seamus dubhghaill

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

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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.



The Ballinglass Incident

ballinglass-evictionsDuring the Great Famine (An Gorta Mór) in Ireland, the Ballinglass incident occurs in Ballinglass, County Galway, on March 13, 1846, when 300 tenants are evicted by their landlord, a Mrs. Gerrard who wants to use the land for grazing purposes.

During this period, Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, governed directly by its parliament in London. Many working class Irish farmers are tenants under landlords, producing cereals, potatoes, and livestock. But only the potatoes remain as food for the farmers themselves. A portion of the other products are used for paying the rent while the remainder is exported from Ireland to Great Britain. These exports continue even after the potato crop fails in 1845.

Farmers who are not able to pay the rent during this period are evicted from their homes and land. It is estimated that tens of thousands are evicted during the famine.

The 300 inhabitants of the townland of Ballinglass in Galway County, in the Barony of Killian, northeast of Mountbellew, are relatively “wealthy” and able to pay their rent. But despite this fact, they are evicted because their landlord intends to establish a grazing farm where the village is situated.

The houses of Ballinglass are demolished by army and police. The evicted tenants sleep in the ruins that night. The next day, police and army return to evict them permanently and their neighbours are not allowed to take them in.

The eviction of the entire village receives wide publicity. Even the London Times, never a supporter of Irish rights, rails against this particular injustice. Lord Londonderry “personally investigates” the evictions and issues a statement on March 30, 1846 saying, “I am deeply grieved, but there is no doubt concerning the truth of the evictions at Ballinglass. Seventy-six families, comprising 300 individuals had not only been turned out of their houses, but had even – the unfortunate wretches – been mercilessly driven from the ditches to which they had been taken themselves for shelter…these unfortunate people had their rents actually ready…” Despite widespread condemnation, the eviction order is not rescinded.

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Novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Dies In Dublin

joseph-sheridan-le-fanuJoseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, journalist, novelist, and short story writer, often called the father of the modern ghost story, dies in Dublin on February 7, 1873. He is the leading ghost-story writer of the nineteenth century and is central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era. His best known works include Uncle Silas (1864), a suspense story, and The House by the Churchyard (1863), a murder mystery. His vampire story Carmilla, which influences Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has been filmed several times.

Le Fanu is born at 45 Lower Dominick Street in Dublin to Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Lucretia Dobbin, a literary family of Huguenot, Irish, and English descent. Within a year of his birth the family moves to the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park where his father, a Church of Ireland clergyman, is appointed to the chaplaincy of the establishment.

In 1826, the family moves to Abington, County Limerick, where Le Fanu’s father takes up his second rectorship. Le Fanu uses his father’s library to educate himself and by the age of fifteen he was writing poetry.

The disorders of the Tithe War (1831–1836) affect the region in 1832 and the following year the family temporarily moves back to Dublin, where Le Fanu works on a Government commission. Although Thomas Le Fanu tries to live as though he is well-off, the family is in constant financial difficulty. At his death, Thomas has almost nothing to leave to his sons and the family has to sell his library to pay off some of his debts.

Le Fanu studies law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he is elected Auditor of the College Historical Society. He is called to the bar in 1839, but never practices and soon abandons law for journalism. In 1838 he begins contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, The Ghost and the Bone-Setter (1838). He becomes owner of several newspapers from 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder.

In 1847, Le Fanu supports John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher in their campaign against the indifference of the government to the Irish Famine. Others involved in the campaign include Samuel Ferguson and Isaac Butt. Butt writes a forty-page analysis of the national disaster for the Dublin University Magazine in 1847. Le Fanu’s support costs him the nomination as Tory Member of Parliament (MP) for County Carlow in 1852.

In 1856 the family moves from Warrington Place to the house of his wife Susanna’s parents at 18 Merrion Square. His personal life becomes difficult at this time, as his wife suffers from increasing neurotic symptoms. She suffers from anxiety after the deaths of several close relatives, including her father two years previous. In April 1858, Susanna suffers a “hysterical attack” and dies the following day. She is buried in the Bennett family vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery beside her father and brothers. He does not write any fiction from this point until the death of his mother in 1861.

He becomes the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine in 1861 and begins to take advantage of double publication, first serializing in the Dublin University Magazine, then revising for the English market. He publishes both The House by the Churchyard and Wylder’s Hand in this manner. After lukewarm reviews of The House by the Churchyard, which is set in the Phoenix Park area of Dublin, Le Fanu signs a contract with Richard Bentley, his London publisher, which specifies that future novels be stories “of an English subject and of modern times,” a step Bentley thinks necessary for Le Fanu to satisfy the English audience. Le Fanu succeeds in this aim in 1864, with the publication of Uncle Silas, which is set in Derbyshire. In his very last short stories, however, Le Fanu returns to Irish folklore as an inspiration and encourages his friend Patrick Kennedy to contribute folklore to the Dublin University Magazine.

Le Fanu dies in his native Dublin on February 7, 1873, at the age of 58. Today there is a road and a park in Ballyfermot, near his childhood home in south-west Dublin, named after him.