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The Famine Plot

England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy
Tim Pat Coogan
Palgrave Macmillan
£ 17.99

A group of the starving is said to have set off from the Erris district in impossible weather conditions to try to reach the workhouse in either Ballina or Westport; this involved treks of sixty and eighty kilometers, which would be more than a day's march for a skilled and healthy walker. The group probably came from caves cut into the bog and would almost certainly have been barefoot and dressed in rags. Famished and hallucinating from the effort of trying to cope with the march and the elements on stomachs that had been empty for days, the group were halted as night drew on by what appeared to them a ghastly apparition: it was a thorn tree, its branches lashing in the gale. The group fled in terror and their fate is not known. They simply perished into the oblivion of the still only guessed-at death toll of County Mayo. The story may be taken either literally or allegorically as an indication of the differing British and Irish attitudes to the Famine.

 At a lunch I attended in Boston, a prominent academic quoted a descrip­tion of "a monster," which he claimed he had been given by an English cabinet minister, who was at the time dealing with Irish affairs—a tree! Neither the Englishman or the American academic had ever visited the barren areas of Mayo and would not have known that there were no trees and a people who normally never moved much beyond 6 or 7 kilometres from their birthplace would have found a tree a very disturbing site in­deed—particularly if it was dusk and they were starving.

—Tory Lord Brougham


After the Ballinglass evictions in 1846, for example, the Tory Lord Brougham answered critics of what had happened in Ireland by trumpeting the cause of laissez-faire and the rights of landlords in the terms previously quoted: "Undoubtedly it was the landlords right to do as he pleased, and if he abstained he conferred of favour and was doing an act of kindness."

Unfortunately, throughout the Famine many a landlord did "as he wished," thus making a sizeable contribution toward turning Ireland into a giant charnel house.