The Famine in Donegal

Image of Port, Donegal, deserted village during Famine courtesy of

During the Great Hunger Donegal had a population of nearly 30,000 people, more than two thirds were involved in agriculture using one third of the county’s land.  As a result Famine in the 1840s had a devastating effect on the people.  The diet of the time consisted of potatoes, herring, salt, stirabout and milk.  Clothing was meagre and wretched; furniture in the hovels was pitiful and bedding was scare.  Living conditions were overcrowded and smoky. 

Despite the 1838 Act providing relief for the poor, very little impact was felt by the starving and diseased population.  The Workhouses carried a certain stigma up until 1845 but after that when they were used, they could hardly cope with the crisis. Only some of them could provide reasonable living conditions but at Letterkenny, Glenties and Ballyshannon they were substandard and in a terrible state.  The diet provided was Indian meal or oatmeal, once a day. 

By 1846 James Hack Tute who was on a fact finding mission in the County, described the misery of the poor which prevailed in the area.  People who living on a single meal of cabbage or seaweed.  As the decade wore on, the Workhouses reported outbreaks of typhus among their inmates and as a result could not admit more paupers.  Arguments about the administration of the guardians abounded with absentee landlords and agents being held accountable. 

Destitution reigned in the harsh winter of 1846/7 although some relief was sourced from a Belfast charitable association.  However, the parish of Glencolumkille lost seventeen per cent of its population through disease, starvation and emigration.  Conditions on Arranmore were described by an American visitor in 1847: no food apart from bits of turnip and seaweed.  And still the blight continued to spread. 

Workhouses were full to capacity. Fever and pestilence stretched from Ballyshannon to Moville.  Relief was slow in coming owing to primitive transportation and the distance from Dublin which was the centre of famine relief.  Emigration to Canada and America was rampant.

The legacy of the famine in Donegal is seen today in the paupers’ graveyards, the huge iron boiling pots for soup scattered round the county.

Donegal has an interactive experience of life in Ireland during the 19th century in the Doagh Famine Village located in Inishowen -  

To read a contemporary account of the Famine and with particular reference to Donegal click on the following link: 


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