Fáilte Romhat

  When Famine Devastated West Cork

Horrifying scenes as landlords draw huge incomes.

"Nothing can exceed the deplorable state"

 

Then, during the middle of December, Mr. Nicholas Cummins, a well known J.P. of Ann Mount, Cork, visited the area and described the appalling conditions of West Cork in letters to the authorities. It appears that nothing was done because on December 22, 1846 he wrote what is now a famous letter to the Duke of Wellington. He also sent a copy to The London Times which was published on Christmas eve.
The letter described first hand scenes the write had witnessed over the previous three days. He took bread with him but found many people too far gone in fever for it to be of any use. He implored the Duke to petition the "young and gracious" Queen Victoria for help.
Mr. Richard Inglis, a Commissariat officer confirmed the facts. Ordered to Skibbereen in mid December, he was horrified by what he saw, contacted his senior officer in Limerick who sent a copy to Trevelyan on 21st December. Mr. Inglis reported he saw three dead bodies in the street when he arrived in the town and buried them with the help of the Constabulary. Deaths were occurring every day. Since 5th November, 197 had died in the workhouse and 100 people had been found dead in the lanes or in derelict cabins, half eaten by rats. Mr. Inglis had collected
85 privately and with it started two soup kitchens.
Major Parker, Relief Inspector of the Board of Works, estimated 200 had died in the past few weeks and wrote "A woman with a dead child in her arms was begging in the street yesterday and the Guard of the Mail told me he saw a man and three dead children lying by the roadside ... nothing can exceed the deplorable state of this place."

Huge Incomes

Despite the terrible conditions, the proprietors of the Skibbereen district drew and annual income of 50,000. According to Cecil Woodham Smith, the largest was Lord Carbery who, Routh reported, drew rent of 15,000, next was Sir William Wrixon Becher on whose estate the town of Skibbereen stood, Routh said he  drew rents amounting to 10,000 while Protestant clergyman, Revd. Stephen Townshend drew 8,000.
Eventually Trevelyan wrote a Treasury minute advising that local Relief Committees be sent up and suggested that senior Commissariat Officer , Mr. Bishop, write to local landlords pointing out the severe distress on their estates. No emergency supplies of food were sent.
It must have been obvious to the landlords how desperate conditions were without getting a letter from the local Commissariat Officer to remind them. By the autumn of 1847, there were soup kitchens throughout West Cork for which tickets were issued. Non but the hardest of hearts could have ignored it.
Soon after Mr. N. Cummins' letter had appeared in "The Times"; a new and powerful organisation , the British Association, was formed to relieve extreme distress in the remote parishes of Britain and Ireland. One of the founder members was Baron Rothschild and on of the advisors was Mr. J.J. Cummins of Cork. Over 470,000 was collected.
On 2nd January, "The Cork Constitution" published a letter by Nicholas Cummins detailing those who had subscribed to the famine relief fund which totalled 8,000 and in the same month, the collection was subject of an editorial. In June the paper reported that the population of the parish of Reen, South Myross near Union Hall, had decreased dramatically and that many of the houses had to be burned.
Then America began to help. "The Jamestown" sloop at Boston was loaded with food and arrived at Cobh in 12th. April where they were greeted like royalty and given a banquet in Cork. A party on board was held on 21st April before she set sail home.
"The Macedonian" later arrived from New York at Cobh on 28th July where she was met by Fr. Matthew in the Mayor's barge. The officers were given a sumptuous dinner in Cork which makes odd reading in a starving country - it included turbot, salmon, spiced beef, rump of beef, hares, tongues, pigeon pies, lamb, chicken, duckling and so on and so on, even involving strawberries, claret and port.
During this time people existed on the type of soup given by the Carmelite Convent in Kinsale made with 10oz meal rice to one quart of water and accompanied by 4oz bread, if there was any, or a small amount of bread made with Indian meal which was much less in size because it was heavier in weight.

Schull Region

First hand accounts of the state of West Cork have twice been published in "The Southern Star" but it does no harm to draw from them again here. The parish of Schull was home for military man Captain Caffin who wrote a description of the people which then attracted the attention of a Protestant curate from Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary, the Rev. F.F. Chevenix French. He visited the area to see what could be done and in a series of letters to his brother Rev. Richard Chevenix French, Professor of Divinity and King's College, London, described the dreadful things he saw.
Rev. French was escorted around the parish by Dr. Trail the Protestant record of the parish, Rev. Mr. McCabe, the curate and Dr. Sweetnam, the doctor. First of all he comments of the lack of children playing in the streets of Ballydehob and Schull, then with a population of about 16,000. In Bantry it was the same. All he saw were men making coffins. He wrote:
"At Glengarriff, strange to say the Roman Catholic Chapel is turned into a place for making coffins. Seeing two men at work there, I went in, in company with Rev. Mr. Morgan, the curate of the parish. I said to one of the carpenters "What are you making boy? " "Coffins and wheelbarrows sir," he answered respectfully, and I saw the planks marked out, for the sawyer, to the length of the coffins. At Bantry I saw lying at the corner of the street, two coffins for the use of the poor; they call them "trap coffins", the bottom is supported by hinges at one side, and by a hook and eye at the other. In these coffins the poor are carried to the grave, or, rather to a large put which I saw at a little distance from the road, and the bodies are dropped into it. On my return to the spot where I first saw them I found them occupied with corpses and placed on a cart about to be drawn away by a horse to the grave.
In Schull people were too poor to afford coffins. At Ballydehob he was told by Mr. and Miss Noble that they had seen five dead bodies transported through the town barley covered by straw. Dr. McCormick, the dispensary physician at Kilmoe states he saw a man dragging two dead bodies on the end of a rope to their grave. Mr. O'Callaghan of Kilmanus told him he use meal sacks to bury the dead. Near Ballydehob a whole house had been burned as the nine occupants had died of fever and been buried in the garden. At Cappagh, south of Ballydehob, he was horrified to find in the corner of a field, a human skull gnawed by dogs.