John Field - From Killeagh to Wales. The Great Hunger.
Updated: Jun 20
My Nephew’s wife has Irish ancestry from her great x2 grandfather, John Field. John Field was baptised in Killeagh County Cork, Ireland on 10th December 1841. His parents were William Field, born 1798 and Bridget Collins, born around 1810.
Two brothers of John Field have been identified from the Baptism records. The eldest brother, William Field, was baptised on 15th February 1840. The second brother, Patrick Field, was baptised on 18th August 1844.
The young family would have been born at an unimaginably challenging time for people in Ireland. People were living in levels of extreme poverty from centuries of British invasions, anti-Catholic laws and land confiscations. The native population were dependant on the potato as their only food source and successive crop failures resulted in mass starvation and disease.
In Killeagh the church documented in June 1846 that one third of the population was without food. In May 1847 the local priest, Fr. Maurice Power, informed his bishop that 4,500 parishioners were suffering from Famine. He said ‘Numbers of them are lying sick of fever in their wretched cabins. We have no hospitals, nor is there any means of procuring persons to attend on the sick. And, to increase our misfortunes, we are not yet receiving any aid from what is wrongly called the Relief Act.’ The Relief Act he referred to was supposed to supply relief for the destitute poor in Ireland. These provisions were clearly not effective according to those living in these communities. Other accounts document the horror of seeing so many sick and dead, some with green stains on their mouths from having eaten grass as a last resort.
(Map of Killeagh and surrounding area in 1840)
There were major riots in Killeagh on 26th September 1846 and 7-8 May 1847 where soup establishments, bread shops and provisions stores were attacked by the people. Soup kitchens had been set up by the UK Government to feed up to 3 million people a day from March 1847. Despite being remarkedly inexpensive and effective they were cruelly dismantled within six months at a time of widespread harvest failure. Despite the crop failures there was certainly no shortage of food in Ireland. During the great hunger, Ireland was a net exporter of food. In 1845 alone Ireland exported 200,000 heads of livestock, 2,000,000 quarts of grain, and several hundred million pounds of flour: all under military and naval escorts.
To worsen the people’s plight further, laws were passed in 1847 to enable English landlords to forcibly evict tenants. Accounts from people at the time give a harrowing picture of the suffering, disease and death of the people living in Ireland. Between 1845-1852 it is estimated that over a million people died of starvation and disease. The desperation led to up to two million people leaving Ireland for The United States and the United Kingdom. The population of Ireland suffered a decline of over 20% of its population which still to this day has not recovered.
(Abbeystrewry graveyard in Skibbereen, Co Cork, where 9,000 men, women and children were buried in an unmarked mass grave)
John Field and his family were one of these families who sought a new home away from disease and starvation. It is unknown when they arrived in Wales as no manifests were kept of the people travelling from Ireland. Tens of thousands arrived at the ports of South Wales after travelling as ballast in the holds of coal ships that returned from Irish ports, the majority of which were diseased and starving. Many died before completing their journey or shortly after arrival. They received no welcome from the people of Wales, at this time the first race riots took place in Wales against the Irish immigrants. In Newport, the Irish immigrants were named ‘Mud crawlers’ as many ship captains dumped immigrants on the silt and mud banks along the Bristol channel to avoid any backlash or prosecution for bringing Irish people into the port. To survive they had to crawl along the mud banks from the ships to the safety of the coastline and beaches. Some would have perished on this last leg of their journey due to the dangerous tides of the Bristol channel. By 1851, in Cardiff and Newport, up to 15% of the population had been born in Ireland.
(A view of the entrance to Cork Harbour)
John Field and his family appear on the 1861 Census in Trevethin, Pontypool. He is living with his parents and brothers. His father William is a Journeyman Blacksmith, his eldest brother William is a miner and he and his brother Patrick are both labourers. The heads of the families living on the same street were all born in Ireland.
John Field can be found on the 1881 census living in Swansea with his own wife, and 5 children aged between 1 month old to 14 years. John Field and his family stayed in Swansea for the rest of their lives, with many of their descendants also staying within the area.
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