The Catastrophic famine and accompanying fevers which struck Ireland after 1846 did not spare any part of the land fully and the people of Fethard suffered as much as many other places. The events of these years have burned themselves into the consciousness of our nation and may have been the cause of the usually generous response in times of economic depression to the Ethiopian famine appeal, for example. We are the descendants of the survivors of famine.
Unpublished sources note the amount of potatoes cultivated in Ireland from 1841 to 1846. The first signs of the blight which harmed the potato-crop appeared in 1845 and so many people were wholly dependent on it in the country that the police all over Ireland kept records of the acreage’s sown in 1844, 1845 and 1846. The figures for the Fethard town area are both typical and also interesting. In 1844 there were 461 plantation acres set. This rose to 501 in the following year. This presumably echoed a rise in population as well as confidence in good retuns
The advent of some blight in that year frightened many growers and we notice in the Fethard area the acreage dropped to 400 in 1846. The farmers substituted turnips, oats and barley for the potatoes. As it turned out, the crops in 1846 were almost totally destroyed by the blight and led to wholesale starvation in many parts of Ireland and malnutrition everywhere. Black ’47, as the next year was known since, saw continuing food shortages but now the three dreaded killers, the Famine Fevers, killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The government had begun a campaign of relief in 1846 by advising that local committees be formed to provide work for people so that they could buy food. Proof of the amount collected was sent to Dublin and a subsidy added to the local subscriptions. The works were of various kinds, such as road construction and so on. We can just imagine how much work a half-starved and sick poor man could do.
There is a letter from the Fethard Famine Relief extant which makes some interesting points:
(1) Money should be made available for “spade-labour” in the fields rather than working on the roads.
(2) Female beggars were seen in droves around Fethard. They were of decent families but were now in degradation, it is said.
(3) Interest-free loans were sought for the local schemes and also donations. The Famine-relief Fund was called “Fethard Spade-Labour Committee” and its account was with the James Sadlier of the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank.
The well-off ladies of Fethard did their best in another way to help out their unfortunate sisters. A group in Briston sent £30 as a subscription to relieve the poor of the town. This was given to a group of ladies who employed poor girls in knitting, weaving, spinning and so on. Materials were bought with subscriptions and the workers were paid with food.
The Famine years brought to the fore a young man from the area around Fethard. This was Michael Doheny who was born in Brookhill. Although he came of humble origins, Doheny became a lawyer and did some journalism as well as writing that well-known account of the attempted revolution in 1848 at Ballingarry called “The Felon’s Track”. Doheny fled to the USA and died there comparatively young.
While Doheny was skulking like an outlaw in his native county, another young man called Bourke was fleeing from Fethard for a different reason-the blasted economy and society that forced so many of our people to emigrate to the USA. Young Bourke after some years in the USA found himself in the new revolutionary force to free Ireland called the Fenian Brotherhood. Like so many more emigrants, he joined the northern army during the American Civil War and rose to the rank of general. Eventually, he commanded the Fenians in 1867 in Co. Tipperary in a confused attempt at rebellion. He ended up in jail, sentenced to the gallows, but was reprieved. Both his and Doheny’s lives symbolise the pass to which Ireland and their native town had come to by 1870.
(To be continued)