on famine

FOR THE COMMANDER OF “THE ELIZA” by Seamus Heaney

. . . . the others, with emaciated faces and prominent, staring eyeballs, were evidently in an advanced state of starvation. The officer in charge reported the incident to Sir James Dombrain, the Inspector General . . . . . and Sir James “very inconveniently,” wrote Routh, “interfered.”

Cecil Woodham-Smith: The Great Hunger.

Routine patrol off West Mayo; sighting

A rowboat heading unusually far

Beyond the creek, I tacked and hailed the crew

In Gaelic. Their stroke had clearly weakened

As they pulled to, from guilt or bashfulness

I was conjecturing when, O my sweet Christ,

We saw piled in the bottom of their craft

Six grown men with gaping mouths and eyes

Bursting the sockets like spring onions in drills.

Six wrecks of bone and pallid, tautened skin.

“Biadh, biadh, biadh,” in whines and snarls their desperation

Rose and fell like a flock of starving gulls.

We’d known about the shortage but on board

They always kept us right with flour and beef

So understand my feelings, and the men’s,

Who had no mandate to relieve distress.

There was relief available in Westport

Though these poor brutes would clearly never make it.

I had to refuse food: they cursed and howled

Like dogs that had been kicked hard in the privates.

When they drove at me with their starboard oar

(Risking capsize themselves) I saw they were

Violent and without hope. I hoisted

And cleared off. Less incidents the better.

Next day, like six bad smells, those living skulls

Drifted through the dark of bunk and hatches

And once in port I exorcised my ship

Reporting all to the Inspector General.

Sir James, I understand, urged free relief

For famine victims in the Westport Sector

And earned tart reprimand from good Whitehall.

Let natives prosper by their own exertions;

Who could not swim might go ahead and sink.

“The Coast Guard with their zeal and activity

Are too lavish” were the words, I think.

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2 thoughts on “on famine”

  1. Oh God, I hope we have reached the stage where we’ll put humanity before gov’t/law. Please let us be there now… Well done, Ireland! You’ve IFed the same points we are saying world over. One voice! Many thanks.

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