A distressing Famine scene.

Local history: Almost naked, perishing creatures congregated on streets of north Mayo town

By Tom Gillespie

ENGLISH philanthropist James Hack Tuke was for 18 years treasurer of the Friends Foreign Mission Association, and for eight years chairman of the Friends Central Education Board.

But he is mainly remembered for his philanthropic work in Ireland, after a visit to Connaught in 1847, and of the scenes of distress which he witnessed during the Famine. In addition to relief, his eye-witness testimony brought further relief to the west of Ireland.

In 1997, Castlebar born publisher Eamon Bourke from Mountgordon published ‘Transactions of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland’, in which Tuke describes his visit to Connaught in the autumn of 1847.

The original book of 480 pages was published in 1852 and the present volume is a facsimile reproduction with an added index compiled by Rob Goodbody.

As probably the first major publication relating to relief work during the Famine, and as an original source, Transactions stands as a lasting testimony to Quaker relief work and a valuable reference for historians and students in research and development studies.

Tuke wrote: From Bangor to Belmullet, a distance of 12 miles, the same dreary waste of uncultivated and neglected land extends. In only one place did I observe any sign of improvement or superior cultivation. This was upon an estate of a proprietor named Atkinson; and as this is the only instance in the barony of any attempt to adopt a perfect system of drainage, it is more observable, presenting, as the land does, a pleasing contrast to the desolation around it. I never saw what appears to me more complete or excellent work.

It has been executed under the superintendence of a Scottish steward. The earnings of labourers, indeed, were low enough, barely 6d. per day, but this employment was a great boon to them.

It may safely be said of the landlords of Erris generally that there appears as much want of willingness as of ability in their part to do anything for the benefit of their starving tenantry or wasted estates.

Erris affords one of the best perfect specimens of the mischiefs connected with that vicious system, by which landed property remains in the hands of those who are wholly unable to discharge its duties, or even to open the door to allow others to perform them.

At Belmullet, the capital of the district of Erris, a crowd of almost naked, perishing creatures were congregating in the streets, in a state of ‘perfect destitution’, as the landlord of the inn assured me; they have no homes, no shelter, no land, no food; they slept at night in the streets, and begged for support during the day, from neighbours hardly richer than themselves.

He told me also that ‘six persons had died in the streets in the few previous nights’; and I am sure several I saw there are now beyond the reach of earthly calamity.

The ghastly smile which momentarily played on the countenances of these living skeletons, at the prospect of a little temporary relief, I cannot easily forget.

It rendered still more painful the expression of intense anxiety and bitter misery which was exhibited in their livid and death-set features.

Throughout Connaught a large portion of the estates remain in the hands of families who have possessed them for centuries; but their real value has long since been obtained and spent by the predecessors of the present nominal owners.

The relation of landlord and tenant is, in truth, lost; in no other country in the world are these duties less recognised than in Ireland. The estates are entailed, and cannot be sold to pay the encumbrances; they are, in general, deeply mortgaged, often in the hands of the mortgagees, or in chancery, and neither of these parties, though they may collect and retain four-fifths of the profit of the estate, has the slightest sympathy with the tenant, or feels called upon for any other service than the exaction of his legal claim from the miserable tenantry.

The embarrassed landlord has, of course, no money to expend upon improvements; his apparent interest is to exhort the highest possible rent from the estate.

It would be utterly unjust to blame a great portion of the present landlords, for not discharging the duties of ownership, when their circumstances entirely disable them from doing so.

I bear a most willing testimony to the kind-hearted and zealous efforts of not a few of this class during the late season of trial. They are fully sensible of the anomalous position in which they are placed, and heartily deserve to be freed from responsibilities which they cannot discharge; and I found it to be the settled conviction of many that the steps which affect this object are at the root of all permanent improvement in Ireland.

I walked through Ballycroy, along a fine road to Croy Lodge, and then crossed an arm of the sea in a currach.

I heard that in this part of the country the people were exerting themselves with much energy, and that there was a prospect of a great deal of land being sown.

In other parts of Erris the people were alive to the necessity of tillage; but they had not the seeds nor the means of living while the seed lay in the ground.

Previous to the Famine, although the mass of people of Erris lived in miserable cabins, with little attention to cleanliness or refined ideas of decency, they were probably better off than any other of the same class in Connaught, as to plenty of food, and freedom from anxiety or excessive toil.

Their scrap of tillage supplied them with abundance of potatoes, and on their mountain land they reared cattle which furnished them with milk and butter, and sheep which supplied all the wool they required for their coarse home-made clothing. The pig paid the rent.

I do not believe there is now one pig, sheep or cow to be found, for 50 that might have been counted in Erris this time three years.

The county surveyor of Mayo told me that Erris was formerly the great nursery for cattle for the rest of the country; as the people, being primitive and pastoral in their habits, found this occupation more congenial that any which required steady application.