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  • The Famine of 1740-41: Representations in Gaelic Poetry*
  • Cormac Ó Gráda (bio) and Diarmaid Ó Muirithe (bio)

The Great Frost of 1740 was one of the greatest climatic shocks to strike Europe over the past millennium. It led to the destruction of crops, extreme distress, and increased mortality from infectious disease across much of northern Europe. Even in England mortality increased; indeed, 1740-41 witnessed England's last peacetime subsistence crisis (Post; Kelly and Ó Gráda). Nowhere, however, did the icy weather wreak more havoc than in Ireland, where the famine that ensued became known as bliain an áir (the year of the slaughter). David Dickson's Arctic Ireland offers the best account of what he calls "the forgotten famine of 1740-41."

Unlike the Great Famine of the 1840s, that earlier famine is rather poorly documented and its human toll can still only be guessed at (Drake; Dickson, Ó Gráda, and Daultrey 164-69; Dickson "The Other Great Irish Famine" and Arctic Ireland; Cullen). What remains of the public record is virtually silent on it. Most of the surviving evidence on the famine is in the English language. Depictions and references in Irish, then the vernacular of a majority of the population and certainly that of most of the victims, are sparse (although see Ní Chinnéide). The Gaelic poems reproduced in this paper redress this balance a little and also offer their own insights and perspectives. [End Page 41]

Here we reproduce, with translations, five poems composed during the famine. The first and second, Tuireamh na bhfataí bliain an tseaca mhóir .i. 1739 (Lament for the potatoes in the year of the great frost 1739) and M'atuirse ghéar, mo phéin, mo bhrón, mo bhruid (My great sorrow, my pain, my sorrow, my need), or [I] and [II] below, derive from transcripts in the hand of Seaghán Ó Dálaigh (Ó Drisceoil; de Brún 203-9). 1 They emanate from a circle of east Cork poets of whom Séamus Mór Mac Coitir (see below) was a leading member. Both are possibly from the hand of the same author; both refer to "Lorc" and both mention "Barry." Besides our own translation, we also include a vivid, albeit much looser, translation of Tuireamh na bhfataí that Lady Jane Wilde ('Speranza") contributed to The Nation in 1847. 2 Her translation establishes a link between Ireland's two great famines. M'atuirse ghéar also deserves its Lady Wilde; ours has been informed by that produced by the late Neasa Ní Shéaghdha for McKay's Anthology of the Potato (McKay 43-45).

The third poem reproduced below, Ní cogadh ná cargaill fhada idir airdríthibh (It is not war or continual strife between great kings) [III], is taken from Breatnach. It is the work of Séamus Mór Mac Coitir, one of a family of poets and scribes from near Castlelyons in east Cork (Ó Conchúir 23).

Tadhg Ó Neachtain (d. ca. 1752), author of Má bhí brón ró-mhór gan téimheal (If there was great unremitting sorrow) [IV] and Fo liag sheaca [i] ngéibheann (Bound under a frozen headstone) [V], made his living in Dublin as a teacher. His father, Seán Ó Neachtain (d. 1729), was a Roscommon man who had settled in Meath and later became the leading light in Irish language circles in Dublin city. 3 The younger Ó Neachtain followed in his father's footsteps, producing manuscript copies of earlier works, writing poetry and prose of his own, and networking with like-minded scholars (Harrison Ag Cruinniú Meala and The Dean's Friend; Ó hÁinle). [End Page 42]

Though other scholars have referred to [IV] and [V] (Buttimer 86-88; Ó Buachalla 373-74, 696 fn 83), neither poem seems to have been published before. Ó Neachtain dated the composition of [IV] St. Stephen's Day 1739. He does not claim credit for [V], but its style and sentiments make him its likely author.

All these poems belong to a literary tradition very different from those described in Morash and in Ó Gráda (An Drochshaol and Black '47, chap. 6). As poetry, their quality is variable. They date from a...


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