When people today talk about the Great Irish Famine, they seldom realise to what extent it affected any particular part of the country. As we shall see, the Tartaraghan area suffered severely.
With the population increasing from 6,500,000 in 1821 to more than 8,000,000 by 1841, and the potato continuing to be the staple food of the vast majority of the people, it was inevitable that sooner or later demand would outstrip supply, and a serious food shortage would result. The country had already experienced minor famines; indeed at the best of times the summer months could frequently be a period of privation, because the old potato crop seldom lasted until the new potatoes were fully grown, and any partial failure of the crop increased the distress.
As far back as the year 1739 a severe early frost killed the seed potatoes in the ground, and as little tillage took place in the following spring, a period of want, fever and dysentery prevailed until 1741 with rich and poor alike dying. Then in the winter of 1822/3, as a result of a very wet spell of weather, the potatoes rotted away in the outdoor pits and the resulting distress was very severe particularly in the provinces of Munster and Connaught; fortunately, this was followed by a bumper harvest the following year.
Again in 1831 violent storms accompanied by heavy rain caused a widespread failure of the potato crop, most acutely felt in Galway, Mayo and Donegal. Once more a plentiful harvest followed and the distress was alleviated. So it should not have been any great surprise if history were to repeat itself again.
In the year 1845 the month or July was exceptionally wet. The early potato crop was harvested successfully, but in September it was suddenly discovered that the main crop potatoes were rotting away in the ground. The blight had struck in the south-east comer of Ireland, and it spread rapidly until about half of the country was affected. The distress however was not very great, and it was hoped that the following year would produce bumper crops as on past occasions. However, the shortage had meant that many small farmers were constrained to use for food, seed-potatoes which should have been planted to produce the next year's crop.
As the year 1846 progressed, the prospect looked good until mid-summer; in the "Armagh Guardian" of 21st July we read that the crops everywhere looked well, but the same paper on the 4th August carried the ominous report,: "Captain Rodgers of Eden House, Loughgall, informs us that he examined a large field of his potatoes on Wednesday last, at which time they had a most healthy and luxuriant appearance. On the Friday following he again examined them, and the tops were completely blighted. Several other persons in the same neighbourhood have furnished us with similar intelligence'.
This time no part of the country escaped the ravages of the blight. Although those living in the west of Ireland suffered most, the effects were severely felt in Tartaraghan Parish because of the high density of population, for the Tartaraghan Rural District was one of the most densely populated Rural Districts in the whole of Ireland.
The northern part of the Parish, i.e. the MilItown area, with a population of about 4,000 people was devastated, as they lived on very small holdings in the flat bog-land where disease and dysentery became rampant. Action had to be taken, and a Relief Committee was set up at Clonmacate, the Rector of Tartaraghan, the Hon. and Rev F Clements, acting as Treasurer. Primate Beresford donated the sum of £10 to assist in the purchase of food, and soup-kitchens were opened at the local schools, the Police-barracks and other centres, where food was sold at a nominal price.
During the winter of 1846/7 contact was established with the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), and amongst the reports they received from different parts of the country was the following dated, 23rd February, 1847.
The parish of Tartaraghan is an agricultural parish, containing a population of 7,313 souls, five and a half miles long by about three broad, a great part of the land of which is of a boggy nature. Its population has been hitherto chiefly supported by weaving carried on in their own houses. The weaver at present can only earn 2s. 6d. [12½p] to 4s. 6d. [22½p] by weaving a web of sixty yards, which employs him nearly a whole week in preparation: while at present prices such wages will not support the mere weaver without a family. Even with such wages, I can state it as a fact, having come under my own immediate observation, that weavers are sitting up three nights per week, in order by any means to procure food for their families.
There is scarcely a family in the parish in which there is not some one or more members of the family sitting up nightly. I have seen them, in returning to my own home, from visiting the sick, at 2 am working as busily as in the day-time. In several cases I have relieved individuals at their own houses, who from exhaustion had been compelled to lie down, and could no longer continue at work on the loom. This has been and is now the only means of employment; there are no public or private works carrying on, or about to be carried on, in the district and even this mode of scanty and insufficient employment is now rapidly ceasing. "The distress has been lately greatly augmented by the turnip crop, on which numbers were subsisting, having become exhausted. It is also greatly increased from the fact that the poor having now almost entirely sold or pawned their clothes, (even having in many cases sold their Bibles) have no further resources from whence to draw.
"l have myself witnessed the living lying on straw, by the side of the unburied dead, who had died three days before. Many cases of deaths from actual starvation have occurred amongst the able-bodied, without reckoning the aged and infirm, who have been cut off by the effects of starvation, or the very many children who have died from the same cause. I have been called to see a girl of four years old, a few weeks ago a strong healthy girl, who was so emaciated as to be unable either to stand or move a limb. I have visited houses where there was no article whatever of food or clothing, nothing but straw to lie down upon, not even a stool to sit upon, some of whose inmates, I fear, must have perished. 'Last year, to have been buried without a hearse, would have been a lasting stigma to a family; now, hearses are almost laid aside. "We are, in short, rapidly approaching, and if unassisted, must arrive at a state parallel to the worst pictures that have been presented to the public from the county of Cork".
An important initiative was soon taken by the Perpetual Curate of the MilItown District of the Parish, the Rev C Crossle, who organised local relief schemes and visited England to appeal for financial help for the purchase of food. Mr Crossle's biographer writes vividly of the desperate plight of the people: "I was only eight years old at the time, but I can never forget the scene of human misery which surrounded us after the blow had fallen, and before it was possible to organise an adequate system of relief. There rises before my eyes as I write one pitiable group, a funeral procession. It was not the usual crowd of sympathising neighbours accompanying a dead friend to his resting place. It was a miserable little party of four -living skeletons all of them -the sole survivors of a family. A widow, accompanied by her elder boy and two daughters, was wheeling to the Churchyard on a turf-barrow, the remains of her younger son. The rude deal shell in which the man's body was enclosed was six or eight inches too short, the end of the coffin had been knocked out and the feet of the corpse protruded, wrapped in a coarse unbleached linen cloth. The poor folk who were literally starving to death in their homes had no one to look to but my father, and the whole burden of feeding them fell on his shoulders".
The late Johnston Redmond of Grange House, recorded how the Rector of Tartaraghan came to his father with a bay horse and cart to ask if he had a boiler. Being answered in the affirmative, he borrowed the boiler and transported it to the Birches, where it was used to make Indian meal porridge. Mr Redmond who was a small child at the time of the famine, also recorded the following incidents:
"Mother sent me to the field for potatoes for dinner. The servant man said, 'No potatoes'. I saw the manure turned out with the spades and at a very old stock a little one the size of a pea. 'No pitties, Mammy.' For dinner Mammy then put on a stone pot, one that could hold 14 lbs. of potatoes, and made oatmeal porridge- "In came a man whose name was Sam Newberry. The pot was off and on the floor and he cried out 'Hungry, hungry, Mam, give me some'. She flattered him to wait and she would make him plenty. She gave him some in a noggin and horn spoon. Getting her back turned he spat in the pot of porridge. Mother scolded him for that; at last she gave him more milk and he cleaned the pot of porridge. 'Another neighbour came in and put his left hand into his pocket, and pulled out a handful of nettles raw. My father saw him and asked him, 'John, what is that you are doing?' His reply was. I am hungry, John'. My fathers name was John. My father told him, 'Sit down and we will make you plenty'.
The magnitude of the distress caused by cold and hunger was reflected in the large number who were forced to emigrate from this district in the hope of finding a better livelihood in the New World; and also by the many who made their way to the nearest Workhouse as a last resort. Tartaraghan Parish lay partly in the Union of Lurgan, and partly in that of Armagh.
The "Armagh Guardian" of 30th March 1847 gives the state of the Armagh Workhouse for the previous week; it was a building designed to accommodate about 600 persons, but now severely overcrowded: "Admitted 34; remaining 1137; discharged 11; died 26; remaining in the house 1134". By this time even the weather had added to the distress. The winter had come in early with unusually severe snow, frost and north-easterly gales in the month of November, and reaching its worst in February, when great gales blew and the countryside was covered thick in snow. The Tartaraghan Parish records reflect the soaring mortality rate of that winter: burials were as follows:
With the passing of the "Black '47" things began to ameliorate for those who remained. By September 1848 the outlook was much more optimistic, "Mr Joseph Orr (Cranagill) has 10 acres of potatoes which are about one half in good order, and likely to keep so. The crop being in other respects good will be very little inferior to an average one."
The estimated population of Ireland in 1845 was about 8,5000,000, by the time the famine was over it had diminished by about 2,000,000. One of the many lessons learnt from this sad sequence of events was the danger of being utterly dependant on one kind of crop, hence the movement towards mixed farming even on small holdings, which is still a noticeable feature of life in Tartaraghan today.