, , , , , , , ,

In my last post on 11 April 2016 I looked at starvation and destitution in the Castlerea area during the Famine. But although thousands left the district to escape immediate hunger and destitution, many others were forced out in other ways that are the subject of this post.

Eviction by landlords was a scourge during the Famine years. Many of the local estates were badly-managed and semi-bankrupt before the Famine, whilst on others landlords had already been removing tenants from the smallest holdings and stopping the annual lease of patches of land for basic subsistence (conacre). With the collapse of food supplies and the inability of many tenants to pay rents, the Famine provided a golden opportunity for landlords to get rid of smallholders and conacre plots.

Famine evictions started early in the Castlerea district and the area was the scene of one of the most notorious ‘exterminations’ to take place in Ireland during these years – the Gerrard case near Mount Bellew, Co. Galway, that I described in my post on 17 June 2015. Sixty-one families were violently thrown out of their houses and left to fend for themselves. Dramatic as the Gerrard eviction was – and the word ‘Gerrardising’ became commonly used for evictions in this area during the Famine – it was only one case amongst many. By August 1846 the Roscommon Journal was saying eviction was ‘the order of the day’ and in January 1848 the Journal reported some of the consequences. The Poor Law Guardians were refusing the take more people into the Roscommon Workhouse, and

‘so early as seven o’clock our streets were studded with creatures almost dead or dying. … Affected with contagious fever, young and old were huddled together. … The wailing and dying moans of the unfortunates as they were obliged to wend their way back to their respective localities was truly heart-rending. Homes they had none, friends they had not any, and food they had no hope of getting. Several of them died before they left the town, and hundreds, unable to quit the streets, are strolling about black with fever. This is the fruit of last year’s extermination. This is the result of the ‘Gerrardising’ of 1847.’[1]

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

Eviction during the Famine: the memorial to the victims of the Gerrard eviction at Ballinlass, 1846

A year later the paper summed up the results of evictions:

‘The crusade against the Tenantry in this part of the country is daily increasing. … Depopulation has now become so general it excites not the least surprise or astonishment to hear of hundreds being daily turned into the ditches to famish. … The tenant and small farmer … has fled to another and happier country. The poorer class have either perished or become inmates of the Workhouse. … The solvent and industrious tenants have emigrated.’[2]

The Poor Law system was a massive incentive for landlords to evict their small tenants. In April 1848 27 families, or 189 people, were evicted by a landlord near Castlerea.[3] These people were victims of the £4 clause in the Irish Poor Law Act which said landlords were responsible for paying the poor rates of tenancies valued at under £4 a year. Now that small tenants couldn’t pay their rents, landlords rushed to clear their properties of such people. They forced tenants to give up their land or, if they went to the workhouse, demolished their houses and made them totally destitute while they were away.[4]

Many other people were evicted by the workings of the Gregory clause, the provision introduced in June 1847 which denied poor relief to any tenant who held more than a quarter of an acre of land. On 23 June 1849 the Tuam Herald reported that there had been 94 ejectment cases at the quarter sessions that week, an ‘unusually large amount’. It blamed ‘the power of landlords and the Gregory clause’ and earlier had said

‘if any one doubt that the Gregory clause has produced these sad effects [he] should take a drive …into the country. … Evidence [is]…everywhere…[of] roofless cottages and the blackened walls and the desolate hearths which were once the humble but happy houses of a peaceable and contented peasantry.’ [5]

In my post on 17 February 2016 I looked the Raftery family from Co. Roscommon. They held 32 acres of land in Kiltullagh parish.[6] Because they had more than four acres they were directly liable for poor rates, and these rose dramatically as thousands of destitute and starving people sought relief from the Poor Law. The local press was very clear that the burden of the poor rate was now a major force driving people like the Rafterys to emigrate. In October 1848 the Roscommon Journal said that

‘The enormous expense attending the working of the machinery of the Poor Law, and consequent increased taxation, has had its blighting effects on this country. The tide of emigration bears ample evidence of the fact – the very bone and sinew of Ireland are crossing the Atlantic to seek in a foreign clime what has been denied them in their native land. ….Farmers are selling off the produce of the land to enable them to quit it.’[7]

The links between eviction, destitution and emigration were underlined by a report from Castlerea in 1849. Mr Auchmuty, the Temporary Poor Law Inspector, wrote that

‘The means of the poor are exhausted; they are in a most deplorable condition, some of the persons lately admitted are actually in a state of starvation; all employment, I may say, has ceased, the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution; there is fresh difficulty in discharging paupers from the workhouse who have been in the house for any length of time; they have no homes to go to, the moment they come in , their cabins are levelled by the landlords. There has been a great many evictions in this Union lately. ….it is astonishing, everwhere I go through the Union, to see how fast the cabins are disappearing.’[8]

Evictions went on beyond the normally accepted end of the Famine around 1850. Landlords, many of them newcomers taking advantage of the 1849 Encumbered Estates Act, continued to clear their properties of small tenants during the 1850s. Nearly 17,500 people were evicted in the Castlerea area between 1849 and 1856 and some of these victims continued to arrive in Stafford throughout the decade.

In 1850 the Tuam Herald made the important point that the

‘emigrants of the latter years are those who battled hard with circumstances…. [Emigration] results from long and painful calculation, and the reasons given are “they can hold out no longer”, “landlords will not give fair reductions of rents”, ”taxation is impossible to bear”. ….Every day witnesses the departure of whole families who only regret they did not go three years ago. … The class of small farmers and cottiers, who made a livelihood by mere tillage, can hold out no longer.’[9]

Most of tenants who emigrated because of rising poor rates, landlords’ refusal to reduce rents and a generally hopeless view of the future decided to go to America. There were, nevertheless, families or individuals who ended up in England either by choice or the force of unfortunate circumstances. The continuing inflow of people from the Castlerea district to Stafford in the 1850s underlines the fact that there were different, if limited, options.

In my post on 28 July 2015 I looked at Patrick Corcoran’s family from Castlerea. Patrick worked as a joiner. Around 1855 he, his wife Catherine and their children emigrated to Stafford, and his move illustrates another reason why people were forced out of Ireland during the Famine and its aftermath. Corcoran’s occupation depended on getting work in the building trade. The Famine undermined many small to medium-sized farmers, as well as those landlords whose estates were effectively bankrupt. These people now had neither the need nor the money to pay craft workers for their services, so people like Patrick were in turn impoverished. Many had to emigrate. It seems clear that Patrick used existing connections to make Stafford his bolt-hole rather than the more uncertain option of emigration to America. He may, of course, been so poverty-stricken that the cheaper English option was the only one open to him anyway.

In 1849 the Mayo Constitution described the Famine’s impact on the various classes in that county:

‘The small farmer class are suffering the greatest hardships, denied out-door relief because they cling with tenacity to their little holdings. …. The hitherto extensive farmer and grazier class, once the most important grade in the country, are swept away between Poor Law taxation and destructive free trade. The merchant and tradesman are one by one passing away into utter oblivion….’[10]

Many of those who emigrated early on could help other family members later by sending money for their travel as well as information and promises of support. During the worst of the Famine families ruthlessly tore themselves apart. Destitute wives sought relief from the Poor Law authorities because they had been deserted by husbands who had gone to England or America. This claim of ‘desertion’ was often used to get relief before money arrived from abroad and in 1849 it was said ‘the able-bodied are going to England in great numbers to look for employment, and leaving their families in the greatest destitution.’[11]

Despite North America’s dominance as an emigrant destination it was still unattractive for some and the closer option of England was less risky. The local press publicised evidence of emigrant scams, shipwrecks and hardships in its campaign against emigration and oppression by the Poor Law and the landlords.[12] It is impossible to say whether this had any effect in directing some people to England rather than the New World, but it may have done. The opening of the railway from Chester to Holyhead in 1851 opened up a faster and less sickening passage to England. That would certainly have made the trip to Stafford a more attractive option for those with the money, connections and will to go there.[13]

During the Famine and its aftermath the people who ended up in Stafford were an infinitesimal part of the emigrant tide but there were logical reasons for their arrival in the town. Irish settlement in the diaspora was by no means a process of completely random and panic-stricken movement, as is sometimes suggested.  The contacts developed through seasonal harvest work before the Famine opened the way for larger numbers to settle there during and after the Famine disaster.

[1] Roscommon Journal (RJ), 29 August 1846; 29 January 1848.

[2] RJ, 13 January 1849.

[3] L. Swords, In their own words: the Famine in North Connacht, 1845-1849 (The Columba Press, Blackrock, 1999), p. 304.

[4] James S. Donnelly, jr., The great Irish potato famine, (Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2001), pp. 110-116.

[5] Tuam Herald (TH), 23 June 1849; 16 June 1849.

[6] Tithe Applotment Book (TAB), Co. Roscommon 25/10, (National Library of Ireland microfilm),, 1825; TAB 25/17, 1833.

[7] RJ, 7 October 1848.

[8] PP1849, Papers relating to aid to distressed unions in the west of Ireland; letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 4 May 1849.

[9] TH, 19 October 1850.

[10] The Times, 3 May 1849 quoting from the Mayo Constitution.

[11] Parliamentary Papers, 1849: Papers relating to aid to distressed unions, letter from Mr Auchmuty to the Commissioners, 29 March 1848 and 4 May 1849.

[12] For example, RJ, 13 April 1850, 11 May 1850, 30 November 1850.

[13] Advert in RJ, 25 October 1851.