Orlean New York Famine Memorial
As you pass between Lahinch and Ennistymon on the Ennis Road in County Clare, you may notice a small turnoff with a headstone and a touching remembrance dedicated to those who suffered and died during Tha Shein Ukrosh (indeed, the hunger).
This was the first monument in all of Ireland dedicated to honour the famine victims of the mid-1800's and specifically to remember the children who were lost during that time.
Repeated efforts by us to photograph these haunting words and figures in stone have failed and the photos listed on this page are courtesy of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).
We wish to thank the AOH for their contributions to this page and especially Mike McCormack, AOH National Historian, who supplied us with the following background information on the dedication of the Ennistymon memorial.
The Great Hunger Memorial
An Gorta Mor Memorial was erected to the memory of the victims of the great potato crop failures of 1845 to 1851 known as the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor) and dedicated on August 20 1995 � the 150th anniversary of that tragedy.
It is located across from a deserted workhouse and mass grave on the Lahinch Road between Ennistymon and Lahinch.
The memorial was erected by a combined effort of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) Board of Erin and Board of America and the Clare County Council.
Hundreds of AOH members from all over Ireland and America booked out the nearby Falls Hotel and attended a commemorative Mass before marching down the Lahinch Road toward the monument, in the heat of a summer sun, to the skirl of several pipe bands.
In unveiling the structure, Dail Eireann's Minister of State, Donal Carey, noted that this was the first national monument in all of Ireland to the victims of the Great Hunger, and it took the AOH to do it.
It was a proud moment for the AOH, and a visible indication of what can be done when the Irish at home unite with the Irish Diaspora.
The journey to that memorial was long, hard and costly, but the AOH felt that it was worth the effort to erect a meaningful remembrance of those suffering millions, just as the Jews remember the victims of the Holocaust.
Every Irish person, at home or abroad, lost a relation in that tragedy, whether they knew of them or not, and the story of how their descendants remember their ordeal and commemorate their memory is a moving one, indeed.
The monument, created by Alan Ryan Hall from Valencia Island, Co. Kerry, depicts an account found in Book 4 of the archived papers of the Workhouse preserved in the Ennistymon Library.
The account centered on a note that was pinned to the torn shirt of a barefoot orphan boy who was left at the workhouse door on the freezing cold morning of February 25, 1848. The note read:
There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about being buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve.
One side of the memorial depicts a child standing before the workhouse door, while across from that is the head of an anguished mother and two hands clenched in frustration or anger above the sorrowful text of the pleading note. If you are fortunate enough to visit the memorial, breathe a prayer for the unnamed souls it commemorates.
About the Great Famine
The potato blight, an attack by a simple water mold, was first visited on Ireland in 1845 and was part of a widespread failure of potato crops throughout Europe. Unfortunately, a number of unique factors led to Ireland being so terribly vulnerable to this plague.
Unknown to many, the potato was not a staple on the Irish table throughout most of their history. Legend has it that potatoes first washed ashore in West Ireland in 1588 when many of the Spanish ships from their Armada sought refuge after being decimated by the English and bad weather.
However, history records the year 1719 as the date when the first potatoes, imported from the US, were grown in Londonderry.
This nutritious food gave the Irish an excellent source of Vitamin C, B-6, potassium and a number of essential trace minerals, and could be planted in the worst of soils.
Records are somewhat vague but from the time of the introduction of the potato in 1719 to the first blight in 1845 the Irish population grew from somewhere around five million to over eight and a half million.
This was mainly due to the ability of the Irish to now populate new regions of Ireland, especially in the west where crops could not formerly be grown but it was also because subsistence farmers could support bigger families with the introduction of this inexpensive and ready food source.
When the crops began to fail in 1845, the impact on Ireland was immediate. Those potatoes not in the ground were soon consumed so families could survive the ordeal and even the seed potatoes were sacrificed to stave off hunger.
Historians have long been curious as to why the Great Famine in Ireland inflicted as much recorded pain to the victims as it did. Recent studies indicate the suffering may have been caused by scurvy as much as the actual hunger.
Because the potato provides an enormous amount of nutrient value in the form of Vitamin C, it is suspected the Irish, who depended on it for their primary sustenance, developed a physiological need for an excessive amount of the vitamin and, when the potato was removed from their diet (as well as most other foods), scurvy, with its accompanying painfulness, inflicted itself on them with agonising fury.
As bad as the first year was - some estimate as much as 12 percent of the population was lost - subsequent crop failures over a period of the next five years killed hundreds of thousands more and mass evictions drove many of those who clung to life into towns and cities where workhouses were overwhelmed but still managed to accommodate and take advantage of the "ready and willing" work force.
These dens of despair offered scant food and minimal shelter to those able to work the long, hard hours exacted by the government on road crews and other civic projects. The deaths caused by the management of these workhouses was almost as great a wound to the Irish population as was the lack of response to the famine by those in power in England.
It is estimated over 20 thousand souls perished in the Ennistymon workhouse alone.
The Toll in Human Suffering
During the darkest days of An Gorta Mor, thousands of souls near death were put on famine ships bound for distant ports. Many of these unfortunates never saw land again.
The death count from the Great Hunger varies greatly. It is known over eight million Irish were alive and relatively well prior to 1845 and only four million or so survived into the Twentieth Century. With the mass migration of Irish from the countryside into the cities, record keeping was haphazard for decades.
During the famine days and in years to follow, at least two million added their count to the ongoing Diaspora so often referenced in Irish history and an even greater number may have been able to make their way, somehow, to more friendly shores.
However, this gap of two and a half million is hard to fully explain within published numbers of those who died and there is an additional complication.
Many of the babies of Ireland perished during the famine years, either before birth or soon afterwards, and these lives were often not recorded by the Church. Mass graves were dug for them because they could not be buried in the churchyards and these exist today in various parts of Ireland.
What is important to know is many hundreds of thousands died, possibly millions, and most of the relief for those who suffered but lived through this dark period came from America. This came mainly from Catholic organisations but, surprisingly, much of the relief was also provided by the Quakers in New England.
There is still a Quaker meeting house in Limerick that was established first as a soup kitchen during the famine days and then as a place where those who chose to stay in Ireland could worship. It should be made clear, the Quakers never proselytized the hungry Irish and only wished to help ease their suffering.
Why England, the world's greatest economic power at the time, did little to ameliorate the Irish disaster (Queen Victoria - the Famine Queen - gave a scant �2,000 to the effort) has never been fully explained.
England's official excuse for inaction throughout the famine period was that the magnitude of the problem overwhelmed them, and their estimated entire expense for relief was a paltry �9.5 million over the five years of death and suffering.
This argument, however, falters under the weight of England's actions between 1854 and 1856 when they spent �69.3 million on the Crimean War, an extravaganza launched to defend France's alleged right to rule the Ottoman Empire.
In recent years Ireland has finally moved from the serf society artificially imposed on it for most of its history into a position of being one of the world's top economic leaders. However, scars from the Great Hunger still remain in the psyche of the population.
Always renown innkeepers, the Irish take great pains to make their guests comfortable and well fed. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the horrors inflicted by Tha Shein Ukrosh.
Today, possibly for the same reasons, Ireland is the number one country in the world in the category of per-capita charitable giving.
An Gorta Mor still stands as one of the most devastating famines in modern human history.