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God Alone Can See the End ~ County Leitrim During The Great Hunger
By Loretto Horrigan Leary
February 25, 2024

In 1841, Leitrim had 155,297 people; over the next ten years, the county lost 43,400 people; by 1871, it lost a further 16,335. And the decline continued steadily until 1996 when it reached just over 25,000.

How Mohill and Co Leitrim emerged from the Great Famine
Fiona Slevin, 2020


Who among us would raise our hands willingly as volunteers to see, feel, hear, and learn more about our painful past? Indeed, what would even be achieved by engaging in such an endeavor? Few people would volunteer to relive the years of 1845-1852 in Ireland, immersing themselves in that era we call The Great Hunger, referred to in Ireland as The Famine.

The Great Hunger, I prefer this name because it unites both past and present — the hungry who watched as food was exported out of the country between 1845-1852 and the present day hungry, those of us who hunger for more knowledge about our ancestors. It is this word, hunger, that unites both past and present. Leitrim immigrants and their descendants exist outside of Ireland today mainly due to two historical events in the county: the failure of the linen industry and theFamine or The Great Hunger. We are immigrants and descendants of famine survivors.

In the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine 1845-1851, it is estimated that 77.6% - 88% of the Leitrim population died between 1845 to 1851, and 2.5% - 4% were evicted from their homes. The reason that the eviction number isn’t higher is because people were gone — dead or emigrated. For the many who survived and remained in Leitrim, life would never be the same. Loss of the Irish language, emigration, famine-related diseases, and hardship would become the new landscape of Leitrim for many years after The Great Hunger.

Historian Cathal Póirtéir’s extensive research on the famine reveals a court case in which an old man from Tullaghan lamented the theft of his parents' potatoes, calling it a “cruel wrong.” We are not talking about stolen jewels or money here; we are talking about stolen potatoes. “An drochshaol,” it was called locally — it means “hard life.” Mohill Workhouse opened its doors in 1842 with the capacity to house 700 “inmates.” In 1844, a fever hospital was added to deal with the outbreak of Typhus and yellow fever. A “mass pauper’s grave” beside the fever hospital reveals the inadequacies of the hospital to deal with the growing number of deaths.

In March 1846, the situation had grown so dire that the Board members of Mohill Union notified the Public Works Commission that one-third of the potato crop had failed and “the distress of the population is great.” As a result, the first of many Public Work schemes, the Ballinamore- Ballyconnell Canal, was built between 1847 and 1860. Almost 7,000 men were employed in the scheme. Only eight boats paid the toll to use the completed waterway between 1860-1881, at a cost of £228,651. Designed to reduce flooding and improve the land in south Leitrim, the Rinn and Blackriver Drainage Scheme proved more practical. Over 3,400 men toiled to drain 5,691 acres of land at a cost of £23,392—landowners who benefitted from the drainage paid for it by raising their tenants’ rents.

Public Works helped, but not enough to relieve the distress of the people. Men were paid 2 pennies a day, and women were paid one penny to haul clay and stones. For sustenance, workers were given a bowl of porridge in the morning and again at the end of the day. If no food was provided, the pay went up to four pennies daily. Still, it wasn’t enough. Many in the population were already too weak to perform the labor required.

Between 4 January and 13 April 1847, the worst year of The Great Hunger, thirty-nine Public Works were documented for the Barony of Mohill alone. The works included making a footpath in Mohill town, a new road from Stuck to Corrabeagh, finishing the road from Rooskey to Mohill, a new road between Gort and Drumdoo, and mending 451 perches of road between Gortletteragh Chapel to Drumhirk River at Cloone. In other words, every time you walk through the streets in County Leitrim, you are literally walking in the steps of survivors and victims of The Great Hunger.

On May 19 th , 1847, the Bishop of Ardagh wrote to Paul Cullen, Rector of the Irish College in Rome. Bishop O’Higgins, in that letter, describes the scenes in Leitrim in great detail. “In some instances, particularly in Leitrim, whole families are discovered to be dead in their cabins by the stench that proceeds from their putrid bodies! The dead are frequently buried in bogs, cabbage plots, and even in the houses where they die! Fever, dysentery, and starvation are everywhere. God alone can see the end.”

Today, God isn’t the only one who can see the end. We know the facts, we know the figures, and with the help of historians, sculptors, and artists, we, too, can see the end. It is a painful past, but for those of us who would raise our hands to see, hear, and feel the past we call The Great Hunger, we are hungry to learn more. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield is committed to educating those who are hungry for more knowledge about this painful part of Irish history.

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