“Less is more” is certainly a term that can be applied to the writing of local history and very often what happens at the grassroots can shine a light on the questions posed by those engaged in the writing of national history. In some cases they can unearth new sources, archives or extrapolate – through a narrow focus – a larger conclusion.
In late 1996 I was commissioned by the Carrick-on-Shannon and District Historical Society to write a history of the Great Famine in Co Leitrim as part of the sesquicentenary commemoration. Due to the short research and write-up period the finished book, Leitrim and the Great Hunger: A Temporary Inconvenience, was essentially a brief overview of the effects of the famine in the county. The following year I began to research the Great Famine in Co Armagh and each time I uncovered new sources I always noted references to Leitrim. By the end of 2004 I had amassed a huge amount of original source material – which ultimately would form the central and new elements of my book, The Dead Buried by The Dying: The Great Famine In Leitrim.
It is ironic that the writing of local famine history has been circumscribed by the actions of the British administration of the time. When the Relief Commission ceased its work in the early summer of 1847 (the government declaring that the crisis was over), all relief was in future to be obtained under the poor law, through workhouses or outdoor relief. So, in standard works, historians have made extensive use of the correspondence to the Relief Commissioners, much of which gives testimony to the dreadful suffering which occurred from late 1846 to mid-1847. However, once this body of correspondence terminated only 18 months into the crisis period, they are forced to turn to the arid minute books of local boards of guardians, which lack the humanity of letters and the eyewitness accounts written from throughout the country.
In their rush to publish local histories during the sesquicentenary of the famine in the 1990s, historians were therefore unaware of the huge archive left by the Society of Friends Relief of Distress Committee. The existence of tens of thousands of letters and application forms in this archive transforms the potential for writing local famine history in two ways: firstly, the Society of Friends correspondence continues until 1850, illustrating the longevity of the crisis. Secondly, the Friends did not adopt the same stringent government regulations, so those not entitled to avail of official relief were supported by local initiatives, financed by the Society. For the historian this offers a much more detailed local exposition of the effects of the famine at the townland level, detailing those who received aid, both food and clothing.
While these and other sources, used in conjunction with local newspapers, allow the reader to gain an understanding of the tragedy at a local level – others abroad enable an assessment to be made of the consequences of the famine. The 1851 Census Of England, Scotland and Wales has been utilised in order to demonstrate the migration patterns of those Leitrim people who were forced to leave their native county. One particularly poignant table in the book extrapolated from the census is entitled “Leitrim natives in English workhouses in 1851”. Hence, men and women who had fled from the county in the hope of obtaining a better life ended up in the grinding poverty of English towns and cities.
While historians are aware of the census returns for 1841-61, few have analysed these in order to ascertain the impact of the famine at the townland level. Looking at population figures from 1841 to 1861 for 1,500 Leitrim townlands, the results reveal that the effects of the famine were more nuanced and complex than many might believe. For example, a surprising number of townlands actually showed an increase in population during the famine decade. However, the statistics also demonstrate how the overwhelming number experienced devastation, with many recording losses of 100 per cent in the 10 years between 1841-51.
My own interest in historical research was sparked by a desire to determine the origins of my family name. In this way I discovered the paramount importance of place in Irish history – the fact that the townland and parish played a key role in the nurture and development of Irish people. While many may lose their native accent, they never forget their native home and all its associations – family, church, school, GAA club. This perspective is reflected in the book where the emphasis is on grassroots history. When readers see a surname or townland with which they are familiar they can empathise to a much greater degree with the suffering endured by the population in those areas than if it occurred in an area with which they are unacquainted. Indeed, in the course of my research I discovered that in many townlands the descendants of families recorded as living there in the 1840s are still there to this day.
The Dead Buried By The Dying: The Great Famine In Leitrim is the first book to make extensive use of the papers of the Irish Relief Association and the Society of Friends, both of which allow us to examine this traumatic period to a degree previously unknown. Thus, the book is infused with the experiences of the ordinary people of Leitrim in the midst of the worst tragedy to ever affect the county.
The Dead Buried By The Dying: The Great Famine In Leitrim by Gerard MacAtasney is published by Irish Academic Press (iap.ie)