I had occasion to visit Dan O’Hara’s hillside farm in Connemara recently as part of my work as a tour guide, work that takes me all over the country. The owner Martin Walsh, a natural born storyteller captivated the group with the story of how the unfortunate farmer ended up in New York and sang the sad song which told of his misfortune.

The name O’Hara itself comes from the Irish Ó hEaghra, Eaghra being a Sligo chieftain who died in 926. By the standards of the area he would have been regarded as something of a prosperous farmer who farmed eight acres around his average sized cottage. The potato was the main source of food and an acre and a half of potatoes would feed five or six people for six months. At the time nobody owned the land on which they farmed and the tenants could be evicted on a whim or if the landlord suddenly decided the land would more profitably be used for grazing. The landlord tenant relationship was very different to that of in England. Firstly the landlord did not usually live in Ireland; indeed many rarely if ever visited their Irish estate and seldom had any idea was what going on there. Secondly the landlords viewed their tenants as a conquered people to be exploited. They preferred to let local land agents, known as ‘land sharks’ take care of their estates and send the rent to England. The tenants lived in fear of these agents.

Though the cottage is half way up a mountain it was a focal point in the area for several céilis and many men found their future wife at his home. The area is today sparsely populated but in the 1840s it would have considerably more densely populated. Not only would the Famine decimate the population of Connemara but it also affected the Irish speaking culture. His fatal mistake was to improve his cottage by installing larger windows around 1845. Home improvements were frowned upon by landlords and agents. Doors and windows could not exceed a certain height and dimension without the notorious window tax coming into force. It is from this tax that the phrase ‘daylight robbery’, a tax on natural daylight, stems. The already high rent was increased and O’Hara failed to make the payment at ‘gale day’. Tenants would not have had any right of appeal and could expect no mercy. The end came when the landlord’s agent arrived with the bailiffs, a battering ram and the heavily armed RIC. The thatch was set alight, the walls pushed in and the family left without a home. Evicted tenants would then usually set up a make shift shelter in a ditch or a bog hole and live like animals. Very often however they would be expelled from the area and friends and neighbours would be forbidden from taking them in.

America offered the only chance of survival. His friends and neighbours would surely have keened the departure of the O’Hara family with an American Wake, sadly accepting the fact that they would never see Dan O’Hara in Connemara again. It was the fate shared by thousands at the time. It is not known which ship the O’Hara family left on. More than likely he would have left through Clifden or Galway. The ships which sailed the Atlantic became known as ’coffin ships’ and conditions on board were appalling. Passengers were not screened prior to boarding and many came on board with typhus. A typical journey could be anywhere from forty days to three months, depending on the wind and the skill of the captain. It was assumed that the passengers would bring their own food and the ships were only required to provide 7 pounds of food per week per passenger. Many passengers were starving when they started the journey and they depended on this meagre ration which was often poorly cooked presenting further health problems. The sick and dying lay in their own filth with no doctor on board to tend to them or priest to give the last rites. Not only was the food a problem but the water supply often became contaminated which led to dysentery. Some ships even ran out of water which increased the torment of those already suffering. Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to North America in 1847, one in five died from disease and malnutrition. Only the strongest would survive and Dan O’Hara’s wife and three of his children did not survive the voyage.

Dan O’Hara arrived in New York a sad and broken. Man. In mid 19th century America no group in America was considered lower than the Irish and many, including Dan O’Hara, would have spoken little or no English which is why even today so much of New York slang has Irish roots. Conditions for the newly arrived emigrants were little better than in famine Ireland. Most of the Irish would have lived in a shanty, from the Irish sean tí, which were a common feature in urban areas. At the time 80% of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died. Dan O’Hara was forced to put his remaining children into an orphanage. As the song proclaims he sold matches though his Irish accent would have been scorned by the Nativists, the white Anglo Saxon Protestants who formed the ruling elite of America. He ended his days in destitution and never got to live the American Dream.

Dan O’Hara would have long faded into obscurity were it not for singers such as Delia Murphy (1902-71) from Claremorris who wrote the song and set it to music in 1951 at a time when such songs were not popular. She learnt many of her songs from the travellers who camped on her father’s land. Finbar Furey also adopted the song into his repertoire making sure the unfortunate farmer would not be forgotten. The cottage where Dan O’Hara once lived was restored in 1992 where it now forms part of the Connemara Heritage Centre at Lettershea on the N59 on the Galway side of Clifden.

 

 

Lyrics to Dan O’Hara

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmE3nccVBpU

Sure it's poor I am today

For God gave and took away

And He left without a home poor Dan O'Hara

With these matches in my hand

In the frost and snow I stand

So it's here I am today your broken hearted

 

Refrain:

A chusla geal mo chroi*, won't you buy

a box from me

And you'll have the prayers of Dan from Connemara

I'll sell them cheap and low, buy a box before you go

From the broken hearted farmer Dan O'Hara

 

In the year of sixty-four

I had acres by the score

And the grandest land you ever ran a plough through

But the landlord came you know

And he laid our home so low

So it's here I am today your broken hearted

 

For twenty years or more

Did misfortune cross our door

My poor old wife and I were sadly parted

We were scattered far and wide

And our children starved and died

So it's here I am today your broken hearted

 

Though in frost and snow I stand

Sure the shadow of God's hand

It lies warm about the brow of Dan O'Hara

And soon with God above

I will meet the ones I love

And I'll find the joys I lost in Connemara

 

*a chuisle geal mo chroí / a kwishla gal mo kree/ = love of my heart

 

source: http://ronangearoid.blogspot.ie/

Views: 4526

Tags: America, Connemara, Famine, Galway, Hunger, Tourism

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on July 18, 2013 at 3:44am

It would be interesting to know more about Dan O'Hara's existence in New York such as when exactly he died and what became of his children.

Comment by Bit Devine on July 18, 2013 at 12:50pm

Go raibh mil maith agat for posting this.

Once the children were placed in to an orphange, tracking them would be dificult, indeed. If Dan died a pauper, his death probably wouldn't have been noted, sadly.

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on July 18, 2013 at 2:17pm

Did these orphanages not keep records or were none kept before 1850? Ellis Island did not open until 1880?What about New York City death registers, how far back do they go? I wonder when they started recording the deaths of paupers? Something I don't understand myself is that he is supposed to have left Ireland around 1846 yet the song speaks of 'in the year of 64 I had acres by the score'. Maybe this is just poetic licence?  

Comment by Bit Devine on July 18, 2013 at 3:03pm

If they kept records, it was hodgepodge at that time. In the 1840s, one-third of New York's street folk were orphaned or abandoned children under 15 years of age.  

It wasn't until the Children's Aid Society was formed in the 1850s that better records were kept. The CAS also brought in to play the Orphan trains. The Orphan trains placed close to 100 thousand children in homes in the Midwest

It could well be poetic license, as 64 lends itself better to rhyme


Admin
Comment by Joe Gannon on July 18, 2013 at 5:01pm

My wife and I visited the  Connemara Heritage Centre while in Galway three years ago and had a great time listening to Martin Walsh (on the right in this photo) by the hearth of the cottage there. Men like Martin have a living connection to the time when many people in the west still lived in these tiny stone cottages. I often wonder if there will be anyone to carry on this sort cultural tourist attaction when they are gone. Hopefully so, as they are some of the most interesting places to visit in Ireland, IMO.For anyone who is going to be in the county Galway area, they are just 6km from Clifden on the N59. Here is their website: http://www.connemaraheritage.com/

Comment by Bit Devine on July 18, 2013 at 5:13pm

Martin is one of a kind! There may be others who follow in his footsteps but none will come close. There are a handful like him, throughout Ireland, who are true seanchaidhthe in the tradition of those who carried the oral histories throughout time

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on July 19, 2013 at 3:25am

I found him to be original and genuine or at least that is how he manages to sell himself. He gives you the time of day and this can be a rarity especially at tourist spots.

Comment by Rose Maurer on July 20, 2013 at 5:33am

This incredibly moving song, and accompanying history of it's origins emphasises yet again, 'man's inhumanity to man'. Sadly, it appears inevitable that oral historians will eventually no longer exist to bring life into the Irish culture as the younger people increasingly migrate to the cities, or other countries. I believe this is an unfortunate universal phenomenon which is a consequence of economic necessity and technological development.

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on July 20, 2013 at 7:25am

The travelling community were Important oral historians until the mid 20th century were, but their way of life has since changed. People cannot live on fresh air so need to move to where the jobs are. The closure of pubs and small country schools speeds up this decay. I am a great fan of the magazine 'Ireland's Own',  a magazine which stubbornly refuses to move with the times. Its clear from reading it that many of its readers do not use the internet, yet have an immense amount of local knowledge, which thankfully can be documented before they pass on.

Comment by Rose Maurer on July 20, 2013 at 10:47am

Thank you for your fascinating blog Ronan, and the confirmation of my concerns about the loss of oral historians. I have no Irish blood in me, as I have mentioned to Ger Regan, but your country has always held a fascination for me, a born and bred South African! Something which fell away more than a century ago, was the Afrikaans tradition of writing a family tree in the front of the family Bible, which was handed down by each generation. On a personal note, both my parents are deceased, having been born in 1917 and 1920 respectively, and Mum was the family historian. I still regret not having listened more carefully to her stories of who was related to whom, because of course, nothing was written down, and 16 years on, I still resist the urge at times, to turn to her and ask about a particular cousin etc. Moral of the story -  the long abandoned practice of maintaining a diary of daily/important events needs perhaps to be revived.

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