The Famine Trail: commemorating the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1850

by Kimberly Ballaro / Sep 22, 2010 /

The Great Irish Famine is now widely considered to be one of the worst tragedies of nineteenth century Europe. The  failure of the potato crop, the main source of nourishment in the Irish diet during this time, resulted in widespread starvation, disease and death. The first sign of blight came in the summer and autumn of 1845. 1847 has since been known as "black '47" as it was the height of destitution. The West of Ireland, in the provinces of Munster and Connacht, the blight was felt most acutely. Despite the establishment of government funded kitchens and relief boards, the disaster continued for five years. In 1841 the population of the small country was
just over eight million people. By 1851 it had plummeted to six and a half million. This was not only due to the rates of death from disease and starvation but also to emigration.

One would imagine an event such as this would merit a national place of remembrance in Ireland, but there is not. There are, however, places of commemoration in both Canada and New York. Both of these places hold strong connections with Ireland because of the high levels of immigration because of blight. In Ireland, there are smaller, more localized, places of commemoration of the famine. For the Irish history buffs out there, here are
just a few places that you can learn more about the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. In these places you can learn about both the remote villages and large estates effected by the blight. Not only will you find a wealth of information, but you will stand in the places where the victims stood themselves. I have always found this kind of experience to be the most humbling and rewarding on my travels.

One of the most well-known places of famine commemoration is the Skibbereen Heritage Centre in County Cork. Cork is the most southwestern county in the country, Skibbereen lying near the southwest tip of the island. The Centre's Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition provides extensive information about the area, how it was affected by the famine and displays many artifacts from the 1840s. This includes the progression of government policies and reports through the period of the blight and a cauldron from a local soup kitchen. Audio aids and visual displays help the visitor understand the story of the famine in Skibbereen. The Centre also offers a guide that will take visitors on what is called a "virtual walk," in which one can trek around the town visiting various sites commemorating the victims of the famine and the relief work done to help alleviate the poverty. This centre holds some of the most extensive information about this period. Although it is extremely localized, it will give visitors a better idea of how extreme and widespread this blight was.

A second museum dedicated to this event in Irish history is the Strokestown Famine Museum in County Roscommon, pictured here. Located in the western Province of Connacht, the Strokestown museum is located on the estate of Strokestown Park, a manor dated from the 1700s. This museum does give an overview of the Great Famine throughout Ireland, yet it still is very localized as it displays original letters and artifacts belonging to the manor residents and tenants. The letters written from tenants are particularly moving, as they depict the need for immediate relief from starvation and disease. Tours of the manor house are available and What is different about this particular museum is that is not solely dedicated to the Great Irish Famine, but also aims to draw attention to the ongoing starvation of today's world.

Apart from the various local centres and museums there are countless places of commemoration throughout the country in places you might not expect. You will find small statues and wells dedicated to the victims on
roadsides, in fields, maybe next to a country pub and definitely in what seems like the middle of nowhere! In Dublin, you will find statues of ghostly figures on a cobblestone sidewalk depicting the sheer destitution of those
trying to escape the blight. The observant traveler will also find, in contrast to this blatant reminder of the horrors facing the country at this time, smaller and more peaceful dedications to those who suffered. The country is dotted with these gestures of remembrance. Pictured is a small memorial found in the mountainous terrain of Conamara, County Galway. This particular monument can be seen along what many call a "famine road," as it marks the place near a village that had been wiped out by the blight. The story goes that the villagers walked ten miles on this road to the next village in search of food. When those who survived the trek arrived at their destination, they found there was no food for them and were forced to turn back empty-handed. These small markers are quite moving and are found all over Ireland.

The Centres dedicated to the local and, more or less, national effects of the potato famine are excellent resources for any traveler interested in history and its meaning to the present. One can learn much from both of
these informative museums and the many small commemorations around the country. Truth be told, it is one of the darkest events in Ireland's history. It is, however, an incredible story that deserves attention and remembrance.

These centres and monuments have the ability to teach and to their visitors and to move them deeply. They are haunting, yet fascinating in a way that you will not be able to turn away. I would highly recommend these sites and
those like it to any traveler.

For more information on the Skibbereen Heritage Centre and the Strokestown Famine Museum:
http://www.skibbheritage.com/famine.htm
http://www.strokestownpark.ie/museum.html