Famine Walls

In the Ring of Gullion and Cooley Mountains there may be more than 40 km of stone walls built as relief works during An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger. We can’t be sure because they are not listed nor even counted. They are not protected monuments, but they should be. People died building them.



This is a photograph of Queen Victoria aged 21. It was taken in the year 1840, when photography had been around for a couple of years. The Famine began five years later, but there are no photographs of Irish famine victims. There are plenty of early snaps of the people in the Big Houses, but  photographers did not waste precious film plates on the poor and powerless. All we have is one picture of a survivor, a young labouring man working on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate in Waterford in 1853.

For images of the famine we have to rely on powerful drawings published in the English press, and particularly in the London Illustrated News. Their most famous drawing – which has become the very face of the Great Hunger – shows Bridget O’Donnell of Co. Clare and her two surviving children.

Bridget O’Donnell

This paper was also unique in actually interviewing victims. Even as she lay with fever, expecting a child and another child dying on her, the crowbar brigade were in wanting to tumble her house. She told the newspaper: “My husband held four acres and a half of land, and three acres of bog land; our yearly rent was £7. 4s 0d; we were put out last November; he owed some rent. I was at this time lying in fever. …five or six men came to tumble my house; they wanted me to give possession. I said that I would not; I had fever, and was within two months of my down-lying (confinement); they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbours carried me out… I was carried into a cabin and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead. I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died with wants and with hunger while we were lying sick.” This happened in 1849 when, by some accounts, the famine was over. Perhaps the blight was, but people continued to die as a direct result of hunger and its attendant diseases for some years.

The potato blight first appeared in Ireland in mid-August 1845; in the same month it showed up in the Isle of Wight, Belgium, the Netherlands and northern Germany. It had been rampant in North America since the spring of 1843 when it is thought the outbreak began in central Mexico. It often surprises Irish people to learn that the blight affected all of Europe and large parts of Russia including Siberia, and that about 100,000 people outside of Ireland died of starvation or related diseases across Europe in those years. Some people died in England and Scotland. But we lost more than one million to hunger and accompanying diseases. That was due to our dependency on the potato, and that was due to an utterly perverted system of land ownership.

Whole fields of healthy potato plants turned black overnight in that summer of ’45 and the stalks withered. Those who dug the potatoes were met with an awful stench from the rotting mass of tubers.

The Lumper’s pub

The most productive potato variety, if not the prettiest, was the lumper which grew well in peaty acid (unlimed) soil with minimal manure. It was particularly susceptible to blight.

The Lumpers Pub in Ravensdale gets its name from the Lumper McArdle, a potato merchant who operated from the premises at the time of the famine.


New lazy beds

Most people who planted potatoes by hand made raised beds which were and still are known locally as priddy rigs but are better known as lazy beds.

My lazy bed
Old lazy beds

.The photo with the two women was taken in the Glens of Antrim about 1900. This particular agricultural method literally goes back to the Stone Age.

Old grass-grown lazy beds can be found all around Slieve Gullion and in the Cooleys where some of these photos were taken. The last photo is from my garden: this is the only way I know to plant spuds, the way my father showed me. There is little that is lazy about it.

By mid-September 1845 blight had been ascertained in every county, by October when the main crop should have been lifted the country was in a blind panic. The crop was down by anything from a third to half. In the following year – 1846 – it was down a full three-quarters. The same applied in 1847 but that was as much due to shortage of seed as the blight. By 1848 the crop was back to two-thirds normal with little impact from blight.

Robert Peel
Sir Charles Trevalyn

In November 1845 the government in London, led by prime minister Sir Robert Peel ( he gave us the Peelers; we called him Orange Peel)  asked the Chief Secretary of the Treasury to examine ways of dealing with widespread hunger. He came up with the idea of importing large quantities of Indian corn (maize) from Canada – about £100,000 worth.

He is the only Chief Secretary of the Treasury to be mentioned in an Irish song. The Indian corn was held in depots around the country, and Michael stole some. Meet Sir Charles Trevalyn.


The maize began arriving in February 1846 but the millers didn’t know how to grind it and people didn’t know how to cook it. Coarse, badly cooked ‘yellow mea’l gave half the country diarrhoea so they called it ‘Peel’s Brimstone’. When I was a child my granny had a saying when we got any kind of a shock: “That shook you and the yellow meal run you’ (gave you the ‘runs’).

Peel and Trevalyn felt it would be against the natural order of things just to give starving people food. Like many in government and particularly in the Treasury, they also had a strong belief that God had sent the blight to punish the ungodly papists and they should not interfere too much with the divine plan of Providence. So Trevalyn devised schemes of public works such as building roads and harbour jetties. South Armagh and North Louth already had a fairly good road network – a lot of roads had been built in public work schemes in 1816-20 – so we got mountain walls instead.

Walls in Cooley

There are at least two famine walls on Slieve Gullion: it is hard to be definite as they are not documented or recognised in any way. So how do we know them? They are a bit higher, broader and better built than field ditches, and the best ones have flat capstones. And many if not most of them run on townland boundaries. The two we know about on Slieve Gullion stretch a combined 12-13 kilometers; overall in the Ring of Gullion and Cooley there are probably 50 kilometers.

Walls at Forkhill

When I am looking for a Famine Wall I ask myself: would the farmers build this wall? Would it be any use to them? If the answer is no, then someone else ordered it built, and that was usually a landlord or the government, to give people work to buy food. There are a number of walls between Mullaghbawn and Forkhill – the red lines – which are very probably famine walls, but we can’t be sure. You can see them from the road, behind the Folly Tower.

The longest wall from Carrickarnon along the Annaverna boundary is at least seven kilometers, half of it constituting the international border.




The March Wall separated the Jones land in Edenappa, Co. Armagh from that of Thomas Fortescue Ravensdale Park in Dromad, Co. Louth. (March = boundary or borderland) Fortescue owed the land on both sides of the wall that runs up the Ben Rock, plus another 23,000 acres in Louth alone.


Famine wall, Slieve Gullion

The wall on Slieve Gullion visible from Dromintee church divides the townland of Dromintee from Annahaia to the east and Slievegullion townland to the west. Another wall directly above the courtyard runs almost to the lake on the summit, They have no obvious practical or economic purpose such as livestock management but there may have been a vanity purpose. Local landlords had control of the relief committees which spent rates money and grants: it so happens that one wall divided the estate of John Foxall in Killeavy Castle from that of Meredith Chambre in Hawthorn Hill while another divided Chambre from Thomas Jones of Jonesborough House who owned pretty much all of Dromintee townland.


The schemes began in the spring of 1846 and soon they were employing three quarters of a million men, women and boys aged 10 years or more. Wages varied between 8d and 10d (old pence) a day for men and 4d for women and boys. The women carried stones to the wall in canvas aprons. On the best schemes (ours was not the worst) everyone got a stone of yellow meal once a fortnight.

Plug and feathers

The walls required a lot of stones, more than could be gathered from loose scree within, say, 500 meters of either side. Stone must have been brought some distance from the areas of loose scree, but how was this done? It would have taken enormous manpower: the more obvious method would be by pony or mule and slipe but we know nothing of this. In any event stones of manageable size would have had to be split from larger boulders using the plug-and-feathers system. This involved drilling a line of holes by hand auger and inserting tapered wedges which were simultaneously struck with sledges.

Peel’s Tories lost power in the summer of 1846 and were replaced by a Liberal government under Lord John Russell. Both Tory and Liberal governments refused to stop exports of food from Ireland – many European countries had already banned exports in response to food shortages.  In 1846 alone Ireland exported 186,000 cattle, 259,000 sheep, 183,000 pigs and 823,000 gallons of butter. Christy Moore wrote a song called “On a Single Day” in which he listed food exports from Cork Harbour on one day in 1847. Historians have made the point that even if all the food had been kept in Ireland it could not have fed everyone. This is true but irrelevant. Starving people sold their pig or cow to pay the rent on the farm, for to lose the farm meant certain starvation and no hope. Apart from the maize imports there were other attempts to buy food on the international market, but these failed for the very good reason that other governments faced with famine in their countries had banned all food exports.

The first starvation deaths were recorded in autumn 1846 when any healthy potatoes were gone. The schemes collapsed as the new Liberal government introduced piece rates capped at 8d per day: the weakening workers were too diseased or hungry to earn enough to feed themselves. Instead, from autumn 1847 food was distributed via soup kitchens without a requirement to work. The first of these had been set up in November 1846 by the Quakers (Victor Bewley) but now the government took them over.

There are two things to be remembered about soup kitchens. Firstly, they rarely if ever served soup, but rather various porridge-style mixtures of oats, rice, maize and anything else available, generally called ‘stirabout. Secondly, please forget everything you ever heard about taking the soup, proselytising or spitting on statues of the Virgin Mary. With the exception of the infamous Rev Nangle on Achill Island, there are no contemporary accounts of anything of that nature and many approving accounts of the generosity of Protestant clergymen in general and Quakers in particular. The souperism stories seem to have originated in the 1870s.

The whole history of the Famine Famine is highly politicised even today. Some of the politicisation comes from the writings of John Mitchel who coined perhaps the best-known line that “God sent the blight but England sent the Famine”. He was in all probability responsible for another little story that I was told in good faith as a child: that Queen Victoria donated £5 to the Irish famine relief fund, but in case anyone thought she was being unfair she sent £5 to the Battersea Dogs’ Home. In fact, she donated £2000, one of the largest personal donations of the time. Another even stranger story is definitely true: the Choctaw Indian tribe sent $170 dollars.

Outside the workhouse

There was a soup kitchen at McGuill’s Corner (The Three Steps) in Dromintee initially organised by the Quakers. The Jordan family of Tievecrum had a contract for the supply of oats. There were others at Forkhill and Jonesborough.

People in need could also go to the workhouse (also called the poorhouse) but that was a tough choice: men, women and children were all separated. Worst of all, to get in you had to give up any land tenancy over a quarter acre, so you had no way back to independence. When you entered your clothes were burned to prevent disease spreading and you were given a uniform. If you left you could be charged with stealing the uniform.

Newry workhouse

Nevertheless, people crowded into the poorhouses in Newry, Dundalk and Castleblaney and camped outside the gates in large numbers when they were full. Newry workhouse (which later became Daisy Hill Hospital) opened in 1841 with capacity for 1000 inmates but during the Famine it held many more. Stables at the rear of the building were converted into a fever hospital (but people generally called them what they really were, fever sheds where the sick were isolated to cure themselves or die).

Fever victims were buried in unmarked mass graves behind the building in the Paupers’ Field where there is now a small memorial

Fever house, Edentubber

High on the hill above Edentubber there is a structure known locally as the Famine Fever Hospital. It may have been a converted booley. In a famine most people don’t live long enough to die of starvation. When your immune system has been weakened by malnutrition, any passing virus or bacteria will kill you.  Probably 80% of victims died of Famine Fever or dysentry.

What was known as “Famine Fever”consisted of two separate diseases, Typhus and Relapsing Fever. Both were conveyed by lice which were rampant in the crowded, filthy conditions prevailing in homes, workhouses and hospitals.

Typhus attacks the small blood vessels; the face swells and the skin turns a dark congested colour, which has given it its Irish name “Flabhras Dubh” (Black Fever).

Relapsing Fever micro-organisms enter the human blood stream through the skin. Within a few hours of infection high fever and vomiting begin which last for several days. A crisis point is reached, marked by profuse sweating which is then followed by extreme exhaustion. Six or seven days later there is a relapse. Relapsing fever is usually accompanied by jaundice, which gives the fever its Irish name “Fiabhras Buí” (Yellow Fever). A woman in Dernaroy called Ketty McGuinness got the relapsing fever, so she burrowed into a haystack for heat and sweated it out for a week and survived.

Ireland was notorious for dysentery long before the famine. It reappeared in 1847 in epidemic proportions. Dysentery producing diarrhoea was caused mainly by a diet of wild berries, dog leaves, old cabbage leaves, raw turnips, seaweed, grass and Indian meal half cooked or raw. It was fatal in many cases for children, and painful and exhausting for adults. But the real danger was that it paved the way for Bacillary Dysentery which is transmitted by human and fly excrement and contaminated food. A high percentage of cases were fatal. As a child I heard stories of people being found dead with their mouths and faces stained green from trying to eat grass, nettles and leaves.

As society broke down, people guarded their wells so infected people would not contaminate them. Sometimes several wells were fed from one spring and dysentery travelled underground.  A well with its own single spring was known as a ‘tobar glan’.From the census of 1841 to that of 1851, the townlands of Edenappa and Faughilotra lost more than half their population. We have no idea how many died, how many left.

We have no way of knowing, but people may have died while building the walls on Slieve Gullion- they certainly did so in considerable numbers on schemes elsewhere. Relief schemes were unhealthy places with large numbers of often diseased people in close physical contact, with dysentery sufferers contaminating streams and ground. One reason the schemes were abandoned was that by mid-1847 so few people were still fit enough to build anything. People would have walked considerable distances to get to the schemes, then they had to climb a mountain and haul stones for ten hours. We don’t know if they got fed or had to bring food, if they had any.

Where are all the dead? Dromintee graveyard has unmarked graves by the south wall, but there were people who never made it to a graveyard. All over Ireland skeletal remains were being found under hedges and behind ditches for many years. We don’t know, because as a people we sort of decided to forget – forget a time of absolute, utter horror – forget a time when we probably weren’t very good to one another.

Somewhere deep in the Public Records Office there is probably a dusty ledger where a civil servant with a fine copperplate hand recorded the names of the people who dragged the stones on Slieve Gullion, showing what they got paid and how much yellow meal they carried home to their starving children. If there is, it will show names like yours and mine, names from the townlands around the foot of the mountain, and maybe there will be a line of black ink through the names of the people who died.

We get angry about the famine and we have every right to do so. As a journalist I admire the quality of the Economist magazine – I wrote several financial reports for the Economist Intelligence Group. But I can never, ever forget that in one of their first issues in 1848 they wrote:  “ …the (Irish) people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes.”

In October 1845 prime minister Peel said: “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable.”  Chief Secretary Trevalyn wrote: “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles Wood said:  “A want of food and employment is a calamity sent by providence; except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into a state of anything approaching to quiet and prosperity.” Cartoons showing the Irish freeloading on the backs of the English worker, or suggesting that famine relief might be used for a bit of terrorism, appeared in the English press right through the famine.

Punch cartoon, 1847

Irishman to John Bull. — “Spare a thrifle, yer Honour, for a poor Irish Lad to buy a bit of — a Blunderbuss with.”

There is plenty of blame to go around. A great many Irish people did rather nicely, a very large amount of land was transferred from English to Irish landlords. The bailiffs and the crowbar brigades were Irish, as were the constabulary and the great majority of soldiers who accompanied them at evictions. And we, of course, we are the survivors. Did an ancestor of ours shoulder some weaker soul out of the queue for the soup or the yellow meal in the hope of a bigger share? Or did they take a farm from which some dying family was evicted?

There were other famines. 1741 was known as Bliain an Ár, the year of the slaughter; proportionately more people died than in the Great Famine. There was no blight involved, just very bad weather and crop failure. Blight was behind our last famine in 1879 and this time the government got its act together, but it was not the major player in providing relief. That was provided privately by subscriptions from Irish-America and organised by the Irish Land League which operated a food distribution centre in Jonesborough.

Every year when we walk the Famine Wall on Slieve Gullion, we stop for our lunch-break near the highest point. Then, with our full stomachs, snug in our fine expensive hill-walkers’ boots and our state-of-the-art raingear, we search for fallen stones and put them back on the wall as a small act of commemoration. It takes about five minutes, but we spend a couple more thinking about what it would be like to do it for ten hours on an empty stomach, with a touch of fever and recurring dysentery.




2 thoughts on “Famine Walls

  1. I recently watched a video, Dragons in the Hills: Music and Myths 4 – with Seamus Murphy… It was inspiring and since I have been trying to find more information about the Famine Walls and exact location of Edentubber Famine Fever Hospital. I’m working on a project about County Armagh and places which border the county. I would like to add the famine house and also draw the exact lines of the famine walls around and on Slieve Gullion to an interactive map, with added information and videos. They are a part of our history and I would love to do all justice. It’s a shame neither are recorded on the Historic Environment Map at N. Ireland or Rep. of Ireland, which I believe they should be. I really hope you can help me with this or point me to a place where I can find this. I look forward to your reply.

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