The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland III

Burke and Hare

In 1828 a bizarre proposal appeared in a London Newspaper suggesting a means to alleviate the shortage of corpses for dissection:

Let the body of every Irish pauper, who comes to this country uninvited, and dies here, be given to the anatomical schools. The plan would relieve us in a great measure from the influx of Paddies, as they would much rather deposit their bodies at home, than give at all events, a few additional subjects to our anatomists.

burke_and_hare 2It shows the attitudes held by the English for the Irish, but it was only one of a number of solutions being put forward at this time to increase the number of human bodies that could be made available for dissection, including the first ‘Anatomy Bill’ (1829). In the meantime, however, for several years two Irishmen living in Edinburgh had begun working on their own solution to the problem in that city. The names of Burke and Hare are well known to history as resurrectionists who decided it was more profitable for them to cut out the ‘middleman’, including the undertaker, in their corpse supply chain to the medical professionals. At the height of their activities they were considered ‘resurrectionists’, but they had moved on to secretly providing freshly murdered corpses to their customers. These crimes were not detected until November 1828, after they had sold seventeen bodies to the anatomist Robert Knox, sixteen of which they had suffocated to death. Part of the trouble for Burke and Hare was the fact that in 1828 Knox’s anatomy school required the huge number of four hundred bodies for its students, and the Edinburgh authorities had, in the meantime, made great advances to prevent grave robbing, which had caused Knox to import more and more bodies from Ireland.

William Burke was a native of Urney, Co Tyrone, and his companion, William Hare, was said to have come from the parish of Newry in County Armagh and was some years younger than Burke. Any real information concerning Hare is scarce, especially when looking into his birth, his life in Ireland, or the circumstances which had brought him to Scotland. Even more mysterious is that any information we may have about what happened to him is unreliable and from unofficial sources. By the time they were caught Burke and Hare had already been in Scotland for about ten years and were initially employed on the construction of the Union Canal. It appears that the men had met in Edinburgh in the mid- 1820s and immediately formed a friendship.

burke_and_hare 4
William Burke’s Skeleton on Display

On Christmas Eve 1828 the trial of Burke and Hare began and, famously, the latter turned ‘King’s Evidence’ against Burke, who was found guilty the very next day. William Burke was publicly hanged on 28 January 1829, and duly dissected like many of those he had delivered up to the anatomy students. But such was the man’s fame that a procession of thousands, including seven women, filed past to view his corpse on display. In fact, Burke’s skeleton can still be viewed in the ‘Anatomy Museum of Edinburgh University’ and a book, allegedly made from William Burke’s skin’, is apparently held by the ‘Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’. William Hare’s wife, Margaret (née Laird), was released on 19 January and, taking their baby, went to Glasgow where she was mobbed, before she managed to board a steam ship going to Belfast. Subsequent court proceedings against Hare were unsuccessful and he was eventually released on 5 February 1829.

After being released from custody, a disguised William Hare was put on a coach for Dumfries, where, despite his disguise, he was soon recognized and forced to seek safety in a hotel by a large, shouting mob. He wanted to take the packet boat to Ireland that set sail from Portpatrick but was not permitted to board a coach to take him there. He was, however, given refuge in the town jail and, reluctantly leaving behind his cloak and bundle, was put on the road to England by the police who now washed their hands of him. Reports state that Hare was last seen about two miles beyond the border town of Carlisle’. The ‘Belfast Guardian’ reported that the mob had not beaten Hare while he was in Dumfries but suggested that wherever Hare went, he would carry the curses hatred of every human being.

‘The Northern Whig’at this time reported its belief that Hare would “take Belfast in the way of his return towards his native country” and would certainly to try to sail to Donaghadee. Stating – “A rumour having become prevalent in Donaghadee, … that Hare the murderer was on his was [sic] from Portpatrick to this town, the inhabitants flocked to the harbour to get a glimpse of the sanguinary ruffian. All were anxiety until the Steam Packet, in which Hare was said to have taken his passage, arrived. When she landed, the passengers were eyed attentively for a considerable time; at last, one was suspected, who is said to have the sullen mien of a murderer. He no sooner landed, than it was intimated to him that he was Hare; he replied that he was not Hare, but had been taken for him in Dumfries, where he had to fly from the fury of the populace. This was not satisfactory; and he had not proceeded many steps till he was in the centre of a circle, and the object of as much curiosity as the stranger with the long nose, in Strasbourg. At length, an acquaintance recognised, and asserted he was not Hare and the people quietly dispersed.”

On the 20 March 1829 the same newspaper that Hare had been arrested in Newcastle in England on suspicion of committing more murders. But there is no reliable information as to what happened to him, although there were rumours that he had returned to his family in Ireland. The truth of this rumour is said to have been demonstrated a few weeks later when Hare’s sister turned up in Dumfries to successfully recover his belongings.

Naturally the mystery surrounding Hare’s fate gave rise to many stories being told, including one that said he was blinded in a lime pit in Carlisle, or that he ended his days as a beggar on the Strand in London. There was one report from the ‘Northern Whig’ of 23 March 1829, less than seven weeks after Hare was released from jail, that told its readers:

burke_and_hare 5“On Friday evening last [20 March] , Hare the murderer called in a public-house in Scarva, accompanied by his wife and child, and having ordered a naggin of whiskey, he began to enquire for the welfare of every member of the family of the house, with well-affected solicitude.- However, as Hare is a native of this neighbourhood, he was very soon recognised, and ordered to leave the place immediately, with which he complied, after attempting to palliate his horrid crimes by describing them as having been the effects of intoxication. He took the road towards Loughbrickland, followed by a number of boys, yelling and threatening in such a manner as obliged him to take through the fields, with such speed that he soon disappeared, whilst his unfortunate wife remained on the road, imploring forgiveness, and denying, in the most solemn manner, any participation in the crimes of her wretched husband. They now reside at the house of an uncle of Hare’s, near Loughbrickland. Hare was born and bred about one half mile distant from Scarva, in the opposite County of Armagh; and shortly before his departure from this country, he lived in the service of Mr. Hall, the keeper of the eleventh lock, near Poyntzpass. He was chiefly engaged in driving the horses, which his master employed in hauling lighters on the Newry Canal. He was always remarkable for being of a ferocious and malignant disposition, an instance of which he gave in killing one of his master’s horses, which obliged him to fly to Scotland, where he perpetrated those unparalleled crimes that must always secure him a conspicuous place in the annals of murder.”

There are a number of issues raised in this report that have some truth in them e.g. Hare had been reunited with his wife and a ‘yellow-faced’ one-year-old child, of unknown gender, who is recorded as having suffered from whooping cough during the trial. The suggestion that Hare blames his crimes on the effects of alcohol, demonstrates the alcoholic’s talent for manipulating the truth. But the report states that Hare was born in Armagh, narrowing his place of birth down to two townlands in the parish of Ballymore. The Tithe Books of 1830 show that a John Hare did live in the townland of Monclone. At the same time, the report also states that a Mr Hall was the keeper of the eleventh lock on the Newry Canal and this is confirmed by the ‘Office of Public Works, Directors of Inland Navigation Records (1800-30)’. They establish that in 1801 a Walter Hall was keeper of the eleventh lock at the village of Poyntzpass, the residence only being demolished around 1980. Walter Hall died in January 1821 and was succeeded by Alexander Hall, probably a son, who was still held in the post when the canal was privatised in 1830.

There are reports that suggest that William Hare eventually died within the walls od the workhouse in Kilkeel, County Down. In the journal ‘The British Weekly’ of 14th July 1921 it was reported: “it is common knowledge in the little town of Kilkeel, Co. Down, that Hare died in the Union Workhouse there, and is buried in the grounds attached thereto. While there he made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide by cutting his throat and was then attended by the local doctor, who was a student at Edinburgh University at the time of the murders. This information was given to my father by the doctor himself. Some years ago there was, in the ‘Weekly Scotsman’ , a very graphic account of Hare’s adventures after his escape. There it was stated that Hare was a native of Carlingford, Co. Louth, which is only a short distance as the crow flies from Kilkeel, so it is easily understood that he would make for the district he knew on gaining his freedom. Kilkeel was for long an isolated town, so this may explain why these facts were not known long ago.”

The contents of this report have proved impossible to prove or disprove since the register of inmates for Kilkeel Union has not survived, and even if it had there is a case that Hare may well have used an alias. Moreover, if Hare had survived until 1864, his death may have been officially registered, but the question remains, ‘under what name?’ Besides, the extension of the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ to Ireland in 1838 brought with it a form of the English workhouse system, under which the workhouse managers could dispose of unclaimed bodies for dissection. Some would say that it would have been an ironic fate if William Hare did finish his days in the ‘Kilkeel Workhouse’ where, on his death, his body would have been given up for dissection.

There is an interesting footnote to the career of Burke and Hare that occurred in ‘The Belfast Guardian’ in March 1829. It was an observation made in a letter that chiefly concerned Burke, stating: “By his conduct the public mind has been excited, long gathering prejudices against anatomists have been increased and strengthened, and odium has been cast on the Medical profession inimical to the well-being of society. The excitation of public feeling thus occasioned, if rightly improved, however, instead of proving unfriendly or injurious to the Medical Profession should, and, we trust, ultimately tend to its advantage; yes, and to prevent, too, the recurrence of such tragic scenes of murder and exhumation as have lately so often disgraced the columns of the public prints, have ranked us lower than the very savage, and have caused the warm blood of humanity to flow back in the arteries and freeze in the heart, whilst it is thrilled with horror. For it should be the means of causing those whose province it is to devise and effect an anatomical reform, then Burke was a useful member of society.”

Although we have no clues as to the writer’s identity, the letter certainly came across as a statement of common sense at a time when most criticism was the result of hysterical, albeit totally justifiable, public outrage which had been aroused by the ‘Burke and Hare Scandal.’ The letter’s author strongly recommended the importance of the authorities having full control of the licensing of anatomy schools and their licensing to teach anatomy to the student doctors. However, any idea that the scandal had brought about the introduction of ‘The Anatomy Act 1832’ is wrong, although it may have contributed to it some small way.

burke_and_hare 3.jpgIn fact, six months prior to the crimes of Burke and Hare being made public, a select committee had been established to draft an ‘Anatomy Bill’, which was first introduced in 1828. It was, however, thrown out by the House of Lords in 1829 to make way for the ‘Reform Bill.’ But the growth in the copycat crime of ‘burking’ (called after William Burke and recalling his actions.) that caused the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ to be introduced to Parliament in 1831. In January that year there was a case of ‘burking’, which took place in Ballylesson, Co.Down in Northern Ireland. Subsequently, Charles and Agnes Clarke of Drumbo were tried for the murder of an ‘unknown person’ and Daniel M’Connell, whom they had entrapped with ‘the pretence of hospitality.’ Agnes Clarke then tried to sell M’Connell’s body to a surgeon at Antrim Infirmary who raised the alarm. Quite how she proposed to market a body with multiple hatchet wounds to the head is unclear, but she claimed that the death was the result of ‘a stone quarry falling’. Partly on the testimony of their own daughter, the couple were found guilty of M’Connell’s murder and hanged on 5 August. Their bodies remained hanging for a long time because they could not convince to give or hire a car for the removal of their bodies. Eventually, a few men were got to carry them on their shoulders’ to Down Infirmary, where their bodies were dissected.

There is evidence to suggest that at this time a ‘Burker’ dispatched his victims by offering them snuff laced with arsenic, while another grisly incidents of ‘burking’ happened in London, committed by John Head (alias Thomas Williams), John Bishop and James May. It was stated that they murdered their victims by first drugging them and then suspending them head-first down a well. Their killing spree had begun in the summer of 1830, but it was the murder of a fourteen-year-old Italian boy, Carlo Ferrari, which led to their arrest in November 1831. Carlo used to carry a revolving squirrel cage containing two white mice and a tortoise, and his death was considered particularly nasty because the boy’s teeth were removed using hardened steel awl, known as a bradawl. Bishop and Williams confessed to three murders, and the ‘Second Anatomy Bill’ was introduced in December 1831, just ten days after they were hanged. Parliament passed the Act in 1832 and came into force for the entire United Kingdom on 1st August.

From this point onward it was at the discretion of the ‘Secretary for Ireland’ to grant the licenses necessary to practice anatomy. The Act also made provision for an inspectorate to be established and the first ‘Inspector of Anatomy’ for Dublin was Sir James Murray, who had strong Belfast connections. Murray was to hold this important post for almost forty years and is known as the inventor milk of magnesia. He was also employed as the resident physician to the marquis of Angelsey, who sponsored him for a knighthood because of his services. The ‘resurrectionist’ trade was ended through this ‘Anatomy Act’ although the legislation itself was never perfect. Nevertheless, it was to remain in place until the inception of the ‘National Health Service in 1948’ and the introduction of the 1984 Anatomy Act. In Northern Ireland it was finally replaced by the ‘Anatomy (NI) Order of 1992’.

Finally, the rise of the anatomy schools and their ghastly relationship with the resurrectionists was a squalid affair and did nothing to improve the public perception of the ethics of the medical profession of the day and reflects the modern day’s growing international trade in organs for transplantation.

Dublin, the Irish capital, became an important centre for the export of bodies to other parts of the United Kingdom because of its thriving resurrection trade. Market forces and better transportation drove the traffic to new levels, which were detrimental to the supply of bodies to the local anatomy schools. Belfast and its hinterland, on the other hand, lacked a resurrection trade because there was no local, large scale anatomy school to create one. Dublin’s trade in bodies was carried out on an industrial scale while in Belfast it appeared the trade never amounted to much more than a cottage industry, but the true prevalence of resurrectionist activity in Ulster will never be known. From the frequency of contemporary newspaper reports, and even though the practice often went undetected, it is unlikely that the average annual total amounted to more than a few dozen. Indeed, even at its height in the late 1820s, it is probable that the total did not stray much into triple figures. This trade from Ulster seems to have been sustained by just a few individuals, sporadic visits by gangs of resurrectionists from Scotland and some opportunistic freelancers. The coming of regular steamships travelling the Belfast to Glasgow route from 1818 and the burgeoning demand in the Scottish medical schools did vastly improve the trade until the 1832 Anatomy Act finally put an end to it. It was, in fact, the act’s stifling of a free market, by legalizing the supply of bodies but not increasing it, which contributed to the decline in the trade, which coincided with an upsurge in the popularity and influence of the medical schools of Paris and Dublin.

The Darker Side of Life in Old Ireland II

Battling the Resurrectionists

To have a relative, no matter how distant, exhumed from their place of rest and taken away after death to be cut into pieces was as repugnant then as it would be today. Anyone who designated themselves to be Christian had a strong belief that the complete body of a person was needed to be reunited with the divine soul on the Final Day of Judgement and, as a result of this strong fundamental religious view, there was great popular opposition toward the dissection of human corpses because of the fear that victims will not be able to enjoy resurrection in the afterlife. This opposition was said to be particularly strong among the Irish population and elaborate steps were, therefore, taken to prevent the continued trade of the resurrectionists.

Mort Safe
Mort Safes

In many places lamp-standards, watch-houses, and corpse-houses were established as an attempt to deter the resurrectionists from robbing fresh graves. The strategy was simply to deter the grave robbers until decomposition made the corpse useless for dissection and medical experiment. The authorities were very much aware that the fresher the corpse was, the greater was its value to the surgeons and it was to the advantage of the grave robbers to exhume a body as soon as possible after its burial. Those assigned to watch these fresh graves were usually close relatives or friends of the departed person and, therefore, this ‘watch’ period coincided with the height of their mourning. The average duration of a ‘watch’ was usually two weeks, but in times of cold weather it was often necessary to stay a while longer. Those unable to maintain an around-the-clock watch of the grave would often place a flower, shell or other object on the freshly- dug grave, as a means of detecting if the earth had been disturbed by resurrectionists. The body snatchers, however, were always careful to replace such items.

In some areas a ‘watch’ of up to six weeks was common, while estimations showed that it could take a body two or three weeks to reach far-off destinations such as Edinburgh or London. As a result, those bodies would, on arrival in Edinburgh and London, more suitable for the grave than for the study of anatomy’. So, the nearer the source of the bodies to the anatomical study students, the more valuable the bodies became and any efforts to prevent grave robbing needed to be overcome. Violence against watchers was, as a result, not a rare event and there are records describing how watchers who fortified themselves with whiskey often woke up in the morning to find the body they were watching, and the whiskey, gone. Unfortunately, after the body had been taken all that could be done was to offer a reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

In some areas armed professional watchers would be hired to constantly patrol the burying ground with guard-dogs constantly by their side, a task for which they were paid a pittance. In quite a few places heavy stone slabs, mort safes and iron frames were put in place to ensure that the resurrectionists would be deterred from their tasks. These devices took too much effort to remove and helped to protect the coffins and their contents until decomposition of the body was well advanced. Other equipment employed by the burial grounds were ‘spring guns’ with trip wires and loose stones placed on the cemetery walls to render them harder to climb. Another strange device to be used was the ‘mort collar’, which was a loop of iron placed around the corpse’s neck and bolted from below through the base of the coffin. Such was the demand for devices like the ‘mort safes’ that many of them were mass produced in Scottish iron foundries, one of which was “Shotts Iron Company.” As early as 1818 a patent was obtained for a coffin that had been designed to prevent resurrectionists from stealing the body buried within. It was manufactured in metal and had contained special spring-loaded devices that would prevent opening and were accompanied by various other forms of reinforcement. It is hard for us today to imagine that such contraptions could have been produced for use by those who could afford them. But once the threat of grave robbers had passed, such underground devices would have simply been left in place, while those on the surface would be dismantled or recycled to rid burial grounds of memories from an unhappy era in history. Some people took such measures to the extreme, as explained by a report from one Scottish newspaper that stated the father of a dead child was in such fear of the resurrection men taking the body that he buried the body in a small box that also enclosed some other apparatus that included wires from the four corners going to the top of the coffin. Immediately before the body was lowered into the earth, a large quantity of gunpowder was poured into the box, and the hidden mechanism made ready for activation. It was believed that this machinery would cause the box to explode if anyone attempted to raise the body. It was said that the sexton appeared to fear an explosion, for he jumped back immediately after throwing in the first shovel of earth.

This paper has already mentioned just how the poorest people bore the brunt of the resurrectionist’s activity, while the wealthier people could protect their remains with better quality coffins. In fact, some of the leading anatomists of the day went to great pains to ensure they were buried in such a way that none of his former employees or students could resurrect him and make money from their bodies. A noted Dublin anatomist, Sir Philip Crampton, established a private dissecting room and lecture theatre at the rear of his house in the city in 1804. He was said to hold his lectures with open doors and gave anatomy demonstrations to the poor people, who, once he had gained their interest, would bring him bodies to dissect. In accordance with his last wishes Crampton was entombed in Roman cement. Unfortunately for him the cement specified was not truly ‘Roman’ but a less durable type patented by James Parker in 1796.

THE IRISH ANATOMY SCHOOLS

Past records show that by the time that Queen’s College, Dublin, was built in 1845 there had been six anatomy schools in Cork city, some of which had as many as ninety pupils. Keeping these places stocked with fresh bodies demonstrates that there was a plentiful supply being provided by the resurrectionists were active. One story told of this period relates how one grave robber had attempted to lift a body by tying a rope to it and passing it over the branch of a tree. But the rope slipped over the resurrectionist’s neck and the next morning he was found hanged from the tree branch.

Old Dublin Harbour
Dublin Quays

Meanwhile, in Dublin fifteen private medical schools were established between 1804 and 1832, brought about by an increasing interest in pathological anatomy, which had been imported from France in the early part of the nineteenth century. In the summer of 1816 “The Association of Members of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland” was established in Dublin. The thrust of the association being the improvement of Pathological science’ and, as elsewhere, the demand for bodies to meet the swelling ranks of anatomy students continued to grow. It was the inclusion of two key professors of anatomy that made Dublin the favourite centre for medical students during the 1820s and 1830s.

Abraham Colles, at the College of Surgeons, had an innovative way of teaching anatomy in that he pursued a topographical approach as opposed to a systematic one, namely not requiring students to dissect a system, e.g. blood vessels, one at a time, as previously required and which caused students to fail to grasp the interrelationships between systems. James Macartney meanwhile had built a fine reputation for himself in London before bringing his expertise to Trinity College. Macartney’s major contribution here was to encourage the voluntary bequest of bodies for dissection and the furtherance of medical science. With the increase in the number of anatomy students in Dublin the need for bodies to dissect had grown correspondingly, the major source of these being an area called ‘Bully’s Acre’, which was named for the large number of rowdies or ‘bullies’ that were buried there. It lay close to the Royal Hospital and there were so many people buried there because no charge was made for the graves, and Body snatching by resurrectionists and students was so rife there that quite often there was violence between the two groups.

Peter Harkan, a notorious resurrectionist engaged by the noted anatomist Sir Philip Crampton, was discovered there with some students by ‘watchers’ and forced to flee. The ‘watchers’ began to chase and while the students easily cleared the perimeter wall, the less agile Harkan got stuck, and the students began pulling him one way and the ‘watchers’ the opposite direction. Harkan, it is said, was never quite the same again after the experience with the ‘Watchers’. The rewards of the trade, however, were worth the setbacks when a corpse could be bought for a guinea in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and before the export traffic in bodies drove prices up.

In Belfast the first anatomy school was established at ‘The Academical Institution’ (‘Inst’) in 1818, when James Lawson Drummond was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology, which was an isolated medical professorship in the faculty of arts. At this time, it was common for students for ministry in the Presbyterian Church to obtain some medical knowledge alongside their studies in divinity and, when the classes began in 1819, they involved some anatomical demonstrations. The small number of dissections involved would have created only a modest demand for fresh corpses, but the Resurrectionists certainly very busy in Belfast and surrounding areas from the earliest years of the nineteenth century and this must have been nearly all due to supporting the export trade.

In Belfast, dissection was carried out as a matter of form since a large number of the doctors based there were trained in Edinburgh medical schools. In fact, records suggest that almost one-third of Edinburgh’s medical graduates during the last quarter of the eighteenth century came from among the Ulster-Scots tradition and were exposed to the Scottish emphasis on dissection. Among these was Samuel Black, a physician from Newry, whose book, “Clinical and Pathological Reports” was published in 1819 and describes eighteen dissections that he carried out between 1792 and 1819. It is clear that some of these took place with the full consent of the family of the deceased, who were invariably of the Protestant tradition. There is little doubt that Samuel Black did make a valuable contribution to medical knowledge, particularly in the field of heart disease. His activities, however, were not without opposition and after suffering a severe accident in 1804, he almost always managed to find others to carry out the dissections on his behalf.

EXPORTING BODIES FROM IRELAND

Old Belfast QuayWhen it comes to medical examination the fresher the corpse was, the better research sample it would be, and decomposition rendered the body’s presence unbearable and its anatomy useless. This was a time when the use of preserving fluids in dissection was not yet known. Freshness of the sample, therefore, was dependent upon rapid delivery and ambient temperature, which meant the grave robbers have much more leeway on delivery during the winter. There were two major factors, however, that assisted the growth of the export of corpses from Ireland to the more distant markets in Scotland and England – the short sea crossing and the use of the more rapid steamships. The escalation in demand for bodies in the anatomical centres in London and Edinburgh had forced the resurrectionists to spread their nets ever wider in search of a good source. New sources of fresh corpses was also made necessary for resurrectionists as vigilance by the relatives of the dead and the authorities increased in those burial places close to the main centres.

It is unlikely that there was a large trade in exporting bodies from Cork because the sea crossing to Wales would have taken too long to complete. The export trade from Dublin, however, began in the late eighteenth century, and rapidly accelerated after 1820 when steamships were introduced to the main sea routes, particularly to Glasgow, just as demand there was approaching its height. Although the advantage of speed provided by steamships was offset to some extent by the warmer ship’s holds in which the bodies were transported, the disadvantages were far outweighed by the advantages and the openness of the trade even caused one doctor to recommend that ‘casks’ should be left on deck, on the lee side of the vessel, during the journey to help keep the cadavers cool. That ‘Casks’ were employed for transporting bodies is confirmed from a report concerning Dublin in 1829.[1]

Yesterday a large hogshead was brought by a carman to a sailing vessel here (we believe the Mary), bound for Glasgow, to be shipped for that port, as containing hams. A strong smell, however, which proceeded from the cask, excited the suspicion of the Captain as to the contents – examination followed, when it was discovered, that instead of hams, the hogshead contained the bodies of no less than seven individuals – four males, two females, and a small boy.

In fact, for most of the 1820s a company of corpse exporters turned the anatomy school of the ‘College of Surgeons’ a form of storage place for their trade goods. On one occasion, in early 1828, a body that was ready for export was discovered and caused a mob of people to attack the place and a porter in the college, Luke Redmond, was murdered. But when a motion was submitted to award his widowed wife ten pounds in compensation for his tragic death the motion was defeated.

Prior to the arrival of a gentleman called Rae and his fellow resurrectionists the trade in grave robbing in Dublin had been conducted with a certain decency and secrecy. But because of the free market forces in Dublin, the export trade in corpses resulted in a very deep shortage of bodies for dissection in the Dublin anatomy schools. The introduction of various efforts to restrain the activities of the resurrectionists had also helped to increase this shortage. It was widely regarded that the trade generated by Rae, who had often been openly seen in the College bargaining for bodies when there were plenty, had gone now gone beyond control. The impact that this ghastly trade had on the population had grown to such a point that the ‘Humane Society of St John’ was formed to provide men to watch over the newly interred remains of the city’s citizens’. Nevertheless, records show that in December 1831 three Irish bodies were sold in London for thirty-eight pounds, demonstrating that the trade had become so profitable that many unscrupulous persons, even professional criminals, were now involved. At its height it is estimated that there were over fifty professional resurrection men who were engaged in the body export trade in Dublin alone.

sailing ships in dockMeanwhile, from the situation north of Ireland bodies had been exported to Glasgow and Edinburgh for at least the previous thirty or forty years. Usually these bodies were smuggled, being landed from boats on lonely parts of the Scottish coast, particularly that of Ayrshire. Sometimes, captains of these vessels would conceal the bodies in holds laden with limestone that was imported from Belfast and other Irish ports. Since there was not much of a demand for bodies from local medical schools before the first was established at Inst., the bulk of cadavers taken by the resurrectionists in the north of Ireland supplied those schools established in Scotland. The routes along which the bodies were taken generally followed those same short sea crossings taken by Scottish settlers during the ‘Plantation of Ulster’ by King James I. The most well used routes were those from the small port of Donaghadee to Mull of Galloway, and the crossing from Ballycastle/Fairhead to the Mull of Kintyre. In fact details suggest that the trade in bodies from Northern Ireland may actually have started a little earlier than further south because of its proximity to Scotland. But another factor that may have stimulated the trade in corpses was the older tradition of smuggling stolen linen, since the similarity between the smuggling of both commodities was very close. In both cases the theft usually took place predominantly at night, and both enterprises caused the establishment of nocturnal vigils and the building of watch houses, and both involved the transport of bulky commodities. While in the case of linen it was the bleach-green that was kept under surveillance, in the case of bodies it was the cemetery.

With linen being the chief item produced in the north of Ireland, the theft of linen from bleach-greens became such a serious problem that watch houses were built to accommodate the watchmen who guarded the cloth at night. To deter thefts the stealing from bleach-greens was made a capital offence in 1763 but the severity of the punishment defeated its purpose since those who stole only trivial amounts were often dealt with more leniently. Finally, this law was repealed in 1811 and substituted with transportation for life was substituted. But none of these penalties had much effect on theft from the bleach-greens because there was a deep sense of justice among the people in the North, and there was a great reluctance to prosecute anyone for a crime for which the punishment was severe when compared to the offence committed. Sadly, the theft from bleach greens had a much more severe punishment than the theft of human bodies from their graves.

By 1817 regular cross-channel traffic in stolen linen was being carried on and Belfast was a major centre for this trade. The ships that entered and left these Irish ports exchanged the stolen goods of Ireland for the stolen goods of Scotland and elsewhere. The stolen Irish linen would be made into shirts and sold at low prices on both sides of the Irish Sea. The same criminals involved in developing the routes and techniques smuggling stolen linen across the Irish Sea also led the trade in the export of stolen human cadavers to Scotland within a few years. Although the first steamship to sail from Glasgow to Belfast did not do so until 1816, and regular sailings did not start until 1818, the sea crossing under sail was short. The only drawback to the trade, however, was that the journey on land through Scotland to their destination was slow.

Steam sailing shipThere are frequent references in the local Northern press to the activities of resurrectionists, but at least half of these accounts refer to events in Dublin, and they appeared with increasing frequency throughout the 1820s. It is reported that in a burial ground not too far from Carrickfergus in County Antrim, a party of resurrectionists was arrested in 1823. They had been suspected for some time of carrying out an organised export of bodies from Irish graveyards to Edinburgh. It was discovered that the resurrectionists had attempted to ship a barrel containing the bodies of a woman and child to Scotland. Their arrest encouraged a torrent of stories including tales of frightful murders having been committed. Then, a few days later, customs officers at the port of Greenock in Scotland had their suspicions aroused by another cask that was of ‘questionable shape’. This cask, it turned out, contained the bodies of another woman and child in very poor condition which were being sent from Belfast to Edinburgh.

For resurrectionists in Belfast the most favoured places to obtain bodies appear to have been Friar’s Bush, Old Clifton Street and Shankill graveyards. In fact, in September 1829 the ‘Northern Whig’ newspaper that a gun battle of sorts occurred between a group of twenty men and two men ‘corpse watchers’ in the Shankill graveyard. Quite startlingly the same newspaper, in a later edition, the same newspaper commented that ‘there are Resurrectionists walking our streets every day, and we could point them out’. This suggests that the trade in selling bodies was of a limited scale at this time.

In the rural districts outside of Belfast there were plenty of incidents reported, such as that of two medical students being arrested in Dromara for trying to export two bodies to Scotland. Even those people employed by the Church could not resist the temptation of easy money and several sextons of various rural churches were dismissed after being found guilty of having knowledge about grave robbing. The trade had grown to such a level that corpse houses and mort safes were being used in Irish graveyards, and the revelations of the actions of Burke and Hare led to heightened fears and demands for greater vigilance. It is the actions of these two famed grave-robbers that we will consider in the next instalment….

[1] John F Fleetwood, “Dublin Body Snatchers”; Dublin Historical Record, Vol.42, No. 1; Dec., 1988

The Darker Side of life in Ireland of Old

Part I

Recently I had the opportunity to read a book called ‘The Peeler’s Notebook’, concerning the work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) from its formation until the establishment of the ‘Garda Siochana’. To my surprise I read a snippet about the activities of men involved in the ‘Sack ‘em up’ trade, more commonly known as ‘Grave Robbing’, or ‘Resurrectionism.’ Looking further into such activities I was surprised to discover that ‘Resurrectionism’ had been a long-established practice within Ireland, which appeared to reach its peak in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There was, at this time, a growing demand for reasonably fresh cadavers to the anatomy schools that had been established in Dublin and Belfast, the surplus supporting the burgeoning export trade to those supplying the anatomy schools in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere within Britain. In the northern part of Ireland, the gruesome trade was not as widespread as that in the south and was largely carried out for export purposes. However, it was the criminal actions of two men from Northern Ireland, Burke and Hare, that brought the practice into the light and hastened the demise of the trade.

Grave Robbing 2The methods employed by the ‘Resurrectionists’ in obtaining the cadavers were greatly facilitated by the common practice of the shallow interment of the dead, and the marking of their last place of rest marked by a mound of earth. To combat the practice various efforts were employed, such as putting lamp posts in graveyards, establishing corpse-houses, constructing iron frames to guard the coffins, watch-house, and the building of ‘mort-safes’. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh’s old graveyards there were rows of iron cages standing like so many animal enclosures to prevent newly buried bodies from being stolen.

Researchers have pointed out that it was the early years of the nineteenth century that saw the ‘Resurrectionist’ movement peak, and finally began to decline after the revelation of the murders committed by Burke and Hare, both of whom were originally from Ireland. This blog has been written to outline what I have discovered about this dark era of ‘Resurrectionism’, with the emphasis being on the Irish experience and the events that led to the passing of ‘The Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

BEGINNINGS

We who live in a modern Ireland can see that anatomy is an essential medical subject that is, in many cases, studied by the dissecting dead bodies. For many hundreds of years, however, superstitious beliefs, religious objections, and completely blind acceptance of existing medical teaching combined to erect a huge obstacle to practical studies by anatomists that would give us new understanding on how the human body functioned. It is also a sad reflection on humanity that from the days when men first took to burying their dead, graves have been robbed of anything of value that had been buried with the corpse. In fact, I can recall that some thirty years ago there was a widely reported case of thieves being disturbed in an old churchyard as they attempted to steal the heavy lead that had been placed around some corpses almost two centuries previously to prevent those bodies from being taken by body-snatchers.

Andreas Versalius, Flemish anatomist, physician was born in Brussels in 1514, and is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, authoring ‘De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body)’. He was professor at the University of Padua, and later became Imperial Physician at the court of Emperor Charles V. At this time most anatomical studies were carried out upon the bodies of animals, but Versalius would change this practice. It could also be said that Versalius, who was the man who established the foundations of modern anatomy, was the first grave-robber to use his talents to expand human understanding anatomical science. There are many stories about Vesalius and his activities, one of which describes how he smuggled the body of a hanged criminal into his lodgings, with the help of a friend. Such stories, concerning the development of anatomy in Europe, are many and a considerable number of pages could be filled with them. We shall not do that but will simply state that the trade in supplying fresh cadavers for dissection flourished widely throughout Ireland and the British Isles from the mid-eighteenth century until The British Parliament passed the ‘Anatomy Act’ in 1832.

Grave Robbing 4In the middle of the sixteenth century, while all students of medicine were required to be thoroughly familiar with the anatomy of the human body, the Crown authorities provided surgeons with a totally inadequate number of corpses for anatomical study that had been obtained from executed criminals. The considerable gap between supply and demand was filled by entrepreneurial individuals in a variety of ways. The most common method, however, saw men going out after dark and digging up recently interred bodies from the many graveyards. It appears that this task was usually undertaken by medical students, doctors, or by professional grave robbers who were commonly known as ‘body-snatchers’, ‘resurrection men’ or ‘sack-’em-ups’. In fact, the practice became so common that there were occasions when rival grave robbers, mourning relatives, watchmen, and others would become involved in fighting over the possession of corpses. One such occasion was recorded as happening in Edinburgh, which had become a major medical teaching centre. As was their habit, the students of the famous anatomist Alexander Munro, attended the public hanging of a woman, intending to secure the female criminal’s body for their studies. The students, however, were noticed by members of the gathered crowd and, in moments, a ferocious public battle erupted. Unfortunately for both sides, they were a bit too quick off the mark, and soon after the public uproar had broken out the poor woman’s life was revived by the students, and she was to live for many more years after the incident, albeit with the nick-name of “Half-hangit Maggie Dickson.

The great demand for corpses was met, for the most part, by the industriousness of the Irish resurrection men who were able to export their surplus trade to Edinburgh and other major medical training centres. But as the years passed, this source of corpses was proven to be totally inadequate to fill the constantly increasing demand. Then, in 1829, the entire dark world of grave robbers and the medical establishment was blown wide open when the career of a well-known surgeon called Knox was suddenly brought to ruin because of his dealings with an infamous duo of ‘resurrectionists’ called Burke and Hare. These two men had tried to overcome the shortage of fresh bodies for anatomical research by murdering anyone whom they believed would not be missed. These unfortunate victims were tramps, orphans, street women, and poor people. Even today the name of Burke and Hare is enough to send a shiver down a person’s spine and their infamy was recorded in song e.g.

“Up the close and down the stair

But and ben with Burke and Hare

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox the boy who buys the beef.”

 

Grave Robbing 3In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the mindset of those men that involved themselves in such a trade. One story, however, might just help enlighten us, and it concerns a certain labouring man from a town on the south coast of England whose wife died in 1800. When a close friend went to the man’s house to offer his condolences, being taken into the kitchen he saw that the coffin was empty and had been left upside down. Curious as to what had happened to the body of the man’s wife, the visitor asked his friend where it was, and he was stunned by the reply he received. The widowed husband told his visitor that, when he and his wife had first been married, she had been brought to him with a horse’s halter around her neck. At the time, the husband took this to be a sign that he would have absolute control over her and that she would be obedient to him in all matters. So convinced was he of his ‘rights’ as a husband that he had sold his wife’s body to local ‘body snatchers’ and had decided that he should keep the coffin to use as a sideboard.

A similar record of the period demonstrates just how the activities of the ‘grave robbers’ had caused the moral standards of the ordinary citizens to change. One news report gave details of a man whose son had died seventeen years previously and, when he went to the graveyard to ensure the corpse was safe, he discovered the corpse had been stolen by ‘resurrectionists’. All that was left in the young man’s grave was his coffin, which the father took home with him and used for his own burial seventeen years later.

Similar tales were all too familiar in Dublin and Belfast at the time and, sadly, a casual approach toward the bodies of dead loved ones appeared to become widespread among people. In February 1830 a city paper reported the following story:

“A few nights ago a corpulent midwife named Magennis rather aged died on the north side of the city and on the night of her burial it was discovered that the leader of those who attempted to disinter the poor woman and deliver her body up for dissection was one of her own sons. On the fellow being accused of the crime he said, ‘Sure even if I did so a tenderer hand couldn’t go over her.’”

It is evident from such records that in and around Dublin at that time family mourning was very much in short supply. The reason behind this change in attitudes was due in part, if not in full, to the spread of ‘Resurrectionism’ to almost epidemic proportions by the 1820s. The lack of human bodies for scientific study because of various religious and traditional taboos had already impeded developments in anatomy study for centuries. In previous times monkeys and pigs had been dissected by students because they were thought to be broadly similar anatomically to humans. But when these studies were extended to the actual treatment of humans there were gaps in knowledge and understanding. It was William Harvey (1578 – 1657) was the first physician who described in complete detail the systematic circulation of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart.[1] The accuracy of his work was due entirely to the fact that he had studied the dissected bodies of his sister and father.

In the first half of the sixteenth century a very limited number of bodies from executed criminals had been made available, by royal enactment, to surgeons in Scotland and Wales. These proved to be too few to satisfy a growing demand, and ‘The Murder Act’ of 1752 included the substitution of dissection for gibbeting in chains for the guilty. In fact, there are records that tell us that in Dublin there were many occasions when the corpse of a publicly executed murderer would be followed to the gates of the College of Surgeons by a disaffected mob of people, which included the executed person’s relatives.

It was, of course a period of great scientific exploration of all sorts including the generation and possible uses of electricity like ‘Galvanism’. This involved passing a ‘Galvanic’ current through the muscles of a dissected body causing them to jump and move as if alive, leading some to believe that such experiments were the inspiration for stories like ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. Meanwhile, as anatomical research continued to gain momentum in medical circles the demand for bodies of the deceased grew and certain ‘entrepreneurs’ took to stealing the bodies of those who had been newly interred. These men saw no legal problem in this activity since the bodies of the deceased had no value in British law, although they did have some value in Common Law. In Scotland medical students traditionally had to source their own bodies, while in Dublin the trade in ‘Body Snatching’ had been continuous since the beginnings of the 1730s. The early nineteenth century, however, witnessed a great growth in the number of surgical students, which was due in most part to the increase in population between the mid-eighteenth century and the 1830s, as well as the increase in demand for surgeons during the wars with Napoleon.

Grave Robbing 6The wars with France and Spain caused a great downturn in foreign trade at this time and caused the sons of the middle-class to seek careers in medicine rather than commerce. At the same time, the government wanted to bring some regulation to the business of dispensing medicines and within the terms of ‘The Apothecaries Act of 1815’ instruction in anatomy was made compulsory for the training of all recognised apothecaries. It was also a time of discovery, with voyages of exploration to all the far-flung parts of the world revealing new peoples, new foods, strange, animals, and new, extremely deadly diseases. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this was also a time when medical scientists increased their exploration into the inner workings of the human body.

This period in the history of medical science was encouraged by a new spirit of investigation into diseases, developed in France and involving new clinical-pathological measures. The Napoleonic Wars and a new law gave anatomical students an ample number of corpses for research and their work demonstrated that a limited number of dissections might increase knowledge of human anatomy, but the dissection of many bodies with diseases at different stages gave greater knowledge of the causes of death and led to methods to prevent many of those causes. As one commentator of the time stated, “the examination of a single body of one who has died of Tabes or consumption … is of more service to medicine than the dissection of the bodies of ten men who have been hanged.” Nevertheless, when it came to the study of pathology, Ireland and the rest of the British Isles lagged far behind the advances made in France. In fact, powers in England called the exportation of corpses from Ireland as being an abominable and shameful trade, likening it to the shipping of dead or live cattle or any other cargo. One noted Irishman, Dr Peter Hennis Greene from Cork, who served on the staff of the ‘Lancet’ for years, had taken part in grave robbing expeditions as a medical student at Trinity College Dublin, and he wrote of ‘his shillelagh red with the blood of the Charleys’ (night watchmen).[2] The anatomy schools, however, were totally dependent upon the support of the ‘resurrectionists,’ whose trade by had begun to reach its peak in the second decade of nineteenth century. If compared to a modern-day illegal trade it would be like today’s drug trade, for it too was wholly consumer-driven, although in this case the purchasers, the heads of the anatomy schools, escaped prosecution criminalization. But, like drugs, human bodies represented the money that underwrote their wealth and professional influence for, by the late 1820s, bodies could command a price of between £16 and £22. Unfortunately, as it always seems to be, it was the poor who bore the brunt of the activity, because they were buried in the flimsiest of coffins in shallow, mass graves. In commercial terms, the poor had come to be worth more dead than alive.

It was estimated that in 1826, the trade in corpses for anatomical research probably exceeded several thousand bodies annually in Great Britain. Moreover, the growth was greatly assisted in that year when dissection was made compulsory in surgical studies, and all students were required to dissect one or more cadavers. One of the largest classes of students studying anatomy was under the direction of Robert Knox in Edinburgh and numbered over five hundred pupils. Such large classes were not unusual in any of the anatomical schools and many other medical researchers complained that surgeons in London, particularly, created massive competition between private schools and hospitals. There were also increasing criticism of the ‘College of Surgeons’ for its emphasis on dissection and had, therefore, caused the acute shortage of bodies and the high prices that were being charged for them. More damaging, however, was the growing attacks against the relationship between resurrectionists and anatomist as being totally dishonourable to the reputation of the medical profession. Meanwhile, in Dublin at this time, it was estimated that the number of ‘dissecting pupils’ exceeded five hundred, and the number of bodies used for dissection as being numbered between fifteen-hundred and two thousand. But Dublin was a major centre for ‘resurrectionists’ activities in the British Isles at this time and, as we shall discover, also had a flourishing export trade in bodies.

METHODS EMPLOYED

The methods employed by the body snatchers were many and varied but were made less difficult by the fact that the lid to a coffin did not lie very deep below the surface of the ground. The grave robbers often worked with short- handled, wooden spades that deadened the noise of their excavations. In some places the body snatchers used a canvas sheet to hold the excavated earth and, once the coffin lid was exposed, two hooks were inserted under the lid and pulled upwards with a rope. This would cause the coffin lid to shatter enough to allow them to drag out the corpse with sacking heaped over everything to assist in deadening any noise that might have been caused. Thereafter, the body was stripped of any shroud covering it, and this was scrupulously re-buried, because to steal it was a misdemeanour. The body itself, however, was put in a sack, which led these grave robbers to be known commonly a ‘sack-em-up men’, and the whole scene would be carefully restored to its original appearance. The entire procedure could easily be completed in an hour, even when the coffin had been buried deep.

With grave robbing having become a major commercial enterprise, its members developed their own words to describe their ‘goods’. Bodies, for example, were referred to as ‘things’, while the bodies of children and tiny infants were often referred to as ‘large smalls’ and ‘foetuses’. Other enterprising resurrectionists specialized in hair for wigs, and teeth for dentures and transplantation, as a profitable side-lines. In fact, for many resurrectionists, the greater profit from their activities could be obtained from teeth alone, which were used to fulfil the demand for transplanting teeth and the manufacture of dentures.

There were stories that some acts of resurrectionism had been carried out to harvest the fat from the corpses to supply the ready market for candle making. It was said that candles made from ‘human lard’ caused a lot of smoke and this, perhaps, led to the rumour that when used with a so-called ‘Hand of Glory,’ they were believed to put people into a trance, which made them popular with burglars. This so-called ‘Hand of Glory’ was a candleholder created from the severed hand of a murderer and used to burn candles made from the same source. One story concerns a certain Ralph Westropp, a former sheriff of Limerick, who died in March 1858 at the age of sixty years. He was buried at Drumcliff outside Ennis but, in early May, his grave was violated by unknown persons, which resulted in his body being cut open and the Stomach and some of the body fat being taken away. Initially it was thought that insurance companies were to blame the man had been heavily insured and poison might have been involved in causing his death. Suspicion, however, quickly fell on certain groups that were carrying out an evil, superstitious act i.e. the manufacture of a candle from human lard that would allow them to enter a house unseen and rob it with impunity.

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed), 2019

[2] Fleetwood, John F. “The Dublin Body Snatchers: Part Two.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 42, no. 2, 1989, pp. 42–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30087188. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.

The Evil Omen

A Tale from the West of Ireland

Jack Flannery was a humble, hard-working shoemaker who lived quietly with his wife and their grown-up son, in a little cottage that stood by the roadside, at the edge of the village of Derryard. Trained by his father, Jack’s son had built a good reputation in the county. With such a reputation both Father and son always had plenty of work to do and were often obliged to sit up until late at night in their workshop to ensure that all the orders entrusted to them were completed.

One calm winter’s night, in early December, at about midnight, both men were, as usual, busy. They were sewing the leather at a brisk rate in one corner of the cottage’s narrow kitchen, where a turf fire was burning brightly on the hearth. Jack’s wife had grown tired earlier in the evening and had gone to bed. Everything in the house was quiet, except for the crickets, which chirped monotonously in the crevices all around chimney breast. Even the old sow and her litter of young ones, who were kept in a small corner of the cottage had stopped grunting and were asleep. The hens that were roosting on the broad beam at the further end of the cottage, near the door, had long given-up their usual cackling, and the entire house was at peace.

Jack and his son continued to sew leather in silence, which was broken only by the occasional whispered request made by one or other of the men for some article they required

I don’t know, son, but I’ll go to the door and ask,” the father replied.

Who in God’s name is there?” called the old man, on-going toward the door. When there was no reply, he asked once again, “Is there anyone there?” Again, there was no answer. “Well,” he whispered to his son as he returned to the bench and stood beside him.

Death CallsThere was someone there, or something, whether it was good or bad, and wherever they’ve gone to.” The two men listened in silence for a few moments in case the knocking would return, but they couldn’t hear anything that would indicate the presence of a visitor outside. But they were not disturbed again that night.

The next night, however, at the same time they were very alarmed when they heard the footsteps again. The latch was lifted as it had been on the previous night and then allowed to fall with an exactly similar click. “God preserve us!” exclaimed the old man, who immediately arose from his seat, while his son was far too frightened either to speak or move.

As he had before, Jack went to the door and demanded, “In God’s name, who’s there?” When no answer was given, he called out again, “For God’s sake,” said the poor old man in a trembling voice, “is there anyone there?

For a few moments he waited for a reply, but his wait was in vain. “Son,” said he, “we’ll get ourselves to bed now. But, don’t be afraid.” He could see that the young man was trembling in terror from head to foot, “Maybe it’s just someone playing games, and trying to scare us. But, let me tell you that, if it is and they try it again they’ll be sorry.” There was not another word spoken between them, and both men immediately went to bed and were soon fast asleep.

The third night, at the very same hour, the footsteps again came to the door. On this occasion, however, the latch was not lifted. Instead, there were three quick, sharp knocks as if the knuckles of someone’s hand were struck against the door. The old man, swearing an oath, immediately jumped to his feet, and going to the door opened it quickly, and went out into the night. He ran around the house and searched everywhere, but he could not find even a trace of anyone. Angry and frustrated, father and son went off to bed that night more frightened than they had been on either of the preceding nights. The father’s suspicion that there was someone who was trying to terrify them had given him a little more courage than the son, but now even he began to feel ill at ease. He had now begun to realize that his suspicions were incorrect, for he was firmly convinced that their tormentor could not have escaped so quickly if it was mortal. With this thought in mind, therefore, the father became very alarmed, for he felt that they had been given a warning that something bad was about to happen. But, if it was a warning, it would not be repeated, because such dire warnings are only given on three occasions.

As expected, those dread footsteps were heard no more, but this only increased his concerns, which he discussed with his wife and his son. A fortnight passed, and nothing unusual had occurred, which caused the dread that Jack Flannery, his wife, and son were feeling to considerably diminish. Then, on a Sunday night, at the of the fortnight, when old Ned McClean paid a neighbourly visit and found the Flannery family to be quite cheerful. Ned found them sitting beside a comfortable fire burning on the hearth, enjoying the pleasant glow of the blazing turf, and the pleasant experience of a quiet smoke at the end of the day.

God save all here,” said Ned as he entered the house.

And the same to you Ned,” replied Jack and his wife in unison, adding, “Sure, you’re very welcome, especially since you don’t go out much at all in the evenings.

Ned and the Flannerys were long-time friends, and although Jack and his wife had always a kindly welcome anyone who entered their little cottage, the welcome for Ned was always that little bit warmer than any given to others. Jack’s son was, as they informed their friend, “out galavanting” and that they had the pleasure of the fire all to themselves. Inviting Ned to sit, they were all soon absorbed in discussing ‘old times’, which was a great favourite with them. They became thoroughly involved in the conversation and the time passed both quickly and pleasantly. But, unfortunately, they were interrupted, which caused a cold chain of silence to drop over the company and revived a dread of approaching evil once again in the hearts of the Flannerys.

The shoemaker was in the middle of telling his favourite story about the ‘bad times,’ when the cock on the beam flapped his wings and crew once, twice, thrice. “Ned,” said the shoemaker, “you will hear some bad news before long, mind what I’m telling you.

Ned shook his head and replied, “I don’t like it at all, Jack, Lord preserve us!

Mrs. Flannery blessed herself and uttered some inaudible prayers. Nevertheless, the interruption left them all in no humour for more storytelling about the past, and that one frightening incident that had just occurred was too unnatural to think about any further. Ned, therefore, departed the cottage with a fervent “God speed” from Jack and his wife.

Ned only a short distance to go home. Then, having said the rosary, he went to bed and was just beginning to close his eyes when he heard a loud rapping at the door. He listened and soon recognized that it was Jack Flannery’s son calling. “Ned, are you asleep?

No,” the old man replied. “What’s wrong?

Oh, get up quick, my father’s dead.”

Dear God, boy, what are ye saying?” exclaimed Nicholas in amazement.

My father’s just after dying. Hurry over, for God’s sake.

It was the truth! Just about the hour of twelve midnight poor Jack Flannery’s soul had taken its leave from this earthly world. His wife had noticed that he was breathing heavily and was getting no response to her inquiries as to what was wrong with him. At that point, she called out to her son to get up at once and bring a light to the bedroom. The light finally revealed the lifeless body of a man who had been both a loving husband and a kind father.

How the Potato came to Ireland

It was the Spanish conquistadors who first discovered the potato and brought it to the world outside of its place of origin in South America. They did not, however, realise the value of the vegetable that they had stumbled upon when chasing the Inca Emperor,  Atahualpa, and his legendary riches. Once it was introduced into Europe it soon became an important crop for the peasantry, especially in Ireland. Today, over five hundred years after Spain’s conquest of South America, the potato continues to thrive in Ireland and throughout the entire world. Yet, despite its very important role in Irish history, there is still some confusion as to how the potato eventually came to our country. A range of famous historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been given the credit for introducing the potato into Europe. But, even the stories concerning the involvement of such adventurers are contradictory, and the question remains unanswered; “Who brought the potato to Ireland and when?”

ConquistadorThere is some research that suggests that the first potatoes brought to Europe originated in what is now called Chile. These were selected because they had been adapted to form tubers during the long summer days of southern temperate latitudes, which would be comparable to summers in Europe where the length of the day was similar. There was, meanwhile, another potato variety that originated in Peru and Colombia. This potato variety (‘Andigena’) was more used to the shorter days of the tropical latitudes and, therefore, did not mature in Europe until late September and early October when the length of the day is approximately twelve hours.

The first journey from Chile to Europe by the faster ‘Straits of Magellan’ route did not occur until 1579, when the potato was already being grown in Europe. Because of the months of travelling it would have needed to transport potatoes to Spain from Chile the tubers would have resulted in the death of any tubers before they reached their destination. So, it is assumed that the less favourable ‘Andigena’ variety of potato was brought to Europe from Colombia. But, it is not ‘Andigena’ variety that we see every day on our dinner tables in Ireland, but the Chilean variety ‘Tuberosum’. So, what happened?

The first European potatoes were, it seems, ‘Antigena’ variety, but they could only tuberise in the shorter days of the European autumn, limiting their cultivation to the milder regions of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc.

The sweet potato, which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato, however, was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato, therefore, was the first to be introduced into Spain, first shipments being made almost immediately after the earliest voyages of Columbus. But, the sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, because it could only the climate in Spain suited its growth. It’s exclusivity came from the fact that it was an expensive commodity and not something commonly seen on a plate in the rest of Europe.

The evidence available  to us points to there being two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. Potatoes, it appears, were being grown in Spain for a several years prior to 1573 in order to build up stocks. Sixteenth century scientists who had studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, do not mention the potato at all prior to 1564. Many botanists today agree, therefore, that the potato was introduced into Spain sometime between 1565 and 1570.

It is believed that the potato only reached England in the early 1590s. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from all over the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. In 1597 he published his celebrated ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’,  which contained over 1,000 species, providing more than 800 chapters of information and a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard assigned the potato’s natural home to be Virginia, rather than its original habitat in the South American Andes. Although wild potatoes were found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside of South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s, when it was introduced by settlers from Ulster.

Records suggest that potatoes were first introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from Virginia. But such suggestions are contentious since it was much more likely that Raleigh got the potatoes from England, because he was never in Virginia and, as already stated, Solanum tuberosum is not native to Virginia. The confusion, however, may have arisen due to Raleigh’s association with a number of voyages to North America, but there is no mention whatsoever of potatoes on his return from any of those voyages.

Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), unlike Raleigh, was introduced to solanum tuberosum in the Americas. But, it is rather unlikely that Drake seized potatoes from the Spanish when there was more valuable cargo to be taken. Drake, however, did serve under the Earl of Essex in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, although it seems improbable that the potato was introduced around this time as it had only just been introduced to Spain and was still unknown in England. Nevertheless, it is recorded that Drake obtained potatoes by barter from the Indians of the Islands of Mocha, off the coast of Chile in November 1578. Having completed his renowned second circumnavigation of the globe in November 1580, but there is no record of potatoes appearing on the menu at this time.

If potatoes came from Virginia in 1586 they must already have been on Sir Francis Drakes’ ships and he may have acquired them from the sack of Cartagena on the coast of what is now Colombia. Potatoes may well have formed part of the valuable haul taken from Cartagena itself or from the cargoes of plundered ships. Drake left Cartagena on 30 March 1585, after picking up the colonists from the failed Roanoke settlement in Virginia, he arrived in Plymouth on 26 July 1586. Perhaps, these potatoes could have been confused with the plants from Virginia. Such a theory would reconcile a number of questions, but we can only speculate if this actually happened.

Instead of looking to England as the source of introducing the potato to Ireland, perhaps we should consider the Spanish. Often referred to as ‘An Spáinneach’, or ‘An Spáinneach Geal’ (The white or kind hearted Spaniard), such names for the potato might point to the suggestion that a Spaniard was actually responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland. There was substantial trade between Ireland and Spain and the introduction of the tuber as a curiosity from Spain through Waterford, seems highly plausible. However, given the lack of historical evidence it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of an introduction from England. Nevertheless, given that the potato thrived in Ireland from a very early date (but not in Europe), it was probably solanum tuberosum rather than andigena that was introduced.  Irrespective of who introduced the tuber to Ireland it appears that 1586 would be the earliest feasible date for introduction to Ireland, and 1600 the latest. Since we know that the potato was already being grown in London in 1596, it is almost certain that the appearance of the strange new tuber in Ireland couldn’t have been long delayed.