By the mid 1800s, most of the fertile land in Ireland was in the hands of landlords, forcing the Irish to survive on smaller and smaller plots. It was a situation that forced dependence on the one crop that could produce maximum yield in minimum space – the potato. It was a boring diet to be sure, but it was a healthy one for potatoes are a remarkable source of vitamins and minerals. Although they weren’t starving, it was a difficult time. Then on August 20, 1845, Dr. David Moore, reported that potato fungus had been discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens. The following day, August 21 is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation. Within a week, reports came in from all over Ireland that the potato crop had turned black in the field. It was the only crop affected; vegetables, wheat and barley grew in abundance, not to mention poultry, cattle, and sheep, but they belonged to the landlord.
And what did the landlords do? Why, they protected their crops from the hungry Irish until they were harvested, and then they exported them for profit to other lands that had also suffered potato blight. The government did little either, saying that the country was to be left to the effect of natural forces. Many starved in ‘45 awaiting a more promising harvest in ‘46, but it did not come. The potato crop of ‘46 was totally destroyed, and the dying began en masse. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had, and when ’47 came, there was nothing to plant. Many who hadn’t starved, fell victim to disease. When the sick and starving Irish could not pay their rent, they were evicted and their property confiscated. As blight destroyed the crops of 48, and 49, neither landlords, Parliament nor Crown provided adequate assistance. Millions died of starvation and hunger-related disease on the roads beside prosperous farms. Limited aid was finally provided and a number of soup kitchens were set up, but in some, the cost of receiving food, was the surrender of their faith and conversion to the English Church. It was a price too high for many to pay and they turned their backs on the food rather than turn their backs on their God.
Criticism of the genocide being practiced on the Irish by England’s non-intervention, forced Parliament to declare the crisis officially over in 1849. The justification was a few acres of potatoes produced that year with no sign of blight. What was overlooked, was that the land – no matter how marginally productive – no longer belonged to the dispossessed Irish who wandered the roads dying of starvation. The blight on the potato may have been slowly abating, but the blight on the Irish people was far from over as hunger and disease remained rampant for many more years. The government’s premature declaration of the end of the blight, remains one of the most insensitive incidents to come out of that tragedy for a costly publicity campaign was mounted – the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria. In August 1849, as Irish men, women, and children starved and died in workhouses and on the roads across Ireland, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent on beautifying the roads on which the Queen would travel. As her coach followed the royal route, crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects, and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.” Ironically, that report – though blatant propaganda in its time – would eventually come true.
But in 1849, and for years to come, the Hunger was not over! The lack of land or a living wage, food shortage, and disease continued to plague the Irish, as those who’d emigrated struggled for a foothold in far away lands. It would be a generation before many emigrants could establish themselves and send help back to the ones they’d left behind, but eventually money from America and other lands did trickle in and the tide began to turn. In the end, almost all of the generation who suffered the Great Hunger were gone before its effects were. It was only then that the Hunger was truly over. The consensus among historians is that the process took another 30 years, for in 1879, the Irish began their recovery with the establishment of the National Land League in Co. Mayo by Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell; Irish American newspapers enlisted American aid; and Parnell went to America to address their Congress on the situation. Ironically, 1879 was also the year that a child was born who would profoundly affect the course of Irish history. The boy was christened Patrick Henry Pearse.
Another significant event in that watershed year occurred in a small village in the west of Ireland. On a rainy evening, a vision appeared at the Church of St. John the Baptist in the village of Knock, County Mayo. It had been an area hard hit by the hunger, and few residents were left in the parish, but on that evening, a small group witnessed the astonishing vision. At the side of the church, three figures, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, suddenly appeared; beside them was an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels. The witnesses knew they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and the Queen of Heaven. Word spread, and shortly, others from the area came, and saw it too. No such heavenly visitation had ever been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of the soaking rain. The figures remained, hovering silently, a few feet above the ground, for nearly two hours, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.
The local parish priest reported the incident, and an intensive investigation was launched. In 1939, after years of examination and enquiry, the apparition was granted canonical sanction by Rome. From hundreds of visions reported, it is one of only ten to have received such recognition, and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage. Yet, it’s the only appearance during which the Virgin remained silent – why? There have been many who questioned the fact that Mary said nothing, and only stood praying. Praying for what; praying for whom? Is there a clue in the timing of the visit? There may be.
Consider that the effects of the Great Hunger were not over for 30 years after the Crown had declared it ended in August 1849; Mary appeared in August of 1879 – exactly 30 years later to the month! And, she appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger! Coincidence? Or is it possible that since the Irish people had suffered so much for their faith, the Lord, in appreciation, asked his beloved mother to visit them as a sign of hope, and that, as any mourner would, she stood in silent prayer for those who had fallen victim to An Gorta Mor. Think of it, the timing is incredible. Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the great hunger, for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords. The most ironic part however, is that a 30-year-old proclamation had at last come true. Remember the claim that THE FAMINE IS FINALLY OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND? Well the famine was finally over, and the Irish had received a visit from the queen – the only queen that they’d ever acknowledged.
Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive had received a visit from heaven, and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock. Let your parish priest know this story for his homily on Sunday, August 21.