Famine Times in Donegal

Famine. Digging potatoesAn Gorta Mor, The Great Famine, [1845-1850] caused by the total failure of the potato crop was the most cataclysmic event in modern Irish history. A million people died of starvation and famine related  disease and a million plus were forced to emigrate, many of them died on board the ‘Coffin Ships’ bearing them to the land of promise.In the years 1852-1854 a further 522,000 people left Ireland including a family from Wexford named Kennedy. During the famine years the death toll across Ulster was 111,400.The death toll in County Donegal was similar to many other counties.

In 1845,   400 people died.
In 1846, 1,700 people died.
In 1847, 5,000 people died.
In 1848, 3,500 people died.
In 1849, 2,500 people died.
In 1850,   130 people died

The death toll over these years was in excess of 13,000 people

The people of Donegal Town displayed exceptional generosity and kindness when a group of destitute islanders arrived at the harbour in Donegal Town during the winter of 1847.

This incident was the result of a cruel plan that was implemented by Walter Chorley after he purchased Arranmore Island for the sum of £200. Chorley decided to evict all the sub-tenants and create larger holding whereby he could increase the rent and gain a lucrative return.

His plan, to have Arranmore declared a separate electoral area from either north or south Templecrone, was rejected by the Poor Law Guardians. It had been his intention to evict the unwanted tenants and dump them on the mainland where he would have no responsibility for their welfare.

Chorley embarked on another course of action which ensured that the unwanted tenants would be removed from his estate. His ‘backup plan was to charter a ship, which he berthed at Donegal town, 35 miles from Arranmore, and then to evict the tenants and tell them that if they made their way to Donegal town the ship would take them, free of charge, to Canada.’

Hundreds of evicted tenants were expected to make their own way across the inhospitable mountains to Donegal town. Some families could not face the prospect of what lay ahead and sought shelter and support from relatives in Templecrone.

The weather was damp and bitterly cold as the group began their fateful trek towards the crossing at the Gwebarra River. After safely fording the river they continued their journey on to Glenties as a veil of darkness was slipping over the land. Some unfortunates never reached Glenties as they fell behind and were overcome with the cold and exhaustion.

Those who survived the journey to Glenties sought admission to the Workhouse. Unfortunately the Workhouse did not have sufficient capacity to accommodate the large group and many remained outside, exposed to the cold and rain. The sick and the old were particularly vulnerable and for some their heartbreak and misery ended that night. In the morning some decided to endure the humiliation of the poorhouse rather than face a voyage into the unknown. The remainder of the group continued their arduous trek across the hills to Donegal Town, only to discover that the ship chartered by Chorley had not arrived.

When these poor “miserable tenants” reached Donegal town they were in a condition that was “indescribably miserable.” We are told that “the destitute islanders lay on the pier for days before the boat eventually came for them. In the meantime, the islanders would have died of hunger and exposure were it not for the food and clothing given by local people.”

This generosity and act of kindness would help to sustain them in the journey that lay ahead. Eventually they boarded the ‘Chorley ship’ and sailed through the Hassan’s on the 6th March, 1848. At this stage they had ample opportunity to speak to locals and would have heard frightening tales of the sickness and misery on board these emigrant ships. But given the horrors that they had experienced, this voyage held the promise of a better life.

It is known that many of the islanders who survived the long arduous journey to Canada, made their way to the shores of the Great Lakes where they built a new life and used their Island skills to good advantage.

Story submitted by Malachy Sweeney  Donegal

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