I had the great honour this week of meeting a woman who came thousands of miles to retrace the path her ancestors took when they left Gorey for America in 1850. Her families name was Breen and Casey, and many Breens and Caseys remain here today. They left as Famine Refugees, leaving Gorey behind for a new world, never to return. As part of our meeting, this woman wanted to know what the town they left was like, what sights and sounds did they see and how bad was it here. In the days that followed, I had two further conversations about the Famine, one down in Johnstown Castle, sitting at the old Workhouse Table that they have in the museum and another with a fellow guide while sitting on a plane flying into London. It struck me that it is often the descendants of those that left who know more about the story than we, the descendants of those who stayed and survived.
So please beg my forgiveness as today’s Blog takes a slightly darker tone! What was life like in Gorey during the Irish Potato Famine.
In the early 1840s, Gorey was a busy market town, with fairs held on different days of the week for various things like cattle, horses and the biggest poultry market in the county! The town was just as sprawling and large as it is today, but landmarks such as St Michaels Church and the Railway line had yet to be built and Courtown Harbour was simply Courtown, there was no harbour yet, though the plans had been written. The lands surrounding Gorey saw much smaller fields, with little hamlets and tiny villages with only a half dozen or so small cottages within them.
Life was very simple, the people who lived in these small farms, growing barley and wheat had names like Breen, Casey, Roche, Stafford and Byrne. Almost everyone owned a horse or donkey, a pig, a few geese, maybe a couple of chickens too and many people co-owned a cow or two or a small flock of sheep with their neighbours for wool, meat, milk, butter and cheese. Children, much like in earlier times had the responsibility of gathering firewood, water and foraging for seasonal items to supplement their plain diets. Oat porridge in the morning, a bowl of potatoes served with a little goose or mutton for a mid-day meal and another bowl of porridge before bed.
Outside every house, you would find neat rows of potatoes growing in drills alongside larger fields filled with oats, wheat and barley. These were there to pay the rent!
Most people still spoke Irish, though English was becoming more common, especially in towns like Gorey with Markets and Fairs drawing people from far afield.
The workhouse had recently opened, it had a capacity of 500 but it was far from filled, it was used as a hospital and as a home for people with serious mental health issues, older prostitutes riddled with venereal diseases & people who had literally no other choice. A dark unwelcoming place with terrible food, a place families were segregated and a place everyone was expected to spend a minimum of ten hours a day doing back-breaking work to pay their way. Most people would prefer to rely on the charity of strangers and sleep under the stars!
Rumours began in late Spring of 1845 that a disease was killing the potatoes, some brushed it off as scaremongering but others were worried. You could grow enough potatoes on a small plot to feed your family for the year ahead, provided they were stored correctly. The grains paid the rent but even if they didn’t you would need acres and acres of grain to feed your family all year.
Then in August, word came, the blight had hit a farm in Bunclody and as the weeks passed it spread throughout the county. In September the Wexford Conservative newspaper reported it being particularly bad “between Gorey and the Sea”
This would have been devastating for all those families living here, despite the fact, the grain had almost doubled its usual yield, the extra money earned meant little as the price of potatoes at more than doubled by Christmas such was the shortage. The Poor Relief Committee made up of wealthier local people and partially funded by donations from various Landlords doubled their efforts, creating work for those who couldn’t afford to buy the potatoes. Lord Courtown donated £10, Lord Ram donated £20 and Grogan Morgan of Johnstown Castle had kindly donated £25 even though he owned no lands in the area such was his concern.
Ten hour days, building walls, digging drainage ditches and breaking rocks down for road building. Hard work, even harder when you consider their circumstances:
“ … the town of Gorey which consists of one street containing 112 houses. In nearly one-third of them are couched two families making on the whole about 140 families, according to the general average this will give you about 700 individuals…….. thee are about five families able to support themselves…I beg to submit 2 instances; the first a labourer, his wife and six children being frequently obliged to fast from dinner on Thursday to midday on Saturday. The second labourer, his wife and family being obliged to live from day to day on one turnip, having no other earthy substance”
All hopes were on the upcoming harvest if the potatoes grew then all would survive and get through the year, but it was not to be. A warm and wet Spring brought with it the same black mould on the stalks and the crop failed again. Soup Kitchens were set up in the larger villages like Riverchapel, Ballygarret, Ferns and Ballycanew. It was reported that the one in Ardamine was feeding 56 families alone. The fishermen along the coast were forced to pawn their nets and equipment and the woodlands, hedgerows and beaches were stripped of anything edible.
But the worst was yet to come, as winter arrived it brought with it ice, sleet and snow, ferocious gales and freezing rain. People had long ago pawned any extra clothing and sold their animals so had nothing to keep them warm. Out of sheer desperation they came to the Workhouse looking for shelter, by October the workhouse was full, by February it was overflowing 687 people were now sheltering inside its walls. But the overcrowding inevitability led to rows, fights and the spread of lice, fleas and diseases. Those lucky enough to still have a little money sold up everything and took the long walk to New Ross, Waterford or Dublin. Bound for America they boarded ships like the SS Dunbrody in New Ross, anxious to escape and start a new life.
As the Spring of 1847 finally arrived, taking away the last of the heavy snow, the population had decreased considerably and the landscape had begun to change. All along Tara hill were crudely built mud cabins filled with desperate families who had lost their homes. In order to access the Workhouse people had to clear their land of all buildings before they handed it back to the landlord so the little hamlets and villages began to disappear.
The workhouse now had over 800 people registered as inmates and more still were attending the soup kitchens. Those still remaining on their farms must have prayed and hoped beyond hope that the potatoes they planted this year would grow and this nightmare could finally come to an end. But it was they were not to escape it yet.
By 1848 there were 975 people in the workhouse, remember it had originally been built for 500 people. A further 3000 were receiving a bowl of stirabout (a type of porridge) or soup every day. And many had all but given up. Over the next few years, more continued to either emigrate or lost everything and moved into the workhouse. By 1951 it was home to an incredible 1420 people, almost 3 times its original capacity.
But the fishermen along the coast were given loans to purchase back their fishing nets and equipment and over 30 boats were operating out of the newly built harbour. Work became available building the new Railway to Gorey and eventually the blight passed on.
By 1852 The famine had officially ended. But for many who survived, their lives would never be the same. Some who had received rudimentary training in the Workhouse managed to forge new trades like tailoring and shoemaking. Others etched out a living working as day labourers and life slowly returned to some sort of normalcy. But during the past ten years, the population in Wexford dropped by over 22,000 people. That’s enough to fill Wexford Park GAA Stadium!
So if you are from Gorey, have a little think about what your ancestors may have seen and lived through. If you have moved here, spare a thought for what may have happened on the land your home now sits on. Take a spin down to Johnstown Castle and visit their Famine Exhibit to find out more and maybe take a walk up Mount Leinster to see the old abandoned potato drills that have lain there now for the last 170 years or so.
And be grateful that the people and so the town of Gorey survived this darkest of times.