Postscript to the Great Silence.


The Famine in Fermanagh in its worst aspects had ended by 1850. Pits and graves full of human remains littered our landscape and filled our graveyards and workhouse burial grounds. There were many quiet, silent townlands and many quiet head down people who had done well of the misery of the period. Farmers who hoarded their food stores waiting on a rising market to make bigger profits, forestallers who bought cheaply in one place to sell profitable in another, clergy who blamed the famine on the ungodly sins of their flocks to bolster their own influence and income, farmers who gleefully accepted the little holdings of others to enlarge their own, wealthy and totally undeserving farmers who got themselves on to the Famine Relief Works through toadying up to the Landlords and Clergy and leaving the deserving to starve and die. Not a bit wonder that people like this wanted to keep their actions quiet in this time and so did their descendants.

At the grave of Sir Charles Trevelyan,  Crambo, , near Morpeth, Northumberland 2011.

Fermanagh is rather of an anomaly. We had in the 1840s a very high proportion of resident landlords (much more so than most parts of Ireland) who prided themselves in acting in a paternalist and charitable manner towards the majority of their tenants and had been in the habit of doing so. In the beginning of the Famine in general they set up soup kitchens, raised wages in line with increasing food prices, provided work, distributed clothing etc until the tide of destitution overwhelmed them or it became greater than their financial resources.

For these paternalistic landlords the coming of the diktats of the Poor Law Act Commissioners and the setting up of the Workhouse system in Fermanagh was in general greatly resented. Many thought they had been doing their best to combat the disaster and now to be taxed to support the poor when they had been voluntarily taxing themselves for exactly the same purpose caused them outrage. Mass emigration and the rapid depopulation led to a financial crisis in their ranks as their rental income tumbled. People wouldn’t or in general couldn’t pay the previous level of rents especially now that the Corn Laws were abolished and cheap grain flooded the whole kingdom. If the farmers and peasantry could not sell at previous prices then they could not pay rent at previous levels but the landlords were loath to lower their rents.

The reaction to this financial crisis among the landed gentry took several forms but mainly mass evictions so that the land could be set to more affluent (big) farmers or set to graziers who wanted large areas on which to graze their flocks of sheep or herds of cattle unencumbered with tenantry who might and could and often did feed themselves on their stock. The letting of land to graziers was following the same pattern as had been set in Scotland when the Highlands and Islands were cleared to make large stock farms or grouse moors or red deer hunting estates. The Scots were cleared to the coasts to specifically set up fishing villages or put on ships and exported to Canada, the USA and Australia – and paradoxically the process was led by the Scottish lairds who turned on their own clansmen and women for their own financial advantage. This exportation of people was also followed in Fermanagh on the Florencecourt Estate of Lord Enniskillen.

Towards the end of the 1840s the tone of our chosen newspaper changes from sycophantic praise of the landlords and gentry to one of pointing out their numerous faults – a life of luxury and dissipation in some cases and most frequently the spending if not squandering of Fermanagh and Irish money abroad with little if any reinvestment of locally raised money in their own estates and locality. Income raised on the backs of Irish people frittered away, gambled away or piddled up against the walls of England.

The Workhouses have a universally bad press in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The title and blurb of this Welsh Workhouse book speaks for all the rest: –  Paupers, Bastards and Lunatics – The Story of Conwy Workhouse. Conwy Workhouse was designed to imprison, discipline and punish the poor of northern Wales. In the words of one government adviser it was intended to “be a place of hardship, of coarse fare, of degradation and humility”. The common people from Penmaenmawr to Llysfaen and from Llandudno to Dolgarrog lived with the constant fear of ending their days in the Workhouse. Poverty was sufficient qualification for incarceration in “Conwy Bastille” condemned to categorisation as a “Pauper”, “Bastard” or “Lunatic”. This book uncovers the disturbing story of Conwy’s Victorian Workhouse and its associated asylums, training ships and children’s homes and traces the transportation and emigration of local paupers to Canada and Van Diemen’s Land.” (By Christopher Draper.)

But the Workhouses had one redeeming feature although entirely lost on the inmates of the time. The Workhouse system was the first time that Government and Society in general took some responsibility for the old, the crippled, the orphans, the widows and the insane. We now have orphanages, retirement homes, sheltered accommodation and sheltered workshops etc and they all had their unlikely beginnings in the Workhouse system. Unlikely as it might seem – something good came out of the Workhouse idea.

Louder and louder became the cry for Tenant Right. Tenants who had been encouraged or cajoled to improve their farms with their own money were now being evicted without a shilling in compensation. It was manifestly unfair and would lead to further disruption and land war for the most of the rest of the century. However the landlords were not all members of the fox-hunting aristocracy who Oscar Wilde called the “unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” as some landlords ended in the Workhouse themselves having expended all they owned to help the starving. And it is also a fallacy to see all the peasantry as innocents who had no share in their own downfall. The system of runaway marriages produced an exploding population as young people set up homes with little or no resources, were totally dependent on the potato and had minimal resources to survive a crisis such as the Famine. Did they inadvertently conspire in their own demise? Then what about the making of poteen which was one of the greatest evils of 19 century Ireland? Grain that might have saved their lives was converted into alcohol as a cash crop and by the time the potatoes failed there was little choice between drinking oneself to death or starving to death. Had not the poteen makers a role in the demise of themselves and their neighbours?

The search for the guilty parties could go on and on. There is no reparation that can now be made to those who died; to those who had to flee their homeland; to those interned in miserable, miserly Workhouses; to the widows, orphans and the heartbroken friends and relatives but as we look back on their history changing era we owe it to those people to have an informed and balanced understanding of the life and times of the Irish Great Famine.

John B. Cunningham 10-2-2012.

One comment on “Postscript to the Great Silence.

  1. Linda Swindle says:

    Looking forward to the book,the glimpse here is just a taster. Just read a little at the moment but will come back when I have more time. Have to learn a bit more of manoeuvring around the site!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s