The Stories of Seamus No. 5

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 steps 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.

Sex and the Famine

Recently, I was reading through several books on the ‘Great Famine in Ireland’, or ‘Genocide for those who prefer to think of it that way.  I read about Mayo, Sligo, Galway and West Cork where the men women and children died in their thousands during the ‘Great Famine’ in towns like Skibbereen and Ballinrobe. But, among this list should be numbered a coastal town in County Clare that is located in the south-west of the county, near the mouth of the River Shannon. This is Kilrush and there were few places, except for those named above, that suffered more severely from a combination of eviction and famine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Reading an article by Paul Gray and Liam Kennedy, both lecturers in history at Queen’s University, Belfast, which was published in a recent edition of “History Ireland”, heightened my interest in all areas of life affected by the Famine. They pointed out that Kilrush was renowned for something that I had never thought of before.  The area became noteworthy for the apparent surge in illegitimate births that occurred over the twenty years after the ‘Great Famine’. According to reports, by 1864 these illegitimate births accounted for at least ten per cent of all births that were recorded in the baptism register for the Catholic parish of Kilrush.  Both Gray and Kennedy point out that this was a remarkably high proportion for mid-Victorian Ireland, especially when one considers that prior to the ‘Famine’ the ratio was barely one percent in most years. Their conclusion was that the spectacular and sustained rise in recorded illegitimate births might suggest that there was a radical change in sexual mores in this County Clare town and its surrounding area. The surprise in these statistics lies in the fact that this occurred in the west of Ireland, which is generally considered to be the one region of Ireland were morals were high and, therefore, there were very few illegitimate births.

The article’s authors questioned the possibility that the ‘Famine’ and the associated evictions were likely causes for the surprising rise in illegitimate births. They suggested that it was possible, that in all the tragedy and suffering experienced by the people of Kilrush and its environs during those years of ‘Famine’, that sexual morals may have been forced to disappear by circumstances. With starvation rampant, surely it is not too far-fetched to imagine that some women felt it necessary to barter their bodies for food, a roof over their head, or money to help their suffering.  It is an unfortunate fact of life that food shortages in a male dominated society can also open numerable opportunities for the sexual exploitation of women by unscrupulous men. In many cases there were many who became pregnant and were comfortable to declare that their husbands had abandoned them to sail for America, or other destinations. In more normal times, the alleged father would have most certainly been dragged to the altar and obliged to honour his responsibilities. These days, however, were far from being normal times. The collapse of the Irish peasantry’s potato-led economy, the decimation of family, the breakdown of communal support, and the beginnings of mass emigration made abandonment of responsibilities a strategic alternative for the restless and rash-minded males. For these women, in such desperate times, the ability to bring social pressures to bear on such men was not easily accomplished. The vulnerable and too trusting women, especially if the family and community support network had been lost because of death or emigration, were left to bring up the child alone in conditions that were not good for continued survival.

From the records it appears that illegitimacy in Kilrush rose considerably during the ‘Famine’, as well as during its immediate aftermath. The effects of the ‘Famine’, however, were only short-term rather than long-term in nature, which suggests other possible causes for the rise in illegitimate births in this area. One possible answer could be the fact that Kilrush is a port town, which are often associated with prostitution and illegitimacy. Furthermore, with the rise of coastal holidays during the Victorian era, the town became the gateway to the growing holiday resorts of west Clare, such as Kilkee on the Atlantic coastline. The authors of the article, Gray and Kennedy, quote a visitor to Kilkee complaining that the resort was “infested by a number of unfortunate women, who disturb the inhabitants and visitors at night”. This must have been a most enjoyable attraction to some of the visitors to the town because, despite a public condemnation from the pulpit of the Catholic Church, the infestation continued unabated. It is reported that two of these unfortunate ladies from Kilrush, were assaulted by the local priest as they plied their trade. The priest, however, was arrested and was subsequently fined one shilling and costs for his pains. There are also suggestions that the sex trade in this area was being supplemented seasonally, to coincide with the tourist trade, by prostitutes from Limerick city.

The increase in the incidence of illegitimacy suggests that this can only be a small part of the story as to why it occurred. There is, of course, the speculation that Kilrush, and the area surrounding the town, had within it a “bastardy-prone sub-society”. Research suggests, however, that of the 211 mothers recorded as giving birth to children outside wedlock in the quarter-century after the ‘Famine’, only eighteen per cent were bearers of more than one illegitimate child. The article gave the example of a woman called, Mary Giffin, had illegitimate children baptised in August 1858, August 1861, September 1863 and September 1868. A certain Margaret Byrnes is also mentioned, whose illegitimate children were baptised in June 1859, March 1861, August 1863 and May 1865. These examples, however, were more the exception than the rule and most single mothers did not repeat the experience of bearing a child out of wedlock.

The explanation put forward by Mr Gray and Mr Kennedy is much simpler than any of the preceding suggestions. Taking a more detailed examination of the Catholic baptismal register for Kilrush parish revealed that approximately sixty per cent of births for the period 1850–75 were to women from the workhouse. But, the Kilrush workhouse served the entire union and not just the parish of Kilrush. When these workhouse births were excluded from the statistics, then the numbers that could be attributable to Kilrush were reduced to the more normal levels expected in a town situated in the west of Ireland. From these results, then, the inflated levels of illicit sexuality in Kilrush after the ‘Famine’ appear to be due to a quirk of registration rather than from any radical shift in the sexual behaviour of Clare men and Clare women. But, the result raises wider questions about the validity of parish register information on illegitimacy.  This is true, not just for Ireland but for all those societies where the institutionalised provision of welfare might affect the recording of illegitimate births.

What kind of life did these unmarried mothers, who increasingly used the workhouse, live? The answer is not clear to us since the indoor relief registers for Kilrush, which would give some detail of the individual lives of unmarried mothers, have not survived. The indoor relief registers for the Rathdrum and Shillelagh Poor Law unions have somehow survived, and they provide a touching image of unmarried mothers and their children. While some of these women appear to have merited only a few lines, there were others who were more regular visitors. Mary Donnelly, was a 22-year-old servant from Arklow, who was admitted to Rathdrum workhouse on 16 August 1850. She was heavily pregnant when admitted and she gave birth to Thomas on 6 September, leaving the institution with the child ten days later and does not appear to have returned to the workhouse.  A certain Ellen Power entered Rathdrum workhouse on 18 February 1851, as a homeless 24-year-old charwoman. Her daughter was born on 27 March 1851 and taken from the workhouse without her mother on 8 August 1851.  Ellen subsequently left the workhouse on the 14th of that month. Another young woman called Eliza Ashton, a 22-year-old servant, arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850, and left again a week later. Then, on 6 October, Eliza was admitted into the workhouse as a patient and less than a week later Thomas was born. Both mother and child left on 26 October, Eliza does not appear to have returned to the workhouse again.

While some unmarried mothers left little trace in the workhouse record, there were others who made many appearances in those records. A woman called Eliza Geoghan, a 25-year-old garden worker, used the Rathdrum workhouse 23 times between 27 August 1850 and 2 June 1862. During that time her son John was born on 21 December 1850, with mother and child subsequently leaving the institution on 24 February 1851. Both entered the workhouse again, however, with John being removed on 24 June, a month before his mother left. While nothing more of John is recorded, Eliza returned to the workhouse, pregnant again, on 19 February 1854, and Dennis was born just over a week later. Both mother and child left the workhouse on 23 June 1854, but they were to enter the institution three more times between June 1854 and April 1856. Unfortunately, during their last visit, beginning on 23 September 1855, Dennis was to die on 9 April the following year. Eliza appears to have left only 9 days later, on 18 April 1856 but returned many times, spending the winters of 1856 and 1857 there, though she gave birth to no more children in the workhouse. It appears that most of the time she lived within the electoral division of Dunganstown East, only changing her residence to another townland twice. On her last two visits to the workhouse, however, she was most probably homeless and suffering increased destitution. She was mostly described as a ‘servant’, but also a ‘garden worker’ and, on what was her penultimate visit, she was said to be ‘infirm’ and apparently unemployed.

Yet another example of the multiple user was that of Jane Allen, who was to use Rathdrum workhouse on 34 occasions between 17 September 1850 and 13 March 1863. She was a twenty-six years old servant, who first arrived in Rathdrum workhouse on 17 September 1850 and gave birth to her son, John, on 19 October. John was subsequently taken away on 6 June 1851 and Jane left four days later. While nothing more is known about John, we do know Jane was to have three more children: Eliza (30 July 1852), born in the workhouse, Ellen (1856), born outside the workhouse, and James (8 September 1861), born in the house. During these years Jane is known to have stayed in Dunganstown South or Dunganstown West electoral divisions, though she did occasionally change townlands. It is also known that sometimes she and her children would stay for several months. On other occasions they would  stay only a matter of days. Although during her earlier stays in the workhouse Jane was referred to as a servant, for most of the times that stayed in the workhouse she was described as a ‘charwoman’. More interestingly, it seems that her marital status changed during the period, for example she was registered as being single for the period up to February 1861, then she is described as ‘married’ during her stay in February/March 1861, but on her next admittance, in August 1861, she is described as ‘single’ once again. Her children were admitted as ‘deserted’ in March 1861, leaving in June 1861, but the family was reunited in August 1861. They were to enter the workhouse five more times after this and, on each occasion, Jane is described as married. Her marital status can be said to be confusing during these years and one must wonder if she was not in fact a deserted wife, or perhaps intermittently so.

Stories such as these help to give us a much clearer picture of the perilous existence that faced an unmarried mother at this time. To some the workhouse was viewed as a resource in the constant battle against poverty, especially among the peasantry, including unmarried or abandoned mothers. We can, therefore, say that to some extent the unmarried mother did have some support, but in mid- and late Victorian Ireland this support system was of an extremely restricted kind. Throughout rural Ireland the life that faced unmarried mothers was one of desperation.  They faced religious, family and community hostility, as well as an unsympathetic and sometimes punitive system of welfare provision. Those who were known as ‘bastard-bearers’ were generally ground down between the actions of society and the state although, to some extent, their Unfortunatelysituation may have varied within the urban and industrialised Province of Ulster

Little is known of the fate of the illegitimate children born during this period. But, Gray and Kennedy give us the case of Eliza Pearson, who was aged four-years when she was discovered at the door of ‘Shillelagh’ workhouse and was deserted by her mother, Anne.  Eliza was taken into the workhouse on 19 June 1850 and left on 10 April 1856. Another child, Thomas Dwier, who was aged five and described as a ‘bastard’, was admitted on 29 February 1852. His mother had been transported and had left him ‘destitute without food’ and, in fact, is one of the very few instances where a male illegitimate child is mentioned in the records available. There is, however, no record of his departure from the workhouse. Finally, Bridget Nugent was nine when she was deserted by her father and as a deserted bastard, she had no friends or home. She was, therefore, admitted on 10 January 1851 and did not leave the workhouse until the 28 July 1855.  

It has surely not gone unnoticed that unmarried and pregnant women suffered stigmatisation and degradation under both the workhouse system and in the larger society, men appear to have largely escaped notice or sanction. The Thurles union replied to a circular from the ‘Poor Law Commissioners’, concerning moral classification, by condemning the unfairness in gender terms of a system that singled out female morality in the workhouse. At the same time the Thurles Union pointed out that no classification in this respect has been made at the male side. It is a fact that there are few clues as to the unmarried mothers in Kilrush, whose names are contained in the parish records. It must be said that even less is known about those shadowy but potent figures of males who had set women on a downward course to vilification, destitution and disgrace.

It is an irony of the history of the Irish workhouses that they could have become places for ‘immoral behaviour’, despite the rules and regimentation that governed these grim institutions. In the minutes of the Kilrush union for 1853 it is revealed that the master and the matron of the workhouse had been accused of immorality. The accused persons were, however, later acquitted. According to the rules and regulations of the Poor Law system, women and men were to be strictly segregated within the penal institution of the workhouse. But in 1853 the master reported, no doubt with some concern – ‘I beg to report to the board that Mr Nolan the resident apothecary informed me on Sunday last that a pauper woman named Kate Quinn who has been in this house for a long time was pregnant. On enquiry it would appear that a pauper man named John Griffin who is also in the house for a long period is the father. Kate Quinn left the workhouse on the 15th inst. Griffin also took his discharge on the 17th inst.’

As expected ‘The Poor Law’ guardians were not amused – ‘It is much to be regretted that such an evil should have occurred, and the guardians conceive that there must be much neglect on the part of the officers in charge’.

The workhouse system itself was the subject of much criticism, and it certainly bore down heavily on its inmates, both in terms of physical hardship and stigmatisation. But, we must also recognise that it also furnished a safety net for the single mother in her battle for survival in an increasingly hostile moral climate of later Victorian Ireland. There appears to be a tradition within Ireland of labour exploitation and repression, and sometimes outright cruelty, in various societies like the workhouses and the later Magdalene asylums, that were run by Irish Catholic nuns. In pre-independence, or post-independence, Ireland it is evident that society would ensure that there was no easy way out of the trap of unmarried motherhood.

N.B. If you should wish to read more of the work of P. Gray and L. Kennedy the following books are available –

‘Famine, illegitimacy and the workhouse in Western Ireland’, in A. Levene and P. Nutt (eds), Illegitimacy in Britain (London, 2005).

Also L. Kennedy’s study,

‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: Ireland, 1845–1850’, Continuity and Change 14 (3) (1999).

The Famine Potato

Almost every article and book about the Great Irish Famine reminds us how poor the Irish peasantry was in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and yet they were fit and well enough to undertake the most arduous of labouring tasks. Historians have suggested that it was the reliance of the Irish peasantry on the potato that was the main reason behind their sturdy health, because the potato was filled with both calories and proteins. Under modern nutritional analysis the potato has maintained its place as a health supporting vegetable, although they are usually eaten with other foods and vegetables. Some accounts of famine times suggest that the potato was the sole item that the Peasantry ate. Other accounts suggest that the potato was occasionally accompanied by a bit of fish or mixed with milk. Whatever was the case, the potato was the only cheap food that was capable of sustaining life when it was the only item on the diet. Therefore, if we wish to assess the calorie intake of the average Irish peasant prior to the Famine, we must first know the acreage planted with potatoes and the average yield per acre. But, to complete the calculation we must know the quality of the variety planted.

These days there are so many more varieties of potato in existence than was the case in pre-famine Ireland. During the first decade of the nineteenth century there are accounts recorded that state Irish potatoes – “are pleasant, mealy, and nourishing when compared to the ‘watery and ill-flavoured’ varieties that were prevalent in England. Potato quality declined in Ireland thereafter, however, and on the eve of the Famine the very poor were often forced to rely almost exclusively on inferior varieties, notably the ‘Lumper’.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ is a varietal white potato, which has been identified by historians as the variety of potato whose widespread cultivation throughout Ireland, prior to the 1840s, is most closely linked to ‘An Gorta Mor’. It has earned its poor reputation from the Great Irish Famine in which an estimated 1 million died of starvation and disease. This reputation was due to the lack of ability to withstand blight and tells us nothing about the quality of the variety, which was unknown until revived in recent years.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was well known for its ability to flourish on raised beds in the garden that are poor in nutrients, wet underfoot, or both. By 1832 the ‘Lumper’ had flourished to become the prevalent variety of potato grown in Ireland, causing an anti-tithes campaigner to complain bitterly – “our only food being lumpers and what the ministers would not eat’. A little later another commentator reported, from a visit to Waterford, that – ‘when men or women are employed, at six-pence a day and their board, to dig Minions or Apple-potatoes, they are not suffered to taste them, but are sent to another field to dig Lumpers to eat’. Although recognised by agricultural experts as a very old variety potato, some had no hesitation in recommending it as stock feed because of its enormous yield per acre. Landlords, because the ‘Lumper’ was recommended for feeding their animals thought it was suitable as food for the poverty-stricken peasants on their lands. It was this in mind that the potato variety was grown to adapt to the climactic conditions of Ireland, particularly the western region.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was described as being – “wet, nasty, knobbly old potato.” Its texture upon boiling was said to be more “waxy” than “floury”, which indicates that they possess a starch content that is lower than that typical for white potatoes. The starch content in any crop of potatoes is quite variable and climate, pests, soil and agricultural practices all play a role. The impoverished peasantry would have much preferred to eat the more premium varieties of potatoes, but their lack of money to purchase those varieties ensured that they would have to depend on the tasteless, watery and ungainly ‘Lumper’.

The ‘Irish Lumper’ was hailed by many for its nutritional value when it was first introduced into Ireland in the early 19th century. As a result, it quickly became popular among impoverished tenants in Munster and Connacht because of the ease with which it flourished in the poorest of soil. However, we should know how the ‘Lumper’ compared with the premium varieties of the time, and even how it would compare to the modern varieties. When compared with contemporary varieties, the ‘Lumper’s’ weight-loss from cooking was reported, in 1840, to be two ounces in every sixteen, which was much greater. From this we can estimate a labourer’s daily intake of potatoes before the Famine, said to be between 10 and 14 lbs, was reduced by the time it was eaten. In tests held by ‘The Royal Dublin Society’ in the 1830s the actual weight, or specific gravity, of the prevalent potato varieties found that the ‘Lumper’ was the lowest at 1.084. It is accepted that the higher the specific gravity the ‘better’ the potato, since potatoes with a specific gravity of one would float in water. A standard conversion produces dry matter estimates of 28 and 24 per cent for the premium variety of potatoes, and only 21 per cent for the ‘Lumper’. On average, starch content makes up about 80 per cent of the dry matter content, and from these statistics the ‘Lumper’s’ lowly status is evident.

It appears that the ‘Lumper’ was first introduced into Ireland from Scotland in the end of the eighteenth century. Before that time there were dozens of potato varieties cultivated, so many in fact that it was claimed that each county had its own favourite variety. But, because of its higher yields, the ‘Lumper’ spread rapidly. Its adaptability to poor soils, and its reliability were the main attractions to growers. By the 1840s, the variety had made big inroads in the country and the common belief that the Irish peasantry relied almost exclusively on potatoes at this time suggests the ‘Lumper’ was the variety involved.    

Witness records of this time mention potatoes as the main item in the diet, and quite a few witnesses were more specific about the poor quality of potato that was consumed in their particular area. There is at least one reference to ‘that most unhealthy of vegetables, the lumper potato’, while others include in their statements ‘a bad description of potato called lumper’. Such remarks were often regionally concentrated and, moreover, references to ‘some potatoes of the worst description called Connaught lumpers’. This all seems to point to a sharp east-west distribution of the Lumper.

In an exercise conducted by the ‘Irish Folklore Commission’ in 1945-46, there is mention of several varieties of potato in common use before the Famine. Moreover, we must keep in mind that some potato varieties may well have been known by different names in the different counties. Among the many names given are Green Tops, White Rocks, and American Sailors (Kerry), White Tops (Carlow), Skerry Blues, Red Scotch Downs or Peelers, and White Scotch Downs (Westmeath), Thistlewhippers and Pink Eyes (Cavan), Prodestans (Mayo), Weavers (Down), Leathers and Mingens (i.e. Minions) (Kerry), Cups, Buns, Millers’ Thumbs, and Derry Bucks (Donegal), and Coipíní (Connemara). The Lumper was also mentioned in this exercise, but not often. This evidence would suggest, therefore, that there was a much greater variety than allowed for by the historians.

Although it was claimed that ‘Lumpers suffered more than any other variety (from blight)’ (Anon., 1845), in truth, most pre-Famine potato varieties were blight susceptible, and varieties such as Cups, which were grown by more affluent farmers, never recovered their position post-1847. Meanwhile, the ‘Lumper’ has become doubly notorious in our history as a poor food item in the decades leading up to the Great Famine, and for offering such poor resistance to phytophthora infestans (the blight). And yet, although the ‘Lumper’ was definitely dull fare, it did provide sufficient calories to sustain the peasantry before 1845. The ‘Lumper’ will always be linked to the Great Hunger because of the dominance it had gained in Ireland by the 1840s. But, we should also remember that all the other varieties that were commonly sown at the time also succumbed to the blight. Despite what many think, ‘Phytophthora infestans’ did not disappear after the Irish potato famine in 1840s. It continues to devastate potatoes and tomatoes throughout our world, causing billions of pounds annually in losses and control costs. The ‘Lumper’, meanwhile, has not been commercially cultivated for a long time, although it was still grown in some districts in the 1920s. For the curious there are specimens that survive in a few ‘museum’ collections in Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish Agriculture and Fishery Department’s scientific services in Edinburgh has a rich collection of such varieties.

Around the year 2008 a Northern Ireland potato grower and packer, Michael McKillop, became interested in cultivating the ‘Lumper’ once more. He managed to get some heirloom seeds and set about his task, growing the new ‘Lumpers’ smaller than those of the 1800s. The new ‘Lumpers’ that I have sampled did not taste too bad at all, better in fact than what I had expected. They had a decent flavour to them and a texture that felt a little waxy. With both elements again in play will we have a repeat of the Famine – “And as the report got abroad that the blight had struck again, so did the stench confirming the report. It was a sulphurous, sewer-like smell carried by the wind from the rotting plants in the first-struck places. Farmers who had gone to bed imbued with the image of their lush potato gardens were awakened by this awful smell and by dogs howling their disapproval of it.” (‘Paddy’s Lament, Ireland 1846-1847, prelude to hatred by Thomas Gallagher, 1988, Poolbeg Press Ltd., Ireland.)

Charles Trevelyan

Sinner or Saint?

When trying to unravel the role that Charles Trevelyan played in the ‘Great Famine’ you are entering something of a minefield. Any person who has attempted to learn about ‘The Famine in Ireland’ quickly realised that the research that has been carried out is filled with invective supporting opposing views on its cause, effects and results. The student soon discovers that Irish history-writing is more subjective than objective and requires reading ‘between the lines’ to get to the truth. We read opinions such as that spoken openly by the Nationalist politician, John Mitchel, when he stated his verdict that, “God sent the blight but the British Government sent the Famine.” Against such opinions we have the more recent ‘revisionist’ opinions that attempt to sanitise the ‘Great Hunger’ by arguing that, given the scale of the disaster, the British Government had done everything it could to prevent further death and suffering among the poverty stricken Irish peasantry.

There is little argument that Trevelyan was an important government figure during the Famine. The arguments arise when there is discussion concerning Trevelyan’s importance when compared to that other major protagonists that were involved in Famine relief. The revisionist historians will generally admit that Charles Trevelyan was an influential adviser for his government department, but not the key influence on the British Government’s overall Famine relief policy. They put forward the premise that Trevelyan, although an influential adviser, was simply carrying out the wishes of his departmental chiefs during the Famine, who received instructions from the cabinet. In other words, Trevelyan was simply a centrally placed civil servant who was unfortunate to become a ‘scapegoat’ for the manoeuvrings and machinations of the British Government and those who were governing Ireland from Dublin Castle. It is further claimed that Trevelyan’s bad reputation was a result of criticisms that were aimed at his political superiors, rather than him. The revisionist historians assert that these criticisms, therefore, have been taken out of context and are not reflective of Trevelyan’s character in any way. Against such a viewpoint we have the following description of the man by the well-respected historian of the Famine, Cecil Woodham-Smith – “his mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself what he proposed to do was ethical and justified he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained but also blinded by his conviction of doing right.” The question remains that did he believe he was doing right when, during the height of the famine, Trevelyan deliberately dragged his feet in disbursing direct government food and monetary aid to the Irish because of the strength of his belief in ‘laissez-faire’ economics and the free hand of the market. In a letter to an Irish Peer, Lord Monteagle, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Trevelyan described the Famine as being an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” He determined that it was “the judgement of God,” and wrote that “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”. From his own words, he condemns himself.

In answer to those who wonder why Trevelyan was considered for such an important post. But, he had already enjoyed a distinguished career in India before the Famine, having been involved in schemes aimed at gaining economic improvement. At the same time, he had expounded very forthright views on educating the native Indian population along English lines. Because of his work in India, Trevelyan was convinced that he was qualified to handle any problems that related to land tenure and the consolidation of smallholdings in Ireland. He seems to have failed to recognise that in India he had presided over an area where smallholdings had been peacefully well established for many decades, which was not the case in Ireland. Furthermore, Trevelyan ignored the fact that India in the mid-nineteenth century was much different from Ireland in the same period, particularly when it came to the problems of widespread poverty and famine. Poverty and famine-stricken Ireland was a country that was supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom and expected to be treated as such. At the same time, Ireland resembled India only in its resistance to having English standards of improvement and development being imposed on them.

Trevelyan was simply a man driven by ideas, which influenced him in formulating policy. These same strongly held ideas caused him to justify those policies even when the terrible scale of the suffering became clear. Even if we accept the revisionist theory that Trevelyan was not as influential as we believe, they must admit that neither he nor the cabinet ministers under whom he served were immune to the influence of ideas. But, one characteristic of the man, which revisionists cannot deny, is that he was an arch-racist and although his racial venom was directed chiefly against the Irish landholders, he did not ignore the Irish Catholic tenants and smallholders. Trevelyan voiced his opinions that the Irish were a lazy, dirty and unimaginative race, which reflected the general belief of Victorian society about the Irish people.

An Gorta Mor

Whereas Trevelyan’s role may have been exaggerated, and that he was much more at the command of his political superiors, it cannot be denied that he prided himself on being a ‘moralist’. He was an enthusiastic reformer whose ideas and convictions allowed him to justify the government’s Famine policy as a God-given opportunity for the British government to regenerate Irish economic and social life to the benefit of England.

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.

In 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.

Famine Song

Old Skibbereen

By Patrick Carpenter ; Air: ‘The Wearing of the Green’

A Young American and his Irish Father

“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!”