Fr Billy Swan
Last Monday (30th Nov.) on RTE, the first of a two-part documentary was shown on the Great Famine which began 175 years ago in 1845. Narrated by actor Liam Neeson, the programme told the tragic story of what is remembered as the Gorta Mór or great hunger – how it began with the failure of the potato crop and how the disaster unfolded over the course of six years. It is estimated that between the years 1845 and 1851, over one million people died from starvation or disease with a further two million escaping through emigration.
It was difficult and necessary viewing. Difficult because of the tremendous hardship Irish people suffered during those times - its purpose, its meaning and where God was in it all; necessary because of our need to remember all who suffered and died in the Great Famine as one of the greatest catastrophes of our history. These are our ancestors, our relatives, our own flesh and blood. In the grand scale of history, 150 years ago is not a long time and so it is absolutely necessary to remember this traumatic event ‘so that tears might be shed and the inexpressible expressed’ in the words of Wexford’s John Banville in his novel Birchwood.
There are many aspects to the Famine we could discuss but I limit myself in this article to a few that are worth highlighting and that give us hope as a Church community today. The first of these is how the Famine led to a revival of Christianity and a renewal of the Church. In his book The Rise of Christianity (Harper One, New York, 1997), author Rodney Stark points out a peculiar pattern in the history of the Church over the centuries. He traces how in the aftermath of epidemics in places where the Church was active among the people, there followed a time of revival in the faith and consolidation of the Church. Stark offers three reasons why this was the case.
The first was the dramatic collapse of pagan beliefs and practices against the tidal wave of disaster. In contrast, Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen on humanity. Most of all, it offered hope.
The second reason Stark believes why Christianity flourished after famines and plagues was its emphasis on the basics of its creed – charity, community and a shared existence. There was a practical dimension to Christianity that recognized a human need quickly and did all it could to meet that need. He shows how even in the midst of natural disasters, the survival rate of Christians was higher compared to the rest of the population.
The third reason was because Christian faith gave a traumatized people an identity. It gave them a sense of belonging and a new direction. The structure of the Church gave people leaders who were educated more than most and when that leadership was used effectively for service, communities consolidated and recovered better.
This theory of Church renewal after famines and epidemics is proven with what happened here in Ireland. In his article ‘The Catholic Church after the Famine: Consolidation and Change’ (in B. Bradshaw and D Keogh, eds, Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story, Columba Press, Dublin, 2002, 186-194), Gerard Moran outlines how the Irish Famine could have crippled and divided the Irish Church; instead, more than any other institution in the country it emerged stronger and adapted better to the changing Ireland. Yet the seeds of this revival were sown during the time of the Famine itself.
One faith community that emerges from the Famine with great credit are the Quakers who set up soup kitchens to feed the people in local areas. There is also evidence that some priests died with their people in solidarity with them. In her book County Wexford in the Famine Years: 1845-1849, Anna Kinsella recalls the memory of a Fr Denis Hore who was a curate in Gorey and who ‘died of typhus fever caught in the discharge of his sacred duties’. Priests were among the few highlighting the plight of their parishioners and pleading with government and the outside world for relief. This also happened in the years after the famine when further disasters were narrowly avoided. Hundreds of letters came to newspapers around the world, penned by priests and religious appealing for help in communities of acute distress. There is evidence of priests who lead local relief committees who effectively organized help from national relief bodies. By the end of the 19th century, an increasing number of clergy were involved in the land campaign to defend the rights of subsistent farmers. This they did at considerable risk both from the government and sometimes from Church authorities who feared they were becoming political. What emerges from this land campaign and the aftermath of the famine was a partnership between the clergy and the laity to secure better conditions for tenants and a platform from which to adapt, heal, rebuild and meet the future with hope.
An important development here is the parish mission movement that began soon after Catholic Emancipation in 1829. After the Famine, these missions resumed with renewed energy and with purpose. These were occasions to gather people and to re-group communities that had been devastated by death and emigration. They were also moments of prayer and devotion where people found meaning in their faith and the strength to deal with their losses. With the leadership of Cardinal Paul Cullen, there followed the explosion of Church building in the latter part of the 19th century which gave the Church further hope for its future and helped people restore local pride in themselves and their communities.
So what lessons do all this have for us as Church today? First, the importance of remembering what happened, why it happened and especially the poor souls who died at that time in dreadful conditions. Many of these are buried in unmarked graves in our parishes today. Each year, the government marks a National Famine Commemoration Day. This could also be a time for the Church to participate more fully by organizing occasions that remember those who died in the famine in our local areas.
Second, here is the opportunity for renewal of Christianity in these times of pandemic – an opportunity that can only be grasped if we stay united and stay close to the people and their needs. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together…This pandemic has made us aware that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters of one another’ (Fratelli Tutti, 32).
Third, a confidence in what Christianity stands for, especially the basics of charity, mercy, community and solidarity. All of these are underpinned by a deep spirituality of faith in a God who became human and who did not spare himself from the worst of human suffering and death in order to restore hope.
Fourth, that economic policies need to serve the people and not the other way round. There is no doubt that the disastrous economic policies of the British government contributed to the tragedy of the Famine. The government at the time clung to an economic model that failed to address an unfolding human catastrophe until it was too late. There was more preoccupation with the economics than the people they effected. This is certainly something of great relevance today with the Brexit negotiations ongoing. The importance of the market economy must not become detached from the reality of people’s lives, especially the poor. Pointing to this parallel with the famine, the late Cardinal Cathal Daly wrote: ‘People may call it the necessary, progressive and proper play of market forces. In famine times they proclaimed that ‘free trade’ and the inescapable ‘iron law of economics’ were the engines of progress. The economic theories of then and today are not fundamentally dissimilar. Their consequences are very similar’ (The Irish Times, 25th September 1995). This is precisely what Pope Francis warns about in his latest encyclical on global fraternity where globalization and policies driven under the guise of progress lose sight of the real needs of people because they lack ‘a shared roadmap’ (Fratelli Tutti, chaps. 29-31).
To conclude. In this strange times of pandemic we live through in 2020, we understandably worry about the future and what it holds. But let us not be blind to the past, for history has a way of teaching us wisdom and enabling us to lead and proceed with the lessons of time gone by. That past tells us that Irish Christianity was born again and revived after the disaster of the famine. It can revive again after this pandemic in the measure in which we remember consciously and regularly what happened in this country from 1845-1851; that we stay close to the people and suffer with them and for them when necessary; that we keep focused on the basics of community, solidarity and charity; finally, that economic policies and indeed all policies proposed in the name of progress must be at the service of the human person and emerge from a common road map of what it means to be human. We this in mind, new hope is born.