Irish Famine Report on Journey from Dublin to Ballina, County Mayo

From Transactions of the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland in 1846 and 1847

Extracts from William Bennett's Account of his Journey in Ireland.

6th-13th of Third-month, 1847.

Apprehending there could not be a much greater service, or more beneficial appropriation of some small funds, than in the purchase of seeds for green crops, and the distribution of them in some of the most remote districts of Ireland, where they could not otherwise have been obtained by the poor people, I started on this mission, accompanied by my eldest son, on the sixth of Third-month. I had previously conferred with the Relief Committee of the Society of Friends in London, in the hopes that they would give the subject a wider range, by taking it into their own hands. They kindly gave me every personal encouragement; but were too full-handed, and, as a committee, did not feel at liberty to take it up any further.

I attended the sitting of the Central Relief Committee in Dublin on the 11th. Their organization and mode of transacting business appeared complete; and it was said they had as extensive a correspondence to conduct as any mercantile counting-house in Dublin. The supply of seeds they thought a very questionable mode of rendering relief, and requiring great caution. An opinion was even expressed, that all which has been done for Ireland in the way of relief has only acted injuriously. The labours of the Committee themselves appear to bespeak another hope and sentiment.

My arrangements for the supplies of seed were made with the house of W. Drummond and Sons, Dawson-street. The selection consisted of the several varieties of turnip, principally Swedes, the white Belgium carrot, and mangel-wurzel. A small quantity of cabbage, in sorts, some flax, and some parsnip seed, were afterwards added. Two hundred weight, in proportions of each, were packed up to take with us, being as much as could very conveniently be carried by coach; and a few agricultural pamphlets recommended by W. Drummond and Sons for distribution.

Thus equipped, we left Dublin on the 12th, by day-coach, for Boyle. We met along the road multitudes of emigrants, mostly on foot, with their bundles on their backs, proceeding to Dublin. A few had more than they could carry; and it was an affecting sight to observe numerous whole families, with all their worldly goods packed up on a donkey cart, attempting to look gay and cheerful, as they cast a wistful glance at the rapidly-passing-by coach-passengers; and thus abandoning a country which should have nourished them and their children. We met several hundreds in the course of this morning only, and the guard assured me it was the same every day, and thicker at the week's commencement. Except in the increased beggary in the towns,--always great in Ireland wherever the coach stopped,--and which was particularly importunate in Longford, there was no other unusual appearance of poverty along this line of road. The land, however, was evidently much neglected, or lying wholly waste. The absence of pigs was also a remarkable feature to an eye accustomed to Ireland. The difference in the face of the country, and in the appearance of the peasantry and their habitations, arising from the influence of a resident benevolent and kind-hearted family, was particularly evident about Edgeworthstown, and again in the neighbourhood of Lord Lorton's, before entering Boyle.

The want of any direct and permanent interest in the improvement of the soil, and the non-requital of the actual cultivator, arising from the land being usually the only source from which the several grades of holders have to extract all the profit they can, are some of the sorest evils of Ireland. Large tracts of land have been let on low terms, and underlet,--on leases for lives renewable for ever,--so that the great proprietor has little interest in, or power over them. They thus become divided and subdivided, each at an increased rental, until the small holder pays those enormous rates we hear of under the conacre system.

From Boyle we took a car across the country to Ballina. The shores of Lough Garra are wild and dreary, and the whole district increasingly so on approaching the small town of Tobercurry. Here we first encountered the public works, so called. These consisted in making new roads and altering old ones, obviously undertaken for the mere sake of giving employment. Independently of the moral effects of useless labour,--which it is impossible should be otherwise than listlessly pursued,--it was melancholy in the extreme to see the women and girls labouring in mixed gangs on the public roads. They were employed not only in digging with the spade and with the pick, but in carrying loads of earth and turf on their backs, and wheeling barrows like men, and breaking stones; while the poor neglected children were crouched in groups, around the bits of lighted turf in the various sheltered corners along the line. I need scarcely say that the soil was totally neglected here.