Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Tale Told in Numbers

In examining the history of Limerick County in preparation for our research trip to Ireland, one thing stands out: the devastating loss of people sustained by this county through the last two centuries. Knowing that there was a Great Famine, for those of us who never went through it, is only a cerebral knowledge. It is when we see the fingerprints of the devastation that we begin to realize the decimating effects of that tragedy.

For instance, the population of County Limerick had been rising modestly through the decades of the early 1800s, until reaching a peak population of just over three hundred thirty thousand in 1841. By the time of the next census, the devastation had struck the island, decreasing the population by a full twenty percent.

Not all those absent from home were victims of starvation. Some missing from that 1851 count were, of course, absent by dint of will, having made their way to a better place by virtue of begging, borrowing or stealing their passage to a land across the ocean.

Stephen Molloy, my husband’s second great grandfather, was among those who were missing from that 1851 census. Very possibly, his wife, though left behind by her husband, had by then also taken flight to the New World.

Even by the time of the 1861 census, the rate of population decrease in County Limerick had kept up at almost the same percentage as in the previous decade. The decline continued, in fact, until after 1926—though by then at a much slower rate. By 1936, there was the modest beginning of an uptick in numbers, alternating a few times with slight decreases, until the county's population, at last count in 2011, arrived at just about the same tally as it had been in 1871—just under one hundred ninety two thousand . It had taken well over a century to regain what had been lost in population—and a partial gain at that, since it attained to only the level following the most severe losses.

While those are my reflections on seeing the numbers just for County Limerick, that radical change was likely reflected in the other counties of Ireland as well—particularly those on the western side of the island. Perhaps that is the reason my husband’s ancestors all seemed to hail from western counties—and a strong argument for our unaligned Kelly line to have come from anywhere other than the Dublin of oral family tradition.

Along with the Falvey and Kelly lines of County Kerry and the Flanagan and Molloy lines of County Limerick, there was one other set of ancestors whose Irish origin we already have confirmed: that of the Flannery and Tully families of County Tipperary. While they likely were as strongly impressed to leave homeland in those same famine years, the particulars of this couple from farther north on the west coast of Ireland made for an entirely different story.

Above: Watercolor "Near Land's End," by Irish civil engineer, songwriter and poet Percy French; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I wish the USA had such population issues...

    At any rate, your post brings to mind a thought, many of the Irish that went to the USA before and during the US Civil War came over to learn how to fight and get military training to "take home with them" to fight the "English".

    Of course, tens of thousands of them died on the Civil War battlefields, fighting on both sides with no real "vested interest" in the outcome - and never went home.

    1. I have heard that about the Civil War as well, Iggy. Of course, as you mentioned, the outcome wasn't always as intended.

      I have also heard that Irish immigrants were supposedly enticed with rewards of citizenship for enlisting. Our own John Tully was supposed to have served during that time, though that is yet another family oral tradition for which I've not located any solid documentation.


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