Folklore of the Famine

The Famine has been etched deeply into the Irish collective consciousness. Still today these stories and others are alive in the Irish Culture. Are there folk tales preserved in your family which you would like to share? If so send them to us or perhaps, you might like to organize an oral history project to collect such stories for the Commemoration on September 9. We welcome your contributions and participation.

Stories by Lady Augusta Gregory

(from Galway 1926)


The famine; there's a long telling in that, it is a thing will be remembered always. That little graveyard above, at that time it was filled up of bodies; the Union had no way to buy coffins for them. There would be a bag made, and the body put into it, that was all; and the people dying without priest, or bishop, or anything at all. But over in Connemara it was the dogs brought the bodies out of the houses,and asked no leave.

The world is better now than when it was, for I remember the time I saw men dying out of their standing with the hunger, I seen two brothers dying in a little corner of a field, and nothing around them only the wall. I seen women watching the hen to lay an egg that they's bring it into the Market to get kitchen for the children, and they couldn't put one on the fire.

I saw three men transported for sheep stealing, and I saw twenty-eight legs of mutton taken out of the garden of one of them. To salt them they did, and to put them in a cellar in the ground. It was to New South Wales these two were sent, and they were put to work in a gold mine. And at their death there was sent back to their family four thousand pounds in money. But when it was got in no good way it did not last, it went to the bad like the froth of the stream.

There was a woman in the time of the Famine and she was dying for the want of food, and she with six or seven pounds that was in sovereigns tied about her neck, and a farthing along with them. But she would not break a sovereign to take a shilling out of it. And a rat came up and ate the thread and brought away the sovereigns to its hole, but the farthing it left outside. That is a true story. It is up in the mountains the woman was.


The longest thing I remember is the time of the sickness, and my father that was making four straw mats for four brothers the died,and that couldn't afford coffins. The bodies were put in the mats and were tied up in them. And the second thing I remember is the people digging in the stubble after the oats and the wheat to see would they meet a potato, and sometimes they did, for God sent them there.


The cholera was worse again. It came from foreign, and it lasted a couple of years, 'til God drove it out of the country. It is often I saw a man ploughing the garden in the morning 'till dinner time and before evening he would be dead. It was as if on the wind it came, there was no escape from it; on the wind, the same as it would come now and would catch on to pigs. Sheds that would be made out in the haggards to put the sick in; they would turn as black as your coat. There was no one could go near them without he would have a glass of whiskey taken, and he wouldn't like it then.


As to the Martins of Ballinahinch, there got to be a debt on it, and Tom Martin borrowed two barrels of gold from the Law Life Company. They were brought to the house at Ballinahinch, and it was at the time of the Famine and Tom Martin's tenants were carried away by the hundred to the Poorhouse at Clifden. And he went to see did they get any sort of good attendance or nourishment, and they did not get it. And he took the fever and went home and took to his bed and they got nurses for him. And after his death there was no sign of the two barrels of gold. Some said the Misses took the one of them, and it might have been the daughter and the man she married took the other. It is the way the estate went. The Colonel, Tom Martin's father, went traveling through England and France and Spain and Portugal spending money in every place. One time he stopped so long away his wife that he left home went away with some rich man, I forgot his name. They went to his house that was between Oughterard and Galway. She stopped in that house and never went out of it, fearing that Colonel Martin might come back and that if he knew she was in it he would take the life of the man she was with. And when the Colonel came back and found the wife gone he went looking for her, and he never could get a sight of her because she was shut up on the house, and he knew if he went to it he would not be let in. He knew well she was there, but he had no proof.

And one day he met with a peddler that was acarrying little things for sale in a kishoge, and he asked the peddler to peel off his clothes and give them to him in exchange for his own clothes. "And I might meet you some other time again," he said. so the peddler peeled off his clothes and the Colonel put them on, and he took the kishoge and went to Galway and to--you know this yourself better than I can tell you--the best jeweller-and he filled the kishoge with every sort of gold things till it was full up, and then he went to the rich man's house and knocked at the gate and then the servant girl came and opened it. He asked leave to come in then and he showed her the kishoge, and because such things as he had are dear to women, the girl let him as far as the kitchen. "Ask your mistress to come look at the things," he said then. "Oh," said the girl, "I cannot do that for she is in her bed yet." "Bring them up then to the bed," says he, "and let her make her choice." So the girl took the kishoge and went opening door after door going through the house, and the Colonel had but slippers--Oh, he was very clever! And he slipped on the slippers and went following her from door to door and she not hearing him following after her.

They came then to the door where the lady was and she gave a jerk of her elbow to the man that was in the bed with her. "If Martin is living," she said, "that is him walking." The man jumped up then, and there was a table where he had three revolvers always on it. But the Colonel ran past the girl and took the revolvers from the table before he could reach them. Then he looked at his wife and at the man, and he said, "I have seen you now and I have a witness. I might shoot you now," he said, "but I never like to shoot a man in his bed." And he might have shot him, for there was no law in the country to prevent him doing it. And he turned and walked out of the house and the gold things he had, he gave them to the girl. He went then to Galway and took the law against the rich man and he took the barrel of gold from him, full of sovereigns and half sovereigns that it was past counting and went by weight. And he sent for Tim Hart that was in his employment and he said, "Get a car and drive through all the streets of Galway and scatter that to every poor person that is in the streets." So Tim Hart got the car and put the barrel on it and went scattering the gold through the streets.

The rich man, now, had set a man having a pistol at every street corner to kill Colonel Martin before he could leave the town. But when they saw the great relief that came to Galway and to every poor person with the scattering of the gold their heart changed in them, and every one of them put up his pistol and turned away. Tim Hart came back and told the Colonel he had scattered all the gold. "Did you keep none of it for yourself?" said the Colonel. "I did not," said he. "Then you will never live to be rich," said he, "where you didn't put some of it in your own pocket."

And I remember my father telling me he saw Tim Hart, an old man and a poor man, gathering seaweed at that strand beyond like any other one. As to the wife, she outlived the Colonel. And when her death was near she came to her son Tom, at the house of Ballinahinch, and offered him to redeem the property if he would let her in to die at home. But he would not let her in. The Colonel was followed from Galway another time by bailiffs, and they had three of the best horses in Galway following him, but they could not come up with him on his little grey mare.

From: The Kiltartan Books Comprising the Kiltartan Poetry History and Wonder Books., Lady Augusta Gregory, New York,Oxford University Press 1971. pp.107-111

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