Monday, 14 December 2020

Hunger and death in 1886

       Three men drowned at Inis Meáin.

        Boat lost as relief supplies arrive.





January of 1886 saw much publicity about a potential famine on the western islands of Ireland and some of the remote mainland areas. 




There was serious hunger, disease and death almost every year but 1886 was shaping up to be one of the worst. Newspaper reports and parliamentary questions highlighted the situation and by March it was obvious that unless immediate action was taken to supply seed potatoes, things would get a lot worse.



The Laissez-faire (leave alone) attitude of the time believed that government should leave things to the free market and the will of God. A recipe for disaster.


People suffered greatly in all parts of Great Britain but in Ireland the situation was complicated by religious and political tensions. Each area had been expected to support its local destitute and this attitude was one reason for the huge loss of life of the 1840s and the bankruptcy of so many landlords. Central government tended to ignore the poorer classes unless they needed to raise an army.


In 1886, the three islands belonged to an elderly Kildare woman, Elizabeth Francis Digby (1803-1896) who had inherited them from her father, Rev John Digby.


The islands were controlled though by her Dublin based land agent Thomas Thompson (1808-1886) who paid her a set sum and then extracted for himself as much as he could. To make matters worse, Thompson was a committed evangelical who  despised the “ignorant and idolatrous” beliefs of the islanders.


He was assisted in administering the islands by different people, one of whom was the local Catholic middleman, who lived in the big house in Cill Mhuirbhigh, James O’Flaherty J.P.


By 1886, O’Flaherty was dead and had been succeeded by his daughter and her husband. Thompson was involved along with the local parson, William Kilbride, in calling for help but there was bad feelings between the parson and the priest that had its roots in accusations of linking food aid with conversion.


 This had come to a head in 1880 when Kilbride and Thompson had made unfounded accusations about relief distribution against the then Parish Priest, Fr Concannon. This resulted in a sworn enquiry which vindicated Fr Concannon. A story for another time perhaps.


The immediate cause of the distress was the failure of the potato crop in 1885. This was particularly bad on the three Aran islands because of a drought in the early part of the season. Bad weather later in 1885 and a huge drop in fish stocks had added to the misery.


It was reported to the Mansion House relief committee in mid April 1886, that the mountains of Achill were covered in snow. In mid May, pier inspectors found themselves marooned by bad weather on the Aran islands. A cold, wet and windy Spring in 1886, it seems.


As the situation became more urgent with the sowing season almost over, in late March the government ordered the gunboats Orwell, Banterer and Britomart to assist in bringing supplies to the islands, especially Arran, Boffin, Clare and Achill.





Most of the supplies were bought with public contributions and once again, Thomas Francis Brady, inspector of fisheries, was to the fore in highlighting the situation. He had availed of a fund raised by the officers and men of the Royal Irish Constabulary in buying 90 tons of seed potatoes for Arran @ £3 a ton but he needed another 160.  Contributions to his fund arrived from all over Britain, Ireland and beyond as the emigrant population and others, responded to his call. Brady chided the government for their poor response.


Waiting for relief to arrive at Cill Rónáin, in April 1886


Brady reckoned he needed a stone of potatoes, per family, per day or the equivalent amount of meal, to sustain the islands until the new crop could be harvested. This was in addition to the seed potatoes. 



The Orwell had been stationed in Galway with plans to supply Arran but when at first the seed failed to arrive, she was sent to Westport to distribute to Achill, Clare and Boffin, potatoes that had arrived there from Scotland.



These potatoes had been provided privately by the great English philanthropist James Tuke. While James was unable to get involved in the Arran relief, he did organise a 130 ton consignment of seed for Clifden, which arrived by boat as the railway had yet to be built.


By 1886, the wealthy English Quaker James Hack Tuke had made a name for himself in Irish history. During the great hunger and death of the 1840s he had responded magnificently, especially in West Mayo and North Connemara.


When that hunger and destitution threatened to be repeated after the bad harvests of 1879, he had instigated a system of controlled, assisted emigration. Many of our North American readers may well be descended from those who were helped to emigrate at this time.


His plan met with stiff resistance from some politicians and many bishops, but most of the ordinary clergy supported him in his efforts. Starving people could not wait for promised social reform.






When Sir Thomas Brady’s relief supplies eventually arrived in Galway, the H.M.S. Britomart was despatched from Bantry to take 15 tons to the Aran islands. This was on the 26th of March 1886.


Fr Michael O’Donoghue, Parish priest of Arran had been highlighting the dire need and he was joined by a number of others, including the Quakers Sir John Barrington and Henry Wigham, in getting things moving. Barrington and Wigham had visited the island in mid March and made an extensive report on what they found.

Spent a few days on Arran in Mid March 1886



Not surprisingly, they found the greatest need among the almost landless fishing community of Cill Éinne but they also reported great distress in many parts of the island, mentioning Kilmurvey and Seven Churches in particular.




Sir John Barrington would die just a year after his Arran inspection with what appears to have been a sudden bout of pneumonia. His companion Henry Wigham was a champion of many causes during his life. As well as campaigning against slavery, he was a supporter of women’s right to vote, an advocate against alcohol abuse and was also active in the Protestant Home Rule movement. He died in 1897. The country benefited greatly from the selfless efforts of many Quakers like Henry Wigham, during these and other hungry times.


In late March, the Government ordered the sea going tug, H.M.S. Seahorse to sail from Portsmouth to Queenstown (Cobh) to help with transporting supplies to the west coast. 


H.M.S Seahorse which assisted with relief in 1886



The arrival of the Seahorse would be instrumental in saving many lives but it would be indirectly responsible for the deaths of three Inis Meáin men, after it discharged its cargo in Cill Rónáin.





The Seahorse would make three trips from Queenstown before returning to Portsmouth and on her first trip in early April, she unloaded her cargo in Cill Éinne bay on to fishing boats and currachs. 




The 45 tons of seed potatoes that she carried from Queenstown, had been donated free by the farmers of Cork. The man responsible for co-ordinating most of the Cork based relief effort was a Queenstown based Justice of Peace, Joseph A Carbery. He was aboard the Seahorse which also called at the hungry Blaskets in Kerry.


Many clergymen had appealed from the pulpit and vital supplies of potatoes were generously donated by local farmers. Many convents organised bazaars etc to help the west coast communities in need.


As well as the seed potatoes the Seahorse carried a bale of blankets and some meal, as it was feared that because of the hunger, the seed might have been eaten, with dire consequences for the following harvest.


While Aran and Achill got most publicity, Michael Davitt worried that the smaller islands might be neglected. The meagre amount of Indian meal was of little benefit on Arran as unlike Achill, the islands had neither bog nor forest and cooking was a major problem.


Later in 1886, the priest in Spiddal would remark that Arran and Achill got more attention because of their romantic image, when he was witnessing severe hunger in Connemara. The priest in Oughterard would also report great distress.


Along with the blankets, food and seed, the Seahorse brought two thousand fishing hooks to Arran as the fishermen badly needed to replace spillard tackle for long line fishing.


It would appear that Cill Rónáin was the depot for all three islands and the men from Inis Oirr and Inis Meáin arrived to take home their allotted seed from the Seahorse on April 8th.


The weather was bad but they had little choice but to head for Cill Rónáin and return home laden with potatoes. And this was how the three men were lost.


According to Thomas Brady, as the Inis Meáin men neared home, a sudden squall got up and some of the currachs were forced to dump part of their precious loads, in order to survive. One boat found itself in serious danger of being swamped. Perhaps it had broken an oar or perhaps the rough weather and huge load had caused it to start taking water, but the boats alongside were unable to help as they were under severe pressure too.




It was at this stage that three men on shore, Pat Folan, Coleman McDonagh and Pat Costello, launched their currach and went to the assistance of the boat in trouble. As is often the case in drowning incidents, those in trouble managed to make it to shore but the rescue boat was overturned and the three men were drowned. 

As far as we know, only two bodies were recovered




Once again, as he had often done before and would often do again, Thomas Francis Brady led a fundraising effort to help the sixteen dependants of the three men. Newspapers reported that Pat Folan was twenty years old and the sole support for five younger, parentless siblings, two brothers and three sisters. Coleman McDonagh was married with six young children and Pat Costello was married with three children.


Brady succeeded in collecting a fair amount of money for the 16 dependents of the drowned fishermen. This was topped up by a very generous donation by the Lifeboat institute. 



The involvement of the institute is unusual but was perhaps influenced by the fact that the three men were lost while trying to save others.

Bríd Pheadar Faherty Mc Donagh  was left with six children when her husband Coleman was drowned. Her youngest, Colm Beag, was only five days old. Her son Pat would be drowned at age eighteen a few years later around 1890, as he returned from buying salt in Cill Rónáin. This photo is from the book, Inis Meáin Images Ten Days in August 1912, by Henry Cecil Watson. 



On April 20th 1886, Fr O’Donohue acknowledged the arrival of generous aid for all three islands from the merchants, Russell’s of Limerick. It included two tons of flour, one ton of meal, eighteen bags of potatoes, twelve casks of meat and a few substantial bales of clothing.


This shipment from Limerick arrived on John Russell’s steamer Brandon under the command of Captain Begg. In August 1892, after departing Limerick, the Brandon took on a cargo of kelp and some Liscannor slates at Seafield in County Clare. 

Heading for Glasgow, the Brandon took a short cut through the Gregory sound but after running into heavy weather, she was wrecked on Oileán na Tuí (Straw Island) where some traces of her still remained in the 1970s. All twelve crew were saved.


The list of those who contributed to the relief efforts on the western islands is very long and ranges from some large contributions down to a few shillings. All were publicly acknowledged. It involved many clergymen and parishes from different denominations.


One business in Cork, Newsom and son of Patrick street, organised 400 parcels of groceries which included tea, sugar etc which were delivered to Fr O’Donoghue in three chests.


While many businesses and people of wealth contributed generously, what is really striking in reading the list of contributors, are the vast numbers who contributed small sums, down to a shilling or a bag of potatoes.

Memorial cross in Cill Rónáin to the memory of the heroic priest, Michael O’Donohoe




Later, in May 1886, the H.M.S. Orwell arrived in Cill Rónáin with  a cargo of meal as it would be some time before the potato crop could be harvested.


The efforts of so many generous contributors helped stave off a humanitarian disaster in the west of Ireland and in particular on the western islands. Sadly it was not to be the end of hunger and death as the following years saw more misery and forced emigration.


Joseph Carbery was fulsome in his praise for the captains and crews of the gunboats that helped stave off disaster. He travelled on the Seahorse himself and he thanked Captains Hoskins, Isaac and Law of the Seahorse, Britomart and Orwell for their efforts.


However, a sailor has to follow orders and boats like the Orwell, Britomart and Seahorse, which had brought vital assistance to the islanders, would before long be engaged in landing process servers, police and bailiffs on the very same islands.


Later in October 1886, the H.MS Britomart carried the sheriff and a police escort to three islands near Schull were evictions were carried out.


At around the same time, the H.M.S. Seahorse was involved in bringing the bailiff and police to the Scottish island of Skye where six crofters were arrested for obstructing eviction and seizure orders. 




In May 1887, the H.M.S. Orwell returned to the Arran islands but this time it carried a process server and his police escort. We covered that defeat by the Connemara process server some years ago, when he was lucky to escape alive after he had to run for his life from some very cross Cill Éinne women. You can read about that battle HERE


The thin soil and porous limestone rock made the three islands very susceptible to drought and crop failures. The harvest of 1887 was particularly bad and we covered previously a visit to Árainn in February 1888 by Michael Davitt and an American journalist, Blakely Hall.

You can read Blakely’s sad report HERE but be warned, it makes for very disturbing reading.


Most people with Irish blood, are descended from ancestors who knew hunger and not that long ago. For this reason, most of us can empathise with people who are in dire need today. The same problems, just different countries.


The history of those times can be found in two books on the Aran islands by the late Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran, Pilgrimage and Labyrinth. 

Michael Muldoon December 2020

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