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

Rev S. Godolphin Osborne, Destitution in County Clare, 1849

Sydney Godolphin Osborne, clergyman and philanthropist, came to Ireland in the early summer of 1849 with the purpose of inquiring into the famine conditions in the west of Ireland. Osborne was rector of Durweston in Dorset and a champion of many causes. He was chiefly known for his ‘lay sermons’ delivered in the columns of The Times newspaper. Through his outspoken views he provoked much controversy. In matters of free trade, education, sanitation and women's rights, he was much in advance of his time. In 1855 he visited the Crimea and inspected unofficially the hospitals under the care of Florence Nightingale, a task for which he was publicly thanked in parliament. His knowledge of the agricultural labourer was unrivalled and his forecast of the social and political emancipation of farm labourers was remarkable for its accuracy. Osborne took a special interest in Ireland. In the introduction to his Irish tour he is concerned to establish his impartiality; he points out that he was not a representative of The Times newspaper or in any way connected with the government. He had travelled to Ireland wholly at his own expense and reserved to himself ‘the liberty to make his opinions known’. Setting out from Limerick, he travelled by boat to Kilrush and by road to Ennis. He continued on to Ballinasloe and Galway visiting the workhouses of Connemara and west Mayo. Osborne inspected eleven union houses in all and was well informed on the condition of the people both in and out of the workhouses. The famine was still raging in 1849 and he estimated that in some areas as much as a third of the population was receiving either indoor or outdoor relief.

From Limerick I went by steamer down the Shannon to Kilrush; the day was stormy, but not sufficiently so to hide the beauty of this noble river; I fear, from all appearance, that it is but little traversed now by trading vessels.

When I reached the union house at Kilrush, I had evidence at its very doors, of the awful amount of destitution for which it is the last refuge. It was ‘the admission day’; within the gates, and on the open ground in front of the doors, were collected in crowds, representatives of every species of extreme suffering. Here was ample evidence of the fact, that the workhouse test is in Ireland, a real test of destitution; for one’s first impression was, why had not many of these hundreds applied for food and shelter and clothing, before famine, nakedness, and exposure had so defaced and degraded their humanity?

The debility of age, made worse by long borne misery; the debility of disease, aggravated by long neglect; hunger-worn countenances, telling the tale which at once explained the efficient cause which had left the frame just a frame, and that all. Infants at the breast of mothers, with the skin and visage of advanced, careworn childhood; children, whose sores and dirt and squalid famished looks, told of the loss of all the elasticity of their age, of their premature acquisition of that stolid care-blunted nature, which years of common suffering can give. Lazari, to whom the hated workhouse had come to be as the palace of a Dives, in which they hoped to hide their sores and satisfy their hunger, here waited in crowds longing at the gates: the whole picture was one of utter, almost hopeless misery.

The process of admission or rejection was conducted by one of the vice-chairmen of the board, assisted by two other guardians; the relieving officers calling out the names of the applicants, they were in turn ushered in by the porter and some assisting paupers, some of whom, I observed, had sticks in their hands. The cases were disposed of with such celerity, that I presume the relieving officers has taken no common pains to ascertain the different features of each applicant’s case. I was shown over the parent house and auxiliaries by the clerk to the union and the medical officer; the numbers in the houses were 4,802. One of the first departments we entered was the infirmary. I do not think my travelling companion will ever forget this his first introduction to the stern reality of famine. There were very many, of all ages, under medical treatment, whose cases were literally those of simple starvation; many, evidently past hope; some whose end was very near. . . .

The whole of the hospital arrangements at the Kilrush Union do the utmost credit to the medical officer and the authorities of the establishment; the wards were it is true sadly crowded, still every possible ingenuity had been exercised, to secure ventilation. The arrangements in detail for the distribution of medicine; for all the various aids the sick require, were most satisfactory. To show what care will do to prevent disease, I narrowly examined, I believe, more than 1,000 children, I did not find one case of ophthalmia; there were only 10 cases in the whole establishment.

There are some twenty acres of ground under cultivation, by the paupers, apparently with good success, but the labourers were sad objects. The mortality in this union is very great, though I hope decreasing; at the end of the month of May last, the number in the house was 3,765, the deaths during the month 197. In June, the number of inmates 4,366, deaths 144.

I cannot dismiss my notice of the Kilrush Union houses, without stating my belief, that it is mainly owing to indefatigable exertions of the inspector, Captain Kennedy, aided by Dr O’Donnell, that so large a number of paupers, coming into the houses in the condition they do, are preserved in the cleanliness and order in which I found them. I have no reason to suppose but that the board of guardians are most efficient, still I could see in the attention to minor details of management, that a very great deal must be owing to vigilant inspection and supervision, by the resident inspector and medical officer. . . .

In a days journey we went by Clonderlaw, Kildysart, Kilchrist, Clondegad to Ennis. The public have heard a good deal of the evictions, i.e the house levelling, in the union of Kilrush; the reports made by Captain Kennedy and others, have been often declared to be exaggerations. I had now ocular demonstration, that no report can exaggerate the amount of wholesale house levelling which has taken place in this union.

The rateable tenements in the Kilrush Union

in the years 1846, 1847, 1848, 1849, 1850
were as follows 9050, 8981, 8546, 7952, 7299.

The decrease of tenements at the commencement of the ensuing year, will I think show, that the system of compulsory ejectment is still in full vigour. One place was pointed out to me, where out of 64 houses 54 had been levelled within this last month, there are now 10 caretakers left in possession of the remaining houses. It would only tire the reader to no purpose, were I to particularise the different properties, on which this system has been carried on; the practice seemed almost universal; on both sides of the road, and as far every way as I could command with a telescope, there was evidence of this forcible removal of the population.

Just as the eye and heart of every Englishmen is shocked with the first view he has of his fellow creatures, at death’s door, for want of food; beholding in them the mere ‘wrecks’ of life; so are the eye and heart painfully offended, when mile after mile, ‘wrecks’ of homes stand forth on every side. I know not how a country looks, after the passage of an enemy through it, bent on desolating its people’s homes; but I am quite certain, the work of destruction could not be done more effectually, though perhaps it would be done less methodically, by such an army, than it is done in the western counties of Ireland, by the proprietors of the land. Roofless gables meet your eye on every side; one ceases to wonder that the union houses are so full, when there is this evidence of the fact that no other home is left to so many thousands.

The law now provides, that before forcible possession is taken of the houses of the peasantry, notice should be given to the relieving officer of the district, in order that he may be prepared to offer ‘the ejected,’ orders for the workhouse. I had, however, one case put before me on good authority, which occurred in 1849, in which 70 houses were down, under the orders of the agent of the property, at once; the relieving officer had never got the notice, through it was said some mistake; the people had for some days to crowd on the neighbouring chapel floor, and by the sides of the ditches; for the neighbours had had orders not to take them in: it is fair to state the whole of this mass of tenantry had been created by a middleman, whose lease was now out.

I was shown one estate on which, in 1847, there had been 482 families, now there are two. A priest to whom I was recommended, and on whom I called on my way from Kilrush to Ennis, told me, in the two parishes in which his cure lay, viz. Clondegad and Kilchrist, the population of the last census being 9,456; in June last he himself took a census, and that he only found 6,360 remaining; a very large number had emigrated, very many died, and the workhouses had received also their full proportion. This gentleman told me, that the present state of distress seriously affected the moral character of the people; many had no clothes in which they could come with decency to the ‘stations’ to meet their priest; many of a family would often be found in their cabins naked, the clothes being given to those who had to go to the depôt for relief. I had also an interview with one of the coroners of a district in the Kilrush Union; he admitted to me he had had a great many inquests within these last eighteen months on persons ‘starved to death.’ The accounts he gave of some of the scenes he had witnessed were most painful. . . .

It may be as well, perhaps, here, to give a description of the actual carrying out of the process of ‘forcible eviction.’ The legal forms necessary to obtain the sheriff’s authority to take possession, having been gone through, and the proper notices served on the parties concerned; a notice is also served on the relieving officer, informing him on what day the people will be ejected. At the appointed hour, we will suppose ourselves to be on the spot; there are, say some six dwellings in a group, nearly adjoining each other, and all situated close to a public road side. Some of these dwellings may be larger than others, but in outward form and actual structure, they are all much alike, simply, two stone gables, built of the stone of the country, a thatched roof connecting them, and descending to some five or six feet from the ground. A gig or outside car arrives with the sheriff’s deputy; the agent for the property is in attendance on horseback, with some ten or twelve rough looking peasants, one or two of whom have iron crowbars, and other necessaries for their business of destruction. A certain form is quickly gone through by the law’s officer, the effect of which is to put the agent of the property in possession, in other words, giving him full power to turn out the people and pull down the dwellings, if it is his pleasure to do so. In very many districts, a small body of armed police attend, in case of any forcible resistance. The relieving officer calls out the names from the list sent to him, and as he may think proper, offers to the parties now to be ejected orders for admission to the union house. These orders are very generally refused, or if accepted, are not acted on.

The word is now given by the agent, to his ‘destructives.’ If the people will not come out of the dwellings, they are dragged out; with them, the bed, kettle, old wheel, tub, and one or two stools, with perhaps an old chest; few cabins have anything to add to this list of furniture at the time the tenants are ejected; the living and stock being alike out in the road; now begins a loud and long sustained chorus of intermingled prayers, blessings, reproaches, revilings, weeping, etc., generally ending in low monotonous imprecations on the heads of those, who thus are crowning the ruin of the ejected.

The women will ‘kene,’ beat their breasts, throw themselves on the ground, embrace the knees of the agent’s horse, hang on to the steps of the sheriff’s car; they will do and say all an excited Irish woman can say and do, to either obtain mercy, or invoke vengeance; and truly poor creatures, they are gifted with powers of eloquence, aided by a power of action and gesticulation, which, as it may be employed, to bless or curse, is in either way most impressive.

Agents and sheriff’s officers, however, from the nature of their avocation, have become case hardened against these attacks upon the softer feelings of our nature; the groans and prayers of the ejected, like the dust of the falling thatch of their roofs, are unavoidable evils, the regular result of the routine of ‘house tumbling.’ ‘Don’t be all day boys,’ is command enough; a man jumps up on the roof, and soon uncovers a part of the beam, which goes the point of one gable to the other; he fastens a rope round it, it may require, perhaps, a little action from a saw, to weaken it; the rope is passed through the door of the house; it is manned at once by some others of the band; an iron bar is now placed under the wall plate, at one of the angles; a pull at the rope, breaking the back of the roof, and the lifting of the bar, hoisting it from its bearing on the wall, down it goes in a cloud of dust, sometimes falling wholly within the walls, sometimes a part will remain resting one end on the ground, the other against the gable.

So clever are a good practised band of destructives, that thirty houses in the morning, would not be at all beyond their powers. Our group of six houses are in about two hours and a half, rendered ruins, there was a little delay from Honor --- going into a fit as they removed her; the tenants are now houseless. They have been told that they may have the thatch and blackened wood of the fallen roofs; but they are significantly warned, not to linger about the spot too long. The relieving officer will now try and persuade them to be wise and go at once to the workhouse. . . .

As there is a certain expense attendant on the sheriff’s presence, the people now, seeing that their houses must fall, for a small gratuity, will pull them down themselves. I took a statement from a clergyman, of one case, in which, an old woman, actually worked her own house down, with her own hands, on the belief, she was to have 5s. for doing so, she had not however then got it.

One of these lately ‘tumbled out’ colonies, though a very wretched spectacle, is sometimes a very picturesque one; the women in the red petticoat of the country, the said garment ever in tatters, with the dark bodice only just sufficiently patched to make a bare covering to the bosom; their long dark parted hair; bare legs and feet; the attitudes of the old, crouching under the bank or wall; of the less aged, in active work, drawing the smoke-blackened wood from beneath the thatch; the baby, half out of the queer-looking, half-box half-boat, called a cradle; the younger children, half naked, romping about the ruins, or climbing about the furniture on the roadside; the gables, their heads pointing upwards, as though they would tell the tale to the powers above; the different positions of the fallen roofs, some showing the blackened rafters where the thatch had separated from them in the fall; others, the work not quite finished, still hanging, hesitating as it were, in their fall: a painter could find no little beauty in a scene, which to one, who looks not at the picture, but at its cost, is only a very ugly page in the history of the exercise of man’s power, over those who are themselves powerless.

On our journey we had ample opportunity of seeing to what shifts the peasantry will resort before they will face the Union House, after they have been evicted, and seen their homes ‘tumbled.’ Their usual practice is with the thatch and some of the roof sticks, to build up a dwelling called a ‘scalpeen,’ the most common form of this species of dwelling is what I suppose an Englishman would call, ‘the lean to’. . .

It is a rare thing to find any males at these scenes of desolation; in the majority of cases, I fear, they desert their families, go to seek work at a distance, perhaps in England; very often they start for America as soon as they find they are to be ejected. A very large proportion of the families in the workhouses are deserted families. In travelling in the west of Ireland, it is a curious fact, that you scarce ever meet an able-bodied labourer on the road; the only males you see, are the old and infirm, and the very few small farmers who have yet survived the storm.

At Kildysart, we found a crowd of wretched objects, waiting for the coming of the meal for out relief; my companion, who had an amiable propensity for buying up bakers’ shops, to distribute the bread, thereby getting again and again into some trouble, proceeded at once to indulge this charitable feeling, the consequence was, that the shop was very soon in a state of siege; the assaulting party, being, I should think, little less in number than 100, as starved, ill-clad, and desperate-looking as is possible to conceive; by the aid of one of the police, the door of the shop was closed, so as to shut some in, many out; such, however, was the pressure, that it was thought advisable that my friend should surrender his position, and make a retreat by a back-door, then over a wall, and thus escape to the inn. . . .

This is to be a wholly separate union from Kilrush. At present, it is a tributary to it, contributing its full share of pauperage; a few miles further on, after passing many most wretched objects, the least miserable of whom would have caused a crowd in any street in London; we overtook two children, boys, I should suppose, from 10 to 12 years of age; one himself very far from strong, was supporting the staggering steps of the other, evidently sinking in the last stage of famine. I know not how far he had to go before he found a shelter on earth, I feel a comfort in my assurance that his hours were numbered there.

Passing a group of modern house ruins, I thought I saw smoke curling up from a corner, between two roofless gables; we left the car and made our way between the walls; there were a few pieces of turf smouldering on the ground, a board fixed into the walls, immediately over this mockery of a fire, to I suppose conceal all evidence of its existence from any passer by; by it as we came into view, was a woman in mere rags; her child, a girl of about 12, quite naked, and another little thing partially so. She at once hung some rags upon the girl to make her as decent as herself. Her story was the old one - ‘her house had been tumbled, she lived as we saw her in the day, at night she was covertly sheltered in a neighbouring cabin.’ A little further on, we came to one of the ‘lean to’s’ I have described above, when we looked into it, we found a woman, perhaps some thirty years of age, the place was a mere sty, a lad of four feet could hardly have stood in the highest part of it; the roof descended abruptly to the ground; here this poor creature had dwelt for weeks, with her three children; how she lived was evident; her stock of food was at her feet; a large bundle of corn-weed and nettles; she was positively naked to the waist, but with the instinctive modest quickness of her race, as she talked to us, by crossing her arms and hitching up some of the rags which hung about her, she extemporised a bodice.

We were glad enough to arrive at Ennis, for our journey from Kilrush had been one continuous scene of devastation and destitution. As to the crops, it is true we saw here and there a good deal of potato coming up well; there were places too, but few and far between, where the land seemed tolerably well cropped with cereals; but the great proportion of the land, if cropped at all, had as much foul weed as corn growing on it; a great deal was utterly waste, but with evidence on the surface, that it had once been otherwise. . . .

Having a long journey before me the next day, I determined to pay a visit to the Ennis Union workhouse, early in the morning; I left my bedroom at the hotel, soon after five o’clock. . . .

Having reached the gates of the union house before 6 o’clock, I employed a quarter of an hour, in looking at the new court house, now nearly completed, which is a short distance from it. It was another of the many instances I have seen, of the strange love for building at any cost, to the public cost, common to the Irish. It is really a very fine building, the front elevation, as handsome, classical, and substantial, as if it had been built by a people who could well afford it. It must have cost many thousands of pounds; it made me think the statement, in a official document I had with me, must be a libel - viz. - ‘That the net liabilities of the Ennis Union at the end of the March quarter, 1850, over the balance in Bank, were £21,627,’ if this is not a liable, it can scarcely be one, to say that such unnecessary expense, for such a building, under such circumstances, is very foolish, if not very wrong.

Having obtained the assistance of the clerk of the union, to whose kindness I must acknowledge myself much indebted, for it was scarcely reasonable to rouse him so early, I went over every department of the house, and then visited a detached mansion, with large gardens, and some 25 acres of land - an auxiliary inhabited by the boys. There were in the parent house and auxiliaries 3,528 paupers, 6,533 persons on the out-relief list, of whom only 4 were able-bodied. This union is very heavy in debt, and has, I believe, received as much as £7,000 in grants in aid of relief, from government.

The parent house and the auxiliary I visited, were both very clean, and the inmates were in evident good order; they were only just out of bed, and I was much pleased with the celerity with which the dormitories were cleaned, and the beds arranged, so that they should get thoroughly aired, before they were again used. In no house I visited, was there more industrial employment, and employment turned to better account. Every article of clothing is made from the raw material, in the house; except of course, fine linen. They manufacture all the shoes, and even the boys scotch bonnets. The large kitchen garden of the adjoining auxiliary was well stocked, and most cleanly cultivated. I walked over the farm, which was well cropped with root crops, etc. - the labour being superintended by an agricultural instructor; the paupers were generally well enough clothed; the women looked healthy; the boys, equal to the average of workhouse boys, some however bore the familiar ‘want’ stamp in their countenances. The infirmary was clean - and I was much pleased to see the tenderness, with which two nurses were dressing one of the most distressing cases I ever saw; a child of some 6 or 7 years of age, whose eye from disease had swelled to a size, that had I not seen it, I could not have believed possible; I was thankful to feel it had not long to live.

For a union under great financial difficulty, the Ennis does great credit, to all who take the executive part in its economy; it is satisfactory to see those who must be kept, not kept in idleness; I am satisfied that the health, happiness, and morality of the paupers, are alike advanced, by steady industrial occupation. The average cost of each pauper is at present 10¾d. per week - the bread is half rye, half barley for the adult classes.

From Ennis to Gort the country offers nothing worthy of particular observation, there are the same traces of the hand of the home destroyer as in other places; the peasantry, what few are met on the road, though perhaps not so distressed in appearance as those I have already described, are still in very evident great distress. There was some fair cropping of the ground, but a great deal of it lies comparatively waste.

Extracts taken from Sydney Godolphin Osborne Gleanings in the West of Ireland (London 1850) pp 14-39.

Visit to West Clare, 1849
George Poulett Scrope


Potential of Farming, 1849
James Caird