Cattle Bleeding And Other Desperate Measures

As mentioned in the novel, cattle bleeding during the Great Famine was not uncommon.  Under cover of darkness, the hungry would make their way to the field of a landlord or well-off farmer and locate a likely cow.  A vein would be opened in the animal’s neck and a pint or so of blood drained out into a jar or pail.  The wound would then be sealed with a pin, the hope being that one could return and bleed the animal again.  Cows’ blood was mixed with wild mushrooms, milk, herbs, meal or anything else on hand to make ‘relish cakes’.

The starving also ate chickweed, seaweed, nettles, grass, worms or rats.  Turnips, although traditionally not a human food source as they have limited nutritional value (turnips were stockfeed only), could be made into turnip boxty (cakes) or mashed into ‘champ’.

Although Ireland abounds in rivers, most were privately owned and fishing (poaching) in them illegal.


Famine Fundraising Around the Globe

desertedvillageIt can be argued that the Famine was the first natural disaster (albeit one capitalized upon by London) to spur international fundraising.  A few examples:

Irish in NYC (where they were a quarter of the population) sent home approximately $900,000 in 1847 alone and probably a bit less the year before.  This amount represents private monies between families and is not part of the U.S. relief contributions which totaled in the millions.

Irish serving in the British army as well as ex-pats and natives of Calcutta, India, sent £14,000.

Abraham Lincoln (then a Congressman) donated $10.

The members of New York City’s Shearith Israel synagogue sent $1,000.

The Choctaw Indians of Oklahoma raised $170.

The city of Hackensack, New Jersey, gave 4 boxes of clothing.

The prisoners of New York’s Sing Sing prison sent relief money.

Jewish banker Lionel de Rothschild began fundraising in 1847, receiving donations from  Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. 15,000 people contributed £400,000.

Contributions came from Turkey, Mexico, Barbados, Bombay and Australia.

Irish American dock workers waived their salaries to load ships bound for Ireland.

American railroads waived fees for relief supplies.

Under pressure from English Quakers, the British Government agreed to cover freight costs of shipments from the U.S.

Queen Victoria gave relief money and wrote fundraising letters, but seems to have done nothing behind the scenes to affect a change in British policy.  Her Famine visit to Ireland (as detailed in another post) was a financial drain on Ireland’s limited resources.

The Irish Catholic Church used its international network to raise huge sums.  Donations flowed in from North America, South America, South Africa, New South Wales, France, Italy and Austria.

The Quakers kept copious notes of monies raised and dispersed.  It is very emotional indeed to read the lists of U.S., Canadian and British cities that contributed food and clothing.   Of course, Boston & New York are in the forefront, but here are a few others: Darien, Savannah, Portland (Maine), New Orleans, Louisville, Georgetown, Rochester, Madison, Utica, Charleston, Cincinnati, Richmond, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore.

Grosse Isle, Canada, and The Death of Ellen Keane





Father Bernard McGauran immigrated to Canada in the 1830s.  In 1847,  he led over forty priests who (along with Anglicans) saw to the sick and dying of Grosse Isle.  At least four priests died (a small percentage, probably because they had built up an immunity to typhus working among the poor).  Boarding waiting vessels and seeing to the ill on land, priests might give Last Rites to 50 dying a day.  Like so many, Father McGauran contracted typhus.  Fortunately, he survived. Three orders of nuns also administered to the sick; it is unclear how many of them died.

Four-year-old Ellen Keane of Ireland was the first to die at Grosse Isle, Canada, on May 15th, 1847.   In the weeks to follow, the names of the dead would not be recorded and 6 men would be employed full-time to dig graves.

Grosse Isle was a quarantine station and the port of entry to Quebec.  It lies in the St. Lawrence River and had NO fresh water source.  Astonishingly, it had room for only 150 PATIENTS and boasted a small medical staff.  (As the island became overrun with the ill and dying, Canada released prisoners from the local hospital to help; unfortunately, they stole from and abused the patients.)  In the summer of 1847, Grosse Isle was tasked with handling ALL immigrants bound for Quebec.  Within two weeks of little Ellen’s death, there was a line of 40 ships stretching up river – the queue was well over a mile long.  The hospital could not absorb the sick who were stuffed into sheds, left on the beach, or kept in fetid quarters on grossly overcrowded ships.  Bodies of the dead were removed from ships’ holds with fish hooks and eyewitnesses told of horrific scenes of inhumanity.

It isn’t known how many died on Grosse Isle that summer from starvation, dehydration and disease.  Bodies were piled in mass graves ‘like cord wood’.  Officially, the number is put at about 7,000 but anyone perusing the Canadian Government websites and reading the sanitized version of events there and in ‘official’ records will discount this number.  Scholars put the death toll at more than twice that number.

Among the four doctors who died of typhus was a 60-year-old immigrant named John Benson.  He had been evicted from his Irish home and, upon landing at Grosse Isle, volunteered to help.  He died within the week.

How did this happen?  The influx of 100,000 Irish to Canada in 1847 could have been no surprise to those in Montreal (then Canada’s capital) or London.  Ships sailing from Liverpool took up to two months to reach Canada and inspecting officers knowingly allowed the sick to sail.  Canada was a Crown colony after all, and offloading sick there was akin to the transportation of criminals to Australia.  Passage to Canada was significantly cheaper than to the U.S. because Canadian law allowed the overcrowding of immigrants and did not require that a doctor be on board.  This is why mortality rates on Canada-bound vessels could be anywhere from 20 – 50%.

That Montreal and London (i) knew 100,000 Irish would be emigrating; (ii) did not ensure passenger safety; and, (iii) did not take steps to deal with the consequences in advance is well documented.  Like the Germans a century later, British bureaucrats were meticulous record keepers.

One could argue that the Grosse Isle disaster resulted from incompetence, tangled bureaucracies or the like, but I won’t.  Emigration in sub-human conditions, many times forced by landlords like Dennis Mahon, whose execution is detailed in another post, is a form of mass murder.  It is as simple as that.

The 1849 Visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland

victoria  Four years into the Famine, most of the Poor Unions set up to run Ireland’s workhouses were in dire straits – overwhelmed by the demand for relief and all but bankrupt as the only funding they received was from local landlords (not the British).  Even the Quakers had closed their soup kitchens, concluding that the acute demand for help was beyond their means.  They focused instead on giving seeds for new crops to be planted and lending funds for fisheries or other self-sustaining projects.  Did London step in to the breach?  Only to the tune of 50,000 pounds.

As incredible as it seems, during that horrible year it was decided that Queen Victoria should visit Ireland at the expense of the Irish.  Billed as a ‘non-State’ visit, London refused to foot the bill for the party of 36 (Victoria and Albert decided at the last minute to bring 4 of their children in addition to many servants).  A special carriage lined with ‘royal blue’ silk was built in Ireland to transport the royals.  As Dublin scrambled to make itself presentable, THOUSANDS of pounds were spent sprucing up the areas the royals would see.  The Times of London reported the building of ‘triumphal arches, platforms and devices on all sides’.  Dublin Castle was given ‘a clean face’ and the State Apartments redone.  Gas and electric lighting were introduced to the exterior of Dublin’s public buildings so that the city appeared prosperous and thriving.  How much did this all cost the Irish?  It’s difficult to estimate, but bear in mind that, at that time, a family of 5 could live for a week on half a crown (or 1/8 of a pound); thus, even if the royal tab was only 10,000 pounds, that amount of money could have fed 80,000 Irish families for a week.  As reported in the Evening Mail, ‘if we have funds to spare let them be spent not on illuminations [of the capitol] but on Her Majesty’s starving subjects’.

Victoria’s visit (her first) was hailed a ‘public relations success.’   Why?  How did the Queen choose to spend her time in a land ravaged by Famine and disease?  She attended balls and parties, viewed fire works displays, and made procession through the streets of Cork, Belfast and Dublin.  The only reference she made publicly to the fact that the Irish were starving was in one speech:  “I gladly share with you the hope that the heavy visitation, with which Providence has recently visited large numbers of my people in this country, is passing away.”  By placing blame at Heaven’s gate, the Queen absolved herself and her Government of any responsibility to take action.  In so doing, she echoed the underlying philosophy of London during those fateful years that, because the blight was an act of Nature, man had a right to profit from it, exploit its victims and ignore its consequences.

Did the Queen visit a workhouse?  No.  Did she visit a fever hospital?  No.  Did she visit an orphanage?  No.  Did she visit a farm and see fields lying fallow?  No.

It is noteworthy that the Royal visit was not disrupted by demonstrations or violence.  Why bother?  What impact would a public outcry have made on someone so clueless?  Surely there was no need to draw her attention to the facts since her own newspapers were full of them on a daily basis.


The Castlebar Coffin Fund


Famine victims who worked 10 hours per day on British funded outdoor relief projects (breaking stones, for instance in exchange for food) were not provided with coffins when they died.   As a result, bodies were left to rot on the road where they might be eaten by wild animals or buried in shallow graves wrapped in newspapers, blankets or nothing at all.  Some were simply covered with rocks or left in derelict structures.

Private efforts were made to provide coffins for the dead.  One I’d like to call attention to took place in Castlebar (a town in northern Mayo County) in early 1847.  A scant ten days after the Castlebar Coffin Fund was established, eleven dead had already been provided with coffins.  I came across a letter to the local newspaper, the Tyrawley Herald, dated January 21, 1847 by Father Michael Curley in which he thanks a man from Westport (a town to the south) for his contribution of 1 pound to the Fund.  Father Curley, together with a Methodist minister (Reverend Mr. Atkins) and a Mr. Patrick Walsh, established the Castlebar Coffin Fund.  Father Curley is further credited with taking decisive action when he found out that food distributed to outdoor relief workers in Ballyhane was sickening them.  He obtained a sample of the tainted meal and sent it along to a contact in London who had it examined by corn merchants there.  They concluded that the ‘food’ wasn’t fit for human consumption.*

*Based on reports appearing at the time in the Ballina Chronicle.

The William Smith O’Brien Petitions of 1848-49

Dromoland Castle, County Clare, Ireland (now a hotel); boyhood home of William Smith O’Brien.

MP and Irish Nationalist William Smith O’Brien supported the repeal of the Act of Union that made pre-Famine Ireland part of the United Kingdom.  He paid dearly for his beliefs and the actions he took to make Ireland free.   Found guilty of treason and condemned to death in 1848, his sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania (Australia).  Why?  In the winter of 1848-49, 166 petitions were signed in Ireland (over 75,000 signatures) and England (7,830 signatures) pleading for the British Government to show the jailed leader mercy.  Trinity College, Dublin, has compiled a CD of the signatures and the original  petitions are housed in the Irish National Archives. 

Consider, for a moment, the logistics of gathering those signatures during the darkest days of the Famine.  Consider the rank and file farmers who refused to testify against O’Brien AND who refused to turn him in (he was captured by a British soldier) despite the reward of 500 pounds offered (this amount would have covered the cost of passage to America for well over 100 emigrants).  Consider the risk of putting one’s name to a petition in support of a leader the British so feared  – because of men like O’Brien, Parliament had suspended Habeas Corpus in Ireland and passed a number of anti-sedition acts specifically aimed at squashing demonstrations and appeals for Irish independence.  Consider, too, the options open to William Smith O’Brien – a rich Protestant born into the landed gentry who lived in luxury at Dromoland Castle.   What drove such a man to make his life’s work the pursuit of Catholic Emancipation?  That question must have been asked by many who weren’t able to grasp that O’Brien saw himself first and foremost as an Irishman.

Joseph Bewley: A Friend to those in want

Tbewleyshe Grafton Street Bewley’s – Dublin

Quaker Joseph Bewley was an Irish tea and coffee merchant – yes, the same Bewley family that established those wonderful cafes in Ireland and broke the monopoly of the East India Company by importing tea directly from China to Ireland.  In 1846, Joseph Bewley helped establish the Friends’ Relief Committee that set up soup kitchens to provide direct, no-strings relief in an organized manner during the Famine.  This was done without British (government) help, being funded privately from a variety of sources.  Joseph Bewley didn’t just talk about aid or raise money, he put his beliefs into practice.  As a result, he was one of 15 Quakers (out of a population of 3,000 in Ireland) who died in the Famine as a direct result of his work with those in need.  The Quakers were noteworthy during the Famine for doing so much given their small numbers and for doing it without an agenda (religious or political).  Help was given to those in need – food in the beginning and then seeds/training later on in the hope that alternative crops to potatoes could be established.

So, when you next stop by Bewley’s (or Java City in the U.S.) remember Joseph Bewley – a man celebrated for his humility and self-sacrifice who paid the ultimate price for his beliefs.