Erris in Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962)

Siobhan McAndrew
11 min readMar 1, 2024

Sometime in the late 1980s, we were visiting family for the evening and I had nothing to do. I found a copy of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (Hamish Hamilton, 1962), one of the later editions. The front cover burned into my memory:

We had touched on the Famine briefly at school in Ireland a couple of years before, when I was 8 or 9, when ‘doing’ John F. Kennedy in a history class. The textbook detailed JFK’s Kennedy great-grandfather sailing from New Ross: a good news story, with America the land of milk and honey, and JFK returning to Ireland in triumph in 1963.

This required a quick backstory. The teacher explained it in simple terms: that Irish farms had been divided too much until they were too small, so that there were too many people, living on the new food that had come from America. And then, the potato had failed. After the Famine, however, people understood that farms should be passed on without being divided, and times were never so hard again.

It was explained to us as ‘a long time ago’, and in sanitised terms. That it had been definitive for modern Ireland went over my head completely.

The Great Hunger was not written for Fourth Class; it was shocking. It was the first social science history book that I read, and remarkably vivid. I devoured it that evening, learning about Peel and Russell, the particularly hard year of 1847, the spread of typhus, and the arrival of ‘Indian meal’. I’m just re-reading it now, and finding it even more readable.

Reading it as a child, I ha assumed that Cecil Woodham-Smith (1896–1977) must be English and upper-class. I now know that Woodham-Smith was a member of the Fitzgerald family, although born in Wales and educated in England and France. The playwright and diarist Alan Bennett got to know her when he was a graduate student working at the Public Record Office, then in Chancery Lane; he remembered her as rather grand, with ‘a Firbankian wit and a lovely turn of phrase’.

I was homesick for Ireland, so every reference to our district leapt out. The Famine had been particularly bad in Belmullet, a coastal town about 25 miles north of where we had lived, as well as the Erris district more broadly. Woodham-Smith began by describing pre-Famine Erris — in 1847, its population was some 30,000:

‘before the failure of the potato, though life in Erris was primitive, there was some gaiety and prosperity. On Sundays, market-days and holidays the men wore frieze coats, red or black, with corduroy or pilot cloth trousers, gaudy waistcoats and felt hats; the women had stuff gowns, looped up to show a red or black flannel petticoat, and caps with gay ribbons; on special occasions both wore shoes and stockings. The failure of the potato brought ruin; frieze coats, red flannel petticoats, gaudy waistcoats and gay ribbons were sold, and many thousands of the inhabitants of Erris were reduced to a state which the Commissariat officer, Mr Alfred Bishop, declared was the lowest and most degraded he had ever met with, even among the Ashantees or wild Indians. Cabins in Erris were cut out of the living bog, the walls of the bog forming two or three sides; entrances were so low that it was necessary to crawl in on all fours, and the height inside — four to eight feet — made it almost impossible to stand upright… Large families, sometimes of more than eight persons, lived in these “human burrows”; they were “quiet harmless persons, terrified of strangers”’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 311, quoting ‘Papers relating to the aid afforded to the distressed Unions in the West of Ireland’, HC, 1849, (1010), Vol. XLVIII p.13. G Crampton to R.J. Hamilton, 14 December 1848).

I learned that by 6 March 1846, there were reports that the local Relief Commissariat in Belmullet had already exhausted supplies of food, supplies intended to last until the potato harvest in August, an example of the ‘extreme distress’ of the far West going beyond ‘ordinary’ distress (Woodham-Smith 1962, 68).

By November, Sir Randolph Routh, Chairman of the Irish Famine Relief Commission, had requested of Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, that two hundred tons each of food should be sent immediately to two danger spots: Belmullet in Erris, and Clifden in Galway.

Trevelyan refused, explaining that the government could only support the destitute of the west ‘as far as we are able’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 139). Lord Monteagle asked that he change his mind and that some of the depots in the far west — Clifden, Belmullet and Achill — might be opened one or two days a week. Trevelyan however thought this too risky since there was simply not enough food in the depots — leading to ‘danger of outrage’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 142).

Woodham-Smith also described how Erris fisherman sold their nets and tackle just to be able to buy a little meal, a desperate remedy which seemed short-sighted, but reflected the fact that fishing was only ever intermittent with primitive boats, and the winter of 1846–7 particularly severe. The Quakers tried to maintain small fleets in Mayo and Galway, but failed. The fisherman were living too precariously and too far away from ready markets, in a country experiencing deep poverty (Woodham-Smith 1962, 291–293).

Later, she describes the pressures of poor-rate collection, and the British government’s decision to rely on the New Poor Law to support the destitute. When tenants could not pay rents, landlords were themselves liable for the poor law rate if the holding was valued at £4 or less. In Mayo at the time, three-quarters of all occupiers held land valued at £4 or less (Donald Jordan, 1994, Land and Popular Politics in Ireland: County Mayo from the Plantation to the Land War, Cambridge, 110).

Moreover, the then-new poor law system, introduced via the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act 1838, was designed to be primarily locally-funded. Areas with the highest need had to provide subsistence to those claiming relief from their own resources. Wealthier areas with less need could therefore levy lower rates; poorer areas with greater need higher rates.

A further problem for Erris, highlighted by Woodham-Smith, was that Irish Poor Law Unions were extremely large, and that for Ballina, including Erris, covered 509,154 acres and a population of 120,797. She quotes the Quaker philanthropist James Hack Tuke: ‘Let us suppose […] a union stretching from London to Buckingham and Oxford, in one direction, and from London to Basingstoke in another, with a poorhouse at St Albans, and we shall have a good idea of the extent of the Ballina Union’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 310).

Erris was a different country to the Moy Valley. Woodham-Smith explained:

‘The Board of Guardians at Ballina regarded Erris with fear, resentment and dislike. The Erris Guardians did not attend the meetings of the Ballina Board: they had forty or fifty miles to travel to reach Ballina, and to collect rates in Erris was impossible, the parish of Belmullet alone being as large as the county of Dublin. ‘The Ballina Guardians,’ wrote [Edward] Twisleton, ‘detest Erris because Erris does not pay its rates, and they would see Erris at the bottom of the sea rather than take any trouble about Erris.’ On June 12, 1847, two hundred and sixty starving and destitute persons somehow made their way from Erris, and appeared at the gates of the Ballina workhouse. They were turned away, the workhouse was already full; and in any case Ballina Guardians would not relieve destitute from districts which did not pay their rates’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 311–312).

Twisleton was Ireland’s resident Poor Law Commissioner, who had led a relief effort in Paisley in Scotland shortly before. The intention of the New Poor Law in Ireland was to preserve the incentive to work; and if landowners could not ensure sufficient rents, the intention (as noted by Trevelyan to Twisleton, cited by Woodham-Smith 1962, 318–9) was that they should sell up and pass their lands to a more effective landlord. The good would take over the bad.

In Mayo, however, it seemed that the bad landlords who had failed to improve their property, or charge fair rents consistently in a manner that enabled tenants to improve the property, were dragging down the good, and accelerating economic collapse:

‘A good landlord who lived on his property, exerted himself to keep his tenants from starvation and the workhouse, gave employment and paid out a large sum in wages, frequently found himself in the same electoral division as an estate swarming with neglected, destitute paupers whose only refuge was the workhouse’.

In such districts, the good landlords were as liable as the bad for the higher rates necessary to maintain the destitute. Woodham-Smith gives the example of George Vaughan Jackson, a landowner in Tyrawley considered by the Quakers to be ‘one of the few good landlords in Mayo’, and who wrote:

‘No men are more ill-fated or greater victims than we resident proprietors, we are consumed by the hives of human beings that exist on the properties of the absentees. On my right and my left are properties such as I allude to. I am overwhelmed and ruined by them. These proprietors will do nothing. All the burden of relief and employment falls on me’ (Vaughan Jackson to Mr Groom, 1 September 1847, cited in Woodham-Smith 1962, 319).

The most notorious example, suggests Woodham-Smith, ‘was supplied by the unhappy district of Belmullet, in Erris, on the estate of a Mr. Walshe. He lived at Crossmolina, and was a magistrate, but had taken no part in relief work during the famine. The inhabitants of three villages were evicted by Mr. Walshe, with the help of a company of the 49th Regiment: their houses were thrown down and they were turned out, in the depth of the winter, to exist as best they might. The largest of these hamlets was Mullaroghe, on the peninsula of the Mullet; Mr. Hamilton, the temporary Poor Law Inspector at Belmullet, brought Mr James Hack Tuke to the site, and a woman who had been evicted made a statement ‘in the presence of three most respectable witneses, including a clergyman of the Church of England’. She had been, she said, “living in Mullaroghe with her husband, when young Mr Walshe and two ‘drivers’ came, about ten days before Christmas… The first day they made a ‘cold’, a makeshift, fire, the second day the people were all turned out of doors and the roofs of their houses pulled down. That night the made a bit of a tent, or shelter, of wood and straw; that however the drivers threw down and drove them from the place… It would have “pitied the sun”,’ she said, ‘to look at them as they had to go head foremost under hail and storm. It was a night of high wind and storm, and their wailing could be heard at a great distance. They implored the drivers to allow them to remain a short time a it was so near the time of festival [Christmas] but they would not…” Mullaroghe was “literally a heap of ruins”, wrote James Hack Tuke; the Townland assessment book showed that, in 1845, 102 families were rated there, but only the walls of three houses now stood. Mr Higgins, of the British Association, who wrote that he would like to be a dictator in Erris, with power to shoot, told Trevelyan that Mr Walshe wished the troops to return the next day and “finish his work, but Captain Glazebrook of the 49th, an excellent officer and a most humane man, was so disgusted at what he and his men had witnessed that he contrived to baffle him, by putting all manner of obstacles in the way as to getting the troops out again”. “The horrors of that wretched place”, concluded Mr Higgins, “you can never describe”. Two more hamlets on Mr Walshe’s land, Tiraun and Clogher, were destroyed in the same way: the inhabitants were driven out with the help of troops and their cabins demolished. The people, timid by nature, were stunned. Tuke saw “miserable objects” lingering helpless and bewildered round the ruins of their home, while outside their few possessions disintegrated in the rain. Between Mullaroghe and Clogher, Mr Hamilton, the Poor Law Inspector, set up a “feeding station”, where more than here hundred persons gathered “in various stages of fever, starvation and nakedness”; many, too weak to stand, lay on the ground; the worst, however, said Mr Hamilton, did not appear; they were too ill to crawl out of their hiding-places and shelters’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 319–320).

This was in December 1847. The month before, Richard Hamilton as the newly-appointed Poor Law Inspector had reported that starvation was ‘nearly general’ throughout Erris, and particularly in the Mullet peninsula, where the poor only had recourse to turnips and the roots of weeds. In January 1848, he recommended that the evicted, who would normally be eligible only for outdoor relief, be admitted for indoor relief (Tom Yager, 1996, ‘Mass Eviction in the Mullet Peninsula during and after the Great Famine’, Irish Economic and Social History 23: 24–44, 30). Ballina workhouse already had 500 more inmates than it had been built to contain, but Erris was ‘out of control’, with three-quarters of the population requiring relief (Woodham-Smith 1962, 322). Buildings were taken over to form ad hoc auxiliary workhouses, including William Bingham’s storehouses in Binghamstown. He was appointed temporary superintendent pending the appointment of staff, but almost immediately died of fever, which was rampant in the workhouses (Richard Hamilton to the Commissioners, 28 January 1848, Papers Relating to the Relief of Distress, and State of Unions, in Ireland, 88).

Woodham-Smith’s final observations of Erris were to note that it was particularly affected by the abandonment of land: ‘seventy-eight townlands were without a single inhabitant or four-footed beast’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 371). Much of the land that was abandoned across Ireland — including within Erris — was good land, but vast tracts were impossible to sell due to unpaid rates, which remained attached to the land. The land agents Barrington & Co. held land normally valued at over £300,000 in 1848, with no purchasers, because when land was sold the purchaser became liable for the debt (Woodham-Smith 1962, 372).

In her conclusion, Woodham-Smith focuses on the limited understanding of bureaucrats and politicians in particular, interpreting the Famine as a policy disaster rooted in economic ignorance and social distance:

‘Even the self-evident truth, that Ireland is not England, was not realized by the Government in Whitehall; the desolate, starving west was assumed to be served by snug grocers and prosperous merchants and to be a field for private enterprise; bankrupt squireens, living in jerry-built mansions, with rain dripping through the roof, became country gentry, and plans for sea transport were made as if the perilous harbours of the west coast were English ports…

‘Much of this obtuseness sprang from the fanatical faith of mid-nineteenth century British politicians in the economic doctrine of laissez-faire, no interference by government, no meddling with the operation of natural causes. Adherence to laissez-faire was carried to such a length that in the midst of one of the major famines of history, the government was perpetually nervous of being too good to Ireland and of corrupting the Irish people by kindness, and so stifling the virtues of self reliance and industry. In addition hearts were hardened by the antagonism then felt by the English towards the Irish, an antagonism rooted far back in religious and political history, and at the period of the famine irritation had been added as well…

‘It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they have behaved in Ireland; as a nation, the English have proved themselves to be capable of generosity, tolerance and magnanimity, but not where Ireland is concerned’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 410–411).

She closed her book by moving her mind’s eye to the West, noting that the exact numbers of deaths could never be known: ‘the timid people of Erris perished unrecorded’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 412).

Finally, she highlighted the tragedy for British seamen serving in the Second World War of Irish harbours being closed to them, and the numerous graves that can be found along the western seaboard: ‘from these innocents, in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of failures of the potato, evictions, fever and starvation, was exacted part of the price for the famine’ (Woodham-Smith 1962, 413).

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Siobhan McAndrew

I research in the social science of culture and religion, moral communities and civic engagement. PPE, University of Sheffield