Irish Famine Report from Connemara (1847)

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.

From William Edward Forster's Report.

I left Dublin by mail on the 17th of First-month, 1847, and joined my father and his companions at Westport on the following evening.

The next day we left Westport, on our way to Connemara, after a morning of much pressure; applications for aid coming in from all sides, especially from Louisburgh, a populous and most distressed parish along the coast to the south; the surgeon of the dispensary there describing the people as swept off by dysentery, the most usual form of the famine-plague, by ten to twenty a day. The town of Westport was in itself a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities, its streets crowded with gaunt wanderers sauntering to and fro with hopeless air and hunger-struck look; a mob of starved, almost naked women, around the poor-house, clamouring for soup-tickets; our inn, the head-quarters of the road-engineer and pay-clerks, beset by a crowd of beggars for work.

Early next morning, we proceeded to the small village of Leenane, where we found a large body of men engaged in making a pier under the Labour-rate Act. This village appeared to me, comparatively speaking, well off, having had in it public works for some weeks, and the wages at pier-making being rather better than those earned on the roads. Still, even here, the men were weak, evidently wasting away for want of sufficient food.

Bundorragha, the village of which we had heard so bad an account the previous evening, being on the other side of the harbour, I took a boat to it, and was much struck by the pale, spiritless look and air of the boatmen, so different from their wild Irish fun when I made the same excursion before. Having lately walked through all this district of Connemara, I had an opportunity of comparing its present with its then aspect, and of noting the effects produced on it by the famine: in this village of Bundorragha, the change was peculiarly striking. In my previous visit, it struck me even then as a very poor place; the dark thunder-cloud was brooding over it, but as yet the tempest had not broken. The small cottiers, then gathering in their few potatoes, were in great fear: they saw the quick, sure approach of famine: death stared them in the face, but as yet his hand was stayed. One poor woman, whose cabin I visited, said, "There will be nothing for us but to lie down and die." I tried to give her hope of English aid, but, alas! her prophecy has been but too true. Out of a population of 240, I found 13 already dead from want. The survivors were like walking skeletons; the men stamped with the livid mark of hunger; the children crying with pain; the women in some of the cabins too weak to stand. When there before, I had seen cows at almost every cabin, and there were, besides, many sheep and pigs owned in the village. But now all the sheep were gone; all the cows, all the poultry killed; only one pig left; the very dogs which had barked at me before had disappeared; no potatoes, no oats. We ordered a ton of meal to be sent there from Westport, but it could not arrive for some time. I tried to get some immediate help for those who were actually starving; there was hardly enough of meal in the village to fill my pockets, and I was compelled to send a boat four miles to Leenane, to buy a small quantity there.

I here met with a striking instance of the patience of these sufferers. The Bundorragha men had been at work for three weeks on the roads, and the men at a neighbouring village for five weeks; owing to the negligence or mistake of some officers of the works, with the exception of two of the gangsmen, who had gone themselves to Westport the end of the previous week, no wages had until this morning been received. While I was there, the pay clerk sent a messenger over; but still only with wages for a few; and it was wonderful, but yet most touching, to see the patient, quiet look of despair with which the others received the news that they were still left unpaid. I doubt whether it would have been easy to find a man who would have dared to bear the like announcement to starving Englishmen.

On recrossing the water, I found my father waiting for me on a car, on which we proceeded to Clifden, which we did not reach till after night-fall. Near the Kylemore Lake, under that grand chain of mountains, the Twelve Pins, we found full a hundred men making a new road. After long cross-questioning, we learned that their wages did not average, taking one week with another, and allowing for broken days, more than four shillings and sixpence per week per head: and this we found confirmed by our enquiries in other districts; in fact, for the most distressed localities in Mayo and Galway, I should consider this too high an average. To get to their work, many of the men have to walk five, or even seven, Irish miles.

Four and sixpence per week, thus earned, the sole resource of a family of six; with Indian meal, their cheapest food, at 2s. 10d. to 4s. per stone! What is this but slow death,--a mere enabling the patient to endure for a little longer time the disease of hunger? Yet even this was the state of those who were considered well off,--provided for; and for this provision, the people were everywhere begging as for their lives. In some districts there were no public works; and even where they were, we found that though the aim was to find employment for one man to every five or six souls, it really was not given to more than one man in nine or twelve.