United Irishmen

The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791 through the inspiration of a certain young Dublin lawyer named Theobald Wolfe Tone. He was invited to Ulster on the strength of the publication of his short pamphlet entitled “An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”. It is sometimes forgotten that Ulster Presbyterians also suffered from religious discrimination, (though less severely), and had absorbed republican ideas from the American and French revolutions. Continue reading

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Considering Stalin’s Genocides

Norman M. Naimark is a Professor in Eastern European Studies at Stanford University. His latest book is “Stalin’s Genocides”.
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Sligo Potato Famine 1845-6 (4)

A Poor Law had been introduced to Ireland in July 1838 which involved the division of the country into 130 “unions” consisting of a group of electoral divisions made up of a number of townlands. Sligo Union comprised 23 divisions and –as a principal town- had a workhouse. This was administered by the Board of Guardians, local men of property. Sligo had 39 such men on the committee. Soon, almost the entire local governance of the emergency was to fall on their shoulders.

The workhouse was financed by the local poor rates on the principle that “property should pay for poverty,” and to force landlords to take full responsibility for the management of their estates, an act was passed making landlords liable to pay poor rates on land valued at under £4 per annum.

Individuals could not enter the workhouse, but paupers entered in whole family units. Once inside, however, sexes were strictly segregated and set to work breaking rock into gravel. The food offered –as Charles Dickens was to famously point out in the contemporary account of Oliver Twist- was of poor quality and of limited range.

In the event, the Government moved with astonishing speed. During the Autumn of 1845, Prime Minister Peel had been apprised of the situation and by November, he had already quietly arranged for the purchase of £100,000 worth of American maize (designated “Indian meal”) to offset the feared famine. He also established Randolph Routh as the chairman of a temporary Relief Commission in January 1846, to advise the Government and to coordinate the efforts of the various local relief committees. These local groups were made up not only of local landlords but also clergymen, magistrates and large-scale farmers. Their task was to purchase and resell the maize at official depots (such as the ports of Sligo and Westport). They were financed by raising local subscriptions which were matched by a government grant, pound for pound. At this stage, the measures taken seemed, indeed, very prompt. Their adequacy was about to be put to the test.

“The progress of decay increases. In the month of February a greater quantity of potatoes rotted than in the previous two months. Letting the potatoes remain undug in the ground was the best way of preserving them…The small farmers (those who pay £4 to£6 annual rent) expect their supply…will be exhausted by the middle of May…The supply of cottier tenants or labourers is now nearly consumed. The impoverished condition and squalid misery of this class of the people of the county has not yet arrived at any extraordinary degree of distress but there is an apprehension of famine that in itself is frightening…Between 16 March and 20 May the farmers will afford to the labourers full employment in tilling the ground… From 20 May to 10 September public works will be the best means of preventing famine. The poorer the ground the sounder were the potatoes. In the mountainous districts where the potatoes were planted in a peat soil, disease made less progress than in in the more cultivated parts of the country.”

Friday 13th March 1846 Engineer’s Report
Corran, Leyny & Coolavin (Parishes in Sligo) RLFC 3/1/724

The promised Indian Meal had arrived in Sligo in March 1846 but did not go on sale until May. The delay was a further cause of local tensions, which were building steadily. The first demonstrations were quite seemly: a hundred men were reported to have marched through the streets of Sligo Town with loaves of bread fixed on poles. When the local guardians promised to give them both work and increased wages, they quietly dispersed.
But the murmurs of the working people began to rise. Scurrilous ballads were secretly printed and began to be sold off in penny sheets at the local fairs; some of the gentry –such as Edward Cooper- reported the receipt of threatening letters. Here’s the concluding resolutions of a Public Meeting held in Sligo towards the end of April 1846 insisting on the sale of the Indian meal.
That from want of employment, consequent on so many being discharged from the merchants’ provision yards, corn stores etc, as well as from the high price of food, that the labouring classes in Sligo town are in a sad state of want and destitution. That an application be made without delay to the Commissioners to put the Indian meal now warehoused there on the market at a moderate rate which will have the effect of lowering the price of potatoes, oatmeal and other food. That a public meeting be called by the Mayor, of aldermen, magistrates of the Petty Sessions, chairman of the Board nof Guardians, Poor Law Guardians, clergymen and other such intelligent gentlemen and merchants as he may approve of, for the purpose of relieving the esisting distress in this town and neighbourhood.”
Wednesday 22nd April 1846 Resolutions of a Public Meeting

By May 1846, Co. Sligo had joined 17 other counties in request for public woks projects.
The partial failure of the 1845 harvest had been followed by a sharp rise in unemployment. The Town and Harbour Commissioners of Sligo appointed a committee and they duly reported that some 2400 were unemployed –a dangerous percentage.
In January 1846, O’Hara was planning public road projects and was to add many workers to his estate staff through the summer. An August issue of the Sligo Journal noted that O’Hara had employed over 300 men, daily, during the previous six months and had provided liberal amounts of oatmeal for them.
O’Hara’s laudable energy showed what could be accomplished by well-meaning men who had the means and inclination to counter the rising panic. The general situation was somewhat different, however. Legislation had been introduced by March 1846 preparing the ground for relief works. Mostly this work comprised the repair and construction of roads. The money for these projects was to be raised locally and nationally: half a Treasury grant (to be repaid by the local area) and half a free grant. The distressed area had to first make application to the Lord Lieutenant, which was then forwarded to the Relief Commissioners and the Board of Works. Upon approval the application was sent to the County Surveyor for inspection, returned to the Board of Works for their comments and then recommended back to the Lord Lieutenant who then made direct application to the Treasury Department. It was a tedious and bureaucratic procedure which created frustrating delays.
To make matters somewhat worse, the local relief committees had to choose to whom they would give work tickets. It was often the case that a local landlord would be on the Relief Committee and choose those of his own tenants who owed rent.
The labourers would earn less than shilling a day.
Across North Connacht, during the summer of 1846, the number of those employed each day rose from 7000 in June to almost 98,000 by mid-August. On 21st July 1846 the Treasury announced that all the public works were to be curtailed in the expectation that the coming harvest would render them unnecessary.
Father James of Bunninadden encountered the problem of living in a rural area with an absentee landlord
We…beg most respectfully to inform you of the state of extreme destitution of many of the poorer classed in these districts in which there is no resident landed proprietor and consequently but little employment can be obtained by the able-bodied labourer, nor has any public work been as yet undertaken altho’ applied for long since and no relief committee has been formed that we are aware of for the barony of Corran in which these parishes are situated…[We] implore some immediate relief from the funds in your hands or a supply of Indian meal from the depot at Sligo.
Draft Reply: Forward list of subscriptions however small… and a grant in aid will be recommended. Indian meal can be purchased at Sligo Depot by any duly constituted relief committee.
Sunday 14th June Memorial of James Henry PP, John Finn CC and 29 parishioners of the parishes of Cloonoghill, Kilturra and Kilshavey to the Relief Commission RLFC 3/1/3271

The Catch-22 situation at Bunninadden was that without resident landlords, Father James’ local efforts were without official sanction. As they continued to lobby for support in subsequent weeks they were curtly reminded that “There are vacancies in Boyle workhouse and also in Sligo Workhouse. There is a constabulary depot in Ballymote already.” It was a chilling reminder that the only official provision remaining was to be treated as destitute or as criminal.
This situation was far from being unusual. John Armstrong, a Justice of the Peace at Tubbercurry, became a vocal advocate of the rights of the poor. During this period he wrote angry missives almost daily, demanding support.
Extreme distress prevails in the upper half barony of Leyny, containing a population of 7,500. The funds are only £190 and no public works have commenced. The committee fears that the extreme destitution will compel them to dole out a considerable portion of our small means without being able to exact work in return.
This radical suggestion provoked an immediate response by return of post:
Under no circumstance can gratuitous relief be sanctioned except for the infirm poor and then only in the event of there not being any vacancies in the workhouse. Employment must be provided and the commissioners cannot conceive that any part of the country is in such a state as not to present a variety of small public works of utility, suitable both for males and females.
Thursday 25th June John Armstrong JP to the Relief Commission RLFC 3/1/3585/
Draft Reply 27th June

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Sligo Potato Famine 1845 (3)

Why was the famine in West Ireland not foreseen? Why were there no structures for support already in place?

The major reason for the devastation caused by the failure of the potato crops was the lack of alternative resources. Father James (see post below) had pointed out the invidiousness of exporting those alternatives, and the Sligo Champion noted the dependency of a whole class of people upon one foodstuff.

But even earlier in 1845, before the blight had arrived, a Royal Commission had made this description of the working class inhabitants of the County Sligo area:

It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which they (the Irish labourer and his family) habitually and silently endure… in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water… their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather… a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury… and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.

Royal Commission: February 1845

Earlier still, as reported in the Census of 1841, housing was divided into four classes – the lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room. Nearly half of the families living in the countryside were found to be living in the lowest class of housing.

Perhaps the evidence supplied by John McMahon –a wealthy farmer in Limerick- to the Committee on Agriculture in 1833 suggests what contemporary life may have been like in the villages and farmsteads of County Sligo:

Do the peasantry eat wheaten bread at all? Never except two days in the year.
What are those days? Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.
What do they live upon? Potatoes and milk.
Nothing else? Nothing else.
How is the labourer worse off than he was? In not having work. Many have told me they would be the happiest people that there could be in the world if they could have work six months in the year at eightpence a day.
Have all those labourers little patches of land of their own? Yes.
How much? Generally an acre.
What do they pay? The fortunate man will have to pay from £5 to £8 a year but will have
to sell his pig to pay his rent.
Do they all wear shoes and stockings? They do, most of them, but boys of 15 or 16 years you may see not wearing a shoe or a stocking.
In the hilly or mountain districts is that the case? In the mountain districts there are great numbers of them bare legged, men and women.

Committee on Agriculture, 1833

The scene was set: the fragile balance between poverty and destitution depended upon the success of the potato crop.

And the crop failed.

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Sligo: Potato Famine 1845 (2)

An unknown disease had attacked the potato crops in the Eastern United States, ruining the harvests during the years 1843 and 1844. The likelihood is that some diseased potatoes from these crops were shipped to a few European ports. The Potato Blight had a devastating effect on the economy and the people of Ireland over the next six years, but it was hardly noticed at first. The initial stages of the disease were first reported in Sligo by the Autumn of 1845.

One or two Anglo-Irish agriculturalists had spotted the strain during the spring and summer of 1845, identifying the tell-tale signs of “finely sprinkled soot” upon the leaves and stalk, the rapid decomposition of the potato and the pungent odour, but the spring harvest had been unusually good and, at least at first, optimism prevailed.

The County Inspector had been duly warned, however, of possible trouble ahead, and in this early account (20th September 1845), J.S.Stewart, a sub-Inspector at Tubbercurry, reports back his findings to Captain Lawson, the County Inspector at Sligo.

“There has been a small failure in a few instances but it is of a very trifling nature. The general opinion in the country is that there has not been so good a crop of potatoes for some years.”
20th September 1845. J.S.Stewart, Tubbercurry Constabulary Report
RLFC2/ Z. 13210

Stewart’s optimism was profoundly misplaced. Just over a month later, Pilsworth Whelan Esquire, who was serving as the Residential Magistrate, wrote in great detail to Richard Pennefather.

“Ten days back the tops rapidly faded and dried, particularly on high ground and soon after small patches of brown colour appeared on the potatoes…These progressively spread on the outsides of the potato, the part affected became tainted and rotten as the disease advanced and if in this state the crop was put into a pit, both good and bad became alike rotten. The farmers put the diseased potatoes aside and only pitted the sound ones. The potato disease is universal throughout this district…. The alarm amongst all classes is considerable and at the requisition of Mr Cooper of Markrea Castle, a meeting of the principal gentry of the county took place today at the Meldan Hotel in the town of Sligo…It was admitted by all that the disease was universal.”

Thursday 23rd October 1845. Pilsworth Whelan RM to Richard Pennefather

Whelan’s notes are significant. He notes the progressive nature of the disease and its contagiousness. He also indicates a local swing of perception –in just four weeks- from a general optimism to a universal despondency. As befitted his important position in a county town, he was among the very first to call for some measure of government intervention. As his letter continued, he shrewdly pointed out two factors that were to become pivotal as the situation worsened: the fluctuation in the price of potatoes –or rather the risk of a price inflation- and the possibility of the substitution of oatmeal.

Whelan also mentions the proactive stance of “Mr Cooper of Markrea Castle”. Edward Cooper was a landowner of considerable means and a large estate which to this day-even as a hotel, Markrea Castle is pretty impressive- bears testimony to his local prominence. He was one of the leading “movers and shakers” in the Collooney area, and his input into the unfolding catastrophe was also to prove significant.

Whelan feels bound to point out, finally in his letter, that “The actual loss in the potato crop is not yet material.” The “Not yet,” here, while true enough, was to sound ominous within days.

The Parish Priest at Bunnimadden, (Bunnanadden, near Tobercurry) James Henry, wrote to the Sligo Champion on Monday 17th November 1845 in far less dispassionate tone.

“We regret we must confirm the rumour of a very general failure of the potato crop in this county…one third of the crop is entirely lost…From all quarters the accounts are most disheartening and yet the grain is leaving the country as fast as it can be exported, in order to enable the tenants to meet the demands of the landlords. All this is very distressing…”

A new thought begins to surface in Father James’s letter, which was to gather momentum as the disaster unfolded: that the economic crisis lay at the mercy of a political rationale. That is, the grain which could have afforded relief was bound for export. The landlords had a legal right to their own property, of course, but, in many instances, they had interests and estates in England and their “legal right” derived from an English government. Whilst many landlords –like Cooper above- attempted to meet the problem head-on, many did not understand the local situation at all. The problem of “absentee landlords” was to accentuate the distress of local tenants who felt disempowered, unrepresented and at the mercy of the local agents. As for the agents, their very jobs depended on their ability to force the demands of the landlords. Father James’s terms “disheartening” and “distressing” intimate that a legal right was not the same as a moral one.

“I attended the meeting of the Poor Law Guardians of the Sligo Union. They are of the opinion that the central part of the county will not have a sufficient supply of potatoes for the winter and spring. …The necessity of organizing committees in particular districts [deferred until]…absolutely necessary [since it may]… unsettle the minds of the people.”

Thursday 27th November 1845. Francis Knox Gore to Sir Thomas Freemantle
RLFC 2/Z.16838

Even as the extent of the crisis began to be realised, the leaders of the town seemed unwilling to take positive action. Knox Gore’s fear was that the formation of relief committees might worry the locals unduly. Perhaps this was the last gasp of an optimism that the situation might turn itself around. Clearly he anticipated what was later actualized: the development of food banks and resource centres to prevent absolute destitution.

His letter continued with the useful suggestion that mills at strategic points across the county might be used for the conversion of potatoes into farina (potato meal) to ensure minimum loss. The processing of the potatoes in this way would be unpopular (farina was used for cattle and pigs) but it was edible and it stemmed the wastage of good potatoes mixed with the bad.

A final piece written during that first Autumn of the Potato Famine summarized the rapid spread of difficulties in the Sligo region and suggested methods of redress:

“That the potato disease has prevailed and continues to progress… that numbers of the poorest classes, totally dependent on their conacre potato crops which have particularly suffered, must be driven to the markets for food which it will be impossible for them to purchase unless afforded early, special and continued employment …that depots or stores of provisions should be established to supply food on reasonable terms…that we apprehend the worst results unless prompt and adequate measures be adopted…”

Wednesday 10th December 1845. Resolution of Sligo Board of Guardians
RLFC 2/ Z.17842

After only four months, the recognition is made that it would be the poorest who would suffer, and that to counterbalance that, relief work projects would need to be put in hand to ensure that they were able to pay for their own subsistence. The report also stipulates that -whether or not it unsettled people,- the setting up of district food stores was now urgent and essential. All in all, the resolution calls for an intensive government intervention of “prompt and adequate measures”.

What could not be foreseen at this stage was how bad things were about to get.

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Sligo: Potato Famine 1845 (1)

Between 1847 and 1851 over 30,000 people emigrated through the port of Sligo. On the Quayside, overlooking the Garavogue River, is a sculpted memorial to the emigrants. This is one of a suite of three sculptures commissioned by the Sligo Famine Commemoration Committee to honour the victims of the Great Famine. A plaque in the background, headed ‘Letter to America, January 2, 1850’ tells one family’s sad story:

“I am now, I may say, alone in the world. All my brothers and sisters are dead and children but yourself… We are all ejected out of Mr. Enright’s ground… The times was so bad and all Ireland in such a state of poverty that no person could pay rent. My only hope now rests with you, as I am without one shilling and as I said before I must either beg or go to the poorhouse… I remain your affectionate father, Owen Larkin. Be sure answer this by return of post.”

The reminders of that “day of visitation” are still to be seen here and there. The ruins of famine villages still stand on the windswept hills of the Ox Mountains, County Sligo, in mute testimony to a denuded population. The story of “The Great Hunger” (An Gorta Mór) which attended the failure of successive potato crops has often been told. It is –quite rightly- part of the History syllabus of the Irish educational system, much as it is mandatory for all Polish schoolchildren to visit Auschwitz. The past must be revisited, no matter how painful the journey, if its lessons are to be properly learnt.

The intention here is to emphasize the particular story of the Sligo area and to reflect on several letters and reports written during the first year of the crisis. Sligo is near where my family presently lives, and so that gave us the chance to talk to local people whose families have lived here for many generations and who carry family memories of those days. It was a local farmer, for example, (Kenneth Higgins of Skreen) who pointed out to me the ruins of that “famine village” on the Western face of the Ox Mountains near where he lives and works.

Sligo town itself was shielded from the worst depredations of the famine. It was in the surrounding countryside that the worst of hunger and disease was felt. The town had its Workhouse, true, but it had also the docks where the imported foodstuffs would enter the country and the food stores were also here by the dockside, (near where the modern Famine memorial now stands). The markets, major county businesses, banks and churches all had their power bases in Sligo town, so perhaps it is little wonder, reading the minutes of the Methodist Church from 1845 to 1851 that so little mention is made of the catastrophic events in surrounding areas

(Note: Thanks to Rev. Stephen Taylor, Sligo Methodist Church for this observation).

I’ll be developing this in future posts.

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SALAMIS: the watershed

After the Persian victories at Artemisium and Thermopylae, king Xerxes proceeded to Athens, which he captured in the last days of September 480. Meanwhile, the Greek navy, which had managed to get away from Artemisium, stayed on the isle of Salamis, opposite Athens. The presence of the enemy close to Phaleron, the Athenian harbo8r, created a strategic problem for the Persians: they could not use their port as easy as they wanted. And this was something they had to, because their army was proceeding to the Isthmus of Corinth, and it was imperative that the transport ships, brimful with food, could join the soldiers on the Isthmus. It was, therefore, imperative to expel the Greeks from Salamis.

According to a story by Herodotus that may or may not be true, the Athenian admiral Themistocles, pretending to be a friend of the Persians, lured the enemy navy into the straits of Salamis: he ordered a slave to row to the shore, and tell the Persians that the Greek allies were to abandon their position. If the Persians would enter the strait between Salamis and the mainland, they would easily defeat the Greeks. The story is already known to Aeschylus, a contemporary; on the other hand, the Persians hardly needed this incentive, as they were anyhow forced to attack.

Early in the morning of 29 September, when it was still very dark, the Persians started to enter the narrow strait. Xerxes watched what happened from a nearby hill, and saw how, at dawn, his ships were attacked on their flank. They were almost without a chance. We know that an Egyptian flotilla tried to block the Greek retreat to the north, but it was defeated or neutralized by the Corinthian ships. At nightfall, at least a third of the Persian ships was defeated. Persia had not improved its strategic position and Xerxes recalled his army, which had reached the Isthmus.It was a serious setback, but not a disaster. After the defeat, the Persians occupied winter quarters in Thessaly. Meanwhile, however, Babylon was unquiet and king Xerxes may have had to send an army to the east to suppress a revolt (Arrian of Nicomedia, Anabasis, 7.17.2). In the following year, 479, the Persian commander Mardonius had insufficient troops to defeat the united Greek army at Plataea. In retrospect, Salamis proved to be the decisive battle in the Persian War.

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The Bitchiness of Historians (The Case of Herodotus)

Historians have always been bitchy towards one another. It just seems to go with the territory. They are touchy, quick to take offence, or apt to chuck cold water, wet blankets and trenchant abuse on one another in ample doses. Of course, some do operate under that wise axiom: “Rubbish not, lest thou be rubbished” whilst others keep their heads so far beneath the parapet that they become lost in their own ruts forever, failing to notice the whine of crossfire. Continue reading

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From Gibbon to Goebbels? The Historians’ Trajectory

Gibbon and Goebbels are not the obvious choices for comparison to Herodotus and Thucydides, but bear with me. H & T are frequently regarded as the “first historians.” They wrote the book, you might say, on how to do history. At least, Herodotus was the first writer whose name and work survive.
And yet: have you read what he wrote? And how he did it? Continue reading

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Is “Saxon town” a misnomer?

Today, we distinguish the ideas of “urban” and “rural” quite readily. In fact, we are heirs to a whole raft of concepts and snobbery about “townies” and “bumpkins” that have existed for centuries. The Romans made the same distinction. But what of the Anglo-Saxons? Is “Saxon town” a misnomer? Continue reading

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