Category Archives: Great Irish Famine

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

It is easier to mistreat others as long as we paint “them” as inferior, non-human. The British did just that with the Irish. Even their Punch cartoons dehumanized the Irish.

Bob Dylan excoriated William Zanzinger, the man who killed Hattie Carroll.

Declan O’Rourke does the same to Curry Shaw.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Coffin Ships

As the number of Irish fleeing their homeland by sea increased, the conditions on board ships worsened when unscrupulous ship owners realized a golden opportunity. The refugees  simply became ballast. Disease and death spread easily and even the long-hoped for arrival at an American port often meant weeks of quarantine.

In 1847 the US Congress passed the Passenger Act. The Act’s purported intent was to regulate the carriage of passengers in these vessels. In actuality, rather than abide by the new Act, unscrupulous shipping companies  simply changed their destination to Canada and continued using the same ill-equipped ships. The Irish could stay there (as many did) or find their way to the United States.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

The Hannah

On April 5, 1849, under the command of Captain Curry Shaw, The Hannah set sail for Quebec. Its last cargo had been coal. This time the ship’s cargo was 176 passengers, the great majority of whom were from the Parish of Forkill, South Armagh.

While records are not completely available, there are numerous allegations that Shaw confined the passengers below deck for long periods, cut the rations of food and water and threw the three latrines overboard after a few days at sea.

William Graham, the ship’s English surgeon , witnessed Shaw “crawling into the bunks of unmarried women passengers,” raping them.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Cabot Strait

Declan O'Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

The Cabot Strait lies between New Newfoundland and Cape Breton and leads into the Gulf of St Lawrence and thence to the St Lawrence River. At 4 a.m. on April 29, 1849, in gale-force wind, the Hannah rammed a reef of ice in the Cabot Strait.

Shaw ordered the hatch covers nailed shut and despite the efforts of Dr Graham to stop them,  Shaw, the first and second mates and a few crewmen abandoned the sinking ship in the ship’s only lifeboat.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Some rescued

As the ship sank, the passengers, able to get out after a crewman opened the hatches, sought the “safety” of the ice floes. There they waited until 6:30 pm when Captain William Marshall of the ‘Nicaragua’ discovered the survivors on the ice. He and his crew were able to rescue of 129 passengers and nine seamen.

The people suffered so from hypothermia that most of them had to be lassoed by the Nicaragus’ crew and hauled aboard.  Marshall said ‘no pen can describe the pitiable situation and destitution of these passengers’.

He transferred some of the passengers to four other ships and arrived in Quebec fourteen days later; one day after Captain Shaw who had reported the total loss of all on board the ‘Hannah’.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw


Captain Marshall received an inscribed silver goblet from the Irish in Quebec. Most of the surviving passengers continued to North Crosby, Westport, Ontario, which their descendants still call ‘little South Armagh’.

Surgeon Graham testified against Curry Shaw, Shaw received no punishment. Graham had broken his ankle jumping from the ship and trying to stop Shaw. Shaw had repulsed Graham’s attempt by hitting him with a cutlass.

Graham died from his various injuries and frostbite a month later.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Two passenger stories

John Murphy

John Murphy had put his 6-year-old twin boys, Owen and Felix, aboard an ice floe, thinking it safe. He swam off to rescue 3-year-old Rose. Murphy then turned to his boys as they drifted away. He lost them in the darkness, forever. He lost all of his teeth from frostbite.

Ann McGinn

Ann McGinn husband had emigrated in 1848. She traveled with their six children to join him in Ontario.

She arrived in Quebec alone.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Lowest of the Low

O’Rourke sings:

You villain Curry Shaw!

Your name forever dwell

As captain of the cowards

On the lifeboat down to hell.

Hell hath no fury like a poet scorned.

Links to two articles about the event: The Star and the Ring of Gullian

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw
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Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones

Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones

Declan O'Rourke Rattle My Bones

Starvation, the death of loved ones, the mistreatment of children, and political laissez faire are no laughing matters, yet those suffering can sometimes find a crumb of solace by poking a stick in the eye of horror. Gallows humour.

Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones


The eighth song on Declan O’Rourke’s Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine album is just as sad and upsetting as each of the others. Repeated listening does not dull the pain nor the anger.

In his notes, O’Rourke refers to this song as have blue notes. The Wikipedia entry says that  a blue note is “a note that—for expressive purposes—is sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. “

Not a musician, I’m not exactly sure what that means, but my guess is that the song contains something off-key and the result is the sound grates. If that is the case, then a song about starvation that grates is certainly appropriate.

Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones


The song’s narrator is alone. His wife and children have died.  Now so thin, his bones rattle.

Providence chose to wean us from life

With the longest, and slowest, and bluntest of knives.

Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones

From the grave

Yet he sings about it  and then we learn that the narrator is dead and that “the only music to play now I’ve died, Is the squeak of the wheels beneath where I lie.”

Someone else, likely starving as well, now earns his starvation living by pushing a rattling cart along the streets to pick up the dead.

The song’s melody is nearly upbeat. Upbeat in the face of horror.

At this point in the album, we’ve come a long way from the rural beauty of Clogman’s Glen. We’ve arrived on city streets where the starving lie dying outside a storehouse filled with grain.

There is no succor in sight.

Akin to Dylan’s Ironic Eden

The lamppost stands with folded arms
Its iron claws attached
To curbs ‘neath holes where babies wail
Though it shadows metal badge
All and all can only fall
With a crashing but meaningless blow
No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden

Declan O’Rourke Rattle My Bones
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Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire

Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire

Declan O'Rourke Laissez Faire
St Stephen Green’s Park in Dublin. Edward Delaney sculpture called “Famine”
Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire

The notion that one should love your neighbor as yourself is obviously as old as the milk of human kindness. The notion that people get what they deserve is equally old.

In the late 17th century, the economic view that the less government is part of a merchant’s business the better for the business and eventually the better for the populace in general came to be known as “Laissez faire.” Translated from the the French, the full term–Laissez-nous faire–means, “Leave it to us.”

Unfortunately, the urge to hold onto increased profits is often stronger than the willingness to share the wealth and the thought of those without falls prey to a different view: they deserve what they get.

The term “Social Darwinism” had not yet entered the language, but the idea that “the fittest or best adapted individuals, or entire societies,  prevail” supported the  laissez faire view.

Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire

Sir Charles Trevelyan

Declan O'Rourke Laissez Faire
Charles Edward Trevelyan

As the potato blight worsened year after year, those in power, the British, faced a decision: provide for the poor or let circumstances take their course.

Sir Charles Trevelyan had prime responsibility for famine relief in Ireland,  decided that the famine was up to God to alleviate since, “The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated”.

A Trevelyan letter to Edward Twisleton, Chief Poor Law Commissioner in Ireland, contained, “We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farmers go, and their landlords are reduced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country”. (both quotes above are from an Independent article)

O’Rourke’s reply:

Y’er man Travelyan says it’s Laissez Faire

If they were his children he’d fuckin’ well care!

Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire

Cities suffered as well

Most Great Irish Famine images are of the countryside and certainly that is where the worst suffering occurred, but cities like Dublin had its share of starvation.

Declan O’Rourke’s wrote Laissez Faire with his poor urban ancestors in mind.

How can I fee ye my beautiful son?

All the goodness I have in my body is gone

How an keep ye my duty be done?

To the blazes I can’t keep ye nourished and strong.

Even when charity appeared, it was sometime offered with strings attached: you must, as a Catholic, become a Protestant:

Swap your Catholic halo for a Protestant hoop

And give up your place in heaven for a bowl of soup.

Those who did became known as “soup takers” to those who remained starving rather than give up their faith.

Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire


In June 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement on the Irish Potato Famine. He said  “The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.” (Independent article).

Ex post facto is little comfort to those who starved to death.

Declan O’Rourke Laissez Faire
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