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December 1, 2017

The Great Famine in Leitrim

Gerard MacAtasney, The dead buried by the dying: The Great Famine in Leitrim (Merrion Press, 2014, 304pp, €24.99 PB, ISBN 978-1-908928504)

The great wave of interest in Famine studies in the 1990s somewhat subsided in the early part of the twenty-first century only to reignite a decade later. This renewed interest in Famine studies was in part the reaction of the general public to the now annual National Famine Commemoration which has been held across the country in all four provinces since 2008. A number of landmark publications, not least the ground-breaking Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, have also raised public awareness on the topic, while a number of local studies have poured further light on this catastrophic event. Likewise, the hosting of International Famine Conferences, including those organised by the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses at Maynooth University and which commenced in 2011; the formation of the International Network of Irish Famine Studies (hosted by Radboud University in Nijmegen, Holland) and the establishment of ‘Irelands Great Hunger Institute’ at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, USA, have all added significantly to our understanding of how the Famine played itself out in the 1840s and early 1850s.  The latter institute also hosts an annual Famine Conference, the subject of which in 2014 explored the much neglected theme of ‘Women and the Great Hunger’. In a subsequent publication emanating from the conference proceedings among the contributors was Gerard MacAtasney, who provided an in-depth study of the women of county Leitrim during the Great Famine. This essay of course emanates from his groundbreaking research into the fate of the people of county Leitrim both before and after the Famine years, which includes his previous published work The Other Famine: The 1822 Crisis in County Leitrim (2010).

In 1841 the population of Leitrim was just over 155,000 people; ten years later it had declined by 40,000, or 28%. Today, the county remains sparsely populated, an everyday reminder of the impact of emigration, which in a Leitrim context began of course with the Great Famine. Only counties Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, Sligo and Longford had a bigger population loss than Leitrim during the Famine years. When one considers that the population of Leitrim today is just under 33,000 it puts that loss into context. The publication of this book The dead buried by the dying: The Great Famine in Leitrim provides a microscopic examination of that loss. Put simply. If you want to know what happened in county Leitrim during the Famine, this is the book. The dead buried by the dying is densely packed with information, almost 400 pages in total and the level of detail is outstanding. Another remarkable feature of the book is the extensive use of tables, ranging from the ‘Clothes distributed by Clara Dickson in the Parish of Rossinver, May-June 1848’ to the ‘Destination of County Leitrim Migrants in Scotland’. In fact the book contains over eighty tables which provide even more evidence of the impact of the Famine in Leitrim. The tables alone provide the potential for further study, as do the copious notes and appendices.

MacAtasney’s labours of course remind us of the need to revisit the local and communal impact of the Famine. In this study, the author has successfully harnessed the people’s voices, not just those adversely affected by the calamity, but also those who strove to help them. It was a frequent occurrence of course that in the decades after the Famine the charitable efforts of many remained unknown, perhaps only to those they had helped. What is particularly striking about MacAtasney’s study is the use of sources, many of which have been underused by historians or indeed not at all. These underused sources include the Society of Friends Relief of Distress Papers in the National Archives of Ireland; the Irish Relief Association papers in the Royal Irish Academy and the Irish Reproductive Loan Fund papers in the Kew, London. Remarkable new insights emerge from these sources which will undoubtedly encourage others to follow suit.

It is striking then, given the level of information available, that so much remains unknown in terms of the Famine, not least the fate of the inmates of workhouses throughout the country. The administration of relief in Leitrim weighs heavily throughout this study and an examination of the county’s workhouses is at the centre of each chapter. From both within and without the workhouse the author provides horrendous accounts of the depredations experienced by the people of Leitrim during the Famine. They included for example, in Carrigallen where it was reported that ‘a man was in the town carrying a dead child on his back, himself half stupefied by want and wandering in and out of doorways without asking aid’ (page 120), while in the Drumshanbo area ‘a number of men employed on a public road subscribed to get a coffin for a child which had died of starvation. But the mother of the child spent the money meant for a coffin on food. When the child was eventually buried by the same group of men they noticed that the eyes and parts of the legs and thighs had actually been eaten by rats’ (page 129). Such descriptions relay the enormity of the crisis in Leitrim as local relief committees and others tried to offer assistance to the poor and dying. Part of the relief measures in the county revolved around providing adequate clothing for the poor, an indication that once hunger commenced the people pawned and sold their clothes. Far removed from London and Dublin, the people of Leitrim wrote profusely seeking aid. In this respect the role of the Quakers is outlined in this great detail, both in terms of the procurement and distribution of relief.  It further underlines the need to delve further into the sources as the most often cited Relief Commission Papers offer us no insight after 1847, when the commissioners were stood down. The sheer numbers who were destitute in Leitrim was striking. In many respects it was a task of keeping the county alive. From Kinlough to Cloone, and everywhere in between, the veracity of the Famine was evident.

Religious tensions were also manifest in Leitrim, hindering in some places effective relief measures. However, in other instances Leitrim stood apart and both Catholic and Protestant shouldered the responsibilities of their respective congregations. The continued struggle for access to the land was also manifest in Leitrim which was firmly under the control of the so-called ‘Molly Maguires’ and other secret agrarian conspirators. These groups often ruled with an iron fist and played havoc on both rich and poor. MacAtasney has some interesting things to say about eviction and while the usual culprits in this regard were to be found in Leitrim, evictors also included merchants and shopkeepers who themselves were hard pressed with the onset of Famine.

MacAtasney rightly points to issues of culpability within the county, i.e. who was to blame or exacerbated the plight of the poor. Interestingly, he suggests that those with workhouse contracts profited most from the Famine, and not those who swallowed up land in the wake of the disappearance of over 40,000 people. However, he succinctly points out that ‘moral judgment’ which today might seem inappropriate was a reflection of the times. Perhaps one area worthy of further exploration is the Encumbered Estates Court and although the author devotes an appendix of almost twenty such owners, the impact of the court on the county was probably far greater. From the outset the author states that given the propensity for commemoration of the Famine which exists within county Leitrim (exemplified by the proliferation of Famine graveyards etc) it remains curious that there has been little scholarly attention to the event in the county. The present volume more than rectifies that and it is unlikely that it will be surpassed given the level of detail. This book deserves a wide readership, far beyond the confines of County Leitrim or those with Leitrim roots.

Dr Ciarán Reilly is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century Irish history specialising in the Great Famine, Irish country houses and landed estates. He is author of The Irish Land Agent, 1830-60 (Dublin, 2014); Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin, 2014) and John Plunket Joly and the Great Famine in King’s County (Dublin, 2012).