On the morning of 30 June 1848, word spread quickly of a large movement of people from the direction of Balla towards Castlebar. The newspapermen who went to view the procession recorded that numerous donkeys accompanied the multitude.
On their backs, they carried starved children whose long hair covered their shrivelled features and old crippled men and women in turf baskets. Some donkeys carried between four and six children crammed into baskets.
In November 1847, the Rev. Martin Browne P.P, in response to queries circulated following a meeting of bishops at Loughrea, noted that seventy families had left the parish of Balla for England and America in the year to 30 October. Landlords forced a further forty families out while three hundred people had died. Eight months after this Destitution Census, the exodus continued. On that Thursday morning, the destination was Castlebar Workhouse.
At the workhouse, the newspapermen forced their way through the 3,000 half-dead creatures gathered around the entrance seeking food. The screams of the starving led one commentator to note that they would strike terror into the heart of a polar bear.
A correspondent from The Connaught Telegraph counted eighty-six donkeys lined up along the road with baskets filled with children. Due to the crowd, he could not count the number of donkeys further out the road. He noted his surprise that so many donkeys had survived the starvation that had wreaked havoc in the Castlebar Union area. Many donkeys had been slaughtered for human consumption.
A woman was seen pushing her way through the crowd leading a donkey by a súgán rope. The baskets on the animal's back were filled with bones of its own kind, gathered in the neighbourhood of Sarnaght. The woman intended to sell them in Lord Lucan's farmyard in the town, where they would be ground down to bone dust.
As darkness fell, the crowd disbanded empty-handed. People emerged from their homes with candles in hand and, in the words of one reporter, 'administered stimulants to the wretches as they lay on the streets, emitting green froth from their mouths, as if after masticating soft grass.'
There are numerous accounts of the slaughtering of donkeys for food during the Famine. Those that died in the field were also consumed. In April 1848, a man named Egan from New Antrim Street was reported to be critically ill, having eaten the putrid liver of a donkey dead for some time. The decline in the number of donkeys forced country people to carry turf in baskets on their backs for up to five miles to Castlebar. There they sold it for one half-penny a basket. The coin was hastily taken to the bread shop.
The donkey is a part of our culture and heritage and features heavily in folklore and local history. An online search of the Dúchas Schools Collection reveals hundreds of references to the words 'ass' and 'donkey' in Mayo essays. William Redmond of Malahide, Dublin, wrote the lines that best capture the sad intertwined fate of the donkey and humankind during the Famine: 'The people were so famine-stricken around Kinsealy that one could see them eating grass. They killed the little donkeys that served them years on their little farms. When the little ships left Malahide and Baldoyle with dying passengers on board, they were thrown overboard.' ('The Famine', The Schools' Collection, Volume 0792, Page 209' by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD is licensed under CCBY-NC 4.0 ).
While the human population plummeted in the century following the Famine, the donkey population experienced a resurgence. There were 247,000 in 1897. Many still recall large gatherings of country folk with their donkeys and carts at fairs in Castlebar, Balla, and elsewhere well into the twentieth century.
Over the last decade or so, the donkey population has declined significantly. In 2017, the Irish Donkey Society estimated the number to be less than 5,000, with cruelty and neglect being sad factors in the life of many animals (https://donkeysociety.ie/history-of-the-irish-donkey/. ) We owe the donkey an immense debt of gratitude, and we should ensure they are treated with kindness and respect and not allowed to slip away quietly into extinction. (Photograph: 'Arthur & Lancelot, Ballintubber', Paul Bordiss 2022 ).