Disturbing Remains: A story of Black ’47

A doctor’s notes shed light on how Famine led to ‘moral degradation’ and murder in west Cork

It was, he thought, “as if the grave had that moment vomited her forth”. It was Friday, January 22nd, 1847, cold and wet, with a gale rising. Her married name was Keating. She was from Letter, two miles outside Skibbereen. And she had “crawled” those two miles to the house of Daniel Donovan, a 39-year-old dispensary doctor, on North Street. She was suffering from “malignant fever” and “emaciated to the utmost degree”, and Donovan, though a compassionate man, was afraid that she would infect his own young family. He handed her a shilling and told her to leave his door.

“I don’t want this,” she said of the doctor’s shilling; “But I want to get my boy buried; he is dead these 11 days, he died two days after his father; I got the sickness myself; my two children are dying; no person will go to give them or me a drink of the cold water, and I got up in the fever today and put the corpse in a ditch, and I came to you to get it put in the grave, that the dogs may not eat it.”

That evening, Donovan and Jerry Crowley, the town apothecary, went out to Letter. The “scene of misery” appalled them.

The mud floor of the hovel was one mass of filth, the rain pouring down freely through the rotten thatch; on the ground, which was a perfect cloaca [sewer], lay two children upon whose bodies the anatomy of the bones could be studied as perfectly as on a dried skeleton; and in the ditch in front of the door was a coffin, containing the putrid body of a dead boy of seven years old.


Donovan asked the woman how she had procured the coffin. She told him that it was the shilling that he had given her to buy food that paid for it. Neither she nor her other two children, she said, “cared about the victuals now, as they forgot the taste of them”.

Donovan and Crowley began to dig a grave in the corner of a “kitchen garden”, a vegetable patch. None of the woman’s neighbours came near them. And so alone they finished the grave, “or rather the hole”, as Crowley phrased it, and there they buried the seven-year-old boy who had been 11 days dead in that hovel with his mother and siblings.

It was 11 o’clock that night when they got back to Skibbereen. Four days later, on Tuesday January 26th, Donovan was going up High Street to attend a family in fever. Someone caught him by the coat, and turning around he recognised the Widow Keating. She had come into town to bury her daughter, Mary, who had died the previous morning. But she had something else on her mind.

“Doctor,” she said, “Won’t you send for my boy? The pigs got into the field where you put him, and I fear they will root the grave, and as no Christian would come near me, I brought in little Mary myself to lay her alongside of her father in the Chapel-yard.”

Donovan hired two men to remove the coffined corpse of the seven-year-old from the garden and reinter it in consecrated ground. However, on going out to Letter, they found that the body of the boy, then over two weeks dead, was “in such an advanced state of decomposition as not to admit of its being raised by them”. The next day, the Widow Keating herself exhumed the putrid corpse, brought it into Skibbereen, and buried it with the remains of her husband and daughter.

Seven days later, on Tuesday February 2nd, the widow again met Donovan in the street and “accosted” him with “a demand for another coffin for the last of her children and family, who was then lying dead”. She perceived a certain hesitation on his part – he had already purchased coffins for two of her children, and contributed towards the burial of her husband. And so she implored him, “in the name of the great God, not to let her fine boy, that would be her help and support if he lived, be thrown into the grave like a dog”.

“There was something so impressive in the manner and so awe-inspiring in the death-like appearance of this spectre-looking woman,” wrote Donovan, now calling her Mrs Keating, “that I yielded to her entreaties; the coffin was purchased; she placed it on her head, and was about to leave the town when I again saw her. I remonstrated with this dying creature, who was during the whole of these melancholy scenes labouring under famine-fever, and pointed out the risk that would attend her undertaking such a task in her weakly state.”

But the Widow Keating disregarded his advice and walked home with the “heavy coffin” on her head. She reached her cabin door, fell to the ground before entering it, and died “a victim”, as Donovan put it, “to her fondness for her family, and reverential respect for their remains” (emphasis in original).

In Letter, Keating’s neighbours, dreading contagion, would not go near her body and so it lay outside her cabin door until the next day, when Donovan heard of her fate and sent a car for her remains and those of her son. He had the two of them laid with her husband, her daughter, Little Mary, and her other son, “to sleep in death with those whom she had so much loved in life”. And he promised himself that when he had time he would have a headstone raised to this “martyr to maternal duty”, this “humble heroine”, so that, “Her sad tale shall one speaking stone declare/From future eyes to draw a pitying tear”.

Daniel Donovan was to live another 30 years. It is not known if he ever raised that stone. Today, no monument can be found in Skibbereen to the Keatings of Letter – the father who died on January 9th, the mother who died on February 2nd, and their three children who died between those dates. Yet, through the doctor’s account, the Widow Keating’s determination, in extremis, to see her children buried with some semblance of decency, her clutching at that which marks us out as human, survives the wreck of time. And so too does the doctor’s compassion. But no less conspicuous is the refusal of her neighbours to assist in the removal and interment of her dead.

That refusal shook Donovan as it did Crowley, who remarked on it in a letter to a friend in Cork. Yet it is difficult to judge those neighbours. Malignant typhoid fever, which extinguished that starving family, was highly contagious. Indeed, two leading physicians would later calculate that in the year 1847 alone, 131 Irish medical men succumbed to “epidemic and contagious disease”, with the vast majority (123) dying of fever. It is an extraordinary toll in a single year of a more protracted crisis on a profession that numbered some 2,600 male practitioners, and it is all the more extraordinary as it excludes women working as matrons and nurses. Donovan himself later remarked, of west Cork, “that almost every person actively engaged in the administration of relief to the poor was attacked with fever”.

And so the neighbours’ refusal of assistance to the Widow Keating (the refusal even to dig a hole) – like Donovan’s initial concern that his family might contract fever from her – can be explained. Moreover, many (although not necessarily all) of those neighbours were doubtless also in a dire condition. In 1851, the population of Letter was 106 people – 60 males and 46 females – exactly half of what it had been in 1841 (212). And there was then exactly half the number of inhabited houses – 17, where, a decade earlier, there had been 34. And much of this winnowing of men, women, and children – by death, migration, and committal to the poorhouse – would have taken place in the three months before and four or five months after January 1847, when Daniel Donovan found the Widow Keating, as if the grave had vomited her, at his door.

Refusal to assist somebody in distress seems only slightly less grievous than deliberately inflicting harm on a person. And in the years of the Famine, poor people did inflict harm on people similarly circumstanced to themselves, often by stealing small supplies of food: houses and hovels were burgled, hungry people were waylaid coming home from shops and soup kitchens, and bread was snatched from the hands of the starving. Indeed, people murdered for food.

One horrific incident outside Rosscarbery, in west Cork, in spring 1847 came to Donovan’s attention. Men employed on the public works used to go to nearby houses to boil their breakfasts. On the morning ofMarch 4 th, Denis Finn of Carhoogarriff and his 12-year-old son Johnny, took their breakfast in Corran, in the house of Judith Donoghue. She was living with three children – Johnny (14), Mary (6-7), and Jerry (4) – her husband having died on the first Tuesday in Lent, February 23rd; the Finns, who lived only about two miles away, had been breakfasting with her for nine or 10 days. After the Finns had left that morning, the widow took Johnny with her to get soup in exchange for turf from Rev Richard Hayes, the rector, at Ballyroe; the soup was not ready when they arrived and so she sent the boy home. There, he found Jerry dead face down near the door and Mary dead on her back in the corner near the fireplace. Their throats had been cut with the widow’s own knife, which was found under Mary’s “poll” (back of the head); Judith would later say that “her head had been cut off all to a little bit of the poll behind”, and Jerry’s throat cut from ear to ear. Missing was a small grey bag of oatmeal flour, that the widow had locked in a box with a cake of bread that she had made that morning; the box was now in pieces on the floor. Also missing was a pair of shoes belonging to the widow’s late husband.

Eight days later, Johnny Finn was arrested in the poorhouse in Skibbereen. Philip Somerville, a magistrate, with Constable Michael Jordan translating from the Irish, took a statement from the child, who spoke no English:

. . . the two children were there by themselves; that he found a knife in the house and with that knife he killed both children. That he took two quarts of flour that the little girl told him was in the house and the bag that it was in to his own house and that his family eat of it with him, but [he] did not tell where he got it; he further states that he killed the two children to get the flour, as he was hungry . . . he first killed the little girl and afterwards the little boy.

“He is a most wretched looking half-starved creature,” Somerville remarked when forwarding this confession to Dublin, “and what to do with him I am at a loss to know”.

Finn's first trial, in April 1848, collapsed when a juror took ill. That July he was acquitted of murder, his attorney having, inter alia, created a reasonable doubt as to whether the "emaciated" child, who he claimed had been only 10 in spring 1847, had the physical power to kill the Donoghues; he also strongly imputed the double murder to his father, Denis, who, that morning, had asked the widow "what she gave for the meal or did she bring much of it [from market]". The general impression in the court, according to the Evening Packet, was that the verdict was a proper one. But others entertained no doubts about Johnny Finn's capacity to kill. Before the case had even come to trial, Donovan had given his opinion of the boy:

“He subsequently was admitted into the Skibbereen Workhouse, and then frankly admitted his act to me; did not consider that he was guilty of any crime; did not think that he deserved or would suffer any penalty for it; the unfortunate being appeared so stolid and dull that I thought he must be a congenital idiot; but on making inquiry into his previous history, I ascertained that he was a boy of great cunning, and always regarded as an artful, designing knave.”

Within five years of the boy’s acquittal, there was no Finn householder in Carhoogarriff; unless she had remarried, the Widow Donoghue had no house of her own in Corran; and the daughter of Rev Richard Hayes, to whose house she had gone that fateful morning for soup, was dead from typhoid fever.

The “moral” consequences of hunger and disease troubled Donovan. “The most singular effect produced by the horrors of the famine now raging”, he wrote in January 1847, “is the severance of the ties of consanguinity which it has caused, and the destruction which it was induced of the ardent domestic affections that formed, perhaps, the strongest trait in the character of the Irish peasant.” He had been particularly struck by an incident in his dispensary:

“A woman named Driscoll came to get medicine for her husband, who was affected with road sickness; whilst I was prescribing for him, a woman, who entered the surgery, begged that I would give her something for a sick child; upon which the female first alluded to exclaimed, ‘Bad luck to them for children! I have five of them sick, and I would think myself lucky, if they were all dead before morning.’”

Donovan remonstrated with that woman for her “apparent cruelty”, but she persisted: “[T]his time 12 months [ago] I would as soon lose my heart’s blood as one of my children, but it is killing me now to see them starving and crying.” And a year later, reflecting on the storm of death that had raged through his district, Donovan was even more insistent on the moral consequences of famine:

“I have seen mothers snatch food from the hands of their starving children; known a son to engage in a fatal struggle with a father for a potato; and have seen parents look on the putrid bones of their offspring without evincing a symptom of sorrow. Such is the inevitable consequence of starvation; and it is unfair to attribute to inherent faults in our people the moral degradation to which they are at present reduced, and which is inseparable from a state of severe physical privation.”

There lies a brute reality of famine. It “reduces” people, pushes them below the waterline of what they had understood to be civilised behaviour. And so the Widow Keating of Letter answers Diogenes the Cynic, who asked why it mattered if corpses were tossed over the city wall to be devoured by birds and beasts. Until the day that she died at her own door, having borne home a coffin for her third and last child, that remarkable woman affirmed that the care which society accords its dead raises the living above the level of the dogs and pigs that would have devoured the bodies of her children. She, who is numbered among the Famine dead, died undefeated.


The republican leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa understood how famine reduces people. Decades after the Famine, he was a guest in Tom Curley’s hotel in Troy, New York. Curley was a native of Ballinasloe, Co Galway. The two men fell to talking of “the bad times”. Curley asked him if he ever “felt the hunger”.

“I told him I did not”, Rossa later wrote, “but that I had felt something that was worse than the hunger; that I felt it still; and that was the degradation into which want and hunger will reduce human nature.”

“I told him of that Sunday evening in Ross when I went home to my dinner, and my mother had no dinner for me; I told him how I had one penny piece in my pocket; I told him how I went out and bought for it a penny bun, and how I stole to the back of the house and thievishly ate that penny bun without sharing it with my mother and my sister and my brothers. I am proud of my life, one way or another; but that penny bun is a thorn in my side; a thorn in the pride of my life; it was only four ounces of bread – for bread was four pence a pound at the time – but if I ever feel any pride in myself, that little loaf comes before me to humble me; it also comes before me to strengthen me in the determination to destroy that tyranny that reduces my people to poverty and degradation, and makes them what it is not natural for them to be. I know it is not in my nature to be niggardly and selfish. I know that if I have money above my wants, I find more happiness and satisfaction in giving it to friends who want it than in keeping it. But that penny-bun affair clashes altogether against my own measurement of myself, and stands before me like a ghost whenever I would think of raising myself in my own estimation. I suppose it was the general terror and alarm of starvation that was around me at the time that paralysed my nature, and made me do what I am now ashamed to say I did.”

Rossa had been born in 1831 in Reenascreena, near Rosscarbery. A single townland – a few hundred yards – lay between his homeplace and Carhoogarriff, home to Johnny Finn, the boy who, when employed on the public works in March 1847, was alleged to have killed the Donoghue children for a bag of meal. That winter Rossa’s own father, Denis, had been working as a ganger on the public works, making a new road through Rowry Glen. However, he had taken ill, and the 15-year-old Rossa had been given his place; he was on the works on March 25th, when word came that he was wanted at home, and there he learned that his father had died. Shortly before his father’s death, Rossa’s mother, Nellie, had gone to her sister-in-law’s house to ask for help. There, she overheard that woman’s son-in-law say that “we [Rossa’s family] were so far in debt, and the children so young and helpless, that anything given us or spent on us to get us over the present difficulty would only be lost, lost forever; and that then we would not be over the difficulty.” Now, on Denis’s death, creditors came looking for their money, and there being no money, a man named Bill Ned obtained decrees against them. And in May 1847, Rossa saw their furniture removed from their house and auctioned on the street. A notice of eviction was then served on the family by the land agent, Garrett Barry.

“The agent”, he remembered, “was a cousin of ours, and he told my mother that it was better for her to give up the land quietly, and he would do all he could to help her.” Courtesy of Barry, the family remained on in another house in Reenascreena, until late 1848, when his brother (who an uncle had taken out to Philadelphia after the family’s eviction) paid the passage to America of his mother, brother, and sister.

Rossa himself was by then living in Skibbereen, working as clerk in a relative’s shop. The Keatings of Letter were all dead. But he got to know Crowley, the apothecary who had helped Donovan to bury the seven-year-old boy in the kitchen garden. It was in Crowley’s shop that, in 1856, Rossa established the Phoenix National and Literary Society, a group later absorbed by the Fenians. And when Crowley died in January 1857, Rossa composed a long epitaph that describes his coffin being carried to the Abbey churchyard:

… Skibbereen now mourns his spirit fled,

For Doctor Jerrie Crowley’s dead.

Each hill from Skea to Clashatarbh,

Cries out “Tá Dochtúir Jerrie marbh.”

… A hearse next day its presence showed

To take him to his last abode,

Brought forth amid an ullagone,

The public claimed him as their own,

And said no hearse should bear his weight,

From thence unto the Abbey gate …

Rossa also knew Donovan, the compassionate chronicler of Famine mortality and the social and "moral" collapse that attends it: Donovan's mother had been his family's landlord in Reenascreena. A "middle-tenant", holding land under Lord Carbery, it was she who had evicted Rossa's own widowed mother in summer 1847.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Breandán Mac Suibhne's 'Subjects Lacking Words? The Gray Zone of the Great Famine' (Quinnipiac University Press, 2017); an audio version, read by Stephen Rea, is available at www.fieldday.ie