The Woodsman’s Rose, Guest Post by Gifford MacShane

1880s Arizona

Daniel Donovan wants nothing more than to get married, unless it’s to restore his friendship with his closest friend, Alec Twelve Trees.

Alec is raging about his mother’s murderer, whose identity Daniel knows but will not reveal, as the killer is dead and the family he left behind would be compromised if the knowledge became public. But Alec cannot recognize any needs but his own, and the rift between the friends grows wider every day.

Daniel’s fiancée, Annie, is a delicate girl, her health frail and her future uncertain. Prone to vicious headaches that at times rock her to her knees, she’s accepted Daniel’s ring but is hesitant to name their wedding date, worried that marriage and possible pregnancy will exacerbate her physical problems.

Annie inherited the gift of insight from her Welsh mother and digs into the past, searching for a way to help Alec and Daniel mend their relationship. But when she discovers the secret behind the murder, it’s more horrifying than she could have imagined.

It may take more than Annie’s small strength and inherited skills to bring the friends together again. And that’s before a new enemy shows his face.

An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger, or the Great Irish Potato Famine), 1845-1852

Back in high school, we read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which gives an amazing satiric look at the British government’s response to “the Irish problem.” The problem he tells us frankly, is that such a thing as the Irish exist at all. Though it meant little to me personally at that point, the proposal Swift suggested stayed in the back of my mind, to be taken out and examined from time to time.

My father’s family emigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s. Having decided to write about Irish immigrants in the Old West, I’d barely started my research when it hit me: my ancestors must have lived through that famine.

What caused it? The simple answer is “potato blight”. A fungus (P. infestans) caused the edible tuber to turn to mush underground. But since the stems and leaves weren’t affected, the plants looked healthy, and the damage wasn’t noticed until harvest time. If you’ve ever had a potato turn black and stinky in your cabinet, that’s just what the Irish potatoes looked like.

The blight hit many countries in Europe: Belgium, Poland, even Western Russia were badly affected. But in those countries, the failure of the potato crop was not catastrophic (unless you count the impact on vodka production), because those farmers raised other crops as well.

So how did this single crop failure create a disaster of such proportions? To get the answer, we must briefly delve into the history of Ireland.

  • In 1542, after a brief and ill-fated Irish rebellion, Henry VIII designated himself King of Ireland. And in his anger at the Pope for refusing to honor his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, he began the systematic dismantling of the Roman Catholic Church. The churches and abbeys were plundered and sometimes destroyed, eliminating the major source of charity Catholic peasants could rely on.
Source: Free Photo by Mary Bettini Blank via Pixabay

This policy was reinforced by Queen Elizabeth I. During the Tudor period, most of the land in Ireland was given or sold to friends of the Crown; if farmers wanted to keep living on family lands, they must work for this new class of owners.

As in the feudal system, the laborers produced crops for the landlords to sell; paid their “rent” in produce; and eked out a living on tiny crofts allotted them. As families grew, sons were given portions of their fathers’ lands, and crofts became so small farmers could scarcely support their dependents.

By1801, the lower classes’ representation in both the English and Irish Parliaments had been reduced by up to two-thirds, and Catholics couldn’t serve. No one took the farmers’ side in terms of legislation, and the feudal system remained for approximately 350 years.

Now to the era in question:

In the 1840s, Ireland (a country approximately the size of South Carolina) had a population of over 8 million, roughly equivalent to the population of the US at that time. Almost one-third of Irish land was being cultivated by the Irish peasant; up to 75% of Irish soil raised food for export.

A farmer spent most of his time tending to his landlord’s crops, so he needed something easy to grow, easy to harvest, and easy to prepare. Hence the potato. In many cases, it was the only crop grown, as a 7-pound/day allotment could meet all of an adult’s known daily dietary needs.

When the blight hit in 1845, no part of Ireland was spared. Soup kitchens were set up in the major cities; England’s Prime Minister Robert Peel began to import yellow maize from the US to make up for about half the destroyed potato crop. But the grain didn’t arrive until the spring of ‘46, too late to fend off the initial wave of starvation.

Source: Wikimedia

The maize had to be milled down into flour, and there were few mills that could handle the tonnage required. Unknown to the peasant, the grain could not be prepared like potatoes or the oats they might have in good years: it had to be boiled for several hours to be digestible. Many died from the resulting dysentery. The Irish designated it “Peel’s Brimstone”, for both its color and side-effects.

In June of 1846, the new PM, John Russell, was a staunch proponent of the popular Laissez-Faire doctrine, believing the “free market” would take care of everything. Secretary of the Treasury Trevelyan reinforced Russell’s stance and added his opinion that the peasants were “lazy”. Though the Commissary General, the officer overseeing distribution of food and aid, pleaded that Irish ports be closed to exports of grain (as they had been during the famine of 1781-1782). Trevelyan would not be swayed, saying it would “inflict a permanent injury on the country” (the country in question being England).

Trevelyan closed down maize distribution centers, instituted workhouses & work projects in a way that wouldn’t interfere with private enterprise (e.g.: roads and bridges). Workhouse entrants were required to give up all property and most possessions to qualify as “deserving poor”, forcing many to abandon their crofts. In exchange, they were given a uniform, mattress and blanket. Children over 2 years of age were segregated, as were men and women.

The residents were expected to stay in the workhouses 24 hours/day—still, there wasn’t room for all who begged admittance. Inmates would knit and sew, but as supplies dwindled, repairs & laundering of clothing became more prevalent. The workhouses were vastly overcrowded and disease-ridden. As you can see here, during little more than a week, a Workhouse Death Register recorded 40 deaths (and that didn’t count those who’d been thrown out for becoming too sick to work).

Source: Wikipedia

Public workers were at least allowed outside, given jobs like breaking rocks. Delays in instituting the works were caused by lack of skilled engineers, and little equipment. (If you’ve read my book, The Winds of Morning, you’re aware that some of these projects included “roads to nowhere”.)

As for the free-market theory, it wasn’t applied uniformly: wages paid for these “charitable” endeavors were below the market rate for similar jobs in private industry. These jobs were to be financed by Irish taxes, but the workers earned less than they needed to feed their families and much of the gentry had fled to Britain.

Then the winter of ‘46-’47 hit with a vengeance. Trevelyan’s plan made no provision for winter clothing; many died of exposure at the work sites. In ‘47, laws were passed that required Irish produce to stay in Ireland, yet some scholars estimate at least thirty shiploads of food were exported to England per day. Ireland raised enough food to feed its people, but exports were money-makers and the Lords simply refused to sell their crops in Ireland. The government, which could buy food at below-market prices, refused to do so, thereby ensuring the dependency of the Irish. Instead, English soldiers were sent to the docks to secure the safety of exports.

On top of all that penury and selfishness, the British landowners began a systematic eviction of tenant farmers from their land. Thousands of peasants’ houses, cabins and shanties were razed. Hundreds of thousands throughout the Isle were dispossessed—their only hope was to get to the port cities and somehow find passage overseas. They carried their children with them, sometimes not realizing a child was already dead. With no food, few belongings, and little to no money, inestimable thousands died along the way and were buried in mass graves.

If they found an available bunk on a ship, conditions scarcely improved—an estimated 8-10% of emigrants would die on the voyage from fever & filthy conditions. And whether they stayed behind or emigrated, many suffered permanent physical disabilities & survivor guilt.

Source: Pixabay Free Photos

“But Ireland is surrounded by water. Why didn’t they just eat fish?” I can’t count the times I’ve heard that question, usually from people who think they’re being funny.

Answer: The English controlled the fishing trade, too. By the time fishermen were allowed to ply their trade freely, the nets (those they hadn’t sold to feed their families) had been ashore for over a year and dry rot had set in, destroying large portions of them. The fishermen were too poor to buy new nets (or the cord with which to make them), or to buy the salt needed to preserve their catch.

Eventually, the government grudgingly reestablished the soup kitchens. Queen Victoria did little to nothing, even in the face of repeated requests from PM Russell. Her only response was to send a letter to English lords requesting that they raise money for the Irish.

Among other contributors were Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln; US President Polk; Pope Pius IX; Czar Alex II; and the young Sultan of Turkey, who promised £10k. But the English government would not accept that amount, as it might overshadow the Queen’s paltry contribution of £2000. Subsequently, the young Sultan secretly sent ships full of food. Most of the cash contributions, however, were made through the British Government, and we’ve all learned what “administrative fees” can do to charity.


By far, the greatest benefactor of the famine victims was the Society of Friends. There were only about 3,000 Quakers in Ireland, but the Philadelphia Irish Famine Relief Committee and the Philadelphia Society of Friends (Quakers) funneled relief supplies from all over the US. At times, though, a ship stood in the harbor full of food because there was no bill of lading and no specific person or entity named to receive the food, leading to further chaos and waste.

A Choctaw tribe in America, remembering their own recent dispossession along the Trail of Tears, collected and sent approximately $170 to aid the Irish farmers, a sum that would translate into over $5,000 today.

Over the long term, a few good things arose from this suffering. In Glasgow, Scotland, in 1888, the Celtic Football Club was founded to help immigrants from Ireland. With the motto “Football for Good”, it is still philanthropic today: supporting the aged, unemployed, and disabled; serving community lunches to the homeless; and building kitchens in Africa.

Since 2008 “National Famine Commemoration Day” in Ireland includes a week-long programme of events leading up to a Sunday chosen by the government.

In response to the call for help during the COVID-19 crisis, the Irish have sent over $3Million to support Native Americans’ medical needs.

Many memorials to the dead have been created, both in Ireland and abroad, the first of which, in County Clare, was built on old workhouse grounds where 20,000 Irish citizens died, and a mass grave for children was found.

Source: Wikipedia

So I’ve deliberately set my fictional family of Donovans against the background of the famine. I sometimes hear the comment that my characters are “too good to be true.” But it is my firm belief that extreme hardship will have one of two effects on people: they will become sour and greedy, or they will learn to see others’ hardships and work to ameliorate them.

In the annals of history, it seems to me that this entirely preventable tragedy stands in a class of its own. Not a war, not a deliberate “cleansing”, but an abject and deliberate disregard for human life laid waste to the Irish people.

It makes me wonder why, among so many deaths, my family survived. Perhaps it is so this story gets told one more time.

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Meet Gifford MacShane

Gifford MacShane is the author of historical fiction that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.

Her novels feature a family of Irish immigrants who settle in the Arizona Territory in the late 1800s. With an accessible literary style, MacShane draws out her characters’ hidden flaws and strengths as they grapple with both physical and emotional conflicts.

Singing almost before she could talk, MacShane has always loved folk music, whether it be Irish, Appalachian, spirituals, or the songs of the cowboys. Her love of the Old West goes back to childhood, when her father introduced her to the works of Zane Grey. Later she became interested in the Irish diaspora, having realized her ancestors must have lived through An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s. Writing allows her to combine her three great interests into a series of family stories, each including romance, traditional song lyrics, and a dash of Celtic mysticism. Having grown up in a large & often boisterous Irish-American family, she is intimately acquainted with the workings of such a clan and uses those experiences to good purpose (though no names will be named!)

MacShane is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and is an #OwnVoices writer. A self-professed grammar nerd who still loves diagramming sentences, Giff currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Richard, the Pied Piper of stray cats.

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