A document in the National Library of Ireland sheds important light on the fate of the inhabitants of a part of county Offaly during the years of the Great Famine. Here the names and circumstances of almost 500 people in the village of Shinrone and its hinterland are included on a register for relief, which was provided during the summer and autumn of 1846. Among the names may well be an ancestor of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. While Obama’s Irish heritage has been well documented in the past, not least during his visit to Ireland in 2011, few descriptions survive of how the Great Famine directly impacted the Kearney families and their community. It is hoped that this document will be transcribed and made available in Offaly Heritage in the near future.
Tiquin and Tithes
Of course this was a population who had lived on the brink of poverty for decades, although some would have benefited from the economic upturn which the Napoleonic Wars brought. However, periodic famines affected Shinrone in 1816, 1817 and 1822 and were usually accompanied by outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. As a result, the area was also prone to agrarian unrest. By the middle of 1830s, there was growing unrest along the Tipperary- King’s County (Offaly) border and there was an upsurge in violent crimes which reflected the levels of distress amongst the lower orders. In June 1836 Thomas Molloy, land steward on the Trench estate at Shinrone was severely beaten because of his management policies, while the ubiquitous threatening notice and the mutilation of animals also characterised the pre-Famine landscape. Much of this unrest stemmed from the infamous case of Tiquin and the non-payment of tithes to the Church of Ireland. In November 1835, Mr Smith, agent for the Revd William Brownlow Savage of Shinrone filed two bills for tithes against Tiquin, a miller at Rusheen, near Kilcommon. Tiquin refused to pay the tithes and a court case ensued. Although defended by Charles Rolleston Q.C., the son of a local landlord, Tiquin lost his case, was arrested and confined in the barracks at Shinrone, before being transferred to Newgate prison where he died shortly afterwards. His funeral procession from Dublin was a huge display of public indignation to the collection of tithes. Commenting on the situation the Leinster Express noted that ‘the manifestation of public opinion exhibited in the King’s County almost exceeds credibility’.
Evictions at Kilcommon
In the early months of the Great Famine local landlords remitted rent and forgave arrears, including William Trench of Cangort Park, near Shinrone who remitted to his tenants the ‘hanging gale’ (rent) which was due. Local landlords were also instrumental in setting up relief committees in the spring of 1846 but their resources were soon expended. In Shinrone it was the actions of local middlemen which was particularly reviled, with one newspaper claiming that they were ‘grinding the poor’. In June 1846, for example, a middleman near the village took matters into his own hands and forcibly evicted his under-tenants setting fire to their cabins in the process. These evictions sparked further unrest in the locality as hundreds faced the threat of starvation. In March tenants on the Holmes estate at Shinrone pleaded with the agent, George Greeson, for lenience:
We the under mentioned tenants on the Kilcommon estate having been served with processes for arrears of rent submit their cases severally to your consideration hoping that in the present cases you will not take proceedings against them as this year in particular is turning out a year of severe hardship for the potatoes. We expected [we] could hold the summer’s provisions for ourselves and for families. Should you proceed against us generally we do not know what we will do in the present trying circumstances, so we humbly hope your honour will consider us in the present cases for which we are duty bound to pay.
How Greeson acted on this occasion is not recorded, but by 1849 many of the large farmers on the estate had been evicted. It was little wonder then that threats towards land agents and estate personal continued unabated. There were similar scenes in September 1847 when a huge crowd gathered in Shinrone and proceeded to William Minchin’s house to protest against the payment of rent.
Shinrone Relief List
These are just some of the incidents, albeit glimpses, which occurred in the locality during the Famine and provide an indication of how people suffered. Another valuable source for the study of the Famine in the area is the ‘Shinrone Relief List’, which was maintained by the relief Committee of Roscrea Union, with entries relating to people from Shinrone village and the townlands of Druminduff, Gortcreen, Keeloge, Dunkerrin, Corolanty and Cangort amongst others. The distribution of relief was broken down into three areas known as the breakdown of ‘Shinrone helpless poor’, who numbered 439 people; ‘Kilmurry helpless poor’, who numbered eighteen and ‘Kilcommon helpless poor’ who numbered twenty-nine. The document is remarkably detailed about what it reveals about the lived experience of Famine. While there has been an outpouring of publications in the past twenty years or more about the Great Famine, we still know very little of how it impacted people on a personal and familial level. Moreover, in certain parts of the country, owing to the absence of census data, we do not know the names of those who endured the most suffering during Ireland’s greatest catastrophe. The information contained in this document then is revealing on a number of levels and includes the following details: name, age, residence, occupation (where given), Conditions of the people, gender, average size of the holdings and their marital status- whether married, single, widowed or otherwise.
Analysing the data from the document in relation to age shows that the Famine hit all age groups, but with the young and old most vulnerable. Many of these are described as being ‘sick and old’ (such as Mary Butler, aged 70); or ‘helpless’, and in the case of one poor six-year old boy, he was described as ‘deformed and sickly’. There were those like Mary Warde of Ballytoran who was blind and the oldest recipient of relief and Benjamin Lewis of Towra, aged 85, an army pensioner who was born 1762. Others were described as being sick and unable to work in any of the relief schemes including Michael Treacy, aged 36, who was suffering from ‘swelling in the limbs’. The lists also highlights that there were a number of ‘illegitimate’ children, suggesting perhaps that as the Famine got worse they were abandoned or left at the workhouses in Roscrea. There were also those like Jane Donlon, aged 35, and described as a ‘beggar’ who also had an illegitimate daughter with her when she sought relief. Another child, aged four, and named as ‘Thomas Grant’ was with his grandfather, Michael Grant who could not work because of ‘swelling in limbs’.
The inclusion of occupations also provides interesting information about the pre-Famine make-up of the village and its wider hinterland. The documents suggest a community of cottage industries existed in this part of Offaly on the eve of the Famine and that many supplemented their income with a host of activities. For example, the list includes occupations such as masons, carpenters, weavers and shoemakers – Robert Delaney of Shinrone was described as a ‘post boy’ and Denis Quinlan a ‘sailor not employed’. A number of recipients, including the Walsh family, were listed as ‘labouring at the river’, presumably a reference to Famine relief projects already in operation near Shinrone. As we know from the history of more illustrious natives of the area, shoemaking was a major business of the time something which John McDermot had done before he fell on hard times. Others had been employed in local ‘big houses’ such as Cangort and in the employ of the Atkinson family. Naturally, many men were listed as labourers but women too, like Ellen Ryan, aged fifty, were employed as ‘occasional labourers’ on farms and in other public works.
The majority of those seeking relief came from very small holdings, in most cases two to three acres of land which were unable to cater for a population dependent on the potato. It was because of this whole families depended on relief, as in the case of the Walsh family from Shinrone, who eight in number, ranged from ages fifty-two down to twelve. It appears that many family members sought assistance from the relief committee when family members could not provide for them. This was the case with Bridget Doolan, aged sixty-four, who was listed as living with her son-in-law in Shinrone. In many ways the document can be viewed as a Famine era census of Shinrone, and although not complete it offers an array of information about those who sought relief during the Famine. It is obvious that many of the applicants were unfortunate to find themselves in such circumstances. For example, Thomas Bergin, aged forty-one, from Shinrone (or to be more precise ‘near Billy Dea’s’) was a carpenter by trade had succumbed to dysentery and so sought relief. Likewise, Isabella Pike, a former schoolmistress and aged sixty-four now depended on relief, while the deserted Hayes children – Mary, Pat and Sally had no assistance from their parents. Some were crossed out as ‘not belonging to the parish’ suggesting that those distributing relief were adamant that there would be no assistance given to the proverbial ‘outsider’ or those who did not deserve help. There were others who were struck off without a valid explanation. The Moores of Magherareagh were one such family who were struck off. But for what reason or what was their crime? There are still a number of questions which remain unanswered and the ‘Shinrone Relief List’ is a document deserving of a further and much wider study. No doubt local knowledge of the landscape and indeed the inhabitants of the area would shed further information on the 489 or so names included on the relief lists. Finally, one wonders is William Carney of Shinrone, listed as a shoemaker (with a daughter named Phoebe included in the family name) one of Obama’s long lost cousins?
More reading and both available at Offaly History Centre, Tullamore and the online bookshop.
Dr Ciarán Reilly is a historian of nineteenth & twentieth century Irish history at Maynooth University.