Learning more about Ireland’s mid-19th century Great Famine at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre was one of the most impactful experiences on our recent trip to Ireland. It was historically fascinating and emotionally wrenching. Before we left for Ireland, I knew I wanted to learn more about the Famine; it is a history I felt I didn’t know enough about.
So in late June, before we departed on our vacation, I took the kids on a day of NYC touring about their Irish heritage. I took them to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan, which gives context about the “Why” of migration from Ireland in the mid-19th century:
Later that day we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, joining a neighborhood walking tour then visiting a tenement “frozen in time” to illustrate life for “Irish Outsiders” Joseph and Bridget Moore:
A week later, we were in Ireland. On Day 4 of our family tour we visited the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, which is close to Milleennahorna, where Mom is from.
As we drove to the Centre, our tour guide Dermott recounted basic statistics about the Famine which are jarring in scope:
- Over 1 million Irish died between 1845 and 1852.
- Over 1.25 million Irish fled Ireland to Europe, America, and other locations during this timeframe.
- All told, Ireland saw a 45% reduction in population from the 1840s to the 1890s.
Skibbereen, termed “ground zero,” was particularly devastated by the Famine. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre recounted this history, chock-full of information, exhibits, and context. Team members were on hand to give context to the exhibits, explaining the power structure between tenant and landlord in early 19th century Ireland, land use policies, policies around potato cultivation, and the subsequent horrors that unfolded when the potato crop failed so completely. There was so much to unpack from what we learned, but I was struck in particular by these observations:
- The Famine was a “before and after” event in Irish history, re-shaping Irish culture, including the role of women and that of the Catholic Church in the 1850s and beyond.
- The Famine was followed by a “great, eerie silence”, what the Centre guide described as akin to “cultural PTSD” that would ensue for over 150 years.
- The Famine as a subject has been resurrected within Ireland only in the past 25 years, catalyzed in part by 150th anniversary commemorations in the mid 1990s.
The Centre did an excellent job of laying out the cultural, political, and economic context that led to the Famine…and then the aftermath, including personal accounts from that time period: witness accounts of men, women, and children dead in the streets, of systemic evictions of the poor, of failed bureaucratic programs that killed the vulnerable. I was taken aback both at how little I’d known and how much I now wanted to learn.
These are pictures of placards on display at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre:
As I spent time reading and listening at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, I felt a deep desire to learn as much as possible about the Famine, in part because it is our heritage history, but also because past can so often be prologue, and migration due to famine, climate change, and other factors continues in 2018, albeit in different areas of the world, with different effects.
I purchased “Skibbereen: The Famine Story” which is an excellent, highly accessible and relatively short read about the famine’s local impact. Then when I got home to Jersey City, I purchased the much larger “Atlas of the Great Irish Famine” which I’m reading now.
All told, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre is well worth a visit and I hope one day to return.
I wanted to share in case anyone else was interested:
“Atlas of the Great Irish Famine“, by John Crowley, et al. New York University Press, 2012.
“Skibbereen: The Famine Story“, by Terri Kearney and Philip O’Rgan. Macalla Publishing, 2015.