The Famine

In Our Parish by Pete Coghlan B.A. by admin

The Famine

1846 – 1847

In the long and troubled history of England and Ireland, no single issue has provided so much anger and embittered feeling between the two countries as did the fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England during the time that the people were dying of starvation.

526 An Eviction

An Eviction

“During all the Famine years” wrote John Mitchell, “Ireland was producing sufficient food wool and flax to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen million people”. Ship after ship laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter sailed from the ports of Ireland during that time and very few ships laden mostly with luxury goods arrived at that time.

Why then should we have a famine in which millions died?

We are told that the potato crop failed, ruined by the ‘blight’ and the potato was the stable food if not the whole diet of the peasant people in Ireland.

But was that the real cause?

Cecil Woodham Smith in her book “The Great Hunger”, states that “the cause of all the wretchedness and misery could almost without exception be traced to a single source, the System under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland.

A system produced by centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, confiscation’s, evictions and punitive legislation”.

But the misery that that time and for centuries before, did not apply to the want of food alone. Land tenure and housing conditions at the same time were wretched beyond words.

The tenant did not know the hour when he would be evicted at the whine of a landlord or his agent. The housing conditions were terrible. In the Census of 1841 houses were graded into four classes “the fourth and lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room”, and nearly half the population lived in those cabins and in the West of Ireland three fifths of the people lived in such hovels.

In 1837 a survey was taken of a part of Donegal in which 9,000 people lived. That survey revealed “that furniture was a real luxury in most houses, as among those 9,000 people were only 10 beds, 93 chairs, 243 stools”. It is easy to imagine how these poor people lived, slept and ate. A report of a Royal Commission of 1843 stated that the principal cause of the misery was the bad relations between tenant and absentee Landlords.

With some notable exceptions the owners of the soil regarded it, as merely a source from which to extract as much money as possible. The absentee evil was very great, as one Colonel Connelly reported in 1846 that many landlords had never seen their estates and therefore had no sympathy whatsoever for the terrible hardship of the tenants. Instead agents were employed who had almost absolute power and e ability was measured by the amount of rack – rents they should extract from the impoverished people.

The people were terrified of those inhuman agents who often had people evicted for being short a few pence of the rent, a rent the was 70% higher than it’s counterpart in England.

It is easy to understand then that the cause of the Famine was far more than the failure of the potato crop when that did come they had nothing to fall back on. The counties worst hit were Donegal, Mayo, Clare, and West Cork.

The gruesome accounts given by priests or doctors of the cases they had met with, at that time, make on e shudder four or five people dead in different corners of the room, a mother lying dead while her child still at her breast seemed to be breathing.

Corpses lying dead along the sides of the road with nobody to remove them, the horrifying list could go on for hours.

The Famine did not begin in 1846 but hundreds of years previously, the Irish people through corruption, misgovernment and greed by alien rulers, had undergone deprivations more inhuman than anything the depressed people of the world suffered.

In 1740 a severe frost sat in before Christmas of 1739 and lasted for six weeks destroying the potatoes in the ground so that it was reported from Dunloe in the Kenmare Estate “there is not a tenant in Lower Lahard able to pay 20s. most of them being dead”. Typhus and even smallpox were rampant.


Carrying out the dead during the Famine.

Today we hear of peoples in the Third World undergoing hardships, but they too for centuries under foreign rule have hovered from year to year just above the starvation line. Now when the crunch has come upon them they have no resistance, no reserve and succumb quickly to disease and death. Such was the case of the Irish in 1847 with perhaps the difference what those people today, bad as their plight is, can at least practise their own religion and culture and get education when available, all of which was denied to the Irish. What a miracle it was that the Irish race survived at all.

The one exception to all this misery in Ireland in 1847 was in that corner of Ulster occupied by the “Planters” roughly the Six Counties today. They suffered very little if any at all, as they were pampered by the government and eventhough some of them had rebelled against England in the Rising of the United Irishmen in 1798, still the English Government kept up it’s spoon feeding and pampering of them.

It is not naïve today that the same system has continued down through the years and has not changed today inspite of all Paisley’s bellowing.

What we try to do for the Third World today some Relief Societies tried to do for the Irish in 1847.

Human nature however has not changed and as we hear today of large sums of money being swallowed up by hordes of officials in the Schemes. So it was in 1847 and even worse as often persons not in real need obtained money and employment through “influence” which the more deserving were refused.

Local Relief Committees were set up which did great work in distributing food and clothing. Religious Committees also did much and even in England and in some Continental Countries, collections were made to help the Irish.

Relief work such as road making e.g. the Board of Works Road and building piers were also started. Those schemes were a failure as what the people wanted was food not work. It is humiliating to read of the begging way the poor people had to approach the Soup Kitchens and queue up for their rations of maize and watery soup.

The results of the Famine were many, the worst being that thousands died of hunger and disease or were drowned in the coffin ships taking them to U.S.A.

Thousands succeeded in reaching the U.S.A. carrying with them a bitter hatred of England, which in later years proved to be a thorn on the side of the British Government.

Many Irish men themselves and their descendants rose to positions of the highest responsibilities including the Presidency of the U.S.A.

The Irish Poet, Aoghan O’Ráthaile said at the time of Ireland:

” Tír gan tartha, gan duine reilteann

Tír do nochtadh gan fothain gan geaga

Tír do briseadh le fuireann an Bhearla”.


” A land without produce or thing worth of any kind,

A land without dry weather without a stream without a star

A land stripped naked, without shelter or boughs

A land broken down by the English – pratin band”.

Famine did not end in 1847. In 1879 the year of the Apparition at Knock there was a mini Famine in that part of Mayo and in parts of Galway.


Eviction, A scene in Galway, 1847



The Famine in Our Parish


Our Parish on the whole did not suffer as much as other places during the great Famine of 1847. Eventhough in some places we see ruins of houses where families once lived and who were either wiped out by the Famine and it’s resulting disease or else who emigrated entirely to America or to England.

Some say the places along the mountains suffered most, but in contradiction to that it is well known that many people from the low lands went to the higher ground and rented plots of land in the foothills where they could grow potatoes, in the false belief perhaps, that the blight would not strike in the higher and therefore cleaner air.

Danny Cronin, Mealis, points out a spot in the side of the mountain known as “Gáirdín Coffey” which still has the sign of ridges across it and which his father told him was tilled by a family who had come from the lowlands to grow potatoes. He also points pot a similar plot called “Gáirdín na Scoile”.

It was a common occurrence to find people coming and asking farmers to be allowed to search the place from which they had dug their potatoes. In the hope that by combing the place carefully they might set the very small potatoes called “criocháin” which the farmers did not think worth picking.

I heard my grandfather say that he saw such a thing happening but added that the people concerned were strangers and not from this Parish. Eventhough he was 11 or 12 years of age at the time, he could only recall one or two cases of real distress, which he saw.

One was where he saw a young woman sitting on the bank of Spideog Bridge and ravenously eating watercress, which is plentiful at that spot. Some people came along and took her away.

On another occasion a middle-aged man snapped a cake of bread from a neighbouring house. The cake was cooling in the open window and the poor man saw his chance. He ran off, pursued by some people of the house, but had gone far when he collapsed and died.

All this does not mean that many people in the Parish did not die at the time. We know that coffin makers were kept more than busy and to ease the case one carpenter made a coffin with a bottom hinged on one side so that at the graveside, it could be slid open and the corpse allowed to slip into the grave. The coffin was then left on the fence of the cemetery until the next person required it and so collected it at the cemetery and took it to the wakehouse.

Finally one Doona from Alohert took it to bury his wife and when it was brought to the grave he said that she should get a real decent burial and so buried the much-used coffin with his wife.

About 1850 the Board of works started making the road along the foot of the mountains, so as to give employment to those in need. The road is still called “The Board of Works”.

The population of course fell a good deal but perhaps not as much as in other places. We do know that Ireland on the whole lost one – third almost of it’s population but her as far as we can see the population fell only about one – fifth, that is from about 2,000 to 1600 and that mostly through emigration.

Perhaps the greatest fall in population occurred from

1870 – 1900 I heard my father say that when he was growing up that there were 80 children in the Green Road alone circa – 1880. The vast majority of those had to emigrate mainly to the U.S.A. Emigration of course continued especially after the Famine of 1879 and again after the War of Independence and Civil War, which brought it down to a little over 1400.

Since emigration was reduced or perhaps ceased entirely, during the 8 or 9 years, the population has kept steadily at about 1500.

The figure today stands at 1489, and if anything should be on the increase. The school population has gone up leaps and bounds, especially in the eastern part of the Parish.

In Cullina National school there are 175 pupils on Rolls and in Kilgobnet 105.