The Starvation in Ireland

New York Evening Post, Wm. B. Bryant & Co.
March 31, 1847
The following is an extract from a letter of Elihu Barrit, published in the Christian Citizen, at Worcester, in Massachusetts. This gentleman has passed a week in Ireland, with the object of investigating the actual condition of the peasantry. His remarks are of a character to kindle emotion in every feeling bosom, and to make the contributors to the Irish relief fund rejoice in having aided the good work of ameliorating the dreadful sufferings of a famishing nation.

SKIBBEREEN (Feb 20) - Rev. Mr. Fitzpatrick called, with several gentlemen of the town, and in their company, I took my first walk through the potter's field of destitution and death. As soon as we opened the door, a crowd of haggard creatures pressed upon us, and with agonizing prayers for bread, followed us to the soup kitchen. One poor woman, whose entreaties became irrestistably importunate, had watched all night in the grave yard, lest the body of her husband be stolen from its last resting place, to which he had been consigned yesterday. She had five children sick with the famine fever in her hovel, and she raised an exceedingly bitter cry for help. A man with swollen feet pressed closely upon us, and begged for bread most piteously. He had pawned his shoes for food, which he had already consumed. The soup kitchen was surrounded by a cloud of those famine spectres, half naked and standing or sitting in the mud beneath a cold drizzling rain. The narrow defile for the dispensary bar was choked with young and old of both sexes, struggling forward with their rusty tin and iron vessels for soup: some of them upon all fours like famished beasts.

There was a cheap bread dispensary opened in one end of the building; and the principal pressure was at the door of this. Among the attenuated apparitions of humanity that thronged this gate of stinted charity, one poor man presented himself under circumstances that distinguished his case from the rest. He lived several miles from the centre of the town, in one of the rural districts, where he found himself on the eve of perishing with his family of seven small children. Life was worth the last struggle of nature, and the miserable skeleton of a father, had fastened his youngest child to his back; and, with four more by his side, had staggered up to the establishment. The hair upon his face was nearly as long as that upon his head. His cheeks were fallen in, and his jaws so distended that he could scarcely articulate a word. His four little children were sitting upon the ground by his feet, nestling together, and trying to hide their naked limbs under their dripping rags. How these poor things could stand upon their feet and walk, and walk five miles as they had done, I could not conceive.

Their appearance, although common to the thousands in this region of the shadow of death, was indescribable. They did not look as if newly raised from the grave and to life before the blood had begun to fill their veins anew; but as if they had just been thawed out of the ice, in which they had been embedded until their blood had turned to water.

Leaving this battle-field of life, I accompanied Mr. Fitzpatrick, the Catholic minister, into one of the hovelilanes [sic] of the town. We found in every tenement we entered, enough to sicken the stoutest heart. In one we found a shoemaker who was at work before a hole in the mud wall of his hut, about as large as a small pane of glass. There were five in his family, and he said when he could get any work he could earn about three shillings a week. In another cabin we discovered a nailer by the small light of his fire, working in a space not three feet square. He too had a large family, half of whom were down with the fever; and he could earn but two shillings a week.

About the middle of the filthy lane we came to the ruin of a hovel which had fallen during the night and killed a man, who had taken shelter in it with his wife and child. He had come in from the country; and ready to perish with cold and hunger had entered this falling house of clay. He was warned of his danger, but answered that he must unless he found shelter before morning. He had kindled a small fire with some straw and bits of turf, and was crouching over it, when the whole roof and gable end of earth and stones came down upon him and his child. The child had been pulled out alive and carried to the workhouse; but the father was still lying there upon the dung heap of the fallen roof, slightly covered with a piece of canvas. On lifting this, a humiliating spectacle presented itself. What rags the poor man had upon him, were mostly torn from his body in his last faint struggle for life, his neck and shoulder and right arm were burnt to a cinder. There he lay in the ruin, like the carcase of some brute beast thrown upon a dunghill. As we continued our walk along this filthy lane, half naked women and children would come out of their cabins apparently in the last stage of the fever to beg for food "for the honour of God."

As they stood upon the wet ground, we could almost see it smoke beneath their bare feet, burning with the fever. We entered the grave yard, in the midst of which was a small watch house. This miserable shed had served as a grave where the dying could bury themselves. It was seven feet lang and six in breadth. It was already walled around on the outside with an embankment of graves half way to the eaves. The aperture of this horrible den of death would scarcely admit the entrance of a common sized person. And into this noisome sepulchure diving men, women and children, went down to die; to pillow upon the rotten straw, the grave clothes vacated by preceding victims, and festering with their fever. Here they lay as closely to each other as if crowded side by side on the bottom of one grave. Six persons had been found in this fetid sepulchure at one time, and with one only able to crawl to the door and to ask for water. Removing a board from the entrance of this black hole of pestilence, we found it crammed with wan victims of famine, ready and willing to perish. A quiet, listless despair broods over the population, and cradles men for the grave.

This article was contributed by Patricia Jameson-Sammartano. She is chair of the Irish American Studies Committee of the United Federation of Teachers (teachers union, NYC public schools). She writes, "I came across this piece while doing research for a conference presentation on Bishop Hughes and famine relief for the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures. I am a high school language arts teacher in New York City (Brandeis High School); I'm also teaching an Irish culture course at St. John's University this summer. I use it in a two-column format with a separate sheet for observations, knowledge, deductions...and questions to follow. So far I've taught it to inner-city high school seniors and an Irish culture seminar on the college level. I thought it important to include some primary source material, and this article had me in tears as I was copying it from the microfilm at the NY public library. The parallels with present-day Africa were extremely striking."

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