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Evidently, in the Last Stage of Actual Starvation - County Kerry in the

Years of The Great Hunger

By Loretto Horrigan Leary


June 1, 2024 

Mister Enright had an unpleasant job in the civil parish of Kilanughtin, even in the best of times. His job, "burying the dead," previously allowed the deceased a final act of respect by lowering them into the grave in their own coffin. One coffin, one body, both being absorbed back into the soil that was now failing the population of County Kerry. This was an impossible feat for Enright in 1847 in Kilpaddoge, in the Barony of Iraghticonnor. 

Enright "had one coffin. The bottom of which was hinged," 76-year-old Daniel Mangan told School's Collection author M. O'Connell in the 1930's. "When he got to the graveyard, he had little bother in lowering the body into the grave and bringing back the coffin again."  


After receiving over one hundred applications from people pleading to be sent to the Workhouse in Tralee, the Parish Warden of Dingle wrote to the Board of Guardians in 1847, stating, "They say they are satisfied to die after going there as they are sure of getting something to eat while life remains and of being buried in coffins." Coffins were a luxury, it would seem, for the famine victims of County Kerry.


On his six-week visit to Ireland during the famine, William Bennett observed in Kenmare: "The poor people came in from the rural districts in such numbers, in the hopes of getting some relief, that it was utterly impossible to meet their most urgent emergencies, and therefore they came in literally to die in the open streets, actually dying of starvation within a stone's throw of the inn." Bennett didn't just visit the workhouse; he also went into people's cabins. Through his detailed description, we witness the true horrors of Famine in Kerry. "We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible from the smoke and rags that covered them, were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs - on removing a portion of the filthy covering - perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation."


The workhouse was feared in every part of Ireland during the famine. Carrying hunger and shame, many Irish famine victims were left with no choice but to seek relief there. On November 5, 1847, a crowd approached the Tralee Workhouse carrying a black flag of distress and attempted to enter the workhouse by force. In John O'Connor's The Workhouses of Ireland, the author says, "They had been deprived of outdoor relief of a 'halfpenny a day' by the Guardians 'because the Board's finances could not bear even so small an allowance." After breaking down the main gate, the police were called in, and the group of starving people were forced to depart.


While visiting Kenmare in the winter of 1849-1850, W.S. Trench detailed conditions in Kenmare Workhouse. Trench states, "The form of destitution had changed in some degree; but it was still very great. It was true that people no longer died of starvation; but they were dying nearly as fast of fever, dysentery, and scurvy within the walls of the workhouse." Due to meager food quantities served to inmates and the pre-existence of poor health conditions attributed to years of malnourishment, "nearly as many died now under the hands of Guardians, as had perished before by actual starvation," according to Trench. 


Evictions, and there were many, left people with little alternative but the workhouse. The London Times, on January 6, 1849, stated that from Lord Ventry's estate alone in Dingle, 170 families, a total of 532 people were evicted. Before they faced dying in the street, many took to the Coffin Ships with the hopes of surviving the transatlantic crossing and starting anew in America.


20-year-old Tralee native Patrick Cantillon (Cantlen), along with 81 other Famine emigrants, the Griffins, Fitzgeralds, Hallimans, and Donnells, departed from Blenerville, County Kerry on the brig Moses John on April 14, 1849. All were listed as servants or laborers and were delivered to the port of Boson on June 6 by shipmaster W. Wilson without a single death onboard the ship. But Patrick Cantillon wouldn't stay in Boston. 


When Cantillon opened his Emigrant Savings Bank account on July 3, 1852, he was now working as the Assistant Store Keeper at Staten Island Marine Hospital in New York. This place must have reminded him somewhat of the Tralee Workhouse's organization and layout. His accent must have been a pleasant surprise for fellow co-workers and Kerry natives— Mary Clifford, a nurse in 1855, and Honora Mahoney, working in the washhouse since 1853. Like most immigrants, they took the jobs that locals didn't want. The Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station had been contested for its location by residents of Tompkinsville since its opening in 1799. Diseases such as Typhus and Cholera were believed to be carried in the "miasma" or diseased air surrounding the area. The three Kerry immigrants possibly faced anti-Irish sentiment because of their accents and jobs. Of the three, Patrick, Mary, and Honora, the latter had the most dangerous job- washing the sheets and bedclothes. 


For these three immigrants who had come from a county where people were begging for entry into the workhouse, dying of starvation in their cabins or in the streets, or being dropped into their graves by a hinged coffin, this place where they could save money and make plans for the future must have seemed like a paradise.

A note for modern-day readers: The townland of Kilpaddoge covered an area of 415 acres in the Barony of Iraghticonnor, Civil Parish of Killnaughtin, Poor Law Union of Glin during the years of the Irish Famine, is now better known as Toreenasligaun, part of Caragh Lake.

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