Monday Books: A Harrowing Lesson in History; A Hospital at Magherafelt, (Part One, the Workhouse and Famine Times in South Derry) by Muriel Bell

Article excerpt

The Hon George Dawson, of Castledawson, was deeply distressed when, on opening the door of his home each morning he was met by a group of starving women and children begging for food.

He decided that something would have to be done and so he turned his kitchen into a bakery and soup shop so that he could feed the "miserable mothers and children who cannot be sent away empty".

One hundred and fifty years ago, the famine had Ireland in an iron grip and despite what nationalists believe, all religions suffered. Castledawson, a mainly Protestant village between Toomebridge and Magherafelt, was a little backwater of approximately 600 souls. Over 150 of them were already on a charitable list and when the potato crop failed there were few options for them, starvation or the workhouse at Magherafelt which had just open five years earlier. In other parts people turned to crime to get into gaol where they could be assured of a daily meal.

The Dawson family were landed gentry and it was to them that the starving locals turned when they needed food.

The daily sight of them begging and pleading for something to eat distressed him so much that he decided to write to Sir Thomas F Fremantle, chairman of the London Board of Customs, to tell him what was happening. Oddly enough the village was well suppli ed with food but it was too expensive for the people whose labourers produced it to buy.

Dawson wrote: "So great is their distress that they actually faint on getting food into their stomachs. …