The Silent Famine of Athenry

By Muriel Nolan

Source: The Athenry Journal, No. 10, Summer 1998.


Muriel Nolan

Muriel Nolan

The Great Famine (1845-49) marked a turning point in Irish history.   In 1845 the population of Ireland was over 8 million; by 1851 it had fallen by 2 million – one million of these people died of starvation or disease and another million managed to emigrate.   An article in the Tuam Herald of 2/5/1846 entitled “What is to be done for Ireland?” presents a startling but true picture.  “The people are starving – they want employment – for to enable them to work  – work to enable them to pay for food.   Ireland is on the point of anarchy if her people be not fed.”  

How did the parish of Athenry fare in this great catastrophe? 

As Athenry had no workhouse there are no specific records.   A list of public works for the repairs of road and fences at Moyode, Boyhill, Lodge, Rockville, Kingsland, which would give employment to the poor, is the only mention of Athenry in the Tuam Herald of 2/5/1846

Loughrea Workhouse

Loughrea workhouse served Athenry and it was extended in 1847, as the original buildings to serve 800 people was unable to cater for the huge infuse of starving people.  It is reasonable to assume that some of these people come from the parish of Athenry.   We can only try to trace some of the story from the Census of 1841 and 1851.

Population Decrease

According to these Census figures the population of Athenry Parish dropped by almost 25% between 1841 and 1851.  In the Barony of Clare, which compresses the 25 townlands of Bullinloughaun, Ballybackagh, Ballybrone, Ballyglass, Barnaboy, Barretspark, Caherbriskaun, Caraunduff, Carnmore, Coshla, Castlelambert, Cloonavaddoge, Coolarn, Cussaun, Deerpark, Derrymaclaughra, Kilskeagh, Knocknacreeva, Lisheekyle, Mora, Moor, Peakroe, Pollagooil, and Tobbernaveen the population of 1277 in 1841 was reduced to 641 in 1851 (almost 50%).  In 1851 there were no people at all living in the townlands of Carunduff, Carnmore, Coshla, and Pollagooil. The Barony of Dunkellin, which has only 7 townlands of Coldwood, Derrydonnellbeg, Derrydonnell North, Mountain West, Moyveela, Palmerstown and Shantallow, dropped from 520 in 1841 to 401 in 1851 (23% reduction).   Derrydonnelbeg reduced from a population of 157 in 1841 but by 1851 there were 8 houses and 46 people.

The town of Athenry actually increased in population from 1236 in 1841 to 1487 in 1851(increase of 20%

In times of crises people very often desert the countryside in the hope of finding work in towns or cities.  The rural area of Athenry dropped from 2956 people in 1841 to 1976 in 1851 (34% reduction). The worst affected town lands were Mountain North, which had a population of 101 and Fahy’s village which had 25 in 1841; these were totally depopulated in 1851. Montpelier dropped from 88 to 32; Tobberse from 77 to 13; Moanbaun from 70 to 23 and St. Ellem from 51 to 10. Behind these cold statistics lies the personal story of the famine in Athenry.   It is not recorded – has anybody got a story of their own townland?  Let us try to record any oral memories, which still enlist of this sad event before we pass into the 21st Century.

Landlords and their Estates

The late John Hanley, Kingsland told me that relations of his – Monaghans -were evicted from Moanbaun and his grandfather got them a place in Backpark where the family lived up to recent times. Moanbaun, which consisted of 601 acres, was part of Newford Estate of 2556 acres, owned by Robert Whaley; it was offered for sale under the sale of Encumbered Estates Act on 13th January 1852. Castlelambert Estate comprising of 4686 acres was also for sale on 14th June 1855.   Claran and Mulpit owned by Francis Bruen, who also had estates in Carlow and Wexford was for sale on 14th June 1866. Other landlords were Jonathan Carbishley who owned or leased all Rathmorissey.  Maurice Colles owned Polnagroagh.    Stephen Roche owned Caheroyan and Ballydavid South. Robert French owned Caherfinisker, Derrydonnellmore and Greethill; Thomas Kelly owned Blean and John Lepdell owned Raheen.   William V. Hickman was Landlord of a large number of properties in Chapel St, (now Old Church St) most of Chapel Lane, some properties in Court Lane, McDonald’s Lane, Barrack Lane, Cross St. and Clarke St, while the Hon B. Sewell owned about half of Cross St, Bridge St, Court Lane, and Barrack Lane.

Let us try to uncover some of the real live story behind the sparse recorded facts.