Kerry's ancestor helped establish White House support for Ireland

Fri, Jan 25, 2013, 00:00

John Forbes Kerry does not have a drop of Irish blood in his veins. Yet he has a strong connection with Ireland courtesy of the actions of one of his forefathers who was responsible for organising substantial Famine relief during the great hunger of the 1840s. His actions helped establish Congressional and White House support for Irish initiatives.

Kerry is often mistaken as an Irish-American because of his surname and his Catholicism. However, he is a direct descendant on his mother’s side of Capt Robert Forbes and his brother John Murray Forbes, who helped circumvent prohibitions on the use of federal funds for Famine aid.

The then president, James Knox Polk, who was of Scots-Irish origin, recorded at the time that while he had every sympathy for the starving Irish, he had no freedom to award public monies towards Famine relief.

Between them, the Forbes brothers got the loan of the US naval sloop, the Jamestown, to transport food aid gathered from the significant Irish community in Boston for Famine relief in Cork and Kerry.

A second navy vessel, the Macedonian, was also later freed for use as a Famine relief ship by the US Congress.

The relief effort begun by Forbes marked the first act of international humanitarian assistance to be made by the US – an act that set the precedent for US foreign policy ever since.

There was further political significance in the move, as the initiative also marked the first time that matters pertaining to Ireland were discussed at cabinet level in Washington.

Port charges waived

Details of the venture are to be published in new research into the Great Famine and its international effects by Dr Francis Costello, a US-born historian and business consultant now based in Belfast.

Dr Costello, who has already published acclaimed research into the Irish revolution from 1916-23, claims that the Forbes brothers were able to enlist the support of their network of shipping contacts in London to gain permission for the Jamestown’s cargo to be placed in British government warehouses in Cork, and to have any port charges waived for the return voyage.

Capt Forbes chose four officers for the voyage. Each was an experienced captain in his own right. For the crew, Forbes placed notices in local newspapers and sought out experienced able-bodied seamen from ports throughout Massachusetts.

Many of these towns paid the wages of those who went on the voyage.

The Jamestown set out for Cork in March 1847 carrying 400 barrels of pork, 100 tierces of ham, 655 barrels of cornmeal, 7,375 barrels of bread, 353 barrels of beans, and 83 barrels of peas.

Some 800 tonnes of relief provided by Capt Forbes and his Boston Committee was divided over some 160 localities in allotments of five tonnes each.

The arrival of the Jamestown and, soon after, the Macedonian, marked an end to the British requirement that ships carrying such humanitarian foodstuffs had to be transferred to British ports before the cargoes could be unloaded.

Relief vessels could now go directly to Irish ports.

The two ships showed the way for more than 100 other vessels from the US which would carry some 20,000 tonnes of provisions, to a total value of £280,000.

Today that would represent a value of about $30 million.

‘Pestilence itself’

According to Dr Costello, Capt Forbes provided his own first-hand account of what he witnessed in Cork, where he had to avoid being crushed to death by a throng of desperate people seeking his assistance.

“I went with Fr Matthew, only a few steps out of one of the principle streets . . . into the Valley of the shadow of death?. . . It was the valley of death and pestilence itself.

“I would gladly forget it if I could the scenes that I witnessed. In two hours’ walk I saw more actual distress and poverty than I ever saw in my whole life, not excepting during a residence of years in China.”

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