A view from Leam School
A stark reminder
Potato and corn-ridges, which are wider, can be seen high up in the hills of Glann, Cloosh, Leam and Seana Féistin – a stark reminder of Famine times. The potato, which was introduced into Ireland about 1590, gave the rural peasants a cheap and plentiful source of food. It could grow in the poorest conditions with very little labour. This was very important as labourers gave most of their time to the farmers and landlords they worked for, and therefore had very little time to attend to their own crops. It surprised me to read that an average male would eat 12-14 lbs of potatoes per day. Yet the life expectancy of men was about 39 years of age, which compared quite well with the rest of Europe at that time.
The Irish came under pressure at the beginning of the 19th century to produce as many potatoes as possible. Farmers gradually moved from the stronger seed variety of potatoes to one called the “ Lumper” or “ Horse Potato”. This variety could grow on the poorest land of all, and gave a large crop. It had originally been produced as food for animals and it was very soft and watery, with poorer vitamin content than other types. It was immune to diseases that attacked other potatoes, such as “dry rot” or ‘taint’. Fatally, however, it had no resistance at all to the immediate cause of “The Great Famine”, the fungal disease called “blight” which caused such devastation and economic distress among the Irish.
The Growth of the “ Souper Legend”
The growth of the “Souper Legend” came about when conversions increased during these times of economic distress. Usually when a substantial number of conversions occurred. Protestant colonies were formed. These colonies were organized by evangelical churchmen, churchmen like Alexander Dallas. The colonies never church policy of the established Protestant Church. These colonies caused social uproar in many places – Oughterard being one such place. The converts or “Jumpers” as they were called found that once they abandoned the traditional faith they were often de-tribalised and ostracized by their neighbours. Local characters, it must be said, took advantage of what the “Soupers” offered to those people whom they hoped would convert to the Protestant faith and yet as clever countrymen they kept their virtue.
John O Callaghan’s Mission 1848- 1851
Alexander Dallas believed that his mission in the Oughterard area would flourish if he had Irish-speaking missionaries. John O Callaghan was a fluent Irish speaker and a fanatical Protestant convert. He was originally a clerical student at Maynooth College where young men studied for the priesthood.
In 1848 the teacher at Doon, James Blake, died of fever and John O’ Callaghan was appointed in his place. He set about his new appointment with great diligence as an able preacher in the Irish language. The people responded to him. He described horrible scenes on the road between Glann and Doon. He saw, “ the remains of a female by the roadside, while every step the most wretched looking ghastly figures beg a little relief”. At Doon school mugs of soup and meal were given to the destitute.
Chopped carrots, turnips and onions were put into large wooden vats along with scoops of barley and buckets of water. If people were lucky, roughly chopped meat and offal were added. Officials would ladle out the soup. There were tin mugs for those who hadn’t anything of their own.
It would be fair to say that the accounts of the society for “Irish Church Missions” 1846-1847 show that more money was spent on relief than on direct proselytism.
Dr. Plunkett, Protestant Bishop of Tuam appointed John B. O Callaghan as Rector of Oughterard 1851. In September of that year the Bishop confirmed 96 people in Doon, Glann, (30 adults, the rest under 21). He deferred the Confirmation of 43 additional children under 14 on the grounds of their age and their young appearance: through famine and other circumstances their appearance was much more juvenile than their age.