I remember a time at home, he says, when I saw the bars of the taverns being turned into cafés; when I saw men and women, after finishing their work at fair and market, standing each other basins of coffee and loaves of bread instead of porter and whiskey. It is as pleasing a memory today as any in my life. It was in Father Matthew’s time that it happened, in the years 1843, ‘44 and ‘45.
He would spend many happy hours in the workshop of Murley the carpenter at the bottom of Pound Square listening to Patrick Keohane reading the Nation (the newspaper of the ‘Young Irelanders’ - Ed.) to the members of the Club. This Patrick Keohane was the best scholar in the Rosscarbery school, and as proof of that he was studying seamanship with the aim of becoming master of his own vessel one day. And he did. It was Rossa’s opinion that it was from this apprentice sailor that he first heard of Thomas Davis ( Leader of the ‘Young Irelanders’ and Editor of their newspaper. When he died in 1845 he was just 31 years old. He remains one of the great mythical figures of Irish history - Ed.). It was this that set him on the road to national politics, for no one listened more attentively in Murley’s workshop than Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Thomas Davis died in 1845. That was a fatal blow. But an even more fatal blow was destined to fall before long, a blow presaged in that black year of 1845, disease in potatoes and consequently, human disease and famine. Rossa was 14 at this time.
According to the 1841 census land in Ireland was divided into holdings among 825,000 people. Of these, 450,000 were less than 5 acres, 250,000 were between 5 and 20 acres, 80,000 between 15 and 30 acres and 50,000 over 30 acres. There was no reasonable standard of living on the land except for those farmers with holdings of over 30 acres. Those with less than 30 acres spent all their days struggling with poverty. Most holders of land in Ireland could scarcely be called farmers. Most of them were no more than tillers of the soil living off small patches of ground rented from tenant farmers whose own holdings were quite small. They would rent this land on a term of from one up to five years. They would usually pay their rent by working. The tenant farmer would have a lease on his land but it would be short-term in accordance with the policy of the landlords. He would be lucky not to be evicted before his lease expired. No man was in secure possession of his holding. Land was a scarce commodity, sought as a livelihood by many people. It was easy for a landlord to replace an evicted tenant and it was also easy to get a higher rent from the new tenant. It was a thoroughly pernicious system.
Rossa does not tell us how many acres his father farmed, but on the basis of passing references in his Memoirs and from the comparatively high rent of £18 a year, we may suppose the O’ Donovan Rossa family lived quite comfortably on a fair-sized holding. In 1845 two and a half million acres of potatoes had been planted in Ireland. Much of this acreage had been planted with poor varieties that had been planted again and again for years until overplanting had all but eliminated their original vitality. These lacked both vigour and health so that it was all the easier for a disease to infect and destroy them.
The potato was the staple food. It was the cheapest and most abundant crop and it was considered that there was no better eating than good potatoes. Meat was very rarely eaten. The population of Ireland was growing rapidly and because they relied on the potato for their daily sustenance it was evident that if it failed badly many people would go hungry. Few would have thought as 1845 began that such a calamity would soon confront them.
The potato crop looked good that year with every indication of a bumper harvest. No one was concerned. Then suddenly the blow fell. O’ Donovan Rossa saw the baleful thing with his own eyes as it came, as it destroyed, as it went away. One fine morning in July he heard the bad news going around Rosscarbery that the potatoes in the locality were diseased. He went down with his father and mother to the marsh field where they had planted their own. There was a putrid smell in the air. It seemed to Rossa that the power of nature was being extinguished by death. The stalks were obviously stricken. They had turned black and brown. Rubbed between the fingers they crumbled to dust.
The stalks were withering in his father’s field but the tubers grew to be quite a good size. They were harvested and put in store in a pit, and covered with straw, soil and sacking as is still done today. Soon the frightening and dreadful rumour began to spread through the district that the potatoes were rotting in the pits. Rossa’s father opened the pit in the marsh field. The rumours were true. The potatoes were rotting and the biggest were already half rotten. His father removed the sound potatoes and stored them in a room where straw had been specially placed around the walls to keep the crop fresh and dry. In that place too the rot set in. The sound potatoes were again separated from the rest, every member of the family joining in the work, and they were put in the rear loft above the kitchen. It was no good - they rotted. Every single one went rotten until not a potato was saved from that year’s harvest. What would they do for food from then until the following June?
They had their wheat crop of course. It was cut and put in the haggard and it would have been a good source of food for the family. The rent had to be paid, however. But the sky would fall before the landlord would go without his rent and to ensure that the crop was not diverted to other uses he set watch on the wheat and every other crop harvested by the Rossa family. His observers stayed in the house until the wheat had been threshed, bagged, taken to Lloyd’s Mill, sold and the money to pay the rent put in the hands of the steward. It is hard to credit that a family ’s livelihood for a year could be taken and sold in this way for the benefit of a landlord who was certainly in no danger of hunger. But that’s how it was. Rossa saw all of this and it left its mark on him. He saw one of the observers go with his mother to Lloyd’s Mill, just over the road from the marsh field, and then on to Chain Mahoney ’s house where the steward was collecting rents that day.
His mother came home in poverty. The rent for the farm was eighteen pounds a year. She got thirty shillings a bag for the wheat. All together there were twelve bags and a couple of stone over and she received £18 5s 0d for them. The landlord took it all. If it be asked whether the landlord had a conscience, if he felt any pity for the unfortunates who provided him with money, if he sensed any obligation to act with humanity in a crisis, one can only say that, apart from the rare individual, landlords and stewards in Ireland lacked any such feelings, then or at any time.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was too young to fully realise what a dreadful predicament they were in. He did not know the intense anxiety that was breaking the hearts of his father and mother. He describes their plight in a few words:
I did not know how my father felt, I did not know how my mother felt; I did not know how I felt myself. There were four of us children. The potato crop had gone. The wheat crop had gone.
Looking back at the onslaught of the Great Famine Rossa would not believe that it was through the will or the work of God that the cursed calamity had befallen the country as people were saying. He considered it a blasphemy and an injustice to blame God for the devastation when people were guilty of it. He would not believe that it was the work of God when the wheat was taken from them so that his mother might pay the rent, but that the English landlords were behind it and that they were worse than the malign demons of Hell. In 1845 thousands of people were in the same plight as Rossa’s family. The landlords took the wheat to pay the rent, and they did not care at all what happened to those who had provided it, for where would you find people less inclined to humane behaviour than brutes such as Lansdowne and Townsend? No wonder that revenge for the injustice would follow presently, with rebellion, arson, and dynamite and the unquenchable unforgiving anger of O’Donovan Rossa.
The potato crop failed in other countries as well. In 1844 the blight had struck in parts of America. In 1845 it struck in England, in Scotland and in most of Europe. When the crop failed in Ireland in 1845 the government set up a commission to study the disease and to find a cure but although three distinguished scientists did their utmost they failed to find any remedy.
Discouraged by the experience of 1845 the farmers planted fewer potatoes in 1846. The acreage was 20% less so that even with a good harvest food shortages would have been severe. But that year saw a total disaster. The blight struck earlier and more viciously than the year before. Rossa saw the devastation in his own district just as it was to be seen in the whole country. The tubers hardly grew at all and the stalks withered so that there was no harvest worth mentioning. Many uncultivated and the yellow weed grew apace. Rossa would stand and look across Rosscarbery Bay to where the yellow weed , in a patch a mile long and a half mile wide, covered Brigatia Hill. It was an evil portent. It should have been a lovely golden sight in the sunshine but it had the deceiving flush of death.
The rot set in on the potatoes in June. On the 12 July, 1846 the Irish Farmer’s Gazette announced that the year’s crop had failed. Nevertheless, when Father Matthew was travelling to Dublin from Cork on 27 July, he saw the potatoes flourishing in field and garden and everything looked promising. He saw the same crops as he returned on 3 August, rotting and ruined by the blight. Where there should have been a potato harvest there was nothing to see in Irish fields but filth, weeds, and decay.
In that year of want, 1846, there were four brothers in the family of O’ Donovan Buidhe living in Derriduv, two miles out from Rosscarbery. They were very friendly with Rossa’s family. One day Donal O’ Donovan Buidhe came to the door of Rossa’s family home along with his wife, their six children and the pet donkey. They were looking for shelter for the night because the landlord had evicted them that morning. Rossa’s father told them to clean out the linney at the back of the house and to move in there. A while after that Jeremiah heard his father and mother whispering and looking questioningly at each other. He pricked up his ears. They were talking about the donkey. There was no trace of the donkey to be found. It had been eaten. The last place the donkey had been seen was in the yard behind the house and there was no way out of there except through the kitchen. and it hadn’t come that way. Skibbereen, where they ate the donkeys! was the frequent reproach against the district. It was true enough, but people were very fortunate if they lived at all, even on donkey meat.
The Rossa family were now in a serious predicament. Following the failure of the potato crop and having had their wheat taken by the landlord Rossa’s parents calculated how many pennies they had. It was a miserable reckoning. They were practically destitute and on top of it all they were deep in debt. Young Jeremiah sensed that they were having a council of war and that they were in serious trouble.
Disaster was staring Rossa’s parents and family in the face. Only one thing remained, to get a job on the public works schemes. These had started in February, 1846 under the supervision of the Board of Works. Building and repairing roads was the main activity. Craftsmen left their tools and those who tilled the land left their farms to work on the roads for a day’s pay.
Farmers were permitted to work on these schemes. Donnchadh O’Donovan Rossa found a place on such a scheme, and though the pay – ten pence a day as a rule – was miserable, it was still enough to feed his family. He was put in charge of a gang of men building a new road through Glen Rowry. He caught famine fever in March 1847. The foreman, Fineen O’Donovan, asked Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa to take over his father’s job in charge of the men and he accepted. He was sixteen years old, and thus got early experience of responsibility and of being in charge of men. He was to need this from then on because his father did not recover. The foreman came to Jeremiah at midday, 25 March 1847, to say he was wanted at home. When he got there his father was already dead.
Rosscarbery and Skibbereen and the surrounding country suffered their own disastrous share of the sufferings of those years, Skibbereen most of all. The following is a description, dated 6 February 1847, of scenes in that tormented town:
This place is one mass of hunger, disease and death; the poor creatures who have been trying up to now to live on one meal a day are fainting from fever and dysentery; they are unable to come for their portion of soup, and even that is not suitable for them...
[Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends]
There is a picture in the Illustrated London News, 13 February 1847, of the Old Chapel-lane and part of Bridgetown in Skibbereen which shows the pitiable appearance of the place and of the wretches who lived there. A body is being carried along Old Chapel-lane and a cortege of one or two persons is following it. The people around are paying no attention because it was all too common a sight. The hovels of the people look miserable and ruinous, one could hardly call them dwelling houses. The following are the words of the artist, James Mahony:
...I can now, with perfect confidence, say that neither pen nor pencil could ever portray the misery and horror, at this moment, to be witnessed in Skibbereen. We first proceeded to Bridgetown.... and there I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them....
Not a single house out of 500 could boast of being free from death and fever, though several could be pointed out with the dead lying close to the living for the space of three or four, even six days, without any effort being made to remove the bodies to a last resting place.
After leaving this abode of death, we proceeded to High Street, or Old Chapel-lane, and there found one house, without door or window, filled with destitute people lying on the bare floor; and one fine, tall, stout country lad, who had entered some hours previously to find shelter from the piercing cold, lay here dead amongst others likely soon to follow him.
This James Mahony and Doctor O’Donovan went to look at a shed in the Chapel Yard. This shed was seven feet long by six feet wide, and one could hardly credit the doctor’s account if did we not know from other people that there is no exaggeration in any part of it. He says:
This hut is surrounded by a rampart of human bones, which have accumulated to such a height that the threshold, which was originally on a level with the ground, is now two feet beneath it. In this horrible den, in the midst of a mass of human putrefaction, ..... men and women, labouring under the most malignant fever, were huddled together as closely as were the dead in the graves around....
Some twenty years after the famine the historian, Father O’Rourke, visited Abbeystrewery Cemetery near Skibbereen. There he saw the mass graves, the pits as they were called, where hundreds of bodies were buried without coffin or tears or funeral rites of any kind, often in the dead of night when that they would not be seen, so that those who undertook the burial could go to work the following day on the public works schemes and gain a further lease of life. The burial pit would be left open and when a body was put into it a little sawdust would be thrown on it and so on until the pit was full of bodies. Then the whole lot would be covered with clay.
It is necessary to include this account of what happened in Skibbereen and district during the famine years in order to give an idea of the things seen and heard by O’Donovan Rossa. These things made a deep impression on him, aroused his anger, formed his political outlook and hardened his determination to rid Ireland of those unfeeling elements which were responsible for the great disaster. Within a year he would be living in Skibbereen. He tells us how he often stood with his neighbours in that cemetery at Abbeystrewery looking at the mounds of clay beneath which the dead of Skibbereen had been buried without coffins after they had been killed by the landlords.
Published in The Green Dragon No 2, March 1997