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Famine Drives Madness for 150 Years

Irish FamineSpare a Thanksgiving Day thought for the starvation that made us mad, literally. Maternal malnourishment red-lined rates of insanity in Ireland and, I believe, may be responsible for the schizophrenia that struck my two sisters 130 years later.

24 thoughts on “Famine Drives Madness for 150 Years

  • November 28, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Pat, can’t wait to get the book.
    You can add to your stool,that irish had 17 generations of potato eating. Now eating 12 pounds a day, with an egg and a little pork, you could function. (The old story, one pig for the rent and the other hidden in the house.), But what do you do when you are the first generation to eat food, again? What if the famine kept you alive because of celiac.
    I read about some study in America. Food records were kept in a north western farming town and the mental illness could be traced back to starvations.
    We do so little for people in this country. How many more generations of suburban starvation to come.

    • August 17, 2018 at 9:11 am

      There’s NOTHING like f–king religion to drive you crazy!



      WHITE MEN IN BLACK DRESSES, be afraid of them all.
      Their strengths will amaze you, when they’re backed to a wall.
      They’re about in high places; many lives they command.
      They have smiles on their faces and blood on their hands.

      And they walk with the angels; and they talk to the sky.
      For the sky it will tell them what is good, what is high.
      And while continents falter in starvation and plague,
      They report from the altar on the rights of a fertilized egg.

      WHITE MEN IN BLACK DRESSES, some are sad some are gay.
      Some forbid all protections, yet are considered quite safe.
      But the truth is their habits have affected their brains.
      It is known what is not used tends to wither away.

      If you wish to avoid them, these white men in their gowns,
      As they ride in the forests to the counties and towns,
      They are said to have strange fears, superstitions and ways.
      For the sight of a condom will keep ten at bay.

      WHITE MEN IN BLACK DRESSES, be afraid of them all.
      Their strength will astound you, when they’re backed to a wall.
      WHITE MEN IN BLACK DRESSES, from tax-exempt lands
      Have the love of the presses and blood on their hands.

      These white men in high places have blood on their hands.”


      Authoritative Latin Sources Translated for the First Time Ever

      WARNING: This section contains Roman Catholic Church Latin translations which use explicit language not suitable for the young, the immature, the religious, or the self-righteous.

      We list below the questions Rome’s greatest theologians dictate the confessors ask their female penitents. We begin with the Right Reverend Burchard, 11th century Bishop of Worms.

      1. “Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do; namely, use an instrument shaped like the male member, exerting great effort to achieve pleasure by playing with your venerable parts, or also with the venerable parts of another, or by using the instrument to join the two of you together, so that you have fornicated with another woman or women by using the same instrument?”
      2. “Have you ever fornicated with yourself, alone, by using some instrument?”
      3. “Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do when they wish to satisfy a desire vexing them? They join themselves together as if to have intercourse, pressing their genitals together, so that, by rubbing, they satisfy their lustful craving.?”
      4. “Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do; namely, lay down with some beast of burden and then, by whatever means, join yourself with that animal so that intercourse may be achieved?”

      The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003
      Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.
      When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

      When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown
      What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds.

      Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each.

      Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).
      With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

      Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

      The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

      As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.
      “Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”
      I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

      “Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”
      That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!
      “Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
      Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?
      “Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

      How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:
      “Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
      Wait, what?
      “Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”
      Bread…on my butt?
      “Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”
      Who hasn’t? Next…

      “Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

      Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.
      “Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

      “Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”
      Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?
      Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:
      “Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”
      BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.
      As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

      “The celebrated Debréyne has written a whole book, composed of the most incredible details of impurities, to instruct the young confessors in the art of questioning their penitents. The name of the book is Mœchialogy,[5] or Treaty on all the sins of the sixth [seventh] and the ninth commandments, as well as on all the questions of the married life which refer to them. That work is much approved and studied in the Church of Rome. I do not know that the world has ever seen anything comparable to the filthy and infamous details of that book.” Below is a typical question asked young girls and women:

      “Women who confess to having touched themselves are to be asked whether or not they tried to gratify some lustful craving. Did they feel great pleasure as a result of their touching themselves? Did they satisfy that craving? Or does that craving still exist?”

      This present writer asks the reader, Can you not imagine how this information could assist a lecherous priest in humbly offering his ‘holy’ assistance toward satisfying her craving?
      Next, Chiniquy gives us Kenrick: “The Right Rev. Kenrick,[6] late Bishop of Boston, United States, in his book for the teaching of confessors on what matters they must question their penitents, has the following, which I select among thousands as impure and damnable to the soul and body”:

      “It is allowable for a girl, who, while being raped, to turn herself and try not to receive the semen because injury is being done against her; but it isn’t allowable for her to expel the semen received if she has already secured possession of it in her womb. Casting the semen out at that time would be harmful to the law of nature.”

      This teaching presupposes several things: (a) The confessor must ask the girl if she has ever been raped; (b) If her answer is ‘yes,’ the confessor must then ask her to elaborate on the rape; e.g., her positions throughout the rape, if the rapist had ejaculated; and if so, where? If she had received semen in her womb, it would have been a mortal sin had she attempted to expel it afterwards. Penance would be necessary on her part.

      Theologian Peter Dens instructs the confessors to investigate:

      1. “Ask if wives have ever attempted to expel semen received from their husbands. Have they ever been successful?” (Dens, tom. Vii., p.147.)
      2. “Counsel spouses that they mortally sin if they should hinder insemination after they have begun intercourse.”
      3. “There is uncertainty, however, if, when a man ejaculates prematurely, it is a mortal sin for the woman to withdraw before she is properly inseminated; or if the husband mortally sins by not waiting to ejaculate into his wife.” (p.153.)
      4. “Spouses can sin between themselves in regard to the conjugal act. The correct method and site of intercourse must be maintained. Indeed, they should be counseled that the vagina must not be hindered in receiving that which it was created to receive. Additionally, they should be warned that intercourse must not be engaged in any perverse manner, or in any unnatural way. Examples of perverse positions are: intercourse approached from the back or side, by standing or sitting, or if the husband is on his back.” (p.166.)
      5. “Impotency in a man is his incapacity to complete the act of intercourse. Physical intercourse is completed when the man’s ejaculation is received into the vagina. To be more specific, intercourse must be for the purpose of procreation only. Impotency is not the same for women, however. A woman may be said to be unable to have successful intercourse with a man because her vagina is too narrow to accept his member, but that is not necessarily the case were she to have intercourse with another man.” (p.273.)
      6. “It is noted that a woman may be defiled [i.e., experience orgasm w/o proper intercourse] when the semen she receives flows outside her genital area. Billuart alleges evidence of this when he writes: For the woman, there is an intense gratification when, during sex, she feels semen released.” (Vol. iv., p.168.)
      7. “When a wife accuses herself in confession for refusing intercourse that she is bound to perform, ask her if it is because she believes it is her prerogative and right to do so.” (Vol. vii., p.168.)
      8. “The confessor is under obligation to ask the penitent who confesses to have sinned with a priest, or has been solicited by a priest for base actions, whether that priest was her confessor, and if so, whether he solicited her in a confessional.” (Vol. vi., p.294.)

      1. “Let us ask, Is it always a mortal sin if a husband puts the vulva of his wife into his mouth? I affirm it to be very sinful because in this act dangerous defilement can occur due to the warmth of the mouth. Besides, this bizarre sort of pleasure seems so obviously to be against nature. This act is frequently called chewing the cud.”
      2. “Similarly, Sanchez condemns as mortal sin the act of a husband who, in the act of intercourse, ejaculates his manhood into the inverted vagina of his wife, because, as Sanchez states, In this manner there is the disposition toward Sodomy.” (Liguori, tom. Vi., p.935.)

      Kenrick also directs the confessors to probe wives, even the elderly:
      1. “While in the marriage act if a wife turns herself so as not to receive the semen; or, if she rises up immediately after it has been received for the purpose of expelling it, she sins mortally. However, it isn’t necessary for her to lie supine for a long time while the womb draws in the semen. A short time will be sufficient because the womb soon closes tightly.” (Vol. iii., p.317.)
      2. “Elderly spouses generally have intercourse without our finding any fault. In their case, it is allowable for the semen to be expelled outside the vagina. Indeed, this occurs accidentally because of the weakness of nature.”


      1. “Have you fornicated alone, by yourself, as some are known to do? By this I mean, have you sought pleasure by taking your manhood into your hand, protracting the foreskin, then moving it vigorously with your own hand, so that you ejaculate semen?”
      2. “Have you fornicated with another male between his thighs? By this I mean, have you ever put your manhood between the thighs of the other, and through vigorous movement ejaculated semen?”
      3. “Have you ever fornicated, as certain men are accustomed to do, by placing your member into a wooden hole, or something similar, then, by your movement, pleasure increases, resulting in your ejaculation?”
      4. “Have you ever fornicated against nature; that is, by engaging in intercourse with other men or with animals, such as a horse, cow, donkey or some other animal? (Vol. i., p.136.)

      The following is the line of questioning Debréyne teaches confessors to ask young men:

      1. “Have they touched themselves to the point of defilement? When did they do so? Why did they do so? In what way did they touch themselves? For how long? Did it culminate in anything base? Or did they stop short of defilement? Was the pleasure greater at the end then it was at the beginning? Did they remain motionless as they felt great carnal delight at the end? Did it result in their being soaked?, and etc.”

      As you travel around Ireland you see lots of churches and cathedrals that were built in the 1850s, just a few years after the STARVATION aka THE FAMINE.

      Complicity of the Catholic Hierarchy with London’s planned genocide is, sad to say, well recorded. London, prior to removing Ireland’s food, appointed a few Irish Catholic Bishops to a Dublin Castle commission and awarded a £30,000 lump sum to Maynooth while increasing its annual grant from £9,000 to £26,000! (3)

      (3)[The Great Hunger Ibid; p. 234]

      Before British troops began starving Ireland the London parliament enacted a law to return some of the seized foods in the form of rations to all of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy down to the level of, but not including, curates. Faced with residual hierarchical disquiet, M.P.s amended the law to include curates. This ended episcopal objections to the Irish Holocaust; it proceeded efficiently thenceforth.

      An Irish poet subsequently wrote; “…for the spire of the chapel of Maynooth is the dagger at Ireland’s heart.” A Munster bishop thanked God that he “lives in a country where a farmer would starve his own children to pay his landlord’s rent”! For two centuries until 1795, priests in Ireland were felons a priori. The government paid a 5 shilling bounty for each severed head. In 1795, British ministers decided that to completely subjugate Ireland the collaboration of the Catholic Church was indispensable. Britain thus stopped murdering priests and founded and funded Ireland’s national seminary; Maynooth. The tactic worked; the Irish Catholic Church became London’s tool. (4)

      (4). The Making of Modern Ireland; by J.C. Beckett; p. 329.

      It facilitated the Irish Holocaust; it sided with Britain in the Risings of 1798, 1848, 1867 and 1916, destroyed Parnellite democracy in 1890 (traumatizing James Joyce) and it has facilitated Britain’s vestigial genocide in the Six Counties since 1922.

  • November 28, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Patrick, thanks for this one. You are presenting information that is not widely known but essential to learn.

    • November 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

      Thank you, buddy. Famine explains a lot. War too. Makes sense that what doesn’t invite us into the world takes us right out of it too.

      I’m reading looking at the NPR story you sent. I’d heard it the other day, probably will post something on it.

      To me this family is a really good example of a family trying to do what’s best. The comment section is very revealing too. The schizoaffective kid hearing voices has been helped by — guess what? — medication to silence the hellhounds in his head.
      I’m sure it’s not a perfect solution but at least the poor guy is no longer tormented by his voices. Perfection eludes us, but progress is all we seek, right?

  • November 29, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Thank you for the article. as awoman with bipolar disorder of mixed scottish and irish ancestry, i found it very intresting. Even more so with a thought to my husband’s family in Finland, where the rates for Schizophrenia are also pretty high. Starvation and plague were constant features in that small countries history for hundreds of years, and since we have seen first hand the tradgedy of what psychosis can do to a family, your story has rung so very true for us both.

    • November 29, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Hey no problem at all. The history is amazing. Would you like a copy of my book? I’m giving away free copies of either the PDF or Kindle version that I’d be happy to email to you one. I’m only interested in generating conversation, because this stuff is hard to talk about. I think that going back as far as we can is a good place to start conversations. A book, to me, is just a conversation piece. Anyway, thanks for writing. I wish you and your family well. Patrick

      • November 2, 2017 at 1:05 am

        My ancestors came from County Cork, and with them they brought the ravages of mental illness. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, but the genes are tenacious and on-going. I’m referring to a span from 1847 to 1955.

        I’ve counted 13 relatives on my father’s Irish side who all became mentally ill. I never had children for that reason. It’s caused anguish and heartbreak to those close to me. I’m certainly not proud at all with my Irish ancestry, and wish my ‘sound of stock’ mother had never married my father after going through the grief and tortuous years of my brother’s down slide into paranoid schizophrenia.

      • January 13, 2018 at 6:30 am

        My mother and her mother were both mentally ill (bipolar with psychotic episodes). I myself have c-ptsd. I found out that my grandmother’s grandparents came to England (where I grew up) from Ireland at the end of the Great Famine.

        After reading about the Holocaust and generational trauma, I did start wondering whether it was possible the mental illness in my maternal line was originally caused by the trauma of the Famine. I seemed a little out there, but it gave me a way to understand my mother’s mental illness and helped me a little in my efforts to forgive her behaviour.

        It’s good to know that this may actually be a reality. I hope one day society will be able to use this information to heal the unhealed wounds of slavery, war and poverty that cause us to act in destructive ways. I hope we can have empathy for one another and stop these cycles of suffering going round and round, rather than piling on yet more suffering as we often do now.

        I, like you Sarah, have chosen not to have biological children. Don’t want to take that risk.

  • November 29, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Patrick, medications sometimes save lives whether some like it or not. As the band “Badfinger” sang…”there is no real perfection”….we get lucky to get any relief sometimes.

    Yeah, the things families go through to do their best by their schizophrenic relative are nothing short of heroic sometimes. And sometimes there is just perpetual and profound sadness.

    Nothing will get my Irish dander up faster than criticizing families. I’ve found these families to be some of the most welcoming, down to earth, and helpful people I’ve ever met.

    Rather than your book could I have your bank account ? Beings I have your book and all.

    • August 17, 2018 at 10:36 am

      Here is a cause that few want to talk about, but it has been the cause of much mental illness!

      Starting in the early medieval period, the Roman church tried put the brakes on inbreeding in Europe. By the eleventh century, you weren’t allowed to marry even your sixth cousin (although this was knocked back to fourth cousin in the following century). most of this happened in the heart of Europe, starting in Frankish territory and spreading outwards through what is today France, Germany, England, northern Italy and northern Spain, plus at least parts of Scandinavia.

      But what about the more peripheral regions of Europe? What happened in places like the Iberian peninsula and Sicily and the Balkans? Russia and Slavic countries east of the hajnal line? Ireland and Scotland? Things didn’t play out in those regions like in the core of Europe. Let’s start with what happened in Ireland.

      In pre-Christian Ireland

      Although as in the rest of early Europe, there were no hard and fast rules governing the choice of marriage partner (other than a taboo on primary incest), there was a preference for marriage between close kin (in-marriage), and for matches between children of fathers of equal rank (isogamy).

      Not a big surprise there. The Christian Church, as per usual, tried to put a stop to in-marriage in Ireland like they did elsewhere, but without much success.

      Connected to the practice of dowering women was the preference for marriage with close kin; this tended to conserve property within the fine [paternal kin], or between pairs of fine branches that repeatedly intermarried. Clerical complaints offer indirect testimony to the Irish preference for canonically ‘incestuous’ marriage. The seventh-century source, the ‘Second Synod of St. Patrick’, records that the Romani — a faction of the Irish clergy advocating greater conformity to Roman Catholic practices — attempted to insist upon ‘what is observed among us, that they be separated by four degrees’, i.e. that men should not marry their first cousins (the fourth degree kinswoman). The nativists protested that they had ‘never seen nor read’ such a rule.

      Again, in the eleventh century, churchmen singled out tolerance of ‘incest’ (marriage of kin) as a major fault of the Irish church. Such laxity was a scandal to Canterbury in the later middle ages, not only in cases involving famous families, but apparently amongst the general population. So weak were the sanctions against in-marriage, that incidents are recorded in which men were sexually involved with aunts and nieces — not in covert relationships, but marriages for which the parties tried to gain sanction and blessing. Even in the law tracts there survives a hint that Roman Catholic complaints were not without foundation, for Corus Bescna [one of the Breton law tracts] asks:

      “‘What is the corus fheini? (laws of the farmers) Joint-plowing, marriage, giving in charge, lending … (Commentary) marriage — the daughter of each to the other, i.e., to such as one as is not cursed by the patron saint of the land.’

      “A curse from the local saint could be incurred on a large number of grounds, such as associating with the various categories of society tainted with paganism, not paying one’s tithes, or simply belonging to a hostile group. The point is that a neighbor, even a close kinsman, was preferred as a husband because his exact social position was well-known — a sentiment shared by the Welsh and expressed in the proverb, ‘marry in the kin and fight the feud afar.‘”

      So, even by the eleventh century, close-relative marriage was still the way to go in Ireland — and not just cousin marriage, but even closer (genetically speaking) uncle-niece and aunt-nephew marriages. that’s very different from what was happening on the continent at the same time.

      The Normans tried to put a stop to the inbreeding practices in Ireland; but they actually went native after a century or two and adopted a lot of the local Irish laws and practices, so I’m not sure how successful they were at eliminating close-relative marriage in Ireland. i don’t think they can have had much luck (o’ the Irish), because as goody points out:

      “In the period of the classical civilisations, forms of clan organisation apper to have existed right round the Mediterranean, as it still does among the pastoral peoples of North Africa and some hill tribes of the Balkans, and in very residual forms in Ireland and Scotland.”

      Very residual forms of clans still exist in ireland (and scotland) because in-marriage practices must’ve existed until quite recently.

      Mitterauer discusses at some length how the medieval Irish also did not adopt the new agrarian practices that peoples on mainland Europe did, but rather stuck mostly to cattle herding:

      “There were also strong contrasts in the extreme northwest of the continent, in the British Isles. Whereas in England, parallels with agrarian developments in France could be found early on, particularly in its fertile southeast, the situations in Ireland and Scotland were vastly different. In England, wheat and barley had predominated in Roman times, but rye and oats had also been introduced, possibly to supply the army. These two grains subsequently brought about the expansion of agriculture onto poorer soils, thus making an important contribution to the process of cerealization. In Ireland there was no such development, even in the High Middle Ages; an animal-based economy was clearly predominant. This is reflected in the variations in social prestige among different population groups depending on whether they raised animals or farmed. Oats took pride of place in grain growing, followed by barley, wheat, and rye, with rye, the new grain for making bread, coming last.”

      In addition, since the Irish remained tribal or clannish (as a result of the inbreeding practices), the manorial system of mainland Europe did not take hold, either.

      Inbreeding = tribalism/clannishness ≠ corporate structures in society :

      “The situation in early medieval Ireland can shed light on the inter-connections between the predominance of cattle breeding and lordship over the land and its people. Structures analogous to the Frankish manorial system did not emerge there, but manorial forms certainly did. Irish lords distributed arable land to unfree, homeless people, the so-called fuidri….

      “These patron-client relations did not generate a familia as they did on Frankish estates; social structuring was still maintained through kinship. It seems that mills and kilns were typically owned by kinship groups in common, and it was only at monasteries that these buildings were the key facilities on a manorial estate. Given that a livestock economy was dominant, these facilities were much less significant in Ireland than even the rather anemic Irish crop production. In this respect, too, there were no institutions that would enable the bipartite estate to gain a toehold. Because of these agrarian contexts and the aligning of its social structures with kinship, the organization of power developed very differently in early medieval Ireland that in the Frankish Empire. ‘Cattle lords’ and lower-level kings dominated the scene.“

      For “lower-level kings” read: the heads of clans or tribes.

      When a society’s marriage practices are based on inbreeding, you get a nepotistic society (think Daley-dynasty machine-style politics or Tammany Hall) because, due to inclusive fitness related drives, people favor their own more than strangers. in medieval Irish society, they didn’t even manage to adopt feudalism because who on earth would swear fealty to some lord that you weren’t related to?! the whole concept just didn’t make any sense to the medieval Irish — because the church hadn’t managed to persuade the population to quit inbreeding.

      Sheela na Gig!
      Here is another subject that has been hidden, but I believe exposes a time when society was matriarchal, and women mated with whoever they wanted to.
      We are back in that time today and you will see a big increase in mental illness in the future.

  • November 29, 2013 at 3:32 pm

    Hi. I am about fifth generation Irish immigrant living in Britain. My ancestors left County Sligo and arrived in Liverpool in Britain where I was born and raised. Half of the population of Liverpool at one point was Irish so Irish history and culture has always been close, with still, many close friends from an Irish background, often united by one thing – The Great Famine and its effects. Our names are invariably Gaelic or Old Irish and though we do not now trudge in the dark through mud and bogs to the sound of the laughter of princes, I and many friends and family still find things difficult. I have a good ethnic Irish friend, a big, good looking man with a gentle disposition, who at the age of 58 has drunk his way through life. I met him yesterday and little has changed. My own father was born and raised in an English workhouse in return for land thieved from his own ancestors by the British. This land, once tilled to produce many crops was taken for grazing lucrative dairy herds. For all of its nationalism, the graveyard of Ireland’s famine legacy remains predominantly that of a large dairy producer, flouting the memory of those millions of people who died of starvation and desease, dispossessed from their/our land by British land grabs to produce dairy. Though some Irish people have made their way in British life, many more have not. We remain largely dispossessed and haunted by these events. Moreso being the victims of British land grabs still living here in Britain

    And for what? So fat ugly Brits could get even fatter and even uglier consuming milk produced in Ireland, from stollen Irish land?

    I dont even drink it. Yet another ecological/sociological/psychological disaster caused by over grazing and a greedy profit margin which bares no sense in reality. What makes things even more ironic, is that Britain is largely a crop producer.

    I would like to return to live in Ireland one day because the clean, wide open expanses of luscious vegetation, lack of urbanisation and industrialisation and the native charm and good humour of Irish people appeals to me, like nowhere else, when the terrible historical legacy of a large dairy producer, imposed by a British land grab for money finally comes to an end.

    • May 11, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      The only true way to heal the family/descendants is forgiveness.

  • November 29, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Great post again Patrick. Kind of chafes me that our brothers and sisters today are still suffering from the laissez-faire policy of the British aristocracy of the mid 1850’s. It’s a mean world.
    On a lighter note, the weekend before my extended family and I drove to Belfast this summer, there was some rioting between the Catholics and Protestants. My cousin asked the bartender at the pub we stopped at for lunch if he thought we were unwise to be in Belfast that day. He said something like ‘Ach no! It’s Monday and the trouble makers are all home nursing their hangovers.’ 😉

    • November 29, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      I meant to say mid 1800’s.

    • November 29, 2013 at 11:31 pm

      Hahahaha.Trish it’s good to know when the streets of Belfast are safe. I haven’t spent much time there, just a day. Breezed in and out. It did feel like a different country.

  • November 29, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    It makes sense to me that famine could lead to mental illness on many levels: epigenetics, fear, lack of nutrients leading to pain, fogginess, dissociation, etc. I also wonder about the effects of praying to a god who does not answer your prayers. Why would a God let one starve? And, I also believe Irish madness is caused by the separation of mothers and infants in the convents, laundries, etc. And, apart from famine related hunger, I am certain mothers and babies in convents were ill nourished.

    • November 29, 2013 at 11:36 pm

      If in-vitro starvation is a way of not welcoming a person into this world, then it makes sense that it would be what takes us out of this world. Odd to me that the effect is pronounced in people carried through famines in the second trimester. I was under the impression that neurons are formed in the firt trimester. Much to be learned in famine populations elsewhere, sadly.

  • November 29, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Very interesting piece! My own ancestry has a history of famine too – the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. However, I had never thought about this potential aspect in the madnesses of my own family. Definitely interested in learning more about this kind of epigenetic change. I don’t quite understand how it continues to progress in subsequent generations having adequate nutrition, or why it would specifically manifest as psychiatric illness.

  • November 30, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Pat, I love how you have brought us all together. Do other countries with famine have the same results. I spent time in Ethiopia in the 70’s. They were going through there first massive starvation (ah, at least to the press). Weather patterns changed. Anyway. I have never heard of an increase in mental disease. Maybe because they have greater problems for the general population. My point being, that it is more than the starvation, yes genetics, but being a mother who produced one mad and one genius, there is something else afloat. I ate, but was not absorbing nutrients with my first and sick one. Gained twice as much with the second. I still suffer from malnutrition/malabsorption. These two plus changes in the fauna and flora of the small intestine did the damage. Thrown in the epi-genes and the wild ride begins.

    • December 3, 2013 at 8:52 am

      Ida, yes, the biggest study was the Great Leap famine in China in the 1960s, confirming the Dutch Winter Hunger studies from World War II. I shudder to think about the children of North Korean and parts of Africa. Even in our own country nutrition is important. 165 years since the Great Irish Famine seems a long time, but in terms of genes cycles it’s the blink of an eye. The connection can’t be denied. Thank you, Ida.

      • December 3, 2013 at 3:41 pm

        Pat, probably not the place to continue this, but maybe to start a new column at some time. No where having children did anyone ever ask:
        Any history mental illness in the family?
        Any bone thin relatives? mal-absorption problem, Crohns? Celiac? Food intolerances? Do you ever feel like you are starving to death?
        Or are there any terribly obese in the family? It is another form of mal-absorption? There must be more screening questions. (Cynically may I add, it is not the delivering doctor’s problem. It doesn’t strike for 22 more years.
        That little black box we call the small intestine has tales to tell. The epi-genes only strike in certain situations. Only 10 per cent of those with celiac are diagnosed. They (we) have a much higher rate of schizophrenic children. Europe has registries and medical benefits. We keep getting farther behind.

      • December 3, 2013 at 5:36 pm

        Fabulous idea to post a piece on all the other illnesses that plague the Irish lopsidedly. I am on it. Thank you, Martha!

  • February 13, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Hi Patrick,

    As an Irish woman with roots in the west coast of Ireland, Mayo to be precise. We have a lot of autoimmune disease in our family, Mother dying at 64 with Scleroderma, Brother dying at 33 from hemoletic anemia and myself having hashimotis a thyroid autoimmune disease and also mixed connective disease. There are a lot of families with autoimmune disease in the West Coast of Ireland and that area of the country suffered the most during the famine, especially Mayo. I once heard a Doctor speak at a conference on the famin’s after affects and he said that it takes 3 to 4 generations to recover from the effects of a famine and providing that the succeeding generations have good nutrition. Do you think that autoimmune disease especially amongst the Irish could be related to the famine?

    • February 5, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      I too am a woman of Irish roots of western Ireland. Although I have see a pattern of alcoholism in past generations, which may have ties to mental illness, we now have a clear genetic history of connective tissue disorder – elhers danlos syndrome-hypermobility type. This has resulted in a disabling medical condition in my daughter and connective tissue related problems in my mother, self and children. Some studies point to autoimmune origins. This has led me to epigenetics. Can’t wait to read the book. I hope to see some long term studies on the Irish and the potato famine.


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