Inishowen’s Last Real Famine

The world and his wife know of the events of the Great Famine of the 1840s but few recall the Last Real Famine of 1880 which has slipped from the public memory. In Inishowen, the potato crop was devastated almost on a par with the 1840s but because circumstances had changed people were better able to cope. Two individuals came to the assistance of Donegal, Bishop Logue of Raphoe and the Duchess of Marlborough, both of whom operated famine relief committees on a grand scale.The son of a blacksmith from Kilmacrenan, Logue lived in Buncrana for a short period as he trained to be a priest  at one of the classical schools and he became a cardinal in 1893. The Duchess set up her committee in 1879 and it covered four counties, Donegal, Clare, Kerry and Cork. One of her first acts was to send 15 tons of coal to Tory island. 

The crop failures of 1879 created huge problems. This county grew 48,000 tons of potatoes, mainly Champion,  so the diet was still predominately based around the potato as in the Great Famine. (This was true of the diet of country folk until the 1950s. I recall visiting houses in Carrowmena in which the main dish was a plate of potatoes with milk). On January 4 1880 Bishop Logue set up a Central Relief Committee, known as Logue’s Committee and within a short time, he had 46 branches in Donegal including all Inishowen parishes. Randolph Churchill made a contribution as did Ellen Sherman in America, wife of General Sherman; she had Donegal family connections to Dohertys and Boyles. 

Laggan farmers ignored the famine as it did not hit this area and they were concerned that it would lead to an increase in labour for child workers at the hiring fairs.

In March 1880, £72,000 was spent on relief in Donegal. In the same month, the government passed the Seeds Act which supplied seed potatoes throughout the county. It was this act that saved the county from total disaster but it did not stop the surge in emigration, most of the emigrants being women and landless labourers. One parish in particular was greatly indebted to the Bishop and the Duchess. The parish priest of Clonmany stated publicly that had it not been for both relief funds, there would have been greater loss of life. He pleaded for more help when the Marlborough Fund ran out. However, the emigration figures for the parish tell their own story and those who were suffering most decided they would not tolerate it any longer and left. There are no public monuments to the Duchess, apart from a brass plaque in the entrance hall of the Lord Mayor’s residence in Dawson Street, Dublin. Some streets in Derry and Dublin carry the Marlborough name.  Few women engaged in philanthropy at this time yet her heroism and charity and now in oblivion. She deserves better. 

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11 thoughts on “Inishowen’s Last Real Famine

  1. These are the stories we need to hear more of… there were a number of good folk like the Bishop and the Duchess who took it upon themselves to help in a practical way, yet they have virtually gone unnoticed. Thank you for bringing this story to our attention.

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