The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
Between August, 1845, and January, 1846, just at the onset of the Famine in
Ireland, "The Times" newspaper published a series of letters written
by one Thomas Campbell Foster of the Middle Temple, barrister-at-law, whom "The
Times" had appointed as its own "Commissioner to study the condition
of the people of Ireland". Foster took the task seriously, travelled extensively
throughout the country, and in all wrote forty letters which, following publication
in "The Times", appeared in book form, published by Chapman and Hall,
London, in 1846.
Foster was a peculiar fish. He was a keen observer and a good reporter. For
these qualities his letters are a valuable source of information on the conditions
under which a poverty-stricken peasantry existed prior to the Famine. His summation,
however, written on March 15, 1846, revealed an abysmal failure to comprehend
what he had witnessed, and an utter inability to recommend realistic solutions
to stave off the impending disaster.
In his own words, found in the preface to his published volume:
"I can arrive at no other conclusion--looking at the general absence
of all enterprise and all exertion, and at the general want of industry, which
are existing facts that all observers have noticed--than that, for the poverty
and distress and misery which exist, the people have themselves to blame."
To be fair, Foster included absentee landlords in his finding, but hastened
"It is an unfair conclusion to attribute the evils which afflict Ireland
to any influence out of Ireland; and it is an unfair conclusion to attribute
its social evils to any one class."
Notwithstanding his bias, the 771 pages of his book, including index and appendices,
provide a valuable window through which to view contemporary life at the onset
of the Famine, and none more so than the letters Foster wrote during his travels
throughout Donegal in August and September of 1845.
Many of his observations are not pleasant reading, but are given without emendation
in order to shed light on contemporary English ruling-class views of Ireland
and all things Irish. His statistical tables show conclusively that enough other
food, sufficient to stave off much of the starvation, was being exported from
Ireland in order to pay exorbitant land rents to absentee landlords and their
To set what follows in perspective, the following quotation from "The
Ballyshannon Herald" of September 29, 1845, is pertinent:
"Almost all of the wheat in this County is reaped and safely made up;
it is an average crop. The barley is reaped and is more than an average crop
of excellent quality. Turnips look well. The potato crop looks most luxuriant,
but some are complaining that a disease has prevailed to a partial extent;
a considerable number of cows and pigs have fallen a sacrifice to the prevailing
distemper in different parts of this Country."
Foster, in a letter from Ballyshannon dated August 27, gave a graphic pen picture
of Lough Erne, "a magnificent sheet of water", in many parts of it
"fully equal to Windermere in beauty". He continued:
"At Ballyshannon to-day I saw a foreign brig unloading timber at the
foot of a fall of water, an outlet from this lake, navigable for fifty miles
into the interior. A canal, four miles in length, would open the navigation
of this lake to the sea, and render Enniskillen, in Fermanagh, or Belturbet,
in Cavan, capable of becoming ports of export and import. Yet no canal is
attempted. It would require capital, which nobody will spend. I must, however,
in justice to Colonel Connolly, M.P., one of the resident landlords of this
district, state that he has done much and spent much to forward this object,
in endeavouring to make a good harbour on the sea coast. I am told that forty
years ago a canal from the lake for this short distance to the sea was commenced,
and given up for want of capital to carry it through. This apathy and want
of spirit of enterprise and improvement have been taken advantage of by the
Scotchmen and enterprising inhabitants of Belfast, who, having made a water
communication to Lough Neagh, have cut a canal (the Ulster Canal) from Lough
Neagh across the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh to the upper part of Lough
Erne; there is, therefore, a means of water carriage across the whole island
except at the four miles from the termination of Lough Erne to the sea on
the west coast, and Belfast has secured to itself all the advantages and profits
of being the port for all this internal communication."
"Yesterday Lord Erne navigated a private steam-boat to Belleek, the
lowest point of the lake, for the first time. This steamer came from Belfast
by the Ulster Canal the whole distance through this water communication, and
was thus within three miles of the sea on the west coast. There is about 12
feet [of water] over the bar at the mouth of the river which falls from this
lake, and it forms a fine harbour when entered. In the three miles from the
lake to the sea, into which the lake empties itself, there is a continual
succession of fine falls of water, and an immense water power, which the inexhaustible
supply of the lake affords. With the exception of a small wheel for grinding
malt for a distillery, this exhaustless power has never been put to any use."
Inhabitants of Ballyshannon and Bundoran will remember that a century later
they enjoyed the benefit of electricity generated by this "inexhaustible
power" as a result of the enterprise shown by the Myles family of Ballyshannon
with a generating plant which preceded the E.S.B.'s hydro-electric Erne Scheme.
A whiff of Foster's ingrained philosophy may be gained from a footnote which
he included with this letter in the printed volume published later. After quoting
approvingly a recommendation made in the 1700s by a Dr. Madden of the Royal
Dublin Society for the cutting of such a canal "from Lough Erne to the
sea-port of Ballyshannon", Foster wrote:
"Though this wise observation was written more than a century ago, the
canal remains unmade yet, and with every prospect--if the cutting is to be left
to the enterprise of the inhabitants about Ballyshannon--of still remaining
uncut for a century to come."
To this he added the further insult:
"How can you hope for a people to prosper who thus have not the mind
to help themselves, and to use those natural advantages which are lavishly
bestowed upon them? Belfast, on the opposite coast, has no natural advantages
to compare with those of Ballyshannon and its neighbourhood. Yet Belfast,
from the exertions of its Scotch and English inhabitants, is the wealthiest
and most important town in Ireland, so far as manufacturing prosperity goes,
whilst Ballyshannon is a wretched little town depending for existence on its
neighbourhood to a watering place for sea-bathing, and on its salmon fishery,
now leased by a lady named Shiel."
Natives of Ballyshannon reading the above may well understand the ire raised
by Foster among many Irish people during his perambulations throughout the country.
"Wretched little town" is a far cry from Willy Allingham's description
of Ballyshannon as "the kindly spot, the friendly town," in his fond
farewell to "The Winding Banks of Erne".
To present-day readers of Foster's reports on conditions in Ireland at the
time of the first failure of the potato crop in 1845, which were replete with
statistical information on seed costs, poor rates, tithes, land rents, crop
returns, and wages, one astounding figure commands attention, namely, the amount
of potatoes consumed by labourers, their wives and families.
Writing from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, on August 22 of that year, Foster asserted:
"I am assured that eight pounds of potatoes per day is but a small allowance
for a labouring man. The quantity seems extraordinary to English habits; but
I am assured by an eminent surgeon here that nature accommodates herself to
this kind of food, and that it is a physiological fact that he requires a
larger amount of poor food to extract from it the necessary quantity of nutriment
to support life, so the stomach of a man who thus lives has a proportionate
increased capacity. However, be this as it may, I am informed on good authority
that a labouring man requires eight pounds of potatoes per day when they form
the sole diet. Taking an average family--a wife and four children, and allowing
the wife six pounds and the children three pounds each of potatoes per day--we
have a consumption of twenty- six pounds of potatoes per day, leaving the
refuse and six pounds of potatoes per day for the pig. But a middling-sized
pig will require, I am informed, about twenty pounds of potatoes per day to
This was expounded upon by Foster at page 558 of his work in his reference
to Irish paupers:
"If you ask them "Why don't you go to the workhouse?" they
tell you they are starved in the house, and won't go into it. As to this matter,
I ascertained at the union workhouse at Ballyshannon, Donegal, whilst there,
that the diet of the paupers is ½ lb. of oatmeal for breakfast, and
1 gill of milk; and, for dinner, 3½ lbs. of potatoes. At Belfast, amongst
a more mixed race, the diet is obliged to be made better. In the union workhouse
there the diet is, four days in the week, for breakfast, six ounces of meal
and two-thirds of a pint of buttermilk; dinner 2 lbs. of potatoes and one
pint and a half of soup; supper, 4 ounces of oatmeal and two-thirds of a pint
of buttermilk. This diet is varied on the other days of the week by giving
3 lbs. of potatoes to dinner and two-thirds of a pint of buttermilk instead
The distinction is obvious. Paupers of "mixed race" in Belfast, pre-famine,
got three meals a day. In Ballyshannon, Irish paupers were given two meals a
Just one year later, another picture of conditions in Donegal workhouses was
given in a report by James H. Tuke to the Society of Friends (Quakers), reproduced
in "The Great Irish Famine" (1902) by Rev. John O'Rourke, pages 395-398.
Here is Tuke's description:
"We visited the poorhouse at Glenties, which is in a dreadful state;
the people were in fact half starved and only half clothed. The day before
they had but one meal of oatmeal and water; and at the time of our visit had
not sufficient food in the house for the day's supply. The people complained
bitterly, as well they might, and begged us to give them ticket for work,
to enable them to leave the place and work on the roads. Some were leaving
the house, preferring to die in their own hovels rather than in the Poorhouse.
"Their bedding consisted of dirty straw, in which they were laid in
rows on the floor; even as many as six persons were crowded under one rug;
and we did not see a blanket at all. The rooms were hardly bearable for filth.
The living and the dying were stretched side by side beneath the same miserable
covering. No wonder that disease and pestilence were filling the infirmary,
and that the pale, haggard countenances of the poor boys and girls told of
sufferings which it was impossible to contemplate without the deepest commiseration
"There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics." This
oft quoted saying, attributed to Twain and various others, should preface any
citation of figures used to advance a position stated or taken. However, in
view of the contention of certain revisionist historians that the quantity of
agricultural produce (food) produced in Ireland during the Famine years and
exported to England could not offset the total loss of the potato crop, the
table produced by T.C. Foster in his final letter (p. 614), dated "The
Temple, Feb. 25, 1846", offers a plain rebuttal.
The total value of wheat, barley, oats, and wheat flour exported to England
came to £ 4,968,165 in 1845. Foster then went on to calculate the value
of livestock exports, sheep, butter, porter, and flax, at another £ 4
million to £ 5 million, making a combined total of almost £ 10 million,
a huge sum for the times--no pun intended.
As so tellingly stated by one of Foster's later countrymen, Lord Balfour, and
which aforesaid revisionists should ponder:
"The only form of history which is really immortal is the contemporary
record from which future historians draw their materials. Every generation
will insist on rewriting the history of the past in its own fashion. But the
original sources remain. They only remain; they only are perpetual."
The present writer had the happy experience to quote Balfour in a previous
(1980) publication "The Hansard Chronicles", (p. 136).
To Balfour, and to Foster, ironically both English, much thanks, the first
for the precept, the second for the practice. Foster's own figures belie the
contention that the Famine's horrors were a natural occurrence.
"The Times" and Donegal Navigation
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