The Great Famine - A watershed in Irish history

Week IV

Funeral at Skibbereen, drawn by Henry Smyth, and published in the ILN January 30 1847, had a powerful impact on readers at home and in America.

Funeral at Skibbereen, drawn by Henry Smyth, and published in the ILN January 30 1847, had a powerful impact on readers at home and in America.

During the seven years of the Great Famine approximately one million people died. A million more emigrated causing Ireland’s population to fall by between 20 and 25 per cent. The initial cause of famine was a potato disease which ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s.

However the impact in Ireland was disproportionate as one third of the population was dependent on the potato for their existence. This dependence was the result of a range of ethnic, religious, political, social and economic reasons, such as land acquisition, absentee landlords, and the Corn Laws, all of which contributed to the disaster to varying degrees. It remains the subject of intense historical debate.

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political, and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish, and those of the resulting Diaspora, the famine is seared into folk memory. The government’s lack of response, the appalling attitude of some government officials, the fact that Ireland was a net exporter of food at the time, and that no one in government made the connection between the exportation of food, and the starving people at home, caused fury and outrage among nationalists, and emigrants abroad, especially in the United States.

It became a rallying point for various Home Rule and United Ireland movements, and a rallying cry that was to echo into the following century, culminating in the Easter Rising, April 24 1916.

Society of Friends

For the past three weeks I have been looking at the efforts by artists working in the field. Their vivid images, projected through the new art of engraving, which illustrated newspapers for the first time in the 1840s, was to eventually change public opinion, and prompt humanitarian relief. That came initially from the churches, both Catholic and Protestant. But among those who provided the most effective help here in the west, were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, from both the English midlands, and from America. They provided mostly flour, rice, biscuits and Indian meal. American railroads carried, free of charge, all packages marked ‘Ireland’.

But more importantly perhaps, Quakers set up centres, notably at Letterfrack, Connemara, where they provided funds to assist farmers to replant their fields, and to support fishermen in coastal towns. Measures which not only produced additional food but helped many people to get back on their feet as things improved. They also taught new farming methods; while young girls were taught household management and cooking skills so if/when they emigrated they all got good jobs.

A harrowing scene.

Illustrated scenes from the Great Famine brought to life as never before, one of the first global calamities to feature in popular newspapers. Some of them vary in quality; and to the modern reader they may appear timid and poor. But Niamh O’Sullivan, in her interesting book, The Tombs of a Departed Race,** urges us to look again, to see their detail, and to understand the impact that graphic horror had on the reading public.

Government may have chosen to ignore the devastation, but hearts and minds were changed thanks to these images.

One of the most famous is this funeral scene from Skibbereen, drawn by a Mr Henry Smyth, of Cork, and published in the Illustrated London News, January 30 1847. It is a harrowing scene. A demented father(? ) whips a half dead horse bearing the bodies of two sons(? ) to the common grave outside the town.*** Three men, in ragged clothing, point and wonder ‘where will it all end?’ The stunted tree signifies a barren earth.

It had such an impact that it was reproduced in the New York Herald a few weeks later, February 28. The picture has all the power of Francisco Goya’s tormented drawings of the war and famine in Spain (Los Desastres de la Guerra, painted earlier in the 19th century ), and of Picasso’s famous Guernica (1937 ).

NOTES: In all the Quakers gave approximately £200,000 for relief in Ireland, the equivalent of more than £30 million in today’s terms. Ireland owes a great debt of gratitude to the Quakers. I do not think that it has ever been expressed.

** Niamh O’Sullivan’s book, published by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, is on sale in Kenny’s and Charlie Byrne’s bookshops, €11.99.

*** Outside Skibbereen, on the Bantry road, an impressive monument today marks the common grave or pit, where famine and diseased bodies, were dumped.

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