Irish Famine story–2002

                                                The Blight                                          


Arriving in Liverpool in December of 1850, I realized that an objective account of a few Irish emigrants would be impossible, so affected was I by the suffering I saw there.  Nevertheless, a weepy emotional account of the situation there would be of no use to anyone due the already widespread accounts of suffering.  It would be more advantageous to examine the causes of this mass exodus by having a few of the famished recount the path that led them to the docks of Liverpool.  Setting foot on the docks proved to be fruitless in my endeavor because the urgency of the people’s situation was such that conversation was nearly impossible.  When the ship sailed, however, I saw that a few of the people I had previously seen clamoring for a berth remained on land and so I simply captured their attention with an offer of supper. The following accounts show how all levels of society were enormously affected by the famine and the English reaction.

            The first person to relate their story (through my interpreter) was a young woman whose appearance did not have the vestiges of starvation.  It was soon revealed that Siobhan Lawler was a descendant of the middlemen tenants who had previously gone between the landowners and farmers.  One could infer that the young lady’s ancestors once owned their own land in Ireland. Her grandfather was reduced to a tenant farmer around 1817 and was active in the secret agrarian societies thereafter.[1] It was her family’s membership in these societies that instilled a strong anti-English sentiment in Siobhan. 

Siobhan was raised in Westport where her family was relatively well off relative to the majority of Irish society.  In addition to growing potatoes, they raised pigs and sheep and were also involved in the linen trade before the demand for Irish cloth disappeared.[2] Though usually reliant on the potato for daily nourishment, the Lawlers were not hit as hard as most when the first potato crop failed.  Pre famine, the family Lawler had opposed the poor law, citing the conditions of the workhouses as inhumane.  When the famine began to take its toll, however, all efforts were directed towards survival.  This is a common tale among the survivors because when hunger reaches certain intensity, it dominates all other thoughts, save death.  There is generally no will to protest in the face of nature and the most common result is a strong anger towards those who will not help, the English.  A strong undercurrent to Siobhan’s account is a tradition of blaming the English for the Irish plight. 

            The third time the “blight” or decaying smell rose from the ground, Siobhan lost her faith in God to save her and the people she knew.  As more and more neighbors fled to workhouses or for parts unknown, the family had to choose between staying put and hoping for some charitable relief effort to come about before being forced off the land or take a chance on a new location.  Not believing anyone would save them it was decided that two of Siobhan’s brothers would travel to New York and eventually the rest of the family would follow.  This brings to mind the when I first saw Siobhan, kissing her brother as he boarded the ship on the Liverpool dock.  An intelligent girl, Siobhan should get along in England until she can join her brothers in the new world.  Siobhan’s tale in not a common one because the vast majority of rural Irish farmers were not nearly well off enough to survive the famine so unscathed.  Nonetheless, although Siobhan is closemouthed about the death she was undoubtedly witnessed to, one only has to look in her eyes to see that she has suffered greatly along with the rest of the country.

            The other account I shall relate is that of James Conley, a man whose experience of the famine is as disturbing as it is miraculous.  The story does by no means have an optimistic tone to it but his ordeal has convinced him that even the English are powerless to halt the famine. This is not to say James holds the English unaccountable, simply that the magnitude of the disaster precludes salvation by legislation or even direct charity.  This is in contrast to Siobhan who strongly disapproved of English practices in general.  He is the only surviving member of his family and has robbed an Englishman in order to book passage to America.  His appearance is one of a sick man and is unsettling at times to look at, the image of a corpse telling the story of his death.

James was born in county Cork where his family of Mother, Father, three sisters and two brothers, along with a few chickens, lived in a hut on the land where they grew potatoes and some grain. The family’s daily nourishment consisted of little more than

Milk and potatoes and while this diet does provide adequate sustenance, there were no consistent alternatives to this diet available. [3]  When the first crop failed, the Conley family tried to save some of the grain for their own consumption but their actions were discovered and they were kicked off the land.  For the large number of people in similar situations the most hopeful course of action would be to find sanctuary in a workhouse.  Given the general conditions of these workhouses, sanctuary would hardly be a fitting description but the feeling was that it might be better than starving by the side of the road.  When in 1846 the public works were shut down, James left the workhouse after having witnessed the death of his parents and two sisters.  James and the remaining survivors of the workhouse actually found some luck in the form of Quakers.  The Quakers had organized charitable effort that in the county Cork took the form of soup kitchens.[4]  If not for these soup kitchens James would have most likely died because after being released from the workhouse, he contracted yellow fever.  At a time and place where starvation and malnutrition were rampant, a disease like this should have been a death sentence.  He describes how people fled from him and refused to aid him in any attempt at recovery. Fortunately, a priest he had known from childhood agreed to bring him soup while he was still alive.  After his recovery, James was unable to find his remaining siblings and decided based on rumors that moving northeast would yield a better chance for work.[5]  Finding no more legitimate work than in Cork, James joined a gang of thieves who robbed food caravans and farms.  His gang was encouraged to join the Irish confederation fighting the English laws but few joined, hunger being more important than political aims for most peasants.[6]  With growing English reports of food theft and resulting English police presence, James left the gang and was able to survive on turnips stolen from the local farmers still able to plant.  After nearly being killed by angry landowners, he returned to a workhouse in 1850.  Being relatively more fit than most others in the workhouse, he is able to survive and amazingly find his way to the east coast of Ireland.  Stowing away on a ship bound for Liverpool, James arrived a whisper away from death.

            Siobhan and James both tell their stories in what can only be described as shell shock or “post-traumatic stress” despite the differences in their stories.  The important difference between them is their attitudes about what caused the famine.  Siobhan maintains that the situation is the fault of the English who created an oppressive system and then did not take responsibility when that system was damaged.  James, perhaps influenced by the English Quakers, rests most of the blame on God’s shoulders though recognizing insufficient aid on the part of the British.   Despite their different beliefs about the causes of the famine and the comparative harshness of their tales, neither seems able to distance themselves from the disaster.


[1] Grey, Peter. The Irish Famine. P.25

[2] Grey p.133

[3] Grey p.130

[4] Grey p.54

[5] Grey p.94

[6] Grey p.75


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