County Mayo was one of the areas to suffer most severely both during the Great Hunger and in the decades that followed. As a consequence, its population has fallen dramatically.
Instances of potato blight were being reported in late September 1845. The implications of the disease were particularly serious as approximately nine-tenths of the local population depended on potatoes for subsistence. Inevitably, therefore, the partial failure of the crop in 1845, followed by total failure in 1846, proved to be disastrous for the poor in Mayo.
What made the suffering worse was the fact that the winter of1846-467 was freezing, with snow falling as late as April 1847, which meant that people employed on the government’s public work schemes were freezing, lacking adequate clothing and footwear. A number of volunteers from philanthropic bodies visited Mayo in that year and they were shocked by what they witnessed. James Hack Tuke, a young English Quaker, spent time in the remote region of Belmullet- an area with few resident landlords. He described the people as "living skeletons … barely able to crawl." Tuke never lost his sympathy for the people of Mayo; he revisited the same area in 1880, during a another period of famine.
Another visitor to Mayo in 1847 was Count Paul de Strzelecki, a Polish explorer and scientist who had had volunteered his services to the London-based charity, the British Relief Association. The Association had been founded by a group of wealthy London bankers, led by Baron de Rothschild, an English Jew. Like Tuke, Strzelecki felt nothing but sympathy for the poor of Mayo, especially the children. He used part of his funds to open schools. Children who attended received a suit of clothing and were given a free meal a day. Sadly this scheme ended in 1848, at which time when the funds of the Association had run out. Strzelecki refused to accept any payment for the work that he had done, although he was knighted. Like Tuke, he continued to be a champion of the Irish poor, even from afar, giving evidence before a parliamentary committee in 1849, during which he criticized the harsh and, at time heartless, policies of the British government.
The town of Westport in County Mayo witnessed some of the highest levels of suffering during the Famine regardless of the presence of a number of benign resident landowners. The Marquis of Sligo was a young man of 24 when he inherited the estate from his father in 1845. The Sligo family had a reputation for being good landlords, which he maintained. Together with his mother, Lady Catherine Sligo, the Marquis assisted the poor in a number of ways – providing them with blankets, bringing in a shipload of food to Westport, and financing the local workhouse when it almost closed due to lack of income. The new Marquess’s approach was praised in the Connaught Telegraph of August 1846:
On Saturday last the inhabitants of Westport witnessed a novel, and at the same time, a heart-rendering sight. About mid-day some thousands of the rural population marched into town to have an interview with the Most Noble Marquis of Sligo: they approached the grand entrance of the Noble Lord’s residence, and having, after some little delay, obtained admittance, they proceeded, with the most becoming order to the Castle, none attempting to even walk off the road, lest their doing so might injure the grass of the demesne. Having arrived before the hall door the Noble Marquis (as was custom of his deceased father) instantly came forward to meet them: he talked with them: deplored the visitations with which God had afflicted the land: told them he would instantly state their condition to obtain them relief, and that as to himself, he would go as far as any landlord in the country to redress the grievances of his tenantry.
The Sligo family were part of a small, but significant, group of benevolent landlords. Unfortunately, many other landowners had little sympathy for their poor tenants, using the Famine as an opportunity to clear their estates of them.
In 1849, the beautiful valley of Doolough near Louisburgh was the scene of one the most poignant incidents of the Famine. A number of poor who were in receipt of government relief were told that they had to attend Delphi Lodge in order to meet with the local workhouse officials. The Lodge was approximately ten miles from Louisburg – but could only be reached by walking along inhospitable terrain. A number of the poor never made it home, leading to accusations of cruelty and callousness by the officials. The precise number who died at Doolough is not known – possibly 12 – but the tragedy lived on in popular memory and, in the 1980s, Don Mullan of AFri (an Irish charity) initiated an annual famine walk along the Doolough Valley. The walk continues to this day.
The human toll of the Great Hunger in County Mayo was high and of long duration. Between 1845 and 1851, the population of County Mayo fell by 29 per cent, from approximately 389,000 to 255,000, due to a combination of death and emigration. In 2011 (a census year), the population of the county was 130,638.
Today, the national famine monument, by artist John Behan, is situated in Murrisk, on Clew Bay.
The letters of Lady Sligo form the basis of an exhibition, curated by the Great Hunger Institute, which is currently on display in Quinnipiac University, but will be transferring to Westport House in County Mayo in April 2015.
The heritage centre at Blacksod Bay on the Mullet Peninsula is creating a data-base of the emigration that took place during the 1879-82 famine.
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).