Great Famine in Cavan
Parker & Anna Sexton
The Great Irish Famine was, to quote a cliché, a
disaster waiting to happen. Between 1750 and 1850 Irelands
population grew beyond a level at which it could sustain
itself. Much of this demographic growth was based on the
availability of one food item and when this was withdrawn
not just once, but on successive occasions, it resulted
in widespread destitution. This was worsened by the structural
and ideological failure of those in authority to provide
for their sustenance and to prevent the resultant spread
The population of Ireland on the eve of the Famine stood
in excess of 8 millions. The population of Co. Cavan alone
was just short of 250,000 nearly five times its present
population. The reasons for this demographic ballooning,
which had occurred in the space of little over a century,
can be traced to the availability of the potato which provided
food security for peasant farmers with little land of indifferent
quality. Not surprisingly the potato was adopted with alacrity
throughout Ireland, unlike the hostile reception it initially
received elsewhere in Europe.
Hardship before the Famine
In Cavan and throughout the northern half of Ireland the
advent of flax cultivation and domestic linen production
had augmented a further security. Areas supplying linen
markets like Cootehill became semi-industrialised, as cottages
and cabins were modified to deal with the various processes
involved in the process of turning flax fibres into cloth.
This was sometimes accompanied by the neglect of farm-based
food production. When, after 1825 the cottage linen industry
collapsed in the face of mechanised production in factories
near Belfast, many areas of Ireland, including Co. Cavan,
experienced widespread destitution. Ireland lacked industries
which could have absorbed surplus agricultural populations,
as was the case in the north of England. However there was
a growth in urban populations as towns, including Cavan
and Cootehill (amongst others) attracted settlers from their
rural hinterlands in search of greater though non-existent
prosperity of the towns who were confined to unhealthy yet
extensive shanty-towns on their peripheries.
The mid 1840s were years of increased tension in Cavan.
Acts of physical violence became common. In May 1845 James
Gallagher, the under-agent on the Enerys estates at
Ballyconnell was badly assaulted and died later the same
day with forgiveness on his lips for his assailants. Three
months later the unpopular George Bell Booth of Crossdoney
was assassinated. December 1847 saw the death of the well-known
controversialist Father Thomas Maguire. His passing was
widely attributed to poisoning, though as the late Fr Dan
Gallogly pointed out, this might have been administered
by members of his own erstwhile flock who were dissatisfied
with his denunciations of physical force methods.
Failure of response to the potato crop destruction
The response of the authorities of the time to the successive
destruction of the potato crop was wholly inadequate. The
actions they took were not motivated by racist theories,
but by their near religious devotion to ideological fads
of the time like Utilitarianism and Political Economy.
It was not the responsibility of a government to provide
for its poor. If there was any responsibility it was on
the part of the pauper to behave thriftily and thus keep
the wolf of destitution from his miserable cabin door. Such
theories underlay the paltry responses that were enacted
during the Famine, such as the provision of outdoor relief
in return for food, as well as the construction of hideous
workhouses. These cynical measures were a central part of
the Poor Law system established in England in
the 1830s in an attempt to reform a slightly more generous
form of public welfare that had existed for nearly three
centuries whose provision had become too punitive and burdensome
for wealthy tax payers.
The system of land tenure, based on landlordism, has often
been blamed for the Famine. It did not cause it, but the
response of Cavans proprietarial class, whether absentee
or resident, was shamelessly ambivalent. Their tenantry
belonged to a different, subservient orbit whose duties
comprised the provision of rent so that their overlords
could pursue lives of leisure, ease and indolence . The
Barons Farnham, who had attempted (unsuccessfully) to stamp
out subdivision of already miniscule holdings by their tenants,
did little to alleviate their hardships. Indeed they were
enthusiastic evictors of tenants who were unable to pay
their rent, although they showed no religious favouritism
But there were exceptions, albeit amongst the smaller landlords.
Folklore from the Blacklion area records the activities
of a Mr. Nixon who travelled the roads and lanes in search
of the starving whom he would bring home to feed. There
was also the example of Mr. Tatlow, a minor landlord from
Crosserlough. A series of letters to the newly-founded Anglo-Celt
recorded how a cart carrying a fever-infected girl to Cavan
towns fever hospital was disabled when its axle broke.
Passing vehicles refused to give the girl and her guardian
a lift, no doubt fearing infection. Then along came Mr Tatlows
well-appointed trap, whose owner was only too happy to provide
transport. The girls ultimate fate is unknown, but
it can be assumed.
In Co. Cavan there were some truly inhuman acts of heartlessness.
One of these was the eviction of tenants in Mountnugent,
researched and described by Patricia Darcy. In September
1847 the tenants of a number of adjoining townlands were
evicted from their cottages which were then demolished.
No quarter was given to the aged or the infirm who were
all equally cast upon the caprices of nature. Other tenants
were warned not to give them shelter or assistance. This
incident was particularly horrifying because it was spurred
by the greed of a number of Irish land-speculators. The
tenants who were the object of this inhumanity had not even
been remiss in the payment of their rent.
A patchwork effect
The famine did not cast a pall of universal misery affecting
the whole of the people of Ireland. Some areas were badly
hit, while neighbouring parishes escaped fairly lightly.
Amongst the first areas to be affected by the Famine in
Co. Cavan was Blacklion and its vicinity, through which
starvation and disease cut their deathly swathe; yet the
neighbouring parish of Glangevlin was only lightly touched.
The folklore recorded in the 1930s tells of refugees coming
there from as far away as Co. Galway in search of food,
and being satisfied with raw cabbage.
Winners and losers
The Famine in Cavan, in common with the rest of Ireland,
had its winners and losers. Alas the former numerically
surpassed the former. Those who were already poor and badly-fed
were most vulnerable to the food disruption and attendant
diseases, and those who came into contact with them, like
doctors, were also prone to fall victim to the lethal cocktail
of viruses that escaped from the Famines Pandoras
box. Others whose positions in society allowed them to eschew
contact with the teeming masses, who could afford better
food, enjoy more favourable hygiene and heating were insulated
from its effects. It is true that while Ireland was in the
grip of famine there was no shortage of food in the country.
Profits were also made by merchants who exported agricultural
Co. Cavan after the Famine
One of the most poignant observations on the Famine was
made by a respondent from Blacklion to the Irish Folklore
Commission nearly nine decades later. They said pithily
that after the Famine there were fewer people around. The
population of the county fell by nearly 29 per cent between
1841 and 1851. Part of this was due to starvation- and disease-induced
mortality. A significant part was also due to emigration
to England and America, a haemorrhage which was to continue
late in to the next century.
The Famine also had its impact on the landscape, leaving
as its architectural legacy a handful of gaunt poor houses
that could never shake off their initial associations with
want and destitution. There were also the cottages abandoned
by their occupants. These often were preserved in their
increasing dereliction by the notion that they were haunted
by the spirits of those who had once dwelt there. Quite
a number of minor roads throughout the county were also
constructed by emaciated human beings in return for paltry
wages and food rations.
The Great Famine has been used, or rather misused, along
with other historical events, by those who see themselves
as the unquestioned guardians of historical truth
to buttress opinions and policies on which it has no bearing,
and to enforce erroneous interpretations. Its discussion
has often been attended by the spinning of myth and fantasy
on the one hand; or dry and unsympathetic number-crunching
by economic historians on the other, who forgets that the
events of 1845-47 were an immense human tragedy. While not
the first outbreak of hunger and disease to hit Ireland
it was undoubtedly the most dramatic.
It should not be seen in geographical isolation. Famines
later in the century in China and Brazil were equally devastating
in their own contexts, while the series of droughts suffered
by southern Indian farmers from 1876 to 1900 not only carried
off substantial portions of the population, but were met
with the same hypocritical response that famine victims
had received in Ireland three decades earlier.
The Famine was a disaster waiting to happen, but did that
mean it was inevitable? Might it have been avoided altogether?
Hindsight is always blessed by 20/20 acuity. In the middle
of the nineteenth century the cause of the destruction of
the potato crop was unknown. In the century and a half since
the Famine the world has gained greater knowledge about
climate, nutrition and the dynamics of destitution
yet famines, accompanied by epidemics still occur and their
baleful effects are as often inspired as mitigated by Man.
Taken from Breffni Blue 2005