Black Year when Death Brought the Country to its Knees

Just before Christmas (1996 — Ed.), in the library in Newcastle West in Limerick, I went to an evening of commemoration of the Famine. The worst year of the Famine, the Black Year, was 1847, which was 150 years ago this year. The evening was partly about the Famine locally. I know no Famine site that moves me as much as the stone and sod houses up on the rough summit of Knockfierna Hill, not very far from Newcastle, where the destitute found a refuge high above the rich plains with their comfortable gentry houses and big farms.

The powerless found in the gorse and bracken first a refuge: then a place to starve. Then a place to die. The local parish priest wrote about the bodies being taken down from the hill. The transition from the bleak hill side of Knockfierna to the coffinless grave in the church yard of of Ballingarry, is a transition as common and indeed natural that it attracts no attention and excites no sensation, he said. Death was that commonplace.

About 2,000 people were huddled up on that one hill in 1845. Today, of course, there's no one. Only the new transmission mast for East Digifone.

You may have become familiar with quotations like the one above from reading (in the Irish Times) the uniquely eloquent Famine Diary which my colleague, the historian Brendán Ó Cathaoir, compiles week in, week out. I brace myself to read it every Saturday. But it gets harder and harder, simply because the sorrow keeps coming around, week after week.

The experience of having to face it every single week is the first that has made me dimly appreciate the sheer duration of the Famine — how it went on, and on, slowly, slowly, bringing the country to its knees. I realise for the first time that the Famine was an era, not an episode. In 1847, the people weren't to know that that would be the very worst year.

I know that many other people find that Famine Diary as painful as it is gripping. And not surprisingly. The vestiges of the Famine are all around, inside us as well as outside. It is not genuinely distant. For example, just below Knockfierna Hill there lives today a retired priest. He is 103 or 104 years old. His father lived through the Great Famine. In the audience that night in the library there were many elderly farming people.

They listened to the lecturer very closely indeed. They said nothing afterwards. The Famine is not something to toy with. In places where FÁS ( the Irish government training agency — Ed.) courses have got locals into examining Famine records, long-concealed but unforgotten animosities have surfaced. Whose family got relief, when they weren't entitled to it? Who got whose land, when those belonging to it died or had to emigrate? Who took the soup? There are no photos of living people in the Famine edition of The Knockfierna Journal. Offence could very easily be given.

Perhaps the extreme emotion that some apparently unconnected issues arouse have to do with a barely‑covered layer of shame and mistrust and defensive pride.

The rod‑licence dispute, or the long sending to Coventry of the Irish‑language teacher in Connemara show how quickly the limits of reason or compromise can be reached.

Prof. Tom Garvin talked recently about the importance of outraged personal pride, in respect especially of the oath of allegiance, in the making of the Civil War. The men who made that war were much closer to the Famine than we are. It was a much more lively element in attitudes to England and Ireland of Irish‑America. Is it likely that it wasn't, also, a fount of feeling in the hearts of the men and women of 1916? If it was, where did it go in the years after independence?

I wonder whether it is possible for a society to be, like a family, that thing called 'dysfunctional'? The thought occurred at the end of the Michael Collins movie. Perhaps it was only because movies miss out on careful exposition, but the impression I was left with was of the sheer unnecessity of the Civil War — the wilfulness of the waste involved in it. It was as if those people were viscerally unable to trust. It was as if they reached back for the condition of lonely suffering, that condition being less frightening than the alternative, which was a relatively selfless co-operation in constructing the new State.

This may seem a silly thing to say, and have never heard anyone talk about the influence of the Famine, not so much on as in, that last push to nationhood. But I take it that emotional states have their place as motives. History can’t be all person‑less economics. If it were, the great conflicts about identity could be bought off.

It seems to me that the Famine was an experience profound enough to contribute to the emotional state of the children of men and women who lived through it. The men and women of 1916 were the children of people very close to that utter dissolution of our pride.

You have to take into yourself that the people who died in the Famine were just like you and me. Each person was a particular person, with a personal style. It was as if — today — we took it for granted that in the queue at the bank, say, the person in front of you and the person behind you might fall to the floor at any moment, with weakness, and begin to slip towards death.

Down in Co. Limerick, as in many other places, the people tried to shoot and riot their way into work and wages, to buy food. They did not want relief. They wanted to earn. They still had the sense of entitlement of complex social beings.

At the beginning. The particular spin an era puts puts on how you understand things is only that — a spin. It may be that late‑20th‑century beliefs about personal pain and the healing of pain will go the way of other great and popular faiths.

And as for extrapolating the idea of trauma from a person to a whole society…. Still, there was something in the absolute intentness with which the old people listened to the lecturer, a few weeks ago in Newcastle West. Charles Trevelyan, ignoring the continuing deaths, and the chaos of fever and cholera and eviction and emigration and crime and insurrection around him, declared, in 1847, the end of the Famine. But do great holocausts end? When do they end?

©: Julia O Faolain.

This article by was first published in the Irish Times on Monday, 20 January, 1997.

We are very grateful to the author and to her Editor for permission to reproduce it.

Published in The Green Dragon No 2, March 1997