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January/February 2015


to itinerant laborers, charging them twice the rate the tenant

farmers paid to the middlemen.

In both systems, it was Ireland’s poorest who bore on their

backs the weight of the country’s economy. During the years

of the Napoleonic Wars, from 1803 to 1815, times were fairly

good: Cut off from trade with central

Europe because of the conflict, Brit-

ain turned to Ireland for foodstuffs

and manufactured goods. But succes-

sive population explosions and the

end of the wars left Ireland with a

surplus of people and a dearth of jobs.

By the 1840s, families that may have

once had plenty now found them-

selves eking out subsistence livings by

coaxing crops of potatoes from be-

tween parallel, flat-topped rows of

heaped earth called “lazy beds,” a

farming method known in Ireland

for 5,000 years, since the Bronze Age.

Hunting game or fishing in lakes or

streams was criminal poaching, and

fishing along the coast was a season-

al operation that required a boat and tackle. When the blight

struck in 1845, many people pawned or sold what fishing

equipment they had to raise money for food, never dreaming

that the following year would be even more disastrous.

Yet even as Ireland starved, most of the food produced on its

farms continued to be exported to England, with the profits lin-

ing pockets for landowners. In the heated words of Irish revolu-

tionary John Mitchell, who spoke more than two decades later

in 1868, “God sent the blight, but the British sent the famine.”

Modern historians, especially revisionists such as Coogan,

sympathize with Mitchell’s view, insisting that “The Great

Hunger” is the more accurate term, since “famine” implies a

shortage of food, which was not the case.

“There was plenty of food being produced and shipped out,

but the people who grew it couldn’t afford to buy any of it,”

says John O’Driscoll, curator of Ireland’s Famine Museum at

Strokestown Park in County Roscommon.

When tenants couldn’t pay the rent—having spent what-

ever money they had and sold ev-

erything they owned to buy food—

they were evicted, at the landlord’s

behest, by armed officials. To pre-

vent tenants from returning, wreck-

ing crews burned their cottages or

reduced them to rubble. Witness-

ing such a scene, Strokestown parish

priest Father Michael McDermott

angrily wrote a letter to

The Eve-

ning Freeman

, published in Decem-

ber 1847: “I saw no necessity for the

idle display of such a large force of

military and police ... surrounding

the poor man’s cabin, setting fire to

the roof while the half-starved, half-

naked children were hastening away

from the flames with yells of despair,

while the mother lay prostrate on the threshold writhing in

agony, and the heartbroken father remained supplicating on

his knees ... thus leaving the wretched outcasts no alternative

but to perish in a ditch.”

And perish they did. Even though the crop of 1847 was

blight-free, the harvest was simply not large enough to feed the

population. As recorded in Ireland’s Census of 1851, deaths from

starvation between 1844 and 1847 skyrocketed in most counties:

from 8 to 480 in Roscommon; from 51 to 927 in Mayo; from 15

to 586 in Kerry—hence the dire epithet, “Black ’47.”

Some responded in anger, incited by the likes of Mitchell,

and riots ensued in many of Ireland’s towns and major cities

as roving gangs and mobs looted homes, shops and warehouses.

Others chose emigration, scrap-

ing together what pennies they

could to pay for passage to

America with hopes for a better

life. In 1851 alone, a quarter of

a million Irish immigrants jour-

neyed to the


and settled pri-

marily in Boston and New York

where, by 1855, a third of the

population was Irish-born.

For those emigrating, the

shipping hub of Liverpool,

England, was typically their

port for trans-Atlantic passage.

Among the Irish cities offering

regular steamship service to

Liverpool was Drogheda, which

became Ireland’s second largest

port of emigration, after Dublin.

“The number making their

way by Liverpool through this

port of Drogheda to America

exceeds that of any former year,”

Drogheda’s ensign has appeared variously

with stars of five, six and seven points:

Drogheda United Football Club,


displays five; the almshouse of St. John,

left and in detail, below,

shows seven. The

emblem originated in Byzantium, where

the star showed eight points. English

King Richard (“the Lionheart”) adopted

the crescent and star in 1192 upon his

capture of Cyprus from Byzantine rule and

bestowed it, two years later, on the port

of Drogheda.