Famine - in Donegal
"The distress of the wretched people is heartrending," wrote the Commissariat Officer at Burtonport (1846); "something ought to be done for them...there is absolutely nothing in the place for food... It strikes the people as very unfeeling to keep corn in the stores without using it."
- Gt. Hunger, p. 160
The main store was in Dublin & local stores were in charge of Commissariat Officers. Application forms for supplies were distributed in destitute districts by Commissariat Officers, & were authorized by them. For instance on Jan. 22, 1847, the minute book of the association records a grant of €25 in provisions for Arranmore, Co. Donegal (Ibid., p. 170).
Once infection (fever) had been brought to a district it sped with lightning rapidity among the crowds brought together for relief... A crowd of destitute was something to be shunned, and early in 1847 George Hancock, a member of the Society of Friends & super cargo of the relief steamer Albert, was warned at Rutland, Co. Donegal that he was endangering himself by standing in a crowd of "about 200 wretched-looking objects" who were waiting for a distribution of food. (Ibid., p. 192)
Kellibegs is mentioned with other fishing ports as having all fishing gear pawned or sold for food in 1847. (Ibid., p. 291)
From Aranmore, Co. Donegal, a visitor wrote in 1847:
"Many...rushed out of their cabins imploring me to visit their relatives - told me that every day people fell down exhausted working on the roads & were carried home. I saw men & women trying to work, & also boys & girls from the age of twelve... It would be useless to enumerate the particular instances of distress, as all had some tale of woe... The magistrate informed me that he believed it was not uncommon for mothers, both on the island and the main[land], in addition to the infant at the breast, also to try to afford the same nourishment to one or two of their other children, up to 3 or 4 years of age."
- from correspondence of Quaker Relief Comm., [in] The Great Famine, p. 233
Famine - Effects on Traditional Life
The effect of the famine was to break down patterns of behavior which had continued with little change since prehistoric times. The elder faiths were rudely shattered so that today we have only the broken remnants left; stray survivals which have lost their meaning in a modern setting. The scattering of the fairy hosts is the constant lament of old people for whose parents they were a reality. Over large parts of the country, down to famine times, the fairies (among them the ancestral spirits) & the powers of nature in sun & stone, tree, flower, & welling water were ruling forces whose malice must somehow be averted, & whose beneficence must be courted by magical acts[?].
- Evans, Irish Folklore, p. 282
Sir William Wild (father of Oscar) & the monumental report on the Death Tables of the census of 1851 was largely his work [sic
]. He dwells upon the shattering effect of those tragic years, 1845-47, on the immemorial customs & natural poetry of the Irish peasants. "The closest ties of kinship were dissolved; the most ancient & long-cherished usages of the people were disregarded. The once-proverbial gaiety & lightheartedness of the peasant people seemed to have vanished completely, & village merriment or marriage festival was no longer heard or seen throughout the regions desolated by the intensity & extent of the famine." Another observer noted that the traditions of hospitality were weakened greatly and that padlocks made their first appearance at this time. (A. M. Sullivan, in The New Ireland
Wilde observed that the coming of the R.R. at about the same period was a contributory factor in the change because it worked to a time table & involved an artificial division of the day instead of an observance of the signs of nature changing with the seasons. ...The whistle of the 7:15 now replaced the cock-crow.
- ibid., p. 295-96
The upheaval caused by the famine in family & social life is best seen in parts of Ireland where there had been much communal life, notably parts of Donegal & Mayo, remote from towns, which had few roads, & preserved a way of life [which was] traditional. In such districts communal sharing of work was general; men would work together in harvesting, turf-cutting, fishing, boatmaking, drawing lime, building, while women would co-operate in weaving, knitting, dyeing, or in helping the men. There was much sharing of food; if a farmer slaughtered a beast his family would share the meat with others - "they did not eat it aright without the neighbors being thankful;" if a member of a boat's crew died, a share would be set aside for his widow. People would cooperate in building houses for the homeless & in housing them while the building was in progress. The communal spirit pervaded their entertainment; they would go "rambling to each other's houses, where they would dance & dispute, discuss the news of some wandering ballad-maker, or listen to traditional songs, poems, & stories; and such activities continued side-by-side with those manifest at fairs, wakes, and the many weddings. Such communities were often almost completely self-contained; wheat would be grown to pay the landlord, flax to make clothes & linen, while sheep would proved frieze & thread; shops were rare & were relied upon mainly for tobacco, snuff, dye, & tea; each district had its spinners & weavers, its thatchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, & nailers.
The famine blasted many of these communities out of existence. (from Donegal, the following:) There was no trade in the world then but some man of Beltany (3 mi. south of Raphoe) could try it - the best weavers in the country were there; there were masons, carpenters, coopers, thatchers, & every kind of tradesman you could name in this townland; & after the famine years neither tale nor tidings of them was to be found. They all went into strange & distant lands & never returned since: the ruins of their houses were there until the land was divided and they were cleared & fences made of the stones, leaving no trace of them to be seen now." So runs a typical account. Another from the Rosses, Co. Donegal, illustrates the psychological changes which attended such ruin, as they were recalled by an 80-year-old woman; she said that hardship and hunger broke the communal spirit of the people, who became preoccupied by the struggle to survive & lost their sympathy for each other. "It didn't matter who was related to you, your friend was whoever would give you a bite to put in your mouth. Sport & pastimes disappeared. Poetry, music, & dancing stopped. They lost & forgot them all, & when times improved in other respects these things never returned as they had been. The famine killed everything."
It is not surprising to find that many old people dated a decline in Christian charity from that time.
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Famine - Government Action
1845 - Peel - though he deliberately strove to keep state interaction at a minimum, he did not make the foolish mistake of his successors of assuming that private traders could meet the demand for food. The importation of Indian corn by the government & the sale of the meal at a moderate price through local relief committees did much to check the exploitation of the market in the spring & summer of 1846. Despite food riots in April, the relief measures fulfilled their immediate purpose of preventing exceptional hardship in the traditionally "hungry months" of the summer.
1846 - mid-July - obvious that disease had gained a foothold even more widespread than previous year. August - Russell (replaced Peel as P.M.) laid down principles his government intended to follow in famine: it could not become established practice for the state to supply the people with food at uneconomic prices. It was contrary to the real interests of the community to do so, as "trade would be disturbed...supplies which are brought to us by the natural operations of commerce would be suspended...the intermediate traders...would have their business entirely deranged." The sovereign law of supply & demand would solve the Irish food problem, or so Russell thought.
1847 - spring & summer - a reversal of policy permitted free distribution of food to the needy in soup kitchens. Russell had had to reach a compromise between economic theory & social reality, but it satisfied no one.
Peel set up a relief commission. Nov. - Peel ordered meal.
Early in 1846 food depots were established for the west at Limerick, Kilrush, Galway, Westport, & Sligo. The purpose of the stocks was not to feed the hungry but to control private traders & prevent monopolies & consequent raising of prices. By June 1 st all depots were open & selling food to local relief committees.
76 sub-depots were opened along the southern & western coast of Ireland & operated by coast guards & police.
Prejudice against cornmeal had to be overcome - called "Peel's Brimstone." The Commission purchased cornmeal in Am. & in England.
Local committees were set by Aug. of 1846 to raise subscriptions for relief locally, which funds were matched by the gov.. They were forbidden to distribute food gratuitously unless workhouses were full & then only to those unable to work. The regulations ignored often.
Public works instituted - mostly road improvements. Work was given those holding tickets given by local committees to those they deemed unable to provide for their families otherwise.
Committees were made up of county officials, poor law officials, clergymen of all faiths.
Peel went out of office June 1846 & the Whig Lord Russell became P.M.. "Peel showed an initiative unusual in that era of laissez-faire & undertook tasks at variance with current economic theory. The Freeman's Journal, unfriendly to Peel, said in April 1847, 'The limited distress which Sir Robt. Peel was called upon to meet, he provided for fairly & fully. No man died of starvation during his administration.'"
Under Russell, 1846 -
The major duty of the government was to supply employment, not food. "The supply of the home market may safely be left to the forethought of private merchants." They realized, however, that there were no merchants in large parts of the country. Commissar___ depots were set up in the west. Wheat & oats were allowed to be exported. The depots were not allowed to open while there was any food left in the district. In Skibbereen, although there were numerous deaths by starvation between Nov. 5 & Nov. 7, permission was not granted to sell from the stores until Dec. 7. The prices were determined by the average market price of the nearest town, & cornmeal which cost the government less than 13 pounds a ton was sold at the depots for 19 pounds. All works were to be paid for out of the local taxes.
The rules governing the local committees were altered & Catholic curates excluded. No food could be given away except to the infirm, & then only if there was no room in the workhouse.
The public employment system was reorganized & centralized & thus the start of projects was delayed. By [the] time [they] started workers [were] often too weak to work effectively, & as [they were] paid by amount of production, they got weaker. Often payment delayed. Dale McKennedy of Caharagh, Co. Cork, died by the roadside Oct. 24 th, employed to the day of his death on public work & was owed a fortnight's wages. Jury's verdict: "He died of starvation due to the gross neglect of the board of works." The board of works' deficiencies were due to government policy rather than lack of activity on their part. Oct. - employed 26,000; Nov. 21 - over 1/4 million; Mar. 1847 - 714,390. One in 50 were women; 1 in 12, boys. In some places the National schools had to be closed.
Deaths became commonplace during the winter. Verdicts at inquests of "death by starvation" became common despite the efforts of the board of works to prevent the juries from [reaching] such verdicts. In Galway one jury agreed that Sir John Russell & Sir Randolph were guilty of willful murder.
The failure of the public works was clear to the government by spring of 1847 & all schemes were ordered shut down by May 1 st. The success of Quaker soup kitchens made the government turn in this direction. Feb. 26, '47 a new temporary law established them; a new commission set up, headed by Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne. Administration to be under local committees. There was a lot of red tape & consequent delay; by the summer of '47 committees under soup kitchens act had been established in almost all counties. No one was eligible if a member of the family was employed & as the wages & prices(?) did not allow as much as food to be purchased as given the same family at the soup kitchen - people quit work. In some districts the numbers receiving relief exceeded those recorded in the 1841 census. Administration varied widely in different districts. A government health board was established in spring of 1847 - they said 1 pound of meal sufficient food per day, 1/2 pound for children. By Aug. '47 over 3,000,000 were daily receiving food at soup kitchens.
The Poor Law & workhouses continued to operate & workhouses became overcrowded, with dreadful conditions. The money to administer the Poor Law came from a local tax. The collection of this tax shows clearly the attitudes of the gov. toward Ireland. If the political union of 1800 were complete, the tax should not have been levied on Ireland alone but on England, Scotland, & Wales as well. Discipline at the workhouses was severe, the food usually worse than in the local jail - people committed crimes to get transferred, the discipline there no worse than in the workhouse. Disease was rampant - in April 1847 1/40 of workhouse inmates died in 1 week. By 1850 death rate reduced to normal.
The ration was kept at 1 pd. per adult & 1/2 pd. per child, in spite of recommendation of board of health that it be increased to 1 1/2 pd. per adult daily. Several instances occurred of people on rations starving to death.
The winters of '47-'48 & '48-'49 - horrors of '46-'47 were re-enacted.
Evictions added greatly to the distress & were stimulated by the poor laws. Landlords were liable for taxes on cabins of less than €4 valuation, & many landlords pulled down the cabins rather than pay the taxes.
The adoption of a laissez-faire policy in 19 th cent. England often concealed an admission that a problem was insoluble or that it was endured because nobody could think of a solution. Indicative of the laissez-faire approach was Trevelyan (Assoc. Sec. of the Treasury), "The problem being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence" (Oct. 1846).
- The Great Famine
The crops of the summer of 1846 looked fair & sound to the eye... By July, however, the terrible fact became but too certain... Incredulity gave way to panic, panic to demands on the Imperial Government to stop the export of grain, to establish public granaries... By a report of the ordnance captain, Larcom, it appeared there were grain crops more than sufficient to support the whole population... But to all remonstrances, petitions, & proposals the imperial economists had but one answer: They could not interfere with the ordinary currents of trade"...
- Thebaud, The Irish Race, p. 426-27
Famine & Nationalist Thought
"There emerged an interpretation of the great famine itself which had a profound emotional effect on the men of 1848, & which has found its way into Irish nationalism. It is the belief that utter indifference, if not real antipathy toward the Irish people, marked the conduct of the government of the United Kingdom during the famine years.
This history of the great famine does not sustain a charge of deliberate cruelty & malice against those governing, but it is a chastening story of how fashions in social & economic ideas & human limitations can combine to increase the suffering of people."
- The Great Famine, p. 133
Famine - Oral Tradition
Mayo tradition records that when the people of Ballycroy were given turnip seed, by individuals or committees, they tried to sow it like potatoes.
"In the coastal areas of the west people lived mainly by fishing & were not so dependent upon the potato, which was not cultivated as extensively as inland. Teelin, Co. Donegal, used to import potatoes from Connaught, & now had to depend entirely upon fish. Such districts could still carry on by selling their surplus fish & living on the remainder, part of which would be salted & dried for the future. Poteen was made in many of these places & recollections of people who lived almost entirely on poteen & fish during the famine years are not infrequent. Shore food kept many alive, edible seaweeds & shellfish.
Strong is the memory of sheep-stealing during the famine - there are many stories about sheep-stealing, which was widespread despite the use of sheep-bells & the severe penalties, the most common of which was transportation. Donegal tradition records the exploits of Domhnall na Molt (Donnell of the wethers), who used to bury sheepskins in a bog where they were found years afterwards by turf cutters. Sheep-stealing is remembered with censure, but records with approval the names of farmers who were lenient in dealing with them or witnesses who refused to give evidence. It is interesting to note that in isolated parts of Mayo, Clare, Galway, & Donegal, where a strong communal feeling caused people to share their food ("they did not eat aright unless the neighbors were thankful"), there is a comparative lack of traditional accounts of stealing.
There are many traditional recollections of export of food. In 1847 fourteen schooners of about 200 tons each left Westport, a badly-stricken area, laden with wheat & oats.
One curious tradition, widespread in Mayo & sometimes ___ outside it, concerns a priest who warned the people against planting seed potatoes in 1847, when the general belief was that the blight would continue. Those who disregarded this advice are said to have had a good crop & this is advanced as one reason why people turned Protestant, but it is notable that the tradition occurs most frequently in Mayo, which contained a notable proselytizing center at Achill.
It is said the people buried their dead at night in order not to lose their ration.
One reason relief food is remembered with bitterness is that it was sometimes used as a means of proselytizing. Meat soup would be offered on Fridays; the strong influence of local Protestants was often exerted in the distressed areas, Catholics who "turned" being especially favored & those who were educated being sometimes appointed as proselytizers. (This is remembered in Mayo. Achill?) One priest in Mayo excommunicated a man who had the misfortune to drop a Protestant Bible in a Catholic church.
Corpses were often left unburied through fear of infection. There were other reasons - "The living were out of their feeling and besides were unable to carry a corpse to the graveyard."
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"It seems clear that oral tradition by the way in which it relates experience to daily life, can play its part in adding something human & vivid to our understanding of the past... It would be easy to overestimate the value of oral tradition, which is not always subject to the exact checks required by the historian; but one cannot ignore the contribution, both factual and psychological, which it has to offer."
- The Great Famine (1957), R. Dudley Edwards & T. Desmond
both professors in modern history at University College, Dublin
In the coastal regions "leas fa__ge," seaweed or manure obtained from fish guts & shellfish was used for manure.
"Their skin turned yellow from eating swedes [seaweeds?]," says an account from Barnesmore, Co. Donegal.
There are many accounts of miraculous charity (miraculous appearance of food), & also of real charity. "The family of Paudeen of the yellow buttermilk, the barley bread, & rye porridge" is a saying about one Donegal family which fed the poor during the famine times.
There was a lasting dislike of the way the cornmeal was distributed. One story from Donegal - there was a meat center at Falcarrgh (15-20 mi. N. of Burton Port), a big store run by Protestant landlords who sold meal there at a half-crown a stone, the ration being one stone per person. No one was allowed to enter & the people crowded outside. There was a door in the gable; the man who wished to buy meal would tie his half-crown in the corner of his meal-bag, & throw it up to the man in charge of distribution. The latter had a long stick with an iron hook; when the meal had been put into the bag he would let it down to the buyer by means of this. If there was any scuffling below, as there often was, people being so afraid of not getting a ration they were ready to kill for it, the man would descend & belabor them with his stick until they became orderly again.
It is still recalled in Teelin (near Killybegs) that the window of one such store was broken and that the price of meal was immediately raised until the damage had been paid for.
One Donegal anecdote still told in many places is of an old woman who got 3 separate rations by disguising herself.
There are many accounts of food distribution that center around large boilers set up in special buildings or out in the open (some still exist). Huge fires would be lighted under them & the smoke would be the signal for the crowds of hungry to assemble, noggins in hand. Often hunger would get the better of them & the strong shoved aside the weak. Once served their pint of free soup or stirabout, the people would hurry off to hold their noggin in running water to cool it so that they could eat it quickly, or if they were too weak to carry it home, they would stretch themselves on the ground & lap it up. Food thus distributed is widely recalled as poor in quality. Through the kindness of some landlords or the integrity of the local committee, good food was sometimes provided, but the general picture was otherwise. A sack of cornmeal might be all that went into the boiler, which produced a thin porridge described in a variety of graphic ways. In Donegal they say, "A mule couldn't leave the trace of her foot on it."
An old man from Co. Donegal who was 96 in 1925 recalled working on one of the roads as a relief project. He used to walk 5 miles to work each day, carrying for his lunch a small amount of yellow-meal bread which he often ate before reaching the scene, & he would get nothing else until he returned home in the evening.
The stewards in charge of the relief work are recalled with dislike; they were usually appointed from among fairly well-off people, demesne stewards, bailiff, policemen, & the like. They are remembered as callous, & that they drove the workers hard. One in Donegal asked whether the barrow was broken when the man wheeling it collapsed from hunger.
Many areas through which fever swept had no facilities for treating infected people. Cloyhanealy and Rannafast (a few miles west of Burton Port) had neither hospital nor doctor.
One account describes a hospital in Co. Donegal built during the famine, a long, low building with a tarred roof, full to the doors of patients old & young, with corpses lying stark naked outside it.
Information survives of the tending of the sick by "Nurses Gaelacha," local women who had some medical skill & devoted themselves to this task. A Donegal informant was able to name two such women who used to treat their patients with herb-juice. Other diets for fever patients were cress & wild garlic, milk & water boiled with salt, sheep's blood. Poteen was widely used as a safeguard against infection; it was sometimes given to patients, while those who had to bury fever victims would use it, sometimes receiving a bottle as part of their pay.
A close translation from an old woman of Doire na Mainear (4 mi. N. of Burton Port): There were houses in this district in which all died of fever & none were buried. Things were so bad at that time that no one cared how the other was. Every household was left to itself & no one would come in or out to it. Families began to die & the rest were so weak & far spent that they could do nothing for them but leave them until the last one in the house died. All in the house died and the bodies lay here and there though it. They were never moved from it. There were many hungry dogs going about; & they say, God save us, they were going into these houses & eating the bodies. When the fever went by & those who were left after it came to themselves a little, they went into those houses. The door leaves had dropped from the doors; when they went in there was nothing to be seen but people's bones lying about the house. They gathered the bones & buried them together in one grave. Then they burned the house to the ground."
The burning of infected houses by the neighbors appears to have been widespread; the ruin of one such house in Rannafast, Co. Donegal, is still known locally as An Teach Doighte (the burnt house), and several accounts of similar places recall how informants were told in their youth by parents to avoid them. Sometimes fear of infection was so great that the houses would not be entered at all, but would be fired or their roofs & walls caved in, the bodies of the fever victims being left inside.
An old woman of Teelin, Co. Donegal, said of the ravages of fever in her native district, "It didn't leave any corner after it that it didn't enter, & few were the families it didn't sweep one or two from."
Sometimes the sight would be so pathetic that the witness never forgot. One old man used to tell how he went from Rannafast to Sligo & called at a house in which lived a woman & her child; he found them starving to death & called to them on his way from Sligo with food: "There was no day until Ned died but he'd be talking about that & saying that of all sights that pierced his heart that was the worst he saw, the woman lying dead & the little child sucking at her & he wailing with hunger."
Reusable coffins were used, with hinged or detachable bottoms. In Donegal such coffins were called comhunracha measóige, coffins with removable bottoms, like panniers, & are described as having one side fastened by a couple of loops of rope with a bolt across underneath, secured by another rope-loop which could untie easily.
Many sites of graveyards used at that time are still remembered, though long since disused. An account from Co. Donegal: "There is an island off the coast of the Rosses here, which they call the Island of the Dead. It was customary to bury unbaptized children there; when fever came & Cruit churchyard was filled up, people were buried on this island & their burial places are still to be seen."
The evicting landlords of the time are still remembered, & those who profited by the misfortunes of their neighbors. "There were some of those who shared with their neighbors then & others who rejoiced that all around them were evicted so that they fell in nicely for their places. We have them around here since, people whose ancestors did that - but we must leave it so, & press it underfoot." The bitter memories are often the cause of reticence among people today, sometimes because their own ancestors were involved, but more often from a charitable wish to avoid hurting the feelings of neighbors.
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Famine - Peasants' Petition
In 1847 86 inhabitants of Co. Sligo sent a petition to "Lord Monteagle, House of Lords, London," entitled, "A Petition from the Poor Irish to the Right Honorable Lords Temporal & Spiritual":
"We, the undersigned, humbly request that ye will excuse the liberty we are taking in troubling ye at a time when ye ought to be tired listening to our cries of distress... We thank ye & our Graces Sovereign & the Almighty for the relief we have, though 1 pound of Indian meal for a full-grown person, which has neither milk nor other kind of kitchen, it is hardly fit to keep life in them... But if we have reason to complain there is others has more reason to complain, for in the Parish Townagls they are getting but 1/2 pound. ...So we hope you will be so charitable as to send us to Am. and give us land according to our families...we will repay the same with interest thereof by installments, as the government will direct... So we hope for the sake of Him who gave ye power & England power, & raised her to the wonder of the world, & enabled her to pay 20 millions for the slaves of India, that ye will lend us half the sum, which we will honestly repay, with the interest thereof, for we are more distressed than they, & hope for the sake of Him that said, "He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord, and He will repay it," that ye will grant our petition... we hope that ye will make allowances for the deficiencies of this, for the writer is a poor man that knows little about stiles and titles, for we are not able to pay a man that could
[ ?] it right."
- The Great Mig
., Edwin C. Guillet, p. 73
Famine & Population
The combined effect of disease & emigration was a sudden fall in population:
1841 - 8,175,000
1851 - 6, 552, 000
(a natural increase would have brought it to an expected 8,500,000)
The reversal was permanent. By the beginning of the 20 th cent. the population was only 1/2 what it had been on the eve of the famine.
- J. C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland, p. 345 (Wab. Lib.)
Famine - Potatoes
"It did not keep nor could it be stored from one season to another. Thus every year the nearly 2 1/2 million laborers who had no regular employment more or less starved in the summer, when the old potatoes were finished & the new had not yet come in. It was for this reason that June, July, & August were called the "Meal Months," there was always the danger that potatoes would run out & the laborers would then have to buy meal at exorbitant prices from the petty dealer & usurer who was the scourge of the Irish village, the dreaded 'Gombeen man.'"
- Heinger, p. 36
Famine - Relief
Accounts of scenes in the winter of '46 lead to formation of relief societies & collection of funds all over the world.
Nov. '46 - foundation of Central Relief Committee of Soc. of Friends [Quakers], ____, mostly from U.S., 200,000 pounds [raised], mainly used to establish soup kitchens.
British Relief Assoc. - next in importance to Friends, but curtailed their activities after government soup kitchens established.
Alexander Martin Sullivan, The New Ireland
. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1878.
R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams, eds., The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History, 1845-52
. New York : New York University Press, 1957.
Edwin Guillet, The Great Migration: The Atlantic Crossing by Sailing Ship Since 1770
. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963.