History of Gweedore

2002 Tim O'Sullivan

Chapter two 

            In June and July of 1858 a House of Commons Select Committee heard evidence on the topic of Destitution in Gweedore and Cloughaneely.[1] The proceedings of this hearing are preserved in the House of Commons Sessional papers.  Amounting to 478 pages of transcript of the proceedings (8,709 questions were put to the witnesses), appendices and the decision, this is a window into the life of the peasantry of Gweedore.[2]

            The interest of the House of Commons was aroused by reports from Donegal of extreme hardship, and a Select Committee was formed in response to an appeal published in the papers in February 1858. The appeal began:- 

    "In the wilds of Donegal, down in the bogs and glens of Gweedore and Cloughaneely, thousands and thousands of human beings, made after the image and likeness of God, are perishing, or next to perishing, amid squalidness and misery, for want of food and clothing, far away from aid and pity. On behalf of these famishing victims of oppression and persecution, we appeal for substantial assistance to enable us to relieve their wretchedness, and rescue them from death and starvation.

    There are at the moment 800 families subsisting on seaweed, crabs, cockles, or any other edible matter they can pick up along the seashore or scrape off the rocks. There are about 600 adults of both sexes, who through sheer poverty are now going barefoot, amid the inclemency of the season, on this bleak northern coast. There are about 700 families that have neither bed nor bedclothes... Thousands of the male population have only one cotton shirt; while thousands have not even one. There are about 600 families who have neither cow, sheep, nor goat and who...hardly know the taste of milk or butter.

This fine old celtic race is about being crushed to make room for Scotch and English sheep."[3] 

            The appeal was signed by ten Catholic priests who were concerned enough about their flocks to have it published in the papers.[4] The priests also formed a relief committee and set about to raise funds to relieve the destitution.

            Needless to say the Select committee heard various opinions about the state of Gweedore. The witnesses can be separated into two groups, those that said there was no destitution in Gweedore, mainly the Landlords and members of the local establishment and those, mainly the tenants and the priests, who maintained that destitution was rife. The Select Committee made no effort to define what actually constituted "destitution" and hence, the witnesses relied solely on their own definitions. The witnesses varied, Henry Maunsell, for example, a Letterkenny doctor, gave evidence, apparently because his time spent at the Gweedore Hotel on fishing trips qualified him to give expert comment on the state of the people of Gweedore. Not surprisingly, his "expertise" led him to testify that there was no destitution and that those with whom he spoke considered such claims a "sort of joke."[5]

            In contrast to the testimony of Henry Maunsell, was the testimony of Hugh McBride, a native of the townland of Magheraclogher and former bailiff for Lord George Hill. Hugh McBride was adamant that there was great hardship in Gweedore and based his judgement on his knowledge of the people and the area. He had been a poor rate (or cess) collector for the civil parish of Tullaghobegley until he resigned in March 1857 because he refused to collect the Police Tax on the parish, as he considered the people too poor to pay. Lord George Hill generously gave him the sack (from the bailiff's job) at the same time. It is easy to see that McBride may have been motivated against his former employer in his testimony, but he did have local knowledge, unlike the respectable Doctor Maunsell from Letterkenny.

            Not surprisingly, the Select Committee found in the Landlord's favour and declared that there was no evidence of destitution, saying:-"....it appears to Your [Queen Victoria's] committee that destitution, such as complained of in the Appeal of 8 January 1858,.... did not and does not exist...."  The statements of the appeal "are not borne out by the evidence taken before them; and Your committee have come to the conclusion that those representations are calculated to convey to the public a false and erroneous impression of the state of the people in this district  As to the claim that the Landlords took away the mountain grazing, a claim crucial to the priests case, the Committee decided to be "totally devoid of foundation." [6]

            This last claim is almost certainly wrong, the lack of access to the mountain grazing was taken away from the people, in order to lease the land to Scotsmen to run their sheep. On Lord George Hill's land, approximately 23,000 acres, about 12,000 was left to the tenants and the rest was leased to Scotsmen, for the grazing of sheep.

            All the witnesses agreed that out of necessity the people had to eat seaweed, but even this was interpreted by the witnesses in different ways. One group gave evidence that this was a highly nutritious diet and therefore not a sign of hardship, while for others it was a clear case of destitution. No one denied either that the rents had gone up, but the Landlord claimed that the total rateable value of his townlands had been increased by bringing more land into production, while, for others, it was clearly exploitation.

            James Williams, a reporter from the Dublin Evening Post, testified that what he saw in Gweedore was "the most deplorably degraded state of destitution that I ever saw." He went on to say that it was his impression that "it was the determination of Lord George Hill to exterminate the entire race."[7]  This sort of parlour radicalism was not shared by the priests or the people, who were more concerned with the loss of grazing and the state of the peoples homes. Fr Doherty even said that Lord George Hill deserved praise for building roads, a shop, a post office and a quay at Bunbeg (and also that not many people in that district died during the famine[8]) but that the removal of the mountain grazing was a real harm to the peoples livelihoods.[9] This opinion is probably the closest to the truth.

            The appendices to the Report contains lists of names of the inhabitants and also lists of their worldly possessions. Most households had animals, most at least one bed. In the townland of Magheraclogher, for example, Connor Peebles [almost certainly Connell Peoples] possessions were listed as: "A good house; three rooms and kitchen; two bedsteads; beds and bedclothes; dresser; chairs; tables; a quantity of blankets and bed clothes hidden out of the house; three cows and a horse." James Roarty's house was "two bedsteads; beds and bedclothes; a dresser; a chest; chairs; a bag of oats; a bag of wool; potatoes and meal; three cows; a lot of sheep; one horse."[10]  

            The diet of these people was  potatoes leavened with seaweed, a mixture which was called "kitchen." The seaweeds were known locally as dolamaun, dulse, sloake, dillosk  and carrageen.  In hard times the amount of potatoes decreased while the amount of seaweed increased in the "kitchen." Cockles, crabs and whelks were also eaten. 

            Most familes were quite large in Gweedore at this time, on average about six children per family. Connell Peoples had 10 in his family, Saragh Peoples had seven, James Roarty had eight and Toal Coll had nine.[11]  

            Many children had to move away from home to earn a living and many went to other parts of Ulster, England or Scotland to work on the potato harvest ("hoking taties") or in service. The earnings of the children helped to support the families at home.[12] The importance of remittances home by the overseas workers was mentioned by Fr McFadden; 

"They made their rents and maintained their existence not out of the land. The rent was paid with the American Dollar, the Australian Sovereign, and the Scotch note, and the earnings of the poor children, some of years as tender as eight, who hired themselves away like white slaves to the service of the farmer in bordering counties, or nearer home." [13]           

            At the time of the Select Committee Report, in1858, there does not seem to have been a lot of emigration to America or the colonies. Those mentioned as having moved to either Australia or America seem to have been the exception rather than the rule at this time. It seems that  large scale emigration to Australia and America didn't begin from Gweedore until the 1860's.[14]  The Parish Priest was certainly advising people to go to Australia at this time[15] but emigration, for most, was probably not an option due to the expense. Both Fr. McGroarty and Fr. McFadden testified that they considered emigration as the only solution to poverty unless the people got the grazing rights to the mountain land back.[16] Such an eventuality was completely unlikely given the attitude of the landlord, so emigration was the only option.

            Lord George Hill was sceptical about the need to emigrate saying, "As to their wishing to emigrate, a few young people emigrate yearly to join their relations in America and Australia, but nothing beyond that..."[17] Hill thought there was plenty of land in Gweedore lying uncultivated which could be broken in.[18] Obviously he had in mind his model farm surrounding the Hotel, which had been reclaimed from a untamed state. It is hard to imagine the locals having the time or energy to bring new land into cultivation as it was hard enough to get a living out of the land they did cultivate.

            The minutes record the following questions addressed to Lord George Hill:-

6876  Do you know that James Boyle, of Upper Dore, with his wife and family, and Paddy Boyle, too, with his wife and family, Connell Peoples with his wife and family, and John Connell, with his wife and family, endeavored to go to Australia last year? -No; I saw Connell Peoples the other day, when I was there.

6877  Did he not make exertions, and apply to the agent at Derry to go? -I did not hear of that.[19] 

           There were people who had made it away, Cormack Gallagher, of Magheraclogher was in Australia,[20]  and Mickey Gallagher had been writing letters home advising his family not to stay in Gweedore.[21] Charles Coll of Gweedore had gone to Australia, returned home and lately returned to Sydney.[22]  James Gallagher of Bunbeg was now in America.[23] With people having been abroad and returning home with tales of other lands, it is not hard to imagine the fireside talk being of emigration. Given the hardship of life in Gweedore, such a prospect must have been quite attractive. Fr Doherty testified that the idea of emigrating to Australia was a popular one.[24] In the event, Connel Peoples didn't emigrate, but his sons did (which is why I am sitting here writing this in New Zealand). One of the reasons that stopped people emigrating was mentioned by Fr Doherty, who said that despite wanting to emigrate, the people couldn't as they were unable to sell their "tenant right."[25]  

           Sales of "Tenant right" were possible if there was someone returning from overseas, with money in his pocket and who wanted to settle down in the land of their birth.[26]  Such sales were few and far between as the land was the only source of the peoples livelihood. If they didn't have that, they had nothing. Sales that did take place required the purchaser to borrow out of all proportion to the lands value. Sales of land were often equivalent to 40-130 years rent and most rents were less than a pound because of the smallness of the holdings.[27] The cost of land was also an incentive for the younger generation to emigrate as it was hard to raise that sort of money. For example, Fr. McFadden owned some land in the townland of Stranacorkragh, for which the rent was 1. 2s. 6d. per year. He sold this, in 1882, to Daniel O'Donnell, a returnee from America for 115. , the equivalent of 100 years rent. Daniel O'Donnell had become rich in America and was returning home with 3,000 worth of gold.[28]

           Ownership of land disqualified people from being able to get help from the poorhouse. Given that the people were reluctant to give up their land, even when they had no food, they were unable to qualify for entry to the poorhouse.  The nearest poorhouse to Gweedore was in Dunfanaghy. 

           The support of the poorhouse was the responsibility of the civil Parish and the extent of poverty is shown by the returns relating to the poor assessment.[29] The Dunfanaghy Union, in the Barony of Kilmacrennan, was made up of 10 electoral divisions, one of which was Magheraclogher in Gweedore (which covered thirty five townlands including the townland of the same name). There were only five persons listed as occupiers of land worth more than 10 pounds. Nevertheless the country cess (or poor rate) was increased in the summer of 1857 to 78 1s 6d, up from 3 3s 1d and this didn't include the police tax.[30] The last straw for Hugh McBride was the police tax which he refused to collect as it added to the people's hardship. Under these circumstances the people had to borrow money to pay taxes and sell whatever they could. In 1854 there were 98 head of cattle and 300-400 sheep in the townland of Magheraclogher but this was down to 39 cattle and 60 sheep in 1857.[31] Unsurprisingly, Hugh McBride testified that Lord George Hill had made the condition of the peasants worse.[32]

           Apart from the poorhouse, which was ineffectual in the relief of poverty, the Catholic Priests set up a relief committee of their own. It was they who publicised the situation in Gweedore which led to the Select Committee, however, before the 1857 newspaper advertisements had appeared, the committee had already been helping the people. After a partial potato failure in 1854, Fr. Doherty, the then parish priest of Gweedore, and Fr. McFadden had organized the distribution of 1,500 worth of meal in 1855. This was followed by a good harvest in 1855, but another partial failure in 1856.[33]

           The Relief Committee went on to raise 2,196 5s 7d, and up to the time of the Select Committee hearing had given out 1,600 worth of clothing, seed and money.[34] In the circumstances it is not surprising that the priests earned the loyalty of the people and were therefore seen to be nuisance by the authorities. Constable William Young of the Gweedore Constabulary accused the Catholic Priests of interfering in the landlord's business.[35]

           Such a state of affairs didn't improve with the arrival of the new parish priest of Gweedore, around 1864, Fr. James McFadden, a holder of particularly strong views. McFadden had previously been in the parish of Falcarragh. It was the bailiff's opinion that the people of Gweedore were under the "complete authority" of Fr McFadden.[36]

           Lord George Hill died in 1879 and his son, Captain Arthur Hill, took over the Gweedore estate. He employed his brother in law, Somerset Ward, as bailiff. This coincided with the rise of discontent over "landlordism" in Ireland and through a judicial review some rents were reduced on the Gweedore property and 10,000 acres of mountain grazing was given back to the tenants by the Land Commission which sat at Bunbeg.[37]  For Father McFadden, the chairman of the National Land League, an organisation founded in 1882 to oppose "landlordism," this was not enough and he organised a boycott on the payment of rent. In return, the bailiff, Somerset Ward, began to evict tenants.

           In the 1880's Fr McFadden and seven other Gweedore estate tenants appealed to the Landlord for an abatement of 50% on the old rents and 25% on the judicial rents due to "agricultural and other depressions, and the impossibilty of selling small stock even at a sacrifice."[38] Unsurprisingly the bailiff, Somerset Ward, was not impressed with this and wondered why the rent should be reduced when there was a boycott against knitting, fishing and the taking of employment at the hotel, which therefore resulted in the loss of income and an increase in poverty among the tenants.[39]

           Fr McFadden's activities for the National Land League saw him imprisoned for 6 months in 1888 for organising the boycott and the non payment of rents. Things got worse in February 1889 when, having finished Mass at Derrybeg, Detective Inspector Martin turned up to arrest him again for encouraging resisitance to the evictions taking place on the neighbouring Olphert estate. The locals took umbrage and beat Inspector Martin to death on the steps of the Priest's house.[40] Fr McFadden and many of his parishoners were charged with murder. Somehow or other, Fr. McFadden's murder charge was dropped and he plead guilty to obstruction of justice. The parishoners were charged with manslaughter and got long sentences. McFadden's bishop was not at all impressed and forbad him to be involved in any further political activities and he was later transferred him to another parish.[41]

           This was the climax of the Land League agitation in Gweedore and from then on, in the words of Estyn Evans, the area "ceased to occupy the prominent place it had held in Irish Affairs for almost half a century."[42]

           Gweedore was, over this period, one of the poorest parts of Ireland. In March 1883, Mrs Ernest Hart visited Donegal with the intention of relieving poverty by trying to revive "their old industries of knitting and weaving."[43] Mrs Hart gave evidence to the Select Committee on Irish industry about her business dealings with the people of Gweedore and this also gives some insight into life in Gweedore. In former times, with contact with the rest of the world being tenous, the people had to be entirely self-sufficient and make everything they needed. They made their own clothes and these were "homespun" tweeds, knitted socks and homespun flannels, made with wool from the local sheep. The people continued to make their own clothing, but Mrs Hart wanted to "revive" these skills for commercial and philanthropic purposes. The parish priests co-operated in getting the knitting and weaving industry underway. Women could earn up to 5 shillings a week on knitting but the quality had to be 100% or the agent would mark the price paid down. Mrs Hart was satisfied that the garments were of high quality and praised the work. Mrs Hart also purchased local embroidery, made to designs she had selected out of the Book of Kells. The majority of sheep in Gweedore, at this time, was the scottish black faced sheep, which had been imported by Lord George Hill earlier in the century, however, these produced  very coarse wool and Mrs Hart preferred the wool of the Donegal mountain sheep.[44] To keep the women knitting, she had Patons wool imported from Glasgow.[45] The wool was carded spun and woven in the homes of the Gweedore people and then sold to an agent in Gweedore, and shipped to London and sold in the fashionable shops.

            Mrs Hart held the people of Gweedore in high regard and said of them: 

            "In Gweedore, in the course of 60 years, there has been known but one instance of a woman losing her character, and this owing to the guilt of a stranger. In both Gweedore and Glencolumkille, the whole of the adult population are pledged teetotallers. Their honesty is proverbial. During the great famine the people used to bring their goods in exchange for meal. They were stacked in the market place to be redeemed, and remained there unguarded and untouched. Their courtesy in this manner is charming."[46] 

           Mrs Hart also described the Sunday fashions of the women at Sunday Mass in Gweedore. They wore colorful paisley shawls imported from Scotland and wore handkerchiefs (or snoods) on their heads.[47] The paisley shawls were probably brought from Scotland by the Gweedore guest workers.

           Gweedore may have slipped from prominence after the end of the Land League agitations, but the descendants of Gweedore people are now scattered all around the world.[48]

[1] The parish of Tullaghobegley was roughly divided into West (Gweedore) and East (Cloughaneely), Report...q. 1282. "It is nearly coterminous with the Petty Sessions District of Bunbeg, regarding which official information is obtainable in the Census Returns, but there are considerable differences, which make the returns regarding Bunbeg Petty Sessions District unreliable for accurate information about Gweedore." McFadden, J.J., The Present and the Past..., p. 3.

[2] This report does not seem to have attracted the attention of genealogists, despite the contents. All of the indexes to Irish genealogy that I have consulted don't mention it and neither have I found anything on the internet that makes use of its contents. It has attracted the interest of anthropologists such as E. Evans and historians of the Famine such as Christine Kinealy.

[3] The full text of the appeal was included in Appendix one of the Select Committee report, p. 392-393.

[4] It appeared in the Freeman's Journal  on 12-2-1858, and probably other papers (which I have not yet been able to trace). The signatories, all Catholic priests, were: Daniel McGee, P.P. Gweedore (Bunbeg); Hugh McFadden, P.P. Cloughanelly (Falcarragh); John O'Donnell P.P. Dungloe, Rosses; James McFadden C.C. Cloughaneely (Falcarragh); Bernard McMonigle, C.C. Doe (Cashelmore); John Doherty P.P. Carrigart, Rossgull, Strabane; John Flanagan P.P. Ramelton; Hugh McFadden, C.C. All saints; Hugh Cullen C.C. Rossgull.

[5] Report...q.7941.

[6] Report ..., p.91.

[7] Report.... questions 1234-1251.  A bad reputation like this often gains a currency that is handed on. For example, while admitting that Lord George Hill moved mountains to assist his tenants during the famine, John Percival writes "He [Hill] had forced them [the tenants] out of their own ways and into the unpoetic world of the cash economy, and they did not love him for it. Hill was the archetype of the do-gooding colonizer, who always knew what was best for the natives and was not averse to making a profit out of it. His writings are full of a smug superiority, which must have been difficult for his tenants to stomach..." (p.53, The Great Famine, Ireland's potato famine 1845-51, B.B.C. Books, 1995). In other words Lord George Hill was just a caricature of Victorian imperialism and the lives of his tenants were previously edenic. While Lord George Hill was definitely not perfect, opinions like this say more about the author than about the subject. This theme is not new. Fr James McFadden in The Present and Past , waxed lyrical about the days before the arrival of Lord George Hill. "In the good pre-landlord days its [Gweedore's] people ... lived, if not in comfort, in peace and contentment.  ...the landlords of that day were a humane, sympathetic and good hearted class"... and were succeeded by a "rackrenting horde of land speculators" of whom a prime example was Lord George Hill, who was guilty of "tyranny and oppression against his tenants" (p. 5). This political pamphlet is full of such rhetoric and it is necessary to read between the lines but it does give an insight into the feeling of the protagonists involved in the "agrarian question" of the time. I got a copy of this pamphlet through the University of Illinois, Urbana.

[8] Report....question 1992

[9] Report.... question 2016.

[10] Report... Appendix 9, nos 76 and 82.

[11] Report... Appendix 5, a list supplied by Fr J. McGroarty.

[12] Report... q. 1936.

[13] McFadden J.J., The Present and the Past...p. 6.

[14] I am only tenative about this. It seems likely from the evidence of the report.

[15] Report....q.3974.

[16] Report...q.3675, 3843.

[17] Report...q. 6753, also Facts... p.58.

[18] Facts ...p56

[19] Report...q.6876-6877.

[20] Report...q.6875.

[21] Report...q. 6879.

[22] Report...q 6753.

[23] Report...q.6709.

[24] Report...q.2088.

[25] Report...q. 2024.

[26] Report...q. 5238. Henry O'Brien of Glasheron, went to America, returned and brought a farm in Cashel Hill. There were others who did the same.

[27] See the list of sales (1882-1886) listed in the Cowper Commission report, p.279.

[28] Cowper Commission,  p.279 and Appendix B no. 11 (McFadden).

[29] British House of Commons Sessional Papers, LV, 1860, p.382, Return relating to poor assessment, Ireland.

[30] Report.... q. 163-166 (McBride).

[31] Report...q. 134-148 (McBride).

[32] Report...q. 813 (McBride).

[33] Report...q. 1341-1369.

[34] Report...q.2332.

[35] Report...q.8442.

[36] Cowper Commission, q. 8366, 8442-8443, 8580 (Somerset Ward).

[37] Irish Industry, Appendix, p.899.

[38] McFadden cited in theCowper Commission minutes...q8388.

[39] Cowper Commission minutes...q.8440.

[40] Evans E. Estyn, The Personality of Ireland, Habitat, heritage and History, Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 103.

[41] Geary, Lawrence M., The Plan of Campaign 1886-1891, Cork University Press,  Cork, 1986, pp 29-33.

[42] Evans, The personalty of Ireland,...p104.

[43] Report from the Select Committee on Industries (Ireland), British House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1884-85, vol IX, (Mrs Hart's evidence is pp.681), q. 12181 (referred to below as Irish Industry).

[44] Irish Industry, q.12,207.

[45] Irish Industry, q 12364. Socks were knit on four needles.

[46] Mrs E. Hart, Verbatim report of an address given at the clubhouse, Bedford Park Middlesex, 30th May 1885,  appendix to the report on Irish industry, p.896.

[47] Irish Industry, q.12341.

[48] As for Fr. McFadden, his picture occupies a prominent place on the website of the Catholic Diocese of Raphoe, of which Gweedore is one of the parishes.