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 Queens 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
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
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
Archbishop Slattery of Cashel told Renehan verily
we are fallan upon time that will try mens 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