Brendan Hoban: The Agony and the Anguish of the Famine Years

Western People 4.10.2022

I’ve spent much of the last ten years researching the Great Famine (1845-52) in the diocese of Killala. Last year, the first of a two volume history, Ocras, was published and in a few weeks’ time, a second volume, On Our Knees, will be in the shops.

It was a long but very satisfying trawl situating (in Ocras) the diocese of Killala in the context of the most traumatic event of modern Irish history and now (in On Our Knees) in the context of each of the 22 parishes.

As part of my responsibilities (as diocesan historian) for writing the history of Killala diocese, the Great Famine was a yawning gap to be filled that simply couldn’t be avoided. However, the immensity of the task and the difficult issues to be negotiated meant that I voyaged around it a bit before eventually setting sail into the deep.

Now I’m glad I did. It opened up not just a deeper understanding for me of Famine issues but a delightful discovery of an extensive archive that brought the local story to life.

Names and places I was familiar with kept reminding me of how recent was the horrific experience of death by starvation and from the fever ­and – with enforced emigration – the cumulative population loss. It was hard to get my head around total parish population losses of 52% in Lacken, 51% in Ballysakeery, 46% in Templeboy and 43% in my native Ballycastle.

It was even harder when I found incidents of death by starvation with names and places that might well be directly connected to my own place and even my own family.

In the Mayo Constitution, (3.11.1846) I read an account of an inquest on the body of Bridget Tomas who was found dead on the road outside Ballycastle. Evidence was given of her destitution. The coroner, after a post mortem,  explained that there were just two spoonfuls of flour and a small quantity of meal in her stomach. The verdict of the jury was ‘that the death of Bridget Tomas was hastened by the want of sufficient food for a length of time’.

My grandfather, Michael Tomas, was born in Ballyglass, near Ballycastle in 1851 – which brings the Famine years to just two generations from myself – so Bridget Tomas could well have been a close relative of his.

In the Ballina Chronicle, (14.5.1851) the jury in an inquest on the death of Patrick Hoban returned a verdict of death ‘through an insufficiency of food and exposure to wet and cold’. Patrick was from Ratheskin in Kilfian, where my grandfather, James Hoban, lived before moving to Ballycastle in the late nineteenth century. Such localised references, as with the deaths from starvation of Bridget Tomas and Patrick Hoban, served to focus and illuminate the local landscape of my understanding of the greatest humanitarian disaster in Irish history.

Local papers during the Famine years – a total of nine in Ballina, Castlebar and Sligo – carry a wealth of information, including lists, as in the Tyrawly Herald, of deaths by starvation. While newspapers are often diminished as a secondary source in historical research and are usually presented as ‘a rough first draft of history’, in this instance I found them a compelling and detailed record of events.

Of course due consideration has to be given to context and perspective – of the nine papers, the perspective of seven was generally described as ‘Protestant’, one ‘Catholic’ and one somewhere between the two. Contemporary reporting, I found, has the compelling advantage of a directness, immediacy and reliability that add significantly to the story of Famine times in each parish.

If others, in recounting a fuller version of the story of the Great Famine in their own parishes, decide to flesh out the limited narrative in these pages, they will find that trawling the pages of the generous coverage of Famine times in local papers will bear much fruit.

Another great source, though sometimes there are questions about their accuracy, was the data of (civil) parishes and their townlands to be found in the Census of 1841 and 1851, which bookend the Famine years.

I found it fascinating, for example, to compare the percentage population loss in Carrowhibbock Upper (30%) with Carrowhibbock Lower (83%) as well as Belderg More (60%) with that of Belderg Beg (.01%); and to wonder what was it specifically about Ballyglass (40%), Ballymachugh (48%) and Crott (73%) that caused such huge losses.

Everyone I suspect will be equally fascinated by the population loss in the townlands of their own parish, where they will find rich pickings to busy their winter nights. The focus in On Our Knees is unapologetically local.

That said, On Our Knees is not an easy read as the terror of the Great Famine emerges in the lived experiences of the people: the conditions in which they lived; the personal, social and poverty constraints they laboured under; the horrors they experienced; their desperate efforts to stay alive; and the deaths they endured. On Our Knees chronicles the agony and the anguish of the Famine years. This was the way it was.


My new book, On Our Knees, Famine in the Parishes of Killala Diocese (1845-52) will be launched in the Newman Institute, Ballina at 8.00pm on October 20.

All are welcome.

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