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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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Birth of Margaret Anna Cusack, Founder of Poor Clares Convent

margaret-anne-cusackMargaret Anna Cusack, founder of the first Poor Clares convent in the west of Ireland and a talented writer who publishes on the issues of social injustice, is born to an aristocratic family of English origin in Coolock, County Dublin on May 6, 1829. Her writings and actions focus on advocacy of women’s rights including equal pay, equal opportunity for education, and legal reform to give women control of their own property.

Cusack is raised in the Anglican church tradition until her conversion to Catholicism in 1858. She enters the Irish Poor Clare Sisters and is among the first group of Sisters sent to found the convent at Kenmare, County Kerry.

During the next 21 years, Cusack, now known as Sister Francis Clare, dedicates herself to writing. Her writings include a wide range of concerns including lives of the saints, local histories, biographies, books and pamphlets on social issues and letters to the press. As the “Nun of Kenmare” she writes on behalf of the liberation of women and children who are victims of oppression. Income from her books and from her famine relief fund is distributed throughout Ireland. While doing all she can to feed the hungry, at the same time she campaigns vigorously against the abuse of absentee landlords, lack of education for the poor and against a whole system of laws which degrade and oppress a section of society.

To broaden the scope of her work Cusack moves to Knock, County Mayo in 1881 with the idea of expanding the ministry of the Poor Clares. She starts an industrial school for young women and evening classes for daytime land-workers. Several women are attracted by this work and in 1884 she decides to found her own community, The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Continued conflict in Knock with Church leaders leads Cusack to seek support in England. Under Cardinal Henry Edward Manning and Bishop Edward Bagshawe, she receives approbation for the new religious order from Pope Leo XIII and the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace is founded in January, 1884, in the Diocese of Nottingham, England.

Later, Cusack travels to the United States to continue her work with immigrant Irish women but is immediately rebuked by Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York. Just at that time, New Jersey stretches out a hand of welcome and encouragement as Bishop Winand Wigger of the Archdiocese of Newark invites her to establish homes for young Irish working women there. Within a few years, however, she claims that because of Archbishop Corrigan’s criticism of her among bishops throughout the United States, the work of her new community can not continue as long as she remains with them.

Physically exhausted, sick and disillusioned with a patriarchal Church, Cusack withdraws from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and leaves behind the sisters she so dearly loved. She eventually returns to her friends in the Church of England. In later years, she keeps in contact with the Sisters and expresses a loving concern for them. She dies on June 5, 1899 and is buried in the cemetery reserved for the Church of England at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England.

Cusack passes into obscurity for a long time until, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, religious orders are encouraged to review their roots and the intent of their founders. Since then there have been a number a studies on Cusack, such as Philomena McCarthy’s The Nun of Kenmare: The True Facts. With the rediscovery of the life and times of Cusack, she has been hailed as a feminist and a social reformer ahead of her time.

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First Effects of An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine

great-famineThe first effects of a potato blight are reported around Ireland on September 9, 1845. An Gorta Mór, also known as the Great Famine or the Great Hunger, is a period of mass starvation, disease, and emigration in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is sometimes referred to, mostly outside Ireland, as the Irish Potato Famine, because about forty percent of the Irish population is solely reliant on this inexpensive crop for a number of historical reasons. During the famine, approximately 1 million people die and a million more emigrate from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.

The proximate cause of famine is Phytophthora infestans, a potato disease commonly known as potato blight, which ravages potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. However, the impact in Ireland is disproportionate, as so much of the population is dependent on the potato for a range of ethnic, religious, political, social, and economic reasons, such as land acquisition, absentee landlords, and the Corn Laws, which all contribute to the disaster to varying degrees and remain the subject of intense historical debate.

The potato is introduced to Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry. By the late 17th century, it has become widespread as a supplementary rather than a principal food because the main diet still revolves around butter, milk, and grain products. However, in the first two decades of the 18th century, it becomes a base food of the poor, especially in winter. Furthermore, a disproportionate share of the potatoes grown in Ireland are of a single variety, the Irish Lumper. The expansion of the economy between 1760 and 1815 sees the potato make inroads into the diet of the people and become a staple food year round for farmers. The large dependency on this single crop, and the lack of genetic variability among the potato plants in Ireland, are two of the reasons why the emergence of Phytophthora infestans has such devastating effects in Ireland and less severe effects elsewhere in Europe.

It is not known exactly how many people die during the period of the famine, although it is believed that more die from diseases than from starvation. State registration of births, marriages, or deaths have not yet begun, and records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. One possible estimate has been reached by comparing the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. A census taken in 1841 records a population of 8,175,124. A census immediately after the famine in 1851 counts 6,552,385, a drop of over 1.5 million in 10 years. The census commissioners estimate that at the normal rate of increase the population in 1851 should have been just over 9 million.

The famine is a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently change the island’s demographic, political, and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine enters folk memory and becomes a rallying point for various Irish Home Rule and United Ireland movements, as the whole island is then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The massive famine sours the already strained relations between many of the Irish people and the British Crown, heightening Irish republicanism, which eventually leads to Irish independence in the next century.