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The Great Famine in Leitrim

Tenants and labourers across Leitrim experienced hard times in the 1830s and ‘40s. For those who relied on it, the potato crop yielded just enough to stave off starvation. In 1838, in response to the increasing levels of poverty, the Whig government decided to implement the English Poor Law in Ireland.

The Poor Law

The Poor Law aimed to deal with poverty at local level by building and running ‘workhouses’ to house and feed the poor of the area. An important element of the Law was that it required the workhouses to be financed by local rates and to be administered locally by a Board of Guardians. The Board usually comprised local gentry, including landowners, clergy, well-off townspeople, wealthy farmers and traders of the area. The Board struck a ‘poor rate’ (payable by the same gentry) and ran the local workhouse on the proceeds. This worked relatively well when the government was augmenting funds raised, and when demand on funds was low. But it would prove a problem later when those same farmers and traders were handed full responsibility for the funding and administration of the large-scale relief required during the Famine.

Charles Skeffington Clements, William Sydney’s next youngest brother, was selected in 1838 as one of four Irish commissioners to implement the Poor Law throughout Ireland. It was an odd choice, since he had no prior experience of setting up a Poor Law system. His appointment was not supported by his brother, partly fuelled by an underlying animosity, and partly because William Sydney felt his brother was not up to the job. Either way, Charles Skeffington resigned the post in 1847.

The Order to set up Mohill Union was issued on 5 September 1839, with thirteen Electoral Divisions for electing Poor Law Guardians: Mohill, Eslin, Annaduff, Annaveagh, Rinn, Cloone, Aughavas, Carrigallen, Newtowngore, Drumreilly, Ballinamore, Oughteragh and Fenagh. Local Justices of the Peace were directed to meet at Mohill Court House on 16 September to appoint ‘ex-officio’ Guardians from their own ranks: they did so and the Board was duly elected with Clements as Chairman. In June 1840, the Union was directed to set a poor rate to cover part of the cost of the new workhouse. Two years later, on 8 June 1842, Mohill Workhouse opened its doors to the ‘Destitute Poor’. It had cost nearly £8,000: £6,700 for the construction and the rest on furniture and fittings. It was located in Hyde Street and was typical of its kind: it covered over six acres and was designed to hold a maximum of 700 inmates (though the average number of inmates in the first three years was about 230).

When it opened, the workhouse was neither a popular nor attractive option for the destitute. Men, women, girls and boys were all housed in separate quarters and families might only be allowed to meet once a week; the day was regimented and anyone breaking the many rules suffered severe punishment. Food was poor and portions were small; bedding was uncomfortable and there was little to protect a body from the cold and damp. Illness and fever were endemic. In 1844, a Fever Hospital was built to deal with the increasing incidence of Typhus and ‘yellow’ fever, but many died and were buried in a mass ‘paupers’ grave’ beside the workhouse.

Trouble started to spread from Roscommon and Sligo to south Leitrim, with an upsurge in violent crime, theft and attacks, including the shooting dead of Captain McLeod, a magistrate in Ballinamore. At the beginning of summer 1845, the Reverend Arthur Hyde told Clements that on 22 May, Mohill town had been ransacked and one man killed and two wounded; sixty had left for America. A week later, Hyde reported that the outrages continued unabated, even though the town was besieged with a hundred men camped in front of the workhouse and ‘a troop of dragoons’ stationed in the town. The bailiff, Richard Mayne, described the situation: ‘every day, fresh outrages and determined opposition to all regularity and quietness’, while Clements’ tenants and their families were implicated ‘in almost every case’.
From healthy crop to rotting weeds

In 1845, there was optimism about the year’s potato harvest. In August, at the annual Agricultural Society Dinner, Clements spoke confidently about the great progress that had been made in agriculture in Leitrim and expectations of an abundant potato crop were high. The few people who sounded warnings of a general failure of the potato crop were largely ignored. The naysayers were unfortunately right: the 1845 potato crop fell to a crippling blight and heralded what became known as the Great Hunger or Great Famine.

August 1845 was sunny and warm and the shiny healthy green stalks in every field gave hope for an abundant harvest. But on a single night, all changed. People woke up to see their previously healthy crops turned overnight into a mass of rotting weeds. The lucky ones had already harvested some of their crop but most were faced with a winter of hunger and destitution. By the early autumn of that year it was clear that famine was imminent across Ireland. The Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel established a Scientific Commission to review the issue: it quickly concluded that over half of Ireland's potato crop might perish due to ‘wet rot’. Unfortunately, the report was published too late to have any effect.
Relief efforts

A temporary Relief Commission was established in November 1845 to advise the government on the extent of problem in Ireland and to oversee whatever national and local relief efforts that might be implemented. Local relief committees were established in February 1846 with a remit to help organize employment projects and distribute food to the poor. They would also raise money from landowners to cover part of the cost, with their funds being matched by the government. The committees were successful to a point, but were hampered by lack of understanding of local conditions and a determination to withhold much food relief until June, when, it was believed, there would be real hardship. The relief effort was overseen by Charles Edward Trevelyan[1]. In early 1846, he was appointed to implement a public works program for Ireland's destitute but his understaffed administration floundered in bureaucracy and had no capacity to deal with the level of requests for relief. Whatever his acknowledged intellectual brilliance, he was hardly an appropriate choice for a job that required a modicum of objectivity and compassion. In October 1846, he called the Famine the ‘cure’ to the overpopulation of Ireland that ‘has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual’. Two years later he declared: ‘The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people’. To augment the public works, Peel found funding for two shipments of inexpensive Indian corn (American maize) which would be sold cheaply to the poor in Ireland. The plan was for the Relief Commission to sell the meal at cost to local relief committees which in turn would sell it at cost to the Irish poor at a penny per pound. But the plan was ill-fated in more ways than one: the needy people had little money to buy the corn, and when they did, they found it difficult to cook, barely digestible, caused diarrhoea and, for a people used to the bulky potato, it hardly made for a satisfying meal.

Peel’s single other effort was the repeal of the Corn Laws in May 1846. The Corn Laws had set artificially high and fluctuating prices for corn but their repeal and subsequent reduced prices brought little benefit. The problem for the Irish poor was less a lack of food than a lack of money with which to buy it. There was plenty of wheat, meat and dairy produce in Ireland but much of it was being exported to England and was certainly not being made available at reduced prices. And there was no appetite in government for giving food to the starving: it would only encourage what was believed to be endemic laziness amongst the Irish. Due in large part to removing the Laws and the price protection, Peel was quickly embroiled in a political furore that ended with his resignation from office.

Peel was replaced in June 1846 by Lord John Russell and a Whig administration: Russell and his new administration quickly took liberalism and laissez-faire to extremes. The new government’s first instinct was to reject any direct state intervention or aid and instead sought to leave the solution to the Irish themselves. Charles Wood, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, justified the policy on the basis that ‘except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity’.

As a consequence, the relief was restructured to emphasise public works as the main source of help. More disastrously, the government, rigidly adhering to free-market principles, stopped the subsidised supplies of low-cost corn. Food prices fell to the natural laws of economics: supply was short and demand was high, and there was no competition from cheap imports. The corn merchants pushed the price beyond the means of the majority of the population. At the market in Mohill, the price of oatmeal doubled between 1845 and 1847; the price of potatoes increased fourfold. Although the English administration signally failed to respond adequately to the crisis in Ireland, neither did the local farmers and large landholders. Throughout the Famine, their lands were producing enough to feed and clothe the population twice over, yet Ireland continued to be a net exporter and sent £100,000 worth of food out of Ireland every month. The export of live cattle to Britain increased during the Famine, as did exports of bacon and ham.
Public works

In Mohill, the Board of Mohill Union was struggling with internal as well as external issues: in January 1846, three of its worthy members, George Crofton, Edward Donnelly and James Moran were prosecuted for appropriating rates. In March, the Union reported that one-third of the potato crop was lost and ‘the distress of the population is great’. On March 19th, the Board communicated their serious concerns to the Commissioners and called for works to provide the stricken people with a small income and a depot of cheap Indian meal to be both instituted forthwith.

In April, Clements was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to set up local Relief Committees in Leitrim to oversee the provision of relief through a combination of charity and self-help. In typical style, Clements was dismissive of the Commission’s ‘Instructions to Committees of Relief’. The instructions to form a committee from resident gentry, main landholders and clergy were, he felt, ‘totally inapplicable’ in a district where ‘landlords are almost unknown, the Rector of Cloone absent, and agents frequently non-resident’. His opinion of the Commission notwithstanding, Clements took his role seriously and instigated a number of ‘works’ around the area to provide employment and income for the poor. Most works involved road-building projects: in some cases, existing roads were improved; in others wholly new, and often quite superfluous, roads were built.

In March 1846, Clements organised a petition for public funding of an ambitious project to link Lough Erne and the River Shannon. The petition was signed by the ‘landed proprietors and magistrates and residents of the County of Leitrim’, including Clements, High Sheriff LaTouche, A. Lawder, Charles Cox, Robert Noble, B. Peyton, John Peyton, James B McKeon, James McTernan, Mrs K Little, James Armstrong, Alexander Knott, J. Peyton, James Nutley, Alex Perry, Crofton, Guy Lloyd. As well as being the first of the signatories, Clements wrote a supporting letter urging the government to fund ‘this Great National Work’ to help alleviate ‘the extraordinary poverty of the locality’. Clements went on to explain that the collectable Poor Rates in South Leitrim could never be adequate to relive their current distress and expressed his confidence that the petition would meet with ‘a warm desire on your [Peel’s] part to relieve our distress’. The petition was successful: the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal was built between 1847 and 1860, with up to 7,000 men employed in its construction. It cost £228,651. From 1860 to 1881, only eight boats paid the toll to use the canal and it was abandoned as a navigable waterway, but maintained for drainage.[2]

One practical scheme, already in planning, was expedited. The Rinn and Blackriver Drainage Scheme was designed to improve the land and reduce flooding in much of south Leitrim. Its chief designer was Thomas J. Mulvaney, the district officer of Belturbet Board of Works’.[3] This scheme was one of many that was accelerated and facilitated by the Drainage (Ireland) Act of 1846. This dispensed with the need for private funding of preliminary expenses and empowered the government to carry out the works under the direct control of the Board. The Act also reduced the need for landowners’ assent to the work, and led to an unprecedented level of drainage works throughout the country.

In 1846, the Rinn and Blackriver scheme was promoted and publicised. A description of the planned works was posted in Mrs Little’s hotel in Mohill, and notices were posted in surrounding townlands. The plan was to drain 4,097 acres (revised to 5,691 acres in 1851) at a cost of £23,392. By November 1846, the Board had the required consent of more than half of the landowners. Work commenced, and by July 1847 over 3,400 men were employed on the scheme. The work was designed ultimately to pay for itself with increased rents on the improved land, though landowners could object to rent increases if they felt their
holding had not benefited.

While the labourers toiled to avoid starvation, landholders continued to focus on their own concerns. John Kane of Mohill objected to a rent increase, claiming that the drains were insufficiently large and that a planned bridge had not been built, thus making access to his lands more difficult. Sir George Crofton claimed that a weir at the outlet of Lough Rinn kept the water at an artificially high level and did not allow his lands to drain sufficiently. The owners of thirty-one eel weirs also claimed compensation for their losses.

Predictably, Viscount Clements also clashed with the Board. Though originally the main sponsor and promoter of the scheme, he wanted the original water level of Lough Rinn to be maintained. At one stage, the Board needed to lower the lake temporarily to facilitate ongoing work below the lake on the Rinn River. Clements objected and barred officers of the Board from entering his property. Clements also complained vociferously to the site officers that a change in the course of the Rinn River had resulted in the loss of some of his land. Though the land in question amounted to less than an acre, the issue was escalated to the Secretary of the Board of Works; an arbitrator was appointed and a settlement of sixteen shillings was agreed.

Not all petitions for works were successful. A petition to fund public works from Clements to Peel on 24 May 1846 was summarily rejected and reflects the growing attitude of the government. Peel pushed responsibility for the relief firmly back to the Board: the petition was one, he replied, which should be dealt with locally by ‘Representatives of the District from which it proceeds’. He also considered that the very presentation of a petition ‘of this nature’ might be considered to imply passivity and inertia on the part of the petitioners and any interference on his part could only conflict with his duty as First Lord of the Treasury.

With or without government help, in total, between 4 January and 13 April 1847, thirty-nine works were recorded for the Barony of Mohill. As well as the large enterprises like the Canal and Drainage Scheme, the works also included smaller projects like making a footpath in Mohill town at a cost of £150 and building a new road from Stuck to Corrabeagh at £1,900. Other works included finishing and completing the road from Rooskey to Mohill, making a new road between Gort and Drumdoo, and repairing ‘451 perches of road between the road newly made from Gortletteragh Chapel to Drumhirk River at Cloone’.

While these local relief and public works helped, they were just not enough to stave off the effects of the Famine. On road projects, men could earn two pence a day while women could expect a penny for a day’s work hauling clay and stones. Food would be included – a bowl of porridge before starting in the morning and another on finishing in the evening. Where food was not included, wages could go up to four pence a day. This was far too little to feed most large families, especially once the price of corn increased. The Inspecting officer for public and relief works in Leitrim reported that ‘the miserable condition of the half-famished people is greatly increased by the exorbitant . . . price of meal and provisions, in so much that the wages gained by them on the works are quite inadequate to purchase a sufficiency to feed many large families’. Often too, the neediest families were too weak to participate and were left helpless.

By the end of 1846, the numbers of starving soared. As if lack of food wasn’t enough, the winter of 1846 was long and harsh with snow falling up until April the following year. In the unrelenting cold and damp, thousands died from dysentery, cholera and other diseases. More perished on the public works programmes, some collapsing from sheer exhaustion. Relief works themselves were frequently halted by passing funerals. Local newspapers in Carrick-on-Shannon and Mohill told harrowing tales of old women walking the road to the cemetery to die and of whole families being buried where they died, in their small mud cabins or by the side of the road. If families were lucky, their dead were hauled to a mass grave for burial: in Mohill, this was in Hyde Street, near the Workhouse. The survivors scratched for food, eating grasses and weeds and wild birds to stay alive. Such was their desperation that some of the starving would go to terrible lengths to get food. In Cloone, one man tried to get through the crush for a cup of Indian meal: he climbed over the backs of those in front of him, but fell into the boiler and died from the resulting burns. Another woman was reported to have pulled the tongue out of a dog to get at a stack of potatoes that the dog was guarding.

On 19 May 1847, in a letter to Paul Cullen, rector of the Irish College in Rome Bishop O'Higgins of Ardagh noted that ‘711 died during last season in Gortleitra – one of our ordinary county parishes’. He went on to describe the desperate conditions in his diocese:

Of course, you have some idea from the papers of the state of the poor of Ireland. Never was any part of the globe visited with so prostrating destitution. It would sicken your heart to see those of our people who, up to this, have escaped death. Persons of twenty years of age appear to be bending under old age, and, in many instances, are become shameless and idiotic from want of every kind.

This Diocese is composed of portions of seven counties: Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, King's County, Cavan, and County Meath. We thus, of necessity, participate most deeply in all the wretchedness of the country. All our proprietors, with scarcely any exception, are absentees; and our condition is truly forlorn. We have in this Diocese five poor houses, and the average deaths in the week are beyond 100 persons in each.

In some instances, particularly in Leitrim, whole families are discovered to be dead in their cabins, by the stench that proceeds from their putrid bodies! The dead are frequently buried in bogs, cabbage plots, and even in the houses where they die! . . . Fever, dysentery, and starvation are everywhere. God alone can see the end.
Soup kitchens

In the face of continuing crisis, the government continued to demonstrate its short-termist approach. In the spring of 1847, it decided that the public works had failed to save lives and cost too much. Over £5 million had been spent across the country while the thirty-nine works in Mohill had been completed at a cost of £15,368.

The works were to be replaced with soup kitchens distributing cooked food. The works stopped almost immediately leaving incomplete roads and half-finished projects. Men and women who had struggled to maintain their families on the wages they earned on works now found themselves unemployed and penniless. While they waited for the soup kitchens to be set up, some turned in desperation to crime. Thefts of food and animals increased dramatically and bailiffs and rent collectors reported increasing incidences of violence as they went about trying to collect rent and rates. Such was the level of disturbance in Mohill that it was one of the areas covered by a new ban that prohibited the carrying of unlicensed arms.

The soup kitchens, when they were finally set up were effective but short-lived. At their peak, they were feeding over three million people a day throughout Ireland. In Mohill, the government-supplied 60 gallon pot was used to feed up to three hundred people a day and a small bakery was set up to provide bread. In Cloone, the wife of the Church of Ireland Minister, Mrs Hogg oversaw the distribution of soup to four hundred people a week. It is worth noting that in Leitrim the soup came with no conditions, whereas in other counties it required conversion to Protestantism. One of the reasons for the short life of the soup kitchens was the over-enthusiastic proselytising on the part of some Protestant administrators in places like Mayo, Galway and Roscommon where ‘taking the soup’ meant a chance of life but with a new religion. As the Famine showed little signs of abating, the government became determined to put responsibility for financing of Famine relief squarely in the hands of Irish taxpayers. After only a few months of operation, the soup kitchens were wound up.

While the government and local officials lurched from initiative to initiative or argued about the degree to which the Famine even existed, it was left largely to voluntary and religious groups to alleviate the suffering.

Global appeals for assistance

Appeals for assistance were launched across the world. The very first donation to the Irish Famine was raised in India at the end of 1845 by British troops serving in Calcutta, many of whom had been born in Ireland. A further appeal to British people living in India raised almost £14,000. Donations dropped off in early 1846 but restarted when the potato crop failed later that year.

In December 1846, the General Central Relief Committee was established. With key leaders including the Marquis of Kildare, Daniel O’Connell and William Smith O’Brien, and supported by the Bank of Ireland as Treasurer, the committee succeeded in raising funds across the globe, including Toronto, Buenos Aires, South Africa and Delhi. Contributions were received from the Tsar of Russia, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and from the government of Barbados. Money also came from Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Tobago, Antigua and the Seychelles. In England, a group calling itself ‘The British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress in Ireland and Scotland’ was founded by Stephen Spring Rice, Lionel de Rothschild and Thomas Baring. It was successful in raising large sums of money from the wealthy classes of English society. Queen Victoria gave £2,000 and proclaimed a day of fast and prayer. (She also visited Ireland in 1849, though she received little welcome from the general population who blamed her and her government for their plight.)

Contributions were recorded from State governments, mayors, soldiers, bishops, priests, and the Jewish community. The Choctaw nation of present-day Oklahoma donated $170 just sixteen years after their own ‘Trail of Tears’ – a forced re-settlement march during which one quarter of the migrating population died. The U.S. Senate passed a motion to give $500,000 to Ireland and Scotland for relief efforts. Although this was declared unconstitutional by President Polk, Congress agreed to a request from the Boston Relief Committee to use a warship to transport supplies to both countries. The Jamestown, loaded with foodstuffs, arrived in Cork in April 1847 to great acclaim.

In total, at least £1,000,000 was raised in private donations, some 10% of the amount provided by the British government. The figure is possibly higher given the level of personal gifts in letters from emigrants to family and friends back home in Ireland. There were huge numbers of Irish emigrants who were ‘silently drafting their little savings to their relatives at home’, and whose total contribution would amount to millions of dollars over the course of the Famine.
Religion and relief

Amongst all these groups, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, provided the most continuous and practical supply of relief through the worst of the famine years. Their relief effort was organised, targeted and channelled through one or two carefully vetted people in each local area. The Society of Friends, or Quakers were hugely successful in raising money: by May 1847, the Central Relief Committee had received money from Quakers in Ireland (£4,500) and England (£35,500), and had won the support of Quakers in the United States. In New York, the fundraising was led by a number of people including Jacob Harvey a wealthy philanthropist, and their efforts contributed hugely to the relief funds. The Quakers later recognised that their ability to work so effectively in Ireland was due in large part to ‘the munificent bounty of the citizens of the United States’.

The Quaker records show a continuous flow of money, food and clothing to people like the local Church of Ireland minister, Arthur Hyde[4], as well as WH Foster and Letitia Veevers in Mohill. They received regular sums of ten to thirty pounds, clothing grants and deliveries of one or two tons of Indian meal and rice which they distributed as they saw fit. In Cloone, the Reverend Andrew Hogg and his wife were acknowledged to have done sterling work on behalf of the starving. Joseph Bewley, one of the joint secretaries of the Society of Friends Committee, pointed out that ‘there were none were more efficient than the Protestant Clergy’, made more efficient because ‘they had the great benefit of having the aid of their wives and daughters in attending to the poor’. The Catholic clergy, while being ‘exceedingly useful’, did not, he noted, have the advantage of help from wives and daughters.

Christine Kinealy regards the Catholic Church as being extremely important in raising money, even though it had no formal structure for doing so, and contends that Pope Pius IX ‘became involved in Irish relief on an unprecedented scale’. In January 1847, he sent 1,000 Roman dollars and organised three days of prayer for the starving people. In March, he issued an encyclical entreating Catholics worldwide to conduct three days of prayer for Ireland and to continue to make donations. The Catholic Church was more successful in fundraising through its wide network overseas and especially through the Irish College in Rome. The Church in France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Austria and other European countries all contributed money for relief.

Of the direct role played by the local Catholic clergy, we know little. The Catholic parish priest at Mohill, John William Eivers, was in the post for forty-two years from 1839-1881. Because of the length of his tenure, and the fact that he went on to be Canon and Dean, it is probably fair to surmise that he would have had far more in common with the wealthier sections of his community than with the poor; he was also known to be successful in getting rid of curates who might take an anti-landlord stance. Eivers’ will did, however, include a bequest of ten guineas a year to the poor of Newtownforbes, to be paid out every Christmas.

Overall, the Catholic clergy tended to focus on their role as priests, bringing last rites and instruction to the dying. O’Higgins in his letter to Paul Cullen of 19 May 1847, shows how some in the church bewailed the threat to the church and clergy, and relied more on ‘preaching resignation to the will of God’ rather than practical help:

The most part of the land of Leitrim will be untilled this year, and the Catholics will, I fear, before long, have nearly all disappeared from death or emigration. The clergy must soon be as wretched as the people. I go about through the most destitute districts on Sundays, and sometimes in two chapels on the same day, preaching resignation to the will of God, and giving what other consolation I can; and in my endeavours I am assisted by the priests who, without exception, have identified themselves with their flocks.

A number of priests described being besieged by the sick and dying who cried at their door for help. John Madden, parish priest in the neighbouring county of Roscommon, wrote in desperation. ‘My house is surrounded by them . . . calling for Work or Food . . We are doing what we can to distribute Soup. What can we do? The Applicants are so numerous; our means so limited’. Another priest, Hugh Quigley, wrote about his long day, from four in the morning until five in the evening holding Confession and administering ‘consolation and instruction’ ‘for the convenience of the poor country people, who . . . flock in thousands . . . to prepare themselves for the death they look to as inevitable’. After a full day, he would arrive home to sit down to his dinner, but found it interrupted by the ‘groans and sobs’ of people crying at his door. ‘In truth the Priest must either harden his heart against the cry of misery, or deprive himself of his usual nourishment to keep victims from falling at his door’.

Government declares the Famine over

When the government decided to hand responsibility for famine relief to the local Board of Guardians, it was effectively asking them to fund all famine relief out of the rates they raised, that is out of their own pockets. But even if they had been willing, they would be able to do little without a significant increase in poor rates. The rates on Lough Rynn were about £15: they would hardly have made a dent in the £15,000 the works in Mohill had cost in the previous two years.
With two further legislative acts, the government washed its hands of the problem in Ireland. In 1847, it declared the Famine to be over and imposed a restriction on whatever relief was still available. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847 effectively barred all but the most destitute from receiving relief. The provision was largely the work of Sir William Gregory of Coole Park, Gort who suggested that tenants rated at less than £5 should be assisted to emigrate. He went further, proposing that applicants for relief occupying more than a quarter of an acre of land (valued at more than £6) were undeserving of assistance and should not be entitled to relief. Out of the 125 Members of Parliament present on the day, only nine voted against his proposal. It was adopted as part of the Act and became known as the Gregory Clause. Reverend John O’Rourke in his book ‘The History of the Great Irish Famine’, 1902 captured the essence and impact of Gregory’s amendments:

A more complete engine for the slaughter and expatriation of a people was never designed. The previous clause offered facilities for emigrating to those who would give up their land—the quarter-acre-clause compelled them to give it up, or die of hunger’. In practice, the ban proved largely inoperable.

The Famine, of course, was far from over in 1847. There was some cause for optimism and there did seem to be a reduction in those requesting help: by the beginning of September 1847, the number of inmates in Mohill Workhouse had dropped to 465 from a consistent high of over 700 through the previous eighteen months. However, although there was little blight in 1847, the crop was small and neither the land nor the people had recovered from the pervasive disease and hunger. In addition, many smallholders had been unable to pay rent during the previous two years and were now facing large bills for arrears, and an increasing threat of eviction. Many tenants at Rynn, for example, were allowed to stay in their homes and built up rent arrears during the first few years of the Famine. There is little evidence that tenants were evicted en masse during these years. However, as the Famine dragged on, tenants faced an increasing threat of eviction, and there was at least one large scale eviction in 1849 when twenty-nine tenants were given notice to quit for rents owed for 1847. This instance is described in the Evictions section in Chapter 7.
Mohill Workhouse

While the previous two years had been hugely difficult, the real hardship was in fact only beginning. In late 1847, the number of people admitted to Mohill Workhouse soared to 1,275. By February 1850, it held 1,810 – more than double its capacity.

Even in good times, the workhouse was an undesirable option for the destitute: families were forcibly split up, living conditions were bad and food was inadequate. In the bad years of the Famine, it was the last resort of the hopeless. When the workhouse opened in 1842, adult inmates could expect a breakfast of seven ounces of oatmeal with a half-pint of milk and for dinner, three and a half pounds of potatoes with a pint of buttermilk. By 1847, the potatoes and milk were gone and adults were limited to a dinner of eight ounces of oatmeal. At one meeting of the Board, it was agreed that rice would be added to the dinner on three days a week and meat would be offered as a treat on Christmas Day. There is reason to believe that even these meagre rations were not dispensed, and that the money supplied to pay for them disappeared into the pockets of the workhouse managers.

By April 1847, having reached the capacity it was designed for, the Board of Guardians concluded that it was not ‘expedient to admit any more applicants on account of the Sickness prevailing in the House, the want of proper officers and the confusion of the accounts’. They also resolved that, considering the Union’s heavy level of debt, the dead would, in future, be interred without a coffin. They argued that the feelings of a dead person’s loved ones could hardly be ‘more hurt than they are at present’, given the ‘melancholy and distressing state of destitution and hopelessness in which they have been thrown’. By summer, the situation in Mohill was such that it was listed officially as one of twenty-two ‘distressed’ Unions[5].

As the Famine increased its grip, it became obvious that the management of Mohill Workhouse was incompetent in its response to the crisis. Clements was one of many who complained about the Mohill Board. Although the complaints were taken to government level, they were dismissed as having no real substance and attributed to Clements’s personal animosity to the Poor Law and its administrators. While it is true that Clements did irritate the administration in Dublin Castle with needless submissions, his animosity came from a genuine belief that the government’s incompetence had caused the Famine. In this case, Clements’ irritation was justified. In short, the Mohill Board of Guardians was apathetic and uninterested in organising themselves to deal with the growing crisis. This general attitude could be a cause of, or a result of, a very high turnover of workhouse management and staff during the period. Four Board members resigned. Some members of staff were lost to death or illness, but in one case the Master and Matron were sacked because the Board disapproved of their marriage. In another, the workhouse clerk, John Clarke who looked after the workhouse accounts was sacked from his position when the Commissioners deemed him ‘unfit for office’. (A month later he was to be found holding the same position in Carrick Workhouse.) There were also continued reverberations from the prosecution of three Board members in January 1846.

By late 1847, Mohill Union was drowning in debt and contractors were refusing to supply the workhouse. The Poor Law Commissioners had enough evidence to justify removing the Board and replacing it with salaried Vice-Guardians. Probably in anticipation of opposition, they picked a time when Lord Clements was away from home.

The Vice-Guardian’s submitted their report to the Poor Law Commissioners within a week: in it, they condemned the management of Mohill Workhouse. The Report on Mohill Workhouse, 1847 paints a vivid picture of the place as a filthy, lawless, neglected pit whose funds were probably siphoned off by members of the Board of Guardians:

The building we found most dilapidated, and fast advancing to ruin, everything out of repair, the yards undrained and filled, in common with the cesspools, by accumulations of filth – a violation of all sanitary requirements; fever and dysentery prevailing throughout the house, every ward filthy to a most noisome degree, evolving offensive effluvia; the paupers defectively clothed, and many of those recently admitted continuing in their own rags and impurity; classification and separation set at nought; a general absence of utensils and implement; the dietary not adhered to, and the food given in a half-cooked state – most inadequate, particularly for the sick; the meals distributed through the medium of one-sixth the number of vessels required, and uproar and confusion, the stronger securing an over quantity to the privation of the weaker, and the breakfast not completely dispensed until late in the evening; no contracts existing, no stores of provisions to meet even the wants of a day; the able-bodied not employed, and without restraint or discipline; the destruction of all description of Union property proceeding rapidly, many hundreds’ pounds worth appearing to be missing; the children in the schools receiving no education or industrial training, in other respects their neglected state painfully exhibited by their diseased and emaciated aspect; no means for the proper treatment of the sick, the officers ignorant of their duties; coffins unused in the internment of the dead.

The Vice-Guardians’ task was not an easy one. Over the next few months, they complained frequently about the interminable difficulties they faced: the ‘useless’ workhouse officers and a ‘most worthless set’ of workmen ensured that repairs were made slowly and with reluctance. They were also frustrated by their inability to find anyone to take on the job of Poor Rate collector. Despite being offered the ‘extravagant rate of fees’ (two shillings in the pound), ‘proper persons’ were, apparently, deterred from taking the job by a host of issues, including:

The extreme poverty of the area, which we regret to say, is retrograding still further every day, every description of chattel property fast disappearing its lawless state, the unusually high rates, and the previous irregular habits formed in meeting this species of demand.

By December 1847, the positions of the Poor Law Union in the whole country were in such a state of chaos that the administration suspended the functions of all the local voluntary Boards of Guardians and replaced them with salaried administrators. Unfortunately, many of these drew the salary but did little.

As the Famine progressed, emigration was seen as the best option for many who found their way to the workhouse. Under the Gregory Clause of 1847, prospective emigrants were to be assisted by the Guardians of the Union with their landlord committing to provide a fair and reasonable sum to fund the emigration and to forego whatever rent was due. The guardians were empowered to provide a sum up to half of that provided by the landlord with this being levied off the rates. The new Board made money available to buy suits of clothes for inmates whose (mostly female) relatives had sent home money to pay their passage to America or Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). In some cases, funds were provided to contribute to the cost of passage. Between 1845-55, nearly two million people emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain, the largest single population movement of the 19th century. Thousands died on board ‘coffin ships’ as they crossed the Atlantic to America. Thousands more died soon after they arrived.

In 1848, Mohill Workhouse responded to a request from the Colonial Lands & Emigration Commissioners in London for female migrants to Australia. Women and girls were wanted as workers and wives to balance out the disproportionately male population that had grown in Australia out of the high rates of transportation. The girls in Mohill were typical: aged fifteen to eighteen, the girls were not orphans, but were selected by the master, matron and chaplain for their good health and moral character. And they were supported by the girls’ parents who saw emigration as the only option for their children. The girls were sent on their way with a box of supplies, including petticoats, gowns, shoes, a shawl and bonnet, two pounds of soap and a prayer book. At least forty-five girls are known to have been shipped from Mohill: two separate groups landed in Sydney, Australia, one in 1848, the other in 1850.

From all the evidence available, Viscount Clements and his family did as much as any of their peers, and more than most, to alleviate suffering during the Famine. Unlike many, Clements could not be accused of being an ‘absentee’ landlord. The Earl of Leitrim, alongside all of the landed classes, saw huge reductions in his rental income for these years and many of the ascendancy were ruined: one in ten was bankrupted. As the Famine progressed, the 2nd Earl grew increasingly fearful of the effects of the Famine on his estate and legacy. His concerns about the cost of relief and the growing arrears on his estate are noted in successive codicils to his will where he reduced the annuities and lump sums left to his wife, daughters and others.

In 1849 the harvest was reasonably good and the Famine was (again) declared officially over. Of course it wasn’t, but the adequate harvest provided enough of an excuse for the government to hand the Union affairs back to the local Board of Guardians. While Clements may have complained about the Mohill Board in the past, it was nothing to his horror at the state in which the Union was returned. The cost of the relief efforts and the running of the workhouse had created huge debt. The reinstated Board was expected, through local poor rates, to meet an overdraft of nearly £6,000 and continue to deliver solace to the 2,500 people still seeking relief. The Board, and especially Lord Clements, were livid. Clements wrote to the Commissioners expressing his fury with the decision and describing it as ‘a most unbounded, arbitrary and despotic exercise of the power of the Poor Law Commissioners’.

He recommended that the Board should not retake control of the Union’s affairs, since it had been ‘handed back in such a disreputable manner’. The Board petitioned the Lord Lieutenant to receive a deputation to hear their grievances. The letter was strongly and concisely worded and signed by Clements as Chairman. He received a curt reply from the Lord Lieutenant’s Under-Secretary rejecting the plea. Clements wrote back an angry, bitter letter in which he expressed his ‘deepest distrust’ of the Poor Law Commissioners. In January 1850, he further wrote:

While we have been given the semblance of free institutions, we live, in point of fact, under a despotism which neither respects the rights of industry or of property engaged in the cultivation of the land. With an unjust law so administered, it is vain and hopeless to expect prosperity or happiness.

The letter, it appears, went unanswered. In fury, Clements had the entire correspondence copied and sent to the newspapers. He continued for years to publish contentious correspondence between him and the administration, and did so with such frequency and impact that it became known as ‘Leitrimising’.

Coercion, crime and sectarian convulsions

Throughout the period of the Famine and the years immediately after, the undercurrent of tension and unrest continued and occasionally erupted into violent disturbances. Prior to and during the Famine, Leitrim was one of the most ‘disturbed’ counties in Ireland. The situation was so bad in Mohill that it was one of the areas covered by the Prevention of Crime and Outrage in Ireland Bill passed at the end of 1847. The Bill dealt with the immediate perceived threat of crime and violence by prohibiting the carrying and holding of unlicensed arms. As the country recovered from the Famine, the grievances continued, mostly between the dispossessed labourers and their farmer landlords, and between larger landholders and the new tenants, the emerging small farming class. Such was the level of grievance in Leitrim that it was one of the few counties to produce ‘intense sectarian convulsions’ in 1852.

Over time, the tenants’ resentments began to be accompanied by a growing sense of nationalism and political power. In 1850, the vote had been extended to tenants with holdings valued at more than £12: in the 1850s and ‘60s this covered about 12 acres (rents had increased in line with prices). In the 1852 election in Leitrim, the constituency that had consistently voted a Liberal Clements as Member of Parliament, returned a Tory and a Radical for the first time. While the radical tenant-rights advocates were indubitably gaining support, the loss of the seat was due as much to the fractious nature of the relationship between Clements and his brother, Charles Skeffington who was contesting the election. While they held the support of voters in Mohill electoral division, the election was badly managed between the old incumbents and the Clements brothers. The tenants’ growing political awareness would culminate later in the Land League and Home Rule movements, but in the 1850s and 60s was manifesting itself in resentment and isolated acts of rebellion and the increasing prevalence of organised insurgent Secret Societies.

Through the 1850s, farmers and labourers were the main protagonists and victims of crime as they become locked in a conflict over occupation of land, rent, unemployment and labourers’ wages. Farmers were the target for over sixty per cent of all crime and for 27% of homicides. ‘Labourers and servants’ accounted for thirty-nine per cent of homicides, and ‘gentlemen and agents’, eight per cent. Much of the crime was organised through the Secret Societies and the courts could not rely on victims helping them get a conviction. Even though the victims frequently knew the perpetrators, they tended not to cooperate with the police or courts and there was general suspicion of any actions by the magistrates or police.

In 1851, there was a fire in Lough Rynn Castle, but the local Royal Irish Constabulary managed to extinguish it before it could cause much damage. Clements championed a Head Constable, McManus, who was demoted and transferred for over-zealous action in putting out a fire without informing his superior officer. It is not known what caused the fire, but at that time the Molly Maguires[6]were quite active around Cloone and it could well have been an act of arson.

Clements’s father, the 2nd Earl, attacked the authorities for allowing the people’s misery to become so extreme that they were reduced to desperation and lawlessness. He blamed the government squarely for the ‘neglect and bad laws’ that, he said, were directly responsible for the wave of agrarian outrage that was being experienced that year. He wrote:

Why does such a state of things exist? Such things do not exist when the people are prosperous and contented. . . Midnight outrages of the kind in question always originate in the misery of the people. When heavy burdens are laid upon them; when social tyranny oppresses them; when hunger stares them in the face or tugs at their hearts – then they become desperate. And when their social superiors neglect and the law ignores a people, is it a matter of wonder that they become desperate? . . The extreme of misery . . . renders (some) recklessly active. . . In Leitrim it has produced this. Leitrim is a proverbially miserable and neglected county. The land is neglected; the people are permitted to grow and wither and rot – a field of breathing weeds; those to whom providence, or law, has given the property of the county seem to have no sense of responsibility. People cannot be expected to cultivate a good behaviour when they are baptised in wretchedness. They ought certainly to obey the law: but they will ask ‘what has the law done for us?’ and that no man can answer. Let them have the means of life – let them get out of pig-stys and rags – let them have food fit for human beings – give them encouragement to toil – bestow hope upon them (a thing they know nothing of) and we will answer for the good conduct of the Leitrim people. Let it be borne in mind, as an axiom in Social Economy, that social outrages are committed only by a miserable people; and that a miserable people are made by neglect and bad laws.

As the land clearances gained pace, evictions were frequent and those who took over the homes and lands of evicted tenants were often subject to abuse, their new homes burned or wrecked. Some were murdered. In 1851, two threatening letters were found in the house of Obadia Mee in Mohill directing him to ‘clear out of that country’ or to ‘expect the same death as Brooks, a farmer who had been brutally murdered. The notices also threatened landowner William Lawder and the bailiff, Henry Huston, with similar treatment, for ‘presuming to stock the country with Co. Cavan Protestants’. It appeared that a number of those who took over lands of evicted tenants were from Co. Cavan and were ‘now daily suffering injuries’ from their new neighbours. Labourers were targeted and threatened to get at the landholders. In one instance, workers on their way to Francis Nisbett’s farm in Gubadoriss were warned by a gang, armed and firing shots, not to work for under a shilling a day or to ‘mark the consequences’.

These aggressions were usually carried out by organised gangs like the Molly Maguires. According to the court there was ‘a gang of able-bodied robbers committing outrages every night in the town and neighbourhood who carry out their depredations without the least fear of molestation’. After two particularly brutal murders, the priest in Mohill pronounced a curse for five years on all those who joined these groups.[7]

As local Justice of the Peace, Clements had his hands full, and he took his duties seriously. He also made efforts to instil a similar sense of duty amongst his peers, going so far as to introduce a bill in the House of Commons that would give sheriffs the power to summons absentee landowners to serve on Grand and Petty Juries. There was a need for more participation by local gentry. Apart from the general sense of lawlessness pervading the countryside, Mohill was a fairly lively spot with frequent riots and fights, many of which had no political or sectarian basis.

In 1853, in an effort to return the town to some semblance of Christian order, the shops were banned from opening on Sundays. A local shopkeeper called it a ‘harsh illegal and arbitrary order . . . rendered still more so when enforced by our tyrannical police officer Mr Waters, whose bad feeling towards the poor people of this country has already been well tested’.

Fair day could be hazardous. As well as avoiding one of many fights that erupted, people had to watch out for the ‘numerous gangs’ of petty thieves and pickpockets that roamed the fair. Constable Crowe had a busy time breaking up the regular fracas. Sometimes the police themselves were the subject of attack: in one case, two constables who tried to break up a riot were assaulted and beaten ‘in a most savage manner’. It is not recorded whether one of them was the tyrannical Mr Waters.

There were varying opinions as to the efficacy of the police in stopping crime: in February 1851, the local newspaper carried a story, of which they were ‘informed by several parties’, that ‘when some of the force go on patrol at night, they wend their way to houses in the neighbourhood to woo some lovesick maidens who have a war-like taste!’ (newspaper’s italics).

Amongst the catalogue of offences recorded in the Petty Sessions in Mohill, there are reports of shots being fired, windows broken and arson attacks on houses; not to mention burglaries, robberies, poisoning, infanticide and cattle-stealing. Mrs Little’s hotel was burgled, and even the Church in Mohill was robbed, the thieves making away with chalices, surplices, pew candles and other items. And individuals did not hesitate to use the law to right injustices. In one session at Mohill, a Maria Cashian won a case against her employer Pat Conefrey who, she claimed, failed to pay her a quarter’s wages. In the same session Ann McGarty, four months into her marriage, sued her husband Pat for beating her and making her life miserable.

Every week, there were cases of farmers suing each other over cattle and asses trespassing on neighbours’ property. Some tenants resorted to entreating Clements to right wrongs perpetrated by their own family. One letter from a Mrs McKeon beseeched Clements to intervene to return land and a cabin to her which her son and daughter-in-law had ‘cruelly’ taken over.
A separate but connected issue existed in the county over illicit distillation and the making of poitín, and Leitrim was the third biggest producing county in Ireland. 


Seen in a modern context, the magistrates’ sentencing policy seems, to say the least, inconsistent and hardly commensurate with the crime. Outlaws accused of taking forcible possession of land usually got a sentence of three months in gaol. Assault and riot charges usually merited a fine of about twenty shillings. Sometimes the offenders got gaol sentences, like John Clyne who found himself serving two weeks in gaol for striking John Hunt with a horsewhip on Fair Day. In contrast, the standard sentence for robbery was ten years transportation, with little discrimination between the seriousness of the crime or the criminal intent. At one court, a woman was convicted for stealing linen and a twelve-year old boy was found guilty of stealing bread and clothes: both got ten years transportation. Concealing a birth (a common enough occurrence) warranted one or two months in gaol. A vagrant found begging was given two weeks in prison. It was an offence to leave carts unattended on the street without a donkey or a horse, or to allow pigs and other animals to run loose on the thoroughfare. In one court in December 1850, a girl faced the court for knocking on the Methodist Church door during a service. Some offences were dealt with pragmatically. When fourteen men were brought into Mohill gaol for drinking during unlicensed hours, the Governor ‘cut their hair close-crop and gave each a cold shower or bath, twenty-four hours in solitary, and then sent them home’.

On 17 October 1850, The Leitrim Journal & Carrick-on-Shannon Advertiser reported that the gaol at Carrick contained 51 tried prisoners, 17 of which were female; there were 19 untried prisoners, of which 7 were female and 8 were debtors. The newspaper’s records of the Quarter Sessions at Ballinamore (24 October 1850) and Petty Sessions at Carrick-on-Shannon (28 November 1850) are presumably representative of the time. The Sessions in Ballinamore recorded the following convictions:
Bernard Kelly; Rescue & Riot; 5s or 1 week in prison.
James Reilly; Rescue & Riot; 10s or 2 weeks in prison.
Peggy Malone; Larceny; 3 months in prison with hard labour.
Alice Horan; Larceny; 3 months in prison with hard labour; 1 week each month in solitary confinement.
Francis Dolan; Larceny; 12 months in prison plus 3 private whippings.
John, Patrick and Charles McDermott; Assault & Riot; 20s or 2 months in prison.
William Moffat & John McDermott; Burglary & Robbery; 10 years transportation.
Margaret Moran; Larceny; 12 months in prison with hard labour; 1 week each 2nd month in solitary confinement.
Thomas McHugh, James McHugh & Thomas Moran; Rescue & Assault; 2 months in prison with hard labour.

In Carrick-on-Shannon a wide range of offences were recorded in October 1850: several ‘road nuisances’, involving trespassing and damage to thoroughfares by animals cost the defendants a fine of 2/6 each plus costs; two men were fined 2/6 for drunkenness; ‘several lads’ were summoned for shooting and rioting on the streets of Carrick; four paupers were each sentenced to one month in prison for ‘absconding from the workhouse and taking Union clothes’; James Kean was fined five shillings plus two shillings costs for assaulting John Kennedy. The same court called on George Fox to give evidence against five persons accused of beating him up on the last fair night and leaving ‘marks of great violence on his face’.

There is some evidence that Clements and his agent, George West, were not too harsh in their sentencing – at least in the early 1850s. In November 1851, West got a threatening letter from the Molly Maguires directing him forthwith to dispossess Richard Reynolds, Clerk of the Petty Sessions, from a house in Cloone rented to him by West, because Reynolds was ‘obnoxious’ and refused public access to a pump on his land. The note implies that they are treating West kindly by giving him notice of their intentions, since he was always a ‘parchal (sic) juror’. In another, the earl wrote to West, telling him of two outstanding riot cases in Mohill – one at Burbidge’s Public House, the other a fight on the previous Fair Day – and suggesting that he might dispose of them ‘by a small penalty the parties being all in Gaol’.

Incidentally, in 1850, the administration instructed the police to carry out a secret enquiry into the character (and probably the political sympathies) of Justices of the Peace. This drew another angry outburst from Clements on the grounds that this was tampering with the rights of the individual and foreshadowed the setting up of a police state.

Another concern for the authorities was the anomalous number of people attending the public dispensary in Mohill. In October 1867, the medical officer called for an enquiry into why there were 1,104 people seeking treatment in Mohill – three times the number in Carrigallen. The resulting high cost (over £175 a year) of keeping the dispensary going was one issue, but the other was a deep suspicion that the good people of Mohill were taking undue advantage of the service.

[1] The same Trevelyan that is referred to in the ballad, The Fields of Athenry.
[2] The canal was re-opened in 1994 and renamed the Shannon-Erne Waterway.
[3] The drainage district was divided in three: the first covering the Rinn River, Lough Rinn, Lough Errew and the Lurga River. Also included was the Blackriver from the Rinn River to Bellantra bridge (just south of Farnaught). The second division consisted of the Cloone river and its tributaries; the third, the Blackriver above Bellantra.
[4] Arthur Hyde spent 54 years in Mohill, from 1816-1870. His grandson, Douglas Hyde, founded the Gaelic League in 1893 and was elected President of Ireland in 1938.
[5] The ‘distressed’ Unions formed a nearly continuous line down the whole of the west coast from Glenties in Donegal to south Kerry, and inland from Galway to Leitrim.
[6] One of many ‘Secret Societies’ or ‘Ribbon Societies’ that emerged around 1843: it was a vigilante-type secret organisation that fought for tenant rights. Much of the politically-derived crime in the 1850s was attributed to them.
[7] It was not uncommon for priests to use the pulpit to impose curses, ‘stares’ or threats of sickness to direct their parishioners, rather than relying on Catholic teaching or Roman law.