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The Great Famine

1845 - 1849 in Co Mayo, Ireland

County Mayo was one of the counties to suffer most and in commemoration the following article was included in a report from Mayo County Council.

The first reports of blight appeared in September 1845. For one third of the country's population, the potato was the sole article of diet. In County Mayo it was estimated that nine tenths of the population depended on it. Any other crops or farm animals a smallholder had, went to pay rent. A potato famine was a great calamity. However, the damage to the crop in 1845 was only partial and most had enough to get through that winter. Government relief measures and local charity also helped. 1846 brought disaster. Most of the crop was destroyed by the blight, particularly in the west. In August, The Telegraph newspaper in Castlebar reported:

'The dreadful reality is beyond yea or nay in this county. From one end to the other the weal has gone forth that the rot is increasing with fearful rapidity. We regret to say no description of potatoes have escaped. One thing is certain, the staple food of the people is gone: and the Government cannot too soon exert themselves to make provision to provide against certain famine'.

As the death toll mounted, the countryside was seized with panic and despair. There were mass gatherings throughout the county where lamentations went out to landlord and government. One such public demonstration was held in Westport in August 1846. The Telegraph reported:

'About mid-day some thousands of the rural population marched into town to have an interview with the Most Noble the Marquis of Sligo: he talked with them: deplored the visitation with which God had afflicted the land: told them he would instantly state their condition to the Government, in order to obtain them relief; and that as to himself, he would go as far as any landlord in the country to redress the grievances of his tenantry. The Noble Marquis assured them that no exertions of his should be spared to obtain for them, from Her Majesty's Government immediate employment'.

As a relief measure, the government imported large quantities of maize from America which became known as 'Peel's brimstone' because of the ill effects it had on the digestive system. Local relief committees were established. Under the Poor Law Act of 1838, Mayo was divided into five areas or unions which administered relief: Ballina, Ballinrobe, Castlebar, Swinford and Westport. Each union was required to maintain a workhouse where local paupers could be fed and housed.

Workhouses soon became overwhelmed by numbers seeking admittance and many starving people were turned away. Relief schemes introduced in 1846 included giving employment on public works such as road making, breaking stones, drainage works, pier and bridge building. The Corrib to Mask canal was one such scheme. Men were paid 8 to 10 pennies a day, while women and children got 6 pennies. Some unscrupulous overseers favoured relatives in granting employment, often at the expense of the most needy. Gaining employment did not guarantee security. In February 1847 the Tyrawly Herald reported an inquest at Coolcran:

'The deceased was employed at the public works, and on Saturday morning he went to the hill of Gurteens to meet the pay clerk where, in company of other labourers, he remained until night, but no clerk making his appearance, the others went off and he remained behind. Having got quite weak, he requested a girl who was passing to tell his wife to come and meet him, and upon the wife's arriving at the place, she found him dead. A verdict of "death from starvation" was returned'.

Such reports were common. Great work in helping the poor came from many organisations and individuals at home and abroad. Clergy of all denominations were prominent in relief measures. The Society of Friends (Quakers) opened soup kitchens in many areas, distributed seed and also clothing, as many people were in rags, having pawned whatever clothing they had. At Christmas in 1846, the rector of Crossmolina received a donation with the following note:

Rev. Sir - We the children belonging to the Moulton National School, in the Parish of Davenharm, (Cheshire) having heard from our beloved patroness, Mrs Harper, of the distress that is so prevalent in our sister Island, have given up our annual treat to the relief of our suffering sisters in Ireland; We humbly trust that our offering, (small as it may appear) will be accepted by those who have kindly undertaken to alleviate the sufferings of our brethren.

In the spring of 1847, The Mayo Constitution reported:

The preparations for the tillage of the Iand has been completely overlooked. There has not been 100 acres prepared for seed in this county by 'the poor farmers'.

After two successive years of blight, many people chose to eat whatever seed they had rather than risk planting. Ironically in 1847, there was no blight, but there was no crop either. 'Black 47' saw the advent of fevers such as typhus which rapidly spread through the weakened population. Workhouses were crammed with fever patients. Auxilary workhouses were opened and fever sheds erected. Dr Daly reported from Newport in May 1847:

'Fever, dysentery and diarrhoea are greatly on the increase, beginning with vomiting, pains, headache very intense; coming to a cnsis in about seven days, relapsing again once or twice, from which death occurred through mere debility or diarrhoea, caused and kept up by bad food, principally Indian meal, supplied to them in small quanitities, and which they invariably swallow after only a few minutes boiling and sometimes cold and raw. The greatest mortality is among the labourers, men and women, on public roads, in cold, wet, boggy hills'.

In March 1847, a large body of starving people gathered in Louisburgh seeking assistance from the relieving officer. He informed them that they would have to apply to the Board of Guardians who were to meet next day at Delphi Lodge, ten miles away. Having spent the night in the open, they proceeded on foot to Delphi. When they reached Delphi, the Board were at lunch and could not be disturbed. When they finally did meet with them, assistance was refused. That day it rained and snowed and there was piercing wind. On the return journey to Lousiburgh, many perished.

In June, 1847, The Mayo Constitution reported that fever and dysentery were committing ravages in Ballindine, Ballinrobe, Claremorris, Hollymount, Ballina, Westport and Belmullet.

Many who cared for the sick and hungry caught fever themselves. In April 1847, The Telegraph reported the death of Rev Patrick Pounden in Westport of fever, caught in the discharge of his sacred duties, and rendered fatal by the exhaustion of mind and body in the course of his unremitting labours for the relief of the poor and needy - the famishing and the dying - in his extensive district'. In September Dr Lavelle of Shrule died of fever.

The starving sick crowded into towns in the hope of securing help. The Telegraph reported the situation in Westport in September.

'From the town to the Quay, on the Workhouse line, the people are lying along the road, in temporary sheds, constructed of weeds, potato tops . . . . on the road to Rosbeg, similar sheds are to be met with, with poor creatures lying beneath them. On the Newport line, the same sickening scenes are to be encountered'.

In the area around Shrule, the Reverend Phew described how

'about three or four hundred of the most destitute have crawled to Ballinrobe every Friday for the last month, seeking admission to the workhouse or outdoor relief and though they remained each day until night, standing in wet and cold at the workhouse door, craving for admission, they have got no relief'.

People weakened by hunger and fever were unable to give proper burials to dead neighbours and relatives. The Tyrawly Herald described the situation at Leigue Cemetery in Ballina:

'in some places the graves are so shallow that portions of the coffins are visible above ground'.

Often coffinless bodies were carried through streets for burial. Workhouse dead were buried in mass graves. Some dead were buried where they died, in fields, on the side of the road. Often to avoid contracting fever, neighbours simply tumbled a victims cabin around the body.

The Landords

At the beginning of the famine in 1845 and 1846 many landlords reacted with compassion, some reducing rents. Even Lord Lucan involved himself in relief measures but by 1848, he was enforcing wholesale evictions of tenants unable to pay rents on his lands around Castlebar and Ballinrobe. Equally infamous was Sir Roger Palmer who owned 90,000 acres in Mayo. In July 1848, The Telegraph reported how

at Islandeady his 'crowbar invincibles', pulled down several houses, and drove forth the unfortunate inmates to sleep in the adjoining fields. On Thursday we witnessed the wretched creatures endeavouring to root out the timber of the houses, with the intention of constructing some sort of sheds to screen their children from the heavy rain falling at the time. The pitiless pelting storm has continued ever since, and if they have survived its severity, they must be more than human beings'.

The Earl of Lucan 'Wholesale Evictions'.

In contrast, other landlords like George Henry Moore, were more caring. In June 1849, Fr James Browne, PP of Ballintubber and Burriscarra wrote:

'I never heard of a single tenant being evicted, either by himself or his agent; he sent over from London at an early stage of the famine, a sum of £1,000 for the poor on his estates, as a free gift, besides orders to his steward to give a milch cow to every widow on his property'.

The potato failed again in 1848 and there was partial failure in 1849. For many, emigration had become a means of escape. By 1851, it is estimated that one million Irish people had died and another million had emigrated, many leaving from Mayo ports for England, America and Australia. The 'Elizabeth and Sarah' sailed from Killala in July 1846 for Quebec with 276 passengers. By the end of the voyage, 8 weeks later, 42 persons had died due to overcrowding, lack of food and water and insanitary conditions. Such voyages were common.

Over the period 1841-1851, the population of County Mayo fell by 29% from 388,887 to 274,499. Emigration became a long term legacy of the famine with each successive census showing a steady decline in the population of County Mayo to a low of 109,525 in 1971.

Swinford District Hospital, the former Union Workhouse for Swinford. When the Swinford Union was formed in 1840 the assistant commissioner Joseph Bourke acquired six acres of land for £18.00 annual rent from William Brabazon. The workhouse was officially opened in 1846 and was in use up to 1926. It was opened at the height of the Great Famine in 1847 when hundreds flocked here for relief and shelter. During these years disease was rampant, people were dying so fast from starvation and fever, that the grave was left open to receive corpses. The site of the Swinford Workhouse Mass Grave, which is one of the best preserved in the country is at the rear of the present day District Hospital. A plaque was erected in the 1960's, when the Mass Grave was restored to the memory of the 564 victims of the Great Famine buried here.