People often ask if, after twenty years of leading groups to Ireland, I get bored. Not a chance. Through each group I get to see Ireland again for the first time. And as each group is unique I never know what will capture their attention.
This summer, after our visit to the County Cavan Museum in remote Ballyjamesduff, it was the Famine. Former home to a Poor Clare Convent, this beautiful building with its arched ceilings houses many comprehensive exhibits including one on this devastating time in Irish history. Outside of Ireland we know it as the Potato Famine. In Ireland it’s known simply as an Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, a period of mass starvation and emigration between 1845 and 1849. In those five years one million people would die and another million would emigrate. We assume it was all due to the potato blight but it really had little to do with potatoes. It was genocide. Genocide rooted in the policies and practices of the ruling English that began 150 years earlier when the Irish Parliament, filled with Protestant landowners and controlled from England, enacted a penal code that secured and enlarged the landlords’ holdings and degraded and impoverished the Irish Catholics.
Under these Penal Laws, Irish Catholics were prohibited from purchasing or leasing land, practicing their religion, speaking their native Gaelic language, practicing law, serving as an apprentice, entering a profession, possessing weapons, voting, holding political office, living within five miles of a town, owning a horse valued at more than five pounds, or obtaining an education. On the latter the law was very clear: No person of the popish religion shall publicly or in private houses teach school, or instruct youth in learning upon pain of twenty pounds fine and three months in prison for every such offence. As Irish author and philosopher Edmund Burke observed, the Penal Laws were, “a machine of wide and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
Unbelievable as all this is to absorb, even more so is that the Penal Laws were not finally and completely repealed until 1920. Three hundred years of brutal oppression that spawned so many atrocities. Among them the Great Hunger.
Judith – firstname.lastname@example.org