The Secret of the Black Lake
Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland was decimated by famine.
In that dark period known as 'The Great Hunger', or ‘an Gorta Mór’, more than a million men, women and children died from starvation and disease. Millions more fled to the New World by boat, risking their lives aboard 'floating hells' rather than perish in their home country.
Over that decade Ireland was to lose a quarter of her population; among them, untold numbers from the southwest farming community of Louisburgh, County Mayo.
Louisburgh was hit hard by potato blight. Already impoverished by more than half a century of repressive British rule, the soil fungus that ravaged their principal food crop year after year proved catastrophic for this small rural community.
In March 1849, six hundred men, women and children in the last stages of starvation straggled into town seeking food relief.
Making their way to the workhouse — institutions set up in each county to accommodate famine victims — they were refused entry, but told they could appeal for relief to a committee meeting the following day at Delphi Lodge, twelve miles south.
They set off across the mountains in the rain, barefoot and wearing little more than rags.
When they arrived, exhausted, freezing and soaked through, they were ordered to wait on the lawn outside the lodge while the bureaucrats finished their lunch. Finally the committee members emerged to address the crowd, who were told there were no workhouse permits or food handouts available, and turned away.
Shown no mercy by man or nature, with nowhere to rest, nothing to eat, and no other choice, they began their march home.
Their path led them back through a treacherous pass perched above the black lake of Doolough. As darkness closed in, a storm struck.
Just as they reached the highest cliff, an unearthly squall wailed through the pass. Already weakened by starvation, exhaustion and exposure, hundreds were swept into the lake below. The few who were able to swim to the banks died of exposure during the night. The rest perished in the Black Lake.
On hearing of the tragedy the next day, the committee took a party of men to visit the scene.
Corpses "as numerous as sheaves of corn in an autumn field" littered the sides of the track from Louisburgh to Delphi, some with tufts of grass in their mouths from their last attempt to eat. They were buried where they fell, in rough graves. At Doolagh the corpses numbered so many, they were simply shovelled into mass pits.
To this day nobody knows how many lost their lives along the Doolagh Pass.
Almost 150 years later, in May 1994, a famine relief organisation called Action From Ireland (AFrI) erected a stone marker and cross in the Doolough Valley bearing the inscription "To Commemorate the Hungry Poor who walked here in 1849... ". The AFrl also organises an annual one-mile Famile Walk in the Louisburgh area to commemorate the Doolough Tragedy.
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