Many parts of rural Mayo are still natural monuments to the devastation imposed by the great Famine of the 1840s with the furrows of nineteenth century lazy-beds evoking a poignant symbolism of this catastrophic period in Irish history.
Now a groundbreaking study of the subsequent population decline has been charted locality-by-locality at NUI Maynooth’s National Centre for Geocomputation. And, unsurprisingly, it has revealed that a village in west Mayo – Kilawalla, on the outskirts of Westport – has shown the biggest population decline in the entire country. Between 1841 and 1851, it lost two-thirds of its population.
Ironically, Westport, which was a busy Famine port and had a large workhouse, experienced a 15 per cent increase in population. Even though Belmullet was one of the most remote towns in the entire country, it showed an increase in population because – like other isolated pockets, like Kanturk in Cork and Scariff in Clare – it also had a workhouse.
As well as charting population decline, this comprehensive atlas of Irish Famine data 1841- 1851 also examined changing agricultural practises.
The study also uses census data to show the changes in population from the 1840s to 2002.
The research team, led by its director Professor Stewart Fotheringham, took census data from 3,452 electoral districts and mapped the changes in population from 1841 to 2002, the last year in which it is possible to compare figures on an all-Ireland basis because the North only has a census every 10 years.
This population change atlas 1841-2002 shows how decline has continued unalterably in many areas until recently.
For example, in Ballinrobe the population dropped from 8,224 in 1841 to 2,536 in 2002 and in Belmullet from 3,200 to a little over 1,800 over the same period.
However, the population of county town, Castlebar has increased. In 1841, the Castlebar district population was 10,304 and in 2002 the census showed the population it had risen to 12,467.
Professor Fotheringham observed that Ireland’s remarkable continuity in electoral districts had greatly facilitated like-for-like comparisons. He also said that he hoped the research would prove a valuable tool for local historians to develop the story behind the figures.
The project has taken two years to complete and was jointly funded by the Irish Research Council for Humanities and NUI Maynooth.