By Jane Harrington
Who was buying their hair?
In my ongoing quest to fully imagine the lives of my West Cork ancestors, I keep a running list of questions such as these—accumulated curiousnesses from the reading I do about Ireland’s Great Hunger, that cataclysm that sent my forebears across a sea. Scant genealogies have gotten me only so far in knowing who exactly I come from, so I mine for more general ores of origin, descriptions of a world, in the works of those who have done, well, the work. Today it is John Kelly I am reading, his The Graves are Walking the latest adit I lower myself into, and it is from these pages that I have scratched out this question, the one about the hair. And that right after—in fact, just sentences after—I found the answer to who was buying the clothing of these 1840s Irelanders.
The poorest of the poor, these people “occupied the same place in the western mind that Haiti, the Congo, and Somalia occupy today,” in Kelly’s words, and on the threshold of a winter that would find whole families staggering naked and humiliated on the hills of their homeland, they were selling their clothes for money to buy food. This I had learned from many sources, but none had mentioned who or what had need or desire for these tattered vestiges of dignity. Today, though, I know: English paper mills bought most of the pawned clothing. The mills were turning the cloth to pulp, perhaps pressing that very slurry into pages for the Times or Punch, popular rags (oh, that metaphor is suddenly making too much sense) that, in the same season the Irish peasants were on their knees scraping the ground for grubs or clawing the air for God’s mercy, were printing stories and cartoons about how their fellow citizens across the channel were overstating the extent of the potato blight and exaggerating their distress. What a horror of irony if threads from these same people’s backs were in the very fiber of the pages that called them “illiterate savages” and depicted their children as monkeys. (The reason for this recurring trope was a question on my list for some time; one popular posit is that hair grows on the faces of severely malnourished children.)
I do try to view Ireland’s Great Hunger in a balanced way, not blame the decimation of a people on neglect by government, not refer to it as a “gentlemen’s genocide.” I can’t, though, pass it off as many in positions of power did in the day: as divine providence sending Phytophthora infestans to destroy a food, thus destroy a people. And history tells me I should not make excuses for a British Empire that was repeatedly staining its soul around the globe in the name of dominion and free trade, no more than I should make excuses for the United States at that time, whose lawmakers were still arguing over the economies of buying and selling human beings. The fact is that my own Irish ancestors had, for generations, been oppressed by the Penal Laws, a body of legislation from which a direct line can be drawn to the abject poverty that would, on the eve of Europe’s potato blight, find millions of Irish “barely existing”—words from an 1841 British Parliamentary report. There could have been more charity from the sovereign that claimed Ireland as its own, and more willingness to stop Irish exports, as had been done successfully during 18thcentury blights to feed families and keep food prices low. But instead, the destitute were made to perform hard labor for pennies that could barely buy a loaf of bread at market, and the redcoats were dispatched to guard carts filled with meats and grains so they could be safely rolled past the grass-stained faces of the dead and dying. (There are ghosts of professors past admonishing me right now for watering down that sentence with passive voice.) One million perished on the streets and in fields and cabins in that awful season. It was technically more than a decimation—one out of every eight died, not every ten. Another million would flee as ballast in the coffin ships, and the writers of the Times and Punch would bid them adieu with bitter words and images now woven, perhaps literally, into the fabric of that sad exodus.
Be specific, I say to the college students I teach. When you write in generalizations, when you blame human suffering on a concept—laissez faire, states’ rights, God’s will—you can’t put a face on your body of knowledge. You can’t see the twitch of a child’s nose when he wakes to a strange stench of demise, or hear the low moans gathering over the potato fields like thunder. Irish author John McGahern said, “People do not live in decades or histories. They live in moments, hours, days, and it is easy to fall into the trap of looking back in judgment in the light of our own day rather than the more difficult realization of the natural process of living, which was the same then as it is now.” And so, in an attempt to understand the moments, hours, days that made up the Ireland my ancestors lost, I collect questions. What kind of education did my ancestors have prior to the passage of the Penal Laws? What did the Irish diet consist of before that oppression? Where was the Vatican when the potato crop failed and their Irish flock was suffering so? Why didn’t my ancestors (and those of so many Irish Americans I know) pass down the stories of the Great Hunger? Who was buying their hair?
In his research, John Kelly apparently uncovered a ship manifest that listed twenty-six bales of Irish hair in the hold of the Liverpool-bound Forget-Me-Not. That’s the extent of his reference. Maybe there was a market for wigs made from the hair of the forsaken, or a trade in plaster that may still contain this DNA in walls of houses. I don’t know. I’ll have to keep chipping away, sifting, looking for the answer.
Jane Harrington has written books for young adults (Scholastic, Lerner) and is now crafting literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Carlow University, her mentors in the program both Irish and US writers. A principle interest of Jane’s is understanding the lives of the poor during Ireland’s Great Hunger. Her research has included study in Ireland’s Folklore Collection (UCD), extensive reading of academic scholarship and writings from the period (including the poetry of Speranza, who would become Oscar Wilde’s mother), and multiple trips to Ireland’s west, where the landscape itself tells stories. Jane is a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), where she has worked on a novel that explores migratory connections between Ireland and Appalachia. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been short-listed for literary awards, notably the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize. Journals and magazines that have published her work include Chautauqua, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Mom Egg Review, Irish America, and Portland Review.