In the grounds of the Castletown Estate, near the Irish town of Maynooth, is a large stone structure comprising of interlocking arches, adorned by stone pineapples and eagles, and topped by a massive obelisk pillar. The structure was supposed to mark the rear entrance to Castletown house, but in reality, it served no real purpose—it’s a folly. Its construction, however, did have a purpose.
The Conolly’s Folly was commissioned by Katherine Conolly, the philanthropic widow of William Conolly, who was a prominent member of the Irish House of Commons and was the wealthiest man in Ireland at the time of his death. The 42-meter-tall folly was constructed in 1740 when the Irish famine of 1740-1741 was at its worst. Katherine wanted to feed the starving farmers, but rather than giving away food for free, she engaged them in the useless task of building the gateway so that the villagers could earn and eat with dignity.
A century later, when Ireland was under the grip of yet another potato famine, hundreds of thousands of Irish were employed by the government in similar purposeless projects. They built roads that went from nowhere to nowhere, erected estate walls, built piers in the middle of bogs, and constructed fantastical buildings in the grounds of the elite. These structures are collectively referred to as ‘famine follies’.
It’s hard for us, today, to understand why the government made people already weakened by starvation to toil for food when they could have just fed them. But back in those day, society—especially the well-off— had very egoistic views about poverty and debated on who should bear the cost of helping the poor. The general idea was that charity in the form of hand-outs was a bad idea and reward without labour was bad for character. Instead, the government…