The Great Famine in the Claddagh

In March 1846, it was reported, “In the town of Galway, people were suffering under the most trying privations; not a stone of potatoes could be purchased at market for the use of 20,000 inhabitants, and in the western suburbs in the Claddagh, the fishermen have been living on half rotten potatoes.”

The Society of Friends, otherwise known as the Quakers, may not have been the largest relief agency in the country during the Great Famine, but they were the most successful. Their central relief committee was set up in November 1846 to coordinate the work of committees around the country. They based their work on their perception of need over theory and made an appeal for funds, food, and clothing with the object of “affording the largest amount of good with the means at our disposal”. They did not equate endemic poverty with moral failure or Catholicism. They travelled through the country, especially in the west and south, and distributed questionnaires so that they could create an accurate record of the dispersal of funds and also to obtain a current and objective picture of Ireland in terms of need and unemployment. They published their surveys which refuted charges that distress was exaggerated and confirmed that devastation was widespread.

The Quakers viewed the Claddagh fishery as significant and found that even the nets of the fishermen had been pawned. They saw for themselves the effects of the high price of food, the poor supply of fish, and the poverty which was self evident.

One of their reports said “Families were reduced to a fearful depth of misery. They had been accustomed to live in tolerable comfort but now they are almost without furniture or bedding or clothes. In one small wretched hovel, in which were huddled together three families, I saw a young mother whose rags were really no covering much less a protection against the weather; but even there I found an instance of charity that would shame many a wealthy house. A poor blind woman was crouching on the floor; and my companion (a Dominican priest ) told me she had no relation to the other inmates, but that they supported her and gave her house-room out of kindness.”

The Friends worked in co-operation with the Dominicans who maintained the Piscatory school in the Claddagh. The Quakers gave out initial grants which enabled some fishermen to redeem their nets and tackle, they funded a fish-curer to instruct the locals, and established a fish-curing plant. As you can see from our poster, they employed a Cornish deep-sea fisherman, Captain Arthur Chard, in the spring of 1848, to instruct the fishermen in more modern methods. They invested in a large trawler to teach them deep water fishing which was not possible in the small coracles and rowboats many of the fishermen had, and they taught them how to market their fish. The Friends took soundings all around the west and south coasts to prove that while the fish passed the coast at particular seasons, the rocky bottom did not produce feeding grounds. This refuted the commonly held English argument that “the sea was full of fish and the Irish were too lazy to catch them”.

Our first image today (courtesy of the National Library ) is of an 1844 painting of a ‘fisherman’s hut’ in the Claddagh by the English artist Alfred Downing Fripp. It shows the poverty of the household symbolised by the empty skib on the floor and the empty vessels in the sparsely adorned dresser. The only other furniture evident is a rolled up bed leaning against the wall. This fisherman still had his nets with floats hanging from the rafters. Our second image (courtesy of the Friends Historical Library ) is of a poster advertising an event in the Square in 1848, organised by the Quakers to help and encourage Claddagh fishermen.

Both of these illustrations are from a new book which has just come on the market entitled Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. It is one of the finest publications ever done in this country and offers a powerful, unflinching, and coherent understanding of this period in Irish history. It is much more than an atlas though there are many maps accompanied by accessible yet scientifically sound texts. The historical background, the politics, the economics of the Famine are all discussed and profusely illustrated. Many of the images and descriptions are distressing, it does not make for easy reading but it is by far the best overview we have ever had of this traumatic and defining episode. Very highly recommended. In good bookshops.


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