The Great Famine in Tralee and North Kerry, by Bryan MacMahon, Mercier Press, 382 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-1781174678
“One meets on the roads the hideous spectacle of human beings in the agony of hunger, walking in a living death, and that, oh! that, in a land of plenty.” So said Fr Mathias McMahon of Ballybunion in a letter to The Nation dated April 9th, 1848. His words point to the enigma:why did over a million die of starvation and disease in Ireland during the Famine period when they were living in the midst of plenty?
In the introduction to his book The Great Famine in Tralee and North Kerry, Bryan MacMahon states that he set out to find out what happened in the area during the Great Famine. This he has achieved admirably through extensive research. He brings the reader on a journey through the events on the ground at local level. As is often the case with well-researched works of local history a greater understanding of events can be gleaned from these than from historical studies undertaken at a broader level.
Now living in Dublin, MacMahon is a native of Ballyheigue, Co Kerry. He is an ardent researcher and promoter of local history and has written several books on such diverse topics as Richard Crosbie the pioneer of balloon flight and Robert Tressell author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as well as works on Ballyheigue. In a recent interview on Radio Kerry he commented that despite extensive research into his native area, he had neglected the Famine period. This book certainly fills that lacuna.
The book is laid out chronologically with chapter headings from 1845 to 1852. North Kerry at that time comprised two poor law unions, Listowel and Tralee. Each chapter starts with the town of Tralee, its workhouse and the wider poor law area followed by Listowel and the towns within its union. Primary sources drawn upon are, among others, the minute books of the boards of guardians and relief commission papers. Interesting new material discovered by MacMahon includes a journal kept by Lieutenant HN Greenwell who was stationed in Kerry during the period September 1846-47. It is now held in Hawaii, where Greenwell eventually settled and set up the world famous Kona coffee brand. However the author’s principal sources were Kerry newspapers. There were three papers published in Tralee at the time and these regularly gave eye witness accounts. Predictably, these papers represented different categories of society and perspectives: the Protestant Kerry Evening Post, the nationalist and Catholic Kerry Examiner and the liberal paper The Tralee Chronicle. The inclusion of a map would have been helpful to readers who are not familiar with the area, as the author moves from place to place.
The litany of misery, hunger, suffering and disease began in autumn 1845, when approximately a quarter of the potato crop was infected by blight. MacMahon describes the initial response of the authorities and the manner in which they reacted at each stage. The Tory government’s actions under Robert Peel were tempered by the strongly held contemporary belief that handouts created dependency and that problems should be solved by local initiatives. The author details the meetings of the poor law guardians as they struggled to deal with escalating poverty, hunger and crowded workhouses.
A change in government in 1846 did not bode well. Lord John Russell, a weak leader, bowed his cabinet’s fiercely held policies of laissez-faire and the rights of property owners. Initially it was the landless labourers who were most affected but later the effects of crop failure spread to cottiers, artisans and small farmers. Throughout the period many individuals, including clergymen of both denominations, strove to provide relief; MacMahon gives these due recognition by naming them. These individuals worked unceasingly ‑ organising relief funds, interceding with the authorities and visiting the needy. They also regularly wrote to newspapers both in Ireland and in England to alert those with influence to the dire conditions and to counteract negative reporting, which often had an anti-Irish bias. He also gives recognition to some landlords and landowners who despite their bad reputation made efforts to alleviate the suffering by organising funds, donations and rent reductions. Absentee landowners were resented and in Listowel lists were published of those who did or did not contribute to relief funds. Alongside the unselfish works there were of course merchants who profiteered and workhouse staff who stole food and clothing as well as relief work officials who did not always employ those most in need. At local level the degrees of incompetence of many local officials and at a national level the circuitous routes often required to implement relief schemes are described in detail.
With the 1846 crop failure, deaths mounted. By November there were 1,207 inmates in Tralee workhouse. Hardest hit were families. MacMahon gives an account of those who in November walked from beyond Dingle only to be refused entry due to overcrowding, even though they met all the admission criteria. At 4pm on a dark and cold afternoon, starving and dressed in rags, they were forced to walk back the forty miles to where they had set out from. By 1847 mass deaths were occurring. The author gives these victims names where possible, using inquest records, newspaper reports and workhouse lists. Such lists were later abandoned. An image is described of a woman with her dead child strapped to her, begging for coffin money in Tralee. Lest one have the impression that all of Kerry was in a state of misery, MacMahon reminds us periodically of the parallel existence of the wealthier classes, as they celebrated festive occasions like the Tralee races with lavish dinners and balls.
Why, in such circumstances, did people not steal what they lacked, or even protest? In fact MacMahon gives accounts of several instances of both behaviours but in every case the clergy intervened to calm the situation, reminding their flocks of their moral duties and obligation of loyalty to the crown. As the famine progressed emigration increased, but this was not an option for the poorest. An article in the Kerry Evening Post recommended assisted emigration funded by landowners and the workhouse as a means of “getting permanently rid of that most useless class of the community”. The cruellest blow of all was the “Gregory Clause” in 1847, which denied aid to holders of land of over a quarter-acre. Widespread evictions and destruction of houses began. One landlord, Trinity College Dublin, evicted 127 families – that is 635 individuals put out of their homes and left to live in ditches. A reporter described one of these as having a 3ft door-cum-chimney with eight or nine children lying on the damp ground, their faces black from turf smoke. In 1849 a cholera epidemic added to the misery. The famine continued: by May 1851 the Listowel workhouse numbers had peaked at 5,627.
MacMahon’s book is a valuable addition to the historiography of the Great Famine, clearly written and accessible to all. It is a tribute both to the victims and to those who did their best to relieve their misery and a template for future research in other regions of Ireland.
Margaret Smith is the author of Samuel Clayton: Forger, Freemason, Freeman, published by Anchor Books Australia in 2017.