The Great Famine, Bohola in Co. Mayo

The Great Famine, which reached its height in 1847, is still widely regarded as one of the greatest disasters, in terms of death and destruction, to have affected this country. Over a million Irish people died as a result of the famine, and another million emigrated.

Many people from Bohola joined the emigration trail out of desperation, and those who survived the perilous 'coffin ship' journey landed in North America, Great Britain or Australia, thankful to be alive.


The population of Bohola before the famine was 4,301 (1841 Census). There were 92 families living in the largest townland, Toocananagh, and the next biggest village was Treenfoughnane, with 64 houses. By 1851, the population had dropped to 2,907.

Living Conditions

Living conditions at the time consisted of a stone hut with a thatched roof and one room for the entire family, which included a pig, hens, and perhaps a cow under the same roof.

At that time, families endured great hardship, and for those who owned a pig, he was considered to be a good investment, as he would fetch a good price when reared.

Consequently, the pig was tended to with loving care, fed only with the best scraps, and kept in the house, to sleep with the family. It was a great treat for the children of the house to be allowed to sleep with the pig, as he was allotted the warmest bed in the room, beside the hearth.


Evictions were another dire feature of the Great Famine. Because the potato crop had failed so dismally, the farmers lost income as well as food, and could not afford to pay their rent. Some of the landlords were sympathetic towards their plight and showed compassion, but many more tenants were evicted with little warning, thrown out of their tiny cabins with their meagre possessions scattered around them.

The sight of a bailiff in those days would strike terror into even the most hardened of hearts. A battering ram was often used to break down the door of a cottage and scatter the terrified family inside, and tenants who continued to resist eviction were smoked out.

Many fell by the roadside and died, from exhaustion, starvation and sheer terror. Many more made their way to the nearest workhouse, where families were split up.

The Workhouse

For the people of Bohola, Swinford housed the nearest workhouse, built by landlord William Brabazon in 1840. Altogether, over five hundred people died in this workhouse, and the people of the town have since erected a plaque in their memory. In return for food and shelter, the men worked breaking stones in all kinds of weather, while the women sewed garments and knitted. The poor and the homeless were looked after in Swinford Workhouse and an infirmary and fever hospital were also established. There was also a home for children with a teacher installed to teach and look after them.

Fever followed the famine and the epidemic was so bad that a trench for burials had to be dug at the boundary wall. At the time, there was no money available for proper coffins, and mats made from hay, grass and straw were used instead. Patrick McNicholas from Toocananagh made many of these mats. Swinford Workhouse was eventually demolished in 1937.

Employment after the Famine

The years following the famine were difficult ones, and work schemes were introduced locally to help relieve the poverty. One such scheme was the making of Treenduff road in the late 19th century. Each man working on the road received the payment of one stone of Indian meal per week.

Migration and Emigration

During the 1860's, many men left home in the winter months to work on farms or building sites in England, returning to Bohola in the summer months. Like every other part of Ireland, Bohola was still suffering the after effects of the Famine.

The people were very poor and their spirits were broken, they had no choice but to leave home temporarily, in an attempt to earn what was referred to as 'the queen's shilling'.

The people who migrated in such circumstance became known as spalpeens, and their wives and families would run the farms in their absence.

Many of these migrants lived in equally straitened circumstances in England, sleeping in outhouses and sheds in beds of straw. If their clothes were wet and it froze at night, they would go to work with stiff clothing. Some of the migratory labourers could neither read nor write, so contact with the family back home was minimal, and dependant on the goodwill of someone else to write for them.

The journey from Bohola to Dun Laoghaire was a long one, and the weary travellers often had to stay overnight in Dublin, before taking the boat. A Gibbons family had moved from Mayo some years previously, and they ran a hostel in Dublin, where most of the migrants from Bohola stayed. Those who left the country travelled light, often with clothing and other items wrapped simply in a cloth, with a piece of twine tied around it.

For people going to America, it was usually presumed that they would never come back. The neighbours would have a farewell party, and everyone would stay with the would-be emigrant until the early hours of the morning, in what was known as an 'American Wake'.

The parish priest in Bohola at the time was Canon J. O'Grady P.P., and a letter sent by him to Carrowgowan emigrant, Dr. Edward Deane MacDermot, in Bath, England, showed the situation in the area in 1898:

'…I should say that the famine as far as I know is more threatened than exiting, but in some places I am assured there is real famine, but from this date till May there will be very, very hard times unless there is very good earning in England and punctual remittance from same. Thank God we are very nicely here owing (after God's goodness) to my pressure to have the potato crop duly sprayed. If I didn't fear to appear egotistic, I would say that if other parishioners were more pressed to care for their crops or preserve them, things wouldn't be so bad. Yet some villagers who overlook my constant advice have lost their potato crop and are in a very, very bad way. I have got a few pounds in charity from Manchester, God bless them, and I am giving employment in making badly needed roads. They are delighted to get employment and charity, in that way does double good.’

Living Conditions after the Famine

According to the 1871 Census there were 600,000 mud cabins in Ireland, with a hole in the roof through which the smoke from the peat fire passed. A temporary wooden partition separated the bedroom from the living quarters. The bedroom consisted of a crude frame bed for the man of the house and his wife, and heaps of straw on the ground for the children.

Thatched Houses

In time, stone-built, rectangular, thatched houses with two to four rooms quickly became a familiar sight in the country. Back then, the people tried as far as possible to build on low land, so that they would have some sort of shelter in bad storms. The location of the house would not be so important, as there were not so many footpaths or roads in those days, and most people travelled across the fields.

In Bohola, the houses consisted of stone and lime-mortar, and usually had three rooms - a kitchen or living room in the middle, and two bedrooms, one at either side of the kitchen. The phrases 'up to the room' and 'down to the room' were commonly used to distinguish between the bedrooms.

The roofs of these houses were made of rafters and a collar brace, and they were covered horizontally with laths and branches of bog deal. The roof was thatched with straw of rye or oats, which was often immersed in bluestone to give a longer lifespan and it was held in place with scollops (sticks which were pointed at each end).

The chimney was made with wattle and daub, and the floor was usually paved with flagstones. Each room had one small window with laced half-curtains. At the time, the people only built tiny windows (about 18 inches square), for fear that a storm would blow them in.

The night of the 'Big Wind' was always on their minds. There was also a loft, which was used for extra sleeping accommodation or storage space with access by means of a ladder. The house was whitewashed inside and out.

The material used in the construction of the houses was obtained locally - stones from the fields, sand from the local sandpit, lime from a lime-kiln owned by one of the villagers, and rafters were made from bog-deal.

The Kitchen

The kitchen would have been the most important room in these old Bohola houses, where neighbours gathered around the fire, where the family ate and relaxed after a hard day's work, and where meals were prepared and eaten.

On entering the kitchen, the first thing to catch the eye would almost certainly have been the open-hearth fireplace with the turf burning merrily in the grate. A black crane hanging in the chimney held a variety of sizes of iron pots, and the all-important kettle. One of the pots hanging from the crane would almost certainly be full of spuds bubbling away, food for the family, hens, and pigs included. A kettle on the stone hob beside the mantlepiece would be full of hot water with which to do the washing up.

The kitchen furniture didn't vary very much from house to house - a table by the window, a dresser filled with shining delph, every bit as pretty as it was necessary, a few chairs and stools here and there and, if there were small children in the house, a rocking cradle.

Washing facilities were also to be found in the kitchen, and the wash-stand had a hole in the middle into which fitted a large basin and jug. The jug would be filled with water every morning and little faces and hands would be scrubbed clean for school. A razor, which was also kept in the basin, would be used by the older males in the house.

A basket by the hearth was used to store sods of turf, and another basket, made from sally-rods, was used for carrying eggs or shopping. A tub and wash board in the corner would spring into action every Monday for the big wash day of the week. Ornaments were simple, but every kitchen had its treasured picture of the Scared Heart, and a St. Brigid's Cross hanging on the wall. The fleches of salted pork hanging from the rafters were used as needed for family meals.

Wax candles provided the main source of light, and these were later replaced by a paraffin oil lamp, which hung from the ceiling. The bedrooms contained only furniture which was necessary, the bed, a chest of drawers, some cupboards and a few religious pictures.

Working Women

In those days, women did not go outside the home to work, they worked in their own homes. They made sheets and pillowcases from flour bags by ripping four bags open and then sowing them together to make one sheet. The feathers from the fowl helped make the pillowcases.

Each house kept anything from sixty to a hundred hens, along with ducks and geese, and the people kept turkeys. The eggs were sold every week at the local market in Bohola, and the groceries for the week were bought with the money received from the sale of the eggs.

The women also made their own bread, and eight stone of flour was purchased every week. Women made the clothes for the family by spinning and weaving from the flax they grew on the farm.

Wash Day

Monday was the usual big wash day in Bohola, a big pot of water was boiled on the fire for hot water, the boiling water was put into a large tub, and cold water was added. The tube was then placed on low stools. Only a washboard was used for scrubbing in those days. There was no washing powder, the women used carbolic soap, and robin starch was used to stiffen men's shirt collars.

In the summer the washing was done outside, and for many of the children, the annual washing of blankets was an occasion to look forward to. The blankets were scrubbed clean in a big tub or bath and the young children danced on them in order to wash them. When washed, the blankets were spread on the grass or hedge to dry or bleach in the sun.

From the early 1900's onwards, the thatched houses were replaced by modern block built houses with slated or asbestos roofs.

Extract from Bohola: Its history and its people. Reproduced by kind permission of its publishers, Sheridan Memorial Community Centre Committee. Bohola: Its history and its people was published in 1992 under the auspices of Bohola Community Centre Committee which was established in 1988.

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