The Famine in the 1840's was a tragic period in Irish history. Over one million people died from starvation in the country, while many more emigrated to Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia. The population of Castlebar parish (the parish of Aglish) declined from 10,464 in 1841 to 9,135 in 1851.
A system of land distribution known as the Rundale system existed throughout the locality. Under this system farm holdings of the peasants rarely exceeded 15 acres and their lands were divided into strips of bogland, arable land and land suitable for grazing. The arable land was used to grow potatoes which was the staple diet of the people while the income generated from the rest of the land was used to pay rent to the local landlord.
The first account of potato failure is reported in the Castlebar area in the local papers in 1845. In some areas there was total crop failure but in 1846 there was almost total crop failure. The year 1847 was perhaps the worst year with little or no food available and the widespread occurrence of typhoid and other diseases. This year became known as Black ’47. Castlebar probably suffered more than other areas as the potato was the staple diet in the locality, while thousands who had been experiencing hardship or had been evicted in outlying areas, fled to Castlebar in search of relief.
As the hardship spread tenants were experiencing extreme difficulties in paying their rents. The response of the landlords was varied. Some of the landlords were sympathetic and rarely treated their tenants harshly. Sir Robert Blosse-Lynch in Balla treated his tenants well as did George Henry Moore. Sir Charles O Malley supplied grain to his tenants.
As the situation worsened landlords experienced financial problems and while some continued to provide relief, others used the situation to clear lands of tenants and increase the size of their holding in an effort to make them more viable. Lord Lucan who had no love for the Irish catholic is quoted as saying that he "would not breed paupers to pay priests." For example he evicted 200 families so that, Simpson; a Scots Presbyterian might have a holding of 2000 acres. The village of Aughadrina was also cleared by Lucan’s agents and developed into a racecourse. The Earl of Lucan became known as The Great Exterminator. Sir Roger Palmer who had vast holdings north of Castlebar was no less ferocious in his treatment of his tenants. His infamous Crowbar Brigade cleared large tracts of land in the Glenisland area.
Some attempts were made to relieve the plight of the starving thousands, but these proved to be insufficient. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel introduced a scheme to import Indian Yellow meal from the United States. This meal known as Peel’s brimstone saved many from starvation although it was not adequate to prevent widespread hardship. In 1847 the Tory government was defeated and replaced by the Whigs but the new government was not as sympathetic and. this was demonstrated by the defeat of O Connell’s Poor Law Amendment Acts in 1847. Sir Charles Trevelyan discontinued the provision of this imported meal and operated a policy of "Laissez faire" having formed the opinion that there was sufficient grain in Ireland to feed the entire country. The price of whatever grain was available soared and in Castlebar the price of corn rose from 14/= to 18/6 per cwt.
The decision to build a workhouse in Castlebar was made following the Poor Law Act of 1838 and the first admissions were made on 22nd October 1842. The workhouse was built on part of Lord Lucan’s estate, donated by him, in an area of little agricultural value. The area was in fact a marshy area. The building was built on a seven-acre site and cost £12,000. It was built to accommodate 600 people. The old workhouse existed up to the 1960’s in the northern part of the town where it was used as an old folks home but has been replaced by a modern geriatric hospital. By early 1846 Lord Lucan was in arrears with his payments to the Board of Guardians and by autumn of that year the Board of Guardians were refusing admittance to the destitute. Only for the aid of Lord Lucan, inmates already admitted would have died of starvation or of cold.
The Board of Guardians was in disarray and could only cater for 130 inmates although the building had been built to cater for over 600. Mr. C.G. Ottaway described the services provided by the Board of guardians as "cruel neglect of their highest duties." In December of that year the weather was particularly bad, yet patients were often left in large wards without adequate food, clothing or heat. On Christmas day inmates were left without food from 5pm until 7pm the following day.
In January 1847 the diet of the inmates consisted of bread only. There were increased reports of patients dying of typhoid, exhaustion, dysentery and diarrhoea. In mid January Mr. Ottaway tells of "paupers being left without breakfast for up to three days." In February those suffering from infectious diseases were refused admittance in case disease would spread among the inmates and they were left to die on the streets of the town. In May several wards were turned into infirmary wards to house "idiots" - those experiencing dementia.
An interdenominational committee known as The Evangelical Relief Committee was set up in an attempt to provide assistance for the starving thousands. The catholic as well as the protestant clergy supported this body and they received aid from The Society of Friends and other charitable agencies. They set up soup kitchens and tried to distribute meal to the poor and hungry.
The British Association for Destitute Children distributed corn meal for starving children with up to 380 children being fed daily. Rev. M. Stoney, the local rector received turnip seed from the Quaker Relief Committee. The local catholic clergy, Reverends Curley, Geraghty and Mc Guinness also purchased £400 worth of seed and tried to persuade the people to till the land. There were some abuses to the distribution of relief however and in some instances soup was distributed in return for conversion to Protestantism a practice that became known as 'souperism'. The Catholic Hierarchy responded to this practice by setting up monasteries such as The Franciscan Monastery at Errew, near Ballyheane.
In Spencer Street an orphanage existed for orphaned and illegitimate catholic children where they were fed and indoctrinated for conversion to the Protestant faith. This home was known as a Bird’s Nest Home.
As the plight of the masses worsened, disease and death were commonplace throughout the town. The local peasantry began to get more desperate. Cartloads of grain being transported had to be given an R.I.C. escort. Instances of convoys of grain being attacked and robbed are reported at Newport, Westport and Turlough. In an effort of desperation Rev. Edward O Malley and Rev. O Donnell resorted to breaking into a grain store at Turlough and stealing 4 cartloads of grain in an attempt to help feed their parishioners.
Rebel groups known as ribbonmen robbed food wherever they could to help feed their destitute neighbours. Some people entered the workhouse just to get a decent burial. Instances are also recorded in the Connaught Telegraph of the starving breaking windows in the town in an effort to be committed to Gaol – where at least they would be fed. Sir William Thackeray drew attention to the sign over the entrance to Castlebar jail "Without Beware. Within Amend."
The Board of Public Works was established to provide work for the people. This scheme known as outdoor relief employed many for 6 pence a day building roads, bridges and high walls around landlord’s demesnes. In Castlebar the drainage of the local river was suspended however in 1847. The following year a scheme was introduced draining Saleen Lake which was situated on part of Lord Lucan’s estate. In 1847 3,221 people were added to the list of people employed on such schemes in the Mayo area leading to a total of 11,358 being employed in the county.
In spite of whatever aid was provided Castlebar suffered more than other areas as thousands fled to larger towns in search of aid. One report given by Cavendish in the Connaught Telegraph gives a clear picture of how conditions were in Castlebar at the time - "We saw hundreds of people crawling in from the countryside, with asses carrying baskets with starving children and crippled old men and women. They numbered at the time about 3,000 people. It is surprising that so many asses survived. A gloom hangs over the town. And this hunger outside the workhouse is only a drop in the ocean. Many never made it to the workhouse. The many thousand brought to the workhouse screaming for food couldn’t be relieved. Many were buried as they fell."
Many of the dead were carried for up to four miles to be buried, others were buried where they fell. The pathways leading to the workhouse were known as "Casain na Marbh."-The Paths of the Dead. Oftentimes corpses were left unburied for up to four days, as there were no coffins available to bury them. In some cases bodies were buried without coffins, sometimes covered in sackcloth. Some of these graves were very shallow, as the people did not have the energy to dig deep graves. The local Catholic priests established a Coffin Fund to collect monies to provide coffins for the dead. In some cases door to door collections were held to enable relations bury their deceased loved ones.
Emigration became a common way of escaping starvation with sailings departing weekly from ports at Westport, Newport, Ballina and Sligo. People were often seen in the streets of Castlebar trying to sell furniture to make the fare for their journey. Some who arrived in England, The United States or further away managed to send the fares back to Ireland to enable others to follow them. In some instances orphaned girls had their fares paid by the local Board of Guardians. Many did not survive the journey and many of the ships became known as "Coffin ships." Many were buried in mass graves in places such as Grose-lle in Canada.
Although much of the history of the time is recorded in the local papers of the time and other sources, much of the history of the era was passed on in the oral tradition -"seanchas"or folklore. Up to the present times "lazy beds" – places where potatoes were tilled in famine times, are pointed out in the area. Places where people fell and died are known as "Fear an Ghorta" – it is supposed to be a bad omen if hunger comes on a person in such a place. The month of July was known as "July an Cabaiste"- a month when only cabbage would be available as food to replace the potato.
Movements such as O Connells Reform Movement, Davitt’s Land League and the Home Rule Movement followed this period in Irish History. The need of the people for self-determination was fulfilled gradually as tenant farmers were transformed into landowners. The famine was commemorated in 1997 in Mayo with the erection of a memorial at Murrisk, at the foot of Croagh Patrick in memory of our famine dead.
Article by Brian Hoban