The local bakery in my hometown in Co. Donegal was still making Indian meal bread well into the 1980s. It was, I later discovered, the subsistence diet of many Irish during the Great Hunger.
The baking of it had persisted all through my great grandfather’s, my father’s and even my own time. People got the taste for it, I suppose. Slathered over with a topping of creamy Irish butter along with a cup of sweet milk tea, its mingled softness and coarseness rewarded the senses.
I’ll never forget the color of it, vivid yellow, reminding you that it was a foreign crop. The bakery that baked it every Wednesday and Saturday finally closed in the early 1990s and the tradition was lost, but I recalled it again this week while reading a remarkable new book.
Professor Maureen O’Rourke Murphy’s Compassionate Stranger, Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine is a remarkable study of a 19th century woman who broke her heart and spent every penny she earned to save as many of the Irish as she could through the darkest years of the Famine.
Nicholson was a 19th century journalist and philanthropist whose name I was never taught at school. I’m sorry for that glaring omission because her voice is one of the most descriptive I’ve ever heard from that disastrous era.
Nicholson saw stark parallels between oppression of the Irish and the oppression of black people in the United States (but Frederick Douglass, who also visited Ireland, and who clearly had more authority in this area, did not).
She noted the slaves in America could sometimes run across state lines to find some measure of freedom, but the Irish man met oppression wherever he turned in his own land. England and Scotland had no welcome for him either, she wrote, “for here he is hated and hunted like a hare upon the mountains.”
During the Famine Nicholson walked through Ireland with her heart aflame. She bore witness to our unspeakable suffering, she helped who she could, and crucially she recorded how, where and why it had happened.
No hurler from the ditch, she got her hands dirty. The Irish problem was lack of opportunity, not laziness, she realized.
It wasn’t a crop failure; it was a failure of leadership that created the Great Hunger. Her clarity made her unwelcome in the homes of the Dublin gentry.
I don’t think I heard her clear-eyed account of the disaster growing up because I don’t think many people in Ireland were willing to unpack the Famine’s legacy even by the 1980s.
In the decades after it occurred a great and enduring silence had settled over the country that may have had some of its roots in shame. Psychologists often speak of survivor’s guilt, that unease that follows on from dark deeds that are done in a time of unimaginable horror.
I think that the legacy of things best forgotten caught the tongues of quite a few that managed to get out alive. After all, we know that during the Famine many husbands abandoned their wives and children forever, and that other people stole crops from their starving neighbors, because all the normal social and familial bonds had broken down and desperation ruled.
People weren’t just trying to emigrate; they were fleeing as from a burning building, dropping every natural bond of affection to simply make it out alive themselves.
You can’t watch your country upended by an event of cosmic significance and imagine there won’t be fretful consequences for decades to come. Broken and demoralized, we turned reflexively from one empire that had abused us to another.
In 1800, before the Famine, there were 120 nuns in Ireland, but shortly after the Famine there were 3,700. A so-called Devotional Revolution occurred between 1850 and 1875. What looked like piety was really desperation.
More people than ever before began to attend Mass, possibly to contend with the traumatic stress a generation had lived through.
Because of all this a massive increase in the number of religious orders gained a new and out-sized influence over every aspect of Irish life. We slept-walked from one disaster into another impending one that would play out for over a century.
When I see Indian meal bread now I am reminded of the transformational disaster that once befell my nation. And when I see Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes and Industrial Schools I am reminded that its echoes lasted longer than we have been willing to admit.