Search billions of records on


Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Famine in Carlow


Source: CARLOVIANA 1994/1995 by Dermot  McKenna p.11 & 14

The above is just two of over 70 illustrations which were featured in

FAMINES are generally associated with Third World countries where difficult climatic conditions or civil unrest can affect crops. The media provide ample information on our TV screens of unfortunate persons walking for many miles in search of food.

Yet one hundred and fifty years ago, Ireland suffered from famine also. This was caused by the failure of the potato crop, which was the staple diet of the majority of the population.


The disease, at first noticed in North America, and Europe, spread to England. The first reports of the disease in Ireland were in Wexford and Waterford in September 1845. By the end of that month it had spread to Carlow, but it was generally believed to be not as severe as in other counties. However, by the following spring most of the available potatoes were eaten. This factor together with high unemployment after the spring work, was t~ cause of much suffering. Usually, a labourer paid for his land by working for the landlord. As no actual wage was paid, he depended heavily on the potato crop. The government decided to set up relief schemes to provide work, thereby enabling the labourer to buy food. This was to be funded in most cases by a government loan which was to be repaid by local contributions. Several months were to elapse sorting out various legal difficulties.  In the meantime, relief committees were set up by the gentry and clergy to collect subscriptions to provide assistance to those in greatest need. The Idrone West Committee was organised by Horace Rochfort. John James Lecky of Ballykealy set up one in Forth. The public works schemes were available by the end of the summer throughout most of the county. They consisted largely of building new roads, lowering hills and filling in hollows, etc. 75 was spent on lowering three hills between Leighlinbridge and Tullow.  This provided sufficient employment for most people and together with the efforts of the relief committees, prevented starvation.


Everyone awaited the harvest, but unfortunately most of the crop was diseased. The clergy and gentry petitioned the government to provide assistance before starvation set in.  In response the government agreed to provide further public works, the cost being borne by the State, and recovered through local taxation. Once more the work was to consist of building and repairing roads. Again there were delays in implementing the scheme which caused severe hardships. Sometimes families existed for weeks on a few boiled turnips. The landlords were unhappy because other productive works were excluded from the scheme. The Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Bessborough, amended the scheme to allow drainage work to take place. The lands of John James Lecky of Ballykealy were improved and an artificial lake was dug. A five mile wall around Brown's Hill was built. Sometimes funds ran out and workers had to be let go until money was available. Another problem was the vast numbers in such schemes, e.g., on March 6, 1847, over 3,000 were employed in County Carlow .The State could not cope with such a situation. As an alternative means of alleviating hardship and distress, the relief committees were reorganised and new ones formed, giving assistance in Nurney , Myshall, Grangeford, Clonegal, Kellistown, Tinryland, Old Leighlin, Harragh, Borris, Ballon, Rathoe, Rathvilly, Tullow, Ballyellin, Ballymurphy, Bagenalstown, Clonmore, St. Mullins and Fenagh. In November 1846, the Carlow Relief Committee issued cooked food to be distributed to the destitute in the town. Gradually soup kitchens were set up throughout the county, replacing the public works schemes. Each electoral division had its own committee, and budgeted in advance. This meant that there were fewer delays than in the previous schemes. They were to be funded by the ratepayers over a number of years. Food was also distributed by members of religious orders and other generous persons.


By the summer of 1847, the relief committees, through their soup kitchens, had fed those in need. As there were no longer any public works, labourers remained on in their jobs. However, only about one-quarter of the usual amount of potatoes had been sown that spring, and it was inevitable that there would be further food shortages. The government decided that drastic measures would have to take place. This included ending temporary relief schemes and amending the poor laws so that some relief could be given outside the workhouse.

The workhouse in Carlow was built in 1844, and had accommodation for 800 persons. It catered for most of the county, and for part of Slievemargy in Laois. There were also workhouses in Baltinglass, Shillelagh and New Ross, to provide for the eastern and southern parts of the county. At first people were reluctant to enter, but as food shortages worsened, many were forced to do so.

Conditions in the workhouses were very harsh, e.g., no one was allowed to leave without the master's permission, and families were broken up. There were frequent complaints from the clergy about the conditions in Carlow workhouse. To keep down the costs the Guardians were reluctant to grant any outdoor relief. J. A. Robins "Carlow Workhouse during the Famine Years" cites one such case "when Pat Daly, a coalminer in the Shrule area had his back broken in the pit, a doctor certified that he could not be removed from his home "without imminent peril to his life." Yet the guardians decided that he would be granted relief only if he, and his entire family entered the workhouse."

However, they gradually relented because so many were starving. By April 1848, those on -outdoor relief had risen to 5,307. Fever and Cholera spread amongst a starving population.


The biggest change caused by the famine can be seen in the census figures. In 1841 there was a total Population of 86,228.  By 1851 this had dropped to 68,075. This trend has continued' to the present day. 1991 census returns indicate a total population of 40,942. It is probable that fever and cholera were the cause of far more deaths than actual starvation.  A total of 11,409 died between 1846-'51. The remaining 6, 744 most probably emigrated or died from some other cause. Another effect of the famine was to virtually eliminate small holders of approximately five acres. Because of the provision in the Relief Act of 1847 that those who owned more than a rood of land were to be denied any help, they either increased their holding or sold out.


1. The Famine in Carlow -Thomas P. O'Neill (Carloviana 1967).
2. Census of Ireland 1841-'51.1991.
3. Carlow Workhouse during the Famine Years -J. A. Robins.
4. The Carlow Gentry -J. O'Toole. 1993.


Also [ CARLOW 1846 ] [ CARLOW 1847 ]  [ Bagenalstown 1846 ]

The information contained in these pages is provided solely for the purpose of sharing with others researching their ancestors in Ireland.
2001 Ireland Genealogy Projects, IGP TM By Pre-emptive Copyright - All rights reserved