In summer 1827, the Strabane Morning News carried a notice for Sarah O’Kane, a mother of seven, from west Tyrone. One of her children, an eleven-year old girl, also Sarah, had left a house where they were staying near Enniskillen in 1817 and never returned. Now, ten years later, the mother was looking for the daughter who had, literally, disappeared:
In the summer of 1817, Charles O’Kane, a poor man, who lived in the townland of Ardochal near Nt. Stewart, being unable to support his family, was obliged, with his wife Sarah and seven children, to travel the country in quest of bread. They were near Enniskillen when his wife took the fever, and during her illness, his third daughter, Sarah, then aged eleven years, went out to look for food, but never returned. Every search was made for her, but in vain. She was seen in Irvinestown, County of Fermanagh. Her poor mother continues to mourn her loss, but not without hope, at times, that she may still be alive, and has forgot her parents and former residence. She is now, if living, twenty one years of age; and any tidings respecting her, will be thankfully received by her afflicted mother.
She hopes that the Printers of Newspapers will be so humane as to copy this.
The crisis of 1816-19, in which Sarah O’Kane was lost, was one of hemispheric, if not global, proportions. Its primary cause was the eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which, after centuries of inactivity, had begun coughing clouds of ash and smoke in 1812. These rumblings culminated in a series of violent explosions in April 1815, when Tambora ejected vast quantities of molten rock and sent a massive cloud of ash high into the atmosphere.
The eruption is considered the most explosive in history; it was also the most deadly, resulting in some 71,000 deaths on Sumbawa and nearby islands. When it was over, a mountain that had stood some 4,300 metres tall was reduced to 2,851 metres, and a veil of sulphuric dust was spreading across the globe. That dust was to cause severe weather across the western hemisphere in the winter 1815-16. Temperatures plummeted on all continents. On the east coast of the United States, there was severe frost as far south as Virginia and the Carolinas as late as mid-May. Likewise, central and western Europe experienced unprecedented cold. 1816 was the Year without Summer. Crops failed to ripen in the fields; food prices soared; social unrest and epidemics of disease followed.
The Year Without Summer is the subject of a two-day conference at the National University of Ireland, Galway, on Friday and Saturday, October 7th and 8th. Speakers include critics Claire Connolly, University College Cork, and John Waters, New York University; culinary historian Dorothy Cashman, Dublin City University, and historians Gary Hussey and Lawrence Marley of the National University of Ireland, Galway. Admission is free. The conference opens at 7.30 pm on Friday, October 7th, in the Mechanics Institute, Middle Street, Galway, with talks by geographer Audrey Morley, on the global climate crisis of 1816; historian John Cunningham, on the impact of The Year without Summer on the Claddagh; and historian Breandán Mac Suibhne on its immediate and medium-term consequences in Derry and Donegal. For additional information, contact John Cunningham, [email protected]
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is the blog post “A Sabbath Stroll”, from 2014. The piece is based on an article from The Christian Examiner of 1827, giving an account of a walk through Dublin’s Liberties. Here is an extract:
The author affects an apolitical tone, but in fact his writing groans beneath the political obsessions of the time, in particular the preoccupation with religion, the poor and the necessity to reform that reprehensible mass and direct them towards the light of pure religion …
The depiction of the diminutive men of Connacht as “potato-fed pigmies” about to embark on a steam packet to England is unintentionally moving. The group was spotted standing together early on the Sunday morning in question on Thomas Street with wallets of oaten cake strung behind them and carrying strong blackthorn sticks for the journey. The small band of adventurers was setting forth in search of seasonal employment on English farms, work that would enable their families in Connacht to survive another year.
As he strolls, the author comments that “the professors of the Popish faith seem to have no moral sense in regard to the observance of the Lord’s day”. Shopkeepers, he noted, opened for business on Sunday mornings. He mentions, with a little irony, the practice of leaving up some wooden shutters on shop premises as a gesture towards the Sabbath. There was a high level of small-scale commercial activity in poorer areas on Sundays, as on other days, because of the exigencies of hand-to-mouth living, a fact which the disapproving author does not seem to take into consideration. (The partial shuttering of shops on Sunday was a long-lived custom and the present writer observed the practice in the streets around Thomas Street as late as the 1960s.)
Mention of news vendors is also made, suggesting an interest among the urban poor in political developments as the campaign for Catholic Emancipation intensified. There were no Sunday newspapers published in Dublin at the time but a few weeklies were published on Saturdays at various times throughout the 1820s. Newspapers were also hired out for set times by paper-sellers and it is also likely that in poorer areas second-hand copies of papers published some days earlier were also sold. If multiple news vendors were bawling their wares it suggests a reasonable level of literacy in the city’s poorer quarters. Newspapers of the time bore the stamp of the political class’s cultural values, which were literate, educated and middle class. While the poor were hugely interested in the doings of that world and aware of their importance, it was not entirely their world. Some signs of the urban poor’s own culture are also to be found in “Sabbath Stroll”.
The mention of storytellers on the streets suggests an autonomous culture in poorer areas and offers further evidence that oral culture was not only central to the lives of the rural poor but also to those who lived in the city. The prevalence of ballad singers, who were cultural institutions in Dublin and were last heard some time in the early 1930s, is also interesting. One of the functions of ballad singers was as cultural translators, redacting events from high politics into forms compatible with the norms and values of oral culture.