Researching the Irish Famine

January 20, 2012 · 3 comments

in Learning & Outreach,Projects,Research

by Sarah O’Connor, Learning & Outreach

Over the summer of 2011, the Learning and Outreach department here at the National Library worked on a new project about the Irish Famine with St. John of God Carmona Services. This is our fifth year working with some of the education and training programmes offered by Carmona Services to adults with intellectual disabilities. Our collaboration began in 2007 after a visit by a group from the Choices programme to our Yeats exhibition. They really enjoyed their visit to the NLI and wanted to find out more about W.B. Yeats. This led us to create a project in which we researched aspects of W.B. Yeats’ life such as his family history, his relationships with friends and his poetry. Leading on from these themes, participants looked at their own family history and personal stories. The project was called Autobiographies and it took place one morning a week over nine weeks. Since then our projects together have taken on a similar format and over the years we have covered themes such as emigration from Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries as explored in the NLI’s exhibition Strangers to Citizens; the social history of Dublin during the 1916 Rising; and a study into how people communicated before mobile phones and email!

From the Appendix to the Sixth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, 1840

From the Appendix to the Sixth Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, 1840

For this project, Charlotte, Choices group co-ordinator suggested the Irish Famine as a topic as they had already begun research in this area. We decided the project would take place over six weeks with 14 participants taking part from the Lakeland and Choices programmes, and from the Dalkey Education Centre.  Before the project began we met to discuss what was available to research at the NLI. Participants presented their research to date, and performed an improvisation on what life was like in a nineteenth century Irish workhouse. This was a really informative session and I learnt a lot about how the workhouse was governed, the strict rules and the harsh conditions endured by the residents.

Destitution in Ireland from the London Pictorial Times, 22 August 1846. NLI ref. HP (1846) 2

Destitution in Ireland from the London Pictorial Times, 22 August 1846. NLI ref. HP (1846) 2

A key part of our project is the discussion that takes place before our work begins. Everybody can voice what they are interested in and this helps us to plan each workshop. Our discussions for this project were a great success. Everybody had so many suggestions and we ended up with a huge list of topics we wanted to research. Everybody left the NLI that day really enthusiastic about the weeks ahead. It really highlighted to us all how much we had learnt about Irish history over the last five years.

As there was no way we could cover everything in just six short weeks we decided to focus on some key themes. We wanted to find out what life was like for most Irish people before the famine began, we had many questions, e.g. what did the majority of Irish people eat, what kind of houses did they live in and what clothes did they wear? We also decided to research some of the consequences of the famine such as eviction and emigration.

The Irish Famine: A Documentary History by Noel Kissane. NLI ref. Ir 94108 k 13

The Irish Famine: A Documentary History by Noel Kissane. NLI ref. Ir 94108 k 13

As I began to prepare for our project one of the most useful resources I found was Noel Kissane’s book The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. The book reproduces a huge selection of primary sources chronicling the history of the Irish Famine. One of the documents we found very interesting was from the Sixth Annual Report of Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales which recorded the quantity of food consumed by the labouring poor in the Poor Law Unions for Limerick and Tipperary in 1840. The report illustrates how dependent so many people were on the potato and why the potato blight had such a catastrophic effect on so many people’s lives.

Aoife O Connor from our Learning and Outreach Department, resplendent in Victorian clothing

Aoife O Connor from our Learning and Outreach Department, resplendent in Victorian clothing

One of the most enjoyable workshops we organised was facilitated by Aoife O Connor of our Learning and Outreach department. Aoife has a wonderful collection of nineteenth century style clothes which she uses for historical re-enactments. She very kindly brought in a whole array of bonnets, dresses, boots and baskets for us to have a look at and try on! Clothes in the nineteenth century were very expensive and rather than be replaced, clothes were recycled and mended. They were such a crucial commodity that if a workhouse resident was caught running away wearing the workhouse uniform a common form of punishment dealt out was flogging.

Gruel made by Dalkey Education Centre

Gruel made by Dalkey Education Centre

In between NLI visits, participants did research in their own time, going to their local libraries and researching on the internet. Dalkey Education Centre even made gruel, a meal sometimes served in the workhouse, although not many were enthusiastic about tasting it! As well as the positive learning outcomes that were achieved as a result of our research, the project had many other positive results. Many of the participants took part in travel training before the project began. This involved learning how to use public transport independently to reach the NLI. Over the weeks of the project, the NLI became a familiar place where participants could bring their friends and family. Another important aspect of the project is a social one. Before our workshop sessions began, everyone met in the café for a coffee and a chat.

Reception at the Café Joly to celebrate the end of our Irish Famine Project

Reception at the Café Joly to celebrate the end of our Irish Famine Project

Each year we mark the end of the project with an evening reception in the NLI’s Café Joly. Staff from the NLI and St. John of God, participants’ friends and family are invited and get the opportunity to view the work that took place throughout the project. The Director of the NLI, Fiona Ross, presented certificates of achievement to everyone who took part and this year we were treated to some very well crafted speeches from participants. We hope that our collaboration with St. John of God will continue and we wish all participants the very best in their future historical studies.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Walsh March 1, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Well done.A very full and appropriate treatment of a crucial period in our history

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Bean an Phoist March 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Thanks, Joe!

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Michael Lenihan January 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Many of the famine images were sketched by the Cork artist James Mahony for the Illustrated London News which helped to highlight public opinion especially in Britain. Many of the heart breaking scenes especially in West Cork reached a wide audience which in turn put pressure on the British politicians to send supplies.

Michael Lenihan

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