Shock over Scenes of the Great Hunger in Victoria

I will be finishing up #StainedGlass in the next 6 months. My research for it taught me so many horrific events during the Great Hunger of 1845-1849. It wasn’t a famine, there was food in Ireland, but it was shipped abroad. I was delighted to hear that the #ITV series #Victoria dealt with the story of the Great Hunger. Time to really dive into history and learn the truth about the #GreatHunger #AnGortaMor

From The Great Hunger Museum in Hamden Connecticut. Lord John Russel's response to the famine.

From The Great Hunger Museum in Hamden Connecticut. Lord John Russel’s response to the famine.

Multiple reports have appeared recently regarding the shock British viewers of the ITV series Victoria felt when viewing a recent episode about the Irish famine of 1845-1849.

Irish Central’s report of viewers in the U.K. being upset by scenes of the #GreatHunger in #Victoria was followed by the Irish Post and RTE The upset was due in part, according to the Express UK to  viewers’ shock that  they were not taught the history of the famine and the fact that over 1 million people died and another one million emigrated during the years 1845-1849.

Great Hunger Museum in Hamden Connecticut.  Food grown in Ireland during 1845-1849 was a "Money Crop" and could not be interfered with because of profit.

Great Hunger Museum in Hamden Connecticut. Food grown in Ireland during 1845-1849 was a “Money Crop” and could not be interfered with because of profit.

My guess is that the scenes were sanitized for TV. I mean, how on earth can you show a line of weak and frail bodies being swept of a cliff by a gust of wind? How can you show a mother eating the flesh off her dead son’s leg? And how can you show rats and dogs eating corpses without really telling the true story of the Great Hunger. And how on earth could you show bodies being dragged with boat hooks off coffin ships arriving in Canada.

Great Hunger Museum Hamden Connecticut Coffin Ships and Emigration during the years 1845-1849

Great Hunger Museum Hamden Connecticut Coffin Ships and Emigration during the years 1845-1849

Let’s stop calling it a #Famine. There was food in the country-export records prove it.

Tweet on Exports

It was a forced starvation. “Agent Hunger” Young Irelander John Mitchel predicted in 1844, could be used “as a catalyst for revolution.” The potato blight reached Ireland at the end of September in 1845. If Mitchel could predict hunger being used as a catalyst for revolution, then it was premeditated. Have a look at comments made by Charles Trevelyan during the years of the Great Hunger. 

Great Hunger Museum in Hamden CT Charles Trevelyan's response to the Great Hunger

Great Hunger Museum in Hamden CT Charles Trevelyan’s response to the Great Hunger

  • If the Irish once find out that there are any circumstances in which they can get free government grants, we shall have a system of mendicancy [begging] such as the world never knew”. After a million had starved to death he stated “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.

You can’t premeditate a famine. #GreatHunger, but you can take advantage of a potato blight when that food is a staple diet of an impoverished nation.


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.



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.

The Foundling

The Foundling

Front cover of The Foundling by Loretto Leary

Robert Mountbellew, an English nobleman, returns to his Irish estate in the west of
Ireland in the summer of 1843 to spend a summer hunting and to gain closure to a
dysfunctional relationship with his now deceased father.

Mountbellew feels displaced, neither belonging to the upper or lower classes. Robert should be choosing a wife, but the life of an upper class English gent seems stifling
and unrewarding to him.

Robert’s desire to belong leads him into Irish politics of the 1800’s, and a love affair that his own class disapproves of. The summer of 1843 would liberate and confine Robert Mountbellew.

Click here for a preview of The Foundling available for purchase from by December 9th.

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