A rather unfortunate feast during the Great Famine

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September, the month in which many communities celebrate the harvest, sees Midleton and East Cork celebrate Feast, the Midleton and East Cork Food and Drinks Festival. This year’s festival has an ironic twist because a new movie is comes out on 5th September. It’s called Black 47, and, as the name suggests, it is set during the worst year of the Great Famine, 1847.
Many people do not realise that Midleton played a vital role during the Famine in East Cork. To understand this we have to go back to 1838 – the Irish Poor Law Relief Act was passed by the Westminster parliament against the firm advice of those who knew that poverty in Ireland was very different from poverty in Great Britain. The following year saw the creation of the Midleton Poor Law Union – the district that would look after the poor in the area between Carrigtwohill and Youghal. The Union was instructed to build a workhouse in Midleton…the only workhouse between Cork and Dungarvan until 1848. This had to be the largest available model of workhouse by the architect William Wilkinson, a workhouse capable of taking in 800 ‘inmates’ The Union borrowed £8,000 from the Poor Law Commissioners to build Midleton Workhouse, which was completed and opened in 1841, although the sum borrowed was never fully repaid. The burden of repayments clearly troubled the Midleton Poor Law Board, because they complained to the Commissioners in 1843 that their workhouse, constructed accorded to the Commissioners’ requirements, was simply too big for the numbers it housed.

Little did the Midleton Poor Law Board know what was about to hit them. A potato blight that affected the United States had spread to northern Germany in early summer 1845. It spread rapidly to Belgium within weeks, and then spread to France.

The blight was reported in the Midleton area in November 1845. By 1846 the Workhouse was full of starving people from all over East Cork. The Tory government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, who was familiar with Ireland, was quick to respond and began local relief works. However, the diseases of malnutrition soon took devastating effect. Peel quickly fell from power because he wanted to abolish the 1815 Corn Laws which imposed a high import tariff on imported grain, to the benefit of the landlords and the dismay of the poor. Like Brexit today, the vote over the Corn Laws split the Tories and the Liberals soon took power under Lord John Russell. The Liberals hated government intervention in such matters as famine, so they cut the relief programmes…just as the Famine entered its worst period.
Of greater concern to the government was law and order. Units of the army were posted in various locations around the country to assist the police. A company of the 47th Regiment of Foot was billeted in Thomas Street in Midleton while another company of the 67th Regiment was billeted in Cloyne. The latter were notorious for the rowdiness and indiscipline. The soldiers were lodged in houses already occupied by the locals…hardly an inducement to gain the affection of the locals.

Although the soldiers based in Midleton got three meals a day, it seems that some of them were not especially happy with their fare or maybe they were homesick just at Christmas 1846. The story is given in a confused manner in the Cork Examiner, but I’ve put together what seems to have happened. One evening three of the soldiers got into conversation with a publican called Donovan in whose pub they were drinking. They ascertained that Donovan’s son was a butcher. Young Donovan said that he would show the men where to get a good sheep for their dinner. Instead of ‘returning to their quarters at tattoo, they…determined on going into the country and making off some geese or a sheep for Christmas Day.’ (Christmas Day was over a week earlier.)

The men set out for Mr Welland’s farm…at Killeagh House, about a mile from Midleton. Either Welland or his father had been an agent for Lord Midleton. One son, Joseph Welland was a senior architect for the Established Church and had rebuilt Midleton College in 1828-1830.
Mr Welland had ‘engaged a prize ram for breeding purposes for £20’. This fine specimen was kept in a field with two sheep. ‘Donovan picked out a fine ram, worth at least ten guineas, which they killed and brought into town’! It seems that Donovan may have loaned his butcher’s knife to the soldiers. The men agreed to bring the carcass to their billet and Donovan butchered it the next day. He was to get 15 shillings for the job.

The next day, Mr Welland inspected the paddock in which he had kept the prize ram and two sheep. He found his sheep, but no ram. He also found…a butcher’s knife! This he took to the police barracks. Constable Bresna took the matter in hand and made inquiries in the town. He discovered that the knife belonged to young Donovan. When confronted with the evidence, Donovan admitted it was his knife and confessed the whole story. Constable Bresna contacted the military commander, and, on searching the billets on Thomas Street, discovered portions of the carcass in a coal bunker. Three soldiers billeted there were immediately arrested and brought to the Courthouse, where Resident Magistrate Knaresborough sent them forward to the Fermoy Sessions.

The three soldiers were sentenced to transportation to Australia for ten years. It has to be admitted that their action was a rather extreme way to book a long holiday down under. It is not known if the three sheep stealers ever returned to Ireland. However, the 47th Regiment were thereafter known in Midleton, and elsewhere, as ‘the 47th Sheep Stealers’! Butcher Donovan seems to have got away without sanction because he’d,…er,‘helped the police with their inquiries’

Clearly the local produce was an attraction even then. And you thought that Thomas Street was just a charmingly well-kept residential address in Midleton! The tale is worth pondering when you scoff the tempting food during Saturday’s ‘Main Event’ on Main Street.

Noted local historian, Tony Harpur, is currently writing a book on the history of Midleton. Tony conducts walking tours of Midleton. For bookings, please contact Tony on 087 2969382 or email tharpur97@gmail.com. Tony is also the Chairman of the Midleton / Ballinacurra & Area Heritage local historical society.