Category Archives: Great Irish Famine

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Declan O'Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

There is a saying: the winners write the history, the losers write the songs.

While there is no shortage of Irish songs about British mistreatment of the Irish, it took 170 years for a whole album of songs to be written about the Famine. Declan O’Rourke was the one to do that.

“Around 2000 or so, I learned that my granddad was born in a workhouse in Gort,” O’Rourke recalls, recounting the intrigue he felt at that discovery. “I didn’t really know what that meant but I wanted to find out more about it. About two months later, when I came across John O’Connor’s book. I opened it up on the bus on the way home that evening, and it hit me between the eyes. I had no idea that the workhouses had anything to do with the famine. I didn’t know much about the famine at all, the same as everybody else. (from an Irish Times article)

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

In the beginning, O’Rourke brought us lakeside to the poor but successful Clogman’s Glen.


In Along the Western Seaboard, O’Rourke allowed us to hear the the thoughts of the priest who heard his parishioners dying prayers for relief. 

He sang of those who sought escape and thought they had only to find ocean deaths in the ocean depths. 

Declan invited us to a wedding the poor boy to the girl with flowers in her hair. We witnessed their love. We stood beside helplessly as an Gorta Mór took all away.

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

We thought he’d written an upbeat tune only to find Declan fed us sandy Indian meal.

He introduced us to Mary Kate, a girl those with the means thought they were rescuing. We find the rescue is a forced one and one that forced decisions upon Mary Kate. We in turn are forced us to avert our reddened eyes.

We meet a starving father trying to explain to his starving sinless son that they’ve done nothing wrong despite the claims of a laissez faire government policy that dehumanized them and rationalized inaction.

The eighth chapter of his album O’Rourke sets us atop a rattling wooden wagon and we hear the bones of a dead pauper sing their story

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

O’Rourke takes us from atop the creaking cart throws us inside the hold of a ship as cargo within a coffin ship, from one open coffin to another. We listen to the true story of the coward Curry Shaw, the child of privilege, the one Fate allowed to live and leave behind the frozen dead.

Declan finally fillips a finger (or two) of revenge for us. We waited a long time. Only a momentary draught. 

An orphan, like the starving father, like Mary Kate, the the poor boy, must attempt a fruitless rescue and face a thankless offer of aid.

Again aboard a ship that does not run into a reef of ice but becomes a mass grave to which survivors and their descendants will one day built a monument to. A monument to remind us that many dead did die in vain.

Declan O’Rourke Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Where do we go from here. How to we bring our journey to an end.

Another Irish saying is that the English killed the Irish language, but the Irish stole English in return. 

In the end, O’Rourke speaks to us in Gaeilge.

Like many things humans have tried to eradicate and seemingly succeeded, it turns out that the eradication failed.

According to an article “the 2016 census [showed that] 1.76 million people in Ireland claim to speak Irish; 73,803 speak it daily; 111,473 speak it weekly; 586,535 speak less frequently, and the rest rarely speak it. The main concentrations of Irish speakers are in the Gaeltachtaí, which are scattered mainly along the west coast of Ireland and have a total population of 96,090. On average 66% of Gaeltacht residents can speak Irish”

O’Rourke recites

Ach na dearmaid ar gcaithú,

Cuimhnidh lámh ar an mead,

A tháinigh muid tharais,

Más féidir linn cuimhniú,

Is teacht ar an tuiscint,

Is Más féidir linn tuiscint,

Maith an croí. translates

But don’t forget our sorrows,

And all of our sadness,

Reflect on all that we have overcome,

If we can remember,

We can try to understand,

If we understand,

We can learn to forgive

Thank you Declan 


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Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Before the Irish Famine the Irish population numbered approximately 8 million.  According to a BBC article, “Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55).

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
No escape
Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
National Famine Memorial Cuimhneachán Náisiúnta ar an n Gorta Mór in Murrisk, Connacht, in County Mayo

Two other songs [“Buried Deep” and “Villain Curry Shaw“] on O’Rourke’s Chronicle of the Great Irish Famine album dealt with the fatal horrors even for those who thought they’d escaped the famine by sailing to Canada or  the United States or being sent to Australia or New Zealand.

Trans-Atlantic travel in wooden sailing ships was never safe no matter the person’s accommodations, but for those who could bring so little and then have a crew pack  them into  holds with make-shift bunks, meager fare, minimal sanitary facilities, little or no ventilation,  and indifference on the part of most crew members, the vessel became a coffin ship. 

According to a Registered Devil dot com article, “Typically untrustworthy vessels, these ships were purchased literally from salvage yards (where they awaiting dismantling) by unscrupulous owners who had no intention of repairing them. Sailors who agreed to serve on board these floating wrecks typically knew nothing of the dangers until they were well out at sea, vagabonds, and those desperate for work (of which there were plenty) quickly volunteered.

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Ships often arrived with disease on board and the United States, purportedly trying to improve passenger conditions aboard cargo ships, but in actuality closing American ports to the Irish, enacted various acts.

It must also be pointed out that on January 31, 1848 the United State also enacted legislation that  exempted vessels employed by the American Colonization Society in transporting black emigrants from the US to the coast of Africa from the provisions of the acts of the twenty-second February and second of March, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, regulating the carriage of passengers in merchant vessels!

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Famine and disease

Some shipowners and captains evaded these legislative blockades by bringing their human cargo to Canada. 

Given the inhumane conditions aboard, it was not surprising that ships arrived with diseased passengers. At first, Canadian authorities tried to provide quarantined shelter, but overwhelmed by the number of sick, ships were forced to keep their passengers aboard which worsened conditions.

From 1847 to 1848, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 Irish died while waiting to leave their quarters. 

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Grosse Ile Memorial

In 1909 the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America set up a Celtic cross with inscriptions in Irish, English and French, in memory of those who died during  that time.

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
And anchored up at Grosse Isle, Canade

Forty vessels line the Saint Lawrence

At the station there for quarantine

The sheer magnitude of suffering

Is beyond the helpless volunteers


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Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O'Rourke Connaught Orphan

After the retaliatory exhilaration of  Johnny Hold the Lantern, O’Rouke returns to the Great Famine’s horror and its young victims.

For the centennial of the Easter Rising in 2016, O’Rourke wrote Children of ’16 about the (at least) 40 children under the age of 16 who died in the Easter Week’s fighting.  Crossfire caught most victims, but British soldiers deliberately shot or bayoneted others. (Independent article)

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

It is no surprise that the Great Famine orphaned so many children. It is also no surprise that even the most insensitive laissair faire proponent would do at least something minimal to relieve their conscience if not the orphans’ suffering.

 In the Connaught Orphan, we walk beside a barefoot 7-year-old boy walking his younger sister to the poor house ten miles away. Both starving.

There is room only for one. He leaves her there and walks the 10 miles back.  

Strings attached
Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

It is still a common requirement from those who have relief to give that there be a quid pro quo. A demand that the suffering must first demonstrate their worthiness to receive aid.

In the case of the Irish peasants, assistance sometimes  depended on acknowledging the Church of England as the true church. To renounce Catholicism.

In our less religious 21st century world  (at least in terms of service attendance), such a demand might seem an easy one to comply with, but to the 19th century Catholic believer, such a change meant damnation.


Declan O'Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Quakers were the one religious group that seemed genuinely interested in assistance without strings attached. They formed the Central Relief Committee (CRC) to help coordinate relief. 

William E. Forster, a CRC member, traveled throughout Ireland and send letters describing what he saw. In one letter he wrote, “Poor wretches in the last stage of famine, imploring to be received into the (work) house; women who had six or seven children begging that even two or three might be taken in …. some of these children were worn to skeleton, their features sharpened with hunger, their limbs wasted almost to the bone” (more at Irish Famine site)

Unfortunately, even the most kindhearted actions can result in unforeseen consequences.

In this song, the Quaker wants to provide a bath and clean clothing, but the boy realizes that when his neighbors see him that way they will assume that he has renounced his faith or that he has lied about his neediness.

I’ll surely died of hunger now

If they see me with your nie new clothes

They’ll think I’m telling lies, and that

I have a mammy feeds me so

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

What kind of world had the British government allowed? One that forced a starving child in rags to refuse food and clothing?

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan
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