The History Show

The History Show

Sunday, 6pm

The History Show Sunday 27 January 2013

The History Show

The History Show

Bringing the past to life! Discover how our world was shaped as Myles Dungan and guests explore events ranging from medieval times to the recent past

80th anniversary of the first majority Fianna Fail Government

80th anniversary of the first majority Fianna Fail Government

80 years ago this week, Fianna Fail won a landslide General Election victory – and under the leadership of Eamonn de Valera, the first majority Fianna Fail came to power.

Fianna Fail was the largest party in Dail Eireann at every election until 2011 when it suffered the worst defeat of a sitting government in the history of the State. So how could a political party that was so successful (even by international standards) could lose control so completely?

Dr Sarah Campbell, lecturer in modern Irish history at Newcastle
University and Noel Whelan, author of Fianna Fail – a Biography of the Party explored the impact that Fianna Fail has had on the country and the personalities that made and broke the party.


Irish Victim of the Holocaust

Irish Victim of the Holocaust

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a date chosen to mark the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp 68 years ago.

In total more than six million Jews as well as over five million others perished during the holocaust, 1.6 million of whom passed through the gates of Auschwitz.

To find out more about Ireland's links to this concentration camp, Rhona Tarrant visited the Irish Jewish museum in Dublin where she discovered the extraordinary story of one Irish woman who left her home in Dublin and found herself in the midst of World War II.

The Irish Jewish Museum is open on Sundays from 11am to 3pm.

Hunger Striker Dolours Price Passes Away

Hunger Striker Dolours Price Passes Away

Dr. Sarah Campbell discusses Dolours, along with her sister Margaret's part in the hunger strikes in the 1970s and the legislation enacted to prevent martyrdom. The Price sisters were force fed over four hundred times as they fought to be repatriated to Ireland from the English prison in which they were held. 

Language bite

Language bite

Skeleton in the cupboard

Famine document from the archives

“The rain falls on my yellow locks
And the dew it wets my skin;
My babe lies cold within my arms;
But none will let me in.”

The final lines from The Lass of Aughrim, the setting for this month’s document from the archives.

Catriona Crowe came in to talk about this letter which was written during the time of the famine.

Full transcript below:

John Donoghue Esquire,
Sub Inspector
County of Wicklow,

June 16 1847

I have to state that on the 11th Instant a travelling pauper named Honor Kirwin & her child dropped on the highway near Aughrim, both being ill with fever, and lay on the side of the road till the following day when I reported the case to Jeremiah Toal, the Warden, who had them conveyed to Rathdrum Fever Hospital Immediately, but being refused admittance there they were sent back to this place & left on the cross roads at Aughrim the most part of the night & then put into a shed on the following day, (Monday). I informed Doctor Atkins of the case who gave a certificate stating the poor woman had Fever and was a fit object for the Fever Hospital.

The Reverend. Mr. Malony & two cess payers also recommended them to the Fever Hospital. These recommendations together with the Wardens note, was forwarded same day.

The poor woman went to Arklow Fever Hospital and was also refused admittance there stating they should have been sent to Rathdrum. They were conveyed back to Aughrim & left on the cross roads for the night, to the great danger of the people of this neighbourhood.

On Tuesday, myself & two of this party with some others of the neighbours procured timber & erected a shed, and put the two sick persons into it & went through the neighbours and got a few pence to get nourishment for them and also procured a nurse tender to take care of them.

It is a very hard case that there is no place to receive poor persons of this description when they fall on the public roads & although I am well aware it is no part of my duty to interfere in such cases, still every person calls on me to keep the public passways clear of such nuisances.

There is 8 or 9 Families at present ill with Fever in this neighbourhood, some of them in sheds and no place to receive them I hope you will see if there is any remedy for this state of things.

Constable John Norris


[Relief Commission Papers, RLFC 3/2/32/46]

This article by Ken Hannigan was published in the Roundwood and District Historical and Folklore Journal, No. 20, 2009.

Wicklow and the Famine

1. Introduction

Wicklow has tended not to feature very much in the general histories of the Famine. Standard works on the subject understandably focus on those parts of Ireland, especially in the south and west, where the consequences of the blight were most acute and deaths were most numerous. It would be wrong, however, to assume that all was well in Wicklow during the Famine years. A closer look at the evidence reveals a more complex situation.

The paper that follows is based largely on documentary evidence in two main categories, both of them official sources. Firstly there are the published Parliamentary Papers of the time, including the published decennial Census Reports and the volumes of evidence gathered by two wide-ranging Commissions of enquiry which took evidence in Co Wicklow in the years just prior to the famine. These were the Poor Law Commission of 1835-36 and the Devon Commission, which inquired into land usage and which, in October 1844, interviewed many witnesses in Wicklow, including landlords, agents and tenants. Secondly there are the records of the Famine Relief Commission now housed in the National Archives in Dublin. Many of these records have been indexed and this index is available on the National Archives website.[2] This gives access to what is the single most important source for documenting the extent of distress in local areas from 1845 to 1847. The papers comprise applications for aid and accompanying documentation from local relief committees in all parts of the country.

Wicklow being such a county of contrasts, it is all the more important that conditions be studied at the level of the smallest administrative unit. With its varied topography and demographic contrasts, between east and west and between highlands and lowlands, Wicklow can also be regarded as resembling something of a microcosm of the country as a whole. As a consequence, Wicklow's experience of the Famine also varied greatly from region to region with some parts of the county experiencing conditions that were as critical as those in the south and west of Ireland, albeit on a much smaller scale, while others escaped the worst consequences of the crisis.

2. Pre-Famine Wicklow

The major factors influencing the development of County Wicklow in the pre-famine years, and by extension its experience during the Famine, were

a) Its proximity to Dublin

b) Its wild mountainous core which made it totally unlike any other county in Leinster

c) Its position on the coast, and particularly the fact that this was the East Coast.

On the eve of Famine, Wicklow was among the most prosperous of Irish counties, and indeed it would continue to prosper in the decades following the Famine, another factor that leads easily to the assumption that it escaped famine altogether. The county contained a strong, comparatively wealthy, and comparatively resident, gentry. The point has been made that many Wicklow landlords had estates elsewhere in Ireland in addition to their Wicklow estates, but that they tended to live on their Wicklow estates because of their proximity to Dublin and the east coast. [3] Although they would have been regarded as absentee landlords elsewhere in Ireland, in Wicklow they were resident. It is true, that not all the landlords in Wicklow were resident, but there was a fairly high level of residency by Irish standards. It is also true that some of the larger landowners were absentees, notably Fitzwilliam (by far the largest), and Downshire, but these two in particular had active and assiduous resident land agents who managed their estates in an active (if not by later standards a humane and enlightened) manner.[4]

Assessing wealth in terms of the proportion of its population living on income from property or land, Wicklow was second only to Dublin among Irish counties, and in terms of numbers living in first class houses, (houses with more than nine rooms) it ranked fourth among Irish counties.

Wicklow's population in 1841 was higher than it had ever been before with 126,143 people living in the county.[5] This figure had been rising in the decades before the 1840s but not dramatically so. It had risen from 110,767 in 1821 and 121,557 in 1831. In other words there had been almost a ten percent (9.7%) increase between 1821 and 31 and this had slowed to less than four per cent between 1831 and 1841. The actual number of inhabitants may already have begun to decline by the mid 1840s, even before the Famine. Landlords who were most actively involved in managing their estates made every effort to prohibit sub-division of lands and to discourage early marriage among their tenants and servants, forcing many of them to seek livelihoods elsewhere. One historian has suggested, on the basis of evidence supplied to the Poor Enquiry, that in the decades just before the Famine, rural misery may have been worse in the more advanced counties such as Wicklow precisely because Leinster proprietors had been more successful in displacing smallholders and cottiers. In the West of Ireland, by contrast, virtually all families held some land. [6]

On the vast Fitzwilliam Estate in South Wicklow, for instance, systematic clearances had already begun long before the Famine[7] and one witness at the Devon Commission Enquiry in October 1844 told of how those who had been cleared from estates around Ashford a little time before had ended up on what was called the Common between Ashford and Rathnew:

It is said that this common was given by some lady but it was refugium peccatorum for these men. There are hundreds of them there and it was very fortunate for the country that it was there.[8]

Wicklow’s proximity to Dublin also influenced the county's demographic structure to a huge extent. In no other part of Ireland was there such a high rate of inter-county migration as there was between Wicklow and Dublin. The pull of Dublin was so strong that by 1841 one person in every seven born in Wicklow had moved to Dublin. Many of these were women who were working as domestic servants. The number of young women migrating from Wicklow to Dublin was noted by the Census Commissioners as being so great as to distort the balance of sexes among those remaining in the county. This was particularly so among those of marriageable and child-bearing ages. Within the age band 26 to 35, men outnumbered women by almost two to one.[9] Apart from the implications for marriage and fertility within the county, the fact that such a high proportion of Wicklow-born people were already resident in Dublin facilitated further migration to and through the capital. Another factor which must have facilitated migration was Wicklow’s linguistic profile. Wicklow was totally English-speaking at this time and had been for as long as anyone could remember. It was unique in this respect. In no other county was the Irish language so completely absent. [10]

The population was overwhelmingly rural, the only sizable towns were Arklow, which had a population of 3,254, Bray, which had a population of 3,169 (a third of whom were actually in County Dublin), Wicklow with 2,794 and Baltinglass with1,928. Rathdrum was the only other town containing over a thousand inhabitants. There were 21,182 families in the county, two-thirds of whom depended on agriculture for their livelihood and by far the largest single category of employment was farm labour. Out of a total of just under fifty one thousand (50,861) individuals who were returned as having an occupation, labourers or servants numbered just under half (21,914) while a further 6,835 people, mostly female, were employed as domestic servants. Overall in the county there were 6,211 farmers with 9,466 holdings of various sizes over one acre. Within Co. Wicklow, agricultural labourers were most numerous in the north east, in the lowland baronies of Newcastle and Rathdown where the capitalisation of agriculture was more advanced. Here labourers outnumbered farmers by more than three to one. By contrast, in the upland baronies of Ballinacor and Talbotstown, the numbers of farmers and labourers were about equal. Elsewhere in the county there was just a slight preponderance of labourers. [11]

Apart from the numbers engaged in Agriculture and domestic service, there were 638 fishermen and 721 miners in the county, There were large numbers of trades people including carpenters (890), blacksmiths (504), boot makers (777), dress makers and seamstresses (1078) and tailors (591). Fishing was concentrated mainly in Arklow and was at its most intensive for two periods of about six-weeks beginning in May and again in November when the herring shoals arrived off the coast. The size and value of the Arklow herring fishery was said to be the second largest in the country. Earlier in the century it had been claimed that the size of the catch in a normal season allowed the fishermen to survive for the rest of the year on the money earned from it. [12] Already by the 1840s, however, things had begun to change. The export value of copper sulphates, available in large quantities as by-product of copper mining in Avoca, had just begun to transform the port, its transport infrastructure, and the work of its fishermen who now began to ply between shallow waters of the estuary and the anchorage, together with the boat owners who now began to build larger vessels to transport this cargo .[13] At this stage, however, on the eve of the Famine the town was still heavily dependent on fishing and its attendant industries such as net-making and hemp-weaving. It was a type of subsistence economy that was to prove in its own way as precarious as the subsistence agricultural economy in the rural uplands. Contemporaries maintained that the distress which Arklow experienced in 1846 and 1847 was caused as much by non-arrival of the herring shoals in these years as by the failure of the potato crop. It is notable that according to the reports of the Society of Friends relief efforts, it was the provision of funds to allow the Arklow fishermen to redeem their nets from pawn that helped to get the local economy moving again in the late 1840s.[14]

As for mining, the other main source of non-agricultural employment, the numbers employed by the mines, including carters and craftsmen of various sorts, amounted to several thousands (Robert Kane put it at two thousand) and this number was increasing in the early 1840s. The scale of mining enterprises around Avoca, Glendalough and Glenmalure are difficult to imagine today. Mining operations in the Avoca valley just before the Famine were on such a scale as to make the Barony of Arklow quite unlike any other in the county (Arklow Barony stretched from Wicklow Town to the town of Arklow and stretched inland as far as the Vale of Avoca. It included the towns of Arklow and Wicklow). Among Wicklow’s eight baronies, Arklow was the only barony with substantial numbers of non-agricultural labourers. It contained more than one and a half times as many non-agricultural labourers as the rest of Wicklow combined and had almost three times as many non-agricultural labourers per head of its population as any other barony. It also had the greatest population density of any Wicklow barony. Apart from miners and labourers, large-scale mining activities also supported many attendant artisans such a boot making, harness making and even clog making, and contributed significantly to the development of the harbours at Arklow and Wicklow .

The mines had even changed the agricultural economy of the area. Potatoes, which elsewhere in the county would have been grown mainly as subsistence crops, were grown here as a cash crop to feed the miners. At the other end of the social spectrum, many of Wicklow's landlords had invested in the development of the mines. Mining also provided something of a safety net for agricultural labourers or small farmers, though this tended to be as a very last resort. and although the mine workers were considered to be in a better condition than the agricultural labourers, the agricultural labourers were not attracted to mining work [15]

Mineworkers, therefore, tended to come into an area from outside rather than from the local community and to remain a largely homogenous group divorced from the agricultural world. According to evidence given at the Devon Commission, many of the miners tended in the past to migrate back and forth between Ireland and Great Britain.

Taken separately, rural Wicklow had the lowest population density of any county in Leinster and the second lowest in Ireland. However, the picture was of course distorted by the great mountainous core which was largely uninhabited or sparsely inhabited. Because of Wicklow's mountainous terrain, only 56.1% of its land was arable, compared to Meath's 94.3% and Wexford's 88.5%. Of Wicklow’s 1362 townlands, 40 had no inhabitants at all in 1841. Again this disparity tends to distort many of the statistical analyses done on a county-wide basis and also comparisons made on a county by county basis. In the lowland areas where most of the county's population was concentrated, there was a much higher population density. If arable land only were to be considered, Wicklow would have been one of the most densely populated counties, ahead of the neighbouring counties of Wexford and Carlow.[16]

As was true for most of Ireland, the vast majority of the nine thousand holdings in Wicklow were under 30 acres. Over two and a half thousand farms (2643) were from 1 to 5 acres. Those above 30 acres accounted for only a little over one fifth of all farms, although the number of larger farms in Wicklow was above the Irish average and above even the average for Leinster. This is evidence, perhaps, of a more assiduous landlord class taking steps to reduce subdivision, but also a legacy of an earlier time when strong Protestant farming families were granted leases to middling farms on the larger estates. Competition for these leases from among the more affluent Catholic tenants in the less restricted post-penal years of the late 18th century, combined with a long period of rising prices and rents, contributed to the sectarianism that so characterised the events of 1798 in Wicklow and Wexford. [17] Following the type of ethnic cleansing that accompanied and followed those melancholy events in these parts, there was a kind of retrenchment in the awarding of leases. Years of falling prices at the end of the Napoleonic Wars also contributed to less competitive and more traditional practices in the granting of leases, with resident landlords tending to let directly to established, mainly Protestant, tenants. On the estates of absentees, and especially where middle men operated, lands tended to be given, in smaller lots and for shorter lettings, mainly to Catholics. Eugene Curry, writing from Powerscourt in 1838, for instance, noted that the Catholics there were settled on the higher ground. [18] This pattern of settlement throughout the county was to find an echo as late as the 1901 Census which showed neighbouring townlands in some areas of Wicklow almost exclusively Catholic or Protestant. In the Electoral Division of Calary, for instance, comprising the townlands of Ballinastoe and Glasnamullen, 58% of the inhabitants were Protestant, while in the neighbouring Electoral division of Togher, containing most of the village of Roundwood and the townlands north of it, 96% of the inhabitants were Roman Catholic. Overall, with Protestants accounting for 22% of its inhabitants, Wicklow had the highest proportion of Protestants of any county outside Ulster. In the baronies of Arklow, Newcastle, Rathdown and Shillelagh, Protestants comprised 25% or more of the population.

It was hardly surprising that in the decades after 1798 there was much mutual distrust and fear among the county's Catholic and Protestant communities. The annual twelfth of July Orange demonstrations in Carnew were a potential, and sometimes actual, flashpoint. There were periodic waves of hysteria which caused members of the respective religious communities to gather together or stay up all night in expectation of an attack by their neighbours of the other faith, notably in December 1824 when Protestants from Bray to Arklow were reported to be in a state of alarm, being apprehensive of some sudden attack by Catholics, in February 1829 when Catholics in Tinahely were reported to be sitting up every night expecting to be murdered by Protestants, and again in the June 1832 when Protestants around Tinahely locked themselves in the Market House, fearing an imminent massacre as a consequence of an outbreak of religious hysteria among the Catholics throughout the county, hysteria that was partly engendered by the Cholera epidemic of that year. [19] These fears had begun to subside in the more tranquil times of the 1840s, but it did not take much to start a panic. Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys, for instance, recorded the panic caused by the taking of the Census in June 1841:

The poor people here are all terrified that they were to have been kidnapped or pressed or murdered on the night of the 6th. Half of them were not to go to bed and had barricaded their doors.[20]

Most people in the county who appeared before the Devon Commission in 1844 believed that the state of agriculture in Wicklow was improving, but most also believed that the condition of the small farmers and labourers was a cause for concern, many of the farmers relying on loan funds to pay their rent and many becoming increasingly indebted to them. One witness told the Devon commission that even the larger of the small farmers (those holding from ten to thirty acres) were dragging out a miserable existence, unable to afford meat even once a week and living mainly on potatoes and milk.[21] The Devon Commission was also told of farmers borrowing from one loan fund to pay off their debts to another from which they had borrowed to pay their rent, thus getting themselves into a spiral of debt. Their hold on the land was therefore very tenuous. The condition of the labourers was of course considerably worse.

Other contemporary commentators, however, claimed that the misery that obtained in other counties was comparatively unknown in Wicklow, and that the land there comfortably supported those who worked it.[22] This may have been a little over-optimistic, but other benchmarks by which progress could be measured tended to indicate improvement. Despite the internecine tensions and fears mentioned earlier, the county had been remarkably peaceful in the decades before the Famine. This is something that is especially remarkable given how disturbed it had been in the late 1790s and early 1800s, but it is attested to on many sides. All those who gave evidence to the Poor Law Commission of 1835-36, for instance, were agreed that, apart from some protests here and there against the payment of tithes, the county was perfectly peaceful. Likewise, those giving evidence to the Devon Commission in 1844 said that there had been little or no agrarian outrages. Very few homicides had been recorded in the county after the very early years of the 19th century and this was particularly so in the immediate pre-Famine years, there being two in 1843, none in 1844 and one in 1845. Most of these homicides were classified as manslaughter or accidental death rather than murder. The assize judges regularly ended their sessions by complimenting the inhabitants of the county on Wicklow's peaceful demeanour.[23] A comparison of the crime statistics of these years with those for Tipperary, for instance, shows Wicklow to have been a remarkably tranquil county.[24]

Though Wicklow may have been better off than many other counties, poverty was still present to a great extent among the labourers and cottiers. Twenty eight per cent of families in County Wicklow lived in one-roomed mud cabins. There were concentrations of these around most towns and villages, particularly in the more densely populated east of the county, where the greatest numbers of landless labourers were concentrated, and around Baltinglass in the West. In some parishes, one-roomed mud cabins accounted for 40% or more of the inhabited houses. These included such places in the east of the county as Ennereilly just north of Arklow (48%), Redcross(44%), Kilmacanogue (44%), Rathnew (42%), and Arklow (40%). In all these parishes over 40% of the houses were one-roomed mud cabins. In Ballinalea, outside Ashford, for instance, 37 of the 51 inhabited houses were one-roomed mud cabins.[25]

However, as mentioned above, most contemporary observers in the years before the famine believed that things were improving. The Poor Law Commission of 1835-36 sent out questionnaires to parishes throughout the county and among the questions asked was one as to whether the general condition of the poor had improved, become worse, or had remained stationary, since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. Most of those in County Wicklow who answered this question stated that there had been a slight improvement. Wicklow and Wexford were the only two Irish counties to register more positive than negative answers to this question. However, this optimism was by no means unanimous and it may be significant that in Co.Wicklow the most strongly negative responses to this question came from the Roman Catholic clergy who were possibly most familiar with conditions among the very poor.[26]

For the labourers and cottiers, conditions were particularly hard in the summer months when the previous year's supply of potatoes began to run out. The labourers' crop was usually not ready until September or even later. The period between the consumption of one crop and the digging out of the next amounted to what was described as an annual return of temporary half-famine. One witness from West Wicklow who gave evidence to the Poor Law Commission of 1835-36 told how it was customary for the wives and children of the poorer labourers to take to the road and become beggars during these months every year and that in seasons when potatoes were scarce, the labourers lived on nettles and other weeds, something that was also reported by Thackeray in 1842.[27]

Everywhere in Wicklow potatoes constituted the food of the poor, in many cases their only food. Once again the Poor Law Commission of 1835-36 provides the evidence. Reports which it published from 29 respondents in Co. Wicklow indicated that labourers ate little other than potatoes for much of the year. Eleven of the twenty-nine respondents in Co. Wicklow reported that herrings also formed part of the diet of the poor, which would indicate that the failure of the herring shoals in the mid 1840s must have had a devastating effect far beyond the town of Arklow. . Although wheat was extensively grown at this time on the low-lying lands along the coast, it was not consumed by the poor and it was only among the mining communities of Avoca that bread was reported as being included in the diet of the poor.[28]

Such then was the state of Wicklow on the eve of the Great Famine

3. The Famine in Wicklow

Among the Relief Commission Papers, the first reports of the potato blight in Wicklow date from the end of October 1845. The initial reactions tended to be fairly complacent and confident that even damaged potatoes could be used for food. Elizabeth Smith noted in her diary that the blight had attacked some large conacre fields but, typically, she had no doubt that the situation could be overcome and she believed that even in the worst cases the starch could be removed from diseased potatoes and mixed with wheaten flour to make bread. [29] The belief that even potatoes damaged by the blight could be used for food was widely held but wildly optimistic.

By January 1846 it was clear that the situation in much of the east of the county and around Baltinglass in the west was becoming very serious. Local relief committees had been, or were being, established in parishes throughout the county to co-ordinate relief efforts and to liaise with government. Indeed, initially the greatest distress in this first famine year seems to have been among the agricultural labourers and cottiers in the east of the county and in the populous centres of Arklow and Baltinglass, where sharply rising food prices had an immediate effect. The main problem in this period, and indeed for most of Wicklow in the Famine period, was not the absolute absence of food but the gap which opened up between the cost of basic foodstuffs in the absence of the potato and what the labourers could afford to pay, or indeed what the farmers could afford to pay the labourers.

Though the partial failure of the 1845 potato crop led to distress, the combined effects of local relief committees, the distribution of cheap food, the organisation of public works and the new Poor Law, seemed to have coped with the situation. In this first famine year for instance, the new workhouses covering Co. Wicklow never exhausted their capacities. The statement that had the potato famine of 1845 lasted just one year, it would probably have merited no more than a few paragraphs in the history books would seem to be accurate in respect of Wicklow.[30] It was of course the failure of the crop the following year and in successive years that did the real damage in Wicklow as much as anywhere else. According to police returns, 88 % of the potato land in Wicklow which had been planted in 1845 was planted again in 1846. When this is broken down by barony, however, it emerges that the amount re-planted varied considerably, with the sharpest decline in the coastal baronies of Rathdown (72.8% re-planted) Newcastle (79.%) and Arklow (83.2) (those baronies which had the highest concentrations of labourers) and the least decline in Shillelagh (96.2% re-planted) and Ballinacor South (94.5%). Although the amount of conacre land in the county declined overall by one fifth, the picture barony by barony was again very different. In the baronies of Arklow and Newcastle the amount of conacre land re-planted in 1846 was considerably less than it had been in 1845 while in Shillelagh and Ballinacor South it had actually increased, evidence perhaps that those who could do so, especially the smallholders, were increasing their dependence on the potato as the cost of other foodstuffs increased .[31]

The renewed appearance of the blight, this time resulting in the complete destruction of the potato crop, turned the crisis of 1845-46 into a disaster in 1846-47. It is significant that in Wicklow, despite the fact that statistical evidence points to a prolonged period of excess death and distress over the entire period from 1846 to 1850, it was specifically the winter of 1846-47 that was remembered by those who lived through it as the Famine period. Many contemporaries, such as William Hanbidge of Donoughmore who dictated his memoirs in 1906 when he was 93, and Fr. John Gowan of Roundwood and Glendalough, referred to the Famine as something that happened in 1847. [32]

Many contemporaries recalled vividly the speed with which the blight spread in 1846. Fr. John Gowan, dated the appearance of the blight in his area precisely to 19 July 1846. Within a matter of days the blight had appeared in every part of the county.[33] Early in September 1846 questionnaires were distributed to ascertain how long the potato crop would supply the labouring population with food. Among the Relief Commission Papers, returns to this questionnaire are extant for Carnew, Hacketstown, Rathdrum, Tullow and Tinahely and indicate that the supply was expected to last only until the end of the month. Most replied that the labouring population would not be able to survive the winter without some form of public relief.[34]

By the end of September 1846, people throughout the county were clamouring for the start of relief works which had been authorised by the Government. These were road building and drainage schemes on which those who had no other source of income or food could be employed for minimal rates of pay. Their melancholic legacy can be seen in many parts of the county even today. Every area has its "Famine road". For instance, the coast road from Wicklow Town to the Silver Strand was known until relatively recent times as the “Famine Road” as it was commenced as a relief work at this time. Until the early 1950s, when it was extended to meet the coast road from Brittas Bay and Arklow, the Famine Road ended abruptly at the point it had reached when the relief works were suspended in 1847 .[35]

The crisis had changed in 1846, not only in scale but also in its nature. For the agricultural labourers on the more densely populated lowlands, the problem would continue to be the gap between what they could afford to pay and the cost of food. For the cottiers and smallholders on the slopes of the mountains and in the isolated glens who had subsisted almost totally on the produce of their land, it was the absence of any infrastructure to provide an alternative supply of food that was the problem, and this is the main factor that distinguishes the Famine in Wicklow from its manifestation in most other parts of Leinster.

James Boyle, Superintendent Engineer for the Board of Works Relief Department, who was in charge of organising relief efforts in Co. Wicklow, began a series of reports in December 1846 which charted the deepening crisis in the county.[36] By mid-December he was claiming that there was not enough food in store in some areas to keep the population fed for four days and warned of what would happen if there was to be a fall of snow heavy enough to disrupt or delay communications. He reported that carts which had been sent from Arklow to Enniscorthy for meal returned empty, because people in Co. Wexford would not allow food to be taken out of the county. He claimed that destitution had spread from the cottiers to reach the small farmers of from one to six acres and was even beginning to reach those who held larger farms.

As 1846 turned into 1847 the situation worsened. One measure of distress is the extent to which the workhouses, the last resort of the destitute, were filling up. As mentioned above, the new workhouses in Wicklow had not filled the previous year, despite the crisis. Indeed they had never before reached full capacity. By November 1846, however, this began to happen. First Baltinglass was reported full on 14 November, then Rathdrum on 5 December, Rathdown on 12 December, Naas and Shillelagh on 18 January.[37] By the middle of January 1847 the numbers employed on the relief road works in the south and west of the county had risen in one month from one thousand to more than five thousand. James Boyle reported on a tour which he made during the second and third weeks of January when he travelled nearly 190 miles criss-crossing Wicklow. Many of the public works were over-crowded. On one two and a half mile stretch of road near Tinahely alone, 570 men were working. In the Barony of Ballinacor South one tenth of the population was employed on the public works. With food prices continuing to climb relentlessly upwards, the pay of one shilling per day for those on the public works was too little to feed themselves and their families . Boyle was struck by the appearance of young men who when they joined the relief works a few weeks previously had a healthy appearance but were now fainting from hunger. Many of those he had met before he could now scarcely recognise. Disease was rampant, leading to more frequent fatalities

Boyle was particularly worried about the supply of food to Tinahely. Tinahely was supplied from depots in Carlow and Enniscorthy and was the distribution point for much of the interior of the county, including the most isolated areas. It had little or no stock of food and if the supply routes were to be cut, catastrophe would follow.

As it happened, there was a snow storm on the night of 6 February and the following morning, which isolated large parts of the county. It was in the wake of this that the first reports of death from starvation began to be recorded in the Relief Comission papers. James Boyle reported from Arklow on 10 February that the district was deep in snow and that there had been several deaths from hunger. In the mountainous region around Macreddin, where one of his assistants had been stranded while attempting to cross from Rathdrum to Tinahely, there were reports, reminiscent of those from the south and west of Ireland, that whole families had simply taken to their beds to await death. [38]

Already in January 1847 a widespread scheme of relief using soup kitchens had been put into operation. This was intended to replace the road works as a form of relief. There were strong lobbies arguing that as long as the relief works were available, labourers would cling to them and refuse to take other work where it was available. In the towns and the more populous areas of Wicklow soup kitchens were already operating by February. Seven hundred families were being relieved from the soup kitchen in Arklow . Had it not been for this, it was claimed, many of them would have died.[39] A soup kitchen had also been established in Wicklow Town where 471 families, numbering 2277 persons, almost equal to the entire population of the town, were receiving relief.[40]

On 25 February 1847 Boyle reported that 30 men who had been on the public works had died, some actually on the work, some returning from it. Despite this, the labourers were refusing to leave the public works and accept agricultural work which by now was being offered by some of the farmers, or to join the army, despite the presence of recruiting parties in Baltinglass and Arklow. He believed the situation in and around Baltinglass to be especially critical. In the south of the county in the baronies of Shillelagh and Ballinacor South, where there were almost 3,000 men employed on the relief works, he reported that many were dying[41]

By the beginning of March 1847 the numbers employed on public relief works in Wicklow had reached a peak of 6678.[42]. Winding up of the public works was to begin with an immediate reduction of 20% from 20 March, with the rest to follow by 1 May. The closure of the public works caused widespread panic and resentment. There was a widespread perception that relief by way of public works preserved the dignity of those availing of it, whereas the relief provided by the workhouses and the soup kitchens carried a stigma.

The establishment of food depots by voluntary associations at Arklow and Wicklow and in the west of the county ensured that food supplies, however meagre, were getting through to these areas, as a result of which the poorest survived. It was at this time in mid March 1847 that the Parish Priest of Arklow, James Redmond, wrote an extraordinarily exultant account of the situation in his area. He regarded the survival of the population of Arklow and the surrounding area as nothing short of a miracle:

I have news for you that will fill your mind with gladness . Out of ten thousand souls one and he a farmer, died during the week in the country district around Arklow. One, and he a broken down constitution, died in the town. Two persons in seven days in time of Famine die out of ten thousand! Blessed be the God of Heaven. [43]

Some indication of the extent of destitution in Co Wicklow at this time can be gauged from the figures compiled by the Relief Commissioners in respect of people who were supplied with food rations in the Spring and Summer of 1847. These showed that in the south of the county 20% of the population had been supplied with food rations or soup. In the north of the county the figure was around 13%

From Spring 1847 the Central Relief Commission began to be wound up, and all official schemes of relief would thereafter be channelled through the Poor Law Unions. A more centralised and powerful network of relief committees was put in place based on the electoral divisions of each Poor Law Union. This was a fundamental shift in Government policy on relief which up to now would not have sanctioned relief being given through the workhouse system other than to those who entered the workhouses.

In Wicklow some of the individual Poor Law electoral divisions reported extremely high percentages of their inhabitants on relief. Rathdrum, with 48 per cent on relief, was the highest in Wicklow, followed closely by Delgany with 47 per cent, Arklow at (35%), Ballymore-Eustace (34%) and Dunganstown (31%)

As mentioned above, several sources point to 1847 as being the worst year of distress in Wicklow. The number of deaths recorded in the county for that year, at 2776, was two and a half times as high as that recorded for pre-Famine years Although the number of deaths attributed directly to starvation was 29, it is clear from the reports of contemporaries that hunger played a part in many more deaths, particularly in the winter of 1846-47. For the remainder of the decade the death rate in Wicklow continued at twice the annual pre-Famine average, most of the excess being attributed to contagious diseases carried by the destitute poor who thronged the centres of relief and the roads between them. Although fever was rampant from 1846, Wicklow largely escaped the cholera epidemic which swept other parts of the country . Notwithstanding this, 68 deaths from cholera were recorded in Bray during an outbreak there in 1849.

Other indications that things were far from normal over the rest of the 1840s were the annual crime statistics. Many commentators noted a rise in crime in the mid forties, an increase which continued through the late 1840s. These were almost exclusively crimes against property, clearly Famine-related offences. The vast majority of reported crimes in the county involved cattle and sheep stealing and these reached a huge peak in the worst year of distress in 1847. As late as the summer of 1849, however, the Resident Magistrate was reporting from the Summer Quarter Sessions that he had never experienced such a number of crimes, nine out of ten under the heading of larceny:

a great number of cases arose from robberies committed in the several workhouses with a view of getting sent to gaol where they are better fed and also by persons not admitted to the workhouse that they might be sent to gaol. [44]

Despite the alarm of the resident magistrates during these years, there was no general breakdown in law and order. There were no major disturbances (the most serious crowd disturbances were related not to food shortages, but to the perennial problems surrounding the annual Twelfth of July celebrations in Carnew). Despite reported cases of intimidation against farmers who attempted to take men off the public works, the overwhelming demeanour of the county remained peaceful. Landlords expressed surprise at the docility of their labourers, something that was also commented on by Fr. John Gowan.

There are indications that Wicklow also experienced a high rate of emigration in the 1840s.

However, it is not possible to give a definitive account of emigration from Wicklow in these years as comprehensive information on emigration from Irish counties began to be collected only in 1851 when rates in Wicklow would already have declined. According to the official statistics, 8,668 people emigrated from Co. Wicklow to places outside the United Kingdom from 1851 to 1856.[45] This represented 8.75% of the county's population in 1851 but was less than the rate of emigration for Leinster as a whole. It is almost certain, however, that emigration from Wicklow during the previous five years was at a much higher rate. Over 6,000 individuals were cleared from the Fitzwilliam Estates alone and given assisted passages to North America, over 4,000 of these in the years 1847 -50 and fourteen hundred in the years 1851 -56.[46] A large proportion of the 965 assisted emigrants from Irish Workhouses in 1848-49 came from Wicklow [47] and of course there was mass exodus of parishioners from Whitechurch (Tinahely) and Killaveny to found a colony in Ohio in 1850 organised by their parish priest Fr. Thomas Hore .[48]

The phenomenal migration from Wicklow to Dublin in the pre-Famine period became a torrent during the 1840s The numbers of Wicklow-born people living in Dublin increased sharply between 1841 and 1851, and by 1851 the number of Wicklow-born people living in Dublin had risen from one in seven to one in five.[49] Emigration and excess mortality obviously contributed to the overall decline in Wicklow's population between 1841 and 1851. At 21.5%, this was double the rate of decline for Wexford, about one third greater than Kildare's. By 1861 the county's population had declined by nearly a third of what it had been in 1841 . Here again, however, county-wide statistics are deceptive. The rate of decline varied greatly within the county, with the greatest decline in the south-west. While the population of Shillelagh, Talbotstown Upper and Ballinacor South almost halved between 1841 and 1861, Arklow, Rathdown and Ballinacor North lost one fifth or less. But of course in these parts of North and East Wicklow the decline was offset by a considerable influx with the development of the mines and the extension of the railway . Between 1841 and 1861 the proportion of non-Wicklow-born Irish people living in Wicklow almost doubled from 7.5% to over 14%, another factor that disguises the effects of famine

The nature of Wicklow's agriculture had also changed. In 1841 small farms of from one to thirty acres accounted for nearly four-fifths of all holdings. By 1851 they amounted to just over half. There were over two and a half thousand holdings of from one to five acres in 1841. Sixty per cent of these had disappeared by 1851.[50] Many of these smallholders were among those who had emigrated. Others had become agricultural labourers. Notwithstanding the fact that many smallholders had joined their ranks, the numbers of labourers also shrank and would continue to do so for the rest of the century.

4. Conclusion

Many factors influenced change in Wicklow in the nineteenth century, but the change in the demographic landscape that occurred between the censuses of 1841 and 1861 stands out as a marker for what was the single most important historical event influencing the development of Wicklow in the last two centuries. Mere statistics, however stark, do not reflect the harsh reality that individuals faced in that period. As mentioned above, the total number of deaths in Co. Wicklow attributed officially to starvation (as opposed to the many deaths from associated causes) in the 1840s amounted to twenty-nine. This was considerably less than the number of Wicklow inhabitants who drowned over the same period. Yet it is not difficult to imagine how we would react today to the news that 29 people had starved to death in Wicklow in our time. It would be shocking. And indeed it was shocking to all shades of opinion in Wicklow at that time. Clergy of all denominations, government officials, landlords, doctors, all whose reactions have been recorded were aghast at what was happening or what seemed to be about to happen . To state that Wicklow escaped lightly is to ignore not only the suffering visited upon the poor of those times, but also the very great efforts made by many within the county who were tasked with administering relief and who by their efforts ensured that the numbers who starved did not reach into the thousands.

[1] Earlier versions of, or parts of, this paper appeared in two articles in the Journal of the Wicklow Historical Society, Vol 1, Nos. 5 and 6, 1992 and 1993. For a more comprehensive account of Wicklow in this period see K. Hannigan, “Wicklow before and after the Famine” in K. Hannigan and W. Nolan (eds.) Wicklow: History and Society, (Dublin 1994)


[3] R.F.Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and his Family (Sussex, 1979), pp. xiii - xiv

[4] William Nolan, “Land and Landscape in County Wicklow”, in K. Hannigan and W.Nolan (Eds.), Wicklow: History and Society (Dublin, 1994), pp. 649 - 691

[5][5] Census of Ireland 1841. It is remarkable that the most recently taken census, that of 2006 showed that the population of Co. Wicklow, at 126,194, was almost identical to what it had been on the eve of the Famine –a difference of only 51.

[6] Mary E. Daly, The Famine in Ireland, (Dubin Historical Association, 1986), p. 33.

[7] Jim Rees, Surplus People: The Fitzwilliam Clearances 1847-1856, Cork, 2000, pp 24-25

[8] Evidence of Simon Moran of Milltown, near Wicklow, Devon Commission, Vol. iii, p 705.

[9] Census of Ireland 1841, Introduction to the General Report, pp xxiv-xxvii

[10] Ken Hannigan, "The Irish Language in Co. Wicklow" in Wicklow Historical Society Journal, Vol 1 No. 1, 1988, pp. 20-34.

[11] Census of Ireland 1831 and 1841.

[12] The Rev. Henry Lambart Bayly, "Statistical account of the Parish of Arklow" in William Shaw Mason, Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, ii, Dublin, 1816.

[13] Frank Forde, Maritime Wicklow (Dublin, 1988), pp. 19-22

[14] Society of Friends, Transactions During the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847 (Dublin, 1852), pp. 390-391.

[15] Devon Commission, Vol iii p.700, evidence of John Nolan of Ballymoney nr. Rathdrum, 24 October 1844.

[16] Census of Ireland 1841.

[17] L.M.Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600 -1900, Dublin 1983, pp. 210 - 233

[18] Christiaan Corlett and John Medlycott (eds), The Ordnance Survey Letters: Wicklow (Roundwood and District Historical and Folklore Society, 2000), p 5.

[19] For instances of such events see K. Hannigan "Aspects of Wicklow Life in the Early Nineteenth Century" in Wicklow Historical Society Journal, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1990, pp52-54, K. Hannigan, "A Miscellany of Murder: Violent Death in 19th Century Wicklow", in Wicklow Historical Society Journal Vol 1, No. 7, 1994, p.22,

[20] David Thomson with Moyra McGusty (Eds.) The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith 1840-1850, (Oxford, 1980), p32.

[21] Devon Commission, Vol iii, p 538-543, evidence of Edward Burke of Liscoleman nr. Tullow.

[22] George O'Malley Irwin, The Illustrated Handbook to the County of Wicklow (London 1844).

[23] Ken Hannigan, "A Miscellany of Murder: violent Death in 19th Century Wicklow", Wicklow Historical Society Journal, Vol 1, No. 7, 1994

[24] National Archives, Returns to Chief Secretary's Office from Constabulary, Monthly Returns of Outrages 1840s

[25] Census of Ireland,1841.

[26] Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved: a Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy, 1800-1850 (London, 1983), p.12

Poor Enquiry 1836, Vol XXXI Supplement to Appendix F.

[27]. Poor Enquiry 1836, Vol XXXI Appendix D, p.48. William Makepeace Thackeray, The Irish Sketch Book, 1842, (reprinted Belfast 1985).

[28]. Poor Enquiry 1836, XXXI, Appendix D pp. 146-54., Devon Commission, Vol III, p.695

[29] David Thomson with Moyra McGusty (Eds.) The Irish Journals of Elizabeth Smith 1840-1850 (Oxford, 1980), p80.

[30]. C.Ó Gráda, Ireland Before and After the Famine: Explorations in Economic History, 1800-1925 (Manchester 1988) p.5.

[31]. National Archives, Relief Commission Papers IV/2, Constabulary Returns of the Potato Crop, Co. Wicklow.

[32] Rev. John Gowan C.M. “The Irish Famine of 1847” in Roundwood and District History and Folklore Journal, No. 9, 1997. William Hanbidge and Mary Ann Hanbidge, Memories of West Wicklow 1813-1939 (Dublin 2005), pp. 56-57.

[33]. Thirteenth Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1847.

[34]. National Archives, Relief Commission Papers, II/2a (Wicklow)/5878.

[35] K. Hannigan, “Eye-witness accounts of the Famine in Co. Wicklow” in Wicklow Historical Society Journal, Vol 1, No. 6, 1993

[36]. Boyle' reports for 16 December 1846, 17 January 1847, 20 January 1847, and 25 February 1847 were printed at the time in the Parliamentary Papers 1847, Relief of Distress in Ireland, Board of Works and Commissariat Series, (Reprinted as Volumes 7 and 8 of the IUP Parliamentary Papers Famine Series. A compilation of extracts from these reports and others has been produced by Maeve Baker under the title "The Famine in Wicklow, 1846-47" in the Journal of the West Wicklow Historical Society, No. 3, 1989. Other unpublished reports by Boyle dated 17 December 1846, 19 December 1846, and 10 February 1847 are contained in the Relief Commission Papers in the National Archives, refs II/2a (Wicklow)/8462, 8633 and 10893. The reports quoted in the text here come from both sources but for reasons of space have not been separately referenced.

[37]. Thirteenth Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1847.

[38]. National Archives, Relief Commission Papers, II/2a/11008 (Wicklow)

[39]. Boyle report (see footnote 36)

[40]. National Archives, Relief Commission Papers,RLF COM II/1/417

[41]. Boyle reports (see footnote 36).

[42]. Sixteenth Report of the Commissioners of Public Works (Ireland), 1847, Appendix R.

[43] National Archives, RLF COM II/5/2/12

[44] National Archives, Outrage Papers 1849 32/103

[45]. Commission on Emigration and other Population Problems 1948-54, Dublin, 1955. Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York and Oxford, 1985), pp. 569-79.

45 Jim Rees, Surplus People

[47]. Eva Ó Cathaoir, “The Poor Law in County Wicklow” in K.Hannigan and W. Nolan (eds) Wicklow: History and Society (Dublin 1994)

[48]. Jim Rees, A Farewell to Famine (Arklow, 1994).

[49]. Census of Ireland 1851.

[50]. Census Reports 1851-1901, Agricultural Returns 1847-1899




Ways to Listen

Radio Player