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MacCriomhthainn history - Part 2

McCrohan Blood in the Liberator Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847)

Called the "Liberator of Ireland" and at times the "Uncrowned King of Ireland," O'Connell was instrumental in gaining political rights for Irish Catholics. He was elected to Parliament in 1828 even though, as a Catholic, he could not participate in its deliberations. He helped gain Catholic emancipation in 1829. Speaking in the U.S., he encouraged Irish Americans to join the abolition cause.

How does Daniel O'Connell have McCrohan blood?

Daniel O'Connell was born in Cahersiveen in 1775, the MacCriomhthainn’s intermingled with the O'Connells for centuries. It was only fifteen years after Daniel was born that my Great x 5 grandfather Tomás MacCriomhthainn was born on Valentia Island, a few miles South of Cahersiveen.

Maurice O'Connell, who was High Sheriff of Kerry in 1560, could trace his descent, generation by generation, back to 1337 when Hugh O'Connell was chief of the O'Connell nation in Kerry.

Maurice, the High Sheriff, died on July 24th, 1607 and two years later, on April 10th, 1609, an inquisition was held at Tralee before Sir Domnic Sarsfield, Knight, John Meade, Judiciar, and John Burkett, Attorney for Minister, and a jury. The findings of the inquisition include details of the lands held by the Late Maurice, including Ballycarbery, Cahersiveen, Aghort and many others including what were called "adjacent lands in patria called O'Connell's country in Iveragh" (the ancestral lands of the MacCriomhthainn clan - the South Kerry Peninsula). Maurice's son and heir, Geoffrey, had inherited all lands and other property.

This Geoffrey O’Connell, who became High Sheriff of Kerry in 1615, married Hanora, a daughter of MacCriomhthainn of Litter Castle. Since a boat would take him across to Reenard in fifteen minutes, she was probably a Reenard MacCriomhthainn. They had two sons, Daniel and Maurice.

Daniel married Alicia Sigerson and their son, John O'Connell of Derrynane, was the great grandfather of Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator. This John of Derrynane married Jane Conway of Cloghan and was a Captain in the army of James II. By licence under the articles of the Treaty of Limerick he succeeded in keeping his lands.

John's son, Daniel of Derrynane, married Máire Dhubh Ní Dhonnchada and their son, Morgan O'Connell, married Catherine O'Mullane of Whitechurch. They were the parents of Daniel O'Connell who was indeed "captain of our nation". Maurice O'Connell, Daniel's famous Uncle was, of course, Morgan's brother. Maurice had very strong business / smuggling connections with the MacCriomhthainn’s in France and Spain The O’Connell’s and MacCriomhthainn’s were business partners for many years. One French base was Nantes.

Daniel O'Connell known as The Liberator or The Emancipator, was Ireland’s predominant politician in the first half of the nineteenth century. A critic of violent insurrection in Ireland. He often warned the British Establishment that if they did not reform the governance of Ireland, Irishmen would start to listen to the "counsels of violent men". Successive British governments continued to ignore this advice, long after his death, although he succeeded in extracting by the sheer force of will and the power of the Catholic peasants and clergy much of what he wanted, i.e. eliminating disabilities on Roman Catholics; ensuring that lawfully elected Roman Catholics could serve their constituencies in the British Parliament (until the Irish Parliament was restored); and amending the Oath of Allegiance so as to remove clauses offensive to Roman Catholics, such as himself, who refused to take the Oath until it was sanitized of anti-Roman Catholic language, requirements and clauses.

Born to a Catholic family in Cahersiveen, County Kerry, O'Connell, under the care of his wealthy bachelor uncle, Maurice O'Connell, studied in France. In his early years, he became acquainted with the pro-democracy radicals of the time, and committed himself to bringing equal rights and religious tolerance to his own country.

In 1798, O'Connell became a barrister. That was the same year in which the United Irishmen staged their Irish rebellion of 1798, which was put down by the British at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. O'Connell did not support the rebellion; he believed that the Irish would have to assert themselves politically, rather than by force. So, for the next decade, he went into a fairly quiet period of private law practice in the south of Ireland.

He returned to politics in the 1810s, campaigning for Catholic Emancipation, that is, the repeal of all anti-Catholic legislation enforced in Ireland. As part of his campaign, he sought and won election to the United Kingdom House of Common in 1828, even though as a Roman Catholic, he was ineligible for membership because of his refusal to take an oath to the Queen as head of the Church of England. His election and subsequent re-election in 1829, forced the government of the Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington in 1829 to repeal the prohibitions and grant emancipation, which liberated all the Catholics.

One of the most odious features of the Penal Laws remained in the form of the obligation by all working people to support the Anglican Church (i.e. the Church of Ireland by payments known as Tithes, which was something of a pyrrhic victory as the tithes were simply converted into "rents". A campaign of non-payment turned violent in 1831 resulting in the "Tithe War", while still against the use of force, he successfully defended participants in the battle of Carrickshock when the defendants were prosecuted. In 1841, Daniel O'Connell became the first Roman Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin.

O'Connell also campaigned for Repeal, that is, repeal of the Act of Union, which in 1801 merged the Parliaments of the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. He argued for the re-creation of an independent Kingdom of Ireland to govern itself. To push this, he held a series of Monster Meetings (huge massive rallies which the Roman Catholic clergy helped organize) throughout much of Ireland outside the Protestant & Unionist-dominated province of Ulster where he was understandably reviled, and where he never dared to venture.

These monster rallies frightened the British Government and the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, banned at once such proposed monster meeting at Clontarf, County Dublin, just outside Dublin City. This did not prevent him being jailed for sedition, although he was released by the British House of Lords. Having deprived himself of his most potent weapon, the monster meeting, O'Connell failed to make any more progress in the campaign for Repeal.

Though Charles Stewart Parnell (who dominated Irish politics in the last quarter of the nineteenth century) is more usually associated with the title, O'Connell was popularly described as the Uncrowned King of Ireland.

He died in Genoa, Italy in 1847 at the age of 71 of heart disease, his term in prison having seriously weakened him, while on a pilgrimage to Rome, Italy, where his head was buried.

The remainder of his body is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, beneath a huge tower which can be seen for miles around. His sons all served in Parliament, and are buried in his crypt.

The principal street in the centre of Dublin, previously called Sackville Street, was renamed O'Connell Street in his honor in the early twentieth century after the Irish Free State came into being. His statue stands at one end of the street, with a statue of Charles Stewart Parnell at the other end.

There is a museum commemorating him in Derrynane House, in Carhen, near Cahirciveen, County Kerry, which was once owned by his family.

Tomás MacCriomhthainn 1790 (The Brave)

The history of our McCrohan family begins in the late 1790’s, which is around the time that Tomás MacCriomhthainn was born on Valentia Island. Tomás is my Great Grandfather’s, Great Great Grandfather. Tomás grew up amid great poverty and hardship, for Ireland had just been through 100 years of Penal Laws imposed by England. Tomás and his family had to pay rent to live on their ancestral lands due to having had their lands confiscated from them by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. Their seaside farmhouse was very small and barely large enough to feed the family. Although Tomás lived in poverty, he still held an enormous amount of pride because his family were living only a few miles from the castle that his forefathers built many centuries earlier. Being a family that was Catholic they had to live through times that were very tough, their home like most others in the area, were tiny hovels, mud hut with an earth floor. Tomás had little education, and from his early years he worked very hard on the farm and as a fisherman. The years during which he grew up were times of crisis for Catholic Ireland.

Tomás came from one of the last true Irish speaking regions of Ireland. The population of the Irish speaking families was very low and almost extinct, due mainly to 100 years of the Penal Laws. The only families in Ireland that were able to hold on to their old Irish culture where those that were located in the most remote regions of Ireland. Our MacCriomhthainn family and most of the other families in the remote southwest of Ireland were the last of the old Celtic Gaelic Irish. Thanks to the remoteness of Valentia Island, Tomás and his family had better luck in retaining their cultural roots and language, unlike the other 90% of Ireland.

Tomás lived in a small-congested farmhouse on the edge of the freezing Atlantic Ocean. His family was very poor during this period and it is a miracle that they survived. Infant mortality was very high throughout County Kerry, more so in the rural areas. Coming from a Catholic family, Tomás would have been born with at least 8 or more siblings. But less than half of them would have lived past the age of 3 years.

For the MacCriomhthainn’s who were primarily fishermen, in 1800’s England withdrew the subsidy for Irish fisheries and increased the subsidies to British fishermen - the result was that Ireland's possession of one of the longest coastlines in Europe was now left with one of the most miserable fisheries. Therefore leaving Tomás MacCriomhthainn and his family unemployable and therefore unable to pay rent to their foreign landlords.

The following is a written piece from a father of a family from Valentia Island during the early 1800’s:

“As I looked around my home of twelve years, I shuddered at the thought that very soon I would have become a failure to my family. Soon I won’t be able to pay the rent, which has recently increased, and my family and I will be out on the streets with nowhere to go. As I look at my children all huddled together trying to keep warm, my heart goes out to them and I feel that I have let them down”.

“My children and wife are like ghastly skeletons. We have sold our pig and goat to buy food and unfortunately my wife’s wedding dress had to be sold to the weaver for money, also to buy food. The children would do an odd job for the landlord’s wife and I would help the landlord himself in any way I could and this would guarantee the family a bowl of soup on a Monday and Thursday”.

“One night as I walked home having no food for my family, I felt so ashamed. I also felt angry with my landlord; he’s the one who increased the rent during hard times like these. As I entered into my home, I saw five of my weak children and my frail wife crying. They in deep sorrow over the deaths of my two sons who had lost their lives to the dreaded fever. I was filled with the deepest darkness, I couldn’t even afford to buy coffins to bury my sons in. My family was so miserable and I was filled with immense pity and sadness”.

When Tomás MacCriomhthainn was in his early teens he would find work anywhere he could, mainly as a jobbing labourer for the foreign fishing boats that came into port. Tomás had no formal education like most of the locals his age. Gaeilge was their spoken language but with the many foreign ships coming into port, Tomás would have learnt to count numbers and speak a few phrases in Spanish, French and English.

"The American and the French Revolutions had stimulated Irish Nationalist movements, and the culmination was the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798. After the rebellion was crushed, the Government in England reacted by passing an Act of Union, making London the seat of government of both countries, and further damaging the Irish economy. The Industrial Revolution in England had dealt Ireland a cruel blow. Her cottage industries such as spinning and weaving had been wiped out, as in England, by the factories of Yorkshire and Lancashire, but unlike England, the few towns and cities of Ireland were unable to absorb surplus rural population, as they had no large industry themselves. Even the land was so poorly managed there was little work available for agricultural labor."

"In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland. To explain the social condition of such a country, it would be only necessary to recount its miseries and its sufferings; the history of the poor is the history of Ireland." - a French visitor to Ireland, Gustave de Beaumont

Life was incredibly ruthless for Tomás and his Family. The MacCriomhthainn’s of County Kerry were literally on the brink of extinction. This was also the time of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe(1810’s). Tomás being the strongest in his family and aged in his early twenties, he was now at the crossroads. He had to make a decision that would have ramifications that has resulted in us McCrohan’s in Australia living today. Tomás decided to improve the conditions of survival of his family by joining the British Army. This would have been the hardest decision he had ever had to make. He was now joining the Empire that had destroyed his Country and produced the poverty that his family was experiencing. For if he did not join, his family would have surely perished. He had no choice.

Poverty in Ireland made it a very fertile recruiting ground for the British Army. Most of the Irish soldiers were recruited from the Counties of Kerry and Cork mainly because they were the most desperate. All these Irish soldiers were enlisted in a unit called the Irish brigadiers. Thus in late 1814, Tomás, a dark-complexioned man of medium height, 173 centimetres, with brown hair and hazel eyes, said farewell to his family and made his way to the town of Cork, the nearest recruitment centre. It was a journey of some 120 kilometres. On arrival in the town he found the place was full of young men like himself, who had traveled from all over southern Ireland to enlist. The army was taking on recruits by the thousands, for this was the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Tomás signed on with the Irish brigadiers.

After initial training and drills, the regiment was garrisoned at various places in Ireland. Later, the Irish brigadiers were posted to England, and Tomás was soon on a ship crossing the Irish Sea for the first time. It was at the stage that Tomás for the first time had to change the spelling of his surname to McCrohan. In England, the regiment was quartered in a succession of barracks in the south, and Tomás and his fellow soldiers could only sit and listen to news about the great battles being fought on the continent of Europe. Tomás was to find that his life in the army was to be that familiar condition for troops throughout history: long days or even years of waiting, broken up by very short periods of action.

The Battle of Waterloo 1815

Dawn, on Sunday the 18th of June, 1815, there was no respite from the high tension, particularly as Napoleon laid on a review of his troops only 350 metres away. 128,000 Frenchmen in their blue and white uniforms formed up in line on the other side of the valley. Their drums and bands could be heard, with enthusiastic shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" In contrast, Wellington discouraged such panoply in his armies, and his 106,000 men merely waited quietly.

It came as a relief when the first sound of gunfire was heard, ten minutes before midday; it was the French artillery, and was followed by attacks on the chateau of Hougoumont which the allies were holding, 700 metres in front and to the right of the Irish brigadiers position. Hougoumont was successfully defended by the allies throughout the day. At half past one the French launched an attack on La Haye Sainte, which was also held by the allies as a strongpoint in front of the main line of troops. All this time Tomás and his fellow soldiers, stationed in a long line two deep behind a hedge along the lane behind the ridge, could only listen to the gunfire and wait. They couldn't see anything. The allied artillery, positioned in front of the lines, returned fire, and shortly a pall of smoke began to drift across the battlefield.

At about three o'clock the cry went up, "Here they come!" Napoleon's cavalry were charging, to try and break the allied lines. "Form square" came the order, and immediately the men moved into the position which had been found to be the best for repulsing cavalry. Squares of men, twenty metres on a side, four rows deep, and bristling with bayonets. No horse would go near such a formation; they shied or wheeled aside. Large spaces left between adjacent squares invited the cavalry to swerve, and charge on past, whereas a continuous line of men would leave them no choice but to risk impalement on the bayonets, but in so doing, to break the line, as they had at Quatre Bras.

Over and over the cavalry turned and charged; again and again they were driven back. The allied heavy cannon, or artillery pieces, were abandoned during such cavalry charges; the gunners leaving them where they stood and taking shelter within the squares, then returning to their artillery pieces when again possible. The artillery took a terrible toll on the French cavalry; whole ranks of horses were brought down at a time, the following horses stumbling over the carnage.

Around five o'clock the sound of battle could be heard to the east. Then the news was passed among the men, Blucher's Prussian troops were arriving. The French would soon be vastly outnumbered, and the news was a tremendous morale booster to the allies. The French cavalry charges, which had been going on for nearly three hours, were having little effect any longer. Ten thousand horsemen had been deployed in all, but no horse had succeeded in penetrating any square, and they were becoming exhausted. The whole ridge was covered with dead men and horses, and it was no longer possible to ride over it.

Napoleon had made a fateful mistake in not ordering his foot soldiers to move up in support of the cavalry, and in not bringing in men with spiking equipment to sabotage the Allied guns. At ten to six there was a final effort by the French cavalry at the Irish brigadiers position, which was easily driven off.

A few minutes later the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte was taken by the French, after being stoutly defended all day. The French now had a strongpoint very close to the allied lines, and French foot skirmishers (tirailleurs) could approach within 50 metres of the Irish brigadiers and fire on them. The Irish brigadiers, 73rd & 30th Regiment 2nd Battalion were now together in a square at the east end of Halkett's Brigade and under heavy artillery & tirailleur fire. The brigade had suffered very heavy casualties; it was depleted by two-thirds and getting low on ammunition. Halkett requested relief, but Wellington replied,

"Tell him, what he asks is impossible; he and I, and every Englishman on the field, must die on the spot which we now occupy."

However, the centre of the Allied lines was thinning out dangerously, and at around six forty-five Wellington did bring in some reserves to this area: Hanoverian infantry and cavalry. Halkett's brigade rallied, formed lines and exchanged fire at close range with the French tirailleurs. At one point the lines broke and retreated; then were restored again. More ammunition was brought up from the rear.

At seven there was a lull in the fighting. The Irish brigadiers was sent slightly forward of the ridge to eliminate French skirmishers, then withdrawn again to the lane behind the ridge. The valley below was now thick with smoke.

At seven thirty Napoleon made his final effort to break the allied lines; his renowned Imperial Guard infantry were ordered to advance towards the ridge. But the allied troops, after standing against the French onslaughts all day, were not dismayed even by the sight of the Imperial Guard, who hitherto had always heralded the victorious end of a battle for the French. The Irish brigadiers had become experienced and battle-hardened in the course of only a few hours. They were now positioned with the 73rd & 30th in a four-deep line. Gunfire broke out as the French climbed the ridge, through the mud and the carnage, and into range. The whole centre of Wellington's forces were firing, closing in on the Imperial Guard on three sides. Wellington was riding up and down the lines encouraging the troops, and it seemed incredible to the men that he escaped being shot.

At eight, a second echelon of the Imperial Guard managed to advance right up to the lines of the 73rd & 30th and engage their few remaining troops in hand-to-hand combat. The Irish Brigadiers fell back a short distance, and Halkett, their brigade commander, was badly wounded while rallying them. Then the British Brigade of Guards, which Wellington had been holding in reserve to the right, rose from behind the hedge and fired rolling volleys at the French, who fled down the hill. The French broke and retired with heavy losses, almost fifty per cent. This was the first time the Imperial Guard had ever been beaten. French morale was completely broken, and a stream of fugitives could be seen moving south from the French lines.

Ten minutes later the sun broke through the clouds for the first time that day. At the same time Wellington took off his hat and with it motioned the troops to pursue the French down the ridge. The exhausted but jubilant men moved forward, but Tomás was not among them. He had fallen, wounded in the leg. He was one of 44,000 dead and wounded on the battlefield: 14,000 allied, and 30,000 French.

During this great battle Tomás stood over and protected from the French soldiers a very high-ranking British officer who was badly wounded, and he managed to hold them off until assisted by the British forces.

In the aftermath, at nine it started to get dark, and the sound of gunfire died down. The battlefield was a scene of horror - the thousands of corpses, and lying among them those still alive, groaning in agony. In the gathering dusk, scavengers flitted from body to body like ghouls, looking for anything of value. Horse drawn wagons moved slowly among the dead, picking up the wounded. Tomás was taken to a field hospital near Brussels. He had been very lucky. By rights he should be dead. Owing to this brave action he lost a leg, and as a matter of course had to put up with a wooden leg. For this gallant deed during the war, he received from the British Parliament a good pension; and that he would be discharged from the army and return home to his family in County Kerry. From that moment onwards Tomás's recovery was swift; and he was able to accompany the regiment when it was transferred back across the channel.

Eugene McCrohan born 1816 (The Surveyor and Civil Engineer)

After the war he returned to Valentia Island where he got married and started a family and lived the remaining years of his life. The pension he received was enough for Tomás to enable his sons to get a basic education. With this his sons were able to obtain jobs when they were adults. It was very important for his sons to learn how to speak and write in English for during these times in Ireland, the English language was becoming the primary language of the country. Tomás’s first child was named Eugene McCrohan (born around 1816).

When Eugene was an adult he become a Surveyor and Civil Engineer and worked in the county north of Kerry known as county Limerick. With his engineering skills Eugene built roads and bridges and was able to make enough money to support his family back in Valentia. After a number of years most of the work began to dry up and soon he found himself unemployable. It wasn’t long after this that he met Bridget Moriarty who was from the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry. He married Bridget and they moved back south to Valentia Island where they leased a small area of farmland. Eugene started to work the land and soon it became a fulltime job.

Eugene Richard McCrohan born 1836 & the way we used to live

In 1836, Eugene and Bridget had their first son, Eugene Richard McCrohan. He was born on Valentia Island, County Kerry. Eugene spent most of his childhood helping his father on the farm and out on the sea. The following is an insight to the Gaelic life style and living conditions for young Eugene McCrohan on Valentia Island:

FURNITURE / Troscáin

Simple and basic are the two words which best describe their house furnishings. A wooden bed or two with side-rails; in some houses an iron bed as well, perhaps; a press or trunk, brought from America or thrown up by the sea, stood between the beds and was used for storing bedding or other clothes; and finally, a chamber-pot was strategically positioned between the two beds! Blankets were made from their own sheep's wool, and a handmade patchwork quilt on top of those; sheets were made from flour sacks, and underneath mattresses stuffed with goose down that were so comfortable you would sink into them up to your oxters.

A dresser on one side and a cupboard on the other made a partition between the lower room and the kitchen, with an opening between both as a door. A strong sturdy table, and in former times a small table or kneading-trough, as well as sugawn (straw rope) chairs – all these they made themselves, often with driftwood. A wooden couch stood against the sidewall, and items such as sheep shears, shoes and blackening were stored underneath; and a hen coop, perhaps, below that again. In some houses a settle-bed took the place of the couch which, when opened out, would make a bed at night for two or three persons.

FOOD & SUSTENANCE /Bia agus Beatha

The potato was the main source of food for Eugene’s family. Unlike most mainland communities, however, they depended less on the land for sustenance and managed to use the sea as their second source for food. The owner of a cow had a source of butter, as well as buttermilk on churning day. Hand-churning was the method used for making butter. They are unlikely ever to have used a churn since they did not produce cream in sufficient quantities to warrant its use. They drank skimmed milk – apart from the jug of fresh milk kept aside for tea purposes. Thick sour milk was a favourite drink, or a mixture of milk and water to slake the thirst on a fine day while working in the field. In the 19th Century the Islanders ate two meals a day, morning and evening. Both meals consisted of potatoes and fish, with a bowl of sour milk if you were lucky.

SHEEP / Caoirigh

There was a saying on the Island about sheep: "a sheep to sell, a sheep to shear, and a sheep to eat." Sheep were an important indicator of a man's wealth. Twice a year each household killed a sheep and cured a portion of it. The women were experts at stuffing some of the sheeps' intestines.

The Island sheep had a great reputation for their flavour and mainland women would invariably ask their butcher if he had Island mutton. No doubt some butchers would falsely claim that the mutton they had for sale originated on Valentia!

FISH / Iasc

They preferred to boil all fish, except for mackeral and breem which were usually roasted on the tongs. There was no mention of salmon, or demand for it, at that stage, and they did not value it. It was usually thrown back into the sea or cut up for lobster bait! They had a great liking for roasted seal meat because of its richness – many preferred it to pork. They preserved the sealskin and used it as a floor mat. Oil was extracted from the liver of the seal, and this was used widely for healing wounds and other injuries.


Shellfish, such as limpets and periwinkles, were another great favourite. Dulse, sea lettuce and pepper dulse, and certain other varieties of seaweed – especially sea belt and murlins – were eaten. If they were hungry enough they would eat the limpets and periwinkles raw. They were not very fond of lobster as food, but they would eat the lobster roe from their fists while fishing. Crab was the most prized of all, especially the red crab, not boiled but roasted in hot ashes. Some hardy individuals would eat raw crab straight from the sea. One of the favourite delicacies was a mountain rabbit caught with a snare or hunted with ferrets; other favourites were seabirds – the storm petrel, the puffin, the razorbill or the young of the gannets from the Skeiligs – all roasted in the pot-oven or on the tongs in the heart of the fire. Gull's eggs were eaten in season as well.

DRINK / Deoch

As regards drink, they had to rely for most of their lives on clear cool water. They had little experience of alcoholic drink apart from what little the Frenchman would give them in part-exchange for their lobster and crayfish, or the infrequent barrel of wine and spirits washed ashore from the sea. Otherwise they might take a drink while spending an idle day on the mainland having sold fish or the like, or during a wedding in Cahersiveen, or at a wake or funeral on the Island. A small amount of alcohol was enough to make them merry.

FIRE AND LIGHT / Tine agus Solas

They burned scraws, or top-sods of turf, when the season's supply of black turf was exhausted. Stumps of heather or charred stalks of heather were used to boost the dying embers, especially after a wet year when the turf was soggy. It was the women who mostly brought home the turf with the donkeys and panniers, and it was also they who carried the bundles of giant heather on their backs. Pieces of driftwood were also burned in the fire, wood that was not suitable for carpentry or any other practical purpose.

LAMPS / Lampaí

Until the end of the 19th Century they had a cresset, called a "slige", for light. It was a metal vessel in the shape of a shell. Formerly the scallop shell was used for the same purpose, which would explain the origin of the word "slige". It was filled with fish oil or extract; a peeled rush was immersed in the vessel with the tip, which was lit, jutting out over the edge of the vessel. Though not very effective, this was for many years their sole source of artificial light. After that came the paraffin lamp, a tin lamp in the shape of a can, and a pipe on the outside with a wick up through the middle soaked in paraffin – that was their light source up to modern times. The paraffin lamp with glass globe was introduced late, and this was used on the Island and the mainland until the advent of electricity.

SOCIAL ACTIVITIES & RECREATION / Comhluadar agus Caitheamh Aimsire

The Island was divided into two main villages. There was always a slight edge to the competition between them. No mere jibes, but vigorous keen competition to be found in any place that is truly alive. The "Dáil" or Assembly, was where people gathered every night to discuss events, while the young people teased each other. When they had visitors in the summer months, all the fun, dancing, music and singing was in the new houses. Most importantly, the well was where the women congregated during the day, some fetching water, some washing clothes, and others simply talking and gossiping. Their lives would change dramatically from summer to winter when the long dark nights set in. Life closed in around them and from then on it was a dreary, depressing time that is unless you were satisfied with the company of storytellers and their Fenian tales.

MUSIC AND SONG / Ceol is Amhráin

While the mainland depended on the Jews harp or melodeon, they had the fiddle on the Island, and a unique style of playing. It was a soft gentle style that would waken the dead from the grave with its serenity and tenderness. It had an otherworld quality. The Súilleabháin, Catháin and MacCriomhthainn families were the fiddlers. Some musicians managed to craft their own fiddles. They had a great abundance of songs: Raghadsa is mo Cheaití ag Válcaeireacht (I Will Go Strolling with my Katy), Bá na Scaelaga (Skelligs Bay), Réchnoc Mná Duibhe (The Dark Woman's Smooth Hills), Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó (The Pretty Milkmaid), Beauty Deas an Oileáin (The Fine Beauty of the Island), and the many other songs composed by Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe. They had many more songs, too numerous to mention, and no shortage of singers either. On the Blasket Islands, Tomás Ó Criomhthain sang Caisleán Uí Néill, a much-loved song, at his own wedding. They liked to dance a set, or perhaps an eight-hand or four-hand reel, but only a few of the Islanders maintained the tradition of dancing solo.

When Eugene Richard McCrohan was aged 7, he was sent to the mainland to a private school carried on by a Mr Donaghy, located near the town of Killarney. Mr Donaghy was very wise, well educated and a very skilled penman. Mr Donaghy's younger brother Dean Donaghy was in charge of St. Bridgets Catholic Church in Fitzroy, Melbourne, he was a close friend of our family after they arrived in Australia. Eugene was a very bright boy and learnt to speak and read in English for the first time under Mr Donaghy. Two years into Eugene’s education, Ireland experienced a disaster greater than ever before, the Potato Famine. Eugene returned home to Valentia Island to be with his family during the start of the famine. The famine was expected to delay his education for only one year. Little did Eugene know that this was the beginning of the greatest darkness to ever fall upon our family and Ireland.

The Great Potato Famines of 1845 - 1851

A terrible national calamity that decimated the population and almost killed the Irish language. The great potato famines of 1845-51 reduced the population from 8 million to 4 million through starvation, disease and emigration to Britain, America and Australia. The Napoleonic war in Europe led to the growth in tillage farming to supply the armies. When it ended in 1815 it had a marked effect on the Irish economy. The potato had become the staple food for most of the rural population, but with the war's end came a change from tillage to pasture. This caused much unemployment and the unemployed depended entirely on small patches of sub-divided land to grow enough potatoes to sustain them. The population had increased to 8 million, two-thirds of them depending on agriculture, much of which was at minimal level. When the potato crop was destroyed by blight the result was devastating: the people's only source of food was gone.

A comment was once made, 'God sent the blight, but the English made the famine.' Some people feel that the English did little to help the Irish plight during the Famine. The potato blight was a fungus that destroyed potato crops leaving nothing but a rotten potato. Not all farmers had lost their crop, those farmers lucky enough rushed to sell their potatoes before they were attacked by the raging virus. Unfortunately by 1846 supplies had slowly vanished and soon people were left in a state of starvation. The people hoped for the harvest of 1846 to be a good one so that it would make up for the past years. But the potato crop failed once again.

The few Irish people who were left in Ireland in 1847 tried their best to make use of the potato crops that had missed the blight that year. Things were looking up. However, the following year the blight struck again. Whatever hope the people had, had been shattered once again by the blight. That year of 1848 was one of starvation, suffering and hardship, but by 1850 the famine appeared to be over at last. The right of people to food and the right to life should have come before anything else.

Although the government in London was aware of the threatening problem, Ireland was not a major preoccupation and the famine had assumed the proportion of a crisis before schemes were implemented on a large scale. Even when they were it seemed that the crisis was of secondary importance when it came to preserving the economic policies of the day. These policies were based on the principle of non-interference with market forces in economic matters. Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not be interfered with. The relief schemes were frequently hastily thought up, and parts of Ireland still contain roads that lead to nowhere in particular. Other relief schemes were organized by proselytizing Protestants who handed out food accompanied by religious tracts. Some Catholics did convert to the Protestant faith and were promptly christened 'soupers' (from the soup kitchen run by the proselytizers) as a mark of contempt by their stauncher fellow Catholic neighbors.

This disaster, one of the greatest to happen in a European country in peacetime, was a tragic condemnation of the British Union. For the dilatory manner in which the crisis was dealt with in London was a result of sheer ignorance. The Times of London wrote the obituary of the Irish nation by writing, “that soon an Irishman in his native land would be as rare as an American Indian in his.”

For the McCrohans of County Kerry the Famine had a devastating affect. In the areas around Cahersiveen and Valentia Island in the poorhouses alone, up to 5,000 people died and were buried in the pauper's burial ground. No part of the peninsula escaped the ravages of the famine, and despite the coastal nature of the area, fishing was not developed enough to exploit the fish in the deeper waters off the coast. It remains an astounding fact that the English were exporting wheat out of Ireland during the bleakest and hungriest years of its Irish history.

The majority of the MacCriomhthainn clan descendants died during this period in County Kerry. Before the famine it is estimated that the population of McCrohans in Kerry would have been around 300, by the end of the famine it would have dropped to around 100. Today in the official phone directories of each country, as of the year 2005, there are 24 McCrohans families listed in Ireland and 60 listed in Victoria. The United States holds the highest population of the McCrohan surname in the world. Their directory holds just over 100.

From what you have read and learnt so far, you will now be conscious of the reasons for why the McCrohan surname is very rare today. You should also take pride that the McCrohans that are still living around Cahersiveen and Reenard whom are still speaking Irish today are the descendants of Tomás McCrohan; just as we are descendants of Tomás here in Australia.

Submitted by member, Clinton McCrohan

Copyright © by All Right Reserved.

Published on: 2006-03-19 (7844 reads)

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