Local History by Seán Beattie


From Famine to Festival – Clonmany 1883-2023

As we’re coming back round to the annual country and music spectacular that is the Clonmany Festival, while I won’t be grandad-dancing myself (my granddaughter is now approaching her 25th birthday) I intend to be a spectator in the Square in the village.

The Square, Clonmany (photo courtesy Marius Harkin)

The scenes of dancing and merriment which we’ve become accustomed to at the festival may give rise to thoughts of how life in the town has changed over time.

My thoughts may bring me back 140 years to when the parish was gripped by famine in 1883, a stark contrast to modern life. It was almost as severe as the Great Famine of the 1840s but is often ignored in the history books.

That year is also an important one in my family history as it was the year that my grandparents were married in Trenton, New Jersey. They returned to Ireland shortly afterwards, a land riven by hunger with the destruction of the potato crop in the Spring of 1883.

The Doherty Letter

These events of 140 years ago came to mind recently with the discovery of a letter from a Malin-born parish priest of Clonmany, Fr. William Doherty (PP 1873-1900). In March 1883, he wrote to Clonmany emigrants based in Boston for help to buy seed potatoes for the 900 families living in destitution as a result of the failure of the potato crop in the Spring.

The donation of money to buy seed potatoes had the added benefit as it gave encouragement to shopkeepers to give credit during the summer months. The line of credit was more generous if they knew that the seed potatoes were in the ground. This is a reminder of the role of the shopkeeper in keeping the undertaker away from many doors.

The pro bono spirit of the Clonmany community in Boston was always a source of support in times of crisis. In 1910, the Clonmany Association of Greater Boston formed a committee to rebuild the parish chapel back home in the town.

The Fields of Athenry and other songs of hunger and emigration may indeed be heard during the Festival in August 2023 – a reminder of how a community has overcome the hardships of the past to celebrate the present and the relative prosperity the parish enjoys today.

Seán Beattie 2023

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