Irish potato famine showed incredibly heroic, humble priests. That’s what we need today
The following article illustrates historically what the recent Rorate Caeli article entitled “A theologian analyzes the morality of the cancellation of public Masses and the closure of churches by the State” documented theologically: the attitude priests must have in administering the sacraments. The author is Fr. William J. Slattery, Ph.D, S.T.L., author of The Logic of Truth (Leonardo da Vinci, 2016) and Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build — and can help Rebuild — Western Civilization (Ignatius Press, 2017).
June 2, 2020 (Rorate Caeli) — The most recent well-documented account of the attitudes and actions of priests during an epidemic occurred during the most devastating famine to hit Europe since the fifteenth century: the “Great Famine” in Ireland between 1845–1850. According to Amartya Sen, the Harvard historian of famines, “[in] no other famine in the world [was] the proportion of people killed as large as in the Irish famines of the 1840s.”[i] The cause was a blight that destroyed the potato crop — the staple food for three million of the nation’s 8.5 million people — killing one million persons by starvation and related diseases of fever, diphtheria, cholera, smallpox, dysentery and influenza and forcing another million into exile.
When the famine struck, the Irish parish priests, though few in number and with minimal resources, rose to the occasion, acting according to their identity as spiritual fathers.[ii] Their heroism was repeatedly recognized by their political enemies. As a British government official seeking to alleviate the effects of the famine wrote at the time, “all the Roman Catholic curates [assistant parish priests] . . . are laboring like tigers for us, working day and night . . . [without them] we could not move a stroke.”[iii] Even a revolutionary movement, the Young Irelanders, although bitter about the Church’s refusal to side with them, stated — somewhat hyperbolically — that the priests had cared for the people of their parishes “with a devotion unsurpassed in the annals of martyrdom”.[iv]
Although they did as much as possible to alleviate the famine itself and its associated epidemic, the Catholics of Ireland wanted above all that their priests act as priests: to give them Holy Communion, hear their confessions, anoint them at their last hour, and remind them of Heaven. As Father Bernard O’Reilly, who accompanied his compatriots to exile in North America on the “coffin-ships” remarked, they wanted “the supreme consolation of an Irish Catholic — the last rites of his Church.”[v]
One priest, Father Hugh Quigley of Killaloe, narrated his daily existence at the peak of the famine as follows:
We rise at four o’clock — when not obliged to attend a night call — and proceed on horseback a distance from four to seven miles to hold stations of [the sacrament of] confession for the convenience of the poor country people who . . . flock in thousands . . to prepare themselves for the death they look to as inevitable.
At these stations we have to remain up to five o’clock p.m. administering both consolation and instruction to the famishing thousands. . . . The confessions are often interrupted by calls to the dying, and generally, on our way home we have to . . . administer the last rites . . . to one or more fever patients.
Arrived home, we have scarcely seated ourselves to a little dinner when we are interrupted by groans and sobs of several persons at the door crying out, “I am starving”, “if you do not help me I must die”, and “I wish I was dead”. In truth the priest must either harden his heart against the cry of misery or deprive himself of his usual nourishment to keep victims from falling at his door.
After dinner — or perhaps before it is half- over — the priest is again surrounded by several persons, calling on him to come in haste — that their parents, or brothers, or wives, or children are “just departing”. The priest is again obliged to mount his jaded pony and endeavor to keep pace with the peasant who trots before him as a guide through glen and ravine and over precipice to his infected hut. This gives but a faint idea of the life of a priest here.[vi]
A newspaper account described another priest’s schedule:
On last Sunday and Monday week, the broken-hearted clergyman had to drag his own tottering limbs, with scarce an interval of rest, from one corpse to another. In the three subsequent days, exhausted, overcome, feeble and faint, he had still to continue his attendance on the dying; to pass continually from townland to townland; to look on corpse after corpse, to behold, renewed over and over, all the agonies and horrors.[vii]
Alongside all of this, priests often ended up performing the gruesome role of ensuring that the corpses were buried in coffins. People dreaded that they or their relations would be buried without a coffin, and it often fell to the priest to procure coffins, to coffin the dead, and to bury, Tobias-like, the victims of the pestilence.[viii] Father Troy of Skibbereen, County Cork narrated such an incident on January 10, 1847:
I went to the hut...provided with a coffin — had to creep in on my hands through an opening. The lifeless and putrid corpse was reclining against the wall...The poor wife and one of the children endeavored to get to their knees (they could not stand) to help me to coffin his remains, but I had to beg of my curate to help us.”
Father Thomas Quinn in County Clare told how: “I had, together with my curate, Rev. Mr. Reid, to convey by torchlight two successive nights, the remains of two persons who were abandoned by their own immediate family and friends.”[ix]
The situation of the clergy in many parts of Ireland was similar to that described in this letter:
“The priests are absolutely exhausted having to attend so many sick calls and in many instances are obliged to walk, their horses being unable to carry them through want of sufficient feeding and the priest not getting as much as would purchase oats for his horse.”[x]
Some priests, perhaps many, even gave away most of their few personal belongings:
When the terrible scourge of the famine descended upon his [Father Timothy Kelly’s] parish from 1845 to 1847, his reaction to the prevailing distress was what one would expect of the pastor and the man sprung from the people. He was in every sense the father of his flock. He organized the provision of meals for the numbers who were starving and when every resource failed he sold all he had, even his horse, to buy food for his people.[xi]
It was no surprise, therefore, that as the famine devoured the country many of the clergy became almost as poor as beggars, without decent clothes or even a pair of shoes; indeed, some were almost starving. As a government inspector reported: “In some instances where priests were confined with fever, I found in their cabins nothing available beyond stirabout. . . . There was no tea, no sugar, no provisions whatever; in some of their huts the wind blew, the snow came in, and the rain dripped.”[xii]
Moving constantly amid deadly disease and corpses took its toll among these valiant men. From 1847 to 1852 eight bishops died, some at least from famine fever. The highly documented authoritative work, by Donal Kerr entitled The Catholic Church and the Famine (Columba Press, 1996) states, “Many priests, religious brothers and nuns certainly died as a result of the Famine”. Another historian stated: ‘In 1847 at least thirty-six priests died of fever, sixteen of them during the month of May.’[xiii] Six priests died in Kerry. Of the sixty-four priests in the diocese of Kilmore, seven died in 1846–1847; at least seven in County Cork by June 1847; five died in the diocese of Killaloe in 1847–1848.
A Gaelic song of Famine times refers to a priest crossing the Atlantic from Galway Bay to Baltimore in the winter of 1847 or 1848, accompanying some 200 Irish, young and old: “Bhí sagart beannuí a labhair ó chroí linn gur thug sé saor sinn go Baltimore [A holy priest was there to speak from the heart with us, and he brought us safe to Baltimore].
Of some 100,000 Irish that sailed to Canada in 1847, about one out of five died from disease and malnutrition. The ships bearing the Irish to Canada in 1847 were authentic “coffin ships”: thousands died either on board or upon disembarking at Grosse Île, a quarantine island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River in Canada, where at least 5,500 died.
When the ships came ashore with their “ghastly yellow looking specters”, priests were waiting for them with food, medical supplies and the sacraments. A Celtic cross on the island commemorates forty-four priests who attended the immigrants. They paid the price there and elsewhere for their dedication: on Grosse Île twenty priests were infected with famine fever and six died; in Montreal, seventeen Grey nuns and seven priests succumbed; in Toronto, Bishop Michael Power (1804-1847) perished of typhus.[xiv]
These priests did not regard themselves as heroes. This was all done in the line of duty; a matter of fulfilling what they had sworn to God to do when they touched the chalice and prostrated themselves on their day of sacred ordination; a matter of giving their people what was due to their people by sacred right.
They knew the Tradition: this had always been the attitude of priests from the lethal smallpox epidemic that swept through the Roman Empire during the years 165-180. It was the attitude of the thirty-eight- year- old archbishop, Charles Borromeo,when the bubonic plague struck Milan in 1576. He spared no expense and risked every danger in caring for the suffering — and probably paid for it by hastening his own death due to intermittent fever eight years later on November 4, 1584. Mark Twain, describing him as he moved calmly amid the terrified people, was describing the Irish priests during the Famine and all the other priests through the ages:
He was brave where all others were cowards, full of compassion where pity had been crushed out of all other breasts by the instinct of self-preservation gone mad with terror; cheering all, praying with all, helping all with hand, brain, and purse; at a time when parents forsook their children, the friend deserted the friend, and the brother turned away from the sister while her pleadings were still wailing in his ears.[xv]
During two millennia, when plague or famine struck, all priests knew the Catholic attitude — the only possible one — regarding the administration of the sacraments, as confirmed by the Council of Trent with all the nuances and subtleties of theology: the Sacrifice must be present and the sacraments must be given because both are necessary.
An attitude alive and vigorous because the Catholicism of two millennia of Tradition was vibrant.
Tradition, the “Ring of Fire”! “Take now this Ring,’ he said; ‘for thy labors and thy cares will be heavy, but in all it will support thee and defend thee from weariness. For this is the Ring of Fire and herewith, maybe, thou shalt rekindle hearts to the valor of old in a world that grows chill.’”[xvi]
[i] Amartya Sen (lecture at New York University, 1995), quoted in Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ‘47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 3.
[ii] There were only 2,393 priests in parishes in Ireland in 1845: 1,008 pastors and 1,385 assistant pastors (“curates”); see A. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars? Priests, People and Politics in Famine Ireland, 1846–1852 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 48. According to estimates based on the first religious census taken in Ireland by the British government in 1834, Catholics in 1841 were nearly 81 percent of the total population while the combined Protestant total made up most of the remaining 19 percent — i n round figures, 6,500,000 Catholics out of the total population of 8,175,000; see “First Report of the Commissioners of Public Instruction, Ireland”, Parliamentary Papers 33, no. 45 (1835).
[iii] Lord Monteagle to Bessborough, October 1, 1846, Monteagle Papers, MS 13, 396, National Library of Ireland, quoted in Kerr, Nation of Beggars, p. 48. Italics mine. Lord Monteagle had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in the British government from 1835 to 1839.
[iv] Nation, July 24, 1847, quoted in Kerr, Nation of Beggars, p. 61. Italics mine.
[vi] Kerr, Nation of Beggars, p. 42.
[vii] Limerick and Clare Examiner, May 17, 1849. Quoted in the article “Father Thomas Moloney Pleaded for His Starving Flock”, Irish Identity, accessed January 20, 2015, http://www.irishidentity.com/stories/molony .htm, courtesy of Matthew Lynch and Austin Hobbs, of Clare Champion.
[viii] Donal A. Kerr, A Nation of Beggars?: Priests, People and Politics in Famine Ireland, 1846-52 , Oxford University Press, 1995, p.38.
[ix] Ibid., p.39.
[x] Letter of Bishop Egan of Kerry to Renehan, April 22, 1846, Renehan papers, MCA, quoted in Kerr, Nation of Beggars, p. 170.
[xi] Account of the pastorship of Fr. Timothy Kelly, parish priest of Cooraclare and Kilmihil during the Great Famine, in Peter Ryan, History of Kilmurry Ibrickane (Old Kilfarboy, County Clare: Old Kilfarboy Society, 2002).
[xii] Count P. E. de Strzelecki, agent for the British Association’s relief scheme in a letter to Clarendon, August 26, 1848, in Report and Minutes of Evidence of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Irish Poor Laws, May 4, 1849, vol. 16, 979–80, quoted in Kerr, Nation of Beggars, p. 171.
[xiii] T.P.O’Neill, ‘The Catholic Clergy and the Great Famine in Reportarium Novum, 1956, (1), p. 463.
[xiv] See the documentary drama, Death or Canada: the story of the Irish Famine and its impact on Toronto in 1847 wherein the heroism of Bishop Power is portrayed.
[xv] Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, autograph edition (Hartford, Conn., 1869), pp. 231–32.
[xvi] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion.
Published with permission from Rorate Caeli.