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The Irish Crisis, 1846-47 page 2


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A few sketches of the state of the population given by the agents of the Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, who exerted themselves nobly in relieving the distress, may help to give us a more vivid impression of the horrors of the famine. At Boyle they found numbers that had eaten nothing but cabbages or turnips for weeks. The children were in a condition of starvation, ravenous with hunger. At Carrick-on-Shannon a most painful and heart-rending scene presented itself: poor wretches in the last stage of famine, imploring to be received into the house; women that had six or seven children begging that even two or three of them might be taken in, as their husbands were earning but eight- pence a day. Famine was written in their faces. On bread being given to some of these poor creatures, many of them devoured it with ravenous voracity. But the mothers restrained themselves, and carried home portions to their children. The famine produced a peculiar effect on the appearance of the young. Their faces looked wan and haggard, seeming like old men and women, with an extraordinary sharpness of expression; they had lost all their natural sprightliness, making no attempt to play. In the crowded workhouses their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in rows on the floor, even as many as six persons being crowded under one rug - the living and the dying stretched side by side beneath the same miserable covering. The town of Westport was in itself a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities; its streets crowded with gaunt wanderers, sauntering to and fro with hopeless air and hunger-struck appearance; a mob of starved, almost naked women around the poor- house, clamouring for soup-tickets.

When the visitors entered a village their first question was, "How many deaths?" "The hunger is upon us," was everywhere the cry; and involuntarily they found themselves regarding this hunger as they would an epidemic, looking upon starvation as a disease. In fact, as they passed along, their wonder was, not that the people died, but that they lived; and Mr. W. G. Foster, in his report, said, "I have no doubt whatever that in any other country the mortality would have been far greater; and that many lives have been prolonged, perhaps saved, by the long apprenticeship to want in which the Irish peasant has been trained, and by that lovely, touching charity which prompts him to share his scanty meal with his starving neighbour. But the springs of this charity must be rapidly dried up. Like a scourge of locusts, the hunger daily sweeps over fresh districts, eating up all before it. One class after another is falling into the same abyss of ruin."

This is not the place to write the full history of the Irish famine, which might be made as thrilling as the work of Boccaccio or Defoe. The limited space that can be given to the subject permits only a brief review, and a few sketches of the ravages of the calamity, which are necessary to give some impressions of its dreadful reality. One of the most appalling of the narratives sent to the Central Committee of the Society of Friends, was Mr. William Bennet's account of his journey in Ireland. He left Dublin on the 12th of January, and proceeded by coach to Longford, and thence to Ballina, from which he penetrated into remote districts of the County Mayo. In the neighbourhood of Belmullet, he and his companion visited a district, which may servo as a representation of the condition of the labouring class generally in the mountainous and boggy districts, where they burrowed and multiplied, more like a race of inferior animals than human beings. " Many of the cabins," wrote Mr. Bennet, "were holes in the bog, covered with a layer of turf, and not distinguishable as human habitations from the surrounding moors, until close down upon them. The bare sod was about the best material of which any of them were constructed. Doorways, not doors, were provided at both sides of the latter, mostly back and front, to take advantage of the way of the wind. Windows and chimneys, I think, had no existence. A second apartment or partition of any kind was exceedingly rare. Furniture, properly so called I believe, may be stated at nil. I cannot speak with certainty, and wish not to speak with exaggeration, we were too much overcome to note specifically; but as far as memory serves, we saw neither bed. chair, nor table at all. A chest, a few iron or earthen vessels, a stool or two, the dirty rags and night coverings, formed about the sum total of the best furnished. Outside many were all but unapproachable from the mud and filth surrounding them; the scene inside is worse, if possible, from the added closeness, darkness, and smoke. We spent the whole morning in visiting those hovels indiscriminately, or swayed by the representations and entreaties of the dense retinue of wretched creatures, continually augmenting which gathered round and followed us from place to place, avoiding only such as were known to be badly infected with fever, which was sometimes sufficiently perceptible from without by the almost intolerable stench. And now language utterly fails me in attempting to depict the state of the wretched inmates. I would not willingly add another to the harrowing details that have been told; but still they are the facts of actual experience, for the knowledge of which we stand accountable. I have certainly sought out one of the most remote and destitute corners; but still it is within the bounds of our Christian land, under our Christian government, and entailing upon us, both as individuals and as members of a human community, a Christian responsibility from which no one of us can escape. My hand trembles while I write. The scenes of human misery and degradation we witnessed still haunt my imagination with the vividness and power of some horrid and tyrannous delusion, rather than the features of a sober reality. We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible from the smoke and rags that covered them, were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly; their little limbs, on removing a portion of the covering, perfectly emaciated eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation. Crouched over the turf embers was another form, wild and all but naked, scarcely human in appearance. It stirred not nor noticed us. On some straw, saddened upon the ground, moaning piteously, was a shrivelled old woman, imploring us to give her something, baring her limbs partly to show how the skin hung loose from her bones, as soon as she attracted our attention. Above her, on something like a ledge, was a young woman with sunken cheeks, a mother, I have no doubt, who scarcely raised her eyes in answer to our inquiries; but pressed her hand upon her forehead, with a look of unutterable anguish and despair. Many cases were widows, whose husbands had been recently taken off by the fever, and thus their only pittance obtained from the Public Works was entirely cut off. In many the husbands or sons were prostrate under that horrid disease - the result of long- continued famine and low living - in which first the limbs and then the body swell most frightfully, and finally burst. We entered upwards of fifty of these tenements. The scene was invariably the same, differing in little but the manner of the sufferers, or of the groups occupying the several corners within. The whole number was often not to be distinguished, until, the eye having adapted itself to the darkness, they were pointed out, or were heard, or some filthy bundle of rags and straw was seen to move. Perhaps the poor children presented the most piteous and heart-rending spectacle. Many were too weak to stand, their little limbs attenuated, except where the frightful swellings had taken the place of previous emaciation. Every infantile expression had entirely departed; and, in some, reason and intelligence had evidently flown. Many were remnants of families, crowded together in one cabin; orphaned little relatives taken in by the equally destitute, and even strangers - for these poor people are kind to each other, even to the end. In one cabin was a sister, just dying, lying beside her little brother, just dead. I have worse than this to relate; but it is useless to multiply details, and they are, in fact, unfit."

It was not only in the wild and dreary west, always the most neglected part of Ireland, without resident gentry, without a middle class, without manufacturers, and almost without towns, that the desolating effects of the famine were felt. In Ulster, even its best counties and most thriving manufacturing districts, where the people were intensely industrious, orderly, and thrifty, some of its worst horrors were endured. In the county of Armagh, where the very small farmers kept themselves in comfort by weaving linen in their own houses, they were obliged to work their looms by night as well aa by day, in order to keep hunger from their homes. They worked till, by exhaustion and want of sleep, they were compelled to lie down. Many of them were obliged to sell or pawn all their clothes. In many cases, and as a last resource, those stout-hearted Presbyterians had to sell their Bibles in order to purchase a meal of food for their children. A clergyman of the Church of England in that county wrote to the Committee of the Society of Friends that he had seen the living lying on straw by the side of the unburied dead, who had died three days before. Not only the aged and infirm, not only women and children, but strong men, he had known to pine away till they died of actual starvation. Strong, healthy girls became so emaciated, that they could not stand nor move a limb. He visited houses, once comfortable homes, in which not an article of furniture remained. The poor-house of Surgan was shut. Seventy-five persons died there in one day. In the Armagh poor- house forty-five died weekly. The poor-houses became pest-houses, which sent forth the miasma of death into every parish, already full of dysentery and fever. The congregations in the various churches were reduced to almost nothing. Deaths occurred so rapidly that the Roman Catholic priest ceased to attend funerals in his graveyard. The most deplorable accounts came from Cork, and especially from Skibbereen, a remote district of that county. In December, 1846, Father Mathew wrote to Mr. Trevelyan, then Secretary of the Treasury, that men, women, and children were gradually wasting away. They filled their stomachs with cabbage-leaves, turnip-tops, &c., to appease the cravings of hunger. There were then more than 5,000 half-starved wretches from the country begging in the streets of Cork. When utterly exhausted, they crawled to the workhouse to die. The average of deaths in that union were then over 100 a week. At Crookhaven the daily average of deaths was from ten to twelve; and as early as the first Sunday in September a collection was made to purchase a public bier, on which to take the coffinless dead to the grave, the means to procure coffins being utterly exhausted in that locality. Earlier still in Skibbereen numerous cases had occurred of the dead being kept for several days over ground for want of coffins. In some cases they were buried in the rags in which they died. Throughout the entire west of the county of Cork it was a common occurrence to see from ten to a dozen funerals in the course of the day during the close of 1846.

Mr. J. F. Maguire, who writes as an eye-witness of the scenes he describes, referring to the spring of 1847, says: - " The famine now raged in every part of the afflicted country, and starving multitudes crowded the thoroughfares of the cities and large towns. Death was everywhere - in the cabin, on the highway, in the garret, in the cellar, and even on the flags or side-paths of the most public streets of the city. In the workhouses, to which the pressure of absolute starvation alone drove the destitute, the carnage was frightful. It was now increasing at prodigious pace. The number of deaths at the Cork workhouse in the last week of January, 1847, was 104. It increased to 128 in the first week in February, and in the second week of that month it reached 164; 396 in three weeks. During the month of April as many as thirty-six bodies were interred in one day in that portion of Father Mathew's cemetery reserved for the free burial of the poor; and this mortality was entirely independent of the mortality in the workhouse. During the same month there were 300 coffins sold in a single street in the course of a fortnight, and these were chiefly required for the supply of a single parish. From the 27th of December, in 1846, to the middle of April, in 1847, the number of human beings that died in the Cork workhouse was 2,130! And in the third week of the following month the free interments in the Mathew cemetery had risen to 277 - as many as sixty-seven having been buried in one day. The destruction of human life in other workhouses of Ireland kept pace with the appalling mortality in the Cork workhouse. According to official returns, it had reached in April the weekly average of twenty-five per 1,000 inmates; the actual number of deaths being 2,706 for the week ending the 3rd of April, and 2,613 in the following week. Yet the number of inmates in the Irish workhouses was but 104,455 on the 10th of April, the entire of the houses not having then been completed.

" More than 100 workhouse officers fell victims to the famine fever during this fatal year, which also decimated the ranks of the Catholic clergy of the country. Mr. Trevelyan gives names of thirty English and Scotch priests who sacrificed their lives to their zealous attendance on the immigrant Irish, who carried the pestilence with them in their flight to other portions of the United Kingdom. Pestilence likewise slew its victims in the fetid hold of the emigrant ship, and, following them across the ocean, immolated them in thousands in the lazar houses that fringed the shores of Canada and the United States. The principal business of the time was in meal, and coffins, and passenger ships. A fact may be mentioned which renders further description of the state of the country needless. The Cork Patent Saw Mills had been at full work from December, 1846, to May, 1847, with twenty pairs of saws, constantly going from morning till night, cutting planks for coffins, and planks and scantlings for fever sheds, and for the framework of berths for emigrant ships."

The honourable gentleman gives a few vivid sketches of individuals and groups that he saw in the grasp of the destroyer. For example: - A tall man, of once powerful frame, stood leaning against the door post of a small house in one of the lanes of the city of Cork. Every trace of expression save that of blank apathy had been banished from his face. His skin was the dark colour of the famine. Behind him, in the front room, lay stark and stiff, stretched on the bare floor, the dead bodies of two of his children - one a girl of thirteen, the other a boy of seven; and in the closet, on a heap of infected straw, raving and writhing in fever, lay the dying mother of the dead children, and wife of the dying father who was leaning against the door-post. Sixteen human beings sought an asylum in that dwelling, and in less than a week eleven were taken out dead. Similar scenes were enacted in many dwelling of that city; whole families perishing, and the dead remaining around the helpless living, till the number of victims was completed. At the Church of St. Anne, Shandon, under a kind of shed attached to a guard-house, lay huddled up in their filthy fetid rags about forty human creatures - men, women, children, and infants of the tenderest age - starving and fever-stricken, most of them in a dying state, some dead, and all gaunt, yellow, hideous from the combined effects of famine and disease. Under this open shed they had remained during the night, and until that hour - about ten in the morning - when the funeral procession was passing by, and their indescribable misery was beheld by the leading citizens of Cork, including the mayor, and several members of the Board of Guardians. The odour which proceeded from that huddled-up heap of human beings was of itself enough to generate a plague.

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