The Great Hunger

The Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, began quite mysteriously in September 1845 when  leaves on the potato plants suddenly turned black and curled, and then rotted.   The cause was actually an airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England. Winds from southern England carried the fungus to the countryside around Dublin. Then the blight spread throughout the fields as fungal spores settled onto the leaves of healthy potato plants, multiplied and were then carried in the millions by the breeze to surrounding plants. Under ideal moist conditions, a single infected potato plant could infect thousands more in just a few days.

The attacked plants fermented while providing the nourishment the fungus needed to live, emitting a nauseous stench as they blackened and withered in front of the disbelieving eyes of Irish peasants. There had been crop failures in the past due to weather and other diseases, but this strange new failure was unlike anything ever seen. Potatoes dug  out of the ground at first looked edible, but shriveled and rotted within days. The potatoes had been attacked by the same fungus that had destroyed the plant leaves above ground.  The infestation ruined up to one-half of the potato crop that year, and about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years.

The potato, introduced to Ireland about 1590, could grow in the poorest conditions and with very little labor. This cheap and plentiful source of food was important because laborers had to give most of their time to the landlords they worked for, and had very little time for their own crops. Because the tenant farmers of Ireland relied so heavily on the potato as a source of food, the infestation had a catastrophic impact on Ireland and its population. Before it ended in 1852, the Potato Famine resulted in the death of roughly one million Irish.  Most, however, died not from hunger but from associated diseases such as typhus, dysentery, relapsing fever, and famine dropsy, in an era when doctors were unable to provide any cure. Highly contagious ‘Black Fever,’ as typhus was nicknamed since it blackened the skin, was spread by body lice and was carried from town to town by beggars and homeless paupers.

In addition between 1845 and 1855, nearly two million people emigrated from Ireland to America and Australia, and another 750,000 to Britain. Thousands of emigrants died on board “coffin ships” during the Atlantic crossing. These were little more than rotting hulks, and their owners were plying a speculative trade. There were 17,465 documented deaths in 1847 alone. and thousands more died at disembarkation centers.

Westmeath , of course, was horrifically affected by the Famine, and between disease, starvation and emigration, the country lost over 20 percent of its population by the end of the disaster. In 1849 it recorded the fourth or fifth highest death toll in the country, and over the course of three years, around 15,000 people died there, with more than 20,000 others thought to have emigrated. Ballymore lost half its population through emigration and death; a larger village at Killare was nearly deserted, while Delvin, Rathowen, Ballynacargy and the Longford border areas were particularly devastated. Piercetown Civil parish, where William Fay was raising his family had a population of 1371 people in 1841. By 1851 there were only 793 inhabitants.

But somehow William kept a roof over his head and managed to feed his family. By 1852 , when the potato crops finally recovered, William had nine children that we know of, ranging from Michael, who was now 16 years old, to Peter , a newborn. The 1854 Griffith’s valuation showed him still firmly ensconced on the eight acre plot in Rathcogue.

We know from records in the U.S. that the Fay children could  read and write – although their script was very basic  (the initial fluid entries in the Fay Family Bible were clearly written by someone else). How did the children of a poor tenant farmer  come to be educated like this?

In 1831 primary education came to Ireland. This meant that children no longer had to attend fee paying schools or charity schools. Instead they could attend a local primary school. A National Board of Education was set up and a national system of primary schools began in Ireland. The government gave a grant which paid for almost all of the building costs of new national schools as well as the salaries of the teachers. Any area that wanted a school had to apply for a grant to build it. According to a report of the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland, issued in 1834-35, two national schools had become operational in this area – one in Milltown and one in Moyvore. The one in Moyvore had 450 students enrolled.

The local school for the Fays of Rathcogue , however,  could also have been in Ballinacurra , where the Catholic Church was located, about a mile and a quarter walk down the road towards Moyvore. Ballinacurra was the seat of another large estate owned by a Protestant family, the Digsbys.  According to the “Topographical Dictionary of Ireland”, compiled by  Samuel Lewis in 1837, Ballinacurra was also a rectory , in other words it housed a rector, which was a permanent Church of Ireland appointment. The tithes collected to support this rector , through applotments on land occupiers such as William Fay, amounted to L95 per year. In addition the Glebe, land set aside to produce income to support the rector, in this case 12 acres, brought in another  L24 per year. According to the “Topographical Dictionary”,  B. Digby Esq. then  provided a “grant” of  L30 towards the support of the local school, which was educating 50 children. There was also apparently a private school serving about 30 children.  In this case the Catholic tenant farmers indirectly received some benefits  from the tithes they were forced to pay.


Incidentally, as reported by Mary Murtagh in “The School’s Collection” in 1937 , B. Digsby Esq. had a fairly good local reputation.

“Another landlord named Colonel Digby, who lived at Ballinacurra. He was not as cruel to the tenants as General Meares.

“The tenants had to cut turf, draw it home,  sow and dig potatoes, and sow crops for the landlords.”

“Colonel Digby had houses built for a man named Conlon, and a man named Mee. The bricks that the houses were built  of were made in his own land by his workers. When they were building Conlon’s house the chimney fell each night for seven nights after, and some people say it was built on a fairy pass.”

This bit of local history was reiterated in another “Schoolhouse” paper.

“Bricks were made  by hand in Ballincurra bog long ago. The man that owned the bog at that time was Colonel Digby. The houses around here are nearly all built with the bricks made there. The pit from which the clay used to be taken can still be seen in the “Planting”.”

This account was written by Michael Ward Jr., Ballinacurra, Moyvore  from  stories told by Michael Ward (Senior), Rathcogue, age 75 years  (b. 1862- ed.) Michael Ward Jr. died in Ballinacurra in 2002.


Families in Ireland in the 1700s and 1800s  inherited through  a method called the “stem family system” in which only one child would inherit control of the family holding.  Because the Irish Catholics  could not “own” the land,  what was inherited was the right to rent a certain parcel of land from an English overlord. It was, however, not necessarily the oldest son who inherited “the farm”.  Parents needed to maintain control of the tenancy for their own livelihood and for the support of their younger children. The inheritance often fell to whomever was still at home at the time that the head of the household died or grew too old to work the land himself.

When there were too many adult mouths to feed and not enough land to feed them, the immediate family and relatives often paid to send the younger family members abroad, most frequently to America. Because of this system, the Irish were emigrating to England, America, and Australia long before, and long after, the famine.

In 1854, the year of Griffith’s Valuations,  Michael Fay would have been 18 years old and ready to leave the overcrowded home of his parents. But after witnessing the devastation of the last decade, and now facing the prospects of having to walk in the same footsteps as his father, I’m sure Michael’s dreams turned, as many others had, to the Land of Opportunity that lay across the Atlantic.

On December 22, 1854, the ship “Lady Franklin”, sailing from Liverpool, England, arrived in New York City. Its passenger manifest listed a Michael Fay , age 18, “farmer” from Ireland .


And so, at last, the Fays arrived in America.