The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
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
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
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
"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.
"The Times" and Donegal Navigation
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