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The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
Number 2

This is the second in a series of articles dealing with Thomas Campbell Foster's "Letters on the Condition of the People of Ireland" published in book form in 1846. Foster, on behalf of "The Times" newspaper, travelled extensively throughout Ireland from August to December of the preceding year, when the first of the disastrous potato crop failures that ushered in the Famine years appeared.

Combining keen observation of social and economic conditions with his pre-conditioned antipathy toward the mass of the Irish people, Foster presented a picture that, while revealing the excesses of absentee landlords, at the same time managed to excuse their most severe atrocities by blaming their agents, the middle-men, who did the actual work of extracting exorbitant rents from a native peasantry about to suffer starvation, land clearances, and forced emigration.

His personality nowhere comes through more clearly than in his description of Lough Derg, then, as now, a popular place of pilgrimage for devout Roman Catholics, and in the unwitting revelation of his own feelings about people and priests. Foster's letter on this subject was datelined Donegal town, August 30, 1845.

That he visited Lough Derg and Station Island is fact, that he saw its buildings and described them accurately is fact, and that he accepted, regrettably at second-hand, accounts of the penances undertaken by pilgrims, is also fact. Accordingly, his condemnation of religious practices at Lough Derg lacks a foundation that can stand the test of time, and is at odds with other contemporary reports. His greatest error in this respect was to claim that "a shilling fee is charged for confession though often more is given."

Here is Foster, in his own words, describing his visit:

"On leaving Ballyshannon I went round inland by Pettigo, in order to witness some agricultural improvements which I heard had been effected there, and to have the opportunity of conversing with the very intelligent agent, Mr. Hamilton, of Pettigo, under whose superintendence as an agriculturalist the improvements had been carried out. Pettigo is in the immediate neighbourhood of Lough Derg, long celebrated as (what is termed) a "station". To an island in the centre of the lake some 20,000 Roman Catholics from all parts of Ireland annually make a pilgrimage, to undergo a kind of discipline which their church enjoins."

In a lengthy footnote, Foster wrote:

"A 'station' is a place to which persons of the Roman Catholic faith are required to make a pilgrimage as a kind of penance....At the time I visited it--the latter end of August-- the 'station' had been over about ten days."

After praising "the old boatman and his son" who ferried him to the island for being "very communicative, and readily told me everything I asked them," Foster continued:

"From ten to fifteen priests are usually engaged during the 'station', and lodge in the prior's house. No person was now living on the island, and all the houses were closed. On looking through the windows of the priory, the accommodation of the priests appeared to be of the rudest description--unpainted white wood chairs, tables, and bedsteads, and sawdusty floors. Each of the seven lodging-houses accommodates from twelve to twenty persons in a similar rough way. To the poorest pilgrims, twopence a night is charged for the use of a chaff-bed; for those better off, threepence a night for the use of a feather-bed. The lodging-house keepers also sell the pilgrims oaten bread, which, with water, is the only diet they are allowed to take whilst on the island. The continuance of the pilgrims on the island is from three to nine days, according to the penance they are to perform."

Foster went on to describe how pilgrims were obliged to spend their first night on the island without any sleep:

"Many of these poor creatures, after, perhaps, a long pilgrimage, have walked that day a dozen miles, and have been kept waiting, perhaps for hours, without food, before their turn came to be ferried across; and they are not permitted to taste food the first night of their arrival on the island--they must 'fast and pray'. Physically exhausted, too, by their own religious enthusiasm and fervour, and perhaps with sore feet, cut by the sharp stones they have been made to walk over, it is no wonder that they should be in danger of sleeping..."

"The morning after the pilgrims' arrival, after a night thus spent, he or she has to confess to one of the priests....there are eight or ten wood confession-boxes, like watchmen's boxes, in which the priests sit, closed up, except a small window in front. At the side of these boxes is a small square hole, through which the kneeling penitent confesses his or her sins into the ear of the priest inside. The priest then orders a certain amount of penitence or discipline to be gone through proportioned to the enormity of the offence of which the pilgrim has been guilty. A shilling fee is charged for the confession, though often more is given."

As to the nature of the penances, Foster expressed a sense of outrage:

"The pilgrims, for one penance, are made to walk nine times round the pathway round the cross bare-footed over the sharp stones; and, according to their penance, they are made to walk or crawl a certain number of times on their bare knees--men and women--round the outside of the circular erection of stones. Great offenders are made to walk or crawl the same number of times round a similar pathway round each chapel. The greater distance to go, of course, increases their suffering...

"This protracted and severe discipline very often occasions death amongst delicate pilgrims. Those who thus die are conceived to be supremely happy."

He summed it all up thusly:

"I came away with certainly no very exalted idea of the Roman Catholic faith which could thus degrade the intellect of man into the belief that personal torture changes the heart, or that cut feet and bleeding knees are acceptable sacrifice to God."

It should be added that Foster, "The Times" one-man commission of inquiry, also reported on leaving Station Island that he was invited by a party of four boatmen to inspect their "still" on a neighbouring island and, while there, did taste the wort, just to please them.

Many a good man, before and since, has had a jorum "just to please" whomever was offering it.

Foster's descriptions of conditions in Donegal town and environs were contained in a letter he penned as few days after leaving it.

"The town of Donegal," he wrote, "itself exhibits another of those numerous examples of neglect with which Ireland abounds. The bay of Donegal, dotted with green islands, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and the town nestling at the foot of magnificent hills, which rise in the background abruptly behind it, affords scenery of the most exquisite natural beauty.

"There is sea-bathing, and a mineral spa of precisely the same quality as the Harrowgate water, and baths, close to the town....

"There are also pleasant walks formed along the shore of the river for the use of the inhabitants, by the liberality of Lord Arran, who has a small property in the neighbourhood of the town.

"Were all the advantages of scenery, locality, bathing, and cheapness of living which this town possesses, connected with any English town, it would not be long before it was a second Brighton, or Bath, or Cheltenham. There is, however, but one resident landlord or gentleman in the neighbourhood--Mr. Hamilton--who has built himself a beautiful house on one of the islands in the bay; and the town remains neglected and poor."

That Foster thought fit to report the existence of "but one resident landlord" is itself telling. Here is what James Tuke, cited in last week's issue, noted on the subject of landlords in Donegal:

"This county, like most others in Ireland, belongs to a few large proprietors, some of them , unhappily, absentees, whose large domains sometimes extend over whole parishes and baronies, and contain a population of 8,000 to 12,000."

Readers who are following this series, and who may be interested in other relevant information, are invited to note that in 1847, at the worst stage of the Famine in Ireland, the Choctaw Nation in the United States of America, themselves mercilessly discriminated against by governing authorities, raised $170 for the relief of Irish famine victims.

Choctaw artist, Gary White Deer, has created a painting, commissioned by the Government of Ireland, in remembrance of the Great Famine. Limited edition prints are being sold to support a famine relief project in Ethiopia.

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