A Letter of Life during the Famine
A fascinating letter dating from the 18th January 1847 provides detail into how the Great Famine affected the Newry area. This letter is on display in Gallery Two in Newry and Mourne Museum.
The letter was written by Samuel Reid to Lady Garvagh. Lord and Lady Garvagh (the Canning family) owned substantial land in the Newry and Mourne area and their son, Alfred Stratford George Canning, lived in Rostrevor until his death in 1916.
In the letter, Lady Garvagh is informed of the soup kitchens and relief committees established in Warrenpoint, Kilkeel and Newry to assist those most affected by the onset of famine following the failure of the potato crop. Samuel Reid assures her that he has donated funds on her behalf to these institutions;
‘A Soup Kitchen & Relief Committee has been established in Kilkeel to which I gave £5 for your Ladyship. In Warrenpoint a similar Relief & Soup Kitchen to which I also gave £5.’
He also states that a poor cottier and his wife died, and that he is working with other landlords to provide employment:
‘ a Poor Cottier & his wife died in Carrickmacstay of want & fever & I have got in consequence another Cabin taken down. I am making some fences in that quarter to give employment in conjunction with the other Landlords …’
Detail is also provided on the state of Newry Workhouse, which was under severe pressure as the harsh, cold winter of 1846/47 saw numbers entering the workhouse rise sharply:
‘… Our Poor House is more than full. They fill up the vacancies each Saturday caused by death & going out & generally have to reject about 50 each week. The Fever Hospital is still full but fever I am rejoiced to say is declining…’
Samuel Reid also criticises the government claiming it “has much to answer for by allowing prices to be so raised” but is full of praise for another local landlord, Lord Downshire, who he describes as “a truly Noble Fellow … setting an example to the Landlords of Ireland he never has a days rest.”
Samuel Reid was also Chairman of Ouley Relief Committee, and would have been very acutely aware of the suffering caused by the famine.
As Chairman, he sent letters on behalf of the committee to Lord Randolph Routh in Dublin Castle. These letters survive in the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. In one of these letters dated 7th February 1847, he outlines the great distress in the Barony of Newry, and that a subscription has been collected for the relief of the poor who are in extreme destitution in the electoral division of Ouley. He goes on to state that the situation is exacerbated by the extraordinary rise in the price of food, with many living on one or two meals a day. He notes that Captain Brereton of the Board of Works has been making enquiry into the state of the poor in the district and has placed some of them at work breaking stones. He also encloses a list of people who have made subscriptions, £86 of which has already been paid to the Treasurer of the Relief Committee. He asks that Lord Routh double the amount that has been collected and goes on to state the reason for this request:
‘… their (Committee) reason for asking so much is that this district has not any resident gentry and the subscriptions is made up amongst the famers who are in general smallholders and four landlords out of the 12 townlands have only as yet subscribed.’
Townlands that came under the Electoral Division of Ouley included Loughorne, Ardaragh, Curley, Shinn, Finnards and Ouley. Those who made subscriptions included John Martin of Loughorne, who gave £5 and Lady Garvagh, the principal landowner in Ardaragh, who gave £10.
The image below shows detail from a map of the townland of Finnard dated May, 1841. This section of map shows smallholdings in Finnard, three of the farmers listed, subscribed to the Ouley Relief Fund in 1847, William Heslip, John Ward and John Crawford.
The 2015 Annual Famine Commemoration will take place on Saturday, 26th September, in Newry.
This is the eighth year in which the Great Famine has been marked with a formal Commemoration and the first time that the Commemoration will take place in Northern Ireland.
In recognition of the fact that the Great Famine affected all parts of the island, the location of the annual Commemoration has rotated in sequence between the four provinces since the first Commemoration took place in Dublin in 2008 and falls to Ulster in 2015.
As part of the Museum’s events and activities, we will be looking back each week on the history of the Famine in the local area and how it affected the population of Newry and its hinterland.