Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Lazy beds, or graveyards of hope

You might think the corrugations in this field were part of ancient strip farming, but they are something much more sinister. This field, which I saw beside Killary Fjord in Connemara this summer, is one of the potato fields that were abandoned due to the blight that caused the Irish potato famine.
They are called 'lazy beds', but in fact they bear witness to the back-breaking slog and difficulty that attended arable farming in an area where the land is full of rocks, and the soil a thin layer on top of them, except for the peat bogs that are scattered all over the country. The field you see here is a steep and narrow slope at the very edge of the fjord.
The farmers would carry seaweed up from the shore and pile it up, then put the potatoes among the seaweed. It did at least mean the potatoes were full of iodine. The potatoes would be covered in heaped soil and seaweed as the haulm grew up, in order to keep the light from getting to the tubers and greening them. Only, in 1845, the blight, phytophthora infestans, arrived and destroyed haulm, tubers and all.
Wikimedia Commons

It was the last straw for a population who had been driven out of their own lands to the most marginal land in the country, displaced in favour of 'planted' Protestant settlers. The potato, previously a delicacy for the gentry, made it possible for them to hang on in those stony places, but unfortunately only one variety of spud was widely grown, and that one was the most susceptible to blight.  To be fair, some of the landlords in Connemara did their best to help, but many of them were impoverished, up to their ears in debt, and simply had not the resources to save their tenants. British fiscal policy discriminated against Irish imports, after all. Some of the landlords just did not care. And of course there were self-righteous comments made (on mainland Britain especially) about how it was all the Irish people's fault; they were lazy, shiftless, and shouldn't expect hard-working Britons to help them. Truly, many of the things I've read look as if they'd been lifted from today's newspapers.

The fields were abandoned, just allowed to grass over without ever being rolled flat (what would have been the point?), and sheep were grazed there to save the landlords' pockets.The people starved and many died (an eighth of the total population of Ireland); the lucky ones managed to emigrate.
The ridges remain, mute evidence of anguish,  heartbreak and the deaths of a million people.
These idyllic looking fields also bear the tell-tale ridge and furrow markings.

 Both photographs by David Wilson


Clare Mulley said...

'Mute evidence', but given powerful voice by you and other historians - thank you Leslie.

carol drinkwater said...

I have written a book on this subject, THE HUNGER, published by Scholastic. It haunts me every time I return to Ireland. Thank you for reminding us, Leslie

Clare Mulley said...

Oh golly, my daughter has this book Carol. I hadn't connected! *off to browse daughters bookshelf...

Leslie Wilson said...

I must read it too!