The cause of destitution in Ireland was not the lack of food but its restrictive distribution due to laissez faire economics. While the potato crop failed in 1845, there was an adequate supply of meal available, but most of the poor could not afford it. Inishowen escaped the worst excesses of the Great Famine thanks to the work of relief committees, the existence of a network of dispensaries and the fact that famine fever was not as severe as elsewhere.
The Inishowen Workhouse
The workhouse stood within the grounds of today’s hospital. First opened on 2nd October 1842, this was built at a cost of £7600, and at the time was the most expensive and largest in Donegal, capable of holding 600 paupers. Only part of the building is still standing in the grounds of the James Connlly Hospital. The Register of Admissions and the minutes of the Board of Guardians are preserved in the County archives at Lifford. In March 1848 there were 675 inmates and the workhouse was reported as overcrowded.
One headstone in the centre of the graveyard opposite the Colgan Hall is in memory of John Doherty, known as ‘The Cloth’, who died in 1818. He had served for a period of time as Chairman of the Board of Guardians. The family were merchants in the Diamond and donated their life savings for the relief of hunger in the town and surrounding parishes.
Famine Relief Roads
The Carndonagh-Buncrana road is a good example of a famine relief road. Work was available on public works in road making. Many of the roads leading into the town were repaired during the Great Famine. In other cases, stone walls were constructed around large Estates. Wages were 9 pence a day.
The Brachán House
Situated on the right of the Carn to Malin road, there is a stone monument here which commemorates the Great Famine. A replica famine pot at the site recalls a time when meal was distributed to people after the potato crop failed. In 1847 soup kitchens distributed free soup.
As the famine worsened in 1847, fever broke out in the workhouse. Several houses opposite the workhouse were rented by the Board in order to stop the spread of fever and fever related diseases.
Robert Moore was a major landowner who was Secretary of the Board of Guardians during the famine. He also promoted Carndonagh Relief Committee in November 1846 which raised funds to buy food for the poor. His house stands near the Carndonagh Cross.
The Famine Graveyard
The Famine Graveyard is on the right of the entrance to the hospital. Only a single cross remains today and there are no headstones. By 1847 there were so many deaths in the workhouse at the graveyard was closed and burials took place in the town graveyard.
The Society of Friends
The Society of Friends supplied the boilers and donated money to the wives of local landowners who bought wool for distribution. Women raised small sums from spinning and knitting.
The Diamond was the marketplace where grain could be bought during the famine but few are able to afford it. A tonne of oatmeal cost £16.00.
The Famine Village
The Famine Village in the Isle of Doagh recreates living conditions at the time of the Great Famine and has many artefacts associated with the period.
The Carndonagh Workhouse Stretcher
This artefact from the famine has been preserved in the city of Derry museum but is not on public display.
Patches of potato ridges can be seen in some hillside fields in the area where farmers sowed a small plot of potatoes in order to survive. It was believed that land on higher ground would escape the blight.
(See Donegal Annual 1984 for a detailed study of the Great Famine in Inishowen by Sean Beattie and Carndonagh edited by Maura Harkin and Sheila Mc Carroll).