Thomas Molony pleaded for his starving flock
1850. In Westminister, the parish of Kilmurry Ibrickane
was the subject of intense discussions. A committee was
in session tasked with enquiring into the affairs of Kilrush
Poor Law Union, from where alarming reports of famine, disease
and death had reached London. Hes a forgotten hero.
The name Fr Thomas Molony means little to anybody nowadays
but over 150 years ago he played an important role in highlighting
the plight of the starving people of West Clare during the
In fact, the curate from Kilmurry Ibrickane was one of those
who gave evidence before the select committee of Westminster
Parliament in 1850.
The story of Fr Molony was stumbled upon by Matthew Lynch,
a local historian from Kilmurry Ibrickane, through research
for his thesis for a masters degree in local history at
the University of Limerick a few years back.
Matthew, now living in Birdhill, was awe-struck by what
he discovered about the priest who ministered for twelve
years in his native parish.
Fr Molony was born in Kildysart in 1810 and at the age of
twenty-five went to the Irish College in Paris to study
for the priesthood. Troubled with poor health, during his
time there, he went to St Germain in 1838 to recuperate.
In July 1839 he returned to Ireland and was ordained the
following year for the diocese of Killaloe. His first assignment
was as curate in Broadford in East Clare, from 1840 to 1842.
He was then transferred to Inagh/ Kilnamona from 1842 to
1845, then back to his home parish of Killadysert/Kilfiddane
from 1845 to 1846. He was assigned as curate to Fr. E.P.
Barry in Kilmurry Ibrickane in late 1846.
Little is known of Fr. Molony's pastoral activities or his
social or political views before 1846, but his name then
came to public attention as one of four priests from the
Diocese of Killaloe who sided with the Young Irelanders
after they split with Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association
in July 1846. Fr. Molony was among the small minority of
priests who publicly supported people like William Smith
O'Brien and Fr. John Kenyon of Templederry in refusing to
disavow the use of physical force if necessary in pursuit
of the Repeal of the Union and national self-determination.
His arrival in Kilmurry Ibrickane coincided with the arrival
there of the Great Famine, an event whose depredations were
to continue in the area for up to seven years, through all
of which time Fr. Molony was to be a central figure in the
In the Spring of 1847, not long after his arrival in the
parish, Fr. Molony decided to undertake a census of its
population. We do not know why he undertook this project,
how he did it, or exactly what townlands he included. Official
census figures were based on civil parishes, whereas Fr.
Molony's census was, by his own account, based on the Catholic
parish of Kilmurry Ibrickane.
In the early months of 1847 we find him taking time out
from trying to alleviate the daily horrors of the time to
write (on 1st February 1847) one of the first of several
letters to the newspapers which were to reveal to a national
and British audience the depths of starvation, destitution,
disease and death in the parish of Kilmurry Ibrickane in
the Famine years. His letter dated 1st February 1847 to
the Clare Journal in Ennis recounts the findings of an inquest
into the death from starvation of four-year-old John Blake
of Doonogan and his conviction that between sixty and seventy
people had similarly died of starvation in the parish in
the past three months. 'Alas', he declared, painting a memorable
word image, 'the green graves are now fewer than the red'.
Unless charitable assistance was forthcoming immediately,
Fr. Molony predicted, 'Kilmurry Ibrickane will become another
and worse Skibbereen'. By that time Skibbereen in West Cork
had already acquired national notoriety for its appalling
levels of famine mortality.
In correspondence from Fr. Molony, published in the Clare
Journal on May 11th 1848, he gives a detailed account of
the condition of his parish, claiming that one fifth
of its population had disappeared since the beginning
of 1847. Some 900 families were on out-door relief under
the Poor Laws, 400 persons from the parish were in the 'poorhouse'
(the workhouse in Kilrush), 500 children were receiving
food rations from the British Association and 'sixty suits
of clothes have been divided between about 200 of them".
Fr. Molony's main point in this letter was that the depot
for dispensing Indian meal to the starving people was located
at the westem end of the parish, necessitating round trips
of from twelve to twenty five miles daily for many people
coming to the depot. Since supplies from Kilrush did not
always arrive, people could have to make several round trips
in a starving and exhausted state before getting any meal.
Moreover, the so-called 'able-bodied' poor had to break
stones for eight to ten hours to qualify for food rations.
The graphic image of the life of the starving poor in Kilmurry
Ibrickane in April 1848 was published also by the Dublin
Evening Post and is quoted by Fr Ryan in his history of
In the same letter Fr. Molony denounced absentee landlords
whom he saw as the main beneficiaries of public or private
charity because "it lightens their rates and spares
On 17 May 1849, Fr Molony wrote to the Limerick and Clare
Examiner. In a letter titled: "Fearful state of Kilmurry
Ibrickane", he spoke of the "accumulating misery"
of the parish, of people dying of hunger, cold and fever
after having been evicted from their houses and left unprotected
in the pouring rain.
The newspaper described Fr. Moloney's lifestyle at the time
as follows: "On last Sunday and Monday week the broken-hearted
clergyman had to drag his own tottering limbs, with scarce
an interval of rest, from one corpse to another. In the
three subsequent days, exhausted, overcome, feeble and faint,
he had still to continue his attendance on the dying; to
pass continually from townland to townland; to look on corpse
after corpse, to behold renewed over and over all the agonies
It was undoubtedly the publicity given to the appalling
state of Kilmurry Ibrickane from 1847 onwards that brought
Fr. Molony to the attention of Mr. Poulett Scrope, MP. When
the latter came on a fact-finding visit to Kilrush Poor
Law Union in the Autumn of 1849 he may well have met Fr.
Scrope estimated during his visit that as many as 20,000
people had been evicted from their homes in Kilrush Union
in the previous two years and that many of those were now
dead. The Limerick and Clare Examiner had chronicled these
harrowing events, which it characterised as "the extermination
of a people".
The Illustration London News had also printed a series of
graphic sketches and articles about the evictions in Kilrush
Union at the time, seeing the unroofed houses of the evicted
people as "like the tombs of a departed race".
It was against this background of public concern and Government
inaction that Fr. Thomas Molony was called before Mr. Poulett
Scrope's Select Committee at Westminster on 9th July 1850.
Fr. Molony told the Committee that many of those evicted
in the famine years were previously holders of small farms
of up to ten and even twenty acres, for whom the failure
of the potato crop forced their default on rent payments,
leading to eviction. But many were also evicted despite
having paid up all the rent due and many more were forced
to level their own homes in order to be eligible for relief
under the poor law.
The decade 1841-1851 saw a massive reduction in the number
of poorest quality (4th Class) houses in the parish: in
1841 there were 1188 such houses, nearly 72% of all inhabited
houses; by 1851 their number had fallen to 235, only 21%
of the total. Some 80% of them had 'disappeared'. The loss
of 953 of the poorest houses was partly compensated for
by an increase of 441 in 2nd and 3rd Class (intermediate
quality) houses, bringing their combined total from 28%
to 79% of all houses. These figures show that most of the
survivors of the Great Famine in the parish lived in better
quality houses than their pre-famine counterparts, a fact
which of course in no way justifies the mass evictions and
their terrible toll in human misery, destitution and death.
There was scarcely any paid employment for the labouring
classes, whose condition was now one of extreme destitution.
For the very few who were lucky enough to get employment,
usually only in the Spring and harvest time, the general
wage at peak times was six pence a day, without meals. At
other times labourers could expect at most four pence a
day and for many months of the year they worked just for
two meals a day, without pay.
The stoppage of outdoor famine relief in December 1849 and
January 1850 had, he said, produced the worst food crisis
in the parish since the famine began. With cabbages, turnips
and other alternative foods exhausted by Christmas 1849
the people's "sufferings were extreme". Fr Molony
appealed from the altar during this time for parishioners
to "keep their neighbours alive" until such time
as Government Relief was restored. Relief in the Workhouse
was often not available.
Fr. Molony condemned the inadequacy of the meal allowance
given under the Famine Relief Scheme, noting that it had
led to many deaths from starvation. But he reserved some
of his strongest criticisms for the requirement that 'ablebodied
outdoor paupers' should be engaged in stonebreaking in return
for their meal rations: I think no invention could
be worse for destroying the lives of the labourers; it did
almost destroy the population of labourers in our parish.
Noting that there had been no soup kitchens in the parish,
because people would have had to travel up to twelve or
fourteen miles to avail of them, Fr. Molony said that food
relief had instead been given in the form of bread. Five
hundred children were getting a pound of bread daily for
four months under the scheme.
Although many of the population along the coast were fishermen
they were, according to Fr. Molony, no longer able to fish
'for want of means'.
He reckoned that 'half the paupers on the Western side,(of
the parish) could be maintained comfortably by fishing'
and 'the other half could be employed profitably in drainage
and by farmers'. But such a programme would have required
a combination of publicly funded (Government) and privately
funded (landlord) employment schemes. The former had already
been tried and fallen into disrepute nationally in 1846/47
and the latter never materialised in the parish during the
years of the Great Famine.
Fr. Molony continued to serve in Kilmurry Ibrickane until
1859 when the parish priest Fr. Barry died and was replaced
by Fr. Patrick Moran. In the same year Fr. Molony was appointed
parish priest of Dysart-Ruan where he was to serve the community
for the next ten years, shunning publicity and the political
spotlight but earning the appreciation and affection of
He died on 18th January 1869 at his residence in the townland
of Killeen, in the parish of Dysart-Ruan.
Courtesy of Matthew Lynch and Austin Hobbs
of The Clare Champion