The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

In 1841 — pre-Famine — Ennis had circa 9,300 inhabitants. Ten years (and untold suffering) later, in spite of the influx of thousands of refugees from the surrounding countryside, the town’s population was 7,841: a 16% decline. In Ennis’ hinterland there was a 30-40% decrease in population between 1841 and 1851, with a 45-65% reduction in the number of children under five. Some black spots lost over 50% of their inhabitants.

The Famine mass grave in Drumcliff graveyard, outside Ennis.

The Famine mass grave in Drumcliff graveyard, outside Ennis.

My mother remembers her grandmother telling her that “there was no Famine in Ennis” (Famine denial was common in the decades preceding the catastrophe). Having recently finished The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (Cork University Press, 2012; eds. John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy) I would respectfully beg to differ with my great-grandmother. My home town of Ennis in common with a huge swathe of Ireland, west of a line from Donegal to Waterford, was devastated by the Great Famine. During the period 1845-51 the country lost over one million of her inhabitants to starvation and starvation-related diseases and another million to emigration. In the decade after the Famine, another million souls fled the island. The cowed and stunned Ireland of 1860 was a radically altered place compared to the teeming, heaving (but admittedly troubled) country that met travellers on the eve of the Famine. Not only was it a sadder, emptier place, with torn-down cabins, abandoned villages and lonely fields of lazy beds but its culture had been forever transformed: the poorest class of labourers had been decimated, Gaelic culture, on the back foot since Cromwellian times, had been dealt a lethal blow and the Catholic Church managed to turn the people’s misfortune to its advantage to gain for itself a position of prominence that would last until the new millennium.

The Atlas is a weighty tome and even without considering the subject matter, a daunting proposition for any reader. Coming in at just over 700 pages, the decision to read this book is not to be taken lightly, because this is a read you will not enjoy. You may feel a certain satisfaction upon snapping it shut for the final time, having made it all the way to the epilogue, which ends with a quotation from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, but the journey from the preface to there is a Calvary. A scourge. Harrowing. Distressing. And here, by the way, language begins to fail, to let us down. Because words cannot describe the horrors of the Great Famine. It’s ravages are beyond indescribable and cannot be contained within the pages of any book. But you get the idea that if any book could have a stab at doing written justice to the Famine, the Atlas is that book.

The Atlas is divided into a number of sections within each of which are chapters written by experts in their respective fields. There is a chapter devoted to each of the provinces and, interestingly, those on Ulster and Leinster belie the assumptions that the Great Famine was exclusively a West of Ireland phenomenon. Large parts of Leinster were as affected as areas west of the Shannon and I was astonished to learn that Presbyterians in Ulster were disproportionately affected by hunger and evictions. As you would expect from a book with “atlas” in the title and with heavy involvement from UCC’s Geography Dept., there is a plentitude of maps throughout the book. Many of these are high-resolution (down to townland level) and allow one to trace the course of the Famine in a given district. The maps, many of which are complex and require careful study, are always accompanied by a clearly-written explanatory text and fleshed out in detail in the main text. On top of the maps, the book is brimming with figures — photographs, paintings, manuscripts (especially and very movingly letters from emigrants and those they left behind) and illustrations and printed text from contemporary sources (newspapers, magazines, periodicals, posters, public notices etc.).

The Famine is presented to the reader both from the macro, helicopter view and the micro, ground level view. Hence there are chapters on wide issues such as “The colonial dimensions of the Great Irish Famine” or “The cities and towns of Ireland, 1841-51” and chapters on very local and specific matters such as “The Famine in the County Tipperary parish of Shanrahan” or “Ballykilcline, County Roscommon”. Significant space in the book is devoted to what is called “the Scattering” ― emigration. Here, the maps reveal a deluge of humanity from Irish ports to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. So comprehensive is The Atlas that there are a number of highly interesting sections on aspects of the Famine that are merely touched on in other books. We have a section on “Witnessing the Famine” which details contemporary accounts of the disaster and contains a chapter on the Famine as recorded in Gaelic manuscripts. There is also a section on “Remembering the Famine” which deals with folk memories of the Great Hunger. Many of these are harrowing, for example the account of a witness’ childhood memories of men walking along the road carrying what he thought at the time to be “bundles of sticks” on their backs and burying them in the ditch but which his adult self came to realize must have been corpses. A particularly interesting section deals with the legacy of the Famine, in which it is presented as the most significant event in shaping modern Ireland. Almost every event and trend since 1845 can be looked at in the light of an event that wiped Gaelic culture off the map, broke the spirits of the people and depopulated the island. For example, Ireland today would probably have a similar population to Holland and a completely different urban structure, were it not for the Famine. Imagine a Dublin of two million people, large cities with close to a million inhabitants dotted around the country and a confident, majority Gaelic culture.

An indication of the value and usefulness of the Atlas is the sheer detail of what it revealed to me about my own area before, during and after the famine.

What was the nature of Ennis and Co. Clare society, culture and economics pre-Famine? Beginning with language, between 70-80% of the people in and around Ennis would have spoken Irish (1851 census) while this figure would have been over 80% for the Burren and Loop Head areas. Ennis and the county in general had very little of a manufacturing base during these years (20-30% of the economy) and so was almost totally dependent on agriculture and its vicissitudes. In 1841, 44% of the town’s inhabitants lived in 3rd and 4th class housing (one-roomed mud cabins and slightly larger shacks, respectively) and 39.5% of people were chiefly dependent on their own manual labour. Only 15-25% of population in Ennis area could read and write in 1841.

Famine memorial stone, Drumcliff graveyard outside Ennis.

Famine memorial stone, Drumcliff graveyard outside Ennis.

What was life (or what passed for life) like in the town during the famine? Ennis being a workhouse town, there was almost certainly a huge influx of the destitute from the surrounding countryside. These would mostly have been Irish speaking. With access to workhouses severely limited, these poor labouring families would have congregated in roadside agglomerations (alongside mills and quarries, in cabin suburbs) or colonised spaces such as the Fair Green. Pressure on the original workhouse (which was not among the workhouses “upgraded” in the 1847 programme) forced the opening of a number of auxiliary workhouses in the town. By 1851, the total workhouse population was 4,481. Ennis had a county infirmary, a fever hospital and numerous dispensaries. It was common for the poor to pawn whatever few possessions they had (including the very clothes off their backs) in order to scrape together a few pennies for food. During the Famine, there were pawnshops in Ennis, Kilrush, Miltown Malbay, Lahinch, Ennistymon, Killaloe, Tullow and Gort. Such were the conditions, that a temporary fever hospital was opened in Ennis during Famine. As the Famine progressed, there was general unrest and food riots in Ennis and its surroundings; grain barges on the Fergus were attacked, requiring a naval escort to protect the boats going from Limerick to Ennis. Let us not forget there was a Young Ireland rebellion in Ireland in 1848. William Smith O’Brien (1803-64), a Protestant nationalist who was elected MP for Ennis in 1828, was an early advocate of Repeal and he later joined the militant Young Ireland movement. He was convicted of high treason for his part in the failed rebellion of 1848 and transported to Tasmania.

One author, Ciarán Ó Murchadha in writing about the Famine in Clare says that in 1847 the influx of poor people into the county town of Ennis became a torrent: “evicted, famished and pauperised individuals from the parishes around flocked towards the Union workhouse and when refused entry then huddled in crowds outside the gates or haunted the streets and alleyways in search of shelter. Clare, like all the Munster communities, was seeing, first the gradual, and then the rapid acceleration of the collapse of its society”.

What was done to relieve Famine in Ennis and Co. Clare? More than 50% of the populations of the county’s essentially Irish-speaking Unions were in receipt of some form of relief for at least two years between 1847-51. Among the Famine relief projects set up in the county were the building of the County Courthouse in Ennis, which was designed by local architect Henry Whitestone. A huge project was the draining of the River Fergus, and which was one of the biggest public works schemes undertaken in Ireland during the Famine. It was started under the Drainage Act of March 1846 and lasted into the mid-1850s. The Ballyhea Cutting, three miles north of Ennis, half a mile long and in places over forty feet deep through limestone rock, is the most impressive surviving aspect of the scheme. In mid-July 1847, when all the local road schemes had been closed down, the Fergus scheme was the only source of relief work and employed 600 labourers.

Clare County Courthouse in Ennis - a Famine relief scheme.

Clare County Courthouse in Ennis – a Famine relief scheme.

Relative to other parts of the country, emigration from the Ennis union was relatively low (rates were somewhere in the region of 10-12.4%), a possible explanation being that the population was too poor to afford passage money. Those who did emigrate, however, had the option of doing so from Clarecastle or Kilrush. There were numerous cases of forced emigration. An infamous and well documented case was that of the girls transported to Kangaroo Point, Australia — one of three districts which formed the emerging town of Brisbane during the late 1840s and early 1850s. The orphan girls who arrived to the colony on the Thomas Arbuthnot included sixteen-year-old Mary Fitzgibbon from Ennis. These girls lived, worked and married in the pioneering surrounds of Brisbane. Many other girls from Clare’s Unions were also on this boat: Mary Carigge, Mary Connolly, Mary Fitzgibbon, Alice Gavin and Catherine Smith. Margaret Stack, then 14 years of age, came from Ennistymon. Her parents Peter and Bridget were both deceased. She was employed by Mr. Charles Windmill of north Brisbane at a wage of £6-9 per year but these indentures were later cancelled after she appeared before the Bench for neglecting her work. On September 4, 1852 she married James Smith a carrier and bullock driver and had twelve children. She died on November 21, 1919. Her sister, Mary also arrived in Moreton Bay on the Irene in 1858.

And the post-Famine landscape?

Through depopulation, many of Clare’s towns literally disappeared, including Spancelhill, which once was a vibrant town but ceased to be between 1841-51. (A “town” was an agglomeration of more than 20 houses that had a population less than 500.) Well-establish towns declined substantially: Kilrush was as large and important as Ennis in 1841. Like many medium-sized towns (pop. 5000-10000) the famine almost wiped it out. Land ownership patterns were radically altered. There was an over 40% reduction in the number of holdings in Clare between 47 and 55, with the poorest of the poor driven from the land. 10-12% of properties auctioned under the Encumbered Estates Court between 1849 and 1855 were in Co. Clare. 6.3-7.8% of Ireland’s evictions between 1846-52 happened in Clare. 7-14% of the evicted families in Ireland between 1849 and 1852 belonged to Clare. Smaller holdings were consolidated and farm sizes increased. The class structure of society was also radically altered by the Famine. There was a huge decrease in Ennis of families dependent on “vested means” and “direction of labour” during 1841-51 — circa 500 “well-to-do” families. Notwithstanding this, it was the fourth-class-house-dwelling, manual labouring class (Irish-speaking, illiterate) that were most affected in Clare during the famine.

Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, a Gaelic scribe from northwest Co. Clare details the extent of the devastation wrought by the Famine across the “kingdom” while also recording the number of dead in his own parish of Kilmanaheen in Corcomroe: “Many people died everywhere in the kingdom. Fever and sickness overcame them as a result of hunger and that is how people in this country died. More than a thousand fell in this parish in three months.”

So read the Atlas and weep. It is a work of true scholarship and a worthy effort at providing detailed information to the lay student of history. It was a most difficult read, but one I am satisfied to have worked through.

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About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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10 Responses to The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

  1. Bernard Brennan says:

    Well written review of the famine, you are a man of the west, up Sligo

  2. Pingback: “Mageghoul- Goddess of Famine” | Le Art Studio

  3. Great information about a time in Irish history that people still rarely talk about. I wanted to make more people aware of what it was like so I wrote a love story about my g g grandmother’s parents, who remained in Ireland throughout those hard years and raised five children. Her name was Catherine, she was born in 1846 and her father was a fisherman. I have stories told to me by my mother, who was 12 when Catherine died at the age of 102. She never remembers her great grandmother speaking of the famine years, it was something not discussed. My book turned into a fictional love story but I made sure to include some harrowing scenes to get the point across.

    • ucronin says:

      I’m thinking of writing something set back then too. It’s going to be hard work — the research and the little details. I hope I can do it justice.

      • There’s tons of research and you’re right to get the small details correct. Even though my book is mostly about the relationships of the characters, who managed to keep a roof over their heads and some food on the table, I spent a long time scouring through historical information. Some may feel I didn’t make the story harrowing enough but my book is really a love story, and when I was writing it I assumed the main readers would be women. I did include references at the back with excerpts from newspapers of the day. Here is a link that I found very helpful for eyewitness accounts and I used Alexander Somerville as a character in my book.
        http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/famine%20letters%20by%20alexander%20somerville.pdf
        Wishing you all the best with your own book. Please let me know when you have it finished.

      • ucronin says:

        Thanks. I’ll check out your link and your own work. Best of luck in the future.

  4. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    We used to live about eight miles from Ennis and I have seen the famine grave there. All over Ireland there are mass graves from those terrible years. This review of the book ‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’ sums it up well.

    • ucronin says:

      Thanks for your kind comments. I think everyone in Ennis should take a trim to see the mass graves in Drumcliff — they’re such an eye-opener.

  5. KKTG says:

    Famine is still plaguing some parts of the world today. This story is still happening some where in this world and made worst by mad governments. I hope you’ll write your book.

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