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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

The Cursed Famine
By Mr Michael Purcell - July 2006

The scene outside Mangan's in Coal Market, Carlow c1846

The Cursed Famine

In June 1845, a potato fungal disease, Phytophthora infestans, which the Irish people later referred to as 'the blight', had spread from South America (where, ironically, the potato itself originated circa 1560) was reported in Belgium. The report was to have catastrophic consequences for Ireland. As far back as 1835 warnings that the Irish population had become over dependant on the potato as a source of nutrition had gone unheeded. It was estimated that the average pre-famine adult consumed 12-14 pounds of potatoes a day.

This dependence, combined with the landlord, commercial and political systems, which operated at the time, was to transform another Irish famine (over a period of 600 years up to thirty severe famines were recorded in Ireland and Europe) into The Great Famine of Irish history (An Gorta Mor). In the following six years, 1845-'51 Ireland lost over two million of her people to starvation, disease and emigration. Large numbers emigrated to the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. Most of them were never to return to the land of their birth.

For generations to come, the Famine was to have a profound effect on the religious, cultural, political, economic and social development of Ireland. During the Famine, grain was exported, tenants were evicted and people were deported for the most trivial crimes. In 1849, when emigration, eviction, disease and mortality were higher in many parts of the country than at any other time during the Famine Queen Victoria visited Ireland and was to record that she had never seen a more good humoured crowd, "the women are really handsome, even in the lower class.” Is it any wonder that for generations afterwards the popular nationalist view was that "God sent the potato blight but the English caused the Famine". And despite the fact that the Queen personally donated £5,000 (a very substantial sum in those days) and became involved in many charities providing relief she was to become known to the Irish as "The Famine Queen". Combined with the fact that "The Great Famine" was followed by "The Great Silence", led in to many interpretations of the facts in the years that followed.

Historical Gaps

During the past few years, especially in the build-up to the 150th anniversary of the Famine in 1995, many national and local historians have been objectively researching the gap between the factual history and the traditions of the period. A National Famine Commemoration Committee was established to carry out a micro-study of Poor Law Union areas.

Local historians of the calibre of Ted Brophy, Seamus Murphy, R. V Comerford and Frank Taaffe produced papers, and school projects got under way. A very successful commemorative exhibition organised by Teagasc in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture was mounted in the RDS grounds in Dublin, while the community library in Athy mounted an exhibition of artefacts relating to the Famine in Kildare.

The academics tell us that it is the local historians who hold the key that will unravel the real history and suffering of the Famine period. With this in mind I add the results of my own research gleamed from sources relating to counties Carlow, Kildare and Laois.

Authoritative Account

The great silence that I referred to earlier came about partly because of the shortage of academic historians capable of producing an authoritative account of the period but many believe that this " silence" ensued mainly because there was the survivors' guilt of those who not only escaped with their lives but were left in better circumstances as a result of the Famine, for there were winners as well as losers during and after the terrible events of 1845 - 1851. A decisive minority of people including the "grabbers" and "gombeen men," did well out of the Famine and it was their successors who became, so to speak, the "shakers and movers,” of the commercial life of Ireland in the following decades. For instance in County Carlow before the Famine there were over 4,000 small farm holdings of between one and 15 acres - after the Famine there were just over 2,000 small farm holdings of that acreage in the county.

The unanswered question was, who divided out the land, who lost and who gained. One has only to look at the small hovel-like pre-famine buildings dotted around the countryside that passed for homes compared to the fine post-famine buildings that emerged on the Irish landscape following the Famine to grasp this aspect of the outcome.

With the publication in 1956 of Prof. Edward’s and William's academic volume" The Great Famine" the silence was broken. Incidentally two Carlow men T. P. O'Neill, MA, and Oliver MacDonagh, MA, Ph.D., were among the first to contribute to this scholarly volume. Their MA thesis became the celebrated chapters: T. P. O'Neill on the Organisation and Administration of Relief, 1845-'52 and Oliver MacDonagh on "Irish emigration to the USA and the British Colonies during the Famine".

T. P. O'Neill also wrote an article "The Famine in Carlow" which was published in the 1947 edition of Carloviana, the journal of the Old Carlow Society.

Mountain Property

In his book " Realities of Irish Life" William Stewart Trench, agent to Lord Lansdowne of Luggacurren eviction infamy, referring to his land in Cardtown, County Laois then known as Queens County, wrote in his diary on August 6,1846: "I shall not readily forget the day, I rode up, as usual, to my mountain property and my feelings may be imagined when, before I saw the crop, I smelt the fearful stench, now so well known and recognised as the death sign of each field of potatoes. I was dismayed, indeed, but I rode on. As I rode down the newly engineered road, running through the heart of the farm, I could scarcely bear the fearful and strange smell, which came up so rank from the luxuriant crop then growing all around; no perceptive change, except the smell, had yet come upon the apparent prosperity of the deceitfully luxuriant stalks, but the experience of the past few days taught me that all was gone and the crop was utterly worthless".

The Catholic Church

The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Francis Haly wrote in January 1847 " no imagination can conceive, no pen can describe it. To have anything approaching a correct idea of the suffering of the poor, you should be here on the spot and see them with your own eyes!" and he added, "in one of the Dublin workhouses it appears the deaths were 50 a week, so crowded were the unhappy inmates".

Father Maher was another R.C. priest that expressed his anger at how little was being done to relieve distress and denounced the 16 ounces of food doled out to the poor in Carlow Workhouse. Many priests and religious orders played a part in relieving the conditions of the people, but the Hierarchy seem to have been as concerned with political events (the build up to the failed Rising of 1848 for instance) and other church matters such as the vexed question of the "soupers" and the role and motives of other churches including the Quakers which diminished the role of the Hierarchy in the memory of the succeeding generations of Irish people.

But it is the Society of Friends (Quakers) who were remembered most fondly by the people for their practical sleeves-rolled-up, no-strings-attached assistance at this time.

The Worst Effects

The blight had reached Ireland in August 1845. Its late arrival, when most of the crop was already saved, meant that the worst effects were not felt in that year. It was in 1846 that nearly the entire potato crop was wiped out. In Carlow it was estimated that half of the crop was destroyed, by December it was reported that no potatoes were available. In Ballymurphy it was claimed that people were actually starving. Relief committees were organised and gave assistance in Myshall, Grangeford, Nurney, Clonegal, Kellistown, Tinryland, Old Leighlin, Barragh, Borris, Ballon, Rathoe, Rathvilly, Tullow, Ballyellin, Ballymurphy, Bagenalstown, Clonmore, St. Mullins and Fenagh.

In November 1846, cooked food was distributed to the destitute by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Carlow town and county.
There were complaints that some people who were not destitute were receiving relief. Seven large boilers in which to cook stirabout soup were distributed in Carlow, one to Mangan's Mills of Coal Market in the town of Carlow (the boiler exists to this day. see note at end of this article).  In it was cooked yellow meal and rice and also turnip parings and dripping fat.

In 1973 the late Miss Kathy Mangan, when she was in her 90th year, told me that her aunt Johanna Mangan had told her that people would stand in line in the Coal Market carrying a pot or a bowl to place food in. They had to eat the contents there and then so as to make sure it would not be swapped or traded for tobacco or alcohol by some of the more roguish element of the destitute. They also had a security man posted to make sure that none of the employed labourers would avail of the relief. Stirabout was also distributed from the Presentation school in Tullow Street.

In Kildare during November 1846, the threat of raids on provision boats along the Grand Canal led to a contingent of 23 constabulary being assembled to protect the fleet. On the night of January 19, 1847, a food boat was attacked by a large body of men in the Bog of Allen and robbed of "several packages of tobacco, eggs and whiskey". Frank Taaffe in a paper presented to Kildare County Library, tells us that "Kildare, with 85 per cent of its area classified as arable land, had the smallest area given over to potato growing of all the Irish counties, also the building of the GSWR railway line gave much employment in the area during 1845 and up to August, 1846," so at least for this period there was no great distress recorded in Kildare. Nevertheless, the number of inmates in Athy Workhouse, which was opened in 1844 to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children, reached 737 by December 1846. There were three workhouses in Co. Kildare - at Athy, Celbridge and Naas. In 1847, the Naas Workhouse admitted 1,381 people.

Oatmeal Diet

The Carlow Workhouse opened in November 1844 to accommodate 800 inmates was inhabited in December 1847 by over 1,400 destitute. In the following year there were over 1,500 inmates recorded in the workhouse. It catered for most of the county and for Slievemargy in the county of Laois, (then known as Queens County). Workhouses in Baltinglass, Shillelagh and New Ross provided for the eastern and southern sections of county Carlow.

The diet for Carlow Workhouse in 1847 consisted of eight ounces of oatmeal with a pint of mixed milk for breakfast and for dinner one pound of brown bread with a pint of buttermilk. In fact at this time the prisoners held in the jail in Carlow town were better fed than the workhouse inmates. In the jail prisoners received: one pound of brown bread and a pint of sweet milk for breakfast and for dinner eight ounces of oatmeal stirabout and a pint of buttermilk. (on Sundays two pounds of brown bread and two pints of milk were served for dinner!).

Besides the mass emigration that was prevalent during the Famine there was emigration schemes assisted by the landlords who had figured that it was much cheaper to be rid of the destitute than to maintain the unfortunates in workhouses.

Over the years many of the workhouse officers were dismissed for "irregularities" which did not make the enforcement of this detested system any easier for the administrators or the inmates but nevertheless their were many good officers and Masters and Matrons during this sad time.

An odd ray of sunshine was allowed into the workhouse to dispel the gloom, when the danger of cholera was present the inmates were encouraged to dance to keep up their spirits.

The workhouse also had an itch ward where those afflicted with "the itch" were kept and wherein they could scratch each other to shreds, not to mention the ward for the insane.

Relief Works or the Workhouse

To provide labourers with money and assistance the government set up relief committees throughout the country they in turn were to organise relief works / schemes in various Grand Jury districts. Ten committees were established for Carlow but only five qualified for government aid, they were Tullow, Bagenalstown, Hacketstown, Kiltennel and Borris. Due to political and legal difficulties the relief schemes could not be implemented immediately (sounds familiar!).

The aid schemes plan had to be first submitted to the Lord Lieutenant who then sought the opinion of the Relief Commission and also sought advice from the Board of Works (themselves subject to advice from a supervisory system) on the advisability of proceeding with the aid. Reports from those bodies were then forwarded to the Treasury in London and the approval of the treasury agents were required before any aid could be released. On occasion a proposal might be returned for clarification on a point.

Many complaints were lodged by the landowners and the clergy against this delay, and many of the landlords made strong representations to the government to get things moving. In the meantime subscriptions were collected among the landlords and the clergy " to aid in every possible way those who needed assistance". In May a large crowd gathered at Alexander's Mills outside Carlow and refused to disperse until they were promised that the gentry of Carlow would come to their aid. Finally in June 1846 "public work schemes" got underway.

Aid would be distributed to committees formed for each electoral division. These committees were to make estimates of their required budget for two weeks in advance and this budget had then to be sanctioned by the finance section of each poor law union. On obtaining this approval the budget was advanced to the treasurer who if he was satisfied would then approve payment of the budget.

The schemes were building new roads, hill lowering, filling hollows, repair of roads, building walls, etc. but all was not well in some areas. In Leighlinbridge a mob of about 200 people tore up the newly laid road because they thought " the schemes inadequate to employ all the destitute labourers”.

The system was intent on making it difficult and undesirable to the destitute to apply for aid in order to encourage them to support themselves.

Believe it or not but this operation was successful in alleviating distress in many areas.

People who were deemed sick or unable to work could get support from the Committees. The committees also issued cooked food according to a plan devised by the Society of Friends (Quakers). Only those able to work could seek admission to the workhouse, otherwise imprisonment was a better option!

T.P. O'Neill tells us that: "In practice, if not in theory, the Calvinst tenet that poverty was a sign of wickedness was accepted by the elite of the times" this could explain why the inmates of the jail were better treated and fed.

Extensive Removals

In 1846, Colonel Wandesforde sent out 3,000 people from the Castlecomer area at a cost of £5 each. Those of farming stock were directed to Canada, those with mining experience to Pennsylvania. It was also reported that Lord de Vesci was undertaking extensive removals from the Queen's County (Laois). Wandesforde and de Vesci were among others who were accused of "brutal extermination" at the time. Overall the death rate on the "coffin ships" was extremely high. In 1847 alone over 40,000 died at sea. Another emigration option was the assisted passage of workhouse orphans of which over 4,000 orphan girls were sent to Australia during 1847-'49. A large number came from the Carlow, Kildare and Laois workhouses.

Dreaded Cholera

The highest number of admissions to the workhouse took place in 1849. It was at this time that the dreaded cholera swept the whole country. The epidemic was severe with over 30,000 deaths recorded throughout the country. Laois in particular suffered badly during this period.

Sam Snoddy

Sam SnoddyMy own great grandfather, Sam Snoddy, a Presbyterian Ulsterman from Ballymena, County Antrim had come to Carlow working on the railway line and had settled in Pollerton Road, Carlow town in 1845. On the first day of September 1849, Sam went to work early in the morning when he returned that night his wife, Sera, and two children, John and Anne, were dead and their remains already buried in Knockaunnarelic graveyard on the edge of the town. In their last hours all three had been baptised and received into the Roman Catholic Church by Rev. G. Kearns. How much of a say they had in their sudden "conversion " I can't say, all I know is that when Sam went to work that morning he left behind a wife with two children all of the Presbyterian faith and when he returned they were dead and buried and Roman Catholic!

Thirty days later Sam himself converted to the Roman Catholic religion, thereby going against the norm of the time when others were converting away from Catholicism to get the "free soup" and other benefits here he was becoming a Catholic. At the time those families who took the "soup" became known for generations as "soupers" after the Famine many re-converted back to being Roman Catholics and in turn they became known as "jumpers", so one could have the "souper Doyles" or "souper Murphys" and later, after the famine was over, the "jumper Doyles or "jumper Murphys" I think in the following generations the "jumpers" were more frowned upon than the "soupers". I am sure there are many such stories with families throughout the counties. It is imperative that those accounts should be recorded in order to enable historians to form a complete picture of the events of this period. Often the best way to bring home the reality of a disaster is to hear the personal stories of the people who were affected.

Population Decline

In comparison to many other counties, particularly those along the western and southern seaboard, we know that Carlow, Kildare and Laois escaped the worst effects of the calamity. In County Carlow for instance the population declined by approximately 20,000 in the years between the census of 1841 and 1851 and in fact the population of Carlow town increased during this period.

T.P. O'Neill in his 1947 article for "Carloviana" pointed out that " it must be remembered that it was disease and fever which caused most of the deaths during this period rather than direct starvation" I would add that bunglenging incompetent politicians and a distant uncaring government were also responsible for the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and for much of the hardship and suffering of the Irish people, this was taught in the schools and was remembered by the Irish in the century that followed which in turn was to sour the relationship between Ireland and her nearest neighbour for generations.

Very little is recorded in the folk memory records for the three counties but there are many sources as yet untapped such as the local landlord accounts, local newspapers for this period, estate papers, workhouse records, church registers, the Pat Purcell Papers and various other collections. The purpose of this article is to stimulate interest and, hopefully, to encourage others to research this neglected period of our history. Carlow County Heritage Society would like to learn of any such research project, perhaps with a view to publishing same.

I wish to thank Cait Kavanagh of Laois County Library, Mary Coughlan of Kildare County Library, Carmel Flahavan of Carlow County Library and my late uncle Pat Purcell for persevering so many records of the period.

Mangan's Famine boiler

Michael Purcell and Ronnie Strong pictured with Mangan's famine boiler. "The Cursed Famine" is based on extracts from a paper prepared by Michael Purcell for a series of talks due to be given in the USA in the near future. Michael will travel to California, Arizona and Arkansas as a guest of the Emerald Circle. The theme of the talks will be "The role of the ascendancy during the Great Famine" and "The Pat Purcell Papers Archive".


In the year 2002 I presented the Famine Pot, referred to above, to Carlow County Heritage Society, they have placed it in the Workhouse Burial Plot on the Green Road, Carlow. It has a stone erected, recording it's history .The stone was presented by the members of Sister Cities Corp. of Tempe, Arizona and was unveiled by our good friend Tom Burns of Todd Drive, Tempe, Arizona in 2002

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