Owen Moloney was 26-years-old when he was mustered into Company C of the 6th New Jersey Infantry on 7th November 1861. Over the years that followed, the young Co. Clare emigrant saw his fair share of war. He was there every step of the way as the Army of the Potomac grappled with the Army of Northern Virginia across 1862 and 1863, losing company comrades at famed battles such as Williamsburg, Second Bull Run and Gettysburg. Having survived all the Rebels had thrown at him, Owen finally fell into Confederate hands at a little-known skirmish fought at McLean’s Ford, Virginia, on 15th October 1863. Initially incarcerated in Richmond, Owen was an early arrival at Andersonville Prison, being first sent there on 21st March 1864. Across almost four months he witnessed a near constant stream of U.S. prisoners enter the camp, and the continual degradation of conditions as numbers swelled. He finally succumbed in the midst of that awful summer, dying on 14th July. The hardship and want Owen experienced during those last weeks are difficult to imagine. But what is particularly devastating about his story is that Andersonville was not the first time he had faced them. His records lay bare the extent to which he and his family had already suffered across the sea in Ireland- when they had faced the full rigours of the Great Irish Famine.
Owen hailed from rural Tromora in West Clare. Born in 1833, he was one of Catharine McCann and Myles Moloney’s six children, the couple having married in the townland of Cloonlaheen in February 1831. Owen and his family’s home was and remains one of the most picturesque parts of Ireland, but it also had the misfortune of being among the localities most severely impacted by the Great Famine of 1845-52. During that period West Clare was the scene of immense hardship, suffering and death. Between 1846 and 1851, the area of Kilrush Poor Law Union alone lost in the region of 50% of its population to death and departure. As a young boy, it was Owen’s lot to witness this devastation first-hand. While we usually have little or no information about such individual experiences, Owen’s eventual death thousands of miles away in Georgia caused something of his family’s Famine struggles to be preserved.
Owen’s military service during the Civil War had been based on more than just a desire to preserve the integrity of his new home. His decision to enlist can also be viewed as an extension of efforts he had first begun back in 1847, when he had become his family’s primary earner. He was still performing that function when he perished at Andersonville, causing his mother Catherine to apply for a U.S. pension. It was the evidence the 58-year-old woman gathered from her Co. Clare home (where she still lived) in the late 1860s that revealed the horrendous Famine trauma she, Owen and their family had experienced.
Owen had been around 12-years-old when the potato blight Phytophthora infestans made landfall on Ireland’s shores. As the country became overwhelmed by hunger in the months and years ahead, the British administration made a number of inadequate responses to the catastrophe befalling the Irish population. One initative was to provide the growing numbers of destitute poor with employment on special public works projects, often called “relief schemes.” Between late 1846 and late 1847, it has been estimated that a staggering average of 100,000 men a day worked on such schemes. In the Moloney’s case, the local scheme was the construction of a coastal road, known as the “Seafield Line”. On 20th October 1846 local farmer Anthony Corry was appointed overseer on these construction works. He led a team of 120 men, among whom was Owen’s father Myles. The relief schemes may have been all well and good had those working on them been fit and hearty, but such was not the case in the midst of Famine. Desperate for work, increasingly weak and sick men sought to drag themselves out on the schemes to provide for their families, but many broke under the strain. So it was with Myles Moloney. On the 3rd April 1847 he was struck off the Seafield worker list “in consequence of ill health.” By the 15th of the month he was dead- yet another victim of the year that became known as “Black ’47.” But the desperate situation of the times left little room for sentiment, and the surviving Moloneys had to act fast. Owen had no choice but to take his father’s place on the works. At the time he was at most 14-years-old.
Owen’s labour on the Seafield Line was vital in helping to support his now widowed mother and his five young siblings (we do not know how many survived the Famine- by 1867 Catherine had “only one son living”). But Owen’s efforts alone were not enough. So it was that the surviving Moloneys were forced to rely on “Outdoor Relief”, a type of assistance (mainly in the form of food) provided to the destitute poor. It seems to have helped them stave off admission to the dreaded Workhouse, but there still appeared to be no end in sight. Owen, his mother and his siblings needed the relief all the way through until May 1849.
It was well into the 1850s before Owen and his family slowly began to rebuild their lives. During those years their fate became tied to that of Morty Haren, a farmer in Tromora. Morty took Owen on as an agricultural labourer. Catherine lived very close-by, continuing to be supported in part by the efforts of her boy. Though undoubtedly a hard-existence, slowly and surely Owen appears to have been able to gather together the means to seek an escape from the cycle of poverty that had characterised his life in West Clare. Finally, around 1860, he got his coveted ticket to the United States. It seems highly probable that his intent, as with so many others, was to first establish himself and then to send for his mother. Things looked promising early on, and he was quickly able to send a sum of £4 to Catharine back across the Atlantic. Then the war came. Owen seems to have viewed the conflict as an opportunity, as shortly after his enlistment another £3 made its way to West Clare, together with the fateful news that he had taken up the U.S. cause. His gamble failed to pay off. The young man who had already seen so much found his final resting-place in the red clay of Georgia, while his mother never left the fields and lanes of her Co. Clare home.
Across more than a decade of researching Civil War pension files, few stories have matched that of Owen Moloney for so starkly illustrating the links between the impact and consequences of the Great Irish Famine and Irish service in the American Civil War. Owen Moloney would likely never have been in the United States had it not been for the catastrophe that struck his homeland. The years of hardship he had experienced as a boy-which included the Famine taking his father’s life- must surely have influenced how he viewed and responded to life and military service in America. There is an awful irony in the fact that he struggled and survived such hardship, only to meet his end in a prison laden down with similar want and disease to that which had carried off so many during his youth. It serves also as a reminder that for thousands of Irish, the Famine did not stand in isolation as a traumatic experience. Catharine Moloney was far from alone in facing into her final years seeking to cope with personal losses brought on by both the Great Hunger and the great Civil War- the conflict that carried off so many who had survived it.
Thanks are due to the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the Friends of Andersonville, Andersonville National Historic Site and Professor Nicholas Allen of the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts at the University of Georgia for their ongoing support of the Andersonville Irish Project.
U.S. National Archives Pension Files.
U.S. National Archives Compiled Military Service Records.
National Archives of Ireland: The Office of Public Works.
New Jersey Adjutant General 1876. Records of Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Civil War, Volume 1.
Christine Kinealy 2012. “The Operation of the Poor Law during the Famine” in John Crowley, William J. Smyth & Mike Murphy (eds.) Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, 87-95.
Marsha ThomasJanuary 26, 2023 7:34 pm
The article on Owen Moloney is very poignant. All their stories are. Thanks.