Yer Man About Town - The Great Famine

Margaret McGinty
Margaret McGinty

Times are hard and there’s worse to come; that’s the way it is after the banking crash and the subsequent economic crisis through the continent of Europe and well beyond.

And there is absolutely no doubt that people are facing massive problems, many almost distraught as they see little hope of a way out of their critical situations. But, little consolation as it will be to those in distress, what we are encountering now doesn’t even begin to compare to what our forefathers had to bear.

I’m referring specifically to the Great Famine which began in 1845 and, although it was less evident in county Tyrone than elsewhere, it did become quite severe here in 1846 and the complete failure of the potato crop in October of that year resulted in the formation of local famine relief committees.

Requests were made in various localities for the instigation of the government’s primary relief measure, the public works scheme, which entailed mainly roadworks and drainage schemes. These works sustained approximately 11,500 people from mid-November 1948 until the end of the following March - the fifth lowest number of any county.

These local relief committees, under the plan agreed by Peel’s Commission, were expected to provide Indian corn or Indian corn meal and other food financed from a local relief fund which was supported by a grant of 50 per cent up to mid-January of 1847 and, after that, of 100 per cent.

It was decreed that food should only be sold in small quantities at market prices and only to persons who could not obtain food anywhere else.

“There is a large class of poor to be relieved who, from infancy, infirmity or old age, cannot work and to whom we believe it will be necessary to give food or money to buy food” stated the chairman of the Moy relief committee.

A Pomeroy curate declared: “Much distress is no prevailing in the district. Every day presents fresh scenes of distress and misery and the misfortune is that the poor have not the money to give, be the price of provisions ever so small”.

A soup kitchen set up in Coalisland was serving abpove 400 quarts daily to the destitute, explained the local rector, adding; “The principal contributors being persons in business in this village and neighbourhood”.

“Clonoe division of the Stewartstown district contains a crowded population of 6,000, of whom the majority are now in a state of the greatest destitution and many of absolute starvation” stated the Clonoe rector.

The secretary of Ardboe relief committee wrote:”We have attended only to those in absolute want. On our last day of meeting, we selected from the list of applicants 193 families, cottier tenants, without land of any means of support and gave them some gratuitous relief”.


Workhouses to accommodate the destitute had been built all over Ireland in the late 1830s, these administered by a board of guardians consisting of appointees such as magistrates, landlords and elected representatives, whose voting capacity depended on the valuation of their property.

The county was divided into ‘unions’ - based in Strabane, Omagh, Castlederg, Clogher, Dungannon, Gortin and Cookstown - each of which was charged with building a workhouse, these completed and opened between February of 1841 and March of 1844, accommodating 4,000 paupers.

Conditions in these, espeically the monotonous diet of potatoes, oatmeal and buttermilk, were sufficiently harsh that only the destitute would enter.

From October 1846 onwards, they in Tyrone were inundated with applications from labourers and small farmers - considered a last resort and, as workhouses filled up, extra accommodation was acquired by the erection of ‘sleeping galleries’ around the dining halls and dormitories. Sometimes wooden sheds were constructed on the grounds or houses were hired in the towns.

Yet they were still overcrowded and this caused many problems, Omagh especially suffering. Sixteen deaths occurred there in one week in December of 1846 and another 23 died in Christmas week, sixteen of whom were children.

Guardians were blamed for the deaths of children illegally admitted without their parents. Children had diarrhoea, dysentry and measles when admitted, many dying on the day they went it. Forty-five inmates died in one week in Strabane, 32 of them under the age of ten and nine over sixty.

The wages for the public works schemes were generally too small to support a family, government policy being that they were to be lower than the local rate to discourage labourers from leaving farmwork and to prevent a steep increase in the cost of food.

The Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons Act was passed in January of 1847 to assist those who could not be catered for by workhouses. Known as the Soup Kitchen Act, it is firmly implanted in folk memory, a kitchen set up in each electoral division.

The most dramatic result of the Great Famine was the drastic reduction in population by starvation, disease and emigration.

Although Tyrone was one of the least affected counties, the population declined from 312,956 in 1841 to around 250,000 ten years later - around twenty per cent fewer.

Cost of a passage to America circa the 1950s was around £5, while there was a grant of one shilling in the pound for paupers going to British colonies.

The Guardians of Cookstown union unanimously approved of a free passage scheme to send orphans aged 16 to 18 to Australia via Plymouth in England and in May 1848 a group of female orphans boarded ships, eleven girls from Cookstown and sixteen from Dungannon along with 168 from other northern counties. The journey lasted 126 days, two girls died during the journey and the ship docked in Sydney on October 6, 1848.

Another ten or eleven girls left Cookstown and, along with 209 others, travelled to Plymouth on the Roman Emperor, finishing up in domestic service.

Emigration, mainly to America, decimated every community after the famine, a process which continued well into the 1950s and 1960s.

Those were horrendous times in which to live but, some of the doctor dooms around right now would have you believe that, if the politicans don’t get a grip on things sometime soon, we are heading towards a modern day equivalent. Let’s hope not.

NB: Much of the information for this article was gleaned from Danny Donnelly’s splendid book, The Sperrins and their Foothills. The former St.Patrick’s Academy teacher from Galbally had a print run of 1000 - and he has fewer than 80 left!