The Famine Part 1

Barony of Moycullen, Co. Galway 1845-1850

Murt Molloy

Introduction

The Famine 1845-1850 was the most tragic event in modern Irish history and left an indelible mark on the popular memory. It was the greatest humanitarian disaster in 19th century Europe. About 1million died of starvation and disease and over a million emigrated in the Famine years as such a large proportion of the population depended on the potato crop for their survival which failed in successive years. Co. Galway lost 125,000or 28% of the population between 1841 and 1851 and Kilcummin Parish Oughterard lost 30% – 35%. It might be worth reading other famine disasters in Irish history of which much less is known. In the mid 17th century, Sir William Petty, a contemporary observer estimated that between the 1641 Rising and 1652, during the Cromwellian conquest that over 40% of the population of Ireland was lost by war famine and disease. Modern estimates of the losses at that time are between a ¼ and 1/3 of the population. An estimate of the impact on Connacht was that upwards of 1/3 of its population was swept away. An outbreak of plague in the city of Galway carried away some 3.700 inhabitants between July 1649 and April 1650.

The second great Famine in modern Ireland was in 1740-41. Out of a population of 2.4 million at that time between 300,000 and 400,000 died in Ireland and one in every four died in the province of Munster. In popular tradition 1741 was called Blian and Oir – the Year of the Slaughter. In relative terms the mid 17th and 18th century famines may have been as traumatic and destructive as the Great Famine.

The Barony of Moycullen

Description

The barony of Moycullen in West Galway was known as Iar-Chonnacht. It consisted of one of the three baronies of which West Galway or Connemara was divided. Roderick O Flaherty (1629-1718), the historian, who described the barony in 1684 wrote ‘the Barony of Moycullen commonly known in Irish by the names of Gnomore in the north and Gnobeg in the south is separated in the north from the Joyce Country, by mountains and Lough Orbsen (Lough Corrib) on the south by the bay of Galway and hath Ballynahinch barony on the west.” The barony consisted of the whole of the parishes of Moycullen, Kilannin and Oughterard (Kilcummin) and part of the parish of Rahoon. Its area was 220,233 statute acres. Lough Corrib which lay along most of the north and east of its boundary constituted the greater part of the barony’s water. Many of the islands of the lake and the island and inlets along the west coast of Galway Bay belong to Moycullen barony. The population of the barony in 1821 was 20,114 and in 1841 29,445 – an increase of 9,321. The chief town or village of the barony was Oughterard which was a market and post town in the parish of Kilcummin.

In 1841 the town had a population of 718 and 115 houses. It contained a courthouse, a constabulary and a military barracks a Catholic and a Protestant Church, regular petty court sessions and two separate fairs. The town became the center of the Workhouse and the Poor Law Union in October 1849.

Creation of the Barony of Moycullen 1685

The barony of Moycullen was created in 1685 by the Composition of Connacht into shires or counties by Queen Elizabeth 1. The region was ruled over by the Gaelic Clann – the O Flaherty’s from the mid 13th century to the 17th century. Their seat in the barony was Aughnanure Castle two miles east of Oughterard. During the mid 17th century they were dispossessed and their lands were soon taken over by the Martins of Ballynahinch a former Norman merchant family and one of the tribes of Galway. The Martins then owned 200,000 acres and were by far the greatest landowners in the barony of Moycullen until the Famine. Most of the land of the barony consisted of bog, mountain and lakes but along the south coast and south shore of Lough Corrib there was some arable and fertile land. In these areas there was a population density of over 400 per square mile in 1841. Connemara experienced much change in the early decades of the 19th century when new roads were built through the district, a process begun by Alexander Nimmo, the famous Scottish engineer. The road from Galway to Oughterard to Clifden with several roads branching from it into the center of the mountains as well as part of the road along the coast south had been completed by 1845. The roads built through the barony before the Famine provided employment as relief works in times of economic distress. A feature of the barony of Moycullen especially in south Connemara or Cois Fharraige was a system of communal landholding and farming called ‘Rundale’ dated from the ancient Gaelic system of land tenure which had persisted in parts of Connemara into the early 20th century.

Economic and Social Conditions before the Famine

The Poor Inquiry for the parish of Kilcummin 1835/34, showed the poor classes the great majority, living on a margin of subsistence, housed in wretched cabins, poorly clothed and often going without food. 150 families in the parish in 1835 in Oughterard depended entirely on charity for their existence. The most distressed classes were the small farmers, labourers and cottiers. Henry Inglis, a Scottish travel writer who visited Oughterard in 1884 said, ‘the people in its immediate neighbourhood were in poor circumstances, most of them very small holders of land. So many of them were so miserably off when he visited that the parish priest had become obliged to become security for the price of a little meal to prevent them from starving.’

Occupations of the People – Census 1841

The census revealed that there were 5256 families in the barony of Moycullen and 4405 of these or 84% were chiefly occupied in farming or agriculture. 87% of the people depended on their own manual labour for their living. 49% of the population of the barony lived in a 4th class house – a stone cabin with no windows. Those who lived along the sea coast combined farming with fishing. They engaged in the kelp trade, herring fishing and turf cutting. They exported by sea to Galway, the Aran Islands and to Co. Clare. The Poor Inquiry 1836 stated that potatoes and occasionally fish and eggs constituted the principal diet of the poorer classes in the parish of Kilcummin and Killannin. Any able bodied labourer would require a stone of potatoes a day for each of the 365 days of the year. Small numbers of people in the barony were engaged in manufacturing trades and other pursuits such as retail shops, pubs and traditional crafts – blacksmiths and tailors. The knitting of stockings by women had been a stable industry in Connemara. Capt. T. H. O Flahertie of Lemonfield told the Poor Inquiry for the parish of Kilcummin that wives used frequently pay the rent by the produce of their spinning flax or knitting stockings but this trade had seriously declined in recent years and now they paid very little.

The census revealed that there were 5256 families in the barony of Moycullen and 4405 of these or 84% were chiefly occupied in farming or agriculture. 87% of the people depended on their own manual labour for their living. 49% of the population of the barony lived in a 4th class house – a stone cabin with no windows. Those who lived along the sea coast combined farming with fishing. They engaged in the kelp trade, herring fishing and turf cutting. They exported by sea to Galway, the Aran Islands and to Co. Clare. The Poor Inquiry 1836 stated that potatoes and occasionally fish and eggs constituted the principal diet of the poorer classes in the parish of Kilcummin and Killannin. Any able bodied labourer would require a stone of potatoes a day for each of the 365 days of the year. Small numbers of people in the barony were engaged in manufacturing trades and other pursuits such as retail shops, pubs and traditional crafts – blacksmiths and tailors. The knitting of stockings by women had been a stable industry in Connemara. Capt. T. H. O Flahertie of Lemonfield told the Poor Inquiry for the parish of Kilcummin that wives used frequently pay the rent by the produce of their spinning flax or knitting stockings but this trade had seriously declined in recent years and now they paid very little.

Employment

Of 1,000 labourers in the parish of Oughterard and Kilannin in 1835 about 100 had constant employment from large farmers and landowners. The vast majority had only occasional employment. The wages were 8p a day in summer and 6p a day in winter. Rents were high and some landlords were charging excessive rents. In Oughterard in 1844 – 15 shillings an acre was charged on the arable land on the south shore of Lough Corrib.

Local Landlords

These were the chief landlords in the barony of Moycullen in the 19th century during the Famine all of whom were resident on their lands.

Thomas B. Martin Ballynahinch and Richard Martin, Clareville, Oughterarad – 200.000 acres.

Christopher St. George, Tyrone House, Kilcolgan and Clareville Lodge Oughterard – 15,777 acres.

Henry Hodgson Currareveagh House Glann and Merlin Park, Galway 17,064 acres.

Robert Martin, Ross House, Kilannin 5,767 acres.

Thomas H. O Flahertie, Lemonfield Oughterard – 4.500acres.

George P. Burke, Danesfield Moycullen – 2480 acres.

Anthony O Flahertie, Knockbane, Moycullen – 1522 acres.

Patrick Blake, Tully Spiddal 17,335 acres

All of these landlords played a part in the famine either on the local relief committees or at public meetings called to provide relief works for the poor.

Thomas B. Martin 1786-1847 was an M.P. for Co. Galway and lived at Ballynahinch Castle and owned 93,000 acres in the barony of Moycullen and a large number of townlands in the parish of Oughterard. The Martins had taken possession of the O Flaherty lands in Connemara after the Cromwellian confiscation in the mid 17th century. The O Flaherty’s of Lemonfield were the direct descendants of the O Flaherty branch of Aughnaure Castle having been dispossessed of their lands in the mid 17th century. They were now reduced to a small estate in the vicinity of the town of Oughterard of 4,500 acres. Anthony O Flaherty of Knockbane , Moycullen belonged to the western Renvyle branch of the O Flaherty’s clan. He was M.P. for Galway city 1847-59 and as chairman of the Galway Workhouse Union played a major role during the famine and was highly regarded as a landlord.

Landlords and Tenants

The vast majority of tenants were tenants at will and had no security of tenure in the farms they occupied. The landlord had the power to evict or ’turnout’ a tenant if he failed to pay his rent or was in arrears of rent. Usually rent was paid twice a year. There were very few leases that is a fixed rent for 31 years or a lifetime. In general rents were paid up to the Famine and there were no large-scale evictions in the years before the Famine in the barony of Moycullen. The Martins of Ballynahinch by far the greatest landlords in the district did not evict their tenants and often accepted a day’s labour, turf or other goods instead of rent.

Minor Famines 1800-1845

There were at least three minor famines –1822, 1831/32 and 1835 before the great Famine 1845 in Connemara due to the failure of the potato crop from bad weather. Yet excess mortality rarely took place. A government official reported in June 28th 1824 that several villages near Oughterard were in a deplorable state of poverty. He said that in Oughterard he saw, ‘young men lying in their bed of misery, resigned to die for the want of food.’ The potato failure of 1831/32 was accompanied by cholera. A parliamentary report in 1835 stated that at Oughterard great distress prevailed and typhus fever appeared there in July of that year. The labourers who worked on the Oughterard/ Clifden road completed in 1834 were paid 8p a day in wages. A report of the Poor Inquiry 1836 stated that up to the year 1825 Humanity Dick Martin supported most of the poor of the town of Oughterard but after that time he did not reside there and now they had no chance of that kind. The combined efforts of local relief committees, government aid, and public works prevented widespread deaths during these minor famines and food shortages. 0

Relief before the Famine – Galway Workhouse

A Poor Law Act for Ireland was passed in 1838 modelled on the English Poor Law 1834. The act was to provide relief for the destitute poor within the workhouse. The country was divided into 130 Unions or administrative districts, made up of townlands. The Unions were administered by a Board of Guardians elected by the local ratepayers. A workhouse was to be established in each union in the largest market town. The Galway Union workhouse was situated on Newcastle road in front of the present University Hospital. It was built at a cost of £10.000 and was to accommodate 1,000inmates. It was open for the reception of paupers on the 2nd March 1842. The workhouse Union was central to Galway City but also extended 25 to 30 miles into Connemara and contained the electoral divisions of Oughterard, Killannin and Moycullen, comprising the barony of Moycullen. These three electoral divisions were the same as their parish boundaries. At the first meeting of the Galway Union 6th July 1839 three guardians were elected for each of these electoral divisions – Thomas H. O Flaherty, Lemonfield, Oughterard, George Cottingham, Corrib View and William D. Griffith Glann were the poor law guardians for the area. The poor of the parishes of the barony of Moycullen were given relief in the Galway workhouse during the Famine until the Oughterard Poor Law Union was formed in October 1849. Medical officers were appointed to Oughterard and Moycullen districts in November 1840. Dr. John Davis was the medical officer in Oughterard and Dr. Roughan in Moycullen and Spiddal.

The coming of the potato blight

The blight, which is a fungus, apparently came to Ireland for the first time from South America on ships carrying guano – a popular fertilizer. The first sighting of the blight appeared near Dublin in September 1845. Within Ireland, potatoes were the main if not the only food of about 3 million of the poorest class of people. No other country in Europe depended on the potato as much as the people of Ireland. The local newspapers in Galway were optimistic about the harvest prospects of September 1845. They reported that the crops were abundant and that they had not heard of any extensive failure of potato crops. But during October/ November 1845, constabulary reports poured into every part of Co. Galway on the failure of the potato crop when dug. Up to the 22nd of October no blight had appeared in Oughterard but Martin Clune, the sub inspector reported from the district of Oughterard on the 30th October that ‘ there can be longer any doubt of the failure of the potato crop in this neighbourhood – half the poor-man’s crop, the Lumper is lost.’ The people he said were ‘in an alarming state.’ Fr. Pat Fahy P.P. Moycullen described the effect of the blight on the potato crop. He said, the defection on the potato is called cholera from black spots appearing on the surface and probably affecting the interior of the vegetable. ’Violet Martin, Ross House, Rosscahill and daughter of James Martin a local landlord gave this description of the coming of the potato blight. ‘In July 1845 my father drove to the assizes in Galway 12½ miles away. As he drove he looked with a knowledgeable eye on the plots of potatoes lying thick and green on either side of the road and thought that had never seen a richer crop. He slept in Galway that night and next day as he drove home the smell of the potato blight was heavy in the air, a new and nauseous smell, it was the first breath of the Irish Famine.’ The July date is not accurate as she wrote at a much later time but the description is accurate and confirms the accepted view of the suddenness of the onset of the potato blight.

The Relief Commission

When the potato crop failed the government of Robert Peel set up a Relief Commission in Dublin in November 1845 with Sir Randolph Routh of the Army Commissariat as its chairman. Its aim was to supervise the activities of the local relief committees and to set up food depots in the country. Peel also purchased £100,000 worth of Indian corn or maize from North America to be sold at government depots. The imported food did not arrive in Galway until April 1846. It was very hard to mill and difficult to digest and was called ’Peel’s Brimstone’.

Rise in Food Prices

By October 1845 food prices were already beginning to rise because of the scarcity of potatoes and other foods. The Galway Mercury reported on the 1st November 1845, ‘that the sellers of bread an bakery shops had already out of panic begun to raise the price by reducing the size of the loaf well below that warranted by the cost.’ The partial failure of the crop in 1845 – about 1/3 of the crop was lost in Co. Galway as the blight did not appear until October/ November by which time the early potatoes were dug and harvested. There was probably enough food to sustain the people through the winter 1845/46. Violet Martin wrote of the first winter of the Famine –‘the succeeding months brought the catastrophe, somewhat limited in the first number, a blow to startle even the stern but not a death blow. With optimism the people flung their thoughts forward to the new crop and bore the pinch of the winter with (mismanaged help from the government and with lesser help from the landlords).’

 

 

 

 

This page was added on 26/11/2015.

Comments about this page

  • If I am not mistaken, Colonel Richard Martin died on January 6, 1834, a full decade before the Great Famine occurred. Why include his portrait in this article?

    By Arnie Munissen (19/03/2017)

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