CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My wife Bridget's Maloney ancestors came from County Mayo in Ireland to escape the great famine that struck, and destroyed a million people of Ireland in the mid-19th century. There had been famines before, but the one of 1845-50 was the worst.
Author John Kelly in "The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People" gives us more than a hint of what happened as the potato crop failed, and relief for the Irish people was slow coming.
In fact, Kelly's description of the starving people is so vivid it caused me considerable discomfort.
While the immediate cause of the crop failures stretching over several years was a potato disease, there were other culprits. Excessive rainy seasons caused the disease to flourish. Dry spells would reduce crops. The small size of many cottagers' fields made it almost impossible to grow a crop that could last a winter.
The lowly potato, more nourishing than grain, filling, easy to grow and store, was the heart of the diet of many poor Irish. And there were many such folk living in rude cottages, some made of anything at hand.
At the heart of many Irish people was their faith. They were for the most part Catholics, though a few adhered to the Anglican faith of the Church of Ireland, which was Protestant. Mr. Kelly is honest to put forward the thought that various superstitions prevailed in some quarters, perhaps in all classes of the population. And, why not? Starving people might reach out to any powers, including fairies, for sustenance.
At the center of this tragic tale are the bumbling and ill-advised efforts of the English to provide solutions. Ireland was in an uneasy union with England, and looked to the more prosperous partner for aid and assistance so that its population could be fed. There were many proposed solutions, but at the heart of the attempts to relive suffering were the Poor Laws, which laid a tax on more prosperous citizens of both England and Ireland. For many, the counter solution was just to evict the poor people and send them on their way without any assistance. No tenants. No taxes.
The famine directly reduced the population of Ireland by 1 million. A secondary result was the mass emigration of over 2 million people, many to the shores of the New World. Thus, my wife's great-grandfather Patrick Maloney made his way to this more promising country, sailing on Oct. 30, 1848, eventually settling in West Virginia in the Nicholas County town of Summersville. From there, Maloneys found the way to such promising places as Clendenin and Charleston.
At the heart of the largely ineffective efforts of both countries to relieve the famine were political and religious battles. Kelly describes the sad efforts of some to blame God for the famine, or to say that Providence willed the limitation of the Irish population, deemed inferior by birth and lazy by nature. Over-dependence of the Irish upon England and other exporting countries was seen by politicians of both Whig and Tory parties as a main cause of starvation.
Politics is the art of the possible, some say. In the case of the famine, which touched other nations in Europe, politics became the root of bad solutions and increasing want.
This is a long book. Some scenes of the horrors seem to be unnecessarily repeated, so much that a reader might become numbed to one of the greatest tragedies of humanity. That being said, any student of history, or descendent of the great immigrant population will appreciate this book.
I am thankful that Patrick Maloney made it across the wild Atlantic, to comparative safety in the Mountain State. I am also glad that his great-great-granddaughter Bridget Maloney Posey shares her life with me.
Posey is a retired minister in Charleston.