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Killeshandra and the Famine

Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) describes Killeshandra as a market and post town with 200 houses and a population of 11,137. It was neatly built with a thriving appearance, thanks to its flourishing flax and linen market. Ten years later the Great Famine struck and the Anglo-Celt, 2 July 1847, has the following account of a scene from the famine in Killeshandra:

  • The Market House 'In the neighbourhood and in the town itself poor stricken victims are to be seen lying in the lanes and ditches and in the very streets with no bed but the hard earth and no covering but the sky. Inside the arch of the Market House (see left) a woman and two children lie in fever for some days, a wisp of hay under her head. Opposite Finlay's Hotel, two other poor wretches lie on the site of a house that had been pulled down within a yard of the pathway and in full view. At the back of the street a boy in fever has lain for nine days and nights under a currant-bush exposed to the rains of last week and the sun of this week and is still alive. The Relief Committee has at first tried to erect temporary fever sheds and establish a Board of Health but the inhabitants met the proposal with the most determined opposition in fear of contagion, saying they would pull down every shed. Yet fever abounds.'

Griffith's General Valuation of Rateable Property in Ireland (1858) shows that the civil parish of Killeshandra had 1437 holdings of over an acre. Of these 48.85% were under 10 acres, and 66.74% under 15 acres. Only 50 holdings or 3.55% of the total were over 50 acres. There were six corn-mills in the parish: Clogy corn-mill and bleach-mill owned by William Faris, Drumnawall, a corn-mill owned by William Norton, Drumrockady, a corn-mill owned by Thomas Cartwright, Drumroe, a corn-mill not in use, Drumroosk a corn-mill owned by John Maguire and Gartylough, a corn-mill owned by Michael Maguire. There were two forges in Killeshandra, one in Church Street, owned by Hugh Gilronan and the other in Yewer Lane, owned by William Harkin. Killeshandra also had a flax-mill owned by James Hamilton. There were 141 houses in the town, 83 in Main Street, 29 in Castle Lane, 29 in Yewer Lane. It had a police barracks, a courthouse, a pound, a market house, a butter market and a dispensary.

The prosperity which characterised Killeshandra and its tidy appearance seemed to have vanished in the decades after the Famine. Three letters published in the Cavan Weekly News in 1868 show up the town in a different light. The first of these was written on the 4 November 1868 and signed J. W It says:-

    'But in the winter, I am glad the tourists don't make their visits then else they might give a different account of us and our village. The streets are sometimes almost impassable with mud, collections of unremoved sweepings being allowed to accumulate here and there, into which, if one had the misfortune to stumble, he may bid almost farewell to earth and sky, and had better, if he succeeded in extricating himself, at once to divest himself of all his nether garments . . Suppose you make your way into what is called Yewer Lane . . . The sight of the place is absolutely disgusting. I do not know of such a place for plain unvarnished filth anywhere. The middle of the street is thick with mud and the sides of the street thicker still... The houses I believe are about the worst specimens of architecture anyone has ever seen . . . I do not know how people manage to live in them. Some of the inhabitants of this choice locality have so far domesticated that common animal, the pig, which though extremely useful is not considered to be very nice in its habits as to have it dwelling with them in the same apartments. A sort of annual pestilence in the shape of malignant fever, arising principally from the want of cleanliness of the houses and streets visits this lane and carries away numbers of the inhabitants. I don't know how many of them died with fever in the beginning of last winter.'

A second letter signed simply Rep. on 10 November 1868, says that the writer could have included another street on the south side of the town which for filth and poor quality of the houses outdoes Yewer Lane. A third letter on 12 November signed, A Traveler, not a Tourist, endorses everything in the first letter and then goes on to add:

    'As I walked back to the hotel I found several donkeys picketed across the footpath. I succeeded in passing some, but one, evidently an old offender, refused me the wall.'

The letter complains that the police stood but did nothing about the stray donkey. On 1 June 1886 Killeshandra got its first railway. A seven-mile branch from Killeshandra joined up with the Midland Great Western line from Inny Junction to Cavan at Crossdoney. The line continued to serve the town down to its closure in 1963. The coming of the Co-operative movement in the 1890's transformed what was once a flourishing linen area into one of the great milk-producing areas of the north-west.

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