herald

Friday 1 August 2014

Incredible maps and photos capture our famine nightmare

THE most sumptuous book published in Ireland this year comes in the shape of an unlikely study of perhaps the most important period of all in Irish history.

It's called Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, and although the title may seem a bit daunting, it is in fact a beautifully produced 'dip-into' book, that took 20 years to complete.

It will enthral all those with even a cursory interest in our past.

The title is somewhat misleading, because although there are indeed maps aplenty, the real charm of the book lies in the countless brilliantly reproduced photographs that will take the reader back to a very dark time.

In the mid-1840s, keeping body and soul together was a daily battle for most people.

In both town and country, living standards were appalling. In rural Ireland, mud huts housed impoverished and usually large families, while in Dublin, the poorer classes eked out a daily hand-to-mouth existence.

However, despite periodic bouts of hunger haunting the lives of those at the bottom of the pile, the majority of people were reasonably fed, thanks, above all, to one easy-to-grow and highly nutritious product -- the humble potato.

But what nobody, particularly those in authority, fully appreciated is that if, for any reason, this crop were to fail, there would obviously be widespread starvation among those already living close to the edge.

And this is exactly what happened when the infamous 'blight' hit the crop, particularly during the years 1845 to 1847.



Destitute

Food shortages and hunger swept the country almost overnight, hitting some areas worse that others.

One of the most evocative pictures in the book is the grim stone facade of one of the workhouses set up to offer some solace to the destitute, many of whom were already dying of starvation.

The photographs reek of the horror of those times, when in the course of a few years one million people starved to death, while hundreds of thousands headed for the emigrant boat.

"As many as two-and-a-half million people had fled the island by 1855, accentuating an exodus which has ebbed and flowed ever since," say the authors.

The Famine memorial in the wild untamed landscape of Doolough Valley in Co Mayo, against the dark clouds on the skyline, vividly transports the reader back to those awful days.

There are many other evocative pictures such as a famine relief road of broken stones in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the Burren in Co Clare. Roadworks in the more isolated parts of the country were one of the schemes dreamed up to provide employment.

The book also reproduces a circular signed by one of the Irish bishops on Christmas Eve 1846, telling Catholics the obligation to abstain from manual work on Sundays no longer applied during "the horrors of the famine."

Interspersed throughout the book are pictures of various of mass graves; the final resting places for thousands of men, women and children whose families could not afford a decent burial.







Squalor

Referring to Dublin specifically, the book points out that the city in early Victorian times was very much a place of haves and have nots. "The middle and upper classes lived in fine townhouses -- while the poor congregated in the west of the city. The elegance of its magnificent squares contrasted with the squalor of the Liberties, the old congested quarter outside the city wall.

"With its noxious industries, small traders and huxters, this was the receiving area for many poor refugees fleeing the countryside."

However, compared to Connacht and Munster, Dublin along with a number of other east coast counties such as Wexford, had a much lower death toll, and less fatal disease such as typhus.

Overall the large sequence of maps help put this story of mass starvation and disease into sharp focus; they show in particular how the most vulnerable families suffered appallingly.

The editors are John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy, and 60 different writers make a contribution.

This fine book ain't cheap -- but it's still a snip at €59.

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