Tadhg O’Sullivan & Paddy Kelly - Beara Famine Victims

The Great Famine of Ireland struck as a result of the failure of the potato crop in the autumn of 1845. The Beara peninsula was not exempt from the horrors that inevitably accompanied it. The present generation of Berehaveners cannot realise the appaling conditions that prevailed there at that time.

The people had no voice in public affairs, they were treated like serfs, with the shadow of eviction always darkening their doors. The landlords and the ‘Gombeen’ shopkeeper exacted their pound of flesh. The people were helpless and starving. The famine of 1845-50 left its mark on Beara as well as West Cork in general, as the following story tells.

Tadhg O’Sullivan was an honest man who lived in Adrigole at the foot of Hungry Hill. He had a small farm which he rented at a high rent, and he kept a small potato garden to feed his family of seven. Like many others in that area, he would go out fishing to supplement the family diet. Most of the produce from the land would be sold to pay his rent to the landlord: otherwise the bailiff and his men would come along and evict them and wreck the house. Times were hard and they were to get harder still.

When harvest time came, Tadhg went to his small patch of potatoes that usually kept his family fed during the long winter until spring returned, and he could plant anew. When Tadhg dug up the earth, instead of the crop of potatoes he expected , there was nothing but a black slimy mess. There wasn’t a potato there, nothing for the coming winter.

He had sold all his other crops to pay the landlord his rent. It was the same for all his neighbours, and all were in for a hard winter. Tadhg sold off everything they owned as the weeks passed, and himself and one of his sons, Danny went looking for work. There was only ‘relief work’ available which the Government had started to help the poor people who were beginning to starve.

This was the work of building roads to nowhere, and walls enclosing barren and unusable land, except for mountain sheep, up to the top of the hills. This work paid very little but it was either that or go to the Workhouse for poor Tadhg and his family, so he and Danny went to work building the road. They worked all day, and it was a long day, and they were exhausted at the end of it. As they walked wearily along, they came to Hungry Hill and had to cross over a small patch of grass to order to continue their journey home.

But as soon as their feet hit the grass, they were struck by severe pangs of hunger and they cried out for assistance, but nobody heard them. They came so overcome with weakness they lay down on the grass and, shortly after, they died. In the meantime, Tadhg’s wife and six other children were waiting at home for the breadwinners to return, but they had been struck by the fever caused by the lack of food. In a matter of days the whole of Tadhg’s family perished and what few neighbours they had buried them in a communal pit.

Some time later, the bodies of Tadhg and Danny were found near Hungry Hill, frozen to the ground with a look of helpless resignation on their faces.

Another story often told in Beara is that of Norry Kelly, who was also known as Norry na Bunmahon! When Allihies copper mines shut down during the famine years one of the miners working there was Paddy Kelly. Paddy left to seek work in the Waterford copper mines at Bunmahon, telling his wife Norry that if she didn’t hear from him within a couple of weeks to follow him there.

After a couple of weeks she didn’t hear from Paddy, Norry started off on the road to Bunmahon, a distance of 150 miles, with her seven children. When she reached Bunmahon with only three of the children sill alive, the other four having died on the journey, she was told the her husband Paddy had been buried the day before.

Norry turned, raving and crying, to take the road back to Beara. Her three remaining children died on the way home, and when she arrived in Castletownbere, the dead baby was still on her back. Norry spent the rest of her days rambling the roads and praying that God would give back her children, and with her hands pile up seven little heaps and put flowers on them, crying out to God all the time.

In the face of a million stories like these, people wonder that the Irish people do not take more kindly to foreign rule, and do not appreciate this character of “benevolent assimilation.”

Courtesy of the Southern Star
16th July 2005