The Famine Part 4

Special Presentment Sessions, October 1846

Murt Molloy

This session was the second in the year and was held in the Courthouse Oughterard on the 14th October for the barony of Moycullen. It gives a very clear picture of the condition of the people, the need for food and public works in the barony at the end of the first full year of famine.

Like the April session this one was held under the Labour Act. The magistrate, landlords and clergy from every townland assembled in large numbers to decide the public works and food necessary for the poor. The assembly was so great that not only was the Courthouse crowded but several thousand of the peasantry thronged the streets outside.

The ‘Galway Mercury’ reported that long before the hour of the meeting that there was an immense gathering of the peasantry on the public works, within half a mile of the village of Oughterard. They made loud and bitter complaints of their hardship because of the wages now remaining unpaid after three weeks. When the meeting began a very intelligent labourer rose out of the side gallery and informed the assembly of the deplorable suffering of many of the poor labourers who had not received their wages for three weeks. He said that the price of provisions was too high to enable them to earn enough on this task work. Mr. O’ Flahertie, Knockbane assured them that they would be paid regularly once a week from then on. Mr. Robert Martin, Ross House, the Chairman said that they had assembled for the purpose of procuring food and employment for the people of the barony of Moycullen. He complimented them on their good conduct when other parts of the country were disturbed.

Census 1841

Mr O’Flahertie of Knockbane said that the census of 1841gave the population of the barony at 22,445. There were only about 3,000 who would not require relief. They would have to make provisions for 20,000 who needed it for 8 months at least. This would require 3,200 tons of meal at £10 a ton so that £3200 would have to be raised in taxation from the barony. The provision of food was an absolute necessity in the present emergency.

A sum of £500 from each electoral division should be expended on the road from Oughterard to Costello Bay and from Deerfield to Ower and from Knock to Lettermore. Mr. John O Connor made an appeal for the people of Garumna and Killeen and other places on the coast who seemed to be overlooked at the meeting. They were paying £100 per annum for the last 30 years in tax for the public roads and not one perch of a road was constructed in the district. Mr. Martin, the chairman, said that a sum of money remained on hand for their employment.

Fr. O’ Grady P.P. Spiddal complained that though the works had resumed for the past fortnight the men did not receive any wages due to the neglect of the overseer. ‘This was to be put right,’ Mr. O Flahertie said. Food was an absolute necessity and he requested the Lord Lieutenant to establish a Food Depot at Oughterard and Lettermore for the sale of Indian meal to the people at a reasonable price, as many of the poorer districts were 20-30 miles from the nearest market. Some of the people who cried out for food and employment were addressed in English and Irish by Rev. Glynn and Fahy who told them what the magistrate intended doing for their relief.

A deputation of T.B. Martin, Robert Marin, Anthony O Flahertie was appointed to meet the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin to obtain all the aid they could from the government. The leader of the delegation, Robert Martin, said that if their efforts were unsuccessful, he trusted the people would bear the disappointment with patient resignation. The meeting ended in the most peaceable manner.

Deputation in Dublin Castle

On the 4th November the deputation met the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin and laid before him the state of the western district of Galway. The Lord Lieutenant told them that he would give orders that works that had commenced should be completed and the works presented to the sessions should proceed as soon as possible. As to the food depots he could make no promise that they would be reopened as they could interfere with the trade in the country.

The government only sanctioned a small amount of public works presented for at the barional sessions. Of the £46,295 presented for the barony of Moycullen up to the 10th December 1846 £12,441 was recommended by the government. Of the 234 works presented only 53 were recommended by the government.

The Condition of the People December 1846

Public Works: The relief works were suspended for a period of harvest work and were slow getting started again in the barony of Moycullen. Rev Robert Browne complained about the way the works were being conducted by Henry Clements the Co. Surveyor at Lemonfield, Oughterard. In September/ October he said Clements had dispensed with so much of the work at a time when the people were in such need of employment. Clements said that further works in the area would be a waste of public money. It was well known that abuses existed on the public works schemes and those most in need did not always get the work. Letters from Dr. Kirwan and J. F.O’Flahertie and Robert Martin show that there was not a fair distribution of labour among the most destitute in the Oughterard parish and the barony of Moycullen.

Number Employed

The average daily number employed on the road works during the week ending 7th November 1846 were:

5,405 able bodied labourers

33 women

27 boys – a total of 5,465

In spite of those official numbers conditions continued to worsen during the winter months of 1846. Many were starving and more ominously deaths began to be reported from all parts of the barony even in areas where there were public works.

Employment and Food

The issues of the shortage of food and the need for more employment were the two key issues and were constantly highlighted in letters to Dublin Castle and the local press. Food prices had risen drastically. By October Indian corn or maize had risen to £14 a ton and a few weeks later it rose to £18. It had roughly doubled from August to December 1846. All other foods potatoes, oatmeal, flour and wheat also increased in price during the same period. The high prices of food and the peoples hunger was highlighted by the pensioners of Oughterard who wrote to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin Castle October 23rd. Their pension did not exceed 6d or 9d a day and their families were in great want and some in a state of starvation due to the high prices of provisions. Potatoes were 9d a stone when they could be procured, and meal 4d a quart. They appealed for relief as they were in urgent distress.

The reply of Sir Randolph Routh from Dublin Castle to Rev Robert Browne, Glebe, Oughterard was that the local relief committee had the duty of providing employment for the pensioners requiring relief.


Fr. Pat Fahy P.P. wrote in his diary on 26th October that nothing was being done for the people although they were on the verge of starvation. £40,000 had been allocated for the barony at the special session at Oughterard for the employment of the people but he feared that it would not meet the call of the people. No excesses had been committed by the people despite their desperate condition… they were living in small cabins their dinners unfit for the uses of pigs and Indian corn 15shillings a cwt and labour per day and average of 9d on relief works. The landlords to their discredit were calling for their rents. Several deaths from starvation had already taken place.


Fr. James. T. Glynn wrote to T. H. Redington at Dublin Castle on the 1st November outlying the condition of his parish. Women were coming to him imploring work on the bog roads when their men folk were sick. The men had to wait sometimes for three week for them to be paid and were not paid weekly as directed by the Lord Lieutenant. He concluded that ‘a more peaceable people are not under the British Crown. Yet law and order and property cannot be much longer maintained unless immediate employment is provided and food depots opened for the pressing needs of this sequestered loyalty.”


John Price Blake J. P., Castlekirk wrote to Sir R. J. Routh, Dublin Castle on the 2nd November for Indian meal for the Maam district. He said that there was no possibility for purchasing any food in that mountainous district nor can it be had nearer than Galway, a distance of 25 Irish miles. Oatmeal cost £20 a ton and flour from £24 to £27 a ton. How little can a poor labourer procure from his wages even if he works every day of the week? Every kind of grain, flour and meal was double the price it had been the previous year.

Sir R. Routh’s reply on the 17th November was that there was a sub-depot at Oughterard from where Maam could be supplied by water without difficulty – a distance of about 8miles.

Spiddal, Lettermore and Garumna

Rev John Cather, Protestant rector wrote to Sir R. Routh on the 24th October and said that utter destitution prevailed throughout the district and the funds for the Lettermore relief committee were exhausted. He called for gratuitous free relief for the aged, sick, orphans and for the extension of the public works. The reply was that there were no funds from the government for gratuitous relief and that he should apply to the Board of Works for further public works. Rev Cather wrote again to Sir R. Routh on December 22nd and requested a food depot for Lettermore island. He said that large numbers of men on the public works were forced to purchase oatmeal at 3d a stone from local retailers and they would lose nearly a week’s wages by going to the nearest market in Galway a distance of 30 miles for food. There was no reply to this letter.

Carraroe and Killeen

Rev. P. Horan wrote to the Galway Vindicator on the 9th November and again on the 19th. He said that destitution to an alarming extent was daily increasing in his district. The people of the parish had to carry sand and weed on their bare backs in baskets into the mountains. There were 1,300 families in the locality and scarcely 30 of them that did not need employment on the public works as a means of support at present. He called on the government to establish a food depot at Kileen and Lettermullen coastguard station because of its distance from Galway. The reply was that the government did not intend to base a depot in the area and that the local relief committee should provide a supply of food.


Rev. John O’Grady P.P. Spiddal wrote to the Galway Vindicator on the 25th November stating that the starving people working on the relief works in his parish district had not been paid for the last 10 – 12 days and the paymaster was no where to be found. This was not the first time this had happened. He had 400 families in the parish and with the exception of 10 or 12 they needed food and constant employment or hundreds would starve by Christmas. 2000 souls depended on the regularity of the paymaster to come every week from Galway

Deaths From Starvation

With the total failure of the potato crop in July and August deaths were reported from different parts of the barony of Moycullen. The first report of a death was by Rev. John O’Grady P.P. Spiddal on the 3rd June. Two of his parishioners had died from starvation, both leaving wives and helpless children without any means of subsistence.
On the 7th of September a report from Oughterard stated that some had died from extreme want.

On the 14th November Fr. Kenny P.P. Spiddal and Minna reported the death by starvation of Thomas Malone employed on the road from Costello Bay to Oughterard. He dropped dead when he was returning from work near his own cabin, leaving a wife and six children. He had to walk to work each morning a distance of 6 miles and the same in the evening on a scanty meal. At an inquest held in Spiddal the jury returned a verdict of ‘Death from Starvation.”

On the 28th November the Galway Vindicator reported the deaths of two men – Thomas Carter and James Davin from the village of Pollough Killannin, both died from starvation as they were unable to get food or employment.

On the 28th December Andrew Keane and John Folan, Spiddal died from want of sufficient food to support them. The coroner could not attend as he was engaged in another place on similar duty.

Rev P. Fahy, Moycullen wrote in his diary on the 28th October that several deaths from starvation had already taken place.

The week ending the 19th December 13 died in the Galway Workhouse.

Public Works – Farming neglected

During a tour inspection, General Milliken who was in charge of the food depot in Galway wrote to Sir R. Routh on the 8th December in Dublin Castle. He said that from the time he left Galway until he reached Clifden, he saw only two men at work on the land. At Oughterard there were about 300 men working on the roads – all waiting to be paid. They were all farmers or sons of farmers. They will not work on their own land while they can find other employment. Very little seed had been sown and scarcely any ground prepared for spring crops. He met several carts loaded with meal and other supplies which did not show the extreme want that he expected.

Captain Hutcheson, Inspecting Officer Co. Galway reports on the barony of Moycullen on the 19th and 26th December. He saw that in the island of Lettermore the people had great difficulty in obtaining provisions at a fair price. Corn and every type of food is in the hands of one or two huxters and the difference is more than 25% above the market prices at Galway, a distance of 26 miles from them. A depot for the sale of meal would be the greatest possible benefit to the in habitants for obtaining corn meal at a fair price. The poorer classes have to carry the corn on their backs from Galway.

Must the People Starve?

The Galway Newspapers condemned the government for pursuing a policy of Free Trade and not controlling food prices, with the result that the people died of starvation. The Galway Vindicator in a powerful editorial on December 3rd described what had happened in the course of the year 1846. It repeated a similar editorial under the same title on the 24th October. The editor condemned the government policy of not interfering in the market trade or private enterprise. This allowed private speculators or merchants to make huge profits and charge exhorbitant prices for their goods at the expense of the poor people, who were starving and in dire need of the necessities of life. The people could not procure sufficient food to sustain themselves or their families. Food was at least double the price it had been twelve months before. The government had entered into a league with the private speculator, not to interfere in the food market and thus must be guilty of the murder of the people. This policy of the Whig government of Lord John Russell was called ‘Enlightened Political Economy’. The government food stores in Galway were kept closed while the people starved and they refused to stop the export of food out of the country and left everything to private enterprise.

This page was added on 08/02/2016.

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