Benbulben Sligo

The Irish Famine of 1879

I mentioned in my post “Irish Ancestry in Newfoundland” that genealogy research projects often reveal more than just a person’s Irish family history. They shine a light on the history of places and people that I previously knew very little about.

Benbulben Sligo
Benbulben, Sligo

In 2015 I was tasked with carrying out research on a family from Sligo. This research was commissioned by a man from the US who had an extensive family throughout the United States. We were told about the family’s proud Irish roots and that they had wanted to know more about the people and places where their Irish roots came from.

Our client provided us with precise details on his ancestor Michael Devine who had immigrated to the US in the late 1880’s. Fortunately Irish genealogical records are plentiful for this era and we were able to locate both baptism records and civil records regarding Michael.

Michael was born in 1875 in Sligo, not far from the famous Knock shrine. Little was known about Michael prior to his arrival in the US, only that he arrived aged 14, on his own. There wasn’t anything particularly strange about his story so far. Being a male at 14 years old at this time in Ireland was deemed by many to be a young man. Michael would have likely finished any formal schooling at around aged 12 and so emigrating was something that many young men and boys embarked upon.

We soon located records for Michael’s parents and siblings. His parents had married in 1872 and by 1879 there were 4 children. This period of Irish history is somewhat overlooked due to the tumultuous events the preceded and succeeded it, the Great Famine and Irelands nationalist uprising and push for independence from Great Britain between 1916 and 1922. Ireland in the late 19th century is mainly remembered for “The Land War”, a movement driven by Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and John Devoy. Their aim was to clamp down on unscrupulous landlords who had little regard to the tenants and evicted them from their lands at will. The movement gathered huge support across the country during the 1870’s and 1880’s.

The Land War movement was something that likely impacted the Devine family of Sligo. However, a scarier more devastating visitor breached the door of their home with devastating effect.

Famine CottageIn 1879, over 30 years after the Great Famine, the potato crop was once again failing due to blight and a mini Famine hit an already poor population. This area had already suffered greatly under the Famine of 1845-1852.  County Mayo for instance, which borders Sligo, saw the population fall by over 30 percent during the Great Famine, a staggering number. Many of those that remained in post-famine Connacht would eventually emigrate too during the remainder of the 19th century.

As our research unfolded we began to collect death records for each of Michael’s siblings. It was clear that the mini Famine of 1879 had darkened the door of the Devine household. These deaths occurred between 1877 and 1880, and were mainly caused by famine related disease such as small pox and dysentery. The family story was incredibly tragic, but unfortunately not unique to the area at this time.

Celtic CrossOne of the most peculiar findings however was the connection to Knock, which is just a few short kilometres from where the family were living. On the night of 21st of August 1879, The Virgin Mary was purported to have appeared before 15 people on the gable wall of the parish church. The news quickly spread. No doubt, the Devine family heard about it and discussed such an unbelievable event. However, for a large portion of the devoutly Catholic population at the time, it was a believable event. In today’s Ireland however, the apparition itself, and everything that is associated with it, is looked upon by the majority of the Irish population as fallacious, an event that was the creation of a people who were so pious they would imagine an image of the Virgin Mary upon a wall.

On face value that would appear to be the case, however to avoid digging just a little deeper beyond one’s own sceptical views is to be ignorant to the cruel circumstance that many people were living in at this time. When the chance of holding any possessions is minimal, when the chance of you dying from hunger and disease is high and when you can’t provide for your hungry children, then what is it that you live for? What keeps you from falling into utter despair and never returning from such a dark place?

Through researching the Devine family and the devastation that befell them, I could not help but think that, at the most horrific of times, people will try to find something, anything, to keep hope alive. The apparition at Knock should not come as a surprise to those who delve a little deeper into the experience of people living through a tragic event, such as the Famine of 1879. Maybe Mary did appear to those 15 individuals, maybe not. For me, seeing the death records of small children and the cruelty of life at the time for so many, this particular family history gave me a more rounded perspective on the times in which they lived. It appears that a deep seeded need to find a reason to live manifested itself in a lucid image of Mary, a symbol of mercy, compassion and hope.

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