English-speaking tourists, most from the United States and a few from Canada, filled the tables in a room on the second floor of the Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub. The event was billed as an evening of storytelling, tales of faeries and folklore and legends of the country of Ireland. The first course of soups and fish cakes had not yet been distributed when a young woman stood before the group, greeted everyone and began her series of tales with some historical background. Very early, the topic turned to the Great Famine.
Before going to Ireland, like most people I’d heard of the potato blight and the famine that resulted from it. The famine started 175 years ago and lasted approximately seven, causing a wave of immigration from Ireland to the United States and other countries. I never realized, though, just how much it still impacts the people of Ireland as a perpetual melancholy that hovers like a ghost above some places.
A stop on Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula and a trudge up a hill revealed the famine cottage built in the 1800s and home to two families, one of which was the brother of a woman named Mary Long. Nearby is the burial spot of six children who died at birth, possibly because of the poor health of the family. The cottages themselves reveal odd little mannequins inside which lessen some of the impact, but the empty cottages stand on their own as testament to a difficult existence. While not much is said of the fate of the actual families, it’s clear from standing on that ground how difficult life must have been for many under normal circumstances. How catastrophic it must have been when the potato, their main source of nutrition and payment for their land, failed.
The most poignant reminder on my recent trip to Ireland lay further north. In Galway, we strolled along the beach at Galway Bay until we came to a park named in honor of Celia Griffin, a girl of six, who in 1847 walked thirty miles with her family from Connemara to Galway. According to an inquest held after Celia collapsed in the street and later died:
It appeared in evidence that the poor creature had been reduced to extreme poverty and that the family to whom she belonged, eight in number, were in the same pitiful condition. She had been recommended to the Ladies of the Presentation, by Rev. George Usher, as a fit object for relief, and accordingly she and her two sisters received a daily breakfast at that excellent Institute. They met Mr. Usher on the Rahoon road about a fortnight ago, but famine had so preyed upon her feeble constitution, that, on the morning of Wednesday, she was unable to taste food of any description – so that on the post mortem examination made by Doctor Staunton, there was not a particle found in her stomach.
During the Great Famine, over a million Irish died of starvation and related diseases. An estimated 1.5 million left Ireland. The ships that carried them were known as ‘coffin ships’ because up to a third of the immigrants they carried died during the passage. It’s no surprise that the devastation of those years would have such a lasting impact. The spirit of little Celia and others who suffered her fate continues to haunt both the collective memories of the country’s citizens and the thoughts of visitors alike.