Women in Mayo During the Famine Years

by Maureen Langan-Egan, Originally published in the North Mayo Historical
Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1987/8 as "Women in Mayo During the Famine Years"
The Famine with all its attendant evils blighted the lives of women all over Ireland, but it had a devastating effect on the lives of women in Mayo, not only because the Famine affected the county very badly, but also because official Famine relief schemes were very slow to get under way in the county, and were generally inadequate in most areas of the county.

Of historical interest are the accounts of the vicissitudes suffered by the people of the county, and the attempts made by women to cope with the Famine and adapt to the changes which it inevitably wrought in their lives.

There are many eye-witness reports which describe graphically the sufferings of the people under Famine conditions.

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The desperate attempts to obtain any kind of food are seen in an account of Erris, which stated that ten thousand people were living or starving on turnips, sand-eels and sea-weed, a diet which no one in England would consider for the meanest animal which he keeps.(1) Even more horrifying were the stories of privation in the cabins. William Bennett, on a visit to Erris, found "in one cabin a shrivelled old woman imploring us to give her something - baring her limbs partly to show us how the thin flesh hung loose from her bones - as soon as she attracted our attention. Above her, on something like a ledge, was a young woman with sunken cheeks - a mother I have no doubt - who scarcely raised her eyes in answer to our enquiries, but pressed her hand upon her forehead with a look of unutterable anguish and despair."(2)

When relief came, it was often too late to save whole families. Many cases occurred where people were too ill or weak to collect the food provided by the Relief Schemes, and no provision was made for distributing food to such people. Some people had reservations about distributing rations, and felt that they were "a mere enabling the patient to endure for a little longer time disease and hunger."(3)

Matters were made more difficult by the fact that the Irish Poor Law Relief Act (1 and 2 Vic. c. 56, 1838) had enacted that no relief should become available outside the workhouses. However, in the desperate circumstances of the time, those hated institutions became filled with widows and children, aged and weak. "Widows, whose husbands had recently been taken off by the fever and thus their only pittance, obtained from the public works, was entirely cut off", either had to beg or enter the workhouse.(4) Other women, who did not have dependents, refused to enter the workhouses until they collapsed.

Some slight easing in the circumstances for obtaining relief came in 1847 when three Acts were passed, among which the principal provisions were as follows: "Destitute women having two or more legitimate children upon them may be relieved in or out of the Workhouses at discretion of the Guardians.

This provision did nothing for the unmarried mother who was generally ostracised by society, but it enabled some widows, at least, to try to retain a grip on their holdings. At times women claimed to be widows in order to claim relief, to which they were not officially entitled. Sometimes, these bogus applicants were aided and abetted by conniving landlords, who felt that it reduced the onus on them to provide personal help. John Palmer, an indefatigable investigator of claims for Famine relief, wrote of one such bogus claim in Kilfian: "We proceeded next to Mary Reap's house, who would, if she could, persuade us that she was a poor widow, and produced for us a landlord's certificate No. 500. We found her husband, Michael Quinn, comfortably seated by a roaring fire after returning some hours from his daily labour with the landlord."(5)

Ironically, some of the food provided seemed to hasten illness and death. It was stated that one of the major causes of epidemics was bad food, such as Indian meal supplied to relief applicants, and which they invariably swallowed after only a few minutes boiling, sometimes cold and raw.(6)

In Ballycroy, it was noted that starving people died off if they ate a full meal.  Many women did not know how to cook Indian meal, which was the usual food distributed, and this caused further illness.

To obtain the food provided, many women had to work on Famine Relief Schemes, which did not get under way in Mayo until November, 1846, when 430 women and 10,564 men were employed in these schemes. By February 1847 there were 2,783 women so employed. One wonders how valuable these schemes were, as it was noted that "the greatest mortality from fever was among the labourers, both men and women, on the public roads and cold wet boggy hills."(7)

Many women stayed out of the workhouses and tried to procure food for themselves, while hoping to hold on to their households. This was a vain hope in many cases, as many landlords, not only availed of the famous Gregory Clause in the Poor Laws to clear their estates of poor tenants, but flagrantly broke the law to do so - even to the extent of setting fire to beds with occupants in them! One of the most unmerciful landlords in this regard was Mr. John Walsh in Erris, who also had substantial holdings in the Crossmolina area. His treatment of his tenants became so notorious, that as a result of repeated complaints, chiefly by Famine relief workers, his actions became the subject of a House of Lords investigation. Other landlords effected clearances by refusing as ex-officio Poor Law Guardians to recommend their starving tenantry for relief unless they consented to give up their holdings.

The Famine seems to have caused complete despair. In some cases it seemed that women neglected their young children so that they died. There seems to have been a sizeable increase in the number of deserted wives, or apparently deserted wives in some Poor Law Unions.

In the circumstances of the time, many women had to resort to the workhouses or the infirmaries, if they contacted Famine fever, as fever inspired terror in the general populace, and many would have nobody to care for them.  Normally, nursing duties fell to the women, but not always so, especially when they caught fever.  There are accounts of whole families stricken by fever, which spread all the faster because of the lack of hygiene, lack of clothing and poor sanitary conditions in the cabins. Many areas had no dispensaries, and those stricken by fever might, if they could afford to do so, purchase the care of a nurse-tender. If they became ill, conditions for women both within the workhouses or infirmaries or outside in the hovels were grim. "In the workhouse at Ballina the mortality from fever and dysentery has been alarming; but it must be said that a large proportion of the sufferers only apply for admission in the hope that they should be provided with a coffin when dead, which was more than could be expected if they died outside the workhouse walls."(9)

Even by the year 1851, there were 7,998 women in the workhouses in Mayo by contrast with 4,674 men, but there were fewer women in hospital.(10)  It would seem that young girls who had spent some of their formative years in these institutions were becoming institutionalised. Referring to the wives of migratory labourers, Forbes states: "'When the mother is enabled to leave the (Westport) Union on the return of her husband, or by any other means, her daughters are often found most anxious to remain in the house."(11)

In spite of the hardship of the times, the lot of some women improved, if they were lucky enough to be employed, with the possible exception of those women employed on official relief works. Women fared better on employment schemes set up under private auspices or by charitable organisations during these years. Women were sometimes employed on Drainage Schemes by landowners, who had received grants under the Land Improvement Act. Colonel Knox-Gore of Ballina, one of the most humane landlords, took 2,500 under this Act and employed between one and two hundred men and women in carrying out improvements under this Act.(12)

There were some employment schemes funded by relief organisations, such as the Society of Friends, which provided, not only short-term relief, but also training in skills. They saw that the long-term solution to the misery of the women's lives lay in providing them with skills and worthwhile employment.  For instance, The Belfast Ladies' Industrial Association for Connaught (in association with the Society of Friends) aimed to qualify "young females of Connaught to become independent members of society through their own industry: they sent fifty-four teachers of approved qualifications to poor females who formerly earned nothing. They paid wages to the amount of 5,000 a year, which was later raised to 7,500."(13) They funded flax operations in Newport and Ballina. Some of the schools set up by religious groups, such as the Presbyterian school in Ballina, taught weaving and sewed muslin work. The girls taught by these groups proved very skilful, and their work occupied an honourable place at the Great Exhibition, and commanded the highest prices in the Scotch and English markets.(14)

One can only conclude that had employment been available on a sufficiently large scale, many of the deaths caused by starvation and disease could have been avoided, as women would have had money available to them to purchase ample food supplies, despite the failure of the potato crop.

Of great interest are the accounts of aid rendered by women during the Famine. Many women took an active part in food distribution, and in providing the destitute with clothing. Many of these ladies were either members of landlords' families or members of the Church of Ireland, as well as smaller numbers from other religious sects. Many helped to administer relief supplied by the Society of Friends.

While occasional accusations of proselytism were made against some who were in a position to distribute meal or other relief, in general one must concur with the statement that "Quakers knew that in an area like Erris, the parson, his wife and his daughters, or anyone who manned a soup kitchen in 'Black '47' had barely enough strength to serve the physical needs of the people, let alone time to engage in proselytising."(15)

It must be also be remembered that the Quakers were scrupulous with regard to checking the credentials of those whom they appointed to administer relief, and that they themselves have never been accused of any attempts at proselytism. Yet, in spite of all their care, murmurs of protest arose which, on occasions, led to much acrimonious publicity. Such was the case of Catherine Plunket, sister of the militant evangelical Protestant Archbishop of Tuam, Thomas Plunket, who owned an estate at Tourmakeady. The Quakers had given her funds for distribution in the area, because she was one of the few resident members of the gentry. Tales about her encouragement of proselytism soon abounded in the Lough Mask area.(16) This provoked much dissension, but should not blind one to the Herculean work done for Famine relief by other members of her Church.

At Doonfeeny, the established Church parson was Francis Little, who worked closely with the local parish priest, Rev. Martin Hart. His wife died of fever. The Tyrawley Herald of 20th March, 1848, reported the death of his wife, June, from Famine fever "caught in the discharge of a charitable duty, which she was always foremost in performing."

In Crossmolina parish, the Protestant curate was Henry St. George Caulfield-Knox, who had married the daughter of his parson, Richard St. George. A visitor, who called at Crossmolina in 1847, found Mrs. St. George making soup, but "no one else appeared to be doing anything in the place, which contains 2,000 inhabitants, one half of whom are in a state of desperate want.''(16a)

Help provided by the parsons of the Church of Ireland, ably assisted by the female members of their families, was particularly important in the Kilfian area, where the local landlord, Sir Roger Palmer, was notorious for his refusal to pay rates, or to assist in the formation of a local Relief Committee. St. George Knox, the local parson, said in his Application to the Society of Friends (No. 18, Jan. 13th, 1847) for Kilfian Parish: "Hundreds would already have died if it were not for the relief I was able to afford them. " His wife, Mrs. Fannie Knox, spent 200 a month from her own resources to feed three hundred families, plus another three hundred beggars daily at her family home, Fahy, in Kilfian Parish. She also helped her mother in directing operations at the soup boilers.  These two ladies also organised a weaving and spinning establishment for the poor of the town."(17)

The Tyrawley Herald of December 30th, 1847, printed a letter from George Read, the Protestant curate in Ballina. Once again, we read of an able wife helping her parson husband. "Late and early my house was beset by starving creatures, clamouring for food. My servants were all engaged in helping them.  My wife and myself had offered to take their place, when they were fatigued."

Ladies of various religious persuasions took part in the distribution of clothing, but not to the same extent as in the distribution of food. Indeed, there were complaints that there were not enough people to work in this area. In Ballina, Rev. Thomas Armstrong said he knew of no one who would help him in the distribution of clothes.(18) Some of the difficulties with regard to getting people to distribute food and clothing in an area such as Ballina may have been caused by the arguments and dissensions which prevailed among religious groups in the town at this time, where tempers were frayed by shortages, over- work and despair. It would also seem that accusations of partiality in the distribution of clothing was made, as is clear from the application made by Theresa Armstrong, wife of the Presbyterian Minister, Thomas Armstrong, who wrote asking for Quaker help, saying she wished to work 'singly' in helping the poor, wishing to keep free from any imputation of sectarianism or favouritism with which others in this town (Ballina) are charged.(19)

Areas, which did not have a parson, or other active gentleman, suffered greatly by their absence. They also missed the female member of their families, who usually organised the day-to-day running of institutions, such as soup kitchens. A Quaker visitor, Edmund Richards, noted what happened in the Mullet peninsula when there was nobody such as Mrs. Knox to take charge. The ship 'Scourge', on which Mr. Richards came to Erris, put off two boilers at Killybegs in the Mullet, but there was no one available locally to set up a food station, and the boiler was not operated and the people died.

One cannot but concur with the following comments about the parsons and their wives: "He (the parson) was a boon and a blessing to the parish in which he was located. His wife was generally 'The Lady Bountiful' to whom the peasant applied in all ailments with a certainty of obtaining gratuitous relief - the nearest dispensary being perhaps a dozen miles off."(20) The help rendered by these ladies was particularly valuable, as there were no Catholic female religious Orders in Mayo until the last years of the period under consideration.  The Sisters of Mercy, who came to Ballina on the invitation of Fr. Malone, began to relieve the needs of the poor and fill a great social need.

All the help given by women was gladly given. The cost to them was great, not only in material terms, but also in terms of human suffering and, in some cases death, occasioned by contact with the destitute, many of whom were suffering from an infection called 'road fever', to which the poor had built up some kind of immunity, but which killed many of the better-off people, such as Mrs. Little. 

While some instances of kindness and help rendered have been recorded, it is almost needless to remark that very many instances were not recorded, and knowledge of them passed away with the deaths of both donors and recipients.  One cannot doubt that women, who were in a position to do so, rendered all the help they could, in the tragic circumstances of the time.


List of Abbreviations:
Appendix A: Poor Inquiry Ireland, Vol. XXXII, 1835.
Appendix E: Poor Inquiry Ireland: H.C. Parliamentary Papers. Vol. XXXIII, 1836.
Society of Friends: Transactions: Transactions of the Central Relief Committee during the Famine in Ireland 1846-'52.
Forbes, John: Memorandums: Memorandums made in Ireland in the Autumn of 1852.
Simms, W.D.: Narrative: Narrative of the 5th and 6th Weeks of William Forster's Visit to some distressed districts in Ireland, Dublin 1847.

1. Society of Friends: Transactions. James H. Tuke. An Account of his visit to Connaught in the Autumn of 1847, page 205.
2. Society of Friends. op. cit., Appendix III, Account of Richard D. Webb, pages 163-201.
3. Society of Friends: op. cit., Forster's Report, page 154.
4. Society of Friends: op. cit., Appendix III, Correspondence of Wm. Bennett.
5. Famine Relief Papers, 6th Series, Vol. 3. Letter of John Palmer, R.O. Kilfian to Peter Burrowes, Chairman Ballina Union, page 200.
6. Appendix to the Final Report of the commission of Public Works. Famine Relief Papers, Vol. 8.
7. Appendix to the Final Report of the Commission of Public Works under the heading: Disease in Ireland: Evidence of Dr. Daly.
8. Society of Friends: op. cit., Appendix III, Richard D. Webb, page 199.
9. Society of Friends: op. cit., Appendix III, page 198.
10. British Parliamentary Papers, Census 1851. Vol. XIV, Table XI.
11. Forbes, John: Memorandums, page 278.
12. Famine, Vol. 4, 8th Series, 1849. Statement of Col. Arthur Knox-Gore to Mr. Famly, page 9.
13. Society of Friends: op. cit., Appendix XXXI, Statement from Dr. Edgar of Belfast, page 438.
14. Society of Friends: op. cit., Appendix XXXI, page 438.
15. Bowen, D. Souperism: Myth or Reality, page 124.
16. Simms, W.D.: Narrative, Page 1.
17. Quaker Relief Application 188, February, 1847.
18. Quaker Relief Application - Clothing, 29th February, 1847.
19. Quaker Relief Application - Clothing. B. 71, 29th April, 1847.
20. Hall, S.C.: Retrospect of a Long Life, page 347.

Copyright Maureen Langan-Egan
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of Maureen Langan-Egan