1847 is generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine and has always been called ‘Black 47’. Yet the potato crop did not fail and was not struck by blight except in isolated cases in 1847. Yet the condition of the people worsened due to the crop failure of the two previous years, as there was a great shortage of seed potatoes to sow. This resulted in a very small potato yield in 1847 – about 1/6 of the 1846 crop. Starvation, death and disease increased greatly during 1847 in the barony of Moycullen and elsewhere through out Ireland. The Government policy in 1847 was to continue relief works but closed them down completely as a failure in June 1847 and replaced them by indoor and outdoor relief in the workhouses.
The Condition of the People
Anthony O’Flahertie, Knockbane, Moycullen, Vice Chairman of the Galway Union wrote to G. F. O’Flahertie, Lemonfield on the 5th January 1847 and said that unless the landlords and the tenants of the barony consult together without delay to preserve their own interests, they would be sacrificed by the cold policy of the government. They should unite to defend themselves against the impending ruin. Union is strength and the government could not resist the demands of a united people. The poor had no seed to put into the ground.
A man had told him that very day, that he had preserved 1cwt of wheat for seed but he could not sow it as he had to provide for seven in family and could not spare a single hour off the public works. He earned six or seven shillings a week even if he worked every day and he had to pay 3s – 4s for oatmeal. The poor man’s case was only one of many. O’Flahertie quoted the late Thomas Drummond that ‘property had its duties as well as its rights’. He said that the gentry of the barony were always ready to sympathise with their peaceable and well-conducted people. There were many calls during the Famine in the public press for the landlords to meet and come together to preserve their own interests and that of their tenants – but it did not happen. The English Government tried to put the responsibility for the Famine on to the Irish landlords, and thus evade their own responsibility and expense. Anthony O’Flahertie of Knockbane was a model landlord but not all the landlords even in the barony of Moycullen were as sympathetic to their tenants as he was.
At a public meeting in Galway on the 19th January: Mr A. F. O‘Flahertie drew attention to the awful condition of the people of Glann, Oughterard as he had recently visited the area. An entire family of 10 persons were assigned to the grave due to the effects of starvation. In another cabin he visited he saw a man writhing in agony from sickness and hunger, prolonging his life with a few turnips. He too fell a victim to starvation. In another cabin several miserable creatures had died while four others were struggling in the last throes of agony… Due to the multiplicity of such cases, inquests could not be held as it would occupy the entire time of the coroner from morning ‘till night… The government was keeping food locked from the people. He had come to the town of Galway for a supply of food for the inhabitants of his own district from the government depot. He was refused until they got a communication from Dublin, but for the kindness of a friend his carts would have returned home empty.
Very Rev Dr Kirwan
The Galway Vindicator on the 16th January praised the generosity of Dr Kirwan P.P. Oughterard and President of Queen’s College Galway as he had contributed £25for the dispensary, the breakfast institute and the relief fund of the district. He had also purchased a large quantity of clothing for the poor of the parish. The report said that he was an example to others who seldom gave relief. Yet Dr Kirwan was reported to Rome for neglecting his starving people during the famine as he prepared for the opening of Queen’s College Galway as its first President. Dr. O’Donnell, bishop of Galway was often criticized for allowing Dr. Kirwan to absent himself so much from his parish.
Deaths from Starvation
On the 23rd January an anonymous writer, signed ‘Veritas’ wrote to the editor of the Galway Vindicator that in Glann near Oughterard Conor Clancy, his wife and five children were all dead together in one house with none to bury them. A poor man whose daughter died, was buried in her own clothes in her own garden. This he heard passing through the place, the truth of which he vouched for in a letter to the Galway Vindicator. J. H.Davis, surgeon Oughterard denied the report given by Veritas. He said the distress of the district was bad enough and needed no exaggeration. Only three of the Clancy family were lying dead together in one house and it was untrue that there was no one to bury them or that a poor man buried his daughter in her own clothes in the garden. All who died had the right of a church burial and a proper internment, thanks to the unceasing vigilance of the clergy of the parish. One family of eleven persons was sick with typhus fever and one of them had died and the rest were convalescing. Dr. Kirwan P.P. reported in 1835 that he often put the bodies of those who died of fever in the coffin with his own hands as the people feared the spread of the disease.
Quakers Visit Connemara
The Quakers or the Society of Friends did admirable work for the poor during the Famine. They did not engage in proselytism like the Irish Church Mission Society of Rev. A. Dallas in Oughterard. Mr. William E.E. Forster and his sons, Quakers from England gave an account of a visit to Connemara from January 18th – 26th 1847. The report stated:
“At six o’clock in the morning, I left Clifden with my father for Galway, by mail car. Some of the women and children we saw on the road were abject cases of charity from the few rags they had on and in a few weeks would become absolute naked as they could not provide fresh clothes. On enquiry we found that the garments of the women and children and the coats and trousers of the men had been woven by themselves out of their own wool. This year the small sheep farmers had to sell their wool for food and peasantry generally have been unable to buy wool for clothing and their garments are wearing out with no possibility of replacing them.
As we passed we heard fearful accounts of the distress in the hill district of Glann. In one house there a man, his wife and four children were said to have died of want and this report was fully confirmed at Galway where we learned on good authority that a policeman had occasion to go there, he found that out of four cabins he entered there was only one in which there was not a dead body. This district is part of the immense estate of an M.P. for Co. Galway T. B. Martin who owns an extent of territory, with a population utterly beyond his power to provide for…’
The Quakers made their way to Galway in order to be able to send relief from there to Oughterard. Mr Forster arranged with the rector of Galway to establish a soup kitchen in Oughterard for the needs of the Glann people. John Cather the protestant clergyman of Spiddal visited the Quakers while they were in Galway. He said the parish comprised 15.000 people in great distress. In this populated district there was no store for the sale of provisions. The Quakers felt there was a need to establish small depots for provisions as often poor people working on the roads had to travel 20-30 miles to the nearest store in Galway to get a store of meal or buy it from small huxters at 30% above the market price.
Deaths – Coroner’s Reports
During the early part of 1847 deaths form starvation were reported from all parts of the barony of Moycullen. On the 18th January an inquest was held on the bodies of James Bealy and Stephen Mc Donagh, Kilcummin. The jury found that they both died from want and destitution. In an inquest in Kilkerrin on Anne Doyle the verdict was death from starvation. In many cases coroners were not available as there were too few and they were over worked. During the early months of 1847 20 –30 a week were dying in the Galway Workhouse, which housed the Oughterard paupers during this period.
Moycullen – Fr Fahy’s Diary 1847
Fr. Pat Fahy P.P. Moycullen continued his diary of the Famine as in 1846. On the 5th February he wrote that he had bought two tons of Indian meal at £19 a ton from Mr Comerforde, a Galway merchant and two tons of barley from Mr. Hilton for £30. They were stored in the school house for sale. A potato was not to be got in the town of Galway for any money and Indian meal was 20shillings a cwt.
There was an inquest on a poor man from Cluniff and another on the same day in Oughterard. The verdict in both cases was ‘died of starvation.’ These he said were awful times and his house was besieged by people looking for employment and relief. The whole of his parishioners with few exceptions were on public works, there were even some women in gangs carrying sand in baskets. They received an average of one shilling a day which was very little for their support because of the high prices of oatmeal and wholemeal.
Fr. Fahy wrote a well-penned letter to the Galway Vindicator on the 20th February. He reported the death by starvation of 15 persons due to the failure of the potato crop. The present government by their policy wish to report in each locality the scenes of Skibbereen. The number of deaths in the parish was so great, ten the week before last, that silence from him any longer would be criminal. He compared the condition of some of his parishioners due to hunger to that of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 ‘coming forth creeping on their hands for their legs could not bear them, they spoke like ghosts crying out of the grave.’ The present government appeared to adapt the plan of civilization described by Geraldine Cambrensis in the 12th century – ‘The only way to civilize the Irish is to kill them.’
The lands of the parish had suffered a total blight so that of 750 families there was not six without one or more persons on the public works while their own lands were totally neglected. The cries of the hungry must be heard, as their condition is deplorable.
A weekly meeting of the Spiddal Relief Committee took place on the 18th February. Rev John Cather, Protestant rector put at the disposal of the committee a sum of £100 which he received from the Central Committee in Dublin and £20 from the Calcutta Relief fund. He had got a total of £300 for Spiddal, Aran and Lettermore. They opened a subscription list and discussed possible assistance from the Society of Friends. A heated discussion took place between Rev John O Grady P.P. and Mr Blake of Tully, a local landlord, as it appeared Mr. Blake had removed from the roads persons who had been appointed by the committee. The chairman failed to establish order on the subject and the meeting had to be adjourned.
Letter to Dublin Castle
Fr Kenny P.P. Spiddal and Minna wrote what must have been a disheartening account of his parish to Dublin Castle on the 25th February. “After the fatigue and the various labours of the day I sit down to give you a brief and sad account of our condition. Nothing but immediate and inevitable death awaits us all. Most of the creatures who crawled here to day seeking employment are within a few days march of the grave and their fate is already sealed. The rest will be off to America in a few weeks. Our graveyard will be shortly crowded to excess as every day adds five or six to the number of its in mates. Yesterday the remains of a man were found in Costello after ten days and were buried where he was found. Work on the Rossaveal Road had been discontinued and hundreds will die in a few days unless it is resumed immediately. Our store of meal lasted only one day because of the demand for it. No one got more than two stones of it. Will you give an order for three or four additional policeman to keep order in Spiddal as the present force will not do. For the last five days only the sergeant was present in Spiddal and he was out as an escort with the pay clerk. We cannot get a pound of meal from Galway this week for want of an escort and the poor people are afraid of being plundered as they were several times last week.
The reply from Dublin Castle on the 4th March made no reference to the need for public works in the Spiddal district. It stated that it was not possible to increase the police force at Spiddal nor any other station and that the police force in Spiddal was adequate to their needs.
Fr. Fahy wrote in his diary on the 5th March: These are pretty awful times, on average eight deaths per week and have been for the past six weeks. On the 18th March he wrote to the Galway Vindicatior about his parish and said that the priest had an obligation to publish occasionally a registry of the dead so that they might speak to the heartless government to remind them of their duty to the people. 25 deaths had occurred since his last letter to the paper on the 20th February. The new cemetery had had two or three claimants every day. The people although naturally religious are so familiar with funerals that they treat them with a degree of indifference or lack of ceremony or devotion unlike formerly. There is a hurried procession to the graveyard where the coffin is set down without further ceremony, huddled into its place by the few who are scarcely strong enough to carry it unlike their former respect and reverence. In this season of famine man is raised a little above the brute due to the demoralizing effect of the present relief, induced by distress and scarcely ever do they tell the truth. The tide of emigration is fast following. Thousands for America where their labour will be appreciated and the Ireland that will emerge out of the ruins will strike the first blow against Saxon misrule.