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Clare Roots Society commemorates the Famine

AS part of the National Famine Commemoration 2013, Clare Roots Society has organised the unveiling of a memorial gravestone to mark the nameless burials of more than 2,000 victims of famine and fever.

This ceremony will take place at 3pm on Sunday in the old cemetery at Drumcliffe, following a short liturgy of prayer.

The Famine grave is an ill-defined area in the north-west corner of Old Drumcliffe burial ground. This was once surrounded by an earthen enclosure, which is no longer visible.

In his thesis Ennis in the Nineteenth Century prepared in 1971, Tim Kelly poses the question, “Did Ennis fall into the general category of poverty, potato blight, rising prices, relief schemes, disease and emigration?”
Kelly went on to scrutinise the period and noticed that a great break in social structure of the life of the town had taken place. Politics, local government, work, amusement, sport took a back seat as a local community continued to strive to halt this dreaded calamity. Abstract details from his work give a background on how Ennis fared during the Famine period.

Food, clothing housing, employment and work could not be obtained. There was no work available or if available the pay was inadequate. The Ennis man could not afford to buy food for his family. Of course, his family could eat the potatoes grown in his potato plot if he had such. The only industry of note in the town was Bannatyne’s corn mills. The clothing and brewing industries long associated with the town had virtually disappeared.

In 1824, there were 11 bakers in Ennis, mostly in Mill Street, now Parnell Street. There was only one brewery in the town in Brewery Lane, and 14 grocers. By 1846, there were 16 bakers in the town, the majority of them living in Mill Street. What is more remarkable is that on Jail Street, now O’Connell Street, there were 12 butchers, while in the Market area there were 28 butchers.

Corn merchants in Ennis during 1846 were Bannatyne’s and Sons, Russell & John Norris Store Road. Another corn merchant Macbeth of Mill Street was a principal supplier of food to the Ennis Union Workhouse during the Famine. The town also had an adequate number of drapers, druggists and spirit dealers. They depended on the people to buy. The potato blight brought forward the inevitable calamity, starvation and death for many, ruin for many more.

As early as June 1840, a mob had attacked Bannatyne’s Mills seeking food. The police fired on them and a Mr O’Leary and a Mrs Fahy died from bullet wounds. Extra police had to be sent from Limerick to restore law and order. An official inquiry into the action of the policemen did not reach any conclusion.

By June 1842, provisions were plentiful again, potatoes being sold at four pence per stone. Scarcity occurred again in 1843. Nevertheless, by 1844 there was little talk of impending catastrophe.

The first real warning of potato blight and impending disaster came soon afterwards. By October 1845, the disease spread. Appeals were made to absentee landlords to return and look after their tenants, to the government to prohibit the export of corn from Ireland.

By the end of the month, one-third to one-quarter of the crop in County Clare had been infected. In the town, diarrhoea resulted from use of unsound potatoes. In the Ennis area, deaths from starvation had become a published statement of fact and ceased to produce surprise, from the very frequency of their occurrence.

The actually starving people lived upon the carcasses of diseased animals, upon dogs and dead horse but principally on the herbs of the fields, nettle tops, wild mustard, watercresses and even, in some places, dead bodies were found with grass in their mouths.

On January 2, 1847, Ennis workhouse had 787 paupers and 90 had been admitted during the previous week. A post mortem on Simon McMahon, who died at Ennis workhouse, revealed that death was due to starvation.

By the end of January, there were 898 paupers in the workhouse and by February 20 there were 971 inmates. Between 7,000 and 8,000 rations were issued daily in the town and there were many others seeking inclusion on the list.

By 1848, it was considered that the worst was over as the potato harvest was fairly good. For Ennis the worst was not quite over. Famine continued and disease raged even worse than ever. There were 1,062 paupers in the workhouse on October 3.

The poor of Ennis had a number of alternatives during the Famine. Some chose to enter the workhouses and be maintained there. For a family to do this, it meant segregation.

The father was placed in the men’s ward where he was fed, broke stones, tilled the garden or learned the rudiments of a trade. The mother was sent to the female wards and was occupied spinning, weaving and making baskets. The children became ‘institution children’ cut off from their parents. Family life had ended.

Many people preferred to die of starvation rather than see family life broken up or have the detested name of pauper attached to them or their family. Many others decided to emigrate. There were 9,499 emigrants from County Clare in 1851 and 8,792 in 1852. The general trend of emigration from Ennis seems to have been from Limerick. Steamers left that city en route mostly for the USA and Canada and usually called at Kilrush to pick up passengers.

The peak of starvation and disease in the area during the period was in 1847 known as Black ’47. A general picture of the Famine in Ennis emerges. The basic social structure of life had been almost torn asunder. Suspicion, doubt, hatred, violence and despair had become paramount.


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