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Page 6 of 6
The Famine--"The Times"--and Donegal
Number 5

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, September 10.

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."

Foster concluded:

"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 revealing:

"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 despotic rule.

"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 you.

"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 Echo...

"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.

Suggested Reading

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 End

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