The Great Famine and its Background through Welsh Eyes

Part 1

My father used to talk about people in his family and from his locality who had never eaten a whole egg. But they had never starved. The nearest most of us have ever got to the experience of starvation has been looking at TV pictures of little children in Biafra or Somalia or Ethiopia. If there had been TV at the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, the English government would probably have come under pressure to do something about what was happening in Ireland, as people watched, in the words of Welsh-language poet Dafydd Rowlands in his poem about Biafra:

a little boy,
his navel like a knot
in a balloon;
the huge eyes
in the tiny head,
the empty body
fading away
like the dew
in the cruel

At the time of that famine in Biafra huge sums of money were collected. The contribution of the people of Ireland was remarkably generous, especially in the poorest areas, with the Bogside area of the city of Derry heading the list. Since the setting up of the Irish famine relief organisation, Trócaire (= ‘mercy’, Welsh = ‘Trugaredd’ ) in 1973 the people of Ireland have contributed over £120 million to relieve famine and disease in over 50 countries.
We all know how generous the Irish can be, but there are very special reasons for their generosity in the case of famine. They feel it to the quick every time they hear the word ‘famine’. It causes them to feel a stab of pain in the pit of the stomach. They are only some two or three generations removed from the experience.
There were thirty famines here and there in Ireland between 1780 and 1830 because of potato diseases; an ample warning to the authorities, but it was ignored. But in the Great Famine, actually a series of Great Famines between 1841 and 1851 but chiefly in 1846 and the two subsequent years, about a million people died of famine and resultant illnesses, principally cholera. In addition about a million people emigrated – going into exile to the United States and wherever. It was a movement of people which turned the Atlantic, in the words of James Joyce, into ‘a bowl of tears’. Many died on their way into exile, or soon after arriving, because of weakness and disease. Because of all this there are mass graves, Famine Graves, in many places in Ireland and in places like Nova Scotia.
This year, 1995, we remember the day and the year when people first heard that the plague, the blight, had struck the potatoes, having crossed the Atlantic from the United States, and so began the great disaster. The potato had become the principal source of food and nourishment for the Irish people, and indeed the potato is quite a wholesome food, especially with milk. But there were great dangers inherent in depending on one kind of food to feed an entire population, and, as has already been noted, there had been many warnings.
What happened during the Great Famine was in effect a holocaust of the Irish nation. It was an example of genocide by declining to take action to prevent it. The appropriate authorities, that is the British Government in Ireland, could have prevented the worst effects of the Famine. Yes, money was spent: £9.5 million, some of it in the form of loans. But within five years £69.3 million was spent on the Crimean War.
One of the most abhorrent aspects of what happened was that there was plenty of food in Ireland during the Famine. In fact, food was being exported on a large scale throughout the period. According to the authorities it was available to the people of Ireland, if they wanted it – whatever about their need – but the poor people had no means of purchasing it. The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, saw that there was a need to import cheap food into Ireland as a matter of urgency, but he did not wish to challenge the 1815 Corn Laws. The Tories, as usual, tried to play down the scale of the famine, as Isaac howed in 1847.
By insisting on buying some Indian corn from the United States towards the end of 1845, which was sold cheaply and so prevented the worst effects of that year’s famine, Peel had shown what was possible. In 1846, however, the Prime Minister was John Russell and he ignored the plight of Ireland under the cloak of the doctrine of laissez – faire. According to Frederich Engels there were ‘villages with nobody left in them, and in the middle of these were the splendid residences of the small landowners, practically the only ones left, lawyers for the most part.’
But there was official testimony to the shaming misery of the Irish. There is the testimony of Trevelyan, the Permanent Head of the Treasury, and here are the words of N.M. Cummings, a Justice of the peace from Cork, describing his visit to Skibbereen in the late 1840s:

I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse cloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive—they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.

There is important and graphic testimony as to the nature of what was going on from the other side, as it were, that is, the side of the Irish–speaking people, from Peadar Ó Laoghaire. He was a writer and a priest, born in County Cork in 1839, who worked in his native county. He joined the Land League founded by Michael Davitt, a friend of Michael D. Jones, and he was a founding member of the Gaelic League. Here you have a linking up of the Famine with the later political struggle to reform the system of land tenure and with the language movement which led to the Easter Rising in 1916. Ó Laoghaire was the first to publish a book of short stories in Irish and to get one of his plays in the language performed on stage. He produced many published works and translated a number of continental classics into Irish.
In 1915, when he was 66, he published his autobiography, Mo Scéal Féin (‘My Own Story’). Here are some passages from it relating to the Famine:

"I remember one day, I suppose I was eight years old at the time, (i.e. 1847)… I saw a woman coming up the hill towards me. She was barefoot. She was walking very slowly and seemed to be struggling for breath as if she had been running. Her mouth was open so that I was able to see her teeth as she gasped for breath. But what was most extraordinary about her were her legs. each one of which had swollen so much that the were as big as gallon jugs… That woman had been quite independent and lacking for nothing until the blackening had fallen on the potatoes."

"Another day… I was in our house standing by the fireside. A boy came in the door. I saw his face and the dread in his two eyes, the dread of hunger… Someone gave him a piece of bread. He seized it, turned his back on us, faced the wall, crammed the bread into his mouth and began to wolf it down in such a way that you would think that he would choke himself…"

Peadar Ó Laoghaire gives us another account, the story of a small family of four, which is quite harrowing:

"The Famine came and Síle and her father and her mother and little Diarmaidín had to go down to Macroom and go into the poorhouse. As soon as they were inside they were all separated from each other. The father was placed with the men. The mother was put with the women. Síle was put with the small children. And Diarmaidín was put with the youngest children. The whole place and all the poor people there was ridden with wretched sicknesses of every kind. The people, almost as soon as they arrived, became sick and they died as fast as they became infected. There wasn’t room for half their number and those who could not get in had no choice but to lie on the riverbank…
You would see them there every morning… stretched out in rows, some stirring and others lying motionless…
After a while the motionless ones would be gathered up and put into carts. They would then be taken up to a place near Carraig an Staighre, where a huge wide trench had been opened up for them and they would be put into the trench together. Those who had died in the poorhouse during the night would receive the same treatment.
Not long after they had entered the poorhouse, and after being separated from his mother, death came to Diarmaidín. The little body was thrown into the cart, taken to the trench and thrown in among the other bodies…
It was not long afterwards that Síle followed Diarmaidín…
The father and mother asked as often as they could about Síle and Diarmaidín. The two were not long dead when they heard about it…
They decided to get out of the place. Cáit was the woman’s name. Pádraig slipped out of the place first… he waited for Cáit on the road. After a while he saw her approaching, but she was walking very slowly. The sickness was on her.
They made their way on up towards Carraig an Staighre. They came to where the huge trench was. They knew that the two children were down there in the trench, along with hundreds of other bodies. They stood by the trench and wept their fill.
The cabin where they had lived before they went into the poorhouse was up in Doire Liath. So they made their way northwards… six miles to go and the night was falling. They were hungry and Cáit was sick with the fever. They had to walk very slowly. After a couple of miles they had to stop. Cáit could go no further. A neighbour met them and gave them something to eat and drink, but everyone was afraid to give them shelter because they had come from the poorhouse and the woman was sick with the fever. Pádraig put her on his back and pressed on towards the cabin.
The poor man was weak enough and it would have been hard for him to complete the journey without any kind of load. With the load he was carrying he had to stop often and rest his load on the ditch for a while. But no matter how weary he was he carried on. He did not abandon his burden. They reached the cabin. It was empty and cold, without fire or heat.
The next morning a neighbour came by and entered the cabin. He saw the two inside. They were both dead. Pádraig had his wife’s two feet against his chest as if he had been trying to warm them. It seems that he had realised that Cáit was dying and that her feet were cold so he had put them on his chest to draw the chill out of them.
‘He was a good man, faithful and true,’ some might say, ‘and what he did was a noble deed.’
That’s true. But I will tell you this. Thousands of similar things were done all over Ireland at that time and no one looked on them as being special in any way. In the eyes of everyone Pádraig Ó Buachalla had only done what any man worthy of being called a Christian would have done."

The Famine was providential in the opinion of many people in England – and in Wales. It was a means to dispose of one of England’s perennial problems, namely the uncivilised, the poverty–stricken, the untidy, the filthy, the foreign and the wild, those who clung to the past instead of seeing the light proffered by the Tudors. This was the political, linguistic and religious unity of the United Kingdom, an order imposed more brutally than ever by Cromwell.
Although reluctant at first the Welsh conformed to that order, losing their mettle and keeping their language…
But it is the attitude of the Welsh towards the Irish that concerns me this evening. I have here a collection of books in Welsh about Ireland and I intend to quote from some of them. To begin with, in the Biography of Thomas Charles of Bala (1755–1814) there is part of a travel diary which he kept during a journey to Ireland in the early years of the last century. The following passage relates to August, 1811:

"The whole province of Connaught, where we are at present, is Irish–speaking and professes the Papist creed, apart from a very small number of Protestants scattered here and there. They are, if that were possible, even more corrupt than the Papists. Today we crossed over a wide expanse of country, a distance of thirty miles, from Limerick to Tuam, and we were unable to look on the inhabitants as other than as people who are under a black veil of darkness and superstition. By asking people everywhere we discovered that there are schools being maintained for the purpose of teaching English, but not one to teach Irish. The generosity of the Government towards strengthening the English Schools is being widely abused. In Athenry there were only four children being taught for the ten pounds.
The poor in their wretched cabins were quite polite and their minds were free, but they knew nothing of the Bible. We approached some of them wherever we went and their ignorance of the Word of God, the only source of real and lasting joy, had a profound effect on my mind."

Thomas Charles did not understand Irish and was totally unsuited to forming an opinion about the worth of Gaelic culture, nor of the knowledge the Irish–speaking people had about the essentials of Christianity.
We get a fairer picture from the Reverend D. Lloyd Jones, Llandinam (1843–1905), in his book, Golau ar Gyflwr Iwerddon (‘Light on the Condition of Ireland’), published by the Liberal Unionist Association in London, about 1886. He was a son of the celebrated John Jones, Talysarn (1756–1857). A minister with the Calvinistic Methodists, he had come under the influence of the religious revival of 1859. Here are some excerpts from his book:

"Why are the inhabitants of Ireland so unwilling, restless and rebellious? Is it mainly due to the oppressive laws in force in the country in ages past – laws which smothered political and religious freedom and which prevented manufacturing industries and trade from developing? Is it that the effects of those ancient and oppressive laws have outlived the original reasons for them and now hold the country like a ship held in a storm? Or are there other disadvantages attending their success outside the Government’s books of statutes; and if there are, to what extent do they produce poverty and unrest in the country, and who is responsible for them?…
There is no part of the kingdom where the land is in the hands of such a small number of owners, and where so large a number of them are separated by race and religion from the lower ranks of society…
One in twenty of the population in England and Wales owns some land and in Scotland one in twenty five. In Ireland however, the whole country is in the hands of a very small proportion of the inhabitants. There is no more than one landowner to every seventy nine of the population… and, if one takes into account arable land only, the number of landowners is considerably less than 32,614, being one in every one hundred and fifty three of the inhabitants…
Ireland is a country in which large parts of its land has been confiscated during the last three hundred years as a result of bloody uprisings. Quite a large number of the country’s estates represent land which had been taken as the spoils of war from its former owners and handed over to English gentry as a reward for their loyalty to the crown during the disturbances and uprisings which took place in 1607, 1641 and 1689. The people have never accepted the rights of these gentry and their descendants to this land. To plunder them of it has been the principal aim of the secret societies which have been like a network stretching through the country, not just during the last 86 years, but also and especially during those last 18 years when she had a Parliament of her own.
At the end of the 17th century… more than 1,000,000 Irish acres, or around 1,700,000 statute acres, or the areas of Middlesex, Herefordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire combined, had been declared forfeit during the recent rebellions… it seems that the Catholics, Irish or Hiberno-Saxons, could then claim no more than a bare sixth or seventh part of the kingdom."

But, in spite of all that, our author is astonished that the Irish should want their land back. He writes:

"The majority of Welsh people seek no more than a reasonable reduction in their rents and compensation for improvements; but it would be folly to suppose that that is all the Irish have in mind. Look at their passionate longings… complete freedom from the landlords, and the restoration of Ireland’s national independence…
If the majority of the Irish in the most disturbed and overpopulated districts had their way – if they were not being watched and controlled by 14,523 police officers and constables – without any doubt they would, without compunction, plunder the landowners of their properties and drive them and their overseers out of the country pell mell."

The rest of this little book is full of similar ambiguities about the reasons for Ireland’s afflictions, emphasising that it is poor people, Catholic and therefore ignorant and superstitious, who want to win back the lands from their masters. He had little to say in favour of political or religious rights, even though he was a Nonconformist and a Welsh–speaking Welshman to boot. It's a funny old world!
I have to remember, of course, just how anti–Catholic and anti–Irish the Welsh in general have been down the centuries, as attested by such historians as R.T.Jenkins, David Williams, John Davies and Geraint Jenkins. In his book, Hanes Cymru yn y Bedwaredd Ganrif ar Bymtheg (‘The History of Wales in the Nineteenth Century’ ), R.T.Jenkins (1881–1969) says that it might have been expected that Catholic Emancipation would have been a rather academic matter as there were only 3,500 Catholics in Wales by the middle of the last century. But some had believed that everything that was happening on the continent was a Popish Plot including even the French Revolution! Gruffydd Jones, Howell Harris and all the Nonconformist leaders were unanimous about the ‘perils of Papism’.

Part 2

©: Dr. Harri Pritchard–Jones, doctor, journalist, writer and broadcaster, who delivered this lecture in Welsh at the Central Library, Cardiff on 4 April , 1995. We are very grateful to him for permission to publish it in our own translation.

First published in The Green Dragon No 5, Winter 1997.