Oscar-winning Hollywood icon Jeremy Irons has given his time free of charge to help a heritage centre produce a series of short films detailing harrowing, true stories of the Great Famine in Skibbereen, Co Cork.
The actor, who owns a castle in the area, readily volunteered to help Skibbereen Heritage Centre in its quest to create 20 short films based on the true stories, which the centre had been researching for a number of years.
Centre manager Terri Kearney said Irons had kindly provided the introduction for the short films and then played the role in one of them. “It’s the true story
of Lord Dufferin, who was a 21-year-old student at Oxford University who travelled to Skibbereen along with a 19-year-old colleague in 1847 when they heard of the famine. Skibbereen was the epicentre of it,” said Ms Kearney.
They collected £50 from fellow students to help the starving and Lord Dufferin later donated a further £1,000 himself. It was a huge sum at the time and he only admitted it in later life. Queen Victoria gave £2,000.
He wrote about what he saw when he was in Skibbereen. One day they collected a lot of bread and word got out so hundreds of people descended on the hotel they were staying in.
"They had to throw the bread out of a window and he graphically described how he heard screaming and saw people scrambling for small morsels,” said Ms Kearney.
She said Mr Irons did multiple takes before he was satisfied with the outcome. “He is an absolute perfectionist. His portrayal of Dufferin would rise the hairs on the back of your neck. It is indeed very moving.”
Ms Kearney said that having the actor provide the introduction and some acting of his own for the new films “gave great kudos” to the project given his worldwide reputation. The films are subtitled in French, German, and Irish.
They cover a huge amount of history on the Great Famine and include the government’s response to the crisis, relief works, death on the roads, and Skibbereen’s soup kitchen. They also focus on letters pleading to Queen Victoria for help, the international response, the experiences of a visitor from America, the workhouse system, and workhouse orphan girls.
There are also stories focusing on orphan Jane Leary who was sent to a workhouse in Australia in 1848, horrific deaths near Schull, evictions, including that of the “Widow Ganey”, and the subsequent emigration of the O’Sullivan family.
Ms Kearney pointed out that a Cork Examiner reporter published his eyewitness account of the death of Widow Ganey. “He was Jeremiah O’Callaghan. About 100 people were evicted from the Highfield area (of Skibbereen) and Widow Ganey went after the land agent. She was seen to stumble and O’Callaghan found her on the side of the road. He thought she was dead and inside her shawl discovered a baby in her arms.
“Both were breathing very shallowly and he knew they couldn’t be saved. He went away to find a large piece of wood to cover them and give them some dignity in death,” said Ms Kearney.
Local actors from Skibbereen Dramatic Society — Fachtna and Carmel O’Driscoll, Donagh Long, Rupert Stutchbury, Paul Delaney, and Tod McCarthy — play a number of roles in the short films and Ms Kearney said the heritage centre is equally grateful to them.
The films have been launched by another well-known man of the big screen, director David Puttnam, who also lives in Skibbereen. They will form part of the permanent Famine Story exhibition at Skibbereen Heritage Centre. Ms Kearney said each of the stories was historically accurate.
“We started researching them some years ago and then through last winter we worked on deciding which ones to include in the short films. The people who have already seen them have been hugely moved,” said Ms Kearney.
Three mass graves were used to bury the dead in Skibbereen. One at Abbeystrowry reportedly held up to 10,000 Famine victims.