Coming on the harvest time of the year 1845, the crops looked splendid. But one fine morning in July there was a cry around that some blight had struck the potato stalks. The leaves had been blighted, and from being green, parts of them were turned black and brown, and when these parts were felt between the fingers they’d crumble into ashes. The air was laden with a sickly odor of decay, as if the hand of Death had stricken the potato field, and that everything growing in it was rotting. This is the recollection that remains in my mind of what I felt in our marsh field that morning, when I went with my father and mother to see it.
The stalks withered away day by day. Yet the potatoes had grown to a fairly large size. But the seed of decay and death had been planted in them too. They were dug and put into a pit in the field. By and by an alarming rumor ran through the country that the potatoes were rotting in the pits. Our pit was opened, and there, sure enough, were some of the biggest of the potatoes half rotten. The ones that were not touched with the rot were separated from the rotting ones, and were carted into the “chamber” house, back of our dwelling house. That chamber house had been specially prepared for them, the walls of it being padded with straw, but it was soon found that the potatoes were rotting in the chamber too. Then all hands were set to work to make another picking; the potatoes that were rotting were thrown into the back yard, and those that were whole and appeared sound were taken up into the loft over our kitchen. The loft had been specially propped to bear the extra weight. But the potatoes rotted in the loft also, and before many weeks the blight had eaten up the supply that was to last the family for the whole year.
Then one of our fields had a crop of wheat, and when that wheat was reaped and stacked, the landlord put “keepers” on it, and on all that we had, and these keepers remained in the house till the wheat was threshed and bagged, and taken to the mill. I well remember one of the keepers (Mickeleen O’Brien) going with my mother to Lloyd’s mill, just across the road from the marsh field, and from the mill to the agent, who was in town at Cain Mahony’s that day, to receive rents.
When my mother came home she came without any money. The rent was £18 a year. The wheat was thirty shillings a bag; there were twelve bags and a few stone, that came in all to £18 5s., and she gave all to the agent.
I don’t know how my father felt; I don’t know how my mother felt; I don’t know how I felt. There were four children of us there. The potato crop was gone; the wheat crop was gone. How am I to tell the rest of my story!
Volume upon volume has been written and printed about those “bad times” of ’45, ’46 and ’47. I could write a volume myself on them, but as it is not that work I am at, I have only to write down those impressions made on my mind by the incidents I witnessed and experienced—incidents and experiences that no doubt have done much to fortify me and keep me straight in the rugged life that I have traveled since.
I told how our potato crop went to rot in 1845. Some Irishmen say that that was a “visitation of Providence.” I won’t call it any such thing. I don’t want to charge the Creator of the Irish people with any such work.
I told how our wheat crop in 1845 went lost to us also. That, no doubt, was a visitation of English landlordism—as great a curse to Ireland as if it was the arch-fiend himself had the government of the country.
During those three years in Ireland, ’45, ’46 and ’47, the potato crops failed, but the other crops grew well, and, as in the case of my people in ’45, the landlords came in on the people everywhere and seized the grain crops for the rent—not caring much what became of those whose labor and sweat produced those crops. The people died of starvation, by thousands. The English press and the English people rejoiced that the Irish were at last conquered; that God at last was fighting strongly at the side of the English.
Coroners’ juries would hold inquests on Irish people who were found dead in the ditches, and would return verdicts of “murder” against the English government, but England cared nothing for that; her work was going on splendidly; she wanted the Irish race cleared out of Ireland—cleared out entirely, and now something was doing for her what her guns and bayonets had failed to do. She gave thanks to God that it was so; that the Irish were gone—“gone with a vengeance”—“that it was going to be as hard to find a real Irish man in Ireland as to find a red Indian in New York,”—“that Ireland was nothing but a rat in the path of an elephant, and that the elephant had nothing to do but to squelch the rat.”
What wonder is it if the leading Irishman to day, in New York or anywhere else, would do all that he could do to make a return of that “vengeance” to England! We adopt the English expression and call those years the “famine years”; but there was no famine in the land. There is no famine in any land that produces as much food as will support the people of that land—if the food is left with them. But the English took the food away to England, and let the people starve.
With their characteristic duplicity, they cried out that there was a famine in Ireland, and they appealed to the nations of the earth to help the starving people. Ships laden with food were sent from America, from Russia and from other nations, and while these ships were going into the harbors of Ireland, English ships laden with Irish corn and cattle and eggs and butter were leaving the harbors, bound for England. Ireland those three years of ’45, ’46 and ’47, produced as much food as was sufficient to support three times the population of Ireland. What I say is historical truth, recorded in the statistics of the times. It is English history in Ireland all the time during England’s occupation of the country.
In the Year 1846, the blight struck the potato crop in the month of June. The stalks withered away before the potatoes had grown to any size at all. There was no potato crop. In fact many of the fields had remained untilled, and grew nothing but weeds. It was the same way in the year 1847. The weeds had full possession of the soil, and drew from it all the nourishment it could yield. They blossomed beautifully. Though sad, it was a beautiful picture to look at—the land garlanded in death. Standing on one of the hills of our old-chapel field one day, and looking across the bay, at the hillside of Brigatia, the whole of that hillside—a mile long and a half a mile broad was a picture of beauty.
The priseach-bhuidhe weed had grown strong, and with its yellow blossoms rustled by the gentle breeze, glistening in the sun, it made a picture in my mind that often stands before me—a picture of Death’s victory, with all Death’s agents decorating the fields with their baleful laurels.
Any picture of baleful beauty like it in America? Yes, there is, and I have seen it; seen it in the fields of Irish patriotism.
Gladstone the English governor of Ireland is after putting thousands of Irishmen into his prisons; his Irish governors are killed by the Irish; his castles in London are leveled by the Irish; his policy makes him play hypocrite, and he talks of “Home rule for Ireland.” The Irish in America dance with delight. They get up a monster meeting in one of the finest halls of the chief city of the nation, and they get the governor of the State to preside at the meeting. The representatives of all the Irish societies, and of all the Irish Counties and Provinces are there, arrayed in their finest and best; the large platform is sparkling with diamonds; every man, every woman is a sparkling gem. The governor of the State of New York tells the world, represented there, that the thanks of the whole Irish race is there transmitted to Mr. Parnell and to Mr. Gladstone, for the freedom of Ireland. Handkerchiefs and hats are waved, and twirled in every circle that hands can motion; diamonds and rubies sparkle and dance with the electric lights of the hall; the O’Donnells of Donegal, the O’Neills of Tyrone, the MacMahons of Monaghan, the McGuires of Fermanagh, the O’Briens of Arra, the O’Sullivans of Dunkerron, the McCarthys of the Castles, the O’Donoghues of the Glens, and all the other Clans are wild with delight.
Yes, that was the other field of priseachh-bhuidhe I saw in America, that equalled in dazzling splendor the field I saw in Ireland, but it was one that was just as fruitless of food for Ireland’s freedom, as the Brigaysha field was fruitless of food for Ireland’s people. There was no home rule for Ireland. Gladstone, or any other Englishman, may humbug Irishmen to their hearts’ content, but he is not going to give them Irish freedom until they pay for it the price of freedom. They are able to pay that price, and they are able to get it in spite of England.
It is not to vex Irishmen that I talk this way; I don’t want to vex them. My faith is strong that they are able to free Ireland, but I want to get them out of the priseachh-bhuidhe way of freeing it. But I cannot blame myself for being vexed; nor should you blame me much either. Look at this proclamation that was issued against our people from Dublin Castle by the English invaders, one time:
By the Lord Justices and Council:
“We do hereby make known to all men, as well good subjects as all others, that whoever he or they be that shall, betwixt this and the five-and-twentieth day of March next, kill and bring, or caused to be killed and brought to us, the Lord Justices, or other Chief-Governor or Governors, for the time being, the head of Sir Phelim O’Neill, or of Conn Magennis, or of Rory Maguire, or of Philip MacHugh MacShane O’Reilly, or of Collo MacBrien MacMahon, he or they shall have by way of reward, for every one of the said last persons, so by him to be killed, and his or their head or heads brought to us as followeth, viz: For the head of Sir Phelim O’Neill, one thousand pounds; for the head of the said Sir Rory Maguire, six hundred pounds; for the head of the said Philip MacHugh MacShane O’Reilly, six hundred pounds; for the head of the said Collo MacBrien MacMahon, six hundred pounds.”
Dublin Castle, Feb. 8, 1641.
“God Save The King.”
Then, forty pounds a head were offered for the heads of some two hundred other chieftains, embracing men of nearly all the Milesian families of Ireland.
What wonder is it, if I look vexed occasionally when I meet with O’Farrells, and O’Briens, and O’Flahertys, and O’Gradys, and O’Mahonys, and O’Callaghans, and O’Byrnes, and O’Neills, and O’Reillys, and O’Keefes, O’Kanes and O’Connors, O’Crimmins, O’Hallarans, O’Flynns, O’Dwyers and O’Donnells, and O’Donovans and O’Kellys, O’Learys, O’Sheas, O’Rourkes, O’Murphys, Maguires, and McCarthys, and MacMahons and MacLaughlins, and other men of Irish stock, who will talk of having “honorable warfare” with England, for the freedom of Ireland. It is not from nature they speak so. It cannot be. There is nothing in their nature different from mine. I have heard men making excuses for me for being so mad against the English—saying it is on account of the harsh treatment I received from the English while I was in English prisons. That kind of talk is all trash of talk. What I am now, I was, before I ever saw the inside of an English prison. I am so from nature.
Before I was ever able to read a book, I heard stories of Irish women ripped open by English bayonets, and of Irish infants taken on the points of English bayonets and dashed against the walls; and I heard father and mother and neighbors rejoicing—“buidhechas le Dia!”—whenever they heard of an English landlord being shot in Tipperary or any other part of Ireland.
And as I grew up, and read books, didn’t I see and hear big men praying curses upon England and upon England’s land-robbers in Ireland. Didn’t John Mitchel say, that the mistake of it was, that more landlords were not shot! and didn’t he say that if he could grasp the fires of hell, he would seize them, and hurl them into the face of his country’s enemy! Didn’t Thomas Davis pray: “May God wither up their hearts; may their blood cease to flow; may they walk in living death; they, who poisoned Owen Roe!” Didn’t Thomas Moore tell us to flesh “every sword to the hilt” into their bodies! Didn’t J. J. Callanan pray “May the hearthstone of hell be their best bed forever!” Didn’t Daniel McCarthy-Sowney pray: “Go raibh gadhair-fhiadh Ifrion a rith a ndiadh ’n anam air Innse shocuir, gan toortog!” and “go gcuireadth Dia cioth sparabli a gcoin naibh a n-anam!”
No, no! Irishmen don’t pray for the English enemy in Ireland. If prayers would drive them to hell, or anywhere else, outside of Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, some of them would stay praying till their knees were tanned.
In the “bad times” of ’46 and ’47, the Donovan-Buidhe family of Derriduv were friends of my family. There were four brothers of them on the land of Derriduv, some two miles from the town of Ross. Donal Buidhe came to our house one day. His wife and six children were outside the door. They had with them a donkey that was the pet of the eldest boy. They had been evicted that morning, and had nowhere to go for shelter. There was a “chamber” back of our house, and back of the chamber was another house called the “linney.” My father told Donal to clear out the linney, and take the whole family into it. Some days after, it may be a few weeks after, I heard my father and my mother whispering, and looking inquiringly at each other; the donkey was the subject of their conversation. The donkey had disappeared: where was the donkey? The last seen of him was in the backyard, there was no way for him to pass from the backyard into the street but through our kitchen, and he had not passed through it.
That donkey had been killed and eaten by Donal Buidhe and his family. That was the decision I read on the faces of my father and mother. They did not think I was taking any notice of what they were whispering about. “Skibbereen! where they ate the donkeys!” is an expressive kind of slur cast at the people of that locality. But, ’tis no slur.
You have read, and I have read in history, how people besieged in fortresses have eaten horses, and donkeys, and cats, and dogs, and rats, and mice; and how people wrecked on sea, have cast lots for food, and have eaten each other. Reading these stories when I was a boy, I could not get my mind to conceive how any human being could do such things, but I was not long in English prisons when I found my nature changed—when I found that I myself could eat rats and mice, if they came across me. And, perhaps that prison life of mine changed other attributes of my Irish nature too.
The year ’47 was one of the years of “the Board of works” in Ireland. Any man in possession of land—any farmer could get none of the relief that the Poor Law allowed under the name of “out-door relief.” To qualify himself for that relief, he should give up the land to his landlord. But, under the Board of works law, a farmer could get employment on the public works. My father was so employed. He had charge of a gang of men making a new road through Rowry Glen. He took sick in March, and Florry Donovan, the overseer of the work, put me in charge of his gang, while he was sick. I was on the road the twenty-fifth of March, ’47, when the overseer came to me about noontime and told me I was wanted at home. I went home, and found my father dead.