Writer Historian Producer

The Potato Famine

The Almighty indeed, sent us the potato blight, but the English created the famine”.
John Mitchel 1861

The black, glassy waters of Louch Rynn stretched before me to the distant shore, fringed with a line of deep green elm trees.  Mirrored into the liquid darkness were the billowing clouds, fluffy and white and across the water, the reflected turret of the summer house within the grounds of Lough Rynn Castle.

Lough Rynn Castle

This was the ancestral home of the Earls of Leitrim and an estate where the potato famine of 1845-1849 bit deep into the wretched rural tenants and the landless poor. It is a beautiful land; lush and green, dotted with fine lakes and tree lined country lanes, but this beauty belies a sad and tyrannical past, violent and repressive.

Sitting nearby and staring up the lake was a local man, pensive and distant, from nearby Mohill whom I struck up a conversation with. He told me his name was Colm and his family had always lived in the area, had suffered terribly from the failure of the potato crop, a result of a blight believed to have come in 1844 in ships from South America.  Now he has relatives spread across the world in the Irish diaspora; refugees he said of that terrible time so long ago.

He had little time for the English landlords he went on, and their legacy in his land. And this was reflected in Lough Rynn Castle, a testament to the diversity of rich and poor, the English landlord to the Irish tenant farmer , between plenty and hunger, and life and death itself.

This pain was deep and raw and his eyes filled with tears as he related the high cost in life, his family, the suffering and the agony of starvation, yet within thick, stone walls, abundant food, warmth, shelter and a comfortable and secure life. 

Lough Rynn Castle

Yet the pain goes back well before the potato famine and the construction of Lough Rynn Castle, back to the 1600’s when the first English settlers took up parcels of Irish land. The MacRaghnaill clan built a stone castle by the lough in the 12th century (the ruins are still there today) and made this their seat of power, but were pushed from their land by the invading English in 1621. 

The English brought in English tenant farmers who gradually forced out the native Irish.  This and the infamous Penal Laws imposed severe restrictions on the Catholic Irish by preventing them from owning their own land or inheriting it, voting, hold public office or bearing arms.

But it was the coming of the English Clements family in 1750 that really brought change to Lough Rynn.   This, and the introduction of the potato, was to determine the agony and the destiny of the Irish people for now the people had a staple that could be grown on marginal land, was rich in vitamins, cheap and able to support life.

As a result, the revolving cycle of famines and crop failures became a thing of the past, life expectancy increased as did the size of families and small acreages became a viable family plot.

Then two other things turned rural County Leitrim on its head: the 3rd Earl of Leitrim despotic rule and the “Great Hunger”.  By 1830, the agrarian social changes were in decline; landholdings, continually divided farms among children which meant they became too small to support a family and the once high expectations of the potato crop declined then failed. Over a quarter of Ireland’s population died between 1845 and 1851 and hundreds of thousand s were forced to emigrate. 

Still staring far out into the lough Colm continued. “While our people starved, the English shipped out our corn, drove us from our land and watched us die. Yet they lived high and still filled their bellies, some I’m told dinning well on lobster soup”. In a sweeping motion his raised arm swung in a wide arc. “All around here were the tiny hovels of the farmers; no furniture, no beds, cold earth floors and leaking thatch roofs, their only possession perhaps a pig, trying to feed a large family on their potato crop grown on half a hectare.  These were the most destitute people in Europe and over a million would die. This to us is the “Irish Holocaust”.  

Lough Rynn

And I could feel his pain and the deep sadness that still lingers in so many Irish families. Though they are now free of the English, their country is still ravaged by a new blight; the international financial crisis that has again seen young people leave in droves for a better life outside of Ireland.

Yet there is a strong sense of retaining the past, re-building and preserving the history.  And one great example is the restoration of Lough Rynn Castle, a project started in 1972 by Mr Bertie Hanly. By then the castle had fallen into disrepair yet its potential and magnificence, along with the lawns, gardens and lough, started a process of re-building and renovation that took three years and cost millions of Euro.

Today it is one of the most luxurious castle hotels in Ireland.  Consisting of 42 bedrooms, the castle offers visitors fine dining, six kilometres of nature trails, access to two lakes, vast gardens and expansive lawns. It is also popular for weddings and romantic weekends away, being only ninety minutes by road from Dublin. 

But if the castle is perhaps too much for either your budget or your style, just five minutes away and also by the lake is the comfortable Clooncahir Lodge Bed and Breakfast . Run by Marie Prentergast and her husband, the top bedroom provides great views across the lough and the beautiful green fields that were once thick with the wretched dwellings of the tenant cottier and their families.

And the lough, much like Colm, both reflect the past; the magnificence of a castle and its baronial finery and sweeping lawns on one hand, and the repression, violence and hunger that was rural Ireland on the other.

©Will Davies 

1010 words



Will Davies