Credit: AlanMc on en.wikipedia under Commons licence

Famine scars on the Irish national psyche

My mother who spent some of her formative years on a farm told me of a “hungry field” when I was young. A hungry field was a patch of grass where, if you were to thread on it, a savage hunger would overtake you, leaving you weak and debilitated.

I read accounts of these mysterious “piseog” in the National Folklore Schools collection which were recorded in the 1930’s from schoolchildren around the country. In Co. Meath, for instance, there is this story of a field in the vicinity of Johnstown told by a pupil of the local national school.

There is a sod called the hungry sod and if you tread on it you get weak with hunger and almost drop. I have heard of this in the west of Ireland also but they call it “The Hungry Grass

Patrick Cassidy 28/10/1937

What does this story represent? A subconscious scar on the collective psyche? Is it a fragment of cultural memory recalling a trauma of trepidation at the spectre of hunger?

One of the noted features of the Gorta Mór in Ireland was the silence that descended on the country. It was a dreadful silence of the grave and of the forsaken. It was a silence carried in the minds of the survivors, an un-uttered agreement to forget and speak nothing of the shame.

Tim Pat Coogan’s, ‘The Famine Plot’, attempts to explain the conditions which set this up. He analyses the psychological state of the Irish poor as “learned helplessness,” a state in which through generations of brutalisation a people learn to endure a lowly state as chattel and to accept any form of inhumane treatment as being impossible to resist.

Coogan is hardly a hardline nationalist, but in his conclusions he arrived at a bracing honesty; that British rule was the chief cause for the death of over a million Irish people, and that the British authorities and investors callously sat back and watched. In fact, his investigations, and reading of the papers of the time show that many of them watched with satisfaction.

William Nassau Senior is widely remembered as the advisor to the English government who chaired the Royal Commission Report which eventually became the New Poor Law Act of 1834. His economic and social theories were a warped mix of free markets, elite control, and callous Mathusianism, and were manifested as laissez-faire economic and social policy. It translated into a vicious dislike for the impoverished Irish who he blamed for their own misery.

He is more infamously known in Ireland for his opinion of the famine that:

“even if one million people were to die in the Irish famine, it would do no good”.

This sentiment was in keeping with his economic and social theory that there were too many Irish peasants on the land. This was confirmed by a letter written by England’s Prime Minister during the worse parts of the famine, Lord John Russell, who shared Nassau’s opinions on the matter and who later wrote of the Irish situation in the 1840s that:

“the emigration of two million of the population of Ireland would be the best cure for her social evils. Famine and emigration have accomplished the task beyond the reach of legislation”

In Ireland, this learned helplessness translated into an acceptance that God had forsaken us. That’s the cruel reality behind the silence that followed the famine. That is why there is such paltry record of the most traumatic time in our history in the folk record. Its trace in the repertoire of stories and songs is markedly absent.

This is not unusual. I have spoken to the grandchild of a survivor of a concentration camp, who said that his grandfather never mentioned his experience to his own children, and only briefly mentioned it to his grandchildren after more than a half century had passed. The deep scars of this trauma – of man’s inhumanity – cut deep on the mind, and are not easily revisited.

In the Irish song tradition there are only a handful of songs which speak directly of the famine experience.

In Amhrán na bPrátaí Dubha the author explicitly rejects the notion that the blight was a punishment from God for the sins of the people.

“Ní hé Dia a cheap riamh an obair seo,

Daoine bochta a chur le fuacht is le fán,

Iad a chur sa phoorhouse go dubhach is glas orthu,

Lánúineacha pósta is iad scartha go bás.”


“It can’t be God that brought this down on us,

The starving scattered under freezing skies,

Or the poorhouse door bolted cold and dark on them,

With wives and husbands set apart to die.”


The author expands further that it was not God, but man who brought this suffering on the houses of the destitute.

“Nach trua móruaisle go bhfuil mórán coda acu

Ag íoc as an obair seo le Rí na nGrás;

Fearaibh bochta an tsaoil seo ná fuair riamh aon saibhreas

Ach ag síorobair dóibh ó aois go bás.”


“Alas there are those endowed with wealth enough,

Who do not serve the king of life,

They abuse the poor who never had anything

But constant labour for all their time.”

But this forthright song is exceptional and does not encapsulate the widespread psychological response to the desolation that descended on the country. The most common response was of acceptance and forsakenness. In Eavan Boland’s poem, Quarantine, we get a glimpse of the shame of starvation. Her poem was based on an account of the scene within a barricaded cottage – barricaded from the inside where the couple went to die out of the glare of public view.

“In the morning they were both found dead.

Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.

“But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her”

That harrowing scene of the husband who put his dying wife’s feet against his breastbone was taken from an eye witness account from within a cottage in the West.

Other remarkable accounts were recorded in court documents. Cormac Ó Gráda recounts (p.28) a court case of sheep stealing which was dismissed when the circumstances that drove the accused to this act came to light. He had attempted this act of desperation after discovering his wife gnawing on the leg of their recently deceased child.

Scenes like these two were internalized as the visitation of God’s vengeance on a forsaken people. For those who survived, the scars of their experience went deep into the psyche. In World War I the term “shell shocked” was coined to explain a phenomenon that had become too explicit to ignore, how trauma transcends the mind and becomes manifest even in the deportment and anatomy of the traumatised.

The development of the video camera by the time of WWI enabled the illustration of the horrors of war to the entire population. The cover was blown and the reporting on war was no longer the depiction of myth and glory of earlier ages. Reportage even included camera footage of shell shocked people bent over as if still recoiling from an explosion. The psychological becomes psychosomatic, and body bears the memory of previous trauma.

One of the most powerful eye witness accounts of the Gorta Mór in Ireland come from an American Christian reformer named Asenath Nicholson, who came to Ireland in 1847 “for the purpose of ascertaining, by eye witness, the real condition of a people whose history has been mixed with fable, and whose true character has been as little understood as their sufferings have been mitigated.”

Over three years she travelled throughout Ireland and recounted her experience and the extreme hardship she witnessed.

In Cook street in Dublin, she gave an account of a woman creeping upon the street in the snow trying to sell matches. Bent over swollen and lame she was so traumatized by privation that she was bent almost at right angle to the ground and struggled along with the aid of two sticks. In this distorted form she crept amongst the crowded streets followed by her two crying and suffering children, ignored, like ghosts walking amongst the living.

How could her enormous suffering be explained by the desperate woman? Was it not natural for her to turn to a supernatural explanation that God had forsaken her?

Asenath offered her some help and promised to visit the next day. When the reformee visited her the next morning she found her in dismal lodgings taken in by a kindly but equally destitute couple. The room had no furniture, only some dirty straw that couldn’t keep the mud from squelching through. There was no fire, and the couple whose lodgings it was, had both sold their clothes. The man, too weak to move had sold his shirt and his wife had sold her dress and had just her slip to protect her from the cold. All in this room stared in the hollow eyes of death, and were counting down the days that starvation would take them off. The supine man and his wife calculated that they would last 14 days and hoped the children would be taken first.

This scene was repeated all over Ireland, and those who watched their children starve, or their parents or spouses die of the famine fever while they survived, preferred to try to repress the devastation and horror, to banish it from their minds.

People who have undergone trauma understandably want to forget. Our obligation is to remember. 



Lorcán Mac Mathúna

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