HOW THE NATION STARVED WHILE THE COUNTRY WAS FULL OF FOOD
Important paper by Limerick Redemptorist
HOW THE Irish nation starved at a time when the country was full of food was told in an important paper read by Rev. M. Minihan, CSSr., Limerick, to a recent meeting of the Old Limerick Society, Mr. Thomas F. O’Sullivan, B.E., chairman, presiding.
Father Minihan gave a very graphic account of the conditions prevailing during the famine period of 1845, 46 and 47, and painted a grim picture of the appalling sufferings of the people in those tragic years.
Although Limerick was not as badly hit by the famine as were some other parts of the country, the city and county went through severe tribulations and witnessed many heart-rending scenes. These were described by Father Minihan, who also dealt in an interesting and enlightening way with the local efforts made at the time to relieve the terrible distress.
Having given some striking details of the huge exports of food from Limerick at that period and of the enormous number of people emigrating week by week, Father Minihan examined the question of how responsibility sho when when will you be lazy birthday I has yeahuld be shared for what he called the murder of a nation, and said all the causes for what happened were reducible to one capital cause – the Union.
In some introductory remarks, Father Minihan mentioned that in 1822 the total value of Limerick’s exports was nearly half a million pounds. In 1833 it was over a million and, in that year about one third of Ireland’s total grain exports went through the port of Limerick. Trade went on increasing until 1848 when a total of 1,377 ships entered the port and 1,067 were cleared outwards.
Father Minihan’s paper then went on:
In September 1845 the blight struck the first blow. A portion of the potato crop was affected, perhaps a quarter, perhaps a half. That winter and the following spring there was a great deal of suffering, but no general famine. The Government with Sr. Robert Peel at its head established Relief Works, on which 150,000 were at one time employed. The Government also sent £100,000 worth of Indian corn meal to the more destitute areas along the West coast.
In the following spring, 1846, the people strained every effort to get in as much seed as possible. Already impoverished by the bad harvest of the previous year, they had to pawn or sell anything they had of value to buy seed and rent conacre. In July the harvest promise well; in the first week of August it rotted in the ground. The Famine had arrived; a good half of the Irish people were without food and without at prospect of getting any. The Government were warned by O’Connell, by other public men, by the Press of England and Ireland.
SOUP KITCHEN ACT
Lord John Russell, leader of the Whigs, was now in power and he showed none of the energy or foresight of his predecessor. A gigantic Relief Works was inaugurated but was very slow in getting under way. In November the number employed on these works was over 250,000; in the first week of January, 1847, 398,841, of whom Limerick County had 31,506, Limerick city, 390. By March 1947, it had reached the colossal total of 734,792. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged on all sides that the whole scheme was a failure, and that it was failing miserably to save the perishing thousands. As early as Christmas a new scheme was under consideration and was in operation in February. This was what became known as the Soup Kitchen Act, by which cooked food was distributed free of charge to the starving. The extent of the misery and the enormous problem which it posed for those in authority may be gauged from the fact that over 3,000,000 people were receiving free daily rations in July 1847.
Many theories were advanced to explain the potato disease, among them the one that it was due to a battle of the fairies, and many remedies were proposed, some of them fantastic enough. Among the more sober investigators there are few more deserving of mention than Garrett Hugh Fitzgerald, one time Mayor of Limerick.
In 1817 he retired from a captaincy in the British Army. He was owner of 200 acres of land in Courtbrack and Corcanree, and for twelve years supplied potatoes by contract to various institutions in the city.
STUDY OF THE BLIGHT
In 1838 he was Mayor of Limerick. Naturally, he took an interest in everything connected with the potato crop, and when the blight appeared he turned his attention to the study of it. He wrote letters to the chief Secretary in Dublin and to the “Limerick Chronicle,” advocating the use of bluestone and water, not, indeed, as a spray on the plant, but as a solution in which the seed should be steeped. It is a great pity that he did not pursue his experiments further and press his theories for he was on right lines, unlike the foremost scientists of the time, Kane, Lindley and Playfair. What he had already partially discovered was not confirmed and completed for forty years. Perhaps he had no confidence in himself since he was not a scientist and the scientists ignored what he had done.
Anyway, he not only did not get the benefit of his experiments, but also lost his Limerick property under the Encumbered Estates Act and was given the post of Assistant Emigration Officer at Tarbert at a salary of £100 a year. He retired in 1854 and according to T. P. O’Neill, to whom I am indebted for all the information I have about him, he does not figure again in Irish records.
DISTRESS WORSE IN OTHER DISTRICTS
Distress was not as bad in Limerick as in other cities, such as Cork and not even remotely as bad in some of the country districts and small towns, such as Clifden where an engineer buried 140 dead bodies which he found on the road he was repairing; or Bandon where 300 uncoffined bodies were thrown into one huge common grave; or the electoral division of Mitchelstown and Marshalstown, Co. Cork where one contractor alone supplied 2,400 coffins in five months, i.e., an average of sixteen a day although the total population of this area was only 14,000. There is no record of the death toll in Limerick approaching any of these.
Of course, it would be idle to assert that conditions were not bad in Limerick, or that they had not worsened. They had been bad before the famine; they could not but be worse now. One effect of the famine observed everywhere was that the country people, penniless, naked, famished, often consumed with fever or dysentery, crowded into the Towns. Limerick was no exception. These destitute country people added to the city’s already large poor population increased the problems of every relief organisation that existed.
PATHETIC LIMERICK SCENE
One of the most pathetic scenes witnessed in Limerick during the Famine was seen on St. Patrick’s Day, 1847. Opposite the new town Hall was stretched a dead child, a little girl of about ten years of age, upon a little straw, thus being “waked” in the open street, while upon the body lay a plate for the purpose of collecting pence to purchase a coffin, and the unfortunate father stood by, with famine depicted in his face in characters that told the spectators he should soon follow his child. At the desire of Mr. E. Costello, the body was removed to a shed at the rear of the Town Hall. A coffin was afterwards supplied by the Mayor. (Limerick Reporter, March 19, 1947)
Later in the same month there was a report of a death from starvation in the Ashbourne Road. At a meeting of the Poor Law Guardians about the same time it was stated that half of the population of Limerick was destitute.
The official system intended to cope with the problems of destitution was the Poor Law. This had come into existence in 1838 by Act of Parliament and in 1841 the Workhouse, now the City Home, was completed and began to receive those whom the law designated the Paupers of Limerick Union. The building was intended to house 1,600 and in the second quarter of 1842 the average weekly number maintained was 1,302. The people had recourse to it only when every other means of prolonging life had failed, for it was looked upon as the very last step in social degradation and was officially intended to be to be and administered as nothing else.
APPALLING DEATH TOLL FROM FAMINE FEVER
But compelled by the urgency of the awful hunger that was on them, the people flocked into this hated institution. In the winter of 1845-46 they came, but it was in the following two winters that the numbers and the misery reached their climax. In January, 1847, the average number of inmates was 2,600, though the building was erected for only 1,600. I have been unable to find out for certain whether there was an auxiliary workhouse in existence as early as this or not. Probably there was, though it is not mentioned in the contemporary records that I have had access to. It was not until the famine fever appeared among the crowded unfortunates, to send the death-toll soaring. In the week ending March 20th, there were 72 deaths and the weekly total rapidly increased until the week ending April 10th, when it reached its fearful peak, namely 108 deaths, that is over 15 each day on an average. Perhaps this number by itself does not shock the mind so much, but there was a circumstance about it that brings home the fearfulness of it. Of those 108 who died in the first week in April, 29 were boys under 15, and 20 girls under 15, while 12 were infants under two years. That will bring home the nature of the tragedy that was being enacted. After this week, the death toll gradually declined, the figure for the nine weeks following the first week in April being 61, 51, 41, 20, 20, 14, 10 and 9.
INADEQUATE ROOM FOR BURIALS
The poor of the workhouse presented one problem in life; they presented another in death. At a meeting of the Limerick Board of Guardians on April 14, 1947, a letter from the caretaker of St. Patrick’s Churchyard was read respecting which says the contemporary report, the Rev. Mr. Moore attended the Board in reference to the crowded state of that churchyard, where the paupers had been hitherto buried. “Ordered that his proposal to have the paupers buried from this forward without charge in Kilquane Churchyard be accepted or until we have power of taking ground for burials under the provisions of the Poor Law Act now before Parliament.”
A week later there was another meeting of the Board and the Master of the Workhouse reported “that the paupers could not be buried in Kilquane Churchyard through the interference of the parishioners and that St. Patrick’s Churchyard cannot any longer be made available.” On the 12th of May the Master reported that the dead for the past eight days were unburied (twenty had died that week) and that had had portion of the Workhouse ground, about twenty perches, consecrated as a burial ground, because none of the local burial grounds would allow paupers to be buried in them. He now sought sanction for what he had done, which he appears to have received.
We already referred to auxiliary workhouses.
At the meeting of the Board on December 22, 1847, “the clerk having produced a tender from Mr. John Abraham offering his premises (occupied until within the last few months as a temporary military barracks) at Boherbuoy, at the rate of £40 per annum, for a temporary workhouse (accommodation, say for about 160) ordered that the proposal be accepted for one year and that the Master forthwith take the necessary steps to remove the aged and infirm women to that building (to make room for the able-bodied).
At this meeting also the proposal to take Mr. Harvey’s premises on Meade’s Quay as a temporary workhouse was accepted. It would provide accommodation for about 600 and the rent would be £170 a year. This building also had lately been in use of the military and fitted up by them as a military barracks as much expense.
A third auxiliary workhouse was set up in an old corn store in Curry’s Lane, off Clare Street. This is mentioned by Archdeacon Begley in his history and also in the domestic chronicles of the Sisters of Mercy, but I do not know if it, too, was set up at this time or not. Archdeacon Begley speaks of a disastrous panic that occurred in it during the Famine years, though he doesn’t say precisely when. Somebody raised the alarm “fire”, and in the ensuing panic 27 people was killed and 30 seriously injured. All were women as this was a Female Auxiliary Workhouse.
On the 19th January 1847, the Limerick Reporter carried the following remarks: “We believe this journal was the first in Ireland to suggest the establishment of soup kitchens, as the most suitable and economical mode of relieving the present distress . . .
“It is true, calculations have been made by surveyors and engineers, and works have been passed at Presentment Sessions, but a humane Board of Works has not sanctioned perhaps half of these; while those they have sanctioned are carried on so sluggishly that thousands upon thousands still remain without employment. Besides, there are numbers that no system of public works, however efficient, can ever reach. But supposing every poor man in the community to be employed and in receipt of wages, what then?
Is he armed against want? By no means, for the price of food is now raised to such a famine mark that the wages of the labourer would scarcely provide more than sufficient bread for himself alone, to say nothing of his unfortunate family, which we could take at the average of five mouths. All that can be done, therefore, by the most liberal donations and subscriptions will fall far short of the urgent and dreadful necessities of the case.”
SOCIETY OF FRIENDS
But already, even before that article appeared the Society of Friends had set up a soup kitchen in the city. Before I go on to describe the operations of this particular kitchen, let me say something of the general activities of the Society of Friends during Ireland’s most terrible crisis. Let me say at once that no terms of praise which I could employ would do justice to the occasion. Perhaps the best I can do is quote the eloquent, though simple tribute of the Limerick Reporter: “The Friends are now true friends of the poor.”
They had a central committee in Dublin which, during the entire Famine period, distributed relief to the value of nearly £200,000. As early as the middle of January it was calculated that on an average every Quaker family in England, rich and poor, had contributed £5 for Irish relief. To assist the Central Committee there were Auxiliary Committees in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Clonmel. At the meeting of the Limerick Committee on August 23rd, 1847, there were present: William Alexander, William Woods, Samuel Alexander, Thomas Fitt, James Alexander, Thomas Grubbs(?), Isaac Unthank and James Harvey. At this meeting the first item on the agenda was the grant of food to the Aran Islands, and it was decided to send four to five tons of Indian corn meal and a half ton of rice. That grant is typical and their total grants were 560. They also provided eleven boilers for various places. Their entire relief was valued at £6,899 14s. 8d., which seems small when compared with the total for Munster, which was £76,833 3s., but this is only an indication that distress was not as bad in Limerick as in other parts of Munster.
FIRST SOUP KITCHEN IN LIMERICK
To return now to the first soup kitchen in Limerick: Thus runs the report: “the soup kitchen, established by the Friends of this city, has been in action for the past week. The soup has been distributed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. A quart of the best possible soup and a piece of bread (about 1/2d worth)
Make half small
Are given for one penny. Over 2,000 persons availed themselves of it during the days of sale. It is made with beef, cutlings and spices. The proportions are one pound of best beef to a gallon of water, which is allowed to simmer on a slow fire from night till morning. The Friends (true friends of the poor) subscribe £200 a month towards this noble object. The different other parishes are about to follow the excellent example. When these additional kitchens are in operation the parent soup kitchen intends to supply solid food alternatively with the soup that is to say, every day.
It may be of interest to mention where this kitchen was located. The newspaper report said in Barrington’s Hospital. This is not quite accurate. It was in the building as the Mont de Piete, which formerly stood on the piece of ground on the Baal’s Bridge side of the hospital. Built by Mathew Barrington in the 1830s as a kind of charitable pawn office, it failed in 1845 and its affairs were wound up in 1846. Part of the building was now lent to the Friends for their use as a soup kitchen. At a committee meeting of Barrington’s Hospital on the 9th April, 1847,.it was resolved to ask the Friends to pay a small rent, £5 per month, later reduced to £4, for the use of the premises. It was with the greatest regret that the Committee decided on this step. They were forced to it by the embarrassed state of their funds and, as they put it themselves “it would not be a justifiable thing to allow the funds of the hospital open for the poor, to be applied to pay ground rent for another charity, having ample funds of its own.”
Later in the year portion of the Mont de Piete was let to the Government for use as a police barracks at an annual rent of £26. This, too, was symptomatic of the times, “the disturbed state of the country” as it was called making the City Council ask for 25 more police.
THE MAIN RELIEF EFFORT
Although the Society of Friends was the first to set up a soup kitchen in Limerick, and although its benevolent influence prevented so much misery, it was not the main relief effort of the city. This was inaugurated in April 1847. Perhaps the best way to get an idea of its work is to go on to October 8th, 1847, when it concluded its labours, and the Chairman, the Very Rev. Dean of Limerick, read a report stating that the relief dispensed among the population of 55,000 people under the Society’s charge, had been in the form of rations of food, each ration consisting of six ozs. of best white bread and one quart of stirabout for six days of the week and 1lb of Indian corn meal on Sundays. The total number of rations for the twenty weeks and three days, from April 23rd, amounted to 100,434, the weekly average number of rations was 5,000 and the value of food received, £7,166 19s. 3d.
That is a summary of the operations of the main Relief Committee for Limerick. That it was businesslike in its workings is proved by the fact that it secured from Vigo, direct, two cargoes of Indian corn, thereby affecting a savings of £2,6--. The “William Harris” was discharging one cargo on January 15th and the “Rawsay” was daily expected with the other. This committee seems to have existed as a voluntary one before it began to function under Government auspices.
ST. JOHN’S AND ST. MARY’S PARISHES
A meeting was held on Tuesday, January 12th at St. John’s Parochial Schoolroom for the purpose of establishing a soup kitchen. The sum of £36 10s. was collected at the meeting and a Collecting Committee was appointed. “And,” says the Limerick Reporter, “Mrs. John Egan, T.C., has most kindly and generously given the use of the old cholera hospital at the back of Clare Street for use as a soup depot.
A similar meeting was held in St. Mary’s Parish under the guidance of Rev. J. Brahan, PP, with the Mayor in the chair, and a sum of £165.15s. was collected almost immediately. This included £10 from Fr. Brahan and £50 from Mr. Pierce Shannon. At this meeting it was mentioned that the Government intended to subscribe an amount equal to the amount collected locally. At the next meeting of the Town Council, Mr. Pierce Shannon applied for a portion of the Potato Market for the use of the Soup Committee of St. Mary’s Parish. The application was granted. At the same meeting of the Town Council, upon the motion of the Mayor, the use of the Potato Market was also given to the owners of the turf boats to discharge their loads, for the purpose of retailing them to the poor “who at present only get two or three sods for a penny, whereas the turfmen engage to given them twelve.”
At a meeting held on Monday, January 18th inst., the Mayor in the chair, the following was appointed as a committee: Richard L. Jones, William Halpin, James Cree, N. Seymour Kenyon, chairman, and Alderman Mulcahy. The Rev. Fr. O’Farrell, CC, was appointed treasurer. It was decided at this meeting to make application for subscriptions to absentees who had property in the parish. A collection made on the spot realised £118.
The first meeting was held on Saturday, January 16, in the Northumbland Rooms. The Venerable Archdeacon Maunsell was appointed and Mr. J. Kennedy, secretary. A collecting committee was also appointed, consisting of the clergy of all persuasions and a long list of laymen. Among the several resolutions passed, the fourth was that the Parish be divided into 20 districts, and that visitors be appointed, two to each district, to ascertain the amount of cases where gratuitous relief is called for, and also the number of persons to whom it is desirable to sell at cost prices, and that the visitors be provided with books ruled somewhat after the form adopted by the Government with a space left for the number of quarts of soup required by each family.
“Resolved: That the Parish be also divided into collecting districts with two visitors for each; that the committee meet weekly; that two members of the committee be present at 5 p.m. to see the meat cut, weighed, put into the boilers, and the boiler locked. At the meeting of this committee on 21st January it was decided to call on absentee property owners and also on firms with whom merchants of the city had business.
This committee concluded its operations on Saturday, September 25th, 1847, and in doing so, passed a vote of thanks to Archdeacon Maunsell, who scarcely ever was a day absent, who always gave the valuable example of being one of the first at the Boardroom and one of the last to leave it, and whose amiability of manner and urbanity of demeanour secured for every member and uninterrupted hearing and respectful attention.”
This committee must have been particularly well off as far as subscriptions went, for three days after its first meeting the sum of £250 had already been handed in.
On February 1st the Town Council voted £50 to each of the four parish soup kitchens. This was in addition to £200 given to the (General) Relief Committee, and brought the total given in charity by the Council during the year just ended to £1,500.
At this meeting also, Mr. R. McMahon gave notice of motion that the sum of £10 be voted for the purchase of coffins on the same principle adopted in the workhouse “to prevent a recurrence of the disgraceful exhibition that recently occurred in the city”.
I am sure you are all very curious to know what this exhibition could have been. So am I and I have been unable to find out. Archdeacon Begley gives an occurrence which he dates under March 1848 but which would exactly suit our present case. Here is what he says: “When matters were becoming acute in March 1848, the people of Pennywell were horrified at the state of the local graveyard near Clare Street. Two boys were bringing eight or ten corpses every day and as they were not able to bury them the dogs were devouring the bodies. Some of the animals were killed by their owners while others were seen taking large pieces of human flesh across the country. The name of the graveyard in question was Killalee.”
In its issue of January 12th, 1847, Limerick Reporter said that the soup kitchen established by Rev. Mr. Brahan and Mrs. Pierse Shannon “is rapidly progressing to active operation.”
Now, one might take this to be the St. Mary’s soup kitchen but for the fact that it also says that Fr. Brahan had put down £50 and Mr. Shannon £50. As Fr. Brahan is put down for £10 in the list of subscriptions to St. Mary’s official soup kitchen, this would appear to be a different one.
However, there may be a misprint. On the other hand it was a principle of the Friends’ Committee never to give food to official committees as this would avoid overlapping. Yet we find them sending twelve barrels of Indian meal to Rev. H. O’Farrell, curate in St. Munchin’s Parish, on the 1st September, 1847. So that it may be that the priests ran a relief distributing centre in addition to the official one. There certainly existed a Thomondgate Relief Fund, whether it was O’Farrell’s one or not.
The Sisters of Mercy distributed a great deal of relief during those terrible times. Very often one finds in the Limerick Reporter such items as: “The Sisters of Mercy gratefully acknowledge receipt of two barrels of meal from the Society of Friends. They also were the recipients of much of the relief money sent to Dr. Ryan, the Bishop of the time, by foreign and Irish benefactors. Thus he received large sums from Dr. Bruggs, Bishop of Beverly (who by the way subscribed about £4,000 in all to Irish relief. The nuns gave free meals to the children in the schools and also looked after many of the sick poor in their homes.
The Christian Brothers had a large boiler, too, with which they provided meals for their pupils. They also were the grateful recipients of many gifts of food from the Society of Friends.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was set up in Limerick in St. Michael’s Parish on November 1st, 1846, and distributed relief to the value of £357. 10s. 2d. up to January 1st 1849, in the form of tea, sugar, meat, rice and a small quantity of goal. A Conference was established in St. John’s Parish on February 20th, 1847, and in the following two years it distributed relief to the value of £351.1s. 4d.
That, I think, is a complete list of the organised relief measures that were taken in Limerick. In addition to all those efforts there must have been a great deal of private, unrecorded almsgiving, for the domestic chronicler of the Sisters of Mercy remarked: “Admirable indeed was the charitable spirit evinced by the generality of those who had hearts as well as means to contribute to the relief of the distressed. It speaks well for Limerick that her citizens rallied to the call of charity in such numbers and with such generosity.
EFFECTS OF THE FAMINE ON EDUCATION IN LIMERICK
On July 16th, 1847, an advertisement appeared in the Limerick Reporter announcing that the following Sunday a charity sermon would be preached in St. Michael’s Chapel by the Rev. Mr. Murrane previous to the opening of the new Catholic Poor Schools in Pery Square. The advertisement says: “There were in the parish, about two years ago, 34 pay schools in which nearly 2,000 poor children received a useful education. The Famine came – the pay ceased – the teacher fled – the school was scattered and nearly 2,000 poor children are thus thrown upon the streets . . . A large house in Pery Square, the munificent gift of a benevolent citizen, has lately been fitted up as a school with great care . . . the Boys School will be conducted by the Christian Brothers, the Girls School by the Sisters of Mercy . . .”
In the same issue there is a description of the new schools, and it gives them very high praise. They have been built by the exertions of Rev. Mr. Synan; they are roomy and well furnished, and there is a splendid view from the Girls School on the first floor. The entrance to the Girls School is from Military Road, and to the Boys School from Little Barrington Street. The report speaks highly of the “new desks of a construction peculiar to the Christian Schools.
In the domestic annals of the sisters of Mercy we learn a little more of these schools. The benevolent citizen mentioned in the advertisement was Mr. Pat Shannon of Corbally and the building which he gave was originally a racket (?) court. The schools were opened on the 19th of July under the protection of the great St. Vincent de Paul.
A build in Old Clare Street which we have already had occasion to mention, was also turned into a school in December 1847. This was the old cholera hospital, used earlier in the year a soup kitchen for St. john’s Parish. Through the exertions of Rev. William Bourke, curate in St. John’s it was converted into a school. This building seems to have served a number of diverse purposes in its time, for the account of it in the Sisters’ annals is: “Through the insolvency of the proprietor, a large house used as a lace factory fell into the hands of the corporation, from whom Father Bourke procured it. Although it was most unsuitable for a school, it being impossible to ventilate the rooms, there were 200 children in attendance the first week; it had accommodation for 400. In this and the other schools the Sisters of Mercy had to give bread to a large number of children at mid-day, a thing which was never done before the Famine. After the Famine, however, the practice had to be continued.
A FAMINE RIOT
The newspapers of 1847 regularly carried a feature headed: “State of the Country.” Here were to be found the pitiful enumeration of the riots, killings, and pillagings, of a people goaded to desperation by hunger, a hostile law, and an intolerable and inhuman landlordism. The riots in Limerick, however, were due solely to hunger and they were of frequent occurrence. We will select one of the more notable ones.. On January 1st, 1847, the Limerick Reporter carried the following: “The Starving People – Attack on Bread. Yesterday, between two and three o’clock, while a basket of bread was being carried by a lad from one of the bakeries to Coghlan’s, a bread shop in Broad Street, when met at the door, he was assailed by a few hungry boys, who rifled the basked of its contents, about 14/- worth. A mob collected, which, no doubt, influenced by the strong incentive of hunger and flushed with success in their first attempt, seemed bent on proceeding with the work of plunder, and assailing the bread shops for among a people almost inflamed to madness, it needs but a small spark to kindle the flame into irrepressible fury. But the faithful clergy of the people, ever true to their trust, were on the spot in a moment, exhorting the people to keep the peace. We observed the Rev. Mr. Ryan, CC, and the Rev. Mr. Quin, PP, addressing the excited multitude, which consisted as much of haggard, ragged children, as of full grown men, evidently dying by inches from starvation. The result was that they desisted from further violence.
TROOPS TURNED OUT
“At the same instant, a party of police under Mr. Cripps, J.P., and Sub-Inspector Williams, made their appearance at the scene of the riot, also the Mayor with his staff of officers, who addressed the people and was loudly cheered.
“But when all was over, our Military Magistrate, Col. Mansell, without being sent for by the Mayor, who is entrusted with the peace of the city, or even condescending to wait on, or consult that gentleman, turns out the troops of the garrison, horse and foot, as if Limerick were in a state of siege. Mounted dragoons with fury in their countenances might be seen dashing through the quiet streets as if their business was to shed blood. A large body was placed at Bank Place who was ordered to load. On the opposite side of the river commanding the thoroughfares was stationed another party. At Baal’s Bridge there was a party of police while detachments of military, both cavalry and infantry, were marching and counter-marching in all directions.
“When Col. Mansell saw there was no military business to execute and tired of waiting for about an hour he called off his troops from the deserted field after at first spreading panic and consternation through the city, and then becoming in turn, an object for derision for the ragged little boys couldn’t help jeering at the fantastic tricks of this official dressed in a little brief authority. Indeed, a melancholy incident occurred which seemed to throw an air of bitter ridicule over this wanton parade. As the mounted troops were passing over Baal’s Bridge, a coffin upon a cart going to the country, we believe, appropriately drew up the rear, and the people did not fail to note the grouping and comment on it by ironical cheers. So much for military magistrates. If the Whigs are not convinced of the rashness of this unconstitutional appointment from the exhibition of yesterday, they may yet have cause to repent it when it is too late, if, indeed, the base, brutal and bloody Whigs can expect repent of the atrocities of despotism which seem identified with their very existence.”
The affair did not end there, for on the following Friday, at a meeting of the Petty Sessions court, a majority of the magistrates present adopted a resolution approving of Col. Mansell’s conduct and condemning certain unwarrantable articles in the local Press. The Mayor and Dr. Geary dissented considering that Col. Mansell omitted the courtesy due to the first magistrate of the city in not consulting him before calling out the military.
Was the Limerick Reporter daunted? In the very issue which contained the reports of the Petty Sessions, it had a leading article under the heading: “The Magistracy and the Press – the Citizens and the Military.” The general tone of the article may be gauged from the opening: “In another column will be found a report of the most extraordinary proceedings at the Petty Sessions Bench on Friday. It will be seen that the majority of this court of justice (?) came together for a purpose, namely, to beslaver and toady an officer of the Army who, thanks to the Whigs, holds a commission of the peace – to justify an insult offered to the Mayor and to show their teeth to a free Press when they could not bite . . .”
This gives some idea of the misery and the impotent rage of the people. But multiply the number of riots until they total many times the number of towns and villages of the country and you are coming near an adequate idea of the conditions that prevailed. Nor did the arrival of the harvest, which was a pretty good one, alleviate things as much as might be expected. For there had been only about a quarter of the usual potato seed sown in the spring, and hence the harvest was comparatively small. Widespread evictions increased the numbers of the homeless and destitute.
The ghastly work went on as winter once more added its hardships to the man-made miseries of Ireland. A threatening notice signed “Molly Maguire” was put up at Bunratty threatening death to anyone who attempted to convey corn to Limerick. Molly was as good as her word and on the following Saturday a farmer who defied the notice, had the horse shot from under his load of corn. Another farmer was relieved of his lead at Banogue. In the County Gaol there were 103 prisoners awaiting trial, 14 of them for murder. The effect of all this violence was felt by Mr. Denis O’Connor, who had contracted for the collection of the tolls at Thomond and Wellesley Bridges, and reported to the Town Council early in November that he had lost heavily because the Clare farmers were afraid to bring in their corn. Indeed, one is not inclined to pity the toll collectors, for earlier in the year the Society of Friends had had to make a complaint to the Town Council that they had been compelled to pay tolls on the cargo of the “Macedonian,” an American relief shop. But I could go on all night giving you examples of the “state of the country.” Let it suffice to say in Mitchell’s words that “this is the famine year, and we are here in the midst of those thousand Golgotha’s that border our island with a ring of death from Cork Harbour all round to Lough Foyle.” Was it any wonder that that great-hearted man felt curses breed about his heart?
In the first five months of 1847, from the 1st of January to the 1st of June, 7,980 emigrants sailed from the port of Limerick, which is a weekly average of 400. It must be remembered, too, that this was only portion of the emigration from Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary. The better ships were supposed to sail from Cork and Liverpool, and those who could afford it preferred to take their departure from either of these ports.
EXPORTS FROM LIMERICK
The activities of the port of Limerick were not confined to sending out emigrant ships. We have often seen it stated that during the famine years a relief ship coming in with foodstuffs for the starving people frequently met a grain ship going out. It may have happened in the port of Limerick, nay it must have happened. Here are the figures for Limerick’s exports during this year we are talking about, the year ending on September 1, 1847: Beef, 943 tierces, 851 barrels; butter 66,370 firkins; oats, 334,591 barrels; flour, 47,376 cwts. (much of this for coastal trade); oatmeal, 8,600 cwts. Lard, 5,781 cwts.; hams, 7,720 cwt.; port, 5,161 tierces, 8,392 barrels; bacon, 23,509 cwts.; barley, 1,042 barrels; wheat, 69,045 barrels, and beans 14,152 barrels.
But you will say: “It cannot be; it is impossible. Surely, if there were any grain crops reaped in the harvest of 1846 when there were no potatoes and everyone knew that Famine was approaching, they would have kept in the country? But these are the facts. In the year ending September 1st, 1847, 404,678 barrels of grain – wheat, barley and oats – were shipped from the quays of this city. During five months of that same period, 7,980 people embarked at the same quays for America. And why?
Because there was nothing for them to eat.
In the long annals of human perversity, is there any chapter the equal of this?”
BLAMEFOR MURDER OF A NATION
Michael Davitt indicts the whole nation for what he regards as its unprecedented pusillanimity, but I have shown you tonight that they were not so pusillanimous. They did try to stop the grain coming into the seaports. But Lord John Russell whose belief in the sacred doctrines of free trade would not permit him to interfere with the export of corn, had an answer for them – four extra regiments of soldiers were sent to Ireland in November, 1847, and a Coercion Bill was passed at Christmas with special reference to the counties of Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. On whom must the chief blame be laid for this abominable condition of things? It is hard to say. The landlords, the City Council, the Newspapers, the system of land tenure with its grotesquely uneconomic provisions; the Government – all these must, in varying degrees, share the blame for the murder of a nation, but all these causes are reducible to one capital cause, one plague spot infecting every part of the body politic with fatal inertia namely, the Union. Had there been a Parliament in Dublin, even though it were composed of landlords only; mere self-interest would have ensured their doing something to prevent the tragedy that occurred.
A LIGHTER SIDE
We will conclude our discussion of the Famine on a surprising note – one of humour. It will do us good to realise that even in that dark time the men of Limerick did not lose their sense of humour. At one time of which we are speaking the Earl of Devon owned, or at least derived an income from, large estates in the vicinity of Newcastle West. Now, the noble lord had a friend called Twistleton, an Englishman, who held the post of Chief Commissioner for the Irish Poor Law. This gentleman had it in his power to set up or alter electoral divisions as he thought fit, and he now proposed to use his power for the benefit of his titled friend by making the electoral division of Newcastle co-terminus with his Lordship’s estates and thus throw the burden of the poor rates for the support of certain impoverished districts, especially the village of Ardagh, on the smaller rate-payers of the area. There was a memorial drawn up for those smaller ratepayers to sign and it ran thus:
“To his illustrious High Mightiness, Twisleton, High British Commissioner of Irish Poor Law. Most potent Commissioner, Thou who rulest ratepayers according to thy will and predominatest over refractory guardians! Thou who canst hurl whole baronies by a dash of thy puissant pen into hopeless pauperism, or lift them out therefrom on a point of it, at they pleasure! Long may your Eminence reign in what was once a custom house; and may your august shadow never grow less!
We, the mere Irish landowners and ratepayers of the Poor Law Union of Newcastle In County of Limerick, approach your footstool with our humble complaint, and beseech your Highness’s clemency to hear us with indulgence.
Your petitioners have heard and believe that the ever-to-be-blessed Parliament of Your Highness’s country when it invented paupers and imposed the gracious Poor Law on this land . . .
Having pointed out that what Twistleton proposed to do was against the intentions of the Act, it concludes: “As thou art strong, oh greatest of Commissioners, be merciful, and consult with thy brother of Devon, whether, per adventure, he may not be gratified out of the Imperial taxes or other public plunder, without mulcting us, the mere Irish landowners and ratepayers of Newcastle Union, in the sum of £60,000.
“And your petitioners will ever pray.”