I attended a very pleasant function last week in the Quaker Meeting House, Ballytore which now doubles as the Village Library. Hosted by the County Kildare Famine Commemoration Committee the occasion was the opening of an exhibition on Quaker Famine Relief in County Kildare and the publication of a very limited edition of a two volume work of the same title.
Rob Goodbody of the Rathmichael Historical Society did the honours on the night, officially opening the exhibition and giving his listeners an interesting insight into Quaker Relief in the County. With the name Goodbody it comes as no surprise that he himself is a member of the Society of Friends and is therefore well placed to deal with the Society's contribution during the famine years. Indeed he has published two booklets on the topic entitled "A Suitable Channel" and "On The Borders of the Pale". I had not met Rob Goodbody until that evening but I was familiar with his published works and knew of his involvement with the Rathmichael Historical Society. Married to a granddaughter of Rex Hannon, formerly of Ardreigh, Athy, you can well imagine my interest in his talk given that a Hannon once sat in the very room in which I am presently penning this piece.
The exhibition itself was a delightful if somewhat eclectic insight into the social life of the Quaker community in Ballytore in South Kildare with particular emphasis on their involvement in local famine relief work. The printed volumes prepared by FAS trainees under the direction of Mary Carroll and Karl Kiely contain all the County Kildare correspondence extracted from the Society of Friends Relief of Distress papers which are stored in the National Archives, Dublin. They have reproduced the originals of these letters and prepared transcripts for ease of use. The letters cover the entire County but of particular interest to us are the letters and returns relating to Athy and South Kildare. For instance on the 16th January 1847 the local Relief Committee for Athy forwarded an application for assistance addressed to the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends. Its signatories included Thomas Jameson, Clerk of the Workhouse, Rev. Thomas Greene, C.C., Hon. Sec. of the Relief Committee and Mark Cross described as Chairman of the Sub-Committee of whom I wrote recently as the builder of houses in Janeville and Connolly Lane in 1872. Other signatories were Sam Eves, Robert Molloy and Patrick Commins.
The application indicated that 2,000 persons in 450 families in the Athy area were in need of public relief. Only one third of the able bodied labourers in the area were employed at an average wage of one shilling per day. The other two thirds, or 5,000, men were employed on Public Works. Despite this all the men employed were barely able in most cases to provide one meal a day for their families. The lack of food gave rise to numerous cases of dysentery in the area as did the use of turnips for human consumption.
As at January 1847 the sum of £320 had been raised by way of private subscriptions towards relief of distress in the area. However no Government grants had been received nor had any relief agency offered help to the Athy people. Of the sum collected locally a total of £12 had been donated by absentee land owners from South Kildare. The monies collected had been used to purchase Indian cornmeal, rice and straw for bedding.
A soup kitchen was set up in the town on 6th June 1847 but just before that on the 28th of May, Fr. Thomas Greene, C.C., submitted another application to the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends on behalf of the Athy area. He confirmed that the Public Works which had given employment in the area had been suspended two weeks previously. The local Relief Committees weekly expenses had increased from £40 to £110 as a result. He also advised that the British Relief Association had opened a store in the town supplying Relief Committees within a twenty mile radius of the town with Indian meal at £17 per tonne. There was approximately 600 tonnes of meal available for sale with the price to Relief Committees pitched at about 6% below the normal market price. At the same time the price of rice had rocketed to £30 per tonne and had ceased to be supplied.
A meeting of all land owners was arranged for the beginning of June 1847 to encourage them to give employment to local men as by now it was estimated that almost 3,000 persons were in need of help from the Relief Committee. Fr. Greene referred to the lack of employment in the area and pointed out that the only work available was in the local brickyards. "The vast majority of the men are idle, wandering around in search of relief", he wrote.
Copies of the Volumes from which I have extracted the above information will be available in all Libraries in the County. They offer a rare insight into the misery and hardship of the famine times and offer a poignant reminder of a past which up to now had been lost to us.