County Donegal is a splendid place to visit if you’re into scenery. There are spectacular cliffs falling directly into the ocean (with small brave roads clinging to the side of them for the fearless), broad sweeps of golden beach—for those who like a gentle sun and don’t mind cold water, and beautiful vistas of hills and rounded mountains. The county is one of Ireland’s largest, and it hangs off the northwest corner of the island. Everything to its east is Northern Ireland, but Donegal is part of the Republic of Ireland, connected by a tiny strip only five feet wide to County Leitrim. Otherwise it’s surrounded by Northern Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s always been a hard place to find enough to eat, and became harder after 1610 when the English, victorious after the Battle of Kilmacrennan in 1608, carved away what is now the city of Derry (Londonderry the name given to the city by the English) and most of the arable land in Donegal to group it with the parts of Ulster that are now Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.
What was left in Donegal was spectacular scenery: splendid mountains spilling into the sea, rolling hills, peat bogs that provided fuel, and stony ground. For the people who lived there, there was never enough land to plant much besides potatoes and some grains, mainly oats. In fact, in the late 1830s and 1840s when what they call in Ireland the Great Hunger swept across the island, wide areas of Donegal became depopulated, and remain so. The potato failure was part of the cause, but only part. During the whole of the famine period, Irish-produced food from all over the island of Ireland was still being exported to England.
Even before those dreadful days, those in Donegal grew barely enough food to survive. It has long been obvious that the hungrier people are, the less selective they become about what they eat. In a charming book titled “The Last of the Name,” Charles McGlinchey, who was born in 1861 and lived to be 93, remembered the Donegal of his childhood, and even earlier Donegal his father and grandfather told him about. Back in their day, everything that they ate was produced at home. When the grain was threshed (they called it corn), each family had a measure that lasted them for the year. Primarily it was oats, which grew better in such a northerly cool moist climate—oats and potatoes, which grew everywhere on small plots of land. In the morning, they would have oaten porridge and milk, or oaten scones hardened on an iron in front of the fire. “There’s nothing as tasty with a layer of butter on it as oaten bread,” he remembered. For their midday meal, it would be potatoes with salt and buttermilk. At the end of the day it was oaten bread and milk with porridge again. They caught some fish as well, and there were hens and ducks and geese, but anything beyond the staple diet was called “kitchen,” and there was not always kitchen available. Nearly all the eggs and butter were kept for sale, one of the only ways to earn a bit of coin to buy necessities that could not be created at home.
Given the easy affluence we have now, it’s hard to imagine such a life in which generations grew and flourished—at least to the extent of producing children, who also grew to produce children—and easy to see why the Great Hunger had such a devastating effect. Easy to see why the iron hand of British government, which encouraged that subsistence diet, also produced rebellion, and, in the end, revolution.
In my novel, The Defiant Heart (now also the 2d part of the two-novel volume, Diarmaid the Irishman), I tried to picture what that life must have been like, and the people who survived and fought against the forces that caused it.