59. Sweet Betsy in the Parlour
Written by Unknown
Performed by Off to California
From the CD Hard Times In The Promised Land (Fiddle and Banjo Records, USA 2006)



THE MUSIC OF EMIGRANTS, MINERS & DREAMERS: It was the middle of the 19th century and the potato famine was dealing a death blow to Ireland. Who wouldn’t want to go off to California for the promise of gold discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas? The Irish hornpipe ‘Off to California’ gives us our name; the diversity of our musical experiences finds a home in the historically rich gold country around Sacramento where we have been presenting gold rush material together since 1991.’

- Hard Times in the Promised Land, liner notes, by Off To California,


Strokestown is a bright, bustling town on the edge of the West of Ireland. At the top of a hill is the imposing gateway to the impressive mansion that was once home of the Mahons, powerful landlords, members of Parliament and of high society. Seldom have rich and poor contrasted more sharply than in the heyday of Strokestown. This is an appropriate place to house – in the former stables – Ireland’s new Famine Museum.

The challenge is to sidestep the musty abstractions of history and look the suffering in the eye. This museum does that – the shadows of Somalia and Rwanda hover over Strokestown in the summer of 1994.

It all goes back to the potato, said to be introduced to civilised society by Sir Walter Raleigh on his estate in County Cork. By the middle of the 19th century it had become the staple, almost the exclusive diet of the majority of Ireland’s approximately 8 million people, according to The Great Irish Famine, the elegant and informative booklet published by the museum. More precisely, the very poor lived on the ‘lumper,’ an inelegant, watery potato that made up in volume what it lacked in nourishment.

It is difficult to exaggerate how poor the potato-eaters were. They lived in hovels, so long as they were lucky enough not to get evicted. Even before blight zapped the spud in the 1840s, famines were frequent and deadly throughout Ireland. It was not that there was no food other than the potato, but the corn and other crops had to be paid to the landlord as rent, so when the potato failed there was nothing to eat.

The ruling classes, meanwhile, were doing nicely. The landlords and other ‘gentry’ who inhabited the periphery of the landlord world derived mainly from the Cromwellian and other plantations of the 17th century. Although the British Crown ruled the country, the Irish had their own lame little Parliament in Dublin, enough to protect the members’ main interests, which were financial.

Thomas Mahon of Strokestown (1701-1782) was a fairly typical landlord, but perhaps better than average, an ‘improving’ landlord who practically built Strokestown from scratch. He owned 9,000 acres in County Roscommon. He was, furthermore, a leading figure in the Irish House of Commons. He married off his kids into other leading families, all of whom he could then rely upon to vote for him.

Other Mahons succeeded Thomas. They lived beyond their means. When the big famine struck in the mid-1840s, Major Denis Mahon was in charge. The demesne was in bad shape. The good life could be maintained only by wringing more rent from the totally impoverished peasantry.

When a new, mysterious blight rotted the potato in 1845, the poor went on starvation diets so they could save some seeds for the following year. But three years in a row the potato rotted. According to the booklet: ‘Eye-witnesses reported corpses lying unburied in the streets for days, sometimes gnawed by dogs and rats. Whole families were found dead inside cabins, children abandoned by their parents, and cases were documented of people eating dead and decaying livestock, even human flesh.’

In 10 years the population was reduced from 8 million to approximately 4 million by death and emigration. In this destitution and starvation, the peasants could not pay the rent. There were widespread evictions, 3,006 in Strokestown alone. These evictions were executed with impressive force and much formality. Bailiffs and other officials would supervise, the army and police would attend in strength, the house would be levelled lest it be reclaimed later, the neighbours would gather and observe the proceedings in sullen hatred. Each eviction was a scar on the national psyche that has never altogether been healed.

Many of the evicted died from hunger and exposure. Many left for America or England, thousands of them dying on the infamous ‘coffin ships’ before reaching the Promised Land.’

- Irish Famine Museum topical as Rwanda – Strokestown, Ireland, by Michael J. Farrell, National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 1994


This is the time of coffins with sliding bottoms, roads filled with hungry people barely able to walk, mass graves, and visions of the hungry being forced to eat grass. With these images etched into the common memory, it is easy to see how the famine years seem to be with the Irish still. Figures like 932,000 people maintained in the workhouse in 1849, 1,000,000 emigrants bound for Canada (the most economical route to the States) in 1847, and 3,000,000 people a day being fed in government soup kitchens that same year and 104,000 tenants evicted in 1850.

[…] The Church capitalised on the shock of Biblical catastrophe and looked at the famine as a punishment for sin. The effect was to create a docile laity for a clergy that were entering upon their period of greatest power and influence. The sense of unworthiness, of the extreme difficulty of the ordinary mortal’s ever being able to merit grace, made reception of the sacraments a rare event, and even children were regarded as sinners.

Most of the demographic changes in post-Famine Ireland started before the 1840s. Emigration was well established though destinations usually were to the east – to Scotland, to northern England and to southern Wales. In the late 1840s America became the chimerical Promised Land.’

- Articles: 19th Century Ireland – III. The Famine or The Great Hunger, by Dr. Sam Couch, Ph. D. Owner, Rising Road Tours


Unscrupulous landlords used two methods to remove their penniless tenants […] The second method was for the landlord to simply pay to send pauper families overseas to British North America. Landlords would first make phoney promises of money, food and clothing, then pack the half-naked people in overcrowded British sailing ships, poorly built and often unseaworthy, that became known as coffin ships.

The first coffin ships headed for Quebec, Canada. The three thousand mile journey, depending on winds and the captain’s skill, could take from 40 days to three months. Upon arrival in the Saint Lawrence River, the ships were supposed to be inspected for disease and any sick passengers removed to quarantine facilities on Grosse Isle, a small island thirty miles downstream from Quebec City.

But in the spring of 1847, shipload after shipload of fevered Irish arrived, quickly overwhelming the small medical inspection facility, which only had 150 beds. By June, 40 vessels containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence. It took up to five days to see a doctor, many of whom were becoming ill from contact with the typhus-infected passengers. By the summer, the line of ships had grown several miles long. A fifteen-day general quarantine was then imposed for all of the waiting ships. Many healthy Irish thus succumbed to typhus as they were forced to remain in their lice-infested holds. With so many dead on board the waiting ships, hundreds of bodies were simply dumped overboard into the St. Lawrence.

Others, half-alive, were placed in small boats and then deposited on the beach at Grosse Isle, left to crawl to the hospital on their hands and knees if they could manage. Thousands of Irish, ill with typhus and dysentery, eventually wound up in hastily constructed wooden fever sheds. These makeshift hospitals, badly understaffed and unsanitary, simply became places to die, with corpses piled ‘like cordwood’ in nearby mass graves. Those who couldn’t get into the hospital died along the roadsides. In one case, an orphaned Irish boy walking along the road with other boys sat down for a moment under a tree to rest and promptly died on the spot.

The quarantine efforts were soon abandoned and the Irish were sent on to their next destination without any medical inspection or treatment. From Grosse Isle, the Irish were given free passage up the St. Lawrence to Montreal and cities such as Kingston and Toronto. The crowded open-aired river barges used to transport them exposed the fair-skinned Irish to all-day-long summer sun causing many bad sunburns. At night, they laid down close to each other to ward off the chilly air, spreading more lice and fever.

Many pauper families had been told by their landlords that once they arrived in Canada, an agent would meet them and pay out between two and five pounds depending on the size of the family. But no agents were ever found. Promises of money, food and clothing had been utterly false. Landlords knew that once the paupers arrived in Canada there was virtually no way for them to ever return to Ireland and make a claim. Thus they had promised them anything just to get them out of the country.

- www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/famine/coffin.htm


Long March: The Choctaw’s Gift to Irish Famine Relief (Paperback), by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (Author), Gary White Deer (Foreword)

Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Grade 2-5A. In the 1830s, the United States government forced the people of the Choctaw Nation to leave their homeland in the area of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and to walk 500 miles to Indian territory, which later became Oklahoma. These people suffered from starvation, cold, and lack of promised provisions. Many died along the way. Yet, in 1847, when a call went out to help people starving during Ireland’s Potato Famine, the Choctaw responded, and sent all they could collect from their meagre earnings. This sophisticated picture book describes a Choctaw family who must decide if they want to help faraway Europeans, and who, in the process, try to come to terms with the humiliation and suffering they felt about the Long March. Fitzpatrick collaborated with Choctaw representatives to relate this moving true story with universal appeal. Her striking black-and-white drawings capture the events and show great respect and dignity for all of the characters and their concerns. The words and illustrations work together extremely well, presenting the story in a clear and compelling manner. A Darcy Schild, Schwegler Elementary School, Lawrence, KS Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. – This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Responding to a nationwide appeal during the Irish potato famine, the impoverished Choctaw nation collected $170 (about $5,000 in modern terms) only 15 years after their forced relocation by whites to what is now Oklahoma; with fine insight, this commemoration explains how and why the Choctaw were able to set their anger aside.’

- www.amazon.com/Long-March-Choctaws-Famine-Relief/dp/product-description/1582460655



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