The Great Famine of 1847, caused by the total failure of the potato crop, was the most cataclysmic event of the last century. Even today remaining artifacts such as the famine pot at Lough Eske remind us of that grim period when a million people died of starvation and famine related disease and another million plus were forced to emigrate, many of them to die in the coffin ships bearing them to the land of promise.
Famine of course is a misnomer for the tragedy, because there was in fact a good grain crop in that year but the government allowed this to be exported while the people at home were dying of starvation. So much has been written about the famine that almost every schoolchild is conversant with its history, and we still have people with us who can recount some poignant tale of a harrowing experience in their own family which has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Jim McMullin, from Meenadreen did recall many stories told to him by his grandfather who lived through the famine and died at a very ripe age in 1911.
There had been failures of the potato crop before 1847 but these had been confined to specific areas where in certain years the blight had been particularly severe, and consequently did not have the same widespread effect that followed the 1847 failure.
Nevertheless they did cause great distress wherever they occurred and left the people in the affected areas economically and psychologically unprepared for the trauma that faced them in 1847. This was true of our own two parishes of Tawnawilly and Killymard which suffered badly in the potato failure of 1830/31. Whole families had to resort to begging to keep body and soul together. Let us look for a moment at conditions that prevailed in this area even before "black forty-seven".
The failure of the potato crop two years in succession, 1830/1831, created dreadful hardships and led inevitably to a breakdown in ordinary trading practice. People deprived of their staple diet had to resort to the shops to buy alternative supplies. This led eventually to a scarcity of provisions resulting in a marketing situation of supply and demand which regulated the prices. A continual rise in prices meant that even when supplies did become available the poorer classes could not afford them. The cottier or small farmer who had not enough land to provide for his family depended on odd labouring jobs with the better off farmers to supplement his meagre income, but eventually even the big farmers had to cut back on their outlay which meant less work for the already suffering cottier; and his wife fared no better. A woman might spin for a whole week to earn eightpence. The little seasonal employment housewives got preubsist by begging?" The response in Donegal was 100 and in Killymard it was 20. It is difficult in these days of affluence to perceive of a situation so desperate that a proud people were forced to strip themselves of their dignity and resort to what was for them a degrading experience. There were some who just could not bring themselves around to taking this final step to mendacity. Patrick Doherty, a labourer, told the enquiry that he was sure there were many who would prefer to die from cold and hunger than go out regularly to beg for charity - but what mother would let her child die if asking for help would save its life.
William McDonagh, shopkeeper, said that most of the women who go about begging with their families are the wives of cottier tenants who inhabit the upper parts of the Parish and have no more than a rood of land which is not enough to support a family. He said that the men are always ashamed to enter the town or district where their wives are known to beg. Thomas Brooke, High Sheriff, who lived in Ardnamona, in an implied criticism of the Board of Education who were threatening their tenants in Tawnawilly with eviction, said that one estate in Tawnawilly with over 8,000 acres and belonging to the Board, furnishes more paupers than any other part of the country.
When asked what the churches were doing to alleviate the suffering of the poor both Father McCafferty and the Rector Rev. Homan said they had often appealed from the church for help for some distressed person or family and people responded to the best of their ability. Rev. Homan said that visitors to the Spa Baths in the summer always contributed to his appeal. The shopkeepers set up their own scheme of relief and in order to ensure that it was local people who benefited and not outsiders who were taking advantage of their generosity they adopted a system of identification tags. Monday was declared "help day".
Willie Love praised the farmers who gave what little they could spare to relieve the suffering of the poor. He himself never let a beggar out of the house without a good "goping" (two handfuls) of oatmeal.
Anthony Diver, Postmaster, told the enquiry that within the past seven years no less than seven corn stores had been built in the town and these gave good employment and, he continued, Lord Aran had made a number of improvements to the town and quay. About 2,000 tons of grain were exported from Donegal Quay the previous year; despite this, he said, the condition of the labouring classes and small farmers seemed to be getting worse and they were growing poorer every day. Richard Corscadden who had a grocery business on the Diamond (now part of the Abbey Hotel) said that the majority of the beggars came from the country parts of Killymard and Donegal and from parishes in the immediate neighbourhood.
It was around this time that John Hamilton, Landlord, came to reside in St. Ernan's, and his benevolence then and again in 1847 was to make him a well loved and revered figure in Donegal. Many years later the parish priest of Donegal, Father John Doherty, in a letter to the Derry Journal wrote, "In all Ireland there never was, nor is there, a more considerate and humane landlord than the good and kind-hearted proprietor of St. Ernan's. I know the pulse of his tenants well, and I know of my own knowledge that they honour him.