The Legend of Crocheted Donegal Lace: (History):
They called it “Black ’47.” Black ’47 refers to 1847, the worst year of the Irish famine, a potato blight ,that between 1845 and 1850, killed more than 1 million people and forced another 1.5 million to emigrate, most of them to North America. Many historians cite August as the worst month of Black ’47, when the most people died or left Ireland. The famine set in motion a sustained wave of immigration that has made the Irish one of the world’s great nomadic peoples. As was the case until recently in Ireland, the famine was once a taboo subject in the homes of many Irish-Americans, a reminder of their destitute roots and of a past often too painful to talk about.
Ironically, the virulent fungus, known as Phytopthora infestans ended up in Ireland from a ship that had sailed from Boston. While Irish tenant farmers and peasants produced many crops that their British landlords exported, they had, by the 1840s become almost totally dependent o the potato for subsistence. When the fungus caused Ireland’s potato crop to rot with unprecedented speed, disaster struck. In 1845, a third of the crop rotted. Over the next two years, three-quarters was destroyed, while a third of the crop rotted in 1848.
Starving farmers couldn’t pay their rent and were evicted. They faced death, emigration or “taking the soup,” in which Irish Catholics were forced to convert to Protestantism to receive food from church-based soup kitchens. While visitors were most moved by scenes of people dead on the roadside, their mouths “stained green in a futile attempt to survive by eating grass,” more people died from disease than starvation. Whelan says the British, who had been trying with little success to make their closest colony less rebellious and more profitable, saw the blight as a bit of divine social engineering. “Christian providentialism,” writes Whelan, “accepted the destruction of the potato as a good thing because the potato seemed to be the literal root of all Irish evil – a lazy root, grown in lazy beds, by an incorrigibly lazy people.”
In the fall of 1846, 16 year-olds Saraid and Fergal O’Lowry found themselves expecting their first child. By the new year, their tin village by the River Ersk in County Donegal was experiencing the worst famine Ireland had ever seen. Fergal, a fifth generation fisherman, spent the spring plowing through the rough seas of the North Atlantic with far too many day hands clinging to the side of his tiny boat all looking for any morsel to feed their ailing families. Saraid had come from the family Kerrigan, from Penny Apple farmers to marry, Fergal, her fourth cousin and learn the O’Lowry women’s trade of lace making.
On the blustery night of June 14, Fergal, his father and friends were lost at sea. Thirteen other widows, including Saraid’s mother-in-law set fishermen wreaths off the banks of the lower river and prepared themselves to starve… Saraid took her last skein of thread and crocheted a basket to swaddle the child Fergal would never see.
Two days later, Aibhlinn (pronounced “ave + leen” and meaning “longed-for child”) was born. Giving birth on her own by the shore where she had last seen her beloved Fergal, Saraid dipped the lace in the water to bathe her five pound baby girl. Today, the smell of Donegal Lace is said to be the sublime mixture of fine linen, apple tears, a baby’s cry and mist from the River Ersk.