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The Agricultural Crisis 1879/1880 And The Aftermath

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

16. The Agricultural Crisis 1879/1880 And The Aftermath


Up until 1876 agricultural production had improved and the general standard of living had risen. However, the late 1870s brought an agricultural crisis which was initiated by a combination of bad weather, and poor harvests, complicated by falling prices caused by the importation of cheap American grain. 1877 was the first of three successive years of unusually severe weather. Conditions only improved slightly in 1878 but by the following year the situation deteriorated. Potato yields were down and production had fallen by three quarters. American grain and beef were imported to England.There was an increase in the number of bankrupt farmers in the early part of 1879. They found it difficult to obtain credit from local banks and shopkeepers who were also calling in loans.

The crisis was not as severe as during the Famine period. Indian-meal had become a staple part of the diet of the poor and during the 1870s it was imported regularly in large quantities.

Dungarvan Union
The Dungarvan Board of Guardians commented at their meeting of  16 January 1879 that there were 'many able bodied labourers in Dungarvan in a state of absolute destitution.' They stated that they could only give relief to them in the Workhouse, but the labourers refused to enter. The Guardians appealed to the Dungarvan Town Commissioners to come up with a plan to provide 'necessary and useful work' for the labourers. In April the Guardians passed a resolution thanking Henry Villiers Stuart for reducing his tenants' rents by 15% and they hoped that other landlords would follow his example. James Galwey, agent to the Earl of Dartry was also commended for allowing his tenants extra time to pay their rents due since September 1878.

In October the Guardians passed a resolution to send a memorial to the government asking for a cheaper method of advancing loans for reclamation and drainage of bog or unprofitable land. They also criticised the excessive amounts demanded for the county cess. The Board approved of the methods adopted by the government to meet the distress but felt they did not go far enough. They noted that private individuals and corporations could not avail of the loans. The Guardians felt that it was contrary to the spirit of the Poor Law to give relief to the able-bodied labourers and that it would be 'demoralising and injurious to that class to force them into the poor house.'
In November the Town Commissioners adopted a resolution sent by Dublin Corporation calling on the government to immediately commence public works in order to relieve the impending distress. At a further meeting in December the Guardians decided to contact Henry Windsor Villiers Stuart and ask him to accompany a deputation to the Board of Works to obtain a loan at 4% repayable over 35 years in order to purchase the Cunnigar and build a bridge to it from the town.

A deputation attended the Guardians meeting in early January 1880. They were there on behalf of the 'hundreds of poor unemployed labourers...begging of the Guardians to provide work for them.' The Guardians suggested that the Local Government Board should give permission for construction of a new water supply for Dungarvan. The Guardians also wanted permission to give outdoor relief to the unemployed able-bodied labourers so that 'in urgent cases the Guardians would be enabled to prevent the breaking up of the households of this class.'

The Guardians meeting of 8 January was besieged by hundreds of unemployed labourers demanding work. The Board of Guardians felt that a new water scheme for Dungarvan would provide employment but felt that the Town Commissioners were against the plan and they urged the Local Government Board to compel the Commissioners to carry it out. In January the Treasury authorised £500,000 to be loaned to Irish landowners and sanitary authorities for projects normally carried out under the Land Improvements Act and public health legislation. By the end of February they had received applications amounting to £1,330,000 from around the country.

Bishop James Vincent ClearyIn January 1880 the Parish Priest of Dungarvan, James Vincent Cleary, wrote the following entry in the church accounts ledger:

'A succession of bad harvests for 3 or 4 years and the competition of American produce in the English and Irish markets have reduced our agricultural and trading classes to a state of poverty bordering on destitution. There is neither money nor credit, and consequently there is no employment of labour. The potatoes are nearly exhausted and the poor cannot buy Indian-meal. We apprehend a Famine in Spring.' [1]

Relief Fund And Work Schemes
Father Cleary called a public meeting in Dungarvan Town Hall on Monday 12 January. He wanted action to relieve the distress but not as he put it by 'doling out the bread of idleness but by supplying work.' £140 was collected at this meeting and £133.0.9 was collected from other sources.

Dungarvan Poor Relief Fund 1880

15 January
Door to Door collection £140
Mansion House Dublin £100
Do. £50, £75, £50  £175
Duchess of Marlborough £50
Villiers Stuart £25
Lord Waterford £20
Duke of Devonshire £15
Bishop Dorrian of Down & Connor £25
Bishop of Waterford £10
Archbishop Croke, Cashel £20
3 Banks in Dungarvan £15
Cork Distillery Co. £5
Clyde Shipping Co. £5
Trustees of the Hargrave Estate, Dromore £20
Frank Hugh O'Donnell M.P. £5
R. J. Ussher, Cappagh £5
McHugh & Co., Belfast £10
James Donnell, Liverpool £5
Andrew Walsh, Manchester £5
John Kiely Esq. £10
Edward Roberts £4
Sir R. Power £3
Pierse English £3
J. J. Murphy Cork £2
George Waters, County Judge £2
James Galway £2
James Carbery jr. £2
James Carbery £1
John A. Blake £2
Most Rev. Arch. McCabe, Dublin £50
Land League £30
Mansion House, Dublin, 5 tons seed potatoes £58
Amount received in Dungarvan & vicinity £140
Mansion House Committee £383
Duchess of Marlborough's Committee £50
Land League Committee £30
Friends throughout Ireland £173.3.0
3 Archbishops and 4 Bishops £223.11.0
New York Herald Committee £20
(sub Total)* £1,019.3.11
Further Contributions £57.1.1
Total Received £1,076.5.0

* These figures do not compute.

Further Contributions

Bishop McCarthy, Cloyne £8
Bishop of Waterford (second contribution) £10
Thomas Sherlock £3
Bishop of Waterford (third gift) £10
Archbishop Lynch, Toronto £40
Mansion House £50
Beamish & Crawford, Brewers, Cork £10
New York Herald Committee £20
J. Delahunty £3.3.0
Bishop Crimmon, Hamilton, Ontario £50
Rev. J. Gaule, Atlantic, Iowa, U.S.A.£6

Henry Windsor Villiers Stuart attended the meeting and a later account noted that he 'spoke most feelingly...and swelled the funds by giving a handsome subscription. In his own district it is not yet forgotten...the liberality he then displayed towards the oppressed poor. To those who could not work he gave fuel, food, and clothing, and to those who could labour he instituted reclamation works on a mountainous part of his property.' [2]

On 14 January the Local Government Board wrote to the Guardians complaining that a large portion of the rates for 1878 remained uncollected. This annoyed the Guardians who replied stating that the rate collector had done his best but that the farmers were simply unable to pay on time due to the bad economic climate. The following week the Guardians asked the Local Government Board to include the Dungarvan Union in any new public works schemes. They stated that £260 had been raised by private subscription - 'this fund is being exhausted at the rate of £80 a week though the labourers employed only receive 1/- per day.'

A further entry in Father Cleary's ledger for Sunday 25 January noted that 'Great distress prevails.'

In early February Henry Villiers Windsor Stuart wrote to the Guardians informing them of the advantages of applying for relief schemes. He suggested they apply for all the schemes: 'he especially commends the improvement via the Cunnigar.  He has himself already applied for the loan of £3000 for the purpose of giving employment in the portions of the Union into which his property extends and he is prepared to give every facility to his tenants to borrow for the purpose of draining and reclamation and with that view to give them the largest leases in his power.' He also informed the Guardians that on returning from London he would call to the Dublin office of the Board of Works and ask permission to apply part of his loan towards improving Ballinagoul harbour.  The guardians asked him to apply personally to the Duchess of Marlborough's Fund Committee for a grant to supply seed potatoes to the relief committee set up by Villiers Stuart.

The Marlborough Relief Committee informed the Dungarvan Guardians that they were already giving relief to 57 Unions and could not assist any more Unions.  The Mansion House Relief Committee stated that they did not give fund sto Boards of Guardians but to local committees and suggested that one be established in Dungarvan.

On 4 March 1880 James T. Budd, secretary of the Dungarvan Poor Relief Committee wrote to the Guardians requesting a refund of £51.  This money had been paid out in relief on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of that week by the Relief Committee.  He wanted to be reimbursed for this amount.  The Guardians sent a copy of the letter to the Local Government Board.  They explained that the provisional arrangement had been resorted to 'as the only means of escape from the immediate danger of the House being flooded with a hungry crowd of 1,600 or 1,700 who had assembled outside.'

The Guardians also agreed to apply for a loan under the Seed Supply Bill.  On 6 May the Clerk submitted an estimate to the Board for £2,064 for the purchase of seed potatoes and he was directed to apply to the Local Government Board for this amount.  The workhouse accounts for that week show that White, Budd and Co were paid £1,263.18.6 for seed potatoes.  The following week the Board of Works informed the Guardians that £2,064 had been lodged to the credit of Dungarvan Union for the purchase of seeds. 

The disease resistant Champion seed potatoes were supplied under the Seed Act.  Early in 1880 the weather improved and agricultural prices rose.  The Champion seed potatoes produced a good harvest and in the Blackwater valley near Fermoy, it was stated that the potato crop had not been as good since 1842. [3]

In September the Town Commissioners requested the Local Government Board to get the Cunnigar bridge project started as Winter was approaching and there were many destitute labourers in need of work. [4]

However, by January 1881 it appears that the situation had not improved significantly in the Dungarvan area.  The following entry appeared in the minutes for 27 January: 'in view of the present widespread distress prevailing in the Union especially in the Town of Dungarvan, through want of employment and the exceptionally severe weather, the Local Government Board be requested to authorise the Guardians to give outdoor relief for two weeks in food and fuel to able bodied persons.'

In February 100 applicants looked for relief from the Guardians.  They were required to work eight hours a day breaking stones, which had been supplied by Captain Richard Curran from his quarry at Shandon.  Later in the month the Local Government Board asked the Guardians if they wished to continue with the outdoor relief which was to expire on 12 February.  The Guardians felt it ws not necessary. 

Financial Difficulties Of The Board
In 1881 the Guardians were once again in serious financial trouble, their account being overdrawn by almost £5,000. The bank refused to pay cheques to meet expenditure. The rate collector was urged to collect more money. Dr. Brodie, the Local Government Board Inspector, submitted a report on the financial state of the Union stating that £7,358 of rates remained uncollected and the Union account was overdrawn by £4,762.

In April 1881 Henry Windsor Villiers Stuart resigned as chairman of the Board of Guardians due to pressure of work in Parliament. In September the Guardians passed the following resolution: 'That as the Land Act is now the law of the land, and the farmers of Ireland going to give it a fair trial, we think it full time that harmony should prevail all over the country and for that purpose we respectfully...ask the government to allow all the political prisoners their freedom.'

From this period on, outside political events began to be discussed at the meetings of the Guardians. In October the Guardians noted their regret at the arrest under the Coercion Act, of their vice-chairman John Wall, and Edmond McGrath, the brother of another Guardian.

In November 1884 the Guardians agreed to reduce the salaries of the Union officials by 20%. However, the Local Government Board were not impressed with this cost cutting measure and once again threatened to replace them with paid Guardians. The Munster Bank went into liquidation in 1886 and the Guardians passed the following resolution at their meeting in February:
'We the Board of Guardians of the Dungarvan Union, having heard with deep regret that the Liquidators of the Munster Bank are pushing the debtors of the bank to extremes by the service of writs and other expensive proceedings, would earnestly and respectfully request of them in consideration of the terrible depression of the times and the noble efforts made by their customers, to fairly meet their engagements; now to forbear and give the people the benefit of the Butter Season and harvest to meet their demands, a course which we consider best in the interest of the successful liquidation and the entire community.'

In 1886 the severe weather had a disastrous effect on the grain harvest and especially the barely crop in the coastal districts. The Dungarvan Guardians made the following statement at their September meeting:

'That we deeply regret to observe from every appearance that the Harvest of '86 will be the worst and most disastrous to the country for many years. That the corn and potato crops are in a wretched condition; rotting on the land and that in our opinion the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House of commons should take into serious consideration the present deplorable state of the country, and support the Bill to be introduced by Mr. Parnell to suspend evictions and admit leaseholders to the benefit of the Land Act of 1881, the passing of which would save many from the Workhouse. At the same time we wish to reiterate our opinion that self government is the only remedy for the terrible evils that affect the country which now stands before the world as a land of destitution and misery, under British rule, clearly demonstrate that the miss-called Union between Ireland  and her rich and powerful neighbour was a mockery, a delusion and a fraud on the Irish people.' 
From the late 1880s onwards the Guardians began to provide some treats to brighten up the dull lives of the Workhouse children.  At Christmas 1887 Edward Brenan and other gentlemen supplied the children with tea, cakes and toys and Brenan gave a magic lantern slide show.  The following summer the Guardians received a letter from Mrs Villiers Stuart of Dromana House inviting them to bring a group of children to tea.  Thirty six children and four officers attended to a report in the Waterford News. 

At their meeting of 18 October 1888 the Guardians asked to be dissolved and replaced by paid officers.  The Local Government Board appointed Lieut. Col. Caleb Robertson and William Joseph Burke in their place.  The first few months of 1890 were good but cold weather and heavy rains in July and August affected the hay and grain crops, but worse than this was the partial failure of the potato crop.

On 25 September the Guardians passed the following resolution: 'That in consequence of the failure of the potato and oat crops in the mountain lands, we urgenly recommend to the government, the absolute necessity of providing tenants with supplies of the best imported seed in the coming spring, as they will be unable to procure them, nad will become a burthen on the rates.'

By April 1890 the Board of Guardians had been reinstated after an absence of almost two years, with Edmund O'Shea as chairman.

In 1898 the Local Government Act was passed which reformed the local authorities.  The Boards of Guardians reverted back to their original function.  Each county would be controlled by a county council, which became the rating authority.  Waterford Co Council was formed in 1899 with Thomas Power of Dungarvan as chairman.  The sanitary functions were taken over by the new Rural District Councils. 


  1. St. Mary's Parish Accounts Ledger, 13 February, 1881.
  2. Dungarvan Journal, No. 8, Vol. I, July 1883.
  3. Donnelly, J.S., The Land & People of 19th.c. Cork, p.263.
  4. Fraher, William, Calendar of Minutes & Records, Dungarvan Town Commissioners  etc.  1855-1950, 1991, p.85. 


Author: William Fraher

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