When Famine Devastated West Cork

The Famine sparked off a decline in the Irish population which lasted half a century. It concentrated within a short period many changes in Ireland's social and economic life which would have occurred but not so suddenly. One of the major disasters of the nineteenth century, the Famine marked a great divide in modern Irish History and, through the impact of emigration, its effects spread far beyond Irish shores. Cork and especially West Cork were among the worst hit areas.
It is hard to believe that the invasion of the tiny potato killing fungus 'Phythophthora infestans" could result in the Great Famine of 1856/17 and the death of a million people out of a population of eight and a half. But it was not solely the loss of the potato crop which ended in death; combined with a rigid doctrinaire attitude to famine relief and widespread absentee landlords, it was a deadly mix.

Soup Kitchens

Food for the Government relief schemes was stored in depots but was only available at a high price and most tenant farmers were too poor to afford it. Instead, they went to soup kitchens, many overflowing, unable to cope with the numbers which arrived at their doors. They died outside the doors.
Burying the dead became more and more of a problem resulting in the rapid spread of disease. There were reports of hinged coffins and mass open graves. Today, there are ruined workhouses all over the country and famine memorials alone survive to remind us of those dreadful times, not even a hundred and fifty years ago.
To paint an accurate picture of the society on which famine visited, we must look at the report of the Devon Commission of February, 1845. This was a Royal Commission chaired by the Earl of Devon which visited every point of Ireland as a response to Daniel O'Connell's monster meetings which had been taking place all over the country.


It describes how a peasantry had been created which was one of the most destitute in Europe. "It would be impossible to adequately to describe," stated the Devon Commission in its Report, "the privations which they (the Irish labourer and his family) habitually and silently endure ... is many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water ... their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property." The Commissioners could not "forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, that the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain.
Add to this the fact that before the famine, between 1779 and 1841, the population increased dramatically by 172%, and you have a recipe for disaster.
A great part of the poverty was created by many absentee landlords who extracted large rents out of their tenants. The Devon Commission reported that the main cause of Irish misery was bad relations between landlord and tenant, the result of years of rebellion and punitive legislation. Eventually, the country became simply a source of rents which were spent elsewhere. In 1842 it was estimated that 6 million pounds was going out of Ireland. The German traveler Kohl commented on the mansions of absentee landlords standing "stately, silent and empty". Absolute power was left in the hands of an agent whose worth was measured by the amount of money he could extract.
During the eighteenth century, a system of middlemen developed when large tracts of land were let to one person who the sub-let small amounts. Any improvement resulted in a recent increase and so the tenant was deprived of any incentive or security. In addition there was very little regular agricultural work for labourers or "spailpins" because the farms were too small to employ them, except at potato picking time. Unless a labourer could get a patch of land to grow potatoes, he and his family would starve for thirty weeks of the year. And so the scene was set for the famine. Then potatoes turned black overnight and were inedible.
Even so, grain was being exported from the country throughout the period Charles Edward Treverlyan, the Head of the Treasury, refused to restrict trade and ban its export. Only large ports such as Cork and Belfast knew anything about import, ports in the West being solely geared to export. And so a country starved while its food fed other mouths that its own.

Great Hunger

People lived exclusively on potatoes in many areas including West Cork, Kerry, Donegal and the west of the Shannon. In those areas Government food depots were setup as fear of famine became a possibility. In Skibbereen, it was in the charge of Commissariat Officer, Mr. Hughes, who was answerable to Sir Randolph Routh, Commissary General. Cecil Woodham-Smith tells the story in "The Great Hunger", of how starvation was first reported from Skibbereen: "One market day; September 12, 1846, in Skibbereen, County Cork, an agricultural centre, there was not a single load of bread or pound of meal to be had in the town." The Relief Committee applied to Mr. Hughes, the Commissariat Officer, asking him to sell or lend some meal from the Government depot. He refused, saying "his instructions prevented him" and an angry scene followed. Two days later, members of the Committee again came to see him, followed by a starving crowd, imploring for food. The sight was too much for Mr. Hughes. The misery in Skibbereen, he assured Routh on September 20, had not been exaggerated, and he issued two and a half tons of meal, instantly distributed in small lots. Upon this, the Catholic curate of Trellagh, a neighbouring village, came asked for two tons, telling Mr. Hughes his people were starving and he dared not return empty-handed. Again Mr. Hughes gave way. The curate of Trellagh was followed by the Relief Committee of the village of Leap, who asked for ten tons. Mr. Hughes refused, and a most painful scene took place. In the presence of Captain Dyer, the Board of Works' inspecting officer, and Mr. Pinchen, sub-inspector of Police, the spokesman for the Relief Committee of Leap said : "Mr. Deputy Commissary, do you refuse to give out food to starving people who are ready to pay for it? If so, in the event of an outbreak tonight the responsibility will be yours." What, Mr. Hughes asked Routh, was the right course for him to pursue? Routh, in reply instructed Mr. Hughes to "represent to applicants for Government supplies of food the necessity for private enterprise and importation ... Towns should combine and import from Cork or Liverpool .. Now is the time to use home produce"
By September 25 the people at Clashmore, County Waterford were living on blackberries, and at Rathcormack County Cork, on cabbage leaves.
Serious riots took place Youghal where the sight of food being exported was unbearable to the starving people. On 25th September, 1846 an enraged crowd tried to hold up a boat about to sail laden with oats. Police sent for troops, who, with difficult, stopped the crowd and Youghal Bridge. It was serious enough for the Under Secretary at Dublin Castle, Mr. T.N. Redington, to be sent over to London to explain to the British Government what had happened.
As autumn turned to the winter of 1846, the wild foods on which people had existed such as nettles, blackberries and cabbage leaves began to wither and children began to die. Fifty per cent of children admitted to the workhouses after October, 1846 died of "diarrhoea acting on an exhausted constitution."
By November famine had reached such a point that disorganisation began to set in . Starving mobs of men roamed the countryside like wolves hunting for food. The employment lists for public works which should have been prepared by the local relief committees became a farce as committee men were threatened with losing their lives. Delays in paying wages increased the trouble.

In Clonakilty

The pay clerks in East Carbery gave up their jobs rather than face turbulent inhabitants and at Clonakilty the pay clerk was attacked and beaten. When a man names Denis McKennedy died on October 24 while working on Road No. 1, in the western division of West Carbery, at Caheragh, it was alleged he had not been paid since October 10. A post mortem examination was carried out by Dr. Daniel Donovan and Dr. Patrick Due, and death was pronounced to be the results of starvation. There was no food in the stomach or in the small intestines, but in the large intestine was a "portion of undigested raw cabbage, mixed with excrement." At the coroner's inquest a verdict was returned that the deceased "died of starvation caused by the gross neglect of the Board of Works." At Bandon, where three weeks' wages were owing on October 31, deaths were alleged to have occurred.
Charles Trevelyan, the Head of the Treasury, still maintained that enough have been done to help Ireland and so the situation gradually became even worse. In Skibbereen starvation have been reported at the beginning of September and exactly three months later, two Protestant clergymen, Mr. Caulfield and Mr. Townshend went to see him in London.
They said that the Government plans for relief were not working in their town because the call for "practical and influential persons of property and respectability" to help organise the relief had not been answered. No subscription had been raised and the committee was in a state of suspension and useless. They told him only eight pence a day was paid for working on the public road and was not enough to feed a family. About seventy people were given soup every day at Mr. Caulfield's house and would otherwise starve. The two clergymen implored the Government to send food but nothing was done.
Days later, on 15th December, Trevelyan even wrote to Commissary General Routh referring to "what is now going on in Skibbereen" and telling him not to send Government supplies because a relief committee was not operating in the area. "Principles must be kept in view," he wrote. Nobody questioned what principals.