The Great Silence – The Famine in Fermanagh 1845-1850.


This book is intended to reflect the conditions in County Fermanagh during and after the Famine in Ireland which is variously given the dates of 1845-1847 or 1845-1850. The wider time range has been chosen because I don’t think that historical processes and events can be neatly encapsulated in a simple time frame and pigeon-holed so easily. The potato blight which decimated that most basic of Irish crops is still with us and farmers still need to use a fungicide to preserve their potato crop. The political implications of the Famine which have caused so much violence in Ireland still rumble on down to today 160 years later. The Irish diaspora across the world is still ensconced abroad and still remembering their roots, if not on a daily basis, then certainly on St. Patrick’s Day. The revolution in land ownership and the decline and virtual obliteration of the landed gentry class derives in large measure from the time of the famine. So the various aspects of the legacy of the Famine are still with us.

This book takes its information from one source that of one of Fermanagh’s newspapers, The Enniskillen Chronicle and Erne Packet, later renamed under a new owner as, The Fermanagh Mail and Enniskillen Chronicle. It is the intention to let the voices of those times tell the story of that time and not just the editors but their numerous correspondents who tell us how it was.

Despite the desperate times of the Famine, life still went on and this book charts what the newspaper felt worthy of recording – the life of the times in print for those who could read and could afford to buy a newspaper. This volume is a chronicle depicting the times as lived in by our ancestors, who, if our ancestors were in this country, they were survivors and we are the proof of their tenacity to hold on to life in dire times. A chronicle is an extended account of historical events, presented in chronological order and without authorial interpretation or comment. My only interventions are to insert passages of explanation regarding personalities, events, etc of the time which today we would have little notion of their relevance or importance then.

These were times of dire poverty and unbelievable destitution and they are hard to grasp for us today who can scarce imagine such things until we see them with our own eyes in desolate parts of Africa or Asia but in those places times still roll on; the shock horror of today is replaced by another headline soon after because, possibly, as humans we can only take so much horror at a time.

Reading of the gentry who flocked to see the Lough Erne Regatta or the parties held by the nobility for their friends or their extended holidays to the Continent we might feel exasperation and feel like shouting back down the years “have you no conscience, no understanding of what is going on about you, can you not do more to alleviate this horrendous suffering?” but that is no use and the times were the times they were. Recently I was reminded of the continuation of this process of ongoing life. In the flurry of coverage of famine in the Horn of Africa with more than a million expected to die the Daily Mirror headline was that a footballer’s wife who had just had a baby now had a sore back. Dear God and buck stupidity! We cannot in reading these pages of our Fermanagh history expect greatness from our past (although there was indeed greatness and goodness and compassion also to be found in those days) when we see some of the inanities of some of our contemporaries.

One thing to remember is that – if our people lived in this country in the period of the Great Famine – then we are survivors – the question is how did we survive? Do we know? Have we asked or in some cases do we want to know for some exploited the situation? This was not just the great landowners alone but shopkeepers and merchants who raised their prices to a level that the poverty-stricken could not afford, the forestallers who bought cheaply in one area to sell dearly in another, people who adulterated the Indian meal with sand and gravel, those who were happy to see people evicted so that they could have more land themselves, etc., etc. Are there not many who have dark secrets to hide?

During the ten years, 1841 to 1851, Fermanagh lost 40,434 or 25% of her people. These are the figures for the Baronies of Fermanagh. There are no means of telling how many of these missing thousands are due to death through hunger and disease or emigration or migration to other parts of the country. Those who wish to minimize the tragedy may say that a large number emigrated but the dire poverty of the most effected section of the population makes this an untenable position and there are no emigration figures to back this assertion with any strength. Many died because they had nowhere else to go nor the money to buy the available food.

Barony  1841 Population 1851 Population Loss %

1. Clanawley        20,426   – 14,706 minus 30%

2. Clankelly          15,424 – 10,998   minus 30%

3. Coole 10,265 – 5,665                  minus 28%

4. Knockninny     10,995   – 8,741               minus 20%

5. Lurg               27,588       – 20,386 minus 27%

6. Magheraboy 25,774 – 17,799       minus 31%

7. Magherasteffany 22,562 – 17,373              minus 22%

8. Tirkennedy       23,447   – 20,378 minus 13%.

 Total for County Fermanagh            156,481 – 116,047 minus 25%

Tirkennedy and Knockninny fared best or one might say suffered least, during the Famine. Some areas were very badly affected. The part of Drummully Parish in Fermanagh lost 45% of its population. Some townlands were nearly wiped out and paradoxically some townlands grew in numbers. Percentages can be unreliable in some instances for this particular reason that if there were 10 people in a townland in 1841 and five disappeared then that is a fall of 50% but it reflects only five people but if there is 100 in a Townland and 50 disappear than that is also 50% but that 50% measures 50 people and not five and so percentages can be sometimes misleading.

To put the Famine in a wider context – the European Potato Failure as it is known outside Ireland was a food crisis caused by potato blight that struck Northern Europe in the mid-1840s.  While the crisis produced excess mortality and suffering across the affected areas, particularly harshly affected were the Scottish Highlands and, above all others, Ireland. Many people starved due to their inability to access other staple food sources. They could not afford the rising prices created by the unbridled merchants. The effect of the crisis on Ireland is incomparable to all other places for the devastation it wrought, causing approximately one million deaths and another million refugees and spurring a century-long population decline. An estimated 40,000–50,000 died in Belgium. Over 1 million emigrated from the Scottish Highlands, many assisted by landlords and the government, mainly to North America and Australia, and is seen as a continuation of the Highland Clearances, with overtones of ethnic cleansing of the native Scots.

“If you have tears to shed prepare to shed them now.”

William Shakespeare (1564–1616).  Julius Cæsar Act III. Scene II.

This book will be published in May 2012. DV.

One comment on “The Great Silence – The Famine in Fermanagh 1845-1850.

  1. Jackie says:

    Until I sent away for my Gt Grandfather’s birth certificate, we were unaware that our family had Fermanagh roots. They were the McBrien’s who arrived in New South Wales in 1852 and I had always wondered if this was around the time of the potato famine? I went there for a look around Inishmacsaint church in 2010 and the beautiful Lough, I must have come on the wrong day, because there wasn’t a soul around, very peaceful though.

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