Donegal Democrat

According to the Census figures, the combined population of Glencolmcille, Kilgoly and Malinbeg electoral areas on a Sunday last April is 1,498 people.

In the six years since the last census, the population has slipped slightly from 1,562, a dip of about four percent. The emigration patterns are a bit different these days, but the tendency is still there. People head to Dublin, or Derry, or Letterkenny, as likely as not.

Some still go further afield, but it doesn’t have the permanence it once did. I emigrated to the USA and my brother to Australia for instance, but we both came back after a few years.

The strange thing is, despite this continuing decline in the rural population, repeated throughout the west, we’re told there are too many houses in the countryside. One-off Rural Dwellings have been elevated to pariah status by commentators in the Irish Times, a social sin on a par with Chewing Tobacco or Not Standing Your Round.

And yet, the countryside is peppered with deserted houses. Some are just the echoes of the past, old balógs fading into the ground that have been there for decades. Others are more recent, now abandoned and starting to fade away, windows broken, weeds growing in the gutters.

In all the rows over An Taisce objections to new housing, no one has thought too much about those old houses. If the idea behind An Taisce’s objections is to preserve something of the countryside of the past, might it not be an idea to offer a grant incentive to keep those old houses alive?

Doing up an old house is a costly exercise, so maybe a grant system to anyone who keeps an old house alive might go some way in reassuring people worried about the “bungalow blitz”. After all, those old houses are as much a part of our heritage as the countryside.

The countryside was ever meant to be empty. In famine times Glencolmcille was full of people. The 1,498 people counted there this April pale in comparison to the 4,356 recorded in 1841. All those people must have lived somewhere.

I don’t think we ever stop to consider the scale of the Famine. The numbers are drummed into us in school, and become meaningless.

One million people died, and one million people fled the country, out of a population of 8 million. That’s the standard conservative estimate. Sometimes, you’ll even come across figures of two or three million dead or more, based on arguments about how inaccurate the 1841 Census was.

On their own, the figures are horrific enough. Proportionally, no other famine in modern times even comes close. Ireland lost a quarter of its people, to disease, starvation, and emigration. Stalin starved more people in the Ukraine, and Mao starved more during the Great Leap Forward, but the total populations were also much greater.

Closer to the present, the death toll in Bangladesh in 1973 was about 26,000 out of 60 million; in Sudan in 1988 an estimated 250,000 people died out of ~28 million. In fairness, those numbers may be distorted if those famines were regional in scale. But still, Ireland in 1845 wasn’t at war, and wasn’t ruled by a crazed communist despot, yet the destruction wrought by the Great Hunger dwarfs those figures.

One million dead is a statistic. I cannot comprehend it. I can offer a slightly more personal set of numbers though. Glencolmcille had a population of 4,356 souls in 1841, by 1851 it had dropped to 3,881. And in Glen, there are people who’ll tell you we got off easy. We only lost a tenth of our people.

One more statistic before I close. By the best guess of the World Food Programme, thirteen million people face starvation in Africa today, with 300,000 in danger of dying within the next six months.

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