Hunger, Migration and Ballinrostig

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, 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.

Colb Heritage Center1200

Colb Heritage Centre

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.”

Ballinrostig Pub 1200 x 675

Poc car Buile

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.

Ballinrostig Satellite 1200Ballinrostig

Making a City

One summer August when I was about twelve, my brother and I embarked on a grand undertaking. We decided, in a dusty second floor room in the abandoned shed attached to our old farm house, to build a civilization. We had a large flat space. We had paper and glue. And we had, wonder of wonders, access to my father’s office mimeograph machine. On a grid, maybe four feet by four feet, we laid it all out: main street, side streets, houses, yards, shops.

I think of this, standing under the sun outside my office building, looking across the parking lot, across the boulevard, to the blue sky above the strip mall restaurants. A grid city, laid out and planned with restaurants here and a gas station there, patterns repeated over and over beneath the glare of a nine zillion watt light bulb.

There is Sweetie Thai, with white table cloths, tea lite candles, thin waitresses moving in the dimness of the dining room away from the glow of the windows. Carl’s Junior. One of a thousand in Orange County, and the California Fish Grill, where every Tuesdays fish tacos are half price. Every Tuesday one of the ladies asks around the office. She collects the orders and makes the call, and then we walk across the street, talking of home repair and children. The smell of some exotic oil on a hot pan floats from Sweetie Thai. Inside the California Fish Grill, the noise of clanking spatulas and the sizzle of batter are background for the chatter and laughter of a hundred people jostling around the island filled with pots of salsas and cilantro.

In that dusty room we placed the people, two types of men and two types of woman, a boy and a girl, several hundred copies run off on the mimeograph. We had cars, complex folds and strategic spots of glue placed after cutting along the blue lines duplicated on a pile of paper. There was a bank, with lots of tiny money, and a restaurant and a factory where the cars were made, a couple of folded houses and a restaurant, which we thought was really pretty close to everything that we needed to complete our little world.

It all lay silent as the next school year started and dust filtered in through the shed. And now, as I stand on the concrete side walk, press the metal button and wait for the walk light, I think about this rolled out city under the sun, and realize that in my long lost little world, I didn’t know about the sizzle of batter, the smell of fried shrimp floating across lanes of asphalt, and the lady who gets up from her desk about eleven every Tuesday to collect the fish taco order.