Within Bridget’s story, Mary is writing about an era of tough times, and she acknowledges ‘these roots’ as the make-up of her own resilient Irish character. She is proud of her grandmother’s achievements, especially with regard to the life chances Bridget was able to create for her family – and rightly so!
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Mary uses the life of Bridget to celebrate the achievements of other women in Dublin and Bray – in fact, from all over Ireland – during this era, and so this story will be of interest to anyone with Irish ancestry. Mary hopes her readers will enjoy the mix of history and biography as an authentic record of times past, and she hopes that this will be an addition to Celtic history from an empathetic and homespun point of view. Mary clearly believes that our roots are important, just as important as our word is our bond.
Bridget would have been the first to utter these sentiments, and in this respect Mary has taken the lead straight from her own upbringing which, of course, was heavily influenced by Bridget.
This biography is meant to preserve a time now past and to show current and future generations how previous struggles shaped them. It is a true story, including adages and personal experiences that have been passed down by word of mouth to Mary from her grandmother, in true Irish tradition. Mary has simply set about recording what she was told, as a history of her own family and as a story that will ring true with many of Irish ancestry who wish to know about their heritage. The tale is simply told in a comfortable and easily accessible style of writing that will be understood by all -:young people seeking answers to questions and older people seeking comfort from former times as a way of making sense of their current lives.
Mary has done a grand job in preserving something of her grandmother’s life, and she has created an authentic piece of Irish history in doing so. Readers should enjoy this poignant read and be able to experience Bridget’s woes and triumphs along with her. Moreover, they will end by thanking God that women like Bridget existed as role models for women everywhere and that such strong, hardy, and steadfast women contributed to forming that charming, quirky, determined Irish character which shines in Irish eyes all over the world.
-- Shayne Langstroth B.Ed., Hons.M.Ed
Chapter One -- Historical Background
Between 1844 and 1854, when Patrick and Anne Nolan were born [Bridget’s parents], Ireland was suffering the worst famine ever known in its history, as the potato crop, the staple diet, had failed. This had been caused by a fungal infestation that attacked the roots of the potato, which in turn caused most of the potato crops to wither and disintegrate to a smelly pulp. This fungus had never been seen in Ireland before, and it would be many years before scientists could identify it. In fact, the name of the fungus was Phytophthora, and it was only discovered in Dublin University by scientists in 1882, when it was thought to have traveled from America via Europe.
There was another factor to consider in the failure of the potato crops, and this was, of course, the lumper seedling itself. It had been introduced into Ireland some years prior to the Great Hunger, as it had a reputation for sturdiness, high yields, adaptability to poor soil, and reliability. However, in the post analysis of the famine years, it was proven to be one of the worst kinds of potato that had ever been grown in Ireland. The lumper was described as an impoverished food: it was watery, tasteless, and the unhealthiest of vegetables, as it lacked the nourishment of other varieties such as the ‘the apple’ or the ‘cup’. The cup was one the Irish masses had found so tasty, with its skin bursting open like a ball of starchy goodness when cooked, giving a real sense of the goodness that a potato should contain. As a consequence of all of this, the potato that had fed the nation throughout Ireland’s history failed to do so in this period of its most vulnerable times.
When we consider that labourers of that era consumed between eight and twelve pounds of potatoes per day as their only food, with only butter melted in for flavour, it gives us a general insight into how the masses survived.
The lumper is now denoted in history as the tenant farmers having traded security for larger crops – they wanted to gain more money per acre of potatoes. The farmers, therefore, were in part just as susceptible to market conditions as any trader in modern Ireland. It is interesting to note, then, that all the potato seedlings sown during the years of the Great Hunger also succumbed to the blight.
Moreover, what has got to be understood in the context of the tenant farmers in 1844 is that 24 per cent of all Irish tenant farms had only one to five acres of land, while 40 per cent had five to fifteen acres. This led to the fields being sown year on year, as there was no land left to lie fallow. Therefore, the potatoes were unable to gain the nutrients that would normally be present in the land to help protect the crops. Holdings were so small that there was no crop other than potatoes which would suffice to feed a family or pay the rent. Neither was ‘ranching’ [the rearing of cows and pigs on the same small acreage of land] a possibility, due to the limited supply of land. The British government reported shortly before the famine that poverty was so widespread that one-third of all Irish smallholdings could not support their families after paying their rent, except by earnings from seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.
Following the famine, reforms were implemented that made it illegal to further divide landholdings, which gave some comfort to the tenant farmers. The census of 1841 showed a population of just over eight million. Two-thirds of those depended on agriculture for their survival, but they rarely received a working wage. They had to work for their landlords in return for the patch of land they needed in order to grow enough food for their own families and to pay the rent. This was the system which forced Ireland and its peasantry into a monoculture [the growing of only one single crop], as only the potato could be grown in sufficient quantity to make any type of living. The rights to a plot of land for the masses [who were Catholics] in Ireland could mean the difference between life and death in the in the nineteenth century
Therefore, as a consequence of this lack of scientific knowledge, combined with the inferior lumper potato, the fungus that had blighted the potato, plus the additional factor of the shortage of farmland, Ireland and its people were left ravaged and decimated during the Great Hunger from 1844 to 1849 [some historians say from 1844 to 1854].
Patrick and Anne Nolan [Bridget’s parents] had been born in the middle of the famine years, and they had first-hand knowledge of the horror and devastation that occurred during this era. Bridget’s assumption that her grandparents had been tenant farmers was gleaned from the many conversations that she had heard between her parents and the neighbours as time went by. Those people who had been evicted from their homes by the rich English landlords had had to stay alive by any means available to them.
They built mud cabins or huts, just as all the other evicted people did, and it was into these dire conditions that both Patrick and Anne were born. The famine had caused nothing but starvation, the sight of loved ones dying, and living in squalid conditions, with terrible diseases ravaging people’s bodies. As well, many saw loved ones walking to the seaports to try to escape the awful situation which had ravaged the land and its people. All of this would leave scars in their memories that never healed. Anne and Patrick went on to have five children, the last of whom was Bridget, born in 1884.
The potato famine which had ravaged the country and its people by disease and starvation left only poverty and deprivation in its wake. This potato blight had caused devastation for the masses of Irish people who depended on the potato for a major source of their nourishment. Potatoes, bread, and butter were the only sources of nourishment in their daily diet, which, monotonous as it was, kept body and soul together to enable the masses to function, to feed their families, and to pay their rents. As a consequence of the potato blight, they were unable to do any of these. They were unable to feed themselves or their families; therefore they were unable to work or pay their rent. It was not only the people who depended completely on the potato but also the cattle, who fed on potatoes in the winter.
Subsequently the wealthy English landlords evicted all their tenant farmers, via their henchmen, and left the masses of Catholics homeless without any clothing or food. Diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, and infections of all kinds, such as scabies, sores from broken wounds, scurvy, mouth ulcers, and much more, ravaged their bodies. Without nourishment or medical attention, they died in their thousands day after day. Historians are not sure how many people died, as there were no accurate records kept then; however, it is estimated that one and a half million people died, and roughly the same number emigrated during the initial stages of the famine.
Ireland was under British rule, and Queen Victoria had been on the throne since June 1837. Queen Victoria showed a remarkable indifference to the Irish people during this period. She became known as the ‘Queen of the Famine’, due to her lack of care, total lack of understanding, and certainly her lack of responsibility towards a British-colonised country; this left a lot to be desired. However, when told of the plight of the Irish people, encouraged by her government, she sent a begging letter all around the world asking for funds and alms for the Irish people (see Appendix 1).
The Irish people did not want charity. What they wanted was their right to be looked after by the country that had colonized them. The British establishment made all the policies and legislation, and through their negligence, they failed miserably.
What had been obvious to Daniel O’Connell for many years had now manifested itself in a famine, and he was galled by the terrible tragedy of watching it in 1844. He had spent hours, days, and years, even, in Parliament, trying to make his peers understand that Ireland was in a crisis long before the famine had begun. So when he saw the Irish people now at the mercy of wicked landlords, starving to death, and being evicted for non-payment of rent, he was livid with anger (see Appendix 2).
So it was that Daniel O’Connell, MP, who came from a very prominent Irish Catholic aristocratic background, was often referred to as ‘worse than a public nuisance’ by the workers in the Corporation Offices [Dublin Corporation]; it was because of his constant campaigns against the British establishment. He was to make his anger very clearly known to Queen Victoria and her government when he stood up in Parliament two years before his death in 1847. His impassioned speech for justice – to seek aid and not charity – was mocked by the rest of the Parliament yet again.
Nevertheless, he did not let this mocking deter him, and he continued his speech under great duress. He told the Parliament in no uncertain terms that the Irish people did not want charity; they wanted Catholic emancipation, infrastructure, and industry, so that they could get jobs and could work to keep their families. First and foremost, in this instance of unparalleled suffering by the Irish people, the masses of Catholics, he wanted aid from those people whom he was holding responsible – the British establishment.
In response to Daniel O’Connell’s impassioned speech, Queen Victoria continued to draft the begging letter around the world.
In Calcutta, Irishmen who were employed by the East India Company, and Irish soldiers based there, responded to this begging letter by collecting and sending a total of £14,000. Pope Pius IX sent many thousands of pounds, as did the United States of America; the Canadian First Nations people sent much money also. The United States continued to send more funds via every Irish organization throughout North America. It was also rumoured that many Iranian Shahs offered aid, as much as £10,000 and cargoes of corn, and that when the Queen heard of this amount being sent, she sent a letter to tell them that their generosity was too much, as she was only sending £2,000 herself. Luckily for the Irish people, these Iranian shahs ignored Queen Victoria’s letter and continued to send money and food. It was also rumoured that Queen Victoria sent the same amount to the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home on the same day! This was never confirmed however..
Some historians are inclined to differ on what, where, when, why, and how the famine was caused, and who exactly was to blame. Some historians have even tried to exonerate Sir Charles Trevelyan. A notable journalist called W. Mitchell, however, was to write at the time: ‘The Almighty may have indeed sent the blight, but it was the English who caused the Famine.’ Unfortunately for him, his outspoken comments were to get him tried for sedition and sentenced to deportation.
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