Fr. 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. He’s 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 Great Famine.

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 famine-ravaged community.

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 the parish.

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 their pockets".

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 and horrors."

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. Molony.

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 his parishioners.

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