The Irish Famine in Skibbereen and Cardiff.

In September 1845 the blight hit the potato crop in Ireland. Up to one third of the people of Ireland had been reduced to living on the potato. Most had no more than a small field and the potato was the only crop that could support a family from as little as a quarter acre. The native Irish had lost most of their land under the Penal Laws when the ability to buy land and the right to leave it to the eldest son had been taken from Catholics. The failure of the potato over a four year period therefore led to a famine which changed the face of Ireland and produced effects which are felt to this day. About one million people died and perhaps two million more emigrated.

The town of Skibbereen holds a mass grave used in the years 1845 – 1849 containing the remains of between 8,000 – 10,000 people. The Skibbereen Poor Law records for the famine years show that 4,346 people died in the Workhouse with a further 613 dying in the Fever Hospital. During this same period the local Relief Committee recorded between 35 and 40 deaths in the streets every day. This took place within the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was then an integral part, when it was the most powerful and most industrialised state in the world.

In 1848 a certain Jack Hegarty took ’deck passage’ on an empty collier out of Castletownsend, a small port in the vicinity of Skibbereen, bound for Cardiff. Arriving in Cardiff he was found to be suffering from ’famine fever’. He was treated in hospital by a certain Dr. Lewis, a leading Cardiff citizen, ’’with the power of two magistrates.’’ Dr. Lewis aked Jack where he came from. Jack answered, ’’Skibbereen.’’Dr. Lewis said, ’’We have a lot of devils from that place!’’ Jack Hegarty was sent back to Skibbereen when he had recovered.

In 1842 it was recorded that there were between 1,500 and 1,700 Catholics in Cardiff (’’Catholic’’ was often used as a code for ’’Irish’’). In 1861 the population of Cardiff was 31,000 of whom 10,000 were Catholic / Irish – a significant community.

Up to two thirds of the Irish arriving in the Cardiff / Newport area during the period 1845 – 1860 came from towns in West Cork such as Clonakilty, Bandon, Kinsale, Schull, Bantry and Skibbereen. Their names tell it all – Driscoll, Sullivan, Mahony, Moore, MacCarthy, Burns (who arrived as ’Byrne’), Donovan, O’Brien, Coughlin, Ring, Collins... The other one third came mainly from the Dungarvan / Youghal area on the East Cork / Waterford border. The remains of almost 5,000 people, victims of the famine, are buried in a field above the town of Dungarvan which was given by the Duke of Devonshire for that purpose.

As this brief account suggests, many of the people living in Wales today are descendants of people who fled from the worst European famine of the 19th. century. Most of them know nothing of their family history; many do not wish to know. Some of these feel neither Welsh nor Irish but ’’middle class’’ and do not want to be reminded of the past. This historical shame may be the consequence of the political culture which justified the lack of adequate government action at the time: ’’The Irish must have offended God greatly for this disaster to have been visited upon them.’’ But as G. K. Chesterton says: ’’The disadvantages of men not knowing their past is that they do not know their present. History is a high hill or vantage point, a vantage point from which alone men can see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living.’’

The area from which most of my ancestors came produced men and societies that still have an effect on the history of these islands today. In 1856 ’The Phoenix National and Literary Society’ was born. It was later known as the ’Fenians’, from which movement was to emerge the Irish Republican Brotherhood and ultimately Sinn Féin and the I.R.A.. One of its founding members, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, born in Rosscarbery and later a resident of Skibbereen, had first hand experience of the famine and its aftermath of eviction, death and emigration in that town. Just outside the town of Clonakilty (about 18 miles from Skibbereen) Michael Collins was born 40 years later where he grew up with the living memories of the privations visited upon his own family and upon the area by the famine and its aftermath. The point is well illustrated by the last verse of the song, ’Dear Old Skibbereen’:-

Oh father dear, the day will come
When vengeance loud will call,
And we will rise with Erin’s boys,
And rally one and all;
I’ll be the man to lead the van
Beneath the flag of green,
And loud and high we’ll raise the cry,
’’Revenge for Skibbereen!’’

©: John Sweeney, Chairman, Wales Famine Forum, Cardiff, Wales.

The Wales Famine Forum was set up in February 1995 to commemorate the events of the famine in Ireland and to cherish the memory of the countless, mostly unnamed and unknown, famine dead, some of whom died of fever of one kind or another either en route to or after arriving in Wales.

Published in The Green Dragon, No 1, December, 1996.

Another article by John Sweeney.