The Queen’s Visit

By the mid 1800s, Ireland was in the hands of landlords who took more and more of the fertile land, forcing the Irish to survive on smaller and smaller plots, until they became totally dependent on the crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato. It was a difficult life, but at least they weren’t starving, for potatoes are a remarkable source of vitamins and minerals. Then late on August 20, 1845, a potato fungus was discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens. The following day, August 21, is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation. Within the week, reports came in from all over Ireland that the potato crop had turned black in the ground. It was the only crop affected, since everything else grew in abundance, but the other crops belonged to the landlord.

The landlords protected those crops from the hungry Irish until they were harvested, and exported to England for profit. Parliament did little to help, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire saying that the country was to be left to the effect of natural forces. Many died in ‘45 awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come. The potato crop in ‘46 was almost totally destroyed. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had to survive, many fell victim to the diseases which attend starvation and when the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. The blight did not return in 1847, but that year saw the largest death toll in the 5-year period since those who had eaten their seed potatoes had nothing to plant, those who had been evicted had nowhere to plant, and those who had fallen victim to disease were unable to plant. To make matters worse, the blight returned in 1848 and 1849 and neither landlord nor Parliament provided adequate assistance. Millions died of starvation and hunger-related disease on the roads, alongside prosperous farms. A limited amount of aid was provided but it was too little and there were some soup kitchens, but in some, the cost of receiving food, was the surrender of their faith and conversion to the Church of England. It was a price too high for many, and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on God.

Parliament was denounced for not intervening in the Irish tragedy, and they reacted by declaring the crisis officially over in 1847. Their evidence was the few acres of potatoes had been produced that year with no sign of the blight. But they made no mention of the fact that it returned in 1849 and 49. After 1849, the potato blight slowly abated, but the blight on the Irish continued. Most historians estimate that the effects of the great hunger were not over for another 30 years as the lack of land or living wage, food shortage, and disease continued. Emigrants sent money back to loved ones they were forced to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be a generation before many of the emigrants could establish themselves in the lands to which they fled. In the end, most of those who suffered the Great Hunger, were gone before its effects were. The benchmark event that marked that turn in history was the formation of the Land League in 1879.

A meeting convened in Daly’s Hotel, Castlebar on August 16th 1879 inaugurated a body called the Mayo Land League. Founder Michael Davitt convinced MP Charles Stewart Parnell to join the land agitation and the Mayo Land League became the National Land League with Parnell as President and Davitt, as Secretary. Branches were formed in almost every parish in the country and by the end of 1879 there was a formidable organization in place to plan what became known as the Land War. It was only then that it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over and the Irish began to take back their land.

One of the most insensitive incidents to come out of the Great Hunger was the British government’s premature declaration of the end of the blight and in order to show that all was well, a massive publicity campaign was mounted, the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria at harvest time in 1849. As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the roads on which she would travel. Crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects, and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.” Ironically, that report – although propaganda in its time – would eventually come true.

The truth of that statement lies in a most remarkable incident that occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had begun to fade! The date was August 21, 1879, and the place was the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Irish village of Knock in Co. Mayo. On that evening, a small group witnessed an astonishing vision as three figures, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, suddenly appeared, beside an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels. The witnesses knew that they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and Mary, the mother of God. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Word spread, and shortly, others from the area arrived and saw it too. No such heavenly visitation had ever before been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of a soaking rain. The figures remained, silent for nearly two hours, and then vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. In 1939, after many years of intense investigation, the apparition at Knock was granted canonical sanction by the Church. Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of only ten to have received such recognition, and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet it is the only appearance of the Virgin during which She remained silent.

Many have questioned why Mary said nothing, and only stood praying. Praying for what, for whom? Any student of Irish history should know the answer for there are clues in the date of the apparition. Consider that the Great Hunger wasn’t really over for 30 years after 1849; Mary appeared in 1879 – exactly 30 years later! And She appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger! Is it possible that, since the Irish had suffered so much for their faith, that the Lord, in appreciation, sent His beloved mother; and that She, as any mourner would, stood in silent prayer for the generation which had just passed away. Think of it, the timing is incredible. Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the great hunger, for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords. While the dates have an uncanny significance, there is yet another irony. Since August 1879 marked both the historic end of the Great Hunger and the year in which Our Lady visited Knock, a 30-year old headline had at finally come true: THE FAMINE WAS OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – but it wasn’t Victoria; it was the only Queen that the Irish ever recognized !

Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive had received a visit from heaven, and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock.

The Battle of Benburb

The 17th century dawned in Ire-land during the 9-years war of the northern Chieftains against the Crown. By 1602 that conflict was over; Red Hugh O’Donnell had been poisoned, the Irish had capitulated, and Queen Elizabeth was dead. Against the treachery that threatened their heirs and families, the noblest Chieftains of the north – The O’Neill, the O’Donnell, and the Maguire – left Ireland forever in what be-came known as the Flight of the Earls.

The Irish were leaderless, the Clan system had been broken, the great Gaelic Houses destroyed, and a foreign power had been established in possession of the land. The conquest of Ireland was finally complete; or so it appeared. Beneath it all, the bards kept the heritage alive. Outlawed poets started hedge schools; Priests said Mass at stone altars in the glens; the music, the language, and the learning survived – but the British were determined to stop even that limited existence of Celtic culture. After the flight of the earls, James I of England, declared that the recently de-parted northern Chieftains had been conspiring to rebel, and their estates were forfeit to the Crown.

Four million acres of Ulster were given to men called Undertakers – that is, any loyal Englishman who agreed to undertake the dispossession of the Irish. Soldiers, drapers, fish-mongers, vintners, haberdashers, anyone seeking free land became the new owners of Ulster. A contemporary writer named Stewart, son of a Presbyterian minister, wrote that they were “for the most part the scum of both nations, who from debt or fleeing justice came hither hoping to be without fear of man’s laws.” They hunted the Irish like animals, drove them into the woods, mountains, and moors where thousands perished of starvation within sight of lands that their clans had owned from time immemorial. Before their eyes, an alien nation was planted on the fair face of Ireland’s proudest province.

But the Irish would not starve and die in their own fertile land. Their rage grew daily until a leader emerged in the person of Rory Og O’Moore. He had patiently worked for years among the leading Irish families, Irish Generals in the Continental armies, and other Irish exiles to oust the British. Then, on the night of October 21, 1641, the remnants of the northern clans burst forth sweeping the terrified Undertakers before them. Descendants of the old Clans O’Neill, Magennis, O’Hanlon, O’Hagan, MacMahon, Maguire, O’Quinn, O’Farrell, and O’Reilly burst forth from the hills and, in a few hours, made Ulster their own again. A few days later, Phelim O’Neill was proclaimed head of an Ulster army, and by early 1642, Leinster and Munster joined the fight for freedom; still later, Connaught joined. The Crown, poured men and arms into Ire-land to fight the rebels. The Irish gentry formed the Confederation of Kilkenny to direct the resistance, and, believing that the new King, Catholic-born Charles I, was a friend of Ire-land, they confirmed their stand for ‘faith, country, and King’. The Irish Chieftains yielded for the sake of unity.

In England, a struggle between King Charles and his Puritan Parliament developed into a civil war. As his situation grew worse, King Charles began to court the Confederation. Futile negotiations frustrated the fighting spirit of the Irish, and they began to suffer defeat after de-feat until, in despair, they considered coming to terms with the English. Suddenly, from the Boyne to the sea, Ulster shook with the news: Owen Roe is come!

On July 6, 1642, with 100 officers in his company, Owen Roe O’Neill, landed in Donegal. A mere boy when he had left Ire-land with his uncle, Hugh O’Neill, during the Flight of the Earls, he had won distinction as a military commander in the Irish Brigade of the Spanish Army. A trained soldier and military leader, he had returned to lead the fight for Ireland’s freedom. He was given command of the northern army which he rebuilt, and began to challenge the English on the field of battle. In short order, he regained all that had been lost due to the procrastination of the Confederation, but jealous of his growing power, they hampered his efforts at every turn.

Then, on June 5, 1646, England sent their best field commander, General Monroe, against Owen Roe. This would silence the young upstart forever. Monroe had 6,000 men and a full compliment of field artillery. O’Neill had only 5,000 men and no artillery. The two armies met at the junction of the river Oonah and the Blackwater adjacent to the village of Benburb – a place that would live forever on the lips of the storytellers, for it was here, in one masterful battle, that Owen Roe proved his superiority and the superiority of his army. Monroe’s men were fresh, and he set them up so that he would have the ad-vantage of the sun at his back. O’Neill kept Monroe’s nerves and the nerves of his men on edge for several hours in that hot sun while his men harassed them with hit and run skirmishing raids. Finally, when the sun had shifted to behind his back, O’Neill gave the word “Sancta Maria,” and launched a whirl-wind attack. His cavalry captured Monroe’s guns, and his infantry overwhelmed the English legions driving them into the river. In one short hour, O’Neill had wiped out the pride of the British army; 32 standards were taken; Lord Ardes and 32 officers were captured; cannon, baggage, and 2-months provisions were taken; and 1,500 horses were now in Irish possession. 3,300 of Monroe’s army lay dead on the field, while Owen Roe lost but 70. Ulster had been won by Owen Roe O’Neill. The Confederation, fearing his growing power, would eventually turn on O’Neill, and everything would be lost in the end. But for a brief while, all of Ireland was talking about Owen Roe O’Neill and the Battle of Benburb on June 5, 1646.