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Travels in County Clare 1534 - 1911
(extracts from The Strangers Gaze, edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh)

Harriet Martineau, Letters from Clare, 1852

One of the many newspaper correspondents to visit Clare in the wake of the Great Famine was Harriet Martineau who reported at length on the workhouses in Ballyvaughan, Miltown Malbay and Ennistymon for the Daily News. Unlike later writers Martineau promoted a positive view of workhouses and praised their potential for the improvement of the human condition. By 1852 thousands of people were still dependent on public relief but the worst effects of famine had passed. Martineau, the daughter of a Norwich manufacturer of Hugenot origin, suffered from deafness and ill health throughout her life. Her deafness making it impossible for her to pursue the more conventional career of teaching, she turned to journalism. One of her first published pieces was an essay ‘Female Writers on Practical Divinity’ 1821. She went through a long illness and was left penniless by 1829. Settling in London she became acquainted with literary figures there. She published Illustrations of Political Economy (1832) and Poor Law and Paupers Illustrated (1833). Her works made an immediate impact and she was consulted on social issues by government ministers. She visited America and wrote Society in America (1837). Befriended by the poet William Wordsworth she travelled in Europe in 1839. She returned in ill heath and was advised to try mesmerism. Hypnotised by Spencer T. Hall (who also published an account of his experiences in Clare) she rapidly recovered her health. She travelled in Egypt and Palestine and published Eastern Life in 1848. Her Letters from Ireland are a series of reports communicated to the Daily News during her journey to Ireland in the autumn of 1852. They are an account of ‘impressions received and thoughts excited’ from day to day. Written ‘sometimes in a coffee room to the sound of the harp or in the parlour of a crowded country inn to the clatter of knives and forks’. Her letters provide a vivid picture of the conditions in workhouses in the post-Famine period. Among many other works she wrote an autobiography which was published posthumously in 1877.

[21 September, 1852]. From Galway we have travelled by the unusual route of the coast of Clare, where tourists being, as we supposed, out of the question, we hoped to discover how the people lived. From Galway to Ballyvaughan, and thence on to the borders of Mr O’Brien’s estates, was the most desolate region perhaps that we have traversed - almost as unpeopled as the wilds of Erris, without the curious charm of its having never been peopled. It was some relief to find that the unroofing of houses is not at all recent. We were grieving over one mass of good-looking houses, when our driver told us that was the memorial of an old landlord quarrel; that a whole village population - thirty or forty families - all decamped in one night, about thirty years ago, in fear of their landlord. Some good-looking houses on heights and promontories were deserted at an older time; but the dozens and the scores of humble dwellings still have the soot hanging about their gables. The traveller on the admirable road which winds with the heights of the coast looks out anxiously to sea for fishing-boats; but there are none, - only the savage canoe or curragh is to be seen by good eyes, tossing near the shores. A woman here and there climbing barefoot over the rocks in search of bait, or of that seaweed which people eat to give a taste to their meal or potatoes, a boy or girl digging potatoes from out of the stones of limestone fields, are nearly all the people that are to be seen at any one place. There seem to be too few to beg. A very large number of men are gone to England for the harvest, or to America; the wives and children are in the workhouses; and the roofs then come off their abodes. While on the part of the coast of Clare which is almost entirely limestone, we hoped and believed that the excessive subdivision of the land was owing to its stony character. We saw vast heaps in the middle of little fields; and we hoped that the innumerable fences were merely a method of getting rid of the stones. But, since we have come down upon a more fertile district, where there no stones in the middle of the fields, we find the enclosures no larger. Rank and ruinous hedges or turf-banks occupy a large surface, and divide fields which are mere plots, like the sluggard’s garden. The first revival that we were sensible of was when the whitewashed dwellings of Mr O’Brien’s tenants began to glitter before our eyes. ‘Corny O’Brien,’ as his neighbours call him, is considered a kind landlord; and is not, we were assured, the less beloved in that capacity for being ‘an apostate’ - as people here call a Protestant whose parents were Catholic. The care and expense that Mr O’Brien has lavished on making the Moher cliffs accessible, safe, and attractive to strangers, have made his name popular along the coast. The great number of men that we saw employed in getting in his crops of hay - such a quantity that we could not conceive how it was all to be eaten - was an explanation, quite satisfactory, of the affectionate tone in which we heard him spoken of. It is true, there is little more doing in his neighbourhood, in the way of permanent employment of industry, than elsewhere, - no fisheries; but there is something done to attract strangers, and to keep the labouring class from starving. . . .

[22 September, 1852]. Before entering an Irish workhouse, the English visitor is aware that the people to be seen within are altogether a different class or race from those whom he has been accustomed to see in workhouses at home. In England, the pauper population, domesticated in those abodes by legal charity, are, for the most part, a degraded order of people. The men and women have either begun life at a disadvantage, or have failed in life through some incapacity, physical or moral; or they are the children of such that we find in workhouses; and we expect therefore to see a deteriorated generation, - sickly or stupid, or in some way ill-conditioned. In Irish workhouses it is not this sort of people that are to be found. Indeed, the one thing heard about them in England is that they are ready to die rather than enter the workhouse. They are the victims of a sudden, sweeping calamity, which bore no relation to vice, folly, laziness, or improvidence. In the first season of famine, the inmates were a pretty fair specimen of the inhabitants at large; and they are now the strongest and best-conditioned of those original inmates. . .

Matters are not so pleasant everywhere, of course; but still they are a vast improvement on what ‘S[ydney] G[odolphin] O[sborne]’ and others saw awhile ago. For instance, we stopped at Ballyvaughan, on Galway Bay. In the course of our afternoon walk, we were struck by the situation of a farm-house on an eminence, with a green field before it, stretching down to the bay. Entering the field, we saw below us a number of women washing clothes, evidently from the workhouse. This house was an auxiliary to the auxiliary house of Ballyvaughan. The prevalence of ophthalmia in the house caused this field and dwelling to be hired for an infirmary. Forthwith we went to the larger house, an assemblage of whitewashed buildings, arranged as a workhouse, for the relief of the overcrowded establishment at Ennistymon.

This Ballyvaughan house was prepared to contain 900 inmates. On the day of our visit - at harvest-time - at the most prosperous season of the year, and in a neighbourhood where there is an admirable employer of labour, the number was no less than 667. It was inconceivable to us, when we heard this, what the people could have done when there were no houses nearer than Galway and Ennistymon. People who had to come above thirty miles for relief perished for want of it in great numbers - some at home, and some by the roadside. It will not be so again, for there is to be a proper workhouse built at Ballyvaughan, and the question of its precise situation is now under debate. A proprietor in the neighbourhood is draining his lands largely, and with funds borrowed from the Improvement Commissioners, one of whose stipulations is that the labourers’ wages shall be paid in cash. If we remember rightly, as many as 200 men are thus employed regularly, and for sufficient pay. How, then, were there 667 in the workhouse in the harvest month? How many were able-bodied men? One official said twenty, but on inquiry it turned out that they were not able-bodied at the moment. Ophthalmia, or other ailment or infirmity, had incapacitated these twenty. Of children there were 300. That was a fact only too easily understood: they were orphaned by the famine. There were many widows and ‘deserted women’; the ‘desertion’ being that their husbands had gone to England for summer work, leaving their families to the union. The expectation was that most of these men would come back, with more or less money. Some would probably go from Liverpool to America, leaving their families where they were till they could send funds to carry them out to the United States. We heard here again of a scandal which we have since encountered more than once. Some of the guardians have turned out young women, all alone, to shift for themselves. In each case the clergyman and the great man of the neighbourhood have rebuked this practice, and put a stop to it: and it is well; for there will be an end of the well-grounded boast of the virtue of the Irish peasant women, if scores of girls are thus set adrift by their so-called guardians. In one case the excuse given was, that there was no particular notice of their being young women, but that they were included among the able-bodied, and ordered off with that class. Twenty were thus got rid of at Ballyvaughan, and thirty at Kilrush, besides many at other places. We heard with much more satisfaction of the efforts made to enable young women to emigrate to Australia. From Kilrush no less than 450 (some of our informants said more) have been sent across the Atlantic, chiefly to Canada.

On the shores of Malbay, in Clare, stands a little sea-bathing place, called Milltown, all glittering with whitewash; and the most glittering part of it is a large house full of thorough lights, which is described in the guide-books of a few years ago as a fine hotel, where sixty beds are made up for visitors. Travellers had better not go there now in expectation of a bed, for this house is at present a workhouse - another auxiliary of Ennistymon - and spoken of with pride for its healthy situation. Yet, on the way to it we saw a painful sight - a cart or truck, loaded very heavily with paupers - chiefly children, with some women, - the whole being guarded by three of the constabulary, carrying arms. These were runaways, we were told, who were being brought from gaol to Milltown Workhouse. We know nothing of the merits of the case, but the spectacle was not a pleasant one. If the dread of ophthalmia causes any to abscond, we do not wonder at it. The story goes, however, that many put themselves in the way of the disease, actually try to catch it, to avoid work and obtain the superior diet ordered for the patients. The Poor Law Commissioners believe this. We saw the patients at Ennistymon - dozens, scores of them - lying on clean comfortable beds, in rooms coloured green, with green window-curtains, their skins wholesome-looking, and the hair of the young people bright and glossy, but all alike suffering under the painful-looking disease, the consequence of over-crowding, and other predisposing disadvantages.

The aspect of the other parts of the Ennistymon house is anything but depressing. The greatest number receiving relief from its doors at the worst time was 20,000. The house being built to hold 500, of course the chief part of this relief was outdoor, of which there is now none. An incident of the time which happened here explains something of the horror with which the people regarded the workhouse. In order to prevent the sale of the meal given in relief it was wetted by order of the guardians. Much of it became as hard as mortar; and most of it turned sour and caused illness in the already enfeebled people. Popular reports of wholesale poisonings have often arisen from a less cause. Now, however, it is found that the meal and other food agree well with the inmates, whose average of health is high, exclusive of the prevalent ophthalmia. The resident officers spoke cheerfully of the change since last year. During the fever season last year there were deaths daily to the amount of from twenty to twenty-five in that crowded house, whereas there are now only about three in a week. The breakfast is porridge with milk; and the dinner, soup made of meal, with various vegetables; and an allowance of bread, which suffices also for supper. The people are hoping now to be allowed potatoes twice a week; and great is the pleasure with which they look forward to this treat. There is no regular agricultural instructor of the boys at Ennistymon, but some are promising weavers, under the teaching of a zealous Yorkshireman. The women spin and knit, and the sewing of the household is done by the girls, who are also taught fine work, by which they may make money hereafter.

Long before we entered any Irish workhouse Mr Osborne’s name was uttered to us with blessings, as we find it still wherever we go. There are no two opinions about him, and the blessedness of his visit - as far as we have heard. Gentle and simple, Catholic and Protestant, Tory and Liberal, bid us believe all that he has said - assure us that his information was precisely correct - declare that he is the best of all the good friends of Ireland - and glow while they tell us that what he said was (in the words of a poor Catholic) ‘religion, and charity, and truth, all in one.’ We had not doubted this before; but this universal testimony strengthened our desire to see the Kilrush house. We there heard, from resident officials, terrible accounts of the famine and fever times, when people were brought in, and died between the outer gate and the door of the house; when they were laid three in a bed (those beds which are comfortable and decent for one, but which still are made to hold two), and the dead and the living were found lying side by side every morning. But enough has been said about that. There have been auxiliary houses opened to a greater extent than are now needed. Three have been lately closed. The house was built to contain 1100, and the sheds 416 more. The number in the house when we were there was 2735, and the deaths during the last twelve months have been 362. There is a farm of twenty-five acres, where the boys are taught to labour. It was Sunday when we were there; and we neither saw the people at work, nor met the master and matron. Colonel Vandeleur and a party of friends were there. After they were gone we went round. We thought the place very clean, and the people, on the whole, healthy-looking; but our impressions of the management, in the hands of subordinate officers (who seemed to us too young), were not very favourable. There was much confusion and inaccuracy in their statements; and the terms they were on with the people, and the manners of the household, did not seem to us so good as we had expected from what we had seen elsewhere. There can be no doubt, however, of the improvement which has been fairly instituted in the Kilrush house, and which is still advancing.

Extracts taken from Harriett Martineau, Letters from Ireland (London 1852), pp 150-64.

Potential of Farming, 1849
James Caird


Diary of a Naturalist, 1854
Alexander More