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"Those who know not their past are as children": Cicero

Gore-Booth, Lissadell, Palmerston, and the Sligo Famine Emigration Experience of the1840s

Famine pot: A remnant of famine times in a field at Ardawoggy, Co. Mayo

The subject of famine emigration is so vast, even in the Sligo context, it is difficult to know where to begin. A list of books for further research and background information is provided at the end of this article for those who are new to the subject. On this page we will confine ourselves primarily, but not exclusively, to some specifics regarding the fate of tenants of the Gore-Booth and Palmerston estates, which will be of interest to historians and genealogists as well as the casually curious.

In 1847, the first of Sir Robert Gore-Booths’s ships for that year, the Aeolus, left the port of Sligo with 500 of his tenants. As usual the landlord’s agents and a local newspaper, the Sligo Journal, a voice for the landlord classes, gave glowing accounts of the wonderful vessel and the luxurious accommodation:

‘Never have I seen a vessel fitted out so painstakingly for the comfort of the passengers. The sleeping berths are most spacious and provisions most plentiful… beds and bedding is also provided, including a pair of comfortable warm blankets…’

Arrival of Sligo's Famine Immigrants at St. John

On arrival at the port of St. John, no such luxuries were in evidence; the authorities were appalled at the condition of the passengers and accused Sir Robert of clearing out his estates so as to avoid the new Poor Law charges. In St. John these impoverished wretches, hungry and in some cases even naked, had to be housed by the local authorities. Others survived by begging in the streets for food to support themselves and their families. A local newspaper ‘the Courier’ concluded:

‘Many have been sent to the almshouse and Infirmary and a large portion of these will, in all probability become a permanent charge on this community…’

Ship-owners and landlords who were engaged in shipping timber to Ireland quickly recognized an opportunity for extra profit when the famine exodus started. It provided an answer to their ballasting problems: why not provide some rudimentary accommodation and carry these wretches on the return journey?

Can we then put names on those faceless creatures who for so long have remained nameless? I am grateful to Don Mc Clane of Geneseo, New York for pointing me in the direction of this particular aspect of famine immigration, and for drawing my attention to some books of which I was not aware and in which there is information not hitherto widely known.

The second voyage of the Aeolus arrived November 1 with 428 passengers sent out by Lord Palmerston. Those passengers who were treated or died with dates before 1 November had to have arrived on the first voyage. After that date it cannot be known if they arrived on the first or second voyage. Those with dates before November 1 are shown as 1st voyage and the rest with a ? Sadly only those that died or were sick were listed. Many more died in quarantine, went missing or perished at sea. This list will be ongoing with additional pages added from time to time. Place of birth, as with many such records, unfortunately does not specify a townland:

Notes for clarification: Line 4: Burns Unity, last column (under note): Alms and Poorhouse, died quarantine 7 May - 2 July 1847. Line 9 Carolane, Dan. Readers wishing further clarification of script may contact me

Note: Last line: Cumming, Mary, Mrs.

'On 1 November, the very day the quarantine station was closed for the year, the Aeolus, having on board 428 of Lord Palmerston's tenants and the Triumph. with 46 from Mr. Ffolliott's estate, came from Sligo . The passengers on the Triumph arrived in good condition, but the destitution and suffering of those on the Aeolus was deplorable. The Health Officer candidly remarked:

"There are many superannuated people; and others of broken down constitutions, and subjects of chronic disease, lame, widows with very helpless families, feeble men with large helpless families...and that nearly 400 so glaring paupers are thus sent out. Who so tame would not feel indignant at that outrage."'


In 1830, there were so many immigrants inflicted with fever and smallpox that they were housed in army tents. Hospitals and pest houses were built, and were often overflowing. The most tragic years for Partridge Island were 1845-1847, when Irish immigration peaked. Dr. George Harding reported one day that he had over 2500 immigrants in quarantine. Sick people were forced to lay on bare ground, despite the weather. This painting by Ray Butler depicts Dr. J.P. Collins attending the Irish in June 1847.


'Famine Family' monument at Sligo harbour.

Sligo's "Memory Harbour"

This bronze memorial was erected at Sligo Harbour on the 150th anniversary of 'Black '47'. The family comfort each other; the child points to the New Land where a ship will soon take them.

A plaque in the background, headed 'Letter to America, January 2, 1850' is a poignant reminder of the times: 'I am now I may say alone in the world all my brothers and sisters are dead and children but yourself... We are all ejected out of Mr. Enright's ground the times was so bad and all Ireland in such a state of poverty that no person could pay rent. My only hope now rests with you, as I am without one shilling and as I said before I must either beg or go to the poorhouse... I remain your affectionate father Owen Larkin be sure answer this by return of post

Between 1847 and 1851 over 30,000 people emigrated through this port. This sculpture is one of a suite of three sculptures commisioned by the Sligo Famine Commemoration Committee to honour the victims of The Great Hunger...'


(The son to whom Owen Larkin wrote had perished in America by the time the letter was written. We don't know what became of the father.)


Bottom line: Kilmartin Honor 51...

Sligo's Famine Graveyard

Pictured left, the bronze memorial 'Faoin Sceach' erected in 1997 by the Co. Sligo Famine Commemoration Committee and sculpted by Fred Conlon. In the Famine Graveyard at St. John's Hospital in Sligo over 2,000 famine victims were buried, unknown and unremembered for 150 years. The 'Faoin Sceach' marks the graves and honours the sacrifice of our ancestors.

"...I had given long and serious thought to the famine and its effect on the people. I chose the lone bush as a suitable memorial for the famine dead. This bush was regarded as a sacred object in rural Ireland. No farmer would cut it down lest it would upset the spirits. During famine times many starving people lay down under it to die or were buried there. The tree was a sacred marker or protector for the un-named dead.": Fred Conlon

The plaque, above right, reads: 'Rielig an Ghorta Mhóir'. You are entering a long abandoned Famine Graveyard. Here ends 'Casan na Marbh', Pathway of Death, so named because unnumbered thousands perished following its grim passage from rotting fields to odious workhouse to ignominious burial: ' May they feel the warmth of a tear/ May they hear the piper's lament,/ May they know we, the survivors, keep vigil.'







At the entrance to the graveyard, the famine gates in stainless steel and bronze, pictured right, were designed and installed by sculptor Niall Bruton. The skulls overhead represent death and decay. The leaves and vines rising from underneath represent renewal and rebirth. The piers are built from stones gathered from the old Workhouse where those buried inside spent their last desperate hours.






Now we continue with the Aeolus passeger list:

Names above that are unclear: Mc Gowan, Edward; Mc Gowan, Cecelia; Mc Kendra, Ann, Mrs. (widow).

10th from top: Mc Murray, Hugh, 3 Sligo

Blight in Europe: Famine in Ireland

The number of deaths in these lists are incomplete as many people, because of their weakened condition, died after leaving St. John and are not counted as famine victims. The situation in Quebec was much the same.
It is interesting to note that large numbers of German ships bearing immigrants also landed at St. John during this period. There were no deaths on those ships, nor were their passengers thrown on the mercy of alms houses, orphanages and fever sheds. Neither has the question ever been answered as to why Ireland was the only country struck by famine even though the potato blight was prevalent throughout Europe !

The airborne fungus that caused the potato crop to fail here also caused crops to fail in England , France and Belgium. Only in Ireland were a million people allowed to die and a million more forced to emigrate. Three quarters of Ireland’s arable land was used to grow wheat, oats and barley while this Holocaust was in progress. Britain exported all those crops from Ireland along with the cattle, sheep and pigs, to be consumed by the British. Three thousand extra troops were sent to Ireland to protect the harbours as ships laden with food left the country.

The following two pages complete this passenger list:

Sligo immigrants: "an unheard of mass of misery."

Sir Robert Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co. Sligo

We will now close this feature with an excerpt from Poor Ignorant Children by Peter D. Murphy: ‘On 1 November, the very day the Saint John quarantine station was due to close for the season, the Aeolus arrived from Sligo with more than four hundred of the most disease racked passengers ever to arrive in the city, all but six of them former tenants of the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston. Among them were large numbers of children “with barely sufficient rags upon their persons to cover their nakedness.” Many of the passengers were old, enfeebled and sick from starvation.

When ordered to report on the circumstances surrounding the arrival of the Aeolus, Moses Perley declared that in five years as Government Emigration Officer for the Port of St. John he had never seen greater misery and destitution: ninety nine out of every hundred would have to be supported by public charity.”

At an emergency meeting on 10 November, the members of City Council failed to arrive at a means for the community to shelter and support such an “unheard of mass of misery.” The only option, they thought, was to compel those “recently landed from the Aeolus, and others already in the city begging from door to door,” to return to Ireland.

Lord Palmerston of Classiebawn Castle, Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo

The Lieutenant Governor was shocked by the council’s proposal, and promptly informed the mayor that the government would play no part in providing return passages to Ireland.’

The Aeolus was only one of the many coffin ships that left Ireland in the 19th century. The human tragedy described above was multiplied a hundred fold by the passages of many others.

Letters written by the landlord classes in the early 1900s document their dismay at the shift in economic and political power away from them. They regarded the resurgence of nationalism as nothing more than sedition and disloyalty and bemoaned the ineffectiveness of the government response. Increasing costs of management and the disappearance of peasant rents made it impossible for these English landowning classes in Ireland to make ends meet. Through the centuries it seemed like the sun would never set on their fortunes — but after the First World War most disappeared like spring snow.
Some descendants of these Planters may still be found living in much reduced circumstances in 'big houses' here and there in the countryside.

William Bulfin once observed a group of the ascendancy attending a regatta and summed them up thus:
‘Most of them showed breeding both in feature and carriage.  Yet they saddened me.  They impressed me as being hopelessly aloof from their country and their time.  There was nothing about them to show that they regarded themselves as Irish people.  In dress, accent, social conventions and amenities they had fashioned themselves by English models...  Standish O’Grady, one of themselves, and one of the best of them, told them the truth when he said that they were going, going — “rotting from the land without one brave deed, without one brave word.”’

Bulfin, William, Rambles in Eirinn, p57

‘It’s oh! If the wealthy knew, a tithe of the bitter dole/ That coils and coils round the bursting heart/ Like a fiend to tempt the soul!/ Hunger and thirst and nakedness,/ Sorrow and sickness and cold/ It’s hard to bear when the blood is young/ And hard when the blood is old.’

See also: Lissadell House, Coffin Ships, the Pomano and Sir Robert Gore-Booth on this site

An interesting website on survivors of the Carricks of Whitehaven: Click HERE
More on Emigration to Canada: http://www.newirelandnb.ca/Early-Settlement/early-settlement-in-nb.html
More information on the Carricks click HERE

Recommended reading: Murphy, Peter D., Poor Ignorant Children; Keegan, Gerald, Famine Diary; Cushing, Elizabeth: A Chronicle of Irish Emigration to Saint John, New Brunswick 1847; Woodham-Smith, Cecil: The Great Hunger; Fennell, Thomas: The Royal Irish Constabulary.

Sheelagh Hanly was a member of our famine committee responsible for erecting the memorials in Sligo town on the 150th anniversary of Black '47. The experience has left an indelible mark on all of us and instilled in our members a sense of comradeship that we will always treasure. Sheelagh has put together the following verse:

Sprawled skeletons
barely covered with clay,
Thirst not slaked, 
Of the Earth, returned to origins
without any form of sepulchral stones.
In rapid, quicklime.
 Lepers of their day,
Flawed judgement or deliberate?
Maybe then,  life was present,
But these lives were of no consequence.
Breeding in the mud cabins;
Even these were taken from them,
Tossed aside in disgust and anger.
Everything valued by numbers;
How many pounds?
How many acres,
How many cattle,
How many pigs?
How many children dying
At a young mother’s starved breasts?
How many grief-struck relatives
Of any consequence?
Only the numbers mattered.
Now gone from a bleak land,
Of a dark fear-filled, wet hungry life;
Only their entwined skeletons remaining,
 Under the lone bushes



Sent: Thursday, August 13, 2009 5:31 PM
Subject: Famine sculpture: old quay, sligo town

Dear Joe
I have just returned from a few enjoyable days in Sligo Town.  I visited various places including the old quay in Sligo Town to look at the wonderful sculpture commemorating the exodus from Sligo during the great hunger.  However, I felt that the impact of the sculpture was compromised by being in the middle of the car park;  why couldn't it have been placed nearer the quay or old jetty?  If you take a photo of it you inevitably find that the photo is ruined by cars pressing aginst it.  When I visited it, there were people from the US and Canada there and we all felt the same.  The siting seemed disrespectful in terms of the human loss and misery that it was conveying. 
Was it something to do with Council rules about health and safety? 
June Kelly 
Dear June,
I so wish you, and many others, would address your remarks to Sligo County Council who are the responsible bodies.  This is frustrating for my committee too as we were a voluntary body who worked hard in our own free time to raise the money to renovate the famine graveyard and erect these memorials.  We did this because on the 150th anniversary of the famine there were no moves afoot by Sligo County Council to do anything to mark the occasion! When we placed the Famine Family the Council promised us that they were going to remove the carpark and create a Garden of Remembrance.  They haven't done so.
I keep reading about the power of the internet and social networking sites.  Perhaps you can do something there.  If everyone leaves it to everyone else then no one does anything!  I will put your letter up on www.sligoheritage.com , inviting replies and let you know when it is there.
Thank you for writing to me.  'Out of tiny acorns...'
Yours sincerely,
Joe Mc Gowan

If this matter is of concern to others perhaps you can help us as mentioned in my response above. Contact June or webhost




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