Grim start to new year of hunger

 

January 1st, 1847: A grim beginning to this year of death.

Nicholas Cummins, a Cork magistrate, sets out for Skibbereen with as much bread as five men can carry. He is surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently empty. He enters some of the hovels to ascertain the cause.

"In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about naked about the knees.

"I approached with horror and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.

In a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever."

Their demoniac yells are still ringing in his ears, Mr Cummins writes in a letter addressed to the Duke of Wellington and published in the London Times. "In another case, my clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around. When my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman - with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins - the sole covering of herself and baby."

That morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands and two corpses were found, half devoured by rats. "A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a girl about 12, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house, within 500 yards of the cavalry station, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse."

Sir Randolph Routh blames the landlords. The proprietors of the Skibbereen district, he tells Charles Trevclyan, draw an annual income of £50,000.

One of the reasons why the British government does not feel bound to send food to Skibbereen is that there are ample provisions there already. On Saturday the market was supplied with meat, bread and fish. This contradiction is occurring all over Ireland. Trevclyan insists the resources of the country should be drawn out, failing to realise that those resources are utterly inaccessible to the wretches dying in the streets and by the roadsides.

The starving in such places as Skibbereen perish not because there is no food but because they have no money with which to buy it. But it is the payment of rents which separates the people from food in the first instance.

The British Association for the Relief of the Extreme Distress in the Remote Parishes of Ireland and Scotland is formed.