From the Potato Famine to the Palace

COLIN BRANNIGAN, a former newspaper editor, spent four years researching the Brannigans of Knockaraha in Mayo.

He visited Ballintubber to re-trace the steps made by his ancestors from the Potato Famine of 1845-1850 to the deaths of six Brannigan family members almost forty years later in the workhouse in England.

He turned his research into a book 'From the Potato Famine to the Palace', which captures much of the social history spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in England and Ireland. It's not on sale but there is a copy in the library at Castlebar. Colin produced these extracts for Mayo Ireland. The conditions our Irish ancestors had to endure, in England as well as in Ireland, were wretched beyond words.

The 1841 census graded houses in Ireland into four classes.

The lowest class consisted of mud and thatch cabins of a single windowless room like that in the picture. We know that nearly half the rural families were living in the lowest state. That included three Brannigan brothers, Mark, my great-great grandfather, his elder brother Philip and younger brother Tom. They lived in a cabin in Knockaraha similar to that in the photo (from the Museum of Country Life of a family in Wexford).

I visited Knockaraha and saw the evidence of where the cabins once stood, about a mile from Ballintubber Abbey. At the end of mass at the Abbey, Father Mick Lally welcomed me home and the entire congregation stood and applauded! A wonderful moment.

I saw the baptismal entries of Bridget Brannigan and her brother Thomas, my great grandfather. Both were baptised at Ballintubber Abbey. Thomas on May 5 1842 and Bridget on 7 December 1845. Sadly, six Mayo Brannigans were to die in the workhouse in England. Great-great grandfather Mark, his brother Philip and their wives, Bridget and Catherine (all from Knockaraha), Philip's son Patrick and Mark's grandson, John Brannigan.

In Mayo most of the population were dependent on potatoes. When the crop failed three years out of four, an estimated one million died through starvation and disease. There were mass graves in Mayo at Ballycastle, Belmullet, Ballina, Newport, Castlebar, Swinford, Westport, Louisborough, Claremorris and Ballinrobe.

Father James Brown, the Roman Catholic parish priest at Ballintubber, wrote that 300 families were in absolute want and almost naked. "At least 800 houses have been levelled to the ground and their inhabitants left to perish in their ruins or in ditches."

One caring landlord stood out, George Moore MP for Mayo, the landlord at Knockaraha. Father Brown wrote to the local paper: "I have lived for many years in the midst of Mr Moore's tenantry and I have never heard of a single tenant being evicted either by himself or his agent. He sent £1,000 for the poor on his estates as a free gift, besides orders to the steward to give a cow to every widow on his property."

After his brother Augustus was killed while riding Mickey Free in the 1845 Grand National, George shut himself in Moore Hall, reflecting on the catastrophe of his brother's death and the plight of his starving tenants.He conceived the idea of entering his horse Coranna at Chester in 1846 and placing bets on him to win. Coranna won the Chester Cup. The prize money and George Moore's betting coup realised £17,000 (equivalent to £939,000 in 2002) and netted him £10,000 (equivalent to £552,000) after paying his partner, Lord Waterford. He then set about aiding his starving tenants.

The three Brannigan families and four others, Loftus, Lavelle, Moran and Basquil, all from Knockaraha chose Chester when they left Ireland. If they thought Coranna's win might be a lucky omen, it turned out not to be. The Brannigans exchanged starvation in Ireland for absolute want in England and were forced into the workhouse where they were eventually to die. Conditions in the workhouse were meant to be as miserable as possible (men like my great-great grandfather are seen in a typical dining hall). Wives, husbands and children were separated. When her daughter was dying in Chester from tuberculosis, Bridget left the workhouse to comfort Ann as best she could (Bridget was in the grip of bronchitis herself). She was with her daughter when she died on July 2 1883.

Bridget was by her husband Mark's side when he died in the workhouse, aged 72, on 23 January 1887. Bridget died alone in the workhouse two years later and was buried in the Union Cemetery on 8 April 1889, almost forty years after she left Ireland.

Today, Joy and I have four grandchildren, but my Mayo ancestors in the famine generation could count themselves lucky to have survived long enough to have grandchildren of their own, amid absolute poverty and incurable disease.

Thomas Brannigan, baptised in Ballintubber in 1842, saw three members of his family die from tuberculosis in England in the space of five years. His son Mark, aged 17 in 1882, his wife Sarah, 45, in 1885 and daughter Elizabeth, 21, in 1887.

Who would have believed that a few generations later, Tommy Brannigan's great grandson would be invited by The Queen to lunch at Buckingham Palace, where I found myself sitting next to The Queen. The Mayo Brannigans had travelled From the Potato Famine to the Palace. I went to Buckingham Palace just once more. In 1993 to receive an OBE at an Investiture. A memorable day but no more so than that unforgettable Sunday in 2002 when Father Mick and the entire congregation at Ballintubber Abbey stood as one to welcome me back home.

Colin Brannigan

Other Things You Might Like