“A people who don’t have a knowledge of their past is like a tree without roots”
Lissadell House, Coffin Ships, the Pomano and Sir Robert Gore-Booth
In many instances the Irish tend to sanitize, and in some cases to Disneyize, their history. Misguided perhaps, as with the case of the Dunbrody, (box left) promoters won't let the uglier aspects of our history interfere with a commercial prospect. Politically correct history however is not history. It need not be judgemental but it should be accurate. Revealed below are aspects of life on a landlords estate, in this case Lissadell House in Co. Sligo. As with the Dunbrody this is a record you will not hear on guided tours of the house:
The following story was told by Michael Rooney of Ballinfull, Co. Sligo in 1938. It was related to him by Pat Rooney of Ardtrasna fifty years before that. Pat’s age then was eighty-seven which would give him a birth date of c1801:
“People complain about the hard times they live in at present but if they lived in my father’s and grandfathers time they would know something about hard times. In those days English landlords owned all the land and the people paid them the rent. If their rent was not paid on a certain day the poor tenant would be thrown out on the roadside and he could die there for all the landlord or his agents cared…
When Sir Robert Gore Booth was landlord over this part of Sligo the rents the people had to pay were very high. What was worse, if the people tried to improve the dirty wet patches of land they were trying to live on, the rents were raised. There was a tax put on every window in the house. As well as that every house that had a chimney had to pay tax on it as well. In order to avoid paying many poor people built up the windows and you would see cabins with no chimney at all.
All this trouble was to gather up the rent for him as best they could but in spite of all their efforts, owing to the hard times and the bad pieces of land on which they had to live, many people could not make up the rent and evictions were commonplace.
the parish of Drumcliffe between Carney and Lissadell. In that area about one hundred families were evicted in the one operation by Sir Robert. Many of these poor people had their rents paid but the landlord wished to take over the land for a grazing ranch for his cattle. In order to get rid of them completely he got a ship to take them to America . Whole families went on this ship as they saw no hope for themselves had they remained.
Some did not go and they were lucky for the rotten old ship on which the unfortunate people were placed never reached America. All aboard were drowned when the ship sank on the way. The name of the ship was the Pomano and at the time there was a song composed by someone in this district about it. It was a living account and there were many verses. I cannot remember all the song but it began like this: "Bad luck to Captain Dodwell and likewise Jimmy Joe
My curse be on Sir Robert and that he may lie low
Reminiscent of the Highland Clearances in Scotland, when people were cleared to make way for sheep, the events of 1839 in Ballygilgan are well remembered. Having decided to make clearances on his newly acquired property Sir Robert secured the services of Captain Dodwell, who was even then notorious in the area for his ruthless evictions. Folk memory has it that the reason for the forced removals was that, ‘Lissadell House was just built. Ballygilgan was too close to it and his wife didn't like the smell of the turf-smoke coming from the cottages ’.
Summoned to appear before the Devon Commission in 1844 Sir Robert said that the reason for his decision was that the holdings were too small to be viable. Under cross-examination, however, he admitted that, having recently built Lissadell House, he wanted to expand his demesne. The forced emigration that followed is still etched deep in local minds and inextricably linked with stories of the Great Famine which occurred a few years later. In the relative security and comfort in which we live today, the horror of these evictions can hardly be imagined:
‘Houses were demolished, roofs torn off, walls thrown down. The scene was frightful; women running wailing with pieces of their property and clinging to door-posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright. That night the people slept in the ruins, next day they were driven out, the foundations of the house was torn up and razed.’
Amidst the fallen roof timbers and broken walls of her home an old woman went down on her knees to curse her persecutors. The 7 th Baronet will never reign, she swore, the Gore-Booths will melt from the face of the earth.
‘Sir Robert was the 4 th baronet, Sir Henry the 5 th and Josslyn was the 6 th,’ a local man who heard of the incident recalled. ‘Twas the widows curse’ he said ‘That was known in me father’s an’ in me grandfather’s time. They knew all about that from one generation to another. And it has come to pass! The 7 th Baronet was a Ward of Court; he suffered from mental illness his whole life, he never reigned. How d’ye explain that?’
With the sale of Lissadell House in 2003 the Gore-Booth presence in Sligo has indeed come to an end. It happened exactly as the distraught and destitute old woman predicted so many years before!
Refusing the emigrant ship, it was quite common for people to seek refuge in what was called a ‘scalp’. A hole, two to three feet deep, was dug in the earth, roofed over with pieces of sticks and turf, and in this burrow a family existed. Slightly larger was a scalpeen, a rather larger hole, often made within the ruins of a tumbled house. From both scalps and scalpeens, the evicted, when discovered, were remorselessly hunted out.
A local woman born in 1898, Maggie Mc Gowan, recalled seeing a family still living in one of these scalpeens in the early years of the 20 th century. It was dug into a bank of earth and had no windows. A ‘shakedown’ of straw and rushes was used as there was no bed. Maggie recalled a man named Jack McLean living in a similar sod house in Ballygilgan, ‘somewhere between Cooper’s and Frank Mc Gowan’s.’
The clearances left a deep and painful scar that only in recent times has begun to heal. There is to this day a place near Ballygilgan known as ‘Cats Corner’. It earned its name at the time of the evictions when, it is said, the cats of the area gathered there, also homeless. Desperate with hunger, their piteous cries could be heard for miles as they too sought vainly for something to eat or someone to feed them.
The existence of the coffin ship, the Pomano, which it is said carried the dispossessed families to a watery grave, is still the subject of controversy to this day. Apologists for the landlord regime claim it never happened, that a registered ship called the Pomana took some of the tenants overseas, made the return voyage, and plied the seas for many years afterwards. The ship we refer to, the Pomano, was unregistered. Variations of Pomono/Pomania/Pomano etc. were popular as ships names at the time, causing some confusion.
Bertie Mons was forthright in his views when I asked him about the incident:
‘ That was the landlord for ye. An’ the Irishman was as bad. ‘Strappers’ me father used to call them. The landlord had these strappers under him, overseers and crowbar brigades to do the dirty work. They went up on the roof of the house an’ put it down on top of ye if ye didn’t get out. They wanted to get rid of tenants and make a big farm out of Lissadell House.
Some of the Protestants was hunted too! The Ewings an’ all them there where Gillen has now. Didn’t all them go on that oul’ boat that went down outside the lighthouse. The Pomano it was called. She was stink, red rotten. Crammed them into it an’ it was only to get rid of them. The fact that it’s not registered with Lloyds Registry of Shipping doesn’t mean anything. It wasn’t a paper bag that sent them out — although they might as well have sent them out in a paper bag, because it was only a hulk.
The men that put the Pomano out were the men that had Lisadell, thou’ll landlords, they didn’t give a damn, they might have put a name on the boat, it could be any name at all. There’s no one to account for it now and ye’ll not find it in their records, they’re too cute for that.’
There is indeed no doubt in the minds of the people of the Lissadell/Maugherow district as to the chain of events that led to the tragedy. Etched into folk memory and popularised in a forbidden ballad of the time, the story of this infamous coffin ship still survives. The song, banned by the Gore-Booths and their agents, was sung only in private houses, never publicly, for to be heard singing it, or gathered in a home or rambling place where it was sung, meant instant reprisal, eviction or worse:
‘Manys the pleasant summer day I spent in Maugherow,
Stories are still told by the older inhabitants of the cries of drowning men and women heard on the shore. In 1984 I spoke to Maugherow’s oldest inhabitant, 103 years old Peter Harte. He told me of two women washed ashore who were nursed back to health, at nearby Knocklane, by local families, Feeney and Mc Loughlin. Another man, John Kelly recalled ploughing up crooks and other household items in the 1900’s when he worked as a ploughman on the Lissadell estate. Once he unearthed a crowbar which he believed was used to pull down the houses.
Arthur Young, visited Ireland in the 18 th century and published his two volume ‘Tour of Ireland’, in 1780. His account is invaluable social history for anyone wishing to understand living conditions in Ireland at that time. Of the landlords this is what he observed:
‘A Landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer or cottier dares refuse to obey,’ he said. ‘Disrespect, or sauciness he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security; a poor man would have his bones broken if he offered to lift his hands in his own defence. It must strike the most careless traveller to see whole strings of carts whipped into a ditch by a gentleman’s footman to make way for his carriage.
If a poor man lodges a complaint against a gentleman,’ he observed, ‘or any animal that chooses to call itself a gentleman, it is considered an affront and will infallibly be punished. With such a conspiracy against law, to whom are the oppressed people to have recourse.’
Given the inhuman treatment meted out by landlords to those under their control how then do we account for historians who today airbrush the misdeeds of Sir Robert Gore-Booth, and others like him, from the history books? Is it just historical revisionism, or is it that ‘decolonization of the mind can take generations’ as noted by Tom Mc Gurk in his column in The Sunday Business Post of August 7 2005 ?
Why do management of the famine ships Dunbrodie and Jeanie Johnston sanitize the Irish famine experience? Is it intentional, inadvertent, an attempt to Disneyize, or just plain ignorance of the facts?
Asenath Nicholson visited Ireland in the 1850s. Of his visit to Sligo recorded in ‘The Bible in Ireland ’ he writes that:
‘… the labouring classes, when I first speak to them, are ever praising their master. Just as in America, although the slaves may be often under the lash or in the stocks, yet to a stranger they durst not speak out, lest some “bird of the air should tell the matter”; so the peasantry of Ireland are in such suffering, that lest they should lose the sixpence or eightpence they occasionally get while employed, they will make an imperious landlord an angel to a stranger...’
State of the Irish
I will not undertake to describe all the circumstances and all the phases of Irish misery; from the condition of the small farmer, who starves himself that his children may have something to eat, down to the labourer, who, less miserable but more degraded, has recourse to mendicancy - from resigned indigence, which is silent in the midst of its sufferings, and sacrifices to that which revolts, and in its violence proceeds to crime.
A Better Day
History is recorded by the victors. The vanquished merely endure. We, blood of their blood, must keep faith with these unfortunate men and women who endured such degradation but, clinging to that precious spark of life, survived so their children might live to see a better day.
Ships in Grosse Isle 9 August 1847
The tableabove shows the vessels at the Canadian immigration point and quarantine station of Grosse Isle, on 9 August 1847. The coffin ships from Ireland are easy enough to spot.
Other immigration ships for whom records survive include the Sir Henry Pottinger from Cork which sailed with 399, lost 98 during the voyage and arrived with 112 sick. The Bark Wellington sailed from Liverpool with 435, buried 26 at sea and arrived with 30 sick. The Bark Sir Robert Peel sailed from the same port with 458, buried 24 en route and arrived with 12 sick.
Information on the Carricks shipwreck: Click HERE
Paul Burns, in response to the article on "Lissadell, Coffin Ships, the Pomano and Sir Robert Gore-Booth" (above), has sent me this compelling account of his ancestors struggle for survival, and eventual emigration, in famine times. It is a microcosm of the epic struggle for survival of countless individuals and families in 19th century Ireland. It illustrates too the repercussions that flowed from disobeying a landlords wish, the consequences of which are felt even to this day.
Paul now lives in Tallahassee, Florida, USA:
Patrick Burns (1824-1902) wrote his genealogical memoir in the year 1900, shortly before he died. On it he traced his Sligo origins back five generations to a Jacobite cavalry officer, Patrick O'Byrne, from Co. Wicklow who fled north after the 1601 battle of Aughrim in Galway and settled near the Glenree River in Co. Mayo near the Sligo border. His son moved further north to Easkey parish, where all subsequent generations lived until the move to America.
THE STORY OF THE VOYAGE OF PATRICK BURNS AND MARGARET BURNS TO AMERICA – AS PENNED BY PATRICK BURNS FEBRUARY 12th, 1900 , WATERTOWN , NY
"My sister Margaret and myself sailed from Sligo on the 27th May 1847 and after a very troublesome and turbulent voyage landed in Quebec, on the 11th day of July, 1847. The ships name was Ellen and was commanded by Capt. Thomas Hood an Englishman and a very efficient and good man.
Shortly after leaving Sligo with about three hundred and fifty passengers the deadly “ship fever”, a violent form of typhus fever, raged among the passengers and fully one third of the passengers died of this dread disease. The disease was of generally short duration in most cases. Sometimes a person would be alright in the evening and would be taken sick at night and be dead by day break.
The method of burying was the wrapping of the body in sail cloth and placing it on a plank on the rail of the ship, then weighing it down with sand or stones and cast into the water. As there was no clergyman on board I read the De Profundis over each before the body was cast into the sea and such heartrending scenes I have never before or since witnessed.
At arriving at Quarantine outside of Quebec a great many of the passengers affected with the fever were detained there. But Margaret and myself with many others were allowed to proceed to Quebec . We stayed there about two weeks in Quebec at a street or locality called Diamond Harbour, and visited with a friend and neighbour, a man by the name of Anthoney Conoley, who lived in the same townland with me in Ireland .
We sailed up the river to Montreal in steam boat called the “John Munn” and stayed in Montreal about three weeks, I working about two week on the La Chene Cannal Bason lock. My sister Margaret was stopping at a lodging house. We then went up the La Chene Canal to Otawa then called Bytown. We only stayed a few hours. We then went down toward Kempville and was accompanied by Catherine McGill an Emigrant girl whom we met in Montreal who was on the way to her friends in Kempville.
Before arriving in Kempville the boat became disabled at a place called Beckwith Landing, and Margaret and Miss McGill becoming sick with the fever we were obliged to leave the boat at that place and took refuge at the house of one Patrick Mullin a very kind and good man who contracted the disease from us and died of it.
After leaving Mullins we went to Kempville where I rented some rooms, but in a short time after sister Margaret got a relapse of the Typhus fever, and after doctors care and my attendance got well. At the same time I got a job on a building of Mr. Jones M.P., at Kempville on his new building. My first part of the job was on trial, was to build some Eliptic Arches over the front entrance and sides, but after some time I was taken sick with the Typhus fever and by this time sister Margaret was recovering so she could attend to my wants and in about three weeks I was able to sit up alone in a chair.
I gained strength fast, and I being anxious to go to work, my next was in building a cellar for a black smith by the name of Foster and he cheated me out of a large portion of my pay. But when I was about putting on the last finishing touches, there came a heavy rain storm gave me a severe drenching. I was scarce able to go home and after I got home I lay down with a relapse and racking pains and aches, that I almost despaired of ever standing on green grass again. But I still got to be able to go around again and my Eyesight became so weak and effected that when I approached an object, it appeared to my vision that there were two in place of one…
…On February 9 th 1848 I came to Prescott and crossed the St Lawrence to United States , but in crossing there was some difficulty it being a cold night. I hired a skiff to take me over. There was a woman passenger along with us and I think would weigh 250 lbs avoirdupois, and she sat in the stern of the boat which afterwards became a very useful balance. Whereas the ice was in many places from ½ inch to 1 ½ inch thick, and in getting the bow of the boat on the ice like a sleigh runner, and the stern in the water. And by means of a long gaff used by the man in the bow, and at the same time the man in the center of the boat paddled with his oar with all his might to drive the boat ahead.
During this time the corpulent woman kept a rocking in the stern through and fro in order to keep the bows in the water and break the ice at the stern, but after some cold time and difficulty we landed in Ogdensburg. Next morning I started in search of a job and I dandered in to a marble shop kept by a man of the name of Whitney, which was about hireing me and gave orders to draw out by pencil, the portrait of St Patrick, which I did as I was well versed on that subject. I mad a very good attempt. He was called away on some business and told me to remain in the shop until his return, but as my purse being light and night approaching, I did not wait for his return, and went to the suburbs of the city where I happened on a job that lasted a few weeks.
I was sent on an errand and happened to meet a team going to Ogdensburg for coal, and asked me to ride. He went into a tavern to refresh and water his horses and after arriving there, there were several persons in the bar room, and amongst them were two contractors of different sections of the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain R. Road . These happened to have a letter written by some C. Engineer and all in the room was puzzled to read it, but I have been glancing over their shoulders and had a good idea of the words and contents and corrected them several times. They handed me the letter which I read to the satisfaction of all in the room, and after asking me had I a trade I said I was a mason, and both men offered me a job as both of them had two large bridges to build. And I remained there for the summer and fall of 1848 with one of them.
After I got settled in work I went back to Canada for my sister Margaret, and started back toward Potsdam again where I was working on a bridge that crosses the Racquette River and secured a place for my sister with a family of Daniel Bellis about four miles from Potsdam, and some time after went to work for Attorney Knowles, where she remained until she came to Watertown with her parents, brothers and sisters on corner of Washington and Haley Sts, Watertown, N. York.
On this above named bridge the contracter broke down and owed some money, but after going through a process of law only a small portion remained to my share. My father and mother and family came then from Ireland May 13 th 1849 to Potsdam and came to Watertown where they remained on Gotham St where they both died. Mother Sept 26 1867, Father Oct 13 1867 at the house of their son Patrick Burns 35 Gotham St Watertown N.Y., and buried in Calvary cemetery Watertown where there is erected a monument 22 feet high cut and erected by their children and carved and lettered by their sons John and Patrick. May they rest in peace."
The family prospered and multiplied in its new northern New York home. The three sons and two daughters who married all had large families that, today, are spread around the United States. Patrick himself became a general contractor and built numerous churches, bridges, and commercial buildings in various northern states and Canada. Ironically, he also became a landlord, eventually owning nine houses that he divided into flats and rooms to rent, mostly to other Irish immigrants. However, his rents were reasonable averaging about $1.75 per week.
A question from a correspondent regarding the likeness between the two paintings above has elicited the following responses from Paul Burns
Joe forwarded your query to me. The three men shaking dice for the goose (some say duck) are Patrick, Michael, and John Burns, all born in Easkey and died in Watertown, NY.
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