Trevelyan went on to imprison any Irish Catholic who stole corn from the surplus corn sheds to feed their families. These people were sentenced to prison ships and deported to Australia, leaving their families behind to suffer the awful emotional pain that this caused them on top of their starvation. While all of this was happening, all livestock reared in Ireland by farmers of the upper classes and Protestant farmers was being exported, and in George Bernard Shaw’s, Man and Superman, Act 1, a real account of the famine is encapsulated: ‘While a country is full of food there can be no famine.’ What all of this amounted to, then, was ‘starvation’ on a massive scale.
It is fair to say that Trevelyan was the most reviled and hated man in Ireland during the famine years, and for good reason. All down through Irish history his name has evoked anger (see Appendix 3). His name will always remain synonymous with the tradgy – which is now known to many thousands of people who attend the six nations’ rugby at Lansdowne Road (renamed Aviva Stadium), Dublin – is a stark reminder of his cruel and insensitive handling of the Irish famine situation.
The Irish people suffering this grave tragedy were already victims of a regime that cared little for the Irish people’s welfare. That, combined with the absentee landlords who continued to evict the tenant farmers who could not pay their rent, left destitute people wandering all over the country, eating grass or any other edible plant material that was available. Irish history has not been kind to either Queen Victoria or Sir Charles Trevelyan!
In the aftermath of the Great Hunger of 1844–54, (some historians say 1844 to ’49, others say 1844 to ’50 or ’54), as it became known, ordinary Irish people who had been left homeless and destitute (those people that had not left Ireland for foreign shores) had to go on living and providing for themselves and their families by whatever means were available to them.
Add to this terrible calamity the fact that some thirty years later, between 1877 and 1881, tragedy struck again in West Ireland when the wettest weather in many years caused the potato to rot in the ground once more. placed tenant farmers in the same situation as during the Great Hunger – although there was a different reason for the crop failure – whereby they were unable to pay their rent or feed their families.
These adverse conditions led to the eviction of over three thousand tenant farmers from their homes in the West of Ireland. Emigration had remained unabated in the intervening years since the Great Hunger, but now, with evictions coming on top of this latest famine, the flow of emigrants out of Ireland increased. There were also many people who did not take the emigration route, and they were wandering up and down the country, trying to find shelter or some work so they could feed their families.
It was Charles Stewart Parnell, a Protestant landowner known as ‘Ireland’s uncrowned king’ in this era, who railed against the British Parliament and the Crown (Queen Victoria was still on the throne). He gave voice to the people’s anger when he made a speech in Ennis under the auspices of the Land League. It was said that he and other prominent people who supported tenant farmers owning their own land had set up their own courts and acted as if the Land League were the government of the country! This followed a speech in Ennis where Parnell declared, ‘When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him, in the streets, on the roadside, and in the shops.’
He did in effect put land grabbers (as they were known) into a ‘moral coventry,’ which resulted in the boycotting of rent payments to the landlords and crimes and murder being committed against landlords and their agents. Charles Stewart Parnell was a very real thorn in the side of the British establishment and the Crown, and he continued his support of the Irish tenant farmers by putting their cause – to own the land which they tilled – on a national level, for them.
Therefore, it is very important to understand that the Irish traveller, derogatorily known as a ‘tinker’ or ‘knacker’, was thought to belong to the group of people who had been on the margins of society since being uprooted by Cromwell’s ‘ethnic-cleansing policy’ in 1641, whereby he confiscated the vast majority of Irish Catholic lands, thus rendering the people homeless. He awarded these lands to his protestant army personnel for services rendered. This resulted in the Catholic mass being evicted through successive famines, culminating in the Great Hunger of 1844.
As a consequence of all of these evictions, cruel and derogatory labels were applied to those who had had the misfortune to be evicted from their homes. Thus these destitute people became known as tinkers and knackermen. Tinkers are, in fact, noted in history as being itinerant tinsmiths, highly skilled people trained in the use of tin and menders of household utensils of every kind.
Knackers were very important to the farming community, as they collected the dead, dying, and injured animals, thereby saving the taxpayer a great deal of money. If there had been no knackermen around, it would have put great pressure on the big business people – for example, the nobility and the wealthy, who had carriages to transport themselves around – to remove dead animals, so the knackermen were fundamental to the Irish economy. Up until the early 1920s, when motorised cars became available – and indeed, long before then, when horses and carriages were the only means of transport – knackermen were as important as any emergency service, just as the roadside Breakdown Cover plan is for present-day motorists.
While these travellers had already suffered at the hands of the British establishment the indignity of eviction and the need to find alternative means of living, such as by doing odd jobs, they were then demonised by the mainstream Irish people and, indeed, written out of Irish history by some historians.
Patrick and Anne Nolan had always told their children about the horrors of the famine, aided by neighbours who came in daily to support Bridget’s sick parents and who would add their voices to the storytelling. They would recall seeing people lying dead or dying. Some people had been known to go down by the seashore and lie down as the waves crashed onto the shore, hoping that the waves would carry them out to sea to end the misery of starvation. The tenant farmers who could not pay their rents were literally thrown off their farms in only the clothes that they wore and not allowed to gather any other belongings. The older neighbours would recall how their pregnant daughters and other pregnant women had died, leaving behind other young children, who would die of starvation as well. Others would recall women who had died in childbirth, the umbilical cord of the baby tying mother and child together in death. They were just left to die, as there was no medical assistance for the destitute. At times, entire homeless families, ravaged by fever and deceases of all kinds, simply lay down along the roadside and died, succumbing to ‘road fever’, as it became known. Members of the Quaker community, known for their charitable work, as well as many priests and nuns, also succumbed to these diseases while attending to the destitute people wherever they were. (The History Place website, 2000)
People would be found dead with grass all around their mouths, with which they had been trying to stave off the hunger. All of these people were buried in shallow graves, or in some cases, they were pushed into a ditch and had soil thrown over them, with not even a prayer being said over their poor dead bodies.
While Bridget was never specifically told anything about the evictions of her grandparents, she came to understand, by listening to the general discussions between the neighbours and her parents, that they had just been some of the people who had been evicted from their homes. Bridget often wondered about this, as she would hear her mother say, ‘’twas the cruel, rich English landlords and their henchmen that have us where we are now, thrown out of our homes.’ so they had to wander all over Wexford to find shelter and food .
Being a child, Bridget never questioned it; this was an era when children had to be seen and not heard and to do as they were told, rich or poor. The neighbours would nod their heads in agreement with her mam and then add their versions of how they, too, had been evicted from their homes.
Bridget often wondered if the neighbours and her parents would ever tire of reminiscing about the famine and all the people that they had lost to death, starvation, or emigration. With her parents being so ill, she did not want to talk about illness at all; however, all the neighbours and her parents appeared to thrive on these daily discussions.
“Emigration had remained unabated in the intervening years since the Great Hunger, so that now, combined with this latest famine, the flow of emigrants out of Ireland increased, as did the wandering of people up and down the country trying to find shelter or some way of feeding their families for those people who did not take the emigration route to seek work.”
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