The Legacy of Gerald Keegan: A Teacher’s Tale from the Great Irish Famine


Gerald Keegan looked grim as the ship Naparima, carrying him along with hundreds of survivors, began to leave his homeland. “Viewing the scene in respectful silence, seeing for the last time the place we hold most dear on earth,” he wrote in his diary. Keegan, a teacher in a small village in west Ireland, began writing about the plague sweeping through in February 1847. Imagining his starving and dying students, he noted, “Children have lost their youthful appearance. They look like old people. They no longer laugh and play.”

Ireland was struck by the Great Famine, a period of severe hunger from 1845 to 1852, caused by a potato blight. The famine led to mass deaths and emigration. Keegan and his wife escaped across the Atlantic to Canada, but upon arriving at the Quebec camp, his wife tragically died. Keegan himself eventually succumbed to fever and died, while his diary was saved by a priest.

The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was a catastrophic period in Irish history. The famine was caused by a fungal disease, Phytophthora infestans, that infected potato crops, the main staple food in Ireland at the time. This blight led to mass starvation, disease, and emigration. At least 1.3 million people left Ireland for North America, England, and Australia. Most landed in the United States, particularly in New York City, which saw an influx of 300 Irish immigrants daily between 1845 and 1852. The 2011 census revealed nearly 40 million people in the US claimed Irish ethnicity, a testament to the lasting impact of this migration.

The introduction of potatoes to Europe and the subsequent blight of the 1840s illustrate a world shaped by multispecies encounters. The blight, identified by blackened leaves, quickly spread to tubers, rotting them within days. Potatoes were crucial in 19th-century Ireland, especially for the rural poor. Easy to plant and harvest, potatoes provide essential carbohydrates and calories. Under British control since 1801, Ireland was subject to landowner policies that favored potato cultivation due to its minimal labor requirements and higher profitability. This exploitative system limited the Irish people’s ability to grow other crops, making them heavily reliant on potatoes.

In June 1845, the potato disease first appeared in Courtrai, a border region between France and Belgium. It quickly spread to the Netherlands, northern France, and southern England, reaching Ireland by September. “In many places, potato plants withered, turned black, and emitted a foul smell. Many people made pilgrimages to Saint Anthony’s Chapel to pray for salvation,” wrote Felicitas Rommel, a resident of Courtrai, in her diary.

William G. Powderly, in his journal “How Infection Shaped History,” noted that the potato disease struck several countries, including Canada and the United States, in 1845. However, Ireland was particularly vulnerable due to the lack of genetic diversity among potato plants, which meant there were no disease-resistant varieties. “Ireland’s vulnerability was exacerbated by widespread poverty and the population’s heavy reliance on a single staple crop,” he wrote. The potato disease spreads easily in warm, humid conditions, especially during rainfall.

It is estimated that more than one million people died as a result of the Great Famine. Starvation and malnutrition, especially among children and the elderly, weaken immune systems, making the population susceptible to diseases such as typhus, cholera, and dysentery. “Some were found dead with grass in their mouths. Dogs and donkeys had become common foods. Dozens of corpses lay by the roadside,” Gerald Keegan recorded in his diary. The famine led many Irish people to emigrate, primarily to North America, though the perilous journey resulted in many deaths. At least 20,000 deaths were recorded at Grosse Isle, Quebec, in 1847, mostly due to typhus and fever. By 1851, Ireland’s population had decreased by nearly two million from the 1841 census, reflecting the devastating impact of the famine.

Ireland was effectively ruled as a British colony, with limited representation in the British Parliament. The predominantly Catholic Irish faced penal laws that initially barred them from owning land or holding elected office. Most land in Ireland was owned by English and Anglo-Irish families, forcing the Irish to work on landlords’ estates for low wages, neglecting their own farming. Although the British Government was slow to respond, eventually acknowledging the famine, their initial efforts were inadequate. Prime Minister John Peel’s attempt to import corn from America and remove tariffs to lower bread prices was too little, too late. His successor, John Russell, adopted a laissez-faire approach, believing the free market would solve the famine, a policy that failed and was eventually abandoned.

While the British government’s response to the famine was heavily criticized, some countries and organizations offered humanitarian aid. The US, France, Canada, and Australia, along with figures such as Tsar Alexander II, Pope Pius IX, James K. Polk, and Abraham Lincoln, provided assistance. Sultan Abdul Majid I’s substantial donation was controversially reduced at the behest of Queen Victoria.

The Great Famine is commemorated through statues, paintings, and other media. Cities like Boston and New York have erected memorials for the lives lost during the famine. In Drogheda, Ireland, the local football team adopted the Ottoman Empire’s emblem, the star and crescent, as their club logo, a lasting tribute to the international aid provided during one of Ireland’s darkest periods.