In ‘The End of Outrage’ An Historian Peers into His Ancestral Irish Shadows

Culling local storytellers' accounts, land valuation records, field maps and more, Mac Suibhne exposes the clash between the secret society of the "Molly Maguires" in their homeland with the forces of law and order in this history of Ireland.

The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland
Breandán Mac Suibhne
Oxford University Press
Oct 2017

“Although my own forebears appear in these pages, genealogy’s charms are lost on me,” Breandán Mac Suibhne acknowledges. Instead, he dedicates this study of his family’s native village to his two daughters. Less to tell them “whence they came, and more to give them a glimpse of how the world works.”Inequality and brutality persist, as proven 150 years ago. Many historians have scoured records of what the Irish call “An Gorta Mór” and in English is variously rendered and contested as failure of the potato as the peasants’ monoculture, the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, British imperial-sponsored ethnic cleansing, and/or genocide.

What is less popularly scrutinized is the aftermath of the catastrophe. In the corner of the northwestern coast of Donegal around the townland of Beagh, about a hundred people used “seaweed and shit” to scrabble some arable land. “Kibbing spuds” on bog pastures showed the desperation of those before and after the years of starvation to survive on daily scraps. Where cattle had roamed to profit landlords, children now scrounged trying to scrape up sustenance.

Demographics diminished the hamlet. By the time the author was “brought home to Beagh” in the mid-1960s, three dozen folks remained, mostly elderly, in eight houses where around 1850 stood 22 dwellings. Into this setting, standing in for thousands of such predicaments across Ireland, Mac Suibhne returns in a scholar’s guise. Culling local storytellers’ accounts, land valuation records, field maps, and what can be gleaned of court testimony and police reports, he exposes the clash between the secret society of the “Molly Maguires” in their homeland with the forces of law and order, whether recruited from within Ireland or occupying it as owners of the tattered stretches of soil on which Beagh’s residents had to eke out a living.

Another cadre of clandestine vigilantes, the Ribbonmen, targeted James Gallagher, the most prominent of the townland’s possessors, and his wife. They faced assault. In debt to the gentry, schoolteacher Patrick McGlynn, who had penned the threat to the Gallaghers, panicked. He informed to the constable and the “end of outrage” was exacted upon those who resisted.

Subsequent events plotted a familiar arc, if with some touches that could have been plucked from fiction. Imagine handwriting examined by a sightless judge. An alcoholic priest tries to do his duty. A pro-temperance bishop brokers with visiting clergy making a “mission” full of fervent preaching and dreadful portents. Among them, (which this reviewer posits among James Joyce’s inspirations for Fr. Arnall’s sermon which so terrifies Stephen Dedalus), Frs. Robert Coffin and John Furniss enter.

Furniss wrote 14 tracts for children, the ninth of which, “The Sight of Hell” (1855), Mac Suibhne quotes with instructive application. The cleric urged: “Imagine the painful cry of a child which has lost its mother! Listen to the wailings of the people of Ireland when their sister is leaving them to go to America, and perhaps they will never see her any more. Then you may think what a wailing there will be when a soul hears these words from God: ‘Depart from me forever.'” This conflation of what was known as “the American wake” to mourn the emigration of a family member with the eternal agonies inflicted by a vindictive Lord illustrate the power the Church exerted over its parishioners in the stories filling imaginations and in the inspection of daily acts. Passing through or permanent, loyal priests denounced the secret societies and those overseeing the doings of bold curates cracked down on sympathizers.

As the population declined by 1909 by at least a fifth, the amount of priests doubled in the area. Mac Suibhne enables readers to recover a sense of the transformation of the culture. In the middle of the 19th century, when he begins his study, the native Irish “vibrated between two cosmologies”. The elder is “ancestral and fairy”. That faded among those left behind in Beagh, as with thousands of the island’s townlands after 1850. The Irish language managed to cling to some everyday use due to the region’s remoteness, but fewer sustained it. The way to get ahead remained to take the ship to London or the Americas for most youths. Mac Suibhne nods to the Communist Manifesto image of the “sentimental veil” which was being torn away from families by capitalism, as sons and daughters multiplied and too soon migrated.

Those left to cope on the farms jumbled their stories of what happened in the wake of McGlynn’s betrayal of dozens of his fellow Donegal men. Another Gallagher, Father Pat, worked out a way to save face, one that later Irish will recognize as such native submission has been repeated. If the Ribbonmen swore fealty to Queen Victoria, they could leave subversion behind. This they would do, even if their supporters imagined that the Mollies had defied Her Majesty.

James Gallagher evicted subtenants; the remnant remaining chose to turn away from their heritage. Pragmatism demanded a switch to English for the children. By 1890, Mac Suibhne edges the mindset in Beagh as tipping already towards 1970 rather than the previous century’s midpoint. A few would take up the ragged plots of scanty soil as the eldest sons inherited holdings. As the descendant of these holdouts, Mac Suibhne reflects on his own inheritance. Rather than the land, he lives among its legacy, less easily grasped if still as slippery and grey.

RATING 7 / 10