The famine wrought terrible havoc in the parish of Tibohine. The farmers if they could be called that name had very small holdings – from 2.5 to 10 acres on an average and the ‘greater part of this was under potatoes and 2.5 acres under oats. The oats were usually threshed early in winter or harvest and sold to help pay the rent to the landlord on ‘Gale Day’.
Up to that the chief food of the people in this parish was potatoes with about two sacks of oaten meal. The place was so noted for the eating of potatoes, that the ‘spailpíns’ who came from Mayo with their ‘laidhes’ on their shoulders and who rested for a day or two in the parish on their way east in search of work used to say;
Fataí san oíche,
Fataí san ló,
Agus dá n-éirionn meadhin oíche,
Fataí do geobfainn.
The meal that was made from the part of the corn kept after the rest was sold was used for oat bread which was not too frequently used. The greater part of the meal was boiled – about 2 cupfuls or one noggin (noggins being the only vessel in use – no delph in this parish in the poorer houses) in a big pot of water. This was a very thin gruel when boiled. The potatoes when boiled were thrown out on a big table and the family sat into the meal. The gruel was put in big wooden basins and each member had a straw which was dipped into the gruel (well salted) and then the straw was rubbed on the peeled potato.
On days of special importance such as reaping the corn with hooks or gathering it into stacks when the neighbours gathered in a ‘meitheal’ to help, they were treated to porridge for breakfast and ‘Col Ceannan’ or ‘Calaidh’ as it was called for dinner with potatoes again with buttermilk in the evening.
When the farmer and his family went to dig the potatoes they remained in the field the whole day and when dinner was needed they lit a fire and put down a ‘pristéal’ or ‘cast’ and eat the roasted potatoes.
When the blight came in ‘cursed 46’ the ‘farmers’ went out in June to see their fields of stalks burned black. They thought of course that it was frost. That year they were not too bad, as the potatoes when dug and carefully picked up, varied in size from a ‘pullets’ egg to the size of a sloe. This parish had good corn but the best of it was sold in harvest at a very tempting price. They kept very little but the seed for spring and the small and black oats. Even with this and the ‘póiríns’ and the wholesale killing of fowl, goats, young calves and the occasional snaring of wild birds, there were not so many deaths from starvation. It was a terrible crime to kill or snare a hare or game bird of any kind as the landlord had a game-keeper in every town-land.
’47 however brought us more “miádh and anró”. Is ansin a thit na daoine bochta in umar na h-aimléise (as my informant put it in his sound Gaelic blas). The póiríns were sown – some broadcast like oats as they were too small to sow in the ordinary way in ridges with the ‘suibin’., There were nice crops of potato stalks but they ‘got burned’ again in June except for odd patches that a few fortunate people had in ‘spadán’ – lea land that had not been tilled for a good many years.
This year the people were to suffer. The few in each townland that were ‘teann’ and ‘deiseamhail’ and that had the ‘cíanóg’ in the ‘trinsil’ (gold stored up and the trinsil was the little measure used by the well-off farmers for measuring the gold to be given to a daughter as her spré or fortune on marriage) shared with the less fortunate neighbours until fever began to set in and spread. This became very prevalent after Christmas and wiped out whole families in town-lands. Everything that could be found was eaten. Animals of all kinds, calves, sheep, goats, and donkeys were killed and eaten while they lasted and raids were frequently made on neighbouring herds and fowl while they lasted.
The well-off farmers in the parish – the Gallaghers of Aughacurín – and others who kept a good store of oatmeal and had cattle and means helped the neighbours. They could not allow them into the house lest they bring the fever. They boiled huge pots of porridge which were then poured into stone troughs a good distance from their home. The dying and starving neighbours flocked, with vessels to take home some to starving wives and children. Often the unfortunate father’s greed overcame in such a way that he ate a big forgan (big meal) himself and in his starving condition the food killed him. The cries of the newly made widow and orphans used to ring through the town-land on clear frosty nights expecting the father home with something. Even the dead animals were used as food – dead donkeys, goats, etc.
It was even supposed that mothers gave the flesh of one of her dead children to the remaining ones to eat and pretended that the father got it in some ‘Big House’. I tried to get the names of these families from the story teller but he shook his head and said “Táid uilig san uaigh anois agus fág marbh iad”.
It was during the famine times that Tibohine (Tigh Baethin) graveyard was so fully filled up. There was not a day in the week but were 30 or 40 burials and even in the night. It was a common practice when a person died in a house that a rough coffin, and sometimes only a shroud was wrapped around the corpse. At nightfall, the corpse was taken to the next door. Those who took it left it down outside and rapped at the door. They then disappeared. The people of that house got a few neighbours and proceeded to the next house and so on until the corpse was conveyed to the house nearest the churchyard.
The occupants of this house heard a rap at the door. They understood and got up out of bed, called the neighbours who proceeded to the graveyard with the ‘laidhes’ and shovels and resin candles and dug a grave for another victim of ‘John Bull’s kindness’. These night calls often kept the men who lived in Tibohine up night after night digging graves and burying the dead.
It was nothing uncommon to see women passing through the town-land of Tibohine, day after day with one or perhaps two dead children in a ‘cliabh’ on her back going to the graveyard. When she had to bury them she plucked young nettles that grew in the shade of St. Baethin’s old church and filled her ‘cliabh’ to bring home to boil to ease her own pangs of hunger on the way. Too often she was found on the roadside with the green juice of the nettles on her lips.
There is not a town-land in the parish that remains or foundations of houses are not to be seen. Ask the question “who lived here” and the reply is “God rest the dead the famine took them and some went on the ships with rotten bottoms”. The old people do not like to mention the names of those who were completely swept away by hunger and emigration. The usual reply is “There are no people by that name now in this parish”.
Pádraic O Tiomáin
An Scoil Donn.
Story told by Luke Callaghan, Tibohine, (Dec’ 1921), aged 80 years.