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In my last two posts (17 February and 22 March 2016) I looked at the Raftery families who settled in Stafford in the nineteenth century. The first of these, the ‘Roscommon Rafterys’, were in many ways classic Famine emigrants, destitute people forced out of Ireland at the height of the Famine in the dreadful year of 1847. This post, the first of two, looks at what was happening in the area of about fifteen miles radius round the town of Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. It encompassed the north west of Co. Roscommon and adjacent areas of Cos. Galway and Mayo and it suffered extreme population loss during the Famine.

MapIreland1882Roscommon cropped

The Castlerea area, Co. Roscommon and adjacent parts of Cos Galway and Mayo. (From Phillip’s Map of Ireland, 1882, http://www.lennonwylie.co.uk/maps2.htm)

By the mid-1840s a scattering of people had already gone to Stafford from the Castlerea district. I looked at the reasons why in my post on 26 August 2015. Each year they were joined by harvesters from the area and this pattern might well have carried on for decades. The Famine changed all that. Even the small town of Stafford was to feel the impact, and the link between the Castlerea area and Staffordshire proved to be vital for many of the Famine’s victims.

On 23 September 1845 it was reported that around Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo, ‘The potato crop … is both ample and good … bountiful and healthy.’[1] At the same time the first reports were coming in from eastern Ireland of a new disease affecting the crop and on 20 October a constabulary report from Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon, said that ‘incipient disease of the potato crop has shown itself in a partial way in this district within the last few days.’[2] Two weeks later the rot had become general, ‘there being no instance in which the crop has wholly escaped the infection. … The general opinion, particularly since the wet weather has set in, is that at least one half of the whole crop will be destroyed before the first of next month.’[3] The deadly potato blight, phytophthora infestans, had arrived in the district.

As a direct result of the Famine the population of the Castlerea district fell from an estimated 255,779 in 1845 to 186,063 in 1851 – a loss of nearly 70,000. In other words, more than a quarter of the entire population disappeared from the area in just six years. Many people died from starvation, privation and disease, but large numbers also emigrated. It is impossible to say exactly how many because there is no accurate record of the people who died during the Famine, but between 30,000 and 50,000 may have died and 20,000 to 30,000 people emigrated from the Castlerea area during these terrible years.[4]

People emigrated during the Famine for five interlinked reasons. The first was the most direct impact of the Famine – starvation, destitution and inability to pay rent. This often triggered a second factor – eviction or the threat of eviction from the land because people couldn’t pay the landlords’ rent. In some parts of Ireland ‘landlord-assisted emigration’ – giving tenants money for passage to England or America – was a way of effectively evicting people, but the landlords of the Castlerea area were too poor, too uninvolved or too mean to adopt this approach. The third force driving people to emigrate was the impact of Poor Law forcing out small land-holders, a factor that became more devastating in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Fourthly, many people in secondary and tertiary occupation, such as carpenters, builders and traders, found their incomes disappearing as the Famine depressed the economy and demand for their goods and services dwindled. These four ‘push’ factors were increasingly complemented by the ‘pull’ force of contacts with people who had already left and sent money, information and prospects of help to those left behind.

The Tory government of Sir Robert Peel established a Relief Commission in November 1845 to organise food depots and respond to the efforts of local relief committees. [5] Local community leaders – magistrates, landlords, clergy – in the Castlerea area developed a comprehensive patchwork of such committees during the early months of 1846. The government made arrangements to secretly import Indian corn (maize) from America and from December 1845 schemes were developed to provide employment on public works. Wages of eight pence or ten pence a day were paid to men who could do this work but that was ‘insufficient to support themselves, much less their starving families.’[6]

Even the stored potatoes were destroyed by blight. In January 1846 it was reported from Lough Glynn in Tibohine parish, Co. Roscommon, that ‘within the last fortnight and even the last few days the potatoes in pits are nearly all diseased or quite rotten.’[7]  This sudden loss of staple food immediately brought hunger to the masses and by March 1846 it was reported that there was ‘great distress’ in the Baronies of Dunmore and Tiaquin (Co. Galway) and that in the Barony of Castlereagh (sic) ‘the distress prevalent in the district (was) likely to increase’.[8] Conditions rapidly worsened during the late spring and in July 1846 it was obvious that the potato disease was striking the new crop even more virulently than the previous year. On 22 August the Tuam Herald reported the ‘total annihilation of the potato crop’.[9] At the same time the Whig Russell Government that had taken office on 30 June 1846 ordered the winding up of the Public Works programme. This took away the only sustenance for those with enough strength to work for the measly wages offered.

By the autumn of 1846 the Castlerea district was in the grip of starvation and destitution. Although the public works were restarted during the autumn, they never brought enough money to those most in need, and the local Famine Relief Committees reported harrowing starvation and death. William French, a member of a large landowning family in the Frenchpark area of Roscommon, wrote that

‘You can scarcely conceive the state of privation and misery to which (the populace) are now reduced in consequence of the great scarcity, the exhaustion of their means and the high price at which every article of food has arrived. I have actually seen many after spending their day in Frenchpark return in tears to their family without a particle of food, and latterly the men have become fierce and wicked, and disposed to commit outrage if their wants are not supplied. The works have not recommenced to any extent, but at all events no monies have yet been received for labour, so that I really fear for the lives of the weak and all those who are unequal to the struggle.’[10]

By November 1846 deaths from starvation were reported from Drumatemple, and a ‘population of 262 families (are) totally destitute of support’. Things rapidly worsened over the winter, so that on 14 January 1847 the secretary of the Ballintobber Relief Committee (Roscommon) reported ‘Thousands of persons are absolutely perishing through want. Sickness is making frightful havoc among them’[11] At Killererin (Killeroran), across the border in Galway,

‘at least two thirds of the population (are) without means. …. I know a family last week to shut themselves up in their house and let the parents and seven children lay down and give themselves up to death….and one poor widow who got three days refuge in a poor person’s house. When she left the house her daughter had to carry her on her back begging, and in that position she died and was taken dead off her back.’[12]

From all over the district starvation and death multiplied. In February 1847 Charles Strickland, the chairman of the Lough Glynn famine relief committee wrote of ‘the dreadful state of the poor in these districts. We are daily witnessing deaths of starvation which no means in our reach at present can avert.’[13] Localities dominated by absentee landlords were particularly suffering, and the reasons were sometimes linked directly to the land holding system. In Cloonygormican and Dunamon in Co. Roscommon it was stated that

‘The district is unfortunately circumstanced in its means of receiving relief. The landlords are, in almost every instance, absentees, and, from the proprietors of a large portion of the district, no relief is likely to be received as their estates are under the control of the Court of Chancery……Another circumstance which tends, in a great degree, to prevent us from receiving relief is the extent to which subletting has been carried on in the district, and on properties on which are the largest proportion of paupers.’[14]

In Kilcorkey and Baslick parishes (Roscommon) another aspect of the land system was emphasised, together with the vagaries of the public works programme.

‘This district …. is very large and from the circumstances of its being mostly a grazing country, the people were in the habit of living solely on the conacre system……The distress is still greater here owing to the suspension of public works in part of the district by the board who, to punish some persons who made an attack on one of their overseers, have thought fit to punish the innocent with the guilty for the span of more than one month. The provisions are so dear and scarce that the people are dying around me from starvation.’[15]

Week by week the local newspapers documented the suffering. In February 1847 the Tuam Herald wrote that ‘The condition of the people … is becoming daily worse. …. They are perishing in hundreds by the roadside. “Starvation inquests” are alas! still held in abundance.’ Three weeks later it poignantly described how, in the town, ‘the hearing of persons dying from want or destitution has now become as familiar to our ears as the striking of the clock.’[16]

By the beginning of 1847 there was a rising tide of emigration. On 23rd January The Times carried a report that

‘A gentleman, whose statements are entitled to the highest respect, gives a most deplorable picture of the condition of the county of Roscommon….He says that whole villages are depopulated, either by death or by the flight of such as have the means of transport to England, Scotland or America.’[17]

In April 1847 the Tuam Herald reported that ‘for some weeks past our town has been crowded daily with hundreds passing through, collected from all quarters, making their way to the nearest seaport where ships can be had to take them away from the land of their fathers.’ The paper took the view that ‘the emigrants are not those people who cannot find food or employment – they are the pith and marrow of the land – comfortable farmers who take all their means with them, leaving only the destitute behind them’.[18]

It was direct emigration to America from local ports like Galway City that most impressed local commentators, since these were the people who could afford to pay for their passage. Many of the emigrants from the Castlerea area going to America had to pass through Tuam town and these were the people crowding the streets in the Herald’s description. The route in the opposite direction was the one taken by the people who ended up in Stafford. In February 1847 a traveller from Roscommon to Dublin ‘passed on the roads crowds of young men, and not a few young women, and some children, journeying towards Liverpool with the intention of proceeding thence to America.’[19] The parallel with the plight of the refugees in Europe today is striking.

It is often thought that the emigrants who finished up in Britain were those too poor or dissolute to get to better destinations overseas – a kind of Irish residuum at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The Stafford evidence suggests a more mixed picture but many of the Famine arrivals were nevertheless destitute labourers and conacre holders. They had to flee whilst they had any means and opportunity to do so. Famine refugees began to appear in Stafford in April 1847 and the numbers reached their peak in the summer of that year. The most unfortunate – the starving, the destitute, the ill and the dying – ended up in the vagrant ward of the workhouse or the infirmary. Some of the families who settled in Stafford, like the Roscommon Rafterys, the Sweeneys from Galway and the Colemans from Knock, Co. Mayo, arrived in the town at the height of the Famine in 1847.

01 Catherine Colemancrop

Catherine Coleman with her granddaughter Catherine Moore, Stafford, c.1900. Catherine Coleman had been born in Co. Mayo in 1835 and came to Stafford with her parents as a childhood refugee from the Famine.

In the autumn of 1847 the Catholic dioceses of Ireland carried out a ‘destitution survey’, asking parish priests to report on the consequences of the Famine in their areas. In the Castlerea district it was an appalling picture. On average the priests reported that around thirty per cent of the families were absolutely destitute with most of the others in severe want. Upwards of seven per cent of the population had died as a direct result of the Famine whilst around sixteen per cent of the families had already emigrated.[20] In the next post I’ll look at the other forces at work in the district during the Famine.

[1] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-49, (The Columba Press, Dublin, 1999), p. 18.

[2] Swords, In their own words, p. 18.

[3] Swords, In their own words, pp. 20-1

[4] Various attempts were made to produce figures for the number of deaths and emigrants in the Castlerea district using estimates and techniques adopted by analysts of the national and county impact of the Famine. The fact that the study area overlaps three counties complicated this process, but the main problem was that there is a bewildering variety of death rate estimates during the Famine coupled to problematic assumptions about the impact of the tragedy on the birth rate. The estimates of deaths in the Castlerea district produced by the various techniques ranged from 51,795 down to 21,929, but the majority lay between the low thirty thousands to the upper forty thousands. The resultant emigration figures mostly ranged from the low to the high twenty thousands, hence the figures given in the text. It is impossible to be more precise, important as the issue is. See S.H. Cousens, ‘The regional pattern of emigration during the Great Irish Famine, 1846-51’, Trans. Inst. Brit. Geographers, Second Series, 28, (1960), pp. 119-134; W.E. Vaughan & A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Statistics: Population 1821-1971, (Dublin, 1978), Table 42; J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved, (London, 1985), esp. pp. 266-7.

[5] See, for example, C. Kinealy, This Great Calamity: the Irish Famine, 1845-52, (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1994), chapter 2.

[6] Tuam Herald (TH), 4 July 1846

[7] Charles Strickland, Lough Glynn to J.P. Kennedy, Dublin Castle, 23 January 1846,  Swords, In their own words, p. 24.

[8] House of Commons, 1846 (201), Weekly reports of Scarcity Com. Showing the progress of disease in potatoes: complaints and applications for relief, March 1846

[9] TH, 22 August 1846.

[10] National Archives of Ireland (NAI), RLFC3/2/25/38 Letter from William French to Fitzstephen French MP (forwarded to Dublin Castle), 8 October 1846.

[11] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/25, Letter from Patrick O’Connor, Chairman, Drumatemple Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 3 November 1846; NAI RLFC3/2/25/24, Letter from Michael Daniel O’Connor, Secretary, Ballintobber Relief Committee to Dublin Castle, 14 January 1847.

[12] NAI, RLFC3/2/11/104, Letter from Mrs Henry Blake to Dublin Castle, 6 February 1847.

[13] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/44, Letter from Charles Strickland, 21 February 1847.

[14] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/26, Letter from J.E. Mennons, secretary, Cloonygormican and Dunamon famine relief committee to Sir Randolph Routh, 30 January 1847.

[15] NAI, RLFC3/2/25/36, Letter from Denis O’Connor, Chairman of the Kilcorkey and Baslick famine relief committee, 2 February 1847

[16] TH, 13 February and 6 March 1847.

[17] The Times, 23 January 1847

[18] TH, 10 April 1847 and 3 April 1847

[19] Lt-Col. Fitzmaurice, 10 February 1847, cited in R. Dolan, ‘The great famine in the barony of Roscommon, 1845-1850’, Unpub. MA dissertation, University College, Galway, p. 157.

[20] Usable reports of the Destitution Survey for the parishes of  Kilcorkey, Fuerty, Elphin, Baslick, Ballintubber and Drumatemple were published in the Roscommon Journal on 30 October 1847. Those for Dunmore, Crossboyne, Ballaghadereen, Kilcolman and Castlemore were in the Tuam Herald on 13 November 1847.