Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Doolough is a haunted place.

In March 1849, several hundred starving Irish peasants in desperate straits after five years of the potato famine -- The Great Hunger, it is called -- collected in the town of Louisburgh in County Mayo. When they petitioned the local relief officer for assistance, he informed them that only the Board of Guardians "was authorized to hand out food or tickets for admission to the workhouse." The Board, he told them, was meeting at Delphi, a lodge owned by the Marquess of Sligo some 12 miles south of Louisburgh on the other side of the Doolough Pass. If they wanted assistance, they must go to Delphi and ask the Board for it.

Next morning, the mass of starving people undertook the trek across a broad, rolling bog to the pass alongside Doolough (Black Lake), a long finger of water situated between the Mweelrea Mountains and the Sheefry Hills. Rain fell relentlessly and winds gathered in the pass, exacerbating the already biting cold. An 1849 letter to the Mayo Constitution bitterly recounted that " obedience of this humane order, hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children, might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads for the appointed being the most remote part of the union."*

The exhausted multitude reached Delphi early in the afternoon only to be told that they must wait until members the Board finished their lunch. Salmon abound in Doolough and in the rivers and streams around Delphi, so there's a good chance that the Board dined on salmon -- a luxury denied the peasantry (which fed exclusively on the potato and buttermilk) in the best of times. After taking another hour to enjoy their meal, the Board heard and denied the pleas for assistance and ordered the people to return Louisburgh. Mentally and physically broken, unwanted refugees in their own land, they began the return journey, which quickly became a death march. Because of the poor record-keeping of the day, it's unknown exactly how many perished on the two walks, but the generally accepted figure is between 400-600.

Today, the keening winds of Doolough mourn the dead. Two small monuments observe their passing, and every year people gather in Louisburgh to make the walk to Delphi to honor the victims and to keep their memory alive. I've been to Doolough on fair days and foul, and the place never ceases to move me. On sunny days, I've climbed the hills to read and contemplate in solitude, for it is unquestionably on a road less traveled. It is a place I return to time and again -- for me, the most beautiful and tragic place of a beautiful land with a tragic past.

Yesterday, T. and I parked the Nissan on the side of the road and hiked around the north end of the lake. A paved road led us to the foothills of the Mweelreas. The mountains themselves, looming straight up as they do, were more than a bit daunting, so we struck out across the small hills to a waterfall in the distance. Upon reaching the waterfall, we followed the banks of the resulting stream to what looked to be a sheep-shearing station. From there, we connected with the road, pausing occasionally to study flora, admire fences and stone walls, duck into the ruins of an old cottage, and examine the sudden oddity of the skeleton of lone sheep, apparently the victim of a fox. The eroded, pockmarked side of a hillock revealed a complex of swifts' nests; we stood quietly and watched the agile birds emerge to dart and swoop on their eternal hunt for flying insects. Aside from the birds and the bugs and the ghosts, we were alone. As in: The. Only. People. There. Just us. Ourselves alone. Sinn Fein. For an American, this is one of the great charms of Mayo. Think of the most beautiful place you've ever been in the United States and of how many people were there. (For me, that's the central coast of California.) Then consider it without people. That's what Mayo is like.

Like Hurricane Katrina, the Great Hunger was an avoidable catastrophe that ultimately resulted in the death and displacement of 2.5 million people. The peasants who lived off of the potato farmed and fished a rich land: Throughout the famine, Ireland exported a variety of foodstuffs to the profit of its British overlords. Fearing the creation of a culture of dependence (a phrase too often thrown around today to blame the people of New Orleans for their own suffering), the English government repeatedly declined to offer meaningful assistance. Landlords took advantage of the famine to organize their estates more efficiently, which included evictions for failure to pay rent and buying ships' passage for reluctant but depairing native Irish to migrate to England, America, and Australia. Thus were the Irish emigrants to America distinguished from all other ethnic groups: Far from perceiving America as a land of opportunity, they saw it as a place of exile. As their fortunes improved across generations, the Irish in America provided significant funding to the Irish Republican Army, whose guerilla war against the British from 1919-21 resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State, which subsequently became the Republic of Ireland. As Martin Luther King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

*Source: The Famine in Mayo: A portrait from contemporary sources - 1845-1850, A Mayo County Library Publication (1998).


New Orleans News Ladder said...

Pictures are beautiful. Find the ravens.
I would like to leave a comment but really don't like my thinking. Let's just leave it that I don't like Royalists, and have a hard time expressing my visceral repugnance of that particular breed of them, like Saudis without the pigment.
Your comparison to New Orleans during what I saw during what I call "The Troubles" is painfully bloodspot on, except, that all of those Americans who came to our rescue really don't realize that the gig is up for everyone, not just us in Nola.
Sinn Féin

Foxessa said...

You're all too correct on that.

For the entire damned world, the jig's up. It belongs to the liars and the obscene.