Report on the Distress & Famine in Kilcar 1883
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Irish Times Thursday, 4 January 1883
The Chief Secretary in Donegal
(From the Times Special Correspondent)
Kilcar, Wednesday Night
A regular wet day seems to have been set apart beforehand and reserved officially for the visit of the Chief Secretary to the heart of the Donegal Highlands, where the distress, if it ever reaches the acute stage anywhere, is most likely to develop into famine. For a month past, I am told, the skies have wept unceasingly, and the mountain streamlets that dash through the hundred dark flows, are now foaming torrents, swollen far beyond their natural dimensions, beautiful to look upon, as they flash and sparkle in the sunlight, and tell a tale of the dangers and hardships in the life of the peasantry who inhabit those sterile and inhospitable wastes. During his journey of yesterday, me Trevelyan saw the country under the most unfavourable circumstances. A heavy drenching rain, driven with blinding force by a north-westerly gale, fell from the rising till the setting of the sun, causing the bleak barren country through which he passed to appear still more dreary and desolate. Today it seemed almost as if during the night a forced march had been made through February and March; for the sky was as bright and the air as soft and genial as in May. The landscape was full of colour. The bold and serried outlines of the rugged mountain ranges stood out clear and distict, the water courses hurried off the surplus waters with such haste that the roadways in a marvelously short time became firm and dry, the cottages brightened up, and grew dry and less uncomfortable in appearance than they usually are; the youngsters to be seen along the roadside appeared less naked and better fed, and I have no doubt it is absolutely true what was remarked to me, with no great appearance of satisfaction by one person with whom I had a conversation regarding Mr Trevelyan's visit, that Donegal had not looked as well for many a day past, and he added - "We'll have to pay up for this fine day by and bye." It may be presumed that the Chief Secretary's journey from Donegal to Killybegs was comparatively uneventful. The thick weather by which the landscape was enveloped would prevent him seeing from the crest of Mountcharles, over which the road passes, the sea surf break upon the northern shores of Donegal Bay : He could mark during the first half hour of the journey the few wretched hovels, as miserable looking as anything of the kind to be seen in the worst parts of Mayo and Galway, that stood upon the roadside, but he could not do so further on, because for some reason or other - possibly the line of another estate had been passed, but I do not know whether it is so or not - the appearance of the houses in this respect had changed, and the little hamlet through which his way led were by no means a bankrupt appearance, that the little shops were clean and well stocked, and the people to be seem about their doors by no means bent upon picking up a mouthful of food to save their lives. Before reaching Killybegs he may have remarked or it may have been pointed out to him a district which is very thinly populated. It is called Brenter, and has been without a history since the awful tale of '47 and '48 was written. Very few of its people had been able to go to America, and there are sore memories in South-Western Donegal of Brenter and eviction. Some years ago the property passed from the hands of the gentleman who owned it in those eventful years, and it came into the possession by purchase in the Landed Estate Courts of Mr Bastard, the present proprietor, who has administered the affairs of what was for many years known as the "stock farm" with general satisfaction. At Killybegs the Chief Secretary came nearer to the scene of his proposed inquiries, and the appearance of the romantically situated little town, with its magnificent natural harbour, and neat streets, must have been sufficient assurance that he had not yet reached the Ultima Thule of his Western progress. Here, where he remained for a couple of hours, the hom. gentleman had an interview with Dr Davis, the dispensary medical officer of the district, whom he sent for, and with Monsignor Stephens, the parish priest for the district, who flet it his duty not to allow the occasion to pass without urging the case of the Donegal fishermen. Dr Davis was asked if there was any famine fever in his district, and replied that he had not heard of the existence of any. He also stated a fact within his own knowledge, that during the sixteen or seventeen years since he had lived in the district he had not had less fever of any kind. Beyond this the doctor did not and was not asked to speak. Monsignor Stephens made two or three practical suggestions, to which the Chief Secretary listened with attention. In his own parish he said the people had suffered very much from the failure of the crops, particularly the potato crop, last season. He anticipated very serious distress amongst the parishoners before the next harvest arrives if something was not done. He did not point to the existence of any exceptional distress at the present moment. He suggested the introduction by the Government of some reproductive works, notably the formation of fishing piers at St John's Point, where their want was so badly felt. He added that often when there were acres of mackerel out in deep water, the fishermen were unable to take them for want of nets. The want of extended pier accommodation at Killybegs prevented the periodical calling of the Sligo steamers, a matter which, he said, the interest of entire districts were concerned.
Killybegs was, after all, however, only another stage a resting place in the journey to Kilcar and Glencolumbkille, where the real matter for inquiry lay, and accordingly, when Mr Trevelyan resumed his journey last evening, after a two hours' delay, it was with the full knowledge that the task which he had set himself when leaving Dublin was as yet untouched. The party, attended by some half-dozen police, drove off from Killybegs upon cartwide cars, and reached Carrick, nine Irish miles distant, between three and four o'clock. The road taken was the one by Muckross, which skirts the coast, and which, in bad weather, is probably the one to be preferred. It is the route generally adopted by tourists, but it may be doubtful if the attraction which the coast line offers in a scenic way can compensate for the loss of the drive up one of the hills, and the bird's-eye view of the Atlantic shore, which is obtainable in fine weather. Passing that way this evening, I saw the sun sink into the mighty ocean, and far below the white curt of the wave, as it leaped upon the shore, there was a tinge of purple mixed with the yellow of the hills, and away northward the black front of Slieve League frowned gloomily over the region of Glencolumbkille. The adoption of the lower road, involved a loss of another kind to anyone bent upon making the condition of the people a study for here and there along the mountain road are to be encountered cabins the squalid and poverty-stricken appearance of which simply beggars description. I do not mean to say for an instant that the Donegal cabin is a more impressive object than any of the other types of peasant dwelling to be found in Mayo, Kerry, and Galway. In some respects it is to be preferred to any of them, the filthy cesspools which is elsewhere, in the belief that "Where there's muck there's luck," permitted to form a distinctive feature in the approach to every small farmer's dwelling, is seen seldom here. The meanest of the homes have chimneys and window curtains, or a substitute for them of some kind or another is resorted to for the purpose of securing the privacy of the inmates : but there is more of that which would convey the idea of downright poverty, less appearance of "roughness," a term synonomous with plenty "of any kind" in the North, to be seen about the houses. A turf stack, or at the very outside, one or two small hay ricks, comprise the chief furnishing outside the dwelling. Of course these observations are intended merely to apply to the particular district I have mentioned : but they are, at the same time, typical of almost every inch of the country through which the Chief Secretary has passed. So far as the inside of the houses is concerned, I may say once for all, speaking for the present of the parish in which the Rev Mr Logue officiates, that a description of their interior should probably consist of a detailed account of the articles of domestic necessity and convenience which they do not contain. Beyond the people and their misery there is really very little in them. The public are already familiarised by means of the correspondence which has appeared in your columns, as well as by the earnest appeal for aid from the Rev Mr Logue, with the condition of this district and an attempted corroboration at any length by me of the statements already made could scarcely have the effect of deepening the interest which the response already made to the appeal for assistance proves to have been excited in the fate of these poor people. A few facts, however, which I have collected, given in a general way, may help to an accurate opinion upon a question which many people, however anxious to do so, will find it difficult - to the question namely, whether there is actual famine in Kilcar. Father Logue, in effect, says there is, and that were it not for the generous responses to his appeals which have enabled him to disperse relief, hundreds of families in his parish would either be under the care of the union authorities or dead of slow starvation. He believed very many of them would die before begging for admission at the gate of the workhouse. What then is the normal condition of these people? The average holding of the head of a family is some two or three, at the outside four acres of arable land, with mountain grazing for a couple of cows, and the average rent for such a holding will not be more than 3s 10s. As a source of income besides that derived from this land, there is nothing but the work done at "sprigging," a kind of fancy needlework known as flowering in other parts of the country, at which a well-handed girl may earn as much as three pence a day. The is absolutely nothing made by fishing by the larger number of people in this parish. The family live upon the produce of the little plot of arable ground during the greater part of the year, retaining the potatoes as food, and disposing of whatever crop of corn the barren soil may yield at the nearest market for the purpose of obtaining such other necessaries of life as may be within their reach. In good years the stock of food will last till May or June. how do they manage during the rest of the year before harvest? was the question that most naturally occurred to me. I was told that the pig, after paying the rent, if he has done fairly well, in a considerable part of this parish of Kilcar, supplies money to purchase meal up till the new crop comes in. If this be really the condition of the people in a year when the potato crop was one of average excellence, it may well be asked, "what becomes of them when the crop is as bad as it was last year?" The Rev Mr Logue would reply that they must die if they don't get relief. This is the case which Mr Trevelyan appears to have yesterday made it his business to inquire into. While he himself drove on to Carrick, Mr Hamilton and two other gentlemen paid a visit to the Rev Mr Logue, having previously made a personal investigation of two cabins in the parish. A very natural sentiment of wonder at the people ever having gone to that place to live arising out of an ample apprehension of the inability of so poor a region to support much animal life. The Rev gentleman did not make any attempt to satisfy; but he told his visitors that his parish contained 600 families, out of which he had for some time past been supplying 300 families with seven pounds weight of Indian meal per week, or a pound of meal per person per day. He also stated that this relief was distributed by him out of the funds which had been forwarded to him in money upon his own responsibility and upon the strength of his own perfect acquaintance with the circumstances of the people in the parish, which made it a matter of absolute certainty that the people to whom he gave the relief had nothing else in the world to eat, and would, therefore, buy nothing but food. He had also a check system in the required production of the tickets of meal purchased. Father Logue also informed Mr Hamilton that he had at present forty-five men, and expected next week to have more than that number working for relief at reproductive works, in the shape of making roads over the bogs, for the purpose of carrying turf. The people, he said, were most anxious to work if they could get it to do. Mr Hamilton said he had been asked by the Chief Secretary to inquire from Father Logue what was the average quantity of potatoes that an acre of arable land in his parish would produce, and the latter replied that it was a question he was not in a position to answer with anything like a fair degree of accuracy. It is a fact worth notice that very many of the tenants around Kilcar served originating notices under the Land Act, but none of their cases, I am informed, have ever come on for hearing. They had all been anxious to take advantage of the Arrears Act, and those of them who had been able to raise up the funds necessary to do so were to use the words of my informant, ruined entirely by it, and hadn't a bed to lie down upon, or a rag to cover them in a great portion of the district. The amount of arrears owed by the tenants was not excessive, but on the property of Mr Tredennick not less than nine years' rent was owed by many of the tenants. Before quitting this district one more word about it may be acceptable. It has been entirely free from outrage of an agrarian character, although the people, with such means as were at their disposal, threw themselves in with the Land League agitation when it was at its highest. Physically speaking, the inhabitants of this district are what their miserable surroundings and circumstances would naturally lead one to expect.
Mr Trevelyan kept close indoors at the hotel where he put up on reaching Carrick, last evening, having, however, had an interview with the dispensary doctor of the district as to the health of the people. This morning he was early afoot, and the party resumed the journey, travelling to Glencolumbkille, which is included in the district of which the Rev Mr Gallagher is the parish priest. It is about six Irish miles north of Carrick, by a narrow, difficult road leading right into the bosom of the range of mountains, amongst which Slieve League is viewed from the south of the most commanding peak. The delay here was only for a short period, to make inquiries, which were of a similar character to those made in the districts already visited. A new route south-east was struck in the direction of Ardara. From thence they went on to Glenties, arriving there about 4 o'clock, from which point the journey will be continued tomorrow to Gweedore.
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