Snippets of Athenry and the Great Famine 1845-1850 Part 4: Esker Relief 1847 by Ronan Killeen

The following is from my maiden lecuture in the Athenry Heritage Centre for the Athenry Great Famine
Commmemoration on 17th May 2013.


Esker Relief 1847


Good evening Ladies and Gentleman you are all very welcome to this Great Famine Commemoration in Athenry. Back in April when the Athenry Tourism Group went up to Dublin to launch their brochure, they were asked by the Committee of Irish Famine Victims would the group put on a Great Famine commemoration. I was asked which I am privileged to do. I will be focusing on the letter sent from the Esker Covenant to the Relief Commission of London in 1847 but first a brief history of the main players to the build up of this letter.

Poor Law Union & The Workhouse

Ireland had extreme poverty for centuries before the Irish Poor Law was enacted in
1838. The Irish Poor Law was a nationwide system for tackling poverty in Ireland. Previously the welfare of the poor had been the responsibility of the individual parishes. The Poor Law divided the country into 130 ‘unions’ and each would have its own workhouse. Unfortunately, the system had not fully developed by the time of the Great Famine and many of the workhouses were already overwhelmed by the number of paupers seeking relief.
The Workhouses were designed by George Wilkinson. Families would be separated and given trade work to do.

Outbreak

In June 1845 serious reports of a new blight that was noticed in Belgium. It had been believed that this blight originated in South America two years previously. Thousands of people died across France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands because of huge crop failures. People who lived in these parts of Europe were not as dependent of the potato as those living in Ireland. 

Sir Robert Peel & The Relief Commission

By December 1845 the price of potatoes had doubled; this coincided with a general increase in the overall cost of living.
During that same year Sir Robert Peel purchased £100,000 worth of Indian corn from America but the problem with the corn was proved difficult to mill and even harder for people to digest and it’s colour it became known as ‘Peel’s Brimstone’.
Despite the Indian Corn’s unpopularity at first, as the great famine progressed which was later replaced with imports of cornmeal rather than grain, and, when mixed with oatmeal, this was easier on the digestive system.
 Indian Corn was by far the cheapest food available.
Peel introduced a Relief Commission; its purpose was to set up food depots throughout Ireland.  The Relief Committees were ordered not to issue food free to the people but they only did so in certain extreme cases.
The relief commissioners formed committees of local landowners, or their agents, magistrates, clergy, and residents of importance. 2. The Board of works was to create employment by making new roads. 3. Fever patients might be maintained in a fever hospital, a house hired out for the person can be put into a separate building of the workhouse but not the workhouse itself. 4. The government sale of Indian corn would keep down food prices, when the food prices rose unreasonably a sufficient quantity of  Indian corn was to be thrown or market to bring them down. This now brings me to a key figure of the Relief Commission and that is Sir Randolph Routh.

Sir Randolph Routh

Sir Randolph was the senior officer of the Commissariat department, which was a department that supplied food for the British Army. He became the leading member of the Relief Commission as the chairperson in 1846. It became Sir Randolph’s duty to supply Indian Corn because he  had the most ‘extensive experience than any other person…of feeding large bodies of people in sudden emergencies.’
Routh had been trained how to save money wherever he could. He was answerable to the powerful department known as ‘The Treasury’. Any kind of expenses would require the Treasury sanction such as famine relief, expenses of the relief commission, the grants for poor law, public works, and medical services.
These committees would be responsible for resale of bought food but given for free in emergences. Local employment schemes to be started which would give increased employment on estates.
When food supplies reached the west coast of Ireland it came as a surprise to find no satisfactory harbours existed. To Sir Randolph this was yet another proof of Irish inadequacy and he wrote to Hewston, who was the Deputy Commissary General, who was responsible for receiving, unloading,  drying , and dispatching Indian Corn; ‘It is annoying that all these harbours are so insignificant. It shows Providence that Ireland never intended to be a great nation.’ Speaking of the Treasury we come to an infamous figure.

Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan

Charles Edward Trevelyan was the Assistant Secretary and was also the head of Treasury. He had been brought up in the Clapham Sect who were distinguished families who live round Clapham common and were distinguished for their philanthropic and religious views.
Trevelyan was a very religious man as he was known to ‘read chapters of the bible aloud’. He firmly believed that the Great Famine in Ireland was ‘punishment by God, on an idle, ungrateful, rebellious country’.  He is also synonymous with the song ‘The Fields of Athenry’.
After Peel’s parliament fell, Lord John Russell came to power in 1846. Trevelayn had no politics with him and his relations with Peel were very poor. Trevelyan decided to get  Peel’s scheme cleared up. He disagreed with it, and during the last few weeks a new and alarming probability had become evident there were unmistakeable signs that the potato was about to fail again.
Before the second failure of the potato’s occurred.  Trevelyan had prepared plans, with a new policy, a policy which reverted Peel’s. Trevelyan and Charles Wood the chancellor of the Exchequer, decided that, in the second failure there was to be “no government importation of food from abroad and no interference whatsoever with the lavy of supply and demand; whatever might be done by starting public works and paying wages, the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders”.

Consternation between Routh and Trevelyan
There was consternation between Sir Randolph and Trevelyan because Sir Randolph did not like private enterprise to import food.
Trevelyan had pointed out to Sir Randolph that high prices, by limiting consumption, exercised ‘a regulating influence’ in time of shortage; they were also ‘indispensably necessary to attract from abroad the supplies necessary to fill up the void occasioned by the destruction of the potato crop’.
Trevelyan felt that Sir Randolph was asking too much for Ireland.  The scarcity of food, he was reminded, was extended over the whole of western Europe and the United Kingdom, and nothing could be done for the west of Ireland, which might send prices, already high, still higher for people ‘who, unlike the inhabitants of the west coast of Ireland had to depend on their own exertions.’
Massive applications came in hundreds for relief as districts were starving, and implored the Government to establish and open deports where the people might buy food at a low price. Trevelyan drew up ‘heads of answer’ plan for these applications which Sir Randolph was to use; 1. Depots were not to be opened apart from the west of Ireland, and only when there was enough quantities by private traders; 2. Foreign grain would not be in suffient quantities until before December or January. 3. It was advisable for ‘Gentlemen of local influence to unite in local extertions for having the Home harvest produce brought extensively into use.’
In December 1846 Trevelyan wrote to Sir Randolph informing him the sales at depots in the west of Ireland were to be re-opened. Once Trevelyan realised the seriousness of reports from Ireland he stated ‘If the Irish once found out there were any circumstances in which they can get free government grants…we shall have a system of begging such as the world never saw’.
In August Sir Randolph pressed Trevelyan to important food, ‘Now and at once, you can not answer the cry of want by a quotation from a political economy. You ought to have  16,000 tons of Indian Corn…you ought to supply which you required in the country before Christmas.”
Once again Trevelyan, drew up new plans  as  Lord John Russel’s cabinet did not have the same skills, as Trevelyan, who then soon found him self head of the relief commission . In August 1846, no orders were to be sent abroad, nor would any purchases be made by Government in local markets. The Government had pledged ‘not to interfere with the regular mode by which Indian corn and other grains were brought into the country’ but ‘to leave that trade as much liberty as possible’. In Trevelyan’s and Charles Wood’s view, they  were convinced that, “once wages were being paid on the new large-scale public works, and people had money to spend on food, then food would be attracted to Ireland. The field was to be left strictly to private enterprise.”

Struggling
The Relief Commissioners were finding their other instruction equally difficult to put into practise because of the large number of landlords were hopelessly insolvent, because of the reckless spending of a landlord’s predecessors on, over- large mansions; horses; and borrowing which brought many landowners to a point where they were ‘powerless to give any help’
It eventually came to a point where members of Relief Committees were no longer to be elected but only nominated by the Lord Lieutenant (A British Monarch’s official representative) of county, and instead of issuing employment tickets, they would ‘furnish lists of distressed persons eligible for the employment’.
The following occupations were elected by the Lord Lieutenant for famine relief such as; magistrates, the constabulary, coastguard officers, and clergymen. Subscriptions would be collected in aid of relief. Officials of the commissariat and Board of Works would be paid by the British Government.
Details of the new relief scheme were controlled by Trevelyan, and all Commissariat and Bord of works Ireland letters, and private letters were sent to him unopened.  
Sir Randolph stated angrily to Trevelyan that the poor law officials were to blame; there was a ‘want of energy in Poor Law arrangements. Landlords are grinding their tenants.’

In  year 1847 known as Black ’47 because it was the worst year of the Great Famine  in the same year the death toll of the  county of Galway was 5,556 in 1846 which then rose to 12,582 in 1848. For the town of Galway the death toll in 1847 was 1,919, which rose to 2,000 in 1848. During this period 11,000 inmates died in Galway Workhouse.

The typhus disease spread like wildfire  were 11 doctors died, followed by a number of priests, two nuns, two agents of British Relief also became victims of fever that year. Many of the burials took place with the body covered only in rags of whatever was available and were deposited in a ‘famine pit’ where hundreds and thousands were buried together.
By the end of the year, 73 people of the city and county were sentenced to transportation from Galway City and County  for stealing foods and supplies. The local authorities were dreading the oncoming winter and reported that the government was doing little to alleviate the problem.
The blight did not occur in 1847 but by then a few potatoes had been planted  and crop yield was poor. The same year the public works closed. During this year the Quakers came to help.

The Quakers Relief Society of London

Who were the Relief Society of London the relief society of London were the Religious society of friends or also known as the Quakers. In 1847 a group of Quakers came to Ireland they were James Hack Tucke, Joseph Crossfield and his son W. E. Forster. An establishment of the soup kitchens were set up by the Quakers.
Forster particularly noticed the Irish children were; ‘like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular being much emaciated and the happy expression of infancy gave from their faces, leaving the anxious look of pre-mature old age.
At the end of May Routh found that after the government withdraw from the seed market he had 40,000 lbs of turnip and grown crop seed left on his hands and he gave them to the society of friends for the distribution.
In June 1849, the Quakers gave up relief work on June 2nd.  Thomas Larcom of the Relief Department reported to London that the system could not be continued. Little of value ‘had been created at a vast expense, labour had been diverted from cultivation and masses of rural poor were dying physically incapable and some new scheme would have to be take its place.
In  January 1847 the British Association for the relief of extreme distress in Ireland and Scotland was established in London with government encouragement.  I have finally come to my last segment.

Dominicans of Athenry
Esker has been a monastic site since the sixteenth century. It was first inhabited by the Dominicans, who escaped from the Abbey in Athenry during a time of persecution. The last key figure I am going to talk about is Fr. Peter Smyth.

Fr. Peter Smyth

The Very Rev. Dr. Peter Smyth was a Prior of Esker and Provincial of the Order between the years 1832-1836.  His first effort was to provide a school for poor children of the neighbourhood whose faith was in danger of being undermined in another school.
He had been moved to do so partly because of the proselytizing of a school opened up by a Mr. Persse. Proselytizing meant that one would convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion to another. The school conducted by a  Mr. Persse existed as late as 1852. The Persses were proselytizing their tenants.
Fr. Smyth went to England to collect funds for a school catering exclusively for the poor.  Father Smyth’s most ambitious school was St. Dominic’s College which was opened on the 4th August 1847, to provide advanced education for better off Catholics.  There were in Esker at different times an agricultural school and a school that taught trades. One of the early Dominican schools became a National school in the 1840’s.
Fr. Smyth was great friends with Lord and Lady Shrewsbury  and they donated towards the school. Lord Shrewsbury generously gave £100 and Lady Shrewsbury £50 to Fr. Smith for Famine Relief.
During the Great Famine the Agricultural school ceased and the literary school became a National school which continued in the same building until 1895.  
Aftermath
From 1847 onwards food riots had broken out along with anti-landlord sentiment. The motivation for his murder was because of land clearances, evictions and forced emigration on coffin ships.
Many people emigrated to escape the Great Famine by boarding the so called ‘Coffin Ships’ because of the appalling death toll and diseases that were associated with them. Some ships would be overloaded beyond limits of safety. The voyage to America took 6-8 weeks. Over 100 ships from Galway between 1845-1850.
After the Irish arrived in America they were surrounded by anti-Irish feeling because the Irish were seen as ‘lowest form of life their Irish accent backward style of dress, poverty and illiteracy resulted in their being ridiculed or scorned’. Places such as Boston and New York found themselves overwhelmed with the amount of Irish that arrived at the ports including there scale of their poverty.
The one place that the Irish were welcome was in the army. Many of the Irish emigrants fought in the Mexican-American war while others went to the Mexican army after deserting the American one. Between the years 1848-1850 some 500,000 people died, most of them infected from diseases. Thousands of children left in the care of workhouses. Many towns and villages were decimated by the disaster communities and villages had disappeared.
Finally, I will show you the letter from Esker Convenant dated 15th March 1847 from the Relief Commission papers written by Fr. Smith which I have transcribed.


The following is what I could transcribe but not all of it...

The very Rev. Dr. Smyth, Esker Convent, Athenry.
Dear Sir,
                I have to acknowledge with the best gratitude the receipt of twenty five pounds from the Relief Society of London, for Sir Randolph Routh for the Relief of my Suffering Poor may God Bless them.
I have been informed when in Dublin by Sir Randolph Routh, that the Lord Lieutenant will give money. 
The very rev. Dr. Smyth care of
 Mrs. Howard,
47 Lower Brook Street,
London.

I am Dear Sir with much respect
Forward Peter Smyth D. D.

On the second page of the letter it reads.

The very rev. Doctor Smyth is at present, at aiming and reclaiming the wasted lands, around him building an agricultural college, for the Benefit of Ireland.

There are at present 600 children receiving a liberal and religious education,- and @ 26 of the Boys apprenticed to the tailoring and shoemaking trades. For the girls there is a matron, who instructs them in the making up of the every article of dress, tinting to all classes of society.
There are also fifty of the four children, clothed annually; and one hundred destitute paupers daily fed at this establishment;- There are no funds of means to carry on this work of mercy, but the benevolence of the the Public.


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