I initially wrote this as part of a History assignment. I decided I would write the blog on an event that occurred locally during the famine. Hailing from Kilkerrain (Cill Chiaráin), a small village in Connemara, I decided to focus on the issue of cannibalism, a topic that has been addressed by Cormac Ó Gráda in particular.
In 1841, the Irish census recorded 8,175,124 people in Ireland compared to 40 years later when the national figure had fallen by over three million to 5,174,836. These numbers are attributed to death but also emigration. Before the famine hit, emigration in 1845 was at approximately 50,000 a year. In 1846 this figure doubled as the famine hit. The following year these figures hit their highest with over 250,000 emigrating and on average 200,000 a year for the subsequent five years before falling again.
As emigration was not a possibility for the vast majority suffering through the great famine, most tried to persevere the impossible conditions that they faced. One such account is recorded by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill.
Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill is an Irish historical writer who was born and raised in Clifden, County Galway. During the famine, Clifden was the location for a new workhouse that occupied a four-acre site, it opened its doors in 1845 and could accommodate 300.
One of the many accounts that Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill writes about took place in Cill Chiaráin. Bart Flaherty, his wife and children had resided at the Clifden workhouse but were discharged on 9 December 1848. The family then had no alternative but to move back to Cill Chiaráin where they were all struck with fever killing three of their four children. Driven to desperation Mr. Flaherty and his wife stole a calf but were caught, arrested and transported to Clifden jail by horse and cart on the famine path, some twelve hours travel. En route Bart Flaherty’s wife died due to her frail condition and the severe conditions under which they were travelling. Upon reaching Clifden jail, the jail keeper felt pity for Mr. Flaherty and spoke to him that night. Mr. Flaherty confided his story to the jailkeeper who was shocked by the husbands claims that his wife was so desperately hungry that she had cut the feet of one of their dead children and eaten them.
The magistrate not believing Flaherty’s claims decided to investigate and sent a Doctor Suffield to the cottage where the family had lived. Dr. Suffield discovered a shallow grave near the entrance to the cottage which contained the remains of two children. The bodies were so decomposed and deteriorated that Dr. Suffield could not determine whether the skin had been torn or cut off the remains of the children. No definitive verdict was reached however one must question why a husband/father would possibly invent such a story and to what end.
Cannibalism isn’t recorded highly during the famine in Ireland and one can completely understand why, but as one becomes more familiar with the plight of our ancestors and the unbearable hopelessness that they endured then surely desperate times called for desperate measures. I am not suggesting that this was common practice of course but perhaps isolated incidents may have been buried in shallow graves rather than recorded.
Martin is a student in the History diploma at NUI Galway.
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