An Gorta Mor

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July 21st 2009
Published: July 21st 2009
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On Thursday we drove toward the middle of the country and visited Roscommon Castle, an Anglo-Norman castle dating from about 1300. It’s a ruin, of course, but it’s open to the public and free. It seemed to be a popular spot for local moms to bring their kids to picnic and run around. It’s a great site to explore, and our students spent some time climbing the walls and photographing themselves among all the crumbling stones. It was the home of the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and so it is larger than most castles of this era. It has great examples of classic Norman drum towers.

Our next stop was not far from Roscommon: Strokestown House, which was built in the 1730’s by the Mahon family, members of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. These were people who had been sent over to England, beginning in the 1600’s, to establish plantations and farm the land. They were given large tracts of land as rewards for their loyalty and service to the British crown. They built very impressive mansions and employed dozens of servants to help maintain their upper-class lifestyle. It’s important to point out that hundreds (thousands?) of Irish farmers were pushed off their own land and farms in order for these English to settle in Ireland. Many were pushed out to the west of the country, where, as we’ve seen, the land was very rocky and difficulty to farm. Others were forced to rent their own land back from the Anglo-Irish and became tenant farmers. Over time the Anglo-Irish, who were almost exclusively Protestant, came to own 95% of the land in Ireland. Catholic land-ownership declined from 60% of all the land in Ireland in 1641 to just 5% in 1776, due to the establishment of these plantations and the ridiculously discriminatory laws about Catholic property ownership established by the British. (Ask me if you want more details about the Penal Laws; it’s pretty amazing.)

Strokestown House, the Mahon family’s home, sat on 1000 acres, which was reserved for their own use for hunting, fishing, etc. The rest of their 10,000 acres was rented out to tenant farmers, either directly or through middlemen. The size of the house and grounds, as well as details about the elegant lifestyle of its owners, stands in sharp contrast to the way that the average Irish Catholic family lived during the 18th and 19th century. The house also contains a few elements that are symbolic of the attitudes that the Anglo-Irish had toward the lower-class Irish people. The house has many large windows that afford beautiful views of the surrounding gardens and fields. In order that the owners’ views would not be marred by the sight of their servants coming and going from their living quarters to the main house, a 200-foot underground tunnel was built, at great expense, for the sole purpose of keeping the servants out of view from anyone in the main house. The lady of the house at one point had a “breakfast room” where she would retire in the morning to do her correspondence. Unfortunately, Mrs. Mahon’s breakfast room looked out on the stables and servants’ quarters in the back of the house. Our tour guide told us that it became “unfashionable” at a certain point in time to have a room looking out on servants or their quarters, and so the Mahons boarded up the windows and doors of this room and never used it again.

My favorite example of the way the Mahons interacted with their servants is the gallery or mezzanine that runs across the top of the large kitchen at Strokestown. It was a busy kitchen, as 50 people had to be fed each day. If the lady of the house had any instructions for her cook, she would walk out onto this gallery and throw down her menus or other instructions to the kitchen staff working below. Of course, all the servants would have been Irish, and it would have been beneath any of the Mrs. Mahons to actually enter the kitchen and speak to them face-to-face.

Some of the outbuildings at Strokestown House have become the site of the Irish Famine Museum, the first of its kind to document the history of the Famine. It’s important to note that the Irish refer to the Famine as An Gorta Mor, which is Irish for “The Great Hunger.” We spent time in class talking about the difference between the words “famine” and “hunger.” For me, it feels like hunger is a more personal word, and one that everyone can relate to. At some level we all know what hunger feels like. Famine seems to describe something that happens to large groups of people, and seems less personal. The choice of words is also political, as so many things are in Ireland. Nearly a million people died in Ireland during An Gorta Mor, but this was not because there was not food in Ireland. It just didn’t belong to the poor Irish. The Anglo-Irish continued to export food - beef, dairy products, etc. - to other countries during the famine. One Irish politician of the period, John Mitchel, is quoted as saying, “The Almighty indeed created the potato blight. The English created the famine.”

I have learned more about An Gorta Mor than I have time to write about here. It’s a sad tale, but a fascinating one. Before the famine, the typical Irish farm worker consumed 14 pounds of potatoes per day. It was the main component of the diet of most Irish people, for a variety of reasons. So when the potato blight destroyed most of the potato crop, not once, but several years in a row, people had nothing to eat and little income. When they could not pay the rent on their tenant farms, many land-owners responded by evicting them, and then smashing in the roofs of their houses so that they could not move back in. The local authorities set up poor houses, but they didn’t like the idea of hand-outs, so they made these starving people work for their food, sometimes literally building roads to nowhere up the sides of hills. Nearly as many people died from disease and overwork as from hunger. The landlord of Strokestown House was one landlord who had another “solution” to the problem of starving people on his land. He chartered large ships and had thousands of people “transported” to North America. These ships were over-crowded and ill-equipped, and in some cases over 50% of the people died en route. There is a major famine memorial in Montreal, where thousands who did not survive the journey are buried. None of this makes the British government or the Anglo-Irish landowners look very good. Some historians have attempted to defend the British and downplay their responsibility for these events, but I have to admit I find it hard to excuse their cruelty and indifference to the Irish suffering.

Denis Mahon, the owner of Strokestown House during the famine, has the curious distinction of having been the first of seven landlords to be assassinated in Ireland during the period of the famine. Two local men were hanged for the murder.

One interesting aspect of the Famine museum is that it includes photographs and other information about famine that still occurs in various parts of the world. At first this seemed strange to me, as if it didn’t quite fit, but I have come to realize that this is evidence of an important connection between the Irish and many third-world countries.

Several years ago - before I’d been to Ireland - I assigned a writing class to read a short essay by Bono, the lead singer of U2. It was about how young people should view the challenge of conquering disease and poverty in the third world as the “moon shot” of their generation: a challenge that could inspire them. One of my students went on and on bashing Bono, as an egotistical celebrity who was only doing this work to make himself look good. At the time I think I attempted to defend Bono, but I don’t think my case was strong. Today, I would have some ammunition. I now realize how firmly the issues of poverty and famine are rooted in the Irish people’s consciousness, and this helps me to appreciate why an Irishman like Bono might take on this particular cause. This is just one example that I have seen in Ireland of a bond of empathy with African nations, especially those with a history of colonialism.

I’ve posted a few other random photos taken in my first two weeks in Ireland.

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Olive MahonOlive Mahon
Olive Mahon

She was the last of the Mahon family to own the great house at Strokestown. She died in the 1980's.
Sheep at StrokestownSheep at Strokestown
Sheep at Strokestown

This photo was actually taken on my visit in 2006, but I really like it.
Most signs are in both English and IrishMost signs are in both English and Irish
Most signs are in both English and Irish

I took this photograph to illustrate how little correlation there is between Irish and English. There is a similar lack of correlation between how Irish words are spelled and how they are pronounced, at least from this English-speakers perspective.

21st July 2009

You are such a wonderful writer! Why haven't you written the "second" great American novel? Or at least a great travel log. I love reading your blog, I have learned so much. You are a natural. Todd and I talk about your knitting photos whenever we see one another : ) I look forward to your next posting. L- C.
22nd July 2009

Wonderful Blog
Sara, It's great to read about your travels. Your account is thorough, well written, and really interesting. The students must be having a rich experience. Now I want to travel in Ireland!

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