Friday, August 12, 2022

What was so Great
about the "Great Irish Famine"?


Anyone seeking to discover more on their Irish ancestors surely knows about the one main impetus for their forebears leaving their native home: the Great Famine, cause of the death of an estimated 100,000 in County Mayo alone. With a population already impoverished in that northern county—nearly ninety percent in County Mayo were said to be dependent on the potato before the crop failure occurred—it is no surprise to realize the sense of "total misery and despair" pervading the region.

The Great Famine, which generally was pinpointed to begin in 1845, was not the only famine to have devastated Ireland. During the earlier parts of that same century, periods of famine were a common occurrence in Ireland. However, none was as severe as the one providing the motivation for so many to flea their homeland, thus providing an odd spin to the term, "Great Famine." The 1845 famine wasn't the only one—it was just the biggest, most tragic one yet to strike the entire Irish populace.

Zeroing in on famine conditions in County Mayo helps us see what life might have been like for my husband's second great-grandfather, John Stevens. Though it was unquestionably the famine which provoked his emigration, my question is: just how bad was it there in County Mayo? Since John Stevens apparently made the journey to America alone, what became of his family? Did they stay behind? Did they survive remaining in Ireland? Or did they, like another line of Stevens ancestors from a more southern county, see one sibling take flight to America while another departed for New Zealand?

While the "Great" in the Great Famine for most people might be translated as the "Awful" famine, or the "Widespread" famine, could the idea of the famine as the biggest yet in a series of unfortunate events mean that John Stevens was not the first in his family to have left his homeland? Could John merely have been the next one in a line of family members who had begun leaving Ireland during an earlier, though lesser, famine? Could the start of 1845 have caused him to think, "Here we go again"?

Though there are many reasons over time prompting the Irish to leave their homeland, there is one question plaguing me: if the people in County Mayo were so impoverished in the years leading up to the famine, how did they manage to scrape up enough money to pay their passage out of there?

As it turns out, there were forward-thinking—though not necessarily altruistic—men already prepared to address that predicament. Whether that was how our John Stevens secured his transportation on the rather unusual route through New Orleans to America's midwest, I can't say. But it wouldn't hurt to examine the options open to those destitute residents of County Mayo in the aftermath of the famine. We'll review some possibilities next week.

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