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Sujet n°3: The Great Irish Famine

Doc. 1

Wednesday, 23 June

At breakfast, I inquired of the mate after the young woman who was so ill yesterday, when he told me that she was dead and when I remarked that I feared her burial could cause great consternation, I learned that the sad ordeal was over, her remains having been consigned to the deep within an hour after she expired. When I went on deck I heard the moans of her poor aunt who continued to gaze upon the ocean as if she could mark the spot where the waters opened for their prey. The majority of the wretched passengers who were not themselves ill were absorbed in grief for their relatives, but some of them, it astonished me to perceive, had no feeling whatever, either for their fellow creatures' woe or in the contemplation of being themselves overtaken by the dreadful disease. There was further addition to the sick list which now amounted to twenty.

Thursday, 24 June

Being the festival of St John and a Catholic holiday, some young men and women got up a dance in the evening regardless of the moans and cries of those who were tortured by the fiery fever. When the mate spoke to them of the impropriety of such conduct, they desisted and retired to the bow where they sat down and spent the remainder of the evening singing. The monotonous howling they kept up was quite in unison with the scene of desolation within and the dreary expanse of ocean without.

Robert Whyte's 1847 Famine Ship Diary, The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship, ed. by James J. Mangan, Dublin, Mercier Press, 1994. Robert Whyte was a Protestant gentleman and a writer, who left Ireland for Canada in 1847 on one of those 'coffin ships', i.e. the ships that carried people fleeing the Famine. Although Whyte himself, having money, travelled in comparatively comfortable conditions, he described the sufferings of the other passengers.

Doc. 2

My Dark Fathers

My dark fathers lived the intolerable day
Committed always to the night of wrong,
Stiffened at the hearthstone, the woman lay,
Perished feet nailed to her man's breastbone.
Grim houses beckoned in the swelling gloom
Of Munster fields where the Atlantic night
Fettered the child within the pit of doom,
And eveywhere a going down of light.

And yet upon the sandy Kerry shore
The woman once had danced at ebbing tide
Because she loved flute music -- and still more
Because a lady wondered at the pride
Of one so humble. That was long before
The green plant withered by an evil chance;
When winds of hunger howled at every door
She heard the music dwindle and forgot the dance.

Such mercy as the wolf receives was hers
Whose dance became a rhythm in the grave,
Achieved beneath the thorny savage furze
That yellowed fiercely in a mountain cave.
Immune to pity, she, whose crime was love,
Crouched, shivered, searched the threatening sky,
Discovered ready signs, compelled to move
Her to her innocent appalling cry.

Skeletoned in darkness, my dark fathers lay
Unknown, and could not understand
The giant grief that trampled night and day,
The awful absence moping through the land.
Upon the headland, the encroaching sea
Left sand that hardened after tides of Spring,
No dancing feet disturbed its symmetry
And those who loved good music ceased to sing.

Since every moment of the clock
Accumulates to form a final name,
Since I am come of Kerry clay and rock,
I celebrate the darkness and the shame
That compel a man to turn his face
Against the wall, withdrawn from light so strong
And undeceiving, spanceled in a place
Of unapplauding hands and broken song.

Brendan KENNELLY, My Dark Fathers, Dublin: New Square Publications, 1964.

Doc. 3

The Famine exodus resulted in a startling redistribution of the surviving Irish population. By 1851 there were scarcely six and a half million people left in Ireland, while two million natives of Ireland were living elsewhere. In addition to nearly a million in the United States, there were three quarters of a million in Britain, a quarter of a million in Canada, and about 70,000 in the Australian colonies. Others were scattered throughout the British colonies and to some extent in South and Central America, although the Irish were strongly inclined to choose English-speaking destinations. Few contemporaries imagined in 1851 that depopulation would continue indefinitely, or that the expatriate population would have grown by a further million within the next two decades. Nevertheless, there was widespread recognition that emigration was becoming an expected and even a desired episode in the Irish life-cycle. Indeed, Ireland's social structure [I] became increasingly dependent on its perpetuation. The money sent home by emigrants had many functions apart from funding further movement. Small farmers often relied on remittances to pay the rent, buy livestock, supply dowries, or clear shop debts; the churches drew heavily upon emigrant purses to provide relief in periods of rural crisis; politicians and conspirators used American money to promote their campaigns.

The transition from a panic-driven expulsion to a calculated pursuit of economic betterment was already underway during the Famine, as emigrants reported their success in finding [II] employment and marriage partners overseas. Admittedly, they faced formidable obstacles in securing, [II] a satisfactory livelihood. Lack of capital, education and skills restricted many of the Irish settlers in Britain and America to poorly paid menial employment and insanitary housing. Even in undeveloped Australia, where there was less competition from entrenched interests, the Irish often found prosperity elusive. Yet the fact that their success was modest by comparison with other nationalities in Britain, America or Australia seemed, at first, of little importance. Such resentments at relative deprivation were a luxury that became affordable when Ireland had recovered sufficiently to offer counter-attractions.[III] Meanwhile, unskilled labour seemed preferable to unemployment, sweet potatoes preferable to no potatoes, life preferable to death.

David FitzPatrick, "Flight From Famine", in Cathal PÓIRTÉIR (ed.), The Great Irish Famine, Dublin, Mercier Press, 1995.


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