ON THIS DAY: 30 MARCH 1849, Doolough Tragedy

ON THIS DAY: 30TH MARCH 1849, Doolough Tragedy where a large crowd of starving people died on the journey to receive food they had been promised.

170 years ago on Friday night, March 30th, 1849, during the starvation, 600 people, including women and children, were living in the town of Louisborough. The starving people were told to go to Delphi Lodge for inspection and if they did not go, they would be cut off any relief programmes. They were promised food and relief.

On a bleak and freezing cold night they set out to meet the landlord and council guardians in Delphi Lodges. Wearing rags and torn clothes with only shawls for protection in bitter weather conditions, they walked 20 miles, many in their bare feet. When they eventually got to the Lodge the following morning, the starving and helpless crowd were told that the guardians could not be disturbed while they were having their lunch. When they eventually did see them, the people were sent away empty-handed and most of them died on the journey back.

Later, people found corpses – including those of women and children – by the side of the road between Delphi Lodge and Louisborough overlooking the shores of Doolough Lake, with grass in their mouths which they had been eating because they were starving. These memories are still with the local people there today, many calling it the ‘hungry grass.’

According to a letter sent to the Mayo Constitution dated 5 April 1849, two authority appointed inspectors wrote: “In obedience of this humane order, hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons, men, women and children might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads to the appointed place.”

It was estimated that more than 400 people died at Doolough on what was for them an extremely fatiguing journey back through that terrible night and into the next day. Several people never reached their homes. Local folklore maintains that the number of people who died, given their state of debilitation and because of the ordeals they were forced to endure, was far higher than was ever known.

John Tunney, from the famed family of singers and composers, wrote a moving ballad to remember the terrible death of so many from neglect, indifference and cruelty. It was, as he wrote, for the “relieving officers, a terrible sight in store
With corpses strewn along the route , And littering Doolough shore. Whole families’ dead, for want of being fed, An injustice, a crying shame, A forgotten sign for our own time, When we witness the very same.”

Remember Doolough
John Tunney

You may hear them speak about Mozambique
And of Africa’s famine tide
Of drought and greed of which few take heed
That has sapped a continent’s pride
While millions cry, ten thousands die
And our government takes no stand
But now a tale I’ll tell of a similar hell
That happened in our own land.

Early spring in Black ‘49
The country was on the rack
Day and night relentless blight
Had consumed the tatty crop
While cattle and grain were exported to Spain
And food lay piled in stores
In Mayo south and round about
The people they perished in scores.

Crowds were gathered in Louisburgh
Hoping for some relief
‘Twas said the Poor Law Guardians
Could end their piteous grief
These gentry fine were meeting to dine
In Delphi ten miles away
Children, Women and Men, 400 strong
Set out on that fateful day.

Crossing the Glankeen in full flood
Some fell by the river side
And going along the mountain road
Still more collapsed and died
Exhausted and weak, scarcely able to speak
They thronged into Delphi town
And waited in mass for food or a pass
To enter the Workhouse grounds.

After his meal of wine and veal
A Guardian addressed them all
There was no food here and he greatly feared
No room within Workhouse walls
They would have to go, hail rain or snow
And to their homes go back
Dismayed and afraid, despair in their hearts
They set out upon the track.

Like harvest sheaves or autumn leaves
They fell dying along the road
As dark drew in, the snow came down
And the night it was bitter cold
Going along the cliff the wind was stiff
Driving on the blinding sleet
Hundreds were swept into Doolough’s depths
A horror beyond belief.

Next day relieving officers
Had a terrible sight in store
With corpses strewn along the route
And littering Doolough shore
Whole families’ dead, for want of being fed
An injustice, a crying shame
A forgotten sign for our own time
When we witness the very same.

From the Sudan to Pakistan
Famine victims they wait in need
And a people like ours, who know this curse
Must surely take a lead
Remember that walk, O remember Doolough
Let our banners be unfurled
Against selfish gain and indifference to pain
But for justice throughout our world.
Melody “The Valley of Knockanure”

Photo credit: Felix O – Doolough Famine Tragedy memorial, Co. Mayo

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