Demographic Impact of the Famine in Co. Waterford. Part 2

Deaths due to Famine?

The census of 1851, by which time starvation, if not destitution, had passed in the county, shows a decline in population of 17% from the 1841 figures for the county and city. The city population increased by 2,081 during the decade, but almost all this increase was accounted for by the destitute in public institutions which amounted to 1,958. Outside the city the population fell by 20% during the decade. Only a proportion of these people had died during the famine, as many had emigrated.
The estimation of famine mortality is fraught with danger, and many results are contradictory. Questions remain unanswered. How accurate was the 1841 census0000000? Was population still increasing by 1845–6? How accurate is the 1851 census? Does the first edition Ordinance Survey of the 1840s show every habitation? What was the ratio in a given area of mortality to emigration? Joel Mokyr’s (see Editor’s note below) statistical analysis of mortality during the famine places Waterford in thirteenth place nationally with excess mortality figures of between 20.8 and 30.8 famine s per thousand. The census of 1851 implies a natural increase of population of 1.03% for the 1840s. If this is correct the population of Waterford would have reached 220,000 people by 1845, an increase of almost 24,000 since 1841. If we apply Mokyr’s figures of excess mortality to this population we get estimated famine mortality in the county of between 4,576 and 6,776 s above the normal average mortality for the city and county of Waterford. This Waterford rate of between 20.8 and 30.8 per thousand compares with excess rates of between 58.4 and 72.0 per thousand for Mayo, and 1.7 and 6.6 per thousand for Wexford. The census commissioners themselves estimated rates in the city and county for the decade 1841–51, their od was by personal recollection, but they stated “a correct statement… can never be produced by such an inquiry.”
These figures are an estimate of all deaths and are usually considered a marked underestimate. No figures were collected from families which had all died or emigrated by 1851. Yet these figures show dramatically how terrible the years 1845–51 were in comparison to the previous years.
If we average out the mortality rate for the three years prior to 1845, we get an annual mortality rate in Waterford City and County of 1,980 deaths per year. This figure of 1,980 would be natural mortality, and if we subtract it from reported mortality for the years 1845–50, we get excess mortality. However, this is not accurate, the figure of 1,980 for normal mortality implies an annual death rate of 10 per thousand, when the true rate was close to 25 per thousand. Such a figure would give an annual death rate of 4,950 for the years before the famine. If the latter figure is applied to reported mortality 1845–50 it completely discredits the data collected in 1851:

1851 Census: Estimate of Waterford deaths 1841–51

Year County City

1841 (208 days) 324 127
1841 (Full yr) 569 223
1842 " 1,551 417
1843 " 1,504 419
1844 " 1,595 453
1845 " 2,124 507
1846 " 2,792 703
1847 " 5,764 1,162
1848 " 4,532 1,032
1849 " 6,197 1,565
1850 " 3,289 880
1851 (89 days) 1,094 233
1851 (Full yr) 4,487 956

Using the 1851 census data gives a total of 18,667 deaths due to famine in the city and county, compared to Mokyr’s figures of between 4,576 and 6,776, the latter estimates are much closer to the mark. There are so many inaccuracies with the memory–based methods of the 1851 census, that arriving at any real excess mortality rates from this source is impossible. The disparity of over 12,000 in the figures is compounded by the fact that the above figures are based on data which has traditionally been viewed as underestimates. However, the greatest bias is probably the dramatic under–recording of deaths prior to 1845. The figures presented in the table above cannot be taken as estimates of famine mortality, at best they may be used as rough indices of the severity of the famine when comparing one year with another.
It is incontestable that famine victims, be they deaths through hunger and disease, or the paupers in workhouses or aboard emigrant vessels were not random victims. They were primarily the cottiers and labourers and their dependents. Using any criteria the impact of the famine was relatively more severe in Waterford as a whole than it should have been given its farming structure and marke0t oriented economy. The social consequences of the disaster within the county showed marked social and spatial variation.

Estimate of Severity of the Famine
(Annual % of est. excess s)

1845 3%
1846 8%
1847 27%
1848 19%
1849 31%
1850 12%

While the average rural population density for the county as a whole in 1841 was 207 persons per square mile, huge variations were found even within very small areas. This shows how inappropriate and misleading average county figures can be in any given locality. There were two large uninhabited areas, the Comeragh– Monavullagh mountain massif in the centre of the county, and the less extensive Knockmealdowns in the west. Other uninhabited areas were the Burrow at Tramore, Ballydermody and Castlecraddock bogs, the bog beside Gardenmorris in Kill and Knockanagh near Kilmeadan. In the west of the county, rocky outcrops such as Monang, Carnglas, Glengoagh and Corrannaskeha in the Knockanore area were uninhabited. Along the Blackwater valley, quite good land such as at Knocknagappul and Ross was uninhabited as it was demesne land. Along the southern flank of the Knockmealdowns, a ragged frontier of cottiers had colonised parts of the lands just below the mountain proper. This upland plateau of between six and eight hundred feet is an extensive area of marginal land perched between the Blackwater Valley and the barren mountain. This was still a moving frontier in the 1840s, and quite heavily populated townlands such as Glenknockaun and Knockaniska East were interdigitated with uninhabitated areas like Monalaur Upper and Knockaungariff.
Very high population densities in particular townlands were found throughout the county: 218 townlands had population densities of over 400 people per square mile. Of these grossly overpopulated townlands twenty four were in the Tallow–Knockanore area, with another thirty four such townlands in the Lismore–Ballyduff–Cappoquin district. The barony of Decies within Drum contained fifty (one quarter) of the county total of grossly overpopulated townlands. The Sliabh gCua uplands of Seskinane and igo only contained nine such townlands, in marked distinction to the Drum Hills across the valley. The miniature townlands of the Dungarvan–Ballinacourty area were significantly overpopulated. The entire barony of Gaultier had fourteen townlands with population densities of over 400 per square mile, many of them in the densely populated area around Killea parish centre. The remote Nire Valley and its adjacent lowland in the barony of Glenahiry had only five such townlands. Middlethird had fif uch congested townlands, and Upperthird fourteen, mostly on the fringes of Carrick and Clonmel.
Many of these teeming townlands were along the coast in cottier/fisher communities such as Coxtown East and Portally in Gaultier, through Newtown and Garrarus near Tramore, to Knockane, Dunabrattin and Tankardstown, to Ballyvoyle and the Ring Peninsula. Such huge maritime concentrations were also common on the Ardmore coastline, at Hacketstown, Ballymacart Lower, Crobally Lower, Crushea, Ardoginna, Ballsallagh, Monatray and Shanacoole. The copper mining activities at Knockmahon concentrated population in Knockmahon itself and in the neighbouring townlands of Rathquage, Kilduane, Templevrick and Ballynarrid.
Away from the coastal belt, townlands with over 400 people per square mile girdled the towns of Dungarvan, Carrick and Clonmel as well as Waterford City. The more carefully administered estate towns of Lismore and Cappoquin did not develop this shanty ring of poverty though nearby Ballyduff Upper and Tallow did have highly congested townlands at the urban fringe.
A significant zone of overpopulation occurred in the Mondeligo district, in the middleman–dominated townlands of Graigavurra, Derry Upper and Lower, Staigbraud, Scart (Hely), Graigmore, Ballard and Boherawillin. This was an area of fragmented ownership, and middleman domination of leasing arrangements. John Greene, Thomas Hely, Christopher D. Griffith, Richard Chearnley, Beresford Power and Richard O’Brien wove a complex web of interests, which in several instances supported two layers of middle interest between the proprietor and the occupier of the soil. Nearby Canty in Whitechurch contained 35 houses in 1841 and a population of 210, made up of six strong farmers, two small farmers, and twenty seven cottiers and labourers.
With the exception of the Bonmahon area, gross overpopulation was an isolated phenomenon in east County Waterford. Knockaderry Upper in Middlethird, Ballyduff West and Adamstown near Kilmeadan are examples but these townlands sat in swathes of country where population densities of between 100 and 200 people per square mile were the norm. Ballynabola and nearby Knockboy are similar examples from Gaultier barony. The entire Upperthird barony is almost entirely free of the agricultural congestion of the West Waterford area, with the exception of the urban fringes of Clonmel, Carrickbeg and the nearby industrial village of Portlaw.
By far the most overpopulated of the county relative to its resources in 1841 was the barony of Decies within Drum. The Drum Hills themselves were massively populated given their limited agricultural potential.
The Mountstuart district had a population density of 104 people per square mile in 1841 and in 1991 it stands at less than eight people per square mile. Indeed most of West Waterford has a rural population density today of about twelve people per square mile. Before the famine the marginal acidic lands on the sandstone flanks of the Drum Hills supported over 300 people per square mile in townlands such as Barnastock, Gowlaun, Scrahans, Boherboy, Grallagh and Monalummery. Along the northern face of the Drum Hills similar figures occur at Ballyguiry West, Ballcullanebeg and Ballycullanemore.
Even the heathery wastes of Monaculee, Clashbrack and Carronadavderg held population densities of close to fifty people per square mile on terrain only fit for turf cutting. Here, on the mountain reaches of the estate of Lord Stuart de Decies, pre–famine conditions were almost identical to the west of Ireland. The fact that population densities on very marginal land such as Lagnagoushee in the Drum Hills, or Scartadriny Mountain near Kilbrien or Glendeish in the Knockmealdowns could equal or exceed that found on some of the most favourable agricultural areas such as Dromana, Headborough, Woodhouse or almost the entire Clodagh valley, starkly illustrates the inequalities and injustices in pre–famine Ireland.
The massive overpopulation in certain parts of County Waterford illustrates the interplay of a poorly diversified economy in these areas and weak, non–existent or misguided estate management. Even on highly organised estates, the position of middlemen rentiers with long leases frequently precluded effective control of galloping subdivision and increasing dependence on subsistence potato cultivation. Some estates were far more effective in checking this trend than others, but few were totally successful in eliminating it. The Marquis of Waterford was the most effective landlord in the county at limiting overpopulation on his estate. Despite intensive management the Duke of Devonshire’s estates at Lismore were not quite as successful in practice as at Curraghmore. Some fourteen townland on the main estate directly managed by his agent Currey had excessive population pressure. However, the constellation of smaller estates along the Blackwater and Bride valleys were frequently grossly overpopulated in parts. John Kiely of Strancally Castle owned three such townlands, William More of Sapperton another three, Captain Henry Parker owned five in the Tallow–Knockanore area. The Gumbletons, Georgiana and Richard, also owned five townlands with population densities of over 400 per square mile. In the barony of Decies within Drum, Lord Stuart de Decies and his entourage of middlemen such as Thomas Anthony, Francis Kennedy, and Anthony Fitzgerald presided with Edward O’Dell, Astle Walsh and Sir Richard Musgrave over a torrent of overpopulation. In the Dungarvan area the estate of Sir J. Nugent Humble carried vast numbers of people.
Across the county gross overpopulation tended, with few exceptions, to be a feature associated with small estates and the prevalence of middlemen. Estates held by military officers also tended to be overpopulated, i.e. Captain James Barry, Major General Thomas Kenah, Captain Henry Parker, Captain William Chearnley, Colonel Palliser and Major John H. Alcock. These men were probably absentees in many instances, carving out careers in a military milieu which was highly expensive and time consuming, leaving little energy or interest in the effective management of their Irish estates.

Distribution of Famine Loss

The 1851 census coincides with the end of the worst years of the famine in Waterford and throughout most of Ireland. it records 6,552,385 people in Ireland, a decrease of 1,622,739 from the figures of 1841. The census estimated that, had there been no famine, the Irish population would have exceeded nine million by 1851, though this is questionable. If half such an increase had occurred by 1846, then Ireland’s estimated population on the eve of the famine was circa 8.6 million. Some two million people had vanished. If Waterford’s population could have reached 220,000 at the outset of the famine, the 1851 census shows a drop in population of 55,949. The 1851 census shows a population of 164,051 in city and county. If we assume that the population of 1841 did not increase at all prior to the onset of the famine, the 1851 figures reveal 32,136 victims of the trauma. The thorny problem of exact figures rears its head again. Was the tot0al number of famine victims in Waterford almost 56,000 or as low as 32,136, and how many died? Mokyr’s computations of between 4,576 and 6,776 are probably as close as we can get.
Nationally, it has been estimated that half the population loss was due to mortality and half to emigration. In Waterford, however, emigration accounted for far more than the average nation–wide. A long tradition of emigration to Atlantic Canada, easy cheap access to the ports of Waterford, Dungarvan and Youghal and cheap fares across St. George’s Channel to the colliery ports of South Wales, and the Cumbrian coal ports would augment the emigration opportunities of Waterford 0people.
In studying the dramatic impact of the famine on the population of County Waterford what is especially striking is the variability of experience from townland to townland. Some townlands experienced population increase, but if we raise the mesh of analysis to the civil parish scale, many of the anomalies are ironed out. At the civil parish scale, only two parishes experienced population increase in the county area. Kilrush parish, which is within Dungarvan town, increased its population due to the location of the workhouse within its confines. Clonagam parish on the Suir valley also saw a population increase of some 5.8%, but this is entirely due to the expansion of the bustling cotton town of Portlaw; the rest of the parish saw a decline of some 39.5%. Waterford City parishes saw slight population decline overall, with the exception of St. Johns Without, again largely due to the location of the workhouse there.
In general terms the east of the county suffered least in this traumatic decade with the exception of the Drumcannon area and adjacent Kilmacleague. The population of Gaultier barony fell by only 4%. Further west the barony of Middlethird varied enormously, the northern parts of the barony close to the river Suir and the city suffered least, while the rocky heart of the barony experienced heavy losses. Population loss was almost as heavy along the coastal belt from Tramore to Annestown. Overall the barony of Middlethird lost 14% of its population total of 1841. Upperthird barony lost 10% between 1841 and 1851, its eastern parishes near the city losing least, with Clonagam actually increasing. Further west the Rathgormuck–Dysert areas had lost over 35% of their population.
The barony of Glenahiry incorporating Nire valley and its adjacent lowland had the highest losses in percentage terms of any Waterford barony. The parish of Kilronan lost 37% of its population, most of it from the better endowed riverine townlands. Change on the whole was less dramatic on the hill margins and in the Nire valley. The Glenahiry part of Reanadampaun Commons was actually settled for the first time during the decade 1841–51, while nearby Carrigroe showed a dramatic population increase. Yet, equally close Curraghteskin, Castlereagh and Graignagower saw their populations plummet by 51%, 33% and 62% respectively.
Glenahiry, along with the baronies of Decies Without, Decies Within and Coshmore and Coshbride are markedly different in their demographic history at this time, from the eastern baronies which fared better. In the barony of Decies without Drum, the territory between Kill and Cappoquin, the famine decade took 21% of the population. The Fews–Ballylaneen area lost over 39%, Stradbally 26% over the entire parish. Kilgobinet lost 22% and nearby Colligan saw one third of its 1841 population gone; neighbouring Modeligo fared little better. Whitechurch lost 21.5% and Affane 27.4%. The more mountainous Seskinane and Kilrossanty had declines of just under 20%.
The barony of Decies within Drum lost 30% of its population in the famine decade, making it the second worst barony after Glenahiry. But it is a far bigger area, being over three times as large and having over four times the pre–famine population. Large parts of the Drum Hills saw 50%, 60% or 70% of their population gone by 1851. Ballynagleragh in Ardmore lost 93% of its 1841 population, Carronadavderg 83%, Duffcarrick 88%, Knocknamona 80% and Knockaunagown 87%. While the mountainous are0as of Ardmore civil parish suffered worst and the parish as a whole lost over 35% of its population, the Blackwater valley portion of the barony did somewhat better. Kinsalebeg civil parish lost 22%, Clashmore civil parish 22% and Aglish 26.8%. The civil parish of Ringagonagh had a population decline of 25.8% over the decade 1841–51, with losses more severe further inland, and less drastic in the more maritime townlands of Helvick, Ballyreilly and Killinoorin.
The western barony of Coshmore– Coshbride saw a cumulative loss of 25% of its 1841 population by 1851. Lismore parish lost 21.3% of its population, much of it from the area south of the Blackwater river, and in the Ballyduff–Mocollop area. The area to the north of Cappoquin town saw significant population increases in townlands such as Tooranaraheen, Glenfallia, Feddaun, Scrahans and Lyre East. The hilly watershed between the Araglin and Blackwater valleys also saw population expansion in townlands such as Knockadoonalea, Ducarrig, Knocknabrone and Knockcorragh.
To the south of the Bride river in the hills of Knockanore, the experience matched that of the Drum Hills further east across the Blackwater. Tallow lost just over 20% of its population, Kilcockan lost 19.6%, and Kilwatermoy lost 37%. The civil parish of Templemichael had the highest population collapse of any parish in the county with a deficit of 45.1%. In Templemichael, every single townland lost population during the decade, from Rincrew which lost 8% to Ballyknock which lost 89%. The following townlands in Templemichael lost over 50% of their populations: Ballynatray, Demesne, Ballcondon Commons, Ballydassoon, Ballyknock, Bridgequarter, Castlemiles, Coolbeggan East, Garryduff, Harrowhill, Lackaroe and Propoge.
There were 218 townlands in the county with a population density of over 400 per square mile in 1841. During the period 1841–51 336 townlands in the county lost over 50% of their population. If gross overpopulation prior to the famine was the dominant factor in population decline during the catastrophe one would expect that all of the 218 grossly overpopulated townlands would be among the 336 which experienced the greatest percentage population loss, but this is not the case. Only 76 of the 218 grossly overpopulated townlands are among the 336 with over 50% population decline. Less than 35% of the teeming townlands suffered high population loss in County Waterford. There is very little variation in this correlation across the county. In fact, huge population loss was as likely in Waterford townlands with population densities of less than 200 per square mile as it was in the most densely settled areas. Some townlands with high densities of over 400 people per square mile such as Scart in Kilcockan, Knocknamuck South in Lismore, Knockanroe and Lissarow in Ardmore, Coolboa in Clashmore, and Springfield Lower in Kinsalebeg saw increases in population during the famine. Further east Burgery and Kilminnin North in Dungarvan saw their already bloated population densities double. In Inishlounaght, Grennan townland saw its 1841 population density of 407 per square mile increase 12% by 1851. However, most population increases were in townlands of less than 200 people per square mile in 1841.


Population decline in County Waterford during the famine decade cannot be directly correlated with extreme crowding prior to the blight. In fact, of those townlands which lost over half their populations during the decade, only 25% had over 400 people per square mile in 1841, while 36% of such townlands had population densities of less than 200 per square mile. Depopulation can only be explained by the provision or retention of aid and the willingness of government, landlords, strong farmers and others to render assistance. Not all the exploiters were distant or alien, shopkeepers, merchants and strong farmers did well out of the famine. The Ireland of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was of their making and in their image. The draconian operation of the Poor Law together with the 1843 provisions on rates and the Gregory Clause (in the Temporary relief Act of 1847, it forbade relief at the expense of Poor Law unions to anyone holding more than a quarter of an acre) were opportunities presented by central government. Many, but not all landlords, along with others, took those opportunities to all but banish a social class from the landscape. The interplay of government policy, estate practice and individual greed determined whether communities persevered or perished during this dreadful decade.

– Jack Burtchael, Waterford. First published in the book, 'Teacht na bPrátaí Dubha: The Famine in Waterford, 1845–50', published in 1995 by Geography Publications, Dublin.
We are grateful to the author and to his publisher for permission to publish this slightly altered version.

Editor’s note: J. Mokyr.
Joel Mokyr’s book, Why Ireland starved: A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800–1845, (London 1983) marked the beginning of a new era in the study of the famine. Mokyr was an American, a statistician, a student of the history of economics. He had no Irish connections and was not concerned about what British or still less Irish historians, most of whom were seeking to downplay the significance of the famine, would think of him. He proved that at least 1.1 million, and possibly as many as 1.5 million, had died.

Demographic Impact of the Famine in Co. Waterford. Part 1

Published in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn 1997