Like most towns in Ireland, Galway was used to food shortages; they had occurred here in 1816, 1817, 1822, 1831, and in 1842 there were food riots in the city. Nobody, however, was prepared for what happened in 1845 when the potato crop failed. As winter approached, the situation did not seem any worse than usual, though people were concerned about food being exported from the docks while there was a shortage locally.
As the full extent of the crop failure became evident, the workhouse became overcrowded, the Fever Hospital on Beggar’s Bridge (which got its name from inmates begging on the bridge ) was full of destitutes, and people would commit crimes to get sent to the (overcrowded ) jail just so they could be fed. A relief committee was set up in March 1846, but as the year drew to a close, it was evident that many would not survive the winter,
In December 1846 Rev John Darcy, a Protestant clergyman, set up the first soup kitchen which was located in Back Street. The Dominicans set one up in the Claddagh, and there were others in the Presentation Convent, the Convent of Mercy, St Vincent’s Convent, Merchants Road, Barna, and also in Lombard Street which was known as the Orphan’s Breakfast Institute, and was located in the Monastery School. These kitchens fed some 7,500 people per day.
The winter of 1846/47 was the most severe in living memory, and the number of deaths from hunger in the city averaged between 25 and 30 a week. Auxiliary workhouses opened in Newtownsmyth, Merchants Road, Barna, and Dangan. Epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery broke out, and by May 1847, these fevers were accounting for 100 deaths a week. During 1847 and 1848, 11,000 inmates died in Galway workhouse. On the bitterly cold morning of January 26, 1848, two children were found naked and dead on High Street, and another on an adjoining street.
For many, the only escape from all this misery and sickness and death was to emigrate in what became known as coffin ships. Many of these were merely freight ships which were converted to carry passengers. Our illustration today is of an 1849 advertisement in a Galway paper which tells us that “A truly lucky vessel, the Seabird” would be ready to take passengers on board as soon as the cargo of yellow corn had been unloaded. The advert tells us that this ship “will be fitted up in a most commodious manner for the accommodation of passengers”, but in truth, the accommodation consisted of hastily improvised bunks, the lower compartments were places of terrible misery, the ships were invariably overloaded, and the conditions were horrendous. The average journey was not 20 days but more like six weeks, and bad weather could make this 12. About 20 per cent of those who sailed perished en route, and sometimes the ships were refused permission to land because of the number of cases of fever on board, causing even more suffering.
The Famine lasted until 1850, but its effects lasted much longer; in the aftermath the survivors were so numbed by the extent of the tragedy that for a long time, there was no music or singing or dancing, and of course the awful haemorrhage of emigration began. All of the horror and misery and pain of that time is captured in a new book entitled Famine, Galway’s Darkest Years. It is written by William Henry and published by Mercier Press. It is a must for anyone interested in the history of Galway. It gives us an idea of what our ancestors went through, is full of contemporary illustrations, and is very highly recommended. Available in good bookshops.