Famine Echoes is a remarkable book I read as I researched my novel-in-progress. A record of individual folk memory, it is a collection of heart-breaking stories of personal, family and community suffering, during Ireland’s Great Hunger of 1845 – 1850.
The author shares the stories of descendants of famine survivors, as they recall what they themselves heard from their parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors.
Oral transmission of folk history is not favored by some historians. Limited facts, together with personal interpretations of events are considered inadequate to validate assumptions, but to me this is where real history begins.
No expert historical theories, no learned interpretations, and no reverberating political agendas lie hidden on these pages. This is the last recorded living link with the survivors of this catastrophic disaster.
In the 1930’s and ’40s, the Irish Folklore Commission interviewed thousands of elderly people around Ireland. The goal of this formidable project was to record memories of a not-so-distant past, before these aging storytellers took their recollections with them to the grave.
It’s a miracle a newly-formed, 1930’s, Irish government had the foresight to establish this Folklore Commission to record our precious oral history before it was too late.
This book, written by Cathal Póirtéir, was mined from thousands of pages collected by the Commission. With superb editing skills, he arranged these recollections by topic, and in an order roughly following the chronology of the Famine itself.
Cathal Póirtéir is a folklorist, historian, producer and documentary film maker. He produced the Irish radio program, Famine Echoes, a 16-part series recounting the stories of this book. Unfortunately it is no longer available on the RTE website.
This book is not light reading by any stretch of the imagination. Some of these stories are harrowing, recalling the impact of starvation, disease, and death. Others are touching, recalling acts of kindness in the face of adversity. Neighbors who tried to help neighbors are fondly remembered nearly one hundred years later, especially those who risked their lives to minister to the sick and dying.
Some entries are a few pages long, some but a few lines long. Here is a short recollection from the chapter The Coffin Ships and the Going Away:
“Kilmolaw was a village near Ballinasloe.
It contained 60 houses.
Every single family emigrated from it in Black ’47 to Chicago.
Each had someone previously there
who sent them their passage,
so they all went in batches,
leaving Kilmolaw a deserted village.”
– Martin Donoghue, Ryleen, New Ross, Co. Wexford,
a native of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway.
This short account may seem inconsequential to some, but to me it explains why so many Americans today have trouble finding their roots in Ireland. No links remain. Entire villages disappeared – the people simply gone.
“‘Twas a sad tale.
Not one tenant ever went back to till a sod of Lisnacunna.
They scattered everywhere…
…. I never heard to what part of America they went,
for when the old neighbors they had scattered away,
they didn’t know where to send a line to,
so they were never heard of after.”
– Seán Crowley, born 1858, Cill Cholmáin, Eniskeane, Co. Cork
The Great Irish Hunger changed the Irish forever, defining us as a people ever since. A calamity so devastating, it forced exile that reshaped nations for decades after, including the United States, Australia, England, and of course Ireland.
This book records the words of ordinary people in human, gripping terms. The survivors of the Famine were known as the Silent People. Few of their experiences were captured in their own words at the time. But echoes of their voices can be heard here. The author, Cathal Póirtéir, sums this up when he says:
“I feel that the echoes of those silenced voices which we have in folk
memory are the nearest we can get to the experience of the poor of
the 1840’s and 1850’s. “
For anyone with an interest in the Irish Famine, this book tells the traumatic tale through the eyes of survivors. They bear witness to the story of our past – an Irish narrative of suffering, death and immigration, yet tinged with the eternal hope of a better life in a New World across the Atlantic.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)