If you have ever found yourself in a discussion on Irish folklore, you may have heard mention of both the Fear Gorta (Far Gur-tuh) meaning Famine man or Féar Gortach (Far Gur-toc) that relates to the Hungry or Famine Grass.
The Famine or Hungry Man is a skeletal wraith, a harbinger of death in human form. Féar Gortach is a folklore tale of a cursed patch of land where if you tread, you are doomed to die of starvation, no matter how much you eat.
The Hungry Grass and Hungry Man have two origins , but the horrific outcome of facing either is much the same. I often say that folklore and history are firmly entwined and Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach are no exception. In this instance, the most dreadful era of Irish history.
How the Great Hunger Began
It has many names, the Irish Great Hunger, The Great Famine, the Irish Potato Famine. It doesn’t matter which you use, they are all far too simplistic and in no way outline the despair, death and devastation Ireland endured for almost a decade at the hands of British tyranny. Class discrimination, religious intolerance, slave labour, deliberate starvation and forced exile, all under the dark skies of harsh winter after harsh winter.
Penal Laws introduced under British rule meant that parliamentary representatives were primarily British nationals and their male descendants who had been granted landed estates in Ireland.
Catholics had previously had property confiscated and were forbidden from owning or leasing land or voting. Penal Law was largely repealed before 1830, however the wheels of law, justice and reform grind slowly. For now, Irish Catholics had to settle for leasing land back from Anglo landowners.
The potato was only introduced to Ireland in the 18th century, but soon became a food staple due to it being hardy enough to survive Irish weather, it was a cheap product and went far for the hungry mouths it needed to feed.
Potato crops became infested with an airborne fungus called phytophthora infestans, also known as potato blight. It is believed that this fungus that seemed to originate on merchant ships between North America and Britain, actually carried on the wind across the Irish Sea and began destroying the potato crops of Dublin and the surrounding counties before it became a countrywide disaster.
Corn Laws were still in existence which fixed an artificially high tariff on imports to protect British corn prices and keep them in control of the market. A petition was put forward for Queen Victoria to repeal the high tax, which did happen, but it was too late.
This, combined with the continued high level of produce continuing to be exported out of Ireland by British landowners and merchants meant one thing – a food shortage of catastrophic proportion that brought a nation to its knees.
Charles Trevelyan and Black ‘47
Attempts at temporary relief measures were mismanaged and local committees would be unruly and incapable of the organisation required to put these measures in place successfully. Just when it was thought that things couldn’t get any worse, it did, with the assignment to the relief effort of a man who would become one of the most hated men in Irish history – Charles Trevelyan.
Trevelyan was an autocratic numbers and red tape man, a civil servant with no compassion, empathy or connection to the Irish people he was tasked to assist.
His methods at creating employment, bringing food to the table and restarting the Irish economy were drawn out, complicated and ultimately, a complete failure. Trevelyan and the British government had been operating on the principle that the blight would be short lived and nature would run its course – they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first year of the potato blight and food shortages was dire, but the Irish kept going with a small import of corn, selling off the little livestock they had and borrowing money from loan sharks. Little did anyone know this was just the beginning of the horror at the hands of Charles Trevelyan.
British Prime Minister Robert Peel had been supplying Ireland with corn imports, however following his resignation in 1846, Trevelyan took complete control and cut off Ireland from further imports as he didn’t want the Irish relying on British support, despite his procedures to create a working economy in Ireland failing miserably.
When social systems and infrastructure failed, instead of sending food, Trevelyan sent soldiers to try and instil order. When one of the most brutal winters hit Ireland, Trevelyan forced half a million Irish out into the blizzards to build roads. Men, women, children, barley clothed, starving, freezing, many would drop dead where they stood.
1847 would become known as ‘Black 47’ – the worst year of the Great Hunger. The population was emeciated, still desperately trying to work on Trevelyan’s enterprises for almost no wages or food. Children went without any sustenance at all as the parents needed to eat in order to work.
Disease ravished the land, most dying from diseases such as typhus, dysentery and black fever rather than malnutrition.
As the months went on, it was a harsh but simple fact, the Irish people could not afford to eat, the money wasn’t there and they were dying due to the incompetence and indifference of the British Government.
Finally, all of Trevelyan’s projects were shut down and soup kitchens and charity were introduced, but too slowly and on too small a scale. 1847 saw the third potato harvest failure.
Evictions, Coffin Ships and Workhouses
As time passed, the landowners wanted their land back to grow their own crops and graze cattle. Their tenants were unfit for work, unable to grow their own potatoes and hadn’t paid any rent in years. As if starvation, slave labour and disease weren’t enough, tenants began to be evicted from their homes.
Over 500,000 tenants were evicted, with a further 100,000 being forced to emigrate to North America by the landowners with false promises on what would become known as the Coffin Ships.
Small, barely sea worthy vessels, crammed with skeletal families, broken and ravaged by disease, still hoping for a better life. Many would die onboard, their rotting corpses a stark warning of what may come to those watching and breathing in the stench of death. Others would die in makeshift hospitals on arrival. They were not welcomed and were received with hostility and fear from the largely Puritan communities of Canada and North America.
Back in Ireland, Trevelyan fought to save his career by making all Irish landowners the scapegoats for the years of horror inflicted on the Irish people. The penalties imposed upon them left them bankrupt and the common man had no wages. The shops were filled with food at this stage; however, no one had any money to buy. Ireland was in complete financial ruin.
The Poor Law was brought into play, however claimants had to rescind any bit of land or asset they held over a quarter acre and enter the workhouse in order to receive aid.
Workhouses were already crammed tight with widows and children who, if Trevelyan had his way, would be out on the streets to make way for those fit to work. The ever-increasing overflow were being placed into outbuildings with no sanitation or heat during another harsh winter.
Soon, even these were full and entire families, desperate for a roof and a crumb, were forced to live in makeshift camps anywhere they could find. Before long the workhouses and unions were riddled with debt and unable to keep up with supply and demand. As a result, no further aid from Britain was forthcoming due to non-payment of taxes.
Instead of sending help, the British government sent more and more soldiers to “control” the masses. Whispers of rebellion were rife through the evolution of the Young Irelanders, who sought to fight back against repression, however the British put every effort into supressing their efforts with new laws of internment and exile to Botany Bay, as well as the introduction of spies in every major city.
So, the cities were living in fear and struggling to keep food on the table and rural Ireland was a ghost nation, cottages abandoned, families gone, fields empty.
The workhouses were rife with disease, residents living and sleeping in their own filth, no segregation, everyone pushed in together, the violent, the mentally ill and the infirm together with families and small infants. Food minimal. All were in rags, haunted, hollow sunken eyes searching for a glimmer of hope long gone, through ravaged features.
Death, Mass Graves and the Rise of Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach
Death was the common denominator and the dead were tossed into carts, one on top of the other and tipped into the makeshift graves without so much as a blessing, souls condemned to Purgatory.
All over Ireland hundreds of these mass graves appeared, or Famine Graveyards as they became known. All were originally un-consecrated, although in later years many became memorialised and recognised consecrated ground.
Some however, remained buried in cold, unhallowed ground, forgotten souls crying out for their purgatory to end. Over the top of these burial sites the grass grew sparsely and it was cursed. It was hungry.
With the extent and horror of the Great Famine it is no surprise to hear such a tale was born from it. But what if I was to tell you that tales of the Hungry Grass and the emaciated figure known as the Hungry Man go back much further than you can imagine and with far more supernatural origins?
Supernatural origins and Lore
While the rise of the dark side of these supernatural forces undoubtedly occurred because of the Great Hunger, they appear to have been born of ancient ways and a much less human origin.
The most common lore behind the Féar Gortach is that is occurs as a result of fairy magic. Found in fields, it is cursed by the fairies of the Unseelie Court who use dark powers, evil if you will.
Whether as a source of famine or fairy, to stand on the Hungry Grass means death. Slowly you begin to starve and descend into madness. You eat and you eat but no amount of food will ever fill the void in your stomach. The mind snaps, convincing the poor, cursed individual that they are starving to death. Ultimately mind takes over matter and the victim just wither away and dies.
The Fear Gorta, or Hungry Man is not a man at all, but an ethereal being or fairy. He is associated with famine for two reasons. The first is his dreadful appearance. Skeletal in physique, his face is gaunt and haggard. Hollow cheeks and angular bones are covered by thinly stretched sallow skin. His emaciated figure a horrific image to behold. His clothing is nothing but tatters and rags and to all intents and purposes he has the look of the walking dead.
The second is that he is known to appear during times of hardship and Famine. The Fear Gorta can be malevolent or benevolent, depending on his mood and the welcome he receives. He is known to call house to house begging and if he is treated kindly, he has the ability to bestow good blessings and wealth on those he deems worthy. Of course, those who are unkind will feel his wrath and suffer abject poverty, famine and ultimately…death.
There are no sure-fire ways to defend yourself against either the Fear Gorta or Féar Gortach, but there are certain wardings and protections you can try. Carrying a crust of bread in your pocket may protect you from the starvation effects of stepping on the Hungry Grass. It is also believed that crumbs of bread spread over the affected area will somehow reverse the curse over those recently afflicted. Ultimately the salting and burning of the field is believed to bring closure to the curse.
In my own town, our community hospital St. Ita’s has always had a shadow over it, a darkness that I stared into, from early childhood to this day. It was little surprise to discover in my adult years, that it was in fact, the Workhouse, separated from the Famine Graveyard by a new road. You can build over the horrors of history, but you cannot tame them or erase them. The energy will continue to seep through. Respect, remembrance and understanding is key to keeping the darkness at bay.
A little way up the road is Knockfeirna, a centre of mystical convergence which translates as ‘Hill of the Fairies.’- a portal to the netherworld. It is also the location of remnants of the dark era of hunger, the hollow husks of famine cottages a reminder of the hollow husks of humanity who dwelt within. The two origins of the same haunting tales side by side, history and lore entwined.
So is the Féar Gortach an act of malicious fairy magic and why would they see fit to curse the land? There are accounts of fairy magic being used to keep humans away from sites of importance to the fairy realm. Fairy forts and patches of the Féar Gortach are believed to be traps that activate in the event of tampering, whether deliberate destruction or the accidental crossing of either supernatural creation.
Perhaps the very act of defiling the dead of the Great Hunger with mass burials was enough to trigger the curse on sacred fairy land. Did this in turn cause the lost souls of the Famine to become predatory, seeking to drag the living into their hell?
The Fear Gorta is a different story. He is fairy, he is solitary and he has no master. There is no protection from his power. Decimation and despair will awaken him and his withered, skeletal finger will unfurl and point to his next prey.
So much of the tragedy of Ireland holds hands with pagan ways, superstition and the supernatural, even in Christian times. The Great Hunger was the worst horror imaginable, so it is little wonder the lore that arose was equally horrific. May these inhuman acts remain in the past, the victims find everlasting peace and the hunger of Fear Gorta and Féar Gortach be sated.