Sometimes you really do count your blessings. There I was, in November 2016, setting out from Louisburgh Co. Mayo on a cold wet autumn morning, wondering whether my right leg, mildly strained in a recent tennis match, would manage the eleven-mile famine walk to Doolough.
How trivial an ‘injury’ in the context of the 1849 tragedy the walk commemorates. Hundreds of starving men, women and children, ordered to tramp those eleven miles to Delphi Lodge, were denied an audience, let alone the relief they sought, by the men of power. Many died by the roadside on their despairing return trail.
Afri’s Famine Walk happens each May, but this was a re-enactment for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Ramblings’ series. Local historian Mary O’Malley painted a poignant scene around her own family story, and Joe Murray set the context of Afri’s work for justice, human rights and sustainability.
Yours truly was to handle ‘the broader history’; thank goodness for Cork University Press’s superb Atlas of the Great Irish Famine! Its unique blend of scholarly analysis and humane reflection dispelled some of my clouds of ignorance about that great lacuna in our history and culture.
The Atlas breaks the twin silences of the survivors and the scholars, whilst respecting the irrevocable silence of the over one million victims. It allowed me to sketch some of the broader background to Doolough’s tragedy, along with some nuggets of salutary and surprising information.
Things I never knew: fish and seafood did form part of the pre-Famine fare of those who could obtain them. Ireland’s potato-based diet, though fatally precarious, made the pre-Famine population healthier than the European average.
By the Nineteenth Century almost all major Irish towns were ports. Westport had nearly half its population in manufacture in 1821 – but in cottage and artisan production which soon drowned in the tide of new imported factory commodities. Continue reading “Ramblings and the 2017 Famine Walk”