Friday 18 October 2019

Wicklow's suffering during famine times

Letters reveal horrifying impact on the starving masses, writes Myles Buchanan

Rent V potatoes – The Irish Jeremy Riddler. This cartoon, appearing November 15, 1845, was drawn by John Leech. From the Hulton archive/Getty images
Rent V potatoes – The Irish Jeremy Riddler. This cartoon, appearing November 15, 1845, was drawn by John Leech. From the Hulton archive/Getty images
The day after the ejectment from December 1848. Hulton archive/Getty images

Genealogy service has recently released fascinating information on records relating to the Irish Famine which provide an intimate and disturbing view on a defining moment in Irish history.

From descriptions of the failed potato crop to calls for more sources of employment for starving people, the description of Wicklow's starving have come to light following a new study into Famine Relief Papers from 1844-1847.

The Relief Commission and subsequent relief committees around Ireland were formed just prior to the official beginning of the famine to oversee relief efforts, distribute food, collect information and advise the government on the famine, the people and aid efforts.

Soup kitchens were set up, but in 1847 the government shut them down, anticipating a better crop which never materialised. Another piece of the relief plan was creating government work projects, so that those who were able could earn money to buy food.

During the Great Famine, over one million people died, and a further million left Ireland. More than a century and a half later, Ireland's population had still not returned to pre-Famine levels.

Hand-written letters and documents contained in the Famine Relief Papers help to provide first-hand accounts of the levels of destitution faced by starving people in Wicklow.

On December 23, 1846, the secretary for James Boyle, superintending engineer for County Wicklow, sent a report detailing the conditions in the Arklow area. His report highlighted how public works in the region had helped with public morale.

'Destitution has long since prevailed among the peasantry - It has reached the small farmer of one to five or six acres - is rapidly overtaking those holding larger tracts - and dismay had begun to seize those of greater standing - but now that there is a prospect - a certainty of the petty holder being employed in the midst of his family in the useful work of tillage and of providing for food instead of being degraded into little better than the rank of a pauper or an object of charity the spirit of the entire people have been improved.'

On February 9, 1847, Lieutenant John R Anderson RHA, inspecting officer for the Relief Commission, wrote a letter to the Commission detailing his inspection of Moyne. In his letter he detailed a snow storm affecting the area and his fears that many families could be dead in their homes without anyone realising.

'I left Rathdrum early this morning with a view of proceeding to Moyne to meet its relief committee according to appointment, but from the very great quantity of snow that has fallen I reached this place with great difficulty, had literally to dig the horse out at some places wherever the snow has drifted and was some feet deep in fact many of the roads of this mountainous district are almost impassable. I regret to inform you, that I was informed by the Secretary of the Relief Committee of this place that they have only six hundred weight of meal left and though more that been ordered I fear no carts will reach this place as long as the storm lasts, what the consequence will be God only knows. I heard of one family that were laying in a bed as they had neither food nor fuel. I believe there are many other similarly situated who would perish were it not for private benevolence and in this mountainous wild district it is to be feared many many perish unheard of.'

On June 16, 1847, John Donoghue, sub inspector of constabulary in Tinahely, forwarded a report by Constable John Norris concerning the refusal of Rathdrum and Arklow fever hospitals to admit a travelling pauper.

'I have to state that on the 11th just a travelling pauper named Honor Kirwan and her child dropped on the highway near Aughrim both being ill with fever and lay on the side of the road till the following day when I reported the case to Jeremiah Gaol. The warden who had them conveyed to Rathdown Fever Hospital immediately but being refused admittance there they were sent back to this place and left on the crops roads at Aughrim the most part of the night and then put into a shed, on the following day (Monday) I informed Doctor Atkins of the case who gave a certificate stating the poor woman has fever and was a fit object for the Fever Hospital.'

The letter goes on to state the women was refused admission to the fever hospital and eventually Constable John Norris and two other men procured her a shed for the woman and her child.

On October 6, 1846, JC Walker of the OPW, wrote a response to a letter sent to the Commission regarding the despair in Arklow.

'In reply to your letter of the 9th instant stating that great despair prevailed at Arklow, I am directed by the Board to inform you that the County Surveyor will be directed immediately to report upon the works to be undertaken there.'

Ancestry's Joe Buggy said that the documents and letters sent at the time of the Great Famine provide a great insight into the conditions endured across the country at the time.

'Documents and letters sent to the Famine Relief Commission provide a unique insight into the level of destitution, pain and hunger around Ireland during this time. From the collection, one can sense the rising panic, with stock and food levels rapidly running out and committees pleading with the commission for help. Through the collection, it is now possible to search for family names and local areas to see how exactly people were affected by the turmoil of the Great Famine.'

Ancestry contains the largest collection of family trees in the world, with over 100 million family trees from over 100 countries. It also provides access to a broad range of documents and files that are vital in genealogy research.

In previous years, Ancestry has completed new research into Irish collections, including records of Irish convicts sent to Australia and an interesting look at Irish first names that are becoming endangered.

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