Sunday 17 February 2019

Michael Davitt in Arran in 1888

Michael Davitt visit to Arran in 1888 (Part 1)

The almost permanent distress on the Aran islands during much of the 19th century is a recurring theme of newspaper reports of the time. The islands, like the rest of the country, suffered occasionally from excessively wet seasons, but the shallow soil on the porous limestone rock made long dry spring/summers, an even more feared event.

When fishing was bad, the village of Cill Éinne suffered even more than the rest of the islands as the villagers had very little land. 1879 saw a general crop failure all over Ireland and relief efforts at the time avoided a catastrophe like the Gorta Mór of the 1840s.

When Michael Davitt decided to visit the islands in February 1888, things on the islands had not really recovered and only relief in the years before had avoided deaths from hunger. There had even been a successful battle over rents between the islanders and the police in 1887. We wrote about this before.

Davitt himself was well aware of what hunger felt like as his family had been evicted in Mayo, when he was just a boy of four and his family later fled Ireland and settled in Lancashire. When little more than a boy, he went to work in the mills, where, as a teenager, he lost an arm. A generous benefactor had seen to his education and the rest is history.

This article is a reproduction of a harrowing account of Michael Davitt and Fr Michael O’Donohoe visiting a starving family in Cill Éinne and it makes for very disturbing reading. It’s obvious the Michael O’Donohoe showed Davitt one of the very worst cases but it’s shocking nonetheless. Murtagh Farragher was curate at the time and makes a brief appearance.

Before that, the account has some humorous moments, when the 25 year old American journalist, Blakely Hall, London correspondent of The Sun newspaper, gives some background on giving Castle detectives the slip at Galway dock and a rambling story they were treated to by the mainland jarvey on their way to Casla Bay.

Reassuring that the mainland jarveys were as gifted in 1888, at spinning a good yarn about the vineyards of Connemara, as some on the islands are today. The stage Irishman dialogue can be grating after a while but Blakely’s age might explain and even excuse this. We give it to you more or less as it appeared.

Michael Davitt and Fr O’Donahoe would later clash over relief funds. They came to the problem from different angles, with Davitt believing that relief was fine short term but long term, he was a revolutionary, who wanted the whole system overthrown. Davitt regarded the destitution as being the will of the system rather than the will of God. Davitt may also have suspected the priest of downplaying the help that emigrants had sent back.

Interesting that of the three men in Irish history who were most committed to this type of thinking, Davitt, Larkin and Connolly, two spoke with an English accent, Lancashire and Liverpool and the other, a Scottish. 

This account of what Davitt encountered in Cill Éinne is both long and disturbing and some readers will find it very upsetting. Be warned. The very last lines of Blakely Hall’s account will stay with readers for a long time.

He wrote “ The face of the dying woman was livid. I could not look at her and I went out into the night, leaving the wretched family with the priest, for Davitt had followed me out. Presently the priest came out and led the way silently back to the cottage“

 Three thousand in want
        Michael Davitt's Visit to the
                 Arran Islands
          The Great leader ideolized by the
                       Starving people.
       Hunger and death in Fisherman's cabin.
        Arran Islands, Galway Bay. Feb 10th 1888
                          by Blakely Hall
                   Michael Davitt 1846-1906

Michael Davitt, accompanied by your correspondent, arrived here yesterday after a final and heartless piece of diplomacy directed towards the British detectives.
The misery and destitution on the islands is so great that imperative relief was demanded. A fund was placed in Mr Davitt's hands for the purpose of supplying the people with food. When we left the hotel in Galway early yesterday morning, three detectives followed us to the wharf. 

There was but one sailboat there and we engaged it.
"How far is it to the Arran islands ?”
"Thirty miles” said the boatman with a glance at the clouds.
"It'll take us 'till night to get there with this wind”
"Is there a shorter way?”
"There is”
 "What is it ?”
"Take a car along the shore till you come to Costello bay, and thin sail tin miles across the channel.”
"If we don't take your boat” remarked Mr Davitt, gazing dreamily at a great disturbance at an upper pier, “What will you do ?”
"Faith your honor, I'll sail down the bay and git a mass av fish”
"How Far ?”
About twelve miles
"Could you make it double the distance ?”
"I could sail ahead then and be sure our friends there do not catch you”
The type of men and boat that led the detectives on a wild goose chase.
 The skipper looked ahead, grinned delightedly and calling his men, ran up the mainsail, shook out the jib and moved away.

We were sheltered from view by a pile of bales. The disturbance at the adjoining pier had at last settled down into a bargain and the three detectives set out to sea in a long rowboat manned by four men.

 They evidently thought we were in the cabin of the little sloop and the Irish skipper of that stanch little vessel kept up the delusion to the immense delight of himself and his crew by holding long and exited conversations with nobody in the cabin. The sloop sailed away and after it struggled the rowboat, with the spray dashing over the huddled figures of the detectives in the sternsheets.

Our jaunting car started along the smooth roads an hour later and we saw no more of the chase of the fishing boat that day.
Connemara mail car 1880s
Photo by Major Robert Routledge-Fair

The long drive of 24 miles was broken by the crowds that cheered Mr Davitt whenever we passed through villages.
Finally we came to the end of civil action and stopped for a bite before crossing a bleak moor to the edge of Costello bay. It had grown late and very cold. The driver alone was impervious to the weather.

"Dis here place is famous Mr Davitt” he said, indicating the road with a sweep of his whip, “f'r bein de scene av a wish bein gratified. A young man wuz wa'kin along here about four years agho, all alone wid his pig, whin a fairy sez t' 'im,
                                       "Phat'll y' 'ave, young man ?”
"Faith, I'll hev a coompanion av me own age t' talk an sing wid”
                   "Shall I change yer pig into a young man ?”
So sayin, the fairy up an' done it an' the pair av thim walked along happy and chatty till dey cooms to a vine where tousands of grapes wuz growin. Th' first young man ate his full an'stopped as a gintieman should.
Th' sickond, which wuz wance a pig, ate like a pig an' couldn't stop. Faith he grovelled.
Thin th' first young man yelt, Wance a pig, allus a pig, an th' other young man was changed back into a pig again”
                "Do you believe all that, I asked.?"
Indade I do. Why should I not, whin me own mudder seed it wid her own eyes”
It was 4 o'Clock before we started for the biggest of the
                     THREE ARRAN ISLANDS

A traditional Connemara sailing boat making a more recent crossing from Connemara to Arran

We found a fishing boat of about 40 tons burden and chartered her to take us over. The man demanded the exorbitant sum of one shilling for carrying us 10 miles.

"An Oi'll be glad t'git it” he said, “fur our luk's bin bad. We fished fer two days an' only caught two fish. We traded wan ay th' fish fur a busn'l av pertaties an afther carryin th' spuds tree miles th' mate slipped an spilt th hull lot overboard.”

This tale was told with a horror-struck face as we talked in the teeth of a howling wind that sent the spray from stem to stern. It was rough sailing and we were drenched half an hour after the start.

"Fer weeks at a time” the skipper said, no boat kin git to or from the islands so rough is the water, an thin th' poor divils have t' go widout letters an' news an' sometimes food. Manny a boat's bin wrecked on this bay”
I thought of the detectives in the rowboat and wondered where they were.
Straw Island, Oileán na Tuí Lighthouse.

It was dark when we swung past a towering lighthouse and brought up at a small pier. But, despite the gloom the boat had been seen and the pier was crowded by a mothly group of half-clad men and women who recognised Mr Davitt in the glare of the lantern and divining that he had come on a mission of mercy and benevolence, they raised a cheer that echoed back and forth between the stony hills half a dozen times.

 Some of the people ran ahead to tell the priest the news and others tramped silently after us. As we ascended the hill the door of a small cottage was thrown open and the parish priest, Father O'Donoghue, and his curate Father Farragher came out. They were on a bluff and as they hurried down the rocks to meet us the gale blew their robes wildly to and fro.

The children, dancing and screeching wildly around the two priests, looked like demons in the half light. The people broke into wild shouts. The arrival of Mr Davitt meant food and many of them were literally starving.
Priests house, Arran after the erection of the cross in      memory of Fr O'Donahoe in the 1890s  (N.L.I)
"It's the most mortifying thing in the world to me to be obliged to appeal to charity again this year” said Father O'Donoghue, after we had been warmed and fed “but what can I do. My people are literally starving to death. The potato crop has failed and there is no market for their kelp. They have not the money for buying the elaborate and expensive vessels and tackle necessary to fish successfully in these stormy seas and the result is that our 3000 people are in absolute want. Unless they get some seed potatoes and immediate relief from hunger, the death rate will go on increasing appallingly.”
Is the soil so bad ?”

"There is no soil to speak of. For centuries the people have diug the sand and mud out of the sea and carried it on their backs up on the hills of rock. They have spread it carefully and laboriously over the surface of the rocks and when the fields thus made reached a depth of six or 10 inches they planted potatoes and so got their food. When a dry year comes it is good for the potato crop on the mainland but death to the potato crop here. For the soil is so light that the sun burns the potatoes away.

"Is there no market for kelp” asked Mr Davitt
"No one will buy it. Only two firms purchase it now and as they employ the same buyer the people are swindled. Kelp” the priest said, turning to me, “is seaweed,". 

"The people wade into the water above their waists and gather a peculiar type of weed of a deep red colour. It is very difficult to get it at times, as it clings to the rocks in dangerous places. After it is brought ashore, it is thatched with potato stalks and dried in the sun for weeks.”

"In September it is burned. From the ashes chemists get iodine. Can you imagine the amount of work that is required to get a ton of this stuff. When it is ready it is transported to Kilkerran. Once the people received £9 a ton for it. Now they are fortunate if they get £3 a ton for it. Theagent pretends that he has a chemical analysis for testing the kelp. Sometimes he he refuses it altogether and again he will pay 10 shilling a ton. Of course he can do exactly as he wants to as he has no competitors.

 The people must take what he offers or throw their kelp into the sea. Last year two brothers named Flaherty divided a pile of kelp into two loads. One brother recieved £3 for his share, the other was told that his kelp was worthless.
Not a farthing would the agent give for it. Flaherty sailed away and sent the same kelp back by his uncle O'Brien the next day. The agent paid £4 for it at once.

It is such dealing as this that upsets the people and ruins their ambition. Their lot is very hard and yet they are most faithful and good. Think of what an advanced state of morality there is here when I tell you that there has not been an illegitimate birth among the 3000 people on these islands in 40 years".

                      " Is there no emigration ?”
There was worse luck” said the priest with a doleful shake of his head. “America took the flower of the people. A fund was raised and the young men all sailed away, leaving only the children and the old people on the islands. The boys are doing well across the water, because the people of Arran are naturally frugal and industrious, but they have forgotten the old folks at home. Many appeals have been made to them, but in vain. When they first arrive in the States they send a pound and a photograph, but that is all. Once in a while they recommend the workhouse to their starving friends.”
                      "Is there a workhouse here ?”
"No indeed. The nearest one is 32 miles away. If one of my people goes in they might as well all go in, for the degrees of poverty are very slight. We are all taxed to support the workhouse but I'm proud to say there is not a man or woman of Arran under the roof. I'll show you how the poor laws work for the Irish poor. A fisherman here- a good steady hardworking man- found things going against him. Toil as he would he could not make both ends meet. He worked night and day. Once I remember he caught 120 fish. He journeyed to Galway with them and sold the lot of four shillings. Then he travelled back with the money, having done 60 miles. In spite of his struggles his wife died of privation and the lack of necessaries of life. He was left with four little children on his hands, besides his invalid sister. A man can struggle to the limit-no more.

I could not help him because my money is long since gone and there are hundreds of pressing cases. The fisherman was desperate. His children cried all day for food. Finally, one of them fell ill and this decided him. He took them all to the workhouse. When he got there at last, they refused to take the children in, despite their pitiful condition unless the father would go in with them and work for their support. Of course he couldn't do this, for his invalid sister would have died without his care. He begged to have the youngest child taken in even if the others were not. All of no avail. He was turned away without a copper to help him on his long journey back.

Here he is at home again, willing to work himself to the bone and never complaining of his responsibilities, but his lot is hard enough. The youngest child died not long since. He sent for me and I was going to his cabin tonight.
                        "Anything of special importance ?”
"The sister's very low” said the priest, rising half apologetically.
         "Shall we go with you ?” asked Mr Davitt.
"It will be a long walk and a cold one”said Fr O'Donoghue, “but if you wish to sound for yourself the depths of human misery, come”

It was after 10 o'clock and the wind was whistling furiously around the little one-story cabin as we started out. The stillness of death reigned without but for the noise of the wind and I was startled by finding myself face to face with a crowd of several hundred people who had gathered silently in front of the cabin and stood there in there in the fierce cold clad only in rags and waiting patiently to get a look at the Irish leader.

    Aloysius O'Kelly sketch from 1886

Father O'Donoghue was as much surprised as I was to see the assembly. They cheered when Mr Davitt followed us out of the house. The priest stepped forward quickly and moving to the centre of the big crowd, held up his hands. Hats were whisked off onall sides and the men and women pressed forward like children to listen. The moon lighted the scene.

Then Father O'Donoghue talked to them in a gentle and insistant way, as a mother reprimands a sickly child. It was wonderfully impressive. The priests low, deep-toned voice seemed enchantment to their ears.
"You should go to your homes for the wind is sharp without and shelter is needed to the thinly clad. Keep well within doors and prepare for the relief that is to come. Not long will you have to suffer for a good friend has come among you to see if you are honest and willing to toil. If you are, work will be provided for you and from work comes food. No money will be given away for that makes paupers of you and I know you would rather work than beg, no matter how dire the need. Mr Davitt is worn with long journey tonight, but tomorrow he will speak to you all. Go now, go to your cabins and to bed.”

Without a word they hurried obediently away. We started briskly down the path after the priest who strode sturdily along a rocky road that ran by the edge of the bay. The mountain of rocks rose on one side, the sea stretched out on the other. 

We marched thus in single file for half an hour, and then approaching a small village, the priest led the way to one of the houses- that occupied by the fisherman whose story he had told us before we started out. He lighted a bit of candle which he had brought along and held it aloft after we had bent almost double and passed through the low doorway.
             Cill Éinne in the 1890s
The cabin was small. The earth formed the floor. Two pieces of peat burned in the fireplace. The smoke hung about the ceiling of the room.
A little bench was placed in the fireplace, almost atop of the burning turf and on it sat three wretched little figures with naked legs, skinny arms and drawn faces.

The oldest of the children was about 8 years- the youngest 4. Two of them whimpered continually, but the youngest sat with his elbows on his gaunt knees and his chin sunk in his little hands, staring with fixed and stony misery at the opposite wall. Nothing could avert his gaze of absolute despair. 

I dropped on one knee and spoke to the children; the two who were crying turned their red-lidded eyes towards me but the boy stared on unheeding. I never saw such an awful figure of childish agony. The face was thin and the cheeks so sunken that the eyes seemed twice their natural size. The little things all trimbled from the effects of the cold.

Where do they sleep” I asked
Where they are sur” said the fisherman, quietly. “Its too cold in my bed there” he pointed to a mound of moss and dried grass in the corner near the door. It was about three feet square. “Then aunt's too sick fur t' take them in her bed” the man added.
Is she bad tonight ?” asked the priest
Faith she is father, I bin for two nights tryin' t' keep her warm this way”

He was on his knees in front of the little fire holding a square bit of carpet about as big as a napkin, so as to warm it thoroughly. He had an honest and prepossessing face but the lines of suffering were drawn clear and sharp. He rose as he spoke and stepped across the little hut to a kind of doorway cut in the wall. 

He motioned us to follow.
You kin look at the poor girl” he said “Faith she'll not know it, fur her strength has so gone that she no longer opens her eyes.

Within the stone doorway was an alcove abot the size of a man's coffin and perhaps four feet high. Stretched out in this living tomb was his dying sister, lying on her back on the earth with some moss under her head. She was about thirty years old,worn to a shadow and dying of consumption. 

As the light fell on her, it startled us. She wore no chemise or night dress but she was partly covered by bags and pieces of carpet. Her breast, shoulders and arms were bare and wasted away beyond belief. The bit of carpet that her brother had warmed at the fire was pressed by him over her breast and held there tenderly until it was time to warm it again.
“It gives her relief” he said softly “poor crayture, she breathes easier when I put it on her”

The face of the dying woman was livid. I could not look at her and I went out into the night, leaving the wretched family with the priest, for Davitt had followed me out. Presently the priest came out and led the way silently back to the cottage.

     (Feb 1888 by American journalist Blakely Hall)
(Part two to follow)

No comments:

Post a Comment