The Great Famine in Attymass in Co. Mayo

The first deaths from hunger in Ireland were officially recorded in the parish of Attymass. On 19th November 1846 the parish priest Fr Michael O’Flynn wrote to the local justice of the peace, George Vaughan Jackson, and informed him that four persons had died from hunger in his parish recently. Like any other rural community, Attymass was to be torn apart completely by death, starvation and emigration.

In analysing the effects of the famine on Attymass one must consider its location within the county and how it was influenced by surrounding parishes. Attymass is very much a rural parish situated in the central plains of County Mayo. It is named as a parish under the Barony of Gallen. Famine records show that Attymass benefited very little from being part of the barony and that surrounding parishes like Toomore, Kilgarvan and Killasser in the barony suffered just as much as Attymass did. Within diocesan boundaries, which were formed after the Synod of Kells in 1132 AD, Attymass is listed under the Diocese of Achonry. In the early 18th century there was no main town in the diocese of Achonry. Where did Attymass look to for relief during famine times considering these boundaries meant very little to the parish? The nearest sizeable towns were Sligo in the north-east, Ballina to the north and Castlebar to the west. The fact that the town of Ballina was only six miles away from the village of Attymass served of major importance to the people of the parish during the famine.

The whole parish was ruled under the Ballina Poor Law Union set up in 1838 and the people of the area went to the workhouse in the town. In its day the Ballina workhouse was one of the largest in the country. It was built to serve a huge territory running from Binghamstown on the west coast of the county, into Dromore West, part of county Sligo. The population of this service area was over 100,000. Therefore Attymass could consider itself lucky in some ways that it had a nearby main town to receive help from. The significant physical geographical features that have shaped Attymass’ history are the Ox Mountains and the river Moy. The river Moy forms a boundary to the west and in the nearby townland of Bonnifinglas several early Christian monks settled. The Ox Mountains form the boundary to the east and these would have impinged on parish life during the famine. As well as being a boundary between the counties of Mayo and Sligo some of the townlands of Attymass are situated along the mountains; they are Graffy, Carrowdoogan, Glanduff, Derreen, Byhalla and Roosky. The arable land would have been and still is in the west of the parish. It is composed of boulder clay most of it being carried from the Ox Mountains during the Ice Age.

By the beginning of the 18th century Attymass was developing industrially. Vast amounts of oats, linen and potatoes were being exported from the parish to England. A number of Catholics escaping from the Ulster Persecution of the latter half of the 1700s settled in various townlands and set up their own industry. Several mills were in operation in the townlands of Currower, Graffy, Curradrish and Ballycong. The road from Ballina through Bonnifinglas to Swinford was the old carriage road. This road was used by horse drawn coaches on daily journeys to transport passengers to Swinford to connect them with a Bianconi car, which operated from Swinford to Dublin.

The townland of Bonnifinglas had expanded and developed as a result of monks being in the area previously. According to the McParlan Statistical Survey of Mayo in 1801 there was 46 towns and villages in County Mayo at that time. Bonnifinglas was named as one of them. It had a recognised Post House existing at the site of Kearney’s pub on the main road from Ballina to Swinford. Here passengers on the coach road would stop off to rest and drivers would change the horses. Bonnifinglas also had an RIC barracks, a forge, an 'Ale House', a mill, a fair and marketplace. The fairs dates for Bonnifinglas were 24th May, 7th July, 15th November and 15th December.

The first official government census of the population of Ireland was taken in 1821. At that time the population of Attymass was 2,603 composing of 515 families. Under the observations of the census returns is the mention of a London Hibernian Society School as well as a Baptist Society School. At this stage Catholics would have been educated in hedge schools. A decade later and with the passing of a bill in Parliament in 1831, for the establishment of National Schools throughout Ireland, Catholics were now granted free education in these new schools. Although the Baptist Society School at Kilgellia came into the hands of Catholics the hedge schools were still run in the parish of Attymass. The Report of the Commissioners of the Public Instruction in 1835 show three hedge schools present in Attymass and with varying degrees of attendance. The National Board granted £74 to erect a school in Treenlaur in 1840 but it was always regarded as a hedge school until it closed down around 1860.

The year 1831 was also significant in the history of Attymass. Attymass along with neighbouring Bonniconlon (Kilgarvan) had been part of an area called Coolcarney with only one priest and curate serving the area. Now it became a separate parish and a priest by the name of Fr Brennan was appointed to the area. A year later and Mrs Moore, the local landlord of Kilgellia, give rent-free land to the Fr Brennan as a church site. The church at Kilgellia, which is the church that exists today, was built at a time when people were very poor and contributing to the upkeep of the Established Protestant Church. The people helped in every way possible carrying the stones for the building with them when they gathered each Sunday for Mass.

Yet under the name Coolcarney the people of the area were united in the cause when approximately 750 people from both parishes signed a petition, venting their frustration over poor relief as a result of the scarcity of potatoes, depression of the linen industry and unjust valuation of tithes. Also a point worth noting in this petition is a statement, which forecasts a serious disaster unfolding unless their plight was seen to immediately. Although previous famines had hit the countryside the petitioners believed something serious was waiting to happen in the near future.

Under the Tithe Applotment Survey, which was undertaken in Attymass in 1833, the parish belonged to the vicarage of Ardagh in the Diocese of Killala. The Tithe Applotment Survey was a survey of agricultural land for the purpose of ascertaining the value of tithes (taxes levied by the government to support the Church of Ireland clergy). The quality of the records varies greatly in terms of detail and legibility. Attymass tends to have a more detailed account rather than an outline of a summary. One half of the tithes were payable to the Rev. Joseph Verschoyle, the Vicar, and the other half to Walter James Bourke, lessee of Sir William Palmer, the lay Impropriator. Due to the destruction of most pre-1901 census records, the Tithe Applotment Books are an important census substitute, listing on average about 40 per cent of heads of families.

By now in Ireland there was a rapid increase in population due to falling death rates resulting from diet improvements and rising birth rates caused by earlier and more frequent marriages. In 1837 population numbers peaked in the parish at 3,518. Records from the Ordinance Survey Books of 1838 show all but one of the landlords did not reside in the parish. Instead they were mostly 'Absentee Landlords' living on one of their other estates outside the area or in England. They would employ agents to look after their estates in Attymass. The only one landlord who resided in the parish during this period was in the townland of Currower by the name of Mr John Irwin.

In the parish of Attymass potatoes were the main tillage crop grown by the poorer tenant farmers and the cottiers. Under the description of Attymass in Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland the system of agriculture is noted as not being in a very improved state. As well as that there were large tracts of wasteland, which were chiefly irreclaimable bog and mountain. Tenants were allowed to reclaim this land and farm it at a minimum rate. Many moved to these poor patches rather than paying increased rent just to keep their holdings. Extensive use was made of credits as the parish had its own 'gombeen' men who charged four shillings for the loan of a pound for a year. While life may have been tough, the people were not too badly off before the Famine struck.

How did the people of Attymass deal with the immediate impact of the famine? Although written records of the Famine period in Attymass are rather scanty, the oral tradition has left us with some terrible and heartbreaking true stories of the parish, which were collected from Mr John Melody and Mr Thomas O’Flynn. Both men were related to two men who really shaped the way of life in Attymass during the Famine. These stories were recorded in a major Folklore collection by Mr Padraic Flannelly, local schoolteacher, in 1946. The records are now located in the Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin and give an invaluable and interesting account of how the Famine affected parish life. It is believed that the people of the parish tried to fight the blight. Many farmers continued to grow potatoes, that is the poreens which were little use as food but which were free from blight. The local clergy urged the people to discontinue the growing of the crop but still many kept it up and finally it met with success. It is said that when the people were asked by the priest for some they refused him. During the Famine there was a sharp rise in crime as food riots occurred, sheep, cattle and crops were stolen and people and property were attacked. Attymass was no different in this regard.

Farmers along the Ox Mountains suffered most. Sheep and goats, which had been plentiful on the mountains, were practically wiped out for food during the Famine. A local man by the name of Darby Dempsey was the most notorious robber during famine times in Attymass. He was born in the townland of Ballycong but went to reside in Byhalla near the Ox Mountains. He gradually got into the habit of sheep stealing and was joined by a man called Mulderrig. Trouble also broke out within the parish with neighbours stealing each other’s butter. Fr O’Flynn had to intervene and restore peace among the parties.

The Poor Law Commission reported in 1836 that Mayo was the most neglected county in Ireland. Such a comment does not come as a surprise when studying the course of Irish history. When looking at records concerning Attymass during the famine, the evidence would suggest that Attymass in some ways suffered greatly from this type of neglect. In Liam Swords book "In Their Own Words" the references to Attymass always show a great deal of distress in Attymass but no reference to any real aid measures that were employed in the area. There is mention of the relief works, which involved the erection of stone walls and building of roads in Attymass. Yet the evidence shows that none of these were completely finished. The principal road was to connect Foxford with Bonniconlon and this would run at the foot of the Ox Mountains. It was started mid way but never fully finished. Another road was commenced along Ballymore Lake but was also left unfinished. In the townland of Graffy a road was built in the slopes of the Ox Mountains but never completed. In fact Attymass tended to be ignored when it came to some relief measures.

A report from the Society of Friends states how James Perry and Edward Barrington visited all the farms under cultivation for the Committee in the counties of Mayo and Sligo with the exception of the farms in the Attymass district. A reference by several government officers and others employed under the Board of Works stated that the district of Attymass and Bonniconlon is with scarcely an exception the most impoverished and destitute in the entire county of Mayo.

During 1846 there was so great a distress in Attymass that Fr O’Flynn attended the Relief Committee meeting in Ballina, when allotments of Indian meal were handed out. Fr O’Flynn made no demands for Attymass. Instead he bade his time in patience until he found an opportunity for his question "Gentlemen, what are you going to do for poor Attymass?". It worked perfectly as he secured a generous weekly allowance of three hundred sacks of Indian meal for the people of the parish. A local man called Mr Melody, a neighbour of Fr O’Flynn, would carry them to O’Flynn’s house in the townland of Carrick. The parishioners in turn would come to the house on a set day to collect their weekly allowance.

Soup kitchens were set up by various organisations to help the poor. There was a soup kitchen in the townland of Currower set up by the Quakers. The sick people of the parish were sent to the workhouse at Ardnaree located beside the town of Ballina. The previously mentioned Mr Melody, who had the only horse and cart in the neighbourhood, was hired by the Ballina Board of Guardians to transport people in his cart. The patient was put in a sack, feet first and the sack was tied closely around the neck and labelled. Melody received the name of 'Sack-Em-Up' from the fact of putting patients in the sack. Up to seven or eight patients were laid out in the cart, which then set out on the long journey to the workhouse. He also took corpses of the dead of the parish from the workhouse in a large coffin with a hinged bottom to Bonnifinglas graveyard. The coffin would then be brought back to the workhouse and used again.

Today one can view the famine grave, which is situated to the west of Bonnifinglas graveyard, nearest the river Moy. Most of the dead of Attymass were buried in the fields or along the roads. The difficulty in the parish in burying the corpses was to get help to carry a corpse to either of the two local graveyards, which were situated twelve miles apart. Tradition holds that the road from Bonnifinglas to Attymass contained buried corpses every few yards as the bearers would often become too weak to travel further. In the townland of Carrick there is a road track called "Bearna Na Corp" which means the gap of the corpses. It was used as a short way to get to the graveyard in Bonnifinglas.

A newspaper dated 18th February 1847 stated that between the previous Friday to Tuesday (four days) eleven people died in Attymass due to starvation. An article in "The Nation" newspaper dated 5th June 1847 contains a report by parish priest Fr O’Flynn. According to the report deaths in the parish from 1st October 1845 to 1st April were 320 and 240 of these were a direct result of the famine.

Where death or starvation failed to decimate townlands, emigration managed to do so. It is estimated that several hundred people from Attymass emigrated from the ports of Sligo and Killala to America and Australia. Many family names disappeared completely from parish records complied before the Famine; Cronin, Jones, Wills, Hamilton, Strogen, etc. In some townlands about half the families emigrated. Some families remained unaffected by the effects of the Famine. They were mainly the agents of the landlords, bailiffs, bog rangers, wood-rangers, gamekeepers, etc. Evictions in the parish were many. In the townland of Kilgelia, fourteen of the twenty four families were evicted the same day. Some of the rich landlords with huge estates like Perry Knox Gore spared nobody. The previously mentioned resident landlord Mr Irwin was one of the charitable ones as there is no record of him evicting anyone.

County Mayo was one of the counties to suffer most during the famine. 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. The population of County Mayo declined by 29% from 388,887 to 247,830 from the period 1841 to 1851.

The famine had accounted for most of the loss of 117,428 of Mayo’s population - a stark figure when compared to the county’s population today of 111,524. Only the counties of Sligo, Longford and Roscommon had similar or higher percentage of population decline. How does Attymass compare with the county statistics. The decline of population from 3,435 to 2,431 represents a 29% decline.