1846 - Famine in North West Donegal

1846
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 The Years of the Famine in Fanad and North West of Donegal. 

For many, many years previous to the setting in of 1846 and 1847, food was in the greatest abundance and easily obtained. The old people could mention an odd summer in their recollection in which the price of provisions did run high, the same being caused by hurricanes or the inclemency of a preceding harvest, but there was no such thing as starvation heard of at such times. Potatoes, the principal food of the people, grew everywhere and to perfection and on any soil into which a spade could be put; even the white sand in which there was apparently no substance threw up its crop to perfection, and in some places clay would be carried from deep soil to cover seed on the ledge of a rock, and by such contrivances a satisfactory yield would turn out.  

The seasons turned out so good and the supply so great that man and beast had plenty to eat, and at the least amount of toil. The sea too seemed to be extravagant in its yield of fish, sometimes the shoals coming close to the dry land, and while one class of men took to labouring the land, another class living nearer the shore took to fishing as a better money-making business (and to make up for the shortness of crops owing to the scarcity of land); there were always two or three in the fishing family who raised as much in crops as possible and who would provide firing, so that a reserve of food and fuel was sure to be laid up for the winter season.  

The means of obtaining shelter and gaining a livelihood were so easy that the people, as I have said in speaking of villages, became in a short time very numerous, and everyone who was entitled thereto claimed certain rights, that is their share of what should belong to them; from this arose divisions and subdivisions of land—land then being very valuable—and this went on until tenements were cut up into the smallest patches, and each family was subsisting on whatever means they provided for themselves, very few being in any debt. It has been some times argued that the Irish could not subsist on what Ireland would or could produce. But between 1840 and 1845 when the population was the largest, they lived within themselves on their own produce, and yet there were thousands of acres which could but never were cultivated at distances not very far off.  

There was very little imported, and the exports were in proportion—I mean this of the country districts. There may have been luxuries and trade in cities far removed from where we are describing, but there was no Indian meal known then, flour was seldom used, and as for tea or sugar, if such things came under a roof once or twice a year, it was enough. To show how little such luxuries were thought of, there was a shopkeeper in the place, the same being reckoned wealthy; at or before November, when laying in his stock, he brought home a chest of tea, and if he had all sold before that day twelve months, he considered himself at no loss. It is true tobacco, soap, salt, iron and leather could not be done without, but each of these commodities was used as sparingly as possible. Every beardless brat of a boy did not have a pipe in his pocket or his jaw at this time, and if the old man got an ounce of tobacco he always measured it by his finger to see if the ounce was a good or a bad one, and he knew how to use it: a certain allowance was for the day, and when the pipe was “going” the old woman could take a “pull” if she fancied, but she never thought of buying on her own account. Very often the old man was his own messenger as he had less to do and spent the forenoon going certain distances looking out for his ounce of tobacco; being disappointed in too many places, he rattled about from one petty shop to another. The family at home did not mourn much for his absences, as his temper was ruffled in the morning, but if he returned unsuccessful so much the worse.  

The people lived on home produce: potatoes, milk, butter and plenty of fish, the latter always with the poorer class. Eggs were consumed at home, and a few who could afford it laid out their accounts to have a fat bullock killed at a certain time. The first man in the neighbourhood who took up the idea of buying and collecting eggs was mocked at, and it was hidden that they were given to him in barter by the women. He went round the neighbours with a large basket on his arm, stealing himself towards the dwellings, being ashamed and partly afraid of being seen by the men; from the nature of his employment, he could not escape a nick-name which stuck to him, Micky Goo-ga, Mickey of the egg. When he had collected a sufficient quantity to make up a load for a large, lazy but very quiet donkey, he tackled a pair of “side creels” to the animal and slowly made his way to the town, a distance of over 14 miles.  

A mail boat now-a-days could not be better watched than were his departures and arrivals then. He did not proclaim his hour of departure, but to go unknown he could not, and he had to oblige the women by bringing home various things. His memory was severely taxed in trying to recollect every person and every thing. To assist himself he would tie up the money and the sample together, and when in town on spreading out the records, he easily knew what he wanted. The people at home soon taught him what articles were needed to open a shop with, and by degrees he was able to supply certain things himself: needles, pins, thimbles, smoothing irons, in short a hardware store on a small scale. Many had no land, no property beyond the cabin they lived in, and their chief dependence lay on the ocean, that is the seaweed thrown up by it: they used it for manuring the land and they turned it into kelp (which will be better explained further on). Such people got land to crop here and there from those who had it to spare, and they paid for it in money, in goods or in labour. Nor was it enough. In addition to the residents occupying the already over-crowded houses, huts, and hovels, every one stuffed with inhabitants, there was regularly each year an influx of supplemental population, who arrived about the time the crops were nearly gathered in, that is November; they were induced hither from former experience of the friendly hospitality and plentiness of potatoes and fresh fish. Fresh herrings were so plentiful some winters that the salt which could be got was too scarce for curing them, and a friend or a stranger got as many at the shore as he had means of carrying and the man who brought a bag of salt could please himself in his bargain.  

The newcomers or yearly visitants consisted of tinkers, pedlars, pipers, fiddlers, show-men and beggars, and many otherwise idle with no profession. The tinkers carried at that time the idea of their being an honourable people; they arrived in crowds or caravans, women and children and their beasts of burden, the donkeys, forming the advanced guard, and these arrived perhaps a day before the men. Each head of a tinker family owned a donkey or two, and he was reckoned a poor man unless he had one of the best class of animals of that species. This animal was very useful to them, for when properly equipped, strapped and harnessed as a tinker knew how to, on it were placed the children, the youngest of the family, two or three on each side, as also the bedclothes and other baggage (such as the bellows and other articles), and the animals were driven by youths capable of doing so, and they were surrounded by the women. The men kept at a respectable distance from the advance party and formed another procession with long stout sticks over their shoulders; with these they supported boxes made half of leather and half of wood called “budgets” on their backs; marching leisurely they knew from experience where to billet, and for this place they headed. When encamping in a village or villages, they tried to keep as close to each other as possible, but every tribe, half tribe or family [of tinkers] knew where to set up, and without asking liberty they took possession of some man’s fireside and then and there laid aside their traps; a foraging party was told to provide provender for the donkeys, and clean straw for “shake downs”—that is heaps of straw for themselves to sleep upon. Any one in the surrounding neighbourhood having straw or hay shared it with the tinkers, whether willing or unwilling, in fact they almost dared not refuse. These visitants were likened to welcome friends or guests who had been absent for some time; to refresh themselves, they spent a day or two lounging in straw, rehearsing stories about their travels, their adventures and encounters, and the many performances with the blackthorn they had participated in at fairs and markets. When fully rested, the male portion of the tinkers went to work, that is to mend old umbrellas or broken pots, but as for pans or kettles, they were as rare as a Jubilee coin; there was no talk about them, as the consumption of tea and of the “cake on the pan” was only in infancy years after.  

To make up for kettles and pans were tins of all descriptions and sizes, tin pandies, tin plates, tin lanterns, the latter being thought a great and useful invention, as it served a person to carry a lighted candle from the dwelling to the stable. All these things were made by the men; the women sold them for cash or bartered them for goods, the wife starting each morning along with another member of the family, and instructions were given to a third to meet them at a certain time and place with the beast of burden, the donkey, to carry home the provisions and other things collected by them. In this way they put up the winter half year without rent and without taxes. Beggars became so saucy that they refused things offered except those of the best quality, and if their burden became too heavy they would empty their bag into a corn field or other hiding place and leave the contents to rot, and proceed anew. As for the fixed inhabitants, a few weeks labour in spring and summer served to raise as much food as was sufficient for them and some to spare, and as for winter work, with most of them there was none. That part of the year was gone through in attending soirees, dances, balls, wakes, markets, the public house and the shebeen house. In every second or third village there was a butcher who kept buying and killing sheep, and getting the same mostly by card-playing: he got the money down and more than the price, and if one of these sheep-killers managed at November to make up the price of one to start with, his trade was opened and it was as useful to him as a bank; moreover he often had his own stake in, and he was not, to be sure, the worst of players. So he was kept going for the season; no sooner was one sold than another was bought, and very often the animal was played for and the money received while it was yet in the hill with the wool on its back and the purchase to be made. …  

Not all were of this turn of mind; the weaver was busy in the winter season and other tradesmen got something to do, not forgetting the hackler who was second to the spinner in preparing the flax. But generally speaking this was the state of people when the potato failure came on the greater part of them—just living from hand to mouth, with no thought of a provision made for the future. As is always the case, men are differently circumstanced in worldly affairs, so when the potato failure came on some were living comfortably, some more so than others, some having more or less livestock, cattle and sheep, some a little money, so all were not reduced to the same level in the scale of poverty at once. But in general, after a couple of years of hunger and starvation, nakedness, coldness and poverty got a hold and over-ruled all classes.  

It came to this that even the few who had some worldly substance about them were afraid to own it and were afraid to use it except under pressing necessity, and not only that but the persons who had sufficient nourishment in food showed signs as if it did them no good. This in a sense was not to be wondered at, as it could not be otherwise to a man of feeling, knowing that his neighbour, his friend, or a near relative, perhaps his grandchild, was without food and was hungry. And besides this sympathetic feeling there was an uneasiness, a dread of the future preying upon their minds so that what they partook of served not what nature allowed, and along with this, the sleep was restless thereby disturbing the body, leaving it pale and sickly looking though nourishment was sufficient for the time. In a very short time there was nothing but stillness, a mournful silence, in the villages; in the cottages, grim poverty and emaciated faces, showing all the signs of hardships. The tinkers disappeared—fled to the cities; the musicians of all and every description disappeared, and these classes of visitor have never since returned. Many of the residents also made their escape at once, finding employment or early graves elsewhere. But in general the people were drifting from bad to worse, no one having sufficient food for the family for the year within himself; the best off could only muster from the produce of the land a partial supply for three-fourths of the twelve months at the outside; then they had to fall back upon anything they had for sale—a cow, a heifer or a few sheep—and take it to market being bound to sell at whatever price offered, and with this they would buy Indian meal. Small indeed was the bulk of the Indian meal brought home in lieu of the pet animal which had to be parted with, but the love of offspring was dearer to the parent, and before seeing his children hungry he would sacrifice anything however valuable.  

Actions of this kind served immediate necessity with some, but what were they to do who had nothing to sell and nothing to eat? Their state can be better imagined than described. A mournful silence, no more friendly meetings at the neighbours’ houses in the afternoons, no gatherings on the hillsides on Sundays, no song, no merry laugh of the maiden, not only were the human beings silent and lonely, but brute creation also: not even the bark of a dog nor the crowing of a cock was to be heard—and why? These animals had nearly all disappeared. The women and children were within doors; the able bodied male portion of the families were out in every known direction looking and applying for employment or for relief. A father or son who managed to make his way to Scotland thought himself lucky though absent—out of sight of his dear ones—so long as he could send home as soon as it was earned a few shillings to save his wife, his mother, his brother or perhaps his own little ones from starving, and how readily they would submit to the loss of his presence so long as the expected relief arrived. 

After a good deal of unsuccessful petitioning on the part of the starving people, and after many delays and unfulfilled promises on the part of the upper class, the Government at last was moved to extend relief by giving employment in the shape of making “broad roads”, as they were called. Government engineers were sent out at a good salary to mark out “new lines” of road through rock and bog and every other impediment. The greatest engineering ingenuity used in laying out these roads was to find the most difficult routes, impossible to make and impossible to tread. Then pay-clerks, check-clerks, overseers, and gangs-men or gaffers were appointed according to whether they had real or supposed knowledge or, better still, through intercession, and at long last the hungry and the naked were set to work in the cold depth of winter, and a selection of those was made—those and those only who were known to be in extreme necessity—and their daily wages were fixed and not even at that valuable coin—one shilling—oh! no, but at exactly nine pennies per day.  

Of any work that ever was attempted, this was the most useless—for the reason that the roads were never completed; at this day they would remind the historian of like traces left by the hands of the Romans in the ages of invasion. In after ages they will be traced in most places from the partly constructed pieces left here and there: following the course of the lines can be seen the gravel-hole, the quarry, or the sheltered rock from which more than one poor man had to crawl to his home, such as it was, overpowered with hunger, fainting through weakness, and make for his bed, such as it was, lie down, and die. … These efforts to construct the “new lines” of road served but one end: the sending of many a poor honest man to the untimely grave through hunger and cold, for if he did not put in an appearance on the ground in all kinds of weather, no matter what the distance might be, or if he was not present at every roll call, his pay, small as it was, was reduced one-half or one-fourth. Every man therefore fortunate enough to get his name on the list did his utmost to appear, but some were not able to work, nor yet were much inclined. While on the ground and apparently working, a man in every gang, or as they were called “squad”, kept a lookout for the appearance of the “gaffer”—whilst the rest of the gang sat or stood idle; and when under the eyes of the gaffer their efforts were such that the slowest manoeuvres of a new Corporation brigade man were swift motion in comparison. 

Here is where the government advisers dealt out the successful blow—and it would appear premeditated—the great blow for slowly taking away human life, getting rid of the population and nothing else, by forcing the hungry and the half-clad men to stand out in the cold and in the sleet and rain from morn till night for the paltry reward of nine pennies per day. Had the poor pitiful creatures got this allowance, small as it was, at their homes it would have been relief, it would be charity, it would convey the impression that their benefactors meant to save life, but in the way thus given, on compulsory conditions, it meant next to slow murder. With every hardship and so small a recompense, the man who got work at the lucky nine pennies per day still considered it a great favour and thought himself happy at earning even so small a sum when at the same time the yellow Indian meal was bought at two pence per pound. Oh! the thought then of the nine copper coins worth of Indian meal as the means of providing a supply for the twenty-four hours and thus to keep life in a family of perhaps five or six (and in this calculation we are forgetting if not omitting the Sunday).  

There were private laws made by the “committee” men and those who had the distribution of the relief; amongst their law acts was one that any man possessing a four-footed animal—not a dog or cat—one which could be sold at fair or market, was in consequence debarred from government aid as long as he had such. The absurdity of this enactment is manifest, for the result was that very soon a great many were brought to the same level of poverty; then the want and suffering became general with few exceptions. Every conceivable means was resorted to for getting something, anything, to support life, by soliciting on trust, by borrowing even in the smallest quantities from those who had a little to spare from day to day; if unsuccessful in entreating at one house, people would try another and another, and at last some neighbour would be found who would through pity share their food as a loan; during the while the hungry family were praying for the successful return of the messenger that they might get something in the shape of a repast for the day.  

Things and substances never heard of before to support human life were of necessity resorted to; in fact any substance which the palate did not completely rebel against was used to alleviate the pangs of hunger. Many affectionate parents reduced themselves to mere skeletons from the too oft repeated act of withholding from themselves the necessaries they were so much in need of and giving them to their silent helpless children, thereby feeling great comfort in the act but unawares that feebleness would steal upon them. So overcome would they be from a weakness caused by want of food that apparently strong able-bodied men, on managing to get into a neighbour’s house without any business whatever but to while away the time and be relieved, to be out of sight of the distress if only for a few minutes, would sit on a seat and soon fall asleep from exhaustion, and on attempting to get home again would have to lay hands on a wall or a fence to keep from staggering—with, as the saying is, a multiplicity of stars before their eyes. It may not appear strange to medical men, to those who know the frailties of the human system, that in persons reduced to this extremity, this weakness in the frame, the cheek bones became thin and high, the cheeks blue, the bones sharp, and the eyes sunk, arising from the deprivation of nourishment at the same time the legs and the feet swell and get red, and the skin cracks. All these signs were visible, strange as the recital may appear to people of the present day who do not know or think of such; what an unthankful being man is when full. 

In order to lend their help in providing anything edible, poor women would go miles to the seashore to attend the ebb-tide for the purpose of picking up shellfish or seaweed or other substances growing upon the rocks, and these were carried home to the helpless and hungry creatures left behind; there would have been no one to console them in their crying, a chair having been placed across the door to prevent the small ones from crawling out, and an elderly one having had the charge of keeping the younger ones from getting into the fire until the mother came home. To home! yes home, she would return cruelly laden, a self-inflicted cruelty, burdened with everything she could gather up, so much of all sorts that, judging from its weight, even a man would be unwilling to undergo the same. So great was the expectation and such the necessity that part of the cargo was eagerly fastened upon and at once eaten raw; part was chosen for immediate cooking such as shell fish, and the little ones went to work while the mother rested and partly refreshed herself so as to prepare for another trip at the proper time in the same direction. As a proof of the efforts and the struggle made in those days to allay hunger, heaps of shells and green mounds can be seen at a long distance from the seashore, and can be traced in many places to the present day marking the spots and the only vestige where human habitations once stood close beside.  

The misery was such that hunger, sickness and death were felt and seen everywhere, nothing to support the living, no means of burying the dead. At the death of a person, some feeling neighbour or two went about and gathered pieces of board and formed a rough coffin. Often some five or six charitable neighbours took upon themselves the task to carry a dead body thus roughly coffined to the grave a distance of more than five miles; as they were too few for the task, they would rest at intervals as they went along, one man despairing and another encouraging them to persevere, and calling and asking any one coming in view or forcing those they met to give a lift for some distance, and rest again.  

After a time, another means for relieving the distressed was opened, trifling though it was the distribution of quantities of the Indian meal in small measures and that per a scale, that is per number in a family taking ages of every one into account. In this as in every thing in which Government has had the distribution, those who had hands on it took good care to benefit themselves, either by withholding in part, or lessening the supply to which families were entitled. Store-keepers were appointed, relief circles were formed, and committee men were appointed; some voluntarily took it upon themselves, and the committees met on fixed days to hear grievances and give directions. The “committee day” was a day for the gathering of the people and so they did. On this day “relief tickets” were given out according to information received personally or through other channels of cases of pressing necessity, and in many cases favour was instrumental in bestowing upon some who were not in most need. On such days the house of a “committee man” was besieged from early morning by parties beseeching and applying for relief, and he in his own charitable way of thinking did not think it wise to have his own services go for nothing, or at least without some profit in recompense in some way; he felt justified in sending one and all of them who were able to do anything to work for him in his garden, his barn, his grounds or his outhouses, and if the thought occurred to him, he seemed unmindful or unpitiable of the hungry stomachs which through shame they tried to hide or would not speak of. While he was getting work done to satisfy himself for his supposed goodness he was preparing leisurely before he started to the place of meeting. Unknown and unthought of by him, it was an act of great charity to have these poor people removed beyond the sight and smell of his hot victuals during the time his meal was being prepared for him. Poor hungry beings only too glad to be at his command for the time, by their ready compliance and by forced efforts beyond their strength they would be trying to please in the hope that by so doing his influence might be gained. At last he is ready and starts in much haste, wishing to leave all behind him. He does not much care for the company, but is followed by a crowd to the place of meeting and that was the Petty Sessions house at a distance of three or four miles.  

The Petty Sessions house serves the two purposes at this time, but the everyday duty of the magistrates is far the least, so very few attend with the exceptions of the Petty Session’s clerk and three or four policemen there to teach a stray donkey the benefit of the act against wandering on the public road. On the days the relief committee meets, the doors are closed. But occasionally a side door opens to admit some one in authority who by this device escapes the attention of crowds outside. Inside, they consult and issue tickets - but on every occasion the supply of Indian meal at their disposal is unfortunately not enough to meet the pressing demand.  

The day’s work of the gentry over, they are on the way to disperse, but how to get away, for not a tithe of the expectant multitude outside get the expected “token”, that is a ticket or as they called it a “line” for as much as a morsel? It may then be easily imagined how the pangs of the already hungry parent, waiting all day, made his wants, his grievances, known as much as the language in his power lay, but thus disappointed and returning home in the evening hungry, vexed, and with no word of consolation on his lips, only to view the sad scene, the agonizing scene of the family before him still more hungry. Oh! can we imagine his feelings, his sufferings? On leaving the place and gaining the outside, a rush is made at the committee men, the skirts are nearly pulled off their coats at the attempts to get some words from them. It is with the greatest difficulty that they can make their way, every one asking, “Can you do nothing for me your honour?” or “your reverence”, for we must not forget that the “soggarth aroon” felt inclined to go there too and, though his influence was not the greatest, still he went there, and in the jostling and pulling his garments also got their share like another. 

From one and another comes the lamentation “I am here all day”; “How can I go home now, for I did not leave as much as a spoonful of food behind with me Molly and the children, and I did not tell you that before as I thought you would do something for me, after keeping me here all day, and how can I go home wanting?” The manner of the consoling replies to such appeals are in the shortest words: “Nothing can be done for you this day”; “Come back next week and we will try”. Good encouragement indeed for an empty stomach, to live, to do or to die during a week. The “committee men” were from all denominations, but it so happened that our meek Doctor of Divinity of the established church, the man of learning and of other enticing qualities spoken of in the last chapter, was honorary chairman and had the greatest control. 

Other committee men were entrusted with small sums of money and at their discretion divided them among those supposed to be most in need, and if they had not the necessary goods to give in lieu themselves, they were watchful to find out a friend who had and put the money in his way. The applicant for relief presented himself at the committee man’s dwelling, got an hour or so at some job, then was supplied with the desired ticket drawn out in favour of some petty shopkeeper at some distance, and having reached that place, would have to await his turn. All this circuitous way of doing good was more like hard labour or convict punishment. The benefit of relief was abstracted from the fund in many a way: part of it was given away in the shape of wages to a few, who felt it rather humiliating to carry a bag of meal. Those who had the distribution employed favourites to build fences, make drains and improvements, beautifying the approaches to their dwellings. Many parts of the jobs left unfinished then remain so, as never since was any attempt made to complete them, showing clearly and well where the money then came from. This was the way in which a great deal of the relief fund being entrusted to those worldly minded men, was smuggled and converted into other uses. Yet such men were looked upon as good men because they gave employment—for their own benefit and with the charitable money bestowed by others, in America or Australia perhaps. Such imputations may seem to the reader rather harsh when we refer to men who should have better feeling towards the weak and the hungry. Yet such was the undoubted fact and therefore it is no way trespassing the rules of charity to relate the same. Nor could it be given half in its true light as to how the poor were treated and despised as if they were beings of quite a different creation. The satiated never understand the emaciated. 

One year succeeded another with little or no improvement, the ingathering's from the harvests always being small and consequently every succeeding summer experienced a scarcity of food. Some who were always trying to persevere against the difficulties made efforts year after year to put down crops, with only a faint hope of reaping any harvest. It was when hopes were lost in the attempts to cultivate the potato that other green crops were tried: the Swedish, the Aberdeen, and the White Globe turnips were for the first time cultivated; also more ground was laid out under cabbage, carrots, parsnips, beans and peas. Cabbage was already known but cultivated only in small quantities in gardens (and used for cow feeding more than anything else); now it was used as an article of food with only water and salt to qualify it. Many people from their experience of the seasons, between hope and despair, became negligent and drifted from bad to worse, selling everything they could dispose of for the merest trifle to anyone who could afford to buy or to exchange them—until the Workhouse, the last game of all, or (through the well wish of some friends abroad) the Emigrant ship, shut them out of view of their native country for evermore. Others and it were not only a few that disappeared. Some made their way to all parts of the kingdom never returning. Some went to England and Scotland, returning after a lapse of years only to see their homesteads gone, their friends and dear one's dead, or if not dead, their whereabouts could not be traced. Off they go again. 

Arising from death, emigration and dispersion to all parts, the population soon dwindled away. And indeed, I hope it will not be any way uncharitable to say it, but with the multitude also disappeared many turbulent and indifferent persons and characters who were only a disgrace to the good, the honest, and the well-doing, and if there was poverty, there was peace too.  

 

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

 by Hugh Dorian*, edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne and Hugh Dorain. 

*Hugh Dorian (1834-1914), born into a smallholding Catholic family in Cashel Glebe at the western end of Kindrum Lake where he was living in the 1850's. Dorian records his years in Fanáid, a region near Lough Swilly at Ulster's outer edge and apparently "beyond the frontier of respectability. Dorian's narrative introduces local customs and practices, provides a first-person account of sectarian divisions that characterized the area, and, most important, witnesses the devastating effects of the Famine on Fanáid's population. The memoir which he completed about 1889 portrays the ways in which the Donegal locals sought to cope with political and religious authorities who controlled their land and their lives, all while struggling to retain their traditional ways.  

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INTERESTING SURROUNDING PARISHES:  

Parish of Clondavaddog  

Parish of Tullyfern  

Parish of Mevagh  

Parish of Killygarvan  

Parish of Kilmacrennan  

Shared on IrelandXO by: S.Callaghan (Kerrykeel) 

Communities Associated with this Timeline