A Tale from the Times of the Great Irish Famine
From the novel; Woodbrook by David Thomson
(ISBN 009 935991) Chapter 9 Part 2
This account of the famine years at Woodbrook was narrated to David Thomson by Nanny Feehily- Maxwell circa 1940
-- Her parents were married very young , as was the custom then , and had at least one baby before 1845, more during the famine, although she could not remember how many and was not sure of her own age. She knew she was born in the 1860s, the last of fifteen, and said she knew less of the bad times than many people of her age' on account of her brothers being all hot men that would not listen'. Her father and mother used often to be talking about the hunger and the fever and the terrible evictions, but the brothers would Say 'don't be telling us about those bad times and walk out the door, and I along with them '. I suppose it was like listening to war reminiscences now.
But soon it was evident to me that she had listened to her parents. Part of what they told her made her very unhappy and I guessed that she had never repeated it even to her children. She told me this part in the end , although I had never pressed her. It is easier to speak of misery to someone emotionally detached. I was full of newly read books and talked more than she did at first. For one thing, she was busy with the teapot and with shooing out the hens which came in when they heard the clink of china, hoping for crumbs; and then I think she did not really wish to talk about it. She would hear of no earthly reason for the famine and when I said that disaster could have been averted she stood still and looked at me.
' It was the hand of God' she said. 'What else could it be but the hand of God when a white mist came down over the whole of Ireland on that day, and in the morning _imagine if you was to walk out where you was working that yoke today' (she meant the spray can) and say to yourself, "There 's a grand crop growing ", and the stalks thick and strong and all full green with the flowers on them. And in the morning the whole country to be black with rotten stalks.
I forget the name of the field I was spraying that year, but am sure she mentioned it, for it was during that conversation that I found the origin of the field names we used daily without wondering why they were called so, as in a town one uses names of streets.
There was Flanagans rock, Clancy's rock, Meehan's garden ,Martin's garden ,McLannies, Higgin's , Cresswell's, Conlon's, Cregan's, Luffy's and five or six places with the names Feely in them. Nanny's maiden name. She knew the Christian names of of everyone who had lived in the townland when the famine began. Her house was the only one standing after it, and most of the name had no landmarks now, the walls of the gardens having been pulled down with the houses to make a wide open space of the Hill of Usna, where the beasts grazed and we roamed on our horses every day.
She said there were eighteen families living there in 1845, but I think there were nearly thirty, all tenants of farms, called ' gardens' of under five acres and surrounded by low stone walls. Most of the tenants kept no animals at all, but her parents and some others had one cow, a pig, a few fowl and space enough to grow a little barley. corn, animals and butter were not used to feed the family but to pay the rent. She said the summer of 1845 began with the best growing weather her parents could remember and that in that August , before the evening of the mist, every garden on Usna as far as they could see form their house ' shined with plants' and promised a big crop. Some people managed to save enough good tubers to keep them alive that year, but the crop of 1846 was a total failure.
When the eldest baby died next winter, her father persuaded her mother to go to the poorhouse with the other one or two- she could not remember how many - while he prepared the land in spring. He had enough barley seed to give them hope. Hunger and dysentery had weakened them and the weather was bad, but they walked to Carrick' without misfortune' and waited in a crown of hundreds outside the workhouse gates, hoping to see Captain Wynne who was said to be a good man. They were admitted to the gate lodge after a couple of hours, but it was Captain Wynne's day at the poorhouse of Boyle. Only the workhouse master was there, at a table, but at least there was a warm fire. He asked if they were still in posession of their land. They held three acres, yes , from Mr Kirkwood of Woodbrook and the rent was paid. 'Then I can do nothing' the workhouse master said.
By a new law from Westminster they were not destitute. He told them to go home to Mr Kirkwood, sign a paper giving up their land and to bring it back to him. Then he would admit the whole family. When they pleaded he reminded them that their landlord was one of the Poor Law Guardians. How could he go against the rules and Mr Kirkwood not know?
They walked home in the dark. Of course they did not give up their land. They were ill and almost starving like the rest, but they had escaped the cholera and had hope. Without the land the would have had stirabout (porridge) and no hope.
In January or February 1848 they were offered an alternative even more cruel. James Kirkwood sent for Nanny's father to the big house and told him he wanted no rent from that day on. He said he would give them enough wheat flour to make bread for the year and barley seed for spring sowing, and when the baby boy was old enough he would take him into the stables to work with the horses . He was buying cattle he said, and would need Nanny's father for a herd, and a herd is a permanent position which passes from one generation to the next, the house and 'garden' and the right of grazing a settled number of bullocks on the master;s land being free of charges. Nanny's father knew all about that, but asked how many cattle and where would they run, the only land for them being Shanwelliagh and the Bottoms which was bad grass, being rushy, and ' the Bottoms often times flooded.'
Mr Kirkwood said he would put the cattle on the hill of Usna which had the best limestone grass, dry and could keep sheep and horses too. Nanny's father said 'It is, it is the best of land alright and will be again with the help of God. ' But he was thinking of the people's walls and crops and houses that would stop the cattle. Nearly half of the houses were empty, their people having died or the lucky ones gone to America. Even so there were many that had hope of a crop next year.
Mr Kirkwood then flattered him , saying that he was the best tenant he had and that the others all looked up to him for advice. He said all the others must give up their houses and land and go to the workhouse, or to America if they could. He said it was the best for them, and that they would be fed. He did not want the police or military to put them out, but that Nanny father was to persuade them to go quietly, showing them how it was for their own good. He was, he said, their leader. At that meeting her father refused, saying he would leave only when the military tumbled his house down over his head along with the others. But when the day of the eviction , hunger and illness got the better of him. 'With the children and my mother sick, and another baby promised, what could he do.?' Said Nanny. 'He stood up on the houses and threw down the roofs of his own uncles even, many of his uncles and cousins, and he tumbled the walls down after. In the teeming sleet and snow the people were cast out to die on the road. Some few had strength enough to win through to America and more reached the poorhouse in Carrick, but the poorhouse was already filled and many died outside it lying against the walls.
James Kirkwood was not exceptionally callous. He probably thought, as many of his neighbours did, that he was doing the best he could not only for himself but for his tenants. Whether he threw them out or not, the people would die. If he tumbled down their houses, his rates would decrease and the land opened out for cattle, start to pay. Those evicted would have a chance however small of being fed in the workhouse. All these considerations led him to the harsh decisions which he made. Nanny's father had to make a similar decision, but for him it was ten times worse because he could only save his family by turning against his own people. For him it was solely a moral problem: his decision would not help or harm anyone, except his wife and children. If he refused Mr Kirkwood's demand, the ;'crowbar brigade' - a gang of freelance ruffians- would be called with soldiers and police to guard them. He would save his honour and almost certainly commit his family to death, for it was unlikely that the Master, having been crossed in so important a matter, would have found him land elsewhere as he had done at Newtown for the Conlons and a few others whose rent was up to date. Feely's choice was also governed by the long established instinct of a subject people. A few had shot their masters and went into hiding, but most were peaceable, even subservient. It seemed impossible to them to refuse a command from above.
My grandfather Patrick was baptised at Ardcarne/Cootehall Parish (located between Boyle & Carrick on Shannon), on 20th October 1847 and registered as Patrick Fihily. Both his father also Patrick and mother Brigid had the same surname ie Fihily Obviously one or both parents had strong ties with Ardcarne as they actually lived in the town of Boyle Co Roscommon by that time. Our family tradition has it that they had previously lived on Rockingham Estate (next to Woodbrook), were evicted probably in the early 1800s and came into the town of Boyle, where they continue the trade of stonecutting to this day. Another branch of the family moved to Croughan and Drumlion where they were very numerous in the last century. Incidentally the mother of the famous US writer & broadcaster Monsignor Fulton Sheen is one of this family.
The Baptismal Register for Ardcarne/Cootehall Parish also records that Ann Feehily (Nanny) was baptised on the 2nd October.1864 -father Michael Feehily / mother. Brigid Sharkod. The family to which Ann (Nanny) Feehily belonged were very probably cousins of my grand parents and had lived in this area even before the English planters took over their land in the 1600s.
J.M.F 1/1999 rev 2004