|Clare County Library||
|Vandeleurs of Kilrush County
by Senan Scanlan
4. Vandeleurs during the Famine
Land Tenure in Ireland before the famine.
The increase in population together with the cultivation of the potato, made minute subdivision of the land possible. The readiness of the landlords to grant small holdings for political motives settled on the land a load of peasant tenants which it was completely unable to support, save in a time of exceptional prosperity The nature of the holdings thus created is well described by Mr. Shaw Lefevre, who says “throughout a great part of the West and South of Ireland, every facility was given to the letting of lands in small holdings of from half an acre up to five or six acres. On taking possession the tenant would himself build a mud cabin at little cost: a few weeks of labour sufficed for preparing the land for potatoes, digging the crop, and cutting turf for fuel from the common bog: the rent was usually paid in labour and the spare time was spent in fishing, or in work at a distance. The general social conditions of this class were as low as it is possible to conceive. They constituted nearly half the population of Ireland, and, with rare exceptions, lived in cabins with one room only, which they often shared with their pigs. There was no inducement to them to improve their conditions, either from a healthy competition with their neighbours or from a sense of security in their holdings”.
The depression of prices in 1816 and the following years brought financial troubles not only upon the peasant class, but also upon the landlords who had entered upon extravagant modes of living, calculated upon false basis of the apparently high rent-roll of the estates: a purely fancy sum produced by unlimited competitive demand and limited supply. The rents, which had doubled in thirty years, melted at once on the normal balance of value being reached: still such was the demand for peasant holdings that, whatever might prove ultimately to be the solvency of the candidates, no landlord found a difficulty in letting his land even at a high rent. ----------------------.
After 1838 the landlords in many cases abolished the smallholdings they created large farms to free themselves from the burden of the Poor Law. Under the Poor Law, the property tax, or poor rate, carried by each of the smallest holdings, was payable by the landlord, wholly or in part, depending on the size of the holding. Since the majority of Clare holdings were so small they incurred a heavy rate liability on the part of the landlords, which could no longer be recovered from the rents, rapidly increasing pauperisation of tenants threatened to drive the rate to insupportable levels. For many landlords, the only means of avoiding a potentially ruinous rate bill was to evict their smallholders and eliminate their holdings.
For some wealthier landlords, Famine-era evictions were less an expression of financial insecurity or fear of pauperism than a logical extension of estate improvement policies begun years before. For such individuals, famine destitution provided a conclusive, if inhuman, reason for the consolidation of smallholdings into larger units, to an extent that had previously been considered necessary, but physically impossible and morally unjustifiable .All the features of pre-Famine estate consolidation are to be found in certain Famine-era clearances: the clearing of middleman farms of cottiers: the conversion of some farms in toto to grass: the re-surveying of evicted lands and the redistribution of holdings among remaining tenants.
It is hardly a coincidence, therefore, that when the Famine clearances began in Clare at the end of 1847, it was the great magnates of pre-famine consolidation, Colonels George Wyndham and Crofton Vandeleur who were first recorded as issuing extraordinary numbers of notices to quit. Close on their heels was the agent of the Conyngham and Westby estates, Marcus Keane.
Vandeleur had dispossessed from the estate
as many as 180 families, including just over 1,000 persons -a greater
number than any of his landlord peers in Kilrush Union. Colonel Vandeleur
excused the mass evictions locally on the false plea in 1850 that “the
clearances in our union have been nothing to what I have understood
has been the clearances in other unions in the West of Ireland”.
Just as Vandeleur invoked the sanction of allegedly greater depopulation
elsewhere, so too lesser Kilrush landlords could point to his example
as a ready excuse for their own evictions.
Whatever the real rate burden, fears of being swamped by pauperism probably pushed the landlords and agents of Kilrush Union towards clearances. A considerable number of them may have been panicked into starting mass evictions by the gigantic scale of relief in the spring of 1847. As many as 17,000 persons were then assisted under the soup kitchen scheme.
But dedicated evictors like Marcus Keane and Colonel Vandeleur could not bring themselves to see or speak the truth. Vandeleur was asked in July 1850 “Was there much sickness and mortality amongst the class of persons who were ejected?” Deflecting responsibility, he responded “Not that I am aware of”. Questioned as to the fate of evicted tenants, Vandeleur gave a less than truthful reply to Scrope's committee. “They have,'he averred 'generally obtained relief from the board of guardians”. (Mr. Poulett Scrope M.P).
Brigadier J. O. E. Vandeleur, DSO, great grandson of Crofton writing over one hundred years later stated that “The family had to face all the usual problems of Irish landlords. They did all in their power to assist their people during the great famines by organising collective farming and so forth, Irish landlords were given no support by the British Government of their day. They had to face these colossal problems alone, and many of them were ruined in doing so. It was not only the failure of the potato crop that had to be contended with, but the attitude of the farmers who were determined to till their own soil. The long-term effects of the famine can be seen today in mass migrations to the United States of America, to Liverpool, to Glasgow and the industrial areas of England”
West Clare in the autumn of 1847.
The Census of 1841 being pronounced universally to be no fair criterion of the present population and consequent destitution, I tested the matter in the Parish of Clonegad, Barony of Islands, where I found the present population more than a third greater than that of 1841-this I believe to be the case in all the districts along the coast.
So the population of Kilrush Union was probably over 100,000 in late 1847, considerably higher than the present population of all Clare.
In November 1847 the soup kitchens had been closed, public works had ceased and the people were allowed to fall back on their own resources. The cessation or near -cessation of conacre meant that the poorest section of the population had no supply of food at all. Those who had planted potatoes were hit by the new failure and even those who formerly were comfortably above subsistence level were caught between the rival claims of rent and rate-collectors. “Looker-on, Kilkee” wrote to the Limerick Chronicle.
Last year the poor had pigs and potatoes, such as they were .The pigs are gone, and the small quantity of potatoes remaining from this year's crop are rapidly becoming diseased. I know a respectable person who, in the last fortnight, lost ten barrels out of fourteen...it has been officially stated that rents were never better paid than this year. In many instances it is true: but it is equally so that the majority of those who have been thus punctual, were so through fear of being turned out of the ground: and I know of several who, after paying their rents, are without any means of supporting their families. Throughout the whole district it is one scene of misery and distress: the paupers are starving notwithstanding the poor law: and the other classes are but a few degrees removed from them. Every available article is either sold or pawn, even to the very beds and blankets: and no man can assist his neighbour as heretofore.
In place of the public works and soup kitchens the people now had to turn to the workhouse in Kilrush for their salvation and it can be truly said that from this time on the story of the people of West Clare became identified more and more with the story of Kilrush Workhouse. Under the Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 it was possible now to grant outdoor relief to people who were not inmates. But normally the relief would be given only to the destitute who were aged or infirm, widows or children. The able bodied would receive relief only within the workhouse-otherwise it was feared that the scheme would become unworkable because of the number of applicants. However, outdoor relief to the able bodied could be given if the Poor Law Commissioners issued an order authorising it.
Practically all this new and heavy expense had to be met from the poor law rates collected locally, although Kilrush Union did get some help from the Government because it was classified as “distressed”. Already, in many places, a lot of difficulty had been experienced in collecting the rates and the burden was now far greater. There were also some very unwelcome side effects. Landlords were liable for the rates on holdings at £4 and under, and this was true even though the rent had not been paid. To avoid rates the cabins had to be pulled down. It is no coincidence, then, that the beginning of mass evictions in Kilrush Union coincided with the coming into operation of the new system of relief. Furthermore a clause in the act, known as the “quarter-acre clause” or “Gregory clause” aided the landlords in this process. According to the Gregory clause no relief would be granted to the family of a man who held a quarter acre of ground or more. He had the choice, then, of keeping his tiny farm and getting no relief or giving up farm and entering the workhouse.
The farmer with a valuation of slightly over £4 was hardest hit of all. Before 1845 he would have been reasonably comfortable by Irish standards. Now he was hit on all sides- as the landlord competed with a rate collector to get whatever he had. Writing from Kilrush Union on 11th November 1847, Captain Kennedy, the newly arrived Poor Law Inspector, stated that a major mistake had been committed with regard to the issue of the warrant for collection of rates in the union. If it had been done a month earlier the rate collectors would have arrived before the crops were swept by the landlords or sold by the tenants. A week later he wrote,
Empty walls, an iron pot and children in swamps are all I can see or the collector find. In some lawless localities, I expect resistance but these places they are able to pay: the law is vigorously put in force with a few, will, I trust, decide the matter...I know for the countenance of the R.C. Clergy in the collection of this most righteous impost.
Two years previously the people had been described as “half starved” in the Irish sense of the term. By November 1847 they had certainly advanced to being “starved”. In the neighbourhood of Kilkee men, women and children were to be seen rooting up the potato fields, already dug, in the hope of finding a few stray potatoes which had been previously overlooked. On 25th November Captain Kennedy wrote,
The north and west of the union, including the divisions Kilmurry, Killard, Kilmacduane, Kilkee and a part of Moyarta, are in a most lamentable state. The parts on the coast are most densely populated, with a turf-digging, seaweed-gathering, fish-catching, amphibious population: as bad fishermen as they are agriculturalists. They have no regular mode of gaining a livelihood... a few acres of reclaimed bog planted with potatoes has heretofore supplied their wants, and rendered them content on the lowest possible scale of existence. While westerly gales prevail during the winter, large numbers eke out wretched existence gathering seaweed, which they carry and sell further inland for manure. The villages of Mullagh, Doonbeg, Bealaha and Kilkee are wretched nests of filth, famine and disease.
Captain Kennedy went on to say that the whole district seemed swept of food and he reckoned that one third of the population would be without food for Christmas, two thirds starving before February and the whole without food or money before May. This then was the situation, which confronted him on his arrival in Kilrush Union as Poor Law Inspector in early November 1847.
Captain Kennedy’s Background.
Despair Sets In.
Burial without coffin was the ultimate sign of destitution-and with the coffin disappeared most of the funeral ritual so dear to the people. Fever was now raging and in some localities in west Clare cases of smallpox also occurred. As a result, funerals, which had formerly been attended by great throngs of people, had become smaller and smaller. The frequency of their occurrence and fear of infection reduced the number of mourners to a group barely sufficient to carry the coffin to the grave and bury it-if there was a coffin. Many corpses, perhaps half of those now being buried in West Clare, were wrapped in straw and swathed around with a sugawn. And Captain Kennedy met one poor man carrying his two dead children to the grave in a cradle. Needless to remark, wakes had become rare occurrences. During most of 1847 Kilrush Workhouse provided a large number of coffins for people who were not inmates-but even here the contractor was unpaid in early November and threatening to stop supplies. And in this same month the Poor Law Commissioners informed Boards of Guardians that they were not to provide coffins for those who did not die in the workhouse. From late 1847 onwards, then, many people entered the workhouse for the sole purpose of getting what they considered to be a decent burial.
In February 1851 Dr. Madden, historian of the United Irishmen, visited Kilrush and recorded the pauper burials at Shanakyle, outside the town:
The dead are interred every morning in a churchyard about a mile and a half from the town. The bodies are carted away without any appearance of a funeral ceremony: no attendance of priest or parson, no pall. The coffins-if the frail boards nailed together for the remains of paupers may be so called -are made by contract, and furnished at a very low figure. The paupers' trench in a corner of the churchyard, which I visited, is a large pit, the yawning aperture about twenty feet square. The dead are deposited in layers, and over each coffin a little earth is thinly scattered, just sufficient to conceal the boards. The thickness of the covering of clay I found did not amount to two inches over the last tier of coffins deposited there. A pauper who drives the cart, and another who accompanies him to assist in taking the coffins from the conveyance, and slipping them down into the trench, are the only funeral attendants. It is very rare that any of the kith or kin of a pauper accompany his remains to the grave, because there are so many deaths, and so much difficulty in ascertaining anything about the identity of such a multitude of paupers as those amounting to half a hundred or more who die in a week, that it is seldom anything is known of the deaths in the Poorhouse by the friends outside, if any there be left, until long after they have taken place.
The charge was also made that those who
had a shirt were not even given a shroud. It was this final indignity,
which prompted an anonymous writer to contribute the following to The
If deaths were on the increase, marriages were on the decrease. In 1840,104 marriages from Kilfearagh and Killard parishes were entered into the register of Kilkee Catholic Church. In 1846 the number was 106 well up to and perhaps even above the average of the previous decade. But in 1847 the number was down to 36 and in the two years 1848-9 there were only 41 in all.
Captain Kennedy commented on the large sums being demanded as rent. An acre of land worth about 15 shillings was being let for £3 and the occupiers, being unable to pay, were bound to give 140 days' labour in spring and harvest-time when they needed it most themselves. Similarly, cabins worth about 7/6 a year were being let for 100 or 120 days’ labour. However, it is worth noting that not all landlords were exploiters. The Clare Journal of 22nd June 1848 reported the sale of his yacht by Mr. Burton of Carrigaholt to make money for the poor.
Between November 1847 and July 1848 about 900 houses, containing 4,000 inhabitants, were levelled in Kilrush Union and still the work of destruction went on. In early March 1848, 56 people many of whom had paid their rent were evicted from their holdings at Emlagh near Kilkee. Their houses were levelled to the ground and their neighbours warned not to take them in. The remarks made by some of the evicted to a newspaper reporter must be expressive of the feelings of many such;
The landlords can transport or hang us-poverty is our only crime-many of us would pay our rent if left in-the landlords make a home-made Botany-bay of the Workhouse: but in New South Wales we would get enough to eat. Oh! The landlords don't want a Gallows-green while the Workhouse stands- that's what can clear their properties of the poor, who are ready to live by their work if they got it to do.
All through that summer and autumn 1848 the evictions went on. On 4th December 1848 Captain Kennedy stated that he had listed the evictions of 6,090 souls in Kilrush Union since the previous July.
After evictions the people just wandered about burrowing behind the ditches or under a few broken rafters of their old homes until eventually compelled to face towards the workhouse. Some got shelter from their neighbours, but when fever and dysentery made their appearance they were put out by the roadside to die. Some landlords, as we have already seen, forbade the neighbours to give shelter-because if the destitute remained in the locality they would have to be paid for by it in rates when they eventually went to the workhouse.
The final stage, then, was the workhouse. And Captain Kennedy has vividly described for us a typical scene while the evictions were in full swing. On 16th March 1848 he wrote:
We admitted a considerable number of paupers among whom were some of the most appalling cases of destitution and suffering it has ever been my lot to witness. The state of most of these wretched creatures is traceable to the numerous evictions, which have lately taken place in the Union. When driven from their cabin they betake themselves to the ditches for the shelter of some bank and there exist like animals, to starvation or the inclemency of the weather drives them to the workhouse. There were thrown cartloads of these creatures, who could not walk, brought for admission yesterday, some with fever, some suffering from dysentery, and weak for want of food. They were immediately handed over to the medical officer and provided with nourishment. I leave no effort untried to mitigate their misery
It was Captain Kennedy who did most to alleviate in some little way the sufferings caused by the evictions in West Clare and to publicise them throughout Britain and Ireland. Many years later, when he was staying with Lord Carnarvon at Highclere Castle the conversation turned to the Irish Famine. A fellow guest has recorded Captain Kennedy's words to his host:
I can tell you, my Lord, that there were days in that western county when I came back from some scene of evictions so maddened by the signs of hunger and misery I had seen in the day's work, that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.
A small incident which occurred at Kilkee in November-December 1848 is worth recalling. A poor man who had two goats supported himself by the sale of their milk. He fell into arrears with his rent, owing ten shillings, and for this his goats were seized by the bailiff. A benefactor, whom I think we can safely identify with Captain Kennedy, sent him the ten shillings with which he could recover his goats- and later when the poor man was able to return the money the benefactor refused it.
The lack of humanity and mercy displayed by landlord or agent in the above incident was quite common. In early 1848 some poor people realised that the Gregory Clause could be circumvented by giving up the greater part of their land but retaining a little bit on which the cabin stood, less than a quarter acre. A Dr. Foley of Kilrush cited the case of a widow who tried to keep her house. The landlord refused to accept the land without the house and as a result the claim for outdoor relief was objected to because she held more than a quarter acre. Dr. Foley commented:
Many landlords appear to be most anxious
to take advantage of the present distressed and helpless condition of
the poor people holding.... or more acres of land, and obliged for the
present to seek the aid of legalized relief...
During 1848 and early 1849 Captain Kennedy's letters to the Poor Law Commissioners kept them informed in detailed fashion about the evictions in Kilrush Union. In April 1849 these letters were published in a Parliamentary Blue Book and this brought the horror of the evictions before the general public in Britain as well as Ireland. On 8th June Mr. Poulett Scrope M.P. referred to them in the British House of Commons and Sir Robert Peel joined in the discussion saying that he knew not if it were possible to apply a legislative remedy but he hoped that the expression of the abhorrence of such scenes might have some effect in checking them. This speech was greeted with cries of “Hear, hear”, which did little to check the work of destruction in Clare.
In the meantime Marcus Keane was doing his utmost to discover inaccuracies in Captain Kennedy's reports and in August 1849 he had a petition presented to the House of Commons embodying the results of his research. He could not deny the misery existing in the union and so he had to adopt a different approach:
These reports, your petitioner regrets to say, are not overdrawn, but he denies (so far as the properties under his management are concerned) that evictions, or the imposition of rack rents are at all the cause of the misery described.
It is doubtful if many believed that the rack rents and evictions were not making a significant contribution to the misery.
The publication of the Blue Book brought Kilrush Union into the news in Britain for the first time and it was to remain in the news for several years as other reports came in about the happenings in West Clare. In autumn 1849 Mr. Poulett Scrope M.P., who had already shown concern about the evictions, travelled to Clare to make a personal investigation. He saw for himself that the reports were by no means exaggerated and he calculated that 20,000 had been evicted in Kilrush Union in the previous two years. And where were these at the time of his visit? In his own words: My informants assured me that, to the best of their knowledge, the greater number of these are dead.
Another visitor in mid 1849 was the Hon. and Rev. S. Godolphin Osborne who incorporated the results of his observations in Clare and elsewhere into his book, Gleanings in the West of Ireland. Of the evictions in Kilrush Union he said that although Captain Kennedy's reports had often been declared to be exaggerations, in his view no report could exaggerate the amount of wholesale house levelling which had taken place and at the end of the year a reporter from the Illustrated London News toured the union. His reports and accompanying sketches bore out everything that had already been said. To him the unroofed, walls which had been left standing was like “the tombs of a departed race”. “I felt actually relieved at seeing one or two half-clad spectres gliding about, as evidence that I was not in the land of the dead”.
To the Workhouse in Kilrush.
When Captain Kennedy first inspected the workhouse he found that its running was being performed in a far from efficient manner. In a report to the Poor Law Commissioners he wrote:
I need not recapitulate the numerous and culpable irregularities I have found to exist in the house, and which I have undertaken to correct by daily visits. How the house has so long escaped general infection I am at a loss to conceive. On the last visiting day I found a side gate open and free access for the friends of fever patients to pass to and from the hospital.
Immediately he began to make arrangements to have the fever patients removed to other premises but a full month slipped by before he succeeded in doing so. In late December the Workhouse Master was removed from office by the Commissioners after Kennedy had described him as “inert and..... too old to learn those habits of order and regularity necessary to the government and well being of a large Body.”
Before Captain Kennedy's arrival the capacity of the workhouse had already been increased from its original 800 to 1100. And in the following two years a number of additional buildings were taken over so that eventually the original workhouse and its six auxiliaries were capable of accommodating over 5,000 people. However, in November 1847 it could as yet take only about 1,100 and by the middle of the month-because of the numerous evictions-the house was crowded with more and more clamouring for admission. One day alone nearly two hundred people were taken in, Captain Kennedy wrote:
Such a tangled mass of poverty, filth and disease, as the applicants presented, I have never seen. Numbers in all stages of fever and smallpox mingling indiscriminately with the crowd and all clamouring for admission. I had them separated as quickly as possible...it was really an appalling sight.
But before very long he was to grow accustomed to even more terrible scenes. In mid November no outdoor relief had as yet been given, but as the pressure on the workhouse increased, it was decided to grant it to the non-able bodied. The outdoor relief was to consist of food alone. This decision was taken by the workhouse Guardians, despite a recommendation from Captain Kennedy, backed by the Poor Law Commissioners, to give cash as well. With a promise, then, of supplies of food but of nothing else, many of the women and children went out of the workhouse-sometimes with disastrous results. On 14th December Captain Mann wrote:
A man and his family who were in the house and whose case left no doubt as to their utter destitution were removed out of it on out relief, in order to make room for receiving able bodied claimants in. The change from the comfort inside the House to what they could get out, had the effect of causing the poor children to get ill, and three died in ten days.
To the able bodied there was to be no relief except in the workhouse. And for a while in December there was such a clamour for admission that, As Captain Mann remarked the workhouse would have been swamped if the Gregory clause had not been strictly enforced. Others tried to bring pressure on the authorities to give outdoor relief too the able bodied. When Captain Kennedy arrived at the workhouse on 1st December he was faced with what seems to have been an organized demonstration. Although it was still morning a crowd of about 1,000 had already assembled near the workhouse. Soon a general cry for outdoor relief was begun, accompanied by a waving of blackthorn sticks. Captain Kennedy was dragged in and placed in the lock-up, where shortly afterwards he was joined by eight or nine others. This quietened the crowd. Meanwhile, a continuous stream of people was seen approaching from the Kilkee direction. Colonel Vandeleur, the leading resident landlord in the area and Chairman of the Board of Guardians, had been on his way to Kilkee but when he met the large crowds he considered it more prudent to turn back. Before long the crowd outside the workhouse, augmented by the new arrivals from Kilkee, had swelled to about 3,000. The police and a troop of military were the next to arrive on the scene. However, prudence prevailed at this stage and the people dispersed, leaving the really destitute to apply for admission to the workhouse. Subsequently three hundred of these were taken in.
Although on 21st December the Poor Law
Commissioners authorised outdoor relief for the able bodied in the union
under certain conditions, the Guardians were quite under reluctant to
put this into effect and Captain Kennedy concurred with them in this.
Despite threats, as when Colonel Vandeleur and Kennedy were warned to
make their wills, this course of action was persevered in for about
three months-probably until mid April when there was a sudden big jump
in the numbers relieved. The long deferment was partly explained by
Captain Kennedy when he wrote:
There was also a further factor. In January and February for reasons, which we shall see later, there was an extreme reluctance to enter the workhouse, and while there were places available in the house it was official policy not to give outdoor relief. Otherwise, as Captain Mann remarked. One general ruin would be the result, because nobody would want to enter the house and the finances of the union would probably break under the strain of having to feed immense numbers out of doors.
The “Slaughter House.”
In the first week of the New Year 75 people died in the fever hospital, about 35% of the weekly admissions. Captain Mann was convinced that this was not due to neglect but was caused by the fact that most of those admitted were nearly dead already in any case. However, this was not seen by the people considering entering the workhouse. Finally, one particular case dispelled any remaining doubts. A cart brought four people in from the country. When taken from the cart at the workhouse two was found to be already dead: one died during the night and the fourth the next day. The story went abroad that all four had died within a day of arriving at the workhouse, confirming the already widespread view that it was certain death to go into it. The fever hospital came to be known once again as the Slaughter House, though this time in a different context from its original purpose. The overall result was an extreme reluctance to enter the workhouse, so that even though thousands of people were starving most of them remained outside. And while there were vacant places in the house no outdoor relief was given to the able bodied.
By mid February 1848 Captain Kennedy was complaining of the inefficiency of the Kilrush Board of Guardians and expressing his lack of confidence in them. A number of factors gave rise to this lack of confidence. One was the election, with only two dissenting votes, of the son of the previous master to replace his father. Captain Kennedy described him as “a mere lad and in my opinion (as the Chairman of the Board) utterly incompetent for such charge”, But the matter which finally brought affairs to a head was a financial crisis which struck the union at the end of February. On the 24th of the month the treasurer had a mere £50 in hands while debts amounted to nearly £1,000. Captain Mann, who was supplying the rye meal required to give outdoor relief to 10,000 people, was owed £120 and refused to give further supplies until paid. Colonel Vandeleur was out of town, probably recuperating from a severe illness which he had suffered on January, and Captain Kennedy was quite certain that in his absence the Guardians would not be able to obtain any credit as they had the confidence of neither the public nor the bankers. Eventually, in early March, the Poor Law Commissioners made an order dissolving the Kilrush Board of Guardians and replacing them with two Vice-Guardians. This step, however, was by no means unusual. Within the previous twelve months half of the Boards of Guardians in Ireland had to be similarly dissolved mainly because they had been unwilling to collect sufficient rates. The new Vice-Guardians in Kilrush appear to have got over the financial crisis by means of borrowing and assiduously collecting the remainder of the current rate.
During my attendance at the admission on two days and part of a third, I took the opportunity of inquiring of every able bodied applicant where and with whom he had last been employed and at what rate of wages. Almost the whole number declared that even during the harvest they had laboured for 2d and 3d per day, seldom getting 4d, and that at present they could not exchange or obtain their food for their labour...I believe (however incredible it may appear) that nineteen twentieths of the labouring population of the Kilrush Union are without employment or resource of any kind, nor do I see any attempt to remedy this state of things, though the land is un-drained and not half cultivated.
And during all this time evictions were continuing. On 22nd January 1849 Captain Kennedy wrote:
I cannot estimate the evictions in the union much fewer than 150 souls per week, and I anticipate little decrease for some months to come. The number in receipt of out-doors relief on the 13th January (date of last return) was...18,581 souls.... I anticipate a steady, but not rapid increase of numbers between this and the 1st of April, till the numbers reach a total of probably 22,000.
As 1849 began there was another shadow on the horizon. In December 1848 an outbreak of Asiatic cholera, or the “devouring pestilence” as the Clare Journal described it, made its appearance in Belfast. From there it spread throughout the country reaching its peak in May, but declining in most parts in June. In March it made its final appearance in West Clare and temporary cholera hospitals were set up in the different parishes. Fear of cholera became as big a danger as the disease itself. Captain Kennedy remarked that temporary cholera hospitals in Kilkee and Carrigaholt were made necessary not so much by the cholera itself as by “cholera-phobia”. And he continued: “Such is the senseless dread of this disease that any wretched creature afflicted with diarrhoea is immediately supposed to be a cholera case and thrown out of their lodging”
Bankruptcy in Kilrush Union.
By the end of November they were already in financial difficulties. The rate, small as it was had not yet been collected. Owing to the already huge debt it was impossible to get supplies until eventually a few Guardians personally went security. In this way 13,000 people were tided over the last few days of November.
In early December the breaking point was
finally reached. A reporter who visited the workhouse found that there
was not even sufficient food to give the inmates their dinner:
For five days these vegetables remained the chief food in the workhouse. During this period 600-700 people who arrived from Kilmurry, Killofin and Kilkee seeking admission were sent home again as they could not be fed. The Board of Guardians now decided that the only remedy was to appeal to the Poor Law Commissioners for help, but the Commissioners were not inclined to listen as they felt that the Guardians could get money from rates, and as the wrangle continued the people starved because of the stopping of outdoor relief.
In this situation crowds from the outlying parishes began to throng into Kilrush in the hope of getting something to eat. On the 12th December 1849 the Limerick and Clare Examiner carried a report from a Kilrush correspondent:
The streets of our town are thronged-shop-doors choked up... with swarms of families miserable beings, piteously screaming and craving the least morsel of food. Along the roads that lead to the town may be seen numbers of cars laden with emaciated, half-naked creatures, huddled together in loathsome squalidness, proceeding towards the workhouse, where they hope to be relieved: but whence alas! After they remain shivering and fainting whole day, and some times nights together, they are obliged to return to their hovels to die in despair, or, if they prefer it, to rush upon the town like wild and raving maniacs.
On the evening of the 12th December about forty people boarded a ferry, which would take them across the mouth of Poulnasherry Bay and so shorten their journey to the west- after most of them had spent a fruitless day waiting for food in Kilrush. About halfway across the boat sank and all were drowned except three. It was little wonder that a local poet was prompted to write in the following terms of the hardships in Kilrush Union in 1849.
A day or two after the ferry disaster Colonel Vandeleur and others of the Guardians were pelted with mud and missiles and hooted at their every appearance in public by those who had been refused outdoor relief. And the Limerick Reporter stated:
The town is in danger, and guarded by policemen,
who move constantly through the streets. The excitement is immense.
As the New Year of 1850 dawned the crisis continued.
A letter to the Limerick and Clare Examiner from Kilrush expressed
the despair, hopelessness and anger felt by many:
Meanwhile, the workhouse Guardians, having received bad publicity since their reconstitution, excluded newspaper reporters from their meetings. Their Chairman, Colonel Vandeleur, in a letter to the Poor Law Commissioners, attributed a good deal of the existing troubles to the facility with which outdoor relief had been given. As a result of it, he said, the people had lost all dependence on their own exertions. This was undoubtedly directed at Captain Kennedy and it was clear that if Vandeleur had his way outdoor relief would be given very seldom and to as few people as possible in the future. Not surprisingly, it was being rumoured that steps were being taken by the Guardians against Captain Kennedy who was a major thorn in their side and had committed the unforgivable sin of exposing the wholesale evictions. And when Vandeleur went to Dublin, probably to press home his case for aid with the Poor law Commissioners people saw his journey as an attempt to get rid of Kennedy. They were probably not very wide of the mark.
Eventually outdoor relief was restored. Then after a short period, it was cut off again, possibly because the contractors were pressing for payment of their debts. In early February the St Vincent de Paul Society gathered a crowd into a large timber-yard in Kilrush and distributed one penny each to 3,102 persons. Yet, during this period, Kilrush port was exporting corn in fairly large quantities. At the end of March the Kilrush Guardians petitioned Parliament for help, a petition which drew from The Times the re-joiner that in that area all alike, proprietors, paupers, priests, etc., were joined in a conspiracy “to deceive the state, to defraud one another, to evade the laws and pervert relief”.
Inside the Workhouse.
The list was not commenced till 3 pm. and the more distant divisions, Kilballyowen and Kilmurry, were not commenced till 6 pm. When the majority of applicants, having 15 or 20 miles to travel, had returned home and did not appear. The applicants from Kildysart, Kilfiddane and Kilkee were sent away undecided on.
Three months later the same thing was still happening. Although at least three Guardians were present on the 9th May the chairman alone was ruling the books and “36 hours would certainly not have sufficed to hear and rule each case”. As a result, many again had to be sent away unheard and unrelieved. Captain Kennedy's official restrained comment was “I think that this system is carried on to an unwarrantable and impolitic extent”. Undoubtedly the Guardians were using it as a method of controlling numbers and keeping down expenses.
As the numbers admitted to the workhouse grew, so did the numbers requiring treatment in the infirmary. A visitor in April 1850 said he found four boys and one man, all of them ill, in a bed not too large for one person. Colonel Vandeleur's reply was that they had two beds drawn together. A year later, commenting on a remark that there were three patients in each bed in the infirmary, he said that there were 79 beds for 180 patients “so that few of the beds contained three patients” Seemingly he regarded this as quite satisfactory. Throughout the remainder of the workhouse it was doubtful if the situation was any better.
Another complaint made about the house, and quite a serious one, was the lack of sufficient warmth during the winter of 1849-50. And even for a while though it was surrounded by bogs, there was a complete lack of fires. At first sight poor heating might not seem to be a very serious complaint for people who had come on from broken-down mud cabins. However, the people of West Clare always had a very abundant supply of turf and were used to well-heated even if smoky houses. Captain Kennedy remarked that they complained more of the want of sufficient warmth than of any other part of the discipline of the workhouse. He also hinted rather broadly that something could be done about this. Colonel Vandeleur, on the other hand, felt that it would be impossible to give satisfaction with large numbers as in their own homes they had been accustomed “to sit in very large chimneys”.
As the Guardians and Captain Kennedy grappled with vast financial and organisational problems in the early months of 1850, memories of the Slaughter House revived because of a rapidly rising death rate. There had been 505 deaths in the workhouse in the year ended the 29th September 1849- a big decrease from the 1070 in 1847 and perhaps reflecting the improvements brought about by Captain Kennedy. But the tide turned again with a vengeance and in the single month of April 1850,213 deaths occurred. In the twelve months from the 25th March 1850 to the 25th March 1851 the total number of deaths was about 1,700 or an average of 140 per month. The four or five years of hunger were now taking their toll.
Although many adults were suffering very greatly, it was the children who were worst hit by disease and death, as they had not got the resistance to withstand a long period of deprivation. However, the Rev. Sidney Godolphin Osborne remarked that he was comforted by the fact that few starving children seemed to be in great pain:
It has never been my lot to hear one single child, suffering from fever or dysentery, utter a moan of pain: I have seen many in the very act of death, still not a tear, not a cry. I have scarcely ever seen one endeavour to change his or her position. I have never heard one ask for food, for water-for anything: two, three, and four in a bed, there they lie and die, if suffering, still ever silent, and unmoved.
In Kilrush workhouse most of the deaths were of children. Of the 213 deaths, for example, in April 1850,167 were of children aged 14 and under.
Kilrush Union under Investigation.
At the end of 1850 the inquiry got under way and a number of witnesses including Captain Kennedy, Colonel Vandeleur, Marcus Keane and Fr. Michael Meehan, P.P. of Moyarta and Kilballyowen, travelled to London to give evidence. As one might expect, the evidence of people with such widely different viewpoints did not quite tally but, at the same time, nobody questioned the miserable state of Kilrush Union. Two reports were drawn up, neither of which was adopted by the committee. One of them, proposed by Mr. Scrope, was critical of the landlords and the Guardians of the union, explicitly stating that “a neglect of public duty” had occurred. The second report, proposed by Sir Lucius O’Brien, tried to justify the evictions and to show that many of the problems of Kilrush Union could be attributed to the Vice Guardians. By way of contrast, when the Vice Guardians were superseded, there was “a return to the more vigorous and effectual discharge of the duties of the guardians, interested in the property of the country, and well acquainted with the population”.
Captain Kennedy leaves Kilrush.
A more touching scene than I witnessed here on last Friday it would be difficult to observe. It was the day on which Captain Kennedy, our late noble- minded Inspector, and his amiable and most benevolent lady, were removed from this place. It was a day of deep mourning and grief to the humble, which had protected, attended, and fed. Crowds of the people followed them to the quay whence the steamer was setting out... Captain Kennedy, I have heard, left many large parcels of clothing amounting to about 500 units, to the different Clergymen of our impoverished Union, for distribution among the most needy and naked of our doomed population. I cannot conceal the gloomy conviction that the departure of this Officer seals the fate of a multitude...
The writer went on to say that he regretted the “respectability” had not yet paid any public tribute to the work done by Captain Kennedy.
In October Kennedy was again attacked at a meeting of the Kilrush Guardians. On this occasion the attack drew a stinging retort. In a letter to Vandeleur he wrote: “You are as prodigal of life at one time, as you are of character at another” He went on to challenge Vandeleur to a duel. Unfortunately, the newspaper report to which Captain Kennedy reacted had been misleading and the offensive statement had been made by somebody other than Vandeleur. But Vandeleur did not reveal this to Kennedy and when the latter discovered his mistake his apology was not accepted. Instead, Vandeleur brought an action against Kennedy for his insulting letter and challenge. The case was tried at Cork Assizes in August 1851 with Kennedy's defence being conducted by two noted advocates, Isaac Butt and Sir Colman O'Loghlen. Vandeleur's action failed when the jury disagreed- seven reportedly being for acquittal and five for conviction.
In the meantime Kennedy had been dismissed from his post in the Poor Law service. However, his talents got recognition elsewhere and in 1851 he was appointed Governor of Gambia, being transferred to Sierra Leone in the following year. From 1854 to 1862 he was Governor of Western Australia and held several other appointments in the colonial service over the next fifteen years. In 1877 he returned to Australia as Governor of Queensland. This was his last post. As he was returning to England, he died at sea on the 3rd of June 1883. He had been knighted in 1868.
Arthur Kennedy never forgot West Clare and from faraway Western Australia we find him sending a donation of £5 to Fr. Moran CC. for the poor of Kilrush in 1858. When he died the Munster News paid him this tribute:
As a military officer he had served the Crown in Canada, and as a civil officer he served the people and the administration of the Poor Law in West Clare, where we formed his acquaintance in the famine era, and where we saw him endanger his life to succour and save famine stricken patients. He walked the cholera hospitals and sheds hour after hour, prolonging his attendance long beyond the period when he need have remained. In addition to the funds which he dispensed from his own resources, in his daily circuits, travelling through the Union and dispensing his allowances in charities, he and his gentle wife organised industries and other means of relief by which widows and orphan children were also sustained. Fearless and freehanded, he was the rescuer and benefactor, besides being the official protector, of the destitute, and it was through his instrumentality that the attention of Lord Godolphin Osborne, Poulett Scrope and other benevolent Englishmen was attracted to the terrible misery that then prevailed... Coeval history does not present us a more benevolent and beneficent character, nor one by whom so many lives have been saved, so much good done in every circle, and so much concord and amity diffused amongst different creeds and colours of mankind.
Evictions in Tullycrine, Kilmurry, Coolmeen
and Labasheedain the nineteenth century.
From the Reports and Returns Relating to Evictions in the Kilrush Union 1849 we are informed of the following list of persons evicted and their houses levelled on the lands of Tullycrine in the Electoral Division of Knock, the property of Colonel Vandeleur on October 13th 1848.
Heads of Families: Pat Shaughnessy, Thomas Shaughnessy (12 acres and 5 in family), Pat McMahon (10 acres and 6 in family) Pat O'Brien (5 acres and 6 in family).
List of the Number of Families Ejected and Houses thrown down on the townlands of Coolmeen, Slievedooley, Barony of Clonderlaw.
James O'Neill (4 in family), Edward Kelly (8 in family,
20 acres), Edward Kelly Jun (5 in family, 1 acre himself and three children
died in the poor house), John O'Neill (4 in family 4 and half acres,
poor-house), James Frawley (7 in family and 4 acres), John Fitzgerald
(9 in family and 1 acre), Widow Sullivan Thos. (7 in family and 1 and
a half acres), Thos McMahon (9 in family and 10 acres), John O'Brien
(8 in family and a half an acre), Stephen Heffernan (4 in family and
three quarters of an acre, observation: this man and his wife dead),
Thomas Sullivan (6 in family and half an acre), Thady Sullivan (5 in
family and half an acre), Widow Meade (2 in family and 8 perches, Observation;
dead), Daniel Dixon (5 in family and half an acre), Marcus Frawley (2
in family only a house), Michael Sullivan (7 in family and 3 acres,
observations: one child dead), Pat Scanlan ( 7 in family and a quarter
of an acre, the family in the poor-house), Daniel Keane ( 10 in family
and 6 acres), Michael Quinn (9 in family and 6 acres), Michael Reardon
(10 in family and a quarter of an acre), Andrew Kelly (7 in family and
only a cabin), Pat Shaughnessy (3 in family and 2 acres), Charles Shaughnessy
(5 in family and 6 acres), James McEnnery (9 in family and 1 acre, two
of this family dead), Widow O'Brien (6 in family and only a cabin),
Pat Fury (2 in family and 3 acres), Martin Considine (3 in family and
3 acres), John Beehan ( 8 in family and 3 acres), John Costello (5 in
family and only a cabin), McDonagh Orphans ( 2 in family and only a
cabin), Widow Kelly (2 in family and half an acre), Roger Keane ( 7
in family and only a cabin).