The Condition of the People
The New Year 1848 brought no improvement in the condition of the people in the western parishes of the Galway Union. The editor of the Galway Vindicator wrote under the title, ‘ Our Prospects”: ‘The new year brings no change to the agrarian survivors of 1847. They go on living like paupers and dying like dogs. The deadly Irish spring soon to set in promises to be as full of suffering as the last. Our prospects are far worse than the last murderous year. Then we had the promise of Public Works – that promise proved a snare and a delusion. Still it gave the wretches half enough to eat. This year the pauper population is told that it must go to the workhouse or get workhouse food at the gate. We are without help from the British Government who are determined to leave us to our own resources…’ As already pointed out the people now depended solely on the Poor Law – that is they had to enter the workhouse if eligible or get a meager ration of food as outdoor relief from the workhouse.
Local Reports – Killannin
Robert Martin of Ross House informed the Vice Guardians of the Galway Union on the 23rd February of the state of the people – they were in a very bad condition far worse than they were in 1847. 5 persons had died in his neighbourhood and were buried without coffins. The wife and brother of one of the victims were present but would not approach the corpse for fear of contacting disease. A man also released from jail was found dying at his own gate and although a woman brought him some bread and tea he died a few minutes later. Mr. Martin asked the Vice Guardians if there was any means of providing coffins for those who died in the way he described. They replied that they had no power to provide coffins under the Poor Law Act.
Fr. Pat Fahy wrote a powerful letter to the Galway Mercury on the 28th February on the condition of his parishioners. 16 persons had died of starvation within the last month. The turnip crop did not hold out during the month of February. There is no fund to bury the dead – so coffinless and shroudless interments have taken place. 150 had died last season although the yearly mortality averaged only 30. The people are being sacrificed by an alien government who feel that a person should be satisfied with one meal a day. But in spite of the misery they are obedient to the laws, respectful of the rights of others and strictly honest. He repeated what he said in a letter in 1846 that the British Government acted under the cruel theory stated by Geraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century that the only way to civilise the Irish was to kill them. He said that there was a striking resemblance between the skeleton like people of the reign of Elizabeth 1of the 16th century and the walking ghosts of the present day. 1,000,000 had died in a Christian country and 100,000 sought a home in the western world. A Montreal newspaper wrote that the Irish formed one unbroken chain of graves without a stone to mark the spot.
Death of Fr. Pat Fahy
In his last entry in his diary in 1848 he reported that about 12 people died in a week. (He did not record the unofficial deaths). His death was reported in the Galway Vindicator and the Galway Mercury. He died on the 20th May 1848. Both papers paid tribute to him for his great work during the awful famine –‘ he died in the 38th year of his age of typhus fever caught in the discharge of his clerical duties; a more pious, charitable labourer there was not, upon the missions. Long will the inhabitants of Moycullen deplore his loss. An unusual feature was that he kept an accurate figure on the number who died in his parish on a regular basis as the clergy were under such pressure of time during the famine.’
In February Major Kie Inspector of the Galway Union said that the western district of Oughterard, Killannin and part of Moycullen had no chance of employment for the labouring poor. They were in a wretched state of poverty being mostly small cottiers who have given up their holdings which will be left waste for sometime. In these divisions the able bodied men without families should not be deprived of out door relief under the Act at the time.
Rev. Fr Kenny P.P. Spiddal described the extreme destruction of the people of his district at a meeting in the Galway Workhouse on the 15th March. Most of the people were stricken down with famine and disease and unless they got relief the whole population would be destroyed. A Coroner’s inquest reported the death of John Connor of the island of Garumna in the electoral division of Killannin who died of starvation and extreme want. He had been evicted by a steward of Mr. St. George M.P. for Galway.
A reporter of the Galway Mercury reported in April that the people were dying of absolute starvation by the score. Many had fallen victim to the plague of ’46 ,’47and of the present season. It would be a task beyond his powers to detail the list of those who had been sacfriced to Whig misrule. One relieving officer had died and another was seriously ill which prevented his attendance at the relief depot. A poor woman on the previous Sunday had been found in a dying state near the gate of Major Martin but for the assistance of the Rev. Mc Grath she would have died instantly. Yet advantages had been taken of the miseries of the poor of the district to deprive them of the faith of their forefathers. He had been told that the relief given by the British Association for the poor of the district was made subservient to the purpose of proselytism. It would require all exertions of the Catholic clergy to counteract the insidious attempts made to pervert the poor and suffering from hunger and famine. (This was the first reference to proselytism in the district as relief was granted during the famine with no reference to religion. The British Association for the relief of distress was a charitable organization which did good work but there was a suspicion that it engaged in proselytism also in other parts of Galway when giving aid for the school of the young.
A Harrowing Scene
On the 22nd June a correspondent from The Galway Mercury reported that he had witnessed a most heart rendering scene – the internment of a human corpse without a coffin. Michael Lidane had married without his parents consent and he lived in a horrible cabin like a stable. He had just come home from the Workhouse and caught the fever. His mother discovered him dead. She went around the village to get him a coffin but failed. She appealed to Mr. George Cottingham of Corrib View . He had no boards but humanly gave her a quantity of straw in which the almost decomposed remains of her son was placed. His body was placed in a boat in the presence of the reporter and was conveyed across the lake to be interned in the burial ground near Lemonfield. The poor woman and his sisters were on the shore wailing in tones that were sure to reach the heavens. This is only one of the terrible grievances under which the poor of the district suffer. There was also the neglect of the sick in the fever hospital and the misery caused by the eviction of about 30 families, with an average of 4-5 in each family, their cabins in the village of Gurtreva were tumbled down.
Report 28th June from Oughterard that ‘a temporary fever hospital had been erected in June 1847 and was said to have saved many lives from starvation and fever. However the state of the patients in the hospital was anything but comfortable. 20 wretched beings were lying on beds of straw which had not been changed since the previous September, some of them uncovered… The roof of the hospital was quite open to wind and rain. Many of the bedsteads were broken with no separate wards for women. The servants in the hospital were poorly paid. Neither the contractor or the Board of Health would accept responsibility. When such a public evil exists it must be exposed in the hope that a remedy would be found.’
The Fever Hospitals
The temporary Fever Hospitals in Oughterard, Moycullen and Spiddal could accommodate 130 patients between them. Dr. John Davis was medical officer at Oughterard, Dr. Roughan for Killannin, Spiddal and Moycullen. The Board of Health paid them. The table below shows the number of admissions and deaths from 29th September 1847 to 19th September 1848:
Moycullen 324 48
Killannin 528 46
Oughterard 359 15
Many of the landlords were tempted to clear their estates of the small holders and replace them with tenants who could pay the rent and rates. Most of the landlords were faced with huge bills and were heavily in debt during the Famine. The Martins of Ballynahinch who were deemed the largest Landlords in Ireland were bankrupt during the Famine. The evictions of the landlords of Patrick Blake of Spiddal and C. St George were among the worst in Ireland. Their evictions were often raised in the House of Commons. Capt. Hellard, the inspecting Officer of Galway Union reported on the 4th January that evictions had taken place near Oughterard in the villages of Gurtreva, Cloosh and near Furbough in Spiddal all were tenants of St George M.P. for Galway. A report on the 19th January stated that many of those evicted were from the parishes of Oughterard and Killannuin and on further enquiries many were also form the estates of Patrick Blake Spiddal. On the night of the 31st December the agent of Patrick Blake with a band of men with crowbars, evicted them, leaving them without shelter so they had to seek admission to the Workhouse. Their houses had been pilled down and the roof burned in their absence. The road adjoining the workhouse gate was thronged with more than 500 persons. Capt. Hellard reported to the commissioners in Dublin on the 23rd January that in some districts of the Galway Union great cruelty was practiced towards the poor by the landlords and their agents.
On February 14th &15th Major Kie, the newly appointed inspector of the Galway Union who replaced Capt Hellard who had died of fever in January 1848, conducted a public sworn enquiry in the evictions in the estate of Mr. Blake of Spiddal and C. St George. 20 witnesses gave evidence. John O Donoghue’s house was thrown down by order of Mr. Blake. John O Donoghue was evicted with his wife and five small children. The men came to the village at night and his wife stated that she was nearly killed when the roof fell in. The poor people were trying to erect huts with sticks and scraws but as quickly as they did so they were pulled down again. On the 19th February Major Kie reported to the Commissioners in Dublin. He concluded that it would appear from the evidence recorded that these forcible ejectments were illegal, that notices had not been served, that they were perpetrated under circumstances of great cruelty, the time chosen nightfall on the eve of a New Year; the occupiers were forced out of their houses with their helpless children and left exposed to the cold on a bleak western shore on a stormy winter’s night; that the parents implored that they might be left until morning; that their prayers for mercy were in vain and many of them have since died.
Evictions of Mr. St George, Kilcolgan and Oughterard
Mr. St George wrote to the under secretary, T. H. Redington at Dublin Castle on the 25th March about the evictions. He said that on the 1st of May 1847 there were large sums of unpaid rent due to him. As a result about 600 householders in Lettermore and Garumna were served with evictions orders. Since then several persons had been dispossessed by the deputy sheriff as the rent was not paid. Mr. St George defended his position when the issue of his evictions was raised in the House of Commons on the 25th March 1848. He said that he was quite adverse to acts of cruelty. He had spent £1500 in Lettermore borrowed under The Land Improvement Scheme. He had not received any rents and had paid immense rates. ‘I feel indignant at being called a bad landlord,’ he said. I scorn any dereliction of my duties in society: However Major Mc Coy defended the report he had made on the evictions by Mr. P. Blake and Mr. St George 1847/1848 on their estates in the barony of Moycullen. Mr. St George had also evicted about 30 families in the townlands near Oughterard.
House Of Commons
M.Ps in the Westminister Parliament and especially Paulett Scrope often drew attention to the large scale evictions and and demise of house dwellings which took place on the Blake estate in 1847/48.especially evictions in the depths of winter which lead to the deaths of several tenants from exposure. They argued that these evictions were illegal and should give grounds for criminal proceedings of manslaughter. The house secretary Sir George Grey saw no grounds for such action and that the government did not have the power to take such legal proceedings against the landlords. Mr. Paulett Scrope got no satisfaction from the home secretary or the government.