Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland
Digital History ID 1066
During the Summer of 1845, a "blight of unusual character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they began to turn into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness." Expert panels convened to investigate the blight's cause suggested that it was the result of "static electricity" or the smoke that billowed from railroad locomotives or the "mortiferous vapours" rising from underground volcanoes. In fact, the cause was a fungus that had traveled form Mexico to Ireland.
"Famine fever"--cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus, and infestations of lice--soon spread through the Irish countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain and looking "like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones." Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.
Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland for Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter.
The Irish potato famine was not simply a natural disaster. It was a product of social causes. Under British rule, Irish Catholics were prohibited from entering the professions or even purchasing land. Instead, many rented small plots of land from absentee British Protestant landlords. Half of all landholdings were less than 5 acres in 1845.
Irish peasants subsisted on a diet consisted largely of potatoes, since a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same plot of land. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year. About half of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for subsistence.
The inadequacy of relief efforts by the British Government worsened the horrors of potato famine. Initially, England believed that the free market would end the famine. In 1846, in a victory for advocates of free trade, Britain repealed the Corn Laws, which protected domestic grain producers from foreign competition. The repeal of the Corn Laws failed to end the crisis since the Irish lacked sufficient money to purchase foreign grain.
In the Spring of 1847, Britain adopted other measures to cope with the famine, setting up soup kitchens and programs of emergency work relief. But many of these programs ended when a banking crisis hit Britain. In the end, Britain relied largely on a system of work houses, which had originally been established in 1838, to cope with the famine. But these grim institutions had never been intended to deal with a crisis of such sweeping scope. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.
The Irish Potato Famine left as its legacy deep and lasting feelings of bitterness and distrust toward the British. Far from being a natural disaster, many Irish were convinced that the famine was a direct outgrowth of British colonial policies. In support of this contention, they noted that during the famine's worst years, many Anglo-Irish estates continued to export grain and livestock to England.
Many of the cabins were holes in the bog, covered with a layer of turves, 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 division of any kind within was exceedingly rare. Furniture, properly so called, I believe may be stated at nil. I would not speak with certainty, and wish not to 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, Iying 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 moother 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 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, tand then the body, swell most frightfully, and finally burst.
We entered upwards of fifty of these tenements. The scene was one and invariable, differ- ing 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,-beyond the power of volition when moved.
Every infantile expression 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, Iying 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 inquired of, 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 on the crowd of poor creatures who continued to follow us unmitigatedly.
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 one-fourth of 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.
Source: William Bennett, Narrative of a Recent Journey of Six Weeks in Ireland (London: C. Gilpin, 1847), 25-9.
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