Almost 150 years after famine devastated the West of Ireland a small County Galway community last weekend said thanks to a group who did much to relieve the anguish and suffering brought about buy that tragic event in our history. In one square mile of marginal land at Colemanstown in the parish of Gurteen, the Quakers established a unique Model Farm as part of their voluntary Famine relief programme and it was amidst what remains of that large quadrangle of farm buildings and stables that locals gathered on a wet Saturday evening to pay tribute to those who had sought to make a permanent impact on Irish farming, by establishing what could best be described as a forerunner to today’s Agricultural Colleges.
Aware that providing food and clothing was merely a temporary stop-gap measure, the group of Quakers who formed a relief Committee in 1846 to distribute aid to dying and starving set about their most ambitious project in Autumn of 1848 when they leased 650 statute acres (400 Irish Acres) at Colemanstown where they planned their Model Farm.
The land was acquired on a 999 year lease from Myles W. O’Reilly, a sixteen shillings per Irish acre, as the Quakers set about their task of demonstrating their productivity of such land. It was also their intention to establish the Model Farm as a teaching institute and sixteen students attended at one stage.
All did not run smoothly however and the Quakers only remained in Colemanstown until 1863. The unprofitable nature of the Model Farm operation resulted in heavy losses and the farm reverted back to Myles O’Reilly who later sold the farm to J.H. Smith in whose ownership it remained until his death in 1963, after which it was acquired by the Irish Land Commission for division among local farmers. Tragically many of the buildings erected by the quakers have since been knocked down, but enough remains of the farm yard and it’s buildings to enable an appreciation of what an ambitious undertaking the project represented a century and a half ago. Much of the land was marginal, but it was drained and cultivated as an example of what could be achieved. The stalls and enclosed farm yards at Colemanstown could accommodate about 130 head of cattle and the piggeries, up to 60 pigs. The stables housed eighteen horses and huge granaries could store 500 barrels of oats.
However, a report from visiting deputation to the Model Farm had no hesitation to granting a further sum of £1000 to subsidise the operation. “The difficulty of making a farm self supporting under such circumstances, appears to be very great and we can scarcely feel surprised at the heavy losses which have been experienced.” they observed. Those in attendance last Saturday were given a very clear idea of how the Model Farm looked and operated all those years ago. Kevin Devally, one of three farmers who now farm the land, explained the operation of the Model Farm with the aid of an excellent model made by local man Alfie Doyle. Local teacher Martin T. Kelly one of those involved in the Colemanstown Quaker Commemorative Committee said they were one of the few groups who came out of the famine with their reputations intact, having given unselfishly to the famine relief effort.
Rob Goodbody, Quaker historian, who delivered a lecture on the Quaker involvement in Famine Relief said that the Colemanstown project was the most ambitious undertaking at the time and followed the acquisition of 900 acres of land by the Quakers at Ballina where 1000 people had been employed reclaiming the land by spade. He said the Quaker effort had been a voluntary one, carried out by a small group, who remained anonymous. That Ireland remembered their contribution, was in itself a mark of their achievement.
Minister for Energy, Deputy Noel Treacy, who unveiled a special plaque to commemorate the Model Farm at Colemanstown acknowledged the tremendous contribution which the Quakers had made during the critical Famine years and those years following that terrible human disaster. Recalling that by 1851 the population of Connacht had decreased by almost one third from it’s 1841 Census of 1,419,000. He said that it was largely inspired by the initiative given by the Quakers, that the United States came to Ireland’s assistance on a large scale.
Pointing out that present day Athenry Agricultural land had been donated to the State by the Goodbody family, he said that the gathering in Colemanstown was a forerunner to next-year’s Famine Commemorative events in Ireland.
The Minister added: “We are gathered here today to show our respect for and to honor and commemmorate the efforts of the Society of Friends in establishing the Quaker Model Farm here in Colemanstown. We want to publicly acknowledge the efforts which the Society put into improving living standards for all of the people living in our locality and for the starving Irish as a whole. Indeed, many of us might not be here today were it not for the assistance which they gave to all of our forefathers. For that, almost one and a half centuries later, we say a sincere and heartfelt ‘Milé Buíochas’.”
Taken from The Connacht Tribune 1994