A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – Stave #1
Mary Marrinan was a teenager when she traveled from Miltown Malbay in County Clare to board the Thomas Arbuthnot in order to travel to Australia. She was one of over 4,000 such orphan girls, most aged between 14 and 19, who made the journey in eleven different vessels between October 1848 and August 1851. There was a shortage of women in the Colony. Ireland was wracked with famine. Such journeys were seen as a solution to both problems. The passengers paid nothing for their passage, instead the ship’s operators were paid a bounty for each passenger.
In all it is estimated that a million men, women and children left Ireland during the famine years of 1845-51. Not all of them were as fortunate as Mary. Most will have traveled under conditions that, by today’s standards, are unimaginable. Sharing the crossing from Ireland to Liverpool with a deck cargo of live cattle, or as ballast in the hold of a ship returning across the Atlantic after bringing grain or timber to Ireland.
As many died from starvation and/or disease in the same period. Reading the previous paragraph raises the question: why were Irish people starving when their livestock was being exported to England and grain being imported from North America?
Mary is one of Patrick Lillis’s ancestors. She was one of the few who returned to Ireland. Many of the others married and produced large families in their new homes. Discovering her story is one of several incidents that inspired Patrick to learn more about the devastating famine that afflicted Ireland during those terrible years and to try to answer questions like the one posed at the end of the previous paragraph.
Among the other incidents that inspired Patrick was the singing of “The Fields of Athenry” by the crowd at an international football match in Poland during the 2014 European Cup Finals. The song is a lament by a young woman whose husband has been ‘transported’ as punishment for stealing corn. Another key moment came with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to issue an apology, on behalf of the British people, to the people of Ireland for his country’s role in the tragedy.
We believe that it is impossible to gain an understanding of the events of 1845-51 without some knowledge of the relationship between Ireland and her neighbour that had evolved over the preceding 700 years or longer. That’s why the first half of this book is an attempt to outline those facts. We hope thereby to provide some context for the otherwise inconceivable realities of mid-nineteenth century Ireland.
Patrick met Frank Parker through the Laois writers group and sought his assistance in researching and writing the book. We hope that we have produced something that will engender a deeper understanding of the Great Irish Famine such that lessons that have clearly not yet been learned are given greater emphasis.
Potato Blight (phytophthora infestans) first appeared on the eastern seaboard of the United States of America in 1843, spreading North, West and South from New York. The following year its outward spread had reached Montreal and the South Eastern tip of Lake Ontario. By 1845 it had reached Chicago, Washington and the whole of New Foundland.
It reached Europe in June the same year, spreading East from the Belgian coast as far as Frankfurt in Germany. By August that year it had reached the South coast of England. It’s spread in that unusually damp summer was rapid. By the end of September it was evident across an area stretching South to the Pyranees, North to Scandinavia and affecting the whole of the British Isles.
That year, it was the Eastern part of Ireland that was most affected, some areas escaping the full impact of the disease. In 1846 almost the whole crop was destroyed.
Given that the disease affected such a wide area, why is it that Ireland suffered far more than any other part of Europe or North America?
The answer, we believe, is to be found in a study of the peculiar geography of the Island, its history and social organisation and, most significantly, the relationship between the peoples of Ireland and the governing class of its neighbour.
The story really begins in that period of history often referred to as ‘The Dark Ages’, broadly speaking, the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the arrival on British soil of William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066. It was a period that saw successive attempts to invade the British Isles from mainland Europe and Scandinavia. It was the latter which was most successful. The Vikings established settlements along the East coasts of England and of Ireland and the North coast of modern France.
It was their occupation of Eastern England that precipitated the union of three provinces – Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria – under a single leader, the legendary King Arthur.
In Ireland the Norse, as they were known, occupied Dublin, Wexford and Waterford. The King of Leinster was acknowledged as the man with responsibility for ensuring their confinement to those cities, where they established themselves as merchants overseeing a thriving trade between the Island, mainland Britain and further afield.
Those who had settled in Northern France, where their territory became known as Normandy, never gave up their attempts to expand North into England. It was this ambition that culminated in what the English would ever afterwards refer to as ‘the Norman conquest’, or simply ‘the Conquest’.
In Ireland, outside the Norse settlements, the various clans of Celts were constantly at war with each other. They were for the most part a semi-nomadic people, herding cattle and growing grain, mainly oats and barley. Each group had its King. These Kings fought for the right to be ‘High King’, the most senior leader.
They were governed by a sophisticated set of laws, known as Brehon Law. Another source of conflict was the divergence of these traditional laws from the laws of the Church. Kings, in Ireland and the mainland alike, sought to keep favour with the Church by endowing Abbeys. This gave them a voice in the selection of Church leaders.
These Irish clans also made occasional forays across the sea to the South West of England. On one such raid, not long after the departure of the Romans from British soil, they captured the son of a Romano-British aristocrat and Churchman. He was sold into slavery and spent six years in the Irish province of Ulster as a herdsman, before escaping and going to France where, in due course, he was ordained and became a missionary, returning to bring Christianity to the Irish. He established a monastery on the Island of Iona off the West coast of Scotland. His name reflects his belief that he was of the aristocracy. Patricius – the patrician – became the founding father of the Church in Ireland.
The Normans in England, post 1066, had little inclination to expand beyond the coast of Wales. Indeed, they had enough trouble keeping the Welsh and Scots in check. A number of Norman families had been granted lands in England. Some of those closest to William were given land along the border between England and Wales on condition that they provided the man-power necessary to resist raiding parties led by Welsh Princes.
A hundred years after the Conquest all that changed. The Pope had issued a request to the King of England, Henry II, asking him to provide military support in his dispute with the Church in Ireland that was, he believed, making too many concessions to the Brehon traditions. The King was reluctant to become involved. He was embroiled in his own dispute with the Church over the question of whose laws – the Church’s or the King’s – took precedence. His hand was forced by a dispute over the High Kingship of Ireland.
The King of Leinster, Dermot McMurrough, had laid claim to the supreme crown but had been defeated in battle by a neighbouring coalition that had succeeded in deposing him from his title as King of Leinster. He decided to use his contacts with a merchant in Bristol that he knew had the ear of King Henry. That merchant introduced him to Richard DeClare, nicknamed Strongbow. It took a while, but in 1171/2 Henry II annexed Ireland and allocated large tracts of land to Norman families, many of them the same people who had been protecting the border with Wales. Ireland was, from then on, a part of what would become over succeeding centuries, the greatest empire the world has ever known.
Continue to Chapter 1