The Great Famine in Cavan

By Ciaran Parker & Anna Sexton

The Great Irish Famine was, to quote a cliché, a disaster waiting to happen. Between 1750 and 1850 Ireland’s population grew beyond a level at which it could sustain itself. Much of this demographic growth was based on the availability of one food item and when this was withdrawn not just once, but on successive occasions, it resulted in widespread destitution. This was worsened by the structural and ideological failure of those in authority to provide for their sustenance and to prevent the resultant spread of disease.

The population of Ireland on the eve of the Famine stood in excess of 8 millions. The population of Co. Cavan alone was just short of 250,000 – nearly five times its present population. The reasons for this demographic ballooning, which had occurred in the space of little over a century, can be traced to the availability of the potato which provided food security for peasant farmers with little land of indifferent quality. Not surprisingly the potato was adopted with alacrity throughout Ireland, unlike the hostile reception it initially received elsewhere in Europe.

Hardship before the Famine
In Cavan and throughout the northern half of Ireland the advent of flax cultivation and domestic linen production had augmented a further security. Areas supplying linen markets like Cootehill became semi-industrialised, as cottages and cabins were modified to deal with the various processes involved in the process of turning flax fibres into cloth. This was sometimes accompanied by the neglect of farm-based food production. When, after 1825 the cottage linen industry collapsed in the face of mechanised production in factories near Belfast, many areas of Ireland, including Co. Cavan, experienced widespread destitution. Ireland lacked industries which could have absorbed surplus agricultural populations, as was the case in the north of England. However there was a growth in urban populations as towns, including Cavan and Cootehill (amongst others) attracted settlers from their rural hinterlands in search of greater though non-existent prosperity of the towns who were confined to unhealthy yet extensive shanty-towns on their peripheries.

The mid 1840s were years of increased tension in Cavan. Acts of physical violence became common. In May 1845 James Gallagher, the under-agent on the Enerys’ estates at Ballyconnell was badly assaulted and died later the same day with forgiveness on his lips for his assailants. Three months later the unpopular George Bell Booth of Crossdoney was assassinated. December 1847 saw the death of the well-known controversialist Father Thomas Maguire. His passing was widely attributed to poisoning, though as the late Fr Dan Gallogly pointed out, this might have been administered by members of his own erstwhile flock who were dissatisfied with his denunciations of physical force methods.

Failure of response to the potato crop destruction
The response of the authorities of the time to the successive destruction of the potato crop was wholly inadequate. The actions they took were not motivated by racist theories, but by their near religious devotion to ideological fads of the time like Utilitarianism and “Political Economy”. It was not the responsibility of a government to provide for its poor. If there was any responsibility it was on the part of the pauper to behave thriftily and thus keep the wolf of destitution from his miserable cabin door. Such theories underlay the paltry responses that were enacted during the Famine, such as the provision of outdoor relief in return for food, as well as the construction of hideous workhouses. These cynical measures were a central part of the ‘Poor Law’ system established in England in the 1830s in an attempt to reform a slightly more generous form of public welfare that had existed for nearly three centuries whose provision had become too punitive and burdensome for wealthy tax payers.

The system of land tenure, based on landlordism, has often been blamed for the Famine. It did not cause it, but the response of Cavan’s proprietarial class, whether absentee or resident, was shamelessly ambivalent. Their tenantry belonged to a different, subservient orbit whose duties comprised the provision of rent so that their overlords could pursue lives of leisure, ease and indolence . The Barons Farnham, who had attempted (unsuccessfully) to stamp out subdivision of already miniscule holdings by their tenants, did little to alleviate their hardships. Indeed they were enthusiastic evictors of tenants who were unable to pay their rent, although they showed no religious favouritism in this.

But there were exceptions, albeit amongst the smaller landlords. Folklore from the Blacklion area records the activities of a Mr. Nixon who travelled the roads and lanes in search of the starving whom he would bring home to feed. There was also the example of Mr. Tatlow, a minor landlord from Crosserlough. A series of letters to the newly-founded Anglo-Celt recorded how a cart carrying a fever-infected girl to Cavan town’s fever hospital was disabled when its axle broke. Passing vehicles refused to give the girl and her guardian a lift, no doubt fearing infection. Then along came Mr Tatlow’s well-appointed trap, whose owner was only too happy to provide transport. The girl’s ultimate fate is unknown, but it can be assumed.

In Co. Cavan there were some truly inhuman acts of heartlessness. One of these was the eviction of tenants in Mountnugent, researched and described by Patricia Darcy. In September 1847 the tenants of a number of adjoining townlands were evicted from their cottages which were then demolished. No quarter was given to the aged or the infirm who were all equally cast upon the caprices of nature. Other tenants were warned not to give them shelter or assistance. This incident was particularly horrifying because it was spurred by the greed of a number of Irish land-speculators. The tenants who were the object of this inhumanity had not even been remiss in the payment of their rent.

A patchwork effect
The famine did not cast a pall of universal misery affecting the whole of the people of Ireland. Some areas were badly hit, while neighbouring parishes escaped fairly lightly. Amongst the first areas to be affected by the Famine in Co. Cavan was Blacklion and its vicinity, through which starvation and disease cut their deathly swathe; yet the neighbouring parish of Glangevlin was only lightly touched. The folklore recorded in the 1930s tells of refugees coming there from as far away as Co. Galway in search of food, and being satisfied with raw cabbage.

Winners and losers
The Famine in Cavan, in common with the rest of Ireland, had its winners and losers. Alas the former numerically surpassed the former. Those who were already poor and badly-fed were most vulnerable to the food disruption and attendant diseases, and those who came into contact with them, like doctors, were also prone to fall victim to the lethal cocktail of viruses that escaped from the Famine’s Pandora’s box. Others whose positions in society allowed them to eschew contact with the teeming masses, who could afford better food, enjoy more favourable hygiene and heating were insulated from its effects. It is true that while Ireland was in the grip of famine there was no shortage of food in the country. Profits were also made by merchants who exported agricultural items.

Co. Cavan after the Famine
One of the most poignant observations on the Famine was made by a respondent from Blacklion to the Irish Folklore Commission nearly nine decades later. They said pithily that after the Famine there were fewer people around. The population of the county fell by nearly 29 per cent between 1841 and 1851. Part of this was due to starvation- and disease-induced mortality. A significant part was also due to emigration to England and America, a haemorrhage which was to continue late in to the next century.

The Famine also had its impact on the landscape, leaving as its architectural legacy a handful of gaunt poor houses that could never shake off their initial associations with want and destitution. There were also the cottages abandoned by their occupants. These often were preserved in their increasing dereliction by the notion that they were haunted by the spirits of those who had once dwelt there. Quite a number of minor roads throughout the county were also constructed by emaciated human beings in return for paltry wages and food rations.

The Great Famine has been used, or rather misused, along with other historical events, by those who see themselves as the unquestioned guardians of “historical truth” to buttress opinions and policies on which it has no bearing, and to enforce erroneous interpretations. Its “discussion” has often been attended by the spinning of myth and fantasy on the one hand; or dry and unsympathetic number-crunching by economic historians on the other, who forgets that the events of 1845-47 were an immense human tragedy. While not the first outbreak of hunger and disease to hit Ireland it was undoubtedly the most dramatic.

It should not be seen in geographical isolation. Famines later in the century in China and Brazil were equally devastating in their own contexts, while the series of droughts suffered by southern Indian farmers from 1876 to 1900 not only carried off substantial portions of the population, but were met with the same hypocritical response that famine victims had received in Ireland three decades earlier.
The Famine was a disaster waiting to happen, but did that mean it was inevitable? Might it have been avoided altogether? Hindsight is always blessed by 20/20 acuity. In the middle of the nineteenth century the cause of the destruction of the potato crop was unknown. In the century and a half since the Famine the world has gained greater knowledge about climate, nutrition and the dynamics of destitution – yet famines, accompanied by epidemics still occur and their baleful effects are as often inspired as mitigated by Man.

Taken from Breffni Blue 2005