The old Famine Village, Ballywhoriskey, Fanad


Ballywhoriskey Famine Village

The old Famine Village, Ballywhoriskey, Fanad

The Great Famine, just like in so many other communities throughout Ireland, had a  devastating effect on the Parish of Fanad (Clondavaddog).  

Fánaid’s population was 10,344 in 1841 and probably close to 11,000 in 1846, had fallen to 8,244 by 1851. A secular decline followed and by 1891 it was 5,778, just over half of what it had been less than fifty years earlier, and between then and 1961 it would halve again to 2,846.

The immediate victims were those with little or no land, the families of cottiers and landless labourers, tinkers, tailors and old soldiers, but hunger and disease came to most doors. On the eve of the Famine, the bulk of the population, the four-acres-and-a-cow families, had been dependent on markets for food in the lean weeks between old and new potatoes, and that period, once mí an ocrais (the hungry month), had become alarmingly extended in the years before the blight.Furthermore, landowners grasped the opportunity provided by disease, death and general disorder to intensify efforts at ‘improvement’ and, in particular, the dismantlement of rundale.  

The old ‘villages’, the pivot of the rundale system, had been made up of coop-like hovels, prochógaí (caves; dens), according to a folklorist who saw the last of them in the 1940s, that could be easily tossed by a bailiff with a crowbar.

The landscape, therefore, changed rapidly. The 1841 Census classified clusters of twenty or more houses as ‘towns’; it records 63 families in 58 houses in ‘Doaghbeg Town’, and 51 families in 48 houses in ‘Ballyhoorisky Town’.

By 1851 the number of houses in the Doaghbeg cluster had slipped below twenty and it lost its ‘town’ status in the Census; the Ballyhoorisky cluster had ceased to be a ‘town’ by 1861. Stricter land-management and smallholders’ own uncertainty combined to discourage subdivision, checking the growth of surviving ‘villages’ and narrowing options for the young.

Evicted tenants and cottiers, non-inheriting sons and dowryless daughters left Derry quay for Glasgow, Philadelphia and Boston. Those that remained adjusted to a changed world, marrying later or not at all.

In 1961, Donegal’s nuptiality rate was the lowest in Europe. There was therefore a dispiriting cultural dislocation. The footloose people ‘removed’ by the Famine and its aftermath had included some of the most vital agents of cultural reproduction—fiddlers and pipers, singers and storytellers, hedge-schoolmasters, herbalists, wise women and, ironically, the prophecy-men themselves;and, above all, the Famine had reaped a swathe of the elderly, the great interpreters and adapters of tradition.

The transformation of the landscape also had a disheartening effect. The rundale ‘villages’ had been convivial stages for song, story, music and dance and conducive sites for the formation of hurling teams and harvesting parties. They had also been the organizational unit for the performance of the rites and rituals that surrounded the great seasonal festivals of Oíche Fhéile Bríde, Bealtaine, Oíche Fhéile Eoin, Lúnasa and Samhain, and the everyday coping and adapting customs for birth and death.

A maudlin resignation to ‘cruel fate’—the general harshness of life, particularly migration—and a concern for the county or country rather than the particulars of local events and experience now seeped through popular culture, and artists’ relationship with their audience lost a certain intimacy.

There was a coterie of songsters in Ballymichael for much of the century, but although they composed in Irish, their best-remembered songs - Coillte na hÉireann (The Woods of Ireland), Slán le Dún na nGall (Farewell to Donegal), Míle Fáilte ’na hÉireann (A Thousand Welcomes to Ireland) and Moladh Thír Chonaill (Praise of Tyrconnell), are closer to the come-all-ye emigrant farewells to ‘old Ireland’ and ‘the county Donegal’ in hawkers’ broadsheets and nationalist newspapers than to a vernacular tradition that was genuinely ‘racy of the soil’.

Irish itself, however, was now in retreat. Migration chains hastened language shift and diminished regard for things old and particular to the community; the nine-year-old ‘scholar’ reading aloud an ‘American letter’ written to form ‘Dear father and mother, I hope this letter finds you well …’ at ‘End of Track’, a place fixed only in the imagination, would take the seat at the fire once reserved"

- A Brief extract from "The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal"

by Hugh Dorian, Breandán Mac Suibhne, Hugh Dorain.



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Shared on IrelandXO by: S.Callaghan (Kerrykeel)

Communities Associated with this Building