Gutting It Out With Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine: Revisiting The Irish Potato Famine

In the penultimate scene in Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine (1937), set during the first two years of the Irish Potato Famine, heroine Mary Kilmartin, infant in her arms, collapses on the deck of a vessel headed for America.  She wakes to a long-awaited reunion with her husband, Martin, who has been on the run since a violent altercation with the dissolute land agent Chadwick.  Ireland is already in the distance. The final scene is also indelible.  Mary’s father-in-law Brian collapses while burying his wife Maggie, his dog the only remaining living creature in the Black Valley.

Famine opens in 1845. Mary and Martin are living with Brian and Maggie.  The household also includes Maggie’s brother Thomsy and Martin’s ailing brother, Michael.  Brian is a tenant farmer on the estate of an absentee British landlord.   Brian is proud to be “landed,” even though landed means only the privilege of paying rent. At 71, Brian still holds the reins, but Mary is already beginning to battle him for control.  The household scarcely maintains a subsistence existence. Pregnant Mary resents the failure to save for a rainy day.  She’s annoyed that Maggie is slaughtering the chickens to make chicken soup that the dying Michael barely touches.  She is disturbed that scare food is shared with Martin’s sister, Kitty, whose unstable husband Patch cannot support his family. Mary is critical about Brian’s failure to plant diversified crops. She’s impatient that limited funds are spent on funerals and wakes. Then the worst happens.  Blight destroys the potato crop.  But the blight only ushers in an increasingly destructive spiral of disaster.    Famine is a page turner of horrors, but the horrors are real.

The Famine uncovers the ethnic, religious, and economic cleavages percolating under the surface.  Hostility exists between landlords and tenants, peasants and Irish tradesmen,  British and Irish, Protestants and Catholics, and even within families, as family members calculate who most deserves to eat.

Despite the ruined crop, the landlord continues to demand rent. The tenants, including the Kilmartins,  are forced to hand over their livestock.  Those who can’t pay take to the road, and Chadwick levels their homes. Martin and his neighbors confront Chadwick, who refuses their demands for rent relief.  The confrontation becomes violent. Maggie’s father is charged with agitation.  Martin flees.

Priests discourage their starving parishioners from seeking help from Protestant sources, afraid of Protestant proselytizing.  Patch’s instability grows, and he’s committed to an asylum. Kitty sends two of her children with another sister who is emigrating to America.  She braves scorn from her deeply religious Catholic neighbors and accepts help from the Protestant minister. She puts two more children in the Protestant orphanage and heads to Liverpool with the remnant of her family.

British relief efforts are anemic.  The British import Indian corn from America, even as ships containing Irish grain and livestock sail for Britain.  Irish tradesmen jack up the prices on the Indian corn and refuse credit.  The possibility of employment on meaningless public works  projects for a pittance is open only to the landless, even though the tenants occupy unproductive soil. Women are ineligible, and there are insufficient spots even for the men who qualify.

The valley becomes denuded of flora and fauna, as the peasants forage. The blight returns the next year. People die on the road and die in their homes.  Plague descends.

At the start of the famine, a defeated Brian hands control over the household to Mary. Mary makes the hard decisions.  She sends the old people, who now include her mother, out to forage and fish.  She helps her sister, Ellie, who serves in Chadwick’s house, escape unfounded condemnation by the local priest based upon rumors of an illicit relationship with the land agent.  Mary gives Ellie money to emigrate.  To protect her brother Patrick who wants to avenge his father’s imprisonment, Mary warns Chadwick, but to no avail.  Patrick is fatally shot as he kills Chadwick; Mary’s father is transported to Australia.  Mary sells her best clothing to the daughter of a venal tradesman.  Deciding to emigrate, and without  the slightest compunction, to leave the elderly parents behind, Mary sends Thomsy to locate Martin. As O’Flaherty writes, “Under the pressure of hunger, as among soldiers in war, the mask of civilization quickly slips from the human soul, showing the brute savage beneath, struggling to preserve life at all costs.”  Thomsy comes back with a fantastical story of a big man with yellow hair who is gathering men against the British.

The story of the big man with the yellow hair becomes seductive because the moral authority of traditional Irish leadership has begun to unravel.  The priests preach non-violence but are powerless to persuade the British authorities to open the food storehouses.  Irish political hero, Daniel O’Connell, is equally incapable of coaxing the British to provide more effective relief. While O’Connell, known as the Liberator, had successfully campaigned for Catholic Emancipation—the elimination of laws that discriminated against Catholics– his advocacy of repeal of the Act of Union between Ireland and England through peaceful methods has stalled.  His proposals for famine relief— cessation of food exports, banning use of grain for distilling, government food purchases, construction of railroads that would employ the poor– are disregarded.  Some of the radicals believe O’Connell is corrupt and has kept for himself subscriptions raised from the people.  Only the underground force forming under the “big the man with yellow hair” offers hope.  The potatoes may have rotted but the seeds of the Irish Republican Army have begun to bloom.

O’Flaherty is considered one of Ireland’s important writers.  His descriptions of peasant life, the radicalization of the Irish peasantry, and the horrors of the Famine are gut-wrenching without being melodramatic.  Mary’s stomach may be empty, but she has guts even when her harshness is sometimes difficult to stomach.

In grade school, we memorized the names of the countries in the United Kingdom, but never learned that the marriage had been forced.  We heard about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands and various acts of terror of the IRA, but never were really told what lay underneath it all.  High school European history turned around the Renaissance, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and Nazism—anything that merited a capital letter.  The abuses of our closest ally never were explained.

When the British conquered Ireland, large estates of land or plantations were allotted to Scotch and English Protestants.  The predominately Catholic Irish peasants became tenant farmers on the estates of largely absentee British landlords and were relegated to marginal lands, where potatoes became one of the most reliable crops.  Brian’s pride in having land, which meant only the right to pay rent, caused me some culture shock.  In 1787, the United States was selling public land, and in 1862 it started handing out free homesteads; in Ireland being landed meant being a tenant.

After the British conquest, laws discriminating against Catholics were enacted and not repealed until 1829.  Catholics continued to be required to pay tithes to support the Anglican ministry.  The potato crop was felled by a fungus in 1845, and except for a respite in 1848, the harvest was infected every year through 1850.  During these years the population fell by 25% , a decline of two million people.   About one million people died, succumbing to starvation and the diseases that came with famine: typhus, cholera, relapsing fever, and dysentery. The remainder emigrated in vessels known as “coffin ships,” sometimes even encouraged by their landlords who paid their fares, whether from kindness or a desire to move away from tenant farming to more profitable modes of agriculture.

John Mitchel, an exiled Irish nationalist leader declared, “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the British created the Famine.”  The most potent symbol of British indifference was the ships full of Irish grain and livestock bound for Britain.  Historians debate the significance of the exports. Some scholars argue that imports of grain, such as Indian corn, during the famine years exceeded grain exports. These scholars also assert that dependence of the Irish people upon the potato was so great that the gap could never have been bridged.  Other scholars emphasize the months that passed before the Indian corn arrived and was distributed, the difficulty of grinding the Indian corn, and maize’s limited nutritional value.

What is certain is that the British response was inadequate, shaped by excessive faith in the power of the invisible hand to right economic imbalance mixed with Malthusian theories of overpopulation and conviction that G-d had chosen to afflict the Irish.  In addition to importation of Indian corn, the British encouraged make-work public work projects, half paid for by the British, the remainder by the local gentry.  By 1847, despite the continuation of the famine, Britain shifted course, abandoned food imports and public works, and made Ireland deal with its problems on its own except for any assistance it might receive from international charities.  The Irish Poor Law was amended.  Henceforth, famine relief was to be paid for by the landlords and larger tenants.  As the property of many landlords was already heavily encumbered, this became an immediate problem. Because the poor law tax was assessed against each rented parcel, this amendment led landlords to pursue another round of evictions.

Because workhouses were already overwhelmed, the new poor law offered “outdoor relief,” soup kitchens at which a daily meal of soup and a pound of biscuit was served; the soup did not need to contain meat. In an infamous provision known as the Gregory Clause, soup kitchen relief was restricted to those who occupied less than a quarter of an acre.  To be eligible, tenants gave up their excess land and were often forced by landlords to surrender the entire lot.

The novel Famine deserves a second chance but hunger does not.  Millions of people across the globe don’t have enough to eat.  Please remember the hungry and donate to one of the many food charities.

See Thomas Keneally, Three Famines (2011)


4 thoughts on “Gutting It Out With Liam O’Flaherty’s Famine: Revisiting The Irish Potato Famine

  1. Great job Fredda. You got my attention and gave rise to my interest in reading more about this chapter in history and this book in particular.


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