The last few years, when we have climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain, with family and friends, we have approached it from the south-west. There is very little south-west of Croagh Patrick other than the beautiful wilderness of that part of County Mayo and Connemara in Count Galway
The reason behind this approach is that our children had been attending an Irish language school each summer in Inverin, near Spiddel on the southern coast of Connemara within sight and sound of the Atlantic Ocean.
Inverin is a Gaeltacht area, an Irish speaking area; one of the few small areas in Ireland where our native language is spoken everyday. Out children attend Colaiste Lurgan, Colaiste is the Irish for College to improve their command of Irish. An explanation of why this is necessary would entail an examination of Ireland’s history for several hundred years and also our recent educational history and the, generally, botched attempts to teach Irish in primary and secondary schools. That is for another day. Colaiste Lurgan is a pretty wonderful place, not only do they teach Irish but they have a very creative core which brings the use of the Irish language firmly into the 21st century. One of their annual accomplishments is to translate popular songs into Irish, supported by a wonderfully choreography of dance and music – you can see their achievements on YouTube – just look for Colaiste Lurgan. They also love the outdoors and hold their social events, such as ceilis, dances to Irish traditional music, on the beach when ever there is the faintest promise of a watery sun emerging.
The important thing is that the young people learn to love the Irish culture and to love Connemara and Galway while learning and developing their knowledge of their native language.
What’s not to admire.
Anyway I digress. After we collect our children, we head north through Connemara to the small village of Leenaun on the innermost curve of Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord and one of Ireland’s beautiful places. A stretch of the legs, an appreciation of the surrounding scenery, an examination of the plaque remembering the filming of the movie, ‘The Field’ in the area, maybe a cup of coffee and then on, northwards into County Mayo and towards Croagh Patrick
We drive through the mountains, watching the shadows of the clouds chasing each other up and down the slopes and the bursts of sunshine separating them like some game of chase we played as children. Even though this drive towards Louisburgh town is so beautiful, it is not possible to pass this way without thinking of the Irish Famine and the pain and suffering experienced by so many Irish people. The famine is referred to as An Gorta Mor – Irish for ‘The Great Hunger’. It occurred in the late 1840’s. An overpopulated countryside with the native Irish hugely dependent on a single crop – the potato – for sustenance and survival, was a disaster waiting to strike.
And strike it did, in the form of a potato blight which destroyed nearly the whole crop and condemned the people to starvation, suffering and often, death.
There are many tragic tales from the Famine times and this road, through this beautiful part of Ireland, holds one of them.
As always, the poor suffered the most and died in the greatest numbers and, because they were so poor proper records are not kept. We do not even know the names of many who died.
The victims of the Doolough Walk which occurred in April 1849 are remembered, though not in detail, principally because of an outraged citizen who wrote to the local newspaper describing what they knew of the events. I will leave it to the words of that citizen, who signed themselves simply as ‘A Ratepayer’ to describe what is known of those events.
“TO THE EDITOR OF THE MAYO
Louisburgh, April 5th, 1849.
Sir – On last Friday, 30th ult., Colonel Hogrove, one of the vice guardians of Westport union, and Captain Primrose, the poor law inspector, arrived here on that morning for the purpose of holding an inspection on the paupers who were receiving outdoor relief in this part of the union, but, from some cause or other, they did not, but started off immediately for Delphi Lodge. In a short time after, the relieving officer, ordered the poor creatures forthwith to follow him to Delphi Lodge, as he would have them inspected early on the following morning, Saturday, 31st; and in obedience of this humane order, hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children, might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads for the appointed place. The inspection took place in the morning, and I have been told that nothing could equal the horrible appearance of those truly unfortunate creatures, some of them without a morsel to eat, and others exhausted from fatigue, having travelled upwards of 16 miles to attend the inspection. I have now the melancholy duty of informing you and the public, that a woman named Dalton, from Wastelands, six miles to the West of this town, her son and daughter, were all found dead on the road side, on the morning after the inspection, midway between this town and Delphi: and about one mile nearer to this town, two men were found dead – in all, five. The bodies of these ill-fated creatures lay exposed on the road side for three or four days and nights, for the dogs and ravens to feed upon, until some charitable person had them buried in a turf hole at the road side.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Mayo Constitution (17-5-1849)
TO THE EDITOR OF THE MAYO
Louisburgh, April 13th, 1849.
Sir – I have this day the melancholy duty of informing you that two more miserable creatures were found on the mountain passes dead – in all 7, and I am confidently informed that 9 or 10 more have never reached their homes, and several of those that did, were so fatigued with cold and hunger that they in a short time ceased to live. I tell Colonel Hogrove, and Captain Primrose that the relieving officer ordered the poor creatures to follow them to Delphi, in order that they might be inspected at 7 o’clock on the morning of the 31st, at that lodge, and I challenge them to contradict what I state; further that the cause of their not stopping at Louisburgh was, that the relieving officer had not his books ready and it was at the court-house the following order was given – all persons not attending at 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, at Delphi, would be struck off the relief; the people did attend, but the relieving officer did not until 12 o’clock. I now think it right to inform you that a strictly private inquest was held by Mr. Coroner Burke, aided and assisted by a member of his family. Doctor Burke, who is the poorhouse doctor, and the jury returned the following verdict, after a post mortem examination on the bodies of two of them:- “Died from starvation and cold,” when instead of providing coffins for those creatures, the bodies were again thrown into a mountain slough, with a few sods thrown over them immediately after.
The Coroner and his staff proceeded to Delphi Lodge, and on the following day returned and held another inquest; like verdict was returned, when the Coroner and doctor returned to their mansions, leaving three more unfortunate creatures at the road side, with scarce a covering of sods upon them. Thank God all are not so hardened as the above, for that excellent and humane clergyman. I mean the Rev. Thomas O’Dowd, the Catholic Curate, gave five coffins to Mr. Walshe, who, to his credit be it said, both himself and his men had all the bodies taken out of the sloughs on the 12th instant, and placed in coffins, and had them respectably interred in a burial place. In my last, I stated that the poor had not to travel more than 10 or 15 miles, I now tell you that the residence of some of those found dead was at least 28 miles from Delphi – the same distance back.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
It may be that this event would never have been remembered if not for the efforts of this Ratepayer, someone who was determined to publicise some of the atrocities which were occurring. We should also commend, and be thankful to, the Mayo Constitution which bravely published these letters. Such a decision was probably not made lightly and, indeed, it is possible that there were repercussions which the paper had to deal with. Then, as now, brave voices are needed to tell the truth, to describe events as they occur.
Word of this great sadness spread, even across the Atlantic Ocean and found a generous hearing with the Choctaw Indians, themselves a people who had experienced great pain and hardship. Only some sixteen years earlier, they had been forced to walk about 800 miles, a trek know as the Trail of Tears, to clear off land wanted by the settlers and the government. History tells us that of about 21,000 Choctaws who started the trek, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition and disease. The Choctaw Indians, identifying with the famine walk of Doolough, collected 170 dollars from their meagre resources and sent it to a famine relief organisation to help the poor in Ireland.
The Great Famine of Ireland, even with over one million dying of starvation and disease, and many millions more trying to escape the country and so escape death, is still only one of many, many such tragedies which have occurred, and are still occurring, throughout this world. It is dwarfed by many of these horrors, and there are many more that we do not know of, lost in the mists of time. When we remember those who died in the Famine in Ireland we are also remembering, and thinking of, all those who suffered and are suffering.
If you listen carefully as you drive along that road, you can still hear the cries of the suffering as they made that futile trip.
That futile trip in north Mayo is remembered each year with a Famine Walk which follows the same route. Something to pencil in for your diary next year perhaps.
And so we move on, burdened by our history but determined to make the present, and, therefore, the future, a better place for all.
Walk in peace.