On this day May 17, 2020 a National Commemoration took place in St Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre in remembrance of the events that took place in Ireland 174 years ago. The event known as "An Gorta Mor" or The Great hunger was engineered by the powers that be of the day to finally eliminate the troublesome population of Ireland. The event was not open to the public due to Covid-19 restrictions. Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan laid a wreath on behalf of the Irish people. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps also attended the ceremony at the Edward Delaney Famine Sculpture and lay a wreath in remembrance of all those who suffered or died during the Great hunger.A plaque marking the first Annual Hunger Commemoration in the Custom House in 2008 was unveiled and it will be installed in the grounds of the Custom House later this year. The National Anthem was performed by an Army Piper and Aimee Banks sang Brendan Graham's 'Crucán na bPáiste.'

Sadly, Ireland is no stranger to death and destruction caused by the lack of food. We as a people have survived disasters both natural and man made. An equally horrific natural event took place in the summer of 1315. That event was so devastating that it stopped a rebellion that was, for the first time in Irish history, on the verge of victory.

Great Hunger of 1315

Five hundred and thirty years before the death and devastation caused in 1847 by 'An Gorta Mor' otherwise known as The Great Hunger, Ireland suffered an equally horrific event that begun in 1315 and was the first in a series of large-scale disasters that devastated Europe in the 14th century. A continent-wide famine began with heavy rains in the spring of 1315 causing crop failures all across Europe which didn’t recover until late in 1322. The crisis brought extreme levels of crime, disease, millions of deaths and even cannibalism. The disaster had major consequences for the Church, state and European society as a whole. In 1317, Ireland was seriously affected by the famine with a shortage of food and provisions. People had to revert to being hunters and gatherers and began to collect and eat seaweed, wild roots, hazelnuts, acorns, plants, grasses, and tree bark in the forests.

By the early 14th century, Ireland had not had a High King since Ruaidri Ua Conchobair (Rory O'Connor) who had been deposed by his son in 1186. The country was divided between the Gaelic dynasties that had survived the earlier Norman invasions and the Hiberno-Norman Lords of Ireland. In 1258 some of the Gaelic aristocrats elected Brian Ua Néill High King; unfortunately, he was defeated by the Normans at the Battle of Downpatrick in 1260. In 1306, a Scottish chieftain named Robert Bruce plotted to overthrow the Normans and regain Scottish independence. With the aid of several Scottish lords and their many associated clans, Robert Bruce defeated them at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and soon after, was crowned king of Scotland.

In the province of Ulster, Ireland, two powerful clans, the O'Neills and O'Donnells, were heartened by this victory in Scotland and sent emissaries to speak to Robert Bruce in hopes of enlisting his aid in defeating the Normans that remained in Ireland. A deal was struck in which the king’s brother, Edward Bruce would be crowned Ard Ri (high king) of Ireland, in return for their assistance.

In 1315 Robert Bruce, King of Scots, sent his younger brother Edward Bruce to invade Ireland. Bruce's main mission in invading Ireland was to create a second front in the ongoing war against Norman England, draining her of much needed men, materials and finance by creating havoc on the island, as well as depriving her of the Irish tax revenues contributing to the war effort. This became critical when King Robert's control of the Isle of Man was lost to Norman-backed Scots in January 1315, thereby threatening the south and southwest of Scotland and also reopening up a potential source of aid to England from the Hiberno-Normans and Gaelic Irish. Later that year a large, disciplined army led by Edward Bruce, landed at Larne in Ulster, just north of Belfast, County Antrim. They marched south to the royal kingdom of Meath, and after a bloody battle, defeated the Norman forces.

In May 1316 Edward was crowned king of Ireland and later that year his brother Robert Bruce arrived in Ireland with his considerable forces. The brothers, with their combined armies, marched on the Normans of Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny, routed them and destroyed their property. Robert returned to Scotland leaving Edward to complete the removal of the remaining Normans. For a glorious moment in Ireland’s tortured history, it seemed likely that the Normans would be driven out of Ireland once and for all.

At first, the Irish-Scottish alliance seemed unstoppable, as it won battle after battle and gained control of most of Ireland in less than a year and was on the verge of driving the Anglo-Norman settlers out of Ireland altogether. Sadly, it was not to be. Because of the famine and the lack of food for his troops, many of whom were already weakened by pneumonia and influenza, Edward Bruce’s military campaign was severely hampered during this time and slowed their advance. In October 1318, Edward marched north to County Louth where he engaged a large Norman army. North of the town of Dundalk, at the battle of Faughart, County Louth, Edward’s army was defeated, and he died from his wounds some time later. This event marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth that had started around 1050.

Although some believe growth had already been slowing down for a few decades, the famine was undoubtedly a clear end of high population growth. The Great Famine would later have consequences for future events in the fourteenth century, such as the Black Death, when an already weakened population would be struck again.

An Gorta Mor of 1847

This year 2020, is the 173rd anniversary of the ‘great Hunger’ that befell Ireland in 1847. Otherwise known as ‘an Gorta mor’ or more commonly referred to as ‘Black ‘47’ it was a seminal turning point in the long tortuous history of Ireland.With the failure of the potato crop due to a serious blight, more than half of the 8 million population either perished or left the island to seek salvation elsewhere. By 1841, there were 8,175,000 people living in Ireland, eighty percent of whom were poverty stricken. By 1900, the population had shrunk to a little over 3 million. Most Irish landlords were Protestants, simply because the law forbade Catholics from owning land, a result of one of the many repressive policies enacted by king James 1 in the 1600's. James' ultimate goal was to eradicate Catholicism, hopefully in one generation.

The 'so called' famine of 1847 would have been seen as a good way to further the policies set in place by James. The Irish peasants, as they were called, were comprised of both Presbyterian and Catholic, and lived in desperate conditions. Living and farming as they did, on land owned by the notorious ‘Absentee Landlords,’ they had to pay rent which was collected by an agent appointed by the landlord. Many of those ‘agents’ were notoriously dis-honest and often abused their positions by charging more than the agreed amount of rent, then pocketed the difference. If a tenant could not afford to pay the rent in cash, property, including livestock and crops, would be taken in lieu.

In this, the 21st century, we, as a people have the capability of producing enough food to feed everyone on the planet and be left with a surplus. With more compassion for our fellow man, no-one would or should ever have to suffer the pangs of hunger. It is up to us to ensure that food goes to those unfortunates whenever and wherever it is needed. Compassion is the key.Hunger is the physical sensation of a desire for food, a desire for sustenance to nourish the body. If this desire is not fulfilled the body will die. It will die a slow, agonizing death. The body will become a cannibal and consume itself from within, in a desperate, futile effort to stay alive. Then it will die. Malnutrition occurs when the body is denied the nutrients necessary to sustain life. Starvation is the state of exhaustion caused by the lack of food. Famine is the widespread scarcity of food caused by any number of events including war, extremes of weather and in Ireland’s case during the years 1844 to 1850, underhanded political machinations.

The human, in the throes of starvation, will eat anything including bark from trees, his own shoes, rats, insects and even his fellow man. In Ireland during the great Hunger of 1847 starving people foraged for nuts, berries, bird's eggs, moss and resorted to eating the grass and weeds growing at the sides of the roads. This led to the horrible practice becoming known as the “Green mouth” death. Despite the fact that many of Ireland’s major ports contained ships laden to overflowing with foodstuffs including oats, barley and livestock including cattle, sheep and pigs, all bound for Britain and other European countries, despite this, Ireland and her starving people were left to fend for themselves and to die by the roadside.

In that same year, 1847, the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes of North America, just prior to their enforced resettlement in Oklahoma, had the compassion and willingness to help the starving people in Ireland. Somehow, against all odds they managed to send food and anything else they thought would be of benefit, to save lives. Their journey became known as the Trail of Tears. On that lonesome trail, untold numbers of their people perished from hunger, starvation and disease. Let us end hunger now.

Dedicated to the memory of those lost in Ireland during the many “An Gorta mors' that we as a nation have endured and against all odds, have survived.

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© John A. Brennan 2019. All Rights Reserved.

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