'An tOcras Mór' The Great Hunger.



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Forum Home > How Each County Was Affected "The Great Hunger" > Co Donegal Dún na nGall

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by Dr. Christine Kinealy


The impact of the Famine in County Donegal, in the west of Ulster, was varied, reflecting the economic and social diversity of this area. On the eve of the Great Hunger, almost 40 per cent of the land in Donegal was classified as bog or wasteland. The county had a lower dependence on potatoes than other parts of the province, with only 11 per cent of the total acreage sown being devoted to potatoes, compared with 27 per cent in County Down. Instead, oats were an important part of the diet of the local poor. On parts of the coast, fishing communities existed, mostly surviving from the produce of inshore waters and from what they could gather along the shoreline. Overall, many of the local population survived on the edge of subsistence.


The unfolding of the Famine, followed a similar pattern to other parts of the country. On 29 September 1845, the Ballyshannon Herald published an article warning, ‘The potato crop looks most luxuriant but some are complaining that a disease has prevailed to a partial extent …’. Within a month, potato disease had appeared in all parts of Donegal, although there were considerable regional variations within the county.


As was the case elsewhere in the country, it was the second and more devastating appearance of the blight which meant that the shortages could no longer be viewed as a temporary crisis. As early as November 1846, the Ballyshannon workhouse was full and, due to legislative restrictions, could admit no more paupers. Glenties workhouse soon followed. Quite simply, government relief in the form of public works and the workhouses were not able to cope with the demands being made on them, and the poor were beginning to die in large numbers.


News of the suffering in Ireland, carried by newspapers throughout the world, led to an international fund-raising effort of unprecedented proportions. However, it was Irish Quakers who were amongst the first to establish a relief committee for Ireland. In addition to their fund-raising activities, they sent a number of their members to all parts of Ireland on fact-finding missions. Their witness testimonies proved invaluable in countering the negative reports that were appearing in some sections of the British press.


James Hack Tuke, a young Quaker from Yorkshire in England and a sympathetic witness, was appalled by what he witnessed. He described the destitute in Donegal as ‘crying from hunger’. When he visited the Glenties Workhouse, he realized that the condition of people in receipt of official relief was little better, reporting:


Their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in rows on the floor … The living and the dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering … disease and pestilence are filling the infirmary, and that the pale, haggard countenance of the poor boys and girls told of sufferings, which it was impossible to contemplate without pity.

Women played an important role in providing charity thought the Great Hunger, although their role remains largely unacknowledged. The Londonderry Ladies’ Working Association was particularly active in sending assistance to Donegal. In April 1847, the Treasurer of the Buncrana Relief Committee acknowledged the receipt of £15 from the Association, it being their fourth donation for the poor of Lower Fahan and Desertegney.


In districts where the landlords were absent or uncaring, the poor were especially vulnerable. Captain Jones, an agent of the British Relief Association, described the condition of poor in Dunglow and Mullaghberg near Ballyshannon as ‘wretched’. He added, ‘they belong to nobody and nobody seems to take much interest in their welfare. They are, therefore, in the hands of the British Relief Association to keep them alive’. His statements give an insight into the importance of private charity in assisting the poor, especially in areas where government relief was inadequate and the local landowners were absentee. Not all landlords, however, were uncaring or absentee. John Hamilton, a landlord who resided in St. Ernan's, near Donegal Town, for example, was renowned for his benevolence throughout the Famine.


Evictions, particularly after 1847, added homelessness to the problem of hunger. Of all of the Ulster counties, Donegal witnessed some of the highest levels – it standing at almost 16 per cent. In contrast, Donegal experienced some of the lowest rates of emigration


Over 40,000 people died or emigrated from County Donegal between the years 1846 and 1851. But it was not simply the demographic loss that made the Great Hunger so devastating. Evictions, which were followed by the destruction of the houses of the poor, together with the gradual move to pastoral farming, changed the landscape for ever. Additionally, there was also a cultural loss that was hard to capture or quantify, one casualty being the Irish language. The descendant of a Great Hunger survivor from the Rosses in west Donegal expressed the impact of the years of suffering on her community:


Recreation and leisure ceased. Poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been.

The Famine killed everything.


Today, the Great Hunger is commemorated throughout County Donegal, including in the Doagh Famine Village in Inishowen, and the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre.

October 14, 2015 at 5:10 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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The Great Famine of 1874


The Great Famine of 1847, caused by the total failure of the potato crop, was the most cataclysmic event of the last century. Even today remaining artifacts such as the famine pot at Lough Eske remind us of that grim period when a million people died of starvation and famine related disease and another million plus were forced to emigrate, many of them to die in the coffin ships bearing them to the land of promise.

Famine of course is a misnomer for the tragedy, because there was in fact a good grain crop in that year but the government allowed this to be exported while the people at home were dying of starvation. So much has been written about the famine that almost every schoolchild is conversant with its history, and we still have people with us who can recount some poignant tale of a harrowing experience in their own family which has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Jim McMullin, from Meenadreen did recall many stories told to him by his grandfather who lived through the famine and died at a very ripe age in 1911.

There had been failures of the potato crop before 1847 but these had been confined to specific areas where in certain years the blight had been particularly severe, and consequently did not have the same widespread effect that followed the 1847 failure.

Nevertheless they did cause great distress wherever they occurred and left the people in the affected areas economically and psychologically unprepared for the trauma that faced them in 1847. This was true of our own two parishes of Tawnawilly and Killymard which suffered badly in the potato failure of 1830/31. Whole families had to resort to begging to keep body and soul together. Let us look for a moment at conditions that prevailed in this area even before "black forty-seven".

The failure of the potato crop two years in succession, 1830/1831, created dreadful hardships and led inevitably to a breakdown in ordinary trading practice. People deprived of their staple diet had to resort to the shops to buy alternative supplies. This led eventually to a scarcity of provisions resulting in a marketing situation of supply and demand which regulated the prices. A continual rise in prices meant that even when supplies did become available the poorer classes could not afford them. The cottier or small farmer who had not enough land to provide for his family depended on odd labouring jobs with the better off farmers to supplement his meagre income, but eventually even the big farmers had to cut back on their outlay which meant less work for the already suffering cottier; and his wife fared no better. A woman might spin for a whole week to earn eightpence. The little seasonal employment housewives got preubsist by begging?" The response in Donegal was 100 and in Killymard it was 20. It is difficult in these days of affluence to perceive of a situation so desperate that a proud people were forced to strip themselves of their dignity and resort to what was for them a degrading experience. There were some who just could not bring themselves around to taking this final step to mendacity. Patrick Doherty, a labourer, told the enquiry that he was sure there were many who would prefer to die from cold and hunger than go out regularly to beg for charity - but what mother would let her child die if asking for help would save its life.

William McDonagh, shopkeeper, said that most of the women who go about begging with their families are the wives of cottier tenants who inhabit the upper parts of the Parish and have no more than a rood of land which is not enough to support a family. He said that the men are always ashamed to enter the town or district where their wives are known to beg. Thomas Brooke, High Sheriff, who lived in Ardnamona, in an implied criticism of the Board of Education who were threatening their tenants in Tawnawilly with eviction, said that one estate in Tawnawilly with over 8,000 acres and belonging to the Board, furnishes more paupers than any other part of the country.

When asked what the churches were doing to alleviate the suffering of the poor both Father McCafferty and the Rector Rev. Homan said they had often appealed from the church for help for some distressed person or family and people responded to the best of their ability. Rev. Homan said that visitors to the Spa Baths in the summer always contributed to his appeal. The shopkeepers set up their own scheme of relief and in order to ensure that it was local people who benefited and not outsiders who were taking advantage of their generosity they adopted a system of identification tags. Monday was declared "help day".

Willie Love praised the farmers who gave what little they could spare to relieve the suffering of the poor. He himself never let a beggar out of the house without a good "goping" (two handfuls) of oatmeal.

Anthony Diver, Postmaster, told the enquiry that within the past seven years no less than seven corn stores had been built in the town and these gave good employment and, he continued, Lord Aran had made a number of improvements to the town and quay. About 2,000 tons of grain were exported from Donegal Quay the previous year; despite this, he said, the condition of the labouring classes and small farmers seemed to be getting worse and they were growing poorer every day. Richard Corscadden who had a grocery business on the Diamond (now part of the Abbey Hotel) said that the majority of the beggars came from the country parts of Killymard and Donegal and from parishes in the immediate neighbourhood.

It was around this time that John Hamilton, Landlord, came to reside in St. Ernan's, and his benevolence then and again in 1847 was to make him a well loved and revered figure in Donegal. Many years later the parish priest of Donegal, Father John Doherty, in a letter to the Derry Journal wrote, "In all Ireland there never was, nor is there, a more considerate and humane landlord than the good and kind-hearted proprietor of St. Ernan's. I know the pulse of his tenants well, and I know of my own knowledge that they honour him.

October 14, 2015 at 5:11 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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During the Great Hunger Donegal had a population of nearly 30,000 people, more than two thirds were involved in agriculture using one third of the county’s land. As a result Famine in the 1840s had a devastating effect on the people. The diet of the time consisted of potatoes, herring, salt, stirabout and milk. Clothing was meagre and wretched; furniture in the hovels was pitiful and bedding was scare. Living conditions were overcrowded and smoky.


Despite the 1838 Act providing relief for the poor, very little impact was felt by the starving and diseased population. The Workhouses carried a certain stigma up until 1845 but after that when they were used, they could hardly cope with the crisis. Only some of them could provide reasonable living conditions but at Letterkenny, Glenties and Ballyshannon they were substandard and in a terrible state. The diet provided was Indian meal or oatmeal, once a day.


By 1846 James Hack Tute who was on a fact finding mission in the County, described the misery of the poor which prevailed in the area. People who living on a single meal of cabbage or seaweed. As the decade wore on, the Workhouses reported outbreaks of typhus among their inmates and as a result could not admit more paupers. Arguments about the administration of the guardians abounded with absentee landlords and agents being held accountable.


Destitution reigned in the harsh winter of 1846/7 although some relief was sourced from a Belfast charitable association. However, the parish of Glencolumkille lost seventeen per cent of its population through disease, starvation and emigration. Conditions on Arranmore were described by an American visitor in 1847: no food apart from bits of turnip and seaweed. And still the blight continued to spread.


Workhouses were full to capacity. Fever and pestilence stretched from Ballyshannon to Moville. Relief was slow in coming owing to primitive transportation and the distance from Dublin which was the centre of famine relief. Emigration to Canada and America was rampant.


The legacy of the famine in Donegal is seen today in the paupers’ graveyards, the huge iron boiling pots for soup scattered round the county.


Donegal has an interactive experience of life in Ireland during the 19th century in the Doagh Famine Village located in Inishowen -




To read a contemporary account of the Famine and with particular reference to Donegal click on the following link:


October 14, 2015 at 5:12 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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Cróna Cassidy, author of the ‘Great Famine in Stranorlar, County Donegal’ is the daughter of Susanna (nee Timoney from Finntown) and Philip Cassidy (from Airne, Co. Fermanagh), former proprietors of Cassidy’s chemist shop, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Cróna studied history at degree and masters level in N.U.I.M. Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Cróna is head of history in Meánscoil Iognáid Rís, Naas, Co. Kildare, where she now lives. Cróna thrives on bringing history to life by facilitating guided historical walks with her students.


The book tells the story of these terrible years in and around Stranorlar was the site of the workhouse for Stranorlar Poor Law Union, a rural area that experienced much poverty and starvation due to recurrent failures of the potato crop, rapid population growth, disease, subdivision, absentee landlords, severe winters and inadequate government relief measures. Unemployment resulted in emigration from the region, principally through the port of Londonderry, creating a Stranorlar ‘Diaspora’ in places such as Greenock, Scotland, Brunswick, Canada, Australia and the U.S.A. Due to emigration, the community of Stranorlar grew in strength abroad, and at the height of the Famine emigrants embarking from the port of Londonderry numbered well over twelve thousand.


Stranorlar workhouse opened on 3 May 1844 at a cost of £6,700 and was built to accommodate four hundred people, but the greatest influx of inmates recorded was four hundred and sixty-three in June 1849. During the Famine, entry into the workhouse was the only option, but food exports continued unimpeded. There was a fever epidemic resulting in 32 fatalities in Stranorlar workhouse in 1847.


Post-Famine Stranorlar witnessed a change from arable to pastoral farming, which led to agrarian unrest and a rise in the tenant right movement. The Stranorlar region also saw many demographic changes and changes in farming structure and landownership and the consequent changes in tenant, landlord and clergy relationship, ongoing crime and continuing emigration from the area in the aftermath of the Famine.


The book is available locally in 'The Book Centre' and 'The House of Books' in Ballybofey.



October 14, 2015 at 5:12 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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This petition seeks your support for a campaign to:

* Persuade relevant authors, editors and website content providers to stop using the word ‘Famine’ for what took place in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, and start using terms such as, "The Great Hunger" or 'An tOcras Mór

PETITION LINK- TO CHANGE THE WORD FAMINE http://www.petitions24.com/when_famine_became_genocide_ireland_1845_-_1850

October 14, 2015 at 5:13 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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