The Fear Gorta means Famine Man or Féar Gortach and refers to the Hungry or Famine Grass in Irish folklore.
The Famine or Hungry Man is a skeletal wraith and a harbinger of death. Féar Gortach is a folklore tale of a cursed patch of land where if you tread, you are doomed to die of starvation no matter how much you eat.
From Cork to Kilkenny and Galway to Connemara, tales of people losing their way on short routes across fields and being caught by the Hungry Grass.
A young man walking home on a sunny day, crosses through the field and is found days later, confuse, not knowing where he is and starving. He is taken home but no amount of nursing or food can save him from starving to death. Others are so overwhelmed by the touch of the cursed grass that they die from hunger where they stand. These victims of the Famine are also predatory, seeking others out to drag others onto the grass. The only protection is to carry a crust of bread in your pocket – but even that may not be enough to save you.
The Hungry Grass and the Hungry Man have two origins but the outcome facing either is much the same. Féar Gortach relates to one of the most dreadful eras in Irish history.
The Origins: The Irish Potato Fammine
It has many names: the Irish Great Hunger, The Great Famine and the Irish Potato Famine. The despair, death and devastation suffered in Ireland for almost a decade at the hands of British tyranny. Class discrimination, religious intolerance, enforced labour, deliberate starvation and forced exile were all endured under the dark skies and harsh winter after harsh winter.
British penal laws meant that parliamentary representatives were primarily British nationals and their male descendants were granted landed estates in Ireland. Irish Catholics who had previously had property had it confiscated and were forbidden from owning or leasing land or voting. The penal law was largely repealed before 1830, however Irish Catholics had to settle for leasing land back from the British landowners.
The potato was only introduced into Ireland in the 18th century but it soon became a staple food because of it was hardy enough to survive the Irish weather and it was a cheap product that went far for a family.
Unfortunately, potato crops became infested with an airborne fungus called phytophthora infestans, also known as potato blight. It soon became a countrywide disaster.
British Corn Laws were still in existence and fixed at an artificially high tariff on imports to protect British corn prices and keep them in control of the market. A petition was put forward for Queen Victoria to repeal the high tax – which did happen – but too late. This, combined with a high level of produce being exported out of Ireland by British landowners and merchants resulted in a food shortage of catastrophic proportions brought Ireland to its knees.
Charles Trevelyan and Black ‘47
Attempts at temporary relief measures were mismanaged and local committees would be unruly and incapable of the organisation required to put these measures in place successfully. Just when it was thought that things couldn’t get any worse, it did,
Charles Trevelyan was assigned the relief effort and he would become one of the most hated men in Irish history. Trevelyan was a civil servant with no compassion, empathy or connection to the Irish people he was tasked to assist.
His methods at creating employment, bringing food to the table and restarting the Irish economy were drawn out, complicated and ultimately, failed. Trevelyan and the British government were operating on the principle that the blight would be short lived and that nature would run its course.
The first year of the potato blight and food shortages was dire, but the Irish kept going with their small import of corn, selling off the little livestock they owned and borrowing money from brutal loaners.
The British Prime Minister Robert Peel had supplied Ireland with its corn imports but following his resignation in 1846, Trevelyan took complete control and cut off Ireland from further imports so the Irish weren’t relying on British support. Despite his procedures to develop a working economy in Ireland had failed.
The collapse of social systems and infrastructure and absence of food, Trevelyan sent soldiers to try to install order. One of the most brutal winters hit Ireland and under Trevelyan half a million Irish were out in the blizzards building roads. Men, women, children – barley clothed, starving and freezing – died where they stood.
1847 become known as ‘Black 47’ – the worst year of the Great Hunger. The population was emaciated and desperately trying to work on Trevelyan’s enterprises for almost no wages or food. Children went without any sustenance as their parents needed whatever food they had to work on road-building.
Disease ravished Ireland and most died from typhus, dysentery and the black fever rather than malnutrition. Finally, all of Trevelyan’s projects were closed down and soup kitchens and charity introduced but far too slowly and on too small a scale. In 1847 the third potato harvest failed.
The Rise of Fear Gorta & Féar Gortach
Death was the common and the dead were tossed into carts and tossed into makeshift graves without so much as a blessing and their souls condemned to Purgatory.
All over Ireland hundreds of mass graves were dug, and these Famine Graveyards as they became known were originally un-consecrated, although in later years many became memorialised and recognised as consecrated ground.
Others remained buried in cold, unhallowed ground and over the top of these mass graves the grass grew sparsely and it was cursed. It was hungry. From this situation, the Hungry Grass and the emaciated figure known as the Hungry Man emerged.
Supernatural origins and Lore
The most common lore behind the Féar Gortach is that is occurs as a result of fairy magic. Found in fields and cursed by the fairies of the Unseelie Court who use dark magic.
Whether as a source of famine or fairy folk, to stand on the Hungry Grass equals death. Slowly, starvation begins and the sufferer descends into madness. They eat and eat but no amount of food will ever satiate their hunger. Ultimately, the victim withers away and dies.
The Fear Gorta, or Hungry Man is not a man at all, but a Fae being. He’s associated with famine because his dreadful skeletal appearance, gaunt and haggard. His sallow skin is stretched thinly over an emaciated body. His clothing is made of tatters and rags and he looks like the walking dead. His appearance during times of great hardship and Famine. The Fear Gorta can be malevolent or benevolent, depending on his mood and the welcome he receives. He is known to call house to house begging and if he is treated kindly, he has the ability to bestow good blessings and wealth on those he deems worthy. Those who are unkind will feel his wrath and suffer abject poverty, famine and death.
There are no certain ways to defend yourself against either the Fear Gorta or Féar Gortach, but there are wardings and protections to carry a crust of bread in your pocket which may protect from the starvation effects of stepping on the Hungry Grass. It is believed that bread crumbs spread on the cursed grass will reverse the curse on those recently afflicted. Ultimately, salting and burning the field will bring closure to the cursed.
The Fear Gorta is a different issue. He is a solitary Fae without a master. There is no protection from his power. Decimation and despair will wake him and his withered, skeletal finger will point to his next victim.