Sligo's starvation in Famine times detailed

New study of the Famine Relief papers 1844-1847 show the extent of utter devastation

Sligo Champion

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

The study shows the real-life scale of the destitution faced by Irish people in the lead up to the famine, providing an intimate insight into a defining moment in Irish history.

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 provide first-hand accounts of the levels of destitution faced by starving people in Sligo.

Failed potato crop in Leyny, Sligo. On 8 July 1846 a report was written following a letter to the Relief Commission from JW Armstrong of the Leyny Relief Committee. The report details the content of the letter including the condition of the latest potato crop.

"That they have received a few small subscriptions. Implores some further donation from Government, to enable [the] committee to continue their operations for another fortnight as great distress still prevails in the District - 'The situation of the county will be, I deeply regret to say, very deplorable indeed, our early crop of potatoes have so generally failed that little relief can be afforded by it.'"

On 22 December 1845 a report was sent to the Relief Commission from the Town and Harbour Commissioner of Sligo reporting the distress in the area and calling for immediate relief.

The report also tells the Commission that the poor in Sligo are more willing to work and do not take to drink, unlike the poor in other parts of the country.

"You will see that our town requires immediate attention, when we find more than the 7th part of the population in want of employment on the mean of procuring the necessities of life; their patience and good disposition, will, we very much fear, be broken unless some immediate relief is given by some public employment.

"The disposition of the poor here is different to that in other parts of the country: they are not prone to drinking, indolent or lazy, but are most willing to do anything rather than seek relief in a poorhouse, of this, you have had sufficient experience in your constant attendance at that establishment … there are 438 men, who have, on an average, a family of five including a wife, children or aged and destitute parents thereby making more than 2560 souls … The awful visitation of the failure of the potato crop, the increase of which you have taken such lively and pain worthy exertions to prevent, has baffled all prescribed remedies and each succeeding day brings further information of failure where safety was expected.

"We, therefore, most earnestly entreat you to represent to your friends, who many have most influence with the government, this awful state, and approaching distress; and that unless some immediate relief is obtained the disaffection which exists on the borders of this county will extend amongst us, making property, liberty and life insecure."

Extreme destitution in the Barony of Corran. On 14 June 1846 representatives from the parishes of Cloonoghil, Kilturrra and Kilshahy wrote to the Relief Commission detailing the destitution in the area and their need for a relief committee to be established in the Barony.

"We the undernamed inhabitants of the parishes of Cloonoghil, Kilturrra and Kilshahy in the county of Sligo beg most respectfully to inform you of the state of extreme destitution of many of the poor classes in those districts in which there are no resident landed proprietors and consequentially but little employment can be obtained by the able bodied labourer, nor has any public work been as yet undertaken although applied for long since and no relief committee has been formed that we are aware of for the Barony of Corran in which these parishes are situated."

On 15 September 1846 Reverend J Dawson wrote to the Relief Commission detailing the destitution in Sligo Town and that the lack of food could cause an outbreak of violence among the destitute.

"The small farmers who hold the little stock of grain they possess for the supply of their families are unable to get it ground into meal owing to the failure of the natural power from the present drought and the great demand which is made daily and nightly on the country mills.

"The consequence is that the people are everywhere afraid of an immediate movement on the part of the destitute creatures who are in a state of great excitement".

Starving were buried without coffins in Geevagh.

On 24 March 1847 Reverend Michael Spelman wrote to the Relief Commission stating that the dead in his parish are being buried without coffins and requests coffins should be provided in future.

"In this single parish (Geevagh, Co.Sligo) comprising a population of 1,000 souls, no less than eighty seven persons have actually died of starvation within the last twelve days. Many are buried without coffins.

"This fact is indisputable and as I feel convinced that numbers will have to be interred with no other covering but the rags they wore when living.

"I write with a view to ascertaining whether any hopes may be held out to me that coffins will be provided for them in future."

Ancestry's Joe Buggy commented, "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 is the world's leading family history site containing the largest collection of family trees with over 100 million family trees from over 100 countries.

In previous years they have 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.

To search the Famine Relief Commission Papers log onto The records are searchable by name, date and the county in which they occurred.