Tag Archives: Irish Famine

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

Declan O'Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

The album cover of Declan O’Rourke’s Chronicles of the Irish Famine displays a group of eight surrounding a shirtless man on the ground. Without knowing the story, we could easily misinterpret the scene as that of a rescue.

It is not.

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

Respite and revenge

While it would be possible to fill an album with 13 songs about the peasants starvation and mistreatment during the Famine, having one song that provides a smile, however briefly, for the downtrodden is welcome.

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

Capt Charles Boycott

Declan O'Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

Peasants rented the land they worked. The landlord determined the rent. No rent paid? Eviction.

In 1880 after the Famine (but still long before Irish independence) the Irish Land League fought back against unreasonable evictions, particularly those that Captain Charles Boycott was executing for his employer Lord Erne.

The League told the locals they should socially shun the Captain: his workers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as in his house. Local businessmen stopped trading with him, and the local postman refused to deliver mail.

The name Boycott became the word boycott.

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern


Manning was  a cruel landlord from the town of Delvin in Co. Westmeath. In this case violence was the cure.

When we first listen to the music, it is easy to think of it as a happy-go-lucky tune. Toe-tapping. Raise a glass. Slàinte.

It is all those things, but we must mix in words.

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

A pistol man

On the road outside of Delvin

From the shadow of the trees

A man drew out his pistol

And a man fell to his knees.

Oh. OK.

The pistol man leaves, but on his way away he lets others know something.

Others show up. Johnny is with them. Johnny holds the light.

Young Johnny’s hands were freezin’

But he held the lantern high

As the day man lay there gazin’

And the flame danced in his eyes.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. And on one cold night during the Great Irish Famine it was the main course.

Not surprisingly the song has become a favorite.

Dublin Live article on album.

Declan O’Rourke Johnny Hold Lantern

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.

Pin on Political Cartoons

Bob Dylan excoriated William Zantzinger, 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 as unscrupulous ship owners realized a golden opportunity. The refugees  literally 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 so suffered from hypothermia that most 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

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’Rourke’s voice holds us by the hand, but be forewarned.

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate


There is hope, but the unnamed young sister stands 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

Henry Grey

With Britain’s deliberately 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 Irish 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).

Famine of hopelessness

Records hardly exist about any of these young women, but we know that the policy,  in reality, forced many of them into prostitution or abusive relationships. Escaping one famine merely to endure another.  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 that ending.

Declan O'Rourke Mary Kate

For these two sister, the story ended with…

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.

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

Declan O’Rourke Mary Kate