Among My Souvenirs

Stories of the road

The Great Potato Famine

A rainy November day in Ireland is not much of anything to write about. November is usually a very wet month in the Isles. So a remarkable note is struck when suddenly the rain gives way, the clouds part their veil and a small shimmer of sun kisses the earth. Here among the rolling hills of the southwestern peninsula of Ireland known as the Munster area, were small dwellings lacing the land. Barely noticeable from the road, hidden under brush and the moss and ivy that grows over time lay a story of tragedy so deep the Irish people do not wish to destroy the buildings. Rather, they see them as the gravestones of the families who by the thousands lost their lives in the great famine of 1845-1852.

It was our third day in Ireland and we were now heading west to the breathtaking Atlantic coast line. Leaving behind the city, the landscape becoming increasingly barren, rural and agricultural. It was here more than any other part of Ireland that the Great Famine was the most severe.

By the time of the famine in 1845, over a third of the population of Ireland was dependent upon the potato as the only food of their day. This was especially true in the areas of Munster, in the south, and Connaught in the north. Although, the potato was nutritionally adequate, and grew abundantly in the soil, they could only be stored for less than 9 months, a new crop had to be grown each year. In late 1844-45, a potato blight, began to spread through the wind, the rain and insects. Although other countries in Europe also were hit, none as bad as Ireland, for it had become dependent on one type of crop, and one variety of that crop, the Irish Lumper.

Ireland was a colony of England, and the Parliament turned a blind eye to the situation. Statistics say that over one million people died, many on the road to the seaport cities of Cork and Limerick in a vain attempt to sail away to another land. Estimates report as many as 1.5 million Irish came to American shores; nearly all of them ill, diseased, malnourished, and Catholic. It changed the religious landscape of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as its workforce.

Though nature destroyed, she also heals. As these old structures begin to disintegrate, reclaimed by the land, a new life comes Ireland in the song she sings and the stories she tells, in the heart of her people.