The Hunger Road

Louisburgh, County Mayo

Photo of Mayo churchyard by P.J. McKenna

On last Friday, 30th ult., Colonel Hogrove, one of the vice guardians of Westport union, and Captain Primrose, the poor law inspector, arrived here on that morning for the purpose of holding an inspection on the paupers who were receiving outdoor relief in this part of the union.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

March is said to go “in like a lion, out like a lamb”, but at the end of March 1849, the weather showed no signs of easing.

The people were exhausted. Three years of failed harvests had starved them; waves of diseases such as typhus and cholera had further weakened and winnowed the population. The rebellion of the previous year had reduced any residual pity the British government had for the destitute population of Ireland.

There was still some pity in the world, however. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, provided soup and medical attention across Ireland. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Choctaw nation donated $170, the equivalent of tens of thousands today. It was an extraordinary sum; the Choctaws were themselves in dire straits, having been forced to leave their own homes the previous decade in the “Trail of Tears”.

But such isolated acts of charity were not enough. Many thousands in Mayo were depending on outdoor relief to stay alive. An inspection was due to take place at Louisburgh to determine who was eligible, but the two men from the Board of Guardians decided that they would much prefer to go hunting at Delphi Lodge instead. The locals were told that the inspection would take place in Delphi at 7am the next morning.

The distance was only 12 miles (19km) to the south, but for starving people on foot in atrocious weather it must have seemed like the other side of the country. Perhaps the Board of Guardians thought the journey would discourage those indigents from claiming from the public purse, but they underestimated their desperation.

Hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children, might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads for the appointed place.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

Throughout the night, hundreds walked the soggy goat path along the shores of Doolough lake. Their starved flesh hung loosely and their bones had little protection against the bitter March wind. With little strength in reserve, some slipped along the scree that lead down to the lake. Parents carried children, children carried younger siblings, older adults leaned against the young and upright.

Photo of Doolough from National Library of Ireland

That morning, there were already bodies on the picturesque road along the Doolough valley. In the opulent surroundings of Delphi Lodge, the inspectors sat down for breakfast. When the starving hordes arrived, they were sent away empty-handed, back down the road from which they’d come.

The bodies of these ill-fated creatures lay exposed on the road side for three or four days and nights, for the dogs and ravens to feed upon, until some charitable person had them buried in a turf hole at the road side.
— Letter from “A Ratepayer” to The Mayo Constitution, April 5th, 1849

No-one knows how many died that day. A “ratepayer” reported in the Mayo Constitution that seven bodies were found and nine more people were never seen again. Other eyewitnesses claimed that over a hundred fell by the wayside. It was just one story of many in a famine that killed over a million and sent the same number fleeing abroad.

A Celtic cross now marks the scene of the Doolough Valley tragedy. In 1990, the first annual Famine Walk between Louisburgh and Doolough was held to commemorate the event. Among those present were members of the Choctaw Nation, descendants of those who had made such a generous donation to Ireland in its hour of need.


The Boy Who Lived

Skiberreen, County Cork

Scene at Skibbereen. By James Mahoney for The Illustrated London News, 1847.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
Skibbereen, traditional song (Attributed to Patrick Carpenter 1880)

When blight struck successive potato harvests between 1845 and 1847, the resulting famine caused death and devastation all over Ireland, but the townland of Skibbereen suffered more than most.

Six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.

– Letter from Nicholas Cummins to The Duke of Wellington (Published in The London Times, December 1846)

The prospects of any child entering Skibbereen workhouse was bleak, with hunger and disease killing more than half of them. That day in 1848, like too many before, the emaciated bodies were piled onto a cart and pulled to the mass grave at Abbeystrewry. As they were thrown into the burial pit, one small child was hit by a shovel and groaned.

Three-year-old Tom Guerin was alive!

They pulled him from the grave, but the shovel blow left him crippled for life. He grew up to scrape a living as a beggar, travelling the country during the summer months and returning to the workhouse for winter. Despite this, he remained a cheerful man and a well-known character in West Cork, trading on his celebrity as “the boy who rose from the dead”.

In later life, he applied to the guardians of the workhouse for a new pair of shoes, supporting his case with a poem:

I rose from the dead in the year ’48,
When a grave at the Abbey had near been my fate,
Since then for subsistence I have done all my best
Though one shoe points eastwards and the other points west.
I roam o’er the world admiring each scene,
And a tax on the ratepayers I have never been,
I only appeal to you now for a pair
Of brogues, and I’ll vanish again into air.
– Tom Guerin, date unknown

Tom got his shoes. He died at 65, an impressive age for someone who lived a hard life and was left for dead as a child.