A Letter from Ireland:
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The Irish Famine and Dear Old Skibbereen

Famine Memorial at Abbeystrewery

Famine Memorial at Abbeystrewery

Are you familiar with the Irish Famine of the mid-1800s – sometimes known as “The Great Hunger”. Well, this is a very different sort of letter today. My original plan was to talk a little about the pattern of emigration from Ireland over the last 300 years—and how that has been so linked to climate and harvest failures. But, sometimes feelings overtake facts.

As I went through much of the wonderful literature—especially the “Atlas of the Great Irish Famine“—a single photograph jumped out. It was a picture from 2009. In it, the children of a local school, about 80 in total, linked hands around a small green plot in Abbeystrewery cemetery in Skibbereen. They looked like a red daisy chain against the vibrant green of the well-mown plot.

skibbereenletters

Abbeystrewery, Skibbereen

However, buried under that small plot were between 8000 and 10,000 famine victims—dead from hunger and disease. You really cannot separate feelings from facts when you look at such a picture. My own great-grandparents are buried in this cemetery. Their mothers and fathers would have been alive at the time of these burials. Perhaps yours were too.

As you look at the famines and crop failures of the 1700s and the 1800s which drove so many of the population of this island to so many corners of the world—you start to notice the pattern of rent-racking, eviction and land-grabs that amplified these terrible natural disasters so much more. First, the Ulster Scots left their smallholdings in their hundreds of thousands for the colonies and later the Gaelic Irish left in even greater numbers.

Plaque at Abbeystrewery

Plaque at Abbeystrewery

It becomes very difficult to articulate the feelings that well up inside. So, it’s time to stop. I’ll give up on my own words now and turn to the lyrics of the 19th century folk song “Skibbereen”:

Oh father dear, I oft-times hear you speak of Erin’s isle,

Her lofty hills, her valleys green, her mountains rude and wild,

They say she is a lovely land wherein a saint might dwell,

So why did you abandon her, the reason to me tell.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride,

Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,

My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem,

And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Patrick Carpenter

Question: Did your ancestors leave Ireland because of the “Great Hunger” of the mid 1800s?

  • Jo says:

    My 3rd GG’s (McGillicuddy/O’Connor and Noonan/Sullivan) arrived in 1885 and 1886, to Boston, from Co Kerry; so their parents certainly
    survived An Gorta Mor. They had somehow retained their farm in Anabla
    throughout it all and were raising cattle by the 1880’s. Family
    remains on the farm to this day (McGillicuddy). My Noonan side were tenant farming in Tralee when they left.

    Some
    people don’t realize that there were a series of famines in Ireland.
    ‘Big’ famine happened twice: in 1740-1741 and the worst -and most
    infamous – one in 1845-1849. The British government sometimes paid
    long-term workhouse families emigration fees to send them off, and they
    also encouraged single young women to emigrate, with British companies
    sponsoring their fees. (Guess they were hoping to rid Ireland of it’s
    Irish!)

    Subsequently there was a ‘mini-famine’ in 1879. The 1879 famine was
    completely different, as by then the British government responded
    quickly, AND many, many families had money being sent from America and
    elsewhere by those that had immigrated.

  • Jo says:

    I’ve often wondered how my ‘Greats’ managed to hang onto their farm during the Great Famine. I realize being in Co. Kerry, a Catholic stronghold, helped a little bit against the ravages of British policies further north, but it still makes me wonder what their experiences were as the Famine swept through the country, year after year; it must have seemed like all of Ireland was dying and would never recover. Heartbreaking and chilling..

  • Brannigan says:

    From my Mother’s side, my Great Great Grandparents (William and Ellen Quinn) arrived in Pennsylvania between 1851 and 1855. From my Father’s side, My Great Grandparents (Francis and Susan Brannigan) arrived in Pennsylvania in 1869. Both of these familys went to the coal fields of Durham County, England during the famine years to work.

  • Patricia Farrell says:

    When I was very young I read a book about the famine. Both sets of my Grandparents came from County Longford and County Kerry. They were all born in the late 1800’s so they had to have felt the effects of it. Yet when I asked my Grandmother about it she totally ignored the question. When I asked my Mothers cousin in Kerry about how they all survived the famine? All I got was “fine”. end of discussion. I think the Irish are a proud people and are embarrassed by pity.

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  • Mark Flynn Garretson says:

    I too, have that Atlas. As a reference, it is too much pain and suffering

    to comprehend at times.

  • Diana Goetsch says:

    Yes that is partly the reason why they left Ireland and came here in the 1850’s.They came here from County Cork, to New York then Ohio and then to Illinois where they lived thier lives and are buried here.I am one of thier great great great grandchildren.

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