Women were abandoned by husbands, landlords and family during the Great Hunger, says Paul D’Alton
IT WAS a cry for help which was ultimately to fall on deaf ears. Having buried her husband and two young children, and now facing eviction from her home because her father-in-law no longer cared for the childless widow, a Mrs. Killmartin of Strokestown, Co Roscommon, made a heart-breaking entreaty to her landlord.
Dated July 14, 1848, she wrote: ‘I most humbly request you won’t be displeased with me for this addressing you hoping the extinction of your mercy shall be fully shown forth to me in this my pitiful case by giving me time for this rent until harvest.’
We do not know for sure what happened to her but, as the history of the Famine attests, it is more than likely that this woman, starving and destitute, succumbed to the horrors that befell the one and a half million lost souls in the darkest chapter of our nation’s history.
And while we might like to think that we know everything there is to know about ‘The Great Hunger’ from our schooldays, compelling research at NUI Maynooth has shed new light on one of the largely untold and forgotten aspects of the Famine, the terrible suffering, particularly of women.
As Dr Ciarán Reilly at Maynooth, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Famine, says, “In the history of that time, women have largely been excluded and neglected from the Famine narrative. Rarely are we offered any particular insight into how the Famine affected women.”
But it is from the 50,000 letters and documents discovered at Strokestown Park House that Dr Reilly, who is writing a book on women and the famine, is now able to tell the story of how they were among the most troubled and abandoned during that time of starvation.
It is a gruesome picture of women forced to turn to crime, of neighbours fighting each other in a desperate struggle to survive, of husbands abandoning their wives to emigrate to England and beyond, truly shocking and emotive instances of young women left to desperately fend for themselves.
The research is especially apposite this week as Strokestown Park House plays host to the Investec Schools Sculpture Competition, with a top prize of €4,000. Hundreds of school-children from Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford and Mayo have created works of art based on the famine.
The evocative and emotive sculptures are on display in the House’s woodland, where earlier this year An Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a plaque on the grounds of the National Famine Museum.
Tomorrow the newly-crowned Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh is to announce the competition winners, a somewhat fitting host of the ceremony given her role as an iconic symbol of women in today’s modern Ireland.
But it is the women of the past and their struggles that are essentially being honoured this week. As James Callery, the son of the founder of the Westward Group and the owner of Strokestown Park House, said, “There’s a real and appropriate sense of peace and tranquility that makes for a perfect setting for the sculptures.
“The pieces on their own are incredible but the written texts that the students submit with each entry really bring them to life. They outline the thinking behind the students’ work and we have them up on plaques beside each piece.”
What is intriguing and magnetic about the sculptures dotted around the grounds of Strokestown is the way in which the definitive struggles of women at that time have become so real and relevant to today’s youngsters.
Take ‘Golden Footprints Walk With Us’ by the students at the Roscommon Community College, a haunting, searing tapestry of ghostly footprints disappearing into the woodland.
As the Roscommon children themselves wrote, “The footprints represent all those steps taken by our ancestors, as they walked towards the emigration ships, yearning to cross the western ocean, dreaming of reaching the land of opportunity.
“A new life where their footprints would no longer be grey and cold, dreaming only of reaching a new world where their footprints would become gold and warm.”
But not all, especially women, were able to walk a new path in their lives. Dr Reilly’s research at Maynooth reveals the personal torments they endured.
“For many women emigration was not an option during the Famine. So how did those who had not the means to emigrate survive? In many instances women took the law into their own hands and were found to be implicated in a host of criminal activity, including widespread intimidation, threatening neighbours, burning houses and agitating for land,” says Dr Reilly.
“For example, an 1849 petition from the Widow Bourke of Strokestown pleaded for help as she was unable to pay her rent since ‘god in his infinite mercies afflicted the people with the loss of their potatoes’.
“Similarly, the plight of Catherine Maguire revealed the awful circumstances. Her petition appealed for help as she was ‘deaf, dumb and orphaned and destitute of friends’.”
While we like to imagine that we are cognisant of all that went on at that terrible time, Dr Reilly’s meticulous academic study of the papers from that era are truly shocking when it comes to the very personal stories of abandonment and betrayal.
“Another request for help from the widow Duignan in November 1849 noted that she was ‘aged, worn, childless and friendless’. This recurring theme of isolation is also seen in the petition of Eleanor Smyth. In this case the petitioner sought assistance as her husband was dead and she had no children or relatives; she also has a disease in her eyes causing her to be nearly blind.”
Dr Reilly’s research further raises the untold reality of how husbands and sons simply abandoned their wives, mothers and siblings in their struggle to protect themselves. “In the case of the Strokestown estate, the desertion and abandonment of women and young children during and after the famine by husbands and parents, raises questions about culpability,” says Dr Reilly. “Why were so many women abandoned by their husbands? While previously these men had migrated to Britain and other parts of Ireland during the summer months for seasonal work, in these cases it would appear that their absence was permanent.
“If we examine, for example, the ‘inmates’ in Roscommon Workhouse in 1851, we get a revealing insight into the fate of women and children during the famine. Of the 226 people from Strokestown who were resident in Roscommon workhouse throughout 1851, 66% were female and more than 40% are listed as being abandoned or deserted.”
But if there is any succour in this gruesome story from our past, it is that for the school children displaying their works in Strokestown House this week, it is that in their young lives, at least, the memories are still alive for a new generation.
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