The Famine of 1846-48

Vol. 3 No. 3 - 1977

The Famine of 1846-48

by Dr F.X. McCorry

The area served by Lurgan Poor Law Union suffered greatly throughout the Famine of 1846-48. This area, estimated to contain seventy thousand people, stretched from Tartaraghan to Ballinderry and from the Montiaghs to the Bleary with Lurgan and its immediate hinterland in the centre.

The economy of the poor in the entire area depended upon weaving and labouring, therefore at first glance, no one part of this area seemed to be the more able to withstand the great hardship, which the famine undoubtedly brought, than any other part. It therefore seemed remarkable that the population of the Montiaghs rose during the Famine decade by 2.9 per cent and rose again in the following decade by 21.2 per cent.

The rises in population would suggest that the people of the Montiaghs had not suffered as badly as had people of the surrounding areas and that the Montiaghs had coped successfully with a large increase in population attracted perhaps by the area's ability to weather the Famine's hunger and disease. In order to test this theory an examination of the Lurgan Union Workhouse admission registers was made whereby figures for admissions and deaths in the workhouse relevant to the Montiagh population could be compared to statistics already available for the entire area served by the workhouse.


The admission registers detail the following information about each entrant; Surname, Christian name, Age, Marital Status, Occupation, Religion, Townland or Parish of origin, Condition on arrival at workhouse, Date of entry, date of leaving or date of Death. The identification of Montiagh residents was made easy by the inclusion of the entrant's townland of origin.

Even if one is not of an age to remember the stark isolation and fear in the Scarlatina fever sheds attached to many hospitals in the 1920's and 1930's, it is still all too easy, even by a random search of the admission registers, to grasp the horror and suffering of the Famine period. Eighteen hundred admissions into a workhouse capable of accommodating six hundred so-called paupers over a period of four months October 1847 to January 1848; two hundred and forty - five deaths in the workhouse in January 1847; eleven hundred and eighteen deaths in Lurgan Workhouse from December 1846 to November 1847; the father who arrived from the Montiaghs in November 1848 with four children, leaving a few weeks later with only one child, the other three having died; the one hundred and forty-two admissions on 10th June 1847 to an already overcrowded and diseased workhouse.

The unemployed fifty-seven year old widow from Ballynery who arrived on the week before Christmas 1847 with four young children only to watch the eldest, a fifteen-year-old girl, and the youngest, a nine-year-old boy die within three, weeks of entering; the single servant from Ardmore who arrived in a fevered condition and died two weeks later; the ten year old healthy orphan who arrived unaccompanied to the workhouse after New Year's Day 1848 to be discharged twelve days later; the old man of eightyone years who arrived in a cart from Derrytrasna to remain in the workhouse for three months.


Their names and religions? Well, names and religions do not change to any great degree over four generations in any part of rural Ireland. Their occupations? Most of those fortunate enough to have employment were spinners, weavers, winders or labourers, occupations which, until very recently, were all too familiar to the people of Lurgan and its surrounding countryside.

The following table compares relative figures for admissions and deaths in the Lurgan Union Workhouse during three periods of time within the Famine. The overall area had a population of 70,000 while the population of the Montiaghs at this time was 3,500.

Admissions during December 1846 and January 1847 26 980
Percentages of respective populations. 0.7% 1.4%

Admissions from October 1846 to January 1849 217 7,500
Percentages of respective populations. 6.2% 10.7%

Deaths from December 1846 and November 1847 10 1,118
Percentages of respective populations. 1:349 (0.3%) 1:62 (1.6%)


The figures given above certainly show the Montiaghs to be an area of much less in figures, from the collapse of the 1846 harvest to the gradual abatement of the deadly cholera fever in early 1849 show the Montiaghs to have been hit quite hard but not nearly as badly as the rest of the area. Therefore while Waringstown Tartaraghan, Breagh, The Bleary and Lurgan itself were being hardest hit, the Montiaghs was a favoured area.

On reading the following two tables based on the Workhouse admission figures it could readily be assumed that the Montiaghs suffered more throughout 1848 than it did in 1847, an assumption that would be highly improbable even allowing for the fact that the fever hung on to 1849.

These hardship in comparison to the general area of intake. In the workhouse death figures the Montiaghs is almost five times better off while the figures given for admissions during the two disastrous months of December 1846 and January 1847 show the Montiaghs in good light. This period is known locally as "The Dear Winter".

The admission figures for the twenty - eight months from October 1846 to January 1849 probably put the extent of famine and disease in the Montiaghs into a proper perspective.

Deaths in Workhouse from December 1846 to November 1847 10 1,118
Ratio of Workhouse Deaths to respective populations 1:349 1:62

Lurgan Workhouse
1847 22 29 37 88
1848 22 22 52 96

1847 3 3 4 10
1848 5 1 8 14

It was therefore decided to test this assumption by comparing and contrasting in two different ways the various figures for Catholics (a) admitted to the Workhouse; (b) deaths in the Workhouse; (c) deaths at home, relevant to 1847 and 1848. The figures for the Catholic population were readily available from previous research and they should be indicative of the state of all denominations in the Montiaghs since hunger and fever knew no sectarian boundaries in an already impoverished countryside, as the Workhouse admission books betray.

1847 7 7 86 93
1848 74 8 21 29

The above table reveals that the 1847 mortality rate among Catholics in the Montiaghs was over three times higher than the 1848 figure and four times the normal mortality rate of Montiagh Catholics viz: twenty three deaths per year.

A month by month breakdown of the above figures reveals a surprising and interesting phenomenon, namely, when Catholic deaths were high in the Montiaghs, the number of Catholics entering the, Workhouse was low and conversely, when Workhouse admissions were high the mortality rate at home was low. This is true of all but a few months e.g. January 1847 when both admissions and deaths at home were not unexpectedly high.

Date Workhouse Admissions Burials at Home
Jan. 1847 10 9
Feb. 1847 - 6
Mar. 1847 4, 1 death 11
Apr. 1847 4 14
May. 1847 - 13
Jun. 1847 1 11
Jul. 1847 1 12
Aug. 1847 7, 1 death 4
Sept. 1847 6 2
Oct. 1847 13, 3 deaths 1
Nov. 1847 5 1
Dec. 1847 15, 2 deaths 2
Jan. 1848 2 7
Feb. 1848 2, 1 death 1
Mar. 1848 22 2
Apr. 1848 3 2
May. 1848 6, 1 death 4
Jun. 1848 7 -
Jul. 1848 - -
Aug. 1848 5, 2 deaths 1
Sept. 1848 8, 1 death -
Oct. 1848 3 1
Nov. 1848 2, 2 deaths 1
Dec. 1848 14, 1 death 2

Hidden among the figures of the accompanying table is the fact that the townland of Ballynery accounted for twenty eight of the 1847 A. D. burials at home, two of the Workhouse deaths in the same year and eleven out of the twenty one deaths at home in the following year. Yet Ballinery's population only decreased slightly during the Famine decade and increased dramatically in the following ten years - a great record for a townland of poor weavers and distressed tenant-farmers living in the flood-plain of the River Bann.


Wherein therefore lay the Montaighs' strength? The following excerpts and quotations are applicable and will help to build up a composite picture of the area's ability to soften the rigorous effects of the famine. From O'Mellan's Narrative concerning events after the battle of Benburb, June 5th 1646. "Sir Felim O'Neill's boats were then brought to Trowagh Bay, (The Bay Shore of Derrytagh North and Derrytrasna) a fort was raised there and soldiers stationed in it, with some fishermen who caught plenty of fish."

In 'The Fermanagh Story' by Father Peadar Livingstone one reads, "According to tradition the blight did not affect potatoes gram on fresh cut bogs Bog potatoes were not popular before the Famine but people had no choice now Many people lived on fish during the crisis. One family lived on a single pike for four days. I n desperation, people cut the eyes out of seed potatoes, planted the eye and ate the remainder of the potato."

Conversation with Miss Hannah Russell whose parents were born in the 1860's and whose grandmother recounted many stories of the Famine "During the Famine time and for some time afterwards in order to have a supply of flesh meat, from four to seven farmers would co-operate and would kill a calf or young bull each week, the meat being divided equally among the families concerned."

The following document was addressed and dated:

Lord Lurgan's Office 2.11.1846.

To the Tenantry of the Brownlow Estates.

I am directed by Lord Lurgan to express to you, that he is not unmindful of the responsibility which, at all times, but at present under the peculiar proprietor and that he feels anxious to alleviate, as far as possible, the evils which the failures of the potato crop are likely to occasion.

Having given the subject serious consideration his Lordship is of opinion that it is incumbent on him to take such measures, as will provide employment for his tenants and through them for those resident on the estate who are dependant on daily labour for their support in the execution of works of present and permanent utility. Thorough drainage appears best calculated for this purpose as not only a high reproductive work but one which may be immediately commenced and by which the smallest farmer can employ himself and his family during the winter months.

The great obstacle of thorough drainage is want of capital which Lord Lurgan now proposes to remove by the advance of the necessary funds for the purpose, free of interest and to be repaid in twenty annual installments, being at the rate of one shilling in the pound per annum, and his Lordship will also, at his own expense, scour and deepen the existing water-courses, so as to provide for the drainage of the lands.

When you consider the above proposal is in fact a free grant of half the cost of thorough drainage and of the expense of improving the main water courses, I hope that such of you as are impressed with the importance of improving your farms and of co-operating for the mitigation of the pressure by the employment of the labouring class, will avail yourselves of his Lordship's liberal offer, made as it is at no small personal sacrifice and I have to request that you will without delay, inform me of the extent of drainage which you are willing to undertake this season.

Your sincere friend,

John Hancock,
Agent and Receiver

Lord Lurgan was himself a victim of the cholera fever and died within six months of making the above offer to his tenants.

The above quotations suggest that fish, a limited supply of potatoes and plenty of turf were available to the poor, and that the better-off farmers had a supply of fresh meat. Certainly there is a strong fishing tradition in the Montiaghs. Derrytagh North with a small Lough Neagh shoreline had nineteen fishing boats in the early 1900's. Eels, pollan and to a lesser extent trout were and still are available.

All Montiagh townlands had large tracts of bog land where an unlimited supply of fuel was available fairly cheaply if not free. The freshly cut bogs which according to tradition grew blight resistant potatoes, abounded in the Montiaghs.

Furthermore, many residents cultivated a patch of sandy peaty soil, black in colour, which grew potatoes and vegetables of the best quality. This was referred to in Montiaghisms by Lutton as "the beatal." Some families in the Montiaghs without a proper garden still cultivate a beating (pronounced BAITING) which is well under a quarter acre in area, contains rich black soil often in an area of substandard land and produces good quality vegetables and early potatoes, the latter often ready before the second week of July.

The attitude of the Landlord was also significant in that he set up a drainage relief scheme in November 1846 to alleviate the plight of an area where good drainage mattered and which had both short and long-term good effects on the Montiagh community.


Finally and upon reflection two points must be made if only to add to the information on famine in the Montiaghs. In only one instance during research in the area was The Hungry Grass (Feir Gorta) mentioned and that was, surprisingly, in the townland of Derryloiste which had not one recorded Catholic burial in 1847 and 1848. Husband, wife and grown-up family on the farm concerned agreed that the lane and fields leading down to the River Bann contained hungry grass and stated that they always carried a biscuit or similar food while walking in the lane and fields. Secondly, the Montiagh people appeared to have a choice in their place of dying during these bad years. When death seemed a possibility, generally speaking the residents, young and old, Catholic and Protestant, were maintained to death and given a homely burial.

Few were sent or brought to the Workhouse to die, a trend not fully observed in 1841, the year of birth for Lurgan Union Workhouse when nine Montiagh residents entered the workhouse. All being elderly or very old except for one abandoned infant.