Irish Famine Report from the Claddagh, County Galway

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

Extracts from Joseph Crosfield's Report of his journey in company with William Forster, made to the London Relief Committee of the Society of Friends.

Galway, 25th of First-month, 1847.

The next day we spent chiefly in interviews with different gentlemen, especially the Protestant and Roman Catholic clergymen, who showed great zeal in their efforts to give relief in their town and neighbourhood. We found deep distress, resulting in greatly increased mortality in this town, especially in the Claddagh, the quarter in which the fishermen chiefly reside; but we were glad to have reason to believe that the more wealthy inhabitants were grappling with the evil according to their ability; and it was comforting to observe how cordially Roman Catholics and Protestants, both lay and clerical, were uniting together in common efforts to save their poor neighbours.

Among other callers at our hotel, was the clergyman of the district on the northern side of Galway Bay, including Spiddal and Lettermore, and also the isles of Arran. This parish, or rather portion of a parish, comprised, he stated, a population of at least 15,000 in great distress, especially the inhabitants of the main land, and of Lettermore and its adjoining group of islands.

There are in this wide tract, so thickly peopled in proportion to its cultivation, scarcely any resident land-owners, and no store for the sale of provisions; and many of his parishioners had, this gentleman told us, to make a journey of thirty miles to Galway, to buy a stone of meal. This was one among many cases, in which was brought home to us the great need for the establishment of small depots for provisions, or retail stores. In many of the more remote and distressed, because neglected districts, where the inhabitants have hitherto subsisted upon potatoes, a retail trade in provisions is altogether novel to their habits; and so complete is the absence of capital, that there is no probability (as least this year) of its overtaking the demand. Often the poor people have, after earning their wretched pittance at the public works, to walk ten, twenty, or even thirty miles to the nearest store, to get a stone of meal; or to buy it from the small hucksters, at an advance of as much as thirty per cent, above the market price.

From Galway I was obliged to return direct to Dublin; but, before doing so, I accompanied my father in his visit to the Claddagh. Two of the resident friars showed me a soup-kitchen at work on their own premises, and under most excellent management. One of their number then kindly undertook to show me the condition of the people and of their cabins. There are about 4000 souls in this Claddagh, a clan of fishermen and their families, of peculiar and primitive habits, holding little or no intercourse with others, marrying only amongst themselves, obeying their own elected chief, whom they term their admiral; a brave, worthy, honest race, simple-hearted and affectionate, but now in the extreme of poverty, their numbers daily diminishing from the effects of want. The high price of provisions, the poor supply of fish, and the curious fact that the first effect of the potato-blight is to render the herrings almost unsaleable, (the people having been so accustomed to use them with potatoes, although they are now probably starved into the discovery of other modes of consumption), were causes which united together to reduce these poor people to a fearful depth of misery. They had been accustomed to live in tolerable comfort, but they were now almost without furniture or bedding or clothes. In one small wretched hovel, in which were huddled together three families, I saw a young mother, whose rags were really no covering, much less a protection against the weather; but even here I found an instance of charity that would shame many a wealthy house. A poor blind woman was crouching on the floor; and my companion told me she was no relation to the other inmates, but that they supported her and gave her house-room out of kindness. Even the very nets and tackling of these poor fishermen, I heard, were pawned; and unless they be assisted to redeem them, they will be unable to take advantage of the herring shoals, even when they approach their coast.

In order to ascertain the truth of this statement, I went into two or three of the largest pawn-shops, the owners of which fully confirmed it; and said they had in pledge at least a thousand pounds' worth of such property, and saw no likelihood of its being redeemed. These pawnbrokers, who were the most prosperous-looking I had seen on my journey, were, however, full of complaints against the times; there were, they said, no buyers, all were borrowers, their capital was all locked up, and soon they would be obliged to close their shops. I found that the poor peasants, even for a considerable distance, were pledging their clothing for the most trifling sums; but, after close enquiry, I satisfied myself that the coarse woollen and cotton garments which it is proposed to give to the more destitute, would not, if stamped, be articles which the brokers would like to receive in pawn.

Almost immediately on leaving the pawn-shops, I took the mail for Dublin, arriving there on the morning of the 27th. The impression made on me by this short tour can never be effaced. Bad as were my expectations, the reality far exceeded them. There is a prevailing idea in England, that the newspaper accounts are exaggerated. Particular cases may or may not be coloured, but no colouring can deepen the blackness of the truth.

When we entered a village, our first question was, how many deaths? "The hunger is upon us," was everywhere the cry, and involuntarily we found ourselves regarding this hunger as we should an epidemic; looking upon starvation as a disease. In fact, as we went along, our wonder was not that the people died, but that they lived; and I have no doubt whatever that, in any other country, the mortality would have been far greater; that many lives have been prolonged, perhaps saved, by the long apprenticeship to want in which the Irish peasant has been trained, and by that lovely, touching charity which prompts him to share his scanty meal with his starving neighbour. But the springs of this charity must rapidly be dried up. Like a scourge of locusts, "the hunger" daily sweeps over fresh districts, eating up all before it. One class after another is falling into the same abyss of ruin. There is now but little difference between the small farmer and the squatter. We heard in Galway of little tradesmen secretly begging for soup. The priest cannot get his dues, nor the landlord his rent. The highest and the lowest in the land are forced into sympathy by this all-mastering visitation.

The misery of Ireland must increase daily, so far as regards her own resources; for these become daily less. To England must she this year look to save the lives of her children: nor will the need for English aid cease this year; it will be long before, with her utmost efforts, she can recover from this blow, or be able to support her own population. She must be a grievous burden on our resources, in return for long centuries of neglect and oppression.

I trust I shall be excused, if I express my earnest desire that the members of our Society may not consider that their duty to Ireland is fulfilled, by their effort to meet its present necessity. Its general and permanent condition is a subject in itself almost too dreadful to contemplate. Famine is there no new cry; it is a periodic disease; every year there have been districts where has prevailed somewhat of that misery which now rules the land. For a large portion of its population, all the great purposes of existence are forgotten in a struggle with death.