the human body, the Crown authorities provided surgeons with a totally inadequate number of corpses for anatomical study that had been obtained from executed criminals. The considerable gap between supply and demand was filled by entrepreneurial individuals in a variety of ways. The most common method, however, saw men going out after dark and digging up recently interred bodies from the many graveyards. It appears that this task was usually undertaken by medical students, doctors, or by professional grave robbers who were commonly known as ‘body-snatchers’, ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’. In fact, the practice became so common that there were occasions when rival grave robbers, mourning relatives, watchmen, and others would become involved in fighting over the possession of corpses. One such occasion was recorded as happening in Edinburgh, which had become a major medical teaching centre. As was their habit, the students of the famous anatomist Alexander Munro, attended the public hanging of a woman, intending to secure the female criminal’s body for their studies. The students, however, were noticed by members of the gathered crowd and, in moments, a ferocious public battle erupted. Unfortunately for both sides, they were a bit too quick off the mark, and soon after the public uproar had broken out the poor woman’s life was revived by the students, and she was to live for many more years after the incident, albeit with the nick-name of “Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.

The great demand for corpses was met, for the most part, by the industriousness of the Irish resurrection men who were able to export their surplus trade to Edinburgh and other major medical training centres. But as the years passed, this source of corpses was proven to be totally inadequate to fill the constantly increasing demand. Then, in 1829, the entire dark world of grave robbers and the medical establishment was blown wide open when the career of a well-known surgeon called Knox was suddenly brought to ruin because of his dealings with an infamous duo of ‘resurrectionists’ called Burke and Hare. These two men had tried to overcome the shortage of fresh bodies for anatomical research by murdering anyone whom they believed would not be missed. These unfortunate victims were tramps, orphans, street women, and poor people. Even today the name of Burke and Hare is enough to send a shiver down a person’s spine and their infamy was recorded in song e.g.

“Up the close and down the stair

But and ben with Burke and Hare

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy who buys the beef.”


Grave Robbing 3In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the mindset of those men that involved themselves in such a trade. One story, however, might just help enlighten us, and it concerns a certain labouring man from a town on the south coast of England whose wife died in 1800. When a close friend went to the man’s house to offer his condolences, being taken into the kitchen he saw that the coffin was empty and had been left upside down. Curious as to what had happened to the body of the man’s wife, the visitor asked his friend where it was, and he was stunned by the reply he received. The widowed husband told his visitor that, when he and his wife had first been married, she had been brought to him with a horse’s halter around her neck. At the time, the husband took this to be a sign that he would have absolute control over her and that she would be obedient to him in all matters. So convinced was he of his ‘rights’ as a husband that he had sold his wife’s body to local ‘body snatchers’ and had decided that he should keep the coffin to use as a sideboard.

A similar record of the period demonstrates just how the activities of the ‘grave robbers’ had caused the moral standards of the ordinary citizens to change. One news report gave details of a man whose son had died seventeen years previously and, when he went to the graveyard to ensure the corpse was safe, he discovered the corpse had been stolen by ‘resurrectionists’. All that was left in the young man’s grave was his coffin, which the father took home with him and used for his own burial seventeen years later.

Similar tales were all too familiar in Dublin and Belfast at the time and, sadly, a casual approach toward the bodies of dead loved ones appeared to become widespread among people. In February 1830 a city paper reported the following story:

“A few nights ago a corpulent midwife named Magennis rather aged died on the north side of the city and on the night of her burial it was discovered that the leader of those who attempted to disinter the poor woman and deliver her body up for dissection was one of her own sons. On the fellow being accused of the crime he said, ‘Sure even if I did so a tenderer hand couldn’t go over her.’”

It is evident from such records that in and around Dublin at that time family mourning was very much in short supply. The reason behind this change in attitudes was due in part, if not in full, to the spread of ‘Resurrectionism’ to almost epidemic proportions by the 1820s. The lack of human bodies for scientific study because of various religious and traditional taboos had already impeded developments in anatomy study for centuries. In previous times monkeys and pigs had been dissected by students because they were thought to be broadly similar anatomically to humans. But when these studies were extended to the actual treatment of humans there were gaps in knowledge and understanding. It was William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was the first physician who described in complete detail the systematic circulation of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.[1] The accuracy of his work was due entirely to the fact that he had studied the dissected bodies of his sister and father.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a very limited number of bodies from executed criminals had been made available, by royal enactment, to surgeons in Scotland and Wales. These proved to be too few to satisfy a growing demand, and ‘The Murder Act’ of 1752 included the substitution of dissection for gibbeting in chains for the guilty. In fact, there are records that tell us that in Dublin there were many occasions when the corpse of a publicly executed murderer would be followed to the gates of the College of Surgeons by a disaffected mob of people, which included the executed person’s relatives.

It was, of course a period of great scientific exploration of all sorts including the generation and possible uses of electricity like ‘Galvanism’. This involved passing a ‘Galvanic’ current through the muscles of a dissected body causing them to jump and move as if alive, leading some to believe that such experiments were the inspiration for stories like ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Meanwhile, as anatomical research continued to gain momentum in medical circles the demand for bodies of the deceased grew and certain ‘entrepreneurs’ took to stealing the bodies of those who had been newly interred. These men saw no legal problem in this activity since the bodies of the deceased had no value in British law, although they did have some value in Common Law. In Scotland medical students traditionally had to source their own bodies, while in Dublin the trade in ‘Body Snatching’ had been continuous since the beginnings of the 1730s. The early nineteenth century, however, witnessed a great growth in the number of surgical students, which was due in most part to the increase in population between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, as well as the increase in demand for surgeons during the wars with Napoleon.

Grave Robbing 6The wars with France and Spain caused a great downturn in foreign trade at this time and caused the sons of the middle-class to seek careers in medicine rather than commerce. At the same time, the government wanted to bring some regulation to the business of dispensing medicines and within the terms of ‘The Apothecaries Act of 1815’ instruction in anatomy was made compulsory for the training of all recognised apothecaries. It was also a time of discovery, with voyages of exploration to all the far-flung parts of the world revealing new peoples, new foods, strange, animals, and new, extremely deadly diseases. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this was also a time when medical scientists increased their exploration into the inner workings of the human body.

This period in the history of medical science was encouraged by a new spirit of investigation into diseases, developed in France and involving new clinical-pathological measures. The Napoleonic Wars and a new law gave anatomical students an ample number of corpses for research and their work demonstrated that a limited number of dissections might increase knowledge of human anatomy, but the dissection of many bodies with diseases at different stages gave greater knowledge of the causes of death and led to methods to prevent many of those causes. As one commentator of the time stated, “the examination of a single body of one who has died of Tabes or consumption … is of more service to medicine than the dissection of the bodies of ten men who have been hanged.” Nevertheless, when it came to the study of pathology, Ireland and the rest of the British Isles lagged far behind the advances made in France. In fact, powers in England called the exportation of corpses from Ireland as being an abominable and shameful trade, likening it to the shipping of dead or live cattle or any other cargo. One noted Irishman, Dr Peter Hennis Greene from Cork, who served on the staff of the ‘Lancet’ for years, had taken part in grave robbing expeditions as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, and he wrote of ‘his shillelagh red with the blood of the Charleys’ (night watchmen).[2] The anatomy schools, however, were totally dependent upon the support of the ‘resurrectionists,’ whose trade by had begun to reach its peak in the second decade of nineteenth century. If compared to a modern-day illegal trade it would be like today’s drug trade, for it too was wholly consumer-driven, although in this case the purchasers, the heads of the anatomy schools, escaped prosecution criminalization. But, like drugs, human bodies represented the money that underwrote their wealth and professional influence for, by the late 1820s, bodies could command a price of between £16 and £22. Unfortunately, as it always seems to be, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the activity, because they were buried in the flimsiest of coffins in shallow, mass graves. In commercial terms, the poor had come to be worth more dead than alive.

It was estimated that in 1826, the trade in corpses for anatomical research probably exceeded several thousand bodies annually in Great Britain. Moreover, the growth was greatly assisted in that year when dissection was made compulsory in surgical studies, and all students were required to dissect one or more cadavers. One of the largest classes of students studying anatomy was under the direction of Robert Knox in Edinburgh and numbered over five hundred pupils. Such large classes were not unusual in any of the anatomical schools and many other medical researchers complained that surgeons in London, particularly, created massive competition between private schools and hospitals. There were also increasing criticism of the ‘College of Surgeons’ for its emphasis on dissection and had, therefore, caused the acute shortage of bodies and the high prices that were being charged for them. More damaging, however, was the growing attacks against the relationship between resurrectionists and anatomist as being totally dishonourable to the reputation of the medical profession. Meanwhile, in Dublin at this time, it was estimated that the number of ‘dissecting pupils’ exceeded five hundred, and the number of bodies used for dissection as being numbered between fifteen-hundred and two thousand. But Dublin was a major centre for ‘resurrectionists’ activities in the British Isles at this time and, as we shall discover, also had a flourishing export trade in bodies.


The methods employed by the body snatchers were many and varied but were made less difficult by the fact that the lid to a coffin did not lie very deep below the surface of the ground. The grave robbers often worked with short- handled, wooden spades that deadened the noise of their excavations. In some places the body snatchers used a canvas sheet to hold the excavated earth and, once the coffin lid was exposed, two hooks were inserted under the lid and pulled upwards with a rope. This would cause the coffin lid to shatter enough to allow them to drag out the corpse with sacking heaped over everything to assist in deadening any noise that might have been caused. Thereafter, the body was stripped of any shroud covering it, and this was scrupulously re-buried, because to steal it was a misdemeanour. The body itself, however, was put in a sack, which led these grave robbers to be known commonly a ‘sack-em-up men’, and the whole scene would be carefully restored to its original appearance. The entire procedure could easily be completed in an hour, even when the coffin had been buried deep.

With grave robbing having become a major commercial enterprise, its members developed their own words to describe their ‘goods’. Bodies, for example, were referred to as ‘things’, while the bodies of children and tiny infants were often referred to as ‘large smalls’ and ‘foetuses’. Other enterprising resurrectionists specialized in hair for wigs, and teeth for dentures and transplantation, as a profitable side-lines. In fact, for many resurrectionists, the greater profit from their activities could be obtained from teeth alone, which were used to fulfil the demand for transplanting teeth and the manufacture of dentures.

There were stories that some acts of resurrectionism had been carried out to harvest the fat from the corpses to supply the ready market for candle making. It was said that candles made from ‘human lard’ caused a lot of smoke and this, perhaps, led to the rumour that when used with a so-called ‘Hand of Glory,’ they were believed to put people into a trance, which made them popular with burglars. This so-called ‘Hand of Glory’ was a candleholder created from the severed hand of a murderer and used to burn candles made from the same source. One story concerns a certain Ralph Westropp, a former sheriff of Limerick, who died in March 1858 at the age of sixty years. He was buried at Drumcliff outside Ennis but, in early May, his grave was violated by unknown persons, which resulted in his body being cut open and the Stomach and some of the body fat being taken away. Initially it was thought that insurance companies were to blame the man had been heavily insured and poison might have been involved in causing his death. Suspicion, however, quickly fell on certain groups that were carrying out an evil, superstitious act i.e. the manufacture of a candle from human lard that would allow them to enter a house unseen and rob it with impunity.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed), 2019

[2] Fleetwood, John F. “The Dublin Body Snatchers: Part Two.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 42–52. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.

Irish Traditional Cures

The Wisdom of the Ancestors


Throughout the world, there are tales of Shamans; Medicine Men; Witch Doctors; Faith Healers; Quacks; Bone-Setters who are known to the people of their district for having cures for a wide variety of ailments, hurts, and diseases. t was no different in the Ireland of bygone years, when the majority of the population were poor, peasantry who could not afford proper medical assistance and depended on such people as these to aid them in their need. There were certain women, often called ‘Wise Women’ who had no education but were able to work their charms to help those who were ill. By some means, natural or mysterious, they had discovered the healing power contained within certain plants. In an island of green fields, woodlands, mountains, and lakes they knew the plants and herbs that gave some relief to every part of the body, both internally and externally.
Trad 4

There were tales that these healers had lived among the fairy folk or other strange unearthly people from whom they had learned their magic charms. Some even specialised in their area of expertise and became known as Fairy Doctors, Cow Doctors, and Horse Doctors, each one being educated by the unseen spirits in their own Irish language. Their success in the different districts in which they worked made some famous all over the whole island as their reputations grew and people sought them out in their desperation. Not all of these healers could cure all the ailments that people had, but there were a few who could almost do the impossible and became famous for their cures, especially those who succeeded in healing a patient whom the medical doctors had failed. Some healers were acclaimed by a superstitious people to be able to bring back the dead with the ‘Slanlus’ and the ‘Garblus’ which were the same herbs that revived the Lord after his death on the Cross.

‘Slanlus’, a ‘Ribwort Plantain’, which is a perennial weed with almost worldwide distribution and grow aggressively. The leaves would be plucked fresh, cut, chewed up and applied to the sore. Apparently, it was known to prevent blood poisoning and encourage healing. ‘Garblus’, better known to us as the ‘Dandelion’ was considered as being able to cure the world … “and it was these brought our Lord from the Cross, after the ruffians that were with the Jews did all the harm to Him. And not one could be got to pierce His heart till a dark man came and said, “Give me the spear, and I’ll do it,” and the blood that sprang out, touched his eyes and they got their sight.
And it was after that, His Mother and Mary and Joseph gathered their herbs and cured His wounds. These are the best of the herbs, but they are all good, and there isn’t one among them but would cure seven diseases. I’m all the days of my life gathering them, and I know them all, but it isn’t easy to make them out. Sunday evening is the best time to get them, and I was never interfered with. Seven “Hail Marys,” I say when I’m gathering them, and I pray to our Lord and to St. Joseph and St. Colman. And there may be some watching me, but they never meddled with me at all.”Lady Augusta Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920).
There were also healers who were known to have cures for cattle and other animals, as well as cures for human being diseases and injuries. There were those, like many today, who claimed that they have the cure for a bald-head and can make hair grow on any skin irrespective of age. Below is a shortlist of ailments and some of the cures suggested for them, quite a few of which are still in use today.
Jaundice – “Jaundice” itself is not a disease, but a medical term that describes yellowing of the skin and eyes. Although it isn’t a disease, Jaundice is a symptom of several possible underlying illnesses, many of which are serious and can lead to death if untreated. It is formed there is too much bilirubin in a person’s system, Bilirubin being a yellow pigment created by the breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. In normal circumstances the liver would rid the body bilirubin along with old red blood cells, exhibiting Jaundice may indicate a serious problem with the function of your red blood cells, liver, gallbladder, or pancreas, caused by such things as Hepatitis; Cancer; Anaemia; Liver Failure; etc.
Trad Cure 2Modern medical advances have helped make Jaundice less severe than it used to be in times when it was not known what it indicated. There were several holistic cures practiced by the Healers in Ireland, one of which was made from a weed (Chickweed), the seedless plant and not the female variety. The weed was pounded into a pulp to extract the juice, which was then boiled in stout and sweetened with sugar. The resulting mixture was then squeezed, strained and given to the patient, and was said to be a sure remedy. It doesn’t sound to be a particularly pleasant concoction for a person to drink but, maybe, not as much as some other remedies that were used. One other remedy required ten snails to be boiled in a cup of water until they disappeared, and the cup was then strained and given to the affected person to drink. Some patients were even encouraged to drink their own urine, which was made sweet with sugar and lemon juice and was said to cure the sufferer when other remedies failed them.
Whooping Cough –  We all know the dangers to children who suffer from whooping cough, or ‘Chin-cough’ as it was once know in Ireland. Before vaccination and modern medicines helped reduce the instance of this terrible child disease, it was a major cause of infant mortality and was not unknown to visit the older people of a community. The Healers in Ireland used a small white flower shaped like a chalice, which was known as ‘The Blessed Virgin’s Chalice’, or ‘Lady of the Valley’, which was boiled in milk. Another cure employed to relieve the suffering of the infected was heated asses milk, given to the patient to drink in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In some cases, the milk that a ferret leaves behind after it has eaten is heated and given to the patient to drink. A more strange cure for ‘Chin-cough’ was a hair from the tail of a white horse being boiled in milk, which is then given to the patient to drink. One tale spoke of a person in the house. where the sick person is, would see a man driving or riding a white horse  and going to him would say, “Man with the white horse give me a cure, for the chin-cough” The man on the horse would then give the hair from the horse’s tail to be boiled in milk, or Poitin.
Trad Cure 3Warts – Warts are one of those things that can plague both humans and animals. I have heard of one remedy for warts in animals that was said never to fail, and the truth of that statement is in the story that the ‘Wise-Woman’ was visited by ailing animals being brought to her from all parts. The remedy that she is said to have used for curing warts in animals was said to contain the following ingredients i.e. 1 oz Tincture of Spanish Fly; 3.5 ozs Compounded Camphor Liniment;  3.5 ozs Soap Liniment; and a bit of soot which was said to thicken the mixture. The accuracy of this prescription cannot be vouched for and this may have been only some of the ingredients required.
Warts on human beings is a widespread ailment which, I would say 90% of us have suffered, and used modern treatments to have them removed or medically burned off. In the days of the healers, when these modern medicines were unknown, people were told to acquire a black snail and stick it on a thorn from the Whitethorn Bush (‘Fairy Tree’) and the wart subsequently rubbed against the same snail each morning, for nine mornings, before breaking their fast. It was said that as a result, the wart would fade away as the snail withered on the thorns. A less gruesome remedy, however, called for warts to have ‘fasting spit’ rubbed upon them each morning for nine mornings and this would cure them.
Some patients were told to carry a bag of stones, one for each wart, which was then thrown one by one over the shoulder in the hope that the warts would be passed on to the finder of the stones and removed from the sufferer. Another stone, known as ‘Bluestone’ is considered to be a cure. “Bluestone” is a cultural name often given to a number of building stone varieties, including limestone, which is quarried in Counties Carlow, Galway, and Kilkenny. This was also considered a cure for ‘wildfire’ on the lips.
Some of the other old prescriptions for warts included the patient carrying dampened Washing Soda in a pocket and then, rubbed on the wart several times a daily. There was also the scrapings from the inside of an Oyster Shell mixed into a paste and applied to warts. In the same way, the juice from the stems of a ‘Dandelion’ should be smeared on the wart daily. It was also said that if you were journeying someplace and, by chance, came across a small hollow in a limestone block that is filled with water then the wart should be bathed in that water at least three times, and it will fall away. There was also the tradition of rubbing a piece of bacon on the wart, which is then taken from the house and placed under a stone. In a few days, the patient would do the same thing, followed a few days after that by a similar action, then the wart was said to vanish when the bacon had gone.
‘The Spool of the Breast’ – The spool is a bone which is found under the middle – rib of a person’s chest, and it can be displaced by overexerting yourself or straining yourself by lifting heavy weights at the front of the body, causing the spool to fall down on the stomach.  It was said that the raising of the spool of the breast was a cure peculiar to the local bonesetter. People become very weak and unable to work when their spool falls, and the bone-setter is immediately called. It was a complaint that affected people both young and old, and the ‘Bonesetter’ raises the spool of the breast by using his fingers in a specific manner, which took at least five minutes to complete. During the ‘operation’ the patient would sit in a chair and would often faint during the procedure. On occasion, the ‘Bone-setter’ would raise the spool of the breast using a lighted candle or cup, although I am personally unsure of how this procedure was carried out. Although these operations were continuing in the middle of the twentieth century, the medical fraternity gave no credit to the cure much as they do today with holistic medicine. There have been, incidents when sufferers were sent to the hospital and x-rayed, and doctors could not cure it. But, the local ‘Bone-setter’ was successful where the doctor failed.
Chilblains and Corns – Chilblains are small, but itchy swellings on the skin which arise as a reaction to cold temperatures, and they most commonly affect the extremities of the body e.g. toes. One common cure prescribed by the local healers was to rub in the affected areas a mixture made from salt and lemon juice, or rubbing in Paraffin Oil. Other remedies used included measures of whiskey or Poiteen briskly rubbed into the areas affected. Also, at this time, it was widely held that unsalted butter was good for both chilblains and rashes of the body. Local tradition, in fact. said that unsalted butter was a great cure for anything, even on the outside of the body, while a drop of good, hot poiteen was a cure for the flu or any ailment of the body’s interior.
Trad Cure 5

Corns, much as they are today, were a regular and common ailment among people, on all areas of their feet. For Corns that appeared on the soles of the feet, people were told that they should wear insoles with holes cut in them where the corns are. But a common remedy for Corns that was employed in these days was the use of ‘Comfry’, which is a weed-like ‘Docken.’ This plant was cut fresh and the root was washed in clean water. The plant would then be pulped into a paste and, when cold, applied to the area in a cloth bandage and prevents them from becoming inflamed. As a first resort, however, some would be told that they should walk in their bare feet through the bog, assured that this would cause the corns to fall out.

Sore Back, Sore Head, and Sore Throat – It was common for the healers to make an embrocation that could be used on a sore-back. I have heard that the following is a recipe for just such an embrocation, but I cannot guarantee that this is complete – Mix one noggin of Whiskey/Poitin; One noggin of Turpentine; One noggin of Vinegar; The white of two eggs; one pound of ‘Castile’ Soap;  60 grains of Sulphur Zinc; 120 grains of ‘Sugar Lead’. I have also read that some people would go to a local (monastic) graveyard and entered through a hole in the wall and went out again through another hole in the wall to cure the pain in their back. In fact, it is told that certain men came to rob the monastery at one time and they were immediately struck dead and turned to stones. it is said that these stones are still to be seen, standing up in the field, just outside the graveyard wall at ‘Tempaill Mologga’ near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
For those who suffered a sore head or headache, the remedy was to use a ribbon around the head. This was no ordinary ribbon, but one that was put out on a window sill, or in the open air, on Eve of St. Brigid’s Feast day. The faithful believed that the ribbon grew in length during the night and was empowered by the Irish Saint. However, even in the early years of the twentieth century, the best cure for a headache was known to be the melting of  ‘Aspirin’ tablets in a cup of water, which would be subsequently used as a  and gargle it in your throat.
Of course, there were occasions when people developed a sore throat, and the recommended cure was the wrapping of your stocking around the throat at night time.  In extreme cases, however, it was recommended by healers that a piece of fat bacon be roasted on a fork and then placed in a flannel that would be held against the throat as hot as it possibly could be. Another cure that was widely recommended for curing a sore throat was to put some bread soda into a cup of water, stir it and drink. Now, Mumps in those days was much more serious than it is today and healers often recommended putting warmed salt into a stocking, which would be tied around the patient’s neck. It was also used as a means of relieving the pain of Neuralgia.
One particularly odd cure was used occasionally to cure a child’s sore mouth, which was to permit an old man, who was fasting, to blow into the affected mouth.
St. Anthony’s Fire and Ringworm – ‘Erysipelas’ is a bacterial infection of the skin that typically involves the lymphatic system. It is, however, also known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’, which accurately describes the very real fiery intensity felt by sufferers of the rash. To cure the affliction healers were told that blood should be drawn from an old man’s finger and rubbed it into the sore. Another clue was said to be to write the afflicted person’s name around the spot on the face. This was also known to be a cure for ‘Ringworm’, a disease which grows in the form of a ring and usually appears on the head of an infected person, causing that patient’s hair to fall off and the skin rots away. It was traditionally known that the ‘Seventh Son’ had a cure for this nasty ailment, and there is a story in Mayo about a man from Newport who had the cure for ringworm. It is reported that he cured a boy in the district after the young man had spent a while in Castlebar hospital, and was sent home because the doctors could not cure him. Those who have seen the cure in practice tell that the seventh son simply rubs his hand on the earth before placing his hands over the ring-worm. there is testimony that states the ring-worm gradually disappears, but the hair will rarely ever grow on that spot afterward.  The mysterious thing about this all is that tradition tells us that when the seventh son is born a worm must be put into his hand, and if he possesses the cure then the worm dies.
Stomach Complaints and the Fear a Gorta – Everyone of us has suffered from a stomach complaint of one kind or another and have taken antacids, Epsom Salts, laxatives, and even warm milk with sugar to help us get some relief. Prior to the outbreak of World War One, however, ‘Flummery’ was an article of food that was in common use in Ireland. When a farmer used to take his crop of oats to be ground in the mill, he also brought home with him the bran and pollen of the oat grains. It was from these that he would make a drink, which was called ‘Shearings’. This was said to be a cool thirst-quenching drink, which when boiled became ‘Flummery’, a thick, jelly-like food that was brownish in colour. It was said to be a  little sour to taste and some people would add sugar to sweeten it. However, this was considered a good cure for indigestion and provided a great pick-me-up for those who took it. Others swore by the curative properties of Buttermilk with regard to the stomach, and hot buttermilk was often taken by those suffering from a cold. Wild garlic was picked by healers and boiled in milk, or eaten raw to cure colic.
But when it came to stomach complaints the superstitious peasants also feared the approach of the ‘Fear a Gorta’, the sudden and terrible feeling of hunger that was said to overcome a person who passed over a place where some poor person who had died during the famine was buried. The traditional remedy for this was a handful of oaten meal, and a farl of the oaten-meal cake was carried by many people in those days when they went on a journey, to cure the ‘fear a gorta’ if they were unfortunate enough to get it.
Trad Cure 6

Minor Hurts – People are always vulnerable to picking up a variety of minor injuries and complaints. For skin complaints like pimples, people were often prescribed oatmeal powder to be put in the water the person washed with, while for a scratch on the skin-bone the cure was said to be the person’s own ‘fasting spit’ spread upon it. If someone was suffering from a sore ear they would be advised to take a piece of cotton with some home-made ointment put on it and placed into the ear for a cure. Other more odd-sounding cures were those like a ‘Dog’s Lick’ is a cure for a running sore or the sting of a nettle being used to cure rheumatism, and the pumping of a cow’s udder to help cure a fever. When it came to cows, should they take ‘the staggers’ the farmer would cut the cow’s ear and bleed it as a cure to make the ‘staggers’ leave.

Stranger still was the cure for toothache recommended to some sufferers that called on them to visit a graveyard at night to acquire a skull in which to collect water that the sufferer would then drink. A more common cure for a toothache, however, was to put a bottle of hot water under the jaw and go to bed. Similarly, warm water and salt were supposed to be good for styes in a person’s eyes, or they might be recommended to look through a widow’s golden wedding ring three times.
Many people, including myself, have suffered from in-growing nails and found it to be very painful. in my case, I was told that I should finely pare the middle of the nail and then cut straight across the top. It worked for me, but I didn’t realise that this was a cure that was also given to sufferers by the wise women and healers in bygone days. In the same way, I have been told that whiskey can be applied to an open wound since it acts just like iodine or another disinfectant, but did you know that scraped raw potato could be used on a burn to ease the pain, and a paste of bread-soda could be put to a scald? From my childhood, I always knew that a nose bleed could be stopped by using the age-old remedy of putting a cold object, such as a key or ice pack to the nape of the neck. As for a wound that is bleeding, in bygone days a clean cobweb would be applied to the wound to stop the bleeding, or the heart of a dock leaf was also used for the same purpose.
For Muscular Cramp, called ‘Taulagh’, the cure given was to tie a piece of dried eel skin tightly around the affected wrist. On occasion, an ordinary leather strap could be used on the wrist as a preventative measure, while another recommended cure was to tie a silk thread around the wrist that was affected. As for a sprained wrist or ankle, it was recommended the patient hold the injured part in a rushing stream of cold water and, afterward, tie it up in a spraining web got from a weaver.
An age-old remedy for boils, which I still recommend to people, is a poultice made from bread and salt, wrapped in a cloth or bandage and applied to the boil as hot as possible to draw out the contents. In a similar way, as in the treatment of Corns and Chilblains above, a plaster made from ‘comfrey’ roots was another method used for drawing and healing boils.
Those who suffer from weak, tired or sore eyes the recommended cure was to wash them in cold, clear water before going to bed while bathing with cold tea was said to be particularly good for relieving weak eyes, and honey was a popular remedy for sore eyes. On occasion, however, our eyes become scratchy or gravelly and the old cure for this condition was said to be the juice, or sap, from the Dandelion, which was commonly known as the ‘Pissy-Bed’. The use of water from a ‘Holy Well’ was also said to cure many things, including any eye trouble a person might have. there is a story told of a man whose trouble was threatening him with total blindness and was cured by washing his eyes in the water of the well. It is also said that a person who sees a trout in the well is guaranteed a cure, whatever the affliction they suffer may be.
Unfortunately, up to the middle decades of the twentieth century ‘Rickets’ was the curse of the poorer and undernourished people, and in particular the children of the peasantry or urban poor. To cure them, the children would often have been sent to the local blacksmith for a cure, which involved holding the child over the anvil and, while drawing some blood, speaking some mysterious words.
Trad Cure 1Some of you might recognise old cures that are still used in the family, and others might write them all off as nonsense. let me say, however, the ones that I have used have invariably worked. There is one cure that I have not tried because I have only heard about it recently. The old cure for those people who had a weak heart was said to be Water-Cress, which is said to put a new heart in people. Suffering from congenital ischemic heart disease I have decided to start eating the posh Water-Cress sandwiches that always seem to make an appearance in the afternoon teas taken by the ‘quality’. I will certainly let you know how I progress with the recommended cure…..

William Carleton, Historian of the Famine

The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.

The-Black-Prophet-A-Tale-of-Irish-FamineCarleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.

Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”[1]

As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.[2]

The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance.  But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.

 “The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on thisFamine.7 KMC occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”[3] In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.

In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.

Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.[4]

The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.

In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.

The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day.  Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”

Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland.  Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.

[1] From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.

[2] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[3] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[4]  J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.

The Rebellion of 1641 Intro

An Introduction

The final English victory over the ‘Native Irish’ in Ulster during the “Nine Years War” (1594 – 1603) gave the English crown control of the entire island for the first time in over five centuries. Sadly, for Ireland and its people the victory also signalled the final collapse of the old “Gaelic Order”. Worse still was that, between 1603 and 1641, King James and his son, Charles I, consolidated their colonial power in Ireland. They achieved this task mainly through a policy of “Plantation”, which simply meant the confiscation of land and subsequently giving it to loyal Protestant co-religionists from England and Scotland.

irish-rebellion-of-1641 NEWRYThe Kingdom of Ireland was divided into four provinces. The best land was to be found in the Province of ‘Leinster’ to the east, and the Province of ‘Munster’ to the South. Meanwhile, the western Province of “Connacht”, which was separated from the rest of Ireland by the River Shannon, and the Northern Province of ‘Ulster” were considerably less fertile and remained. Virtually inaccessible. The people in all Provinces were usually to be found clustered together in small rural settlements, which were usually sited around the nearest manorial residence of the local landlord. However, during the summer months, many of the peasant population would gather their cattle and drive them to greener pastures in the highland areas. On these rough grazing pastures, they would build temporary shelters of rocks and sods to shelter their families from the elements.

In the early decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated the population of Ireland numbered in the region of one million people. In demographic terms the population was divided into four distinct grouping –

1.  The Native Irish

2.   The Old English

3.  The New English

4.   The Scots in Ulster

The ‘Native Irish,’ were by far the largest of these groups and they lived almost exclusively in rural communities that were traditionally dominated by the leading clan or family, such as the O’Neills, the McCarthys and the O’Briens. Moreover, the ‘Native Irish’ obstinately refused to embrace the new reformed faith, which created deep religious divisions to add to the existing ethnic tensions that already existed between the Irish and the newcomers. But, following the defeat of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, in 1603 the old Gaelic political order collapsed. Hugh O’Neill fled into exile on the Continent, where he was joined by thousands of unemployed swordsmen who found work in the Spanish and French armies. Those of the Native Irish elite who had remained in Ireland had to adapt as best as they the New Order. They, however, detested the colonial system that had been imposed upon them, and they deeply resented the power and influence of the minority Protestant settlers.

There were, nonetheless, a few of the old Gaelic aristocracy, such as Donough McCarthy, who appeared to overcome much of the disadvantages of religious and ethnic discrimination allowing them to integrate into the new colonial society successfully. The heir to estates in east County Cork, McCarthy was able to marry into the leading ‘Old English’ family in the country, the Butlers. With this advantage McCarthy could carefully build up a strong network of friends that spanned the entire religious divide. He succeeded his father, ‘Viscount Muskerry’ in 1641, and took his seat in the “House of Lords” just before the outbreak of the Irish insurgency. The subsequent polarisation of Irish society, however, caused ‘Muskerry’ to choose a side and, in early 1642, he openly declared his commitment to the Catholic insurgents. His principal opponent in the Province of Munster throughout much of the 1640s was Murrough O’Brien, “Lord Inchiquin”, one of the few prominent native Irish leaders to forsake the Catholic religion.

The ‘Old English’ were the second largest demographic group in Ireland and were also the principal landowners in the ‘Kingdom’. They had also suffered mistrust and discrimination because of their refusal to abandon their Catholic faith. This group were descendants of the original ‘Anglo-Norman’ colonists and had, for the most part, supported the Tudor conquest and fought against their traditional enemies, the ‘Native Irish’. The King, however, retained his predecessor’s policy of excluding them from government posts, appointing instead the more reliable though unashamed rapacious English Protestant officials who soon began to intrigue among themselves to gain control of the big, landed estates. The ‘recusancy fines’ which were imposed upon those who failed to attend the Protestant services were only a sporadic irritant. The process of ‘Plantation’ in Ulster and elsewhere, although it was mainly directed against the native Irish, succeeded in causing many of the ‘Old English’ families feeling vulnerable about their own land holdings. The ‘Old English’ also dominated the big urban centres of Ireland and, with the exception of the colonial capital, the newly created ‘Plantation Boroughs’ in the Province of Ulster. Only a handful of merchant families monopolised civic power in the land, growing wealthy on trade with the surrounding countryside and the Continent. At the same time, each town jealously guarded its local autonomy from any outside interference, and traditionally excluded the native Irish from residing within the defensive walls of the settlement. But, many of the big cities, however, such as Waterford, Limerick and Galway joined the Catholic insurgency during the 1640s and would subsequently organised the most effective opposition to Oliver Cromwell and his ‘New Model Army’.

1641 Rebellion massacre 2At the pinnacle of Catholic ‘Old English’ society Ulick Bourke, Earl (and later) Marquis of Clanricarde, who owned vast estates in Connacht. He enjoyed close relations with the town of Galway, one of the busiest trading ports in the country. His step-brother, Robert Devereux, was the Earl of Essex and the future commander of Parliamentary forces. In fact, it was through the intercession by Essex that ‘Clanricarde’ was appointed to the English ‘Privy Council’ in 1641, and Lieutenant of the town and County of Galway in Connacht. He was, therefore, one of the very few Catholics to hold public office at this time. Bourke returned to Ireland in September 1641, on the eve of the Catholic uprising. Although the vast majority of the ‘Old English’ aristocracy subsequently sided with the Catholic insurgents, Bourke remained loyal to the Stuart Monarchy throughout the 1640s. There was, however, another leading Catholic nobleman, James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, whose father, an English Lord, owned estates in Leinster and travelled to Ireland at the same time as ‘Clanricarde’. He pursued a military career on the Continent, before he joined the Catholic insurgents in Ireland. Although many of his co-religionists were to suspect him of holding royalist sympathies because of his English connections, Tuchet proved himself to be an energetic cavalry commander, and would be one of Cromwell’s most implacable opponents.

The Protestant people living in Ireland made up the third and fourth demographic groups that have been listed. The ‘New English’ group consisted mostly of soldiers and administrators who had settled in Ireland on confiscated lands taken during the ‘Tudor Conquest’ from Catholic Irish rebels in Leinster and Munster. From 1610 the English government sponsored a ‘Plantation’ scheme that redistributed the lands that had been seized from Hugh O’Neill and his northern allies and shared among thousands of Protestant migrants from England, alongside even greater numbers of settlers from Scotland. Although there were tensions that existed between the ‘New English’ and the Scots, their common fear of the Catholic Irish kept such tensions very much as secondary causes for concern. Except for a few centres such as Derry, Enniskillen, and Carrickfergus, the vast majority of the settler population lived in relatively small fortified settlements, constantly afraid of the threat to their security from the various bands of native Irish outlaws sheltering in the woods, bogs and mountains of the Province. Cork, Kinsale, Bandon and Youghal formed the back-bone of the ‘Munster Plantation’. Many of the original Protestant ‘Planters’ from the 1580s had either been killed or driven out of the country during the “Nine Years War” but the settler population soon rose in the aftermath of the rebel defeat, and by 1640 they numbered in excess of 20,000, mainly from the southern and western counties of England.

Two of the leading ‘Planter’ families were the Cootes and the Boyles. Sir Charles Coote fought in the “Nine Years War”, acquiring estates for himself in Connacht as a reward, and he officiated in a member of important administrative position for over forty years. He was violently anti-Catholic and an aggressive advocate for further English plantations. Sir Charles earned for himself a deserved reputation for brutality and was eventually killed during a skirmish with the enemy in May 1642. His eldest son, also called Charles, proved to be an equally uncompromising opponent of the Catholic insurgents and commanded forces that were loyal to the English Parliament in efforts to pacify the West and North of the country.

Meanwhile, Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork rose from humble origins in England to become one of the largest landowners in Ireland. Already and old man by the outbreak of the rebellion in 1641, he died in 1643. One of his younger sons, Roger, Lord Broghill, played a key role during the wars and fought alongside Cromwell during the later stages of his conquest of Ireland. Roger Boyle, like Coote, needed little encouragement to take up arms against his Catholic neighbours. Also, like Charles Coote, Roger showed no mercy to those who opposed him.

The leading Protestant family in Ireland at this time was not a new arrival, but the head of the most important ‘Old English’ family in Ireland known as Butler. He was raised in England as a ward of the Royal Court in a strict Protestant household. The young James Butler, the future Earl of Ormond, enthusiastically embraced the new faith and resisted all the pleas from his extended family asking him to revert to Catholicism. He remained a deeply controversial figure across the religious divide in Ireland, but he retained the unswerving confidence of King Charles I. It was due to this fact that James Butler kept his command of the royalist armies in Ireland for much of the 1640s, and he co-ordinated the military resistance within Ireland against Oliver Cromwell at the end of that decade.

While many of the ‘Native Irish’ looked abroad for a leader, the ‘Old English’ elite, for the most part, placed their hopes in the Irish Parliament, whereas major landowners and representatives of the big towns they retained a powerful, if no longer dominant, influence. Through Parliament they sought to safeguard their landholdings, mitigate the worst excesses of religious discrimination and regain some influence in government circles. But, the crown’s failure to implement the ‘Graces’, which were areas of concessions to Irish Catholics, caused great resentment and intense bitterness among the Irish Catholic population. Over the next ten years there followed a traumatic time for the Catholic elite, both ‘Native Irish’ and ‘Old English’. The situation worsened after Thomas Wentworth was appointed to the commanding position of Lord deputy in Ireland. This man’s increasing use of arbitrary powers, apparently with the King’s full support, negated any remaining influence that the Catholic elite held over the ‘Native Irish’, or in Parliament. Moreover, Wentworth’s continuing policies of ‘Plantation’ now began to threaten the retention of their estates. The time for the Catholic Irish to rise up against what they perceived to be tyranny was not far off.

©Jim Woods May 2018

Rebellion 1641

Bloody Truth & Damned Lies

I am taking a short break to go on holiday, but will be back on 21st May 2018.

Now that I have completed my history of An Gorta Mor, I would like to do a series on The 1641 Rebellion in Ireland that remains so controversial today, almost 400 years after the event. An event filled with ‘Massacres’, ‘Atrocities’, ‘Lies’, ‘State Cover-up’. In fact it is as if nothing has changed in the intervening years.

It will begin when I return.

Jim Woods

An Gorta Mor Conclusion Final

Anti Irish 2Historians have debated the issue of anti-Irish job discrimination in the United States. Some insist that the “No Irish need apply” signs were common, but others argue that anti-Irish job discrimination was not a significant factor in the United States. These ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs and print advertisements were posted by the limited number of early 19th-century English immigrants to the United States, who shared the prejudices of their homeland. There were, however, many instances of this restriction used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including “clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, blacksmiths, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, among others. While the greatest number of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ instances occurred in the 1840s, there were instances that showed its continued use until at least 1909. Meanwhile, alongside the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs, that were a common sight in the United Kingdom, in the years after World War II they were replaced with signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” or similar racial sentiments.

Several historians agree that the Irish Famine of 1845–50 was neither inevitable nor unavoidable. They point out that the underlying factors which combined to cause the famine were aggravated by a totally inadequate government response. The British Government were aware from the beginning that they had to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the Irish peasantry. But, the nature of the government’s response to the crisis, especially after following 1846, suggests there was a more covert agenda and motivation behind their efforts. This conclusion becomes much clearer as the Famine progressed, because it soon became apparent that the government was using its legislative powers not merely to help it formulate its relief policies. The Famine had also proved to be an opportunity for the government to introduce various long-desired changes within Ireland. These desired changes included a form of population control, alongside the consolidation of property through various means, including emigration. In response to the overwhelming evidence of the distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of the government’s relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist level. In fact, the evidence suggests that these efforts decreased in quality and effectiveness as the Famine progressed.

Several researchers into this Famine period have highlighted the government’s decision to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as an example of the attitudes held by the government policy-makers. There were suggestions that there was an ample supply of food within Ireland, which along with Irish-bred cattle was being shipped off to feed England’s population.

Other researchers have refused to name this period as ‘The Famine’, preferring to call it ‘The Starvation’, suggesting that it was an imposed catastrophe upon the Irish people. They argue that when a country is full of food, and exporting it, there cannot be a famine. In their view only England, the government and its people were to blame for the people of Ireland being starved to death. Credence was given to the claims that England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest. It was said that England made her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and left any moral obligations to one side, as if right and wrong did not matter in the scheme of things. The ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland, as history calls it, was the result of generations of neglect, misrule and repression by England. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy that has been seen in the history of many lands that came under the rule of the British Empire. In Ireland, the landless, starving peasantry were left with a simple choice, namely emigration or extinction.

There are, of course, certain elements who argue that the policy of the Whig Government toward Ireland during the Famine years was merely a bungled attempt at a relief, and that the policies which followed had a genocidal outcome but not a genocidal intent. When considering such an argument it is best to first obtain the official definition of the term ‘Genocide.’ In Article 2 of the UN Convention on Genocide the term is defined as meaning “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group,” by means that include the following:

  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

In Article 3 of the UN Convention, under the term “Punishable Acts”, the following is included:

  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide and complicity in genocide.


The term ‘genocide’ was originally coined by Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’. Since that time, it has been applied to the ‘Holocaust’, the Armenian genocide and many other mass killings. It (genocide) is an intentional action designed to destroy a people (usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group) in whole or in part.

That a policy of extermination was being carried out by the English government inAnti Irish 3 Ireland was a concern for several members of that government. Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849. In this letter, unusually for him, he urged that the Government in London immediately establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. Quite candidly, he told Lord Russell, “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.” When a man, in such an influential position, questions his government’s policies there must be some truth in his understanding of government motives.

Undoubtedly some of you reading these pages find yourself believing that events described were horrific, but that they could not happen in today’s world, because we do things so much better. Unfortunately, these things do happen now, and is continuing to happen. All the old arguments are still being trotted out about how famine aid is not appropriate, how it doesn’t reach the right people, how it demoralises the ability of communities to look after themselves. People now place their trust in technological development and the ease of modern transport and communications. But, despite having all the advantages the nineteenth century didn’t have, does not seem to have made any difference to the universal human ability to delay, to confuse, to prevaricate, to discriminate, to excuse the inexcusable.

Any person who studies ‘The Famine’ soon realises that it remains a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government’s response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the exportation of food crops and livestock, the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether, or not, this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically charged issue. Some circles insist that there is no historical evidence that implicates the British Government in a conspiracy to exterminate the population of Ireland, and yet many government officials as well as those advising them looked upon the famine as a God-sent solution to the so-called ‘Irish question’.

Noted Theologian, Tutor, University Reformer and renowned Master of an Oxford College, Benjamin Jowett, reported on a conversation he once had with an Economics adviser to the Government. He wrote – “I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine … In Ireland would not kill more than a million people and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” This heartless regret that the famine would do away with only a million people was also shared by those in government as well, who spoke publicly of the Irish as though they were completely unsuitable to be a part of the human race. Instead of closing all Irish ports against the exportation of food and keeping the produce in the country where it was most needed, the British Government opened the ports. One possible solution to the problem could have been the purchase of Ireland’s wheat and oats, storing them in Ireland for Irish use during the famine. If the government had chosen this solution, the landlords would have been paid and the people kept alive and strong enough to prepare for the next harvest. This solution, however, was completely opposite to England’s sacrosanct political economy, which demanded all crops grown in Ireland, excepting the potato, be earmarked for consumption in England and elsewhere.

The suggestion that the famine in Ireland was the work of Providence gained more and more adherents with the assistance of various Anglican churchmen and government officials. As the crisis in Ireland deepened, and the deaths from starvation and disease increased, it was easy for the British Government to blame God for its grievous sins of omission. The government had both the money and the power to provide a timely intervention in the ‘Great Famine.’ But, the dismal failure of Westminster to act in time allowed a disaster to seize hold of Ireland that would soon be almost ten times greater than that witnessed during the ‘Great Plague of London, 1665’, when the Black Death killed off an estimated sixty thousand to a hundred thousand people. Four hundred thousand people had already died in Ireland and the deaths were increasing, but the government still insisted on calling it a local distress.

Eminent American law professors have concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race- and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide as per The Hague Convention of 1948.

Others have declared that the British government’s crime was rooted in their effort to regenerate Ireland through landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands, which took precedence over their obligation to provide food for its starving citizens. From the evidence it is little wonder that the British policy in Ireland had the appearance to many people of genocide. From an early stage of the ‘Great Famine’ the government’s total failure to stop, or even slow down, the evictions contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in the minds of the Irish people. It was an idea that still appeals to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority of the population.

There are those who disagree that the famine in Ireland was genocide. Such people argue that ‘genocide’ must include murderous intent, and that even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day did not seek the extermination of the Irish. In fact, these people believe that most people in the government hoped that Ireland would have better times ahead. Furthermore, these people state that claims of genocide overlook the enormous challenge that faced all relief agencies working in Ireland. But, it must be said that views of the Irish as racially inferior beings, and responsible for their own circumstances, had gained a significant following in Great Britain both during and immediately after the famine, especially through propaganda disseminated through influential publications such as ‘The Times’.

For those people who still regard the Famine as being some form of Divine dispensation and punishment, you must first satisfy yourself that human agency and legislation, individual oppressions, and social relationships, have had no hand in what happened. The verdict that should have emerged from these pages by now is an unequivocal “NO!” John Mitchel’s stark analysis that “God sent the potato blight but the English created the Famine” still rings true. The policy of the Whig Government was directed at getting the peasantry off the land, and if it took mass death to achieve that objective, so be it. It was this simple.

What sort of legacy has been left to the Irish by the Famine that resulted in the deaths of so many? Firstly, the landless tenantry remained poor and insecure, and still basically dependent on the potato, for another thirty years. At the end of the 19th century, the Irish consumption of potatoes, per head was four pounds a day, and was the highest in the world. Later famines had minimal effect on the population and are generally forgotten, except by historians. But, by the census of 1911, Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, which was about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000, and only a half of its peak population. Meanwhile, the population of England and Wales doubled from 16 million in 1841 to 32.5 million in 1901.

Anti Irish 1Due to the reduction in population caused by the famine, through death and emigration, there was a breakdown of Ireland’s rural society. Entire communities that had been built up over centuries disappeared and with them went many of the age-old traditions and folk-ways. In 1845, for example there were an estimated three million people who were Irish speakers, but by 1850 this number had dropped to below two million. This occurred because those most gravely affected by the Famine were mostly in Irish-speaking districts, and those districts were also the main source of emigrants to new lands. The Famine, therefore, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish, as the language of the majority to, English. In later years, as awareness of the cultural loss heightened, Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America, and Australia, were spurred such pro-Irish organisations as the ‘Gaelic League’. It is through the efforts of such people that interest in the Irish language continues to grow at home and abroad.

Another area of Irish life to be markedly affected by the Famine was the custom of marriage and, with it, the decline in the birth rate. The Famine and its trials brought to the fore some unattractive characteristics of the Irish psyche. There was an innate cunning within the Irish peasant, which coined the phrase “whatever you say, say nothing”. The famine had served to deepen this sense of helplessness in the lives of the Irish peasant stock. It manifested itself in a rejection of the idea of early marriages, which they felt had contributed to the horrors of the Famine. Thus, in rural Ireland, particularly west of the Shannon, bachelordom, spinsterhood, and loneliness became common and, alongside alcohol abuse, took a toll in mental illness.

Prior to the famine the average age in Ireland for marriage had been between 21 and 24 for women, and between 25 and 27 for men. Those men and women who chose not to marry numbered about 10% of the population. In the decades following the Famine the age of marriage had risen to 28–29 for women and 33 for men, and as many as a third of Irishmen and a quarter of Irishwomen never married, due to low wages and chronic economic problems that discouraged early and universal marriage.

Culturally it is surprising to learn that, for a country renowned for its rich musical heritage, only a small number of folk songs can be traced back to the catastrophe brought about by the Great Famine. There are those who believe that subject was generally avoided for decades among poor peasantry because it brought back too many sorrowful memories. Also, with land clearances and emigration, large areas of the country became uninhabited and the folk song collectors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chose not to collect the songs they heard in the Irish language, because it was the language of the peasantry and often regarded as a dead language, or “not delicate enough for educated ears”. Of the songs about the Famine that have survived the years, probably the best known is ‘Skibbereen’. However, emigration has been an important source of inspiration for many Irish songs during the 20th century. But, it is only since the 1970s that a most of the popular songs about the famine have been written and recorded, such as ‘The Fields of Athenry’, ‘Famine’ and ‘Thousands are Sailing’.

The Famine’s legacy for the land of Ireland was one that brought conflict and misery. Admittedly, it was a difficult task to relieve a country like Ireland, which had been trapped in poverty that had been inflicted upon her by British laws designed precisely to make her poor and keep her so. Under these laws and the uncertainty of tenure they included, the tenant farmer was deterred from improving his land and home because he knew from experience that there would be no benefit to him. If he built a better cabin for his family and improved his farm, it was very likely that he would be forced to pay an increased rent for the property, or evicted for not paying it, and in either case would receive nothing for his efforts. There is no doubt that it was very difficult to help a country whose laws made a mockery of the idea of self-help and instilled in the peasantry the conviction that it was better if they remained in their squalor.

The Famine caused other social evils to raise their ugly heads in Ireland. Among these were the many ‘carpetbaggers’ who profited well from buying up the land of dead cottiers but added to the rising tensions among the Irish population. The problems of tenancy and land ownership were far from settled by the government’s actions during the period of the Famine. As a result, the latter part of the nineteenth century saw a bitter struggle ensue in what was became known as the ‘land war’. In this struggle agrarian reformers like Michael Davitt and the Irish political leader, Charles Stuart Parnell joined forces to give substance to James Fintan Lalor’s vision of “the Land of Ireland for the people of Ireland”. Ultimately, the efforts of these two men produced a series of land acts that effectively created a peasant proprietorship as the British government issued bonds to buy out the landlords, who were in turn recompensed by a system of land annuities. In this often angry but largely peaceful struggle, the Irish used tactics the names of which passed into the English language e.g. “boycotting”.

Some improvements undoubtedly took place in the existing land system, because of the Famine. It was more efficient that the smaller farms were replaced by larger holdings, but this efficiency had been purchased at great cost. In 1850, A Franchise Reform Act gave the vote to thousands of farmers, although it was mostly to those who held twelve acres of land or more. They could now act collectively for a change and caused Dairy Farming to greatly increase in importance, and cattle farmers to grow prosperous.

The greatest legacy given to Ireland and the Irish people by the Famine was the depth of anti-British feelings. When the first accounts of the Irish famine reached America during the early months of 1847, and were soon authenticated by English eyewitnesses visiting America, there was an immediate sympathetic and generous response. This was in sharp and direct contrast to that response shown by the British Government, whose responsibility it was to give immediate and sufficient aid to its own starving subjects. Beginning in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, meetings were held in cities and towns throughout the United States to devise the best and speediest means of helping the starving people of Ireland. Even the US government itself intervened, allowing its ships of war, with their guns removed to afford more room for stowage, to hurry to Ireland’s shores with supplies. The horrors of the Famine continued unabated for several years more before it came to an end. Then, the population of Ireland began to recover its numbers and its strength, once conditions improved. Within a generation many communities had built themselves up again, but the traditional stories of hunger and misery were passed down from one generation to another, fuelling the deeply held anger against Britain, which was viewed as being the author of it all.

This anger and hatred against Britain, and all things British, was probably the most long-lasting effect of the Great Famine. It was this hatred that was the driving force behind the rebellions and land agitation which broke out at intervals until the end of the century. The physical force in Irish self-assertion continued where the Whiteboys had left off. The post-famine ‘Fenian Movement’, which was founded by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1860s, derived enormous support from the American emigrants and was, in effect, motivated by revenge for Skibbereen and many places like it. But, it was from America also that support would come for the build-up of forces that led to the 1916 Easter Rising, the subsequent foundation of the IRA, and the Anglo-Irish War of Independence during 1919-21.

As we can see, the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ were far-reaching and included the vast diaspora of emigrants who spread as far as Australia, Canada, and the United States. It also included the pervasive distrust that has influenced relations between Ireland and Britain ever since that time. Meanwhile, another lasting effect of the Famine and the large-scale emigration that was forced upon Ireland, was that the large number of emigrants did provide fertile ground for Ireland’s efforts to win its independence and assisted in spreading elements of Irish culture far and wide.

The causes and consequences of the ‘Great Famine’ are not forgotten by the Irish and the tragic event is memorialised in many locations throughout Ireland. These include, at Custom House Quays in Dublin, the thin sculptural figures, by artist Rowan Gillespie, who are portrayed as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. There is also a large memorial at the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. The creation of memorials is especially true of those regions in Ireland that suffered the greatest losses in the tragedy, but it is also true of cities overseas such as New York, that have large populations descended from Irish immigrants. Among the memorials in the US is the ‘Irish Hunger Memorial’ near a section of the Manhattan waterfront in New York City, where many Irish emigrants arrived. An annual Great Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh in County Mayo was inaugurated in 1988 and has been led by such notable personalities as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Choctaw Indian Nation of Oklahoma. The walk takes place on either the first or second Saturday of May, and always links the memory of the ‘Great Hunger’ with a contemporary Human Rights issue.




An Gorta Mor Conclusion PtII

Charles Edward Trevelyan

Even as the Famine worsened, claiming hundreds and thousands of innocent lives, Trevelyan would thunder in public and in the pages of ‘The Times’ that “every system of poor relief must contain a penal and repulsive element, in order to prevent its leading to the disorganisation of society if the system is such as to be agreeable to both, all tests of destitution must be at an end.” Under Trevelyan’s leadership the Treasury’s task would be to insist more strictly on “sound principle” being employed. While opponents cried out for the government to open grain stores and distribute free food to the starving, Trevelyan had a different agenda. He wanted to impress upon people that by providing cheap food the government would be interfering in ‘free trade’, saying that such an action would produce, “instead of the hardships of dearth, the dreadful horrors of a famine.”  Those staff that were dealing with relief efforts were also urged to take the non-intervention path. To assist them in this they were given extracts from Edward Burke’s “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity” to read and use as guidelines. But, when all these urgings were ignored by those who had more humane feelings than he, Trevelyan simply had the offending officials removed from their posts. His conscience remained unaffected by it all because he had never taken the trouble to visit Ireland and see with his own eyes the degradation that he discussed with such a glib and lofty detachment.

Charles Edward Trevelyan

The starving and disease-ridden people of Ireland appeared to be, much as they believed themselves to be, doomed to extermination. In a complacent manner the London newspapers agreed with the general political opinion that two million Irish people would die before the next harvest was brought in. This represented one-quarter of the Ireland’s entire population, but the British Government, in all its official correspondence, continued to refer to the Irish Famine crisis as just a ‘local distress’. The government considered that there was simply a ‘scarcity’ of food rather than being a nationwide famine and, just as in all its actions the British government continued to carry out a policy suited to a minor rather than a major calamity.

 The most effective weapon that the Whig government had in its armoury for managing the Irish debate and influencing public opinion was ‘The Times’ newspaper. It controlled not only the influential classes in Ireland, but the much more important domestic public opinion within Britain. Since its first publication there has been no other newspaper in Britain that has held as much influence as ‘The Times’ and directed so much of its destiny. From the very beginning of the potato crisis in Ireland ‘The Times’ was in the forefront of all condemnation directed toward Irish ingratitude to England. In several editorials, published between November 1845 and March 1846, the newspaper suggested that any proposed increased aid for Irish ‘distress’ should be considered only with the need for the British taxpayers to be compensated for the sacrifices that they endured in providing Irish with aid. They chose to neglect the fact that the Irish had been paying taxes to England over many years. Instead all these taxpayers, who were suffering, were seen to be English.

There can be little doubt that ‘The Times’ was quite rightly regarded as the most formidable machine that gathered together and drove all anti-Irish political sentiment in nineteenth-century England. These bitter prejudices against the Irish as a people was made more graphic by drawings and cartoons created by the magazine ‘Punch’. Under the editorship of Mayhew and Lemon this journal created an image of the ‘typical’ Irishman that was created in the mind of the British people. Irishmen were portrayed as “monkeys in a menagerie.” An ape-like creature dressed in a tailcoat and a derby, who was constantly engaged in plotting murder, thriving and prospering on the backs of the English workers, and generally living a lazy life while plotting treason. Constant exposure to such images quickly implanted this picture of the Irish in the popular mind. It was an image that would stay in the English memory throughout the Famine, during the days of the ‘Fenian Movement’ that grew out of Famine, and through the home-rule campaign that arose some forty-years later. But, in 1848, ‘The Times’ complacently predicted that, “A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” However, the newspaper’s most arrogantly inhumane editorials were printed in 1847, during those weeks and months when the Irish peasantry were reduced by hunger to a state of total indifference and despair. These were the days when the poorest and weakest were being evicted from their homes, and when every week thousands were literally starving to death or dying of some famine-induced disease. It was a time when those still trying to survive were so exhausted and feverish that they could not even get to their feet, let alone walk on them long enough to search for food. But, ‘The Times’ preferred to remain blind to such things and be contemptuous of them. In the columns of that newspaper continued the use of the harshest and most brutal phrases with which to infect the English mind with hatred, loathing, and contempt of everything Celtic and Catholic in Ireland.

Punch 1
Punch Cartoon of Irishmen

The popular journal ‘Punch’ allied itself with the anti-Irish forces, writing articles such – “A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes to Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages; the lowest species of the Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is moreover, a climbing animal and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks. The Irish Yahoo generally confines itself within the limits of its own colony, except when it goes out of them to get its living. Sometimes, however, it sallies forth in states of excitement, and attacks civilized human beings that have provoked its fury. The somewhat superior ability of the Irish Yahoo to utter articulate sounds, may suffice to prove that its development, and not as some imagine, a degeneration of the Gorilla.” Almost every week ‘Punch’ would publish cartoons that portrayed the Irish as dumb brutes, a lazy louts, liars, or filthy beggars who spent whatever money they collected on weapons with which to kill British soldiers and people.

 ‘Punch’ and ‘The Times’ were not alone in their anti-Irish propaganda, for example the ‘London Spectator’ printed an article on “How to Roast an Irish Patriot”, giving readers the following directions, “Pick out a young one; speakers or editors are very good. Tie the arms behind the back, or close to the sides; but not too tight, or the patriot will be prevented from moving, and the ribs will not be done. Skewer down to the pile. You will want a strong, steady fire. Dry pine makes a very good blaze. When the fire gets low, throw in a little oil or fat. When nearly done, a little gunpowder thrown in will make the patriot skip: some cooks consider this important.”

The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, said in a speech before the House of Commons on 22nd January 1847 – “I wish it were possible to take advantage of this calamity, for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support than that which they have heretofore cultivated.” Even as he uttered these words, Peel knew that he could never have been more deceitful than this, because he was completely aware of the fact that the Irish peasant had cultivated the potato out of sheer necessity, rather than choice. As for introducing those same peasants to something better, would it not have been the perfect occasion to have introduced them to the taste of their own home-grown wheat, barley, and oats? The taste of these things they had long ago acquired without the help of the English.

From the records we can see for ourselves the many efforts exerted by the Whig Party’s opinion makers to make the Famine in Ireland seem to be not so bad. The Party’s propaganda machine went into overdrive and showed itself in many extraordinary forms. Perhaps the most extraordinary coup of their campaign was arranging the royal visit of Queen Victoria in August 1849. This visit highlighted the almost incomprehensible, but continuing popularity of the British Royal Family in a nation upon whom such suffering had been heaped in the name of that same crown. In the city of Cork, the Queen was welcomed in Cork with magnificent displays of loyalty that included coating the waterfront buildings in sumptuous red cloth. The theme of Victoria’s visit to Ireland was symbolised by the banners that greeted her, boldly stating, “Hail Victoria, Ireland’s hope and England’s Glory.” It had all been stage-managed by the Government to ensure that, although she saw Cork, she witnessed nothing of the famine-stricken West of the County wherein lay Skibbereen. Then, when she left Cork, the Queen travelled by sea to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in County Dublin and never saw any other afflicted part of the country.

The entire exercise was major propaganda triumph for the Government, providing them with endless opportunities for releasing reports in the press that Ireland was a most welcoming country in which famine did not happen. They said that the visit had seen such glamour and merriment that had not been seen in Ireland since the days when it had its own Parliament. Meanwhile, in Ireland itself, the British administration continued with its own methods of influencing public opinion and reducing opposition to their policies in the country. During election time they used straightforward intimidation. When voters who wished to vote against a landlord candidate faced an intimidating group of pro-government supporters in the shape of a bailiff, a policeman, and a soldier. Those voters knew that if they were to persist in their challenge they would face immediate eviction, which would bring fatal results to themselves and their families. They were all closely observed by agents and bailiffs who had in their possession their certificates of land registration. In most cases when these poor creatures came forward to reluctantly give their vote for the famine candidates, it was in groups that were guarded by bailiffs. The bailiff would produce the certificates of the groups that were under his care and made ready to put forward each voter in his turn.

The negative stereotyping of the Irish and anti-Irish legislation began almost with the first Norman soldier to invade Ireland. Over the centuries that followed, hostility increased towards the Irish, who steadfastly remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church despite the coercive force used the Tudor dynasty and subsequent English Royal Houses to convert them to the Protestant faith. Thus, began the perennial social conflict that resulted from a religious majority of the Irish nation being ruled over by a religious minority. During the Great Famine that began in 1845 several evangelical Protestant groups came to the country offering food aid to the starving if they would convert. Though, undoubtedly, some of the poor wretches submitted to such methods it made little difference. Discrimination against the Irish was rooted in deep anti-Catholic sentiments and in disgust for their poverty-stricken lifestyle. The latter being forced upon the Irish people by the English themselves.

There arose a particularly virulent strain of anti-Irish prejudice, which can be traced throughout the nineteenth century from the first time the potato blight appeared in 1845 until the century ended. Among those who assisted the ugly growth of the prejudice and helped it to flourish were the influential socialist economists and co-founders of the ‘London School of Economics and Political Science’, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman, historian and novelist who is best remembered today as a writer of children’s fiction including ‘Hereward the Wake’ and ‘The Water Babies’, wrote after a visit to Ireland, “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rules than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.” This was the voice of an avowed Christian clergyman, so what could be expected from the less learned people in England when the educated class publicise such racist views.

The famous politician and future Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote in 1836 – “(The Irish] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.” From the earliest years of Victoria’s reign, the press, politicians, and popular personalities spread racist thoughts and ideas about the Irish people. The vile racist propaganda concerning the Irish emigrants reached and took a firm hold in 19th century North America. The Irish were seen, and stereotyped, by these racist opinion makers as being violent, alcoholic sub-humans. In England many leading, popular illustrators depicted


Some English illustrators depicted Irish faces as resembling those of “apes’ to support their vile evolutionary racist claims that the Irish people were an “inferior race” as compared to Anglo-Saxons. Echoes of “Nazi” Race Theories almost a century before it came to reality in the ‘Holocaust’.

The Irish were also thought of as unwanted aliens, who were often accused of appointing friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications and were constantly subjected misrepresentations of their religious and cultural beliefs. The Irish Catholics were singled out for attack and ‘special treatment’ by the Protestant community. On 26th July 1848 ‘The Times’ published the following comment in its pages, “The English are very well-aware that Ireland is a trouble, a vexation, and an expense to this country. We must pay to feed it, and pay to keep it in order … We do not hesitate to say that every hard-working man in this country carries a whole Irish family on his shoulders. He does not receive what he ought to receive for his labour, and the difference goes to maintain the said Irish family, which is doing nothing but sitting idle at home, basking in the sun, telling stories, going to fairs, plotting, rebelling, wishing death to the Saxon, and laying everything that happens at the Saxon’s door … The Irish, whom we have admitted to free competition with the English labourer, and whom we have welcomed to all the comforts of old England, are to reward our hospitality by burning our warehouses and ships and sacking our towns.” 

In the city of Liverpool, England, where many Irish immigrants settled following the ‘Great Famine’, anti-Irish prejudice was widespread. The massed numbers of people coming across the Irish sea and settling in the poorer districts of the city increased tensions in the already overcrowded buildings. This overcrowding led to physical attacks and it became common practice for those with Irish accents, or even Irish names, to be barred from jobs, public houses and employment opportunities. Signs went up stating “Irish Need Not Apply”, or “No Irish Allowed.”

Nineteenth-century Protestant American “Nativist” discrimination against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid-1850s when the ‘Know-Nothing’ Movement tried to oust Catholics from public office. It is better known to history as the ‘Nationalist-minded’ “American Party” that began to flourish at this time. It was a movement that grew out of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that had begun to manifest itself during the 1840s. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East was perceived to pose a serious threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. In 1849 the ‘Secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner’ was formed in New York City, and soon after lodges were formed in almost every other major American city. Much of the opposition came from Irish Protestants, as in the 1831 riots that had occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany, settled in Philadelphia and the surrounding districts even before the advent of the Famine. Friction created riots for the control of job sites in the rural areas between rival labour teams from different parts of Ireland, and between Irish and local American work teams competing for construction jobs. Nevertheless, these immigrants were largely responsible for the first general strike in North America during 1835, in which workers in the city won the ten-hour workday. The city became a destination for thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ in the 1840s, and housing for them was developed south of the city’s South Street and were later occupied by succeeding waves of immigrants.

Irish Catholics were isolated and marginalized by Protestant society but wherever they went the Irish immigrants established a network of Catholic Churches and schools. They also rapidly gained control of the Catholic Church from English, French and Germans and, moreover, they dominated the Catholic clergy for decades. Any marriage between Catholics and Protestants was also strongly discouraged by both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, and couple who chose to go ahead were often excluded by their communities. Under Irish leadership, the Catholics Church built a network of parochial schools and colleges, as well as orphanages and hospitals. For these institutions they typically used nuns as an inexpensive work force, thereby avoiding the public offices that were mostly controlled by Protestants.

An Gorta Mor Conclusion PtI

The Famine’s Aftermath

Most historians agree that by 1850 the very worst of the Great Famine was over, and that the potato crop was beginning to recover its former strength. The potato blight, however, continued to strike the potato crop at intervals, but with less calamitous results. Nevertheless, the Great Famine in Ireland affected future generations of Irishmen and left echoes of Ireland’s suffering for years to come within their minds.

All through those years when the people of Ireland died of starvation and disease, the British Government continually complained about the cost of providing relief schemes. In the end the total costs to the British government of the Famine, between the years 1845 and 1850, according to the records amounted to £8.1 million. Less than half of amount was given as grants from the Treasury, while the rest was provided from Treasury loans that were supposed to be repaid through the levy of poor rates. However, by 1850, there was less than £600,000 repaid to the Treasury, which proceeded to consolidate the debts and refinance them. But, these measures did not lower the total debts by any large amount and, finally, they were cancelled completely in 1853, when Ireland was brought into the British income tax system.

But, if details of these large outlays by the British Government are examined at a closer level quite a different interpretation can be taken from the records. Britain, at this time, was a major world and European power and had to maintain considerable forces for defence. In fact, Britain’s expenditure on its national defences since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, had amounted on average to an amount of approximately £16 million per year, from the nation’s average annual tax revenue of about £53 million.

Irish Famine 2In the meantime, when the famine began in Ireland, the government sent one Commission after another to investigate. They analysed, evaluated, reviewed, and wrote many reports, which they sent to superiors in London for further evaluation. One can only imagine the man-hours that were spent in preparing and collating all this paperwork, but we can be certain that these were considered English, not Irish, man-hours. So, when England boasted about the large amount of money that she was spending to alleviate the suffering of the Irish people, there was a substantial portion of that money going back into English coffers. This cash return came in the form of wages paid to those who completed the paperwork, or to the members of Ireland’s Anglo class, who were the only people employed as commissioners, superintendents of work, inspectors of work, and so forth. In 1847 it was estimated some ten thousand government servants were administering relief to the poor in Ireland, which came out of the same government funds from which their salaries were drawn. What remained of the fund after these costs and salaries were paid left only a small portion of the relief that was needed.

There were, of course, many contemporary voices, in Parliament and elsewhere, who argued that the government was providing funds that were totally insufficient to meet the size of the tragedy being suffered by the people in Ireland. This is particularly cruel when you realise that the Irish had, for generations, been paying taxes to England and tithes to her alien church. But, suddenly, those taxes and tithes were no longer considered Irish money that the English were spending to help relieve the distress; Now, by some hidden means or other construed by the Treasury, it was now all English money. In fact, overall, the greatest assistance to Famine Relief came from Ireland itself, through Poor Rate collections, and money that was contributed by some landlords. On top of these funds there was at least £1 million collected through private charity efforts.

Yet another important fact that is ignored in British reports of the time is the value of Irish exports to the English Treasury. In 1847 a government statistical commissioner, Captain Larcom, listed the total value of the agricultural produce of Ireland for that year to be £44,958,120. In this, one of the darkest years of the famine, the produce listed would have been enough to feed, at least during the famine months, not only the eight million people living in Ireland at that time, but another eight million besides. In almost every major harbour in Ireland during this period, a ship sailing in with Indian maize from America would have passed half a dozen British ships sailing out with Irish wheat, oats, and cattle. Due to the political economy forced upon Ireland, its people were too poor to buy the products of their own labour. The British exported that harvest to a better market, and left the people to die of famine, or to live on the charity of others. They then had the audacity to blame the Irish people for their own distress. But what else could be expected of a country where its own profitable scheme, rather than the Irish lives it cost, that British Government officials held sacred.

It is unfortunate that an exact number of how many people died during the period of the famine is unknown. It is believed, however, that people more died from disease than perished from starvation. State registration of births, marriages, or deaths had not yet begun at this time, and the records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. The number of deaths that occurred during the Famine were so numerous that record-keeping virtually stopped, because no-one could keep up with them. Sadly, during this tragic period there were hundreds of men, women and children who died unknown and unmissed, because their families had departed this life before them.

There is one estimate that may help answer this question, which compares the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. The census of 1841 recorded Ireland’s population at 8,175,124. Subsequently, a census taken immediately after the famine in 1851 counted the population at 6,552,385, which reflected a drop of over 1.5 million people in 10 years. The census commissioners estimated that, at the normal rate of population increase, the population in 1851 should have grown to just over 9 million people, if the famine had not intervened. In this latest census commissioners collected information on the number who had died in each family since 1841, along with the cause, season, and year of their death. They recorded 21,770 total deaths had resulted from starvation in the previous decade, while 400,720 deaths had been caused by disease, among which were listed Typhus fever, Diptheria, Dysentery, Cholera, Smallpox, Scurvy and Influenza. Despite their efforts, the commissioners were not confident about the accuracy of their figures and suggested that the true number of deaths was probably much higher. It is a fact that the more widespread the number of deaths, the less will be the accuracy of recorded deaths, provided through household information. The terrible fact of this Famine was that not only were whole families swept away by disease, but entire communities were also wiped from the land. Later historians agree that the 1851 commissioners’ figures on the number of deaths were flawed and that they had probably under-estimated the level of mortality. The combination of institutional figures and those provided by individuals do give an incomplete account of fatalities during the famine years. The true figure is likely to be somewhere between the two extremes of half and one and a half million people, with the most widely accepted estimate being one million deaths.

At least a million people are thought to have emigrated because of theAn Gorta Mor famine in Ireland. There were about 1 million long-distance emigrants between 1846 and 1851, most of whom, as we have seen, travelled to North America. The total given in the 1851 census is 967,908, while short-distance emigrants, mainly to Britain, have been estimated to have been approximately 200,000 or more. Yet another area of uncertainty are those descriptions of disease as given by tenants, who believed them to be the cause of their relatives’ deaths. The 1851 census has been rightly criticised as being deeply flawed about the true extent of famine mortality. Nevertheless, the census does provide an excellent framework for the medical history of the Great Famine.

The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories, namely famine-induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the latter group, the most commonly experienced were starvation and a form of serious protein-energy malnutrition (Marasmus), as well as a condition at the time called dropsy. Dropsy (oedema) was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, was a severe form of malnutrition that most commonly affects children.

But, the greatest death rate did not come from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine-induced ailments. Malnourishment makes us all very vulnerable to infections and, therefore, they are more severe when they occur. Measles, Diphtheria, Diarrhoea, Tuberculosis, most Respiratory infections, Whooping Cough, many Intestinal Parasites, and Cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent, however, that their spread was independent of nutritional problems. The best example of this phenomenon was Typhus fever, which exacted the greatest death toll among the starving peasantry. In the popular mind, as well as medical opinion, fever and famine are still considered to be closely related. Social dislocation that brought about the gathering of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, and overcrowded work houses created the ideal conditions for spreading infectious diseases such as Typhus, Typhoid, and Relapsing Fever.

Diarrhoeal diseases, on the other hand, are the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation, and dietary changes. The final deadly attack on a population which was incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera, which had visited Ireland briefly in the 1830s. In the 1840s, it had spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain, finally reaching Ireland in 1849. It is estimated that this terrible disease reduced the existing population of Ireland by between twenty and twenty-five per cent.

The British Government’s response to the Famine and disease that was sweeping through Ireland was not without its critics. Contemporary opinion was very critical of the manner, in which Russell’s government responded to and managed the great crisis to the benefit of those affected by it. From the very beginning of the tragedy there were accusations that the Government completely failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster that was happening in Ireland. Sir James Graham, a former ‘Home Secretary’ in Sir Robert Peel’s late government, had written to Peel, telling him that, in his opinion, “the real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science”. In short, he believed that the normal ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of the government would be completely disastrous.

Criticism, however, was not confined to critics outside of Government circles. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849 in which, unusually for him, he urged that the Government establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. He told Lord Russell, “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.” Added to this criticism levelled at the Government by Edward Twisleton, the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, when he resigned his post in protest over the ‘Rate-in-Aid Act’, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland. Twisleton declared that “comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation”.

We have seen how the government in London spent £8 million for poor relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, which represented approximately one-half of one percent of the British gross national product over those five years. There were, of course, certain figures who noted the difference this was from £20 million in compensation paid to the West Indian slave-owners in the previous decade 1830s. There were other critics who loudly maintained that, even after the government did recognise the scope of the crisis, it blatantly failed to take sufficient steps to address it. In 1860, John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote – “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a “dispensation of Providence”; and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” starving

There were, also, others who criticised the government for taking any action, no matter how meagre, whilst still more critics saw in the government’s response its attitude to the so-called ‘Irish Question’. A well -known economics professor at Oxford University, Nassau Senior, cold-heartedly wrote that the Famine in Ireland “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good”. This was much in line with Denis Shine Lawlor’s suggestion that Lord Russell must be a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had taken great pains to calculate just how far English colonisation and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation”. Also, in 1848, Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government’s handling of the famine, described it as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil”. He also affirmed that the Famine was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”

With all of this in mind, it is only fair that we ask whether the policies of Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, would have achieved the terrible results that they did without the Whig Party’s evil manipulation of the press. In 1845, when the blight first struck the Irish potato crop the weight of British public opinion was firmly behind the government making efforts to relieve the tragedy. The change in the British public’s support for these efforts came quickly when donor fatigue and deeply felt resentment against the Irish landlords set in. Other contributory factors affecting this change of support were the widespread revival of traditional Irish prejudice, brought to the boil by sudden appearance of hordes of Irish famine victims fleeing to English soil and filling the slums of the industrial cities. Sir Charles Wood, in trying to excuse Government inaction, told the House of Commons – “No exertion of a Government, or, I will add, of private charity, can supply a complete remedy for the existing calamity. It is a national visitation, sent by providence.” In this one sentence we can see just how the thinking of political economists influenced members of the Government by providing them with a justification for them sitting on their hands doing nothing and allowing the Irish people to starve to death.

Sir Charles Wood’s colleague, Charles Trevelyan, much more anti-Irish and left o-one in doubt about what he thought should be done in Ireland. In his infamously self-justificatory book ‘The Irish Crisis’, published in 1848, he insisted that the crisis In Ireland had ended that year. He maintained this obvious error in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Almost every day there were reports of the great tragedy that was being faced by the Irish in the face of a continuing famine, but Trevelyan stuck to his line even as more and more poverty-stricken Irish peasants found themselves on the streets of England’s cities. Official attitudes to these growing numbers of starving and shoddily dressed refugees were reflected in ‘The Times’ newspaper, which closed an eye to the evidence that Irish emigrants were still pouring into England. This unofficial organ of the Whig Government chose to give support to the government’s generally anti-Irish propaganda. In the columns of that influential newspaper readers were told that the Famine was not a curse, but a blessing sent by God to cleanse an indolent Ireland of its many blemishes.

An Gorta Mor IX Part IV

Emigration and Coffin Ships

Coffin ship 2The fact that the horrors of the ‘Coffin Ships’ were virtually restricted to vessels making for Quebec during 1847-48 provided little solace to the tens of thousands who perished after buying bargain tickets for as little as £2. Other than these vessels there were few ships wrecked, and shipboard mortality seldom exceeded one in fifty persons. The same statistic applied to the even more hazardous and expensive voyage to Australia, which typically took three or four months. But, because most Australian emigrants received state subsidies, the shipboard conditions were far more closely supervised by government inspectors and surgeons-superintendent. Due to the introduction of passenger legislation at this time overcrowding and cross-infection were eventually curtailed on the shorter American routes. It appears, from the mortality figures among the many passengers that sailed from Ireland, the passage to Australia and North America while scarcely a pleasure cruise, was not a death sentence.

 In Ireland the transition from panic-driven expulsion from the land to a calculated pursuit of economic betterment was already underway. As the Famine continued unabated, more and more emigrants sent reports home about their success in finding employment and marriage partners, which convinced others that emigration was a choice rather than a sufferance. Admittedly, emigrants faced formidable obstacles in securing a satisfactory livelihood in those new lands. The serious lack of capital, education and skills restricted many of the Irish settlers in Britain and America to undertaking poorly paid menial employment and living in insanitary housing.

 The number of emigrants from Ireland continued to increase and some ships’ officers described the appalling conditions these poor people had to endure – “… friendless emigrants stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air, who can do no cooking, nor warm so much as a cup of water … Passengers are cut off from the most indispensable conveniences of a civilised dwelling … We had not been at sea one week, when to hold your head down the fore-hatchway was like holding it down a suddenly opened cess pool.”

Despite all the reasons to cause them to fear undertaking such a journey into the unknown, there was nothing that could stop desperate people who were determined to go. They would have to face seasickness, insanitary accommodation, violent fellow passengers and often the hostility of the crew. There would be rotten food and foul water, and they would have to fight off the crooks and touts who tried to rob and cheat them both before and after the journey. Meanwhile, thousands of emigrants had arrived already in the New World, where their numbers and their poverty had caused problems. In response various Passenger Acts were drawn up and passed, which forbid any emigrant without sufficient funds or subsistence to land. But, along with all the difficulties that emigration brought to North America, no one expected the ‘ship fever’ of 1847. This is now what they called the typhus fever, which had now crossed the Atlantic as well.

Coffin ship 1In May 1847, the ice on the St. Lawrence river had melted and the first emigrant ship arrived at Grosse Ile, the quarantine station. All passengers on board the ship had come from Ireland, via Britain, and there were 84 cases of fever among them, nine of whom had died. The quarantine hospital ship at Gross Ile could only accommodate 200 people, but eight more ships arrived carrying 430 fever cases and, three days later, seventeen more ships landed. By 26th May there were thirty vessels waiting at Grosse Ile to be cleared, with approximately 10,000 emigrants on board. By 31st May this had risen to a fleet of forty ships, which stretched two miles down the river. Conditions on board these ships quickly became intolerable. In an effort to ease the problems tents were hastily erected ashore but patients were often left for days on the ships without any treatment. Most of the ships had not one healthy person on board, and those few who had managed to escape the fever were severely weakened by starvation. There were processions of boats that carried the sick and dead from the ships, abandoning them upon the beach to crawl to the hospital if they could. By the middle of the summer it was impossible to quarantine people in a proper manner. The sick passengers were left to stay on the ships for fifteen days or more, instead of spending ten days in the hospital. This meant that the sick and healthy were still cooped up together, allowing the fever to spread as before. By the end of July all quarantine efforts had been abandoned and the hordes of emigrants, sick and healthy, were just sent on inland. The result of this foolishness was that Quebec and Montreal later suffered widespread fever epidemics.

 The St. Lawrence River was the main artery through which the Irish emigrants flowed into the towns of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, the Ottawa Valley, and the rest of Canada. Others would use Canada only as a stop-over and would subsequently make their way into the United States. Grosse Ile is a small island on the St. Lawrence and was the place where the unhealthy emigrants were landed. It had already gained a horrific reputation even before the events of ‘Black ‘47.’ In 1832, for example, Coffin Ships that had been designed not as passenger vessels but as ships to carry timber from North America were filled with Irish people as fare paying ballast for the return journey. It was these ships that were instrumental in bringing cholera to Canada from Ireland and the flophouses of Liverpool. The fever victims that arrived in 1847 may have already been dead, or they may have been near death, but they were always able to spread the fever either through the conditions existing aboard the ‘coffin ships’, or on the overpacked island itself.  

The authorities in both Canada and America condemned the conditions in which the emigrants were sent across the Atlantic. They knew about the Famine in Ireland, and the land clearances by the landlords, whom they held in contempt. Lord Palmerston’s expressed views on emigration caused more widespread shuddering at the Cabinet table than did his contribution on land clearances, and he became the subject of every public international controversy. Adam Ferrie, a member of Canada’s Legislative Council wrote a strongly worded letter to the British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey. In it he condemned the dumping on Canadian soil of half-naked paupers, the aged, the infirm, beggars, and vagrants “without regard to humanity or even common decency.” Ferrie also itemised the crimes that had been committed against the emigrants, among which were the promise of clothes, food, and money. They would, however, only receive these when they arrived in Quebec. But, the £5 that was promised was never paid to the emigrant, nor did they receive the clothes or food. They were simply put on a ship that was carrying twice the number of passengers for which it had been built, and in conditions that were described to be, “as bad as the Slave Trade.”

As explained, none of the promised food or clothing was forthcoming. Palmerston’s tenants had formed part of a sizeable flotilla of nine ships, which picked up these paupers in Sligo and Liverpool. Some of these ships carried only the aged, the decrepit, and the widows with young children. No one on board had the necessary skills that would be required to survive in a fledgling colony. On one ship, carrying 477 passengers, the overcrowding on board made the passage a hellish experience for them all. But, in addition to the overcrowding, fever had broken out and 107 passengers had to be buried at sea. On arrival at their destination almost half the survivors were described as virtually naked, and eighty-seven of them had to be clothed before they could be allowed ashore. Even the crew had fallen into such a bad condition that the ship had to be sailed from the mouth of the St. Lawrence by five of the passengers.

It wasn’t long before the American press in New York began to take notice and began to comment on the condition of the Irish emigrants landing on their shores – “It is lamentable to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day’s living. Yesterday, groups of these hapless beings were to be seen congregated about the (City Hall) Park and in Broadway, looking the very picture of despair, misery, disease and want. On enquiry, we ascertained that they had arrived here by the ship ‘Robert Peel’, and that they had been, for the most part, tenants of the Marquis of Lansdowne, on his County Kerry estate – ejected without mercy by him, and “shipped” for America in this wholesale way. Among them were grey haired and aged men and women, who had spent the heyday of their life as tillers of their native soil and are now sent to this country to find a grave. This is too bad – it is inhuman; and yet it is an act of indiscriminate and wholesale expatriation committed by the “liberal” President.”

 Did no one in high places disagreed with him or pointed out that there were humane ways of dealing with the Irish land problem. Did no one in the government say that it was cruel and inhumane to subject old women and children, with no adult to support them, to the rigours of an Atlantic crossing in a Coffin Ship, followed by disembarkation in the snows of Canada, the stews of New York, or possibly worst of all, the sums of Liverpool? Did no one say that many of these people would die aboard ship and be buried at sea? Or that when they landed in a filthy, emaciated state, unskilled in anything but the lowest labouring work, for which disease had in any case unfitted most of them, they would be received in their new situations with fear and execration? The answer to this question is – of course there were voices continually protesting government policy, but to no avail. From the point of view of the landlords the emigration scheme was an unqualified economic success, and they held sway in Westminster.

New York was the main entry port for emigrants into America, and it did not welcome them warmly. In fact, the first reaction of the American Congress toward emigrants fleeing from the Famine in Ireland was to try to keep them out. Far from validating a subsequent inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed the poor and huddled masses of the world, Congress passed Navigation Acts that tightened up embarkation laws in a variety of ways. Captains either had to enter a bond that no passenger would become a burden on the city or pay a ‘commutation fee’, as it was known, of $10 per passenger. The port of Boston went further and placed a levy of $1,200 on aged or infirm persons. Ships with fever aboard were refused landing rights. This rejection meant that passengers who had already suffered the horrors of the Atlantic voyage were driven away from the American ports and sent to British ports, such as those in British Canada.

But the determination of the emigrants was such that, having landed in Canada, they proceeded to pour back across the American border by any means they could. This caused further antagonisms and tensions among the Americans that were directed against the Irish. Moreover, their own failure to prosper triggered a rather unpleasant trait among the emigrant population, which was deeply held anti-black feelings on their part. As the Irish strived to find their feet in their new home, they began to rail at the fact that black labour was undercutting their wages, and anti-black riots became part of the Irish-American experience. Meanwhile, the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who controlled America, and nativist groups such as the ‘Know Nothings’ were also antagonistic to the hordes of ragged, starving Irish Catholics that were arriving daily. New York in those days was wild and unruly sort of city. Not only were the Irish accused of living like pigs they kept them, much as they had done in Ireland. The ‘New York Sun’ newspaper estimated in August 1847 that there were upward of ten thousand pigs roaming the streets of the city and causing a great threat to the health and welfare of its citizens. But, when public outcry led to a police crackdown on the keeping of pigs, the Irish put up such a stern resistance to police efforts to commandeer their animals that eventually they were left to continue with their piggeries. These only added to the miseries of the slum accommodation they had to endure. This was created principally in two ways, firstly was the old ‘Knickerbocker Houses’ (Apartment buildings) once owned by the wealthy who got out as soon as the emigrants started to come in. The second type of slum accommodation, however, was deliberately constructed by and for them. These flimsy, jerry-built ‘barracks’, as they were known, were rented out to emigrants by the room and very soon became overcrowded. All of these habitations in the slum areas had one thing in common, and that was dirt and lack of sanitation.

 The ‘Barracks’ were generally built behind existing buildings and therefore had to be reached through narrow, noxious alleys in which dirt of all sorts quickly accumulated.  Rubbish collection and disposal was rarely heard of, pigsties abounded, and there were piles of what was described as ‘decaying matter’ giving off awful smells. The buildings were surrounded by moats of sewerage that were just ‘pools of standing water’. Given their poverty and numbers, it was inevitable in the early decades of Irish mass emigration to North America that the words ‘slum’ and ‘Irish’ became synonymous. Being essentially a communal people, the Irish emigrants tended to congregate in ‘Irish Quarters’, and they stayed in the cities – only about ten per cent moved on to rural areas. The city dwelling Irish were fodder for the political bosses who ruled the various precincts and wards. They also became notorious for their drunken rows, street brawls, and violent crime. So low was the reputation of the Irish, in fact, that it took many years for the Famine emigrants to overcome their disadvantages, and to begin to make a positive contribution to the countries they had reached.

In Boston they congregated in what became known as the ‘Eighth Ward’ of the city, which is an area known today as the affluent ‘Back Bay District’. From there some of the more successful occasionally spread out, as in New York with the Knickerbocker houses, to the homes of wealthy Boston citizens in the North End. These old houses had large gardens that rapidly became covered in cabins reminiscent of those the emigrants had left behind in Ireland. Even the alleyways were built over, while the spaces between the houses and sometimes the houses themselves “had within them stores, shops and places where fruit, vegetables and refreshments (grog) were sold.” In 1849 the Board of Aldermen reported – “The Back Bay at this hour is nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and constantly increasing population … A greenish scum, many yards wide stretches along the shore and the basin, while the surface of the water beyond is seen bubbling like a cauldron with the noxious gases that are escaping from the corrupting mass below.” Houses in the area were often reported to be “flooded with every tide” and yet the Irish packed themselves into the cellars of such houses. These cellars had low ceilings and, in one recorded case, a ceiling only five feet high, the same as the width of the cellar, which still held eighteen people. Poverty, disease and crime flourished in these conditions, which inevitably had the greatest effect upon the children, whose major outdoor activity was not playing football or childish games but begging. The Mortality Rate among Irish Catholics was estimated between 1841 and 1845 as having decimated the children, with 61.5 per cent dying before they reached the age of five years.

Generally, the emigrants who came to Canada fared better than many of those who had landed in Liverpool, which was the principal port of entry for Irish emigrants to England. Because England was closer to Ireland than North America it was the cheapest and shortest journey for the fleeing paupers, and they filled the large numbers of ferries and packet-boats that served Liverpool. Besides being a major port, Liverpool in the 1840s was a huge bustling city. Its vast wealth had been derived from the trade of empire, including slavery. These riches had created both mansion and slum, with the latter probably being among the very worst in Europe. It was an unfortunate feature of the city was the number of poor people who lived in cellars or in “courts”, which were streets of houses built facing each other that were often separated by roadways only nine feet wide. The filth and stench of these areas were almost indescribable, with sewage and surface water being carried off through open, and often clogged, drains. In 1841 the population of Liverpool numbered approximately 250,000, according to the census returns. Between December 1846 and the following June, the population of the city had increased to 300,00 by poverty-stricken and starving Irish.

The large numbers of emigrants and their terrible condition on arrival presented a threat to the city as well as to themselves. But, the only official relief provided by the authorities was a distribution of tents and the provision of two floating hulks on the river Mersey, which were used as hospital ships for fever victims. Dislocation, anxiety, hunger, and want created such mental stress among the Irish emigrants that many became mentally ill, patient levels in all Lancashire asylums reached incredibly high levels. Traditionally, the Irish who were forced by conditions to emigrate, considered themselves to be exiles rather than willing travellers. They, as a rural people, had no history of travel from their native place, no folk memory of it, and no idea of the society they were travelling to. They were buried in the mud they died in, and their dreadful working lives contributed to a pattern that would continue for decades, generating much hostility toward the Irish emigrants. They worked for lower wages than anyone else and in more dangerous conditions. In Louisiana, for example, the slave owners for example, would not allow their slaves to work on the New Orleans Canal, because they possessed a commercial value that the Irish did not. Such things were easily understood when you realise the frenzy and despair that forced the Irish out of Ireland during the years of Famine. It was a time when able-bodied, and law-abiding men actively sought transportation to Van Dieman’s Land and elsewhere, just to get out of Ireland. At home, death lay all around them and touched every the lives of every individual and every family.


Old Skibbereen

By Patrick Carpenter

Air: ‘The Wearing of the Green’

A Young American and his Irish Father

Old Skibbereen

“O! father, dear, I’ve often heard you speak of Erin’s Isle –

Its scenes how bright and beautiful, how “rich and rare” they smile;

You say it is a lovely land in which a Prince might dwell,

Then why did you abandon it, the reason to me tell?”


“My Son, I’ve loved my native land with fervour and with pride –

Her peaceful groves, her mountains rude, her valleys green and wide,

And there I’ve roamed in manhood’s prime, and sported when a boy,

My Shamrock and shillelagh sure my constant boast and Joy.


“But lo! A blight came o’er my crops, my sheep and cattle died,

The rack-rent too, alas! was due I could not have supplied;

The landlord drove me from my cot where born I had been,

And that, my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen –


“O! what a dreadful sight it was that dark November day;

The Sheriff and the Peelers came to send us all away;

They set the roof a-blazing with a demon smile of spleen,

And when it fell, the crash was heard all over Skibbereen.


“Your Mother dear, God rest her, fell upon the snowy ground,

She fainted in her anguish at the desolation round; –

She never rose, but passed away from life’s tumultuous scene,

And found a quiet grave to rest in poor old Skibbereen.


“Ah! I sadly recall that year of gloomy ’48;

I rose in vengeance with “the boys” to battle against fate;

We were hunted thro’ the mountains wild, as traitors to the Queen, –

And that, my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen.


“You then were only two years old, and feeble was your frame,

I would not leave you with my friends – you bore my father’s name! –

I wrapped you in my ‘Catamore’ at dead of night unseen,

Then heav’d a sigh, and bade good-by to poor old Skibbereen.


“O! Father, Father, when the day for vengeance we will call, –

When Irishmen o’er field and fen shall rally one and all, –

I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green,

While loud on high we’ll raise the cry – Revenge for Skibbereen!”