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Home Uncategorized A Jig in the Poorhouse

A Jig in the Poorhouse

Arranmore lies five miles off the coast of west Donegal. Here, at ten o’clock on the morning of 24 September 1847, Hugh Gallagher came on Mary Gallagher stealing potatoes from a field belonging to him. Aided and assisted by his wife, Sarah, he cut one of her ears off with a reaping hook, and nearly the other 1 In The Drowned and the Saved (1986), Primo Levi recalled the “brusque revelation” on entering Auschwitz that “hope of solidarity from one’s companions in misfortune” was a grand delusion. The absence of that expected support “became manifest from the very first hours of imprisonment, often in the instant form of a concentric aggression on the part of those in whom one hoped to find future allies …”: ‘the first threats, the first insults, the first blows came not from the SS but from other prisoners, from “colleagues”, from those mysterious personages who nevertheless wore the same striped tunic that they, the new arrivals, had just put on.” The interior of the camp “could not be reduced to two blocs of victims and persecutors”, not only because prisoners took advantage of each other, but also because some, for a variety of reasons, collaborated and received rewards and privileges from their captors. For Levi, this is the “grey zone”, the space which separates victims and persecutors ‑ one populated by obscene and pathetic figures, where sometimes, but not always, judgment is impossible. And in considering that moral space, he states the obvious: the saved “may not necessarily be the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message”, but “the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the ‘grey zone’, the spies”.2 The grey zone of the Great Famine3 is the demimonde of soupers and grabbers, moneylenders and meal-mongers, and those among the poor who had a full pot when neighbours starved, and the poorhouse bully who took the biscuit from the weak. It is where one finds the mother who denied one child food and fed another, a boy who slit the throat of two youths for a bag of meal, and, indeed, rumoured and reported cases of cannibalism.4 And for the historian, with only the barest bones to pick over, it is the moral space inhabited by Mary Gallagher and her assailants, quite possibly related to her, who, for all that is known, may not have had enough potatoes to feed themselves. To make…

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