The Great Famine

The Great Famine in Ballinacree and surrounding areas

Commemorating the 175th anniversary of the start of the Famine 1845 – 2020

Famine in Ireland

2020 marks the 175th anniversary of what is known as the “Great Famine”.

The Great Famine of 1845-1849 was not the first time that Ireland had seen famine. There was famine in 1728-29 when the oat crop failed and the potatoes were not sufficient to make up the difference. Another famine in 1740-41 was caused by a very cold winter when the potatoes froze in storage and the oat crop failed. About 10% of the population died. Poor harvests also caused famine in 1817, 1822, 1836, 1837, 1841, and 1880-81. But the “Great Famine” lived longest in the memory of the people that lived through it.

Class system in the 1830’s

  1. Landlords
  2. Large landholders
  3. Medium to small tenant farmers
  4. Stewards; Herds;  Businesses etc.
  5. Tradesmen; full time labourers; servants
  6. Casual labourers
  7. People who couldn’t work and were dependent on alms to exist
Famine Living Conditions 1830's

Famine Living Conditions 1830’s

The people most affected by famine conditions were the lower classes. The sick, elderly, widows, casual labourers, farmer/ labourers who rented very small farms and travelling tradesmen. Their diet consisted mostly of potatoes and salt with occasionally a little buttermilk. They used little or no vegetables. Labourers daily wages were as follows. Summer without diet, 10d per day, with diet 7d. Winter without diet 8d per day and with diet 6d.

For the casual labourer periods of unemployment were in winter, in the months of December, January and February, i.e. from the digging out of the potato crop to the new planting and in the summer in July and August i.e. from the second covering of the potato crop until the beginning of the harvest. Some labourers got a few days repairing roads, picking stones in the fields etc. this also included the women and children. Some resorted to begging. Wages of women was sixpence and of boys four pence.

The Poor Laws

During the 1930’s, there was a large amount of labourers unemployed because of;

(a) growth in population

(b) due to the changeover to grassland farming

(c) increased mechanisation, and

(d) a lack of any industries in some townlands

This meant the levels of poor increased.

A study of the state of the poor of Ireland in 1835 led to the setting up of Poor Laws. The country was divided into poor law unions and workhouses were set up to accommodate the poor. The population of the areas in 1831 census, as stated in that report were;

1831 Census Figures

Also included are the census figures for 1841, 1851 and 1911 for comparison purposes.

The Blight

The main source of food for the people of the area was mainly potatoes. A small portion of land could produce enough potatoes to last the year. The potato provided most of the nutrients required to sustain them which no other cereal or vegetable on their own could do. Some reports say that the potato blight had entered the country from America in the 1830’s in the west of Ireland, however this has never been verified. There were failures of the potato crop in 1832/3 in Mayo and parts of Galway.

However in September 1845, (starting on the east coast) potato blight, which for many was an unknown strange disease, struck the potatoes as they grew in fields across Ireland. Many of the potatoes were found to have gone black and rotten and their leaves had withered. As many of the farms were small the potato was the main crop, and the farmer was able to feed the family for the year and also a few pigs and hens, which as well as food also went to pay the rent. In years of poor harvests the “hunger gap” increased (the “Hunger gap” was from when the old potatoes ran out to the new potatoes being dug). Without the potato the sources of food disappeared. Many had to make do with nettles and watercress as a source of nourishment. The landlords and large farmers (many with large mortgages), who had sublet their holdings to small tenant farmers and labourers, didn’t receive any rent and so evicted their tenants. They had no option but to either emigrate, if they could afford it, or go to the workhouse.


traces of lazybeds

traces of lazybeds

As the people moved off the land and into the workhouse the rotten potato crop was left in the ground. A third of the countries crop was destroyed, the poorer section of the communities, living on small portions of land and dependent on the potato for food, sought relief in the workhouses which rapidly filled up. A reminder of the abandoned crops still evident in the traces of lazybeds that still exist in pasture land that hasn’t been cultivated.

Oldcastle Poor Law Union

Oldcastle Poor Law Union was formally declared on the 6th January 1840 and covered an area of 169 square miles. Its operation was overseen by an elected Board of Guardians, 21 in number, representing its 13 electoral divisions as listed below (figures in brackets indicate numbers of Guardians if more than one):

Co. Meath: Crossakeel, Killallon, Loughcrew, Killeagh, Moylagh, Oldcastle (2)
Co. Westmeath: Castle Pollard (2), Fore (2)
Co. Cavan: Ballyjamesduff (2), Castlerahan (2), Kilbride (2), Munterconnaught, Virginia (3)

The Board also included 7 ex-officio Guardians

Ordinance Survey map of Oldcastle workhouse site

Ordinance Survey map of Oldcastle workhouse site

Griffiths Valuations of Properties

The survey carried out by Richard Griffiths involved the detailed valuation of every taxable piece of agricultural or built property on the island of Ireland and was published county-by-county between the years 1847 and 1864.

The amount of money paid by property holders was x amount per pound valuation. Property holders having a valuation of less than £5 were exempt from paying. The monies collected from the rates went to support the workhouse and the other activities of the Oldcastle Union.

Below is the valuation rates paid by property owners to the Oldcastle union in 1848

Famine Griffith Valuation

Famine Griffith Valuation

Oldcastle Workhouse

Below is a table of the admissions into the workhouse from 1843 – 1846. Unfortunately we don’t have detailed figures for 1847-1849. However there were a total of 1364 inmates in 1849.

Famine workhouse inmates 1843 to 1846

Relief Schemes

Officially the famine lasted from 1845-1848. However almost a third of the potato crop also failed in 1849. After partial failure (approx. one third of the crop) in 1845, there was almost complete failure in 1846, some of the guardians of the workhouses undertook to feed people who had not been admitted, often against the wishes and rules of the Poor Law administrators.

Maize or Indian corn was secretly imported by the government in 1846 but this was stopped in 1847. However it was later found that it possessed very low nutritional value, and only contributed further to the spread of disease. Soup kitchens were set up to assist the poor, first by the Quakers and later by the poor law unions themselves. One of those soup kitchens was  at the foot of the Quarry Hill. But often the people, weak with hunger and disease were unable to get to the workhouse or the soup kitchens and died in their homes or on the side of the road. It is reputed that a disused quarry in Ballinscarry became the final resting place of some migrant workers.


Famine Quarry

Ballinascarry Quarry

Quarry in Ballinascarry where it is reputed that migrant labourers who came to the area to pick turnips are buried. They had camped in the quarry and died as a result of hunger and disease. They were interred where they died and their remains were covered over with stones and gravel from the quarry.




With the workhouses overcrowded the government was forced to introduce outdoor relief measures. Wall Building and road building were two of the tasks involved. These tasks often had to be done in the middle of winter. The winter of 1846/47 was particularly harsh with snow drifts in Feb 1847 and the people had little clothes to protect them from the cold. Pay was low on these schemes  and didn’t  provide enough money to buy food and clothes and pay the rent with the result that many people were evicted.

Walls at Ballymacad and Summerbank were built during this time.

Famine Walls

There were some objections to providing public works for the labourers as it was felt that labourers would not be available to do seasonal work, if public works were available on a more permanent basis.

Upper Inny drainage scheme

One of these was a drainage scheme of the river Inny. In 1845 the Board of Works introduced a scheme to drain the upper Inny river. Loans were made available to land owners along its banks, to carry out this work and which was repayable. The original estimate for the work was £200 for a survey and £34,994 for the works. Work was suspended in 1847 after £3 per acre was spent because fresh permission had to be sought from the landowners, which was not given. It was resumed in 1854 at a reduced rate and with additional monies allocated. The Engineer appointed was Charles J Battersby. This scheme provided much needed employment to the labourers during the early famine years and also in the aftermath of the famine in 1854.

Below is a copy of a report into that scheme:

Famine River Inny Scheme

A further and much larger drainage scheme was started in 1868 which involved straightening the river,  repairing and building new bridges. It covered an area of over 300 sq miles and it was estimated that 12,000 acres would be drained. New bridges were built at Ballinrink x 2 (one was to facilitate access to Ballinrink from Rathiever by the Rotherhams who owned both estates), Ross, Finea (The new section), Carnagh and Kiltoom bridges. The engineer was James C Dillon. The works provided much needed work for the people of the area. The initial cost of the scheme was estimated at £40,000 but ended up costing £55,000. The landowners paid this as an annual charge. Under the Land Law act of 1887, any lands sold that had a charge for drainage or land improvement, the charge was apportioned by the Land Commission to the purchaser. In some areas the old bed of the river and the old bridges or sections of bridges can still be seen.

Many of these bridges built in the 1870’s and 1880’s are still in use today. A credit to the skill and craftsmanship of the people that worked on them.

Ballinrink Bridge

Ballinrink Bridge


Some of the landlords saw the famine as an excuse to clear their lands of labourers and small tenant farmers. One such eviction happened on the property of Messrs. O’Connor and Malone, at Tonagh close to Lough Sheelin. The agent was a Mr Guinness, who was then MP for Kinsale. He later lost his seat because of his involvement in bribery. It was witnessed by a  missionary priest in the area who some say was Thomas Nulty a future bishop of Meath and who was born in Fennor, Oldcastle. Here is part of Dr Nulty’s very graphic description;

“In the very first year of our ministry, as a missionary priest in this diocese we were an eye-witness of a cruel and inhuman eviction, which even still makes our heart bleed as often as we allow ourselves to think of it. Seven hundred human beings were driven from their homes in one day and set adrift on the world, to gratify the caprice of one who, before God and man, probably deserved less consideration than the last and least of them.

And we remember well that there was not a single shilling of rent due on the estate at the time, except by one man; and the character and acts of that man made it perfectly clear that the agent and himself quite understood each other.”

The full text of that article can be found at

Assisted emigration

Between Oct 1848 and Aug 1850 the British government ran a pauper emigration scheme.  They paid for the assisted emigration of orphan girls from the workhouses. They saw this as a means of relieving the pressure on the workhouses and solving Australia’s shortage of labour and imbalance of the sexes. In all 4,000 girls were sent to Australia, 22 of which came from Oldcastle workhouse. The girls from Oldcastle arrived in Sidney aboard the ‘Tippo Sail’ on 29 July 1850.

The following is a list of those girls:

Name Age Residence Father Mother Status
Mary Cullen 16 Oldcastle James Cullen Mary Cullen Both dead
Anne Cunningham 16 Oldcastle Patrick Cunningham Ann Cunningham Mother in Oldcastle
Jane Cunningham 13 Oldcastle Patrick Cunningham Ann Cunningham Mother in Oldcastle
Ann Daly 19 Moylagh Mathew Daly Elizabeth Daly Both dead
Catherine Mullally 17 Oldcastle Thomas Mullally Judith Mullally Both dead
Judy Neill 18 Killallon Authur Neill Ann Neill Mother in Oldcastle
Catherine Reynolds 17 Oldcastle Owen Reynolds Sarah Reynolds Both dead
Jane Robinson 18 Oldcastle George Robinson Mary Robinson Both dead
Mary Smith 19 Crossakiel Bernard Smith Sarah Smith Sarah in Oldcastle
Rose Tigh 16 Oldcastle William Tigh Mary Tigh
Bridget Lynch 17 Ballyjamesduff Philip Lynch Bridget Lynch Both dead
Rose Fegan (Fagan) 18 Ballyjamesduff Michael Fagan Elizabeth Fagan Both dead
Ann Grey 16 Castlerahan Terence Grey Mary Grey Both dead
Margaret McManus 17 Killeagh Philip McManus Cora McManus Cora in Oldcastle
Mary Porterfield 19 Killare William Porterfield Ann Porterfield Both dead
Bridget Quigley 16 Killare Patrick Quigley Ann Quigley Ann alive
Alice Smith 17 Lurgan Michael Smith Sarah Smith Both dead
Ann Cosgrave 17 Ballyjamesduff Philip Cosgrave Mary Cosgrave Both dead
Fanny Young 17 Mountnugent William Young Elizabeth Young Both dead

Some of the girls who left for Australia had siblings born in Oldcastle or the neighbouring parish of Killeagh

Ann Daly from Oldcastle had 4 siblings – Cicilia, Michael, Bryan, Mary

Anne and Jane Cunningham from Oldcastle had 3 other siblings – Mary, Catherine and Marcella.

Catherine Mullally from Oldcastle had  8 siblings – Pat, James, John, Mary, Judith, Margaret, Thomas, and Anne

and Rose Tigh from Oldcastle had 4 siblings – Michael, Thomas, Bridget, and Laurence

Margaret McManus from Killeagh parish had 3 other siblings


The effects of the Famine

The next 4 graphs gives an indication of the changes in population of Oldcastle and Mountnugent parishes from the years 1832 when the population was near its peak, up to 1863. Marriages and births began to rise again from the mid 1850’s but came nowhere near the levels of the 1830’s.

 Marriages 1832 to 1863

Baptisms 1832 to 1863


Oldcastle Marriages 1832 to 1863

Oldcastle Births 1832 to 1863

Emigration kept the population low and it was only in areas where there was a diversity of income sources that the population remained steady. Ross and Crossdrum had the quarries, and Ballinacree had the woolen mills.

Houses 1841 to 1901

(townlands highlighted in red had industries. Townlands highlighted in black were part of Hones estate where evictions were carried out.)

Immediate and after effects of the famine

Death from hunger or disease during famine (A majority of famine victims died from malnutrition – related diseases such as fever or relapsing fever (typhus), small-pox, dysentery, dropsy, scurvy and cholera, rather than directly from starvation). Nationally there were approx. 1 million extra deaths because of the famine. Doctors at the time did not know the causes of fever which was widespread. Later on they attributed it poor diet and hygiene. It was in fact typhus caused by the human body louse.

In a report from the commissioners of health the incidence of smallpox in two of the Dublin fever hospitals increased threefold in the years 1845 and 1849. Cholera was rampant  from December 1848 – to December 1849.

Migration from rural areas to towns during famine. People left rural areas and moved into the towns where the workhouse was and where they might get food. Many emigrated to America, Canada and England during famine. Some died during the journey or shortly afterwards of the same diseases which they thought they had left behind. Emigration to America and England continued long after famine and into the 20th century. Most of the emigrants or their families rarely, if ever came back to Ireland and it is only in recent times with the growth in family research that their descendants have returned. Below is the rates of passage to America or Australia in 1854.

New York £3-0-0

Boston £3-15-0

Melbourne £14 – £28

St John’s New Brunswick £4-0-0

To the above children are charged within 10s of adults. Infants under 1 year 10s each.

To the above ports passengers are found with: 5 Lbs of oatmeal, 2.5 Lbs of biscuits, 2 Lbs of rice, 1 Lbs of wheaten flour, 2 ounces of tea, and a ½ Lbs of sugar per week

Employment in the area during and after the famine

Outside of farming the biggest source of employment in this area during and after the famine were the quarries. Crossdrum, Crossrah, Moate and Ross quarries provided stone for house and other buildings locally and further afield. This was helped by the introduction of the railway to Oldcastle in the early 1860’s. The mills at Millbrook, Tully and Halfcarton also provided some employment.

Tradesmen such as blacksmiths, coopers, spinners, and weavers also had some source of income during the famine years. The opening of the woollen mills in Ballinacree in 1848 by Joseph Forde provided a welcome boost to employment and this was carried on from 1856 by the Matthews family up to 1926 when the mill closed.

Woollen Mills Advert and Invoice

Response to the famine

The government and landlords have been criticised for their response to the famine so what was the response of the administration and upper classes in this area to the famine?

In the report of the Commissioners of Health in 1847 they recommended disinfecting the houses of the poor by whitewashing the walls and sprinkling the floors with a solution of chloride of lime and also improving the ventilation.

In a speech given to Oldcastle Agricultural Show in 1846, Mr J. L. W. Napper chairman suggested that it was up to all people i.e. the landlords, the farmers, and the tenants to work together to assist the labourers in whatever way they could and he himself was willing to take part in relief schemes and he criticised some of his own class, the landlord class especially the non-resident landlords for their lifestyle and those landlords who took away the rents and did not bear their share of the burdens of the country.

A Mr Lambert from the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland in response to the toast suggested the best crop to replace the potato was bere.

Mr Wade suggested that the cause of the visitation with which it had pleased Providence to afflict on the country, he (Mr Wade) believed it was in consequence of the iniquities of the people. He did not mean to state that it was because of the wickedness of the lower alone, no for the wickedness and depravity of the upper classes had at least their share in producing the calamity.

The Board of Guardians in 1850 provided the funding through the rates, to ship orphan girls out of the workhouse to Australia to reduce the numbers in the workhouse. In 1849 there were 1,364 people in the workhouse which was built to accommodate 600.

The Board of Guardians also provided soup to the poor who were not admitted to the workhouse. Before 1847 a person had to be admitted to the workhouse before they could get relief.

The Napers and Hones had walls built on their estates as a relief scheme.

Rotherhams and Nugent lands bordered the river Inny and they supported the drainage of the river.

There is reports that a road was built into Ross bog which was owned by George H Pentland.

A soup kitchen was opened at the bottom of the Quarry hill (Moate townland) and probably supported by either Webbs (who were Quakers) or Rotherham.


While the memory of the Great Famine never left the people that went through it, like all catastrophic events like WW1 and 2 the horrific details were not talked about. The effects of this famine lived on into the beginning of the 20th century with mass emigration to America, Canada, and the UK. The bitterness among the emigrants helped build up a strong violent nationalist feeling against English rule in Ireland, especially in America where most of the emigrants went, in the years immediately after the famine. It had an effect on the fight for land rights. Tenant farmers and labourers alike agitated for security of tenure and land ownership so that they would have something to fall back on if a scarcity of food ever arose again. In the political rallies of the early 1900’s speakers bemoaned the loss of Irish people to emigration.

In the 175th anniversary let us commemorate the courage and resilience of our ancestors who lived through the famine, and who often walked a fine line between starvation or disease and the wrath of the law, and some of the landlords in order to provide for their families

Seamus Smith, 2019