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



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



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: 6142

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

Comment by Paula Lydon on August 9, 2013 at 3:02pm

Glad you enjoyed your visit to the Heritage Centre Ronán and that it inspired you to write this great article! I'm a great fan of Ireland's Own as well.  Also nice to meet other fans of the heritage centre here as well!


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