In Baltimore the one in County Cork, Ireland the pirates are gone, but the memories live on

September 12, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

Baltimore, Ireland -- More than 300 years ago, Algerian pirates sailed into this placid harbor, put a number of Baltimoreans to the sword and took a hundred or so more off to a life of great discomfort, probably in the Magreb.

To avoid further abuse at the hands of such cutthroats, the surviving Baltimoreans hastily rowed up the Ilen River about eight miles, where they established the town of Skibbereen. There they set about regaining their self-confidence, even cultivating a certain doughty impudence.

Or a few of them did. Generally, impudence is not part of the style with which the people of County Cork confront the world. On the contrary. The prevalent approach seems a mixture of directness, self-effacement and a predisposition to believe that things can get worse.

The county of Cork covers much of southern Ireland. Its seed has been strewn throughout the world, and planted deep in many countries. Cork city, a bit seedy and down-at-heel, was the departure point for the ships that took hundreds of thousands of Irish people to new lives in other countries in the last century.

They are still emigrating today (though not by boat), driven by persistent recession and unemployment, not the catastrophes of the past.

Cork is identified with disasters more horrific than pirate raids. And as is frequently the case with such locales, it is achingly beautiful, the kind of place where good things ought to happen because it is the perfect setting for happiness. It is green, soft and rich in natural grandeur, with rocky coasts and headlands wedging into the Atlantic, hills and valleys sheltering ancient abbeys and castle ruins, all conducive to dreams of felicity.

To drive through this emptied land knowing something of its history encourages the suspicion, held by some ancient peoples, that nature has a consciousness, one that can be spiteful.

The worst thing to ever happen here also took place in other parts of Ireland. But it was especially severe in Cork. This was the famine of 1846-1848, when a million Irish people out of 8.5 million died, and nearly 2 million emigrated, virtually emptying the country.

This was the West's first holocaust of the modern era. It was a catastrophe brought on by the arrival of a potato-killing fungus to a country whose people lived almost exclusively on that food, abetted by the indifference of the absentee nglish and Anglo-Irish landlords who owned nearly all the farmland, and their refusal to provide relief to a people utterly without food or the means to acquire it.

One can only imagine what it was like, or glean the withering sense of the calamity through old eye-witness accounts. One such was published by the Southern Star newspaper three years ago in a centenary supplement. It was a letter pleading for assistance addressed to the Irish-born Duke of Wellington in London. It was written on Dec. 17, 1846, by a justice of the peace named N. M. Cummins, after a visit to Skibbereen:

I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever -- four children, a woman, and what had once been a man . . . in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe.

The Great Famine is not on people's minds much these days, of course. Which is not to say there aren't reminders of it. In the Abbey Graveyard, an overgrown place of weathered headstones sinking into a gentle hill where the Ilen glides into Skibbereen, there is a large plot, a rectangle enclosed by a low steel rail. There are no headstones in it, for it is a common grave of hundreds, buried together, side by side, coffinless, and unnamed. So desperate were the times.

The sea wind rides up the Ilen and plays in the high grass that grows amid the stones that form the remnant of the abbey. The graveyard is unkempt and neglected, and the want of flowers suggests it is not often visited. Why? Perhaps the families of most of the people interred here left long ago, scattered to die in foreign countries.

Chronic disaster reduces most people but brings out the pluck in a few. Much of this quality was evident in Fred Potter, the editor of the Skibbereen Eagle. In fact, the greater portion of all the impudence and audacity in County Cork might have been concentrated in this man.

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