Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Doolough Tragedy: Death by Indifference in 1849

Irish people starving during An Gorta Mor
Photo from Wikimedia, originally
from Illustrated London News, 1847
by James Mahony

By Adrian McGrath

There are different ways to kill people. One way is directly, for example, by shooting them with a gun or stabbing them with a sword.
But there is another way. The indirect way. Through neglect. Through a lack of human compassion, a lack of caring.

By refusing to help desperate people who are in deadly circumstances, when it would be very easy to help, is another way of killing. It is debatable whether the indirect way is culpable under law. It is, however, clearly morally reprehensible, by almost any civilized standard.

This indirect way to death happened in Ireland in 1849 on the rugged road from Louisburgh to the Delphi Hunting Lodge in cold, wet, foul weather.

Certainly there was suffering and dying all over Ireland at this time, during what is called in the Irish language An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger -- The Great Irish Famine. This particular case near Doolough Lake is just one small example of this larger horror. But it is a tale that needs to be told and remembered.

A point needs to be made at first. Although this period from 1845 to about 1850 when 1,000,000 Irish people starved to death or died of related diseases, and another 1,000,000 fled to other countries -- mainly to the United States -- is often called The Great Famine or even the Potato Famine, it was much more than a famine.

"An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store"
The potato blight in Ireland
Original art by Daniel MacDonald, 1847
Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

There was plenty of food in Ireland besides potatoes, the main food source for Irish peasants, which began to rot because of a blight in 1845. There were grains, vegetables, fruits, diary products, seafood, and even beef. But this food was controlled by the British overlords who would not share this with the starving Irish. If it was a famine, it was largely a man-made famine.

 (A case of genocide could be made as well, using the definition of the crime as stated by the 
United Nations. See this information from the UN website on genocide. 

Some of the grounds for genocide --relating to a group, national, ethnical, racial, or religious -- include "killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ..." 
See )

Indeed, there are cases of large amounts of food stuffs being shipped overseas for sale, under guard by British soldiers or police, while the Irish were deliberately left to starve to death. An opportunistic blight destroyed the potatoes, but the British government allowed the Irish to starve.

To be fair, there were some efforts at hunger relief by the British government; but these were grossly inadequate. Some have argued this is evidence that the mass starvation, exiles, and deaths were not deliberate, but only the result of government ineptitude. Some aid, likewise, was sent by foreign countries which helped but not enough. (Please see my earlier article on Coffin Ships and the Great Hunger.)

It should be obvious, however, that if a nation like Great Britain had the skill and resources to ship its soldiers and military equipment all over the planet to create and maintain an empire, it should have been able to send food to starving people who lived next door in Ireland, and who were actually then subjects of the British Empire.

The Doolough Tragedy: A Death March

In County Mayo in Connacht (also spelled Connaught) on the west coast of Ireland on March 30, 1849, two government inspectors arrived in the town of Louisburgh on a mission. They came under the auspices of the Poor Law Union to see if the Irish people in that area really needed government assistance.

Doolough, Mayo, Ireland
Photo from Wikimedia, originally by
Wikimedia Commons Patrice 78500, in public domain

Yes, incredibly, despite the fact that thousands of people were dying of starvation on a regular basis with dead bodies in plain view on the ground all over, the government required verification of true need for bureaucratic reasons.

The inspection did not occur for unclear reasons. So, the two officials went to a place called the Delphi Lodge, a hunting lodge belonging to the Marquess of Sligo. This was about 12 miles away. There they could spend the night and perhaps get a bite to eat.

Meanwhile, the Irish people who went to Louisburgh for the inspection and to get food were told to go to the Delphi Lodge. If they did not appear in person, they could be removed from the list of people eligible for relief.

Under the circumstances they were in -- destitute, cold, starving, many seriously ill -- a forced march of 12 miles over rough terrain or bad roads in cold and wet weather was enough to kill them.

And that is exactly what it did. The Irish people had to arrive by 7 o'clock in the morning to get assistance. So, through the night hundreds of starving people walked 12 miles in miserable, cold weather to the Delphi Lodge.

How many died along the way? We are not sure. One report said that seven dead bodies were found along the roadside later on. Some of the bodies were of women and children. Other reports said some people were later unaccounted for -- most likely they perished as well in the night and were lost in the countryside.

Exactly how many died was never determined, but clearly all of them suffered both physically and mentally.

The area of Doolough Lake between Louisburgh and the Delphi Lodge, in short, became a place of agony and death. (By the way, the odd, French-sounding name of Louisburgh was given to the town by the British because of the British victory over the French in the battle of the French town Louisburgh in Canada during the French and Indian War.)

Reportedly, when the starving people arrived at the Delphi Lodge, they were told the government officials could not be disturbed as they were having lunch. Finally, they did meet with the officials who told them to just go away, the officials could not help them. More of the desperate people died on their way back from whence they came.

Perhaps this tale has evolved over time. We are not exactly certain of all the events. It has become almost a legend. We do know that, essentially, these starving and desperate Irish people got no help at all, and that many of them died from the experience while all of them gravely suffered.

The event itself has different names and is also known as the Doolough Famine Walk of 1849. (See this story from Irish Central.)

Famine National Monument in Murrisk, Ireland
Photo from Creative Commons Wikimedia,
Original work by Graham Horn. Murrisk is a few miles from
Louisburgh, Mayo, Ireland

The original source of information of the walk came from a letter sent to a newspaper called the "Mayo Constitution" from April 10, 1849. The letter told the tale of these horrible events.

The horrors these poor people endured have not been forgotten, however. In modern day Ireland there is an annual march called the Famine Walk near Doolough Lake in memory of those who suffered and died.

The Famine Walk also brings attention to unfortunate people around the globe who suffer from similar injustice or oppression. (See this video about the Famine Walk.)

The Famine Walk is supported by a human rights organization from Ireland called AFRI which stands for Action From Ireland. (See their website.)

Many notable people have joined in this Famine Walk commemoration over the years including the world-renowned
Archbishop Desmond Tuto of South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
appeared at the Irish Famine Walk
Photo from US Government and

Sources: article on the Doolough Tragedy; Video at on the Famine Walk; Irish Central article on the tragedy. See also the United Nations information on genocide


  1. This is so tragic! How could these officials sleep at night? They could have prevented so much suffering. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Díreach mar a rinne na hionraitheoirí sin i ngach áit ar fud an domhain ar thuirling siad ann le clóic a n-impireachta a chur ar an muintir dhúchasach.
    Just as was done by those invaders everywhere they went all over the world establishing their empire on the backs of the native peoples.