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28 August 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An Droch Shaol- The Irish Holocaust

`Work or blood'

  If the government of Ireland insists upon being a government of dragoons and bombardiers, of detectives and light infantry then up with the barricades and invoke this God of battles  
Young Irelander Francis Meagher, 18 March 1848

Contrary to popular perceptions, the Famine victims did not all lie back and die. Short of popular uprising, Ireland was, according to English legislators, at its most `disturbed' since the 1798 rising.

As the food shortages and evictions began to hit home, the ever-weakening victims reacted in different ways. Attacks on food depots, convoys or other locations where food was hoarded was widespread and secret agrarian societies stepped up their actions against landlords and their agents. The Young Ireland Movement was also trying to recruit people to support their aim of establishing an Irish Republic where the poor would not suffer when there was plenty.

Statistics tell us that the number of persons committed for trial rose from an average of less than 20,000 in 1842-46 to 31,209 in 1847, 38,522 in 1848 and 41,989 in 1849.

Desperation drove a starving people. Most of the `crimes' involved petty theft and was generally non-violent. The bleeding of landlords' cattle was widely practised, blood being obtained by cutting a vein in the neck of the animal and extracting blood. The blood was mixed with meal to make a black pudding of sorts. The tails of bullocks were also stolen and then roasted. The theft of ducks, geese, sheep and other livestock initially increased, but farmers who possessed anything of value employed men to guard their fields and the use of mantraps became common. Instead, the people searched their localities for alternative foods: birds, frogs, rats, dogs, cats, snails, nettles, weeds, seaweed and even grass were eaten. The latter contributed to the folk memory of people dying with their mouths stained green.

Despite Ireland's plentiful rivers and shorelines, many of these were claimed (owned) privately and removing fish or other seafood from them was legally regarded as theft. Punishment was harsh, though transportation no longer appeared to be a deterrent and jail was often more attractive than starving - at least you got fed.

Food riots were common, but tended to be directed at mills, corn stores, the canal barges and boats transporting grain and livestock to the markets or harbours to be exported. Forestallers (speculators) and merchants were also attacked for charging exorbitant `famine prices' for their stock.

Attacks against persons by individuals were not commonplace; the state of near Martial Law, the additional troops sent to Ireland and the carrying of arms by the wealthy and their agents kept these attacks at a minimum.

England's direct ruler in Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote that ``there never was so open or so widely extended a conspiracy for shooting landlords and agents, and my fear is this will spread (there are already symptoms of it) and that the flame which now rages in certain districts will become a general conflagaration''.

Secret societies, Ribbonmen, Hearts of Oak, Whiteboys, Captain Rock etc carried out actions against the wealthy in a more organised fashion. Their activities did have a restraining influence on some of the landlords. Cattle, horses and other livestock were killed or robbed; barns and houses were burnt; landlords, their families or agents were threatened, shot at, and sometimes killed.

The killing of one, landlord Major Mahon in County Roscommon, was used as justification among the English Ascendancy to prevent Famine relief measures being discussed.

Overall, though the secret societies' activities were sporadic and localised and were therefore ineffective in trying to redress their grievances or to prevent the export of food, they were a source of anxiety to the propertied classes and the British authorities and along with the failed Young Ireland uprisings in 1848 and 1849 were regarded as acts of betrayal and ingratitude.

Much research still needs to be done on this topic, the passive and violent resistance to being told that starvation was inevitable - accept your lot, it's what God destined.

A letter in Canada's Western Star in May 1847 illustrates the people's desperation:

``Last Thursday, around one pm, approximately 300 workers came together from the famous neighbourhood of Rape Mills and made their way to the city. At the very moment that they were entering, they met Mr. John H Burdett, president of the Aid Committee, who exhorted them, in the most conciliatory terms, to abstain from all excesses and not to violate the law, assuring them in the same breath that the government and the proprietors were making the greatest efforts to provide for the needs of the poor. The crowd responded with a muttering: `Work or blood! We will eagerly accept any kind of work that can ensure our subsistence; but if we don't get it promptly, we will do anything rather than die like dogs.' ``

By Aengus O Snodaigh

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1