The remains of buildings are still on the site, which is still used for farming. Rob Goodbody

How a desolate patch of Ireland was used to teach people to farm during the famine

The farm taught hundreds of Irishmen to be self-sustaining during the worst of the Great Famine.

WHEN WE THINK of relief efforts during the Great Famine, it might be the soup kitchens that come to mind. But the group behind them was also interested in finding ways to help the Irish people provide for themselves again – and they manged to turn a desolate patch of Ireland into a farm to do it.

It’s a philosophy adopted by many modern relief agencies – we’ve all heard the philosophy of “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man To fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The Quakers, officially called the Religious Society of Friends, set up soup kitchens in towns throughout the country, including Clonmel and Youghal, encouraging local people to volunteer. They also collected donations of clothes and food from abroad.  Their efforts were co-ordinated by a 21-member Central Relief Committee, working with a similar committee in London to raise funds, which gradually looked at longer-term ways to help the country.

So, while they raised funds to import food to alleviate suffering as quickly as possible, they also transformed a patch of land in Galway into a model farm.

The Quakers began converting the 650 acres in Colmanstown in 1849 after the idea was proposed by Dr Edward Bewley, draining as much as possible from what was essentially a wetland. The ditches they dug are still visible today, where they still serve the same purpose for the farms that now use the land, historian Rob Goodbody told

A lease was taken for 999 years, with three members of the committee being appointed as trustees, and the project got under way.

The farm was set up with £12,000 that was used to reclaim land and drain it, lay out roads and watercourses and provide buildings. Soon after it was set up, around 228 workers were employed.

Devastating famine
The famine was devastating for Ireland, with over one million dying and another million emigrating – forever changing the social fabric of the country.

The farm was intended as a way to minimise its effects, demonstrating to Irish people the best ways to repurpose land, to organise a farm, and how to manage alternative crops and livestock.

It included a wide range of livestock like cattle, pigs and sheep, and crops including oats, barley and turnip.

The farm was “successful”, Goodbody said. Goodbody, a member of the historical committee of the Quakers, told Colmanstown’s story during August’s Heritage Week in a town just minutes away. Down the road from where he spoke, the remains of buildings on the site, peppered among the numerous farms that now use the land, are proof of “just how ambitious they were”.

In his book, A Suitable Channel – Quaker Relief in the Great Famine, he describes the variety of work that was undertaken at the farm.

There would also be an agricultural school where methods of farming could be taught so as to improve the knowledge of the small farmer and labourer in the use of various farm implements and the growing of alternative crops and keeping of livestock

Very little research has been done into who was learning there and where precisely they went afterwards, but there’s “no doubt” that they would have adopted the skills they became equipped with.

They were there to learn. No doubt they applied what they learned.

The farm kept going for years, until 1863. While the Great Famine had ended 11 years before, another recession was beginning.

The farm wasn’t playing for itself, and plans to use profits to aid relief efforts never panned out as a result. The farm was sold instead in 1863, with the profits used to feed those who were hungry. The land was only divided in the 1960s, into the farms we see today.

Read: Why was this medieval Roscommon village abandoned centuries ago? >

Read: ‘We have members from 18 to 90′: Locals dig in to help uncover three burials at Swords Castle >

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