The Irish “Famine” 1845-1850

All apologies,  Gentle Reader.  This article was meant to be a quick, concise commentary on an historic  tragedy  and wound-up becoming a nearly four-month-long exercise in obsession and nit-picking bullshittery.  Sure,  I could feed you an impressive and maybe even believable line about how I have just soooooooooooooooo much going on in my life that I needed to step away from this post.  I ain’t gonna lie; I have simply over-obsessed and over-researched and over-written for this post. This is why I miss college and having a history professor to tell me things like “Synaptic Laxative,  reign in your argument”.

Anyway,  here it goes:

This past Easter (2016) marked the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s much-fabled Easter Rising. It was a classic, forlorn hope of a relative handful of fed-up radicals who commandeered a few key points in  and around Dublin and declared an “Irish Republic”, free of British rule and meddling after some 700 years. In short, the whole affair was a disaster which left nearly 500 dead and over 2000 wounded (most of them civilians, caused by the  British using heavy artillery), the city destroyed (again, mainly caused by the British use of heavy artillery) and a population left bewildered by what happened.  Despite, and because of, the British government’s zeal to punish the leaders, it paved the way for the eventual end of British rule in 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. (more on that at a later date)


Regardless of the significance of the Easter Rising, there is no single event in Irish history that has done more to galvanize popular opinion against the British rule in Ireland than the “Famine” ( An Gorta Mór  “The Great Hunger”) of 1845-1850.  This event completely shook the very foundation of Irish society as a whole to the core.  It left a scar so deep within the psyche of the Irish people that the country has yet to fully recover.  In fact, Ireland celebrated it’s population reaching one half of it’s pre-“Famine” population in 1995–  150 years later. Between 1845 and 1851, over a million starved to death, another million or so died from diseases such as dysentery (“the bloody flux”), typhus, cholera and diphtheria. Another three million left Ireland and, according to some accounts, nearly half a million escaping died on the trip to either Australia or North America. The impact of these five years have become an indelible watershed in not only Irish history, but in Anglo-Irish relations that continues to resonate even today.

Certainly the horrors of entire towns disappearing, mass graves of wasted bodies and a lack of affordable food existed.   However, to call this tragedy a “famine” is wholeheartedly untrue.  A “famine” implies “a lack of food”.  When in reality, cattle and crops were being exported from the island the entire time. Famines, like poverty, in industrialized nations only occur when there is a lack of political will to prevent them. And the lack of political will was certainly rampant in Britain’s oldest colony.  But, was it an intentional attempt at “genocide” by the British government?  Honestly? Not really, although there were undoubtedly elements within the administration at the time that more than likely hoped for that.

The challenge with Irish history as a whole is that the mythology is so intertwined with history is that it’s difficult to sift through the bullshit and get to the facts.  The Irish nationalist will tell you it was flat-out genocide, and they would not be far-off.  The British apologist would tell you that it was the laissezfaire free-market that kept the British government from stepping-in and doing more to assist the distressed people. And again, they would not be far-off, either. However, the “Famine” occurred at a time when Britain was not only the most prosperous nation in the world, but possessed the largest empire the world has ever known before or since. So, what the hell happened?

In order to explain the events that occurred in Ireland  between 1845 and 1850, one must delve way back into Irish history.  As briefly as I can, I will attempt to explain the how and why this “famine” happened.

The background: Croppies Lie Down

Oh, croppies ye’d better be quiet and still
Ye shan’t have your liberty, do what ye will
As long as salt water is formed in the deep
A foot on the necks of the croppy we’ll keep
And drink, as in bumpers past troubles we drown,
A health to the lads that made croppies lie down
Down, down, croppies lie down.

After the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, a series of  laws were put into effect to ensure the pacification of it’s people.  While these Penal Laws were established in the early 1600s, (it was forbidden to dress or wear one’s hair in the “Irish fashion”, for example) it wasn’t until 1691 that they took a serious draconian character.  Ultra-progressive Anglo-Irish statesman Sir Edmund Burke in the 1750s, described these Penal Laws as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”  Wow! So what were these laws?

Among them were provisions forbidding Irish Catholics (as well as Presbyterian “dissenters” to a lesser extent) from practicing their religion (rescinded in 1795 for Presbyterians), to hold any sort of elected office or voting, to obtain an education in Ireland or abroad, forbidden to be armed or to serve in the military (until 1793), marrying a Protestant or even owning a horse worth more than five pounds. It also forbade Irish Catholics from living within five miles of a  corporate town.  These restrictions were eventually dropped entirely for all Protestants (even the Presbyterian “dissenters” from the Anglican fold) by the 1780s. Hell, Catholics weren’t even allowed to build churches out of stone; they had to be built out of wood (because that shit is easier to burn, right?).  Perhaps most damaging was the provision that Catholics were not only unable to own land worth more than a few pounds, they were also unable to inherit land from Protestants.  Add to that a “Plantation” of Protestants to Ireland by edict of King James I (the King James Bible guy), and maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

Ireland did have it’s own “parliament”, of a sort.  However it was merely an extension of the will of the English monarch and was unable to enact any legislation on it’s own. But even this token institution was rendered obsolete by the Act of Union in 1800 in which Ireland was officially made part of the United Kingdom.  Interestingly, this act had some unlikely supporters and opponents. Among those in favor was the Catholic Church, who believed that with the Union,  Catholic Emancipation would immediately follow.  The staunchly Protestant Orange Order was opposed to the Union also for this very same reason. The “Catholic question” had stymied any sort of progressive legislature in Ireland since Tudor rule;  it had made and broken repeated coalition governments, it had smothered the repeal of the Penal Laws, it had hampered any sort of meaningful land reform scheme, but most of all  it obscured Ireland’s own sense of self-determination.

Granted,  most of the Penal Laws had been repealed thanks to Daniel O’Connell and the “Catholic Emancipation” movement by 1830. Sure, they were “emancipated”, however there was no equivalent to the “Freedman’s Bureau” (as there was in the US) established in Ireland to help acclimate the peasantry to their new-found alleged freedom. Rather than using the momentum of Catholic Emancipation to fight for any transitory programs that would have helped to bring the Catholic peasantry more into the political and social fold, land-reform or educational opportunities or anything else to sort-out the immediate destitute, O’Connell chose instead to direct his energy towards an ill-fated campaign to Repeal the Union. Regardless, the damage was done.

Emancipation itself did very little to change the state of the average Irish Catholic peasant. Generations before the Act of Union, the Penal Laws had effectively reduced Irish Catholic peasants to a state of such brutal ignorance and poverty that is incomprehensible to most of us in the modern world . As a result, by the eve of the “famine”, while the Irish Catholics comprised of roughly 85% of the population,  they only owned about 15% of the land, and most of this was marginal land that could really only support a handful of crops. One of these crops was a New World importation:  the humble potato. But it was a particular variety of potato , the lumper, that really took off. It could be grown in the crappiest land and required little maintenance in the Irish climate.  It produced a hell of a lot of spuds for the amount of land it required as well. Sounds pretty cool, huh?  It wasn’t.

Thanks in part to both Catholic dogma and the propensity of impoverished and rural people to have larger families,  the peasantry of course bred like rabbits (because what else can you do when you have absolutely no money and no chance of leaving your assigned ghetto other than to have sex?). Between 1767 and 1845, the population exploded from approximately 2.5 million to around 8.5 million.  And out of that 8.5 million,  around 2/5  (or 3 million) were completely reliant on the potato as their sole source of nourishment.  In fact, the average adult was consuming between 13 and 15 pounds of potatoes a day.  Since for generations the peasantry had become so completely dependent on this one crop, most of the poorest folks had no idea how to cook anything else except boiled potatoes.  No salt, no sour cream, no butter. Just boiled potatoes, naked. Yep, naked boiled taters in the morning, naked boiled taters in the evening, naked boiled taters at suppertime.  Naked boiled taters for second breakfast, naked boiled taters for a snack.

The over-population, combined with the utter dependency on a single crop as well as being marginalized in not only land, but in every social and civil institution as well, created a Malthusian atmosphere. Defined by English scholar , Thomas Malthus,  Malthusianism  is “that population tends to increase at a faster rate than its means of subsistence and that unless it is checked by moral restraint or disaster (as disease, famine, or war) widespread poverty and degradation inevitably result”  (thanks, Mirriam-Webster).  Needless to say, this sort of situation never tends to have a happy ending.

To put this in a more relateable context:  imagine the local “cat lady”.  She feeds a hungry cat.  Eventually, a second cat comes along and the cat-lady has no problem feeding her friend’s buddy.  Then one of the cats gets knocked-up.  Well the cat-lady can’t just fuck-off four little kittens, can she?  So, now she is feeding six cats. Other cats also start showing-up because — hey, free food, right?  The six cats become a dozen.  Those dozen cats start reproducing (as cats do when there is an ample supply of food and they feel comfortable) and within a year that one cat becomes twenty cats.  The population continues to grow exponentially because there is a severe dependence on a single food source and no real source of predation (other than disease which becomes rampant in unchecked populations).   This goes on for years, until the cat-lady either dies, or is removed from the home due to cat-hoarding or medical mishap.  Now, you have dozens of cats with no means of sustenance.  This is what happened in Ireland, only the “cat-lady” was the potato and the “cats” were the destitute Irish population.

So, you have an explosion in the population, living on increasingly smaller plots of marginal land, completely dependent on a single food source. The crop failure of 1845 was not a new phenomena, either.  Between 1728 and 1851,  Ireland had experienced crop failures at least 24 times.  Yet, even with the harvest was good,  many Irish lived in a state of semi-starvation for several weeks to a few months waiting for the next crop to come in. However, the  blight, Phytophthora infestans wiped-out well over 1/3 of the potatoes in 1845. While, that in itself was terrible, it was manageable.  However, the blight in 1846 wiped-out over 1/2 of the crop and in 1847, the tiny amount of potatoes that escaped the previous two years were a complete loss.  It is noteworthy that the provinces of Ulster to the north and Leinster to the east were relatively unscathed, thanks partly to less Catholics living in those areas (hence, less absolutely destitute people) and a more diversified agriculture.

The rampant, widespread poverty; the social and civil exclusion for generations; the marginalization of land-ownership and the complete dependency on a single food source all played their part in creating the disaster of the “famine.  There were several other mitigating factors that also played an integral part in creating the atmosphere that allowed it all to happen.  Most notably was the British attitude towards the Irish in general; the ridiculous system of land-allocation; the absolute free-market laissez-faire economic mind-set and the British government’s response; the “Poor Law” system;  the failed rebellion of 1798 (more on that at a later date) and the Act of Union in December 1800.

British Attitudes Towards the Irish: Drunks Calling Drunks, “Drunks”

Theoretically, the abolition of the separate, puppet parliament and the ensuing Act of Union was supposed to bring Ireland in from the provincial cold. In reality, very little actually changed.  As mentioned earlier, Catholic Emancipation would not occur for another thirty years, there was no program for land-reform or industrialization.  Basically, all it really did was eradicate the last vestige of any economic independence Ireland may have had. In other words, it bound the trade to whatever standards the London government established for the rest of the United Kingdom. If the price of a pound of oats was X in England or Wales, it was X in Ireland as well, regardless of the supply in the local market. Additionally, it maintained Ireland as an agrarian backwater and a bread-basket for the mainland and the rest of the empire.

It’s not a new revelation that the Victorian English regarded the Irish Catholics  as something less than human,  a common enough opinion regarding the natives in Britain’s far-flung colonies.  However, it was Ireland’s proximity to the Mother Isle  and large, mainland urban pockets of impoverished Irish immigrants living in squalor topped with the Irish’s propensity to rebel against their Anglo masters that did little to engender any sense of brotherly love towards Irish Catholics. Needless to say,  the Victorian press was at best unkind towards the Irish peasantry and the problems they faced. They were commonly portrayed in the media as being ginger-haired bearded apes;  violent, lazy, Gaelic-blithering, drunken troglodytes. Of course, with the Germanic-leaning British upper-crust, eugenics also reared it’s ugly head.


The Irish Gaelic Catholic had still not been broken into acquiescing what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden”: that is accepting British ways, including the Anglican / Protestant religion; therefore they were regarded as “disloyal” to the crown. The Irish were filthy, ignorant parasites that were always leeching off the hard-working, industrious English. The Irish were scum, bacteria and hardly worth a second thought.  This propaganda helped to serve two very different echelons of society.

The upper-class benefited by having an eternal scapegoat close at hand; as did the working-class who were literally fighting immigrant Irish for daily work in the mainland, often alongside children also vying for a finite number of jobs.  Throw into the mix several thousand of unskilled or semi-skilled Irish laborers fleeing the poverty and agrarian violence of home. With the failed rebellion of Wolfe Tone’s in 1798 still fresh in folk memory, Marx-inspired rabble-rousers would frequently be the bearers of Irish names, lending credence to the spectre of a Guy Fawkesesque, Catholic  “conspiracies” ever afoot   So,  while the upper and working-classes of British society saw eye to eye on absolutely nothing at all, they could at least agree on one thing : the Irish simply made everything worse.

gunpowder irish.jpg

The British upper-class also regarded the Irish as perpetually making the “poor mouth”, as in constant need of charity (because they were all lazy drunks, of course).  That  “Charity” was not a virtue the Victorian British government, nor the upper-crust possessed at all. Charity, it was believed, was best left to religions orders, or private enterprise so as to not destabilize the market. However, as the crisis wore on, the government eventually had no choice but to step-in to a degree.  More in this further on.

Being by and large proudly, and steadfastly Protestant, the British, tended to view the state of the Irish poor as a by-product of their outdated, medieval, superstitious Papist religion. Quite a few Evangelical sects went so far as to proclaim the “famine” was the result of Divine Intervention and some even attempted exploit the situation by attempting to force conversions in exchange for a bowl of soup. Thus the legacy of souperism and “taking the soup”as an euphemism for “betrayal”.  Other sects used Divine Intervention as a way of expressing outrage at the rampant poverty that enabled a handful of landlords to live so lavishly while the majority lived in squalor and starved.

However, many Protestants went to great lengths to help the destitute. Most notably the efforts of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) was astonishing. Although they numbered only about 3000 members in Ireland,  the Quakers worked tirelessly to feed as many people as possible. They managed to  raise some £200,000, eventually distributing around 8,000 tons of food and also provided clothing to thousands of people. Some of the funds they raised were used to purchase land to provide a “model farm” in County Galway to help provide job-skills training crop diversity, land-drainage and mill construction. One would be hard-pressed to find anything other than praise for these incredibly kind people.

Land Ownership: To Hell or Connaught

After a few hundred years,  the disenfranchisement of the Catholic Irish peasantry had become the unquestioned norm. Repeated rebellions and invasions, along with various partial conquests and re-granting of land to “loyal” Protestants had expanded English jurisdiction in Ireland well beyond the English “Pale” of Dublin and it’s suburbs .


By the end of the 17th century  a majority of the Irish Catholic population had been driven to the western and southern fringes of the island. Huge tracts of Ireland’s land (estates) were in the hands of British and Anglo-Irish absentee landlords who did not even reside on their Irish possessions. Through the aforementioned Penal Laws scheme, land was portioned-out to all male heirs in the event of a Catholic land-owner’s death, rather than the traditional oldest son or daughter. Unless one of the Catholic’s offspring decided to convert to the Anglican church.  If he did, he acquired all the land.  If there were no qualifying heirs, the land was forfeited either to the landlord via auction or the Anglican church.

This ensured that Catholics would never acquire any substantial amount of land.  Instead, more and more were forced onto smaller and smaller plots of marginal land. This has been regarded by many historians as a  deliberate attempt at genocide; by the displacing of millions to such substandard land that forced emigration would invariably result. Duly noted.

Most Irish peasants were reduced to renting a plot of land to eke-out their merge living  from one of these landlords, again in the most marginal tracts as the best land was leased-out for grazing cattle. Additionally, the tenant-farmers were highly discouraged from making any improvement on the land as that would have meant a higher overall value of the land, which would have of course incurred the corresponding increase in tax owed to the Crown. Many of these estates were managed by local, Catholic lackeys who were rarely in possession of the faculties to organize a teenagers’ keg-party, much less manage thousands of acres of land with sometimes hundreds of tenants. In fact, these Catholic lackeys acted in much of the same vein as black overseers in the antebellum American South.

In addition to the rents paid to them by the tenant farmers, landlords made money off agriculture such as cattle, food crops other than potatoes (that fetched a higher market-price) and of course, booze. It’s no secret that quite a bit of food was in fact exported out of Ireland and many landlords did very well for themselves.  However,  it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether or not the amount of food being exported would have been sufficient to feed the masses had it remained. Scholars continue to quibble over the numbers, nevertheless. More on this a little further on.

For a little further reading, check-out this article from History Ireland  regarding the exports of food during 1846-1847:

Given that the value of their estates had been appraised for a certain amount of money based in part on the number of tenants paying rent, land-lords were to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s in taxes.  As the blight continued, the tenants  were forced to either spend whatever they had on food which was skyrocketing in price, or pay rent and starve. Most chose the former, rather than the latter for obvious reasons.  In the early stages, this was not a real problem;  the landlords were generally able to weather the odd bad harvest, etc.  However, as the crisis wore on, landlords rapidly began to lose their savings.  In order to have the value of the land, and accordingly the amount of tax, lowered, landlords took to evicting tenants who were in arrears.  This created an entirely new mess altogether. As people were not only being evicted, in many cases, the landlords (with the backing of the police)  were literally tearing-down the crude stone hovels in which the peasantry resided. Now, you had not only a starving population, but you also had a homeless, starving population.

The Poor Law Unions, the Workhouse, Corn Laws and Public Works :  The Laissez Faire free-market’s loquacious “fuck you” to the poor 

Considering the economic circumstances, it was only a matter of time before the crushing poverty endured by a majority of the population would have an effect on the landed gentry. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until the gentry began to feel the bite was anything actually done to address the land-issue. Of course, government intervention occurred only too late i the game to save the lives of millions, and even then it came grudgingly. 

In exchange for keeping these sometimes vast estates,  landlords (along with merchants) were also required to invest in the maintenance of roads and bridges and other bits of infrastructure; as well as contribute to the local Poor Law Unions.  The Poor Law, on the surface, sounds like a government scheme to take care of the destitute. And yes,  it was. However, it’s origins lay in the aftermath of the Black Death in the fourteenth century when 30% – 40% of England’s labor force perished.  A series of statues were passed in order to keep the remaining labor in place as well as keep prices and wages fixed.  In the 1530s, this was expanded to help take care of the destitute and became part of the social contract that the state would help take of the poor who had no means whatsoever. Thus, a primitive precursor to the modern welfare state.  However, for nearly 300 years, the Poor Law remained virtually static until the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the coming of the Industrial Revolution. After 1834, some parishes or “unions” were operating on the “new” system, administered from central committees;  while most remained under the old standard of being administered locally.  Of course this lack of uniformity lead to problems of inefficiency and opened the door wide for corruption.

Generally speaking, the first line of government defense against crushing poverty was  the dismal institution of the dreaded Workhouse and limited public works. Volumes have been written about these bleak holes of wretchedness and abject poverty.  In brief,  they were designed to be  horrible; the absolute last resort of the chronically impoverished. Most of them doubled as orphanages and nursing homes; able-bodied men were allowed only for day labor, generally stone-breaking for roadwork; only unmarried or widowed women with children and the elderly were admitted as “inmates”. There they survived on the most meager  of rations, slept in filthy straw and sewed grain bags, picked oakum (bits of shipping rope) or performed other menial tasks.  The chances of most people entering the Workhouse ever leaving were slim as there was no wage system or job-training in place to help people get back on their feet and disease in these cramped quarters was rampant.

At most, the workhouses of each Union were designed and funded to accommodate anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of hundred bodies. However, as the crisis deepened and more and more people were being evicted, even the workhouses were being overwhelmed by hundreds and thousands of desperate people.  What could possibly be done?

Chas steps in:

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling
Michael, they have taken you away,
For you stole Trevelyan’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.


Enter the most reviled and misunderstood character of the entire debacle,  Charles Edward Trevelyan.  He was a British civil servant and in charge of the Exchequer during the crisis. He was perhaps both the best and the worst for the job.    His disdain towards the Irish is well documented:

“The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.

Yes, he said that.

Yet, he is also credited with saying in an 1846 letter:

“Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, coûte que coûte (at any cost), the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.”

The real challenge for the historian is to provide Trevelyan with an adequate defense. While it is difficult for contemporary opinion to forgive the man, it’s important that we distance his work from his personal views to a certain degree.

Working within the confines (and sometimes, creatively manipulating those confines) of contemporary British trade laws, such as the infamous, protectionist “Corn laws”, Trevelyan was given the most impossible task: figure-out how to fix this mess without spending any money. There is absolutely no question that he took his job seriously. Working sometimes upwards of 16-hour days, he managed to come up with public work schemes that fell out-of-line with his own bigoted view of the Irish, yet in many ways also went against the “free market”.  Most noteworthy (or infamous) was his managing to purchase a load of “Indian corn”,  (at the time, all grains were considered “corn” in the UK. Maize, is what your people called “Indian corn”) in an attempt to stabilize the market. This corn sat idle as the other farmers grumbled about the profits they would make off the other crops, which were being shipped to England. Meanwhile, people were starving to death.

Clearly, this particular market-stabilization scheme was not going to work; farmers were getting screwed, the economy was spiraling out of control, landlords were falling into arrears despite evictions. However,  Trevelyan’s Corn did precious little to alleviate the rapid inflation despite it’s original intention.  He cut-off food distribution centers, complaining that the Irish were already too dependent on the graciousness of Her Majesty’s Government and vowed to make “Irish property pay for Irish poverty”. What to do?

With the workhouses being filled to over-capacity and existing Poor Law Unions funds stretched beyond their limit, the British government decided the best way to solve the problem was through a series of public works. Trevelyan railed against it; building roads to nowhere was anathema to the free-market; it created a class of people dependent on public works.  So, what he did, is he made them only temporarily favorable.  Public works were limited, overseers were on hand to make sure laborers bought food and not booze with their pay.  Anyone found buying booze was generally cast-out of the public works labor pool. Trevelyan was a stickler for sobriety.

In many ways, the public works exacerbated an already precarious situation. Since Trevelyan closed-down the government-backed food depots, it was up to local land-owners to provide food for the workers to buy with their daily wages, nevermind that many starving workers were required to walk several miles just to get to the worksite.  Unfortunately, the wages were rarely enough to purchase food as well as pay rent.  In a masterful scheme, landlords were taking rent money from these folks, selling them what little food they could afford with public works wages and then evicting them when they were unable to pay the rent; thereby alleviating their own tax burden to the system that was supposed to help these people to begin with. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it, too

To be fair, the landlords did have a legitimate complaint;  as the crisis wore-on and more and more tenants were unable to pay rents, the landlords had to absorb the cost of having them as tenants as well as pay int the the Poor Law Unions. Many of these landlords were also British army officers paying out-of-pocket to raise local regiments for the British army.  The tax-burden of having non-paying tenants, as well the tax-burden of allowing said tenants make improvements on the land as well as the raising of regiments left many landlords on the brink of economic ruin. Despite the sometimes mass-evictions, most landlords were in arrears and many were unable to shoulder the tax-burden any longer. This dilemma eventually led to the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849, but that only sorted-out the landlords.

Deportations : The Removal of the Irish from Ireland, For the Sake Of Ireland

After five successive years of blight, the Irish countryside was in every sense an agrarian wasteland. Eyewitnesses recalled  lurid, apocalyptic imagery straight out of The Inferno or The Decameron;  vast tracts of desolation, devoid of any living being; of hollow-eyed living skeletons languishing for want of food that simply is not there. The torn-down homes of the evicted. Corpses on the roadside with mouths full of grass; entire townships reeking of decay from nearby mass graves; consistent, crushing poverty, and general despair took it’s toll.  During the “famine” and for years, even decades, afterwards, the Irish fled their homeland, in record numbers thanks to landlord-assisted emigration.  In 1847 (Black ’47) even The London Times commented:

“They are going! They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.

As the Encumbered Estates Acts became law, landlords found that paying  the emigration passage of tenants made more economic sense then trying to wrestle with  the Crown regarding back-taxes.  The Government quickly saw the benefit and cost-effectiveness of thinning the herd as well,  and began their own assisted-emigration schemes.  In all, some one million to one and half million left between 1845-1855 alone.  While many went to the British mainland, others left for North American and Australia.  Again, the “free market” was allowed to come into play and landlords and government agencies sometimes either unwittingly, or indifferently dealt with unscrupulous passage contractors.  Forever hailed as “coffin ships”, the conditions of these particular vessels were reminiscent of floating dungeons. Cramped, often without adequate food and water, disease was rampant and hundreds, if not thousands in total died en route.  Even those that made it ashore were not always guaranteed and end to their Hell.  At the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, Quebec alone, some 5,000 died from disease.

It’s well I do remember the year of forty-eight
When we arose with Erin’s boys to fight against our fate
I was hunted through the mountains as a traitor to the Queen
And that’s another reason that I left Old Skibbereen

Aftermath : Rebellion and Reform

In 1848, a handful of idealistic fools attempted a rebellion.  Under the guise of Young Ireland, brave men such as William Smith-O’Brien fought a doomed-from-the-start battle to address the injustices committed by the British on Ireland.  (More on William Smith-O’Brien at a later date).  But it did help to solidify Patrick Pearse’s claim in 1916 that Irishmen and Irishwomen of every generation had repeatedly struck for Ireland’s freedom.  Also, to his eternal credit, he also envisioned what would eventually become the Irish National Flag. “The new Irish flag would be Orange and Green, and would be known as the Irish tricolor. 

The Irish diaspora of which so much has been written about  already, began to factor into the Irish political landscape. Before the “Famine” the Irish generally sang songs of love-affairs, maybe the odd brigand or something nostalgic from the good-old-days.   During and after the “Famine”, Irish bards took a decidedly darker turn and began composing songs of vengeance. This was especially prevalent along the northeastern seaboard of the US where thousands had taken refuge.  And this is also where most of the money for the Easter Rebellion of 1916 came from as well.

The bullshit legislation introduced during the crisis was only geared to alleviate the alleged-sufferings of the landed Anglo-Irish gentry.  It really wasn’t until 1878,  nearly thirty years after the “Famine” crisis had passed that any real land reform came into being.  And the hero of this movement was not an angry Catholic peasant, as would be expected.  It was the prodigal son of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy , the “Uncrowned King of Ireland”, who was ruined by the revelation in the press that he was banging the wife of Captain William O’Shea, a “respected” army officer, and had been banging her for quite some time.

Before the scandal ruined him politically, Charles Stewart Parnell had been a scion of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Born during the “famine” in June, 1846 into an affluent family, he looked a bit like Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and upon his father’s death in 1859, he inherited the modest estate, Avondale.  He attended the Magdalene School in Cambridge for a time, but did not finish.  In 1871, he visited his eldest brother, John who was a farmer in Alabama (of all places) and spent a considerable time touring the American South. By 1847, he was was High Sheriff of Wicklow and became active in the Land League (formed in 1873 by the likes of Micheal Davit and inspired in part by the writings of James Fintan Lawler).  After a couple of false-starts, he won a seat in Parliament in a by-election in 1875.


However, it wasn’t until 1876, that he really began to gain attention when he expressed his disbelief that Fenians in Manchester had committed a murder.  It was well known he won the by-election partly due to the backing of some Fenians and the question remains whether or not he was actually involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  He had attended many IRB (Fenian) functions and meetings,  that much is well known as well. However, it was his success in promoting the Land League’s platform as well as championing the cause of Irish Home Rule that ultimately did more to ruin him than his dalliance with Kitty O’Shea.  It was supposed to have ruined his work as well; however, that was simply not to be.  When Captain O’Shea finally divorced his tart in 1890, Parnell’s reputation was dragged through the proverbial political mud in the courts as well as in the press. He tried to fight on,  but the strain caused his health to fail and he never regained his political pedestal, yet still died a hero in October 1891, aged 45.

Ireland would pass through some incredibly uncertain times between Parnell’s death and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1920 which partitioned the island into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.  But the fuse had been lit.  Thanks to Parnell, the legacy of O’Connell, the failed Young Ireland rising and most importantly, the “famine”, the Irish of the second-half of the 19th Century had learned a key lesson, the legacy of which continues to a degree, to this day;  it took constant, organized agitation as well as strong-arming the establishment back to be taken seriously as a self-determined nation once again.

But that is all for a much later post.


Hallows Eve — Southern Thrash, old school (part one, The Metal Blade years)

“Jesus Christ, Mr Synaptic Laxative — what is with you and 1985 / 1986 Metal Blade thrash metal bands?”

Thanks for asking, Kind Reader.  In short,  I have no real answer to this.  I was young, impressionable and I was getting a LOT of free vinyl from Metal Blade at the time.  I was an angry, Pagan kid in Alabama who dared not be too vociferous about my beliefs.  I was an outcast. A loner. A maverick. An island unto myself. It was the only reason anyone would hang-out with me. Whatever bullshit you wanna add.  The truth, however, is simple; Goddamn, I love this band!


Just look at that bunch of lovable schmucks.

Now, I understand some folks may be like “oh, you just like them because they are a Southern band”.  True.  Very true.  But that’s not the only reason, not by a long-shot.  I love this band because…fucksakes, they are just so bad-ass.

Their debut album, Tales of Terror,  in 1985, is friggin’ relentless. Tommy Stewart on bass, Stacy Anderson on vox, Skullator and Dave Stuart on guitar,  Ronny Appolot and Tym Heldon swapping-up on drums.  It opens with the apocalyptic “Plunging to Megadeath” (not to be confused with that band Dave Mustaine has, which doesn’t even spell “death” correctly).  The  bass, the guitar, the drums… it’s crazy shit. They play like there is no tomorrow, like men crazed for a chance at survival. Stacy  bites and gnashes his vocals as if someone had thrown the man a slab of bacon slathered in honey and wrapped in more bacon. But it’s not some shrieking bullshit;  this is a controlled rage.  Focused, yet visceral; an anti-war rant that is timeless and topical.

“Plunging to Megadeath seeking the truth plunging to Megadeath
Searching the youth plunge to Megadeath you live for tomorrow we live
For today our strength’s held here within our youth man soars through space
But he still wonders who lies and just who speaks the truth worrying
Won’t bring you one bit of good if you die you’ll die not at will
You’ll soon be feeling the cold hand of doom is your blood beginning to chill?”

check it out —

That is the band we all wanted to be in (by “we”, I mean my crowd of twenty or so metaldorks in Tuscaloosa, Alabama) ; this  was the album that put the South on the metal-map.  And there is just so much more. The entire album is just an awesome combination of speed and restraint. A perfect storm.

Speaking of “a perfect storm”, check out the instrumental, “Valley of Dolls” and as it goes into “Metal Merchants”.  Fucksakes!  (sorry for the crappy sound-quality — I didn’t post this)

And then, there is “Horrorshow” — jaysus!  Everything you’d ever want in a metal song.

However, I think my favorite off this album is the misfit-anthem “There Are No Rules”. This is metal mixed with just balls-out rock n roll.  It’s fast, it’s short and it slaps the friggin taste out of your mouth

However, it was the 1986 follow-up,  Death and Insanity, that really put Hallows Eve on the metal map.  Unfortunately, Skullator and Ronny had parted ways with the band by then. This second album is much more polished-sounding, slicker, more crisp. My only complaint is that Tommy Stewart’s bass could have come through in the mix a bit more. Other than that, who could possibly find any fault with this album?  The production (aside from the bass mix) is pretty friggin awesome;  the drums are almost iridescent — the sizzle of the snare, the tap on the cymbals; you can totally hear and Stacy’s vocals shine through like a paraffin-infused Rottweiler’s anger. But what really sets this album apart from it’s predecessor’s is the overall songwriting and structure. I remember the first time I heard this album, I almost didn’t believe it was the same band.


Goddamn,  this album made me realize that these guys were probably one of the best American metal bands out there. Everything about Death and Insanity is just so great; even after thirty years, it still makes my pee-pee smile. What seems to escape most fans is that this album’s title gives a clear indication of the theme.  Yes, it’s all about Death and Insanity.  Absolutely.  And that might be a turn-off for many. But how they approach it is so totally different;  I would actually liken this album to a loose concept-album,.  Kinda like The Wall  or maybe even Quadrophenia, but without the confines of that sort of structuring .  It’s not nearly as harsh as its predecessor  , nor does it have that whole “wall of sound” that Tales of Terror had.  But what it lacks in “brutality”, it more than makes up for in substance.  No, this was a totally different album, by a much more mature band.  The stand-out for me is “Nobody Lives Forever”,  lyrics penned by Tommy Stewart. There is one verse that really speaks to me still, after all these years:

“I know when I reach my life’s sum
The addition will probably be wrong
That’s okay, I’ve made my mark
Pissed in public, at least in the dark”

Three words: Pure. Fucking. Poetry.  At sixteen years of age, that pretty much clinched everything. Because, I actually did that!  Finally, a metal band that got me!  None of that psychopathic silliness, none of that Satanic nonsense, none of that bullshit. Here was a band that understood the alienation of a Southern metalhead in the 1980s.  Oh, yes! Many years later (2006?), I was fortunate enough to meet Tommy and told him how these words have provided me with the foundation of my existence since my misspent youth. He grinned and said, “You like that one, huh?”  Hella awesome.  Have a earful:

Oh, and it gets even better.  That was probably the most “commercially accessible” tune (whatever that actually means) from the album.  It has a nice, toe-tapping tempo, mixed with some choice speedy bits.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  The greatest thing about this album is that while all the songs sound like “Hallows Eve”,  they also all sound very different.

For example,  Lethal Tendencies is grungy and kinda sludgy.  It’s like the mindset of a man who is letting the world getting better of him and is slowly descending into abject paranoia, depression and finally just saying “fuck it!” And then maybe waking-up in Hell.

How many bands can you name have ever touched on the plight of the elderly and senile?  I can only think of a handful, but these guys fucking nail it.  Vocalist Stacy penned the lyrics of Plea of the Aged  and it’s obvious he either had a family member, or had the family member of someone close to him who languished in a nursing home. It’s not satire, it’s not smarmy, it’s not some silly bullshit.  This is a sincere look at the fact we are all gonna grow old, feeble, loose the memories we most cherish and eventually die.  Of course, there is no reason not to bang your head to it and have a bit of fun.  The lyrics are spat-out quickly, as if the protagonist were about to expire and had a few choice words for the world to know before,  well, you know.  Now, I could post all the lyrics and have everyone trundle though them while listening to this.  But, I’m not gonna be that accommodating.  I will post this bit, however:

“Take from me my very soul with wretched mourning death
Take mine eyes for I have seen the hell in which we live
Take now from one man on earth who loved this life so much
Take away everything for it’s all cold to the touch
Remember me, hear my plea soon the darkness I will see
Remember me, hear my plea for now another…”

Just listen.

Now that I have bummed you out, let’s take a whole new direction. Well, maybe not a a new direction, but at least a direction that won’t have you jeezin-out over your own imminent mortality. Okay,  I lie.  D.I.E. (Death in Effect) is probably the signature tune of this album. Clocking in at just under seven minutes, it’s the longest tune here and for good reason. This is a meditation on life, existence, death and the afterlife. But most importantly,  how  one lives life and views life itself. Again, this one is grungy and plodding, but so is life, right?

“We are all dying there’s no sense in trying no way you can stop it, no way
Death comes to you when you’re an early son
Then he walks beside you all the way
Any moment he might strike reflecting your past life
And sentencing you to the grave
Don’t live life worrying ’bout things you can’t stop
If you give in then you’ll be his slave”

Bend thy ear for seven minutes and become enlightened.

There was a two-year lull before Hallows Eve released Monument in 1988. Metal had changed, especially thrash metal.  Labels were looking for the next “big thing”. Because labels are really only concerned with money.  And by 1988, Metal Blade was no different.  Gone were the days of record companies sending multiple copies of albums as promotional give-aways. Record companies became stingy as fuck.  We used to get not only multiple copies of rekkids, but they stopped sending autographed promo pics, stickers. posters, patches and tickets to shows as well. There seemed to be an attitude of “well, if majors haven’t picked-up a band by now, there was no real reason to actually promote bands. As a result, the scene suffered.  And Hallows Eve was caught, by no fault of their own in this web of bullshit, like so many other bands at the time.

Regardless of the high and low of it all, Monument was released.  I really liked the album; I still do. Finally, Tommy Stewart’s bass shined through on this one and it maintains the crispness of it’s predessessor. And I think what I really liked about it was that they seemed to consciously maintain the vibe and feel of Death and Insanity.   It’s a kick-ass album.  It opens with a great thrash epic “Speed Freak”, followed by a Queen cover of “Sheer Heart Attack” and then delves into “Rot Gut”, a commentary on an unbalanced human psyche that is actually kinda scary given the modern context.  Vaguely alluding to a spree-shooter, well before that shit became en vogue during the Clinton era, this tune plods along as a mid-tempo tribute to the mosh-pit war-dances of yore and suburban angst.

“Dog dung, TV cum
Residential maelstrom
Find a closet, hide from mom
Suck some rot gut, clean my gun

Water jar, family car
Wobble-up to the local bar
Gonna have me a little fun
Suck some rot gut, load my gun

Public school, Kenwood fool
Heads explode, nobody’s tool
Pull the trigger and I’ll be done
Suck some rot gut, fire my gun”


For years,  I have puzzled-over the meaning of the title track to this album.  I’m not certain if it’s an ode to the futility of existence, or if it’s an homage to some great unifying principle that we all share. Of course, I never thought to actually ask them what they meant by it.  Regardless,  it’s an epic, thought-provoking ditty and my favorite lyric is:

“For every man stands a ghost
For every ghost stands a star
For every star stands a thought
And these accumulate somewhere”

Finally,  I would like to mention “The Righteous Ones” and “No Sanctuary”. Both touch on something that is very topical these days; the insistence of the Evangelical Right’s push to interfere with individual rights, while hiding behind “freedom of religion”. While the sheer hypocrisy of the Evangelical crowd could in many ways be laughed-off as the loud-mouthed rantings of terrified, intellectually-retarded Bible-thumpers,  it’s gets a little more  uneasy when one realizes these ignorant, sanctimonious fools have actual political power.  They bemoan “Sharia Law”, but they refuse to understand that’s exactly what they want to impose on everyone else.

“The Righteous Ones
Lead us on
With make believe
Your so-called righteousness
Forget your Constitutional rights
We are the new law
Soon you will
Be cleansed like us
Without any flaws!”

“No Sanctuary
For those without forgiveness in their hearts
Life’s more punishing than death
For those without mercy in their souls
The world is thine unrelenting enemy”

So,  while the album ends on a “serious note”,  “No Sanctuary” jams, does it not?  We would have to wait until 2005 for a new Hallows Eve album.  However,  Monument was a hell of a way to end the 80s.

More on the post-Metal Blade years sometime later on

Why I Still Love Slayer, and the “Hell Awaits” Era In Particular


The first article I ever had published was an article about Slayer in my high school newspaper.  So,  I guess it’s only fitting that my first blog post would also be about Slayer.  I have matured so much since 1986.

I was fourteen when I first heard Slayer.  It was 1984 and I was entering my  freshman year of high school. I had already been a long-time fan of hard-rock and metal, but it had been of the Motley Crue, WASP, Dio and Iron Maiden variety with a dash of Metallica.  Tom Duncan (The Heavy Metal Warrior) had taken over the Friday night 10pm-2am slot on the University of Alabama’s radio station (WVUA– or V-91 back them) and called it “Total Destruction”.   It was a ballsy move on his part;  the University of Alabama as well as the surrounding town of Tuscaloosa was and still is staunchly firm in their view about what constituted as the “Three Pillars of Civilization”.  Jesus Christ, Alabama Football and deer hunting. None of which were my thing.  I did, however, love metal.  But when I heard “Chemical Warfare” by Slayer for the first time, everything changed.

Tom played real metal.  Thrash/black/death metal.  We weren’t so “genre-obsessed” back then; none of this “power metal”, “nu metal”,”post metal” (whatever the hell that is),”doom metal”, “National Socialist Black Metal” silliness.  However there was a clear distinction between “glam / hair metal” (poseurs) and “real metal”. “Real metal” a definition for it is rather elusive. It’s a bit like what the US Supreme Court considers “obscene”; you can’t quite put it into words, but  you know it when you hear / see it. That was “real metal”.

Anyway, I want to dig into the whole 1985 Slayer for a bit, because I feel this was probably the most influential-era of the band, not only on my sheltered suburban Alabama self, but on the scene in general.  I remember I had this surreal vibe when I actually had my own copy in my hands for the first time. Being a kid in Alabama, owning a copy of this seemed absolutely subversive,  nearly… illegal.   Far more than Metallica (because they never really delved into the Devil-schlock),  Hell  Awaits, brought underground thrash to the forefront. 1985 also marked a kind of watershed for the genre as well;  it was really the last year thrash was still a truly “underground” movement.  More on that another time.

Now, I understand that “Chemical Warfare” is on the Haunting the Chapel  EP (and that it actually came out in June of 1984).  However, it, unlike Show No Mercy,  proved to be iconic in what would define the “Slayer” sound from there on.  Hell Awaits maintained this atmosphere; and since the two of them together is a total of ten songs, I use my warped sense of math to call the two of them a single album.  I am a douchetard.  I never claimed to be otherwise.. There were other albums that came out on Metal Blade Records during the same time–  Nasty Savage,  Hallow’s Eve, etc.  but there was a strange sort of , almost hypnotic bleakness to the production in what Slayer offered at the time.  Listening to Hell Awaits feels like an auditory tour into Perdition.  There is a background vibe to Hell Awaits that screams of loneliness and solitude It’s dark, it’s nasty, it’s kinda scary and it is fucking brilliant!


Just look at that album cover. Dante himself would have been stretched to top the lyrical imagery contained in Haunting the Chapel and Hell Awaits.  Both begin ominously, of course.  But what they both unleash is a whirlwind of stringed-frenzy.  It’s not just “noise”, either; several of Slayer’s songs have been revamped by stringed ensembles and the interpretations are ass-kicking.  Sure, this is raw, underground thrash metal… but it’s also actual music. The arrangements are complex, intricate throughout the album; time changes happen without warning; the vocals are visceral and hateful, barking;  gone were the shrieking vocals that characterized the first album. Hell Awaits from top to bottom is a well-thought-out, musically-mature album that was in so many ways ahead of it’s time.   There is a flow, and overall atmosphere unlike any other album.  The blanketing darkness is tempered with a fury that is both admirable and unsettling. But even between the songs, the silence seems to only add to the bleak feel of the album.

Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman were the main culprits who put together this masterpiece musically, and for the most part, lyrically as well. You kinda gotta wonder if they weren’t tapped into something otherworldly.  Show No Mercy was an okay album, don’t get me wrong;  but it sounded like a first album, recorded by a handful of schmucks who had no idea what they were doing, which it was. Show No Mercy became Metal Blade Records highest selling LP and boasts no other producer other than the band itself. Brian Slagel of course took credit, but it wasn’t until  Haunting the Chapel  that he actually forked-over some much-needed cash and brought engineer Bill Metoyer aboard but fort the follow-up LP, Hell Awaits. The difference in sound is like night and day; both  sound like well-oiled machines. Honestly, I cannot pick a “favorite” song from either the LP or the EP. However, there are a few that I feel stand-out.

Firstly, there is of course the title track.  “Hell Awaits” is your typical evangelical sermon set to metal music.  I still have no idea why those folks had such a problem with this music. It begins with a bleak, sort of Stygian groove of a primitive, tribal drumming, then graduating into a solid,  unrelenting marching tour of Perdition. How anyone could ever say this tune “glorifies Satan” is absolutely beyond me.  This ditty will do what no Baptist minister could ever hope to accomplish —  it made one laugh at damnation.  It begins with an obvious back-masked message as a piss-take to the PMRC-inspired paranoia at the time.  For those wondering,  the message is “join us” repeated, the growl at the end is “here in Hell”.  Who besides evangelicals could take this shit seriously?

Then there is “Kill Again”.  A Jack-the-Ripperesque waltz though the mind of a psychopath, which was a typical motif of metal at the time. In my opinion, an okay bit to bang your head to, not really a stand-out track.

However,  it’s “At Dawn They Sleep” is where Slayer really does their thing;  this is the first real “horror” tune they did.  Incredible structure, vividly-atmospheric, so many tempo-changes, each buildng-up to the end. Yeah, it’s about vampires, but not those sparkly poseurs from Twilight.  oh, Hell no!  These are the Armies of the Night that Christopher Lee would allude to; something nearly Lovecraftian.  This ditty ends with a grunting chant:

“Driven by the instinct of
centuries of horror
Implanted along the brain
of the sickening parasite
Linked together by one trait
The Hell-filled need to kill… kill… kill… kill… KILL”

That graduates  full throttle to the near limits of speed in which one is able to shout the following:

“Emerging from their Hellish tomb
Taking flight amidst the night
The evening skies are raining Death
Swooping down from shadowed skies
Taking simple human form
Shed their wings to stalk the mortal man
Lock their jaws into your veins
Satanic soldiers strike their prey
Leaving corpses waiting for the change
Blood dripping from the jaws of Death
Not enough to satisfy
They must drain your soul of life”

I have to admit, that my favorite tune off the LP is “Crypts of Eternity” (even though I said I couldn’t pick a favorite — this ain’t the New Yorker, so cut me some slack, willya?).  There is a lot of allusion to ancient Eastern religion in this tune and I feel it’s probably the most “atmospheric” song of the album. It begins with a wall of chaos, and then settles into a frenetic groove that is so off-beat that it you can’t help to bang your head a little bit to it. The tempo is difficult to explain, as so much of it is experimental; nobody was even touching-on what Slayer was doing with this song.  It’s a strange tune, for sure. But in my opinion, it gave us our fist glimpse as to what Reign In Blood would be like just a year later.

I don’t know if most Slayer fans have ever picked-up on the outro of the final song of Hell Awaits, “Hardening of the Arteries” is also the intro to the album.  Which to this fan screams a warning : excessive living, poor diet and lack of exercise will lead to heart attack and / or stroke and your sloth, lust and gluttony will drag you into Hell.   There are seven songs on Hell Awaits,  and there are also Seven Deadly Sins.  Seriously, how can the evangelical crowd have any problem with this album?

I can’t leave this without saying something about “Chemical Warfare”.   This tune actually picked-up at lot airplay from college radio all over the US for a little while.  It’s on the Haunting the Chapel  EP which has three songs.  The other two your typical devil-metal bits, typical of the time  (“Haunting the Chapel” and “Captor of Sin”).  But “Chemical Warfare” picked-up a buzz with the punk crowd due to it’s obvious anti-war message.  This EP predated Hell Awaits by six months and was recorded while on the road.  It was so much more raw production-wise than Hell Awaits or even their debut, Show No Mercy;  which may have lead to it’s hardcore credibility.  Regardless, it was this EP that began them touring with the likes of Corrosion of Conformity, D.R.I., etc. in addition to metal bands.

Sure,  the later albums were far more polished, and the follow-up to Hell Awaits helped to fling Slayer, and thrash in general, straight into the mainstream.  But nothing else sounded quite like these two  releases at the time, or really since. They not only redefined metal in general; they also helped to legitimize underground 80s metal and paved they way for   so many other bands.  But showed that we mullet-sporting, ripped-jeans-wearing, black leather-jacket clad kids actually had buying-power;  Show No Mercy  alone sold 40,000 copies worldwide even before Hell Awaits was recorded.  While I am unable to find any numbers regarding the number of copies of Hell Awaits that have been sold,  I can say that their follow-up peaked at #94 on the Billboard Top-100.

Say whatever you like about Slayer.  However, it quite impossible to burn the bridge that brought you over the proverbial Rubicon without giving kudos where kudos are due.


This ain’t no “glorifying Satan” — does this look like a “pro-hell endorsement” to you?