by Joe Coughlan
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Before the famine struck Roscrea was a very prosperous town. In 1823 the population of the town itself was 5,239. There was plenty of employment in the town at the time with some of the main employers being Birches distillery who employed between 300 and 400 people both in the distillery itself and in the bog where turf was cut and transported by a purpose built canal to keep the stills heated. In Damer House there were 110 soldiers stationed who had to have their needs and their horses’ needs looked after. There was a woollen mill at Hillsborough which employed nearly 100 people. There were 2 breweries, 3 hotels, 2 tanneries, 29 pubs, 10 drapers, 7 boot and shoe makers, 9 bakers and many more trades and professions in the town. There was a market every Tuesday and Thursday and a fair every 2 months.
Before the famine struck in 1846 the Roscrea poor law district whose boundaries stretched to Roscomroe, Kyle, Rathdowney , Killea , Dunkerrin and Shinrone had a population of 63,000. When the famine ended in 1851 there were less than 30,000 remaining in this area; more than half of the population had either died or emigrated.
When the famine began after the potato crop failed in 1846 there were cries for to feed the people with the meat and grain that was being exported to Britain but parliament wouldn’t hear of this as it may disrupt the English economy. So families died on the side of the road from starvation while carts loaded with grain and meat guarded by soldiers passed them heading for the ports. The landlords of the area were responsible for the poor law union in their area and so were made responsible for dealing with the famine in that area. Many of the landlords were already broke due to their lavish lifestyles and the fact that there was no rent coming in. This meant that the areas with poor landlords were the worse off. They soon discovered that it was cheaper to evict the tenants than support them. Many of these families had to live in huts made with branches and mud or sometimes in pigsties. There were so many people living in close proximity sometimes as many as 15 or more and fever and disease became rampant. There are reports of whole families being found dead in these hovels along with people being found dead at the side of the road with grass in their mouths. One gentleman reported in the local paper at the time that while travelling between Moneygall and Roscrea he witnessed a man in a dying state on the road, a second man was seen in the same state near Roscrea.
In 1845 the relief works were set up to help alleviate the hardships that some people were suffering by employing them in road repairs and other such jobs. There were so many in need of help that they couldn’t cope and the relief works were stopped in early 1847. The government decided to set up soup kitchens in late 1847 but due to the gap between the public works and the soup kitchens there was a huge increase in deaths. By 1848 people were dying on the side of the road because they were too weak and too sick to make it to the soup kitchens. Statistics show that 42% of the population of Roscrea were receiving welfare at the soup kitchens. By this time there were so many starving in the town that the police had to protect the doors of the workhouse from the massive crowds that were crowding around them .the government brought out a rule called the Gregory Clause which meant that a tenant must give up his land before being allowed in to the workhouse. The relieving officers resigned around this time due to lack of resources.
By 1848 an outbreak of cholera was taking as many victims as the famine itself. Quaker Joseph Crossfield gave an account of wretches screaming and begging at the workhouse door worn away to skeletons with limbs wasted away to the bone.
By the time the famine ended in 1851 the population of Roscrea alone had been reduced to a little more than 3,000. To put it all in context Ireland, with a population of 6.5 million at the time and an area of 84,000 square kilometres, lost at least one million of its population to starvation and two million to emigration. Ethiopia for which the Live Aid concert was run by Bob Geldof and the whole world contributed money towards had an area of 111,270 square kilometres and a population of 91 million lost 900,000 to the famine.