Beaver Island memorial  commerating the islands' joint historyBeaver Island memorial  commerating the islands' joint history

Beaver Island

Arranmore is twinned with Beaver Island, Canada since October 2000. The initial connection came about when Charlie O'Donnell, his wife and their three young children emigrated to Beaver Island after being evicted from their Arranmore home in 1851. Charlie O'Donnell worked there on the construction of a new lighthouse. A number of Arranmore familes soon followed and by 1880 there were 128 Gallaghers, 114 O'Donnells and many Boyles and Wards living on Beaver.

Today Beaver has 200 inhabitants which, despite being four times larger than Arranmore, is one third of Arranmore's population.

The Beaver Island memorial constructed on Arranmore to commemorate the islands' joint history. The set of statues consist of a beaver (representing Beaver Island) and otter (representing Arranmore Island) and a fish representing the links between the two.

The Way it Was: the Famine in Arranmore

On the recent visit to Arranmore by 57 Beaver Islanders for the Twinning Ceremony, much of its history was recounted, either by Charlie O'Hara or by those in the party from America such as Paul Cole, who delivered a talk about those sad days on the pier at Burtonport.

Everyone knows that the Famine began with potato blight in 1845, but few realize how close to the edge the people of Arranmore had been living, and how quickly they were overcome. A visitor to the island of 1,300 inhabitants in September of 1845 reported how amazed he was when wretchedly gaunt, half-clothed, and shoeless people rushed up to him with requests for relief.
At that time Arranmore was the property of an absentee landlord, the Marquis Conyngham. He never paid a visit to his holding, instead leaving its administration to Benbow, an English agent who was rarely there either. In the spring of 1846, everyone hoped and prayed that the blight that had devastated the crop the previous year would abate, but it was worse, turning entire fields into a stinking black mass. As hunger increased, Benbow was no help; his only mandate was to meet his quota, an impossible task. To stay alive some normally honest people did whatever they could, driven to hunt for any secret trove of food held by their neighbor. Those caught looting were branded as thieves in any way possible; one woman, a Mary Gallagher, had her ears hacked off as her penalty.

Relief efforts were irregular, and hardly ever reached the distant provinces because of poor roads and poorer methods of distribution. In 1846 a load of Indian meal reached Arranmore, but it was an inedible rancid soggy mess, full of weevils and maggots. That fall a food depot was set up in Burtonport, but there was not nearly enough to go around. The authorities feared that a rebellion would bring them down, and in fact the meager stores were frequently looted before they could be passed out.
Everyone hoped that the worst was over–it had to be. But 1847 brought no relief. The blight continued and, if anything, was worse. Destitute people could be seen combing the fields with rakes, hoping for a single potato to keep the wolf from the door–to no avail. They were dropping everywhere, in the fields, in the streets, or in their homes. Every family had its dead by starvation. The destruction of the potato crop, almost the only source of food, was total. Relief ships, such as the Lame, carrying wheat meal from Belfast, were attacked by starving mobs and stripped of any food in their holds. The police, wanting to make an example, pulled a raid on Arranmore, confiscating everything they found–in their view, it had to have been stolen, and probably was.

To add to their distress, Conyngham judged his island to be unprofitable and petitioned to have it declared a separate Poor-law District. As this was being done, he sold it in 1847. to Charlie Beag, a callous land speculator. Charlie Beag immediately decided to consolidate the farms by greatly reducing the population, which he did by evicting anyone who could not produce a written receipt for their rent. These had never had to be shown before, and when they had been received had not been saved.

To facilitate the eviction, Charlie Beag gave the departing tenants two options. They could go into the poorhouse at Glenties, or they could board a ship for America that he promised would be waiting for them at Donegal Town. Many chose the poorhouse because they were so weak and malnourished that they did not feel they could survive an ocean crossing. But the facility at Glenties was already overcrowded–its death rate was the highest in the country because it had been built in a swamp and flooded much of the year. Even the officials admitted that it reeked of death. Its charges were given clumps of old straw as their bed, with six or seven forced to sleep in a bundle, for warmth, under a single filthy rag. Conditions were so bad that the matron was sacked for dereliction of duty.

The braver ones to be forced off Arranmore went to Donegal Town, marching there on foot from Burtonport to board Charlie Beag's boat–but it was not there! Once again, promises were revealed to be just empty words, issued to get them off his land. There they were, with no money, no clothes, and no food. Hanging around, waiting for a miracle, they began to fall in their tracks. The good people living there did what they could, but there were few options.

Finally a miracle of sorts did take place. The Quakers, one of the few religious organizations to mobilize over the Irish tragedy, sent them a ship–one of the infamous 'coffin ships.' It looked like it would sink, but the hand of God was on them and they made it across the Atlantic in one piece, the ship only sinking on its return trip.

Those who made it to America rejoiced, and sent for their friends. Many settled on Beaver, either directly or after stopping elsewhere first, once the Strangites were dispersed. Seven generations went by, more or less depending on the family, before their heirs sailed back to the island from which they had come, our new Twin. Imagine how their hearts leaped in their chests when they saw, as they approached her shore, hundreds of people waving and playing music and holding up a huge banner simply saying, “Welcome Home!”