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Patrick Hickey

The time will come when we shall know what the amount of the mortality has been; and though you may groan, and try to keep the truth down, it shall be known, and the time will come when the public and the world at large will be able to estimate, at its proper worth, your management of the affairs of Ireland. (Lord George Bentinck, leader of the Tories, in the House of Commons, 1847

‘Every civilized nation, aye, savage nation on earth is familiar with Skull, the place of the Skulls’, so exclaimed the Cork newspaper, the Southern Reporter, at the end of 1847. Schull and Skibbereen had become synonyms for famine. One writer called them ‘the two famine slain Sisters of the South’. Both were located in the region which was the focus of the vivid and famous illustrations by James Mahoney in the Illustrated London News in February 1847. All this is reinforced by the song ‘Dear old Skibbereen’. The full story of the famine in west Cork and in Ireland remains to be told. This study is concerned with the famine in 1846 and 1847 in a region encompassing six parishes in the Poor Law Union of Skibbereen (Fig. 22.1). These six parishes are Drimoleague, Drinagh, Caheragh, Kilcoe, Schull, and Kilmoe or Goleen which includes the Mizen Head in the extreme south west of the county. All are in the diocese of Cork except Kilcoe which is in the diocese of Ross. Kilcoe is a civil parish forming part of the Roman Catholic parish of Aughadown. Drinagh is a civil parish and part of the Roman Catholic parish of Drimoleague. The eastern part of Drinagh including the village belongs to the Union of Dunmanway but it falls within the remit of this work unless otherwise stated. Although Skibbereen itself is not within these parishes it was the Union town so a close watch is kept on it. The impact of the potato disease and of the relief measures is first discussed. The second part of the chapter analyses excess mortality and emigration from the region detailed in a rich but neglected source.

Part I The blight. Impact and relief

The rapid spread of the devastating potato disease in the summer and autumn of 1845 caused alarm in west Cork. Members of the Carbery Agricultural Society discussed it at the dinner held on the night of their show in Skibbereen in October 1845. John Limerick, a landlord of Schull, was pleased that butter was making more that 3 a hundredweight in the Ballydehob market and felt sure that the pit specially designed by his rector, Dr Traill, would save the potato crop. But Dr Donovan, dispensary physician at Skibbereen, found that the wail all around him was that the potatoes were rotting everywhere. The discussion ended at 11.00 p.m It was also the eleventh hour of a period of Irish history.

In summer 1846 the potato disease struck even more severely. In August Captain William Thomas of Coosheen near Schull, a Cornish miner, warned the chairman of his mining company, Ludlow Beamish, that ‘Small farmers ... are as badly off now as the poorest labourer ... Whatever is done by the government or public works will be too late, after the people are driven to despair by hunge’.. He wrote again: ‘The whole country is nothing but a slumbering volcano. it will soon burst’. Beamish forwarded Thomas's letters to Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury, in London. Beamish believed that in the city competition among the merchants would control prices but that the poor would be at ‘the mercy of the griping and the covetous’ in the small towns. Trevelyan replied that it had already been decided to establish a reserve depot of Indian meal around Schull but made it clear that he relied on the merchants of Cork to supply the eastern part of the county .

Relief works under the Labour Rate Act' were to be supervised by the geologist, engineer and land valuer Richard Griffith together with Thomas Larcom of the Ordnance Survey. Presentment sessions under this act for a division of the Barony of Carbery were held in the chapel at Ballydehob. Many local people present would have remembered the making of the Skibbereen-Crookhaven road under Griffith himself during the famine of 1822-23, which had been a highly successful scheme both as a relief measure and as a public work. Landlords, ratepayers and clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, attended. Several road proposals were passed 'through a spirit of charity under the affliction of providence but others called it ‘presentment mania’.

The Board of Works responded quickly and within four weeks there were at least 1,300 men employed in the Mizen Peninsula alone. When the hungry men on the Caheragh roads heard a rumour that their scheme was going to be stopped, a thousand of them marched into Skibbereen with spades and shovels on 30 September. Confrontation with the military was just avoided when the road-workers were allowed to buy some food from the government depot.

On 24 October Denis Kennedy, who had been owed two weeks wages, died on the Caheragh road. At the inquest the jury, which included Dr Donovan, gave the verdict that he had ‘died of starvation, owing to the gross negligence of the Board of Works’. In November another Caheragh road worker, Jeremiah Hegarty, died. He had had some barley in his haggard but the landlord had confiscated it. Hegarty had not been paid for eight days.

By now the district of Skibbereen was becoming notorious for famine. J. H. Marmion explained that a 'superabundance of sea manure enabled the inhabitants to grow large quantities of potatoes. The markets of Cork and Waterford were principally supplied with potatoes from this region and he himself had exported 2,000 tons of them in one season. The crop induced a superabundance of population, contrary to the wishes of the proprietors. However, when the crop failed the labourers went hungry. Public attention was directed at the horrors of famine in Skibbereen by the open letter of the Cork magistrate, Nicholas Cummins, to the duke of Wellington, published in The Times on 24 December 1846.

Further presentment sessions had been held in Ballydehob on 23 December. Some new road proposals were passed but many people were now disillusioned. Limerick agreed that they were only cutting their throats by concentrating on transport infrastructures. Another wanted to enlarge the work house. The reporter who attended these sessions in Ballydehob described misery and death in Dunmanway and Skibbereen, but he then announced:

Greater misery was reserved for me in Ballydehob. Here they are in a deplorable state dying in all directions ... The people are living on seaweed and cattle they steal. On Sunday night they broke into the foodstore and stole all that was in it ... There were thirteen burials in the Schull churchyard yesterday; not one of them had got a coffin. It is cruel to insist that these wretched skeletons go miles to and from work to earn a few pence: it would be much wiser to give them a little food and permit them to remain within doors.

In early January 1847 another reporter visited the Ballydehob district. An overseer told him that one man had collapsed and died from exhaustion and hunger and that he had been the fifth to meet this fate since 14 November last. This reporter protested: ‘The total extermination of the labouring classes is inevitable. Lord Russell looks on with folded arms while her Majesty's Irish subjects are dropping in hundreds.

On 31 December 1846 Major Parker, an Englishman and an inspecting officer of the Board of Works, had sent Colonel Jones, its chairman, the following account of the prospects for the new year:

A great number of people must inevitably be swept off by starvation and by diseases. Food is daily becoming scarcer and much clearer and where are future supplies to come from? Hitherto, Skibbereen has been the peculiar object of solicitude but Schull and Kilmoe [Goleen] are equally as badly off. Traill has soup-kitchens constantly at work, ... but all will not do. Individual charity will not go far.

Jones immediately forwarded this letter to Trevelyan who then wrote to Randolf Routh, chairman of the Relief Commission in Dublin, describing the correspondence as ‘the most awful’ he had yet seen. He wanted to know from Routh what progress the commissary, Mr Bishop, had made for the extension of soup-kitchens. Routh was annoyed at Major Parker's allegation that there was a scarcity of food. He claimed that there was plenty of food in the market at Skibbereen. He further stated that J. H. Swanton's two large mills at Skibbereen were full of meal for sale and that the government depot was also open. His explanation for the famine was that ‘food is not lacking but rather the money to buy it’. This was a counter-attack on Parker's Board of Works which was supposed to provide employment and money. Money was indeed lacking, not only on account of the low wages of the board but also due to the high cost of meal. It was impossible for a man to support himself and his family on eight pence a day when meal was 2s.6d. a stone. Routh also blamed the Skibbereen landlords who had an annual income of 50,000. ‘Ought such destitution prevail with such resources?’, he asked. Trevelyan's failure to respond was summed up in a Treasury minute stating that the local committees should do more, gather more subscriptions and open more soup-kitchens.

In Skibbereen the workhouse was ‘full to suffocation’ and by the middle of January 1847 was closed to further admissions. it had been built to accommodate 800 but now held 1,169, of whom 332 were in fever. On 1 February the Skibbereen soup committee reported that in one week forty-six died and on a single day, on 30 January 1847, deaths had numbered sixteen. Famine and pestilence prevailed in every parish in the Union and were causing a ‘mortality proportioned to the destitution’. The average mortality per day in Schull was estimated at twenty-four while in Kilmoe (Goleen) twenty died on one day and eighteen on another. The same committee asserted that ‘deaths which have already taken place should be numbered by thousands’.

The workhouse was 1,300 in debt; 1,400 was due in rates which were often impossible to collect. Some ratepayers were in the workhouse themselves, others were dead or had emigrated or were on the public works. A rate collector entered the house of Patrick Regan of Rossbrin near Ballydehob only to find the man, his wife and their son apparently dead. James Barry, the parish priest of Schull, soon determined that the man was actually alive. His wife died almost immediately; their son had been dead for five days.

On 19 January 1847 Stephen Sweetnam, the dispensary physician at Schull, informed John Limerick that the daily average mortality in the parish- was not less than twenty. ‘I fear' he added, ‘all your trouble and exertions ...are but as a drop in the ocean if some gigantic measure of relief is not immediately carried out by the government’. Limerick was also told by the priest that for the previous six weeks he had given the last rites to at least fifteen persons a day, not including children ‘numbers of which are perishing.’

The Revd Barry described his visit to ‘the village of Kilbronogue’ near Ballydehob: ‘Fever consequent upon starvation’, he wrote, was spreading among the clusters of cabins. Barry regretted that the townland would ‘soon be at the immediate disposal of the head landlord, Lord Bandon. There will be no need of extermination or of migration to thin the dense swarm of poor people...; this will take place without his lordship's intervention or agency, 1 hope, to a better world’. Revd. John Kelleher who succeeded Barry as parish priest later in the year told a public meeting in Dunmanway in 1850 that in the two months after the potato rot 120 persons died of starvation on Lord Bandon's property in the parish of Schull .

A soup-kitchen was opened in Kilcoe as early as September 1846 and one in Skibbereen on 7 November and by the end of January 1847 they were replacing the road-works as the chief means of famine relief. There were two each in Aughadown, Caheragh, Crookhaven and Schull, and one each in Ballydehob, Drimoleague and Kilcoe. A soup kitchen was only ‘proposed'’ for Drinagh. Nevertheless Bishop admitted to Routh that it was but ‘a drop in the ocean’: ‘Hundreds are relieved, but thousands still want’.

Parliament met towards the end of January 1847. Lord Bandon told the House how the people were dying and quoted from a letter of Dr Traill's. Bandon reminded the government of its promise to supply food to the remoter districts, but such relief was ‘tardy and hardly felt until the present time’. Daniel O'Connell, M.P. for county Cork, predicted that unless England came to his country's rescue a quarter of her people would perish .The response of the government was the Temporary Relief Destitute Person's Act, better known as the Soup kitchen Act, introduced by prime minister Lord John Russell on 25 January. This act sought to bridge the gap until the harvest in September. It was, however, a long way from parliament to parish.

On 29 January relief commissary Bishop informed Trevelyan of the Treasury that ‘the floating depot for Schull arrived yesterday and has commenced issues; this removes all anxiety for that quarter’ . But he seems to have been the only one without anxiety. Laurence O'Sullivan, parish priest of Kilmoe (Goleen), reported how his people were dying at a rate of 100 a week and that the rate was rapidly increasing. His parish had received less aid than others because of its remoteness. O'Sullivan claimed that the tardy relief contemplated by the government would not come into operation until some additional hundreds were added to the victims and even then it would be ‘totally inadequate’

Schull's rector, Dr Traill, wrote: ‘Frightful and fearful is the havoc around me’. Sweetnam, the local doctor, had told him that the mortality in his parish was now 35 daily. Traill continued: ‘The children in particular were disappearing with an awful rapidity, and to this 1 add the aged who...are almost without exception swollen and ripening for the grave’ . The Ballydehob Ladies' Association distributed food and clothes to 130 families but many were denied. Jane Noble, its secretary, appealed to commissioner Routh: The young mothers and their famished infants ... present scenes of distraction, ... far beyond my powers of description’.

These horrors of the famine were by then not only described but vividly portrayed by the artist James Mahoney of the Illustrated London News, who visited west Cork early in February. At Schull he saw 300 to 400 women with money in their hands being doled out ‘miserable quantities’ of food at ‘famine prices’. Food had recently arrived in a government ship but it was totally inadequate for a population of 27,000. Mahoney drew a sketch of the hut of a poor man who lay dying on a bed of straw. Traill was the visitor depicted in the sketch. The dying man's wife had passed away some days previously and their three wretched children lay beside a smouldering fire. This artist also saw the rector's daughters distributing food.. At Caheragh Mahoney drew his celebrated representation of the forlorn boy and girl searching for potatoes. The curate of Drimoleague, Revd Creedon, guided him to the village of Meenies Like the village of Kilbronoge near Ballydehob, Meenies was one of west Cork's many .’grave-yard villages’.

The rector of Caheragh, Francis Webb, received the following report on Toureen:

I saw the bodies of Kate Barry and her two children very lightly covered with earth ... the flesh completely eaten by dogs ... Within about thirty yards ... are two most wretched looking old houses, with two dead bodies in each, Norry Regan, Tom Barry, Nelly Barry (a little girl), and Charles McCarthy (a little boy), all dead about a fortnight, and not yet interred.

The Revd Webb published the above account in the Southern Reporter and asked in disbelief ‘Are we living in a portion of the United Kingdom?’ Commissioner Bishop sent a copy of this piece to Trevelyan stating that the natural conclusion was ‘that food could not be found’. Bishop however also enclosed a letter from the miller J. H. Swanton, reporting that he had 100 to 200 tons of Indian meal and other flour, but that he had difficulty in disposing of it as the Skibbereen Relief Committee was selling meal ‘indiscriminately for as little as 2s. 2d. a stone. if the government bought it, Swanton asserted, it would save him the freight of shipping it to another market’. Bishop pointed out that this meal is to be found within two miles of the parish of Caheragh and asked indignantly: ‘May we not conclude with the rector, ‘Are we living in a portion of the United Kingdom?’

Thomas Tuckey, rector of Drimoleague, recited how faction fights were laid aside, and how the people had grown so accustomed to death that the caoineadh was never heard. George Robinson, treasurer of the local relief committee, gathered many subscriptions. He hoped to obtain a grant of funds sufficiently large to enable him to establish a soup-kitchen in Drinagh as well as in Drimoleague. He made a special appeal for Drinagh as it had no resident rector or gentry; its situation was remote and it was ‘the most neglected part of west Carbery’. His responsibilities consisted of the parish of Drimoleague and most of Drinagh, containing 6,000 persons in all, of whom the labouring class numbered about 5,000. ‘This class in this district’, he stated, ‘'have always been miserably poor’. Now they had been thrown on the public works or on charity, the large farmers with rarely an exception ‘not having retained in their employment a single labourer’. There were about 150 small farmers but they were reduced by the failure of the potato ‘to abject misery’. Five-sixths of the population, that is all those categorised as labouring class, felt ‘the gnawings of intense hunger every day’. He maintained that the population of his own area contained a higher proportion of poor than the parishes in which the town of Skibbereen was situated .

In mid-February 1847 commissary Bishop went on a tour of inspection of the parishes under study and reported to Trevelyan. At Schull he found that ‘mortality had greatly increased’. When fever attacked the inhabitants of a cabin nobody would dare help them, not even a parent or a child. So many died from ‘positive neglect’. In Goleen he found that

Fever, dysentery and consequent death have greatly increased ... The relief committee of Schull and Kilmoe [Goleen] exert themselves greatly to the benefit of the poor. There is an ample supply of provisions in both places

Once again food and starvation were side by side. No wonder Canon O'Rourke asked: ‘How did they manage to die of starvation in Schull?’ The answer had been given by the artist Mahoney: provisions were not ample and were at inflated famine prices.

More publicity was given to Schull by Captain Caffin of H.M.S. Scourge in his letter of 15 February, written the day after Bishop's report. The captain had landed 96 tons of food in Schull on behalf of the British Relief Association. Dr Traill drove him around to visit some of his Protestant parishioners and in every house they visited they found the sick, the dying and the dead. ‘Famine exists to a frightful degree, with all its horrors’ he exclaimed. ‘Fever has sprung up in consequence upon the wretchedness; the swellings of limbs and the body, and diarrhoea, from the want of nourishment, is everywhere to be found’. This letter was soon published in Irish newspapers and shortly afterwards in The Times in London on 26 February.

Caffin's report shocked Trevelyan. He wrote to the new chairman of the Relief Commission, John Borgoyne, describing the correspondence as ‘awful’. He suggested some little extra aid for Schull, but he admitted that relief could only be carried out to a limited extent, concluding: ‘Let us save as many as we can’. Burgoyne replied thus: ‘Terrible as are the accounts from Schull, it is, 1 fear, too certain many other districts suffer in the same degree from want of food, some of them in the interior’. A Treasury minute of 23 February 1847 confirmed ‘the dreadful state of destitution in the parishes of Schull and Caheragh’ and stated that the Lords of the Treasury desired that the Relief Commission and the relief committees do more for the district. But no special aid was forthcoming from the Treasury.

Traill wrote that Caffin had been ‘shocked beyond measure at what he witnessed’, but insisted that ‘'verily the half was not shown him. Farther up among our rocks and fastness, he might have seen hovels filled with the dying and the dead’. Caffin continued to deliver food along the west coast of Ireland. On 10 March 1847 he wrote from Belmullet, county Mayo, describing the famine in Erris but concluded that starvation was ‘getting worse as you go south, and at Schull and its neighbourhood the very climax of misery finds its resting-place’.

A woman begged John Limerick to bury her husband and family. Revd Barry praised him as ‘a good magistrate ... unsparingly devoted to deeds of benevolence’. Tuckey, the rector at Drimoleague, met a woman on the way to the graveyard to bury her seventh and last child. Thomas Beamish of Kippagh Lodge, secretary of the Drinagh Relief Committee, gathered 48 but complained to the relief commissioners that they had received ‘no aid’ and pleaded for this ‘extensive and mountainous’ district. Thomas Swanton of Cranliath near Ballydehob, landlord and Gaelic scholar, became so disillusioned that he announced his conversion to Repeal and even declared that ‘murder is going on for the benefit of Manchester and Liverpoo’.

The Church of Ireland burial records for Drimoleague and Drinagh have fortunately survived:

Table 22.1

Year and Burials

1845 1846 1847 1848 1849
3 6 23 5 3

Source. Nat Archives- Church of Ireland parish registers, 1845-1849.

The huge increase in the number of burials in 1847 is evident. Among them were members of a Stout family; the youngest, John (2) and his sister Mary (7), were buried on 9 April. Their brother, Michael (10), was buried the next day. Their parents John (45) and Mary (47) joined them on 23 April. John was a labourer. Here we see famine mortality at family level: the children died first, beginning with the second youngest if not the youngest. The Stouts shared the fate of many of their class.

Trench's relief scheme

The urgent response which Parker, Sweetnam and Caffin had called for came not from the government but from a Protestant clergyman, Frederick F. Trench, curate of Cloughjordan, county Tipperary. His attention was drawn to the area by Caffins's letter and he ‘volunteered to come out of charity.’. On Sunday 14 March 1847 he met ‘'eating-houses’' at various places. He set up a sub-committee consisting of, amongst others, John Barry and John Triphook, the Catholic and Protestant curates respectively.

At Schull Trench met Dr Traill, his curate Alexander McCabe and Sweetnam, the local physician, who described many adults as ‘'delirious with fever and hunger’'. McCabe remarked to Trench that ‘he had altered in the course of the last eight days in a hundred instances the names of the men who had died to the names of their wives and that in that space of time there had been six cases in which he had altered the name from the father to the son, and from the son to the widow, and from the widow to the daughter, all having died’. Trench and McCabe went to Kilbronogue south of Ballydehob where they met Revd John Barry and together they visited nine houses. Out of forty-three inhabitants they found eight who were apparently healthy enough, twenty-five in fever, eleven starving, three dying. Barry remarked that the people of one house had been decent farmers. Trench presented his urgent plan:

... the establishment of eating-houses within reach of those upon whom disease has not as yet made mortal inroads.

... the sending of a sufficient number of suitable agents to manage those eating houses; and physicians should be sent to prescribe the food and medicine.

Trench's aim was to give 'a meal of substantial Indian meal stirabout or porridge' a day to each person in danger of perishing rather that just soup. The meal would cost only one and a half pence per day. His comment on the vital question of the availability of food deserves attention:

There is no want of food in any place (delightful consideration) but there is a most deplorable want of available agencies, and a consequent want of suitable measures to bring the food and the medicine within the reach of the people.

The Tipperary curate appealed for a ‘sufficient staff of fit men’ to prescribe for the sick and to put a cooking place within reach of the poor. He also asked an eminent physician, Dr Kennedy of Merrion Square, Dublin, to select a doctor to send to Schull and to accept the services of any other gentlemen. Trench held that the arrangements concerning the Soup-Kitchen Act were ‘complicated, and the lives of thousands depend on what is done now’.

Major Parker of the Board of Works died of fever on 23 March 1847 and was buried at Creagh near Baltimore. The Board of Health sent a Dr Lamprey to Schull. He placed the sick in army tents and visited Dunmanus where he found one of Trench's agents feeding 600 people and praised the system as ‘the only means yet devised to stay the famine’. One man who answered Trench's call for volunteers was his cousin, the Revd Richard C. Trench, Professor of Divinity at King's College, London, who arrived in Dublin on 6 April and went to Ballydehob with two helpers. He considered that ‘Skibbereen had the appearance of a flourishing place’ compared to Ballydehob and Schull and discovered that his cousin's five eating-houses were not one-tenth of what was necessary and two more were started in Ballydehob. There was now a total of nine eating-houses in the parish and new ones were still being opened. From each about 500 people were fed every day. Professor Trench and his helpers had given out 10,000 meals at less than a penny farthing each and were thus encouraged at ‘the trifling cost of food’. He held that what cost much was ‘the agency which is essentially necessary and for want of which, more than for want of food, life is lost’. Still Trench had to admit that in spite of all their efforts there were ‘vast regions yet untouched’. He claimed, however, that ‘the mortality, though it had not ceased yet it had been arrested’. This was 23 April 1847. The tide of famine and fever was at last beginning to turn. Trench could speak of the ‘trifling daily cost of food’ partly because, as Fr Mathew had announced in March, ‘The markets are rapidly falling; Indian corn from 16 to 15 a ton’ due to ‘vast importations’. Indian meal had been 19 a ton in February.`

Among Lamprey's patients was Traill himself who died of fever on 21 April and was buried in Schull. A new Fever Bill became law on 27 April. Temporary fever hospitals were then set up in Skibbereen, Ballydehob, Schull, Kilcoe, Caheragh and Drimoleague in May and June . By the middle of May 1847 famine and fever had at last been brought under some sort of control, but casualties were already heavy. The editor of the Cork Examiner, J.F. Maguire, protested; his informant was a Catholic clergyman, probably the Revd James Barry. Maguire claimed that disease and mortality had increased due to ‘the reckless dismissals of labourers from the public works’. He wrote that the population of East Schull or Ballydehob had been 8,000:

It is now reduced to about 6,000 — that is to three-fourths of what it was less than one year since. It is computed from accurate data that, from the end of October 1846 to the beginning of May 1847 — a period of six months — ONE-FOURTH of the entire population of East Schull has been swept away by famine and disease.

This did not surprise Maguire when he was informed that from 17 March to 17 April 1847 200 bodies were buried by the relief committee with sliding coffins and another 100 received a decent burial, a total of 300. Maguire was also told by the same clergyman that this mortality would perhaps have doubled were it not for ‘the noble and God-like exertions and benevolence’ of F. E Trench who had ‘not made the least attempt to interfere with the religious faith’ of the people. Maguire declared that ‘work, work’ was the constant cry of the people of Ballydehob. The days when the government would provide work were over. it would now be cheaper, easier — and ultimately more humane — to dole out soup. Some people, however, regarded the public works as being just as much a form of dole as the soup. One famine road in Castledonovan near Drimoleague is still called Bothairin no deirce or ‘The little road of the alms’.

Accordingly, as the Soup-Kitchen Act was coming into operation the road-works were to be phased out. The relief commissioners directed that from 20 March the numbers employed in them should be reduced by 20 per cent and a further 10 per cent by 23 April. Thomas Gibbons, financial officer for the Skibbereen Union under this act, reported that when the 10 per cent were dismissed in Schull it led to outrages.

The new act was slow in taking effect. As late as 15 May 1847 only 1,250 electoral divisions out of almost 2,000 had been brought under it. Professor James S. Donnelly, Jr., states that the preparation of sheets and tickets consumed valuable time. The Soup-Kitchen Act came into operation in the six parishes on 10 May except for Goleen where it was delayed until 24 May. The government inspector introducing the measure was named J.J. Marshall. The following table shows the number of rations distributed on 19 June.’

The population receiving rations — an average of 52 per cent — is

Table 22.2


Parish Rations Pop 1841 Percent dependent on rations

Goleen 4,942 7,234 68.32

Schull 4,918 8,604 57.16

Ballydehob 4,612 8,710 52.95

Kilcoe 1,074 2,339 54.47

Caheragh 3,272 8,375 39.07

Drimoleague 2,520 5,501 45.81

Drinagh 1,296 2,503 51.78

Total 22,634 43,266 52.31

Source.. Marshall's return. See reference 61.

indeed high but not as elevated as in the neighbouring parish of Muintirvara (Durrus) near Bantry (60 to 70 per cent), or parts of Connaught (70 to 100 per cent). Children received only a half-ration and they were estimated as still numbering 20 per cent of the population in need.` To sum up, the 22,634 rations distributed under this act in the six parishes fed about 27,160 persons out of a total population of 43,266 or 62.77 per cent. This percentage was high but in reality it must have been greater as the population was now lower than it had been in 1841 owing to death and emigration.

The results of these great efforts made by the Trenches and also of the Soup-Kitchen Act were recognised at a meeting of the Ballydehob Relief Committee held on 20 June. A resolution was passed expressing gratitude to Revd E F. Trench and his agents for their work. in the covering letter Revd Barry told how deaths were now so few that the slide-bottomed coffins were no longer in use. He was confident that the Soup-Kitchen Act, under the guidance of a ‘wise and indefatigable inspector’, J.J. Marshall, afforded a hope of ‘few deaths from dire want’.

The Soup-Kitchen Act was due to expire in September. The Irish Poor Law Extension Bill which transferred the responsibility of Irish destitution to the Irish poor rates became law in June A meeting of landowners was held in Ballydehob on 10 September 1847 which declared that the local property could not support the paupers and that if they were to depend solely on the rates, ‘thousands of lives must be lost’. A resolution to this effect was sent to the prime minister, Lord John Russell. His reply was cold, curt but crystal clear:

I am deeply concerned at the prospect of distress in East Schull [Ballydehob] ... It appears to me that the owners of property in Ireland ought to feel the obligations of supporting the poor, who have been born on their estates, and have hitherto contributed to their yearly incomes. It is not just to expect the working classes of Great Britain should permanently support the burden of Irish pauperism.

Such sentiments foreshadowed the Encumbered Estates Act. Nationalists saw this answer as proof of England's failure to take responsibility for Ireland's problems and a new argument for Repeal. But it was only in dealing with its own poverty that Ireland was to be granted Repeal.

Part II Mortality and emigration

(i) Mortality

The Soup-Kitchen Act was relatively successful as far as it went. But the more lives would have been saved if it had been brought into operation with the same haste as it was terminated. Trevelyan boasted that ‘the famine was stayed .... upwards of three millions of persons were fed every day’ Many hard-pressed relief committees were grateful for this provision. The Revd David Dore, parish priest of Caheragh publicly praised J.J. Marshall. The Schull and Ballydehob relief committees held a joint meeting on 28 September 1847. John Limerick was chairman of the Schull committee and Revd Barry acted as chairman at Ballydehob. These committees declared that the Soup-kitchen Act had done ‘great good’ in their own districts, and as ‘a criterion by which the public may judge the good results of that act generally’ they adduced the following:

a copy of the statistical return made out with scrupulous exactness under the directions of J. J. Marshall, inspecting officer for this district, shewing at one view the very great mortality which preceded, and the equally great decrease of such mortality which followed, the introduction of that measure.

The ‘statistical return’ presented to the public was entitled A return of deaths and emigrations in the western division of the Skibbereen Union, from the 1 September 1846 to 12 September 1847. This dossier gave the numbers who died in each parish, whether men, women or children under fifteen, on an almost month-to-month basis and also the causes of death. Marshall's return is particularly rare and valuable because the information is community based. Data on mortality rates in institutions are less difficult to obtain. Estimates of the number of people who died during the famine are extremely varied: they range from as low as 800,000 to as high as 1,500,000. Mokyr has advanced a figure of at least one million: Professor O’Grada and Dr P. P. Boyle have suggested a similar figure. Part of the reason for the wide range of those estimates was given by the census commissioners of 1851, one of whom was William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde), regretted that ‘No pen has ever recorded the numbers of the forlorn and starving who perished by the wayside or in the ditches, ... whole families lay down and died’. Evidently Marshall and those who worked under his direction attempted to do precisely that. It has already been shown how from January 1847 onwards John Limerick, Sweetnam and Barry were trying to count the numbers who had died. As already stated, J.F. Maguire of the Cork Examiner maintained that his figures for mortality in Ballydehob had been ‘computed from accurate data’. On 20 March Dr Traill wrote that it had been ‘computed’ that 2,000 of his parishioners had already fallen victim.

Marshall's digest was presented in a calm, matter-of-fact manner, no attempt being made to politicise the famine dead. The same cannot be said of the ‘death census’ published by the Nation whose editor, Gavan Duffy, described the famine as ‘a fearful murder committed on the mass of the Irish people’. In any case this death census is only a random spatial simple count of fatalities and has none of the detail and analysis of Marshall's return. When the Revd Kelleher told the political meeting of landlords in Dunmanway that 120 persons had died on Bandon's property in Schull the response was ‘shouting'. Dr Donovan published Marshall's return in the Dublin Medical Press as will be seen later. This report therefore has good authority, as it was also accepted by Limerick and Barry. It was not on every subject that the doctor, the landlord, the parish priest and the government official would have agreed!

Derived from Marshall's return, Table 22.3 (not scanned) represents mortality in the six parishes from 1 September 1846 to 12 September 1847. It is clear from the causes of death which are given below that it concerns excess famine mortality [Fig. 22.21.

Table 22.3 shows the dramatic mortality of 1,125 persons for the period September 1846 to January 1847. The highest number of deaths was for adult males, 424, which was greater than even for children, 418. The casualties among the road workers must account for some of these men. In February 1847, 962 persons died; this figure was made up of children, 378, followed by males, 345, and females, 239. This pattern of change held for the rest of the year. Mortality reached its climax in March, when 1,838 perished. in April mortality decreased only slightly to 1,710.

There was now a significant difference between the peninsular parishes, Goleen, Kilcoe and Schull and the inland ones, Caheragh, Drimoleague and Drinagh. Mortality peaked in the peninsular parishes in March at 1,372 and fell in April to 1,067 and in May to 670. In the inland parishes, however, mortality reached its zenith not in March but in April and continued at this level even in May when it was higher than it had been even in March. In March there were 466 deaths, in April 643 and in May 524 – in spite of the Soup-Kitchen Act. The arrival of the Trenches in the peninsular parishes in the middle of March is no doubt the reason why mortality was prevented from continuing to rise and peak there also in April. We have seen how Professor Trench stated that by 23 April mortality had been ‘arrested’ although it had not ceased. The efforts of the Trenches were such that even in all six parishes taken together mortality peaked in March and not in April; 1,838 died in March and 1,710 in April. In the workhouses all over the country it was around the middle of April that mortality peaked and then gradually decreased. To a certain extent this was due to the opening of fever hospitals. In the week ending 17 April 1847 deaths numbered 2,551 in the workhouses and in the following week 2,330.

In the Bantry workhouse mortality peaked with 70 dead on the week ending 27 February 1847 (the Skibbereen workhouse minute books have been lost). Mortality was at its highest level in the Dunmanway workhouse on week 20 March with 76 deaths, 16 men, 21 women and 39 children. The greatest number of deaths in the Bandon workhouse was 59 in the following week. So in the workhouses of much of west Cork and in six specific parishes the number of deaths was at its highest in March rather than in April, although both were dreadful months.

In all six parishes March and April accounted for 48.4 per cent (3,548) or nearly half of the total deaths (7,332). Mortality decreased in May, from 1,710 to 1,194, thanks to the Soup-Kitchen Act. Famine and fever had already held too many in their fatal grip. In spite of all sorts of relief measures mortality remained higher in May than it had been even in February, that is 1,194 or 39 per day as against 962 or 34 per day for February. A drastic change happened only in June when mortality fell from 1,194 to 307. In July it continued to fall to 148 and finally in August-September to 48. This drop in mortality in June is confirmed by Revd Trench's letter.

The total mortality of 7,332 from a population of 43,266 is of course extremely high. According to this census the population of Schull was 17,314; Dr Traill gave it as 18,000 in 1846 .71 Professor Joseph Lee has argued that the census suffers from adult undernumeration by at least one per cent . As will be apparent later emigration was already increasing in the early 1840s. The 1841 census however must remain the base from which mortality and emigration rates can be calculated as these figures were given in Marshall's return itself.

Marshall's data are not in the least exaggerated and may even be conservative; as a government inspector and a landlord like Limerick were likely to exaggerate mortality or emigration. The Skibbereen Soup Committee reported that deaths in the parish of Schull averaged 24 per day in January 1847, which would mean 744 for the month. But Marshall's return gives ‘only’ 349 for the whole period from September 1846 to the end of January 1847. In February Revd O'Sullivan of Goleen told how his parishioners were dying at a rate of 100 a week, but according to the return there were ‘only’ 211 deaths for that month, even granting that the census was based on the civil parish which is smaller than the new Catholic parish. Dr Sweetnam estimated that the average daily mortality in the parish of Schull in early February was thirty-five a day, which would mean a total of 980 for the month, but for which Marshall's return shows as ‘only’ 449. Dr Traill reported on 20 March how 2,000 of his people had died. The return gives the figure of ‘only’ about 1,407 up to that date. J. E Maguire claimed that 2,000 or a quarter of the people of Ballydehob had perished by the beginning of May. The return puts it at ‘only’ 1,245 or 14.3 per cent.

A mortality rate of 16.3 per cent in the study area from September 1846 to September 1847 was very high by any comparison in either county or country. Dr S. H. Cousens calculated that mortality in the county of Cork for 1847 ranged from 5 to 5.9 per cent, which with county Leitrim's was the highest in the country, for which he gives an average mortality of 3 to 3.9 per cent. It must be recalled however that Cousens' estimate of 800,645 famine deaths for Ireland is probably too low. Of the 7,332 persons who died in the six parishes men totalled 2,396 or 32.7 per cent, women 1,800 or 24.6 per cent and children 3,136 or 42.8 per cent. The high casualties among the roadworkers must account for some of the male deaths but not for others. By May 1847 the public works were stopped, while the men still had a lethal lead on the women in the race to the grave, 350 as against 279, and they still held on to their lead until September when it became twenty-two to seventeen. It is surprising that more men should have died than women. in modern famines it is usually the reverse. Fr jack Finucane of the relief agency Concern has written that in the recent famines in Sudan and Ethiopia the highest mortality was among children followed by women, both of whom were more vulnerable than men. Dr Mary Daly points out that in pre-famine Ireland and indeed up to the 1930s normal mortality was higher among women. Yet in famine conditions men are often more vulnerable as they need more calories. In the famine in West Holland in 1944 male mortality rose by 16 per cent and female by 7 per cent. In the Irish famine men were also more vulnerable to disease. In the fever hospitals in the six parishes 196 men died compared to 193 women, but in all west Cork 674 men and 604 women died.

Dr P. P. Boyle and Professor C. O’Grada have estimated that ‘there were slightly more excess deaths among males than females’ 511,000 males as compared to 474,000 females. As already stated, significantly more men died in our parishes than women, 2,396 men as against 1,800 women. This is clearly a far larger proportion than the estimate of Boyle and O’Grada for the whole country. These authorities argue that famine excess mortality was very close to a simple multiple of normal pre-crisis mortality, that is almost double. They show that in pre-famine times the death rate was higher among females than males. This must have been true in our parishes as well. Yet in these six parishes during the famine the situation was reversed; male mortality was significantly higher than female mortality although males and females were in equal numbers. So here at least famine mortality does not seem to have been a simple multiple of pre-crisis normal mortality. There was something less straightforward and more complex about it, Male mortality both increased and multiplied. Child mortality, 3,136 out of 7,332 or 42.3 per cent of the total, was very high. An unusually high infant mortality is indicated by the Catholic and Church of Ireland baptismal records.

These figures show that with the ominous exception of Goleen there was no decrease in the number of baptisms as a result of the arrival of the potato blight. In the parish of Schull in the 1820s the number of baptisms was in the 200s; in the 1830s in the 300s and in the 1840s in the 400s and heading rapidly for the 500s. Then suddenly in 1847 the numbers dropped to 194; the decline was 60.7 per cent. The average decrease for all six parishes is 60.9 per cent based on the 1846 total or 65.7 per cent on the 1845 total.

Fortunately, Church of Ireland baptismal records for the Ballydehob side of Schull parish, Caheragh, Drimoleague and Drinagh, have survived:

Table 22.4

Catholic Baptisms, 1843-47

Parish 1843 1844 1845 1846 1847 Decrease percentage

Goleen 394 418 418 196 62 68.4

Schull 409 450 466 494 194 60.7

Aughadown/Kilcoe 219 257 225 301 119 60.5

Caheragh 344 316 328 348 152 56.3

Drimoleague/Drinagh 301 378 359 373 143 62.5

Total 1,667 1,819 1,796 1,712 670 60.9

Source.. Parish records.

Table 22.5 Church of Ireland Baptisms, 1843-47

Parish 1843 1844 1845 1846 1847 Decrease percentage

Ballydehob 33 39 40 43 16 62.8

Caheragh 3 5 4 0 0 100.0

Drimoleague/Drinagh - - 20 17 14 17.6

Source.. N.A. Church of Ireland parish registers, 1843-47.

One is surprised to find that the Protestant birth rate in Ballydehob was affected just as severely as the Catholic one; many Protestants however were just as poor as the Catholics. Dr Traill related how he had the ‘charge of a Protestant population one of the largest rural ones in the kingdom’. It numbered 2,000 and was one whose ‘destitute condition’ weighed heavy on his heart. Triphook visited thirteen Protestant families with dysentery near Ballydehob. The lowest decrease in birth rate was among the Drimoleague and Drinagh Protestants. Many of these people would have been the larger farmers who – whether Catholic or Protestant – had more resources to weather the storm. It was this of course which was crucial rather than religion as the case of the Stout family showed.

The Goleen Catholics and the Caheragh, Drimoleague and Drinagh Protestants were the only people to reduce their birth rate after the arrival of the blight. It is strange to find no Protestant baptism for Caheragh in 1846 or 1847. The records are complete and were carefully collated by Webb. There is one baptism for 1848 and another for 1849. The Protestant population however was only 131 in 1834. Yet a zero birth rate for two years tells its own story.

How many missing baptisms were there? It is possible to answer this for Catholics since their records are complete. If there had been no blight and if the number of baptisms increased from 1846 to 1847 at the same rate as it had been increasing since 1842 we can calculate that the figure would have been about 2,000 for the Catholic parishes for 1847. As it actually happened there were only 267, so the number of missing baptisms is about 1,733.

There was a corresponding number of averted marriages. In the marriage register Revd Troy annotated ‘A frightful famine and fever year, alas! no marriages’. Alexander Hallowell, the Protestant curate of Bantry, could see only one couple in Bantry on Shrove Tuesday. Many women young and old came to him looking for work on the roads.

The number of baptisms in the study area may be taken as roughly equivalent to live births. Why were there so many averted births? Many babies and their parents were dead. There were some abortions too. Dr Donovan observed that starvation provoked abortion and asthenic sterility, that is caused by debility. In February 1847 the North Infirmary in Cork opened its door to hundreds of fever patients. Dr Popham, its medical director, reported that ‘in females who are pregnant, abortion commonly took place’.

The sharp decline in the number of baptisms in 1847 is of course significant but what must also be noticed is the time of the year in which most of this decrease happened. It was not so much in the spring as in the autumn and winter. For example in Caheragh parish in March 1846 there were thirty-eight baptisms and in March 1847 only twenty-six. In December 1846 there were twenty-four births but in December 1847 only three. The figures for Drimoleague are similar. This drastic decline in the number of baptisms in the autumn and winter was even more pronounced in Aughadown. In the August-October period of 1846 there had been sixty-one baptisms but in the same period of 1847 only two. In March and April 1847 there were twenty-eight baptisms but in August only one single baptism; in September there was just another one but in October none at all. The Revd Troy again gave the reason in an annotation: ‘A dreadful year of Famine, all dying of starvation, no baptisms’. It was a sign of the times that there should have been no baptism in a Catholic parish for a month and in a Protestant parish for two years.

The children that would have been born in the autumn and winter of 1847-8 would have been conceived in the winter and spring of 1846-7, but either such conceptions did not take place, or at least not nearly as frequently as hitherto. Dr Donovan noted that there was a sharp decline in fertility due to debility. Women's menstrual cycles may have often been interrupted as may happen when females suffer from starvation or trauma. People must also have simply either abstained from procreation amid scenes of death or they may have been considering emigration. For these reasons then, both voluntary and involuntary, there was a severe decline in fertility and in births in 1847. Our findings are in line with the conclusion of Boyle and O’Grada namely that there was a fall of 25 per cent in the fertility rate during the famine and that this translated into 315,000 averted births for the whole country.

The plight of children is clearly shown by poor attendance at school. Dr Sweetnam reported in February how the national schoolmaster in Schull had told him ‘that this time twelve month, he had one hundred and forty school children; this day he has not one. Half, he said are dead and the remainder are unable to attend for want of food and raiment, and he himself is obliged to get some situation on the roads’.` In March 1846 there were 123 pupils on the roll in Schull school (male) but only 14 in March 1847. in the female school there was a dramatic decrease from eighty to eleven. Oout of ninety-one on the roll in Crookhaven only eight were left. in Caheragh parish the total number on the roll fell from 441 to 85 and in Drinagh from 330 to 125. Some children had been sent to work on the roads.

Boyle and O’Grada give figures for mortality among children in Ireland as a whole from 1846 to 1851. They estimate that 472,000 children under 10 years died or 24 per cent of total mortality: children amounted to only 13 per cent of the total population. In the six parishes the number of deaths given for children is for a wider age bracket, that is under 15. Their number, 3,136 (42 per cent) out of a total of 7,332 persons dead, is extremely high compared to the rest of the country. The census commissioners of 1851 found that famine mortality was usually higher among men than women and that many children died, a fact confirmed at the local level .17 To sum up in round numbers for the six parishes: the ratio of deaths between men, women and children was as 3:2:4. Out of every nine persons who died, three were men, two were women and four were children.

(ii) Who died and how?

Having attempted to find out how many died in the famine the next question to ask is ‘Who died?’ The increasing poverty of the masses of the people rendered them very vulnerable to disease. The census commissioners of 1851 wrote that fever was ‘lurking in hovels and corners .... but ever ready like an evil spirit to break out at the slightest provocation. And phytophthora infestans was no slight provocation.

At a hearing of the Poor Inquiry held in Ballydehob in 1833 nobody noted anybody dying of ‘actual starvation’ but Revd Barry had often seen cases where 'the ordinary necessaries of life would have prolonged the existence of people. When a labourer got sick he went to his neighbours for assistance, or sometimes the farmers would send food to the sick-house. But one farmer admitted that hundreds would die before the farmers could send them anything because they were ‘too much taxed and strained and troubled themselves’. Several labourers cried out in unison: ‘that is the truth you are telling!’ – more truth than they realised.

Those who presented Marshall's return had good reason to know of the nexus between poverty and mortality. They gave the Poor Law Valuation for each parish. Property or lack of it was a vital or mortal factor. The Poor Law Unions, the parishes of Goleen and Schull/ Ballydehob are in the worst category in the country while Caheragh, Drimoleague, Drinagh and Kilcoe are in the second poorest.

The highest rate of mortality (18.8 per cent) and the least amount of property per person were to be found in the most westerly or remotest district, namely Goleen. This was the last place too in which the Soup-kitchen Act came into operation, 24 May 1847 instead of 10 May as in the others. It would however be an oversimplification to conclude that the further west the more intense was the impact of the famine. Schull and Ballydehob show very high mortality rates and a very low valuation. Kilcoe had the lowest mortality rate (9.8 per cent) and a high valuation (1 Os. 3d). Drimoleague and Caheragh show a high mortality rate and low valuations. One is almost ready to conclude that

Table 22.6

Mortality and property/poverty

Parish Mortality P.L.V. (per person)

percent S. d

Goleen 18.8 1110

Schull 17.7 12.07

Ballydehob 18.0 14.07

Kilcoe 9.8 100.07

Caheragh 15.8 19.02

Drimoleague 15.7 18 05

Drinagh 18.4 1 0400

Source: Census.

mortality varied neatly in inverse proportion to valuation: the lower the valuation the higher the mortality. But the famine was seldom straightforward. Drinagh recorded a very acute mortality rate (18.4 per cent), practically as severe as the worst, Goleen, but this was combined with a valuation, 1 4s.Od., which was the highest of all. In addition, Drinagh is located at the eastern end of the whole area so the severest mortality rates were to be found in the most easterly and the most westerly parts. But both were at the Poor Law Union extremities of the union and remote from centres where food was available. The high valuation of Drinagh is explained by Lewis who wrote that ‘great improvements have been made recently in agriculture by the opening of new lines of roads’ while he reported agriculture in Drimoleague was ‘in a very backward state’. Yet such improvements need not have greatly bettered the lot of the labourers which was invariably severely deprived.

The reasons for a high mortality rate come as no surprise in Drinagh. They had already been noted by Mr Robinson of the Drimoleague Relief Committee. Drinagh was remote, had no resident rector or gentry, no soup-kitchen had been set up there by February 1847 and it had a high proportion of labourers who were particularly poor. Now in time of crisis nearly all the large farmers dismissed them, which of course happened all over the country. Nor were the farmers well off either, the poor rate levied there in May 1847 was 10 pence in the pound while in Schull and Goleen it was a shilling and in Caheragh , Drimoleague and Kilcoe Is.3d. Drinagh may not have paid even that much. In the part of this parish which was in the Dunmanway Union only 4 10s.0d. had been collected by the end of 1847 and arrears amounted to 293. 102 So ultimately the case of Drinagh clearly serves to reinforce the definite correlation between poverty and mortality. This corroborates the statement of the Skibbereen Soup Committee that the famine was causing ‘a mortality proportioned to the destitution’.

In addition to the number of deaths, Marshall's return categorised the causes of death under the headings of ‘fever’, ‘dysentery’ and ‘destitution and other causes’. As regards what exactly ‘destitution and other causes’ means, the census commissioners of 1851 asserted that they are ‘synonyms’, that is ‘want, destitution, cold and exposure, neglect ... In Irish it is gorta, starvation’ The following table gives the causes of death in the study area:

Table 22.7

Post-mortems (1846-47)

Cause Number Percentage

Fever 3,191 44

Dysentery 1,626 22

Starvation 2,515 34

Total 7,332

Source: Marshall's return.

The results of these Postmortems were no doubt the opinions of lay persons rather than professionals, but one must allow that such lay persons had their own experience of fever. Dr Donovan held that the effect of food in curing fever was ‘clearly proven’ by this table ‘drawn up by a most intelligent and zealous public officer, Mr Marshall’. The doctor further observed:

This document shows the dreadful waste of life that occurred in this neighbourhood in the early part of 1847, exhibits the sudden falling off in mortality, even from fever, that took place on the introduction of the temporary relief act that came into operation on 10 May, and establishes the fact, that food is the best cure for Irish fever; and there is no doubt but that employment would be the best preventative.

At that time, of course, the existence of microscopic organisms, rickettsia causing typhus and spirochaetes causing relapsing fever, plus the role of the louse in their transmission, had not yet been discovered. Some of Ireland's leading physicians such as Dominic Corrigan held that famine and fever were simply cause and affect. Dr Donovan was of the same opinion and estimated that a million people died in 1847 ‘from fever, dysentery and starvation’. He granted that at all times a large number of the poor and labouring classes fell victim to malnutrition but that until the previous year few had seen human beings die from ‘absolute want of food’ He observed that the majority of those who had perished of starvation were able to provide some food which preserved life for a while, but exposure to cold or some accident ‘extinguished the faint spark’. Then diarrhoea or asphyxia often preceded the fatal attack so that many attributed the resulting death to disease, whereas in reality it was the result of hunger.

Dr Donovan pointed out that starvation ‘induces dysentery’, and now caused ‘immense mortality’. From September to October 1847 dysentery prevailed but only to a trifling degree although the poor were subsisting on diseased potatoes. But as soon as that crop was all eaten and Indian meal became the almost exclusive food of these poor people ‘dysentery broke out generally and raged to a frightful extent until the spring of 1847, when the virulence of the disease began to decline in proportion as the supply of milk increased’. Farmers had turnips and vegetables which lasted up to December, but from then onwards they were also obliged to cat maize and fell victims to dysentery. This doctor remarked that diarrhoea was aggravated by the ‘soups (or rather slops) with which the poor were drenched’.

Dr Donovan mentions that scurvy due to lack of vitamin C resulted from exclusively eating meal. Dr M. Crawford concluded that this deficiency combined with exertion caused scurvy and sudden death due to cardiac failure among road-workers: the death of McKennedy of Caheragh fits into this scenario. ‘Dysentery was far more prevalent than fever’ around Schull and Ballydehob, Dr Lamprey reported. This was because people resorted to seaweed and shellfish but more particularly to Indian meal which they could not cook properly and often had to eat raw for want of firing.

Donovan also described cases of typhus where the skin had ‘a dusky hue’, in Irish fiabbras dubb or ‘black fever’. Others contracted jaundice or fiabbras bui, ‘relapsing fever’. As a rule typhus was the more fatal. Lamprey was surprised to notice that among ‘the several thousands that suffered from starvation ... how comparatively rare’ were cases of typhus or relapsing fever. These were more inclined to strike better-off persons; he mentioned in this context his patient Dr Traill. Lamprey considered that, regardless of the kind of famine fever that struck, medical treatment was not usually of great significance; the result depended on whether ‘the individual could obtain sustenance or not’. Both doctors, Lamprey and Donovan, agreed that the principal causes of death were starvation and dysentery. Children were inclined to fall victims to dysentery. For example in the workhouse in Kilrush, county Clare, in 1850-1, 60 per cent of the children who died suffered from dysentery and diarrhoea or died of these combined with other illnesses; only 2.4 per cent died of fever. Donovan concluded his ‘Observations’ by stating that in relation to dysentery a physician was forced to ‘admit that his art can by itself do little in a disease that owes its origin to squalor, misery and starvation’.

It has already been demonstrated that of those who perished in the study area 43.5 per cent died of fever, 22.2 per cent of dysentery and 34.3 per cent of starvation. If fever and dysentery are put together to designate famine fever it would mean that 65.7 per cent died of famine fever and 34.3 per cent of starvation. The commissioners admitted that their mortality figures were only the officially recorded ones and they are far too low. For starvation in 1847 they give only a total 6,058 people. If the figure for dropsy or hunger oedema, 5,246, is added this totals 11,304. They reported that 57,095 died of fever, 25,757 of dysentery and 10,717 of diarrhoea. As the latter two were often confused it is perhaps as well to combine them and call both dysentery, so the total figure is 36,474. In 1847, 11,304 died of starvation, 57,095 of fever and 36,474 of dysentery, making a total of 104,873 in the whole country. Although these figures are far too low in absolute terms the ratios may well have a certain validity : 10.7 per cent died of starvation, 54.4 per cent of fever and 34.8 per cent of dysentery.

The main difference between Ireland in general and the study area specifically lies in the figures of starvation, 10.7 per cent for the country as against 34.3 per cent for the parishes. Since deaths from starvation were less likely to take place in institutions the commissioners' figures must be too low. The west-Cork data may be more representative of the country in general. To sum up for the six west Cork parishes: in round figures the ratio of the number of deaths from starvation, fever and dysentery is as 3:4:2. Out of every nine persons who perished, three died of starvation, four of fever and two of dysentery. If fever and dysentery together designate famine fever then six died of famine fever and three of starvation.

(iii) Emigration

Professor Kerby Miller estimates that between 1815 and 1844 nearly a million people left Ireland for America. Such substantial emigration is reflected in west Cork. Dr Traill reported to the Poor Inquiry that 90 persons departed from his parish in 1831 and 40 in 1832; they were mainly Protestants in comfortable circumstances. The Revd Barry described the emigrants as ‘tradesmen, hardy labourers and farmers with 20 to 60 capital. Others were evicted tenants or young married couples’. They went ‘almost universally to Canada’. Richard Notter of Goleen claimed that most of the people ‘who could afford to emigrate would do so’ Among those who left from Schull parish in 1832 were Dennis Harrigan, his wife Catherine Driscoll, and nine of their ten children. They arrived in New Brunswick, Canada, no doubt in the hold of a ship from Crookhaven or Bantry engaged in the timber trade. This Harrigan family was a link in 'chain emigration' involving many relatives. The Harrigans became lumbermen and farmers or sodbusters or worked on the highways. A grandson wrote ‘Grandpa Harrigan was poor but far from illiterate’.

The timber trade with Canada became very important when the Scandinavian routes were blockaded during the Napoleonic wars. Arthur Lower maintains that until about 1835 conditions for passengers on the lumber ships were ‘abominable’ and ‘probably worse than in the slave trade’. Deaths from fever and dysentery were commonplace. In 1834 alone thirty-four of these ships, carrying 731 emigrants, sank. But fares were very cheap, as little as thirty shillings from Ireland in 1835. In 1844 Revd Barry informed the Devon Commission that if locations were provided for people in the colonies or if they could pay the fare they would emigrate. There were ‘very many people’ who had sold their interest in the land and gone to America. They wrote letters to their friends who brought them to him to read. Accounts were ‘very flattering’; they told of ‘no tyranny, no oppression from landlords and no taxes’. At Ballydehob a ship or two had been freighted each of the previous five years and if they had been larger they would have been filled.

Such a volume of emigration was new — some straws which showed which way the wind was blowing. Daniel Corkery wrote of the people of west Cork and of the west of the country in the following way:

... the natives being home-keeping to a fault: They seem not only tied to the country, but almost the parish in which their ancestors lived, Arthur Young wrote of the Catholics who had not yet learned to emigrate. Among themselves they had a proverb: ‘Is maith an t-ancoire an t-iarta’ (The hearth is a good anchor).

Emigrant letters however like those mentioned by Barry and no doubt remittances were now pulling this anchor and the ‘push’ was now to come from the fear of famine as the potato rotted.

In 1845, 901 persons emigrated from Baltimore and 2,122 in 1846. In October of the same year the merchant Swanton announced that he had a boat going empty to Newport in Wales for corn and that he would give 100 free passages. Donovan soon had 80 applicants. They had no food or clothes for the voyage but the doctor got two shillings for each from the relief committee for ‘sea stock’. The peculiar welcome the emigrants received at Newport comes as no surprise: they were accused of ‘bringing pestilence on their backs, famine in their stomachs’. The colonial officer complained to Trevelyan who asked Routh to investigate the matter. The latter was informed that Donovan and Swanton were applying funds intended for the relief of the poor ‘to shipping the wretched and naked creatures to England and Wales’ and that the mayor of Newport had detained a vessel belonging to Swanton on the charge of landing paupers.

Donovan held that overcrowding on ships was a ‘preeminently pestgenerating agent’. He related how he embarked about a hundred healthy persons on board a collier bound for Newport but it was detained by contrary winds. Fever broke out, some passengers died and many others became infected.` This doctor was later accused of ‘shovelling paupers’ into England. A woman and her son were brought before a London magistrate for begging. She said that she had come from Skibbereen and that Donovan had paid their passage. The magistrate indicated a desire to punish that doctor. The woman and child were given some bread and dismissed.

Already in the spring of 1847 some people were preparing to emigrate — if they had the money ‘to pay for the steam’. The Revd Triphook told Mahoney, the artist, that anybody in Ballydehob who could command 5 was emigrating in dread of fever. Fares to Canada were lower than to the United States because any regulations for the safety of passengers were often not enforced. Passages to Canada cost officially from 2 10s. Od. to 3 O s.Od. but the United States from 3.10s.Od. to 5. Os.Od. But passengers could sometimes strike bargains. Ships Canada-bound, however, were more inclined to be overcrowded, fever-filled and even unseaworthy; in short, they were coffin-ships. Yet for many it was a stark choice between the coffin-ship or the hinged-coffin. William Justin Dealy of Bantry owned a ship, the Dealy Brig which had made at least thirteen trips to America, two per year, bringing passengers out and timber back. The following advertisement for it appeared in the Cork Constitution of 9 February:

The 'Dealy' of Bantry, 400 tons, is now fitted out in a very comfortable manner for the reception of passengers and, wind and weather permitting, she will sail from Bantry for St John's, New Brunswick, about 25 March.

Cornelius Harrington of Castletownbere publicised in the same newspaper of 8 March:

To sail direct from Berehaven, Bantry Bay, convenient to Skibbereen, Ballydehob, Dunmanway, for St John's, New Brunswick, convenient to Boston, on or about 1 April next, the well known fast sailing clipper barque, Governor Douglas, 1,000 tons burthen; the splendid clipper ship, 'Ocean' 400 tons. The above ships will be fitted up in a superior manner for the accommodation of passengers.

N.B. Passengers by these ships will be supplied with one pound of biscuit, daily during the voyage according to the Act of Parliament.

Interestingly, St John's is described as ‘convenient to Boston’. Up to now about a third of the Irish emigrants crossed into the United States, getting in by the ‘back door’. This was becoming all the more necessary because Congress wanted to know nothing of Irish Catholic paupers and was already passing even stricter passenger acts.

We shall now follow these good ships Dealy, Governor Douglas and Ocean to see how they fared. An emigrant agent reported that they were in quarantine in Partridge Island in the Port of St John's, New Brunswick on 31 May. The passenger list of the Dealy numbered 169 of whom twenty-two had died at sea, forty were sick on landing and three had since died ‘like fish out of the water’. The number of passage days is not given. The Dealy was something of a coffin-ship. The Governor Douglas carried 261 passengers in thirty-two passage days which was normal and the Ocean had eighty-nine on board for thirty-one days. Nobody from either ship had died at sea or since landing. The Ocean was among the ships whose passengers were satisfied with food and water and general conditions aboard although she had only temporary decks of uncaulked planks. The medical officer for the quarantine station in Partridge Island reported early in June how she had been discharged. The Governor Douglas and the Dealy Brig however were still detained:

These cases have been severe, the fever having returned, and the greater number of the passengers have suffered from the disease after landing the sick; many of the others on board in a day or two would be attacked, and it was impossible to land all the passengers from the fever vessels for purification for want of accommodation, as the tents would only contain the sick.

There were 450 sick on the island at the time. Nevertheless, the medical officer stated that our ships were undergoing purification and would shortly be released.

As the summer approached more and more emigrants rushed towards the ports, indicating almost panic emigration:

Their only anxiety seemed to be to leave Ireland. ... the United States, or the British Colonies — they cared not which ... a convenient ship was their only object — hence ships calling at Baltimore, Crookhaven and Bantry took off large numbers who had not the means of proceeding to Cork.

Although it was a precipitative emigration it was not by any means all pauper emigration. The Revd FitzPatrick of Skibbereen noted that a good many ‘substantial farmers’ were leaving.` Thomas Swanton of Cranliath complained that ‘some of the best tenants were going off with three years' rent’. Thomas Gibbons also reported that tenants were using the rent as passage money, leaving ‘the dregs’ behind. Others would make a deal with the landlord knowing that it would cost him money to evict them legally: ‘I go out quietly if you give me 2' There must have been many labourers among these emigrants too as Dr David FitzPatrick has shown for the rest of Ireland. This emigration may have been similar to that of the 1830s which Barry described as being composed of tradesmen, hardy labourers and farmers with capital rather than ‘the dregs’.

The emigrants from the six west-Cork parishes who left from Cork are among the thousands whose surnames are on the ship lists of passengers. One vessel leaving Baltimore was the Malvina. On board were 183 passengers and she arrived in St John's on 9 May, only one man dying aboard. 131 The Leviathan also left Baltimore and arrived, only two persons having died at sea .The Margaret Hughes of Sherkin Island no doubt took islanders and others to Liverpool. On 7 May she sailed back to Sherkin and then westward to St John's with a complement of emigrants. By August the Dealy Brig had returned from New Brunswick with cargo and would soon sail again for St John's.

Grosse Isle below Quebec quickly became notorious. The Sir Henry Pottinger left Cork with 399 passengers; on arrival at that island 112 were sick and ninety-eight had died. In September the names were published of 300 persons who had left Cork and died there between 8 May and 3 July. On ships bound for Canada from Liverpool and Sligo one passenger in fourteen died at sea but on ships from Cork it was one in nine. Although mortality was not quite so horrific at St John's in New Brunswick it was still high. The official figures for 1847 are as follows: of the 17,074 who landed or hoped to land in New Brunswick, 823 died at sea, 697 died in quarantine and 595 in hospital.

Mortality was 12.4 per cent. Others must have died but there is no record. Mortality could have been almost as high as in the study area. Many others were inevitably left behind. The parents of Thomas Sullivan from Schull may have died on Grosse Isle. He was placed in a Quebec Catholic orphanage in November 1847. Such children were usually adopted but he ‘went into service’.

We can trace two of the emigrants who went to Canada at this time. Henry Field and his wife, Mary Driscoll, and their five or six children left Dunbeacon between Ballydehob and Bantry. They landed probably at Quebec around the time of the famine. By 1850 their names appear in church and civil records. They are clearing ‘stony farm-wood lots’ high in the Gatineau Valley, thirty-five miles north-east of Ottawa. Their settlement, now a village, was called Fieldville.

Many emigrants departed from Cobh to America, for example the mother, brother and sister of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa from the neighbouring parish of Rosscarbery in 1848. His father had died as a result of working on a famine road. His mother and family were evicted. A brother who had already emigrated to Philadelphia sent the passage tickets — a classic example of the operation of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ forces. Rossa was left alone in Ireland, he recalled:

‘At Reenascreena cross we parted ... Five or six other families were going away ... The cry of the weeping and the wailing of that day rings in my ears still. That time it was a cry heard every day at every cross-road in Ireland.`

The last part of Ireland most of them would ever see again was the Fastnet Rock which came to be called deor Eireann, ‘'Ireland's tear’..

Marshall's return provides not only figures for emigration from each parish for the period 1 September 1846 to 12 September 1847 but also the destination, either England or America, and are tabulated as follows:

Table 22.8


Parish North England Total Percentage


Goleen 22 45 67 0.9

Schull 225 155 380 4.4

Ballydehob 105 96 201 2.3

Kilcoe 78 17 95 4.1

Caheragh 38 85 123 1,5

Drimoleague 54 12 66 1.2

Drinagh 13 52 65 2.6

Total 535 462 997

In all 535 persons left the six parishes for America and 462 for England, the total being 997. As in the case of mortality there is a difference between the peninsular parishes, namely Goleen, Kilcoe and Schull, and the inland ones, Caheragh, Drimoleague and Drinagh. In the peninsular parishes the majority of emigrants went to America, 430 and 313 to England. In the inland parishes, however, more went to England, 149 as compared to 105. There are two exceptions: in Goleen twenty-two went to America and fifty-four to England while in Drimoleague fifty-four went to America and twelve to England. Many of those who went to England must have travelled via Cork and must be among the people from the western districts who, according to Dr Popham, brought fever with them to the cheap lodging-houses from where it spread everywhere.`

(iv) Relation between mortality and emigration

As Miller and Donnelly found, the relationship between mortality and emigration is usually inverse, that is the higher the mortality the lower the emigration and vice versa. Donnelly states that this pattern is perhaps clearest in Galway, Clare and west Cork where excess deaths were high and emigration relatively low. The study area conforms to this pattern.

The average mortality rate of 16.3 per cent was high compared to the rest of the county and country. The average emigration rate of 2.4 per cent was correspondingly low. Cousens estimated that emigration for county Cork in 1847 was from 10 per cent to 12 per cent and in north Connaught, south Ulster and Leinster around 20 per cent. 141 Within our area alone there were local variations at parish level and they were most pronounced in the cases of Kilcoe and Goleen. Kilcoe has by far the lowest mortality rate and highest emigration rate while Goleen recorded the highest mortality rate and the lowest emigration rate. Schull and Ballydehob show a similar mortality rate, and an average

Table 22.9

Mortality and emigration

Parish Mortality % Emigration %

Goleen 18.8 0.9

Schull 17.7 4.4

Ballydehob 18.0 2.3

Kilcoe 9.8 4.1

Caheragh 15.8 1.5

Drimoleague 15.7 1.2

Drinagh 18.4 2.6

Average 16.3 2.4

low mortality rate for the parish. Caheragh and Drimoleague indicated the same high mortality rate and also coincided in their low emigration rate. Drinagh's mortality rate was practically as high as that of Goleen, 18.4 per cent compared to 18.8 per cent, yet Drinagh's emigration rate is not nearly as low as Goleen's, 2.6 per cent as compared to 0.9 per cent. No doubt Drinagh was not quite as remote from Cork city but Goleen had a port of its own at Crookhaven and Bantry too was nearby. The differences rested not so much in remoteness but more in the incidence of small holdings. Drinagh had 1 4s. Od. to support each human being whereas Goleen had only 0 1 Is.9d.

A clear correlation between mortality, emigration, and also between poverty and geographical location or remoteness is evident. Kilcoe parish recorded of the lowest mortality rate, the highest emigration rate, the second highest Poor Law Valuation and the least remote location (being towards the centre of the Union). Similarly, the highest mortality rate, the lowest emigration rate, the lowest Poor Law Valuation and the remotest location were all characteristics of Goleen parish.

Marshall's figures for the famine of 1846-47 in the six parishes are solid and revealing: out of a population of 43,266 persons 7,355 died and 997 emigrated. in round figures for every forty-three persons seven died and only one emigrated. For many of the destitute it was, as the Revd Webb remarked, simply a matter of ‘an awful mode of emigration — emigration to the next world, without even the expense of a coffin’.

It has already been demonstrated how, by September 1847, famine mortality had decreased to a minimum. There were fears that it would rise again as winter approached, but such fears were mercifully not realised. Marshall was introducing the Poor-Law Extension Act with the same efficiency with which he had put the Soup-Kitchen Act into operation in the Skibbereen Union. By December upwards of 7,000 persons were on the out-door relief lists and there was room in the workhouse for 200 more. Forty tickets to the poor-house were offered to people on the outdoor relief lists; refusing them meant that they were removed from the lists. Such was 'the workhouse test'. The poor rates were being payed reasonably well. More that 15,000 children in 100 schools were being fed by the British Relief Association under the direction of Count Strezlecki. However, Marshall reported that fever and dysentery prevailed in some parts of the union and that the hospitals were full. Yet in January 1848 he noted 'very few deaths' occurred. In Ballydehob and Kilcoe only four persons who were on outdoor relief had died during the previous three months. Any deaths that were now taking place were mainly in the fever hospitals. These had been opened in May 1847 and were all closed by June 1848, except the one at Schull which remained open until 1850. The total number of deaths in these hospitals was 413 as already given, but those which had occurred between May and September 1847 were undoubtedly already counted in Marshall's return.

In parts of the west of Ireland the famine conditions of 1847 deteriorated. Ignatius Murphy in referring to west Clare noted: 'What happened in the next three to four years made 1845-7 look like the good times of the past'. Mercifully this was not to be the case in the Skibbereen Union or in west Cork. But it does seem that, as Captain Caffin confirmed, the famine was more severe in west Cork in 1847 than in the west of Ireland. One of the few deaths which Marshall had to report was that of Dr Brady of the Caheragh fever hospital. He had replaced Dr McCormick of Goleen who was on duty in the Kilcoe fever hospital; the latter became ill with fever but recovered. Brady was one of the 36 casualties among the 473 medical men appointed to special fever duty by the Board of Health — an unlucky one in thirteen. In all, 123 doctors died of fever in 1847.

Forty Church of Ireland clergymen experienced fever-related deaths in 1847. In 1850 R. B. Townsend, rector of Abbeystrewary or Skibbereen, died of fever caught in the workhouse, ‘a magnet for misery', where 3,909 died between 1842 and 1851. In the Schull workhouse 165 died during 1850-51 making a total of 4,074 for the two workhouses. The Catholic directory lists the names of thirty-five priests who also died of fever in 1847 but it is by no means complete. Twenty-six priests fell victims in England including ten in Liverpool alone.` At least eleven priests died in the dioceses of Cork and Ross during the famine period; the list includes D. McSwiney, Bandon; P. Walsh, Sherkin Island; M. Ross, Castlehaven. Laurence O'Sullivan of Goleen went down with fever in 1847 but survived. Professor Trench also survived an attack.` Workhouse staff and government inspectors died at their posts. Early in 1849 Marshall himself joined the famine victims he had so well enumerated. Fever or cholera claimed him as well as fifteen other inspectors including Captain Lang of Bantry


As regards responsibility for the catastrophe, attitudes of those who lived through it have been diverse. The Revd Kelleher maintained that a 'great distinction' should be made between the 'crimes and cruelties' of the Irish landlords and English statesmen on the one hand and on the other 'those generous hearted Britons who have made sacrifices to stay the steps of famine'.' Some were offended by the anti-Irish feelings of The Times. Revd Webb, like Revd Kelleher, recognised English generosity and exclaimed: ‘Thank God, England is not The Times. But it ‘sickened’ the heart of O'Donovan Rossa to think of the starved and the murdered of Schull and Skibbereen’.

According to the principles of Malthus 'pestilence and plague' and gigantic and inevitable famine' are nature's most radical corrective to severe over population. Was Malthus right in the case of Ireland? Karl Marx lamented that the country was viewed as 'the promised land', as it exemplified the fulfilment of some Malthusian prognostications.` The six parishes would indeed seem to be part of that 'promised land'. Yet Malthus was only partly correct. There were indeed plague and famine but these were not inevitable. No doubt a certain amount of mortality would have been difficult to avoid; in our own time we are not always able to prevent deaths when ecological disasters strike poor, stressed and densely-populated regions. Yet the magnitude and duration of the Irish famine mortality is another matter. Many maintained that Westminster could have done more. Those who expressed such views would not have been extreme Repealers either, for instance Hugh Parker from Yorkshire, a major in the British Army, and William Thomas from Cornwall, a mining captain. The latter was scandalised to think that 'in a Christian country, in a time of profound peace' people should be left to live or die ‘on political economy’.

Apart altogether from England could not the east of Ireland have done more to help the west? Why were there not a few others like the Trenches? Many landlords, large farmers and the rich in general could have given greater succour to the poor. McCarthy Downing, the solicitor, said that the farmers ‘dealt more hardy' with the labourers than the landlords did with themselves’. As A.M. Sullivan witnessed: ‘sauve qui peut had resounded throughout the country .... human nature had become contracted in it sympathies’. The annals record a famine in the summer of 1433 which was called 'a greedy summer', sambradh na mearaithne, ‘the summer of the slight acquaintances’ as nobody would recognise friend or relative. The great famine saw a succession of such summers.

The churches emerge with fair credit from this famine. The number of victims among their clergy testifies to their efforts. But it was only a small part of what Canon O'Rourke called 'the bright and copious fountains of living charity which gushed forth in spite of the indifference of some. No doubt the controversy about souperism was unedifying, the case of William A. Fisher, rector of Kilmoe or Goleen, was a classic example. Worse still, souperism — both myth and reality — distracted attention not only at the time but ever since from the heroic charity of men such as Traill, Townsend, Webb and the Trenches. There is much truth in Professor Louis Cullen's claim that 'The Famine was less a national disaster than a social and regional one'. In the study area this subsistence crisis was indeed a social disaster, gorta dubh. We have seen how those who presented Marshall's return declared that it was 'a criterion by which the public may judge the good results of that [Soup-Kitchen] act generally'. The return is, however, a two-edged sword. It can also be used as a criterion by which the public may judge the bad results of the other relief acts generally. The amount of the ensuing mortality has been made known for the six parishes at least, as Lord Bentinck foretold that it would be for the whole country. He was right too in warning the members of the House of Commons that it was on this mortality that the public and the world at large would 'be able to estimate at its proper worth' their management of the affairs of Ireland. Already he had a presentiment that one day there might be people whose estimate would provoke them to raise such a cry as 'Revenge for Skibbereen!'.

Extracted from: Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County (Chapter 22) edited by Patrick O'Flanagan and Cornelius G Buttimer, and published by Geography Publications, Dublin in 1993 

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