Food for the Starving

Famine Days in the North

James Brown of Donaghmore, County Tyrone, wrote notes and reminiscences which are now held in the Public Record Office in Belfast. He described, among other things, the conditions under which labourers were hired and the course of potato blight in the district during the Great Famine.

According to James Brown wages were very low prior to the 1847 famine. The average wage for an able bodied labouring man was 4s a week and some farmers gave the men food instead of wages. There was a man in Omagh who paid food instead of wages but did not feed the men on Sunday, giving them a penny instead. Servant girls could be paid as little as 5s for a quarter of a year’s work and when food was dear (from the month of May until November) they were glad to be fed instead of receiving wages.

James Brown states that the first potato blight arrived in the district of Donaghmore in October 1845. His family had a field of potatoes in what he refers to as ‘the back land’. In one night they were struck with blight and both tops and roots were blackened. However, the damage done in 1845 was partial, only part of the country was affected, the blight did not strike the plants until the crop was almost matured and some of the crop was available for normal consumption, the rest being fed to pigs or made into starch. Apparently the family obtained a small machine to grind potatoes and extract farina and that worked well.

The really bad potato blight arrived in the district of Donaghmore, County Tyrone on August 3rd 1846. James remembers driving, with his sister Bella, through County Fermanagh to Bundoran on 3rd August. They were delighted to see fine potato crops in the fields. They spent three days in Bundoran and drove back home. During the short time they had been away the crops had become blackened and useless.

After that, Indian corn and meal were brought in from America for the first time, but demand increased prices so in a short time oaten and Indian meal were just as expensive as flour.

Starving people turned in desperation to their environment in search of food. They gleaned their surroundings looking for plants which would help them keep body and soul together, eating anything they could find, such as charlock (wild mustard), sorrel, water cress and nettles. People travelled miles to gather nettles in grave yards, where they grow higher and better than anywhere else.

Nettles were thought to have the ability to cure disease. Their seeds were mixed with honey and used to treat whooping cough, shortness of breath and phlegm in the lungs. Sore throats and chest infections were helped by boiling nettles for thirty minutes without salt, saving the water, adding enough honey to make a syrup and a squeeze of lemon then taking a spoonful when required. They were also boiled in water and the resulting juice given to cure measles and pimples.

Perhaps the most popular use of nettles was to purify the blood. Tradition suggests people should eat them three times during the spring for this purpose. Nettles are rich in iron and vitamin C so are helpful in preventing anaemia. They were used to cure dropsy and worms and to keep a person safe and sound from pestilence and hardship.

Rheumatism was cured by stinging the affected parts. Bunches of nettles were used to keep flies away and they were considered useful as a contraceptive. It was believed that if a man laid nettles thickly against the soles of his feet inside his socks and wore them for 24 hours before having intercourse he would be unable to make a woman pregnant!

Saints appear to have thought highly of nettles. Saint Kevin is said to have eaten nothing but nettles and sorrel for seven years while St. Columcille once saw a poor widow woman gathering them in a graveyard. He was touched by her plight and decided he should mortify his body (and the bodies of others living in the monastery with him) so he decreed a diet of nettles. The cook was horrified. “Can I add other ingredients to the nettles?” he asked. “No,” replied Saint Columcille, sternly. “You may add only that which comes out of the pot stick!”

The cook smiled and went and bored a hole through the pot stick from the top to the bottom. He used the hole to pour oatmeal, cream and other delicacies down into the soup.

Nettles were used is food throughout Ireland, in Scotland and the North West of England. They were called ‘nenaid’ or in early modern Irish ‘nentog’ later spelt ‘neanntog”. Sometimes nettles were called kale, which can lead to confusion as inquests on people who died of starvation discover there was nothing in the victim’s stomach except ‘kale’, which can also mean cabbage.

Strangely enough, the value of nettles appeared to be appreciated during the Second World War. In 1942 the Country Herb Commission asked people to gather them. Ninety tons of nettles were sent to the Country Herb Commission from which a green dye was extracted and used as camouflage, while the chlorophyll served as a tonic.

In Ireland today smart restaurants serve nettle soup but among old people there is still a stigma attached to eating a food associated with famine. My mother, until her death in 1984, used to scold if she saw me making nettle soup. “Why are you doing that? ” she would question. “There is no call for that nowadays.What will the neighbours think if they see you collecting nettles?”

My mother remembered her aunts making nettle soup in Ballynure when she was a girl. She said her aunts made it for ‘medicinal purposes only’. They picked tender young nettle tops in the spring, using gloves to protect their hands, placed the nettles in a container and covered them with boiling water to destroy the stings, drained them, then used them like any other vegetable, to make soup. Mother also remembered being told that charlock (wild mustard) was used as food during times when hunger stalked the land. She could not remember what was done with the charlock – only that it tasted terrible and nobody enjoyed eating it.

Common charlock (Brassica arvensis kuntze) belongs to the cabbage family. It has a bright yellow flower and grows between I and 2 feet (30 ‑ 60 cms) in height. It is often called ‘praiseach’ which is confusing because 15 other plants may also be referred to as ‘praiseach’. Praiseach may mean pottage, porridge, gruel, potpourri or broth in modern Irish.

In 1757 the Rev. Philip Skelton went to Pettigo, County Fermanagh, to find out what was happening to the poor. (His experiences were described by Samuel Burdy in ‘Life of The Late Rev. Philip Skelton’ which was published in Dublin in 1792). He went into a miserable cabin and found the people who lived there had gathered charlock, boiled it with a little salt and were eating it for breakfast. He was given a share and did not like the taste which he described as nauseous. The next day he had charlock gathered and boiled for his own breakfast. He ate charlock for two days after which his stomach turned against it. He was filled with pity for the poor, so he travelled into Ballyshannon and bought oatmeal for as many people as he could.

Many families lived on a few pennyworth of meal each week which they made go further by turning it into soup with charlock, although the plant was unwholesome as it caused stomach upsets and turned the skin of those eating it nearly as yellow as its flower.

A friend, Robin Cochrane, has told me of a story which has been passed down through his family by word of mouth. His ancestors lived near Coleraine, County Londonderry, next door to a family of four who became destitute during the Great Famine. The family were so poor they did not own any crockery. They ate nothing but potatoes, which they devoured by holding them in their hands. When they obtained Indian meal they tried to make it go further by boiling it in water so that a thin gruel was formed. It is impossible to eat gruel by holding it in the hand so the family dug four holes in the clay floor of their miserable cabin, filled the holes with gruel which they then lapped like dogs, in order to survive.

People living near the shore used seaweed as food. In normal times it was used as ‘kitchen’, in other words as a tasty morsel eaten with potatoes. In times of famine hungry hordes scoured the shore for edible seaweed such as dulse (Rhodymenia), dulaman (probably the channelled wrack, Pelvetia, which grows at the top of the shore) and Carrageen moss (Chrondus crispus) to keep body and soul together.

Obviously it is a very different thing to enjoy occasional treats from the countryside, such is eating dulse at the Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, or having a bowl of nettle soup, from desperately scouring the countryside in competition with thousands of other people to find sufficient edible leaves and fruits to keep body and soul together.

The book, ‘When Hunger Stalked the North’, was published in 1994 by the Adare Press of Banbridge, County Down, Ireland. We are very grateful to the author, Doreen McBride, for permission to reproduce the above extract from her book.

: Doreen McBride / Adare Press, 1999.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999