The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
In the past number of weeks this Home Page has been publishing a series of
articles dealing with conditions throughout Donegal as described by Thomas Campbell
Foster, an English barrister commissioned by "The Times" of London
during the harvest season of 1845 which marked the onslaught of the potato crop
failure of that and succeeding years, culminating in the Irish Famine, with
all the disastrous consequences that flowed from its horrors, horrors all too
familiar to present-day television viewers of scenes from Ethiopia, Rwanda,
As narrated in the first of these articles, Foster's visit to Donegal in September
1845 was followed within a matter of weeks by a news report in "The Ballyshannon
Herald" of September 29 of that year, stating:
"The potato crop looks most luxuriant but some are
complaining that a disease has prevailed to a partial
That "partial extent" was a most optimistic report, as succeeding
Writing from Gweedore on September 6, Foster gave an entirely different picture
of conditions from that which he drew earlier at Glenties and Dungloe. Here
everything was depicted as ushering in the millennium, all due to the exertions
of one caring, compassionate, resident landlord, Lord George Hill, who, seven
years earlier, in 1848, "purchased several small properties in this neighbourhood,
which, in the aggregate, amounted to upwards of 23,000 acres....The neighbourhood
abounds with wild and magnificent mountain scenery; and at the period in question,
though thickly populated in patches, was almost wholly uncultivated. Vast tracts
of land capable of improvement and profitable cultivation were mere bog wastes,
like many other portions of this county."
Foster took considerable pains to detail conditions in this area prior to Lord
Hill's purchase of his estate, using extracts from a memorial drawn up in 1837
by the resident schoolmaster, one Patrick McKye, who sought to impress upon
the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland the stark poverty of its people.
KcKye brought to his task the experience of a well-travelled man of his times.
In his memorial he stated: "....the parishioners of this parish of West
Tullaghabegley, in the barony of Kilmacrennan, and county of Donegal, are in
the most needy, hungry, and naked condition of any people that ever came within
the precincts of my knowledge, although I have travelled a part of nine counties
in Ireland, also a part of England and Scotland, together with a part of British
America; I have likewise perambulated 2,253 miles through some of the United
States, and never witnessed the tenth part of such hunger, hardship, and nakedness."
McKye cited statistics in support of his case. Using the census of 1831 he
gave the population as 9,049, with "but one cart and one plough, 20 shovels,
32 rakes, 2 feather beds, and 8 chaff beds."
"None of their married or unmarried women can afford more than one shift,
and some cannot afford any; more than one-half of both men and women cannot
afford shoes to their feet, nor can many of them afford a second bed, but
whole families of sons and daughters of mature age indiscriminately lie together
with their parents.
"They have no means of harrowing their land but with meadow rakes. Their
farms are so small that from four to ten farms can be harrowed in a day with
"Their beds are straw, green and dried rushes, or mountain bent; their
bedclothes are either coarse sheets, or no sheets, and ragged filthy blankets;
and, worse than all I have mentioned, there is a general prospect of starvation."
Eight short years later, according to Foster, under the benevolent direction
of Lord George Hill a transformation had been wrought.
Hill's estate in Gweedore has been the subject of a number of studies in recent
years. Back in 1845 Foster relied greatly on Hill's own account of his management,
which Hill prepared and published in a booklet, titled "Facts from Gweedore".
Foster also gave his own eye-witness evidence, in his own characteristic fashion,
"The people here are for the most part the aboriginal Irish, and speak
the Erse language. Lord George Hill learned their language, mixed among them,
and taught them by example to do what he told them. Near the mouth of the
river he built a corn store to receive all their produce; if they wished to
sell it. To meet their numerous wants, and to save them from extortion, he
built a shop at the store, and the people, having sold their corn at one side
can obtain at the other any article of crockery, grocery, saddlery, ironmongery,
timber, iron, ropes, meal, leather, woollen goods, or useful medicines, which
they may require, at the market prices of Londonderry. This is the only market
for their goods, and the only shop at which they can purchase anything for
twenty miles round. A dispensary was also built, and a sessions-house erected.
A quay was made for vessels to unload at the store, and a corn-mill erected.
Then followed a school, in which I yesterday saw some 30 as neatly-dressed
and clean-looking children as can be seen in England."
Undoubtedly these were all progressive and much-needed measures in the climate
of the times, and Hill deserved his own and Foster's pat on the back. Viewed
through late twentieth-century eyes, what Hill had was a company town, with
a company store.
The only obstacles to these wondrous improvements, according to both Foster
and Hill, were the aboriginal Irish. As stated by Foster: "The people,
utterly ignorant and both mentally and physically degraded, resolutely opposed
every step to improvement."
Contrasted with his experiences in Glenties and Dungloe, Foster described his
visits to tenant cotters in Gweedore. "I yesterday went through some of
the cottages the tenants of which had won premiums for them. There was no dirt,
no filth. They were well built and whitewashed. The crockery (they never had
anything beyond an iron pot before) was neatly arranged; there was no smoke
in the houses; and, what was worth more than all, the women showed their houses
with pride, and were delighted at the commendations they received, and the men
seemed no less proud of their little farms, and showed their crops of turnips,
oats, and improvements, with evident pleasure."
Curiously, Foster did not mention anything about the potato harvest, soon to
be killed by blight, but did note otherwise apparently abundant crops.
"Two and a half years ago 500l. worth of oats were sold by the tenants
at the market price at the store; last year 1,300l. worth was sold; and this
year there is a vastly increased produce. Large quantities of kelp have also
been bought from them to encourage their industry."
Nor did Foster have anything bad to say about the hotel where he stayed, another
Lord Hill project, and from which he observed: "At the river-side facing
the hotel I saw about 30 men at work, lowering the bed of the river. The men,
generally, are small in stature; but I never saw more diligent labourers. These
men, who, four years ago, did not know how to use a spade except in their own
way, and who were annually starving, are now working well, doing their best,
and receiving good wages."
Foster's snapshot of conditions in Gweedore in 1845 depicted one happy family
with one happy landlord, and the unstated promise of an Irish utopia in the
making. Before the end of the century the Gweedore evictions painted a much
grimmer picture, leading to the death of R.I.C. police-inspector Martin and
the trial of Father McFadden on a charge of murder. Hill's Garden of Eden had
vanished. Today, Foster's pen-picture is all that remains of it.
The Harpoon Gun
As an aside to Foster's harping on the lack of local enterprise, a return to
Arthur Young's "A Tour in Ireland" cited last week, uncovers a reference
to one resident of Kilmacrennan, Thomas Nesbit, not a native name. To him Young
gave recognition for the invention of the whaling gun harpoon, and asserted:
"From many experiments, he brought the operation to such a success that,
for some years, he never missed a whale, nor failed of holding her by the
harpoon; he had for some time ill success, from firing when too near, for
the harpoon does not then fly true, but at 14 or 15 yards distance, which
is what he would chuse (sic), it flies straight; he has killed several at
"I have been the more particular in giving an account of this undertaking
because the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, &c. at London, has
long since given premiums for the invention of the gun harpoon, supposing
it to be original."
One wonders if Nesbit's invention is still remembered in Kilmacrennan.
The Irish Holocaust
On January 8, 1947, verdicts of "death by starvation" were returned
at five inquests held at Bantry, Co. Kerry. This was a common verdict whenever
inquests were held. In hundreds of thousands of cases no inquests were conducted,
the volume of deaths making it impossible to hold them.
The five Bantry inquests are singled out for attention simply because they
were followed shortly by portions of a letter published in the "Cork Examiner":
"Each day brings with it its own horrors. The mind recoils from the
contemplation of the scenes we are compelled to witness every hour. Ten inquests
in Bantry--there should have been at least two hundred inquests. Every day,
every hour produces its own victims--holocausts offered at the shrine of political
The present writer is indebted to John O'Rourke for including this quotation
in his book "The Great Irish Famine", cited previously. To my belief,
its use in January 1847 was the first time "holocaust" was applied
to the Irish Famine, forerunner of another holocaust of more recent memory,
during the Second World War.
As noted at the start of this issue, television viewers worldwide have been
witnesses to the horrific consequences of famine and genocide in Africa and
Europe in recent decades. All remember the pictures of mass graves, corpses
piled on corpses.
In Ireland, during the Famine, so many graveyards were so quickly filled up
that burial pits were opened to receive the bodies of the dead. At first, an
attempt was made to provide coffins for all. It was an impossible task. Mass
burials demanded new methods, which led to the creation of the hinged coffin,
reusable and recyclable.
"In Donegal," wrote R. J. McHugh in "The Great Famine, Studies
in Irish History 1845-52", editors R. Dudley Edwards and T. Desmond Williams
(1956), "such coffins are called comhunracha measóige, coffins with
moveable bottoms like panniers, and are described as having one side fastened
by a couple of loops of rope with a bolt across underneath secured by another
rope-loop which could be untied easily."
An even more efficient corpse disposal system was devised by digging pits near
hospitals and workhouses.
"People dying in Castlerea [Co. Galway] workhouse were put into a room
along whose sloping floor-boards they could be slid into a grave-pit outside
the gable; the gable grew black from the lime used and was called the Black
Gable The terror which such places inspired was one reason for people's hatred
of the workhouse."
McHugh, and his fellow contributors, have preserved these and other contemporary
records of such burial practices.
"To Hell or to Canada"
The voluminous material already available at this time of the 150th commemoration
of the Irish Famine can be overwhelming. New sources of contemporary information
are being discovered monthly, if not weekly. Horror is piled on graphic horror,
until the whole becomes unwholesome to those of weak stomach.
It is, therefore, a relief to unearth from O'Rourke's almost 600 pages (see
Number 1), reference to a proposed mass emigration scheme, under which 2,000,000
(two million) Catholics were to be transported from Ireland to Canada within
a period of three years. This was seriously put forward in the spring of 1847,
and the attached 51-page memorial was signed by:
"one archbishop (denomination undetermined), four marquises, seven earls,
three viscounts, thirteen barons, nine baronets, eighteen members of parliament,
and several deputy-lieutenants."
One of the signatories was the self-same Lord George Hill, Foster's much vaunted
landlord of Gweedore.
Given the demographics of the time, had the scheme been implemented, Irish
might now be one of Canada's official languages. (See "An Attempt to make
Gaelic Canada's third Official Language" in "The Untold Story: The
Irish in Canada", Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988.
For the famine stricken people of Ireland, it was a New World twist on Cromwell's
oft-quoted diktat, "To Hell or to Connacht!"
Foster's "Winged Art"
This series was prompted by a reading of T. C. Foster's 1846 book on conditions
in Ireland as he protrayed them for the readers of "The Times" newspaper,
the then principal organ of the English ruling class.
The first number said of Foster:
"He was a keen observer and a good reporter."
How he came to be a good reporter has just come to this writer's notice, in
fact, on Sunday, 21/04/96.
As recorded by E. C. Large in his book "The Advance of the Fungi",
Jonathan Cape Ltd. (1940), reprinted by Dover Publications Inc., New York (p.22):
"Mr. Foster was called to the Bar in the following year (1846); he had
a judicial mind and had recently perfected a new system of shorthand, very
useful for the recording of facts."
As one who has spent a working lifetime writing shorthand, I hasten to share
this knowledge of Foster's accomplishment with a global fraternity of court,
newspaper and parliamentary reporters.
"The Times" and Donegal Navigation
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