Ireland Revisited, Part 11

On the Famine Trail in Search of Ancestral Roots

June 11 - 26, 1997

 

By Lewis and Betty Nolan

 

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Part 1: Memphis to Dublin

Part 7:  Cork, Kinsale

Part 2: Carlow, Site of Nolan Homelands

Part 8:  Dingle Golf Links

Part 3: Kilkenny, Waterford, Crystal Plant

Part 9:  Dingle's Famine Cemetery

Part 4: Youghal, Dingle Town

Part 10: Ballinasloe, County Galway

Part 5: Dingle Peninsula

Part 11: Strokestown Famine Museum

Part 6: Great Blasket Island

Part 12: Donegal

Photo Album Index

Part 13: Drive in Northern Ireland

 

Monday, June 23, 1997 - To Strokestown, Lewis -

            Leaving Ballinasloe, we made a detour to visit a Famine Museum at Strokestown, near Roscommon. Strokestown was the site of a celebrated murder of an oppressive English landlord. His forebear, Nicholas Mahon, was granted lands in the latter half of the 16th Century for his support of the British Colonial Campaign. His grandson, Thomas Mahon, a Member of Parliament, built Strokestown Park and great house - and the town that carried the name - in the 1740s.

            In 1847, Major Denis Mahon, landlord of the 17,000-acre estate, was assassinated following his attempt to clear 8,000 persons from his lands through eviction and assisted emigration to Canada. The policy of the British government made the landowners responsible for providing for the destitute in their own areas, making it cheaper for them to send the hungry on assisted emigration rather than pay for their upkeep in the workhouse. Mahon sent 1,000 to Canada on three ships; almost half of them died on the voyages due to a combination of their weakened state and the unsanitary conditions on the ships.

            It's a terrible story whose horrors echo down the generations. Unfortunately, the story isn't particularly well told in the Famine Museum, which has only been open for two or three years. The museum doesn't seem to get much traffic other than the occasional tour bus of Americans. But even though little visited and
Compound at Strokestown Famine Museum
Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
in need of more exhibits, the recent founding of the museum is a noble start at telling the story of one of history's most neglected tragedies. A museum brochure said it "represents the first national attempt at confronting and discussing the history of the Great Irish Famine."

            The term "conspiracy of silence" was used by an earnest young man who works at the museum. It seems an apt way to describe the inattention given to the Famine story by most Irish and the erasure from national memory of all but a few shreds of myth and fact about that defining moment of the country's long history.

            A museum brochure states, "The famine completely wiped out the poorest social class, the landless laborer. The language declined, emigration became a way of life, and people strove to completely erase from their minds all memories of the most catastrophic event in Ireland's past."

            The museum is housed in the spacious stable of the former manor home. While informative to a point and adequately staged, the Museum displays disappointingly few, remaining artifacts or actual records from the Great Famine. One of the few on display is a pitchfork-sized crowbar used to pull down the stone cottages of evicted tenants; it survived only because it was stolen and buried in a peat bog for a generation. Another is the recipe for a watery soup served in the workhouses that was found - tragically too late - to be inadequate to sustain human life.

            One exhibit told why the potato was so important to Irish tenant farmers, and the country as a whole. Basically, it was all that a great many people had to eat.

            The potato thrived in the rocky soil and produced more pounds of food per acre than any other crop, leading to a huge dependency on the potato as the primary source of sustenance for everyday people. Dairy products and other grain crops were grown for export to England. The average adult would eat an amazing 14 pounds of potatoes a day, and usually nothing else. Eaten in that volume, the potato is the perfect food since it contains all the necessary vitamins, minerals and calories. A family would supplement their basic potato diet with anything they could catch in the way of wildlife, or even insects. Without the potato, many families would starve. And starve they did. Out of a population of 8 million, 1.5 million people died of malnutrition. Several million more emigrated. 

            We were told that most of the people who somehow survived the Famine and stayed in Ireland - actually the majority of the population - might have been ashamed at what they were forced to do in order to live, such as those who worked for the bailiffs who actually pulled down the cottages. Others might have felt guilty because they lived while so many around them died. As a result, the museum employee opined, the survivors by and large didn't discuss the Famine with their children or their grandchildren. And the English rulers certainly didn't have any reason to leave behind records that would have condemned their cruelty. So the collective memory of the Famine has been mostly lost even though it survives in the occasional pocket of bitterness that lives on and on.

            The locations of the trenches holding the graves of hundreds of thousands of Famine victims are by and large unmarked. Individual grave markers are nonexistent. After all if the family couldn't buy food, how could they possibly buy a stone? So the victims were put out of memory and forgotten.

            What the museum employee said about repressed memory made sense to me when I later reflected on the similarity to what I've read about POW's (Prisoners of War) never talking about their prison camp experiences. Part of that taciturness, I've read, is due to grief and part due to personal guilt over what the survivors had to do to live. Most of the first casualties of the Bataan Death March during World War II were the bravest of American soldiers, who resisted their captors' bestial conduct. Just now, in the late 1990s, the inhuman conduct of some Japanese and German soldiers during the 1940s is surfacing. The mind-boggling travesties include the Japanese army forcing Korean women into slave prostitution, the same Japanese torturing Nanking children en masse and the Germans looting Jews' savings in collusion with Swiss banks.

            Interestingly, one of the most informative publications available at the museum was published by the European Community, with assistance from the Irish government. It marked the 150th Anniversary of the Great Famine, which started in 1845 and lasted until 1850. Called "Ireland's Famine: Commemoration and Awareness," the 63-page booklet is a recitation of the past and a call to Ireland for future support of hunger relief efforts in Third World countries. It includes a schedule of commemorative events, among them the issuance of three Famine postage stamps, a school essay contest, two post-graduate college scholarships, and a series of lectures and performances. (Pretty lame stuff compared to the half-time show of a single Super Bowl). Following are selected excerpts from the booklet:

 

            The Great Famine was the first national disaster to attract large-scale international aid. Whilst the British government provided almost 10 million Pounds towards various relief programmes (over half of which was provided as a loan), private donations amounted to almost 2 million pounds (worth about $150 million in U.S. dollars today). . .

            A unique feature of private donations was that they were made by people from all walks of life and they cut across religious, national, economic and cultural divisions. The geographic range of the donations was also remarkable, contributions coming from all parts of the world, ranging from Caracas to Cape Town to Melbourne to Madras. Whilst a few donations were made in the wake of the first appearance of blight in 1845, the vast majority of contributions were raised following the second, far more extensive, failure of the potato crop in 1846. Most of the donations to Ireland dried up at the end of 1847, partly in response to the government's declaration that the Famine was over. . .

            The second and more devastating appearance of the potato blight marked the real commencement of the Great Famine. In the winter of 1846-47, evictions, emigration, disease and mortality rose substantially and 1.5 million people were dependent on scarce government relief. Newspapers throughout the world began to carry stories of suffering in Ireland. These descriptions touched the hearts of an international community which contributed spontaneously and generously to help the destitute in Ireland. However, not all donations were made in a spirit of altruism. The work of proselytizers (those who gave relief in return for religious conversion), although they enjoyed modest success, left a legacy of bitterness toward some charity. . .

            (The Society of Friends raised over 200,000 Pounds; Queen Victoria, the "Famine Queen," gave only 2,000 Pounds, a pittance compared to her income; The Sultan of Turkey, whose private physician was Irish, lowered his pledge of 10,000 Pounds to 1,000 Pounds to avoid offending the Queen; Pope Pius IX gave 300 Roman dollars; a U.S. Senate bill to give $500,000 died in committee; British residents in Mexico donated 652 Pounds; Wesleyan Methodists collected 5,000 Pounds; Hindus in India sent 5,000 Pounds; a slave church in Richmond, Va., took up a small collection; the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma raised $170.)

            "The main trouble with focusing (commemoration efforts) on 1995 was revealed by some signs of a new kind of "famine fatigue" by year's end. In November, one Irish journalist claimed that "it's hard not to feel that, really, it's all been said by now", and another in December that "the arguments have been thrashed to death". Even among Irish-Americans there was talk of being "famined-out." The sentiment is understandable, but doubly unfortunate. First, the true sesquicentennial of the Famine still lies ahead. It is unfortunate, but a fact of life, that historical events lasting several years risk being straitjacketed and distorted in standard commemorative schedules. Second, the journalists are wrong. Despite all the activity and the publicity, much about the Great Famine remains hidden, waiting to be discovered and studied. . ."

           

            I found it unsettling that it wasn't until 152 years had passed that the British Government offered a direct apology for its failure of policy that had contributed so heavily to so much death and suffering in the land it had ruled.

            Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to make amends in early June 1997, when he issued a statement saying "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. That 1 million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today."

            The apology was reported on the front page of the Irish Times and was made available around the world by the Associated Press. The AP story, which said the British government had refused to send large-scale food aid because it would cost too much and hurt agricultural prices, reported that Irish Prime Minister John Bruton called Blair's apology "a very good statement. While it confronts the past honestly, it does so in a way that heals for the future." Bertie Ahern, who later succeeded Bruton as Prime Minister, said Blair's gesture "would contribute to the reconciliation of the British and Irish peoples, and build confidence in what I hope will be a new era in Anglo-Irish relations."

            I read the newspaper account of Bruton's comment with much interest, partly because they were made on the eve of our trip and partly because I had gotten to know him when he visited Memphis in the mid-1980s.  My employer, Schering-Plough, had recently opened an important manufacturing facility near Cork and Bruton came to Memphis as our guest.

            Bruton was then the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. I was put in charge of rolling out the red carpet for him, which included a ride around Memphis in a limo rented from a mortuary (I served as tour guide) and a VIP lunch at The Peabody, complete with national flags and the mayor. I still remember Bruton reaching right over the special bottle of Irish whisky we had obtained and going straight for the Jack Daniels. On the drive to the airport for his return flight, we stopped at a liquor store so Bruton could buy several bottles of Tennessee Sipping Whisky to take back home. He had told me about Ballinasloe, where he had some financial interests related to thoroughbred horses.

            And now, 12 years later, Bruton had become Prime Minister and I had just visited Ballinasloe for the third time. I did not try to contact with him because I knew he would be much too busy to see a luncheon companion from long ago.

            Strokestown is a joyless place. We left under an oppressing blanket of sadness.

 

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