Famine in Iveleary

by Dave Walden

In the decade which included the worst years of the Famine the population of the parish of Iveleary dropped by more than a quarter. The population of the entire parish in 1841 was 6,357 in 1,032 houses. By 1851 231 cabins had been vacated and the remaining population numbered 4,584.

When the Famine struck the parish it struck hard, and distress and hardship reached 'a most alarming pitch', reported the principal members of the Relief Committee, Fr. Holland P.P. and Rev. Sadleir in March 1847. They went on to add that 'famine and disease [was] making fearful havoc among our poor'. These two men, as representatives of the Relief Committee, were in regular communication with the Relief Commission and with newspapers, relating conditions in Iveleary and local efforts to provide food and work for the starving people. As early as October 1846, as the entire stock of potatoes belonging to the labouring class had already been consumed, they explained in detail the difficulties a labourer would have to earn sufficient to purchase Indian meal: 'A labourer at 8d per day and constant work could earn only sufficient to purchase two stone in the week which would be little more than adequate for the support of three adults, but at this season of the year, the labourer can scarcely reckon on more than four days employment'. This situation would only get worse with winter around the corner.

A regular stream of letters from the Committee to the Relief Commission graphically described the worsening conditions. They sought, begged is probably a better word, additional funding from the British Relief Committee. Included in their requests were detailed lists of moneys collected locally, a grant being dependent on sums raised locally, and it appears that they were able fund-raisers. A list of donations survives, the second collection started October 1846, and over 200 farmers are named.

By February 1847 the Relief Committee wanted to establish in the district two, or more, soup kitchens, 'to supply soup for the entire of their poor. There are a large number of persons, widows and others, who have no persons in their families able to labour on the public works and who, in consequence, are in need of gratuitous relief.' They add 'numbers must perish if relief be not afforded'.

It is not clear if the soup kitchen established at Coolmountain House was a direct result of the efforts of the Relief Committee. It is generally considered that Dennis O'Leary, a land agent and occupier of Coolmountain House and farm, ordered and imported a boiler and established a soup kitchen himself. This is not so unlikely as there was a small boiler in operation in the village of Inchigelagh in 'private hands', wholly independent of the Relief Committee and which the Committee were 'happy to bear testimony to the excellent manner in which it was conducted'.

Dennis O'Leary was in the employ of Lord Riversdale, an absentee landlord. Townlands that were known to be part of his duties were as far apart as Graigue and Coolmountain, and probably much of the territory in between. He was an Irish speaking Catholic, and came of the O'Leary Breac branch of the O'Leary clan. Coolmountain House was a safe house, and harboured many men on the run for insurrection and rebellion. Amongst these lodgers were leaders of rebellion such as Mitchell, Stephens and Doheney. Apparently Dennis O'Leary was carrying on where his father before him left off. It is fair to assume that Dennis O'Leary was a patriot and had a concern for the welfare of the people and his country.

The boiler that has been placed beside the bridge in Ballingeary is the Famine pot from Coolmountain House.

There were many individuals and organisations that attempted to relieve suffering in Ireland during the Famine years. Notably the Quakers who raised very large sums of money for famine relief in Britain and America and imported nearly 600 boilers from foundries in northern England to establish soup kitchens. These charitable, practical and non-sectarian people asked for nothing in return which compares very favorably with the miserable and outrageous attempts to proselytise by certain Protestant groups. There were many instances of aid being provided on condition that the recipient renounce their Catholicism. This led to the phrase 'taking the soup' and the word Souperism, which to this day is very emotive. It was a bitter issue at the time, the more so because it helped fuel the antagonism between Catholic and Protestant, at a period when laws against Catholics were being relaxed in Europe as well as in Ireland.

For those that need to be reassured, the Famine pot from Coolmountain House has no taint of Souperism, nor any other unwanted association with fraud or abuse of charity funds.

There are many recipes for soup but most kitchens had to rely on what was available. A Monsieur Alexis Soyer devised two economical recipes which he claimed were good and nourishing. His basic recipe was to two gallons of water add two ounces of dripping, two onions and other vegetables, half a pound of (second quality) flour, half a pound of pearl barley, three ounces of salt and half an ounce of brown sugar. His 'luxury' soup included a quarter pound of beef to the above. Maize was used to thicken. As a member of the Irish Confederation said, 'I wish the man who proposed this greasy water, denominated soup, were obliged to live on a bowl of it per day for three months and be obliged, during that time, to walk from six to eight miles per day after working twelve hours.'

This article relies heavily on the book by Márie Mac Suibhne, Famine In Muskerry, available in bookshops locally and well worth reading. I thank her for permission to use her words so freely. I would also like to thank Donal O'Mahoney for information on famine pots.

The Famine pot possibly came from the Coalbrookdale Foundry in Shropshire. It has a diameter over 4ft and a depth of 2ft 6ins. This gives a capacity of over 350litres. It is cast iron with an estimated weight of about 350kg. There are four stubs on the outside near the rim which were probably to take chains to hold it over a fire. Originally it may have had a lid.

Most of the stones used in the construction of the base of the structure in the village came from an old building in an area north of Ballingeary known as Cups (or Copse). There is a story that Donncha O Cuill, of this area, carried the corpse of his sixteen-year-old daughter in a cisean, a deep basket with shoulder straps, the seven miles to the family burial plot at Inchigelagh graveyard after she had died from hunger.

The bent oak beams of the structure housing the pot symbolize the poorest of housing at the time of the famine, where people with nothing built shelters from branches and thatched them with reeds or straw. Thatching the structure in the village was an option, but it was decided that thatch could be damaged too easily. Old slate was the alternative. The structure was built over an extended period, creating endless speculation as to what it would finally look like; or indeed if it would ever be finished.

The Cumann Staire would like to thank the following for their assistance and support in this project:

Dairygold Coop Ltd. for giving permission to use the green outside the creamery.
Firebird Ltd, Ballymakeera, for the frame that supports the pot. The design and construction of this excellent frame was carried out by Brendan Twomey.
Les Carter for relinquishing possession of the pot in favour of the Cumann Staire, and without whose benevolence the project could never have happened.
Luc Racine for the design of the structure, selection of timber and workshop facilities for some awkward cutting of the main beams.
Udaras na Gealteachta for financial assistance in the form of a grant that paid for a significant proportion of the materials.
The CE scheme workers involved in the construction of the site.