Tag Archives: Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

Some have observed that winners write the history, losers write the songs.

While there is no shortage of Irish songs about British mistreatment of the Irish, it took 170 years for someone to create a whole album of songs the Irish Famine. Declan O’Rourke did 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)

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

From Clogman’s Glen…

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

In Along the Western Seaboard, O’Rourke allowed us to hear a parish priest’s pleas whose parishioners dying words were prayers for relief.

He sang of those who sought escape  across the seas  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.

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

to Indian Meal

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 inflicted 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 objectified 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.

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

…to Coffin Ships…

O’Rourke tosses us from the creaking cart and throws us inside the hold of a ship as cargo–we are within a coffin ship, we’ve gone 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 frozen corpses.

Declan finally fillips a finger (or two) of revenge for us. We waited a long time, but it’s only a momentary draught.

Then an orphan, like the starving father, like Mary Kate,  and 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.

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne
Journey’s End

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

Another Irish observation is that the while English may have killed the Irish language, but the Irish stole English in return.

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

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

According to an omniglot.com 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”

Go Domhain I Do Chuimhne

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.


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,

Good the heart

Thank you, Declan 

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 deal 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

America has closed its doors…

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 laws.

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 just waiting to leave their quarters.

From an article at the Ancient Order of Hibernians‘ site: “By the end of the month 12,000 were in beds & tents and 10,037 died on the ships or on the island, but even this figure is conservative, for many families remained in Quebec waiting for one of their own held at Grosse Ile and readily fell prey, if not to ship’s fever, to other illnesses induced by undernourishment and temporary housing.”’

One observer wrote, It would, in my opinion, have been more humane to have deprived them at once of life. 

“A particularly virulent form of dysentery, together with smallpox, measles, and ‘ship’s fever’ broke out in most of the vessels, bringing death to some 30,000 people and the most intense suffering to the survivors.” 

“The epidemic outbreaks originated not in bad conditions on the ships but in the fact that emigrants were infected before they embarked.  Overcrowding & lack of sanitation undoubtedly added to the virulence of an epidemic once it had started, but the real cause of the trouble lay in contemporary ignorance. As long as medicine did not know the causes of typhus & cholera these diseases would continue to appear on sea & land alike.

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.

On his first visit  to the memorial in 1997, AOH member Mike McCormack wrote :

Seek me not among the tombstones
for I sleep beneath the waves,
or lie with friends and family
in some lonely unmarked grave.
But remember me each dawning
of the days I’ll never see,
and pray for those that I left mourning,
wondering what became of me. 

O’Rourke sings:

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

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O'Rourke Connaught Orphan

We may have hoped that the retaliatory exhilaration of  Johnny Hold the Lantern would end the album with its high note, but O’Rourke returns to the Great Famine’s horror and its helpless 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 that Easter Week’s fighting.  Crossfire caught most victims, but British soldiers deliberately shot or bayoneted others. (Independent article)

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Orphan offerings

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

In the Connaught Orphan, we stride 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.

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Strings attached

It is still a common requirement that there be a quid pro quo from those who receive relief: demand that the sufferer must 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 church attendance), such a demand might seem an easy one to comply with, but the 19th century Roman Catholic Church taught members that a choice 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 die of hunger now
If they see me with your nice new clothes
They’ll think I’m telling lies and that
I have a mammy feeds me so.

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

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan