It was an unusually warm day in Dublin. Stephen’s Green was full of people enjoying the sunshine and warmth. And I was spending the day in the National Archives reading first person accounts of the famine.
The National Archives of Ireland sits at the back of a short nondescript street called Bishop’s Street. About a block away is Whitefriars Street, home to a hostel and an excellent coffee shop. Whether it was the Whitefriars or the bishops karma, I don’t know, but I surely felt the presence of something.
I had hoped to learn more about the time of famine that Patrick and Bridget lived through, and I got a first person view.
During the disaster, nearby towns or villages created famine relief committees, organized by local merchants and landholders and clergy; sometimes these were effective, sometimes not. Many who had noble intentions were quickly overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster. In some cases, letters survived expressing that frustration as good people tried in vain to get across the extent of this growing tragedy to the British government.
Some of those letters exist for the town nearest Patrick’s family, and I had them sitting here before me. There is something powerful about having the actual document, seeing the handwriting, holding the past in your own hand:
“we find from what we daily witness, that the distress and impending famine, is absolutely beyond our power fully to describe. It is a state of things in which none of us has had any experience. From time to time, partial distress has occurred in Ireland, but to behold nearly an entire population suddenly deprived of the food they have all their lives depended upon, is to our minds perhaps the most awful calamity that can be conceived.”
This particular letter that I was holding in my hand, closed with this statement:
“we have on our lists at least four thousand six hundred human beings to be provided with food or means to purchase it for many months to come. I now leave this important subject in your hands.”