Sunday, August 07, 2022

Catholic Church was a ‘net winner’ from Ireland’s Great Famine, historian says

 Acadamh na hOllscolaiochta Gaeilge - NUI Galway

The Catholic Church was a “net winner” from the Great Famine as the urban Catholics who survived it were more likely to be regular Mass-goers than the largely rural poor who died, enabling the church to increase its influence on the population at large, a prominent academic has claimed.

Prof Breandán Mac Suibhne of National University of Ireland, Galway told the West Cork History Festival in Skibbereen that it was perhaps “vaguely perverse” to suggest the Great Famine assisted Irish Catholicism to become a dominant force in the lives of Irish people, but it did influence how religion impacted on people’s lives.

“There was a survey in the 1830s on religious practices in Ireland where Catholic priests were asked by the State how many hearers were at Sunday Mass, and attendance at Sunday Mass is a canonical requirement among Roman Catholics, if you don’t go to Sunday Mass, you are going to hell,” he said.

“As late as the 1970s the figure was like 92 per cent or 93 per cent, but back in the 1830s, the figure for the country, as a whole, was something like 30 per cent so high Mass attendance by Irish Catholics is very much a modern phenomenon and, certainly back in the 1830s, it was nothing like it was in the 1970s.

“In fact, the only place in the 1830s where Mass attendance among Irish Catholics was anywhere near the 1970s level were places like the southeast, in Wexford and the big cities, Dublin, Belfast and Cork, but in traditional parts of the country, like here and the west, generally levels were low.

“For people in these areas, religion was not chapel-oriented and clerically directed devotion like Sunday Mass was not important to them... their religion was one of holy wells, and season festivals, and prayers and priests were important for only a couple of things – Baptism, marriage and death.

“So before the famine, people did not take any great interest in many of the devotions... Confession and Communion and Confirmation didn’t matter to them – they cared that their children were baptised, that people got married and that the dead received the last rites – these are the biggies.Prof Mac Suibhne said the low rate of Mass attendance among people in more rural western counties could not be explained by a lack of churches and priests as there were an abundance of both churches and clergy throughout the country by the time the potato blight struck in the 1840s.

“The Catholic Church was a net winner out of the famine in that the people who died out of the famine were disproportionately people who didn’t go to Mass – the highest levels of mortality among people in Mayo, for example, were people who wouldn’t know Sunday Mass.”

Prof Mac Suibhne pointed out that the 10 counties in which excess mortality was highest during the famine were, in descending order: Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon, Galway, Leitrim, Cavan, Cork, Clare, Fermanagh and Monaghan – all counties with large rural populations.

The net effect was that as the population fell due to death and emigration, the Catholic Church was increasing both its numbers of churches and personnel with both the ratio of priests to people and the ratio of nuns to people both increasing throughout the 19th century.

“What you get in the 1850s is serious hard-core proselytisers hitting the country in the form of the Redemptorists – these are the storm troopers of Roman Catholicism, ‘Do you reject Satan and his works?’ and they made Confession, Communion and Confirmation rites of passage in Catholicism.”

He said that by the 1870s, Mass attendance among Catholics had reached the 90 per cent level and the State had played a role in helping the Catholic Church become such a dominant force when it allowed Catholic priests become school managers when rolling out the national school system.

“You ended up with a de facto Catholic school with a Catholic priest as manager and a de facto Church of Ireland school with a Church of Ireland rector as manager – that gave immense power to the Catholic Church who could pick the teacher and be responsible for the operation of those schools.”

Prof Mac Suibhne said souperism, where evangelical Protestants offered food to starving peasantry if they converted to Protestantism, did occur but the impact the famine had on Irish Catholicism through the disproportionate deaths of non-Mass going Catholics should not be underestimated.

Focusing on how people actually died from diseases such as dysentery, typhus and cholera, Prof Mac Suibhne said it was not correct, as John B Keane had his character Bull McCabe say in The Field, that no priest died during the famine as clergymen of all denominations died in numbers.

Irish Catholic Church set to go back to the future by embracing laity and women ]

He said scholarly analysis put the numbers who died during the Great Famine in the years 1846-1851 at somewhere between 1.08 million and 1.49 million with death more likely to come from disease due to increased transmissibility resulting from social dislocation than to lowered resistance.

“Predictably, the weakest, the most dependent in society were disproportionately represented among the dead. Infants and elderly people died in great numbers,” Prof Mac Suibhne said, who has documented the social impact of the Famine in rural Ireland in his book The End of Outrage.

In addition to the huge death toll and the ensuing decades of emigration, the other notable impact of the famine was the moral degradation – “the brute reality of famine is that it ‘reduces’ people, pushes them below the waterline of what had [been] understood to be civilised behaviour”.

Speaking in Skibbereen, Prof Mac Suibhne related the story of how 12-year-old Johnny Finn, of Carhoogarriff in nearby Rosscarbery, had cut the throats of neighbours, Mary (6) and Jerry Donoghue (4), and stolen a bag of oatmeal flour that their mother had in the house in the spring of 1847.

Finn was arrested eight days later in the poorhouse in Skibbereen and a local magistrate, Philip Somerville, took a statement from him with the assistance of Constable Michael Jordan translating from Irish, because Johnny Finn could speak no English.

Mr Somerville noted Finn said “the two children were there by themselves, that he found a knife in the house and that with the knife, he killed both children... and that he killed the two children to get the flour as he was hungry”, and that he gave the flour to his family but never said how he got it.

A local dispensary doctor in Skibbereen, Daniel O’Donovan (39), relayed another story how a woman called O’Driscoll came to his surgery to get medicine for her husband only for another woman to enter the surgery and beg him for something for a sick child.

The O’Driscoll woman berated the other woman and remarked that she effectively wished all her own children dead so ill were they as a result of famine and disease. “Bad luck to them for children, I have five of them sick and I would think myself lucky if they were all dead before morning.”

It led Dr O’Donovan to observe: “The most singular effect produced by the horrors of the famine now raging is the severance of the ties of consanguinity... the destruction... of the ardent domestic affections that formed perhaps the strongest trait in the character of the Irish peasant.”

Prof Mac Suibhne noted that the old Fenian leader, Jeremiah O Donovan Rossa, who was a teenage neighbour of 12-year-old Johnny Finn in Rosscarbery during the famine, similarly noted “the degradation into which want, and hunger will reduce human nature”.

And he noted how O’Donovan Rossa told a fellow émigré in New York much later in life how he had gone home to Ross one evening during the famine and his mother had no dinner for him, so he went and bought a bun for a penny but never shared it with his mother or his sister or his brothers.

And he told how O’Donovan Rossa later wrote of his selfishness: “I am proud of my life, one way or another, but that penny bun is a thorn in my side, a thorn in the pride of my life – it was only four ounces of bread... but if ever I feel any pride in myself, that little loaf comes before me to humble me.”

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