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Nothing but the Bones: Co. Galway in the

Years of the Famine

By Loretto Horrigan Leary

March 20,2024

When Catherine Houlihan deposited $100 into her bank account on May 10, 1854, she had lived on Ward’s Island in New York for over three years. Her parents, Owen and Ann, still resided in Drumscar, Gortanumera, just a short distance from Portumna in County Galway. By 1854, Catherine had already seen the worst effects of the Famine. In her new home in America, she would help alleviate the pain and suffering of others.

Catherine departed from Liverpool in 1851 on the Ashburton and arrived on March 1st, 1851, in New York.

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Ward’s Island Hospital in New York housed many sick Irish Famine immigrants. As a helper in Ward 9, her job was dangerous, leaving her open to infectious diseases such as Typhoid and Cholera. It was challenging work. Like many other Irish at the time, this was a job for immigrants. Resilience and grit made Catherine Houlihan the perfect woman for the job. Locals feared the miasma— airborne sicknesses that locals believed even healthy hospital workers carried with them on their clothing. Catherine no doubt saw an opportunity to give her son Michael and daughter Mary a better chance in life—a chance they would not have been given if their mother had stayed in Drumscar.

Catherine was one of four Emigrant Savings Bank depositors from the Parish of Lickmolassy in County Galway. The parish had a population of 4,099 people in 1841, but by 1851, the population was 2339, a 15% decrease. My hometown of Portumna, the nearest large town to Catherine, had a population of 1,643 in 1841, and by 1851, the population had fallen to 1,482.

Galwegians were already feeling the effects of poverty before the famine. The need for workhouses commenced as early as July 31, 1838, with the passing of The Poor Law Relief Act—England’s response to aiding the poor would always prove too little and too late during 1845-1852. Eighteen miles from Catherine Houlihan’s homeplace, the Ballinasloe Poor Law Union (Workhouse) was constructed in 1841 for a capacity of 1000. By June 1849, it housed 4098 inmates. Just thirteen-and-a-half miles away from Gortanumera, the Loughrea Poor Law Union was opened in February 1842. It was designed to hold 800 inmates, which proved insufficient during the years of the Famine when fever sheds were constructed on the site to house 100 people. Residents of Catherine’s townland would have been sent to either Ballinasloe or Loughrea's workhouse. However, the workhouse system in Ireland, having proved to be an inadequate response to the needs of the people by 1851, was designed to house a total of 80,000 inmates and now housed 217,000. In 1852, the Portumna Poor Law Union, with a capacity of 600 inmates, was ready for occupancy. The Famine had done its worst, and Catherine Houlihan was settling into her new life in America.

Due to a delayed and appropriate political response to the successive crop failures, crime continued to rise. In September 1844, The Nenagh Guardian reported that two neighbors in Portumna, the Lallys and the Treasys, apprehended wheat thieves in the middle of the night, beating them in a field with their shillelaghs. After the potato crop failed a year later, Prime Minister Robert Peel said in October 1845, “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable.”

A shoemaker was robbed of 21 pairs of shoes on her way to the Portumna Fair in November 1846. A pay clerk for the Board of Works was robbed of $710 in Tynagh, just a short distance up the road from where Catherine grew up, in December of that same year. In 1847, in July, William Hackett from Portumna was set upon and badly injured by two men and dragged by a horse. Hackett survived his injuries. In 1847, Father White of Ballinasloe revealed that Peel’s delay in helping the starving Irish was disastrous. Father White reported, “Can it be possible that man, created in the image of the living God, is forced to live on weeds?” People would resort to eating all sorts of unimaginable things, driving some animal populations to the brink of extinction.

Meanwhile, in 1848, as part of Relief Works, the Board of Works Drainage Commission, led by John Lambert, built a new bridge over Cappagh and Kilcrow River in Crannagh, near Gortanumera, still referred to as “Newbridge” to this day. The road from Gortanumera to Portumna was also part of these Relief Works. While men and women toiled for food or pennies, the Relief Works failed miserably throughout the county, and political unrest spread.

It would have been difficult for the Houlihan family to ignore the catastrophes around them, and three events, in particular, may have cemented Owen and Ann’s decision to let their daughter Catherine emigrate to a better life in America.

In April 1848, the Freeman’s Journal reported an unthinkable act during the proceedings of a court case in Galway City. A man was sentenced for sheep stealing. The resident magistrate informed the bench “that the prisoner and his family were starving; one of his children died, and he was, he said, credibly informed that the mother ate part of its legs and feet.” The body of the child was exhumed, and it was discovered that “nothing but the bones” remained of the legs and feet.

Across the fields from the Houlihans, another family in Killeen, though not hungry nor impoverished, experienced turmoil in the home. The Kelly family were wealthy Catholic landowners about four miles west of Portumna. Eighteen-year-old Mary Anne Kelly, Eva of The Nation, visited Dublin with her aunt in June 1848. Upon arrival, she discovered that the Young Irelanders, including her editor, Duffy, were imprisoned or on the run for the failed rebellion. Having outmaneuvered the authorities, her cousin, Dillon, was already on his way across the country to Killeen. Mary Anne Kelly recounted Dillion's presence as a fugitive at the house. "He had only gone off a short time when we were that night invaded by police and the magistrate. Our house was ransacked from top to bottom."


Things would only get worse in Portumna. In April 1849, Patrick Cormac was sentenced to jail in Galway, given up to the authorities by his mother. Cormac had robbed, mutilated, and killed a 79-year-old woman who lived in Portumna. His victim, Miss Prendergast, after giving him one shilling and sixpence, refused him entry to her home to allow him to light his pipe. Cormac slit one side of her face from mouth to ear, possibly with an axe. There were additional blows to the temple and the back of the head. She was then strangled and mutilated. Cormac claimed to have gone for six days without food except for “nettles, watergrass, and a little milk from a goat.” The crime made headlines in The Belfast Newsletter, The Nenagh Guardian, The Leinster Express, and The Times and saw Patrick Cormac hanged in August 1849.

Consider this tiny account of known events from one small town and its surrounding environment from 1844 to 1851. Now, look at a map of County Galway, all the cities, towns, and townlands, and think about how bad things were during the Great Hunger in that County.

In this small glimpse into the struggles of County Galway during the Great Hunger, we see a stark reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink when faced with extreme adversity. The brutality and desperation of these times are not just historical footnotes but lessons that resonate today. At Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield, we aim to explore the past and relevance of these lessons in today’s world. By understanding the consequences of governmental neglect and societal breakdown, we can strive to prevent such tragedies in the future and foster a more compassionate and just society.

Tracking the Famine Emigration from Ireland To New York by Tyler Anbinder
The Great Irish Famine Online by University College Cork
The Workhouses of Ireland by John O’Connor
The Workhouse, the story of an institution by Peter Higginbotham
Portumna: A Galway Parish by the Shannon by John Joe Connell
Portumna Workhouse: Telling the Story of the Workhouse Poor by RE Cowan and C Doyle


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