Clare County Library
Clare History
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

The Famine in Clare

Some facts and figures indicate the severity of the Famine in the early months of 1849. All the workhouses and their many auxiliaries were greatly overcrowded. There were 90,000 people throughout the county, a third of the population, in receipt of relief.

Those attached to the Ennistymon Union were on half rations because of rising debts. Three of the five Unions serving the poor of the county were already in serious financial difficulty. It is possible to argue that the debts were as much due to the unwillingness of Boards of Guardians to levy realistic rates as to any increase in poverty or hunger. Evidence of the escalating death rate and a sharp increase in crimes of plunder tend to undermine that argument.

The people in distress were left with few options in the struggle for survival. They frequently resorted to the soft option of stealing from their more comfortable neighbours. The following report comes from the early part of the winter of 1849:
"Plundering is worse this season than last. Neither gardens, haggards, or houses escape . . ." There was no improvement as time went on. On the contrary, "Petty robberies of money, corn, provisions and sheep stealing are now of almost daily occurrence in Clare . . . and it is useless to crowd your columns with their constant enumeration."

Famine Transportation from County Clare 1845-1851

No. of

Between 1836 and 1844, the total number of persons sentenced to transportation in Clare was 161, a yearly average of scarcely 18. These figures help to put the numbers of the famine years into some perspective.

Twice as many people were transported during 1849 alone as compared with those nine years. There were a few disturbed periods, such as 1831, when the numbers transported rose above the modest levels already referred to. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the famine years produced as many transportees from this county as the preceding half century.

A very high proportion of those sentenced to transportation at the assizes were from the labouring class. Forty of the fifty men recorded on a Spike Island Prison Register were described as either labourers, or as having no trade. Most of the others were servant boys, herdsmen and weavers, descriptions that conferred no more substantial status on them.

Unemployment was an endemic problem in Clare for decades before the famine. That is how the term 'ordinary labourer' came to be used to describe the unemployed rather than those who worked regularly. The destruction of the potato crop during the famine removed their last means of subsistence. Many of them were willing to risk the criminal way rather than suffer the indignity of the workhouse.

Sixty per cent of the transportees in question were involved in stock rustling of some kind, mostly sheep stealing. There are few details available on most of the incidents.

  • Pat Heath was reported to be in a dying state before resorting to steal a cow.
  • Pat O'Loughlin was caught in the act of selling a stolen animal by the Ennistymon police. He needed the money to buy clothes. Some of the rustlers were of tender years.
  • Pat McGann was variously described as "a boy of 11", "aged 12", and more convincingly, a sixteen year old. Even the Judge recognised his youth, but concluded "it would not be advisable to have it go abroad that young lads like the prisoner should be allowed to steal cows with impunity - the best thing would be to send him out of the country."
  • Darby Rodgers is a good example of those from the farming community who suffered at the hands of the petty criminal. He was twice a victim.
  • John Connolly stole his cow, and the McMahons took his sheep. The latter had the misfortune to meet a police patrol on the night of their misdeed. They were duly searched, and relieved of a bloody knife and hot mutton. They had no alternative but to show the police where the rest of the carcass was. Three McMahons paid the price for this adventure. They were just one of several family groups who fell foul of the law at this time.

<< Crime and Punishment

<< History