hours of darkness

There was scarcely a town of any size in Ireland that didn’t have a workhouse 150 years ago. Fine, well- constructed buildings. Many of them are standing to the present day, having been revamped and adapted to house various commercial enterprises.
I can never pass a workhouse without getting a strange, sad, cold feeling as I am reminded of their past and the terrible fate of their unfortunate inmates. The poor cottiers and small-holders, fathers, mothers and little children were starving when the potato famine hit in 1845-48 and rushed to the big work-house doors and felt lucky if they were admitted. It was just about the lesser of two evils, as the conditions obtaining inside were quite inhuman and they perished anyway.
Sufficient detail has been written about how the inmates were existing. It has been recorded that the Board of Guardians, in some cases, refused to fund the very essentials to even keep the poor, emaciated creatures alive. Each morning the poor, starved casualties were loaded up in the tipping horse-cart and dumped like dumb animals into long, communal pits – a nineteenth century Holocaust that evoked the humane responses of a tribe of American Indians and a Turkish leader who sent two ship loads of food and £1000. To her credit Queen Victoria sent £2000 – a pity she didn’t direct her Government to step in and increase Trevelyan’s corn sufficiently.

In the late sixties a well-preserved workhouse that had functioned in Roscrea was reduced to rubble. In a pre-demolition auction, I bought, for 5 shillings, a red deal interior door which I used as the main door of my greyhound kennel. It is still functional and I often wonder of the human tragedies that took place all round it. If it had been fitted with a recording camera, which it couldn’t have of course, what terrible scenes of tragedy and despair, heartbreak and inhumanity it would have uncovered. Maybe it’s better as it is, they would be too harrowing. I often think that we, the Irish, had two Holocausts. The famine and the civil war of 1922 being the other. No country deserves to suffer one instead we were dealt two. If we survived those two national traumas, we’ll survive the current recession, bloodied but unbowed. While the sorrow and heartbreak of the Civil War could hardly be compared to the soul-destroying treatment of the famine, it still left a legacy of terrible pain, some of which is still felt after 90 years families and friendships sundered, a conflict that was futile and quite unnecessary. I think the Kerry poet, Sigerson Clifford, put his finger on it in his beautiful poem “The Balled of the Tinker’s Son.”
In the last verses he describes the friendship that developed between a thinker’son and his school companion, and that later grew stronger:
“And there on the slopes of the Kerry Hills, Our love again grew strong as we heard the wrens in the yellow whins, spill their thimble fulls of song. After a while a truce was called, for a while our fighting done, I shook his hand and I never again laid eyes on the tinker’s son. He should be back on the road again, to the life and times he knew, but I put a bullet through his brain in 1922.”
To me those few lines, Pregnant with pain, emphasise the futility and unbearable sadness of the Civil War. May all the unnecessary victims of those two Holocausts – both avoidable and unpardonable – look for - ever on the Face of Christ.