New research at NUI Maynooth is shedding light on a largely untold aspect of the Famine — the horrors and suffering that befell women during that time.

Many women ended up abandoned, starving and destitute as 50,000 letters and documents discovered at Strokestown Park show.

“In the history of that time, women have largely been excluded and neglected from the Famine narrative. Rarely are we offered any particular insight into how the Famine affected women,” Dr Ciarán Reilly at Maynooth, one of the world’s foremost experts on the Famine, told the Irish Examiner.

“For many women emigration was not an option during the Famine. So how did those who had not the means to emigrate survive? In many instances women took the law into their own hands and were found to be implicated in a host of criminal activity, including widespread intimidation, threatening neighbours, burning houses and agitating for land,” said Dr Reilly, who is working on a book about women and the famine.

“For example, an 1849 petition from the Widow Bourke of Strokestown pleaded for help as she was unable to pay her rent since ‘god in his infinite mercies afflicted the people with the loss of their potatoes’.

“Similarly, the plight of Catherine Maguire revealed the awful circumstances. Her petition appealed for help as she was ‘deaf, dumb and orphaned and destitute of friends.’”

Dr Reilly’s research of the era reveal many stories of abandonment and betrayal.

“Another request for help from the widow Duignan in November 1849 noted that she was ‘aged, worn, childless and friendless’. This recurring theme of isolation is also seen in the petition of Eleanor Smyth. In this case the petitioner sought assistance as her husband was dead and she had no children or relatives; she also has a disease in her eyes causing her to be nearly blind.”

Many husbands and sons abandoned their wives, mothers and sisters in an attempt to protect themselves. 

“In the case of the Strokestown estate, the desertion and abandonment of women and young children during and after the famine by husbands and parents, raises questions about culpability,” says Dr Reilly. “Why were so many women abandoned by their husbands? While previously these men had migrated to Britain and other parts of Ireland during the summer months for seasonal work, in these cases it would appear that their absence was permanent.

“If we examine, for example, the ‘inmates’ in Roscommon Workhouse in 1851, we get a revealing insight into the fate of women and children during the famine. Of the 226 people from Strokestown who were resident in Roscommon workhouse throughout 1851, 66% were female and more than 40% are listed as being abandoned or deserted.”

These women of the famine were honored last week as Strokestown Park House played host to the Investec Schools Sculpture Competition, in which hundreds of school-children from Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford and Mayo created works of art based on the famine. The evocative sculptures were on display at Strokestown Park House’s woodland in a competition with a top prize of €4,000.

“There’s a real and appropriate sense of peace and tranquility that makes for a perfect setting for the sculptures,”said James Callery, the son of the founder of the Westward Group and the owner of Strokestown Park House.

“The pieces on their own are incredible but the written texts that the students submit with each entry really bring them to life. They outline the thinking behind the students’ work and we have them up on plaques beside each piece.”