Book review: Black Blight by Michael Galvin

Black Blight: The Great Famine 1845-1852, a four parish study by Michael Galvin. Cork: Litho Press, 1995.

This paperback book appears to be an academic thesis in local history that was printed in Cork. Although the historical sources are clearly discussed in the text, there is no bibliography nor index nor footnotes, which is unfortunate. I read this because it describes the Famine years in the parishes of Kilmichael, Kilmurry, Newcestown, and Enniskeane in County Cork, and my ancestors are from Kilmurry. I am not well-versed in Famine history and may well have misunderstood nuances of this book, for which you should blame me and not Michael Galvin.

The Great Famine killed about one million people in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, and another one million emigrated, diminishing Ireland’s population overall by about 20%.  Galvin views the Famine as a catastrophe, but not intentionally genocidal. He blames not the English per se but the heartlessness of bureaucrats. The conservative bureaucrats of the day delayed and diminished aid to the poor and hungry because they didn’t want to create a welfare state, and because they feared handouts would discourage the poor from working — arguments we hear in the United States Senate today while people line up for blocks for food pantry assistance in the vast pandemic unemployment. The Great Famine was a tragedy and all the people starving around the world today are a tragedy and the world hasn’t grown any more compassionate. This book is a sad read because it details the suffering of the people. That said, I am going to go ahead and read it for the genealogy and social history content.

Part I is an examination of the pre-Famine economy and farming practices, with close examinations of the industries and populations of the four parishes in the study. We learn that poor tenant farming communities featured early marriage and large families for two main reasons. First, there were few prospects of economic advancement and therefore no reason to wait to get established in life before marrying. Poor teenagers married at 16 and 17. Second, there was an infant mortality rate of 20%, and grown children were the only eldercare available. Also, there was significant hunger among the poor even before the Famine; the workhouses were set up in 1838. It turns out the potato had never been a perfectly reliable crop. Long portions of Part 1 are dedicated to contemporary testimony about landlord and tenant disputes and problems.

Part 2 focuses on the Famine years and makes for grim reading. I learned that the Cork-Bandon railroad line was a Famine-era work project. There are terrible stories of starvation and what starving people will do rather than die of starvation. One of the less dreadful strategies was to steal something small so as to be convicted and transported to Australia, and at least get out of the country. Many of the rural poor moved into Cork City looking for work and food. Galvin quotes an 1847 “commentator”:

The incursion of rustic paupers into the city continues unabated, the only change being that it is less observable as they wait in the outskirts of the town ’til dark, when they may be seen coming in droves, the bed clothes strapped to the shoulders of the father while the children carry pots, pans and old sacks. On average about 300 of these miserable creatures come into the city daily who are walking masses of filth, vermin and sickness.


I think my own ancestors were some of those miserable creatures. Galvin said there were 5000 beggars in Cork City’s streets, with over 100 deaths per week.

Part 2 features a chapter on the miserable soup houses; Galvin argues that the popular image of the proselytizing Protestants demanding conversion for soup is an exaggeration that is rightfully applied only to a few extremist groups and that most Protestant clergy and relief groups provided assistance wherever they could without proselytizing. There are vivid descriptions of a silent landscape littered with the dead, of silent mud shacks filled with corpses of mothers and babies. Galvin includes the increasingly desperate letters of parish priests appealing for help to government officials and wealthy absentee landlords. There’s a horrifying account of dozens of people in Macroom huddling under a bridge and left to die, screaming and crying all night, to the terror of people trying to cross the bridge. (p. 214).

Part 3 deals with the aftermath of the Famine. Statistics indicate that people married later and had fewer children than before the Famine. There was some improvement in housing, if only because many had been evicted from their wretched mud huts and the huts torn down, so newer housing had to be built. The Irish language lost millions of speakers. The book ends with Galvin protesting the general reluctance to commemorate or discuss in detail the national tragedy of the Famine when it is such an important part of history.

This seemed strange to me because in the Northeastern US, there are many Famine monuments and many Irish-Americans are eager to recite their victim history. I liked this book because I learned from it, not just local attitudes but lots of local details. While some sections are a hard slog through lists of names and statistics, those are in fact the ingredients of history. It was worth it to me when I found on p. 287 a mention of my own 3rd-great-grandfather, John Hegarty of Teeraveen in Kilmurry. His case is given as an example of the bureaucratic hoops through which people had to jump to apply for food aid. John got a recommendation from his landlord Dominic Lombard. I am glad I read Michael Galvin’s book, but its detailed focus on such a specific area makes it not appealing for the general reader.