As in other places in the Skibbereen Poor Law Union, the people of Drimoleague suffered terribly during the Great Hunger.
During the Great Famine around 2,500 people in Drimoleague died, emigrated or migrated – 42% of the overall population. From September 1846 – September 1847 alone we know that 865 people died in Drimoleague parish while a further 66 emigrated. In the month of March 1847, 100 children, 69 women and 58 men died of hunger and disease here.
These are stark statistics about real people but we know very little about their individual experiences. However, accounts written to the newspapers of the time offer give us some insight into the appalling conditions in Drimoleague at that time.
Rev. Tuckey’s letter of January the 8th 1847 said that:
“This district contains a population of about 9,000 inhabitants, of whom it is no exaggeration to say that, at the very least, 6,000 are destitute.”
Dr Dan Donovan of Skibbereen wrote about Meenies village in the Southern Reporter on the 26th of January 1847:
“A man by the name of Healy died in the parish of Drimoleague about a fortnight ago; his wife and two children remained in the house until the putrescent exhalations from the body drove them from their companionship with the dead; in a day or two afterwards some persons in passing the man’s cabin had their attention attracted by a loud snarling and on entering found the gnawed and mangled skeleton of Healy contented for by a pack of hungry dogs and pigs.”
The village of Meenies was visited shortly afterwards by the reporter and artist, James Mahony of the Illustrated London News who was brought there by the curate Fr Creedon. This illustration featured in the Illustrated London News on the 20th of February 1847.
(All that remains today of the village of Meenies)
Shortly afterwards, the chairman of the local relief committee, George Robinson, published this account about conditions in Drimoleague in the Cork Constitution:
“A poor man who had gone to glean from a dry-cut potato field was found dead yesterday evening by the ditch side, having fallen from weakness and exhaustion. A little boy remained beside the corpse all night, for the purpose of driving off the famished dogs that prowl around the country. The only survivor of this poor man’s family is a little child: all the others, his wife and 3 children have been swept away by famine.”
“Not a 100 yards from the scene of this melancholy event, lay 2 corpses – those of a man and a woman who had died of starvation – extended on each side of the fire, round which 3 dropsical and nearly famished children were sitting.”
“About half a mile further on lay the dead body of a poor woman who also died of hunger, and in the same bed was a wrenched, dropsical little boy, reduced to nearly the last extremity, the sole remaining occupant of this miserable hut.”
“There were 14 burials in Drimoleague grave-yard today, 6 of them without coffins. Fever is raging fearfully, and dysentery and dropsical swelling prevail to immense extent.”
On the same day another letter from Drimoleague featured in the same newspaper, this one written by Miss M.B. Tuckey (daughter of the Rev. Tuckey):
“Horrors are multiplying around us daily. Collections are made on all the roads now, among the overseers, check-clerks, stewards etc to provide coffins for the men that die on the road.”
There is little to remind us today about these catastrophic events in Drimoleague. The poor left little in their wake. Their houses disappeared as did the remains of the soup kitchen and fever hospital. We unknowingly drive on the roads and bridges that were built as Famine relief works by these starving people, many of whom died while working on them.
“There is a very large hole in one side of the graveyard and it is said that it was made during the Famine to put the dead people into it.” This is a description of Poll an Gorta in Drimoleague graveyard, the final resting place for hundreds of Famine victims.
The community in Drimoleague have come together to erect a Famine memorial at this site which was opened recently by the Mayor of Cork. Terri Kearney of Skibbereen Heritage Centre presented an historical background on the day of the opening to give a context for this important memorial and wreathes were laid at the site by the clergy of the locality. Despite the intemperate weather on the day, a large crowd attended the opening and there were moving renditions of the songs ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’ and ‘Drimoleague’ by Davina Connolly and Tadhg O’Farrell.
The memorial will serve as a place where the people of Drimoleague can mourn their Famine dead, and offer them the respect that was so lacking to them in life.
May they rest in peace.
© Terri Kearney, Skibbereen Heritage Centre