News and Views

'An bothán', a symbol of famine misery

8 May 2018
Front cover of the 'Atlas of the Irish Famine' co-edited by Mike Murphy, Geography, UCC

A replica of the mud hut, an bothán, in which the poorest of the poor lived and died during the famine has been recreated by UCC near the Quad.

The replica of the famine cabin will be open to the public on Saturday, May 12th as part of the National Famine Commemoration event taking place at UCC.

“For me it is really important to try and portray just how bad the conditions were for these people and in a way death was a relief for them”, says Mike Murphy, Head of Cartographer in UCC’s Geography Department who has been working on projects relating to the Great Irish Famine for over twenty years.

“While it is impossible to show or comprehend the level of deprivation endured during these dreadful times we want people to be able to walk into this mud cabin and see it from the inside, to see and feel the actual atmosphere to some extent”. Built by the Buildings and Estates staff at UCC under the supervision of Paul Prendergast and Ross O’Donovan, the hut was constructed by Christian Helling, Barry Krndellen, and their team. They sourced everything locally the mud, the sods and bits of timber.

Mike Murphy explains, ‘People died in harrowing ways. For example, the mother (was often the last of the family to die) and she was sometimes found dead just inside the door of the bothán, with the bodies of her family around her. As mother, she would have struggled to preserve privacy by closing the door and allowing her family some dignity in their final moments’. The bothán is a replica of Fourth Class house which was classified in the mid-1800 census as ‘ The lowest or fourth class were comprised all mud cabins having only one roomThe 1841 census records that  Ireland had 1.3 million houses, 492,000 were classified as being in the Fourth Class category. As many as 2 million people were living in these conditions or worse in 1841.  The majority of the misery associated with the famine occurred in these mud cabins.

The Great Irish Famine Online Born out of the Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine which was published by Cork University Press 2012 Edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy. The project is a major collaboration between Geography Department, UCC and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Deborah Lawler from DCHG and Charley Roche from the Department of Geography, UCC have been working tirelessly to bring this project to completion. It will become an invaluable source of public history for current and future generations as it allows people to compare 1841 and 1851 Census data for rural areas and towns for their locality, according to Mike Murphy. The online resource gives access to users about how the famine affected the area where they live. With over 20 different categories including population, family and housing, occupation and education, for each Civil Parish (rural areas in mid-1800 Ireland) and Town in Ireland at the time. Users can examine the changes that happened over the ten-year (famine) period 1841-1851. This is the culmination of almost a quarter of a century of work for those mentioned above. The Great Irish Famine Online will be launched by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, it goes live on 12th May 2018 and will mark the Commemoration at UCC.

The Famine in Cork

The Cork Examiner on March 17, 1847 reveals:

It being reported to the Constabulary of Watergrass-Hill, (Watergrasshill) on Wednesday last, that an unfortunate family of the name of Noonan, consisting of Noonan himself, a labourer, his wife and child of 12 months old, living at Arnagihee, had died on that day of starvation, a few of the constabulary proceeded to the hut and found the unfortunate victims lying dead on the bare floor without even a sop of straw whereon to rest their wearied limbs whilst living. The famished child even in death was found clinging to the bosom of its unhappy mother; and no doubt, expired in its vain attempt to extract from that withered and dried up source the fluid that would have imparted vitality and nutriment. The constabulary, with most becoming humanity, made a public collection, with the amount of which they purchased coffins, and had the wretched victims immediately interred. In this locality, we are assured, absolute famine stalks abroad with fearful pace, as also in the localities of Gragg (Graigue) and Glenville; and if some steps be not immediately taken to meet the dreadful wants of the famishing population, the districts must ere long be tenanted alone by the dead.

Between 1845 and 1851 the population of Ireland decreased by approximately two million down to around six million people – it is estimated that a million died during the Famine and another million emigrated.

Newspapers played a hugely important role in informing the greater population about the plight of famine sufferers in mid-1800 Ireland. For example, in March 1847 Fr McCarthy PP for the parish of Watergrasshill wrote a letter to the Cork Examiner pleading with the Bishop to provide relief for his suffering parishioners. Fr McCarthy ‘s letter states: ‘On Tuesday, a man brought to my door a corpse of a Girl, about ten years old on his back, craving for food’... The priest’s utter desperation and grief are obvious from his letter. It remains unknown if this letter resulted in any relief for the people of Watergrasshill.

There is a poignant link between this letter and the National Famine Commemoration 2018. Mike Murphy a member of the organising team for the National Famine Commemoration and developer of the Great Famine Online which will be launched on 12th May, states “Fr McCarthy, the priest who wrote that letter to the Cork Examiner in March 1847 was living in a farmhouse in the townland of Bridestown and this the house in which I grew up, going in and out the same door!”


Mike Murphy has been Cartographer at the Department of Geography, UCC for the past 25 years. He has worked on the Atlas of Cork City & The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry. This research work was initiated by Professor William J Smyth, Dr John Crowley and Mr Charlie Roche. 

Media: For further information contact Ruth Mc Donnell, Head of Media and PR, Office of Marketing and Communications, UCC.  Mob: 086-0468950

For further information about the many events open to the public as part of the National Famine Commemoration 2018 in Cork visit here

For more information about courses and research in the Department of Geography in UCC, visit here



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