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Page 24 of 32
The Tale of the Workhouse Inmate

Five hundred in here. Five hundred more outside. Them dying to get in. Us dying to get out. A man passing through from Killybegs says hundreds are already dead, and thousands nearly so. "Killybegs for rotten eggs, but Ballyshannon's a dandy!" As children we used to laugh at that. Now Ballyshannon is no more a dandy, and there's no laughing in Black '46. The Famine has seen to that.

They tell me I'm lucky to be here. Lucky! In the workhouse! Me, whose people once owned broad acres, in the parish of Kilbarron, in the barony of Tirhugh. Me, whose people held a tuath of the best land in the county. Me, whose people had the right to two boats fishing salmon below Assaroe. Me, whose people have ancestors going back seventeen generations. Count them. Seventeen! They're in the Book of the O'Donnells.

Where's the book? Some blackguard stole it years ago. A priest in Mayo now claims it's been found. In the Low Countries. Maybe so. Maybe so.

What happened all the land? Torn away, and planted. Aye, planted. With a fine crop of Protestant boys! Look at them now, with their horses and their carriages. Look at us now with our wee patches of praties. And the praties they are gone, they are gone.

Three children I've buried. With my own hands. When I had the strength. Poor Maura! They tumbled her into a cart. Four beneath her, four others on top. Crucified Jesus, have mercy on us!

"How many deaths last week?"

Workhouse Master: "Seventeen."

"And the week before?"

Workhouse Master: "Thirty-four."

There's a whisper going round that there's many to be found who'll rise up and put an end to it all, who'll give us back Donegal, let us answer freedom's call, and Carolan's "Hawk of Ballyshannon" will be played once again.

I'm tempted to think it might happen. But I'm tired and I'm worn. And I've seen too much of death.

Maybe McGee and the followers of Davis will succeed. But I'm tired, and I'm worn. I've seen too much of death, and, like a hawk, it's hovering over me.

"How many deaths last week?"

Workhouse Master: "Thirty-three."


In 1848 the Young Irelanders attempted insurrection, and failed. Thomas D'Arcy McGee fled to Canada where he was elected a Member of Parliament, and later was assassinated, shot one wintry night as he turned the key to open the door to his lodging house on Sparks Street in Ottawa.

Thomas Davis died on September 16, 1845.

I sat by Ballyshannon in the summer,
And saw the salmon leap,
And I said, as I beheld the gallant creatures
Spring glittering from the deep,
Through the spray and through the prone heaps
Striving onward
To the calm clear streams above,
So seekest thou thy native founts of freedom,
Thomas Davis,
In thy brightness of strength and love!
Samuel Ferguson

More than one million Irish men, women, and children died of starvation during the Famine years. More than one million more emigrated, to the United States and Canada.

Tens of thousands died on the coffin ships that carried them away from Ireland, and their bodies were buried at sea. Upwards of 20,000 lay dead or dying on the emigrant ships that reached the quarantine station set up on Grosse Īle in the St. Lawrence River, below Quebec City, in Lower Canada. Their mass graves on Grosse Īle will continue to tell the story to generations yet unborn.

Canadians seeking further information may wish to consult "The Untold Story : The Irish in Canada", a two-volume set published by Celtic Arts of Canada in 1988, editors Robert O'Driscoll and Lorna Reynolds.

The President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, visited Grosse Īle on Sunday, August 21, 1994.

For readers unfamiliar with Irish history, it may be worth recalling that only sixteen years had elapsed between the partial achievment of Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the outbreak of the Famine in 1845. The vast majority of the Irish people, denied freedom to practise their religion, and treated as serfs by, in the main, English absentee landlords, had just begun their slow climb out of abject poverty when they suffered the scourge of death by starvation or forced emigation. The Famine's lasting wounds remain embedded in the Irish psyche.

In an attempt to shed further light on conditions prevailing in Ireland at the commencement of the Famine, a short five-piece series will appear on this Home Page, in the weeks following the ending of "The Hawk of the Erne". Its focus will be on the area with which the writer is most familiar, Donegal. Once again, as with the Annals of the Four Masters, the basis will be contemporary records.

Meanwhile, the very short story that makes up this week's number is one that reflects the experience of Irish people in countless places throughout the Famine years.

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