ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #09 –Famine & Drombeg Stone Circle

July 26, 2016  •  1 Comment

May/June 2016

ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #09 –Famine & Drombeg Stone Circle

Map of route for Day 9

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Today started out with a visit to the absolutely wonderful Skibbereen Heritage Center which is a museum dedicated to The Great Famine (aka The Great Hunger).  We then toured the Famine Cemetery, had a nice lunch in Drombeg and then went to the Drombeg Stone Circle.  Sorry if this episode is more “history” than travel but I found the background of the Great Famine fascinating.  .  If you’re not interested in this history just skip ahead to the next section in this Travel Log and we’ll be back to touring Ireland with many photos.



Our first stop for the day was at the Skibbereen Heritage Center which conveniently enough was right across the street from our hotel.  This museum is extremely well done and dedicated to the Great Famine, or Great Hunger as it is also known.  Our tour guide for the museum happened to also be the author of the definitive book on the subject so was quite knowledgeable.  This museum was fascinating and I highly recommend it.  The museum has interesting displays and maps and not only describes the events leading up to and during the famine but also tells the story of individual families. 

While we were there we purchased a cell phone app for some free time we’d have the next day.  This app is a walking tour that led us through the town and at each stop provided both an audio as well as text description of the Famine events that happened at each location.  The information in the museum and the walking tour app is way more than I have room for here so we will have to be satisfied with a condensed description of this period in Irish History.  Sorry for the lack of photos in this section but other than taking pictures of exhibits in the museum there wasn’t much “famine” related imagery to be found.

Skibbereen is considered to be the epicenter of The Great Famine (1845–1852).  For context, this is pre Civil War in the US.  During this period the USA went from 26 to 32 states, one of which was Texas which voted to become part of the United States launching the Mexican American war.  Brigham Young led his band of Mormons to what is now Utah, the first woman doctor in the US was granted her degree, Custer wouldn’t find the Little Big Horn for another 25 years and Lincoln was a congressman.

The Skibbereen area was one of the worst affected by the Famine. It became notorious as the center of some of the most worst suffering endured by famine victims.  From newspaper accounts at the time, Skibbereen was depicted as being symbolic of the destitution and hardship caused by the failure of the potato crop.

The problem started when the potato crop failed. The crop failure was caused by something called ‘late blight’, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible roots or tubers of the plant. This is actually a sort of mold.  In 1845 a strain of this mold called Phytophthora arrived accidentally from North America, and that same year Ireland had unusually cool moist weather, in which the blight thrived.  Much of that year’s potato crop rotted in the fields.

In this time period, Ireland’s tenant farmers as a class, especially in the west of Ireland, struggled to provide for themselves and to supply the British market with agricultural goods.  Many farmers had long existed at the subsistence level given the small size of their land allotment and the various hardships that the land presented for farming. The potato, which had become a staple crop in Ireland by the 18th century, was appealing in that it was hardy, nutritious, and calorie-dense as well as being relatively easy to grow in rocky Irish soil. By the early 1840s almost half the Irish population—but primarily the rural poor—had come to depend almost exclusively on the potato for their diet. The rest of the population also consumed it in large quantities. A heavy reliance on just one or two high-yielding types of potato greatly reduced the genetic variety that ordinarily prevents the decimation of an entire crop by disease, and thus the Irish became vulnerable to entire crop failure.

Unfortunately the crops also failed in each succeeding year through 1849.  When the crop failed the first year it was bad but not a catastrophe.  It just meant that you’d have to sell one of your two pigs or one of two cows and wouldn’t be able to buy shoes for the kids that year but you could carry on.  In the 2nd year things got a bit more dicey.  Now you had to sell all your remaining livestock and anything you were able to grow would go to the landlord for rent, but you held on somehow.  When the crop failed in the 3rd year, you had nothing left except your debts to the landlord and you were evicted.

Now here’s where a problem became a man made horror.  It seems that throughout the entire blight years Ireland had plenty of food – enough to feed 16 million people where the population of Ireland was around 8 million.  But, the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, following the ‘free market’ tenants of conservatism (then as now) continued to allow the export of grain and other food products from Ireland so the British landlords in Ireland and England as well as the import/export merchants in England would continue to make their customary profits.  This left no food at all for the peasant farmers in Ireland to eat and they had no resources to buy it back from the landlords.  Throughout the famine the landlords continued to export grain, meat, and other high-quality foods to Britain.  But England did help.  They sent soldiers to guard the warehouses full of food from the starving people.  Way to go England.

However, the British government did provide some relief in 1845 and early 1846 by authorizing the import of corn (maize) from the United States and this trivial act helped avert some starvation.  The government’s grudging and ineffective measures to relieve the famine intensified the resentment of British rule among the Irish people. Similarly damaging was the attitude among many British intellectuals that the crisis was a predictable and not-unwelcome corrective to high birth rates of the Irish in the preceding decades and perceived flaws, in their opinion, in the Irish national character.  Under Lord John Russell, who assumed power in June 1846, the emphasis shifted from meager hand outs to reliance on Irish resources and the free market, which made disaster inevitable.

Under the terms of the harsh British Poor Law, enacted in 1838 in Ireland, the “able-bodied” indigent were sent to workhouses rather than being given relief per se.  British assistance was limited to loans, helping to fund soup kitchens, and providing employment on road building and other public works projects.  These were for the most part “make work” projects as the government had a “no free handout” policy and required work for relief.  These farmers were on the brink of starving to death, just skin and bones, wearing nothing but a few rags and in order to get a cup of soup they had to work 12 to 16 hours at hard labor.  To add insult to injury many (most?) of the work projects had no purpose.  They would take a stone wall that stretched several miles and move it 5 feet to the left.  They would build stone walls straight up the side of a mountain for no actual purpose other than to force work for food.  Thousands died in this labor. 

In the 3rd year, once there was nothing left to sell, these poor farmers were evicted into the streets with just the clothes on their back.  There are documented stories about families that had sold all the clothes worn by the women of the house as they could be kept indoors and not having clothing would not have been seen.  When they were forced out, they were cast into the streets with no clothes at all – many times in the middle of winter where they either starved to death or froze.  There are stories of people crawling on hands and knees to graveyards and just laying down to die.

Eventually, some British journalists visited Ireland and Skibbereen and saw the disaster and wrote about it in the British newspapers.  This spurred some civic minded people to pool resources and start collecting aid money to set up soup kitchens that did not require a day’s work for a cup of soup.  About half way through the period, the British government – embarrassed that private citizens were helping and the government wasn’t – stepped in to take over the soup kitchens.  They hired a famous chef to come up with a soup recipe what would not cost too much and it was adopted as the only recipe allowed in soup kitchens.  The problem was that this recipe did not have enough protein or nutrients to sustain life – it just prolonged the descent to death.

The Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is now recognized as the worst humanitarian disaster of 19th century Europe.  It proved to be a watershed in the demographic history of Ireland. As a direct consequence of the famine, Ireland’s population of almost 8.4 million in 1844 had fallen to 6.6 million by 1851. At least one million people had died while another million emigrated as refugees. It is estimated that a further half a million births did not take place as a direct result.  The number of agricultural laborers and smallholders in the western and southwestern counties underwent an especially drastic decline. A further after effect of the famine was the clearing of many smallholders from the land and the concentration of landownership in fewer hands. Thereafter, more land than before was used for grazing sheep and cattle, providing animal foods for export to Britain. Ireland’s population continued to decline in the following decades because of overseas emigration and lower birth rates. By the time Ireland achieved independence in 1921, its population was barely half of what it had been in the early 1840s.

Photograph of a sign on the walking tour

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Many of the victims of the famine wound up in Abbeystrewery graveyard just outside of Skibbereen.  There are said to be between 8,000 and 10,000 unidentified souls buried here from the famine years.  A few – especially early on – had proper graves but it soon devolved into mass graves, which is now just a large green lawn near the bottom of the graveyard, as there was no one willing to expend precious energy on grave digging and there were no resources to hire someone to do it. 

Abberstrewery Graveyard (Skibbereen).  Empty area at top left is mass grave site

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Celtic Cross and old church in Abberstrewery Graveyard

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Roots growing through church stonework

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Now we headed east toward Drombeg Stone Circle.  Along the way we passed through a few small towns, some with ancient stone buildings and some modern housing developments.  One town we went through was the town of Leap

This town’s name, Leap, is short for  "O'Donovan's Leap" and is derived from the story of a chieftain called O'Donovan, who was pursued by English soldiers, but escaped by jumping across a ravine at the bottom of the village. 

Shortly after passing through Leap we arrived at Glandore which is a sleepy little village on a hillside overlooking a bay.  This was our lunch stop for the day.  The town of Glandore (meaning harbor of the gold or harbor of oak) is the name of both a harbor and village.  This village doesn’t seem to have much claim to fame other than being the home of a politician or two and a boat regatta every other year, but it does have a couple of tavern’s which made it a nice stop for lunch.  As it was another lovely day, we had lunch at picnic tables in front of the tavern and overlooking the picturesque bay. 

Being right on a very sheltered bay, Glandore was one of the earlier settlements in the area.  In 1215, the Normans built two castles here. In the 18th century, Glandore was associated with the O'Donovan family, who gained control of the harbor from the Normans and occupied its castles.

Typical modern day Irish housing development

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Glandore Bridge near Leap

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Glandore Harbor from our lunch spot

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View of church in Glandore

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Like many things in this part of the world, the Drombeg Stone Circle is known by several names.  It is also called the Druid's Altar and Little Stonehenge and it is arguably Irelands most famous stone circle.  There are two sections to it.  Once is a stone circle and the other is a living-cooking area. 

The stone circle consists of seventeen stones (of which 13 are still present).   The most westerly is the long recumbent which has two egg shaped cup-marks, one with a ring around it.  A "Cork-Kerry type" stone circle, it is flanked by a pair of axial portal stones, which provide a south-west axis, and orient the monument in the direction of the setting sun during the midwinter solstice.  The stones in the circle have been shaped to slope upwards to the recumbent stone, the midpoint of which was set in line with the winter solstice sunset viewed in a conspicuous notch in the distant hills. While the alignment is good, it is not precise.

In the other area, there is what remains of two round stone walled conjoined prehistoric huts with a separate “cooking place”.  This sections is about 10 to 20 yards from the stone circle.   Evidence suggests the huts were in use up until the 5th century AD. The larger of the two had a timber roof supported by a timber post. The smaller hut had a cooking oven on its east side. A causeway leads from the huts to the cooking place featuring a hearth, a well and a trough. 

The hearth is higher than the water trough and was used to heat stones.  The red hot stones were then rolled down into the water in the trough causing it to come to a boil.  The site was excavated in 1957 and at that time some experiments were conducted pertaining to the cooking place.  In the experiment they were able to bring the 70 gallons of water the trough held to a boil with heated stones in 18 minutes.  Meat could then be boiled in the hot water which would remain hot for up to 3 hours.  Of course others say the hot water was used for bathing, industrial activities or for brewing.  That’s the nice thing about opinions – there are so many to choose from. 

Drombeg Stone Circle

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2 huts and cooking place

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View from the Stone Circle

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This brings us to the end of our 9th day (2nd day on formal tour).  Some clouds have started rolling in, but still no rain.


Tomorrow we’ll head out to the Mizzen Head Lighthouse

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  

- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.



The Ireland blog series can be found here:


This Blog can be found online here:

Thanks for reading -- Dan


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