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   Chapter 57 THE FAMINE.

The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 10158

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

All the time the earlier of the foregoing scenes were being enacted, the famine had been drawing its python grasp tighter and tighter around the unhappy island. The first symptoms of the dread potato disease showed themselves in the autumn of 1845, and even that year there was much suffering, though a trifle to what was to follow. Many remedies were tried, both to stop the blight and save the crops, but all alike proved unavailing. The next year the potatoes seemed to promise unusually well, and the people, with characteristic hopefulness, believed that their trouble was over. The summer, however, was very warm and wet, and with August there came on a peculiarly dense white fog, which was believed by all who were in Ireland at the time to have carried the blight with it in its folds. Whether this was the case or not, there is no doubt that in a single fatal night nearly the whole potato crop over the entire country blackened, and perished utterly. Then, indeed, followed despair. Stupor and a sort of moody indifference succeeded to the former buoyancy and hopefulness. There was nothing to do; no other food was attainable. The fatal dependence upon a single precarious crop had left the whole mass of the people helpless before the enemy.

Soon the first signs of famine began to appear. People were to be seen wandering about; seeking for stray turnips, for watercresses, for anything that would allay the pangs of hunger. The workhouses, detested though they were, were crammed until they could hold no single additional inmate. Whole families perished; men, women, and children lay down in their cabins and died, often without a sign. Others fell by the roadside on their way to look for work or seek relief. Only last summer, at Ballinahinch in Connemara, the present writer was told by an old man that he remembered being sent by his master on a message to Clifden, the nearest town, and seeing the people crawling along the road, and that, returning the same way a few hours later, many of the same people were lying dead under the walls or upon the grass at the roadside. That this is no fancy picture is clear from local statistics. No part of Ireland suffered worse than Galway and Mayo, both far more densely populated then than at present. In this very region of Connemara an inspector has left on record, having to give orders for the burying of over a hundred and thirty bodies found along the roads within his own district.

Mr. W.E. Forster, who, above all other Englishmen deserved the gratitude of Ireland for his efforts during this tragic time, has left terrible descriptions of the scenes of which he was himself an eye-witness, especially in the west. "The town of Westport," he tells us in one of his reports, "was itself a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities; its streets crowded with gaunt wanderers, sauntering to and fro with hopeless air and hunger-struck look--a mob of starved, almost naked women around the poor-house clamouring for soup-tickets. Our inn, the head-quarters of the road engineer and pay clerks, beset by a crowd of beggars for work." In another place "the survivors," he says, "were like walking skeletons--the men gaunt and haggard, stamped with the livid mark of hunger; the children crying with pain; the women in some of the cabins too weak to stand. When there before I had seen cows at almost every cabin, and there were besides many sheep and pigs owned in the village. But now the sheep were all gone--all the cows, all the poultry killed--only one pig left; the very dogs which had barked at me before had disappeared--no potatoes; no oats."

One more extract more piteous even than the rest: "As we went along our wonder was not that the people died, but that they lived; and I have no doubt whatever that in any other country the mortality would have been far greater; that many lives have been prolonged, perhaps saved, by the long apprenticeship to want in which the Irish peasant had been trained, and by that lovely touching charity which prompts him to share his scanty meal with his starving neighbour."

Of course all this time there was no lack of preventative measures. Large sums had been voted from the Treasury; stores of Indian corn introduced; great relief works set on foot. An unfortunate fatality seemed, however, to clog nearly all these efforts. Either they proved too late to save life, or in some way or other to be unsuitable to the exigencies of the case. Individual charity, too, came out upon the most magnificent scale. All Europe contributed, and English gold was poured forth without stint or stay. Still the famine raged almost unchecked. The relief works established by the Government, with the best intentions possible, too often were devoted to the most curiously useless, sometimes even to actually harmful, objects. To this day "Famine roads" may be met with in the middle of snipe bogs, or skirting precipices where no road was ever wanted or could possibly be used. By the time, too, they were in full working order the people w

ere, in many cases, too enfeebled by want and disease to work. For close upon the heels of the famine followed an epidemic hardly less fatal than itself. In the course of the two years that it raged over two hundred thousand people are said to have perished from this cause alone, and three times the number to have been attacked and permanently enfeebled by it.

In 1849 a Relief Act was passed which established soup kitchens throughout the unions, where food was to be had gratis by all who required it. Long before this similar kitchens had been privately set on foot, and men and women had devoted themselves to the work with untiring energy and the most absolute self-devotedness. Of these self-appointed and unpaid workers a large number shared the fate of those whom they assisted. Indeed, it is one of the most singular features of the time that not only old, or feeble, or specially sensitive people died, but strong men, heads of houses--not regarded as by any means specially soft-hearted--raised, too, by circumstances out of reach of actual hunger, died--just as O'Connell had died--of sheer distress of mind, and the effort to cope with what was beyond the power of any human being to cope with. In the single county of Galway the records of the times show--as may easily be verified--an extraordinary number of deaths of this type, a fact which alone goes far to disprove those accusations of heartlessness and indifference which have in some instances been too lightly flung.

After the famine followed ruin--a ruin which swept high and low alike into its net. When the poor rate rose to twenty and twenty-five shillings in the pound it followed that the distinction between rich and poor vanished, and there were plenty of instances of men, accounted well off, who had subscribed liberally to others at the beginning of the famine, who were themselves seeking relief before the end. The result was a state of things which has left bitterer traces behind it than even the famine itself. The smaller type of landowners, who for the most part had kindly relations with their tenants, were swept away like leaves before the great storm, their properties fell to their creditors, and were sold by order of the newly established Encumbered Estates Courts. No proposing purchaser would have anything to say to estates covered with a crowd of pauper tenants, and the result was a wholesale clearance, carried out usually by orders given by strangers at a distance, and executed too often with a disregard of humanity that it is frightful to read or to think of. Most of the people thus ejected in the end emigrated, and that emigration was under the circumstances their best hope few can reasonably doubt. Even here, however, misfortune pursued them. Sanitary inspection of emigrant ships was at the time all but unheard of, and statistics show that the densely crowded condition of the vessels which took them away produced the most terrible mortality amongst the already enfeebled people who crowded them, a full fifth of the steerage passengers in many cases, it is said, dying upon the voyage, and many more immediately after landing. The result of all this has been that the inevitable horrors of the time have been deepened and intensified by a sense of ill-usage, which has left a terrible legacy behind--one which may prove to be a peril to generations still unborn. Even where those who emigrated have prospered most, and where they or their sons are now rich men, they cling with unhappy persistency to the memory of that wretched past--a memory which the forty years which have intervened, far from softening, seem, in many cases, to have only lashed into a yet more passionate bitterness.

In Ireland itself the permanent effects of the disaster differed of course in different places and with different people, but in one respect it may be said to have been the same everywhere. Between the Ireland of the past and the Ireland of the present the Famine lies like a black stream, all but entirely blotting out and effacing the past. Whole phases of life, whole types of character, whole modes of existence and ways of thought passed away then and have never been renewed. The entire fabric of the country was torn to pieces and has never reformed itself upon the same lines again. After a while everyday life began again of course, as it does everywhere all over the world, and in some respects the struggle for existence has never since been quite so severe or so prolonged. The lesson of those two terrible years has certainly not been lost, but like all such lessons it has left deep scars which can never be healed. Men and women, still alive who remember the famine, look back across it as we all look back across some personal grief, some catastrophe which has shattered our lives and made havoc of everything we cared for. We, too, go on again after a while as if nothing had happened, yet we know perfectly well all the while that matters are not the least as they were before; that on the contrary they never can or will be.

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