Horror and death as fever strikes

Despair grips population in western peninsulas


Soon fever was reported to be grossly affecting West Cork including Skibbereen, Schull and Ballydehob. The Ladies' Association in Ballydehob visited the worst cases with food and clothing. By February 7, fever was reported to have a strong hold on Cork City and was spreading rapidly in Bantry. By March there was scarcely a house in Skibbereen that did not have fever.
Throughout the winter, fever raged in the wake of the famine. But the British Government were unwilling to believe it. On January 25th, 1847 Mr. Labouchere declared in the House of Commons that excepting a few cases, Ireland was generally free from the fever which follows famine and that accounts to the contrary were undoubtedly inaccurate.

Worst Cases

Soon fever was reported to be grossly affecting West Cork including Skibbereen, Schull and Ballydehob. The Ladies' Association in Ballydehob visited even the worst cases with food and clothing. By 7th February, fever was reported in have a strong hold on Cork city and was spreading rapidly in Bantry. By March there was scarcely a house in Skibbereen that did not have fever.
On 4th March two people died in the street there. The Inspecting officer, Major Parker, died and his successor spent just twenty four hours in Skibbereen before he resigned and fled.
Later that month the Central Board of Health send down inspectors to workhouses in Cork and Bantry. Their report was horrifying. In Cork the state of those admitted was "utterly wretched and deplorable ... many in a dying state, or a state surely leading to death," and a death was taking place ever hour. The workhouse was overcrowded, ventilation was lacking, drainage and drains were deficient, and the stench was almost insupportable, even in cold weather. At Bandon, visited on the way to Bantry, "all appeared to be in a state of confusion,  no order, completely chaotic state." One hundred and two boys had slept the previous night in a ward 45 x 30 feet in 24 beds, in some cases, six to a bed; and in the hall 700 persons slept and ate every day. One hundred and twenty persons were occupying 45 beds in the convalescent ward, and all had been in fever. The drains were "revolting" and a "disgusting stench lasts all day."
Conditions in Bantry workhouse were better; the wards were clean and orderly, but Bantry had a fever hospital and, in the words of the inspecting doctor, Dr. Stephens, "Language would fail to give an adequate idea of its state, it was appalling, awful, heart sickening." He "did not think it possible to exist in a civilised and Christian community." Fever patients were lying naked on straw, the living and the dead together. The doctor was ill and no one had been near the hospital for two days. There was no medicine, no drink, no dire; wretched beings were crying out "water, water!" but there was no one to give it to them; the sole attendant was one pauper nurse, "utterly unfit."
Rev. French continues his story from Schull. "Rev. Dr. Trail and Dr. Sweetman both told me that there were not one hundred out of three thousand families in the parish of Schull that could command their breakfast the next morning. I then asked Dr. Sweetman were he on his oath in Court of Justice would he say so "I would say so" he replied, "were I before the judgment seat of Christ. There are no exceptions, north, south, east or west, it is all the same." The police officer Mr. Garney, was present, and I asked him if he believed that statement he replied that there were not fifty.
Pointing to what might be called the outline of a fine young man in the crowd, Dr. Sweetman said that he was the remains of fever and dysentery. This was a very affecting case. Shortly the young man got into a delirious fit. "There is a woman" he raved, "and finer and curly haired children than her were not in the Queen's dominions. Now they are all gone, husband and children. and see what she is" Lying against the corner we saw a man, apparently dozing, whose pulse showed no perceptible motion.
Later the doctor pointed out a man to us whose child had died the previous night, but who was too weak to dig a grave. Accordingly, the doctor sent his gardener to dig it. He then asked the father if he had any coffin, and was answered, "oh! no", and then turning to the man himself, he said "and you will die surely my poor man," meaning that he could not live many days."
Rev. French felt that with organised relief, help would be at hand. He outlined the extreme conditions under which doctors were labouring. "Take for example the one parish of Schull - and there are many like it. Here there are scarcely any gentry and none rich. What can one physician do amongst 18,000 people in such a state at a time when oats for a horse is so dear? What can the ordinary number of clergy do in such an extensive district? They cannot visit one tenth part of the sick, even if they had horses and oats to feed them, two things which most of them have not. Can Dr. Traill be expected to carry meal to the people in the mountains, across the pummel by his saddle, as he has done? Can McCabe, the curate, be expected to push in the door and look for a vessel and have to wash it before putting a drink into it for the sick, who are unable to rise; as he has often done? But let there be provided a sufficient staff of fit men to prescribe for the sick and to place cooked food within the reach of the poor, and I feel confident that the supply of money that the public have proved themselves to give, would pay for all, and to prevent absolute starvation and restore health in many instances.

But conditions were such that local J.P. Mr. Limerick told the Reverand that one day he had employed thirty five men in gangs of four or five to bury the dead. One the roads, the tickets for work were changed from the names of the men to that of their widows and in some instances their children, all having died.

With Despair

At Kilbronogue the Revd. continued his journey escorted by Captain Harston, agent of the British Association and the Roman Catholic Parish Priest, Fr. Barry. He visited nine houses before turning away with despair. "In the ninth house that of Charles Regan, I found that of eleven only three remained. We had met the woman of the house on the road and she accompanied me to most of the houses. When we arrived at her cabin she said: 'I have a find young man of nineteen years of age and you could carry him in the palm of your hand.' I entered and saw a bundle of skin and bones, partly wrapped in a blanket, sitting by the fire. The mother said: 'Sir, we have no sickness, but hunger!' I had seen enough."
Revd. French set up an eating house at Kilbronogue near Schull with funds from donations received. Rosbrin was later taken into the scheme. He reports happily from Kilbronogue: "I have just returned from Kilbronogue. All is progressing there most satisfactorily. Excellent order is being kept. All your rules are being observed and had not this day been rainy, nothing could have been pleasanter than the sight of 200 or more eating food , certainly with thankfulness to men, and, I trust with thankfulness to God also. But they did not seem to mind the rain, and we got the children under cover.
Calling for more money he concludes: "I wish to mention the very small cost of these eating houses. I have before me the returns of five of the eating houses, and I find that 9,409 substantial meals have been given at an average cost of less that 1 1/4 d each. At that trifling daily cost for food, I believe that the Lord will enable us to save life to whatever extra funds may be entrusted to our care. The agency which is essentially necessary, and for want of food, life was lost, will necessarily cost much, but suppose the agency to be fully provided, the food wherewith we can save the lives of our neighbours and preserve them also in tolerable health, does not cost more that 1 1/4 d a daily.
In East Cork the story was much the same. The potatoes ran out in Cobh and Great Island early in 1846 but, unlike Skibbereen and district, a relief committee was set up by April comprising clergy and inhavitants of all denominations.
348 was gathered around the town to purchase about 30 tons of Indian meal.
It was transported free of charge by Steamship owners and stored at the premises of Mr. B. Verling. Top wages at the time were six shillings a week, allowing a family one substantial meal a day. Applicants for help crowded the depot while others suffered at home, afraid to ask for help. Indian meal sold at nine pence for seven pounds, oatmeal at just over a shilling for seven pounds and flour at eleven pence per seven pounds.
Michael Foley was in charge of the depot and received a wage of ten shillings a week. Matthew McCarthy, his assistant, had a wage of five shillings a week. People did not care for the Indian meal and so began mixing it with flour in home baking. This actually became quite popular and was fairly common in west Limerick and north Kerry up to the time of the Second World War.
Once again, there was plenty of food available but people could not afford to buy it. In May 1846 the committee reduced their price of Indian meal by half but the plight of the poor had worsened and so they still could not afford to buy it.
By June the relief committee at Cobh received a grant of 225 from the Lord Lieutenant plus his personal donation of 80 who said Indian meal should be given away to the most deserving cases. Labourers who received only four pence a day were to get 3-1/2 lb of Indian meal free.
By January, 1847, 1,200 people were relieved at each distribution. A soup kitchen was set up and everyone over the age of twelve received a pound of bread, and one quart of soup. Those younger got the same amount of soup and half the bread.
One reports tells of a Michael Hurley with his wife and four children who lived within old walls under no roof. He was taken care of by Captain Stubbs who agreed to pay for lodgings for the family.
The lucky ones emigrated, so much so that there was an influx of paupers to Britain and some landlords ever used the funds for food to ship the poor out. Mr. Hughes, the Commissariat Officer in Skibbereen wrote on 12th February, 1847, that funds for the destitute were being applied by certain persons "in shipping off the wretched naked creatures to England and Wales". In "The Great Hunger" Cecil Woodham Smith reports how the Mayor of Newport detained a vessel belonging to a Skibbereen grain merchant because it had been used for landing paupers. By 1st June, 300,000 Irish had landed in Liverpool during that year, 1847.
In 1841 the population of Ireland was just under eight million. After the famine in 1851, it was six and a half million. Munster was rated the second worst of the provinces having lost 23.5% of it population. Connaught was worst hit losing 28.6, then Ulster on 16% and Leinster on 15.5%. It is a legacy that will never be forgotten.

Claire Hopper