Irish Famine Report from Carrickart, Rutland Island, and Killybegs, County Donegal

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

Extracts from the Letters of George Hancock, while acting as Supercargo of the steamer "Albert."

Steamer "Albert," off Carrickart, Mulroy Harbour, County of Donegal, 21st of Second-month, 1847.

By the advice of the pilot we have put into this harbour, and if the weather does not prevent, hope to leave this early to-morrow morning, get round to Dunfanaghy, discharge there by noon, and get into Arranmore the same night. As there is only one small coast-guard boat, and we shall have to he out in the bay, I am afraid there will be some extra expense.

I set out early this morning, and walked round Sheephaven Bay, (from near Carrickart, where the steamer is moored,) through the villages of Glen and Creeslough to Dunfanaghy; I was thus enabled to confer freely with many of the people; and most of the information, which they readily imparted, I had good reason to suppose correct. Round Carrickart and Glen, on the east side of the bay, the land is very poor, with a thick population of poor cottiers, who mostly have from one to four acres, and some only half an acre each: these poor people have generally been able to take some considerable quantity of fish through the winter, but this year has been so unusually inclement, that during the greater part of the season they have been deprived of this resource; and as the stacks of oats have almost entirely disappeared, no food has been left in the country, and they are now depending on the government depot of meal, which is selling at about £15 per ton. About one-third of the people are employed on the government works at 9d. per day.

There are very few pigs left in the country; the cattle also are very much reduced in number, and are being sold off by their owners for want of fodder.

I have heard some few instances of the sheep having been stolen off the mountains, by those who could no longer bear the pangs of hunger; but this is by no means general, the people of this district being naturally peaceable and unstained by crimes of violence, and submitting to their sufferings without much complaint. Indeed many of them quietly pine in their cabins, and just depend on chance from day to day for getting a meal; I saw many living in wretched cabins, within a stone's throw of the workhouse, who would have a right to be admitted into it; yet they prefer to starve on from day to day rather than enter, as it involves the giving up altogether of their own houses, the thought of which they cannot bear.

About the village of Glen, and indeed in the whole district, dysentery is the prevailing distemper. I saw many of the poor who were afflicted with it; in general it attacks most severely the member of the family who has been employed on the government works, being brought on by exposure to the cold, bad clothing, and insufficient food. The master of the workhouse informed me that, according to his experience, whenever an old or middle-aged man was attacked by it, he seldom rose from his bed. Parents have been often known to stint themselves of their fair share of food at their scanty meal, not being able to bear the sight of their children's wants.

The most alarming feature of the distress appears to be that, up to the present time, from what I could learn, but a small portion of the poor have the means of putting any crops in the ground at this necessary time.

Off Rutland Island, near North Arran, 23rd of Second-month, 1847.

It is difficult for a person coming in the hurried way I do, to judge of the comparative wants of the various districts. From what I have seen and heard of North Arran, I do not doubt that it is in a more distressed and neglected state than the neighbourhood of Dunfanaghy; but from the reports of the coast-guard here, I fear that round Belmullet, and indeed in most parts of Mayo, the distress is quite as great.

We got here at four o'clock, p.m. yesterday, and as we had to lie out some distance until tide time, I landed at the coast-guard station on Rutland Island; but found that the officer was then in North Arran, distributing tickets to enable the poor there to get rations of oatmeal, which had been purchased by the relief committee of this district, with £60 sent as charity from either Dublin or Belfast. As I did not then know that I should have another chance of seeing the island, I was rowed over at once to it, and at a few minutes' walk from the shore, found the officer and a physician distributing tickets to a crowd of at least 200 wretched looking objects, many of whom had just mustered sufficient strength to enable them to come out for this relief. There was hardly any distinction to be made in the appearance of the people: nearly all looked equally miserable, and so many had left their relations lying at home sick of the famine fever, that the magistrate afterwards told me he considered there was much risk of infection in standing so long among the crowd. They were glad to find that we had some boilers we could spare them; two having been expected from Killybegs, but which had been detained there.

I saw the officer again this morning; he informed me that much of his time has lately been taken up in attending to the relief of the people, and the coast-guard men are almost wholly employed in distributing supplies. He says that the whole population of the parish of Templecrone (which includes North Arran) are in a deplorably backward state; as you will, no doubt, have seen from the appeal to the public, made by himself and some other gentlemen of the neighbourhood. He tells me also, that a plough which was brought as a curiosity was the only one ever seen in the whole parish.

As I had the time to spare this afternoon, I got a boat and crossed again to Arran, and had some conversation with ------, who lives there; he had been for several hours employed in visiting the sick and dying, most of whom were ill of the famine fever: many of the people also have been ill of dysentery.

The visit of any stranger to the island is evidently a novelty, the relief committee and the physician seeming to be the only visitors; many supposing me to be the latter, rushed out of their cabins imploring me to visit their dying relatives. ------ told me that every day the people fell down exhausted working on the roads, and were carried home. I saw men and women trying to work, and also girls and boys, from the age of twelve years; the latter seeking employment to support their sick parents. It would be useless to enumerate particular instances of distress, as all had some tale of woe; but in all their misery they appeared civil and kindly in their manners, and pointed out any one that had lost a working relative; for instance, a little boy who had just lost his father, and had his mother lying ill of fever, with no one to take care of the rest of the family--a poor girl, unable to work any longer, who was struggling home--and an idiot who had no one to look after him--these they begged me to assist with some trifle. I could hear but of very few who had any seed left to put in the ground: one of the coast-guard had before spoken to me about it; he said if this state of things continued, they would be worse off next year. The men in our steamer are evidently much struck with the appearance of the people who have been coming along side all day, and the pilot from Dunfanaghy tells me that they look worse than the poor there.

Off Killybegs, County of Donegal, 25th of Second-month, 1847.

Few persons here have much if any seed left to put into the ground, and none of the landlords are taking advantage of the Improvement Act, and getting any of their land drained. A good many sheep, but no pigs, are left, and the people mostly expect to get their seed, say oats, barley, and turnips, from government. Very few are risking the potato this year. I went to-day to see the people making a government road. It was painful to see men, women, and children engaged in this hard work, wasting quantities of powder in blasting, and even cutting up pieces of cultivated land, when their time was wanted to till their own ground. About 1,500 are employed on these roads out of the population of about 10,000, of which this parish of Killybegs consists.