Entering the Gray Zone: Hugh Dorian & The Years of Famine

Painting of a potato plant growing in brown soil

Roimh-after (detail)

Robert Ballagh


 our decades after the blight came on the potatoes, Hugh Dorian could recall its color and its smell: “In one night, smitten with the blight and changed from the natural green to that of polished black, the real resemblance of death; today the crop green and in blossom, tomorrow dark, withered, and an unpleasant and offensive smell, which could be felt at distance away.”

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And he could remember, too, the face of hunger: “The cheekbones became thin and high, the cheeks blue, the bones sharp, and the eyes sunk.”

He could recall how people’s legs and feet used to swell and get red, and how the skin would crack, and the “weakness in the frame” that would come over the hungry — how they used to suddenly nod off to sleep and then tottered when they tried to walk: “Many affectionate parents reduced themselves to mere skeletons from the too oft repeated act of withholding from themselves the necessaries they were so much in need of and giving them to their silent helpless children, thereby feeling great comfort in the act, but unawares that feebleness would steal upon them. So overcome would they be from a weakness caused by want of food that apparently strong able-bodied men, on managing to get into a neighbour’s house without any business whatever but to while away the time and be relieved, to be out of sight of the distress, if only for a few minutes, would sit on a seat and soon fall asleep from exhaustion, and on attempting to get home again would have to lay hands on a wall or a fence to keep from staggering – with, as the saying is, a multiplicity of stars before their eyes.”

(Hugh Dorian,  “Outer Edges of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal”).

This post was excerpted from the “Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger” exhibition catalog.