Republican News · Thursday 4 September 1997

[An Phoblacht]

Droch Shaol - The Irish Holocaust

No axes to grind

By far the most active charitable group in Ireland during the famine years was the Society of Friends (the Quakers)
``Often in passing from district to district have I seen the poor enfeebled labourer, young and old alike, laid down by the side of the bog or road, on which he was employed, too late for kindness to avail, nevertheless giving his dying blessing to the bestowers of tardy relief.''

engineer's description of a broken people. Such scenes were replicated all over the country, all through the Famine - people so distressed that they were reduced to grovelling like dogs for whatever pittance they could receive.

The role of charity organisations in trying to alleviate this suffering was momentous. Many overseas charities sought subscriptions and these were used to bolster the local relief committees in their work. The British Association for the Relief of the Extreme Distress in the Remote Parts of Ireland and Scotland collected over 470,000, and at the height of their efforts were feeding over 200,000 children daily in the west of Ireland.

Other benefactors, such as Father Matthew of Cork or the new group, St Vincent de Paul, set up soup kitchens or took part in other famine relief measures.

While the US government contributed virtually nothing in famine relief, its population was not found wanting. Through the Society of Friends (Quakers) and other groups over $500,000 worth of food - mainly grain - was sent on 118 ships to Ireland. This figure does not include monies sent directly to friends, relatives or others by those residing in the USA.

By far the most active charitable group in Ireland during the famine years was the Society of Friends. They raised hundreds of thousands of pounds, mainly in England and the US. Ensuring they were not cutting across the politics of the time, the work of others, and the grain merchants, they supplied rice in the hope that local communities could look after themselves. They provided cooking equipment, large boilers for soup, and pioneered soup kitchens in Ireland, developed a fishing industry and encouraged new crops such as flax. They ended their direct relief at the end of 1847 only because of sheer exhaustion, though continued supplying relief indirectly.

The relief efforts of the Quakers have lived on in Irish memory, probably because they had no axes to grind, and wanted only to help. There were no political or religious strings attached to their help. They were remembered as kind, generous and efficient workers who often travelled where other `relief' workers dared not.

By Aengus O Snodaigh

Getting the facts

Aengus O Snodaigh suggests a Famine reading list

While there is a virtual library of books on the Famine, scores more have come on the market in the last few years. Most of the recent books on the Famine - and there are a few - are of a standard now expected of historical writing. They are legible and accessible to ordinary readers; books no longer clouded in academic jargon.

In preparing these articles I relied heavily on Christine Kinealy's A Death-dealing Famine - the Great Hunger in Ireland (Pluto Press, 12.99); Cecil Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger - Ireland 1845-'49 (8.99); The Irish Famine - A documentary history prepared by Noel Kissane (Leabharlann Náisiúnta na hEireann, 9.95) and The Irish Famine - an illustrated History by Helen Litton (Wolfhound Press, 6.99).

Also invaluable in preparing these articles and enlightening on specific topics or areas were Christine Kinealy's The Great Calamity, the Irish Famine 1845-'52 (Gill & Macmillan, 17.99), Irish Famine Facts by John Keating (Teagasc, 6), The Irish Famine Ships - the exodus to America 1846-51 by Edward Laxton (Bloomsbury, 16.99hb), Eyewitness Grosse Ile 1847 by Marianna O'Gallagher and Rose Mason Dompierre (Livres Carrai, $37.95Can); The Workhouses of Ireland - the fate of Ireland's poor by John O'Connor (Anvil, 9.95); and The End of Hidden Ireland - rebellion, famine and emigration by Robert James Scally (Oxford University Press, 12.99). They made history come to life and are a must for a fuller picture of a broken, starving people.

Though condemned by revisionists - that should be endorsement enough - Liam O'Flaherty's Famine (reprinted by Wolfhound, 6.90) and Walter Macken's Seek the Fair Land are works which invoked in me a sense of outrage about the Famine when I first read them as a teenager. Just as Roy Foster's, Kevin Myers's and Mary Daly's contributions on the Famine have made me angry since, the latest books I have read have confirmed what I had previously learnt. You can now read exactly what happened in those terrible times.

Other books consulted include Glórtha ón Ghorta and Gnéithe an Chorta le Cathal Poirtéir (Coiscéim, 5); The Great Irish Famine by Stephen J. Campbell (Famine Museum, 5.95) and Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847 edited by D.K.M. Snell (Irish Academic Press, 12.95pb).

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