It was rather a sombre day in class, as we now had to examine the fortunes of the Irish after the Plantation and the implementation of the Penal Laws, a set of laws designed to disempower Catholics. Over the 1700s, lands were confiscated, and Catholics, although rapidly increasing in population, were becoming poorer and poorer. The celebration of Mass was outlawed, and the faithful took to the outdoors, to Mass Rocks, to practise their faith.
There was growing disgruntlement among some of the Protestant community towards the end of the 18th century, as they felt neither wholly Irish or English, and this, combined with new ideas about human rights and liberty, resulted in an attempted revolution in 1798, led by Theobald Wolfe-Tone and the United Irishmen. The response to this failed revolution was the very significant Act of Union (1800) which formalized Ireland’s incorporation into the United Kingdom. The parliament in Dublin was dissolved, and Irish affairs were now dealt with in London.
So the nineteenth century saw a minority of Protestant landlords in power, and the majority of the Irish people reduced to tenants, in poor circumstances. The population continued to grow, but little consideration was given to the Catholic peasants of Ireland. The poor became dependent on the potato as a source of food, given that they had only a little space for farming, and a lot of mouths to feed. And then-catastrophe. Between 1845 and 1850, sequential failures of the potato crop led to widespread famine and starvation. We discussed the responses of the government, and also took the opportunity to discuss the responses of governments to current crises – a great conversation- and then we looked at the choices of the poor, which was the nineteenth century workhouse, or emigration.
This led us to consider how a massive wave of emigrants to the USA impacted, and as this was the time that many of our students’ ancestors emigrated, it was a poignant and interesting discussion.
Our field trip then took us to sites relevant to all of the above. We visited Asseroe (Eas Aodh Rua) Abbey, which was later the site of secret masses, held at Catsby’s Cave. This is not only a beautiful location, but a deeply spiritual site. Close by, there is St. Patrick’s Well, where several of our students filled bottles of water to take back to the grandparents! We were also joined by a very friendly puppy, who, despite her gender, the students (Conor) named ‘St. Patrick’!
We then visited the site of Ballyshannon Workhouse. This grim building was constructed early in the nineteenth century for the relief of the poor, but during famine times, became overcrowded and much hated by those forced to go there. The students also visited a memorial to nineteen orphan girls who were shipped from the Ballyshannon workhouse to Australia.
Then we went to the Ballyshannon and District Museum, an unusually located collection of memorabilia, in the top floor of Slevin’s Department Store. The Museum, curated by local people, has a reconstruction of a cell at the workhouse, and the coffin and straw bedding are bleak reminders of this dark period of Irish history.
Our final stop was down at the port, where the famine ships departed for America. Although emigration to the United States had begun in the eighteenth century, it was the nineteenth century that saw large-scale movement of poor Irish to New Orleans, Canada, New York and Boston.
We stood at the harbour’s edge, imagining the sadness and lonliness of those who left, and those who remained behind. However, as sad as it was, we know that those who emigrated did so, so that their children, and their children’s children could have better futures. Looking at our twenty healthy, smart, happy teens who have come back to Ireland on this trip, it is perhaps the happy ending for which they hoped.