At the height of the Famine, an Ardglass man, Michael Rush, sent the following anguished plea to his mother and father in America:
"Now my dear father and mother, if you knew what hunger we and our fellow countrymen are suffering, you would take us out of this poverty Isle... if you don't endeavour to take us out of it, it will be the first news you will hear by some friend of me and my little family to be lost by hunger and there are thousands dread they will share the same fate."
It is not known whether Michael Rush and his family survived the greatest tragedy to befall Ireland. Between 1845-1850 the population of Ireland fell from around eight million to about five million. As many as one million died from hunger and disease. Another two million were forced to emigrate.
Many died on the crowded 'coffin ships' which took the reluctant emigrants across the Atlantic for a new life and a new start in America.
Unlike many counties, particularly in the west of Ireland where whole communities were wiped out, County Down's population was not decimated. But as Michael Rush's harrowing letter so vividly illustrates, there was suffering and hardship on an enormous scale.
Starving C. Down families were forced to abandon their homes in the countryside and seek refuge in overcrowded and disease- ridden workhouses where death awaited many. Thousands more emigrated to America and other English-speaking countries.
The Famine began in 1845 and was caused by a blight which attacked and destroyed the potato crop, the main staple of Ireland's peasantry. The potatoes rotted in the fields, leaving millions with nothing to eat and unable to pay their yearly rents to the landlords. Relief measures were introduced but when the crop failed the following year the crises became a catastrophe.
The government initiated schemes to distribute food and provide work for men. At a local level relief committees were set up through which better off people did what they could. By the end of 1846 between thirty and fifty Killyleagh women gave meals to the poor every day. Numerous soup kitchens were being set up. The Kircubbin relief committee handed out coarse bread with its soup, while in December 1846 the Killough committee purchased a boiler to help with its soup making.
In January 1847 a meeting was held to set up a soup kitchen in the Saul area. The Down Recorder newspaper reported at the time: "Soup kitchens are being established in several of the rural districts surrounding Downpatrick to which the subscriptions from the landlords, proprietors and tenant-farmers are very generous."
A month later the Down Recorder issued this update; "A soup kitchen has been established at Saul, to which Lady Harriet Forde, with her accustomed generosity has given money. A boiler has been fitted in the school house. Soup is distributed twice a week to forty poor persons."
One area which did not receive such benevolence was Crossgar. By January 1847 there were, according to the Down Recorder*," about 240 persons in this village in an utterly destitute state and if something is not done for them the consequences will be frightful. A benevolent gentleman in the neighbourhood made an effort to establish a soup kitchen there, but in vain. He wrote to the proprietor of the town and also to several owners of property adjacent, and just two had the common civility to reply. Those two gentlemen, although unconnected with the town of Crossgar, inclosed £5 each. The gentlemen above alluded to, finding his efforts unavailing, returned the money to the donors. The people, we are assured, are literally starving. Is not this a melancholy state of things within five miles of the town of Downpatrick? We implore the landed proprietors in the neighbourhhood of Miserable place to apply to government, if they will not do anything themselves and perhaps the Lord Lieutenant may give directions for the establishment of a relief committee there, until Lord Russell's measure come into operation, by which the destitute will receive out-door relief under legal assessment. "
Those who made it to Downpatrick workhouse- the last resort for many- were given food, but conditions were harsh. The workhouse was run by the Board of Guardians whose policy was to make it as unattractive as possible. But as the poor crowded in, fever could spread quickly. Emai me for a photo of the Downpatrick Workhouse.
In March 1847, the matron, Miss McCreedy, died from the effects of fever caught in the discharge of her duties. The Down Recorder noted; " We had the pleasure of knowing Miss McCreedy since she became matron and from the excellent state of discipline in which she had the establishment, we can truly say that her loss there will be severely felt."
Ironically, a month earlier, a committee had been set up to inquire into the state of the workhouse's fever hospital, stated:" There are at present under treatment about double the number of patients that the building was originally calculated to accommodate. The store room has been emptied of its contents and converted into a ward but a great number of patients have to lie upon the floor, in the spaces between the beds and what is still worse, in many cases, two patients in one bed.
"We have a daily influx of patients and from the present condition of the poorer classes and the prospect yet before them, we have every reason to dread a continued increase in still greater proportion."
One feature of the famine was the harsh treatment meted out by landlords to their tenants, who demanded their rent, famine or no famine. But there were exception.
The Rev. W.B. Forde, of Seaforde, gave instructions that no eviction notices would be served against his tenants. The Marquis of Downshire who was an extensive landowner was praised for the "king Treatment towards his tenantry on the Dundrum and Ballykinlar estates."
The effect of the famine in Co. Down can be seen from census records. Between 1841 and 1851 Co. Down's population declined by almost 44,000. Death and emigration were the chief causes.
In April 1849 the Down Recorder reported: " We observe, with regret, that much of the wealth of this country is going to America and other parts of the world. It is a bad sign for Ulster when the Down Peasantry are leaving these shores. Within the last few weeks 2,000 people have left Newtownards, Lecale and other parts of this county for emigration to America with their talents and money." Few, if any, returned.
Chronology of the famine in Co. Down from The Down Recorder Newspaper:
Copies of these articles are obtainable from the South Eastern Library & Information Service in Ballynahinch. Email me for details
1 Nov 1845: Article on the potato crop in Co Down
8 Nov 1845: Meeting at Portaferry to discuss the potato crop
3 Oct 1846: Baronial meeting of landlords to discuss the need for employment of labouring classes
3 Oct 1846: There were no ejectments on his several estates that year- Rev W.B. Forde, Seaforde
17 Oct 1846: Famine relief meeting at Castlewellan- meeting of landowners, gentry and clergy in the parishes of Kilmegan, Drumgooland and Drumballyroney
31 Oct 1846: Distress in Rathfriland
31 Oct 1846: Saintfield Estate- a reduction in rents
9 Jan 1847: Several thousands attend famine relief meeting in Castlewellan
16 Jan 1847; Soup kitchens in Downpatrick & Killough
16 Jan 1847; reply re Lord de Ros stance on aid * (FCD)
21 Jan 1847; public meeting at Balle to discuss famine relief * (FCD)
30 Jan 1847; Destitution in Crossgar
39 Jan 1847: Soup kitchens in Saul * (FCD)
6 Feb 1847: Soup kitchen in Warrenpoint
6 Feb 1847; Bangor estate helps with funds * (FCD)
6 Feb 1847: Soup kitchen in Saul
6 Feb 1847: Famine relief meeting in Dunsford
13 Feb 1847; Famine Relief Committee meeting; Ardkeen soup kitchen
17 Feb 1847; report from Downpatrick Fever Hospital * (FCD)
20 Feb 1847: Saul soup kitchen * (FCD)
20 Feb 1847: Spread of fever in Downpatrick neighbourhood
26 Feb 1847; Meeting in parish of Knocbreda re Lord Downshire's aid * (FCD)
6 Mar 1847; Ballee Famine Relief Fund notice
13 Mar 1847: Inch Famine Relief meeting
13 Mar 1847: Extension of public works to give employment to destitute
20 Mar 1847; death of matron of Workhouse from fever * (FCD)
20 & 27 Mar 1847: Case of great destitution in Killinchy-in-the-Woods
10 Apr 1847: Famine Relief Meeting at Killyleagh
14 Apr 1849; emigration becuase of famine * (FCD)
1 May 1847: Appalling case; Ballydugan soup kitchen
1 May 1847: Famine Relief meeting at Annalong
15 May 1847: Crossgar Famine Relief meeting
22 May 1847: Ballee Famine Relief Fund notice
31 Jul 1847; Marquis of Downshire generous to his tenantry in Hillsborough
19 Aug 1847l Balle Relief Fund report* (FCD)
18 Sep 1847; Killough Famine Relief meeting
2 Oct 1847; Killinchy Famine Relief committee formed
27 May 1848: Marquis of Downshire's kind treatment to his tenants on Dundrum & Ballykinlar estates
23 Dec 1848; report from Downpatrick Workhouse * (FCD)
14 Apr 1849; Emigration from Co Down
During this time lawlessness was reported with "agrarian outrages", arson attacks, anti tractarian gatherings, Threshers & Repealers.
Below are some photos of Irish country folk which accompanied the Museum story.