The Ballyshannon Herald. 1845-1850. John B. Cunningham.
The student of local history is often drawn to local newspapers in his search for historical material. This search, however, is more often than not rather unrewarding as the nature of local newspapers in the past was very different from today. Nowadays a local newspaper concerns itself with the events of the newspaper’s circulation area and rarely does a national issue get much coverage and still less an international issue or event, unless it has some local involvement. In the middle of the nineteenth century the local newspaper had a completely different concept of its role. The vast majority of what the newspaper printed concerned national and international issues; accounts of wars in remote parts of the world, disasters on land or sea, famous murders, murder trials and executions and social events and royal visits. Around 90% of the newspaper was taken up in this fashion and local events had to creep into little two or three inch columns and were seldom given a heading. It follows therefore that searching for snippets of local history in this type of newspaper is a very time-consuming, laborious process, involving great concentration and patience and inevitable eyestrain. However, the temptation is always too much for the nuggets of information that can be procured are invariably worth the effort.
This article is an account of the local information obtained from the Ballyshannon Herald between 1845 and 1850 and it was undertaken principally to garner information on the effects of the Great Famine in the counties and towns adjacent to Ballyshannon in this period. Other newsworthy items were also included, however, and what follows is a cross-section of the life and times of this area while the Great Famine raged through the land.
The Ballyshannon Herald was published and printed in Ballyshannon between 1831 and 1884 while in the ownership of the Trimble family. It sold at the sizeable price of four pence per issue, sixteen shillings per annum and at this price could only be afforded by the wealthy. This readership obviously influenced the editorial policy and the paper in present day parlance would be described as rigidly Establishment-orientated. It is through its eyes that we see this period. While absorbing the facts it reports we don’t necessarily have to embrace its conclusions.
1845. We begin with the issue of January 3rd. 1845 which carried an account of a kidnap attempt upon a girl of fourteen in Ballyshannon. She had been seized by two men who struck a plaster over her face and tried to abduct her, but however failed to carry her away. It was alleged that the men were trying to “Burke” her, i.e. after the notorious Burke and Hare, suppliers of corpses to aspiring surgeons. The town was in uproar and a man who lived near the Abbey graveyard said that he had heard muffled cartwheels going past in the night. He didn’t investigate as he thought that it was the “dead cart” going past carrying spirits from one house to another and so he blessed himself and remained indoors. There were rumours of graves at the Abbey being disturbed. The same issue noted the arrival in the port of Ballyshannon of the Dispatch and Sarah from Liverpool and the Steward from Bangor. Men from Irvinestown were in town selling hens and eggs to be exported to England (a very early reference to a practice which continued until recent times). The March 21st issue tells of Margaret Eves sentenced to six months hard labour at Enniskillen Assizes for stealing oats. This is one of the many major sentences which we will see for trivial offences. (Ed. an Eves relative of my own)
March 28th tells of Garrison Races and of a “Common Play” on Tullan Strand; (The word “Common” is an anglecised form of camán, meaning the Irish game of hurling). There were nearly 300 players on each side and some 2,000 spectators. The paper thought it worthwhile to write down that no riot occurred and that the strand was cleared by 6.00 p.m. This same issue has an account of a major drowning tragedy when a sailing cot was upset on Lough Erne and six people perished. The men were on their way with a load of turf to an island to do some illicit distilling and were named as William Beaty, John Burnside, Thomas Horan, Christopher Foster, John Foster and William Farrell. They were travelling in a Lough Erne cot when their boat struck a rock.
June 27th:— A new R.C. Church was being built at Ballintra and a large stack of turf was on the site with which to burn lime. A man called Travers was set to guard the stack (as turf was being stolen in the night) and a man called Magee was found in the act, but however, escaped. The following day Travers went to apprehend Magee and had his arm severed when Magee resisted with a scythe. The countryside rose in pursuit of Magee. During the pursuit a man called Stafford who was “weakminded”, took a gun from Mr. Colville’s house. Colville pursued Stafford who turned and fired at him and fortunately the gun missed fire and Stafford continued to run. Sergeant Jeffers of Ballintra saw this occurrence and he began a pursuit of Stafford who turned again and fired wounding the Sergeant in the thigh. The policeman however caught his man and held him until help arrived, but shortly afterwards the sergeant died. The sergeant left a wife and eight children. Travers’s life was also being despaired of and Magee was still at large.
The old fortifications at Belleek (Belleek Fort) were being investigated by Col. C.B. Lewis of the Royal Engineers and his staff with a view to restoring them so that they could once again hold troops. The paper said this was because of the great amount of civilian disturbance in Fermanagh.
July 4th:— The 38th Regiment of Foot is stationed in Ballyshannon in the Old Artillery Fort on the Rock and it is hoped that a new barracks will soon be built. The present barracks can only hold one hundred and fifty men. The famous Mr. Robert Stephenson, of railway construction fame, had just finished his map and estimate for a railway from Ballyshannon to Belleek. (This is a mention of a very long running saga of canal versus railway to connect the Erne river system to the sea. Canal proposals had begun as early as the latter half of the eighteenth century and some sections had even begun. Now the railway was competing for the task of circumventing the last four miles of the Erne, which because they could not be navigated, deprived the Erne of direct sea communication). Unrest was spreading in the locality and nightly meetings of the peasantry were reported in the vicinity of the town, i.e. Ballyshannon and a large picquet of soldiers nightly scoured the countryside for some miles around. Following on from the events of the previous issue Sergeant Jeffers was buried and Magee, the fugitive, was arrested by Sergeant Maglade of Ballintra. Hundreds of people crowded into Ballintra to see the arrested man in “disgraceful scenes of triumph at the arrest”, and despite the doubts, the injured Travers was mending.
July 11th reports the arrival of a detachment of the 5th Fusiliers in Belleek under Captain Spencer and Lieutenant Hamilton and the soldiers were billeted in the Market House and in Rose Isle House. (This latter building has now vanished under the foundations of the present Belleek Pottery and had been built circa 1750 for the Dowager Lady Caldwell).
August 15th saw the publication of the prospectus of the rival railway companies, the Lough Erne and Ballyshannon Junction Railway and the Dublin and Enniskillen Railway. August 29th issue had notice of a reward of £1000 for any information regarding Molly Maguires or Ribbonmen subversives in Fermanagh. Information could be given to any Resident Magistrate. September 12th reported on ships arriving at Ballyshannon and also gave the cargoes and ships’ masters. These are all ships that have arrived and since they can hardly have come all at the one time it must be a record of ships over the previous month or more.
Ship Master Cargo
The Gote Bothe George Matzy Timber
The Victory David George Slates
The Venerable of Barmouth James Jones Slates
The Ardent of Whitby Zachariah Fletcher Coal and grindstones.
The Henry Volant of Ballyshannon Scotch bar iron, coal, castings.
The Jessey John Morrison Oak staves, coarse and salt butter.
The Sarah of Ramsey William McKinnon General cargo, plates, glass,
tarpitch, oakum and cordage.
Ships expected were – The Birman James Cann Deal, battens.
The Tafvale Bar iron, tin plate.
The Fearnot Mahogany, firebrick and windows, glass, salt and butter.
September 26th gives the first mention of blight when it tells its readers of reported potato crop failure in England. Locally it comments upon the abundance of herring this year and that prospects for the harvest look good, although some, the paper said, did complain of a partial disease. This minor notice heralded the beginnings of the famine in the Ballyshannon area and it was soon to be followed on November 7th by a report which regretted that a great rot had set in among the potatoes, even those that had been carefully stored. Unrest in the area was still prevalent and £100 reward was being offered for the assassin who had made an attempt upon the life of Mr. F. W. Barton J.P., who had been on his way home to Clonelly near Pettigo when he had been shot and wounded. More is to follow this story in the New Year and much more on the famine now poised to strike.