Kathy’s Famine Story

I was born in a thatched cottage standing by the side of a mountain stream. It was lonely in that part of the country, but a pleasant enough place in which to live. During the summer the wild ducks would bring their little ones to feed on the nearby bog and you could not stoop over the stream’s bank to get a jug of water without disturbing a nervous trout or two.
All of this was a long time ago, for it has been many years since my brother, Rory, and I would set off to wander together up the mountain to pick wild flowers and hunt for wild bird’s nests. But, Rory has now grown up to be a fine and clever man who no longer has time for such childish pursuits.
Yes. It was all such a long time ago and I am now a happy and comfortably well-off person, residing in a big house as a maid to the master’s daughters. Because I was so close and caring to poor Miss Anne, who died slowly of the ‘wasting disease’, I am treated more like an equal than a servant. Nevertheless, when I walk out with Jimmy Feeney, a neighbour’s son, in the fields during the cool and quiet of a summer’s evening, I constantly think about those days so long ago. As we stroll along together, I talk to Jimmy about those days and it raises my spirits, makes me smile, and we laugh together.
Every evening, before I creep into my bed, I say my prayers quietly to God. Then, before I sleep, I read a chapter from the small Bible that Miss Anne gave me. But, last night I could feel tears flow from my eyes and drop onto the page as I perused one particular verse that said, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away.” As I read those words, they made me think about all of those who were now gone from my world. My thoughts brought clear pictures of my father and his second wife, who was a really good mother to us children. But, above all, my thoughts turned to my little sister Betty, nestling into mother’s bosom as if she were a helpless pure-white dove seeking refuge from the world.
In those days when my father brought home his second wife I was nothing more than a slip of a girl, of ten years of age, and my brother Rory, who was about two years older. She was the daughter of a farmer from the next townland to ours and had been reared decently and with gentleness. But, her father paid an extortionate amount of rent for the land. So much rent, in fact, that the middleman between himself and the real landlord did not have to pay his own rent. It was a situation that could not be sustained and, when he was finally ejected, the farmer collected every penny he had, and prepared to set off with his family to America.
My father had long admired the farmer’s youngest daughter, and he often said that there was no sweeter creature ever drew breath. But, believing that her father was a wealthy farmer, he was very nervous about asking her to share his little cabin by the stream. When he found out the truth, however, he didn’t lose much time in discovering that this beautiful creature was willing to be his wife, and a mother to his children. She was to be all of these things and more to us. I often look back with sadness when I recall all those occasions that I hurt her with my foolishness, and my idle ways. I resented her presence at first and it took me such a long time to actually call her “mother.”
There were many times when my father would be ready to punish Rory and myself for our mischievous pranks and thoughtless acts. I can clearly recall the day when we took half-a-dozen eggs from under the hatching hen to play a game of “Blind Tom” with them, in which I would blindfold Rory and he had to try and catch the eggs when I threw them to him. She would intercede on our behalf, and say, “Tim, darling, don’t touch them this time. Sure, they are only wee children with no sense. They will grow up and get more sense soon.” Her appeals always seemed to work but, after he was out of hearing distance, she would give us both some very good advice. She never appeared to get angry at us and would speak to us so pleasantly that we could never resent her interference.
That woman also worked great wonders about the house and the garden, which were both dirty and neglected when she first came to the house. I was too young and foolish to do any cleaning or tidying, and my father was just too busy with his farm work. We had an old woman servant who lived with us, but she was too feeble and too blind to keep the house clean or decent. When she arrived, however, my mother got the floor raised, and the stagnant pool at the front of the house drained, planting in its place a parcel of roses and honey-suckles. The neighbouring wives would often say, “It is all pride and a complete waste of time for her to keep the kitchen-floor swept clean, and to put the potatoes on a dish, rather than simply emptying them out of the pot into the middle of the table.” Spitefully they would accuse her of being cruel and unnatural to take that old pool away from the ducks, leaving them no handy place to paddle. But, there was not a cruel bone in my mother’s body. Moreover, she was always too busy and happy to pay any attention to what the neighbours were gossiping about. She was, nonetheless, always prepared to do a kind turn for any of those same neighbours, and, because of the shame they felt for what they had said about her, they had at last to cease abusing her and what they called, “Her fine English ways.”
Not far from our house there was a rough, stony piece of ground, where nothing was ever grown but nettles, docks, thistles, and wild flowers of all colours. Rory and I came in from school one Monday and mother told us to begin weeding that area immediately. She added that we should bring in some buckets of good clay from the river’s banks and she promised that if we did a good job until Saturday, she would get me a new frock, and Rory a jacket, on the next market day. Encouraged by such an offer, we set about the task with great excitement and we didn’t stop working until supper time came. The next day we got stuck into weeding the ground again and, piece by piece, we saw the heap of weeds and stones that we got out grow enormously. We saw the ground becoming nice, smooth, red and rich with every bucket of river clay we deposited upon it. We were proud of what we had achieved on this bit of waste ground and we built a tidy little fence around it to protect it from the pigs. After we spread some manure on the soil, my mother planted cabbages, parsnips, and onions in it. Within a few weeks she harvested a fine crop from that parcel of land, from which she made us many a nice supper. She would cook the vegetables with, maybe, a small piece of bacon or the odd herring. From that land, aside from what she used in the home, she sold the surplus in the market. She made enough money from these to buy a good ‘Sunday Coat’ for my father, a dress for herself, a fine pair of boots for Rory, and a fine, pretty a shawl for me that I would wear every Sunday to Mass, confident that I was the prettiest girl in the Parish.
We were a poor family, but through my father’s hard-work and my mother’s good management skills, we were, thanks be to God, as comfortable as any other poor family in the country. We only paid a small rent for our land, and we always had plenty of potatoes to eat, good clothes to wear, and enjoyed the cleanliness and decency in and about our little cottage. For five years our small family enjoyed life on this land and then little Betty was born, bringing us all joy with her arrival. She was a delicate little thing, with a look in her beautiful blue eyes, that is seldom seen and is an omen of misfortune to come. She had a fondness for her father, Rory, and me, and would laugh and gurgle when she saw us. But, we were all fully aware that the deepest love that she held in her heart was for her mother. No matter how tired, or sleepy, or cross Betty might be, just one word from her would set the child’s bright eyes dancing, and her little rosy mouth smiling. Those tiny arms and legs quivered in excitement in anticipation of being lifted into the warm security of her mother’s arms. The enfolding arms of a mother who doted on the very ground she trod! I don’t believe that the Queen in all her finery could have been one bit happier than my mother, when she would sit in the shade of the mountain ash, near the door, in the quiet summer evening, singing and humming her dearest one to sleep in her arms.
Spring 1849In October 1845, Betty was only four years old, things turned against us. It was a bitter time, when the food of the earth was turned to poison. The gardens that were usually so bright and sweet, covered with the purple and white potato blossoms suddenly, in one night, became black and offensive, as if touched by some ancient devil. I had never seen such terrible, heart-breaking scenes as those working men, God help them, who had only the one half-acre to feed their little families, going out in the evenings after work, to dig for their supper from under the black stalks of the plants. Each spade of soil that was turned over, and a long stretch of ridge was dug through, before they would even get a small bowl filled with withered undersized potatoes, which in other years would hardly have been seen as fit food for the pigs.
Some time passed before we found ourselves in real distress as a family, because we had managed to save a small amount of money in the savings’ bank. Because of this we were able to purchase meal, while our neighbours were rapidly approaching starvation. But, for as long as my father and mother had that little bit of money, they shared it freely with those people who were worse off than themselves. As the last of those small savings was spent, however, the price of flour was raised. Then, to make matters worse, the farmer who employed my father on his land for only eight-pence a day was forced to send him and three more labourers away, as he couldn’t afford to pay them any longer. That was a terrible sorrowful night in our house when my father brought home that news. I well remember the desolate look on my father’s face when he sat down by the ashes of the turf fire. Mother had just baked a yellow meal cake for his supper and then she went to the other side of the fireplace. There she gave Betty a small drink of sour milk out of her little wooden cup. The child, of course, turned her nose up at it, because, being delicate child, she was always used to drinking sweet milk.
“Mammy, will you not give me some of the nice milk instead of that stuff?”
“I haven’t got it darling girl, and I can’t get any more of it,” said mother, “so don’t you be fretting.”
Betty did not say another word but turned her cheek to her mother’s neck and stayed quiet, silently listening to what was going on in the house. She heard father say, “Judy, God is good, and sure it’s only in Him that we must put our trust, for in all this wide world I cannot see anything but starvation lying ahead of us.”
“God is good, Tim,” mother replied. “Be certain that He will not abandon us.”
Just at that moment, Rory came rushing into the cabin breathless but with more joy in his young face than I had seen on him for many days. “Good news!” he declared aloud, “Good news, father! There is work for us both on the Drumgar road. The government is to begin works there to-morrow. You’ll be able to earn eight-pennies a day, and I’ll be able to earn sixpence.”
If you had seen the pleasure we derived from this news, you would have thought he had given us a thousand pounds and a ton of food, instead of just an offer of a few pennies as wages for hard-work. Our supply of potatoes was gone, and the yellow meal that was available was expensive and roughly ground. A supper of yellow meal not the same taste or fulfilment as potatoes gave to us poor people, but it was heart-warming for us to know that there was plenty of that meal. Through the government work and the buying of yellow meal we could prevent ourselves from having to go into the local poor-house, which was already crowded to such a level that the poor creatures in that place had not even the space to die in their beds, God help them! It was told by many who had witnessed the conditions there, that the inmates were crowded like livestock with hardly enough space to even sit on the floor.
Before daybreak the next morning my father and Rory left the cabin, for they had to walk a long way to get to Drumgar, and they wanted to be there in plenty of time to begin work. For their dinner they took a cake made of Indian meal, which was that would be washed down with only a tankard of cold water. My father, always the optimist and knowledgeable about such things, always said the cake good wholesome food when it was well cooked. There were, however, a considerable number of the poor people who took exception to such food because of its sickly colour, which they believed came from having mixed sulphur with it. The poor declared the supply of such food by the government was a great insult to the Irish people, because when it was mixed it looked like food that would be given to a pack of hungry dogs. Nevertheless, many of the poor people were glad to receive such food after having suffered a diet of sea-weed and nettles, and the grass growing by the roadside. At least there was some life-saving nutrition in the yellow-meal, although it was exceptionally hard to digest.
It was evening when my father and brother came home from work. The walk to and from work had combined with a hard day’s work to make them both exhausted and in need of rest. My mother, dutiful as always, would always try to have something extra for them both to eat with their porridge, maybe a bit of butter, or a bowl of thick milk, or even an egg or two. She would always make sure that I got full and plenty, but she would only allow herself a little bit, hardly enough to keep body and soul together. There were days when she would go entirely without a meal, and then slip down to the barrow boy in town to buy a little white bread-bun for Betty. Getting that little treat and watching the child eat it gave her more joy than if she had been presented with a meat-dinner for herself. But, no matter how hungry that poor little creature might have been, she would always break off a bit of her bun and placed it into her mother’s mouth, and she would not take her eyes off mother until she saw her swallow. Finally, Betty would take a drink of cold-water out of her little tin bowl, enjoying its refreshing taste as if it was sweet milk.
As the winter came upon us, the weather became wet and bitterly cold, and the poor men working on the roads suffered dreadfully from wearing wet clothes all day. Worse still was the sad fact that they did not have anything to change into when they arrived home at night, soaked to the skin and shivering with the cold. In such conditions, it came as no surprise that fever soon took hold among all the men, including my father. Mother wasted no time in bringing the doctor to see him, and by selling all the decent clothes we possessed she managed to pay for the medicine he required, but all to no avail. When he died after only a few days of illness, Mother explained to us that it was the will of God to take our father to Himself.
I find it hard now to describe the sorrow that my widowed mother and us children felt as we watched the fresh sods of grass planted on his grave. For some, I fancy, it was not the type of grief that is displayed by the ‘Quality Folk’ at such a time. But, I am sure that it is the same sharp knife of pain that slices into the same grief-filled heart that we all possess. It is only our outside appearances that differ between the rich and poor in times of mourning. I recall coming across the mistress of the house a week after Miss Anne died, as she sat in her drawing-room with the blinds pulled down. She was sitting in a low leather chair, with her elbow on the small desk and her cheek resting on her hand. I noticed that there was not a trace of anything white about her, except for a small -fringed handkerchief, and her was paler than the marble chimney-piece that had the remains of a fire glowing in the hearth.
The butler had been busy with other duties and had told me to bring the luncheon tray to the mistress. But, when she saw me, she covered her eyes with her handkerchief, and began to sob quietly, as if she did not want me to notice. As I moved out of the room, however, I overheard her speak to Miss Alice in a quiet, sobbing voice, “Always keep young Kathy here, for our darling, Anne, was so fond of her.” Then, as I closed the door behind me, I could hear the grieving woman give a long, deep sob. On the next occasion that I met her, she was much more composed. It was only the paleness of her cheek and the black dress she wore that gave anyone a clue that she was still feeling that burning pain of her child’s last kiss.
My mother, however, was forced to mourn father in a quite different manner. She could not sit quietly in a parlour but had to work very hard to keep those to whom she had given life alive. It was only in the evenings that she was able to sit down in front of the fire with Betty in her arms. Sitting there she would quietly sob and rock herself to and fro, while she mournfully sang a loving song for the father that had gone. Betty’s sad and innocent tears would flow slowly flow from her eyes and down her soft cheeks each time she saw mother weep.
It was about this time that my mother was given an offer from some traders in the area who were aware of her reputation for honesty. They asked her to go to the nearby market-town three times a week and with their meagre amount of money trade on their behalf. With the town almost ten miles away, they wanted her to bring them back supplies of bread, groceries, soap, and candles. It was a task that she willingly accepted and walked the twenty miles, half of them with a heavy load on her back, just so she could earn enough to keep us alive.
Her job was made all the more difficult because Rory could seldom get a bit of work to do. The young boy wasn’t strong, for he had also suffered from the fever too. He had recovered from the sickness and, although he was left weak, he always did his best to earn an honest penny or two wherever he could. On many occasions I asked my mother to permit me go to the town in her place and bring back the load, but she wouldn’t hear tell of such a thing, ensuring that I remained at home to take care of the house and little Betty. But, that poor, innocent child needed little minding. After breakfast she would go and sit on the step at the cabin door, and she would not move an inch all day. She would patiently watch for the approach of her mother and would pay no heed to any of the neighbours’ children that would come and ask her to play. Through those long hours she would never stir, but just kept her eyes fixed firmly on the lonesome lane. But, when the shadow of the mountain-ash grew long, and Betty caught her first glimpse of her mother, as she was coming toward home, the joy that would suddenly explode across that small, patient face, was brighter than the noon sun’s reflection on the river. Mother, though faint and weary as the poor woman was after her trek, would have embraced Betty lovingly even before she sat down. Furthermore, no matter how little she might have eaten that day, mother would always bring home a little white bread-bun for Betty. The child, who had eaten nothing since the morning, would eat it that bun so happily, and then quietly fall asleep in the warmth of her mother’s embrace.
The fever that was so common was a terrible thing and after several months had passed I caught the sickness myself, though it did not have as bad an effect on me as it had on Rory previously. Any way, he and my mother watched over me and brought me through the worst of it. They sold almost every stick of furniture that was left in the home, to buy me drink and medicine. But, thanks be to God, I gradually recovered. Then, on the first evening that I was able to sit up, I noticed an odd look in my mother’s eyes, and there came a hot flush on her thin cheeks. It was a sign that she had taken the fever and, before she lay down on her bed of straw, she brought little Betty over to me. “Take her, Kathy,” she said, giving the child a kiss between every word.
“Take her! For she is far safer with you than she would be with me. You’ve beaten the sickness, and sure it won’t last long. I’ll soon be with you, my wee darling,” she said, as she gave the little girl one long close hug and put her into my arms.
It would take far too long to tell you all about her sickness and how Richard and I, as was our good duty, attended to her both night and day. I would have to tell you how, when every farthing and farthing’s worth of food we had in the world was gone, the mistress herself came down from the big house. It was the day after the family had returned home from their holiday, and she brought us wine, food, medicine, linen, and everything we could possible need. It was shortly after that kind lady had gone that my mother appeared to take a change for the better. Her senses came back to her and she grew a little stronger, so that she could sit upright in the bed. “Bring the child to me, Kathy, my love,” she said. And when I carried little Mary over to her, she looked into the tiny face, as if she was reading it like a book.
“You won’t be long away from me, my wee angel,” she said, while her tears flowed softly down upon the child.
“Mother,” I said to her, as well as I could speak for crying, “sure you know I’ll do my best to look after her.”
“Sure, don’t I know you will, my darling girl. You were always a good and dutiful daughter to me and your poor father. But, Betty, she’s the type of wee girl that cannot thrive without a mother’s hand guiding her, and a mother’s shoulder to comfort her. And now …” That was all that was said, for she clasped the little child to her bosom, fell back on my arm, and in those few moments her life had ended. Rory and I just sat there and stared at her still body, not quite believing that this wonderful woman was dead. Adding to our grief was the long time that Betty kept hold of her stiffening fingers, and it was only when our neighbours arrived to prepare the body that we managed to persuade her to come away.
The days passed slowly by and Betty remained very quiet as went to the front door of the cabin to sit. As she had done in the past Betty would watch, hour after hour, along the road that mother used to take when coming home from market. On this occasion, however, she was waiting for something that would never happen again. When the sun began to set, her eyes would widen as she anticipated mother’s arrival. But, when the darkness fell, her beautiful blue eyes would drop in disappointment, and she would come into the house without saying a word and permit me to help her undress and put her to bed. What troubled us most, however, was the difficulty we had to get her to eat. In fact, the only thing she would allow into her mouth was a piece of a little white bun, like those her poor mother used to bring home for her. We left nothing untried to keep her happy. I would often carry her up to the big house in the belief that the change in environment might do her some good. The ladies of the house would play with her, talk to her, and would give her heaps of toys and cakes, pretty frocks and coats. But, Betty hardly noticed the fuss that was being made of her and would be restless until she got back to her own lonely door-step.
It appeared that every day the child grew paler and thinner, and her once bright eyes developed a sadness about them. Then, one evening she sat at the door a little later than usual. “Come in, darling,” I said to her. “Won’t you come in Betty?” But, the child did not move an inch. I went over to her and found her sitting quite still, with her little hands crossed on her lap, and her head drooping on her chest. Gently I touched her and felt she was cold. In my anguish I gave a loud scream, and Rory came running to me. As he reached the door he came to an abrupt stop and looked, and immediately he burst into tears, crying like a child. It clear to us both that our little sister was dead!
Well, my little Betty, the sorrow was bitter, but it was short. You are gone home to Him that will comfort you as a mother comforts a child. Our beautiful wee darling, your eyes were so blue, and your hair as golden a ripened corn, and your voice as sweet as the lark. Still, your cheeks are not pale, sweetheart, your little hands are not thin, and that sorrowful expression that had come over has now passed away from your forehead like a dark rain-cloud from the summer sky. The mother that loved you so much has now clasped you forever to her bosom, and the good Lord has wiped away all your tears, and He has placed you both with our dear father, where sorrow or fear of death cannot touch you.

Beggars

This is a tale of Famine Ireland in a time when a Viceroy of the British crown ruled in Dublin and the peasant Irish were dying because they could not afford to eat. They called it a famine but there was plenty of food under British control and they refused to release it to feed the millions that starved throughout Ireland. There were beggars in the towns trying to get enough to feed themselves and their children, but they were not wanted and great efforts were made to remove them. As far as the authorities were concerned it was better to have those starving people out of sight and out of mind.

In the towns the authorities used the offices of the ‘Poor-House’ and the police force to considerably reduce the presence of the Irish peasant beggars. But, in the countryside and remote mountain areas ‘the beggar’ had become and still remained an institution. The peasant beggars abhorred the very idea of the ‘Workhouse’ because of its slave conditions and lack of hygiene, brutal discipline, and backbreaking work. The British put such abhorrence by the peasantry as their inherent stubbornness. It was said they preferred any amount of suffering to confinement, enforced hygiene, and the discipline involved. But, what free man does not prefer the fresh air and freedom to choose, rather than the bars of a jail and being beaten into submission. The following gives a view of the Irish Catholic Peasantry of famine times as seen by those paid allegiance to the British Crown.

It is often reported in commentaries of the time that the Irish poor are indifferent to the basic comforts of life, preferring a more barbaric way of life. It was said that they love freedom, sleeping under a hedge or under the sky eating what and where they can. They were said to be like the dog that preferred freedom and getting the odd scrap of food, to the good feeding and luxurious living conditions of his tied-up friend.

A wretched old beggar woman, decrepit and barefoot, appeared on the front-door stepsbeggars 2 of a house that she was in the habit of visiting. Those who would give her money would try to convince her to enter the poorhouse for her own good, but however delicately they approached the subject the old woman would reject any suggestion of entering such a place.

“Now, Biddy, it is all very well to go about the place in summer, but in this bitter wintry weather, would you not be better to go where you would have a good bed and shelter, be warm, fed, and comfortably clothed. It can’t be good for you to be shivering with the cold in ragged clothes, and always hungry. Sure, why not try it only for a wee while, you know, until summer comes back? Go on, Biddy, why not try the poorhouse?”

“The poor house!” she cried out angrily. “Sure I’d rather die than go there! I’d rather lie down under the snow at the side of the road and die! But sure the neighbours will help me. There isn’t one that will refuse me a seat by their fireside, or a bed for the night, or maybe a bite and sup of an odd time. And you’re going to give me something yourself, my lady, darling, you are! Don’t I see it in your face? You’re going to bring out the dust of dry tea and the grain of sugar, and the couple of coppers to the poor old granny. Ah yes! And maybe the maids will have an old cast-off petticoat to throw to her, for to keep the life in her old carcase this perishing day.”

It must be said that before the famine of 1845, which brought about a change in the food of the Irish peasant, systematic begging was an annual custom. Potatoes were then the sole food of the peasant classes, and the farmers paid their labourers by allowances of potato-ground measuring a half or quarter acre, and with seed to till it. Money, therefore, was not very often circulated among the peasantry. There was usually and interval of some six weeks between the eating of the last of the old potatoes and the coming in of the new potatoes. This was known as “The Bitter Time” and there was always some privation and distress to be suffered. In such times entire families might leave their cabin, locking the door behind them, and be seen walking the country roads, while the father would go ‘harvesting’ or getting work where he could. As the family went along the roads, stopping at every cabin on their route, a few potatoes would be handed to them, depending upon the stock the donors held. Often, by nightfall, the bag carried on the mother’s back would have enough potatoes to provide a good meal for the family. By such means they continued to survive until the new potatoes were fit to dig. At that time the cabin-door would be unlocked, and plenty of food to eat was once again the order of the day.

In those days, as well as the present, the charity of the poor to the poor in Ireland is widespread and very touching. The people of our country are famed for their good-natured ways and kindly impulses. Moreover, they attach a superstitious, almost religious value to the blessing of the poor, with an equal dread of their curse. There is a story concerning a fatal instance of the latter feeling, which occurred many years ago near the city of Limerick.

A young man fell in love with a girl, but she did not return his affection, and plainly told him that it would be useless to persevere in his pursuit, because she could never care for him. He was broken-hearted by his failure and, fleeing the country, he went to America. The young man’s mother had lost her only son, her pride and joy, and her only support. Being a widow she was maddened with rage and despair at what had happened. The bereaved mother gathered her things and went straight from the ship to the young woman’s house. There she knelt down upon the threshold and, stretching her arms skyward, she called down Heaven’s vengeance on the young girl. With frantic movements she called down terrible curses upon the girl’s head.

By the broken heart of her son; by the widow’s hearth made desolate; by the days and nights of lonely misery before her, she cursed the girl! The young girl was totally appalled by the widow’s bitter words and was superstitiously convinced that her terrible curses would grievously affect her life. She never recovered from the terror and the shock to her nerves of this vindictive assault upon her. The young woman’s health went into a rapid decline, haunted by the old woman’s dreadful curses, and her death confirmed the popular belief in such things.

We can now return to our subject of beggars. Although the use of Indian-corn meal and griddle-bread as articles of food in place of the exclusive potato helped reduce annual begging migrations. The other factors brought into play were an increased wage and the payment of labour in cash instead of kind. The annual scene of beggars moving along the roads soon disappeared, but beggars were still to be found, especially in the tourist season when they would once again be as numerous as flies in summer, and equally troublesome.

Once there was a party of English clergymen visiting Killarney’s beautiful Lake District where they were pestered by beggars, as most travellers usually were. These reverend gentlemen had, for greater convenience, decided to wear less formal clothing, except for one who preferred to wear his clerical outfit, with all its adornments. But, his choice caused him to be mistaken by the local peasants as a Roman Catholic priest wherever he went. He was very startled in the town of Tralee, when a girl threw herself down on her knees before him in the muddy street to ask for his blessing. The abject obeisance of the people to their priests in those days was not a sight to which an English clergyman was accustomed. He did, however, soon become accustomed to the position and even used it for the benefit of the entire group. They were tormented on one occasion the crush and cries of a crowd of beggars who followed them, and the English clergyman stopped quite suddenly. Drawing a line across the road with his walking stick, the clergyman told the followers, “Pass that mark, and the curse of the priest will be upon you!” In an instant the entire crowd of beggars had fled.

On another occasion this same clergyman used what he had learned in the cause of humanity. The party were travelling by jaunting car and, as they travelled up a steep hill, the driver began flogging the horse unmercifully.

“My friend,” said the clergyman, addressing the driver, “Do you know what will happen to you, if you do that, when you go to the next world?”

“O no, your Reverence. And sure how could I know that? What is it now?” pulling off his hat and looking very frightened.

“You will be turned into a horse, and devils will be employed to flog you, just as you’re now flogging that poor beast of yours.”

“Ah, don’t, yer Reverence! Don’t say that now! For the love of God, sir, don’t! And I’ll promise on my two knees to give him the best of treatment from this onward, and never to lay the whip into him that way again.”

For those of you who have witnessed the beggars in towns, you will undoubtedly agree that their remarks are often very caustic. They also indulge in personalities in a way more witty than polite, when they are unsuccessful in their demands. A late but very well-known Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, was remarkable for having a peculiarly shaped and very ugly nose. On one occasion while resisting the pleas of a woman for “a ha’penny for the honour of the blessed Virgin,” she turned upon him. “May the Lord forgive you! And may He may preserve your eyesight, for truly you have a terrible bad nose for spectacles.”

Another spiteful old hag of a woman came at a well known member of the aristocracy for alms, after following him down the entire length of what is now O’Connell Street. The baronet had tender feet, which with several other infirmities caused him to walk not to gracefully. “You won’t give it, won’t you?’ the woman cried out in an angry whine. “Well then, God help the poor! And look now, if your heart was as soft as your feet, it wouldn’t be in vain we’d be asking for your charity this day.”

“That the ‘grace of God’ may never enter into your house but on parchment!” was the terse and bitter curse in which another old woman gave vent to her wrathful disappointment. She knew that all writs were written on parchment, and had probably learned the formula with which they commence from cruel experience, “Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen, &c.”

There is, of course, the story of Captain Chevely and his meeting with beggars in Mullingar. When he was about to be quartered with his troop of men in the town, he was told by a friend that the place was infested with beggars. He was also told that his predecessor, the commanding of the previous troop, had been greatly annoyed by them. Chevely listened attentively and resolved to take measures to deal with the problem. On the night of his arrival at the hotel he summoned the waiter and said, “I am reliably informed that you have a great many beggars in this town.”

“Yes sir! We certainly have,” replied the waiter.

“I wish to see them all of them, collected together under the windows of this hotel. Do you think that could be managed?”

“Yes, if you wish, sir,” said the man, with the usual waiter-like readiness to promise everything under the sun, albeit he was a little taken aback by so unusual a request.

“Very well, let them be all here to-morrow at twelve o’clock precisely.”

It was a motley assembly of rags and wretchedness that was presented beneath the hotel windows the next day. The news had spread like wild-fire, and from every lane and alley of the town they came crowding in. There was the blind, the lame, the maimed, the aged beggars, deformed, idiots, and the idle in all their varieties. Curiosity and greed were equally on their minds, and the excitement of the eager crowd may be imagined. Then, when the captain appeared on the hotel balcony, a breathless silence came over the crowd.

“Are you all here?” he asked, “every one?”

“Every mother’s son of us, if it pleases your honour, except for Blind Bess with her crippled son, and the General.”

“Then call Blind Bess and the General,” instructed the captain. “I want you all here.”

“Sure enough, here’s Bess,” cried a voice, as a large fat beggar in the shape of a blind woman, with a sturdy cripple strapped on her shoulders, came in a hurry.

“And here’s the ‘General’ driving like a mad man up the street. But sure your honour won’t give him anything—a gentleman that keeps his carriage!” shouted a joker in the crowd. Coming along the street was a dilapidated old hand-cart, being dragged by a girl. It was covered at top with a piece of tattered oil-cloth, and from a hole cut in the middle of this protruded the head of ‘the General’, on which sat what remained of an old cocked-hat. The shrivelled face of the old cripple was half covered with a grizzly beard, and his rheumy eyes peered helplessly about in a feeble stare.

“Now,” said the captain, “ladies and gentlemen”. At this there was a murmur in the crowd, especially among the females.

“Ah then, bless his darling face, it is him that has the civil tongue in him, and knows how to speak to the poor!”

There’s not a bit of pride in him. No more than in an unborn baby!

“Sure anyone would know he was good man, you just have to look at him! Isn’t it written upon his features?”

“He’s no old misery like the one that was here before him, that old bastard never gave a poor man as much as a dog would keep in his fist.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are, I am told, all assembled here. I have requested your attendance in order to state that I have given, for your benefit, one pound to the parson, and one pound to the priest of the parish. And I further inform you that during my stay in Mullingar, not a single farthing beyond these sums will I bestow on any one of you!”

A howl of disappointment arose from the assembly, but the captain did not wait to note the effect of his words. He disappeared into his room in time to be out of reach of the chorus of abuse, which his enraged audience hurled at him after they got over their first surprise over—his speech.

The Discontented Stones

This is an old tale that relates to the famine days in Ireland, when ideas of liberty and justice were refreshed among the ordinary people. But, this story is also a warning about what liberty means to some people, and how it affects the lives of others.

This was a time when paid work for any man was a bonus. So it was that, with some gratitude, a stone-mason was busily employed in the building of a stout wall to protect a garden. At the side of the mason there was a heap of stones that had been piled up. One by one he picked up each stone in succession, examined it, and then decided the best place in which to set it. The stones, for their part, quietly accepted what was their lot in this world, allowing themselves to be handled by the mason and to be introduced into those places that he thought was most appropriate. There was no need for the stones to be difficult, for they were fully aware that the mason’s object was simply to erect a strong wall. They were also very much aware of the fact that this wall would not be built if they decided to oppose the mason’s efforts.

Isn’t it ‘Murphy’s Law’ that states – “If something can go wrong at the most inopportune moment, then it will.” To the amusement of this stone-mason, after he had completed a considerable portion of the wall, one particularly cantankerous rock became very argumentative the moment the mason laid a hand upon it. The rock began to vehemently argue about the rights of stones, and the terrible tyranny of mankind in forcing stones to do their will. He told the mason, in no uncertain terms, that whether placed in the wall or out of it he was determined to enjoy the liberty he believed was the right of every stone upon this earth. This stone also swore that he would sooner be broken down into dust than surrender its liberty.

“Let me speak plain and honestly to you, Master Mason,” said the stone. “I will never allow myself to be restrained by anyone. I must have room to do what I want to do. To be able to look about me and decide for myself where I want to go, and to be able to roll freely as I think proper.”

Totally taken aback by this outburst, the mason could not help but laugh aloud. “By the good God,” says he, “haven’t I found an odd, mouthy specimen of the ‘Rock People’? And it tells me that it wants to have enough room to roll freely about, is that the way of it?”

“Aye, that’s the way of it,” says the rock.

“Tell me, Mr. Stone, did you ever hear of the old saying that, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss?’”

“I did of course,” sneered the stone, “and I don’t like it one little bit! Moss you see is a sign of old age, and in my world old age is an absurdity. So, I tell you, I hope to God that I will be kept from ever gathering any moss!”

“What?” the mason gasped with complete surprise and disbelief. Then, contemptuously he asked, “Just what the hell do you think you are?”

“What am I!” the rock angrily replied. “I, sir, am just a plain and simple stone, nothing more and nothing less.”

“Well, now that we have that sorted can I ask if you are happy that I should give you a place in this wall I am building?”

“Well, of course I am,” confirmed the stone.

“Hold on!” said the mason, “You have just told me that you will never allow yourself to be forcibly restrained by anyone or anything. You said that you must have room to do whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted to! Your inconsistency is really most ridiculous, and you should really make up your mind as to exactly what you want. So, for the last time, will you go into the wall where I place you, or shall I simply leave you lying there on the ground?”

“Inconsistent? What inconsistency? I have already told you that I will allow you to place me into the wall,” replied the Stone, patronisingly, “but I will not allow you to ever deprive me of my natural rights! Liberty is the first of these rights, and I must insist that I have liberty, even in the wall.”

 “And so you shall!” said the mason. “Your liberty will be that of obtaining your proper place in the wall, and of maintaining that place without being disturbed by anyone or anything.”

“You certainly have some funny ideas about liberty. I will tell you again, you gobshite, that I need to have room in which I can expand and move about in. What, in the name of God, makes you even think that I would lower myself to fill a place in the wall as just another mere wedge?”

“You are now beginning to stretch my patience, friend,” the mason warned. “You know, of course, that there is very little to be gained by continuing to argue the matter any further. If there is no hope of getting you to take up a particular place in the wall, then there is nothing left to me but to throw you back on the ground.”

 “If that’s the way you feel about it, then go ahead and do your worst,” replied the Stone, stubbornly. “But I must still insist on liberty before all things! So, just throw me away, but at a respectable distance from these other stones. In this way I might just feel myself to be free and independent. When all is said and done I have exactly the same right to be a free-stone, as much as you have to be a free-mason.”

“That’s it then, there you go!” said the mason as he raised his hand and threw the stone away from himself with all of his might. It landed with a loud clatter in the middle of narrow road that passed nearby.

stone-walls-ireland 2The Stone was now in a place where could fully enjoy every minute of the liberty he had longed for. This, he counted as a victory and he congratulated himself on winning through stubborn defiance. For a time everything went well for the stone in his new found liberty. It was the summer time and the weather was mild, the skies were bright, and the road was busy with various people making their way from one place to another.  As the vehicles and people passed over the stone it was being continually transferred from one place to another, daily opening it up to more and more of the world’s ways. But, unfortunately, all good things come to an end eventually and the summer could not last forever. The autumn came, bringing with it clouds of dust and great showers of golden yellow leaves. When the gusts of wind had subsided they were followed by heavy torrents of rain, covering the narrow the road in a mire of mud, which also covered the entire stone and made it almost indiscernible from the land on which it rested. In this condition it lay there, fallen from the heights it had once considered itself to have reached, completely unrecognisable to the passing eye and treated in the same manner that the vilest of rubbish would be.

Unfortunately for the stone this was not the worst that it was to endure. Over the following few weeks the rains continued to fall quite regularly and the ground became a virtual sea of mud. The earth beneath the stone softened and the stone, under its own weight, sank slowly deeper in the mire until less than a quarter of its surface remained above ground. To add to the stone’s misfortunes there was no longer any possibility of retracing its steps, because the mason had now completed his wall and had moved on to other profitable work elsewhere. There was nothing left for the stone but to sink deeper and deeper into the earth, until none of its surface remained visible.

The stone’s fate was sealed. The ideals of Liberty and Independence had been very much desired by the stone, and he was determined that he would achieve these things in his life. But< In The manner in which he tried to achieve these ideals, the stone learned a very valuable life lesson. He had seen that those who seek such ideals at the expense of the social order do absolutely nothing but make a senseless and irremediable blunder.

In the spring of the following year the mason was once again gainfully employed in building another wall, which he hoped would be completed without the interruption he had suffered the previous year. He was, however, to become greatly disenchanted very quickly when, just like the year before, one of the stones began to grumble, and loudly protest against the treatment to which it was about to be subjected. The stone-mason, recalling the hassle he had endured on the previous occasion was just on the point of throwing the stone away, but hesitated. He had second thoughts about casting the stone away without at least trying to reason with it.

“Since no two stones are alike,” he said loudly, “it may be just that I met a stone that stood up against my arguments. It does not mean that another stone might to be prove to be less intractable after I have talked to it.”

“It was spoken truly! You are definitely a gobshite!” shouted the stone angrily. “You think that no two stones are alike! And this ignorance on your part is definitely your biggest and most foolish mistake. I can tell you here and now, eejit, that there is no difference between one stone and another. I am just as good as any of those stones in the wall, and I demand my rights.”

“Aren’t you the one with the big mouth?” exclaimed the mason, “But, I admit you are a sturdy lump of rock! Would you like to briefly inform me as to what you consider your rights to be? Don’t take all day about it, but simply tell me how you would like me to dispose of you.”

“I want to be a corner-stone,” the rebel stone demanded, “and I will be nothing other than a corner-stone. It is my destiny and I demand that this be done. Be quick now, mason, and place me in the wall as a corner-stone!”

“That I cannot do for you, my friend,” replied the mason. “Can you not see quite clearly that I have already chosen and placed all the corner-stones in their proper places?”

“Do you think that I’m blind?” asked the stone impatiently. “I can see well enough what has been done, but a man of your talents can easily take one of them out of the corner and put in its place. I have just as much of a right to be there as any of those stones, after all we are all equal. Each of us originated from a common quarry and, therefore, we are all alike. Just take one of them out, now, and put me in its place.”

“Now, can you not see just how grossly inconsistent you are?” The mason asked. “One moment you insist that all stones are equal, and have the same rights as each other. And yet you insist that I just rudely remove one of the corner-stones, just for your pleasure, despite your own acknowledgement that you are no better than they are! Christ, stone, I have to say that you have a very peculiarly odd idea of what equality actually entails. There is absolutely no way that I can continue to stand here and question what actually constitutes equality, because my time, unlike yours, is precious. I ask you, therefore, to decide if you want to be placed in this wall or not.”

“Of course, I want to be part of the wall,” said the stone, “but only as a corner stone. How can you be so blind as not to see that each of us stones is alike, and all, therefore, equal?”

“You are all stones alike,” replied the mason, “and are equal, but only in a certain sense. Your equality with each other exists in the fact that you are all equally able to be used as wall-stones, and not all of you being equally qualified to be used as corner-stones.”

The stone now cried out aloud, “To the devil with your ideas and doctrines! Either you make me a corner-stone, or you can build your wall without me.”

“Is that your final decision?” asked the mason. “Let me warn you not to try and make an eejit out of me, for I have not the patience or the time for such nonsense. This wall needs built and I cannot wait on your decision any longer.”

“I have decided! That’s it!” said the Stone. “Let me tell you that I would prefer to see your wall toppled and crushed into dust, along with everything else, before I would give up any of my principles in life. So, mason, just do whatever pleases you.”

“You are just one crazy, mixed-up, rock,” exclaimed the mason, “You are a complete gobshite, stone, so go and enjoy your ideas on equality where no one is likely to dispute it!” Saying this, he raised his hand and threw the stone as far away as he could from him. The stone-mason had thrown the stone with such force that, after it had travelled through the air, the stone fell down to the ground and sank several feet into the soft bottom of a deep and slimy pool.

To all intents and purposes this terminated the existence of that rebellious stone, for whatever became of it in that pool is impossible to know. It is almost two hundred years since the events in this tale took place and, since it became a total unknown because of its attitude, it is highly probable that is has eroded away. If this has not been the case, the stone has at least been eaten away by its foolishness in confronting the mason. We could conclude also that its predecessor from the year before suffered a similar fate. In this way, when seeking equality and liberty, it is important to know exactly what these two terms mean and how best you can achieve them. Knowing your role and keeping true to its ideals will encourage others to join with you in the cause. Being too demanding and having no support for your ideas may cause you to be cast out and perish in total anonymity. Equality and freedom is every person’s ideal, but you cannot hope to achieve it if demands and recklessness cause you to die in the course of achieving them.

An Gorta Mor -The Great Famine I

A Little bit of history to go along with the stories

Introduction

The “Great Famine”, or “The Great Hunger”, refers to a period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration that swept over Ireland between the years 1845 and 1849. Outside of Ireland, however, it is usually referred to as “The Irish Potato Famine” because over half the population on that island at that time were completely reliant upon this cheap crop for food, due to a number of historical and political reaons. It is believed by many that about one million people died in this period, while over a million more people emigrated to other lands. As a result, during 1845 – 1849 the population of Ireland suffered a 20% – 25% reduction in its numbers.

Irish Famine 2Undoubtedly the cause of the famine was potato blight, which was a fungus-like organism called ‘Phytophthora infestans’. This aggressive form of blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. In Ireland it first appeared in 1845 and in that year ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, followed by three-quarters of the crop over each the subsequent seven years. The blight’s disproportionate impact on the Irish population is due mainly to the fact that one-third of that population was dependant on the potato crop for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic reasons. These reasons included land acquisition, absentee landlords, and the Corn Laws, all of which contributed to this natural disaster in varying degrees. Sadly, all of these things remain the subject of intense historical debate.

To give us a better insight into conditions existing within Ireland at this time we should look at how Ireland progressed after the ratification of the ‘Acts of Union’ in 1801. The main result of this ratification was that, henceforth, Ireland was governed as a colony of Great Britain until Independence was finally gained in the early part of the Twentieth Century. From 1801 onward the combined nations were known to the rest of the world as the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Under this new political reality the British government appointed Ireland’s executive heads of state, giving them the title of the ‘Lord Lieutenant’ and the ‘Chief Secretary of Ireland.’ The people of Ireland could, nonetheless, elect representation to the parliament in London, made up of 105 representatives to the lower house, or ‘House of Commons’. These were accompanied by 28 titled landowners, who took their seats in the upper house, or ‘House of Lords.

It must be remembered, however, that the bulk of these ‘elected’ representatives were landowners of British origin and/or their sons, which left the majority of the Irish population unrepresented. The vast majority of Ireland’s native population were practising Catholics, who were foridden from owning or leasing land, voting or holding elected office under what was known as “The Penal Laws.” These were a series of laws that were imposed to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters (e.g. Presbyterians) to accept the Anglican Church, which was the reformed denomination defined by the English state and practised by members of the Irish state established Church of Ireland. These discriminatory laws were not finally repealed until the passing of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Government of Ireland Act (1920).They had included –

  • The exclusion of Catholics from most public offices (enacted in 1607 and did not include Presbyterians until 1707.

  • Ban on Catholic/Protestant intermarriage (Repealed 1778)

  • Presbyterian marriages not legally recognised by the state.

  • Catholics forbidden from holding firearms, or serving in the armed forces (the latter rescinded by the ‘Militia Act’ 91793))

  • Catholics barred from membership of the Irish Parliament, or English Parliament (enacted 1652; rescinded 1662-91; renewed 1691-1829).

  • ‘Disenfranchising Act’ (1728) – excluding Catholics from voting until 1793.

  • Catholic Exclusion from the legal professions and the judiciary. (respectively repealed 1793 and 1829.

  • ‘Education Act’ (1695) – ban on foreign education (repealed 1782)

  • Catholics and Protestant Dssenters barred from entering ‘Trinity College Dublin’ (repealed 1793)

  • On a death by a Catholic, his legatee could benefit by conversion to the Church of Ireland.

  • ‘Popery Act’ – Catholic inheritances of land were to be equally subdivided between all an owner’s sons, with the exception that if the eldest son and heir converted to Protestantism then he would become the one and only tenant of estate, and portions for the other children were not to exceed one-third of the esstate. This ‘Gavelkind’ system had previously been abolished by 1600.

  • Conversion from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism was banned on pain of ‘Praemunire’ – forfeiting all property estates and legacy to the reigning monarch, and imprisonment at the monarch’s pleasure. Such converts would forfeit the monarch’s protection, and no injury, no matter how bad, could have any action brought against it nor any reparation demanded for it.

  • Catholics banned from buying land under a lease exceeding 31 years. (repealed 1778)

  • Catholics banned from having custody of orphans on pain of £500 being donated to ‘The Blue Coat Hospital’ in Dublin.

  • Catholics could not inherit Protestant land.

  • Catholics forbidden from owning a horse valued at over £5.

  • Roman Catholic lay priests had to register to preach under ‘The Registration Act’ (1704), but seminary priests and Bishops were not able to do so until 1778.

  • When permitted, new Catholic churches were to be built of wood only and sited away from main roads.

  • No Catholic was to publicly or privately teach school, or instruct young people, or be fined £20 and three months imprisonment for every such offence. (repealed 1782).

Although the ‘Penal Laws’ were, for the most part, repealed by 1829,Irish Famine 1 their effects on Irish society and its governance was still being felt in 1845 and the onset of the ‘Potato Famine’. The vast majority of the land, at this time, was owned by English and Anglo-Irish families. The majority, Catholic, population were reduced to working this land as tenant farmers who were forced to pay rent to the landowners, while having no rights over their home or leased land.

The ‘Potato Famine’ was a watershed in Ireland’s history, because its effects would permanently change this island’s demographic, political, and cultural landscape.For the native Irish who stayed and those who left in the resulting diaspora, the famine became a rallying call for ‘Irish Nationalism’ and those movements seeking independence from the British Crown. Relations between many Irish people and the Crown were already strained by the onset of the famine, but these realtions were to be soured even further. Both ethnic and sectarian tensions were heightened, and helped boost the ideals of nationalism and republicanism in Ireland and among the Irish who emigrated to the United States and elsewhere.