The following text was written for my book ‘1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery,’ published by Gill Books in 2016. To see the full contents of the book, click here.
In the front of my car I keep a steel harmonica in order to whittle away the minutes on the rare occasions when I find myself idling through rush-hour traffic. I am by no means a skilled player – what goes on in the car, stays in the car – but I am grateful to the Seydel Söhne harmonica factory of Klingenthal in Germany for sending me such a useful instrument. The company was founded in 1847, making it the oldest surviving harmonica manufacturer in the world, and it seems fitting that I should have one of their models in my car.
When my harmonica arrived in the post, it was accompanied by a ‘simple song example’ to enable me to practise drawing, blowing and puckering on the holes. I was thrilled to note that the song they chose was Stephen Foster’s ‘Oh! Susanna’, a veritable 1847 classic if ever there was one. I assumed the 1847 match-up was deliberate, until Lars Seifert, managing director at Seydel Söhne, expressed such pleasant surprise when I asked him about it. To my mind, this was a typical moment of 1847 serendipity.
That year has followed me around for the best part of three decades now, and my affection for it knows no bounds. In my mind there is no doubt that an inordinate number of curious, brilliant and dreadful events took place during those particular twelve months. 1847 was a year of immense discord that paved the way for so much human migration, territorial conquest and monarchy-toppling turmoil that the planet is arguably still recovering from it. And yet there was progress and harmony too, played out on pianos and banjos, on broadsheets and telegraphs, as our ever-shrinking world learned more about itself than it had ever known before.
My first awareness of it came while I was studying Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights for my English A-Level examination at Glenalmond, a boarding school in Scotland. It was noted that Brontë had published her book in 1847, the same year that W. E. Gladstone, later to become the British Prime Minister, had founded our school. At about this time I came upon a silver trowel at Lisnavagh, my family home in County Carlow, Ireland, which revealed that the first granite stone of our house was laid on 23 January 1847.
Having been educated in Scotland, I didn’t learn much about the Great Hunger that tore Ireland apart during 1847. It was Christy Moore’s melodic voice that first really alerted me to the catastrophe when he sang ‘The City of Chicago’, written by his brother Luka Bloom. The first verse runs:
1847 was the year it all began.
Deadly pains of hunger
Drove a million from the land.
They journeyed not for glory,
Their motive was not greed,
A voyage of survival
Across the stormy sea.
I went to the books to learn more. The impact of the Great Hunger was, of course, enormous. Can you name any other country in the world where the population today is pretty much half what it once was? The statistics are difficult to comprehend: in 1847 alone, some 400,000 men, women and children are believed to have died in consequence of the Famine, be it through disease or starvation, and nearly 250,000 fled, primarily to Britain and North America. Such a massive exodus inevitably had a huge bearing on the shape of things overseas. For instance, the population of Toronto in January 1847 was 20,000; by the close of the year it had trebled to 60,000, with the newcomers almost exclusively from Ireland.
Understandably, the Irish who arrived in America felt deep bitterness against the British, a feeling that only intensified with the passage of time, leading to accusations that the British government had orchestrated a deliberate genocide. This, in turn, fed into the huge amounts of financial support afforded to Irish nationalists by the Irish-American community. For many of the 31 million US citizens who claim Irish ancestry, the ‘Great Hunger’ marks the start of their story. The same is true for many Irish families who settled in Britain. County Mayo, for instance, lost a quarter of its population during the famine years and, in consequence, the Mayo-born population of Britain was to swell massively in the decades to follow. Conversely, the Mayo townland Killawalla, on the outskirts of Westport, lost two thirds of its entire population between 1841 and 1851, the single greatest decline in population within any one community in Ireland. 
With so many grim statistics to ponder, I found myself questioning why my forebears took it upon themselves to build a new mansion in a year that was to become known in Ireland as Black ’47. (See Appendix 1.) And yet, while I have almost certainly said too little about the Great Hunger in these pages, the purpose of this book is not to rake over the coals of that appalling era, which, even as I write, is replicated in the plight of so many luckless souls seeking to escape from their own tortured homelands amid the uncertainty of the present century.
What happened in Ireland during the 1840s was shocking, disgusting, heart-breaking and almost entirely indefensible. Its consequence was to totally restructure the psyche of the Irish people, both at home and abroad. It is my hope that some measure of the immensity of the calamity, and of the philanthropy it generated, will be discernible in these pages in the effect, great and small, it had on such an anomalous group as General Tom Thumb, the Choctaw Indians, the Cape Cod fishermen, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the opium-running merchants of Boston, Massachusetts.
Had I but time and space I would also have told the tales of the French celebrity chef who set up his soup kitchens in Dublin, and of Cassandra Hand, the wife of an English clergyman, who moved into Bishopscourt, my wife’s family home in Clones, County Monaghan, in 1847, from where she set up a crochet lace manufacturing business that enabled at least fifteen hundred hitherto destitute women to earn ‘a respectable living’. If there are any positives to be found in the crisis that blitzed Ireland in the 1840s it is that so many people all over the world put such a noble effort into trying to make things better.
With the arrival of so many sickly and destitute Irish refugees in Canada and the United States, it is small wonder that many other settlers opted to push west in 1847 in pursuit of less congested lands. That said, the Irish Famine does not appear to have influenced the decision of the Mormons to set off on their epic voyage to Salt Lake City, or indeed that of the German colonists who set up their liberal commune at the heart of Comanche territory in Texas, or of those who began planting their vineyards in South Australia.
In a year when the world’s population stood at approximately 1.25 billion, people were on the march at almost every latitude. The citizens of Europe were, by and large, making the trek from the countryside to the cities, where the Industrial Revolution was continuing apace. However, many more were making their way to the distant continents of Australia, Africa and the Americas to start anew.
Some even ventured north to the Arctic, but, as the British explorer Sir John Franklin discovered, the northern climes were ill-suited to human survival. Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage is an event we have long known about in our family, because one of our forebears was involved in the quest to discover the unfortunate man’s fate. However, it was only when I began reading on the subject in detail that I discovered that Franklin’s life had also concluded in 1847.
As I say, the year has followed me around. I see it on Carlsberg cans, on Jacob’s Creek bottles, on my 24-hour clock in the early evenings. My first job as a waiter was at Coman’s of Rathgar in south Dublin; its outer wall is emblazoned with the legend ‘Est. 1847.’ (I didn’t last very long there).
I live in rural Ireland, but I cannot look at a Massey Ferguson tractor without recalling how Daniel Massey started out making threshers in Ontario in 1847. When I remind my young daughters to wash their hands after they have been to the bathroom, my mind wanders to poor old Ignaz Semmelweis and his campaign to persuade doctors to wash their hands, which began in 1847.
When I attended the 2015 Web Summit, I could not resist telling all those code-busting internet whizzes how San Francisco’s streetscape was laid out in 1847 by an Irish surveyor named Jasper O’Farrell.
When a Parisian girl arrived at our home in the summer of 2017 to help look after our daughters for a few weeks, it came as little surprise to learn that she was a direct descendant of Louis- François Cartier, the man who founded the famous jewelry company in 1847, and about whom I had already written a chapter for this book.
When I visited Savannah, Georgia, in 2018, the same year leaped out from almost every town square and cemetery I visited. When my mother was handed raffle ticket ‘No. 1847’ in 2019, it was inevitable that she should then win the prize of two mahogany side tables. That same year I had two MRI scans, nothing serious, but as the machines grinded and bleeped all around me I focused my mind on the name of the manufacturer, Siemens, established in 1847. Ally bought a Siemens dishwasher in 2019 also. And on it goes …
Several of my ancestors were born in 1847, including Henry Thomas Finlay, born at 32 Merrion Square on 15 February 1847. Very sadly, his mother did not make it through. She died at the age of 32, two weeks later from complications during the delivery. H. T. Finlay’s daughter was my great-grandmother, Edie Colley to her friends, Baba to her family, who was born at Corkagh, near Clondalkin, County Dublin, in 1881 and died in 1975. I was a tiny tot when she died but I have a hazy memory of a woman in black, like the granny from the Giles cartoons. It feels rather astounding to have met someone born deep back in the Victorian Age.
I think the clearest indication of my magnetic attraction for 1847 took place when I chanced to be staying in San Ángel, a suburb of Mexico City, in the winter of 2001. I had tired of trying to teach my host’s parrot how to say ‘feck’ and decided to go for a walk. I could have gone in any direction, but my feet escorted me this way and that until they reached a cobblestone plaza, where they halted in front of a marble monument. My Spanish is still dreadful, but even then it was clear that this was a memorial to seventy-one soldiers, mostly Irish, who had died fighting for Mexico against the United States in the year of Our Lord, 1847. I give my account of the San Patricios in these pages, but I can tell you here and now that stumbling upon that memorial was probably the moment when I decided that this book would one day have to be written.
The Mexican War was about the expansionist ambitions of the United States. Land ownership was also the root cause of conflict elsewhere in 1847, be it the French attack on Vietnam, the frosty relations between London and Washington over Oregon, the muscle-flexing antics of those in charge of British India, the rise of the Kazakh chieftain Kenesary or the growing threat posed along the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire by Tsarist Russia. More cerebral disputes vested in notions of equality, religion and liberty were at the heart of the revolutions that were about to erupt throughout Europe and that even plunged the Swiss into a civil war.
The world was small in 1847. It doesn’t seem so surprising that Frederick Douglass sailed home to the United States from Europe in the same ship that Tom Thumb had sailed in a couple of months earlier. Or that Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, who Douglass met in Ireland, should have also befriended the Boston opium merchant who sailed a warship stuffed with relief supplies into Cork Harbour. Entertainers like Lola Montez, Pablo Fanque, Tom Thumb and the equestrian circus stars of St Petersburg all trod upon much the same boards, although the world of classical music, represented in these pages by Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt and the soprano Jenny Lind, must have been startled by the innovative strumming of guitar and banjo strings that was carried on the air from the American West.
There are other factors I must mention. Between 2000 and 2016, I was been engaged in a project called ‘Vanishing Ireland’ with my old friend James Fennell, for which we interviewed and photographed over two hundred men and women who were born in the first decades of the twentieth century. I was consistently bowled over by how many of them told us that their grandparents had been children, if not teenagers, at the time of the Great Famine. I should not be so surprised. Writing in 2016, the year 1847 was only 169 years earlier, or two 84-year-olds,
Mary Ann McNally (née McDonnell), who was born in in Cross, Louisburg, County Mayo, on 15 March 1847, was hailed as ‘the last survivor’ of the Great Hunger when she died in 1956, aged 108. She was already the oldest person in Ireland when interviewed in a Castlebar nursing home in 1953. (She was also still lucid in both languages.)
My mother’s first cousin is the grandson of a man who was five-years-old in 1847. John Tyler, who was born in 1790 and served as president of the US two years before 1847, has a grandson named Harrison Ruffin Tyler who is still alive (as of January 2024). Another of President Tyler’s grandson died at the age of 95 in 2020.
Perhaps some of the senior inhabitants of Salt Lake City are the grandchildren of the youngest pioneers who made the Great Trek with Brigham Young in 1847. Some of Australia’s oldest citizens are likewise only two or three generations removed from the very last convicts sent out to the former British colony.
My fascination with 1847 means that I am loath to cease writing this book. There are still so many stories to tell, so many lives to explore, and I am starting to question whether it was really necessary to describe the formative moments of the doughnut and the Christmas cracker when I might have focused instead on the foundation of Liberia or on the Swiss Civil War. (Needless to say, the Swiss hardly killed anyone and then felt so guilty about it all that they invented the Red Cross.)
It is time, however, to say, Pens down. I appreciate the fact that this work is somewhat unusual in its scope, but I hope that this chronicle of famine, warfare, scandal and gumdrops will give you a little insight into the minds of some of those who walked this earth in 1847.
 Christine Kinealy, ‘Food exports from Ireland, 1846–47’, History Ireland, vol. 5, issue 1 (spring, 1997), p. 32–6.
 Ballinrobe’s population plunged from 8,224 in 1841 to a low of just 2,536 in 2002, while Belmullet’s virtually halved from 3,200 to a little over 1,800 during the same period. Figures via Professor Stewart Fotheringham at Maynooth National Centre for Geocomputation, with thanks to Michael Larkin.
 When the G8 held their summit at the Lough Erne Resort in Northern Ireland in 2013, I was asked by a pal at the One Foundation to produce some facts on the “Great Hunger” so that they could highlight the ongoing famines in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The hope was we could find somewhere within 15-20 minutes to show the G8 the devastating impact of the “famine” in Ireland but we couldn’t. I began my report stating: “County Fermanagh (where the Lough Erne Resort is located) was the least affected of all 32 counties during the Great Famine. The county has a large number of lakes and the potato blight wasn’t much good at traversing water so it headed to other parts of Ireland instead. In fact, it seems Fermanagh enjoyed something of a bumper crop at the time. As such, I am not sure County Fermanagh will provide any place of the epic, emotional gravitas that you require.” Instead I proposed that they focus on some of the extraordinary humanitarian efforts that took place during that time – the Choctaw donation, the Massachusetts merchants who sent a US warship over laden with supplies, the Sultan of Turkey’s gift, the crazy Cape Cod fisherman who sailed over with a hull full of oats into Sligo bay, the Irish priest who raised a small fortune for relief in Argentina and Alexis Soyer, the celebrity chef, who came over from France in 1847 to set up a soup kitchen. They didn’t go for it, but I was hooked, which is yet another reason why I wrote this book.
 Mrs [Louisa Anne] Meredith, The Lacemakers: Sketches of Irish Character, with Some Account of the Effort to Establish Lacemaking in Ireland (London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder, 1865), p. 19–23.