THE FAMINE IN DOON
FOOD OR FAITH
- Gerry Carew -Hynes
If you could imagine Doon in the early 1800's, a rural community with little, if any conveniences or comforts. The type and size of the houses varied within the parish from the large gentleman's residences to smaller farm-houses and for the majority, one roomed cabins, made from mud, sods and stones. Remnants of this type of mud cabin can still be seen just below the Grotto near our present Catholic Church in Doon. The population of the parish was larger than any other time in history, and the biggest proportion of this population was almost solely dependant on the potato crop. This was a segment of the population on the very lowest rung of the economic ladder, having large families and because of sub-division, very small plots of land. From the 1821 census we learn that there were 799 houses in the parish, approximately 841 families living between them, it was not unusual for more than one family to share a house. This census recorded 4884 persons in the parish of Doon.
This was a community still reeling after the cholera epidemics in the 1830's which reeked havoc on the whole community, rich and poor alike. It suffered mini-famines every odd year or so and in the "40's you had a string of bad years for the potato crop, spelling complete disaster. You had a community with almost no other food source and dependant on everybody else. Here we have a massive disaster taking place......who can help?
The Landlord Classes, resident and absentee?
While it must be recorded that many landlords aided their tenants and even paid their passage to America, for most this was a convenient famine. A good excuse to get the tenants off their lands because as holdings got smaller and smaller and less viable it became more difficult to extract rents for their properties.
"In the year 1847 there were in this parish 989 bouses but now there are only 375. 614 Catholic houses were levelled to the ground and their inmates were driven out, like wild beasts by merciless and inhuman landlords. Many died almost immediately of hunger and starvation, many prolonged life for a short time in temporary sheds, they threw up on the highway sides, or in the gripes of ditches. Some entered the workhouses where they lost their sight and ultimately died by slow degrees, but such that had the means left, fled to America".
The Middle Men, traders and grain merchants?
Due to the famine the value of their stocks increased, they were a very powerful lobby in the country and quite prepared to block shipments of foreign grain coming into Ireland because it would affect the value of their own stocks.
The Clergy both Protestant and Catholic?
As with any other area within the country these were the people on the ground. The population in Doon as elsewhere was mainly Catholic, and help when it was offered often came with a price tag. Though one religious grouping who offered vast aid nationally was the Quakers, and they had no strings attached. Priests and ministers often found themselves forming Parochial Committees who investigated the famine situation and gave official reports of their findings. Thomas Atkinson became vicar in Doon following the death of Charles P. Coote in 1838. Fr. P. Hickey became Parish Priest of Doon and Castletown in March, 1824. Atkinson found himself on such a Parochial Committee, and reported "of those who died in consequence of hunger, 300"
In 1847 the total number of deaths in one six months of starvation, want and hunger within the parish of Doon was 300 people.
"No one but those on the spot could form an idea of the extreme distress and misery that existed in this parish. The Rev. Mr. Atkinson, the Protestant parson here, was one of the committee. He saw and sedulously watched everything, he was intimately acquainted with the sad state of the people. I have no language sufficient to describe the intense and fiendish hatred he entertained for our holy religion. He had no family, he was very wealthy, had ample means, not less than £800 a year. When he found that the time was ripe he commenced the work of proselytism"
A small number of people changed their religion in Doon during the Famine and many returned to their faith in the years afterwards. News of this travelled to Rome and Fr. Hickey P.P. and Fr. O'Dwyer, C.C. were asked by the then Bishop to account for this situation!
They explained the distress of their community and the workings of Mr. Atkinson, but assured the Bishop that, "hundreds and hundreds of Your Grace's Flock in this parish have died of actual hunger rather than live at the loss of their holy faith", they went on to say that "these were the worst of the flock.......incorrigible......they were all in extreme want and when the great
alternative of death or apostacy was offered them, they had not the grace of embracing martydom"
"Out of 989 houses which were in this parish in the year 1847 only 375 now remain. The rest 614 Catholic houses, have been thrown down to the ground and their inhabitants for the most part have been cast on the bleak world, without employment, without food, without shelter, a prey to the seducers who swarm this parish offering them money and food and lodging and clothing in exchange for their religion"
Our attention must now be turned to the Catholic Clergy. Fr. Hickey became P.P. in Doon at the age of 36, we have no record of his income, though we assume he was supported by his parishioners. In 1847 in the height of the Famine he built a very large Catholic Church in Doon at the cost of £2,400 (three quarters of a million in todays terms). "...I got the site of the Chapel from the Grandfather of the present Earl of Derby and that the Chapel was built and completed by me exclusively from the resources of the parish"
A massive amount of money to extract from people already on their
knees. Fr. Hickey died in 1864 after spending forty years as P.P. in Doon, he
witnessed years of cholera epidemics and famine within his community. We know
that he died a very wealthy man with shares in the Great Southern and Western
Railway, Midland Great Western Railway and Waterforcl and Limerick Railway
amounting to almost £8,000, (in excess of two million in today's terms). He made
provisions for the Mercy Convent and C.B.S. to be established in Doon "... for
the education and improvement of the poor of the
The Mercy Convent came in 1865 and the C.B.S. in 1874 and are with us today, fulfilling that goal.
We could ask if the wealth of the parish was used to alleviate the distress and suffering? The massive drop in population in townland after townland speaks for itself. Who speaks of the famine in our parish, who remembers our grandparents stories, or was the pain so great that it has been wiped from our minds?
Our Catholic Church built in 1847, a monument to the Famine, has disappeared. The remnants of the mud cabins still stand. And occasionally we meet or hear of somebody arriving in Doon with scanty information of their ancestors, names, townlands, ships' passenger lists, all 'tracing their roots', and all with a pride in their ancestory, living reminders to us of those who were forced to leave a parish that had nothing to offer them, living reminders that they did not forget us and that they survived.
1,3&5 Letter dated Aug. 27th, 1853 by Fr. Hickey.
2&4 Letter dated Aug. 24th, 1853 by Rev. J. O 'Dwyer C. C.
6&7 Fr. Hickey's Will, dated 1864