Famine roads


… cunning as housewives, each eyed –
as if at a corner butcher – the other’s buttock.

~ Eavan Boland, The Famine Road

In 1845, Ireland had been ruled by Britain for more than 40 years. It was a country of around 8 million people, 80% of whom were Catholic. Only a quarter of the population could read and write, and life expectancy was among the lowest in Europe, men and women living not much above 40.

The British reviled them, viewing they and their country as a kind of fetid swamp, peopled with a feckless, lazy sub-human species. In comparison to the general revulsion, Benjamin Disraeli, later to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was a model of dispassion when he describes Ireland in 1844 as  having

a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world.

The British were waiting for tragedy to strike the benighted country for many years. And strike it did.


From 1845 to 1852, the Great Famine decimated the country. In three years out of four, the potato crop failed – the one and only food source of many Irish – and from 1847 there was a related epidemic of typhoid.

In the worst year, known as Black Forty-Seven, a Catholic priest wrote to the British minister in charge seeking help:

In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.

One million Irish died of hunger and disease, from a total population of eight million. Another one million, many under duress, were pushed on to ships sailing to the US and Canada which were known as “coffin ships” because a third of those on board died en route.

Of those who survived the journey, by some miracle, were the man and woman who would become my great-great-grandparents, Michael Peter Hanratty from Dundalk, Ireland, and Rose, from County Tyrone, Ireland, who were married in New York in 1850.


Britain’s role in the Potato Famine is reprehensible. One shudders to read the facts of the national and institutional cruelty in which Britain prevents shipments of corn and other food from arriving at Irish ports, and ensures the continuing export of massive quantities of edible crops and animals to Britain throughout the height of the Famine, on the “principle” of encouraging a “free market”. While one million people starved, Britain’s rape of the land continued unabated.

It was, effectively, a genocide.

At the height of the Famine in 1847, Nicholas Cummins, a magistrate in Cork, visited the hard-hit district of Skibbereen. He writes,

I entered some of the hovels, 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 about 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. (1)


The British Prime Minister at the beginning of the crisis, Sir Robert Peel, had responded with some compassion. However, he lost government and was succeeded by Lord John Russell who put the inhuman Charles Trevelyan in charge of the Irish situation.

There’s much to be said about Trevelyan and the British in general in relation to the Famine that is deeply scarifying but, for me, two aspects give a glimpse of the magnitude of the failure of compassion and the tone of the cruelty: that peculiar form of Protestant-Calvinist cruelty which persists in British and Commonwealth societies today, the putrid cocktail of moralising righteousness and skin-crawling sanctimony.

First point for the prosecution

In 1847, a private body set up to raise funds to help the Irish, The British Relief Association, collected money from all around the world. Help was sent from many unexpected places. Calcutta is credited with making the first donation of £14,000,  Pope Pius IX sent funds, Queen Victoria donated £2,000, and one native American tribe sent $720. In total, the Association raised around $1 million. The British, however, refused to let all the funds raised go to Ireland.

There is also a story that the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulmecid, declared his intention to send £10,000 to Irish farmers but Queen Victoria requested he send only £1,000 as she had sent only £2,000. When the Sultan tried to make up for the deficit of funds by sending three ships full of food, the British administration tried to block the ships from arriving in harbour.

Second point for the prosecution

In 1847, the British parliament passed the Labour Rate Act to Ireland. One of the conditions of the Act was that a small amount of funds could be given to starving men “for doing unprofitable public work.” This was the stipulation: the work had to be unprofitable. This meant, among other things, that

the Irish could not build Irish railways because this would discriminate against English railway builders. They could not seed lands because this might give the Irish farmer an advantage over the English farmer and enable him to fare better in the market. The money could only be used, and was only used, to build roads where nobody ever travelled, to have them start anywhere and end nowhere, or to erect bridges where there was no river. These “acceptable” uses can still be seen in parts of Ireland today as monuments to British wisdom. (2)

The roads that were built from nowhere to nowhere were known as the Famine roads, and as the writer says, they are still evident in many places in Ireland today.  That men and women who could barely stand from hunger and disease were put to work building something totally useless is so sadistic one can barely credit it. The following photo shows famine roads crossing a hill in the Dingle Peninsula (3).


It may seem as if this strain of cruelty has vanished from the world. It hasn’t.

It raises its head in the “No Advantage” test with which the Australian Government greets refugees fleeing Afghanistan after weeks at sea on a leaky boat in fear of their lives. It’s there whenever someone withholds a dollar from the homeless person begging on the street “because they may use it to buy drugs”; there in moving single mothers struggling to raise children on $350 a week on to a lesser payment as an “incentive” for them to find work; there wherever succour is being withheld from someone because they haven’t “earned” it or they need to be taught a “lesson”.

Today is it Anzac Day in Australia, the day in which we stop and remember the men and women who have fought and died in war, and wars are the ultimate expression of this form of cruelty.

On this day, I remember my valiant great-great-grandparents, and all those who died and suffered in the Great Irish Famine.  I remember too the men and women of Australia who fought the wars of the British Empire and its descendants.

The Famine Road

“Idle as trout in light Colonel Jones
these Irish, give them no coins at all; their bones
need toil, their characters no less.”  Trevelyan’s
seal blooded the deal table.  The Relief
Committee deliberated:  “Might it be safe,
Colonel, to give them roads, roads to force
From nowhere, going nowhere of course?”

one out of every ten and then
another third of those again
women – in a case like yours.

Sick, directionless they worked.  Fork, stick
were iron years away; after all could
they not blood their knuckles on rock, suck
April hailstones for water and for food?
Why for that, cunning as housewives, each eyed –
as if at a corner butcher – the other’s buttock.

anything may have caused it, spores
a childhood accident; one sees
day after day these mysteries.

Dusk:  they will work tomorrow without him.
They know it and walk clear.  He has become
a typhoid pariah, his blood tainted, although
he shares it with some there.  No more than snow
attends its own flakes where they settle
and melt, will they pray by his death rattle.

You never will, never you know
but take it well woman, grow
your garden, keep house, good-bye.

“It has gone better than we expected, Lord
Trevelyan, sedition, idleness, cured
in one.  From parish to parish, field to field;
the wretches work till they are quite worn,
then fester by their work.  We march the corn
to the ships in peace.  This Tuesday I saw bones
out of my carriage window.  Your servant Jones.”

Barren, never to know the load
of his child in you, what is your body
now if not a famine road?

~ Eavan Boland


If you enjoyed this post …

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:


(1) http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/hunger.htm

(2) http://www.ireland-information.com/articles/irishfamine.htm

(3) http://ireland.wlu.edu/lecture/famine_roads.htm


8 thoughts on “Famine roads

  1. We visited friends in Scotland a few years ago and heard the terrible story of the Scottish Highland Clearances, when poor tenants were evicted from their homes to make way for sheep farming, which was more profitable for the land owners. From there, we went to Galway, in Ireland. On the return trip, we traveled by train from Galway to Dublin. We sat down at a table across from an elderly woman who was intelligent, gracious and articulate. Her knowledge of Irish history was encyclopedic and she told us much of what you have described in your post. She talked about the eviction of the poorest Irish tenants from their cottages. I wish we had gotten an address for her so I could have written to thank her for spending time with us and sharing her knowledge so generously, but she slipped away as soon as we arrived at Dublin. It was an amazing experience.


    • What a way to learn the horrid story, from the mouth of one of the countrywomen. You describe the experience so well. The story makes my blood run cold, blood that is only four generations from those poor people.


  2. Please do me a favour – read history before reciting it. Web pages are not always reliable sources. These piecemeal efforts make my blood run cold. ‘The British were waiting for tragedy to strike the benighted country’. Oh please!


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