Irish Famine Report from Belmullet, County Mayo (1847)

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.

Belmullet, County of Mayo, 16th of Third-month, 1847.

We now proceeded to visit the district beyond the town, within the Mullet. The cabins cluster the road sides, and are scattered over the face of the bog, in the usual Irish manner where the country is thickly inhabited. Several were pointed out as "freeholders;" that is, such as had come wandering over the land, and squatted down on any unoccupied spot, owning no fealty and paying no rent. Their neighbours had probably built them the cabin in four and twenty hours; expecting the same service in turn for themselves, should occasion require it,--which a common necessity renders these poor people always willing to do for each other. Whatever little bit of ground they may reclaim around the cabin is, necessarily, done as much by stealth as possible; and the appearance of neglect and wretchedness is naturally carried out to the utmost; for should there be any visible improvement, down comes the landlord or his agent, with a demand for rent. The moral effect of such a state of things is obvious to the least reflecting mind. How far does its existence lie at the very basis of the low social condition of the people? I mention it here not as peculiar to this district. It is an element pervading large portions of Ireland.

Many of the cabins were holes in the bog, covered with a layer of turf, and not distinguishable as human habitations from the surrounding moor, until close down upon them. The bare sod was about the best material of which any of them were constructed. Doorways, not doors, were usually provided at both sides of the bettermost--back and front--to take advantage of the way of the wind. Windows and chimneys, I think, had no existence. A second apartment or partition of any kind was exceedingly rare. Furniture properly so called, I believe may be stated at nil. I cannot speak with certainty, and wish not to speak with exaggeration,--we were too much overcome to note specifically; but as far as memory serves, we saw neither bed, chair, nor table, at all. A chest, a few iron or earthen vessels, a stool or two, the dirty rags and night-coverings, formed about the sum total of the best furnished. Outside many were all but unapproachable, from the mud and filth surrounding them; the same inside, or worse if possible, from the added closeness, darkness, and smoke. We spent the whole morning in visiting these hovels indiscriminately, or swayed by the representations and entreaties of the dense retinue of wretched creatures, continually augmenting, which gathered round, and followed us from place to place,--avoiding only such as were known to be badly infected with fever, which was sometimes sufficiently perceptible from without, by the almost intolerable stench. And now language utterly fails me in attempting to depict the state of the wretched inmates. I would not willingly add another to the harrowing details that have been told; but still they are the FACTS of actual experience, for the knowledge of which we stand accountable. I have certainly sought out one of the most remote and destitute corners; but still it is within the bounds of our Christian land, under our Christian government, and entailing upon us--both as individuals and as members of a human community --a Christian responsibility from which no one of us can escape. My hand trembles while I write. The scenes of human misery and degradation we witnessed still haunt my imagination, with the vividness and power of some horrid and tyrannous delusion, rather than the features of a sober reality. We entered a cabin. Stretched in one dark corner, scarcely visible, from the smoke and rags that covered them, were three children huddled together, lying there because they were too weak to rise, pale and ghastly, their little limbs, on removing a portion of the filthy covering, perfectly emaciated, eyes sunk, voice gone, and evidently in the last stage of actual starvation. Crouched over the turf embers was another form, wild and all but naked, scarcely human in appearance. It stirred not, nor noticed us. On some straw, soddened upon the ground, moaning piteously, was a shrivelled old woman, imploring us to give her something,--baring her limbs partly, to show how the skin hung loose from the bones, as soon as she attracted our attention. Above her, on something like a ledge, was a young woman, with sunken cheeks,--a mother I have no doubt,--who scarcely raised her eyes in answer to our enquiries, but pressed her hand upon her forehead, with a look of unutterable anguish and despair. Many cases were widows, whose husbands had recently been taken off by the fever, and thus their only pittance, obtained from the public works, was entirely cut off. In many the husbands or sons were prostrate under that horrid disease,--the results of long-continued famine and low living,--in which first the limbs, and then the body, swell most frightfully and finally burst. We entered upwards of fifty of these tenements. The scene was invariably the same, differing in little but the number of the sufferers or of the groups occupying the several corners within. The whole number was often not to be distinguished, until--the eye having adapted itself to the darkness--they were pointed out, or were heard, or some filthy bundle of rags and straw was perceived to move. Perhaps the poor children presented the most piteous and heart-rending spectacle. Many were too weak to stand, their little limbs attenuated,--except where the frightful swellings had taken the place of previous emaciation. Every infantile expression had entirely departed; and in some, reason and intelligence had evidently flown. Many were remnants of families, crowded together in one cabin; orphaned little relatives, taken in by the equally destitute; and even strangers; for these poor people are kind to one another to the end. In one cabin was a sister, just dying, lying by the side of her little brother, just dead. I have worse than this to relate, but it is useless to multiply details, and they are in fact unfit. They did but rarely complain. When we enquired what was the matter, the answer was alike in all.--"Tha shein ukrosh,''--indeed the hunger. We truly learned the terrible meaning of that sad word, ukrosh. There were many touching incidents. We should have gone on; but the pitiless storm had now arisen, beating us back with a force and violence against which it was difficult to stand; and a cutting rain, that drove us for shelter beneath a bank, fell unmitigatedly on the crowd of poor creatures who continued to follow us. My friend the clergyman had distributed the tickets for meal to the extent he thought prudent; and he assured me wherever we went it would be a repetition of the same all over the country, and even worse, in the far off mountain districts, as this was near the town where some relief could reach. It was my full impression that those we saw were in a dying state, beyond the reach of any relief that could now be afforded; and many more would follow. The lines of this day can never be effaced from my memory. These were our fellow-creatures,--children of the same Parent,--born with our common feelings and affections,--with an equal right to live as any one of us,--with the same purposes of existence,--the same spiritual and immortal natures, --the same work to be done,--the same judgment seat to be summoned to,--and the same eternal goal.

In returning through the town, we called on Alfred Bishop, the government commissariat officer, whose affecting letter, describing similar scenes to those we had witnessed, is published in the Report of the Belfast Ladies' Relief Association for Connaught. I had much conversation with him, and he afterwards came to spend the evening with us at the minister's. This gentleman had been in all parts of the world. He had been among the native tribes of the most uncivilized countries. In answer to my enquiries, as to whether he had ever seen a people living in so low and degraded a condition as the poor Irish had evidently long been suffered to remain in, he replied, "No, not even the Ashantees or wild Indians." He was much grieved that the stores recently landed by the Society of Friends, the only food for gratuitous relief--among considerable supplies that had now been poured into the town--should for one moment be lying unavailble; as was stated to be the case at that time, for want of any one in authority to distribute, while this frightful distress was raging around them.

It is hardly necessary to say that the soil--some, perhaps, as fine as any in the country for the growth of green crops--was lying wholly neglected; and nothing could more affectingly illustrate the deep-sunk poverty of the peasantry than the total absence of live stock, formerly so numerous in the cottages. One solitary pig, a single ass, no cow, one pony, and a few fowls, were all we saw in the whole morning's round. The few dogs were poor and piteous, and had ceased to bark. We left with the minister, and the neighbouring agent of the principal proprietor, a considerable quantity of carrot, turnip, and mangel-wurzel seed, for the benefit of such of the poor as they could influence and control; and £10 with the minister's wife, from the Ladies' Committee of London, for the promotion of her adult school of female industry, whose number we soon afterwards heard was increased to forty.