The Great Famine in Connacht 1845 – 1849

Winter I845-46

The Blight

A disease which attacked the potato crop was first reported in Ireland early in September 1845 but it was not observed in the west of the country until towards the end of October. By the late summer and early autumn it had spread throughout the greater part of central and northern Europe. One source of the disease was thought to have been South America, particularly Peru, but it was more likely to have originated in the eastern United States where it largely destroyed the potato crops of 1843 and 1844. Vessels from New York and Philadelphia could easily have brought diseased potatoes to European ports. The blight first attacked the leaves of the stalks and then spread to the potatoes. It was described as having the appearance of soot. The plant decomposed rapidly, turning black and rotting, producing a putrid smell. In Ireland the failure of the potato crop in 1845 was only partial, as the early crop escaped entirely but the unusually wet weather in the later season contributed to the rapid spread of the disease.

Spring 1846

Relief measures

A Poor Law had been introduced to Ireland in July 1838. To enable the implementation of this act, the country was divided into 130 new administrative units known as ‘unions’. The unions in north Connacht were Sligo, Boyle, Castlerea, Swinford, Ballina, Castlebar, Westport and Ballinrobe. Each union consisted of a group of electoral divisions made up of a number of townlands. Swinford Union comprised 12 electoral divisions, Sligo 23, Boyle 16, Ballina 17, Castlebar 10, and Castlerea 18. A workhouse was established in the principal market town of each union. This was administered by a Board of Guardians who were a mixture of elected and ex officio local men, usually chosen from the wealthy and propertied classes. Swinford had 21 elected Guardians, Sligo 39, Ballina 33, Castlebar 21 and Castlerea 27. The workhouses were financed locally by the poor rates on the principle that ‘property should pay for poverty’ and to force landlords to take a greater interest in the management of their estates an act was passed making landlords liable to pay poor rates on land valued at under £4 per annum.
Individuals could not enter the workhouse, but paupers had to enter as whole family units. Once inside, families and es were to be strictly segregated. Nobody was to be idle in the workhouse, as the name suggests. Breaking stones in the workhouse yard for gravelling roads or other such work was mandatory for men and women and used as a deterrent to any pauper remaining too long. Food was inferior and monotonous. Destitution was the only criterion for admission to the workhouse.
To offset the impending distress due to the failure of the potato crop, the British prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, in November 1845, secretly arranged for the purchase and importation into Ireland of £100,000 worth of Indian meal (maize) from America. He also established on 20 November the temporary Relief Commission. In January 1846 Randolph Routh was appointed chairman. Their duties were to advise the government and supervise and coordinate the local relief committees. These were comprised of local notables, including landlords, clergymen, magistrates and large farmers. The local committees were to purchase and re-sell the Indian corn which was stored in government depots at ports such as Sligo and Westport. They were financed by raising local subscriptions which were matched by a government grant of up to 100%. Originally these local committees were based on the barony as a unit such as those for the combined baronies of Costello-Gallen in Mayo or Corran or Leyny in Sligo but as the crisis deepened they became centred on smaller units like parishes.

Summer 1846

Public Works

Legislation had been introduced in March paving the way for the establishment of public works to provide relief. Most of these works consisted in the repair and construction of roads. The money was provided by a Treasury grant, half of which was to be repaid by the locality, the other half being a free grant. The distressed area had to send a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant requesting assistance. This was forwarded in turn to the Relief Commissioners and the Board of Works for their comments. It was then sent to the local surveyor for his inspection. When the Board of Works received his report they made their decision and if they accepted it they made a recommendation to the Lord Lieutenant, who then asked for the sanction of the Treasury. Only after this cumbersome procedure could the works commence.
The local relief committees were responsible for selecting the labourers among the destitute to whom they issued work tickets. There was much criticism of some committees and of some individual members in their choice of labourers who often were not only not destitute but were expressly chosen to enable them to pay the arrears of rent due to their landlord. The labourers were paid a daily rate of 9d or 10d. Five-sixths of all those employed were concentrated in only seven counties, including Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. In June the number of people employed daily was approximately 21,000. In July it increased to 71,000 daily and it peaked in the second week of August at almost 98,000. On 21 July 1846 the treasury announced that all the public measures introduced to meet the emergency were to be brought to a close as soon as possible in the expectation that the potato harvest would render them unnecessary.

Autumn 1846

Total Failure

Blight once more attacked the potato crop in 1846 but this time much earlier and caused much more destruction than in the previous season. ‘Both early and late crops are a total failure,’ Inspector Edward Hunt reported from Swinford on 25 August. Similar reports came from all over the west. The great famine had begun.
In June the Whigs under Lord John Russell took over from the Tories. By August, when the total potato failure became almost certain, food supplies in the government depots were critically low. The new government made some small purchases of Indian corn and other foods, some of which they sent directly to the ports of Westport, Ballina and Sligo. The largest issues of food were made from the depot in Sligo, which served the north-west, where acute distress became evident as early as mid-August. Over 650 tons of Indian meal and oatmeal were distributed from here between 10 August and 19 September.
To add to the distress, food prices rose dramatically during the autumn. This was partly due to farmers hoarding their grain and merchants making exorbitant profits. Bernard Durcan, parish priest of Swinford, reported to the Lord Lieutenant on 13 September that Indian meal ‘before last week was at 10s per cwt. Last week it was raised to 11s and this week it is further raised to 12s.’ During the same period oatmeal went from 14s. a cwt to 18s. 6d. By 1 October it was £1 2s. a cwt. At at meeting of the Gallen and Costello Relief Committee on 13 September, Fr Coghlan and Fr. Muldowney proposed a resolution condemning the ‘speculation of heartless selfish merchants’ who had ‘raised food even beyond famine prices.’ ‘They have and are exacting the pound of flesh,’ they declared.

5 September 1846

The following is the text of a ballad sheet (no punctuation was used) seized at the market in Boyle, County Roscommon:-

A New Song called The Advice
Air — ‘Granuaile’

Ye landlords of Erin I would have ye beware
And of your poor tenants in time to take care
For the rot of potatoes has made them this year
From the crutch to the cradle to tremble with fear

Ye see that Starvation would meet us in the face
Only for relief coming from some foreign place
So sell your cattle and don’t keep a tail
Before ye do part with corn or meal.

Number of acres you will find in one field
To see the potatoes rotten it would make your heart bleed
You petitioned your Queen your prayers did prevail
For she opened the ports both for corn and meal.

But now try our landlords and see what they will do
They know how the rot is in the country althrough
Tell them for the rent you will give them good bail
And not make you sell off our corn or meal

If with your request they will not comply
Tell them on the spot that ye would sooner die
That your families are starving ye never will fail
But fight till ye die both for corn and meal

Winter 1846-47

Deaths from Starvation

Prices continued to spiral and the supply of food became increasingly scarce. The first reports of s from starvation were recorded. Fr O’Neill, PP of Attymass, reported on 19 November to George Vaughan Jackson that four persons had so died in his parish recently. The workhouses became overcrowded and large numbers of applicants were refused admission. The Swinford Board of Guardians recorded on 10 November: ‘There are upwards of 100 persons in the workhouse over the number the house is calculated to contain and the Board of Guardians decline to admit any more although there were 200 persons at the door seeking relief.’ Even those lucky enough to gain admission were also in danger of starving. Whatever rates were collected were quite inadequate to meet the expenditure. Those who had contracted to provide food for the inmates refused to do so on credit. Only the generosity of the chairman, G.V. Jackson, and one or two other members, who funded the workhouse out of their own pockets for a few weeks, prevented its closure and the expulsion of the inmates. Bad weather added considerably to the sufferings of the people. Winter came early. There was heavy snow in November and again early in December.
A new system of public works was devised in August but did not come into operation until the end of October. By Christmas there was a total of I8,321 persons employed on the roads in Co Mayo and 10,720 in Co Sligo. A month later it had risen to 36,931 in Co Mayo and 14,035 in Co Sligo. The new system was to be funded totally from local taxation and carried out exclusively by the Board of Works with little or no input from local committees. Labourers were to be paid not by the day but on the basis of task work. As they became progressively more debilitated from lack of nourishment, their earnings consequently fell to little more than starvation wages, while food prices continued to rise. As the measurement of task work was time-consuming, there were sometimes considerable delays in the payment of wages.

Spring 1847

Quakers and Soup Kitchens

In November 1846 the Society of Friends (Quakers) met in Dublin and set up the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends. Joseph Bewley and Jonathan Pim were appointed joint secretaries. At the same time the Society of Friends in England decided to raise funds for famine relief in Ireland. The Dublin Committee published an address, copies of which were sent to England and even more importantly to America, particularly to the Quakers in Philadelphia. Funds began to pour in first from the Quakers in Ireland itself, then from those in England and later from the Friends in America. By December they began their relief operations, especially in the most distressed unions of the west of Ireland. On 28 December Dean Hoare of Achonry and Rev Tyndale of Kilmactigue each received a donation Of £20 to help in establishing soup kitchens to feed the starving. For the next two years they continued to make grants of money, boilers, food and clothes to numerous parishes for distribution amongst the most needy. In 1847 the Quakers provided approximately £200,000 for the relief of distress which was spent almost exclusively in the west of Ireland. While they were strictly non-sectarian, making their grants to ministers and priests, Protestant and Catholics, they showed a certain preference for Protestant ministers, for practical reasons only. Joseph Bewley stated to a parliamentary committee that ministers made better agents as they usually had the help of wives and daughters, while priests were already over-stretched ministering to the dying.
At the beginning of February the government passed the Soup Kitchen Act providing direct relief in the form of cooked food or soup through the establishment of soup kitchens. ‘The public works continued to expand. Early in February the total number employed on the roads in Co Mayo was 39,366 and a little over a month later it had risen to 49,425. Thereafter it began gradually to taper off. Deaths from fever and dysentery continued to rise during the spring. Ballina workhouse recorded 87 deaths for the week ending 3 April and during the same week Castlerea had 256 inmates suffering from fever. The workhouses continued to suffer from an acute shortage of funds until the government finally agreed in late February to grant a weekly loan to cover current expenses.
There was a sharp rise in emigration among that class who could still muster the passage money. On 25 March Plus IX issued an encyclical letter requesting three days of public prayers in Catholic churches worldwide when alms should be collected for the relief of the starving in Ireland.
Prospects for the 1847 harvest were bleak. On 30 March it was reported from Ballina that ‘people say that they are not able to till the land because of bodily weakness and they have neither seed nor money.’ The same was true of all the north-west.

Summer 1847

Emigration and Piracy

In the middle of May the first shipload of emigrants from Ireland arrived at Grosse Īle in the St Laurence River about thirty miles downstream from the city of Quebec. Despite its name, it was a tiny island about a mile and a half long and a half mile wide, which was used every year from mid-May to mid-November as a quarantine station. On 24 May the Jessie arrived from Sligo with 243 immigrants. No less than 11 s arrived from there in June, four of them on the same day, 10 June. In all 27 s arrived that year from Sligo and a further five from Killala with a total of 6,962 passengers. 523 died on the voyage and of these 139 were lost at sea following the shipwreck of the Carricks from Sligo off Cape Rozier on 18 May. There were only forty-eight survivors. The death rate on most of the ships during the voyage ranged from four to ten but the Larch, which arrived from Sligo on 20 August, lost 110 at sea and a further 86 in quarantine. With 440 on board it had the largest passenger list of the Sligo ships and its high mortality may have resulted from overcrowding. Most of the ships contained from 127 to 303 passengers. There were 337 deaths of passengers from the Sligo and Killala ships while in quarantine in Grosse Īle. These ships normally ranged from one to ten per shipload, although the Wolfeville, which arrived from Sligo on 10 June, had forty-eight deaths, having already lost thirty-seven at sea. The last ship to arrive at Grosse Īle before the end of the navigational season was the Richard Watson from Sligo on 8 November with 170 on board.
The first priest to be sent there to minister to the dying was the Ballisodare-born Bernard McGauran, who had been ordained the previous year for the diocese of Quebec. His letters to the Archbishop of Quebec give a harrowing account of the sufferings and deaths of many of the Irish immigrants. McGauran was among the first priests to be struck down by typhus. Once recovered, he returned again and again to minister in Grosse Īle and he was the last priest there at the end of 1847.
A total of 11,200 emigrated from Sligo in 1847. Of these the great majority went to Canada, with just over 1,000 going to the U.S.A. A little over 3,000 emigrated in 1848, with 746 going to the U.S.A. In 1849 there were almost 4,000 emigrants, of which 1,665 went to the U.S.A.
The number of persons receiving gratuitous soup rations peaked at over two and a half million in July. There were wide regional diversities with the highest proportion of the population depending on them in the west. Over 94% of the population in the Ballinrobe Union were receiving rations, over 85% in the Westport Union, 84% in Swinford, over 78% in Ballina and almost 76% in Castlebar union. The Poor Law Amendment Act in June introduced the ‘Gregory’ or Quarter Acre Clause, which stated that any occupier of more than a quarter of an acre of land could not be deemed destitute and was not eligible to receive relief paid for by the poor rates. It was proposed by Sir William Gregory who later became the husband of Lady Gregory of Abbey Theatre fame. While the act itself authorised for the first time ‘outdoor’ relief, the Gregory Clause was a draconian measure that condemned countless occupiers of small patches to starvation. Henceforth, any person who occupied more than a quarter of an acre who applied for a place in the workhouse or for food for his family had to give up his patch of land or face starvation.
During the winter and spring many of the poor had to pawn all their possessions, including their clothes, to provide food for themselves and their families. They were now virtually reduced to nakedness. The Quakers set up a sub-committee to oversee the distribution of clothes and a query form seeking information on the quantity and kind of clothes most needed was widely circulated in the west of Ireland. Local ladies’ societies were established and they undertook to have garments made locally from the bales of cloth provided by the Quakers. Thus not only were the poor clothed but employment was provided for poor local tailors and shoemakers who were themselves facing starvation.
Some of the destitute resorted to desperate measures to feed themselves and their families. Fishermen living on the Atlantic seaboard carried out daring acts of piracy on the high seas. Putting to sea in their curraghs they raided and robbed ships carrying meal from America and elsewhere. The first such incident took place in Blacksod Bay at the end of March when 12 tons of meal was carried off. More acts of piracy were carried out in April. The government increased the number of coastguard stations and provided extra steamers to patrol the north Mayo coast.
Following the papal encyclical, money began to pour in to Propaganda in Rome, particularly from Italian and Swiss dioceses, for the relief of the destitute Irish. Other dioceses worldwide sent their contributions directly to the Archbishop of Dublin. The Roman money was distributed among the western bishops in July. The bishops of Achonry, Killala and Elphin received £50 each. By the end of that month the province of Tuam had received £750 for distribution among the most needy.

©: Fr. Liam Swords, a priest of the diocese of Achonry in the west of Ireland. Each of the principal passages above – those based on the seasons – introduces a chapter in his remarkable book, In their own words – The Great Famine in North Connacht, published in Dublin early in 1999 by the Columba Press, Dublin, to whom we are indebted for permission to publish these excerpts.
©: The Columba Press.

Published in The Green Dragon No 9,Winter 1999/2000