Demographic crisis

Vol. 4 No. 3 - 1982

Demographic crisis in Shankill Parish, Lurgan

by Francis X McCorry

While potato crop failure may not be synonymous with famine, and periods of extreme poverty, disease and high mortality cannot always be attributed to the failure of the potato crop, the twenty-four such failures listed by the Census of Ireland Commissioners of 1851 provide basic evidence to sustain a claim that the entire 150-year period, from 1700 to 1850, was difficult in the extreme for the vast majority of Ireland's inhabitants including those of Shankill Parish, whether English or Irish, urban or rural.

The potato crop failures listed for 1728, 1739, 1740, 1770, 1800, 1807, 1821, 1822, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833, 1834, 1835, 1836, 1837, and 1839 understate considerably the time-period and hence the extent of hardship suffered as they serve only to pinpoint the year of the failure, while failing to embrace the subsequent period of shortage and malnutrition which inevitably followed. By being listed as potato crop failures, only one crop is asserted to have been involved but often the adverse weather conditions which caused many of the potato failures similarly affected the growth or harvest of other crops, led to a dilution of the beef potential in the country and prevented to a greater or lesser extent the cutting and drying of turf, the essential fuel.

Killer epidemics

Added to these was the frequent phenomenon of one `bad' season following another or one bad harvest tending to generate others as the population staved off the worst of the hunger by consuming part of the following season's seed potatoes or seed-corn.1 Epidemics of killer diseases were a constant threat in 16th and 17th century England; parish registers of the period are explicit in recording the extent and causes of such epidemics. 2 Irish parish records for the 17th century period are few in number and mention of "distressful times" many of these notations occurring in Vestry notes for years or even longer periods of time when burial registers, in particular, are either blank or incomplete. The ominous gap which for the 1740's appears in both the Blaris and Shankill burial registers is covered in the Vestry notes of the latter parish by "distressful times".

Whether or not the aftermath of an epidemic or famine in Lisburn, Portarlington and the Palatinate of Limerick prompted the donations by the parishioners of Shankill and Captain Brownlow in 1707-08 is not known, there being insufficient corroborative evidence in the Blaris burial numbers to support such a view for the Lisburn area. It is clear however that distress of an extreme nature existed in many districts and despite having a substantial body of poor people within the parish to support, some Shankill parishioners had surplus money for good causes. (The date given for the first charitable donations is January 25th. 1707 which is January 1708 in the modern secular calendar).

Memorand: Towards relief of the distress of the in-habitants of Lisburn, £8-15-0. Another donation for the same purpose was given by Captain Brownlow.

Memorand: Towards relief of distressed inhabitants in Portarlington, £2-6-8. (Portarlington is a Huguenot town on the Offaly-Laois border.)

Memorand: Towards relief of ye poor distressed Palatinos, £2-5-0. The inclusion of Lisburn and Portarlington, both with substantial Huguenot settlements, suggests that the relief-alleviating gifts were Quaker inspired as despite the Church and the Men's Society having aired in Lurgan town differences of opinion in an unseemly and public manner, all and sundry recognised the importance of the Quakers to the Lurgan area and William White - ye Quaker from Kilmore - was appointed an overseer of the highway as early as 1682 by the Parish Vestry.

Then came the first recorded demographic crisis to Shankill parish which pushed up the burial numbers for 1708 to 118. In the previous 14 years, 1697-1707, the burial numbers totalled 306, giving a yearly average of 22 in a range of eight (in 1704) to 31 (in 1703) and generally speaking, baptisms, marriage and burial numbers in this period could be considered 'normal', perhaps the only unusual feature being the celebration of 14 marriages in the closing year of the 17th. century. English demographers have highlighted the difficulty of proper analysis of parish register material when the parish caters for a large rural area (which includes rural townships) as well as an urban nucleus since purely rural or purely urban trends may escape notice unless the various entries provide addresses along with names. 3 The Shankill burial register, catering for such an area, does not provide addresses, nor ages nor the religion of the deceased though addresses can be sought and found in limited numbers elsewhere.

An added complication to proper analysis arises from the inclusion of what are presumably rural Irish people who may have been somewhat poorer than their English counterparts and whose baptisms, for age determining purposes, cannot be traced. In the following list of burials for 1708, numbered in order of burial, 13 Irish are registered between nos. 40-100. In the Church of Ireland Baptism register, the years 1705 and 1706 are missing thus limiting the attempt to trace the ages of children who died in 1708.

Burials Listed in the Church of Ireland Shankill Parish Burial Register for 1708

1) Jane of Owen Carr; 2) Jane of John Cox; 3) Alice of John News; 4) Rose McConnally; 4) Robert Prichard; 6) Valentine Best; 7) Mary McConnoll; 8) Sarah of Joseph Robertson; 9) Alice Chambers; 10) Mary of Edward Dillon; 11) Margaret Addy; 12) Mary Ginnitt; 13) June of Bryan Smith; 14) George of Thomas Heather; 15) Mary of Vincent Gammell; 16) Mary of William Willis; 17) Susanna of William Jameson; 18) Anne of William Jameson; 19) Henry of James Titterington; 20) George Westry; 21) Elizabeth of Oliver Turkington; 22) Mary of John Addison; 23) Valentine of John Graham; 24) Anne of James Brown; 25) Mary of Ralph Lassols; 26) Martha of George Hoyle; 27) James of James Runchy; 28) James of Thomas Cain; 29) Elizabeth Lurgan; 30) Elizabeth of Ralph Lassols; 31) Sara of Patrick Sheran; 32) James of Thomas Cain; 33) Henry Beighton; 34) James of Robert Hamilton; 35) James of James Colwell; 36) James of John Summers; 37) Anne of William Castles; 38) William of James Moor; 39) Walter of David Gaddis; 40) William of William Turkington; 41) Thomas of Patrick O'Dowell; 42) Edmund of Bryan Magenis; 43) Lettice of Patrick Best; 44) Anne of John Hill; 45) Margaret of Patrick Malone; 46) James of Richard Lewis; 47) Peter Bullock; 48) William of John Graham; 49) Margaret of Alexander Gordon; 50) Mary of James Smith; 51) William of Cormack McGaghagan; 52) William of Arthur Jones; 53) John of Edmond Kennidy; 54) --wife of Wm. James Woods; 55) John of James Moor; 56) Neice McHarry; 57) Margaret of Henry Denison; 58) William of Brasill Dowdall; 59) John of Charles Wilson; 60) John Simonton; 61) Joan O'Gribbin; 62) Joseph of Patrick Flood; 63) Miles O'Farrell; 64) Mary of Valentine Best; 65) Maudlin Kilconnol (Bryan Kolter's grandchild); 66) --daughter of John Luerur; 67) Jane of Murtogh McTaminy; 68) and 69) John and James, both of William Gibson; 70) James of George Hralon or Malon; 71) James of Thomas Dawson; 72) Bryan of Patrick Maclearry; 73) Esther of Edward Addy; 74) John of George Robertson; 75) Dinah of Richard King; 76) James of Edmund Kennidy; 77) Anne of Israel Hoskins; 78) Mark Smith; 79) Anne of Roger Farrell; 80) Thomas of John Abraham; 81) Anne of Bryan Farrell; 82) John of William Guy; 83) John of John Maslim; 84) Meave of Owen McKagholy; 85) Jane of Esther Hardy; 86) Anne of Thomas Kain; 87) James of George Robertson; 88) Elizabeth of Samuel McCully; 89) Margaret of Jonas Rymar; 90) Anne of Henry Webb; 91) Jennal King; 92) Ellen of Patrick Develin; 93) 361m of Edward Murphy; 94) William of John McCormack; 95) Roger of Edward Murphy; 96) Mary of Edward Murphy; 97) Thomas of John Maslim; 98) Sarah of John Savage; 99) Rose of Samuel McCully; 100) Robert of Robert Corner; 101) Margaret of Widow Dowdall; 102) Sarah of George Hewett; 103) William of William Richardson; 104) Jane Stewart of McDowell alias Richey; 105) Margaret of Ellin Hanlin; 106) Margaret Read alias Hynde; 107) Anne of Robert King; 108) Mary of EdmundMenni; 109) Mary of Owen Carr; 110) Mary of Turlough Develin; 111) James Cowden; 112) Anne Gaul; 113) James of Alexander Crumlin; 114) Nicholas of Bryan Gainer; 115) Abadiah of Robert Rennox; 116) Mary Jackson; 117) Owna of Bryan Magenis; 118) Jane Thackston.

Monthly Numbers of Burials in 1708 Detailed in Shankill Parish Burial Register
Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. July
1 - 1 1 5 - 6
Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec. Jan. Feb.
7 15 38 22 13 8 2
Males 55 Females 63 Total 118

Edward Street, Lurgan, 1908
Edward Street, Lurgan - 1908

If the preposition, "of", is assumed to be a substitute for the more commonly used 'child of' in the foregoing burial list, then 22 adults are among the dead, a figure which corresponds exactly with the average burial number for the parish in the previous 14 years; the remaining 98 can be assumed therefore to have been children. The monthly break-down of the burial figures indicates an unusually high mortality rate peaking in October and embracing the four months, September to December. Since these are the months in which the fruits of harvest should be most plentiful, and the mortality rate fell sharply in the subsequent Winter-Spring period, it should be possible to rule out death or famine as the primary cause of mortality. An epidemic of fever, traditionally said to have come with the autumn mists, would therefore appear to have been responsible for the children's deaths.

The epidemic affected all classes

The Parish Vestry records, which often detail names and addresses of Vestry members, churchwardens and overseers of the highways, and the Brownlow leases of the period were the most productive sources in the search for addresses and these were supplemented by burial patterns which emerged during later periods of time when addresses were given. Having traced one third, approximately, of the families concerned to definite areas, it became clear that the epidemic afflicted the better-off as well as the poor, and that death was more widespread in country areas than in the town; undoubtedly, there were many more children dwelling in the rural parts. Thomas Kain, father of three dead children, nos. 28, 32, and 86, was one of two brothers holding leases in Lurgan Town. George Hoyle, no. 26, belonged to a better-off Lurgan family which had a succession of representatives serving on the parish vestry. Elizabeth Lurgan, no. 29, was an orphan girl reared in the town and found in the same circumstances as Charity Derry, another orphan who died in March 1710.

Of the families who lost two or more children in the out-break, the majority were from homes on good land just outside the town; Ralph Lassols, nos. 25 and 30; Edward Murphy, nos. 93, 95 and 96; William Gibson, nos. 68 and 69; John Maslim, nos. 83 and 97; George Robertson, nos. 74 and 87; Edmond Kennidy, nos. 53 and 76; Valentine Best, nos. 6 and 64; William Jameson, nos. 17 and 18. Yet there is an unusually high representation of Irish and English families who dwelt in the Seagoe (and Montiaghs) part of the Brownlow Estate. It may well be that many Irish families, now without church or burying ground, were still burying their dead in their pre-Plantation cemetery of Shankill, while the English families from part of Seagoe parish looked upon Lurgan Town and Shankill parish as their Irish homeland. Certainly, burials from the Lurgan-orientated part of Seagoe parish remained a significant fraction of the total burials registered in the Shankill registers.

Two additional factors must be considered before referring to the ages of the deceased children. Firstly, it was not possible to trace the source-area of the outbreak. The town, built upon higher ground with good drainage on one side and the Derry bog on the other, had a concentration of presumably better-off people attempting to cope with the beginnings of a complex hygienic problem of waste and animal carcass disposal. Much of the surrounding rural area was adversely affected by the many fluctuations in the level of Lough Neagh, the land therefore remaining damp. Consequently, the epidemic could have sprung up in either town or country alike, both environments being considered detrimental to good health locally in the later 18th and 19th centuries.4 Secondly, if any analysis of high mortality caused by disease, reasonable account must be taken of the presence of `delicate' families who, down through the years, were prone to the various diseases current at any given time. Even for the 20th century, parish registers locally detail many examples of families losing, in a four or five year period, a member almost each year. This perhaps may be illustrated by two examples, one rural and the other ur-ban; the rural family from Ballinacor lost six children in a five year period in the 1940's, death being attributed to "galloping consumption"; the urban family from Brownlow Terrace had three deaths in an eight-day period during the great 'flu epidemic of 1918; both families were known to have been "delicate" before the loss of life referred to.

Despite the absence of baptism details for 1705 and 1706, and the presence of children who were not baptised in Shankill parish, sufficient baptism dates were traced to suggest that the mortality was not concentrated on any definite age or limited age range. At one end of the age scale was James of James Colwell, no. 35, baptised on 26-9-1708, buried on 30-9-1708; at the other end was Sarah of Joseph Robertson, no. 8, baptised on 24-9-1693, buried on 9-7-1708. Three babies under one-year-old, nos. 2, 18 and 35, and three children between one and two year old, nos. 26, 40 and 83 were traced; this notable absence of deaths among very young babies was one of many links with another similar demographic crisis which afflicted the Lurgan area five years later in 1713. When attempting to trace the ages of the deceased children in the following list of burials for 1713, it became clear that children other than the youngest infants in the family were dying in the latest epidemic although some of these infants died in a matter of a few years.

Similar analyses of other parish registers for the year, 1708, should reveal whether or not Lurgan and district suffered in isolation or whether the deadly malady was widespread. Other studies may be able to pinpoint the source of the outbreak and perhaps even the cause. Research of this nature for the early 18th. century period might even reveal the paling into insignificance of political and social differences and unrest in the onslaught of nature-inspired crisis and calamities.

  1. Beckett, J. C., The Making of Modern Ireland 1603 -1923. (London, 1966.) p. 174.
  2. Drake, M., Historical Demography: Problems and Projects. D 301 5-8 The Open University Press. p.112. and Palliser, D., "Death and disease in Staffordshire, 1540-1670" Rural Change and Urban Growth, 1500-1800. (London, 1974). pp. 55-75.
  3. Palliser, D., op. cit. p.65.
  4. Report of field-work in the flooded lands along the Upper Bann by John McMahon in 1845. P. R. O. N. I. FIN 9/1/23 and
  5. A Court Leet held in Lurgan on Tuesday 6th May, 1788 at-tempted to eradicate the 'dung, dirt and filth' from Kain's tenement P.R.O.N.I. D.1817/1.