God, she struck me till she tired of it

“God, she struck me till she tired of it”  These were the words of Hannah Herrity, describing one of the many beatings administered by her father’s second wife.

The story of Hannah Herrity, produced by Dunfanaghy Workhouse

The story of Hannah Herrity, produced by Dunfanaghy Workhouse

Hannah Herrity lived through the hunger and deprivations of the Famine in Ireland. She told  her life story to a Mrs Law who befriended her and who wrote her story exactly as Hannah recounted it. These oral history manuscripts recording  the life of  “Wee” Hannah as she is known, now form the basis of a  permanent exhibition in the Dunfanaghy Heritage Centre, located in the old Dunfanaghy Workhouse, County Donegal.

Dunfanaghy Workhouse, Co. Donegal

Dunfanaghy Workhouse, Co. Donegal

Hannah Herrity was born in Derryreel, just outside Falcarragh, County Donegal, Ireland in 1835 or 1836. She was the eldest child of a local travelling tailorman and his wife Susy. In the early years of the Famine (probably 1847 or 1848) Susy died in childbirth with her 5th child. Hannah describes how her poor mother suffered and tells of her being laid out with the newborn baby beside her and how she felt her father’s tears of sorrow falling on her hair and face…Hannah would have been about 9 or 10  years of age.

Hannah’s father married a neighbour girl to care for the four surviving children, but as Wee Hannah recounted,”God help us, it was the black day for us he took her”. She was subjected to many beatings – neighbours would rescue her and allow her to stay at their home, safe from the enraged stepmother.

The soup pot at Dunfanaghy Workhouse

The soup pot at Dunfanaghy Workhouse

At the height of the Famine, Hannah sometimes had  to go to get the ‘broth’ in the village, each family having a ticket depending on the number in the household. She staggered and crawled home with it, too weak with hunger to walk properly, and so ravenous that she was tempted to help herself to the contents.  There were four houses that had land to grow oats in Hannah’s locality, otherwise people like the Herrity’s went hungry. Hannah did not seem to get her fair share of rations at home and often the neighbours would give her food, knowing that she was being starved by her stepmother. Two of her younger brothers died during this time.

Following a particularly severe beating and fearful that she might be killed while he was away, Hannah’s father arranged for her to go into service with a kind old lady in Doe who fed her and kept her happily for three years. After the old lady passed away, Hannah went to work for an unkind man who paid her badly and worked her hard and did not give her sufficient food and here her health began to fail. Eventually poor Hannah had to leave employment and had to walk over 60 miles (100km) to the hospital in Lifford where she remained for a year, and where, even though she was sick, she had to work.

Eventually Hannah ended up in Dunfanaghy Workhouse. She  described the horrors of life there with a particularly cruel matron ..”well there’d be maybe seven or eight dead in the morning..And god help us, she would strip the bed clothes down off them, and they’d be pulled out on the floor..the weemen said you’d hear the head of the corpse cracking down the steps till it was put in the dead house below”

A Seven Body Coffin as used at the Workhouse. The bottom slid open so it could be reused

A Seven Body Coffin as used at the Workhouse. The bottom slid open so it could be reused

Hannah survived the awful experience and spent many years afterwards travelling about from farm to farm taking work where she could get it,wandering the roads around Sheephaven Bay,finding kindness in some houses, and none in others. Eventually she could no longer work and took to begging.

Engraved glass on the door to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre

Engraved glass on the door to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse Heritage Centre

She came to the attention of  Mrs  Law, wife of the local member of Parliament, who arranged for a one- room cottage to be built for Wee Hannah in Parkmore, and here she lived out the remainder of her life in relative comfort. The neighbours were good to her and saw that she did not want for anything. Mrs Law  interviewed Hannah and recorded the story of her eventful life exactly as Hannah told it.

Hannah (Heraghty) Herrity appears on the 1911 census, as the head of her little household in Parkmore. Here we can see where she applied her mark to the census record as she was unable to read or write. She died in 1926 at about 90 years of age. Thanks to Mrs Law, Wee Hannah’s story  is heard by hundreds of visitors to the Dunfanaghy Workhouse, a real reminder of the brutality of life for  the poor in 19th Century Ireland.

Sheephaven Bay and Dunfanaghy from Horn Head. Image Wikimedia Commons

Sheephaven Bay and Dunfanaghy from Horn Head. Image Wikimedia Commons

Outside Dunfanaghy there are three graveyards – the Catholic one and the Protestant one and  between the two is the Paupers Graveyard where victims of the Famine are buried.  Wee Hannah Herrity lies beside her friend Mrs Law in the Catholic part.


I am truly grateful to Dungfanaghy Workhouse for sending me the beautiful image below of the marker in the Famine Graveyard. It is a very fitting tribute to those who are interred here in a ‘no-man’s land’ between the two other graveyards. Basic, stark and rugged – such was their lives and deaths.

imageWee Hannah’s story played out in the general area where I grew up. I lived  some 14 miles from her home and at one time my great uncle was a catholic priest in Falcarragh and my grandmother was his housekeeper. I wonder did they know her?  Hannah worked out at Horn Head at one time, a beautiful headland that I saw every day from my bedroom window. At one point she told of being out in the snow and falling into a drain in my own Rosguill area. Growing up, we never heard of a person like  Hannah, making her way alone through life in such deprivation and hardship.

On the day of our visit to Dunfanaghy Workhouse last year torrential rain made photography difficult.  A future project will be to take photographs of Hannah’s Places for this blog.

Dunfanaghy Workhouse is well worth a visit. Here you will hear Hannah’s story in her own words. The exceptionally friendly and helpful staff are very knowledgeable about the area and they have an excellent coffee shop!  ‘The story of Wee Hannah as told to Mrs Law’ is available in their shop. Visit their website at http://www.dunfanaghyworkhouse.ie


Filed under Ireland, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Oral History, Social History Ireland

39 responses to “God, she struck me till she tired of it

  1. How little we know of the tragic lives of so many.. may Wee Hannah finally be at peace beside her friend Mrs.Law.

    • She lived in relative comfort for at least 15 years from the census until her death which is something I suppose, but the shocking thing is that she was one of a tiny minority who did find comfort in those awful times.

  2. Quite a history lesson this morning and I appreciate it. This is a story that makes the history very real.

  3. Su Leslie

    What drives people to commit such acts of violence? Especially against children. New Zealand has a horrifying problem with child abuse and as each case hits the media (amongst all those that aren’t quite “bad” enough” to become public knowledge) I despair more and wonder how such things can happen?

    • It just goes to show that it is not a new phenomenon. Children are easy targets and have been down the ages – defenceless and vulnerable. It is hard to fathom how people can do it to them isn’t it?

      • Su Leslie

        Yes; I remember feeling frustrated with my son when he was little, but the idea of hurting him …

  4. I take so much for granted! Thank you for sharing her story.

  5. Briddget

    Thank you for this. I am the fortunate descendant of seven famine Irish immigrants to the US. A number of their family members died in workhouses and “pesthouses” (as they called them). I thank for my life every day.

    • Briddget. What a fascinating story you have to tell with 7 Famine emigrants from Ireland in your family tree. The term pest houses is new to me. I wonder where did your family originate? These were tragic times indeed. Thank you for your comment which is much appreciated.

      • Briddget

        In a newspaper article about one of my gr. gr. grandmother’s brothers, her family in Carrrigallen, Co. Leitrim told investigators that she had died in the pesthouse. I take it that they meant she died of typhoid fever. But, she wasn’t dead and was living in New York. A fascinating story I uncovered was that her brother Philip boarded a ship in abt. 1850 for the California Gold Rush. He opened a (gold) exchange, saloon, and restaurant and amassed a huge fortune that he left to my destitute gr. gr. grandmother who was married to my gr. gr. grandfather whom she met after she arrived here. She, her brother, and her sister who lived in Canada had to prove through the courts that they were alive. They succeeded and inherited a vast amount of money (I have several fascinating newspaper articles that recount the fantastical story). She only lived one year after inheriting the money and by my grandfather’s generation this story was lost to the family. I uncovered it.

        My emigrant famine Irish ancestors were:
        1. Maria Donoho, Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim and her husband 2. Robert Carroll, county unknown.
        3. Patrick Dyer, birth county in Ireland is unknown and his wife 4. Bridget Halligan, birth county in Ireland is unknown
        5. Bernard Donoho, Carrigallen, Co. Leitrim – his wife 6. Maria Brady died in the workhouse and he came here with his children Patrick, Philip (the gold rush guy), Ann (the Canadian) and Maria (my gr. gr. grandmother)
        7. William Kennedy, birth county in Ireland is unknown and 8. wife (unknown name and birthplace in Ireland).
        9. Joseph Kennedy, birth county in Ireland is unknown and his wife 10. Margaret Kelly, birth county in Ireland is unknown. (they had 17 children and both of them died of alcoholism unfortunately).
        11. and 12. Margaret Kelly’s parents, names unknown and birth county in Ireland is unknown)

        So, it looks like I have 12 famine Irish direct ancestors, not seven.

        My Ellis Islanders were:
        George Patrick Flanagan, Ennistymon, County Clare and his wife Catherine Agnes McGrath, County Galway as well as my namesake Bridget Cusack, Moylett, County Cavan.

        My most intriguing ancestor is George Patrick Flanagan. It appears that he left Ireland under less than ideal circumstances in the late 1890s. By 1922 he was a widower, times were more peaceful in Ireland and he hopped a ship and returned to Ennistymon. (It is suggested that he felt safe enough to return). He died not long after arriving and his brother John Flanagan, the bootmaker, who lived on Bogberry St. in Ennistymon wrote a letter to my grandmother recounting his return and death. I have tried mightily to learn his parents names because he is buried with his father. I’ve tried all sorts of methods to find him but cannot find a firm connection.

        So, yes, I’m pretty Irish! And as I said earlier, I thank my ancestors every day for my life.

      • You certainly have some pedigree there! I am hoping that you already know that almost ( all?) counties in Ireland have Facebook pages dedicated to family history research. The Clare one is a leader in the field and who knows, you may be able to fill in the gaps on your tree in the future. Fair play to your ancestor who removed himself and his children to USA after the death of his wife. A courageous thing to do! Thanks so much for telling your story!

  6. I read this blog post yesterday morning and it followed me around all day. What a hauntingly sad story. And, of course, Hannah wasn’t the only one who suffered so.

    • It is a sad story. Poor Hannah it seems was well liked as she had a lovely nature. It is good that she was rescued from the snow and rain and hunger and hard labour even if it was in her old age. They were awful times and we do not hear very many life stories of those who survived. Oh how dreadful it was to be poor!

  7. What strikes me is how Hannah persevered and seems to have brought out good will in at least some of the people she met. I’m glad her story was preserved. I’ll be in Donegal this autumn–I should go to Dunfanaghy . . .

    • Yes – she seems to have been made of extraordinary stuff. She had a deep religion too that, from the transcripts, seems to have sustained her and given her courage. It is particularly said that she was a lovely person and people really liked her. What a character she was! And Dunfanaghy is well worth a visit! Thank you for your comment!

  8. This is absolutely fascinating! My family’s Irish ancestors were not much better off when they settled here in the States, but what brutality! It’s amazing how much the spirit can endure. I can’t believe she lived to be 90. Good for her!

  9. Amazing story SV, though I fear there were many, many similar stories unrecorded. Life was bitter for the poor and only the strong survived. We live in fortunate times indeed compared to then.
    Despite what you say about the pics I don’t think you could improve on that brooding one of the workhouse from across the graveyard.
    Thanks to Briddget for her story. Like you I’ve never heard of the word pesthouse used for workhouse. But they were well-named as they were the very last resort and you starved outside or died of typhoid or whatever inside.

    • Thank you Roy – it is indeed very sad. I must go in search of other life stories from that time – we hear snippets of course, but not really what became of them afterwards. We have huge statistics for those who died, those who emigrated, but relatively little on those individuals who had no option than to endure. The shocking thing for me growing up just 20 odd years after Hannah died is that this social history was gone from memory in that beautiful part of Ireland. I am adding a photo to the post tomorrow that has been sent to me by the Workhouse ( such torrential rain on the day we were there – I was almost drowned taking a few snaps! ) Briddget’s story is a great one – pesthouses indeed! Thanks for dropping by!

  10. Some of us believe in a great place we go to when we finish on this turbulent, tormented, planet … And I will look for Hannah Herrity, when I arrive. You, Silver Voice, have done something very important: you have told “the story”. The stories must be told, so that they will not be forgotten. There is power in this story, and redemption. Peace, T

    • Thank you! Mrs Law had the foresight to ask Hannah about her life and write it all down. Hannah surely deserves to be remembered for so many stories are indeed unheard, unseen and therefore unknown. She had no bitterness and in her last weeks on earth when she was very ill, she cried out in Irish that she was grateful for her suffering. An extraordinary human being – I am sure you will enjoy meeting her!

  11. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain she lived with for so many years. How incredibly sad.

  12. What an incredible story – another testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit! Unbelievable that she lived to be that old after a life of abuse – the message – no one can kill your spirit. Thank you for sharing this story!

  13. SV, thanks for such a powerful post.

  14. Thankyou… so very sad.

  15. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème – June 21, 2014 | Genealogy à la carte

  16. Ann

    Is her little cottage still there?

  17. Very sad! There are people throughout the world right now suffering similar treatment and worse…I’m helping them.

    • There are indeed! Ireland’s Great Famine was the longest Famine ever and it has certainly predisposed us here in Ireland to be particularly supportive of people who are hungry across the world. There is a lot of injustice everywhere, and being poor is not good. Good for you, doing your bit! Thanks for the comment – much appreciated .

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