Friends in a time of famine

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Quakers’ cauldron back in the limelight

‘With a bit of research, John O’Hara and Flanagan (above) established that the cauldron was one of three, made in Shropshire,  and shipped to Arranmore during the Great Famine. In 1847, a group of Quakers hired two steamships in Liverpool to deliver peas, rice, meal, biscuits and beef to starving and sick islanders among a population of over 2,000 there.’ Photograph|:John Rafferty

‘With a bit of research, John O’Hara and Flanagan (above) established that the cauldron was one of three, made in Shropshire, and shipped to Arranmore during the Great Famine. In 1847, a group of Quakers hired two steamships in Liverpool to deliver peas, rice, meal, biscuits and beef to starving and sick islanders among a population of over 2,000 there.’ Photograph|:John Rafferty

Thu, Oct 3, 2013, 18:25

When Arranmore islander John O’Hara was approached by Nora Flanagan to borrow his father’s dog shelter, he was only too happy to oblige. The cast iron cauldron had served its time well with the animals, and had an association with “barking” in more ways than one.

Mention “barking” nets and sails to west coast fishermen of a certain generation – or Newfies across the pond in Newfoundland – and they will know exactly what you mean. Before the use of synthetic materials for sails and nets, they were preserved, and dyed, using tan from the bark and buds of spruce or fir or juniper trees. The type of pickled bath might last a night or more.

This particular “tan pot”, as the cauldron was known, had the bottom burned out of it, but John O’Hara, now 80, remembers his father being loath to throw it away. Not an easy thing to do anyway on an island, where recycling tends to be a far more natural activity. “He turned it up for a dog kennel, and we had it around the house, and it is probably one of the oldest man-made objects in this community now,” O’Hara says.

With a bit of research, O’Hara and Flanagan established that the cauldron was one of three, made in Shropshire, England, and shipped to Arranmore during the Great Famine. In 1847, a group of Quakers hired two steamships in Liverpool to deliver peas, rice, meal, biscuits and beef to starving and sick islanders among a population of over 2,000 there. The island’s absentee landlord, the Marquis of Conyngham, had offered no relief, and two years previously a London lawyer Thomas Campbell Foster, who was hired by the London Times to send reports, had filed this despatch from Gaoth Dóbhair in September 1845.

“Picture to yourself the beggars who sometimes on Sundays lie about the pavements in the streets of London, dressed up to excite commiseration and who write with a piece of chalk on the flags: “I’m starving” and then lay themselves down beside the scrawl crouched up in a violent shivering fit as the people pass the from church, and you have an exact facsimile of the kind of people around me . . .”

Historian Breandán MacCnaimhsí noted in the Donegal Historical Society’s 1973 annual how at one point a cargo of Indian meal or “Peel’s Brimestone” was sent out in a steamer from Sligo port to the nearby Rutland island for distribution. However, the meal, often infested with maggots, weevil and in a sodden state, had to be cooked slowly over a fire to make it edible.

By the time the Quakers visited, disease was taking its toll, with dysentery, scurvy and the “fiabhras dubh” or typhus and “fiabhras ballach” or relapsing fever assuming “epidemic levels”. In desperation, some islanders boarded and raided a ship bound for Westport which became becalmed nearby; members of one starving family were later charged and tried at Lifford Assizes, and jailed, with those who had informed on them being forced to seek shelter in Lifford jail. Official reports show that the death rate at Glenties was about the highest in the country – Arranmore islanders being among the many victims.

William Bennett, one of the Quakers, offered the children some biscuits to eat with their seaweed on his arrival, and noted a “remarkable equality” of “deep-sunk poverty, disease and degradation” among a very distressed community. He described “the same gaunt looks in the men, and peculiar worn-out expression of premature old age in the countenances of women and children”. Later in 1847, after successive potato crop failures, islanders who couldn’t show title were being forced off their small strips of land and sent to Glenties workhouse, or offered berths on so-called “coffin ships” across the Atlantic.

John O’Hara, a former “tunnel tiger” among Arranmore’s many migrant construction workers, recalls that his father, and the previous generation, never talked about the Famine; the subject was far too painful to discuss. Over a century-and-a-half later, he and his fellow islanders intend to pay tribute to the Society of Friends for that vital relief. It was Nora Flanagan, nurse and lifeboat press officer, who contacted the Quakers – about 1,500-strong in Ireland now – and Christopher Moriarty, author, fisheries biologist and curator of the Society of Friends archives, agreed to attend.

The cauldron has been moved to the island’s cultural centre for tomorrow’s event. A plaque has been commissioned to “The Society of Friends; they were our friends when friends were few and far between”.

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