in the West Cork
Famine in West Cork; the Mizen Peninsula; Land and People;
1800-1852 is in book shops for quite a while but this volume
by Father Patrick Hickey, currently Parish Priest of Timoleague
and a native of Skeaghanore, near Ballydehob, has the distinction
of being definitely the most 'under-reviewed'
work of it's kind but concurrently being, one has to
say, arguably, the most important historical work produced
about West Cork in these generations but also, need we add,
by a West Corkman.
Reviews that did appear were extremely brief and did not
do justice to the extraordinary range of Father Hickeys
canvas and, while some writers might have been better equipped
academically to evaluate this good priests thesis,
one can only conclude that their perusals of this quite
monumental work were superficial and did not attempt to
appraise the amazing in-depth investigation involved or
realise that much of what was unearthed was certainly new
to most readers, if not necessarily to committed academics.
One review, which appeared in The Irish Times, glossed over
the book in just eight paragraphs and, while it did focus
on the shocking facts revealed about West Corks famine
experience, it did not comment on the range of detail presented
to readers, which is positively amazing and undoubtedly
incontrovertible. It did, however, and almost shamefully,
indulge in one piece of nit-picking about an inadvertent
error concerning Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles
Wood, which was immaterial in the overall context.
A few other reviewers were more generous but they also did
not attempt to grapple with the range of this work, which,
without doubt, is a challenging task for even the most assiduous
of erstwhile history students. While there have
been many books dealing with the Great Famine
in an All-Ireland context and even honing in on notorious
blackspots such as Skibbereen in West Cork,
these do not generally set this terrible tragedy in perspective
in the way Father Hickey has done by going back about fifty
years previously to 1800 and investigating how the scene
was set and all the background factors that are, indeed,
quite fascinating and probably news to the majority
How West Cork was planted following the Battle of Kinsale
in 1603 is a story in itself but Father Hickey does not
dwell on it too much, other than to identify the blow-in
families and landlords and then to race on to the French
in Bantry Bay of 1796 and the subsequent 1798 uprising.
Where the French were concerned, the West Cork loyalists
were saved by the bad weather and, had things been different,
the 1798 rebellion might not have been mainly confined to
The disarming of Munster and more specifically of West Cork
makes fascinating reading and while the terror inflicted
by Sr John Moore of corunna fame was awful, his operations
revealed the extent to which disafection was
rife in the region. A scorched earth policy
to frighten the people into handing up their arms was operated
in Caheragh and it was amazing that Moores redcoats
came away with no fewer than 800 pikes and 3,400 stands
of arms from that area alone. Aughadown parish had been
spared through the intervention of the local landlord Samuel
Townsend, Whitehall, together with parish priest Timothy
OSullivan and vicar Joseph Wright. Equally intriguing
is the period that follows; the continuing disorder created
by the Whiteboys and all the controversies leading up to
the Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which was the great achievement
of the Liberator, the extraordinary Daniel OConnell,
who later held a monster meeting in Skibbereen in June,
1943. Prior to the Great Famine, there were recurrent famines
in West Cork, in 1817 and 1822, for example, and Father
Hickey traces these events which involved as many as 220,000
people in distress throughout County Cork.
Relief through the making of roads had commenced during
this period and this story is a chapter in itself and describes
the background to the West Cork roads, which involved up
to 3,000 labourers in 1822 and a cost of over £3,600
at that time. Bridges in West Cork cost a further £1,715
but, even after the relative success of these relief efforts,
there were further Whiteboy disturbances, many of which
arose on account of hostility to the tithes which all Catholics
had to pay to the Protestant clergymen.
Religion in West Cork up to the Great Famine is discussed.
Father Hickey traces the evangelical Wesleyans, also called
Methodists, aside from the Church of Ireland and then goes
on to discuss the difficulties faced by Catholics in having
churches built. He traces the Penal Laws and its local effects
and then the movement to build national schools which commenced
in the 1830s. The national Schools were Catholic as they
were rejected by protestants, who founded their own Church
Education Society and the latter built eighteen schools
in the Mizen peninsular area, which, in 1845, had as many
as 1,046 pupils on their rolls.
Education was vital because in 1845 for example, as much
as 76 percent of people in the parish of Schull were illiterate
and the National School system, which was inadequately funded,
did not do as much for Catholics as did the Protestant schools
for their flock. While in the western area, Protestants
had eighteen schools, the Catholics had only eight National
Father Hickey traces the economic background and particularly
that relating to mining for copper and barytes in the Schull
peninsula but, then, a more intriguing chapter deals with
the poverty created by the continuing extraction of tithe
payments from Catholics even after Catholic Emancipation.
This is a complicated subject and what was called a reform
was the Tithe Composition Act of 1823, which introduced
a system of arbitrators who valued Land and assessed the
amount of tithes to be paid by the occupiers.
The Aughadown parish tithes, for example, were valued at
£600 in 1829, of which half went to the vicar Robert
Wright. Tithes in Schull were £850 a year, in Kilmoe,
Goleen, £500 and in Dunmanway, a smaller figure of
£461. The tithes were opposed mainly by Catholics
but also by Methodists and Presbyterians who resented having
to pay these dues to the Church of Ireland clergymen and
There was serious anti-tithe agitation in the 1830s and
a Bantry meeting in 1832 attracted 20,000 people while a
similar great meeting in Cork which was a repeal of the
Union meeting and addressed by Daniel OConnell, had
an attendance of 200,000. A tactic adopted in West Cork
was that the people refused to pay the tithes in cash but
allowed the proctor to take payment in kind but when another
meeting was held at the foot of Mount Gabriel, the priest
organisers, Father Quinn and Kelliher, were prosecuted for
urging the people not to pay tithes.
Dr. Robert Traill, Rector of Schull, at the time, had boasted
that he waged war against Popery and its thousand
forms of wickedness had opined that the outbreak of
cholera was Gods punishment for the tithe agitation.
One rector, Charles Ferguson, Timoleague, was murdered while
attempting to collect his tithes by force and, throughout
the country, the enforced payment of tithes had resulted
in 242 homicides.
Further anti-tithe meetings were held in 1834 in Bantry
Skibbereen and the latter was addressed by the fiery Chartist
leader Fergus OConnor of the Connor family of Manch,
Ballineen, when 40,000 people cheered him all the way to
the chapel yard where the meeting was held. These were troubled
times for the Church of Ireland and Dr. Traill even attacked
Methodism, which he called The Popery of Protestantism.
With an increasing population, there was great poverty and
Father Hickey discusses the repercussions, which included
excessive drinking, faction fighting and deprivation, leading
on to the system of workhouses, of which by 1841, thirty-seven
had been opened throughout the country. The one at Skibbereen
was opened in March, 1842, was built to hold 800 inmates
and cost £8,000 and was visited the following year
by the English writer Thackeray who wrote about it in grim
The great meeting held by Daniel OConnell in Skibbereen
on 22nd June, 1843 had been well documented but Father Hickey
deals with it in detail and there was a Repeal Banquet in
the Skibbereen Temperance Hall at which the Liberator had
a disagreement with a Bantry man Shea Lawlor about the use
of physical force. But the honourable guest was presented
with nearly £500 towards repeat rent and,
afterwards, there were meetings in Schull and Ballydehob.
Father Hickey goes on to trace the West Cork economic situation
in the run up to the Great Famine and he deals with the
problem of absentee landlordism and evictions which were
carried out in the name of improvement. The
system of land tenure was blamed as it tended to discourage
progress of farming and one of the evils was the role of
the middlemen. The poverty of the tenants was increasing
but some landlords were also sinking under encumbrances.
There was also a decline in the fishing industry and in
1843 a new Board of Fisheries was set up in an attempt to
address the problems.
Population growth, prior to the Great Famine, was a factor
that exacerbated the intensity of the poverty and hunger
and, in the period between 1821 and 1841, there was an increase
of over 4,800 people in the western parishes, to a total
of 31,160 while Schull village doubled in the same period.
This did not happen in Kilcoe and Aughadown. The Protestant
birth rate was increasing quicker than was the Catholic
but, even at this stage, emigration was a factor. Nearly
a million left Ireland for America between 1915 and 1844
and that was before the Great Famine struck.
The potato blight that caused the famine is examined and
the people were left in awful distress.
Attempts to solve the problem failed and amid the relief
efforts, the road-making works were stepped up and, at one
stage, there were 110,000 men employed on these operations.
The most destitution was being observed in Skibbereen but
the Ballydehob region was also very bad.
A tale of Swift Famine and Tardy Relief is the
title of Chapter 8 and the British government was informed
of the horrific Skibbereen conditions but westwards in Schull
parish, it was found that 16,000 of its 18,000 people were
in a state of utter destitution.
Soup kitchens were opened on the instructions of Randolf
Routh, chairman of the Relief Commission and though twenty-six
were opened in West Carbery, the number of deaths continued
Routh is quoted by Father Hickey as ultimately blaming
the landlords of the Skibbereen district who had an annual
income of £50,000. The wealthiest was Lord Carbery,
with £15,000 while W.W. Becher had £10,000 but
outside the western area altogether, it was shown that Lord
Bandon alone had £30,000, an enormous sum in rents
in these awful times as their tenants starved. In 1847 a
call to the landlords was made by Daniel OConnell.
This chapter deals in the great detail with the famine horrors
and the relief attempts and there were many different protests
about the the severe delays involved and it was estimated
that between October, 1846 and May, 1847, a quarter of the
population of Ballydehob had been swept away by famine and
disease. The cargoes that arrived were hopelessly
The clergy themselves were being struck down and the victims
included Dr. Traill, the rector of Schull, and in Skibbereen
there was the macabre incident involving Tom Guerin who
was buried alive in the Abbey graveyard but was raised
from the dead. The numbers dying at Skibereen workhouse
ranged between 80 to 106 a week during March, 1847, figures
that were higher than Dunmanway, 76 Bantry 70 and Brandon,
There was much inequity as the Soup Kitchen Act. 1847 excluded
those who had more than a quarteracre of land, though the
number of persons on rations in the western parishes of
Kilmoe, Schull, Ballydehob and Kilcoe was 15,528 out of
a population of 26,887 which was only some 58 percent. These
rations were stopped in September, 1847.
The British government declared that, in the nine months
up to July, 1847, some £6 million had been spent on
relief but, none the less, a million had died from famine
in that period and in two years the number was 2 million.
In the western Mizen peninsula parishes, a total of 7,332
died in the one year to September 1847 and this was 17 per
cent of the population, a very high figure as compared with
the overall County Cork level of 5 per cent. Kilmoe was
the highest at 18.8 per cent while Drinagh was 18.4 per
Father Hickey examines the mortality figures in great detail,
with fewer women dying than men and he then goes on to examine
the effect of emigration in that period showing that in
1847, some 17,000 left for Canada on the coffin ships
of which some 2,716 died in the process of getting there.
Almost 1,000 left the western parishes, mostly destined
for America and England.
The souperism or proselytism involved in the
soup kitchens, as operated by the Protestant clergy, is
an important part of Father Hickeys thesis and William
Fisher, rector of Kilmoe, was foremost in seeking converts
by using the offer of food to wean Catholics away from their
superstition of Popery. Because of this activity,
the Catholic priests in Goleen and Crookhaven withdrew from
the relief committee in protest.
Father Laurence OSullivan was portrayed by Eoghan
Harris in his play Souper Sullivan, as deserting his
flock but he was, in fact, away only nine days. He
could not work with Fisher because of the latter enticing
Catholics to barter their faith for a mess or pottage
(OSullivans own words). He did not abandon and,
in fact, obtained relief from many outside sources which
Proselytism also took place on Heir Island and on Cap Clear
and in Baltimore, through a Rev. Spring, a Kerryman from
Castlemaine, but later, there took place a counter
reformation promoted by the new Bshop of Cork Rev.
William Delaney and eventually some 1,440 soupers
were won back. A tradition in Kilmoe, however, was that
Rev. Fisher, who bought almost 900 acres of land from the
estate of R.H.H. becher, after the famine, evicted tenants
who refused to become converts and some turned
to save their lands. Not all Protestant clergymen, however,
were like Fisher and Father Hickey pays tribute, in particular
to Canon James Goodman, later rector of Abbeystrewry, who,
according to a quotation, interferes with no mans
The Catholic population, which was much greater than the
Protestant, was not as liberally supplied with clergy and,
in the western parishes, while Protestants had one clergyman
per 705 of population, Catholics had only one priest per
4,583 people. By 1856, however, it is believed that the
proselytism campaign was seen to be counter-productive and
was gradually abandoned.
Father Hickey goes on to treat the Irish Poor Law which
was introduced in 1847 and its effects while, on the relief
side, there were many unfinished roads. While the people
were starving in that year due to the potato blight, there
was still a good harvest of other crops. The four western
parishes of Kilmoe, Schull, Kilcoe and Aughadown produced
2,053 acres of wheat, 1,253 acres of oats, 1,159 acres of
barley as well as turnips, mangolds and some potatoes. Yet,
the people were starving and the grain was being exported
to pay the landlords rents.
A campaign for Tenant Right was starting up at this time
and there were some big meetings, including one at Skibbereen
in November which was actually chaired by one of the landlords,
R.H. Becher of Hollybrook, who was praised by McCarthy-Downing,
solr., for his stance. Even then, however, evictions were
continuing and the former rector of Kilmoe, Thomas OGrady,
for example, evicted some nine families in November. In
Cloughjordan, Tipperary, a clergy-man-landlord evicted 250
Deaths were continuing and in 1847 almost a thousand died
in the western parishes which included 603 in Skibbereen,
by far the highest. There was great pressure on ratepayers,
apart from rents and in Skibbereen, there were 7,500 paupers
on outdoor relief. The export of food caused great bitterness
and between 1844 and 1846, around 14,000 tons of corn left
the ports of West Cork.
By 1849, three of the western parishes had lost 10,238 in
population, with Schull losing the most at 6,655.
The post-famine situation is comprehensively dealt with
by Father Hickey in the final chapter of the book and he
deals very fully with education, politics, the effects on
land holdings, agriculture, the Irish language and the situation
in the workhouses.
Also examined, are the effects of emigration, with many
details from Census reports and between famine and emigration.
For instance, the town of Skibbereen lost almost a thousand
people, down to 3,834 by 1851 but, perhaps due to fishing,
the popultaion fall among the islanders was less than on
Rural housing is also examined while, in regard to the marriage
rate, it is observed that the number of Protestant marriages
recovered but not the Catholic level.
It is in essence, a tragic story of major proportions, retold
in arguably the most shocking theatre of the Irish Great
Famine and the research conducted by Father Hickey is so
exhaustive that the work is rightly regarded as a major
compendium of this most appalling episode in Irish history.
For West Cork people, however, the amount of detail and
local lore involved is enormous and this volume should be
required reading for everybody interested in the story of
of this enormous tragedy.
For those in West Cork who have not read it, Famine in West
Cork; the Mizen Peninsula, Land and People 1800-1852 would
make an ideal Christmas gift.
Courtesy of the Southern Star