Ireland’s darkest hour and the involvement of the church

The work of individual clergymen during the harrowing years of the Great Famine is acknowledged in the many histories of that era which had been published.

Now it is good to welcome a slim volume from Fr Donal Kerr, a Marist priest, which deals in a very readable way with the role of the hierarchy and priests in those times (The Catholic Church and the Famine: The Columba Press: PB £5.99)

The bishop of Kildare and Leighlin from 1837 to 1855 was Francis Haly, a native of Doonane in the Queen’s County, who had been ordained at Maynooth in 1812, and was parish priest of Kilcock from 1822. Writing from Carlow in Janurary 1847 Bishop Haly observing the widespead misery said: “No imagination can conceive, no pen can describe it. To have anything approaching a correct idea of the suffering of the poor, you should be here on the spot and see them with your own eyes, the deaths from starvation average more than fifty per diem, and in one of the Dublin workhouses, it appears the deaths were fifty a week, so crowded were the unhappy imates.”

Writing to Dr Paul Cullen, Rector of the Irish College in Rome, he said: “if the government have been only partial successful, we must recollect that is a nation that suffers; it is a nation that cries for food.”
Later when he was forced by pressure from the government to censure a priest of the diocese who had been outspoken, he said trenchantly “that all his priest was doing was protesting the Extermination.”

Fr James Maher, an uncle of Cullen and parish priest of Killeshan, wrote of a poor woman who came home without any food for her children.One of them, maddened by hunger, bit off part of her arm. Even more horrific was the incident reported by a Patrician brother from Galway of a woman who was charged with murder for allegedly killing her child and eating part of it.

Fr. Maher himself used to accompany the corpses of the famine victims in the boat which brought them across the Barrow for burial in the cholera plot.

In Rome Dr Cullen endeavoured to raise what funds he could for the starving people at home, writing in 1848: “I do not know what will become of Ireland. It is now going on four years since famine and disease set in. What will the poor do at present? All their little means must now be exhausted and if great exertions be not made, they will be doomed to starvation.”

No doubt, but he was aware of the superstitous belief of some of the folk at home that the famine was caused by divine anger being expressed at the acceptance of a government grant by the college of Maynooth. But then, in Downpatrick, it was found that the fairies were to blame as they filched the potatoes!

Fr Theobald Mathew, remembered as the apostle of temperance, in 1846 notified the Treasury that the “potato crop was no more than one wide waste of putrefying vegetation....the wretched people were wringing their hands and wailing bitterly at being left foodless. Divine providence has again poured out upon us the vial of its wrath.”

At Maynooth from 1845 onwards on a grant of £30,000 from the government building work was resumed and the president of the college.

Dr. Laurence Renehan was being kept informed of conditions in the famine afflicted areas. From Clogher the bishop wrote that “corpses were lying in the fields and the people are so terrified that none but the clergy can be induced to approach. I yester day sent a coffin out for a poor creature who died in a field, of fever, and have just heard that no one could be prevailed to put the body in it.”

In Elphin, when newly ordained men arrived from Maynooth, the bishop had to have them accommodated by his relatives, instead of employing them in their ministry, ‘not because there was not the most crying need for their services, but because neither he nor his people had the means of supporing them.”

Archbishop Slattery of Cashel told Renehan “verily we are fallan upon time that will try men’s souls and prove what spirit they are of; oh, never did the Mission in Ireland require the humble, patient, hardworking and disinterested priesthood more that at present.”

Early in the summer of 1849 the bishop of Kerry, thanking the president of Maynooth for aid, described conditions in the workhouse: “Only those who go among the people can form a correct estimate of their destitution. We have in Killarney five auxiliary workhouses all crammed to such an excess as to contaminate the air and cause every week from 26 to 30 deaths; the mortality is principally amongst the children and the very old persons.

“You may frequently meet the poor father who entered the work house with 4 or 5 children, after a time leaving with one child on his back and assigns at his reason that all the others died and he would rather starve outside than run the risk of losing the only one that as yet survive.”

Courtesy of the Leinster Leader and Con Costello