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

Quaker Reports on Famine Conditions in Clare, 1847

During the bitter winter of 1846-7, the starving people would have fared much worse than they did, had it not been for the work of the voluntary societies. Foremost amongst these were the Society of Friends or the Quakers, who raised funds for the establishment of soup kitchens, which for many months were the only means of subsistence for large sections of the population. Setting up the Central Relief Committee in London and Dublin in November 1846, the Quakers were careful to collect accurate information on the state of affairs in the west of Ireland. To this end agents were dispatched to report on the prevailing conditions; it was these reports that helped to enlighten, not just British public opinion, but the government itself, about the true nature of the situation on Ireland. The Quakers showed extraordinary commitment and generosity as they helped people in need without religious distinction. A typical example of their generosity is the thirty seven barrels of Indian meal, eight barrels of rye, three of flour, two of peas, one of pork and bales of clothing that were distributed among the poor of Ruan parish in September 1847. In June 1849 the Quakers discontinued their relief work stating bluntly in a letter to John Russell, the British prime minister, that the problem of relief had become too great for any voluntary group and that only the government could raise the funds and carry out the measures to save people’s lives. They added that the kernel of the problem was the need to reform the land system, which was a matter for legislation not philanthropy.

Transactions of The Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland, in 1846 and 1847.

To the Auxiliary Relief Committee of Friends at Limerick.

In accordance with the wish of the committee, we proceeded on the 15th inst. to Kilrush. On our way from that place to Cooraclare, we observed stacks of corn and hay on several farms, and behind several humble dwellings; this we were unprepared for, being under the impression that all or nearly all the corn had been consumed. The land also presented a less neglected appearance that we anticipated, from all that we had heard of its being left untilled. However, after leaving Cooraclare a mile or two behind us, towards the confines of Kilmacduane parish, the wild bleak hills of Kilmihil broke on our view; and as we proceeded, the cabins and farms assumed a more wretched appearance, and we soon had visible evidence that the description given us of the state of this parish had not been overcoloured.

We soon reached the house of the Roman Catholic priest. He entered earnestly into the subject of our mission; gave us information on every point we sought; and displayed much good sense, good feeling, and candour in his communications.

This parish contains over eighteen thousand acres, and numbers about six thousand inhabitants. All the landed proprietors are non-resident; there are no resident gentry; the priest is the only person to whom the poor can turn for assistance; and from all the accounts we have had, both before our visit to him and since, he appears to be unremitting in his exertions.

After leaving Cooraclare, we proceeded to Kilmurry Ibrickan. This parish contains about twelve thousand inhabitants, and presents a frightful picture of misery and want, more especially along the coast. To this quarter, many houseless wanderers, ejected tenants, and unfortunates of all kinds, and from all quarters, have for some years past been attracted by the free trade in sea-weed manure, there being no check given to squatters; and these are so thickly clustered in some places, that on one townland here of forty-six acres, there are two hundred and ten human beings! There are in this quarter five hundred families (containing over three thousand individuals) located near the shore, none of whom have any land attached to the hovels in which they try to exist. The potato having failed, and with it the trade in sea-weed, not only are they totally deprived of food, but also of the means of procuring it, and as they are unrecognized by any landlord, they are nor considered as tenants of the soil; and thence there is no one bound to them by ties of interest, or upon whom they can urge a legitimate claim for support.

After leaving Kilmurry, we entered the parish of Kilfarboy, and reached Miltown at six, p.m.

On our way to Miltown, and on our return next day by Kilkee, we entered several of the poorer cabins along the road, and in every instance administered some small relief, while we made enquiries as to their modes of life and means of subsistence. The scenes which we witnessed, and the stories which we heard in these abodes of human misery, will not be easily effaced from our memory. All were poor in the extreme - some deplorably so; but it was the same sad tale we heard from all; their potatoes had failed, and their scanty stock of oats being all consumed, they are now solely dependant on the wages received from the road works. The applicants for employment are so numerous, that in most instances only one man in a family, and in some cases one, and a boy, woman, or girl, can obtain it. All work alike on the roads! The pay of a man is tenpence, a woman eightpence, and a boy sixpence per day; and when you consider that there may be broken days from sickness or severe weather - that the price of the lowest description of food is enormously high - and that families here average about seven individuals, you will not be surprised when we state, that they can scarcely support life under their many privations. Indeed, their week’s wages, when exchanged for food, is not more than sufficient for three or four day’s consumption. They endeavour, however, to stretch it over the week; but it is no uncommon thing with many families to be without any food for twenty-four or thirty-six hours before the succeeding pay - day comes round, with the exception of the man or boy who is at work. And to prevent his strength (upon which all their living depends) from failing, the scanty subsistence of the others is still further reduced, to provide him with sufficient to sustain him. So pressing are the calls of hunger, that when the week’s supply of meal is brought home, (perhaps a distance of six miles) it is in many cases eaten before it is fully cooked; some bake it on a griddle; but among the very poorest, and where the family is large, in order to make it go far, it is boiled into gruel. Is it then to be wondered at that dysentery, the general result of insufficient and imperfectly cooked food, should be, as it is, so prevalent amongst them?

James Harvey.

Thomas Grubb.

Limerick, 22nd February, 1847.

Distress in Ireland; Narrative of R. Barclay Fox’s visit to some parts of the west of Ireland, 1847

Galway 27 March 1847

At Ennis the chief town of Clare, I observed the streets crowded with gaunt and rugged idlers, male and female, - a consequence of several hundred men having been discharged from the public works within the last two or three days. Whilst there I breakfasted at the house of a benevolent and intelligent man, a landlord and county magistrate, whose wife and daughters are actively engaged in providing employment for the women. I gave them £10 in promotion of their object. My host informed me that he offered to give work to many labourers in drainage, but the owners of the adjoining estates would not co-operate by doing anything to carry off the water. He has offered his tenants seed if they will cultivate their land, but they do not avail themselves of it: he has given one of his tenants six year’s rent to enable him to emigrate. The peasantry of Clare has as bad a character for lawlessness as those of Tipperary. Very many horses have been shot while conveying corn to Ennis markets, under the impression that the sale of grain, even in the country, lessens the supply. The aggressors are not brought to justice, - the sufferer simply ‘presents’ for a new horse at the sessions. The poorhouse at Ennis is well conducted, clean and orderly though containing 240 beyond its full compliment: the deaths are about ten per week, but the fever cases are transferred to the hospital.

At Gort the street was crowded with forlorn beings waiting for relief or employment; some thousands, I was told, have been turned off the public works within the last two days. A crowd of clamorous women laid siege to the coach, many of them evidently suffering from hunger; they said that no soup was given in the place, but sold at a penny per quart (meaning, no doubt, to those not furnished with tickets); their husbands, they said, were without employment, and they had nothing left ‘but the mercy of God and the charity of Christians’. It is almost impossible that the new regulations for providing so vast an amount of relief can be organised in time to supply the destitution, which must follow the stoppage of the public works, and a great increase of mortality, will, I fear, be the result. Between Ennis and Galway I observed large tracts of land left utterly neglected. In fact, cultivation is the exception, desolation the rule. The streets of this town teem with miserable beggars, but the ear gets accustomed to the cry for food, and the hand of charity is paralysed by the mass of want to be relieved.

Taken from:
(i) Transactions of the Central Relief Committee, 1846
(ii) R. Barclay Fox, Distress in Ireland: Narrative of R. Barclay Fox’s visit to Some Parts of the West of Ireland, Society of Friends (London 1847), pp 2-3.

Notes on a Clare Tour, 1846
John Manners


Life and Death in County Clare, 1849
Spencer T. Hall