The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
The fourth and final letter written in County Donegal by Thomas Campbell Foster,
appointed commissioner by "The Times" of London to inquire into "the
condition of the people of Ireland" in 1845, just prior to the potato crop
failure and the succeeding horrors of the Irish Famine, was datelined Dunfanaghy,
Just nineteen days later, on September 29, "The Ballyshannon Herald's"
harvest report noted an average wheat crop, an abundant oats crop, more than
an average crop of barley of excellent quality, and the turnip crop "looking
well". The next sentence in its report began: "The potato crop looks
most luxuriant but some are complaining that a disease has prevailed to a partial
extent", chilling words when read in retrospect with full knowledge of
the deaths, sufferings, emigration, and land clearances that followed.
Some present-day revisionist historians dispute the contention that, all during
the Famine years, food produced in abundance in Ireland was shipped out of the
country to pay rents to, in most cases, absentee landlords. Foster's letters
from Donegal and other areas of the country, written at the time of the first
failure of the potato crop, are contemporary evidence to the contrary. There
was abundant other food, but not for the starving Irish of Donegal, Fermanagh,
Leitrim, Connacht, Munster, and parts of Leinster.
Whatever his other qualifications might have been, Foster was a meticulous
recorder of statistics, and his measurements of food production were based not
only on his own observations but also on estate managers' records, records that
cannot conceal the man-made nature of the Famine.
The potato blight affected practically all of Europe, but continental populations
were not dying by the scores, the hundreds, and the thousands as a result. Other
food, if not abundant, was at least sufficient to make up the shortfall, and
that other food was not shipped abroad to pay absentee landlords in England.
Foster's letter from Dunfanaghy was the ninth in the series. In all, he wrote
forty articles, the last dated London, February 25, 1846. His Dunfanaghy survey
departed from previous assessments of local conditions in the areas he visited.
In effect, it amounted to an attempt to justify his own prejudiced opinions
of the qualities of native Irish tenants and workers as opposed to those of
the English and Scottish farmers holding lands seized from the native Irish
during the Plantation of Ulster.
Fully aware of the controversy likely to erupt on revealing his findings, he
endeavoured to sideline criticism by claiming, early in his letter:
"I enter on this inquiry with perfect impartiality--for I have no possible
interest in upholding an opinion either one way or the other, and only seek
the conclusion to which common sense points."
How far did Mr. Foster's conclusions go to uphold his "perfect impartiality"
and common sense? A few excerpts from his ninth letter are illuminating:
"I know right well that I write on tender ground, and that I lay myself
open to the charge of 'national prejudice' if I write a syllable in favour
of the population of the north-east of Ireland. But I do not come to bandy
compliments, but to ascertain facts and to state them. It is the nature of
the men on the east coast of Ireland, by their activity, their enterprise,
their intelligence, and their industry, to rise to wealth and prosperity--to
push themselves--to accomplish greatness. It is their history in every quarter
of the known world where they have been placed. It is the nature of the men
on the west coast [i.e. Donegal] to cling with strong affection and prejudice
to old habits, to their land, to their kindred. Enterprise is forced upon
them; they do not seek it as one of the pleasures of existence. The middle
classes live by subletting, and subletting, and again subletting the land
at increased rentals. This is the extent of their enterprise."
He added an observation on the poorer classes:
"As they increase, they divide and subdivide the patch of land they
possess; they submit to live on poorer and poorer food; still they cling to
the land, and subdivide it with their children till rent no longer exists,
the land will not keep them, and all starve together. Their highest ambition
is to obtain 'a blanket and a shelter for Sally,' and potatoes for themselves
and their children. This was positively the fact at Tanniwilly, near Killybegs,
in this county, on a property belonging to the Board of Education. The people
being left to themselves subdivided land till they could pay no rent, and
at length it would not keep them, and they were found a year or two ago by
the Poor Law Commissioners lying in their huts, without food or clothes, all
starving together in the most frightful state of destitution. There are numerous
instances of the same result when the inhabitants of the west coast are left
to themselves; leave the people on the east coast to themselves and they are
sure to prosper."
There it was, plain and simple. To Foster, reporting to the readers of "The
Times" newspaper from "the wretched place where I now write",
Dunfanaghy, it was due to the nature of the Irish people in Donegal that they
starved, and due to the nature of planters in Antrim, Down and elsewhere that
they prospered. He gave no other account of conditions in Dunfanaghy.
Foster's comments on Muff are found in his next (tenth) letter, written at
"Londonderry, September 13", three days later. Since this series of
articles is focused on his reports on conditions in Donegal, his descriptions
of Derry City are omitted. However, dealing with the surrounding countryside
Foster had nothing but praise for "the twelve chief companies of London"
by whose efforts the city and surrounding territories were planted with English
settlers. Here are his findings, again in his own words:
"The companies, by managing the greater part of the country around by
intelligent agents--along with the gentry, who are mostly here resident, and
vie with them--have completely changed the aspect of everything, as compared
with more western districts. Good farm houses, large squared fields, good
fences, and abundant crops, exhibit ample evidence of the benefits derivable
from the application of capital and enlightened industry.
"I had the opportunity, on Thursday, of passing through a large district
of country, the greater part of which is the property of the Grocers' Company.
About seven miles from this town that company has erected a well-built village
called Muff. Everything about it had the peaceful, industrious, well-cultivated,
and cleanly aspect which distinguishes the better parts of England. Nothing
could be more luxuriant and beautiful than the crops of wheat, just ripe for
the sickle. This estate is managed by Mr. Wiggins, an Englishman, who is the
agent of the company. The Drapers' Company have also a very well managed estate,
which is superintended by Mr. Miller, an Irishman. The Fishmongers' Company
are also equally well spoken of in their management, and several of the companies
are following their example."
"How clearly does all this indicate that the evils which oppress other
parts of Ireland--which convert its fertile lands into deserts, and its people
into starving and turbulent men--are social? The thriving population and generally
high state of cultivation of the county of Derry, arising from the well-directed
application of the capital of the landlords, and of the intelligent industry
of the people, exist under the same laws with, and not many miles apart from,
the starvation and wretchedness and waste lands of the Rosses and the Island
of Arran, in Donegal."
In his last report before departing Ireland, datelined Dublin, January 6, 1846,
Foster endeavoured to undertake "a calm review of my five months' tour
in Ireland, now drawing to a close." Want of employment, want of capital,
and the role of landlords and their agents, the middle-men, were subjects of
his review, and he found the practices of the middle-men particularly deplorable.
However, his greatest plea was for law and order. Here is Foster at his most
"The outrages and shootings (in) Tipperary and some adjacent counties
are disgraceful to the nation--they mark the existence amongst the people
of the most cowardly and savage brutality. It is folly to apply to such a
society the humane and moderate provisions of laws adapted only for a peaceful
and orderly and independent community."
Now well launched, he continued: "A free and liberal Government--mild
and humane laws, which depend as much upon the co-operation and aid of the people
as upon the law or the Government--are only fitted for an enlightened and orderly
and just community; they are hopeless and mischievous in a cowardly, a savage,
a brutalized, and an ignorant one. Such a people will bear and require a more
"Fine the community for every crime, and enforce the fine. If crime still
goes on, send another thousand policemen into the county, and make the county
bear the whole expense....
"If a criminal is sentenced to transportation pack him off at once.
Do not give him time in gaol to leave behind him amongst his friends a legacy
of revenge. Punish every crime with a fitting punishment. What cares the man
who can gloat over revenge, perpetrated or determined upon, for a three months'
imprisonment? Cat-o-nine-tail him at a cart's tail throughout the chief town
of the neighbourhood--hold him up to the scorn and derision of his neighbours
for having been a cowardly brute with just courage enough to skulk behind
a hedge and try to shoot an unconscious victim, or knock him senseless with
a stone from behind.
"At the termination of his imprisonment give him a repetition of the
same dose, and send him home to his friends to doctor his back for him. A
few such examples as these would have a thousand times greater effect than
all the rewards and proclamations in the world.
"Strive by overwhelming force to make the punishment of crime certain,
and make its punishment terrible. If an outcry is raised against you by vagabonds
and the press of the "Vindicator" class, never mind it; uphold what
is good in the community, and the clamour of the worthless will not injure
"With a firm and determined hand put down agitation, whether that agitation
be Orange or Repeal. If necessary, fear not to do it despotically. Remember
you are dealing with a people who in the mass are almost uncivilized. Like
children they require governing with the hand of power. They require authority,
and will bear it. A more enlightened community would not require it and would
not bear it."
One wonders if Mr. Foster, proponent of cat-o-nine-tail floggings, would find
the Irish people one hundred and fifty years on a civilized, enlightened community.
In its own official "The History of the Times", vol. II, 1841-1884,
published in 1939, Foster's commission was commemorated largely in the context
of the unrelenting hostility shown by "The Times" towards the Irish
Liberator, Daniel O'Connell. The following extract shows that the hostility
continued beyond the grave and into the 20th century:
"During the autumn and winter Foster's articles began to appear regularly,
each, as a rule, occupying a whole page of the paper. They showed a patient
exactitude in description of the social conditions wherever he travelled,
and a marked absence of political or religious partiality. O'Connell immediately
fell upon Foster, denouncing him at the Repeal meetings in Conciliation Hall
as 'the gutter commissioner of 'the infamous Times'. There followed a furious
controversy, which Foster brought to a climax by descending upon O'Connell's
own property at Darrynane, and sending to The Times a minute and merciless
description of the squalor in which the Liberator's tenants lived. Writing
of the poorest part of the property, called Darrynane Beg, he said, inter
alia, "The distress of the people was horrible. There is not a pane of
glass in the parish, nor a window of any kind in half the cottages."
These words were made the target of the full fury of O'Connell's wrath. "The
miscreant says there is not a pane of glass in the parish of Darrynane Beg,"
he declaimed to a cheering audience in Conciliation Hall. "I wish to the
Lord he had as many pains in his belly!"
Something like an international controversy was soon raging about whether there
was a pane of glass in Darrynane Beg.
"The Times" sent Russell (its own reporter) to make a report on O'Connell's
property. According to the newspaper's official history, Russell:
"...spent three days at Darrynane, was shown around by Maurice O'Connell,
the Liberator's eldest son, and confirmed the accuracy of Foster's account.
The Times solemnly announced the vindication of its Commissioner; O'Connell
soared to fresh heights of patriotic wrath. Two gutter Commissioners improved
the quantity but not the quality. "The calumnies against me occupy not
a line less that six mortal columns of The Times newspaper. Six columns! Why,
you would not have the heart to throw at the dog of your enemy such a violent
instrument or weapon as six columns of The Times newspaper."
O'Connell's sarcasm was lost on "The Times" even as late as 1939.
The official history continued:
"The 'six mortal columns' created a great sensation and were reprinted
in the Illustrated London News (January 10, 1846) with eight engravings of
Darrynane, Cahirciveen &c. That stout Protestant, Peter Fraser, wrote
enthusiastically to his friend [John Walter, proprietor of "The Times"]:
'The Rascal's done at last, I think, and in fact by you,' and urged Walter
to extend the fray by attacking the papal government itself: 'Depend upon
it, the Times can destroy the popedom as it could have Puseyism. Don't wait
until others do it.' "
Darrynane Beg, the Piggott forgeries, the Casement diaries, and the Irish Peace
Accord, have all been fodder for "The Times". Now, in the ebbing years
of the 20th century, an Australian, Rupert Murdoch, not an Englishman, controls
the once aptly named "Old Thunderer" of Times Square.
A Familiar Essence
A familiar essence, "Odour of the Times", is once more wafting westward
across Ireland, and readers of this series will be interested in the latest
attempt by "The Times" of London to penetrate the Irish market.
An article by Michael Foley, media correspondent, in "The Irish Times"
of Thursday, July 18, 1996, reports:
"Copies of the London Times, with "Printed in the Republic of Ireland"
on the masthead are not all produced here. Some are produced near Liverpool
and offered for sale as if they were printed in Ireland. It is believed that
of the 25,000 copies a day printed for distribution in Ireland, only 10,000
are printed under contract by the Examiner plant in Cork. The rest are being
printed at Knowsley near Liverpool. Most are being given away free as part
of a special promotion.
"The London Times is trying to build its Irish circulation by giving
away free copies in Dublin and Cork, a major advertising campaign, an emphasis
on its Dublin "news team" and "a new Irish flavour". Printing
in Ireland was part of that flavour. However, the Cork plant can only print
about 10,000 copies without disrupting production of the Examiner and Evening
"A spokeswoman for the Times in Dublin said that printing the legend
"Printed in Ireland" on issues printed in Liverpool was an oversight
and would be corrected immediately."
Foley gave the last audited circulation for "The Times" in Ireland
as 4,100 a day up to December of 1995.
"A Home Page with an Irish Flavour". Now "The Times with an
Irish flavour". Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, but
this is ridiculous!
"Impossible to Forget"
The last words in this series belong to Cecil Woodham-Smith and are quoted
from her most widely recognized work "The Great Hunger--Ireland 1845-9",
Hamish Hamilton, London (1962).
On April 24, 1846, as recorded by Woodham-Smith, the following description
was given of a convoy of food being moved to Waterford for shipment to England:
"The barges leave Clonmel once a week for this place, with the export
supplies under convoy which, last Tuesday, consisted of two guns, 50 cavalry
and 80 infantry escorting them on the banks of the Suir as far as Carrick".
This was Woodham-Smith's terse comment:
"It was a sight which the Irish people found impossible to understand
and impossible to forget."
Canada Deserves Credit
The 3 million Canadians of Irish descent, the third largest group in a population
of 30 million, were considerably heartened on March 17, 1996, when Deputy Prime
Minister and Minister of Candian Heritage, the Hon. Sheila Copps, announced
that Grosse-Île, already a designated national historic site, will henceforth
bear the name "Grosse-Île and the Irish Memorial".
In making the announcement, Ms. Copps was joined, via video, by Her Excellency
Mary Robinson, President of Ireland. (See "The Tale of the Workhouse Inmate"
in "The Hawk of the Erne".
"The story of Grosse-Île is an indelible part of the history of
Ireland and Canada," said Ms. Copps.
To mark the anniversary of Grosse-Île's most devastating year, the Department
of Canadian Heritage plans to produce a commemoration publication about the
1847 tragedy, in addition to restoring one of the Irish cemeteries on the island.
A monument to the Canadian medical officers, a number of whom died treating
Famine victims, will also be restored.
Minister Copps suggested that a private foundation be created to raise funds
to support projects commemorating the history of the quarantine station and
its Irish dimension.
"I call on all Canadians and all Irish Canadians and Irish descendants,
to get involved in commemorating what took place on Grosse-Île",
said Ms. Copps.
Special tributes will be paid to the devotion and heroism of the physicians,
nurses, clergy, volunteers, adoptive parents and others in Québec City
and neighbouring areas who received, comforted, and treated the Irish immigrants
who contracted typhus and other fatal diseases while being transported from
their homeland in what became known as "the coffin ships", so called
because of the numbers who died on them and were buried at sea.
Attempts since 1992 by Irish Canadians coast-to-coast, many operating under
the umbrella organization "Action Grosse-Île", founded by the
late Dennis Leyne, to draw the federal Government's attention to the special
place which Grosse-Île holds in their hearts, culminated in Minister Copps'
most welcome announcement. She, her colleagues in cabinet, and all Canada, deserve
credit for listening and responding so fittingly.
This writer would like to acknowledge the earlier work of others who, over
many years, prodded the conscience of Canadians to do what has now been achieved,
in particular, Marianna O'Gallagher, historian, author, archivist and teacher;and
the late Donnie Gilchrist, Canadian and Ottawa Valley stepdancer, who, in his
daytime job as a humble House of Commons maintenance employee, was dauntless
in approaching anyone within the confines of Parliament Hill who would listen
to his pleadings on behalf of the preservation of the Irish grave sites.
A very large bibliography which includes more than 300 works on emigration
from Ireland, titled Sources on Irish Migration: Select Bibliography, is maintained
by Piaras Mac Éinrí, a member of the Department of Geography at
University College Cork. It is 75kb in size.
This writer has found Cormac Ó Gráda's "Ireland before and
after the Famine", Manchester University Press (1988), of particular interest,
especially chapter 3, "The Famine: Incidence and Ideology".
A Personal Note
Painstaking, and thorough in his fashion, in his book, published in 1846, Foster
included a selection of press reviews of his work from other organs as diverse
as the "Cork Southern Reporter", "Freeman's Journal", "Leeds
Intelligencer", "Limerick Chronicle", "Northern Whig",
"The Londonderry Sentinel", "Derry Standard", "Coleraine
Chronicle", and the "Sheffield Mercury".
His publishers also saw fit to append a map of Ireland, engraved by one Sidney
Hall, which, in the copy available at the library at Carleton University, Ottawa,
Canada, shows, outlined in red, Foster's itinerary throughout Ireland. Regrettably,
it contains one slight error. On the north shore of the estuary of the River
Erne is shown "Wartown". Of course, as every schoolboy (student) knows,
this is Wardtown, ancestral acreage of the Mic an Bháirds of Tirconnell,
granted, without their consent, in the Plantation of Ulster to Trinity College
Dublin, and of which more anon.
This is the final number in the present series. Other articles appear
in "The Kindly Spot", a full-length work.
If you have not already done so, please visit The Falls of Assaroe - Proposed
Restoration and send your views via e-mail
to An Taoiseach, i.e., the Prime
Minister of Ireland. To those readers who have already indicated their approval,
my thanks. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
"The Times" and Donegal Navigation
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