Sligo was changed forever
Local historian Padraig Deignan writes about the social and economic impact of the Famine in Sligo
On the eve of the Famine Sligo was a dangerously subdivided county as a result of the middleman system and the high productivity of the potato crop.
There was little consolidation of smallholdings by landlords who did not control large parts of their estates. There had always been a delicate knife-edge balance of survival and any threat to the unpredictable potato crop was the difference between life and death for a large proportion of the population. The poorer population had few safety nets. The Poor Law Union of Sligo with its workhouse was ill equipped for the enormity of the failure of the potato crop in 1845. In fairness the authorities had seen nothing like the blight which hit in the autumn of 1845 and they were slow to perceive the calamity that was to change Sligo forever and result in the death and emigration of tens of thousands from the county.
Relief efforts by the government and by private charitable organisations, even when administered liberally and efficiently, never had a hope in dealing with the massive scale of starvation and disease. Private charities such as the Society of Friends, although well respected and remembered were not effective, while landowners ignored or were unable to assist people in distress and those who did make some kind of an effort to provide employment were overwhelmed by the numbers and the bureaucracy. Large farmers did nothing to provide employment for starving labourers. Food depots, public works, soup kitchens and poor law relief were all employed in Sligo to alleviate distress unfortunately with very limited success. From 1847 on when poor law guardians became responsible for relief, they were totally unprepared for the task, while poor law rates could not be collected in any significant amounts.
The failure of the potato crop impacted on wheat, barley and oat production as labourers were no longer available to cultivate the land. Numbers of pigs, sheep and cattle also declined drastically on the smaller farms as a result of the potato loss. Government relief efforts were slow to take effect and public works projects to allow people to earn money to purchase food were never sufficient to employ all those labourers and small farmers in need of work. However, most officials employed by the Office of Public Works did their best despite unfair criticism. Two officials unfairly criticised by the Sligo Champion included the sons of Rev. John Yeats, the great grandfather of W.B. Yeats. Suffering in Sligo was very acute in 1847 when the majority of the deaths during the Famine occurred due to fever and the accumulative effect of starvation. Soup kitchens helped relieve immediate needs, but were not maintained for very long.
The Gregory Clause facilitated the consolidation of holdings forcing many to give up their small plots and receive relief by entering the workhouses where their families were separated. Many landlords and owners of property were still demanding the payment of rents and not providing sufficient employment. However, many landlords in Sligo such as O'Hara, Perceval, Wynne, Wingfield, Crichton, Palmerston and in particular Gore Booth supplied labour and food for their tenants and the tenants and labourers of middlemen. Other landlords, middlemen and large farmers did little to alleviate distress. Tenants from areas with heavy concentrations of middlemen, who did little for their tenants and labourers, were all dumped on the workhouse system, overwhelming it. The Famine resulted in the largescale consolidation and amalgamation of farms in Sligo. The number of holdings of less than fifteen acres declining significantly while those of over thirty acres increased.
Along with the drastic decline in the number of smallholdings as a result of the Famine there was also of course the corresponding catastrophic drop in the population. There was no census in 1845 so we don't know the exact population level in Sligo at the outbreak of the Famine. However, we know from the 1841 census that the number of people living in Sligo was 180,809. The population of Co. Sligo increased by five percent in the period from 1831 to 1841; if this rate of growth had been maintained up to 1846 then there would have been about 185,300 people living in Sligo at the beginning of the Famine. The 1851 census records a total population of 128,510 in the county. This means that at total of 56,790 or over thirty percent of the population died or emigrated in the period 1846 to 1851. In just a five year period 37,060 people emigrated while 19,730 died in the county, with over half of those deaths occurring in the first three years of the Famine.
Many of the larger landowners especially Gore Booth and Palmerston assisted in the emigration of many poor labourers and farmers. In 1847 during the worst year of the Famine there was a good deal of assisted emigration with over 13,000 departing from Sligo Port.
In that year Sir Robert Gore Booth facilitated the transportation of 1,300 emigrants on three chartered ships. This allowed the people a chance for a better life in North America in addition to allowing Gore Booth to clear his lands. However, there was a further financial incentive in assisted emigration and while it cost him £4 15s per person for the trip to Canada, he had to pay £2 12s in rates per person per year in the workhouse. In all assisted emigration cost Gore Booth £15,500, the equivalent of €2.5 million. In the period 1846 to 1852 Lord Palmerston assisted in the emigration of 5,000 tenants from his estates in north Sligo.
Those who were not afforded the opportunity of assisted emigration received relief from the poor law guardians. From 1841 to 1850 a total of 31,021 were admitted to Sligo Workhouse, 25,321 were discharged and there were 2,530 recorded deaths. The highest number in the workhouse was 4,075 on 3 July 1849. The highest number receiving outdoor relief was 9,866 recorded on 21 July 1849. The total number of rates levied on the Sligo Union was £71,425, comparable to over €10 million.
The Famine was a major turning point for the country and marked a watershed in the social and economic history of Sligo. Some of the elements were in place on a small scale before 1845, such as the changes in the market forces between Ireland and Britain and there was an increasing effort by some landlords in estate management and the elimination of middlemen. However, the Famine drastically and enormously sped up this process of change. The potato was never cultivated on the same level again. As Colonel Francis Gore, a landlord with property in west Sligo, noted that before 1845 people just wanted to get hold of a small plot of land and 'they were most anxious for land; they were anxious for wages too; but they liked to have a little land 'to fall back on' as they say themselves and to grow potatoes; after the Famine people looked for wages, and didn't care about having land to fall back upon'. The intimate connection between the people and the land had been irrevocably altered.
Apart from the cultivation of potatoes, the acreage devoted to other crops also declined never to recover to the same levels and farmers switched to livestock production. Sheep and cattle gradually came to dominate large parts of Co. Sligo. Agricultural practices were changed to satisfy the British demand for Irish beef and dairy products. Class structure in Sligo also changed and emigration from Sligo before the Famine, which was relatively tiny, became firmly established in Sligo's culture. Landless labourers and farm servants made up the bulk of the emigrants, while farmers and labourers reached a similar parity of numbers in the county.
Many landowners became bankrupt and more of the professional class and gentry bought land in Sligo and were able to use their funds to endure the lean years after the Famine until rents started coming in again in the mid-1850s. The new professional and property owning classes would prove to be the nucleus for seismic changes in Sligo's political, social and economic landscape in the second half of the nineteenth century.