Famine in the West Cork

Famine in West Cork; the Mizen Peninsula; Land and People; 1800-1852 is in book shops for quite a while but this volume by Father Patrick Hickey, currently Parish Priest of Timoleague and a native of Skeaghanore, near Ballydehob, has the distinction of being definitely the most 'under-reviewed' work of it's kind but concurrently being, one has to say, arguably, the most important historical work produced about West Cork in these generations but also, need we add, by a West Corkman.

Reviews that did appear were extremely brief and did not do justice to the extraordinary range of Father Hickey’s canvas and, while some writers might have been better equipped academically to evaluate this good priest’s thesis, one can only conclude that their perusals of this quite monumental work were superficial and did not attempt to appraise the amazing in-depth investigation involved or realise that much of what was unearthed was certainly new to most readers, if not necessarily to committed academics.

One review, which appeared in The Irish Times, glossed over the book in just eight paragraphs and, while it did focus on the shocking facts revealed about West Cork’s famine experience, it did not comment on the range of detail presented to readers, which is positively amazing and undoubtedly incontrovertible. It did, however, and almost shamefully, indulge in one piece of nit-picking about an inadvertent error concerning Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Charles Wood, which was immaterial in the overall context.

A few other reviewers were more generous but they also did not attempt to grapple with the range of this work, which, without doubt, is a challenging task for even the most assiduous of erstwhile ‘history students’. While there have been many books dealing with the ‘Great Famine’ in an All-Ireland context and even honing in on notorious ‘blackspots’ such as Skibbereen in West Cork, these do not generally set this terrible tragedy in perspective in the way Father Hickey has done by going back about fifty years previously to 1800 and investigating how the ‘scene was set’ and all the background factors that are, indeed, quite fascinating and probably ‘news’ to the majority of readers.

How West Cork was planted following the Battle of Kinsale in 1603 is a story in itself but Father Hickey does not dwell on it too much, other than to identify the ‘blow-in’ families and landlords and then to race on to the French in Bantry Bay of 1796 and the subsequent 1798 uprising.
Where the French were concerned, the West Cork loyalists were saved by the bad weather and, had things been different, the 1798 rebellion might not have been mainly confined to county Wexford.

The disarming of Munster and more specifically of West Cork makes fascinating reading and while the terror inflicted by Sr John Moore of corunna fame was awful, his operations revealed the extent to which ‘disafection’ was rife in the region. A ‘scorched earth’ policy to frighten the people into handing up their arms was operated in Caheragh and it was amazing that Moore’s redcoats came away with no fewer than 800 pikes and 3,400 stands of arms from that area alone. Aughadown parish had been spared through the intervention of the local landlord Samuel Townsend, Whitehall, together with parish priest Timothy O’Sullivan and vicar Joseph Wright. Equally intriguing is the period that follows; the continuing disorder created by the Whiteboys and all the controversies leading up to the Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which was the great achievement of the ‘Liberator’, the extraordinary Daniel O’Connell, who later held a monster meeting in Skibbereen in June, 1943. Prior to the Great Famine, there were recurrent famines in West Cork, in 1817 and 1822, for example, and Father Hickey traces these events which involved as many as 220,000 people in distress throughout County Cork.

Relief through the making of roads had commenced during this period and this story is a chapter in itself and describes the background to the West Cork roads, which involved up to 3,000 labourers in 1822 and a cost of over £3,600 at that time. Bridges in West Cork cost a further £1,715 but, even after the relative success of these relief efforts, there were further Whiteboy disturbances, many of which arose on account of hostility to the tithes which all Catholics had to pay to the Protestant clergymen.

Religion in West Cork up to the Great Famine is discussed. Father Hickey traces the evangelical Wesleyans, also called Methodists, aside from the Church of Ireland and then goes on to discuss the difficulties faced by Catholics in having churches built. He traces the Penal Laws and its local effects and then the movement to build national schools which commenced in the 1830s. The national Schools were Catholic as they were rejected by protestants, who founded their own Church Education Society and the latter built eighteen schools in the Mizen peninsular area, which, in 1845, had as many as 1,046 pupils on their rolls.

Education was vital because in 1845 for example, as much as 76 percent of people in the parish of Schull were illiterate and the National School system, which was inadequately funded, did not do as much for Catholics as did the Protestant schools for their flock. While in the western area, Protestants had eighteen schools, the Catholics had only eight National Schools.

Father Hickey traces the economic background and particularly that relating to mining for copper and barytes in the Schull peninsula but, then, a more intriguing chapter deals with the poverty created by the continuing extraction of tithe payments from Catholics even after Catholic Emancipation. This is a complicated subject and what was called a ‘reform’ was the Tithe Composition Act of 1823, which introduced a system of arbitrators who valued Land and assessed the amount of tithes to be paid by the occupiers.

The Aughadown parish tithes, for example, were valued at £600 in 1829, of which half went to the vicar Robert Wright. Tithes in Schull were £850 a year, in Kilmoe, Goleen, £500 and in Dunmanway, a smaller figure of £461. The tithes were opposed mainly by Catholics but also by Methodists and Presbyterians who resented having to pay these dues to the Church of Ireland clergymen and not surprisingly.

There was serious anti-tithe agitation in the 1830s and a Bantry meeting in 1832 attracted 20,000 people while a similar great meeting in Cork which was a repeal of the Union meeting and addressed by Daniel O’Connell, had an attendance of 200,000. A tactic adopted in West Cork was that the people refused to pay the tithes in cash but allowed the proctor to take payment in kind but when another meeting was held at the foot of Mount Gabriel, the priest organisers, Father Quinn and Kelliher, were prosecuted for urging the people not to pay tithes.

On Popery
Dr. Robert Traill, Rector of Schull, at the time, had boasted that ‘he waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness’ had opined that the outbreak of cholera was ‘God’s punishment for the tithe agitation’. One rector, Charles Ferguson, Timoleague, was murdered while attempting to collect his tithes by force and, throughout the country, the enforced payment of tithes had resulted in 242 homicides.

Further anti-tithe meetings were held in 1834 in Bantry Skibbereen and the latter was addressed by the fiery Chartist leader Fergus O’Connor of the Connor family of Manch, Ballineen, when 40,000 people cheered him all the way to the chapel yard where the meeting was held. These were troubled times for the Church of Ireland and Dr. Traill even attacked Methodism, which he called ‘The Popery of Protestantism’.

With an increasing population, there was great poverty and Father Hickey discusses the repercussions, which included excessive drinking, faction fighting and deprivation, leading on to the system of workhouses, of which by 1841, thirty-seven had been opened throughout the country. The one at Skibbereen was opened in March, 1842, was built to hold 800 inmates and cost £8,000 and was visited the following year by the English writer Thackeray who wrote about it in grim terms.

The great meeting held by Daniel O’Connell in Skibbereen on 22nd June, 1843 had been well documented but Father Hickey deals with it in detail and there was a Repeal Banquet in the Skibbereen Temperance Hall at which the Liberator had a disagreement with a Bantry man Shea Lawlor about the use of physical force. But the honourable guest was presented with nearly £500 towards ‘repeat rent’ and, afterwards, there were meetings in Schull and Ballydehob.

Father Hickey goes on to trace the West Cork economic situation in the run up to the Great Famine and he deals with the problem of absentee landlordism and evictions which were carried out in the name of ‘improvement’. The system of land tenure was blamed as it tended to discourage progress of farming and one of the evils was the role of the middlemen. The poverty of the tenants was increasing but some landlords were also sinking under encumbrances. There was also a decline in the fishing industry and in 1843 a new Board of Fisheries was set up in an attempt to address the problems.

Population growth, prior to the Great Famine, was a factor that exacerbated the intensity of the poverty and hunger and, in the period between 1821 and 1841, there was an increase of over 4,800 people in the western parishes, to a total of 31,160 while Schull village doubled in the same period. This did not happen in Kilcoe and Aughadown. The Protestant birth rate was increasing quicker than was the Catholic but, even at this stage, emigration was a factor. Nearly a million left Ireland for America between 1915 and 1844 and that was before the Great Famine struck.

The potato blight that caused the famine is examined and the people were left in awful distress.
Attempts to solve the problem failed and amid the relief efforts, the road-making works were stepped up and, at one stage, there were 110,000 men employed on these operations. The most destitution was being observed in Skibbereen but the Ballydehob region was also very bad.

A tale of ‘Swift Famine and Tardy Relief’ is the title of Chapter 8 and the British government was informed of the horrific Skibbereen conditions but westwards in Schull parish, it was found that 16,000 of its 18,000 people were in a state of ‘utter destitution’.

Soup kitchens were opened on the instructions of Randolf Routh, chairman of the Relief Commission and though twenty-six were opened in West Carbery, the number of deaths continued to soar.
Routh is quoted by Father Hickey as ‘ultimately blaming the landlords of the Skibbereen district who had an annual income of £50,000.’ The wealthiest was Lord Carbery, with £15,000 while W.W. Becher had £10,000 but outside the western area altogether, it was shown that Lord Bandon alone had £30,000, an enormous sum in rents in these awful times as their tenants starved. In 1847 a call to the landlords was made by Daniel O’Connell.

This chapter deals in the great detail with the famine horrors and the relief attempts and there were many different protests about the the severe delays involved and it was estimated that between October, 1846 and May, 1847, a quarter of the population of Ballydehob had been swept away by famine and disease. The cargoes that arrived were ‘hopelessly inadequate’.

The clergy themselves were being struck down and the victims included Dr. Traill, the rector of Schull, and in Skibbereen there was the macabre incident involving Tom Guerin who was buried alive in the Abbey graveyard but was ‘raised from the dead’. The numbers dying at Skibereen workhouse ranged between 80 to 106 a week during March, 1847, figures that were higher than Dunmanway, 76 Bantry 70 and Brandon, 59.

There was much inequity as the Soup Kitchen Act. 1847 excluded those who had more than a quarteracre of land, though the number of persons on rations in the western parishes of Kilmoe, Schull, Ballydehob and Kilcoe was 15,528 out of a population of 26,887 which was only some 58 percent. These rations were stopped in September, 1847.

The British government declared that, in the nine months up to July, 1847, some £6 million had been spent on relief but, none the less, a million had died from famine in that period and in two years the number was 2 million. In the western Mizen peninsula parishes, a total of 7,332 died in the one year to September 1847 and this was 17 per cent of the population, a very high figure as compared with the overall County Cork level of 5 per cent. Kilmoe was the highest at 18.8 per cent while Drinagh was 18.4 per cent.

Father Hickey examines the mortality figures in great detail, with fewer women dying than men and he then goes on to examine the effect of emigration in that period showing that in 1847, some 17,000 left for Canada on the ‘coffin ships’ of which some 2,716 died in the process of getting there.
Almost 1,000 left the western parishes, mostly destined for America and England.

The ‘souperism’ or proselytism involved in the soup kitchens, as operated by the Protestant clergy, is an important part of Father Hickey’s thesis and William Fisher, rector of Kilmoe, was foremost in seeking converts by using the offer of food to wean Catholics away from their ‘superstition of Popery’. Because of this activity, the Catholic priests in Goleen and Crookhaven withdrew from the relief committee in protest.

Father Laurence O’Sullivan was portrayed by Eoghan Harris in his play Souper Sullivan, as ‘deserting his flock’ but he was, in fact, away only nine days. He could not work with Fisher because of the latter ‘enticing Catholics to barter their faith for a mess or pottage’ (O’Sullivan’s own words). He did not abandon and, in fact, obtained relief from many outside sources which are detailed.

Proselytism also took place on Heir Island and on Cap Clear and in Baltimore, through a Rev. Spring, a Kerryman from Castlemaine, but later, there took place a ‘counter reformation’ promoted by the new Bshop of Cork Rev. William Delaney and eventually some 1,440 ‘soupers’ were won back. A tradition in Kilmoe, however, was that Rev. Fisher, who bought almost 900 acres of land from the estate of R.H.H. becher, after the famine, evicted tenants who refused to become converts and some ‘turned’ to save their lands. Not all Protestant clergymen, however, were like Fisher and Father Hickey pays tribute, in particular to Canon James Goodman, later rector of Abbeystrewry, who, according to a quotation, ‘interferes with no man’s religion’.

The Catholic population, which was much greater than the Protestant, was not as liberally supplied with clergy and, in the western parishes, while Protestants had one clergyman per 705 of population, Catholics had only one priest per 4,583 people. By 1856, however, it is believed that the proselytism campaign was seen to be counter-productive and was gradually abandoned.

Father Hickey goes on to treat the Irish Poor Law which was introduced in 1847 and its effects while, on the relief side, there were many unfinished roads. While the people were starving in that year due to the potato blight, there was still a good harvest of other crops. The four western parishes of Kilmoe, Schull, Kilcoe and Aughadown produced 2,053 acres of wheat, 1,253 acres of oats, 1,159 acres of barley as well as turnips, mangolds and some potatoes. Yet, the people were starving and the grain was being exported to pay the landlord’s rents.

A campaign for Tenant Right was starting up at this time and there were some big meetings, including one at Skibbereen in November which was actually chaired by one of the landlords, R.H. Becher of Hollybrook, who was praised by McCarthy-Downing, solr., for his stance. Even then, however, evictions were continuing and the former rector of Kilmoe, Thomas O’Grady, for example, evicted some nine families in November. In Cloughjordan, Tipperary, a clergy-man-landlord evicted 250 people.

Deaths were continuing and in 1847 almost a thousand died in the western parishes which included 603 in Skibbereen, by far the highest. There was great pressure on ratepayers, apart from rents and in Skibbereen, there were 7,500 paupers on outdoor relief. The export of food caused great bitterness and between 1844 and 1846, around 14,000 tons of corn left the ports of West Cork.

By 1849, three of the western parishes had lost 10,238 in population, with Schull losing the most at 6,655.

The post-famine situation is comprehensively dealt with by Father Hickey in the final chapter of the book and he deals very fully with education, politics, the effects on land holdings, agriculture, the Irish language and the situation in the workhouses.

Also examined, are the effects of emigration, with many details from Census reports and between famine and emigration. For instance, the town of Skibbereen lost almost a thousand people, down to 3,834 by 1851 but, perhaps due to fishing, the popultaion fall among the islanders was less than on the mainland.

Rural housing is also examined while, in regard to the marriage rate, it is observed that the number of Protestant marriages recovered but not the Catholic level.

It is in essence, a tragic story of major proportions, retold in arguably the most shocking theatre of the Irish Great Famine and the research conducted by Father Hickey is so exhaustive that the work is rightly regarded as a major compendium of this most appalling episode in Irish history. For West Cork people, however, the amount of detail and local lore involved is enormous and this volume should be required reading for everybody interested in the story of of this enormous tragedy.

For those in West Cork who have not read it, Famine in West Cork; the Mizen Peninsula, Land and People 1800-1852 would make an ideal Christmas gift.

Courtesy of the Southern Star
November 2004