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Captain Kennedy and his local legacy

WITH the National Famine Commemoration (May 3 to 12) approaching, it is almost incomprehensible to note that Kilrush workhouse and its six auxiliaries held more than 5,000 people at one point during the Famine. However, in November 1847, it could only take about 1,100 people and by the middle of that month, Kilrush Workhouse was full.


In the 1996 book A People Starved, Life and Death in West Clare 1845-1851, Ignatius Murphy notes that when Captain Arthur Edward Kennedy arrived in Kilrush in early November 1847, he found that the workhouse was ran in an very inefficient manner.  “How the house has so long escaped general infection, I am at a loss to conceive,” Captain Kennedy wrote in a letter to the Poor Law Commissioners.

“On the last visiting day I found a side gate open and free access for the friends of fever patients to pass to and from the hospital,” he added in his report.

To underline the catastrophic impact of the Famine in Kilrush, the town’s population in 1841was 5,071. Since the Famine the population has since never exceeded 2,800 people.

According to research by the late Kilrush historian George Harratt, Arthur Edward Kennedy was born on April 9, 1810, the fourth son of Hugh Kennedy and Grace Dorothea, nee Hughes. The family seat was at Cultra, County Down.

His military career saw him posted to Corfu after he bought a commission; he next spent three years in Canada as a captain in the 68th Regiment. Arthur returned to Ireland in 1846 and took up an appointment with the Poor Law Commission. In 1848, during his time in Clare, at the height of the famine, he sold his commission.

On November 25, 1847, Kennedy said that the “whole district seemed swept of food” and he believed “a third of the population would be without food at Christmas, two-thirds starving before February and by May 1848, there would be a total starvation”.

In his research, George Harratt found that Kennedy was “deeply upset by the events he witnessed every day and he involved himself in all aspects of the fight to combat the hunger, disease and death that was rampant during the famine”.

Kennedy loathed the landlords in the area and made some powerful enemies in the process, most notably Colonel Crofton Moore Vandeleur. It was due to Kennedy’s reports that Kilrush’s plight was highlighted; most notably by Poulett Scrope MP, his pleadings leading to the investigation of the Union in May 1850.

Kennedy was involved in an incident with Vandeleur in which he challenged him to a duel. When Kennedy realised that he had been given bad information the original cause of the incident, he went to apologise to Vandeleur, who would not accept it but resorted to having his name cleared at Court. The case came up at the Cork Assizes in August 1851. Kennedy’s defence was conducted by Isaac Butt and Sir Colman O’Loughlin. Vandeleur’s action failed when the jury failed to reach a verdict, seven for acquittal and five for a conviction.

Kennedy was transferred from Kilrush to Kilkenny shortly after he returned from giving evidence at the Parliamentary Inquiry in London. He left Kilrush with his family on September 3, 1850. A large crowd gathered to wish them well and the area was in deep mourning after the noble-minded man. Before he left, he made donations of clothes and other items to the local clergy for distribution to the poor.

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