Why Famine came to Ireland
What shall we do for timber?
The last of the woods is down.
Kilcash and the house of its glory
And the bell of the house are gone,
The spot where the lady waited
Who shamed all women for grace
When earls came sailing to greet her
And Mass was said in the place.
My grief and my affliction
Your gates are taken away,
Your avenue needs attention,
Goats in the garden stray.
The courtyard’s filled with water
And the great earls where are they?
The earls, the lady, the people
Beaten into the clay.
In the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured Ireland three years after his American travels, wrote to his father:
You cannot imagine what a complexity of miseries five centuries of oppression, civil disorder, and religious hostility have piled on this poor people.... [The poverty is] such as I did not imagine existed in this world. It is a frightening thing, I assure you, to see a whole population reduced to fasting like Trappists, and not being sure of surviving to the next harvest, which is still not expected for another ten days.
And this was in 1835, ten years before the Famine began!
Pushed further and further away from their dark ancestral fields, the majority of Irish farmers found themselves trying to feed their families from ever smaller plots, so arid and stony that no one else wanted them, sometimes, as one old song has it, even attempting to plow the rocks themselves. Dispossessed of their property because of their race, deprived of all civil rights because of their religion (including the right to object to anything that was being done to them), the “mere Irish,” as the conquerors were fond of calling us, had sunk as low as possible. When former American slave Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845 to rally support for the campaign to abolish slavery in America, he wrote of the Irish,
Never did human faces tell a sadder tale … these people lacked only a black skin and wooly hair to complete their likeness to the plantation negro. The open, uneducated mouth – the long gaunt arm – the badly formed foot and ankle – the shuffling gait … all reminded me of the plantation, and my own cruelly abused people.
In such circumstances, the miraculous potato, first brought to Cork by Walter Raleigh, made continued existence possible, because its astonishing yield, even in stony ground, enabled a farmer to feed his family, though the land he worked was hardly bigger than a postage stamp. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, the mere Irish had come to rely almost solely on the potato, which had even brought about a population increase, making Ireland – with 8.5 million people – the most populous country in Europe.
But the circumstances of this population were perilous. Though a great landlord might own as much as 60,000 acres, an Irish peasant owned an acre or two if he was lucky, nothing at all if he was unlucky – in which case he worked his landlord’s fields as a serf. The yield from these fields never reached him or his family: it was virtually all exported by his landlord for cash. As the landlords grew ever more prosperous, they and their cousins in England began to put out the story that the Irish were born to their condition by nature. Their poverty was the result of their own laziness. Thanks to Catholic superstition, their minds were hopelessly clouded. It was a scientific fact that the Irish were naturally inferior, and there was nothing that could be done about it really. In 1845, just before the first famine struck, a young American visitor recorded in her diary this encounter in the West of Ireland:
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