Interest from US in 'unparalleled collection'


FAMINE LETTERS:AN AUCTION this week of some 2,000 letters relating to the Famine has generated very strong interest, particularly from the US, according to Adam’s auctioneers, which is handling the sale.

There have been several calls on the State to buy the letters so that they do not leave the country.

The sale includes letters from landlords agents and sublandlords all over the country, concerning the collection of rent. There are letters from clergymen asking for charity for those who could not write themselves and from tenants asking for relief and mercy. Adam’s has described it as an “unparalleled collection”.

Its director Stuart Cole said the letters came from a private collector who wished to remain anonymous. They were found in the archives of a firm of Dublin solicitors, Stewart and Kincaid, who acted as landlords’ agents on a large scale. It acted for landlords such as Lord Palmerston and Col Wingfield in Sligo, Daniel Ferrall in Roscommon, the Marquess of Westmeath, also in Roscommon, the Stratford estate in Clare and Limerick and the Frankfort estates in Kilkenny and Carlow.

Mr Cole said it was poignant to read the letters written in the mid 1840s when people had no idea of what still lay ahead.

An 1848 letter from Kilkenny acknowledged the receipt of money to buy seeds but said: “I must for that pound buy food for my family consisting of seven. I mean to let you know gentlemen my son daughter had to forfeit their cloths to get food some days ago . . . My son can be of no assistance to me at present as there is no employment or no earning in the country, nothing but starvation and distress.”

Another 1848 letter from London, from Col Wingfield of the Wingfield estate in Sligo discussed a project to widen the Moy river. “ . . . I think obtaining a grant for such a purpose would be the means of bringing back the idle population which I paid so much to get rid of by transporting to America the year before last,” the landlord wrote.

An 1842 letter from John Blackwell in Toureen, Co Clare advises that “Thomas Riedy of Toureen has his mind made up to remove to Vandiemensland [sic] with his family ten in number, himself wife eight children . . . he has no means neither to pay the arrear or go away.”

In 1845, Mr Blackwell, wrote that distemper was all over the potato crop in Toureen. “A neighbour of mine brought 9 men with him last week to dig conacre in the west part of this parish [when] they came back home there was not a potato in what they dug but was infected . . . I travelled through the Estate according to your direction to take a view of the Potato crop which is dreadful to be looked at . . . I walked from garden to garden through the Estate indeed it was a melancholy view.”

The auction will also include works of art inspired by the Famine by sculptors such as John Behan, Rowan Gillespie and Eamonn O’Doherty. Adam’s expects the sale to generate between €300,000 and €400,000.

The sale of the letters was raised in the Seanad last Tuesday by Senator David Norris, who said the Government should purchase “at least some of them”.

He referred to a letter in The Irish Times on that day from Sabina Purcell, drawing attention to the sale. Ms Purcell wrote that her Mayo great grandparents were lucky to survive the Famine. “I consider these letters should be donated to the State. They are of huge interest and it’s a new low when letters of this poignancy telling a tale of death, loss and starvation are put up for sale.”

She said she had received a strong response to her letter and had also written to Government Ministers to highlight the sale.

Asked if the State was interested in obtaining some of the collection, a spokeswoman for the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport said it was not the practice of the department, or of the National Archives to disclose in advance whether it had an interest in acquiring or not acquiring any item or collection that came on the market. This view was echoed by the National Museum of Ireland’s head of collections Raghnall O’ Floinn.

The auction will be held tomorrow at 5pm at the James Adam’s Salerooms, St Stephen’s Green. The letters can be viewed in the catalogue on