Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Deep Roots of Despair

Zooming out from a narrow focus on Stephen Malloy and his hasty exit in 1849 from his homeland in Ireland provides a different view of the factors contributing to his predicament. The names and dates swirling around Irish history in the late 1840s tell a tale of dissatisfaction and even rebellion, it is true, but they barely scratch the surface of what contributed to the underlying despair of the Irish people.

In puzzling over Stephen Maloy’s unexplainable departure from his home, his young wife, and his infant daughter, I took the time to wander through accounts of Irish history  that led up to this unsettled period. Expanding my research parameters to take in the big picture—the horrific details of the Great Famine, the destitute condition of the Irish Catholics—provided a platform to better understand their generations-long “heritage” of deprivation.

Before taking this personal journey to educate myself, I hardly understood the legacy of bitterness which welled up over generations, owing not only to limitations on personal freedoms but coupling that with the disgrace of injury to wellbeing.

I find it challenging to keep up with the political machinations of my own nation, let alone that of a foreign rule. But in this review of Irish political history, my eyes were opened to the details of laws restricting everything from the right to vote concerning one’s own governance (limited by value of property) to the permission to enter certain more well-paying professions or trades. All these egregious mandates, however, were overshadowed by the demand to take an oath denouncing one’s fervent and heartfelt beliefs.

In short, for those in Ireland insisting on maintaining their Catholic confession of faith, they couldn’t own or lease land, couldn’t live in or near a “corporate town,” couldn’t vote, couldn’t hold office, couldn’t obtain an education, couldn’t enter a profession. Couple that with a chance but widespread blight of a major food source for an impoverished island, and isn’t it any wonder what became of an entire race of people?

True, much of this tension was relieved through passage of laws addressing these specific restrictions—and done so, well before the time of our Stephen Maloy’s mysterious escape to freedom—but the immediate changes legislated at the end of the eighteenth century, or by 1829, only served to remove the egregious landmark which merely designated the surface over deep-running resentments. It takes more than a few years of hard work for a family to eradicate the severe crippling of poverty-level subsistence. It takes years of application and persistence to develop skills adequate for income-generating careers. All the while, the struggle still served to remind them of the cause which had, at first, sunk them into such degradation.

Small wonder then, that effects from an 1829 reprieve from injustice, though in itself seemingly benign, might still be begrudgingly recalled twenty years later—perhaps as a son recalls the struggle his father once faced, vowing never to repeat the indignity.

Would that be what was behind Stephen Maloy’s secretive escape?

I’ve been taking the time to steep myself in these hot waters of history. I want to absorb the essence of the times. Granted, it doesn’t move me one step closer to my research goals of uncovering the genealogical records of that next, elusive, generation, but it allows me the empathy to better comprehend what these hardy—and hard put-upon—survivors endured.

Exploring these tokens of Irish history reminded me of a documentary produced a few years ago on the emigration triggered by the Great Famine. I first learned about it from Irish-Canadian blogger Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman, who spoke highly of the film in her blog, “On a Flesh and Bone Foundation”: an Irish History.

The film, Death or Canada, gained its title from commentary by contemporaries of those dire times, gleaned from a Limerick newspaper by collaborator Mark McGowan of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. The film captures the story of an actual Irish immigrant family seeking survival through immigration to Canada, while including the scope of the greater humanitarian tragedy. You can learn more about this moving documentary—including trailers—both at the website for Ballinran Productions (click on the drop-down bar to the left, labeled “Films” and select Death or Canada) and Tile Films.

Because the route of the Willis family—the ones whose story is shared in this documentary—was not much different than that taken by some of my family’s Irish ancestors, the details of this documentary will help me absorb the message of what it must have been like for our ancestors to have lived through such an ordeal. The documentary was followed up by Mark McGowan’s book carrying the same title—another resource for me as I trace the personal history of our family’s forebears.

It is indeed a sobering exercise to pause and meditate on the “perfect storm” created by generations of political systems, laws, religious prejudices—with just a touch of agricultural dysfunction and disease thrown in for good measure. If there is ever a way to fully comprehend the insurmountable challenges faced by those in our lineage who survived to pass their genes on down to us, it will undoubtedly leave me awestruck at their resilience and fortitude. They were survivors, alright, but oh, what an ordeal they survived.


  1. What is sobering is how many did NOT survive.

    ...and how cruel the "vaunted," smug, self proclaimed superior English were... it is no wonder they are/were hated the world over.

    1. That is indeed a sobering thought. A difficult time. I find myself unable to comprehend it fully from the kind of privileged viewpoint we're now blessed with in this country.

  2. They must have felt so hopeless, I cannot imagine:(


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