Famine by Liam O’Flaherty

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Famine by Liam O’Flaherty

Famine, By Liam O'Flaherty Liam O’Flaherty was born on Inishmoor, largest of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway in the west of Ireland. Not only was he born in one of the most remote places in Ireland (see photo), he grew up in a remote village on the island where life consisted of fabricating soil to grow potatoes and raising the bare minimum of livestock, namely chickens and a cow for milk. O’Flaherty writes of the subsistence existence of these peasants from first-hand experience and writes of the devastation that results when these meager assets are taken from the peasants one at a time.


O’Flaherty’s father forbade him from speaking Irish, the better to make an educated man of him. Of course, the rebellious boy spoke Irish with his friends until the age of 12 when he went to mainland Ireland to religious boarding school and, eventually, higher education, never to return to Aran for any length of time.

O’Flaherty published Famine in 1937 very much as a flashback both on Irish history and on his own childhood growing up amid the poverty of peasant farmers not unlike those he describes in the novel, set almost a century before. Certainly he lived the life of the Irish peasant, surviving on potatoes, dried fish, a cup of milk daily and the occasional egg or stewed chicken on feast days.

The scene for the Great Famine was set when the potato found a favorable environment throughout northern Europe after Sir Walter Raleigh planted it in England and Ireland sometime around 1580. The potato did so well in parts of northwest Europe that a century and a half later it contributed to the agricultural revolution of the 18th century. This ultimately brought a population increase and contributed to the industrial revolution.

The negative impact of the potato, however, was that in places like Ireland it displaced other crops to dominate both the economy and the diet of a majority of the population (similar, in some respects, to the success maize had in parts of the Balkans and northeast Italy at the same time; read more about this in Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves). By 1800 the potatoes made up 80% of the diet of the peasant class. The average rural Irish person ate ten potatoes every day and relied on the potato for protein by way of milk, cheese and meat from farm animals which also ate the potato (for more on the history of the potato see this site).

The potato adapted so thoroughly to its new habitat in Ireland that it encouraged both settlement and overpopulation in marginal farmlands in the West of Ireland including places like the Aran Islands. By the time of the Great Famine a third of the Irish (nearly 3 million people) derived 90% of their nutrition from the potato. So Ireland and its people were rife for tragedy when, in 1846, potato blight struck most of Europe.

As you pedal through western Ireland on our bicycle tour you’ll see remnant ‘lazy beds,’ the planting beds for potatoes that look like gentle ocean swells under the mantle of green grass. In areas rich in top soil these beds were easily made. On rocky soil, including places like the barren Aran Islands, the hummocks were ‘manufactured’ by humans using gathered soil, seaweed, and beach sand.

Understanding the historic context and causes of the Great Famine is only half of the story, of course. The other half requires the skill of a writer like O’Flaherty to paint the word picture of pain and suffering that caused the deaths of a million Irish people through famine and disease, and the emigration of another two million abroad.

Bicycling affords an intimate connection with place. You’ll understand this place better as you pedal through it having read O’Flaherty’s Famine. And when you get to Inishmoor, maybe you’ll want to ask about Gort na gCapall, his native hamlet, and go have a look for yourself.