Chapter 2: 1840 – 1880 : The Potato Famine, the English Landlords & the Donegal Relief Fund

Donegal family group

For the sake of perspective our story needs to be placed in the context of the times, and the events, affecting Ireland and the people of Donegal. This land was never easy to farm and manage to survive on. The events of the Potato Famine and what followed made this more than the population could bear. The ‘Potato Blight’ that took place between 1845 and 1852 and its’ repercussions would lead directly to the Irish Diaspora and the decimating of the Irish population.

The families farming the lands, being able to produce no crops nor pay their rents were forced to leave their homes and live as beggars. Many starved rather than have to go to the work-houses. In an infamous and shameful precedent the English landowner of the Derryveagh estates, 20 kilometres to the south of Gortahork, evicted almost every one of his tenanted farmers and their families.

The English owner of Derryveagh, John George Adair, wished to create a massive 15,000 acre hunting ground, so he collected a very large force of paid English policemen and goons and proceeded to demolish the homes. He conveniently utilised an obscure by-law, after the death of one of his men, to forcibly evict more than 250 men women & children. Whole families with the familiar names of Coyle, Curran & McFaddens, were sent away from lands they had worked and houses they had lived in for a very long time: most of whom became destitute on the roads or inside local workhouses.

The Derryveagh evictions were a clarion call to all concerned local citizens and a crisis that was to have an effect around the world. When word reached Australia financial aid was resourced and established (the Donegal Relief Fund) and was utilised to supplement the already existing immigration assistance scheme.

What had taken place in Derryveagh also created a local hero, Father McFadden, who had advocated on behalf of the local poor & disposed folk. It was Father McFadden, mostly supported by the Catholic Church that was incredibly active in rescuing the evicted. He was instrumental in writing to Irish Catholic groups overseas seeking their monetary support.

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“Last year brought a change on these warm-hearted peasants. All the landlords of these districts, save one, simultaneously deprived them of their mountains, giving them to Scotch and English graziers for sheep-walks, and, at the same time, doubled, trebled, and, in many instances, quadrupled, the rents on the miserable patches left them. These mountains, so unjustly pressed from the unfortunate natives, were peopled with Scotch and English sheep…. During the Penal Laws, we are told that Grand Jury levies were made upon Irish Catholics for loses sustained by Protestant merchants. It must have been in the same spirit that, in order to recompense these losses of the Scotch and English graziers, an enormous and unjust grand Jury Warrant was obtained against these innocent Celts. And, in order, moreover, to carry out this iniquitous enactment, and the more effectually to secure the adverse and unjust possession of those mountains, an extra force of constabulary was, at the instance of these landlords, ordered to these districts, for whose support a most ruinous tax has been imposed on the wretched inhabitants.”              

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In 1884 Reverend James McFadden was known to have come up against a landlord by the unlikely name of Wybrants Olphert . At that time this cruel land-owner had also displaced many, many families. The report at the time states that he “found 165 members of the evicted families, including 60 women, 20 infants, and several aged and infirm men and women, lying in the ditches, and ascertained that they had lain there shelterless during the previous three days and nights.”

My Wybrants Olphert was the landlord and owner of most of the farming lands of Ards Beg, Killult and Meenlaragh . Thankfully by this time most of our forebears had made use of the Donegal Relief Fund and the Assisted Immigration Passage to make a new life in Australia.

Those who stayed behind still weathered the cruel system that allowed the exploitation by the English ‘overlords’. It was not very much after this that Donegal was the base for the Irish Uprising and the beginings of “The Troubles’. From this and the Irish Civil War, arose the partitioned Irish Free State.

Thankfully the founding members of the Coyle family of Ards Beg remained where they were, doing what they knew how to do. They continued to farm the land and tend to the animals and cultivate what they could for the simplest of existences.

They were not evicted nor caused any more hardship than they could bear. The actions of the landlords and their greed directly affected our family and its’ future course. The decisions made in 1875 to 1880 would split the family in two.

With the intercession of Father McFadden and the Church and the best information being received, wise choices had to be made. There had to be a better way. The prospects for our clan members looked so much brighter in the far away colony of Australia.

As with so many families of the time the difficulty of losing a son or daughter, maybe forever, was alleviated by the knowledge that their lives would be so much better in a new land.

What follows is the record of those that left, not those who were left behind. Further information will be added to history but we know that there were attempts to allow others of the Coyle clan to come to Australia. And there appears to be others that have “fallen through the gap”.

What can be viewed in the Irish Census of 1901 and 1911 is that our Coyle family were still residing in that same town in “House No 27”. Old Hugh Coyle (our Great-Great Grandfather) lived to approximately 85 years or more….

Coyle Family 1911 census

….and that our Coyle family lives on “over there”….

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