June 1845: Famine strikes the Blackstairs

28th of June 2015.

The 170th anniversary of the date on which the potato blight, which brought about the Great Famine in Ireland, was first noted in the Blackstairs region outside Bunclody. So stated Phelim Kavanagh, Bunclody in 1946, 100 years after the event when providing information to the National Folklore Commission. Most other accounts in the National Folklore Collection refer to the Autumn 1845 although these were collected in the area on either side of the Blackstairs ridge further south. It is the Bunclody accounts on the northeast side of the range which are presented here.

First identified by black spots appearing on the leaves, heavy rain that year was blamed in the region for washing “the black into the spud”. In order to secure seed for the following year, potatoes which appeared to be safe were buried under beds in cabins. Many who opened the store the following spring discovered that these had turned black in the meantime. Blight returned to the crop in subsequent years also. Seeds from new potato varieties were imported from France called “Beldrums” which were similar to the Shamrock variety in the hope that these would be resistant to the disease. One day a man was digging in his field outside Bunclody when a passer-by hailed him asking him if the potatoes were good. The farmer replied;

“They’re small and round,

and scarce in the ground,

And very hard for to find ’em.

And they’re bitter and wet,

and hard to eat,

and the divil himself wouldn’t boil ’em”

The account also describes people dying in the ditches watching the crop fail especially malnourished children. Many of these were buried in graves with no coffins. Another account records the suddenness of the blights arrival; “It all happened in one night, one night the farmers were all laughing and the next day they were sitting in the ditches crying”. Kilmyshall was noted in particular for taking the remains of the dead. One Bunclody man, Martin Murray had the job of carting them for burial. Soup kitchens and yellow meal stations, opened across the country in an attempt to cope with the hungry, were also opened in Bunclody. Porridge made from the yellow meal was known as “Skilly” in the region. During the summer months praiseach (cabbage) and turnips were also added to the mixture. As things grew more and more desperate, people began to raid fields of turnips so large farmers began to set traps in gardens and hired gunmen to protect their fields. When disease struck the population, Dormer’s Mills on Mill Lane in Bunclody was used as a cholera hospital. Emigration to America was a fate for others in the Bunclody region, where ships were taken from New Ross. It was mentioned that some landlords payed the fares however a number of accounts from the south of the range state that this never happened. A Deacon living in Kilbrannish in the uplands to the west of Bunclody gave twenty places on a ship to America to assist the poor in their escape to new lives. Relief schemes on which the poor in the area worked included the construction of Barker’s Bridge, the cutting of Bunker’s Hill for the Chapel Road and the construction of the road to New Ross. Stewards on these schemes were noted as being particularly savage. People were paid 4p a day for their labour on these schemes whether they worked hard or did nothing.

The information here is from just two of numerous accounts of the Famine in the Blackstairs region collected in the early twentieth century by the NFC from the children and grandchildren of those who witnessed the event. These both compliment and contradict one another on a number of issues but the general trend that can be gleaned is that the Famine struck the area with greater impact than is often traditionally perceived for the east and south-east, often overshadowed in the literature by worse conditions in the west.

Sources

National Folklore Collection, Manuscript Collection 1159, p. 216-221. Information collected by Séamus S. De Bhál, Bunclody from Phelim Kavanagh (75), Bunclody (born 1871) in 1946.

National Folklore Collection, Manuscript Collection 1159, p. 221-223. Information collected by Séamus S. De Bhál, Bunclody from Paddy Thorpe (75), Bunclody (born 1871) in 1946.

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