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​Eddie Cantwell, local historian and author brings us back in time and recounts the harrowing events of the Great Hunger in the town of Dungarvan between 1846 and 1847. He entitled this piece 'Bringing out the dead... Not a bite to be had'. Caution is advised as its difficult and upsetting reading. 

The Great Hunger - Dungarvan

In January of 1847, Dungarvan ‘poorhouse’ is overcrowded beyond belief! Panic has firmly taken hold, not only amongst the staff, the master of the house is overly stressed, well; he has been since 1845, if not earlier. The house built 1840-42 to accommodate 600 paupers, opened in 1844, but by January 1846 close to 800 persons were crammed within its walls!  The guardians and the commissioners are also in a state of high anxiety.  The doctors and house manager tell them, ‘every available space in the house has been utilised.’ This kind of talk only adds to the anxiety of the commissioners and guardians… But, something will have to be done, they say! 

Conditions of the Workhouse

The doctors and staff live with the emaciated bodies that are stretched full length on straw beds and on the floor, their gaunt features haunting in appearance.  Skin stretched tightly over skull and bones, every rib, and nub, clearly defined.   Perhaps if one gazed hard enough one could see through the thin gauzy skin to the weakly pulsating heart within.  Outside the Great Walls, they gather in their dozens, they have struggled for miles to get here. They have also left loved ones behind them on the roadway; too weak to bury them…Someone else will have to do it. They now cry out for entry to the ‘poor house,’ the ‘workhouse,’ their wailing is pitiful… Blue lips, dried and cracked expose yellowed teeth, some stained green from feeding on grass; some of them no longer feel the pangs of hunger and pain. They have travelled so far to die on the roadside, and in the shadow of the high poor house walls family members moan their loss, but they are too weak to maintain a prolonged keening.  Men have left their families behind, stretched out on damp disease infested straw beds, while they go in search of ‘outdoor relief.’  In their rented dark hovels, they wait, and wait, for the return of a father, a husband, a brother with some food; words of assurance are whispered to weeping children.  Some will return, but with nothing, some will not return, never to be seen again by family. With nothing to identify them, they will be buried with strangers. Some will find nothing but death on their return to their families. In the ‘poor house’ the daily mortality rate is toted up. The bodies loaded onto carts to be taken away, piled on top of each other…
A scramble at the gates, as the Master and doctor have come to select someone from those gathered to replace those that have been ferried away to Kilrush graveyard. And, on it goes. The death rate is quite alarming, many of the destitute people are exhausted before they are taken in, and death only will release them from their pain. Many pray for it. In the world outside of the poor house, in the many barely liveable cabins and hovels in the town and at Abbeyside, the dead and the dying are thrown in their beds of contaminated straw or dirt floor. The newspapers cry out, ‘Sickness is now spreading at an alarming rate in the locality. Any laneway you care to visit, there is not one miserable cabin  out of three  where families are huddled together, starving , In our lanes you could scarcely find one cabin out of three, that four or five persons are not lying down in fever. Deaths are daily becoming more numerous. ‘

News Coverage of the Dungarvan Conditions

An article in ‘The Pilot,’ five months previous carried the following; 

It is impossible for the most sagacious to calculate where the present state of things will end. The people are starving; hundreds are living on cabbage and salt in twenty-four hours. They want employment and a rate of wages which will support themselves and their families. Ten pence a day is offered them, and it is refused, for that sum, according to the present price of Indian meal, - the cheapest description of food- be perfectly inadequate to support one man. And, I ask in the name of God, are the wife and children of the wretched labourers to starve? Soul harrowing as it is to think of it, there is no alternative for them; if the board of work only give ten pence a day.’  

Five months later, the Freemans Journal carried this,

‘From 400-500 persons applied on Thursday for admission to the Dungarvan workhouse, but not even one was admitted. The house being already overcrowded  One of the guardians proposed to give them relief from the workhouse rations, which would enable them to return home, as he knew a great many of them  were exhausted  from the hunger, but the board refused to act on his suggestions, lest they should bring terrific ire of the commissioners  and on themselves, so the poor creatures had to crawl home, hungry, and cold, as well as they could, but ere the next board day arrives many of them will have been  beyond the reach of the commissioner’s terror… The grave will have admitted them with more kindness.

Mr Dower, finding that no relief was to be got at the workhouse, sent for two or three baskets of bread and distributed that amongst them! That was not the only visit by the starving to the workhouse, in March of 1847, 2.000 labours who were engaged in the public works, were dismissed. They arrived in Dungarvan with their starving families. They hoped to get into the workhouse, or at least to obtain outdoor relief. The military ‘Scots Greys’ were ordered out. They kept the starving from the gates, and allowed the guardians to pass in and out unobstructed.  The town bakers did supply them with bread, this in an effort to protect their shops and bakery’s.

The Great Hunger, Dungarvan

It is April already; Rev. Father John O’Gorman (Abbeyside) makes the sign of the cross, it is a deliberate action. There is a brief hesitancy about his decision to choose what stole to wear around his neck, white or purple?  But, if he has learned anything during the past two years, he knows that it will have to be purple, and so his lips move in silent prayer as he places the purple stole around his shoulders. He also takes the healing white stole with him, just in case…He knows in his heart that he is on another mission to prepare his parishioners for death. His days are long and hard, and of course, very dangerous!  Part of this ritual is the Sacrament of confession, this of course requires the recipients to confess their sins; they are then absolved by the priest. Father O’Gorman will then give them the’ viaticum’ or Holy Communion, food for the journey into the next life.

Father O’Gorman knows now from experience that many are just too ill to make confession, and while he would much prefer to wear the white stole for the healing of these poor people, he knows in his heart that many will not make it. Six persons died on Friday. And over the Last few days, twenty-four souls have died in Dungarvan and Abbeyside, and this after being ill for just three days!  Collections have been taken up in an effort to make coffins, but many are laid in their rags in the cold earth.

On Monday night there were five more died in the poor-house, giving a total  number of deaths there within the last six or seven days thirty-five souls.

The Famine, Dungarvan
Bringing out the death at Abbeyside

Role of the Clergy during the Great Famine

April 22, 1847  

Rev. John O’Gorman enters another wretched cabin at Abbeyside, forcing open the door he is greeted by the overpowering smell. He will never get used to it; it hangs about him like a shroud.  In the darkness within, through squinted eyes, he estimates six member of this family stretched out like sardines in a tin. He looks about him in desperation, there is no furniture, it has probably been burned.  Book, sacred oil, water and Pyx which contains the holy communion he places on the cloth he has taken with him on the floor and he then,  with some effort,  moves  the first  of the family into a corner of the room where he will proceed to administer the  sacraments. He then continues with the onerous task until such time as all six have been taken into a corner of the shack, and there, for what little privacy the surrounding affords they are prepared for death. He has led them in the act of contrition, and the Apostilles Creed; he has helped them renew their baptismal promises. He will then leave them in the hands of God. And move on to the next cabin. He is happy in the knowledge that they are now prepared to meet their maker and will suffer no more on this earth. Hand to his face, he staggers briefly as he pushes the door of the next cabin inward.

The stench is overpowering…His eyes sting as he negotiates the darkness within…On the dirt and filthy floor are three dead, a father and two children. He grits his teeth, the mother is moaning and two more children are close to death…and on it goes this journey of life and death. Faith! Where does one get the strength and the faith, but he is a servant of the people, the words of the Bishop on the day of his ordination ring clearly, ‘you are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing…In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come…’ But…but,… can certainly be tested.  In the next cabin six children are dead.

Burying the Dead -The Great Hunger

Who will bury these poor people?  

This duty can only fall on the priest. Meanwhile, in Dungarvan the Rev. Jeremiah Hally has prepared four for death in one house at this exact same time as Father O’Gorman is busy at Abbeyside.  He moves on to the next cabin, more dead… it is an endless procedure, and the priests are exhausted. No doubt, it is the same in every town, city and Village in Ireland. Every moment of their time is taken up with attending the sick, the dying and the dead. It is also true to say that every penny that they can gather; they give to these poor people…  But this, they also know will only prolong the inevitable

    In the parish of Ring, at this time, forty five persons have died there.  The priest is at the graveside, the cries of the mourners are pitiful. He seems to have spent all of every day at the grave site. Some are buried hurriedly without him. Holes are dug roughly and the body placed in the hole and covered quickly. Eight emaciated bodies have so been placed in the earth in the past few days without coffins. He raises his eyes to observe one poor man arrive at the graveyard, with a corpse, covered in rags and placed across a donkey’s back. The man proceeds to dig a hole, and having completed his task, he slides the rag covered corpse from the donkey into the hole, and hurriedly back fills it.  Hardly has he completed this task when two more men enter the graveyard. They are known to him, they are brothers, a third brother is carried on their shoulders, and he is placed on the ground as they proceed to dig a hole. The corpse is soon in the hole and covered. And on it goes, this continuous, and seemingly never-ending struggle with life and death.

    All these people are those that won’t be remembered.

There will be no records of their deaths they are the forgotten, whole families of them swallowed up in the great hunger. You will find many of them are entered in the Baptismal Church records of every parish. If you are a person, like me who dabbles in quite a bit of genealogy and when you can find no trail leading to the person that you are researching, perhaps they ended up victims of that great hunger.  So who then is helping these poor people?


Under the board of works, a road is being constructed at Ballyvoile. A few hundred men are employed at its construction, two hundred, perhaps. They struggle to work every day, thirty out of this two hundred or so, will die of hunger during the construction of this road. Today, its beauty is contemplated by those who traverse the Greenway. The following report I found, dealing with this same time period, ‘on last week, twenty – four persons died in the work house. In the streets, and on the roadside, you find numbers of ghastly looking creatures lying down on the ground, actually dying of hunger, under a shed. On the quayside are huddled together nine or ten families of famishing creatures , amongst them, some are cases of malignant  fever, which is, in the opinion of some of  our medical men, sufficient to infect the whole of the town, but there is no place to which they can be removed , the fever hospital being overcrowded. These scenes seem inevitable. Every day there are nine or ten buried in the neighbouring graveyards, which are now so crammed, that hardly a place for one grave can be made out of them. Many such roads, had beginnings, but no endings…there are a number of them in our County. Researching this particular period and without indulging myself in the option of consulting already published works, I search for new information.

One such source revealed that 

 ‘On this day over fifty car loads of the cargo of bread stuffs imported here by the British relief Association some time ago, were sent to Clonmel under military escort, for the relief committee of that town. We thought that this cargo was intended for the starving people of Dungarvan and its vicinity. If it were, they got none of it, except a few bags of biscuits purchased by the Ladies Committee for their soup kitchen, and that at full cost price. We wish the people of England would know this much. We wish  those humane persons who so liberally  and promptly gave their money to this British Association for Irish relief should understand  this cargo of provisions, purchased with their subscriptions, and sent here for the  relief of the famine – stricken poor of the locality, has been for some months past locked up in a store in the town, subject to heavy rent and other charges, so all this while our poor have been steeped in destitution and misery, the most appalling and heart rending-dropping down on the streets and public roads from sheer hunger and want; in fact dying of starvation.

Yet , hundreds have famished in this neighbourhood since the cargo arrived in Dungarvan, and now it is sent to other places, where there exists  not such destitution and want as is in this town, as, we are happy to perceive, the relative state of their funds indicate.’ Here readers will note also that some ‘business men ‘  were  making large sums of money from storing the food, while Father O’Gorman, and Father  Hally, along with others, are spending  long days caring for the starving  and dying, when this food could save their lives.

The report goes on to say,

‘What sort of relief is this? If it were the intention of the British Relief Association that this cargo should have been kept under lock and key these past months, while our poor are dying of hunger, and then send it to another place for further exhibition. It would have been much more humane and consistent for them to have kept their ostentations and hollow charity to themselves, and not mocking and deluding our suffering patient poor by parading their relief provisions through our streets under military escort. Did the noble and humane America Relief Committee give instructions to their officers to place their  relief under Iron bolts and locks until they should get purchasers to give them cost price, including fright and carriage, storage, and a thousand other charges for it? No such thing!’

At a meeting of the Waterford board of Guardians on Thursday.

Doctor Mackey brought a medical report on the state of the public health in the Union. It stated that fever was very much on the increase, that dysentery and what was called sea scurvy also prevailed to a great extent. He said that he considered the scorbutic disease with which some of the people were affected might be attributed to the unwholesome diet and the want of fresh vegetables during the winter. The medical officer in Waterford dispensary told him that sickness was rapidly increasing and that he has 500 cases on his books at present. 

Meanwhile: Tuesday April 27th, 1847, (Friday) a large contingent of men organised from Kilmacthomas, Bonmahon, and the surrounding districts decided that they had enough. Too many were dying and they could see no future, and they went on the march, they decided that the Rev. Mr. Shaw, at Annestown would be a good place to start, and from there they intended to proceed to Whitfield, the residence of William Christmas, and from there into Waterford. It did not take long for the military to get wind of it,

2000 men on the march certainly meant for trouble.

They needn’t have worried, it was a peaceful march, and they were too hungry to fight or cause problems. Rev. Mr Shaw was a kind man and listened to what the men had to say. He was, of course, no stranger to what was happening in the country, and well aware that the cloak of death was spreading and would soon encompass the entire country. He guartinteed  the men that he would certainly bring their plight to the attention of the ‘proper authorities’ So moved was he by their ghost-like appearance that he organised a supply of bread to be distributed amongst them. This seemed to satisfy them and the march broke up. It was certainly unlikely that they would have made Waterford City in their starving condition, but desperate people are driven to desperate measures. 

The authorities in Waterford were happy to report that, ‘nothing disturbed the tranquillity of our city. During the most part of the day the military were under arms at the barracks, to turn out in case of emergency. Their services however were not required.’  I suspect that their thoughts were on October of 1846, six months previous, when protesters prevented men working on the ‘Military road.’ These men had refused to work for ten pence per day. The military were called into action after large crowds had gathered in Dungarvan, they marched through the streets. The Dragoons arrived in town from Kilmacthomas. Groups flocked in from Old Parish, Grange, and Ardmore etc. I covered this particular engagement with the troops in a number of previous articles. John Mulcahy, a boatman from Killongford was shot through the hip, and young Fleming from Kilmacthomas was also shot. Even the fishermen, who could have been out fishing on the day, remained in town to swell the crowds to thousands.

It should be understood that the starving people were well acquainted with what was going on.  

Corn was about to be shipped out of the harbour, Flood, who was an agent for a Liverpool Company, was - along with the corn - about to ship out butter, beef, and several other food products.

Flood was warned not to attempt to ship out the food by the protesters. They then marched to John Dower, who held quite a supply of Indian corn. They told John Dower, that it was honest work for honest money they needed.  Dower was in agreement with their needs, apparently, after some discussion, they left without causing damage.  At this particular time a number of ‘well-to-do farmers’ had their horses stabbed for paying rent! Posters were posted around the town warning that persons involved with the protests would be refused work on the schemes. The stipendiary magistrate read the riot act; he also promised them that the Government would do all in their power to relieve their distress. Which of course was pure rubbish, but All was good until a large contingent arrived from Youghal, and then  the military were dispatched  disperse the crowds… the tragic results of this I have already written about previously in a number of articles. 

I very recently published a story in Dungarvan Leader on the failed attempt to assassinate Arthur Ussher at Ballysaggart More. This was planned because he had served notice to quit and was about to evict his tenants.  I have been asked if there are names to go along with those who were evicted. Here I will give the names of those who were issued with notices to leave their homes, and what little land they had worked so hard to make productive. The tenant’s names are followed by the number of family members. 

Maurice Murphy (7) Patrick Bennet, (9) Gareth Roche, (10) Robert Troy, (5) Daniel Flynn, (5) John Landers, (4) John Carlton, (7) James Walsh, (13) John Walsh, (8) John Casey, (14) Thomas Keily, (11)  Tim Hallahan, (6) Edmond Hallahan, (8) John Clancy, (8) David Hearn, (9) James Cotter,(5) John O’Donnell,(5) Michael Power, (13) Batt, Rourke, (10) Daniel Keefe,(6)  John O’Donnell, (16)  Edmond O’Donnell, (8) James Fitzgerald,(15) William Moore, (13) David Kearn,(13) William Stack, (14) Michael O’Donnell.(4) Widow Roche, (7) Joseph Roche, (3) Batt O’Donnell,(5) William Murphy,(19) Thomas Keating,(7) Maurice Casey, (5) Patrick Griffin, (8) Denis Lawton,(9) Patrick Nugent, (10) James Bennet, (7) Darby Whelan, (11) William Whelan, (6) James Walsh,( 18) Thomas McGrath, (6) John Liddy,(7) John Noonan, (8) John Moore, (13) John Cashel, (8) Michael Lambert, (9) Thomas Devine, (9) David Whelan, (7)  Thomas Devine, (8)  William Duggan,(6) Thomas Doran, (13) Patrick Meyrick, (6) James Fitzgerald (6) Patrick Fennessy, (6) Michael Sweeny, (7) Matt Dooley, (13) John Walsh, (7). Readers will, as usual, note I do not mention the word ‘famine,’ dictionaries might describe the definition of that word as an, ‘extreme scarcity of food,’ such was not the case in Ireland. My account relating to Father O’ Gorman, is quite true, but has been dramatised by me.

Eddie Cantwell, 2020

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