About the Publisher

We hope you enjoyed this book.
Since 1944, Mercier Press has published books that have been critically important to Irish life and culture. Books that dealt with subjects that informed readers about Irish scholars, Irish writers, Irish history and Ireland’s rich heritage.
We believe in the importance of providing accessible histories and cultural books for all readers and all who are interested in Irish cultural life.
Our website is the best place to find out more information about Mercier, our books, authors, news and the best deals on a wide variety of books. Mercier tracks the best prices for our books online and we seek to offer the best value to our customers, offering free delivery within Ireland.
Sign up on our website to receive updates and special offers.


Mercier Press, Unit 3b, Oak House, Bessboro Rd, Blackrock, Cork, Ireland


As well as general works on the Great Famine, I have consulted Relief Commission Papers in the National Archives of Ireland, Parliamentary Papers, Treasury Papers and local newspapers. The website www.irishnewsarchive.com has greatly facilitated my research in the newspapers of the period, as have microfilm copies of the newspapers in the National Library of Ireland and in Kerry County Library, Tralee. I have also consulted relevant local history publications, but I have not included folklore records. Board of guardian minute books for the Poor Law Unions of Tralee and Listowel are held in the archives of the Local Studies Department of Kerry County Library, and these have been a rich source of information. The minute books are incomplete, but some of the missing records of Tralee Union are available in the National Library of Ireland and in the Manuscripts and Archives Research Library of Trinity College, Dublin. Further details on manuscript sources consulted are included at the end of this book.

In recording the actual words of eyewitnesses, I have been influenced by the approach of Liam Swords in his book In Their Own Words: The Famine in North Connacht 1845–49 and that of Noel Kissane in The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. I have adapted the timeline of Noel Kissane and have used the illustration ‘Famine in Ireland’ that I first found in his book. Underlying all my research is the encouragement I have taken from the observation of Ciarán Ó Murchadha that ‘the immensity of what happened is perhaps best appreciated in the microcosmic detail of local experience’.1

I am grateful to all the following people for their assistance in my research: the ever-helpful staff of the National Library of Ireland, the National Archives and Trinity College Manuscripts Library; Michael Lynch, Kerry County Archivist, and the staff of Kerry County Archives; Fr John Joe Spring and Greg Harkin of All Hallows College; Noelle Dowling and Peter Sobolewski of the Dublin Diocesan Archives; Helen O’Carroll, Director of Kerry County Museum; Maile Melrose and Amanda Barnes, great-granddaughters of H. N. Greenwell; Linde Lunney; Ursula Leslie; Pádraig Corkery; Trevor Giles; Paul Wright; Liam Doyle; Fr Tom Leane; Sr Columbanus Quirke; Micheál Ó hAllmhuráin; Felix Molski; Rob Gemmell; Aiden Feerick; Fr Declan O’Connor; and Rose Mary Logue.

A special word of thanks is due to John D. Pierse, who was completing his book Teampall Bán: Aspects of the Famine in North Kerry 1845–1852 as I was beginning the research for this book, and who has generously shared his intimate knowledge of Listowel and its Famine history. The commemorative book The Famine in Kerry, edited by Michael Costello and published in 1997, has been a very useful resource, as has Shane Lehane’s book The Great Famine in Kerry, which focuses on the Poor Law Unions of Dingle and Killarney.

I am very grateful once more to Julia Barrett for her invaluable research assistance. My sincere gratitude also goes to Dr Ciarán Reilly for his foreword. I have also benefitted greatly from the professional advice and guidance of Noel O’Regan and Wendy Logue in Mercier Press.

Finally, special thanks to my wife, Catherine, for her constant support and love.



August: Reports of blight. Partial crop failure.

November: Prime Minister Robert Peel orders purchase of Indian corn (named ‘Peel’s brimstone’ because it was hard and unpalatable) in the USA for distribution to the needy.

November: Relief Commission established in response to the growing Irish crisis. It was governed by the relief commissioners.


March: Public Works Act.

March: Sale of cheap Indian corn begins. In order not to interfere with market forces, this was not freely distributed but was sold, although sometimes at reduced prices.

June: Peel’s government falls and Lord John Russell becomes prime minister.

August: General failure of potato crop.

August: Poor Employment Act – public works resumed.

November: Very severe winter begins. Fever, dysentery and starvation set in.

November/December: First deaths from starvation in Kerry.


January: British Relief Association formed.

January: Government announces public works to be phased out and replaced by soup kitchens.

February: Temporary Relief Act or Soup Kitchen Act, allowing relief for three categories of people: the destitute and helpless; the destitute able-bodied who held no land; and the able-bodied with small land holdings. This was intended as a transitional and temporary measure to deal with an immediate crisis.

March: 714,000 people employed on public works, such as the building of roads.

March: People begin to be laid off public works.

March: Soup kitchens begin to be set up to replace public works, but many are not established until summer.

May: Death of Daniel O’Connell.

May: Death of Earl of Bessborough, lord lieutenant.

May: Appointment of Earl of Clarendon as lord lieutenant.

July: 3,000,000 people in receipt of food aid through soup kitchens.

August: Poor Law Extension Act, making Irish property owners responsible for meeting the costs of relief through the poor rates levied by the Poor Law Unions. The intention was to force local landlords to take responsibility for local relief.

August: No blight, but potato crop is very small.

October: Soup kitchens closed. Poor Law Unions to provide relief.


July: Young Ireland rebellion in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary.

August: Encumbered Estates Act introduced.

August: General potato crop failure.

November: Cholera epidemic begins.


March: Edward Twistleton, Chief Poor Law Commissioner, resigns in protest at government policy.

July: Rate-in-aid levy on all Poor Law Unions.

August: Visit of Queen Victoria.

August: Potato crop failure confined to west and south.


May: Boundary changes transfer nine electoral divisions from Listowel Union to Tralee Union.


March: Sixty-six people die in the workhouses of Listowel Union in one week.

May: A total of 5,627 in the workhouses of Listowel Union.

May: A total of 7,197 people in the workhouses of Tralee Union.


CEx:        The Cork Examiner

DED:        District Electoral Division

JKAHS:   Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society

JP:           Justice of the Peace

KCA:      Kerry County Archives, Tralee

KEP:       The Kerry Evening Post

KEx:       Kerry Examiner and Munster General Observer

NAI:       National Archives of Ireland

NLI:       National Library of Ireland

PP:         Parish Priest

RCC:      Roman Catholic Curate

RN:         Royal Navy

TCD:       Trinity College, Dublin

TC:          The Tralee Chronicle and Killarney Echo

A Note on Currency and Weights

There were twelve pence (12d) in one shilling (1s) and twenty shillings in one pound (£1). Christine Kinealy in Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: the Kindness of Strangers (p. 14) cites an authoritative source for adopting an exchange rate of £1 in 1846 as equal to £100 in 2013.

Imperial measures of weight: 16 ounces is equal to 1 pound and 14 pounds equals 1 stone; 8 stone equals 1 hundredweight (cwt) and 20 hundredweight equals 1 ton.

1 pound equals 453 grams and 1 stone equals 6.35 kilograms.


One million people died and one million people emigrated during the years of the Great Famine in Ireland, 1845 to 1851. These are the bare statistics in relation to Europe’s worst social catastrophe. To put it more starkly, in that short period, one person died or emigrated every one-and-a-half seconds. The population of Ireland was decimated and, as I write, Ireland remains the only country in Europe that does not have at least the same population numbers as it did in 1841. However, for such a seismic event, the Famine was long avoided in Irish historical writing and, more importantly, in the social memory of local communities. In the decades that followed, a great silence prevailed. The sesquicentenary of the Great Famine in the mid-1990s changed that and there was an outpouring of both scholarly publication and local commemoration. The intervening twenty years or so have witnessed a continued interest in understanding the Famine, best exemplified in the hosting of the now annual National Famine Commemoration Day.

Few counties suffered as badly as Kerry during the Famine. Tralee, Listowel and north Kerry were devastated, and by the end of the Famine years the population of the county was reduced by over 20 per cent. In this book, Bryan MacMahon charts the various stages of how north Kerry was decimated, boring down in minute detail to even the most remote of places. The author has trawled through a multitude of sources, some more obscure than others, from the voluminous accounts provided by the Kerry newspapers to the journal of Lieutenant H. N. Greenwell located in the Kona Historical Society Archives in Hawaii. All these sources help bring to life the realities of this awful tragedy.

The key strength of this book is the fact that the reader is introduced to individual stories of hardship and hunger, relying on the voices of the people of Famine Kerry to tell their story. These voices remind us that these were real lives and real sufferings, something which can often be overlooked. Yet throughout we are conscious of the fact that some stories and depredations went unrecorded. We can only imagine the end for many men, women and children.

MacMahon’s work poses and probes other questions about the Famine that deserve further analysis in the country as a whole. Perhaps key among these is the idea that people profited during these years of hunger, eviction and emigration. This ‘greediness for gain’ was exemplified in the actions of some merchants and shopkeepers who stood to gain from the severity of the times, when even the living were described as ‘but crawling skeletons’. Such descriptions of the north Kerry famished are harrowing, none more so than the Tralee woman who ‘begged while she carried her dead child strapped on her back, resisting all attempts to take the baby from her, saying that it was the only way she could get money to bury the child’. Elsewhere the dogs of north Kerry were said to have ravaged the graveyards, pulling limbs from the dead. Yet amidst these depredations, for many, life went on as normal. The celebrations at Ballyseedy Castle for the coming-of-age of Henry Blennerhassett in June 1847 were representative of this, when during an evening of celebration almost 120 gallons of whiskey were reportedly consumed.

No doubt such apathy or lack of concern for the poor was criticised and indeed some, such as Colonel John Day Stokes, believed that the Kerry gentry and those of means could not escape censure if they were unwilling to contribute to relief efforts. As MacMahon notes, the reaction of those of means displayed a mixture of ‘paralysis, perplexity, perversity and philanthropy’. The experience of Colonel Stokes is just one of a number of the key personalities that this book considers. The efforts of the members of various relief committees and Poor Law Unions are examined alongside the indefatigable efforts of the north Kerry clergy who were also worthy of praise. Examining these, the author probes how the people of Kerry responded to the crisis and how the various levels of society treated the poor. However, even where there were conscientious efforts to provide for the poor, at times the spread of disease in the towns of Listowel, Tralee and elsewhere, where ‘death is rife in every alley and lane’, meant that there was simply no way of escaping the ravages of the Famine.

From the beginning this book sets out to answer the question – what happened in north Kerry during the Famine? In answering that question the book acknowledges the intentions and the good work of many conscientious people who laboured for the suffering and hungry people of Kerry during the Famine. It brings the reader closer to understanding the realities of life in north Kerry during the Great Famine. With an immense knowledge of his subject and landscape, Bryan MacMahon paints a horrifying picture of how thousands died, emigrated and were left traumatised by the event. No doubt the level of detail and analysis provided in The Great Famine in Tralee and North Kerry will offer a template for others to replicate across the country. Finally, the book sets out to remember all the ‘traumatic events and distant lives’ that the author stresses ‘must never be forgotten’. The publication of The Great Famine in Tralee and North Kerry does just that, ensuring they will never be forgotten.

Dr Ciarán Reilly

Author of Strokestown and the Great Irish Famine


Here and in the neighbouring parishes of Lixnaw and Irremore, fever and dysentery are making ghastly havoc. The people are dying and will die in hundreds. The government will make this doomed land one vast graveyard …

‘A voice from Listowel’, The Cork Examiner, 7 February 1849

This book resulted from my desire to find out how Tralee and north Co. Kerry were affected by the Great Famine 170 years ago. I set out to answer the question: ‘What happened in these areas during the Famine?’ I have followed the sequence of events from the autumn of 1845 to the summer of 1852 in the area north of a line from Fenit to Tralee, Castleisland and Brosna, in order to convey some of the disastrous consequences of the potato blight, Phytophthora infestans, and also to record the various attempts to deal with the unprecedented catastrophe.

In trying to comprehend the ingrained beliefs and attitudes that prevailed in the 1840s, it is crucial to understand how poverty was seen, how the Irish people were seen by the British and how the business of government was conducted. This was an age when concepts such as human rights and democratic principles were alien, and property rights were paramount. Governments were slow to interfere with market forces, following the prevailing laissez-faire policies, and were keen to avoid creating dependence by giving food or monetary handouts, or raising unrealistic expectations of relief among the poor.

Poverty was equated with laziness, and the Irish were viewed in Britain as lazy, poor, lawless, feckless and dishonest. An editorial in The Times in 1848 declared: ‘There are corners of Ireland which are the ultima thule [most distant region] of civilisation and where a Cimmerian gloom hangs over the human soul. The people there have always been listless, improvident and wretched, under whatever rulers.’1 The words of a hymn composed in 1848 depicted a stratified society underpinned by divine sanction: ‘The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.’2 It was a convenient belief for privileged elites of all kinds. Another convenient belief, which prevailed at the highest levels of government and administration and which influenced policy at all levels, was providentialism. This was the term used to describe the widespread belief that the Famine was sent by a vengeful God as a judgement or punishment on human beings.

The social structure in rural Ireland had landlords at its top, and they were part of a privileged elite with a security and status that they zealously guarded and promoted. Not all landlords were landowners; there was a complex structure of leasing land from other landowners and sub-letting. This was known as the middleman system, which could involve several tiers of letting. Along with the subdivision of land among all the sons of a family and the practice of giving long leases, the middleman system was one of the major defects of the landholding system in pre-Famine times. Middlemen would rent land from a landlord and then proceed to sub-divide the land and rent it to numbers of others, some of whom would then do likewise, a practice which encouraged squatting.3

Trinity College, Dublin was the owner of large tracts of land in north Kerry, but the management of the land was left to local landlords. Many landowners were absentees living in England or following careers elsewhere. Lord Listowel was an absentee, as was Sir Edward Denny, whose estate in and around Tralee extended over 21,000 acres, but their estates were under the management of conscientious resident agents, James Murray Home and William Denny respectively.

Large farmers were those who held fifteen acres or more. They kept animals and grew grain crops and so were shielded from the potato crop failure. Small farmers held five to fifteen acres, while cottiers had a small cottage and a holding of less than five acres, which provided enough potatoes for a family in normal years. At the bottom of the social scale were agricultural labourers, who rented land (conacre) to grow potatoes to feed their families; they lived in one-roomed cabins.

In Tralee and Listowel there were professional and business classes, along with artisans, traders and shopkeepers. Slater’s Commercial Directory of 1846 gives an overview of traders and professionals in these towns and many of the names and addresses of people who feature in this book can be seen there.4 Women were confined to the domestic sphere and so did not usually feature prominently in public life; hence you will notice that few women appear in newspaper reports cited in this book.

There is a particular focus on the towns of Tralee and Listowel, as these were the centres of the Poor Law Unions at the time. These unions were established under the Poor Law Act of 1838, which divided the country into 130 unions and established workhouses; they were overseen by the Poor Law Commissioners.5 They were administered by boards of guardians, which were responsible for raising funds for poor relief, through the collection of poor rates that were, in turn, based on property valuations. Workhouses were built in Tralee and Listowel in the early 1840s, and were under the jurisdiction of their respective Poor Law Unions. During the crisis of the Great Famine, these buildings did not have the capacity to accommodate the large numbers applying for admission and consequently auxiliary workhouses were established. These were typically unused stores, distilleries, breweries, farm buildings or warehouses that were usually rented by the unions. Although part of Tralee Poor Law Union until 1848, Dingle and west Kerry are not specifically included here except when the people from the area came to the workhouses in Tralee or where they are mentioned at board of guardians’ meetings. The inmates of Tralee workhouse included many people from west Kerry until a workhouse was built in Dingle in 1849.

While much detailed information has been discovered about the effects of the Famine in north Kerry, there are still gaps in the surviving information, and the records leave many unanswered questions. Moreover, all of the sources consulted have their limitations and there is always a possibility of bias or exaggeration in reports. My survey of the newspapers is necessarily subjective and personal, and it is possible that I may have overlooked significant information. Some areas (for example, Knocknagoshel, Kilflynn and Asdee) seem not to feature prominently in the local newspapers.

Fortunately for researchers, three newspapers were published in Tralee in the mid-1800s and they are invaluable sources of eyewitness accounts of the Famine in the county. They were The Kerry Evening Post, Kerry Examiner and The Tralee Chronicle, all published in Tralee. The Cork Examiner also carried regular news reports from Kerry. The political persuasions of the three Tralee newspapers certainly coloured their presentation of events, and there were commercial rivalries and social tensions between them, although it should be noted that all four newspapers regularly reprinted news stories from each other.

The venerable Kerry Evening Post (hereafter Post) was first published in 1774. Owned by John and Jeffrey Eagar, it was the establishment newspaper, strongly Tory and Protestant. It therefore adopted a superior tone towards the nationalist or pro-Repeal papers, which supported the Repeal of the Act of Union of 1800 and Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association. The Repeal of the Act of Union was the great nationalist cause of the period and the Repeal Association, under O’Connell’s leadership, was a highly organised popular movement. The Post was steadfastly opposed to Repeal. The Tralee Chronicle, on the other hand, described itself as liberal and ‘neutral in politics, enjoying the support of persons of all opinions, including landed proprietors, resident gentry and numerous visitors to this highly favoured locality’.6 Its owner was James Raymond Eagar.

The third local paper, the Kerry Examiner, was strongly nationalist and Catholic, with this quotation from a French revolutionary hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, beneath its masthead: ‘For a nation to be free it is sufficient that she wills it.’ It described itself as liberal and as ‘the special organ of the Roman Catholic clergy and people’.7 It was owned and edited by Patrick O’Loughlin Byrne. The Cork Examiner, founded in 1841 by John Francis Maguire, was a strong supporter of Repeal and tenant rights, and was another source of reliable information.

There are of course problems with newspaper evidence. Anonymous articles and letters are not absolutely reliable, as some may have been written by the editors (often the owners of the papers) themselves to stir up controversy and generate sales. In fact, the editor of the Kerry Examiner accused other editors of writing such letters, ‘a trick we have never stooped to’.8 However, I believe that the news reports are generally reliable, and if one paper was in error, readers and other newspapers would quickly challenge it. The reporters were not observing events from a distance: they sat through discussions at board of guardians’ meetings and wrote humane and graphic accounts of what they witnessed during visits to the workhouses and to the roadside hovels of the recently dispossessed.

Writing a narrative account based largely on newspaper reports has been akin to re-assembling an artefact from random fragmentary remains, and I am conscious of omissions and disjunctions. It was unusual for the lives of the ordinary poor to be documented in newspapers, which normally concentrated on international news, parliamentary affairs and, at local level, meetings of public bodies and the social lives of the wealthy and privileged. In a recent publication Michael Foley has pointed out that the Famine forced journalists ‘to find new ways of reporting that would define how the press worked for the next fifty years’.9 These new styles of reporting brought journalists closer to the people’s experiences. The outrage displayed in their vivid and moving eyewitness accounts is an example of what Foley describes as the press contributing to developments as well as reporting on them.10 Editors, reporters and correspondents performed an important service, speaking truth to power, challenging official policies and providing a voice for the powerless. The experience of journalists during the Famine led many of them into political careers later.11

The work of the parish clergy in providing material and spiritual comfort to the poor and in speaking out for them is a prominent theme of this book. Two men in particular stand out in this respect: Dr John McEnnery, parish priest (PP) of Tralee, and Fr Darby Mahony, parish priest of Listowel. (The former completed his PhD in the Sorbonne in Paris and is usually given the title ‘Dr’ in the sources.)

Local public figures displayed a range of responses to the events of 1845 to 1852, and the records show examples of paralysis, perplexity, perversity and philanthropy. Government officials were under obligation to implement decisions made in Dublin or London by superiors who could have had little appreciation of the extremely complex conditions experienced at local level. The accounts cited here are invaluable contemporary records of events and of reactions to them, and for that reason some are quoted at length. The emphasis throughout is on ‘human interest’ stories, the lived experiences of eyewitnesses to the events of 1845 to 1852.

Space does not permit a full treatment of the constantly evolving official strategies for dealing with the unprecedented crisis in Ireland in those years. For succinct overviews of government policies and the work of the various agencies involved in dealing with the Great Famine at national level, I recommend Ruán O’Donnell’s A Short History of Ireland’s Famine and Chapter 1 of Christine Kinealy’s Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers, which deals with official responses to the Famine.

In deference to the journalists, clergy and public figures of the Famine period, and to today’s readers, I have frequently chosen to rely on original words rather than provide a summary of what was written. The many individual voices included here are those of landlords and their agents, tenants, labourers, government inspectors, priests, parsons, philanthropists, relief officials, coroners, politicians, physicians, Poor Law guardians, overseas visitors, workhouse officials and inmates. These voices have been stilled for seventeen decades and their powerful testimonies have been largely hidden since then. It is time they were heard once more, in all their compassion and humanitarianism, their apathy and self-interest, their bewilderment and frustration, their outrage and fury, their sadness and despair. This book lifts the veil of history a little and looks at the vanished world that they inhabited and the desperate times through which they lived. That world was one in which the poor were always seen in the mass and were rarely identified as individuals; few of their voices have been recorded in the archives and what we have are the words of those who spoke on their behalf. In the words of Hugh Dorian of Donegal, ‘the poor were treated and despised as if they were beings of quite a different creation. The satiated never understand the emaciated.’12 This last sentence was a rendering of the Irish proverb: Ní thuigeann an sách an seang.

I hope that this record of the actual words and responses of eyewitnesses will give readers a vivid and authentic sense of the unfolding crisis and of the developing responses of office holders and of the people of Tralee and north Kerry over the seven winters and six summers of desolation from 1845 to 1852, as well as a sense of how the small number of newspaper readers in particular experienced events week by week, month by month, year by year. Most of those readers were in comfortable drawing rooms and in offices, but some were in groups gathered around rural firesides, listening intently as the news reports were read aloud to them by an educated local person. The newspapers put a spotlight on the dark heart of the Famine in Kerry, as this book also attempts to do. The Irish people then endured the upheaval of a relentless onslaught of hunger, poverty, disease, death and emigration that in many respects finds echoes in the ‘ghastly havoc’ of migration crises today, which we, in our time, also experience through news reports.

The issue of where responsibility lay for the catastrophic events of 1845 to 1852 is too complex to be dealt with adequately here, but the conclusion of leading Famine historian Christine Kinealy is widely accepted: ‘The response of the British government to the Famine was inadequate in terms of humanitarian criteria and, increasingly after 1847, systematically and deliberately so.’13 The noted physician William Stokes (1804–1878), professor of medicine in Trinity College, wrote in a less direct and more indulgent tone:

If many were lost, perhaps ignorantly, let us think on the number saved. We cannot suddenly be wise. Nations, as well as individuals, must purchase experience, even though the cost be ruinous. And whatever fault we may find with the modes adopted for relief to the sufferers in the famine of 1847, we must applaud the intention and be grateful for the efforts that were made.14

Among the lost were two brothers, Michael and James Mitchell, who died of starvation in Castlegregory in December 1846. They were sheltered in their last hours in the home of Cornelius Harnett and his wife, whose forename is not recorded. Michael was aged seven and James was aged three months. The post-mortem found that ‘not the least trace of food was to be discovered in the stomach or bowels of either’.15 They were among the first children in Kerry to die of starvation during the Famine. The unrelenting cycle of human tragedy and social havoc which began with the blight of 1845 was still evident in March 1851, when 129 people died in the Listowel workhouse over a two-week period. Eighty-nine of these were under the age of fifteen. It is often lamented that we do not know the names of those who died in the Famine years, but newspapers did report on individual deaths and the names of some people who died in the workhouses are recorded in the minute books of the Tralee and Listowel boards of guardians. When victims were identified, their names are included in this book.

This book is an attempt to honour those who died and to acknowledge the intentions and the good work of many conscientious people. If it brings readers closer to understanding how the catastrophic events of the Great Famine were experienced in Tralee and north Kerry, it will have achieved its purpose. The details are necessarily graphic because, in the words of Cormac Ó Gráda, gruesome reports are ‘at the heart of the Famine story. They make it “a palpable thing”.’16

These horrors occurred. These responses followed. These people were eyewitnesses.


The spelling of place names and townlands varies in the sources and some differ from today’s spellings. Today’s Kilmoyley, for example, was often spelled Kilmoily, and Ballyheigue could be Ballyheige. Some places had alternative names: Killury, for example, was the same as Causeway, and Rattoo was the same as Ballyduff. The spelling of personal names also varies in the sources; for example, sometimes McCarthy appears as McCartie, and Hurly as Hurley.

‘A Dark and Withered Appearance’


The Rev. Mr McCarthy, P.P. directed that a special committee … should form a central meeting at Causeway once a fortnight to watch the progress of the disease.

Kerry Examiner, 14 November 1845

In August 1845 it was the price of potatoes rather than their quality that was of concern to the Kerry press, with reports that potatoes were selling at fourpence (4d) a stone in Listowel. This was considered expensive and the reason given was ‘forestalling’.1 The Post condemned this price-control practice, by which traders bought in bulk from farmers and then released the potatoes on the market in a controlled way in order to keep prices high. It stated that this was akin to usury, with the result that it was the poor who suffered most.

The concern with price, however, was followed by even more alarming concerns. Later in August of that year another newspaper carried a report from the Sussex Advertiser about the failure of the potato crop in that part of England. It remarked how a species of blight had suddenly attacked the crop, resulting in ‘a dark and withered appearance’, followed by ‘a speedy decomposition of the vegetable matter … causing an intolerable stench to arise’.2 This heralded the arrival of the potato blight in England. On 7 October the Kerry Examiner (hereafter Examiner) reported that the disease had made an appearance in Cork. In mid-October, a report in the Post stated that ‘Kerry, which was hitherto safe, is beginning to complain’.3 The Examiner was concerned that prospects for the potato crop in Kerry were ‘anything but encouraging’, although the editor, Patrick O’Loughlin Byrne, was determined to be positive: ‘But for our part, we have not yet seen one diseased potato; our market abounds with the finest potatoes … It may be that fear magnifies the danger, at least it is so to be hoped.’4

Constabulary reports show that there was no cause for general alarm in late October 1845. In Tralee, County Inspector Hawkshaw concluded that ‘about one-fourth of the white potatoes or lumpers is in a diseased state and all sorts have been affected in a slight degree. The digging here is late and the state of the crop will not be ascertained till about 10th of November.’5 From Listowel, Sub-Inspector Fletcher reported that digging and storing had already commenced and there was ‘general complaint of rot but not to any great extent’. The farmers were afraid, however, that the crop might rot in the storage pit. Hawkshaw gave his view that, while statements were conflicting, ‘the alarm at present is very considerable’. However, he went on to say that there was a vast quantity of sound potatoes in the country and that every year there was a crop failure to some degree.6

A correspondent to the Examiner gave advice on how to use diseased potatoes to make bread which was ‘sweet, sound and wholesome’, but others advised that neither man nor beast should consume the blighted crop.7 This belief that some of the diseased potatoes could be salvaged and used to make starch was in general circulation for a short period, until it was found to be impractical. By November the editor of the Examiner was convinced that potato crop failure was the exception rather than the rule, that alarm was ‘as groundless as it [was] mischievous’ and that ‘the alleged failure of the potato crop will be found to exist more in men’s heated imaginations than in reality’.8 He pointed out that the Maharees near Castlegregory had just produced the finest potatoes and that there were no complaints from the ‘poor and wild district of Iveragh’.9

There was, however, clear cause for alarm a short time later. After a meeting of parishioners held in Causeway, John Sheehy, a local Repeal warden (a representative and collector for the Repeal Association), wrote as follows to the Examiner about the experiences of farmers in Ballyheigue, Killury and Rattoo:

I regret that the grievances set forth by many who had been present on the above occasion were most appalling. One man asserted that he saw a barrell [sic] of potatoes offered for one pound; others stated that they relinquished the digging of their potatoes altogether in consequence of finding them so unsound, while many more said that they had but a few weeks provisions and even those partially injured. I am happy to state that the Rev. Mr Plummer, a gentleman who is never wanting in the cause of humanity, presided at this meeting, offering his most strenuous support to meet the exgience [sic] of the time. Mr Maurice Cushion of Rattoo came forward also and offered to sacrifice the rents of his Con-acre land he had let, in consequence of the unsound state of the crop thereon. The Rev. Mr McCarthy P.P. directed that a special committee from each of the above parishes should form a central meeting at Causeway once a fortnight to watch the progress of the disease in the potato crop and to report thereon.10

The date of this meeting, 9 November, is significant, particularly as the first meeting of the Relief Commission, under the chairmanship of Edward Lucas, the under-secretary at Dublin Castle, did not take place in Dublin until 20 November. By then, the situation across the country was considered serious enough to warrant the setting up of this temporary commission to coordinate the work of local relief committees throughout the country and provide food distribution depots. However, the Relief Commission did not issue instructions to local relief committees until February 1846, in a deliberate policy of delaying any support in order to ensure that initiatives would be taken locally. Then the government could act in the guise of assisting local efforts.11

The Causeway proposal seems to have been among the earliest local responses to the looming crisis, although nobody then could have had any concept of the enormity of the catastrophe that lay ahead. Great credit is due to those involved in taking this prompt action, particularly Fr Eugene (or Owen) McCarthy, who was parish priest for Ballyheigue, Killury and Rattoo from 1822 to 1857; Rev. Plummer, who was rector of the Church of Ireland parish of Killury from 1833 to 1872; and the aforementioned John Sheehy.

The letter from John Sheehy contrasts with a report from a member of the coastguard in Ballyheigue, Henry Lawrence, RN (Royal Navy). He struck an optimistic note, expressing his confidence that reports of diseased potatoes were unfounded. His letter was written on 29 November 1845 to the Coastguard Office, Dublin, in response to a general query:

I have much pleasure in stating for the information of the Inspector General that the crop of potatoes as previously dug and pitted in this district … is considerably beyond that of the last four or five years, consequently no apprehensions of scarcity are entertained in this locality. I have not heard of any injury happening to those dug early in the season.12

Reports in the Kerry-based newspapers were mixed. The editor of the Examiner remained sanguine. While he did express concern for the prospects of the poor in 1846, he saw ‘no reason to apprehend an absolute famine’. He cited ‘the most severely scourged’ areas of the county as ‘the districts of Kenmare, Ballyheigue and Ardfert, and the tract of country thence on by Rattoo to Ballylongford’.13 Meanwhile the Post reported that accounts of the crop from around the county were ‘chequered’ but that ‘from Castleisland and parts of Clanmaurice, accounts are very gloomy’.14 A few weeks later it cited the area west of Dingle, as well as Castleisland, Ballylongford, Ballyheigue and parts of Kenmare, as the worst affected by crop failure.15

Nevertheless, by 26 November the Post was adamant that ‘notwithstanding the croaking of the Repeal press, it is evident that disease in the potato is checked’. By 9 December the Examiner likewise believed that ‘in this county at least, the alarm seems to have considerably subsided as to the failure of the potato crop’. Even so, it advised that ‘immediate measures must be adopted for the relief of the real sufferers’. Noting that Killarney had taken prompt action, the paper posed a question about the ‘sluggard’ response in the county capital: ‘What is Tralee doing?’16

John Hurly, who was chairman of Tralee board of guardians (the managerial board for the Tralee Poor Law Union) at the time, offered a clearer – albeit more negative – view of the situation. He reported to the government on 11 October 1845 that one-third of the potato crop thus far was totally lost and that no locality had been spared.17 A great deal of the crop was still in the ground, but he was anxious about its quality. He was fearful for the future of the poor, anticipating price rises and the prospect of a much-reduced harvest the following year due to a lack of seed potatoes. He advised the government that every precaution should be taken. Having begun by stating that he was writing ‘without any intention … of creating unnecessary alarm’, Hurly’s stance by the end of the report was that ‘in the present case, alarm to a considerable extent is warranted’.18 John Hurly’s alarm would prove to be fully justified as events unfolded.