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The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
Number 3

In 1845, when the great Famine of that and following years was about to break upon Ireland, "The Times" newspaper appointed Thomas Campbell Foster as its "Commissioner to report on the condition of the people of Ireland".

In two previous articles, excerpts from his letters from Donegal in August and September of that year have been reproduced. In this, the third article, there appear extracts from his letter written at Gweedore on September 3, 1845, in which he described the towns he passed through, namely, Donegal, Glenties, Dungloe, and the island of Arranmore.

From Donegal town, he "proceeded to Glenties, a village which is the property of the Marquis of Conyngham, whose chief managing agent is Mr. Benbow, M.P. for Dudley. The whole of the country for many miles in the direction of Dungloe, and beyond that town--in fact, almost the whole barony of Boylagh--belongs to this nobleman, together with the island of Arran, or Arranmore, on the west coast. Once in the course of his lifetime--two years ago--the Marquis of Conyngham visited this estate for a few days. His chief agent, Mr. Benbow, usually comes once a year, and the sub-agents visit the tenants every half year to collect the rents. At short periods of a few years the farms are visited to see what increased rent they will bear, and this is the extent of the acquaintance of the Marquis of Conyngham with his tenants. This nobleman, himself, bears the character of a kind-hearted, generous man--fond of yachting and amusement, and having an excessive distaste for every kind of business or trouble. From one end of his large estate here to the other, nothing is to be found but poverty, misery, wretched cultivation, and infinite subdivision of land. There are no gentry, no middle-class,-- all are poor--wretchedly poor."

"Every shilling the tenants can raise from their half-cultivated land is paid in rent, whilst the people subsist for the most part on potatoes and water....Every rude effort that they make to increase the amount of the[ir] produce is followed immediately by raising their rents in proportion--as it were, to punish them for improving; they are, naturally enough, as discontented and full of complaints as they are wretched in their condition."

Foster reported in minute detail what he found when he visited some of the homes, if such they could be called, of the noble marquis's tenants.

"Into these cottages I entered. They were stone-built and well-roofed, but the mud-floor was uneven, damp, and filthy. In one corner was a place for the pig, with a drain from it through the wall to carry off the liquid manure, like a stable. Two chairs, a bedstead of the rudest description, a cradle, a spinning-wheel, and an iron-pot constituted the whole furniture. An inner room contained another rude bedstead; the mud-floor was quite damp. In this room six children slept on loose hay, with one dirty blanket to cover them...The father, mother, and an infant slept in the first room, also on loose hay, and with but one blanket on the bed. The children were running about as nearly naked as possible, dressed in the cast-off rags of the father and mother; the father could not buy them clothes. They had not been to mass for a twelvemonth for want of decent clothes to go in.

"These men assured me that their whole food was potatoes, and if they had a penny to spare they bought salt or a few sprats, but very seldom these. Instead of buying salt they sometimes bought pepper and mixed it with the water they drank. This they called 'kitchin'--it gave a flavour to their food."

News Flash
That was then. This is now.

On Sunday, April 14, 1996, the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, journeyed to Donegal to honour Glenties for winning the 1995 Tidy Towns Competition.

"One of the things I notice when travelling around the country, which is a source of sadness to me, is the litter. Glenties is a shining example of what it means to be litter-free," said Mrs. Robinson. (Source: "The Irish Times" Internet edition, 15/04/96).

The contrast between conditions in Glenties under English rule, described by "The Times" own commissioner, and the conditions described by an Irish President 150 years on, could not be starker.

The people of Glenties, and of Donegal in general, can be proud of their accomplishments in local improvements, all of which bode well for future endeavours. (see The Falls of Assaroe).

Moving to Dungloe, "a village sixteen miles further, direct north," also owned by the ever-caring, ever-solicitous for himself, Marquis of Conyngham, Foster again described "filthy and wretched cottages" housing not only pigs but calves and ducks "dabbling in a pool of dirty water in a hole in the mud-floor".

Foster reserved his sharpest criticism for the local inn, which he described at length. "The look of the inn was most unpromising. A pile of lime and sand, for building a wall adjoining, blocked up the doorway, but a bright peat-fire and a boarded and sanded floor--a luxury not to be met with everywhere in Ireland--made me hope for a comfortable rest. The brightness of the fire gilded over the discomfort of the room. It was perfectly Irish.

"Two large and apparently much-frequented rat-holes in the floor showed no want of company of that kind. The table was propped; its cover torn and dirty; one of the windows had before it a broken looking-glass to dress by, a corner of which still remained in the frame; the whitewashed walls were marked round with candle-smoke where candles had been stuck with their own tallow; and two beds at one side of the room had a most unpromising appearance. Sundry women's caps were stuck under the testers for readiness, and under each bed was a pile of dirt and sand, the sweepings of the floor from a remote antiquity." That evening, he recounted:

"After making a tolerable supper on eggs--that only support of travellers in parts of Ireland, the bread being sour, the butter abominable, the appearance of the salt forbidding its use, and the tea an infusion of some unknown herb--I went to bed thoroughly tired, hoping to sleep. But the 'downy pinions' of what the poet Young describes as 'tired nature's sweet restorer' fled from me; and every moment I remained there I began to have a more and more lively impression of the application of an old song I once heard:--

Those cursed fleas!--
At first they came by twos and threes,
But now they come by swarms.

"At length the weary night passed over in listening to the gambols of the rats, making the most of their opportunity at the bread-loaf, until the quacking and cackling of some ducks and hens in the next room assured me morning was breaking."

Foster revealed a certain sympathy for the local people, writing that he did not blame them for his discomfort. "They gave me the best they had; and they never saw, and cannot conceive, anything better. And with a non-resident landlord, a non- resident agent, and no one to teach them anything, either by precept or example, how are they likely to improve? The politeness and hospitality of a gentleman some five miles off saved me the infliction of the breakfast."

He ended this epistle to his "Times" readers with an account of a visit to "the island of Arran, which is also the property of the Marquis of Conyngham", where he found similar if not worse conditions, and where the Marquis's tenants "lived on sea-weed part of the year", two varieties of which were "dillisk" and "dhoolaman".

The seeming oddity of the people of a seacoast county, such as Donegal, suffering starvation and death by famine, when they might have subsisted on a diet of fish, has been commented upon by various writers. Two reasons have been advanced.

Only the curragh, a flimsy wicker boat sheathed with tarred canvas, was available for use by the native fishermen. In rough seas a curragh could not be launched.

Secondly, the fish runs were seasonal. Herring and mackerel could not be netted except at certain times of the year. Shellfish could not be eaten safely twelve months of the year.

A third, and hitherto, not widely acknowledged reason, was presaged unconsciously by another English visitor to Ireland, the journalist and farmer, Arthur Young, whose "A Tour of Ireland" preceded T.C. Foster's account by some seventy years, to be exact, in 1776.

Some remarkable statistics were included in a table at page 178 of Young's work. The table contained five columns, and listed the numbers of seafaring men employed at various ports throughout Ireland.

Young, meticulous in his reporting, noted that, in 1695, Belfast and Carrickfergus had 268 seamen, fishermen and boatmen. The fifth column noted, without comment, 2 were papists.

Even more revealing, at Donaghadee, in a total of 313 not one was a papist.

Such bare facts tell their own story of the cause of unrest in the north of Ireland for the past 300 years.

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