As rent arrears mounted up and huge (in peasant terms) debts accrued, one landowner, Major Denis Mahon of Strokestown, devised a plan which involved clearing his estate of two-thirds of the tenant farmers, converting the crops from potatoes to oats, and increasing the average holdings to nine acres. He proposed what he considered to be lenient terms for repayment of rent arrears and eviction for those who did not comply. Emigration on a grand scale was the principle feature of his plan. There was little mercy for those who could not pay and 3,006 people, including eighty-four widows, were evicted from his estate.
Irish Poor Law made landlords responsible for relief of the poor on the smallest properties - those valued at 4 Pounds or less. This gave landlords a strong incentive to rid themselves of tenants who were in that category and unable to pay rent.
When John and his neighbours fell into arrears on their farm rent to Lord Lorton, a Warrant of Distrain was issued by the sherriff. Their milking cow, crops, and other property were then seized to satisfy the debt. Predictably it was insufficient, and a Bill of Ejectment then compelled them to surrender their holdings and their cabins.
The first John and Mary knew of the next step was a raised voice outside their door, I, Lord Lorton, do hereby give notice to John Noon, of Croghan, County Roscommon, and all thereof unto him, to forthwith quit the tenure which he holds from me. Lord Lortons manager was accompanied by four men each armed with a long black crowbar; behind them, on horseback, six militiamen with muskets and bayonets at the ready. Come out, Noon, or well torch the roof over your heads. John and Mary had barely time to grab Catherine and Martin in their arms before the crowbar men stepped in and began to tumble the cabin. The cornerstone first, budged and tumbled inwards sinking the thatch with it. Next the far corner, then the other two corners, until the roof caved in completely. Next the lintel stones above the windows causing the walls above them to collapse. Now, robbed of support, the larger stones around the doorway posed no problem for the sweating men who then attacked the parts of the walls which they had not yet tumbled.
Evictions were invariably carried out by force with the involvement of the British militia and the cabins were then torn down to prevent tenants returning to them. Sometimes labourers involved in public works would return home to find their cabins destroyed this way during their absence.
In 1846 alone 4,600 ejectments were carried out; and by 1849 it was four times that number. And in 1850, over 104,000 people were evicted from their lands.
These helpless creatures were not only unhoused, but often driven off the land; no one remaining on the lands being allowed to lodge or harbour them. Or they, perhaps, lingered about the spot, and framed some temporary shelter out of materials of their old homes against a broken wall, or behind a ditch or fence, or in a bog-hole, places unfit for human habitations .... disease, together with the privations of other kinds which they endured, before long carried them off.
Such was the inhumanity of some ejectments that Fr. Michael McDermott, Parish Priest of Strokestown, County Roscommon wrote to The Evening Freeman on 9/12/1847:
I saw no necessity for the idle display of such a large force of military and police, carrying outside so many rounds of ball and cartridge, and inside so many rounds of whiskey, bacon and bakers bread, surrounding the poor mans cabin, setting fire to the roof while the half-starved, half-naked children were hastening away from the flames with yells of despair, while the mother lay prostrate on the threshhold wriving in agony, and the heartbroken father remained supplicating on his knees. I saw no need for this . . . physical force. Nor can I conceive that . . . humanity should permit . . . . bailiffs to revisit these scenes . . . with an order, if they found a hut built or a fire lighted in the murky ruins, to demolish the one and extinguish the other, thus leaving the wretched outcasts no alternative but to perish in a ditch.
Sadness was evident in all parishes. On October, 30th. 1847, the Rev. B. Hesner, Parish Priest of Ardcarne and Tumna, published in the Roscommon Journal the following details from the Destitution Census of Elphin concerning his parish:
Widows, Orphans 1050 Totally Destitute 3491
Died of starvation 463 (since commencement of potato rot)
Died of Disease 334 (consequence of famine)
Total deaths 817
Emigrated 1088. Number of families living on land 463
Individuals sick at present 230
The above villages are on Lord Lorton's property.
There were hordes of poor on the roads every day. The Catholics who could gave some little they had to these, a saucer of oatmeal, a handful of potatoes, a drink of milk or a little bottle of sweet-milk to carry away with them. It was not unusual to see a woman with two, three or four children half-naked, come in begging for alms, and often several of these groups in one day, men too. If the men got work they worked for little or nothing and when they were no longer needed they took to the road again. These wandering groups had no homes and no shelter for the night. They slept in the barns of those that had barns on an armful of straw with a sack or some such thing to cover them."
When there was widespread criticism in the newspapers over the evictions, Lord Broughman made a speech on March 23rd, 1846 in the House of Lords. He said: "Undoubtedly it is the landlord's right to do as he pleases, and if he abstained he conferred a favour and was doing an act of kindness. If, on the other hand, he choose to stand on his right, the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist. Property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of the land if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord's undoubted and most sacred right to deal with his property as he wished."
Even when tenants were evicted in the dead of winter and died of exposure, the British Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, "rejected the notion that house-destroying landlords were open to any criminal proceedings on the part of the government."
Later on the British Parliament passed a law reducing the notice given to people before they were evicted to 48 hours. The law also made it a misdemeanor to demolish a dwelling while the tenants were inside. As a grand gesture of goodwill, the law prohibited evictions on Christmas Day and Good Friday.
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Using the thatch and timbers of their destroyed home, John and the family found a ditch and constructed a shelter known as a scalpeen , but they were still on the landlords property and the bailiffs were sent to hunt them off. After this it was a hole carved out of a bank of earth, a scalp , roofed with sods and branches. All of the families ejected were in the same dire situation.
Mary was the first to go. So emaciated from going without her share of the meagre rations that when the fever (typhus) struck she had no resistance, and went quickly in the night with scarcely a murmur. John was next, as much from despair as from the fever. He tried to hold on for the sake of the children but there was just no strength left in him.
They were left where they lay, emaciated corpses, partly green from eating docks (weeds) and nettles and partly blue from the cholera and dysentery.
and half-naked, Catherine took Martins hand and they set off
down the lane too traumatised to even look back on their dead parents lying
in the filth of the scalp. They became wandering beggars and there began
a life of the most awful and precarious existence, huddled shivering in open
ditches at night and begging food by day from people who themselves had not
enough to live on.
Meanwhile John and Marys bodies joined the thousands of others tossed into open pits with a scant spadeful of quicklime to hasten their decomposition. The people had neither the material nor the strength to make coffins nor dig graves. Often, when a person died they got a plank and tied the feet of the corpse to one end of it and the head to the other end, and the hands together, then two men took hold of it, one at each end and carried it to a bog nearby where the water was deep and threw it in. There are many large tracts in Ireland, like the green fields in The Somme and other theatres of World War I, which are outwardly peaceful sentinels for the literally thousands of unmarked graves of those who perished during The Great Famine.
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There were ways to stay alive. Some enterprising Protestant ministers used bait to convert the Catholic poor. Blaspheming the Virgin Mary was sometimes the price of a bowl of soup. And on Silver Mondays a shilling was handed to Catholics seen at Protestant Vespers. British Bible Societies offering food, clothing and even jobs to jumpers or soupers as they came to be called, interpreted the Famine as Gods judgment on an indolent, hard-drinking, sinful people.
However, recent Famine research also reveals a degree of Protestant-Catholic co-operation seldom seen in modernday Ireland. Protestant clergy bartering soup for souls were actually the exception. Most were very generous to all in need, working alongside Catholic priests in relief work and in the fever wards.
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, first became involved with the Irish Famine in November, 1846, when some Dublin-based members formed a Central Relief Committee. They intended that their assistance supplement other relief. However, the relief provided by the Quakers proved crucial in keeping people alive when other relief systems failed. A number of Quakers were critical of government relief policies, holding them to be inadequate and misjudged. The Quakers donated food, mostly American flour, rice, biscuits, and Indian meal along with clothes and bedding. They set up soup kitchens, purchased seed, and provided funds for local employment. During 1846-1847, the Quakers gave approximately 200,000 Pounds for relief in Ireland. (26.)
The British Relief Association was founded in 1847, and raised money in England, America and Australia. They benefited from a "Queen's Letter" from Victoria appealing for money to relieve the distress in Ireland. The total raised was 171,533 Pounds. A second "Queen's Letter" in October of 1847, reflected a hardening in British public opinion, as it raised hardly any additional funds. In total, the British Relief Association raised approximately 470,000 Pounds.
In August, 1847, when the Association had a balance of 200,000 Pounds, their agent in Ireland, Polish Count Strzelecki, proposed that the money be spent to help schoolchildren in the west of Ireland. The British Treasury Secretary, Charles Edward Trevelyan, warned against it, fearing "it might produce the impression that the lavish charitable system of last season was intended to be renewed." Strzelecki proved adamant and Trevelyan conceded that a small portion of the funds could be used for that purpose.
Donations for the Irish Famine came from distant and unexpected sources. Calcutta, India sent 16,500 Pounds in 1847, Bombay another 3,000. Florence, Italy, Antigua, France, Jamaica, and Barbados sent contributions. The Choctaw tribe in North America sent $710. Many major cities in America set up Relief Committees for Ireland, and Jewish synagogues in America and Britain contributed generously.