Good Reads: The Famine in ToomevaraPosted: March 17, 2011
The Famine Clearance in Toomevara, County Tipperary, by Helen O’Brien. FourCourts Press, 2010.
This is a slim, nonglitzy volume that looks like the kind of graduate thesis you’d find tucked away in a university library. It reads a bit that way too: concise and clear, but distinctly academic in tone. The author isn’t aiming for a potboiler and she does not even appear to be auditioning for a spot as an expert on Who Do You Think You Are? Although I’d watch an episode with her in it, for sure.
I ordered the book upon a recommendation from a member of the Troy Irish Genealogy Society email list, and because Toomevara is a village in the part of Tipperary my ancestor Martin Haigney might have left in the early 1850s. I was curious to read a Famine-era study specific to this region.
I was not expecting anything overtly genealogical, and O’Brien’s book does not deliver that (although she certainly mentions many local surnames). Her mission is to analyze what this one little village of Toomevara was like going into the crisis of 1845-52, how the famine shook it to its foundations, and what effects and memories lingered afterward.
It’s revelatory background for anyone (like me) who has always been vaguely aware their Irish immigrant ancestors “came over during the Famine” without considering the suffering and dislocation behind that decision. The “clearance” in O’Brien’s title refers to the forced eviction of 500 villagers on 28 May 1849, an incident brutal enough that it rated indignant articles in local newspapers, and even a discussion in the British House of Commons. As one resident recalled years later:
About 5 p.m. the work was over, the place in ruins and the only roof for souls was the vault of heaven. The people gathered their fragments of furniture, doors, dressers, old boxes and built sheds along the channel of chapel wall and school house, a few in the school house yard and the gardens at the rear of the two houses in Chapel street …
Ultimately even these pathetic digs were unacceptable to the authorities, and in February 1850 a work gang of local recruits — the “hut tumblers” — pulled down the makeshift shelters of about 20 evicted families who had refused to disappear to neighboring villages or into the workhouse.
However upsetting contemporaries may have found all of this, there was little recourse for the villagers. As O’Brien illustrates in painstaking detail, the Famine was not an era chock-full of options. There’s no shortage of bad guys in the narrative, but some of them might surprise. O’Brien’s analysis certainly shows inactivity on the part of the great landowners, but the system that subdivided and subleased huge holdings into tinier and tinier parcels meant that a confusing web of agents and subagents made the more direct decisions about who could stay and who must go.
Disturbingly, these hard times often pitted villager against villager. Local folk were part of the gangs who tumbled the huts in 1850 and in the initial eviction in 1849. For some it may have been a way of ensuring protection from being evicted themselves; in other cases workers were promised lumber from the cottages they pulled down.
Ultimately Toomevara, like most of Ireland, was transformed by the crisis. O’Brien notes that 187 surnames recorded in parish baptism registers between 1831 and 1852 disappear from the records after the Famine, reflecting the degree to which deaths and emigrations changed the village forever. Long and angry memories remained, not only toward the British and Anglo-Irish power class, but toward fellow Irish who took advantage of the upheaval and dispersals to enlarge their own land holdings.
In her introduction, Ms. O’Brien says that while the Famine has been extensively studied in a general way, “ample room exists for more local studies on the topic.” To judge from the way this concise book brings these horrible years into a vivid and personal focus, she’s absolutely right.