THE EFFECTS OF THE GREAT FAMINE
IN KILDARE 1845-50.
In this project the author will be showing the effects of the Great Famine in County Kildare based on documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony and through trends in emigration, death and the shift of population over the period 1845-50.
County Kildare at the dawn of the Great Famine was reasonably prosperous. The eighteenth century saw the erection of many of Kildare’s great houses, most notably Castletown House in Celbridge and Carton House in Maynooth. The building of the Grand Canal, begun in 1756 and the Royal Canal in 1789, allowed for the transportation of goods from Dublin and throughout the county.1 Despite its wealth and prosperity, Kildare did not escape the Great Famine, though it was spared its worst effects due to its relatively low population density and having the smallest arable land devoted to the mainstay of the Irish peasant – the potato. Kildare, with a population of 114,488 in the 1841 census, had an average total of 187 people per square mile of arable land in pre-Famine years. This was the lowest county figure in the country. Only 8.2 per cent of the arable land in the county was given over to the potato crop, compared to 28.5 percent in Cork and 22.8 per cent in Mayo.2 However, the Famine hit some parts of the county with equal intensity and as usual it was the poorer classes who suffered most.
The Act of Union, passed in 1800, abolished the independent Irish Parliament in Dublin, and brought Irish Administration under the British Parliament. Only Irish Protestants were allowed to be British MPs, but in 1829, after a long struggle, Irish Catholics achieved emancipation, and won the right to sit in the British Parliament. However, the bulk of the Irish population lived in conditions of great poverty and insecurity. English and Anglo-Irish families owned most of the land, and had almost limitless power over their tenants. Some of their estates were huge - the Duke of Leinster, for example, owned 67,000 acres. His holdings in Maynooth, Carton, Kildare, Rathangan, Athy, Woodstock, Kilkea, Castledermot and Graney were the most important in the county. Many landlords lived in England and were called ‘absentee-landlords’. They used agents called ‘middlemen’ to administer their property, and many of them had no interest in the land except to spend the money the rents brought in. It was a very unbalanced social structure. The farmers rented the land they worked, and those who could afford to rent large farms would break up some of the land into smaller plots. These were leased to cottiers, or small farmers. Rents were high and nobody had security, or tenure. Very little cash was used in the economy. The cottier paid his rent by working for his landlord, and he could rear a pig to sell for the small amount of cash he might need to buy clothes or other necessary goods. There was also a large population of agricultural labourers who travelled around looking for work. These itinerant workers were very badly off as few Irish farmers could afford to hire them.3 In 1835, an inquiry found that over two million people were without regular employment of any kind. In the royal commission report the rector of Athy, Rev. John Bagot stressed that casual labourers could not get employment, and that hundreds of people were idle off-season. Under the Irish Poor Law of 1838, workhouses were built in all parts of the country and financed by local taxpayers. This unstable system held together only because the rural peasants had a cheap and plentiful source of food – the potato. Introduced from America about 1560, the hardy potato could grow in the poorest conditions, with very little labour. This was important because labourers had to give most of their time to the farmers they worked for, and had very little time for their own crops. Richard Grattan Esq. M.D. spoke extensively on the problem of poverty and highlighted the importance of the potato in County Kildare. If rent could not be paid the potato crop was detained until it could be, but “the potatoes are of such value to the poor that they will make any sacrifice rather than let their potatoes be seized for rent”.4
In the summer of 1845 potato blight appeared in the fields of England and soon appeared in Ireland. The blight may have reached Europe by way of produce in the holds of ships from America. The blight turned the potato flower and stalk black, which caused the tuber to putrefy. The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, did not believe the first reports from across the Irish Sea. “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable,” he wrote on 13 October 1845. Two days later the Royal Irish Constabulary reported to the British administration that potatoes everywhere in Ireland were indeed rotting.5 Peel appointed a Scientific Committee to investigate the cause of the blight and suggest a palliative for it. In private correspondence the English botanist Dr Lindley described the situation in Kildare and adjoining counties as ‘melancholy’ and advised that the problem had been understated rather than exaggerated. For the purpose of the official report the Scientific Committee had examined the potato crop in the relatively prosperous counties of Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Louth. In these areas half the potato crop was unfit for human consumption. They could not, however, give any guarantee for the continuing safety of the unaffected part of the crop.6
There was not much panic at first, as everyone thought it was an isolated incident. Ireland was accustomed to famine, of which there had been localised occurrences throughout the early 1800s, including 1821-22 and 1836. After the initial shock in 1845 the peasantry received advice from experts of the day about how to dig a potato pit secure from contamination by moisture. The peasants dutifully dug dry pits to save the crop, but the fungus spores were carried by wind and washed into the soil by soft rain. The spores attacked the meat of the potato as well as the plant, and both the leaf and fruit fermented, blackened and rotted.7 John O’Rourke was a student in Maynooth College throughout the famine years being ordained in 1849. The following year he was curate in Castledermot and recorded his views of the potato blight there in 1850 comparing it to what the first original sightings of blight in the country must have been:
“The fifteenth of July in that year – St Swithin’s day – was a day of clouds and lightening, of thunder and terrific rain … that the air was charged with electricity to a most unusual extent was felt by everybody. Those who had an intimate knowledge of the various blights from ’45 said, ‘This is the beginning of the blight’. So it was … next day, - a still oppressive, sultry, electric sort of day – I, in company with some others, visited potato fields. There was but one symptom that the blight had come; all the blossoms were closed, even at mid-day: this was enough to the experienced eye – the blight had come. Heat, noon-tide sun, nothing ever opened them again. In some days they began to fall off the stems; in eight or ten days other symptoms appeared and so began the potato blight of 1850, a mild one, but still the true blight. How like this fifteenth of July must have been the nineteenth of August, 1845…” 8
The police were ordered to keep records of the spread of the blight and extracts from the Constabulary report on the state of the potato crop in Kildare in 1845 stated:
19 September, Athy: “there is no appearance of the potato blight in the area”.
19 October, Athy: “disease has appeared in several fields … at present it is confined to those sown in drills”.
13 November 13, Kildare: “Since the fall of rain, the crop is rapidly running to decay. The poorer class of people are beginning to despair.”9
By the end of the year it was obvious that the blight was spreading around Ireland. In November 1845 Daniel O’Connell went with a delegation to visit the Irish Lord Lieutenant, William A’Court Heytesbury, in Dublin Castle. The Liberator pleaded for a suspension of the export of grain and provisions, and a prohibition on distilling and brewing from grain. He also urged Heytesbury that the ports be opened to the free import of rice and Indian corn from British colonies. The Irish ports were subject to the special provisions of the Corn Laws, which were designed to peg the price of local grain at the highest possible level and to keep out other, cheaper grain until the entire British crop had been sold at that artificially pegged price. O’Connell also asked that paid labour be provided on public works for those whose potato crop had rotted. He maintained that if these things were not acted upon millions would have nothing to eat throughout the winter. Prime Minister Robert Peel considered the repeal of the Corn Laws, but his colleagues argued that if foreign grain was admitted freely into Britain and Ireland, the price would collapse and millions of workers whose livelihood depended upon the growing of grain would suffer. Sir Robert Peel’s motives in amending or repealing the Corn Laws were humanitarian but also profoundly conservative for the laws had pushed the price of food beyond the reach of even the English working class.10
While Daniel O’Connell appealed to the House of Commons he was fighting a losing battle. For a long time the English ministers, Tories and Whigs, had considered an Irish catastrophe inevitable, and to some desirable. As early as 1817 the population theorist Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus - who had written considerably on Ireland, though he had never visited the country - stated to a correspondent: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than anywhere else; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” To many in the House of Commons the Famine was seen as a visitation upon the Irish themselves, a corrective to their over-breeding, and their over-dependence to the one crop – the potato. Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Edward Trevalyen, wrote the Irish smallholder “lives in a state of isolation, the type of which is to be sought for in the islands of the south seas rather than in the great civil community of the ancient world. A fortnight for planting, a week or ten days for digging, and another fortnight for turf cutting, suffice for his subsistence, when, during the rest of the year, he is at leisure to follow his own inclinations without even the safeguard of those intellectual tastes and legitimate objects of ambition which only imperfectly obviate the evils of leisure in the highest ranks of society.”11
Unknown to his party, Peel had in fact secretly arranged, in November 1845, to purchase £100,000 worth of Indian corn, or maize, from America, in the hope of preventing some of the distress in Ireland. His intentions were good, but Indian corn was very hard to mill – there were few mills in Ireland – and was also difficult to digest. People who were used to the bulk of potato were left unsatisfied by Indian corn. However, as it was almost unknown in Britain there was no existing British trade in it and so the Corn Laws did not affect it. Although it was unpopular at first, demand for Indian corn rose, as the famine got worse. Peel’s aid was exceptionally generous for the time, and was opposed by many in the government as excessive. Peel then created a Relief Commission, the first solution proposed to deal with the famine. The Commission was to organise aid to Ireland and get it distributed. The aim of the Commission was to place food depots all over the country, and sell grain at cost price to local relief committees, who would sell it on to the local population, again at cost price. The money for administering this system came from the British Treasury. As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Trevalyen worked extremely hard to organise the relief schemes, but he was very unhappy with the whole idea of giving famine aid.12
So people could earn money to buy food the Relief Commissioners began to discuss ideas for relief works, employing men to do such jobs as building public roads or drainage schemes or improving harbours. There was plenty of room for such improvements, but in the end the money provided went almost entirely to road building, which was easiest to organise. The Treasury, through the local county administrations, funded some of the relief work schemes while the Board of Works ran other relief schemes. Established in 1831 the Board of Works looked after roads, bridges, harbours and fisheries. A county granted Board of Works aid would have to repay only half the grant, over twenty years. This was called the ‘half-grant’scheme.13 The popularity of the half-grant scheme was such that by the end of May 1846, applications had been received from eighteen different counties, including Kildare, for 203 separate works, the anticipated cost of which was over £1 million. Of this, only £250,000 worth of works was finally sanctioned.14
In August 1846 all hope of a short-lived famine disappeared. The infected tubers from the previous year had been left in the fields, and had re-infected the new crop, because the mild winter had let the spores survive. The total yield of potatoes was enough to feed the population for just one month. In England the new Whig government of Lord John Russell, under pressure from the corn dealers about the import of grain for famine relief in Ireland, and afraid the Irish were becoming too dependent on government aid, decided to close down the relief committees. Trevalyen ordered the closure of the public works but the Board of Works refused. Food prices had rose higher and higher and the relief works was all that was keeping hundreds of thousands from starvation. In September 1846 Dublin Castle was informed of the threat of raids on boats with food supplies on the stretch of the Grand Canal between Robertstown and Rathangan, as bandits and hungry people carried out raids on canal traffic.
A landlord, John Dopping, wrote to the under-secretary on September 30: “Distress exists at present in this neighbourhood to so great an extent that I have reason to fear there is danger of the provision boats being attacked and plundered on their passage through a very distressed and populous district.” In November a contingent of twenty-three constabulary was assembled to protect a fleet of provision boats making its way to Dublin. For 1847 there are several reports of attacks on boats. On the night of 19 January a food boat on its way from Limerick to Dublin was attacked by a large body of men in the bog of Allen and robbed of “several packages of tobacco, eggs and whiskey”. In December boats en route from Dublin were attacked and plundered “by a mob” at Derrymullen near Robertstown.15
By the end of 1846, newspapers were beginning to publish horrific accounts of hunger and death. Travellers came to Ireland to bring charity, and brought away vivid descriptions of conditions that seemed impossible in a civilised country in the western world. Public opinion became agitated in Britain. A good deal of charitable aid had already been sent, and it increased greatly under the influence of these descriptions. Magazines such as The Illustrated London News sent over artists who brought back realistic drawings of hunger, misery and deprivation. Much of the burden of coping with the famine fell on the poor law unions. These were units into which the country was divided initially under the terms of the poor relief act of 1838. Each was named by the town on which it was centred and which was the location of a workhouse. Poor law unions were defined without much reference to county boundaries. Kildare had three unions to cover the county - based in Celbridge, Naas and Athy - but they also included portions of neighbouring counties. Celbridge union embraced a significant area of South-west county Dublin from Clonsilla to Saggart, and Rodanstown in County Meath; Naas included Blessington in County Wicklow, while Athy extended to a portion of Queen’s (Laois) County including Ballyadams and Stradbally. Edenderry union catered for parts of north-west Kildare: Ardkill, Ballynadrimna, Cadamstown, Carbury, Cloncurry, Mylestown and Rathangan. Graney was attached to Baltinglass union, while a small area near Grangeford was assigned to Carlow union. At one time or another during 1847 over one third of the (1841) population of the county was in receipt of public relief. Government statistics show significant divergences between the three Kildare centred unions, with Athy at thirty-four per cent, Naas at twenty-five per cent and Celbridge at sixteen per cent.16
The winter of 1846-7 was the coldest in Ireland in living memory. Poverty in Ireland had always been helped by the mild climate and the availability of turf for fires, but the cold now became intense, and people had no energy to cut turf. The extreme cold began to affect the relief works, as the weather was too bad to work in. The Board of Works began to run out of money and work for semi-starved men. Trevelyan, taking the example of the Quakers and their soup kitchens, began the Outdoor Relief system. The relief committees distributing food worked miracles day after day feeding the multitudes. (While food began to reach Ireland in greater quantities oats, wheat meal and barley were still being exported from the country. Lord Russell, committed to Free Trade, was afraid of causing food shortages in England if grain supplies from Ireland were cut off.) Because the poor wore only filthy, lice-infested rags conditions were perfect for the spread of diseases like typhus and relapsing fever. The Irish custom of hospitality and never refusing a stranger a meal or a bed, helped spread these diseases, as did the overcrowding on the public works. Probably ten times more people died of diseases than that of hunger, but the real figures will never be known. Thousands were buried in unmarked lonely graves. There was no legal register for deaths and relief committees found it impossible to estimate the numbers.17
The final stage of misery was now coming. As landlords could no longer collect rent from a starving populace they began to evict tenants from their small plots and relet the properties in bigger lots to people with more money. It is unknown how many were evicted before 1848, when the police began to keep records of evictions, but between 1849 and 1854, 49,000 families were dispossessed. Most were thrown out on the side of the roads and their houses demolished. Mrs. Hanniffe, from Cillceascin, Cairbre, Co. Kildare, remembered: “Fifty families were evicted from this district of Kilkeaskin by a local landlord. The thatch of the roofs were torn off even before the poor people had time to leave.”18 Some landlords assisted their tenants with fares for emigration, glad to be rid of them. One-quarter of a million people left Ireland in 1847 and 200,000 or more every year for the next five years. By the time the massive shift of population had begun to die down, almost two million people had emigrated from the country. Another million had emigrated before the Famine had begun. Henry Grattan, the son of the eighteenth-century Irish patriot, told of a conversation with some Kildare men about to emigrate. “We are going to another country to get that subsistence which we could not get in our own,” they told him. “Our graves may be in a foreign land but our children may yet return to Ireland; and when they do we hope it will be with rifles on their shoulders.”19 Not all people left the land without resistance as this threatening note sent to James Flanagan, Kilcock, on 6 January 1848, reveals:
Sir- We the people of the district that you collected the Poor Rates in, in either Boush or Innismachtesant, or any other part that you collected the Poor Rate in, or take up any distress, or drives any person’s cattle for the Rates, we will be under the necessity of shooting you in the open daylight, for we may as well loose our lives as to loose our support, so if you don’t like this warning we give you, take your own advice, for we are determined to stop you or any other person that will come to collect them till the times mend,
There is your doom,
so if you like it
The rise in crime during the Great Hunger, from 20,000 on trial in 1845 to nearly 30,000 in 1849, was mainly due to non-violent crimes against property, not persons. The most common crime was theft, of food or clothing, but the use of cash on the relief works brought money into areas where it was uncommon before, and increased the opportunities for robbery.21 The usual punishment at the time was transportation to the penal colonies in Australia and as the Famine worsened this was a fate far better than dying of starvation or fever. Mrs. Brigid Butler, a farmer from Grange, Newtown, Kilcock, Co. Kildare, remembered, “If caught stealing food they were threatened with shooting or transportation to Van Diemen’s Land. There were people named Chandler living in Capagh (Kilcock district) who were caught stealing a bag of potatoes. One of the family was hanged out of a cart on Chandler’s Hill and some of the family were transported.”22
‘Black 47’ was so far the worst year of the Famine, but more was to come. Blight returned to the potato crop again in 1848. The total acreage of potatoes in 1848 was three times more than in 1847, but that summer was extremely wet. The blight raged again, and the crop was lost. The Quakers were asked to re-establish soup kitchens, but refused. Their resources had run out and their workers were physically exhausted.23 The Poor Law Unions also ran out of funds. When the Young Irelanders staged an ill-fated rising private charities threw up their hands in disgust. The wave of emigration now became a torrent, as people gave up all hope of remaining alive in Ireland. The workhouses were swamped and besieged by people screaming for food. By the end of the year cholera, the Famine’s final deft killer, had appeared and soon reached epidemic proportions. However, not every town in County Kildare was affected by cholera. Naas and Kilcock remained free of the killer disease, while from 7 June to 3 October 1849 141 cases occurred in Maynooth with forty-seven deaths. Cholera had first appeared in Athy in 1834 and returned again in 1849 though this time it was more serious “adding fear to the distress and hunger of the local people”24
The potato harvest of 1849 brought a dramatic improvement and the famine looked to have run its course. Queen Victoria visited in August 1849, deciding that a royal visit would be good for morale. Thousands of thin and ragged people greeted the Queen, but her visit, of course, had no long-term effect. By 1850 the worst of the Famine was over, and the potato crop began to recover, though there was minor cases of blight over the years and many mini-famines.
By the time the Famine ended Ireland had lost over two million people out of a population of over eight million. It is thought about one-and-a-half million people died of fever, starvation and cold during the years 1845-52, but the true figure will never be known. The last census before the Famine, in 1841, had been deficient in many respects, and part of the problem of distributing food in isolated areas lay in the unexpected discovery of large numbers of people who had not been recorded before. No one could keep up with the amount of people dying during the Famine and thousands died unknown and unmissed because their families had gone before them. Emigration accounted for the loss of another million people. The lowest population loss through death and emigration was in Leinster, the most prosperous county in Ireland - Kildare registered the third lowest loss, behind Louth and Wexford. Ulster came next, while Munster and Connaught lost between twenty-three and twenty-eight per cent of their populations. The counties with the highest death rates were Sligo, Galway and Mayo followed by Tipperary. 25
The Famine brought about major changes in Kildare society, the most significant being its decline in population. During the decade 1841 to 1851 the county’s population dropped by 16.39 per cent, though the barony of North Salt (the Maynooth-Leixlip area) had a slight increase. The population of Kildare in 1841 was 114,488, and ten years later stood at 95,723, a loss of 18,765. However, it continued to slide and by 1881 stood at 75,804. Population decline continued to be a major problem in Kildare and an increase in population was not recorded until 1946. The only parts where this trend did not manifest itself were the large towns of Naas and Newbridge, where the fall was negligible or where the population actually rose as people migrated from country areas. The siting of workhouses in Athy, Naas and Celbridge was also responsible for keeping the population levels the same in the larger towns. Population losses in urban areas were greatest in Castledermot which lost almost 53 per cent of its community, while Naas had the smallest loss at (–15.71 per cent).25
1. Tracing your Ancestors in Kildare, (Kildare 1992), p.7.
2. Lest We Forget. Kildare in the Great Famine, p.57.
3. Helen Litton, The Irish Famine, (Dublin, 1996), pp9-10.
4. Lest we Forget, p.30.
5. Thomas Keneally, The Great Shame, (London 1998), p106.
6. Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity. The Irish Famine 1845-52, (Dublin 1994), p.34.
7. Great Shame, p.107.
8. John O’Rourke, The history of the great Irish famine of 1847 with notices of earlier Irish Famines (Dublin, 1875), pp50-1.
9. Constabulary Reports.
10. Great Shame, pp107-8.
11. Ibid, p.109.
12. Irish Famine, p.25, pp29-30.
13. Ibid, pp33-4.
14. Great Calamity, p.58.
15. Lest We Forget, p.17.
16. Ibid, p.15.
17. Irish Famine, pp56-7, p.67, p.87.
18. Irish Folklore Commission Questionnaire: The Great Famine of 1845-52, pp222-3.
19. Thomas Fleming, The Green Flag in America,
20. Irish Famine, p.101.
21. Ibid, p.49.
22. Irish Folklore Commission, pp224-5.
23. Irish Famine, p.112.
24. Lest We Forget, p.70.
25. Irish Famine, pp129-30.
26. Lest We Forget, p.71, p.74: Padraic O’Farrell, A History of County Kildare, pp95-6.
Census of Ireland, 1841 & 1851.
Irish Folklore Commission Questionnaire: The Great Famine of 1845-52.
O’Rourke, John, The history of the great Irish famine of 1847 with notices of earlier Irish Famines (Dublin, 1875)
Keneally, Thomas, The Great Shame, (London 1998).
Kinealy, Christine, This Great Calamity. The Irish Famine 1845-52, (Dublin 1994).
Litton, Helen, The Irish Famine, (Dublin, 1996).
Lee, Joseph, The Modernisation of Irish Society 1848-1918, (Dublin 1996).
O’Farrell, Padraic, A History of County Kildare (Dublin 2003).
Tracing your Ancestors in Kildare, (Kildare 1992).
Lest we Forget. Kildare in the Great Famine. (Kildare 1996).