Sunday, October 11, 2009

West Cork, revisited: 2. Some more historical background ...

This piece, let it be remembered, sprang from the political assassination of Vice-Admiral Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville.

Let's ignore the affection of "Townshend" -- that was claiming collateral descent from the Townshends of West Raynham, Norfolk. The first Townsend into Ireland, a Cromwellian captain and adventurer, probably from Dorset, took a variation of the Townshend arms when he received his land-grant.

The combination of those given names, though, tells us that we are deep into the intricacies of Anglo-Irish gentry. At a quick look, this involves the Fitzgeralds and the
de Burghs and the Barrys and the Synges and ... many more. In other words, the Vice-Admiral could prove Irish (and, no, not just "Anglo-Irish") ancestry back, at least, to the twelfth century, and by the "Old English" marrying into pre-Norman Irish clans, into distant pre-history. It also means that Tom Barry, the IRA captain who ordered the old man's assassination, shared at least a name in the Somerville matrilinear ancestry.

The first of the Somervilles to arrive in Ireland seems to be the Reverend William Somerville, accompanied by his wife, Agnes, and their two sons, William and Thomas. That was around 1692. Some sources suggest that Somerville had left presbyterian Scotland because of prejudice against Anglicans and episcopalians.

The young Thomas Somerville followed his father into the Church, married a widow (a useful financial move in those days) and sired five sons (four whom seem to have emigrated to the American colonies) and four daughters.

By the third Irish generation, the Somervilles were inter-marrying with the Townsends of Castletownsend, which village became the family base through to the twentieth century.

As a pallid youth, Malcolm even shared Somerville tea at Castletownsend. No doubt about it: by that time, terms like "decayed gentry" and "distressed gentry-folk" were not far amiss.

It needs to be remembered that the Great Famine devastated not just the Irish peasantry but also the landlord class. Resident Irish landlords could not, and did not ignore the plight of their tenants: with few exceptions, they had been investing and encouraging agricultural improvements over decades. With the Famine, they were confronted with a disaster far beyond their comprehension -- and their means.

If one needs real villains of the piece, look to the absentee landlords, living in England, interested only in rack-renting their Irish estates.

... where they ate the donkeys

By a coincidence, Malcolm found himself browsing Stuart McLean's book on an Gorta Mór: The Event and Its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity.
He started to pay closer attention when he came to the passage on Skibbereen, Schull (an old stamping ground) and, in particular, Rev. Richard Townsend.

Here, in full, and at some length, it is:
Conditions in Skibbereen, County Cork, close to Ireland's southern-most tip, were made known to the British reading public during the winter of 1846-47 in part through the writings and illustrations of James Mahony, a Cork-born artist, employed by the Illustrated London News to report on conditions in his native locality. The first of these "Sketches in the West of Ireland" appeared on February 13, 1847. An accompanying editorial piece, apparently anxious to preempt charges of exaggeration, claimed that, because Mahony was a native of the district, he "must already have been somewhat familiar with such scenes of suffering in his own locality (Cork), so that he cannot be supposed to have taken an extreme view of the greater misery at Skibbereen". Mahony alighted first in the area of Bridgetown, where “I saw the dying, the living, and the dead, lying indiscriminately upon the same floor, without anything between them and the cold earth, save a few miserable rags upon them.” The dead, he observed, were often left to lie next to the living for several days before their bodies were removed. At Ballidichub [Ballydehob?], in the parish of Aghadoe, in a cabin formerly occupied by one Tim Harrington, he found four people who had been dead for six days, and a fifth dying. The latter made an attempt to rise when the visitors entered but collapsed in the doorway. The living were unwilling to bury the dead, Mahony wrote, for fear of fever. He was struck too by the hopeless insufficiency of existing relief measures in the face of a numerous and destitute population. At nearby Schull he recalled seeing “three to four hundred women,” money in hands, attempting to buy food, while a few government officers doled out Indian meal to each of them in turn. The meal itself was distributed in small quantities at "famine prices," and it was often necessary to wait all day to receive one's share. Supplies of meal had arrived by water in a sloop, accompanied by a government steamship for protection -- a total quantity of just fifty tons for a population of more than twenty-seven thousand people.

Schull provided Mahony too with a specimen of "in-house horrors" far worse than the predicament of those who were at least able to afford the price of meal. In the second of his "Sketches" (published on February 20) he gave a description and sketch of the hut of a man named Mullins, “who lay dying in a corner on a heap of straw, supplied by the Relief Committee, whilst his three wretched children crouched over a few embers of a turf fire, as if to raise the last spark of life.” Mullins, it turned out, had buried his wife some days previously. He himself had been found in a state of unconsciousness by the local Protestant clergyman, whose efforts had succeeded in pronging his life by a few days. In the accompanying illustration, the children crowd around the fire with their backs turned. Mullins himself lies center-right, his face partially averted and his eyes closed. A child, clad in rags appears in a doorway to the right, its hand extended. However, the most prominent figure is that of a man (presumably the artist), in hat and coat, seated on a chair, surveying the scene of destitution before him. As a footnote. there appeared the following editorial comment: “Our Artist assures us that the dimensions of the hut do not exceed ten feet square; adding that, to make the sketch, he was compelled to stand up to his ankles in the dirt and filth upon the floor.”

Readers of the Illustrated London News had further opportunity to learn about conditions in west Cork through the medical diaries of the Skibbereen physician, Dr. Daniel Donovan, reprinted from the Cork Southern Reporter. Although for a medical practitioner, called upon daily to attend the sick and dying, such scenes inevitably took on a familiar char­acter, Donovan himself admitted to being disturbed by his patients' acceptance of, even longing for, their own imminent demise:

Twenty-two strangers, who came into Skibbereen to beg, had taken up their abode in a house in Bridge Town; illness broke out amongst them and I was sent for to see five who were sick of the fever. The appearance of this lazaretto, when a bit of bog was lighted to show me the patients, baffles description. Four bare walls and an old straw roof constituted the habitation, and there was not in it a single pound of straw for bedding; a shower of liquid soot was falling from the thatch and a foetid fog was rising from filthy wet rags that constituted the only clothing of the inmates. I prescribed for my patients, and was about to leave them when my attention was attracted to a group in the opposite end of the house, who were zealously engaged about an old woman and child who were lying on the ground.

One of the party told him that her child was dead and her mother dying, and asked, would he give the latter a drink? The dying woman thanked him, and then thanked God that she would not be in need of his drink much longer. She then asked him, would she live until morning? He replied that he expected her to live no more than an hour — “this assurance seemed to give her the greatest satisfaction” — she then asked him to arrange for her and her child to he buried in the abbey graveyard at Skibbereen. He promised to do so, but in the hurry of business, he forgot his promise. Returning to the houst, several days later, accompanied by "an artist from the Illustrated London News" (that is, Mahony), he was shocked to find the bodies in the same spot and the same position in which he had left them.

Reports about Skibbereen had been appearing with increasing frequency since the autumn of 1846. In early December, two Protestant clergymen, the Reverend Caulfied and the Reverend Richard Townsend (whose bulletins concerning conditions in the district had been published in newspapers in both Britain and Ireland) had travelled to London to meet with Trevelyan. They had informed him that the government relief schemes were failing, that no “practical and responsible persons of property and respectability” had come forward to form a relief committee, and that in consequence, no subscriptions had been collected. The committee, now in a "state of suspension, was unable to take effective action. The only employment in the district was on public works, which, at 8 pence a day, was insufficient to feed a family. Caulfield himself had been dispensing soup at his own house each day to between sixty or seventy people, who would otherwise have starved. Trevelyan was asked to send emergency supplies of food, but none were sent. On December 15, the commissioners of the Board of Works had written an official letter to the British government, giving notice of the extreme destitution at Skibbereen. Trevelyan responded by writing to his commissary general. Sir Randolph Routh, advising him he should not send emergency supplies, in the absence of an effective relief committee at local level, because to do so would deplete government stocks; nor was he to consider the purchase of further supplies from overseas, thus interfering with the trade of local merchants. Appeals for Skibbereen received an official response in the form of a treasury minute, written by Trevelyan on behalf of the lords of the treasury, on January 8, 1847:

It is their Lordships' desire that effectual relief should be given to the inhabitants of the district in the neighborhood of Skibbereen …local Relief Committees should be stimulated to the utmost possible extent; soup kitchens should be established under the management of those Committees at such distances as will render them accessible to all destitute inhabitants and ... liberal donations should be made by Govcrnment in aid of funds raised by local subscriptions.

As a result, Skibbereen received no emergency supplies of food. although two soup kitchens were started with privately collected funds after the visit of a commissariat officer. Richard Inglis. on December 17.

By this point, horror stories in the local and national press had begun to multiply, spinning out a mythology of chaos, death, and destitution that seemed to gain in intensity with each successive retelling. According to the Cork Examiner, the death rate in the Skibbereen workhouse had, by January, reached a hundred forty a month, with as many as eight dying in a single day. Dr. Donovan, addressing a public meeting, asserted that people were "dropping in dozens”. The Reverend Robert Traill, Church of Ireland rector of Schull and chairman of the local relief committee, claimed That there were fifteen thousand persons destitute in his district, five thousand being entirely dependent on “casual charity”. There had been fifty deaths from famine, while hundreds were reduced to the point where neither food nor medicine could restore them.

The seeming ubiquity of death and disease suggests that Skibbereen had come to occupy an increasingly well-defined fantasy space in the imaginations of observers and commentators, perhaps as a heightened microcosm of conditions in Ireland as a whole, perhaps, more disturbingly, as a black hole of fathomless and all-consuming scarcity in which order and intelligibility, including the lucid precepts of political economy, were pulveriseed into nonexistence.

By April 1847, with the worst depredations of the winter over, the picture seemed complete. The following report (again reprinted from the Cork Sothern Reporter) appeared in the Illustrated London News:

The climax of mortality and misery has arrived. The peasantry are literally rotting off the surface of the earth. The living are swept off in the south western baronies by pestilence, and the dead lie unburied. melting away in this warm season where they drop and die ... the highways, dykes and cabins of the south and west are darkly dotted with corpses blackening in the sun. or filled with masses of reeking putrefaction.

The description suggests, if anything, the aftermath of catastrophe, invoking a strangely still landscape, already strewn with corpses and shrouded in the stench of decay. Human society appears to have vanished, while the casualties of its passing linger only to rot back into the soil, which waits to reclaim them.

So, what's your point, Malcolm?
  • Note those references to "fever". It wasn't just starvation that did for the victims. Those who left, who could afford the fare for the passage, were running away from more than hunger.
  • Next time you sing along with Pete St John's marvellous, magnificent Fields of Athenry, remember that "Trevelyan's corn" implies ... quite a bit.

The pert young piece and Malcolm sang that at Twickenham, cheering London Irish on against Harlequins to start the season. The Lady in his Life and Malcolm were at it again the other night, at the Irish Club. It always brings a prickle behind his eyes, followed by a discreet sniffle.
  • Read, inwardly digest, and wait for ...
[To be continued] Sphere: Related Content

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