Where did the 'Potato Blight' originate?
In June 1845 reports began to come from Europe that a new blight had been noticed in Belgium. It is not known for certain where it came from but it had been in America from 1843 and may have been imported with guano (fertiliser) from South America. It spread into France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands and England, and caused huge crop failures in which thousands of people died. In these countries people were less dependent on potato as a food, unlike the Irish. A severe drought in Europe in 1846 helped to kill the blight completely.
At first scientist could not agree what caused the potatoes to rot and turn black. They blamed the cold weather, or insects, or some poisonous “miasma” in the air. However, it was later found to be a fungus with its spores carried on the wind. If the spores were buried in the pits where the potato crop was stored, they would spread again when the new seed potatoes were planted in the spring. It was 40 years before a spray was developed to fight blight. In the first year of the blight no one could imagine that it would last for so long, decimating the population and draining a reluctant Britain of enormous sums of money.
Attitude of the British Government
The attitude the British adopted was that everyone was supposed to be self-sufficient and that to give charity was to weaken the peoples’ ability to look after each other.
The people of this area were not able to look after themselves. 10,900 people were fed in Oughterard in 1847 in one day alone. The population of the area at the time was listed as 10,601 (British Parliamentary papers, Shannon Series Famine 8). Obviously a lot of pressure was put upon the local poorhouse at this time as people moved in from Ballinrobe as Ballinrobe Workhouse was closed in July 1847.
Concern of the Clergy
The priests of Oughterard – Fr. Castiaux and Fr Geraghty were concerned about the plight of their parishioners who had by now come under the influence of Alexander Dallas and John O Callaghan, two extreme proselytizers in the area. They wrote long letters to the ‘Galway Mercury” stating their case and begged the people of outlining areas for financial assistance to feed and cloth their flock. They implored their fellow priests to come to help them convert their people back to Catholicism again. Their fellow priests did not fail them. The Vicar General, Rev. B. S. Roche and Fr Godfrey Mitchell came to Oughterard June 23rd 1850. They preached to the people making references in their sermons to the Old and New Testament, proving to their congregation that they too had a knowledge of the Bible.
Converts to the Catholic religion
In 1851, Rev Fr. Marshall and Fr. Montgomery arrived in November. They were both converts to the Catholic religion and as a result of their sermons a large number of people returned to the Catholic faith, ‘ with tears in their eyes”. The morning after their sermons there were only nine children present in the Mission school out of a total of 110. The same thing happened in Rosscahill. The tide was turning
Rev. Fr. Michael Kavanagh Appointed P.P. to Oughterard 1852.
January 1852 Fr. Kavanagh, a native of Galway was appointed Parish Priest of Oughterard. Fr Castiaux was transferred to the parish of St. Nicholas East.
Fr. Kavanagh tells us that when he first received news of his appointment he was over whelmed by the magnitude of the task facing him. In addition to the difficulties arising from the famine he had also to contend with “souperism’ which was taking advantage of the physical distress of the people.
Rights of Tenants
Shortly after his arrival in Oughterard he became a member of the local organization for the ‘Rights of Tenants”. Early in March, on behalf of the tenants, he addressed a meeting on the “Ecclesiastical Titles Bill” in which he condemned the bill as an insult to the Irish Nation and to the Catholics of the Empire.
1852 Christopher St. George – a landlord in the area who resided at Tyrone House, Kilcolgan gave Fr. Kavanagh sites for the erection of schools at Leam and at “Gort an Seangán”, Glann.
Robert Martin gave him a site at Collinamuck.
At that time in Leam about one hundred children were being educated in a leaky cabin on the mountainside, which, in turn had replaced a hedge school of Penal times. Some children attended school at nearby “ Glengowla”, now known as “ Glengowla Lodge”. Glengowla school was run by the Irish Church Mission and the school master, on a salary of £20a year, was obliged to teach scripture according to the Authorised Version of the Bible for no less than two hours a day. When the new Leam School was opened 1877, all the pupils deserted Glengowla and the building reverted to the O fflahertie landlord. The one-roomed school built at Leam by Fr. Mc Donagh (who replaced Fr. Kavanagh), was replaced by the present Derryglen School built 1959.
The old school in Collinamuck was replaced in 1950 by Rev. Canon Mc Cullagh . The Canon later opened the Boys’ school – St Cuimin’s Oughterard 1971.