Today I’m going to talk about the second major topic of Irish history, “The Hunger.” Outside of Ireland this is sometimes called the “Irish Potato Famine,” but in Ireland is viewed a little bit differently.
The English had ruled over Ireland in one form of another since 1168. The form and strength of this rule ebbed and flowed, and many books have been written about the details. There were many rebellions. But in the 16th and early 17th century, a policy of confiscation, in which Irish land was given to English “landlords,” shaped the history to come. The protestant Oliver Cromwell was particularly brutal. After yet another rebellion, Cromwell re-conquered Ireland in 1653. By the close of his campaign, around half of Ireland’s pre-war population was killed or exiled as slaves.
By the mid 1800’s, most Irish were poor tenant farmers, and like sharecroppers here in the U.S., they grew crops for sale to pay rent. When the potato crop failed, hundreds of thousands of farmers were evicted for their land. Nearly a million people died of starvation, and English landlords for the most part turned a blind eye to the catastrophe. As an example, the export of food to England remained high while so many were dying of starvation and disease.
Faced with such a situation, just as in Guatemala and El Salvadore today, anyone who could leave, left. In 1841, before the worst of the crop failures, the population of Ireland was 8.2 million. Twenty years later is was 5.8 million, and by 1900 the population of Ireland was less than 4.5 million. By ancestry I am three-quarters Irish, descended from people who left Ireland in the 1800’s.
When returning from a trip to Ireland, Irish-Americans are often asked “did you find out where you are from?” My father traced one branch of our family to a Maurice Kearns, who, as a child of two, came here with his mother, Betsy Kearns, a twin brother Frank, and five older siblings on the ship Parliament. Courtesy of Ancestry.com, I have an image of the birth record of a Maurice Kearns, born about the right time in Cork, Ireland. I could never make out the scrawled name of the town.
Our tour bus took us down to Colb to visit a renouned cultural heritage center. Colb sits on a beautiful protected harbor, and was a major departure port for Irish Immigrants, as well as the last stop for the Titanic on her ill-fated voyage. There, a docent took one look at the illegible handwriting, and said “Oh, that’s Ballinrostig, not too far from here.”
I found the name Ballinrostig on Google maps. It is no not even a village, but rather a “T” intersection in the peninsula that protects the harbor of Colb. It is less than a mile from water in three directions: the ocean to the South, the outer bay of Lough Mohan to the North, and the channel from the bay to the ocean on the West. The entire peninsula, about 2 miles long and almost as wide, is flat, and now covered with a puzzle patchwork quilt of small farming plots roughly the size of one or two football fields.
In the left corner of the T at the intersection is a cute white pub with a sign “Poc car Buile.” A reviewer on google maps writes “Lovely rural country Pub, olde worlde style but with some modern touches, owner ran, very friendly, great music.” Another writes “Nice little country pub with Gunniess like cream.”
If you take a right, past a couple of small houses on either side of the road, you come to the Ballinrostig Organic Cheese company. It looks like yet another home, only slightly larger than the rest. Their website features shades of yellow and orange, the smiling couple who are the proprietors, and wheels of cheese of many types, stacked in a small storage room.
There are so many uncertainties in this whole genealogical chain that there is no way that I can claim that this is really the town where one of my ancestors was born. But now that the English are gone, it looks like a peaceful enough place—with good beer and cheese readily at hand, and music too. A mile or so of farmland in every direction, and the Irish Sea to the South. So for now I think it will do.