Black '47 – The Year of The Dog

Dogs have always held a special place in the hearts and minds of rural dwellers in the West of Ireland. The author of a letter dated 5th February 1847 and published in the Dublin Weekly Register reflected on the habit of country folk keeping one or two dogs in their cabins and the affection people had for their canine lodgers.

The rapid disentanglement of the social fabric of rural society that occurred with the onset of the Famine in the mid-1840s necessitated a change in the hitherto harmonious relationship between rural people and the dogs they allowed to share the space at the hearth in their small, crowded cabins lit by turf fires and candlelight.

The man who penned the letter in February 1847 lamented that things had changed. The people in the cabins had nothing to eat and certainly nothing to share. Dogs were expelled from homes and left to wander about the country. They were no longer objects of affection but of hatred. Whenever the former companions met, 'the famishing dog is killed by the starving peasant'. The killing of the dog lessened the number of starving animals that fed on the dead and dying. The letter writer noted that it was 'curious to observe how many weak and staggering curs are attracted by the savoury odour of our soup kitchen'. He concluded by stating that he had shot twenty of them from an outhouse window the previous day. The fall of each dog was applauded by the famished multitude gathered to receive a bowl of soup. He lamented that to kill one of those animals 'in ordinary times was an affair of danger'.

In the same week, the Limerick Chronicle reported that starved dogs were 'being killed like vermin' around the country. The desperate animals attacked and consumed the bark of trees as they could find nothing else to eat. Back in Mayo, William Foster was travelling in the Crossmolina, Ballina, and Killala area when he wrote to the Central Relief Committee informing them that the pigs were gone, the poultry eaten or sold, and the 'very dogs had been drowned, least they should eat anything that would support human life'. He saw a few pigs and fowl and an occasional dog with the farmers, but 'nothing compared to former times'.

February 1847 was also a cruel month in Castlebar. Dogs and pigs roamed the streets of the town, feeding on the dead and dying, while Lord Lucan and those in positions of power squabbled about paying the poor rate to keep the workhouse open. Betty Edmonson was saved from the dogs by the letter carrier, a man named Carbine. He found her dead on the street and paid for a coffin to bury her. In May 1847, a woman was found dead in a field near Castlebar. She had died of starvation. Her child piled stones around the body to protect it from the dogs and pigs.

Reports from Skibbereen noted that starving dogs entered the graveyard and disinterred and devoured the dead. Burial in a coffin did not guarantee an undisturbed slumber – the dogs tracked the dead into the graves. P.J. Callanan, writing from the Glebe, Louisburgh, on 10th February 1849, wrote of the dogs attacking the graves in his churchyard. They were undaunted by his presence.

The newspapers carried many similar and equally terrible accounts. A report from Edenappa in County Armagh from May 1849 is perhaps the most bizarre. It evidences the dystopian world that Ireland had descended into after more than three years of Famine and starvation. A dog was witnessed harrowing a field. The dog was harnessed, and a man was walking beside him. The Louth Examiner asked, 'What have the times come to when dogs must harrow the land?'. The occurrence had likely more to do with the near extinction of the ass, which had become a food source, than any new alliance between man and dog. That would take time, but perhaps it was an indication that the age-old partnership between man and dog would outlive the Famine, and so it did. Image: Famine Memorial, Dublin. ).


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