The Way it Was: the Famine in Arranmore
On the recent visit to Arranmore by 57 Beaver Islanders for the
Twinning Ceremony, much of its history was recounted, either by
Charlie O'Hara or by those in the party from America such as Paul
Cole, who delivered a talk about those sad days on the pier at
Everyone knows that the Famine began with potato blight in 1845,
but few realize how close to the edge the people of Arranmore
had been living, and how quickly they were overcome. A visitor
to the island of 1,300 inhabitants in September of 1845 reported
how amazed he was when wretchedly gaunt, half-clothed, and shoeless
people rushed up to him with requests for relief.
At that time Arranmore was the property of an absentee landlord,
the Marquis Conyngham. He never paid a visit to his holding, instead
leaving its administration to Benbow, an English agent who was
rarely there either. In the spring of 1846, everyone hoped and
prayed that the blight that had devastated the crop the previous
year would abate, but it was worse, turning entire fields into
a stinking black mass. As hunger increased, Benbow was no help;
his only mandate was to meet his quota, an impossible task. To
stay alive some normally honest people did whatever they could,
driven to hunt for any secret trove of food held by their neighbor.
Those caught looting were branded as thieves in any way possible;
one woman, a Mary Gallagher, had her ears hacked off as her penalty.
Relief efforts were irregular, and hardly ever reached the distant
provinces because of poor roads and poorer methods of distribution.
In 1846 a load of Indian meal reached Arranmore, but it was an
inedible rancid soggy mess, full of weevils and maggots. That
fall a food depot was set up in Burtonport, but there was not
nearly enough to go around. The authorities feared that a rebellion
would bring them down, and in fact the meager stores were frequently
looted before they could be passed out.
Everyone hoped that the worst was overit had to be. But
1847 brought no relief. The blight continued and, if anything,
was worse. Destitute people could be seen combing the fields with
rakes, hoping for a single potato to keep the wolf from the doorto
no avail. They were dropping everywhere, in the fields, in the
streets, or in their homes. Every family had its dead by starvation.
The destruction of the potato crop, almost the only source of
food, was total. Relief ships, such as the Lame, carrying wheat
meal from Belfast, were attacked by starving mobs and stripped
of any food in their holds. The police, wanting to make an example,
pulled a raid on Arranmore, confiscating everything they foundin
their view, it had to have been stolen, and probably was.
To add to their distress, Conyngham judged his island to be unprofitable
and petitioned to have it declared a separate Poor-law District.
As this was being done, he sold it in 1847. to Charlie Beag, a
callous land speculator. Charlie Beag immediately decided to consolidate
the farms by greatly reducing the population, which he did by
evicting anyone who could not produce a written receipt for their
rent. These had never had to be shown before, and when they had
been received had not been saved.
To facilitate the eviction, Charlie Beag gave the departing tenants
two options. They could go into the poorhouse at Glenties, or
they could board a ship for America that he promised would be
waiting for them at Donegal Town. Many chose the poorhouse because
they were so weak and malnourished that they did not feel they
could survive an ocean crossing. But the facility at Glenties
was already overcrowdedits death rate was the highest in
the country because it had been built in a swamp and flooded much
of the year. Even the officials admitted that it reeked of death.
Its charges were given clumps of old straw as their bed, with
six or seven forced to sleep in a bundle, for warmth, under a
single filthy rag. Conditions were so bad that the matron was
sacked for dereliction of duty.
The braver ones to be forced off Arranmore went to Donegal Town,
marching there on foot from Burtonport to board Charlie Beag's
boatbut it was not there! Once again, promises were revealed
to be just empty words, issued to get them off his land. There
they were, with no money, no clothes, and no food. Hanging around,
waiting for a miracle, they began to fall in their tracks. The
good people living there did what they could, but there were few
Finally a miracle of sorts did take place. The Quakers, one of
the few religious organizations to mobilize over the Irish tragedy,
sent them a shipone of the infamous 'coffin ships.' It looked
like it would sink, but the hand of God was on them and they made
it across the Atlantic in one piece, the ship only sinking on
its return trip.
Those who made it to America rejoiced, and sent for their friends.
Many settled on Beaver, either directly or after stopping elsewhere
first, once the Strangites were dispersed. Seven generations went
by, more or less depending on the family, before their heirs sailed
back to the island from which they had come, our new Twin. Imagine
how their hearts leaped in their chests when they saw, as they
approached her shore, hundreds of people waving and playing music
and holding up a huge banner simply saying, Welcome Home!
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