Category Archives: Great Irish Famine

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

As much as we listeners might want to skirt the pain and however gently O’Rourke  presents “Mary Kate” to us, it is an arrow to the heart.

Harp dominates. Acoustic guitar accompanies. O’Rouke’s voice holds us by the hand but be forewarned.

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

There is hope, but the unnamed sister is at a crossroads. Children should not have to make such decisions. Children should not have to be in a position to make such decisions. No sister, no orphaned sister, should have to leave behind her sister.

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

With Britain’s deliberate inefficient policy to deal with the Great Famine’s starvation, the cold choice to deport the problem became a solution. Deport the young women from the horrors of the workhouse to Australia where Britain had already deported its felons.

Declan O'Rourke Mary Kate
by Unknown photographer,photograph,1860s

Henry Grey, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies came up with the idea that these young women could settle with these felons and make a good wife or a good servant (likely both).

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

Records hardly exist about these young women, but we know that the policy,  in reality, forced many of these women into prostitution or abusive relationships merely to survive a different famine.  A famine of hopelessness in an unknown land as far from home as one could possibly be.

And whether any sister ever saw her sister Kate again or earned the money to send for his sister Kate is a story for which you can write the ending.

Declan O'Rourke Mary Kate


And Too-ria my Mary Kate

Forever now seet Mary Kate

you won’t see Australia

And we won’t meet in this life again.

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate

There are those today who are trying to memorialize these young women, trying to have history remember them. (Irish Times article)


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Declan O’Rourke Indian Meal

Declan O’Rourke Indian Meal

Declan O'Rourke Indian Meal

It is easy to think that during the Great Irish Famine–caused mainly by the potato blight–that there was no other food available to the starving.

That was not the case.

As noted in previous posts (A, B, C, & D), the British landlords of Ireland controlled most of the land and used the best pastures for raising animals which the owners exported to England and other places.

In other words, there was food, but British bias permitted an acceptance of what most today would label genocide.

There’s ships leavin’ full of pigs, heifers, and lambs

Some transportin’ convicts to Van Diemaen’s Land

We’re hemorrhagin’ barrels of butter and grain

And all that comes back in and all that remains is…

Indian meal, Indian meal, Indian meal.

(Van Diemen’s Land was the original name used for the island of Tasmania, now part of Australia.)

Declan O’Rourke Indian Meal

Declan O'Rourke Indian Meal
Famine meal ticket
Indian Meal

The fifth song of Declan O’Rourke’s Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine album is “Indian Meal.” Once again, the melody belies the message.

The seemingly happy-go-lucky step-dancing tune carries a bitter message: your potato is gone. Be satified with what you can find.

In the midst of the famine, the English changed leadership and charged Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan with famine relief.

Declan O'Rourke Indian Meal
Charles Edward Trevelyan

According to the History Place site, “ Trevelyan ordered the closing of the food depots in Ireland that had been selling…Indian corn. He also rejected another boatload of Indian corn already headed for Ireland. His reasoning, as he explained in a letter, was to prevent the Irish from becoming “habitually dependent” on the British government. His openly stated desire was to make “Irish property support Irish poverty.”

Declan O’Rourke Indian Meal

Despite that laissez-faire policy, corn meal did become one of the things that the starving Irish did have access to.


For a penny a pound. Storehouses often stayed full of Indian meal because the starving who literally stood outside the storehouse,  had no money.

Bothar bui–Yellow Road

They’re pavin’ the streets of Americay

With gold at your feet for a dollar a day

While here on the works we make botharin bui

For the yella’ or barely a shillin’ a piece.

Road workers, in lieu of cash, accepted Indian meal as payment. Ironically, at the same time that myth described the streets of America as “paved with gold,” many roads of Ireland became known as “yellow roads” because workers survived–barely–on the yellow corn meal.

Some rural Irish roads today still contain the name Bothar bui.

For the majority of the Irish, daily life was often a torturous path to death by disease due to starvation.

Again from the History Place site: Nicholas Cummins, the magistrate of Cork, visited the hard-hit coastal district of Skibbereen. “I entered some of the hovels,” he wrote, “and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive — they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.”

Declan O’Rourke Indian Meal


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Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes

Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes

Emilee Martin of Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School created this work for the United Way of Greater St. Louis and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 100 Neediest Cases.

The fourth song on Delcan O’Rourke’s Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine was its genesis song. That is the story behind this song  initially inspired O’Rourke to create the album.

Declan O'Rourke Poor Boys Shoes
Peadar Ua Laoghaire

He had serendipitously  came across a 1995 book by John O’Connor: The Workhouses of Ireland: The Fate of Ireland’s Poor. In O’Connor’s preface, he referred  to a story from Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s 1915 autobiography, Mo Sceal Fein.

Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes

Well, he danced with her that summer until it showed on her sweet face

How she was taken by the warmth of him, and all his gentle ways

Then he swore to her his love was true

And he married her in poor boy’s shoes

Poor Boys Shoes music begins cheerily along with the age-old story of a poor young man who fell in love with a girl who had flowers in her hair.

Love at first sight. 

She fell in love with him, too. He married her in his poor boy shoes. Like Clogman’s Glen, the struggling story begins before the Great Famine. Life is as expected: difficult but with love and companionship and a family.

Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes

The blight and resulting famine arrived. Life turns. 

The story and song turn.

Two starving children.

The refusal to give in. The refusal to give up  their children to the Poorhouse, a place that might save them, but a place overwhelmed and where mistreatment would likely occur as well as the attempt to proselytize them to the Church of England.  The price paid for charity. 

Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes

The songs about the 19th century indifference by those with to those without sadly reflect the views of many in the 21st century.

Declan O’Rourke Poor Boys Shoes
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