The black lake’s secret

Once a year, a ritualised walk marks the Irish potato famine

Louisburgh is a typical small town in the west of Ireland.

Situated in the south-western corner of Mayo close to the Atlantic coast, it is arranged around a crossroads and has its shop, its post office, a couple of pubs, a Chinese restaurant, a Gaelic games pitch and a hotel, where on the night I arrived a big family celebration was under way – old men in their best suits, top buttons undone and ties loosened, sipping Guinness as small girls in party dresses chased small boys in shiny shoes among the forest of grown-up legs.

It’s a happy town, and a very quiet one the next morning when I head out into the warm early spring sunshine, a pint glass half full of porter sitting on a windowsill and a pink balloon bobbing gently on the kerb the only evidence of the previous night’s carousing.

For me, however, Louisburgh is atypical for one important historical reason.

I was heading south on foot, following the route of one of the most tragic episodes of the famine that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1850, killing an estimated million people and forcing a further million to emigrate.

One hundred and sixty years ago Colonel Hogrove and Captain Primrose arrived in Louisburgh to inspect the paupers claiming famine relief there. It would have been a pitiful task: the famine was in its fourth year in a county hit harder than most – where one-third of the Irish population depended on the potato for subsistence, in Mayo that figure was 90 per cent.

The British government had been keen to let market forces solve the problem: Indian grain was imported but supplies were released slowly to control the price (throughout the famine years Ireland remained a net exporter of food).

A system of public works had been introduced – into a country where most of the population lived an entirely subsistence existence – so that the people could earn money rather than expect handouts.

The only people allowed to claim poor relief were those who had less than a quarter of an acre of land. It was these poor, starving folk that Messrs Hogrove and Primrose had been sent to inspect, and to issue with a 3lb allowance of grain, at Louisburgh.

According to a letter sent to the Mayo Constitution dated 5 April 1849, the two inspectors instead set off immediately for Delphi Lodge, roughly 12 miles to the south, leaving instructions that the poor should assemble there for inspection on the morning of 31 March.

“In obedience of this humane order, hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads to the appointed place,” said the letter.

On a fine spring day it’s a beautiful walk from Louisburgh to the fishing lodge at Delphi. The American writer Harold Speakman wrote of the route in the 1920s that it “was the fairest I had seen in Ireland. After the village and fjord which was Norway, and the mountain torrent that was Switzerland, came a canyon which was Montana, and beyond it, a lake like a miniature Sea of Galilee.”

As you leave Louisburgh the unmistakable outline of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, rises in the morning haze away to your left and accompanies you for most of the journey.

On the night of 30 March 1849 the conditions were quite different. There was rain, wind and sleet for most of the night as the half-starved wretches made their slow, agonised way south. Many had already walked miles to reach Louisburgh, clad in little more than rags: a sunken-eyed, sallow-cheeked procession of skeletons, dehumanised by starvation. This slow, pathetic nocturnal march – some estimates say as many as 600 set out that night – must have presented a hellish appearance.

When they arrived at Delphi, those that had survived the night were made to wait until the inspectors finished lunch before the inspection took place. They were given no grain, nor anything to eat at all.

They set off back for Louisburgh but many of them didn’t make it.

According to local tradition, up to 400 people may have perished between Louisburgh and Delphi; many of them so light and weak that they were blown into the lake by the strong wind. Corpses were found by the roadside, some of them with grass in their mouths from one last futile attempt at nourishment.

I passed two memorials on the shore of Doo­lough – which means “black lake” – one a simple stone commemorating the Doolough tragedy of 1849, the other quoting Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

In mid-afternoon I reached Delphi Lodge itself, now a friendly and welcoming country house hotel popular with salmon fishers and people seeking peace and quiet. There are no televisions and there’s no mobile phone signal.

I looked out of the window of my room on to the lawn where the Doolough victims would have gathered 160 years earlier. I wondered how the people inside could have carried on with their lunch when those who were starving outside would have been clearly visible, collapsing on the neatly tended grass just feet from their table.

Nobody knows for certain how many perished at Doolough. Estimates range wildly from 20 to 400.

An annual charity walk along the route commemorates them, however, and draws attention to human-rights abuses around the world. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chernobyl children and Kim Phúc, famously photographed as a girl running naked from a napalmed village during the Vietnam War, are among those who have made the journey.

Night fell over Delphi as I dined possibly in the same room as Hogrove and Primrose, the surrounding mountains looming black against the night sky outside as if drawing themselves up in indignation at the horror that took place here.

We’ll never know exactly how many nameless husks of humanity died at Doolough at the end of March 1849. The lake will never tell. I felt curiously uplifted, though, knowing that as long as people, many of whom have also suffered incredible hardship, travel from all over the world to walk in their footsteps, the Doolough dead will never be forgotten.

Charlie Connelly’s latest book is “And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2,000 Years of British and Irish History” (Little, Brown, £12.99)