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The Curse of Reason

The Great Irish Famine
Enda Delaney
Gill and Macmillan


An engraving of Bridget O'Oonnell and her children that appeared in the Illustrated London News in December 1849 put names and faces on the victims of Ireland's Great Famine. It remains one of the most widely recognised images of the crisis: a woman in rags, with sunken face and limbs emaciated, beside two young children. According to an accompanying news story, her husband had held a little less than five acres in the townland of Garraunnatooha in the parish of Kilmacduane, near Kilrush, Co. Clare, but the family had been evicted for falling behind in the payment of rent. They had purchased oats for seed from Marcus Keane, who owned the land, and they had sown the crop and harvested it. As soon as the corn was stacked, a neighbour named Blake had taken the corn and stored it, on the instructions of one Dan Sheedy, presumably a henchman acting for Keane. Sheedy then arrived with a group of men to eject the family and level the cabin. Bridget, pregnant and suffering from fever, remained inside, until neighbours rescued her. A week later she gave birth to a stillborn child and received the last rites from her priest, the Rev. Michael Meehan. Another child, aged thirteen, died three weeks later. Sheedy and Blake sold the corn at the market in nearby Kilrush.1 What happened to Bridget O'Donnell thereafter has never been established.

Marcus Keane was a notorious agent who represented absentee landlords in Co. Clare, such as Francis Conyngham, second Marquess Conyngham, but was himself the owner of a small estate. In addition to the O' Donnells he had evicted twelve other families in Garraunnatooha, leaving some sixty people homeless.1 He was described in 1846 by a state functionary as a 'gentleman of high character', the Limerick Reporter later said of him that he was 'unhappy when not exterminating',3 and one historian has described him as the 'exterminator general'.4 Keane earned this notoriety through the large-scale evictions he oversaw throughout Co. Clare, especially in the Kilrush Poor Law Union from 1847 onwards.5 The Poor Law inspector for the union, Captain Arthur Kennedy, drew the attention of senior officials in London to……