There is no greater human taboo than cannibalism. It has been reviled by almost all societies through history and is generally punished by the harshest means. Nevertheless it does appear to be a feature of human behavior when we are faced desperate conditions. For example there were hundreds of instances recorded during the siege of Leningrad in 1941-44. Irish history is no different. Our ancestors at times survived on human flesh.
The early 14th century was perhaps the most difficult period in recorded human history. Between 1315-18 northern Europe (including Ireland) lost about 10 -15 % of its population from famine and related diseases. In Ireland the severe food shortages were exacerbated by a concurrent invasion from Scotland. This lead some to resort to cannibalism. The annals of Ulster claimed ‘people undoubtedly used to eat each other throughout Ireland’. This was supported by the Annals of Connacht which attests ‘undoubtedly men ate each other’. Graces Annals a later compilation of sources more dramatically claimed
‘some are said to have taken the bodies of the dead from the graves, to have cooked the bodies in skulls, and to have eaten them; women also devoured their infants’.
Some have argued that these rather general descriptions are merely literally devices to highlight the severity of the famine. However more specific incidences exist as well. In 1295, another period of severe starvation The Blackbook of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin recorded that the poor were eating the bodies of executed criminals.
An even more specific allegation was made against the garrison of Carrigfergus castle which endured a Scots siege for nearly a year between 1315 – 1316. In the Autumn of 1316 the garrison reputedly ate over two dozen prisoners they had taken hostage.
Irrefutable evidence of cannibalism in Ireland comes from modern history and in particular the Great Famine of the 1840s. The subject of cannibalism in the recent past is obviously a more sensitive topic and relatively little is known about it. Recently papers like this from the economic historian Cormac O’Grada has started to shed light on a what can be a disturbing topic. In at least once case the evidence pretty clear. This report appeared in The Nenagh Guardian on April 8th, 1848.
That this is perhaps is one of only very few conclusive cases of cannibalism should not be taken as proof that it was an isolated incident. Given the stigma attached to cannibalism is unlikely to have been recorded unless the individuals were caught. Indeed this case it would never have come to light had Connelly not been caught stealing.
Indeed the understanding shown to Connelly’s plight in the Galway court in 1848, and the fact that it appears to have been known in the surrounding area, poses the dark possibility that cannibalism more widespread than this lone incident. Surely at least a small fraction of our ancestors must have chosen cannibalism if death was the only alternative in the 1840s.
While it is shocking to us today understanding the perspective of a starving person puts cannibalism in context. Terry Jones ‘Medieval Lives’ describes the final stages of starvation as such
‘The victim can see and feel their body withering away and becomes obsessed with food. Indifference and apathy replace compassion for their starving neighbours, friends and family. Mothers have been known to snatch food from the hands of their children. Cannibalism is not uncommon. Eventually when a person has lost about 40% of their body mass death is inevitable.’
Who knows what decision you might make in this situation…
G. O. Sayles 1956 The Siege of Carrickfergus Castle, 1315-16 Irish Historical Studies
Vol. 10, No. 37 pp. 94-100
Gwynn, A. (1946) Some Unpublished Texts from the Black Book of Christ Church, Dublin Analecta Hibernica, No. 16, pp. 281, 283-337
O’Grada, C. (2013) Eating People is Wrong: Famine’s Darkest Secret? WP13/02 UCD centre for economnic research https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/WP13_02.pdf
The Annls of Ulster http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001B/index.html
The Annals of Connacht. http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100011/index.html
Graces Annals http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T100001/index.html