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
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
This provided sufficient employment for most people and
together with the efforts of the relief committees,
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
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
There were also workhouses in
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.
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
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.
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
- 1. The
Famine in Carlow -Thomas P. O'Neill (Carloviana 1967).
Census of Ireland 1841-'51.1991.
Carlow Workhouse during the Famine Years -J. A. Robins.
- 4. The
Carlow Gentry -J. O'Toole. 1993.