The impact of the Famine in County Donegal, in the west of Ulster, was varied, reflecting the economic and social diversity of this area. On the eve of the Great Hunger, almost 40 per cent of the land in Donegal was classified as bog or wasteland. The county had a lower dependence on potatoes than other parts of the province, with only 11 per cent of the total acreage sown being devoted to potatoes, compared with 27 per cent in County Down. Instead, oats were an important part of the diet of the local poor. On parts of the coast, fishing communities existed, mostly surviving from the produce of inshore waters and from what they could gather along the shoreline. Overall, many of the local population survived on the edge of subsistence.
The unfolding of the Famine, followed a similar pattern to other parts of the country. On 29 September 1845, the Ballyshannon Herald published an article warning, ‘The potato crop looks most luxuriant but some are complaining that a disease has prevailed to a partial extent …’. Within a month, potato disease had appeared in all parts of Donegal, although there were considerable regional variations within the county.
As was the case elsewhere in the country, it was the second and more devastating appearance of the blight which meant that the shortages could no longer be viewed as a temporary crisis. As early as November 1846, the Ballyshannon workhouse was full and, due to legislative restrictions, could admit no more paupers. Glenties workhouse soon followed. Quite simply, government relief in the form of public works and the workhouses were not able to cope with the demands being made on them, and the poor were beginning to die in large numbers.
News of the suffering in Ireland, carried by newspapers throughout the world, led to an international fund-raising effort of unprecedented proportions. However, it was Irish Quakers who were amongst the first to establish a relief committee for Ireland. In addition to their fund-raising activities, they sent a number of their members to all parts of Ireland on fact-finding missions. Their witness testimonies proved invaluable in countering the negative reports that were appearing in some sections of the British press.
James Hack Tuke, a young Quaker from Yorkshire in England and a sympathetic witness, was appalled by what he witnessed. He described the destitute in Donegal as ‘crying from hunger’. When he visited the Glenties Workhouse, he realized that the condition of people in receipt of official relief was little better, reporting:
Their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in rows on the floor … The living and the dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering … disease and pestilence are filling the infirmary, and that the pale, haggard countenance of the poor boys and girls told of sufferings, which it was impossible to contemplate without pity.
Women played an important role in providing charity thought the Great Hunger, although their role remains largely unacknowledged. The Londonderry Ladies’ Working Association was particularly active in sending assistance to Donegal. In April 1847, the Treasurer of the Buncrana Relief Committee acknowledged the receipt of £15 from the Association, it being their fourth donation for the poor of Lower Fahan and Desertegney.
In districts where the landlords were absent or uncaring, the poor were especially vulnerable. Captain Jones, an agent of the British Relief Association, described the condition of poor in Dunglow and Mullaghberg near Ballyshannon as ‘wretched’. He added, ‘they belong to nobody and nobody seems to take much interest in their welfare. They are, therefore, in the hands of the British Relief Association to keep them alive’. His statements give an insight into the importance of private charity in assisting the poor, especially in areas where government relief was inadequate and the local landowners were absentee. Not all landlords, however, were uncaring or absentee. John Hamilton, a landlord who resided in St. Ernan's, near Donegal Town, for example, was renowned for his benevolence throughout the Famine.
Evictions, particularly after 1847, added homelessness to the problem of hunger. Of all of the Ulster counties, Donegal witnessed some of the highest levels – it standing at almost 16 per cent. In contrast, Donegal experienced some of the lowest rates of emigration
Over 40,000 people died or emigrated from County Donegal between the years 1846 and 1851. But it was not simply the demographic loss that made the Great Hunger so devastating. Evictions, which were followed by the destruction of the houses of the poor, together with the gradual move to pastoral farming, changed the landscape for ever. Additionally, there was also a cultural loss that was hard to capture or quantify, one casualty being the Irish language. The descendant of a Great Hunger survivor from the Rosses in west Donegal expressed the impact of the years of suffering on her community:
Recreation and leisure ceased. Poetry, music and dancing died. These things were lost and completely forgotten. When life improved in other ways, these pursuits never returned as they had been.
The Famine killed everything.
Today, the Great Hunger is commemorated throughout County Donegal, including in the Doagh Famine Village in Inishowen, and the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre.
Professor Christine Kinealy, Director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, is author of "Charity and the Great Hunger. The Kindness of Strangers" (Bloomsbury, 2013).