Mysterious cluster of deaths at the Ciseach (late 1840s)

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Paddy Casey
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Location: Внешняя Громболия

Mysterious cluster of deaths at the Ciseach (late 1840s)

Post by Paddy Casey » Tue Apr 22, 2008 8:02 pm

I'm interested in the sudden depopulation of a settlement called the ciseach* (var. cisach – gishagh - Kishough) which lies (or lay) in the northeast of the townland of Moyrhee Commons** in the parish of Ruan in the early 19th century and am wondering whether anyone browsing this forum can tell me anything about this event.

The settlement is not named on the 1842 OS map but the collection of houses can be seen on that map immediately southwest of Ballyogan lough. There are many cabhals and foundations still visible today. Many were bulldozed around 20-30 years ago in the course of land reclamation.

The ciseach lay on the barren crags of Burren limestone which cover that area. By carting in earth to fill the limestone cracks it was possible to create very small gardens and potato patches to subsist on but they would have been rapidly blasted away by the rain and wind so any serious long-term agriculture would have been impossible.

Gerry Brohan, who farms overlooking the ciseach, said that the families of the ciseach were very poor working people who earned their living cutting turf in the bog. They dried cow dung in stacks and burned it in winter for warmth (an index of poverty; these people spent their days cutting turf for local farmers but had to do with cow dung for their own fires).

Francis Brew Jnr, who lives close by, told me that the able-bodied men in the settlement would all leave in the Spring to work on the big farms in Limerick and Tipperary and would stay there over Spring and Summer and then return to the ciseach for the winter. Those who stayed behind (women, children, old people) would be employed cutting turf in the nearby bog as fuel for the winter.

Local lore has it that during the Famine - 1846 and 1847 are the years most commonly mentioned - 40 families died there in the course of a week, leaving the settlement uninhabited. Many or most of the corpses were carried to the place known as the coill or Kyle in the townland of Ranaghan (var. Ranahan, Rannahan) and buried in a common grave there. A number of corpses didn't make it to the common grave and, so Gerry Brohan told me, were buried in a makeshift fashion under rocks and ledges in the townland and were discovered around 100 years ago. The fact that Gerry Brohan put a rough date on their discovery, i.e. that their discovery was a noted event, makes me wonder whether they were found in the course of an archaeological dig or a land reclamation which was documented.

The ciseach is mentioned in Frank Brew's book on the parish of Kilkeedy in the reminiscences of Jimmy O'Connor of Coolbane (10 minutes walk from Moyrhee Commons) "There was forty houses over in Ciseach but they were all wiped out the time of the famine".

By the early 20th century the graveyard at the coill had become overgrown and hidden under bushes and brambles. Around 1942 the County Council allocated a few hundred pounds for the clearance of graveyards to provide employment. Money was put aside for the Ranaghan site and 5 men were assigned to clearing it. In the summer of 2006 the last survivor of these 5 men, Michael Considine, gave me a recorded account of the work. He described how the men removed the undergrowth to reveal a large mound containing successive layers of skeletons which they had to remove, one by one, and rebury in a fresh grave. The graveyard was then grassed over and enclosed with a wall. In connection with the Millenium celebrations in the year 2000 a plaque was placed in the graveyard to commemorate the ciseach famine victims.

With the very little knowledge I have about the settlement and its demise, and on the provisional assumption that 40 families did indeed die within a single week around 1846-48, and on the assumption that the settlement had a single water supply, I would guess that the deaths might have been caused by cholera superimposed on famine. Ciarán Ó'Murchadha, in his book "Sable Wings over the Land" put the first cases of cholera in Clare at March 1849. Other possible causes would be typhus or influenza or smallpox. An entry from Boston School (Tubber parish) in the Schools Collection Scheme of 1937-38, kindly furnished by Peter Beirne at the LSC, mentions a disease known as the 'black galar' ('galar' = disease) but it is unclear whether the writer was referring to a disease in humans (possibly bubonic or pneumonic plague but unlikely to be the disease we nowadays refer to as Black Fever) or the potato blight. The leaf lesions of potato blight grow into brown or purplish-black lesions which sometimes have a yellow halo. Contemporary accounts of the blight note that the whole field changes into a stinking black patch in the countryside, i.e. a black disease.

I don't know whether anyone from the settlement survived and settled elsewhere.

Seán Spellissy is almost certainly referring to the ciseach in his History of County Clare when, on p.118 he writes "The Kyle, at Ranaghan, was remembered in folk memory as a holy place, probably the site of a long-forgotten church or cill that was used as a burial place for children and unbaptized infants. John O'Donovan recorded it as a small burial ground for children, a cillín, in 1839 (O'Donovan reference at ... lcross.htm ). The term callurach, from the Irish word ceallurach, was more widely used to describe such a burial ground in Clare and was a derivative of ceallúir, meaning a sacred enclosure or a churchyard. There were about forty huts on Moyrhee Commons at the time of the famine, erected by people who had settled here because they could live free of rent on the commonage. In 1846 all of the occupants of these huts died within a week and their bodies, tied in bundles of straw, were buried in the Kyle. A memorial to these famine victims stands in the south corner of the graveyard which is the burial place of the Brew, Brohan, Connole, Crowe, Foster, Flynn, Galvin, Guthrie, Hegarty, Hogan, Meaney, O'Dea, O'Grady, Pyne and Regan families. Ranaghan, the place abounding in ferns, is three miles north-north-east of Ruan".

In the article "Remembering Patsy Kitson" in The Other Clare, Frank Brew, the well-known local historian who lived around a mile north of Moyrhee Commons) wrote the following. "He was an only moved to a house in the townland of Castlequarter in the parish of the southwest are the barren rocks of Moyrhee Commons.....the family lived for a time here in the deserted village of Kishough........Moyrhee Commons is about a square mile in area and was important in the early 1800s as being rent free. Anybody could build a house here and nobody could interfere with him, so it is understandable that in those times the place filled with tiny stone huts. The Ordnance Survey made in 1842 shows about 40 of those houses , a figure that is borne out by local tradition. The end was tragic. When famine and disease came the forty families died in one week. There were of course no coffins and the place was so barren that there was no possibility of making a grave. The bodies were tied in bundles of straw and carried about a mile to the west where they were buried on top of a hill still used as a graveyard and known as the "Kyle". The little houses remained and many of them are still intact except for the thatched roofs. Kitson and his father and mother lived for a time in one of these deserted houses."

My interest in the ciseach deaths started as pure curiosity about an event that Tubber people talk about. My grandparents lived in the village of Moyrhee, around 30 minutes walk from the ciseach, and the ciseach deaths are prominent in the collective memory. Elderly inhabitants of the area have been helping me with narratives but this is a lode that I have not yet adequately mined. Several of my potential sources died before I could get to them. Peter Beirne and Maureen Comber at the Clare County Library have provided me with additional data, documents, references, pointers to informants and tips on how to interpret things I dig up. Ciarán Ó'Murchadha has supplied me with a lot of information and given me background tips on research in this area.

What do I want to know ?

Did this event occur as described in the oral tradition (death of 40 families in 1 week around 1846-48) ? If so,
- What was the disease that wiped out the inhabitants of the ciseach ?
- When did the 40 families die (year ? season ?)
- Were the names of any surviving families documented ?
- Were any quarantine measures - formal or informal - applied to the area ?

If anyone in this forum can add anything I'd be grateful.


* Ciseach – cisach – gishagh - Kishough, meaning of the word:
Wikipedia gives the meaning as 'path in wet ground, bog'. ... loir.htm#c translates is as 'a mess'.
At I find "......maide // n. a stick, a beam; the trunk of a tree retrieved from a bog to make a ciseach (an improvised bridge) < Ir. 'That maide's as hard as concrete' “.
At ... ngList.pdf I find "....ciseach, 2.1f, w4, wattled causeway..."
James Frost mentions Reanagishagh (Ré na Cisach), a causeway made for passing over (see The History and Topography of the County of Clare, Appendix VII - County of Clare: Irish local names explained, also at ... dix7_r.htm

** Population data for Moyrhee Commons:
The 1881 census for Moyree Commons shows that there were 40 houses there in 1881 and gives the following population figures for 1881 and the preceding decades:
1841 -214
1851 - 158
1861 -168
1871 -140
1881 -132
Thus the population decreased by only 56 persons between 1841 and 1851.
During the same period there was little change in the number of houses in the townland.
Moyree Commons was not a wealthy housing development in 1881. If one divides the total census value of the houses by the number of inhabitants one obtains the following ratios:
Average for the parish of Ruan: £3 per inhabitant
Moyree Commons: £0.74 per inhabitant

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