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Page 2 of 6
The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
Number 1

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 to add:

"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 agents.

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."

He added:

"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 feed it."

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 lb. of oatmeal for breakfast, and 1 gill of milk; and, for dinner, 3 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 of soup."

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 day.

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 and pity."

"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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