Souperism and Skibbereen
Although the idea of soup kitchens was a good one, its success depended on good quality food and made from decent raw materials. However, many of the relief committees went for quantity instead of quality, and they provided soup with very little food value in it. In some places the soup was far too liquid, leading to diarrhoea and an outbreak of scurvy caused by a lack of vitamins. In fact, filling famine-bloated bodies with watery soup did more harm than good.
There was, however, one basic flaw in the Soup Kitchen Act, which also proved to be a problem in the later Outdoor Relief System. The flaw lay in the fact that the money to cover both these projects was supposed to come from local ratepayers and not from the government. But, by this stage of the famine, it was almost impossible to collect rates anywhere in Ireland, and the local committees and Poor Law Unions began running up huge debts. It was recognised by all that the rates needed to fund this new system would have to have been at least ten times larger than anything collected before. Unfortunately, however, soldiers and police had already been used to collect the Poor Rate in parts of Galway and Mayo. Nevertheless, it was estimated that each shilling of rates gathered had cost one pound to collect it.
It was a deplorable fact that the Poor Rates fell most heavily on those areas where distress was most severe. Furthermore, since 1843, the landlords had been liable for paying all rates on property valued at under £4, the tenant being exempt. But, in these dark times, legislation provided an incentive to evict a tenant and pull down his cabin as a means of reducing the burden of Poor Rates upon him. Even under such circumstances, however, the local unions were still expected to collect rates to the utmost of their ability. To assist them in this effort, the rate collectors had been provided by the Government with considerable powers. They could seize the property and goods of a landlord to obtain payment for the rate money they had neglected to pay. Meanwhile, to ensure that the local effort was not undermined, the Treasury deliberately kept its financial contribution to a minimum and refused to release funds until they were convinced that starvation was the alternative left. Consequently, the finances of the poorest unions remained precarious and the relief provided was both piece-meal and sparse.
The small farmers were mostly destitute, and rent arrears grew higher and higher. In many cases the burden of rates encouraged farmers to leave their land and emigrate to pastures new in other lands. Even some of the great landlords could not pay what they owed in rates and, consequently, many Unions became bankrupt. The provision of ‘Outdoor Relief’ was more expensive than keeping people in the workhouse, so there were constant efforts to keep the lists seeking such relief small. In many cases this simply meant names being crossed off the list for the thinnest of reasons. In an article written in ‘THE NATION’ newspaper it was reported – “Here as elsewhere, the people are exported in numbers. The eflux is ceaseless. The consolidation of farms is rapidly going on, and the aristocratic wish fulfilled to the letter.
But where a family sell a small farm, two or three helpless members remain behind. Some are too old to tempt fate, and the waters, and the wilderness – some wish to lay their bones in their native earth – some are sick-stricken – some timid, some pious, some utterly unable – but in every case two or three remain behind.”
It was all very well for Lord John Russell to rise in the House and say that the landlords must be compelled to pay, but what if there were no landlords available to pay? There were, by now, large, impoverished districts all over Ireland with no landed proprietor. One Irish nationalist newspaper stated quite clearly within its pages, “The Government cannot this time save them. But, if they cannot secure profit to the merchant, they have by anticipation excluded the Irish pauper from the advantage of foreign care as far as it has affected the market. To him the change has brought no alteration but for the worse. It is as if the light and life of spring burst around him and his heart, by some relentless fate was kept locked in gloom and ice.
Heretofore, as I showed, each person had one and one-third pound of Indian meal per day; or rather, by an almost utter denial to himself of most other necessaries, he could secure this quantity, with the means of cooking it.
Now he is allowed by the relief committee, under the recent act, one pound. He has no means whatever to purchase fuel, none to light him, none to clothe; one pound of raw meal, be it dear or cheap, cost it threepence or a farthing, is his fated allowance. Then to conceive the struggle, there is to obtain it, the label of beggary, the hazard of a short supply, the weakness of the applicant to jostle his way in such a jarring medley, and the certain end of failure, with no earthly alternative left – this is a thing of which I can give no idea – a complication of wretchedness, confusion, and degradation, before which the mind sinks in dumb and helpless sorrow.”
Perhaps the most controversial section of the ‘Extension Act’ was the ‘Quarter Acre’ or “The Gregory Clause”, which stipulated that a person who occupied more than a quarter of an acre of land could not receive relief either inside or outside the workhouse. ‘The Quarter Acre Clause’, however, was only one factor in a package of fiscal measures which accompanied the transfer to Poor Law Relief, which were punitive both to indebted landlords and small-holders alike. There is little doubt that the substantial rise in evictions after 1847 can be largely attributed to its introduction. There were reports, however, that said some destitute small holders had chosen to starve themselves and their families to death, rather than give up their land. Nevertheless, the increase in evictions was welcomed by several members of the government who had become convinced that a draconian adherence to the provisions of the Poor Act was necessary if Ireland was to emerge from the Famine socially and economically stronger.
The numbers in receipt of Poor Law relief, meanwhile, rose steadily after autumn 1847. This increase was helped by an expansion in temporary workhouse accommodation and the decision to increase the number of unions from 130 to 163. Although the treasury had hoped that all external financial assistance to the unions would end after the autumn of 1847, this was to prove impossible. The Outdoor Relief System now began to operate, as the soup kitchens closed, one after another. It was laid down, in the new Poor Law Act, that non-able-bodied poor could be given relief either in the workhouse or outside it, namely in their homes. It was left to ‘The Boards of Guardians’ to decide who would qualify. The able-bodied poor, meaning those who were still able to work, could also be relieved if they were unemployed and destitute, but only inside the workhouse. Only if the workhouse was full, or was infected with fever, could the able-bodied poor be granted relief outside, although only for two months, if they agreed to hard labour. This usually involved them breaking stones for ten hours per day before they would receive their portion. This was later lowered to eight hours, but it made little difference because stone-breaking was the work most hated by the poor and many kept away to avoid it.
Yet another way of restricting the numbers seeking Outdoor Relief was to insist on the paupers attending the workhouse every single day, to collect the cooked food offered. But, the Boards of Guardians often delegated the food distribution to meal contractors or shopkeepers, and this meant that there were far fewer points for distribution than there had been in the days of the soup kitchens. People had to walk several miles to the nearest point, and sometimes the food would have spoiled by the time they got home to their families. Eventually the fact was faced that cooked food caused more problems than it solved, and the authorities began to distribute uncooked food again, although the poor had neither the knowledge or the fuel to cook it properly. This and a combination of poor health and bad weather, helped to keep down the numbers who claimed their food.
Without doubt, the relief authorities made various improvement to the workhouse system, such as building separate hospitals, expanding the space for accommodation, and freely giving Outdoor Relief even to the able-bodied poor. The local Boards of Guardians tried to restrict relief as much as possible, as they knew there would not be enough money to cover all the demands. The poor, however, hated the workhouse system, and feared the fevers that were now spreading fast, so as many as possible applied for Outdoor Relief.
Then, as the grip of the famine intensified, more and more ratepayers defaulted and, as a result, many unions became bankrupt. Cheques were dishonoured, and contractors refused to supply food, causing diets to deteriorate still further. Quite quickly the effects of severely curtailed rations soon became evident in the physical appearance of the paupers and by the end of 1847 chaos reigned in many workhouses. The Ballinrobe workhouse became the subject of much correspondence among commissioners. There were reports that there was no food in its kitchen and no meals were eaten in the dining hall. Instead, paupers got their food rations raw in the morning and cooked them in numerous locations throughout the building. For some the diets in the workhouse had become so bad that inmates committed crimes to get transferred to the relatively better conditions of the gaols. Reporting on the Cork workhouse, Dr. Stephens, said that he had found 150 boys in one ward, sharing 24 beds. The week before his visit, 60 children aged under thirteen had died in this workhouse. In his opinion even if the workhouse had been good enough, most of the children arriving were already so weak and ill that hardly anything could be done for them. Meanwhile, in Limerick, a visitor wrote, “I never saw one solitary instance of any one attempt to cheer these little ones, in any one of the very many ways in which we know children, sick and dying, can be cheered.” He said that he was appalled by their lack of movement, “in the very act of death still not a tear nor a cry. I have scarcely ever seen one try to change his or her position … Two, three or four in a bed, there they lie and die, if suffering ever silent, unmoved.”
Many of these deaths were due to fevers rather than starvation. In fact, fever was endemic in pre-Famine Ireland and flared up periodically into nationwide epidemics. There was widespread awareness of the contagiousness of the disease and its ability to leap class and social barriers. Characteristically the fever began among the poor and spread to their social superiors, among whom it proved to be much more lethal. The disease impinged on rural and urban dwellers, and affected cities, towns and villages as well as the isolated cabins of the cottiers and agricultural labourers. Fever had a devastating impact on the already precarious existence of the poor. Each attack, with the weakness it left behind, lasted about six weeks and, with successive family members being struck down, fever might persist in a poor man’s cabin for months on end and, thus, it had a major pauperising influence, often reducing the poor to absolute penury.
Earlier, in March 1847, a ship carrying fever-ridden emigrants was forced by bad weather to put into Belfast, and typhus fever swept through the city. Hordes of famine victims were already pouring into Belfast, seeking relief, and the epidemic reached its peak in July. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the fever epidemic reached its worst in June, and the victim count did not begin to decline until February 1848. The prevalence and perniciousness of fever in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the threat it posed to rich and poor alike provoked considerable debate on its causation and diffusion. While doctors differed over causation, there were some aspects of fever which were largely beyond dispute, such as the contagiousness of the disease, its tendency to appear at times of social upheaval or economic crisis, and its consequences. The humane and hospitable dispositions of the people of Ireland mainly contributed to introduce contagion into their dwellings.
The doctors blamed the outbreak of fever on hunger and its social consequences, on the almost tangible misery, distress and despondency which appeared to be everywhere. There was a complete disintegration of the social norms, the only reality being the desperate search for sustenance. Hygiene was neglected, clothing and bedding were pawned or left unchanged for months on end, and displaced families, who had abandoned their holdings, or been evicted, congregated together in vacant cabins throughout the country. The sick and dying clamoured for admission to the workhouses, while the jails and bridewells were filled to overflowing. Dirt, neglect and gross overcrowding generated fever, which was diffused in a variety of ways, by vagrancy, by the intermingling of the infected, the convalescent and the healthy at soup shops, food depots and public works. Even those who were barely able to crawl out of their makeshift beds were compelled by the direst necessity to report for work on the roads, where, according to one County Kilkenny doctor, they occupied themselves “in industrious idleness” and in infecting their susceptible work-mates. Wakes, funerals, weddings and patterns were condemned for the role they played in spreading fever. Soup kitchens attracted considerable ensure also. The promise of a free meal drew large numbers of the destitute and the hungry, many of them fever stricken, into cities and towns, and thus facilitated the transference of infected lice to new victims. Some medical practitioners believed that food depots, by relieving hunger, were instrumental in suppressing fever, others that they contributed to its dissemination by assembling large crowds of paupers. There was no such ambiguity regarding wakes. During the traditional mourning period, friends, namesakes and relatives assembled to pay homage to the memory of the deceased and to indulge in copious supplies of whisky, snuff and tobacco that were generally available on these occasions. It was part of the Irish tradition that even the lowliest in life should be so honoured in death. The survivors would have considered themselves eternally disgraced if the customary homage had not been paid to the memory of the deceased.
The frequent concurrence during famine of two distinct infections, typhus fever and relapsing fever. The epidemiology of the two disease is very similar. Typhus and relapsing fever propagate most actively in conditions which favour lice infestation, notably in the squalid and overcrowded residences of the poor. It was social dislocation and the disruption of normal living patterns caused by famine which transformed the nations endemic fever into destructive, terrorising epidemics. Epidemic fever in Ireland was usually preceded, accompanied or followed by certain other diseases, notably bacillary dysentery and smallpox. It is fact that relatively few died from actual starvation, the majority succumbing to diseases which were collectively described by one medical observer as “a sort of famine poison.” The great despoiling infections were typhus, typhoid and relapsing fever, dysentery and diarrhoea, severe measles, and smallpox of a ‘peculiarly malignant character, which according to the Board of Health, prevailed very extensively in 1849. Cholera, which affected Ireland pandemically in 1848-49, was not one of the fevers of the Great Famine. Its appearance was a coincidence, but it contributed to the overall distress and mortality. Among the poor, especially, dysentery and diarrhoea were the most frequent and most fatal complications of famine fever. According to Doctor Daniel Donovan of Skibbereen, County Cork, chronic dysentery, or ‘starvation dysentery’ as it was sometimes called, was almost universal among the destitute. He categorised this affliction as the most complicated and loathsome of diseases and one which was infinitely more lethal than cholera. Typhus Fever affected those in authority very badly, the middle-aged middle-classes. Because of the strain it put on the heart, older people were very vulnerable to it. Where forms of fever had always been endemic, many of the poor had formed an immunity to it during their youth, but doctors and medical officers, priests and clergymen, relieving officers and workhouse officials all took the fever, and many died. Seven doctors died in County Cavan in 1847, and forty-eight in the province of Munster. Of 473 medical officers appointed by the Board of Health, one out of every 13 died.
The term ‘Dysentery’ was formerly applied to any condition in which inflammation of the colon was associated with frequent passage of blood stools. Hence, its earlier designation, ‘The Bloody Flux’. The term is now restricted to amoebic dysentery, which is almost entirely confined to tropical and sub-tropical countries, and to Bacillary Dysentery, and infectious disease which may occur sporadically or in epidemics. The disease is caused by the dysentery bacillus and the infection is spread by flies, by direct contact, or by pollution of the water by faeces infected with the bacillus. Dysentery is rendered more virulent by famine and by the concurrence of other exhausting diseases, being strongly conditioned by nutritional status. At one time, mortality rates were as high as 50% during epidemics, with Ordinary Dysentery killing the children rather than the adults. This deadly infection was, at one time, attributed to the potato substitutes which the starving were compelled to eat, and to the pickings of the field, hedgerow, shoreline, and especially to the immoderate consumption of raw or partially cooked Indian meal by those individuals who had neither the knowledge, fuel or patience to prepare it properly.
Scurvy, causing teeth to drop out and joints to swell, had been almost unknown in pre-Famine Ireland, because is caused by lack of vitamin C, which is plentiful in potatoes. Now it affected thousands of people, often causing fatal haemorrhaging. The eye infection, Ophthalmia, also spread rapidly in the overcrowded workhouse conditions, and hundreds of children lost their sight, partially or totally.
‘Relapsing Fever’ was the prevalent disease among the poor and destitute, while the higher social classes tended to contract the deadly typhus fever. This was particularly true for those who were more exposed to infection, notably clergymen, doctors, members of relief committees and those with the administration of the Poor Law. A distinctive feature of famine feature fever, one on which several doctors commented was the peculiar smell which clung to the clothes and bodies of the poor. A County Clare physician observed that the ‘sooty and peat-smoke odour of former times’ had given way to a more offensive, sickening and readily recognisable one. This emanation was described by a doctor in West Cork as “a cadaverous suffocating odour”, a ‘peculiar mousy smell’, which was ‘always the forerunner of death.’ He stated, “As I entered the house the stench that proceeded from it was dreadful and noisome; but oh! What scenes presented themselves to my view as I proceeded through the wards and passages: patients lying on straw, naked and in their excrements, alight covering over them – in two beds living beings beside the dead, in the same bed with them and dead since the night before. There was no medicine – no drink – no fire.”
Meanwhile, Smallpox, the third of the epidemic triumvirate, which had ravaged Ireland for generations, was so virulent that it spreads independently of nutrition, As with fever, it was the social consequences of famine, especially the increase in vagrancy, which provided the ideal conditions for the propagation and diffusion of this highly infectious disease, one which killed, disfigured, blinded and terrorised countless thousands in Ireland and elsewhere in pre-modern and modern times.
In 1846, very soon after Famine had been declared, a Central Board of Health had been set up, to run hospitals and dispensaries. But it was soon closed, because there was very little sickness or fever to treat at that time, only starvation. As a result, when typhus began to spread, there were only 28 hospitals in Ireland, and none in the more remote areas of the country. At the same time, there were about 500 out-patient dispensaries, but again these were few and far between. Even so, more money had been spent on hospitals in Ireland than in Britain, and every county had an infirmary. Medical care, in the mid-nineteenth century, was mainly preventive with infected clothes being baked to kill the fever, and infected areas fumigated with sulphuric acid. Widespread reports of fever began to come in to the Relief Commissioners in early 1847. These told of people dying quickly, in frightful numbers, and typhus was spreading like wildfire. The Central Board was rapidly reappointed to deal with this new emergency, and quickly discovered that the Workhouse Hospitals were far too small to deal with the numbers pouring in. Almost every inmate was now suffering with some form of illness, but there was not enough space to keep the sick away from those who were well. Temporary wooden fever wards, called ‘Fever Sheds’, were erected in some places, but many of the workhouses did not have the money to take such measures. Finally, the Government had to accept the fact that there was an epidemic, and rapidly brought in the ‘Irish Fever Act’ of April 1847. This Act now placed the responsibility for providing health care on the relief committees, instead of on the overburdened and debt-ridden Boards of Guardians. The Relief Committees could overrule the Guardians and do whatever was necessary for fever patients, without having to obey the Poor Law rules. The costs, they were assured, would be met by the government.
Very quickly the people began to learn about infection and how it could be controlled. Almost overnight the age-old hospitality for which the Irish were renowned disappeared. Strangers were avoided, and if even one member of a family became infected, the whole family was left alone by neighbours and friends. Fever, it was discovered, was often caught through contact with the dead because, after death, the lice would leave the cooling body and transfer themselves to anyone who was nearby. The people now became afraid to bury the dead, and instead the cabins were often pulled down and burned over the corpses inside. It also became almost impossible to increase the size of burial- grounds available, because, the living feared having those who died of fever buried near them. Workhouse yards now became burial grounds and bodies of the dead were buried in huge pits, in batches.
At this stage we should, perhaps, look at events in Skibbereen during this period. The rapid spread of the strange potato disease in the summer and autumn of 1845 caused great concern in west Cork, and Skibbereen had always been a great potato-growing district in that area. In fact, it was said of Skibbereen, that the ground was so fertile there was always a superabundance of potatoes grown. But, it also meant that when the potato crop failed the labourers went hungry and, when this disease struck the potato crop again 1846 it was no surprise that the labourers found themselves starving. By 1847 the labourers’ main hope, like those of others throughout Ireland, became employment on the roads being created by the Board of Works, while the chief refuge for the destitute became the workhouse.
The condition of the people around Skibbereen became so bad that the Chief of the Relief Commission in Dublin, Randolf Routh, sent Commissary Inglis from Limerick to help organise the relief programme, and as a result two more soup-kitchens were set up.
The New Year of 1847, in all of County Cork, its title as the “Black ’47”. In the meantime, ‘The Skibbereen Board of Guardians’ had announced that it had decided close the workhouse. Deaths from 10th November to the 7th January numbered 266, while for some period previously they had only been 10. The workhouse itself was filled to breaking-point. Originally the house had been built to accommodate 800 inmates, but now there were 1169, 332 of whom were in fever. There were 121 patients in forty beds, and ‘The Union’ was deeply in debt. The rates could not be collected as the land was deserted and the tenants destitute or dead or in the workhouse itself.
By early February the Skibbereen Soup Committee was bitterly complaining that the local relief committees could not obtain sufficient provisions from Col. Hughes’ stores in Skibbereen. The committee applied for ten tons of Indian meal, but they could only obtain only two tons. The price had increased from £18 to £19, but official records, however, revealed that there were 2,385 tons of meal still in the store. This was evidence of a policy of hoarding and it was Trevelyan’s stated policy that the ‘resources’ of the country should be ‘drawn out.’ As the famine grew worse in February, Trevelyan continued to say that ‘food could not be found.’ But, there were reports from several people that they had between 100 to 200 tons of meal, which he had difficulty in disposing of. The difficulty was said to be caused by the Skibbereen Relief Committee, which was selling meal indiscriminately for as little as two shilling and two pence a stone. The people with the meal believed that if the government bought it, they would save ‘the freight for shipping it to another market.’ Nevertheless, it is a prime example of how the British Government’s laissez-faire approach actually worked out in severe famine conditions. The provisions that were available were not adequate and were at inflated famine prices, especially when a road worker was only capable of earning eight pence a day. Moreover, whatever provisions were available were not all actually distributed. The records of the time show clearly that at the end of February 230 tons Indian meal had been issued, but that 410 tons were still in storage.
It was at this time that the newly appointed Chairman of the Relief Commission in Dublin, John Burgoyne, requested some extra aid for Schull. Trevelyan agreed that relief could be carried out, but only to a limited extent. Subsequently he reluctantly told Burgoyne, “Let us save as many as we can.” To further show the Government’s attitude at this time, a Treasury minute that was dated 23rd February 1847 recognised ‘the dreadful state of destitution in the parishes of Schull and Caheragh’ and merely recommended that the local relief committees should do more for that district. The entire Skibbereen district was now fast becoming a byword for famine and, during the week ending 27th March, there were 106 deaths among the 1,170 inmates in the workhouse. The mortality rate in the Skibbereen house was clearly the highest in the country with 106 deaths in a week when there had been only two the previous year. The conditions existing in the poorhouse only reflected the state of the Union in general, and ‘The Skibbereen Soup Committee’ admitted that the farmers, ‘fearful for the condition of their own families were in no position to minister to the wants of others. As spring moved on and the weather grew warmer, fever spread more rapidly and caused fever hospitals or sheds to be set up. Meanwhile, the Soup-Kitchen Act was sufficiently introduced by an inspector named Marshall in May, and the road works were gradually closed. By June, however, the famine and fever were at last under control and, by September, famine mortality in the area was greatly reduced, and the Soup-Kitchen Act phased out. Nevertheless, in Skibbereen workhouse there were 2,981 inmates from a population of the town amounting to only 3,834.
In the Autumn of 1847 the people of Ballydehob feared that the coming winter would be like the previous winter, and they appealed to Lord John Russell for aid. He told them bluntly that, “The owners of property in Ireland should feel the obligations of supporting the poor … It is not just to expect the working classes of Great Britain should permanently support the burden of Irish pauperism.” From such statements it was clear that the government would not give very much more aid, which meant that the rates on Irish property would have to increase. By December 1847 those rates had risen to three shillings for each division and since the landlord had to pay the rates on holdings under £4 it would be in his interest to evict their occupiers if they would not pay the rent. In response a ‘Tenant Protective Society’ was formed in Skibbereen at the end of 1847, and quite quickly remarks were heard about cattle being driven to the pound and their owners to the poor-house. Such poverty being expressed by landowners inevitably put pressure on property, some of it being already heavily encumbered.