Irish Famine and Cannibalism

“The horrors of famine include child abandonment, voluntary enslavement, increasing resort to prostitution, and the rupture of communal and neighborly loyalties. But perhaps the greatest horror of all is being the victim (or even worse, perpetrator) of cannibalism.” Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future by
Cormac Ó Gráda

Severity of the great famine map

Severity of the Great Famine (Picture via

The question most often asked when discussing the Irish Potato blight of 1845 is why people experienced famine and starvation on an island surrounded by seas filled with fish and land that grew crops before, throughout and after the years of the famine.

The most obvious answer is that the people became dependent upon the potato crop because it was easy to grow and grew abundantly in small lots. It was easily stored until almost the next harvest. It was nutritious when mixed with buttermilk. According to author Caoimhín Ó Danachair in the article Cottier and Landlord in Pre-Famine Ireland by 1830 owning a cow was a luxury. The potato became the staple.The population thrived on this simple to grow, easy to store, nutritious diet. Cottiers rented their quarter acre to three acres of land and became dependent on the potato crop.

The population of Ireland soared to almost 7 million people by the time the potato blight arrived in September 1845. Out of that 7 million, only 4% owned farms of 50 acres or larger. The country was congested, and the truth is if the potato blight didn’t arrive, something else would have come along in the form of disease to reduce the population.

I attended a lecture at The Great Hunger Museum in Hamden, CT (Most historians prefer to not use the word “famine” and use “the great hunger” as food was growing in Ireland but exported) on June 23rd 2016 entitled Famnesia, given by Dr. Bryce Evans of Liverpool Hope University. The gist of the lecture was the lack of attention given to the Irish Potato Famine on its 100th anniversary. Apart from a painting, cookbook and the ill-fated Liam O’Flaherty book Famine, there was no attempt to remember the period. People in the audience wondered why there was such reluctance to pay attention on the 100th anniversary. Three generations later, in 1945, we still were not ready to talk about it.

My own offering by means of an explanation, referred to a professor of Studies in Irish Society at NUI Galway. All sociology students were required to read Professor Chris Curtin’s Culture & Ideology in Ireland. Curtin mentions the word “respectability” quite a bit when referring to Irish society. This Irish notion of maintaining respectability meant that certain secrets would be taken to the grave as a way of protecting a family or individual’s standing within Irish society. Dr. Bryce Evans and I chatted briefly about the Irish famine and respectability and he said that in his research he had come across mentions of cannibalism during famine years. There’s a secret to take to the grave.

Skibberean Famine Field

Scene at Skibbereen during the Great Famine, by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847. (Picture via Wikipedia)

As I am currently doing some reading and research for Stained Glass, I came across my own little gem: a research article about species of fauna and wild life on the brink of extinction or adversely doing quite well, possibly due to the years of the famine. In Famines and the environment: The case of the Great Irish Famine by T. G. Fewer, the author posits that some wild animals and herbs were on the brink of extinction or thrived during the famine years.

“Wild animals negatively affected by the Famine included (according to folklore accounts) rabbits, hares, grouse, plover, crows, wood pigeons, frogs, snails and mice. There is even one tale of a man who regularly stole eggs and carrion from the nest of a golden eagle in County Mayo,” Fewer says.

Adversely, some species of animals thrived during the famine:

“Since cats and dogs were also reported to have fed on human corpses (Woodham-Smith, 1962: 182-3; Kinealy, 1996: 34), it seems likely that other scavengers such as foxes and a variety of birds would likewise have benefited from famine fatalities.”

So some animals and herbs were wiped off the land, maybe not entirely, but at least for the duration of the famine. More than likely our digestive system would not have been able to handle what was left to eat. But is it really possible that famine survivors turned to cannibalism? I hate thinking about it, and sick to my stomach that I might have to delve into this horrific fact even deeper. But I want facts, not whimsy fantasies, and this is a fact that I must face.

I have spent a lot of time on Chapter 6 of Stained Glass. It is set in Ireland in December of 1846. I’ve read numerous books and historical accounts of people living in ditches, a mother and her children searching a field for turnips on Christmas Eve in 1846, mobile coffins and a lot of other dark things during the famine period, but nothing comes close to the idea that cannibalism existed, which of course it did. Is dwelling on it important? Is admitting to it and acknowledging it important? I think it is. Because why would we want to put any other person through such an ordeal ever again?

Trocaire Box 1976

Trócaire Box 1976 (via Pinterest)

If there is one thing I have learned in my own research it is that the famine years can be used as an example of the horrific events that can happen to people and the environment during a famine. It is a slice of Irish history that can help us protect the environment and prevent world hunger and malnutrition in the future.

Famine aid has always been part of Irish sensitivity. Anyone growing up in Ireland is familiar with the Trócaire boxes. We’ve always been very aware that famine existed in the world and we wanted to help ease suffering by putting coins into the Trócaire box during Lent, or maybe even all year-long. Gorta is also an organization based in Ireland to help raise money to prevent or provide aid to famine countries. Gorta means famine and Trócaire means compassion. The Irish are familiar with both.

Maybe the trauma of the famine years is now part of our DNA. We carry ancestral secrets known or unknown with us to the grave. And maybe, as sad as it might be, we’re better humanitarians because of the invisible shame we carry. We’re still a respectable people.




New York Celebration of the Centenary of Easter Rising 1916

Today, Sunday April 24th, is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The rebellion began precisely at 12:04pm GMT in Dublin. Padraig Pearse stood at the GPO and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

On Pier A in The Battery in New York, giant banners hung to display the backstory to the Easter Rising and the key players behind it.

By August 3rd, 1916, 16 men would be executed for their part in the Easter Rising. The names of each man executed will be posted on my Facebook Page on the anniversary of their execution/s.

It is a sad thing to remember, the Easter Rising and its aftermath, especially when you read about how each man died, his last words and how brave they were facing their deaths. Each rebel deserves to be remembered. They were all brave.


The first four men would be executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail on May 3rd 1916.

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Little Christmas Day

My mother always hid one sprig of holly behind a hanging picture. “Good luck” she called it, for the new year ahead.  She couldn’t part with Christmas entirely it seems.

On January 6th she began taking down all our Christmas decorations. The last reminder of Christmas, a solitary red candle, illuminated each window, lighting the way for the arrival of the three kings.

The tree,  crispy and dry, stands bare at midnight on January 6th. The ornaments and tinsel removed and stored away until next year. The candles in each window burning as a reminder that this is the 12th day of Christmas. The last day of Christmas, and in Ireland we called it Little Christmas.

There was no special dinner, no gifts were exchanged. The house, looking Day time candleempty and sterile, returned to its regular run of the mill existence. The last reminder of colorful Christmas clutter remains on the window sill, waiting for midnight.

Happy 2016 to all, and as the decorations and tree are removed remember to have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

What Immigrants of the Irish Great Hunger Can Teach US

In a recent conversation regarding the present migrant crisis in Europe, and the current fear mongering against Muslims, I began to see a similarity between the mass exodus of the Irish due to the Great Hunger in the years after 1845. Is there anything we can learn from a comparison?

Marginalisation of immigrants is a pattern that repeats throughout history. Europe and now America are continuing that pattern. Fear, always the main ingredient of marginalisation, now at an all-time high. “Who are we letting in?” being the question most people ask.

There are some similarities between the current European migrant crisis, our US terrorist situation and the Irish who managed to survive the treacherous trans-Atlantic ocean crossing in the years after 1845.

I’ve written here before about coffin ships and the horrible conditions Irish emigrants endured. Not every ship was a “coffin ship.” There were a few ships, such as the Dunbrody, and the Jeanie Johnston that made the journey with minimal or no loss of life. Most quarantined ships during the Great Hunger years brought emigrants to the Canadian port of Grosse Île in Quebec.

Grosse Ile quarantined the sick, controlled the spread of disease and the flow of immigrants into Canada and the US.

If Irish immigrants did survive the journey on the coffin ship, and many did not, it was the first in a series of hurdles that they would need to clear.

Approved for entry into their new homelands, the migrants did not look healthy compared to the natives. The skeletal immigrants were looked on as sub-human and diseased. They’d saved what they could for the long journey in a time when food and money were scarce. What little money they did have was put aside for passage fares on coffin ships, not food.

It was not long before “No-Irish Need Apply” signs began to appear in shop windows and lodging houses throughout the US.

The Irish, a starving people, did not fit in and were treated poorly because of it. They looked “sick.” Why was there a shortage of food in Ireland during the years 1845-1852? Ireland is a farming country. Lots of good farmland for growing crops and grazing livestock, so why not eat what you grow?

Christine Kinealy in History Ireland magazine says, “Almost 4,000 vessels carried food from Ireland to the ports of Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool and London during 1847,…The food was shipped under military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland;… A wide variety of commodities left Ireland during 1847, including peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey, tongues, animal skins, rags, shoes, soap, glue and seed.”

Though popular opinion at the time would have alleged the Irish to be sick, lazy and half-witted, nothing could have been further from the truth. The Irish worked hard to assimilate into a new culture. Were all immigrants perfectly behaved? Of course not. But the larger population of Irish did work hard, making a respectable life in their new homelands.

Here’s a few  notable Irish-Americans who made a difference. There are a few gangsters in there too, I won’t revise history, but the positive immigrants and their lagacies by far out weigh the negative ones.

The Irish were not the only immigrants to go through a rough transition period. Italian, Chinese, German, Jewish and Mexican immigrants have all endured growing pains in the US. In 1875 the US government began to regulate immigration and only a few years later the US banned immigrants from certain countries. Sometimes ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Japanese,  already citizens and living in the US, were marginalized and discredited as well as being treated like third class citizens.

I am not against increased security checks for immigrants. I myself was interviewed, fingerprinted, TB tested, lung x-rayed and AIDS tested, yes I was. And so was every other Donnelly Visa Lottery winner. Determined to get a visa for the US, I was willing to jump through every hoop presented in order to get my legal visa, eventually a Green Card, and then citizenship.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
(Picture via New York City Wallpapers)

In fact, I have nothing against comfortable and humane quarantine stations either, the cost of which should be burdened by all countries of processed immigrants. If we are taking in the tired, poor and huddled masses, share that burden with us.

There are a lot of ways  to do background checks and prevent undesirable immigrants from entering the US presently. Detaining immigrants until they have been fingerprinted and have background checks and deporting the ones who refuse is a good start.

Gun control is another excellent step in the right direction to protect us from terrorists at home and abroad. Despite what Donald Trump is saying, not every Muslim is a terrorist. Anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing more than Donald Trump’s scare-mongering for votes. Hitler did it and Oliver Cromwell did as well.

History. Sometimes we can learn from it, more often than not we learn nothing more than  we are doomed to repeat it.

A college education is not for everyone.

Resilience-modelSeptember 1988, sitting in a small lecture room on the NUI Galway Campus, one of my Italian Language Professors made a statement that I will never forget. She told the class to look to their right at the person sitting next to them, and then to their left. There was a red head on my right and a brunette to my left. They were both nice people.

“Pick one of these people to say goodbye to now, because that person will not proceed on to second year.”

It was hard to hear that statement at the time. In fact I thought it would be me who wouldn’t return, but it wasn’t. I broke a sweat, cracked the books, hit the lecture halls and tutorials. I hoped for the best but expected the worst. One third of first year university students would drop out of college. That was the statistic in 1988.

In September of the following year, the brunette to my left did not return to NUI Galway. The professor’s statement sounded harsh at the time, but it was true. The blow was softened when the professor finished her statement with, “You don’t need a college education to do well or live a happy life.”

Can you imagine the outcry if that professor made that statement today?

The title of this blogpost is taken directly from a comment to Kathleen Parker’s excellent article in the Washington Post, For thin-skinned college students, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.  It won’t be easy for today’s parents to accept that we should blame ourselves. Between helicopter parenting and making sure our children had everything they needed to succeed, we forgot to prepare them for the one thing that everyone experiences from time to time, failure.

Resilience-bend-or-break-Before you millennials blame us parents, and yes we are part of the problem, keep this in mind:  know that we wanted the best for you and tried to give it to you. And we were wrong.

We should have let you fail when you did fail. We should have let you fall when you did fall. Because there were times when you did not deserve the trophy or the medal but were given them for being on the team, even though the team lost. So now you know, learn from it. Mel Brooks calls it a bounce : the ability to see a positive from a negative situation. I call it resilience.

The recent blog post by Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!, further highlights the issue that not everyone is ready for a university education. Your mind needs to be open to debate, open to new thinking. You need to be resilient.

Universities are institutes of higher learning, that means that ideas and opinions will be discussed, thesis statements formulated, and many debates will occur, because this is how we learn. We listen. We discuss. We disagree. We debate. We rethink. We research. We read. We agree to disagree. We learn.

Ideas are not stagnant pools of thought. They need to be stirred up with discussion and debate, how else do we move forward? How else do we gain higher knowledge? Again I will state that Debate should be on the core curriculum for middle and high schools. It isn’t enough to just say, “that’s your perspective,” anymore. Make students debate against their own opinion. That’s true perspective. I asked my debate team students to raise their hands if they were pro the debate topic, and then make them debate con. Did they complain? Absolutely. But did they learn that not everyone will agree? Absolutely. Did they learn resilience? I certainly hope so.

Shouting at a professor, or university president simply because you Resilience Picture for Blogdisagree with their opinion is not higher level thinking, it’s a hissy fit. If you can’t discuss different opinions without yelling, then university may not be the place for you. And that’s ok too. I know plenty of people who did not go to university who live happy and fulfilled lives, who are also resilient.

The demands listed by college student activist groups are lengthy and varied. You can check out the list of demands each college has posted on

Cogito, ergo sum.

i-Think-Therefore-I-am_-TShirtsIt seems to me, as I sit and listen to myself and others share our written works, that dialogue and description are safe. Thoughts on the other hand, being inside someone’s head, is far more dangerous.

As I writer, I have very little difficulty in setting the scene, describing the view, making characters speak and creating conversations. But real character development comes from emotions. From the brain. The thought process. What does the character think?

Today, as I worked on my new novel, I realized that the description and dialogue are easy because they reveal nothing about me. But writing what a character is thinking, well that just pulls the curtains back on my brain. And it is that notion of revealing what I think a character is thinking that makes it scary. It reveals something about me. So, for the most part, I shy away from it. Why? Because I am afraid of being judged. And the result is my characters are flat, stereotypical and just not real.

Character development is tough. But showing the thinking processes of characters fleshes them out, makes them real and believable. How they speak and act makes them individual and memorable, but what they think makes them real. Gives them impetus and motivation. It is something I struggle with when writing, and probably will do for quite sometime. But I keep telling myself that writing is like painting, I apply layers of words and sentences. Action, dialogue, descriptions, and lastly, the characters’ thoughts.

René Descartes said it first. “I think, therefore I am.”

Lunch Time

I bought a Nutribullet two years ago, because I learned the hard way, getting sick, that I was not getting enough nutrients from fruits and vegetables in my daily diet.

Although I do eat well, its hard to pack a nutritional punch into every meal. Either I feel too full, or I simply don’t have the time to sit and eat a plateful of spinach, or cooked kale or whatever else is needed to ward off illness and boost the immune system.

The Lunch bags ready for the freezer!

The Lunch bags ready for the freezer!

But who says we have to eat our vegetables and fruit? Why can’t we drink them instead? Every two weeks I stock up on spinach, kale, bananas, blueberries and chocolate protein shakes. It takes me about half an hour to wash and then bag and freeze all the fruits and veg, but that’s my two weeks of lunch ready to go!

Muscle Milk. 100 calories and sugar free as well as gluten free!

Muscle Milk. 100 calories and sugar free as well as gluten free!

I freeze everything in little single serving sized freezer bags. Empty one bag into the Nutribullet at lunch time, then add a frozen pouch of Acai berries, a bottle of chocolate protein shake, sounds disgusting but I love the taste. Add a small cup of water and give it a Nutribullet blast. Delicious!!

Moving to Ireland?

(Picture Via

(Picture Via

If you are thinking about moving to Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter, you might want to do some comparisons before you pack your bags.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development,  or OECD for short, you should only pack your bags and head for Ireland if you already have a job and will earn over $23,917 a year, as disposable income!

Does Ireland out perform the USA in healthcare, education, environment, employment, community, housing? Does life balance out against work in general?

Yes, for the most part the two countries are even, with only miniscule differences in areas such as education, America scored 0.1 higher than Ireland. Housing, America scored 0.8 higher. Environment, Ireland scored 0.1 higher. Civic engagement, Ireland scored 0.6 higher. Safety, Ireland scored 0.4 higher. And health, America scored 0.4 higher than Ireland.

The big discrepancies occur with income, life-work balance and community. Ireland leads the way with community, at 2.6 higher than the US there is a stronger sense of connection among Irish people living in Ireland. The US leads by 6.9 with Income. The US leads by 1.9 with jobs. And again the US leads by 0.5 when it comes to life satisfaction. But Ireland takes the 2.6 lead when it measures life-work balance.

There is quite a big income gap according to the OECD. “There is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn almost five times as much as the bottom 20%.” That’s a significant gap!

So the long and short of it is: If you don’t mind rain, have 100% job security, and earn enough to leave you almost $24,000 to play with, then Ireland might be the place for you. I mention rain because among most Irish immigrants it is the one major deterring factor about relocating to Ireland. It sounds silly that something like the weather should be such an important factor, but Irish weather comes up a lot in conversations about Ireland.

The country is historic, scenic and the people are friendly, and well-educated. Life in Ireland could very well suit you, so long as the rain doesn’t dampen your spirits.