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A Famine Document

Laurence M Geary

More than a century ago, James Coleman published a short article, ‘Voyage of the “Jamestown”’, in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, in which he recounted the arrival of the US warship Jamestown in Cork Harbour on Monday 12 April 1847. The vessel had departed from the Charlestown Navy Yard, Massachusetts, two weeks earlier, on 28 March, with a capacity cargo of some 800 tons of Irish famine relief supplies, valued at $40,000, on board. The provisions and clothing had been donated or purchased with money raised among the people of Boston, the state of Massachusetts, and parts of New England.

The need for the Jamestown mission, and further humanitarian intervention during the extremely difficult winter and spring of 1846-7, was captured in an apocalyptic leading article in a Cork newspaper some weeks after the arrival of the vessel in the Harbour:

We are overwhelmed with distress; we are crushed with taxation; we are scourged by famine; and visited by pestilence. Our jails are full; our poor houses choked; our public edifices turned into lazar houses; our cities mendicities; our streets morgues; our church yards fields of carnage. Our ordinary trade is gone; our people are partially demoralised. Society itself is breaking up; selfishness seizes upon all; class repudiates class; the very ties of closest kindred are snapt asunder. Sire and son, landlord and occupier, town and country repudiate each other, ceasing to co-operate – Terror and hunger, disease and death afflict us … Is there a locality in which there are not dire distress, horrible suffering, utter penury, and total idleness through the absence of employment?

The Jamestown was under the command of Captain Robert Bennet Forbes (1804-1889), a Boston merchant and mariner of Scottish descent. He was a man of integrity and tenacity and was driven by a strong sense of Christian compassion and commitment. Forbes generated and retained extensive documentation on the voyage – material on the background to and preparations for the journey, his correspondence with a large number of business and political contacts, financial details, the ship’s manifest and log, and a range of newspaper cuttings relating to the Jamestown’s reception in Cork and in the country generally. Within months of his return to the United States, having successfully completed his mission, Forbes published a record of the undertaking, which consisted of a narrative of the events and a voluminous set of appendices featuring many of the original documents.

This publication was the source for Coleman’s JCHAS article. He was necessarily selective, focusing on Forbes’ account of the voyage and its trappings, and ignoring the appendices. Coleman rehearsed the origins of the voyage and the vessel’s arrival in Cork Harbour; the reception afforded the captain and his officers by the people of Cove and of Cork generally; the ship’s cargo; Captain Forbes’ description of a disturbing visit he paid to some of the poorer parts of Cork city in the company of Fr Theobald Mathew, the temperance advocate, who had befriended Forbes on his arrival in Ireland; the names of those who attended a public dinner in Cove to honour and thank Forbes and his officers; an appeal to Forbes for charitable assistance by Fr P. D. O’Regan, the Catholic administrator of Cove, ‘on behalf of the many victims of fever and extreme penury’ in the town and parish.

Similarly, concerned individuals from various parts of Munster sought a portion of the Jamestown cargo for local distribution, although Coleman did not recount their details. The appellants included Revd John Stewart, Templetrine Glebe, near Kinsale, Revd J. H. Swanton of Skibbereen, Archdeacon John O’Sullivan, parish priest of Kenmare, magistrate James Hickson of Kenmare, and Stephen Moore (1792-1883), 3rd earl of Mount Cashell, who pleaded on behalf of his Kilworth tenants. In his lengthy appeal to Forbes, Mount Cashell explained that he was a resident landlord who was attempting to relieve ‘the overwhelming mass of pauperism’ that surrounded him but as his tenants were unable to pay any rent and as his own resources were at an end he could do little more for them even though their situation was daily becoming more critical. The local clergy estimated that more than 7,000 of the district’s 9,800 residents were mired in misery and distress. Mount Cashell’s charitable appeal was substantiated by an accompanying memorandum listing 118 individuals from the area who had died from starvation or its attendant diseases since the beginning of the year, mostly ‘in their miserable cabins from cold, hunger and nakedness’.

Forbes included Mount Cashell’s plea for assistance in his published account of the Jamestown voyage and its trappings but, surprisingly, he omitted the return of famine-related deaths in the Kilworth district. This document, which is transcribed below, is to be found, along with Mount Cashell’s pleading letter, among the Robert Bennet Forbes’ papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives in Boston.

A return of famine-related deaths, headed ‘Deaths by Starvation in the District of Kilworth from the 1st January last’, dated 17 April 1847, submitted by the earl of Mount Cashell to Captain R. B. Forbes:

Townland Name Comment Total number of deaths
Maurice Coughlan, his wife and 5 children A 12-year-old daughter survives 7
Bridget O’Donnell 1
Thomas Daly and 3 children 4
Patrick O’Donnell 1
Maurice Pigot and his wife 2
Edward Garret and his wife 2
Michael Daly 1
John Cleary 1
James Mahoney and daughter 2
John Geary, his wife and 2 children 4
David Reardon 1
John Heffernan 1
Widow Bourke and daughter 2
Thomas Carey and son 2
James Fleming 1
James Murley 1
Mary Reardon 1
John Ahern 1
John Neagle and son 2
David Carroll 1
Patrick Berry and 5 children They died in the poorhouse, ‘being exhausted before they entered it’ 6
John Harrington, his wife and 2 children 4
John Bowler and his wife 2
Edward Harrington and his wife ‘These were dead several days, no one being found to bury them, till Lady Mount Cashell had to pay for it’ 2
John Magner and 2 children 3
Frank Magner, his wife and 2 children 4
Bill Fitzgerald’s daughter 1
Widow Pyne’s daughter 1
David Keeffe 1
John Bourk, his mother-in-law, and 2 children 4
John Kenely’s 3 children 3
White Bog
Thomas Slattery and 3 sons 4
Thomas Sweeney and his sister 2
Patrick Duggan 1
Michael Reardon and son 2
John Lyon’s child 1
Patrick Moher 1
David Moher and his sister 2
Thomas Moher 1
John McGrath 1
Widow Sheehan and 4 children ‘All this family fell victims to famine’ 5
Edward walsh and 2 children 3
John English and daughter 2
Peter Keeffe and 3 children 4
Michael Shanahan’s wife and 2 children 3
? (possibly Kate) Pyne 1
John Dawson 1
Arthur Keeffe and child 2
John Howe, his wife and 3 children 5
James Carty’s 2 children 2
John McGrath’s wife 1
John Foley and his wife 2
James Moher 1
Net total: 118

The compiler of the return, probably a representative of the local clergy, appended the following note in relation to the recently deceased James Carty and his wife, from Kilclogh, whose two children had died some time previously:

The man died of exhaustion. Whilst making some stirrabout he fell on the pot [,] unable to recover himself till his person was frightfully burnt, by his child (3 years old) continuing to supply fuel to the pot – and in one hour afterwards his wife also died – Corroborated by the coroner’s jury, whose finding is, ‘exhaustion by starvation’.

A decision had been taken prior to the Jamestown’s departure from the United States that the cargo would be reserved for the sole use of the people of Cork city and county. On 17 April, a representative body, named the New England Relief Committee after its Boston progenitor, was appointed in Cork, with Lord Francis Bernard (1810-1877), Conservative MP for Bandon, as its nominal chairman, Major North Ludlow Beamish (1796-1872), as vice-chairman, and N. M. Cummins as secretary, to oversee the distribution of the cargo. Forbes had previously pledged some of the cargo to the Cove Sick Relief Fund, the Cove Relief Committee, and to a number of others, including a supply of seed potatoes to Fr Mathew. The New England Relief Committee in Cork estimated that about 600 tons of the original cargo remained, and they proceeded on the basis that 572 tons were available for distribution.

Captain William E. D. Broughton, an inspector for the Irish Poor Law Commission and a member of the New England Relief Committee, proposed a distribution scheme that was adopted by the committee: Cork city was allocated twenty tons of food, and the city’s hinterland, the so-called Cork district, received sixty tons. The rest of the county was divided into eighteen districts, subdivided into a varying number of localities, with each locality receiving four tons of food, including three casks of pork. The supplies were consigned to a named individual for distribution within each district. About half of the cargo was carried by sea to the coastal towns of Youghal, Bantry, Glandore, Clonakilty, and Kinsale, and a sub-committee was responsible for distributing the remainder of the relief supplies in the interior of the county, in mid, north and north-west Cork.

Despite Mount Cashell’s personal plea to Captain Forbes, and his membership of the New England Relief Committee, the Kilworth district was not privileged in relation to the Jamestown cargo. When Mount Cashell expressed his surprise at the district’s omission from the distribution scheme during a meeting of the relief committee, he received a waspish response from Broughton, to the effect that as a resident and wealthy landlord Mount Cashell ought to take responsibility for his own tenants, provide for their welfare and employment, and not leave them dependent on charitable relief from America or elsewhere. The victim of this public rebuke was greatly offended, regarding Broughton’s intervention as an attack on his integrity, which was motivated by personal dislike and ill-will. However, Broughton was not the only one to question Mount Cashell’s actions and probity. The Kilworth landlord was a controversial figure and was severely censured in the press, for the divisiveness and politicking he brought to the Kilworth Famine Relief Committee, among other perceived transgressions.

It appears that a combination of financial mismanagement and Mount Cashell’s personality was the root cause of his unpopularity. By 1846-7, those most critical of famine years, Mount Cashell was in dire financial straits, a victim of swindling agents and solicitors, and at the mercy of creditors who were pressing from all sides. It was very different a quarter of a century earlier, when, in 1822, as a thirty-year-old, he succeeded to his father’s title and the family estates, consisting of more than 60,000 acres in counties Antrim, Cork and Tipperary, and miscellaneous properties in Limerick, Waterford, Dublin and Kildare. In the following decade, he speculated in Canadian property to the extent of 25,000 acres. Mount Cashell resided at Moore Park, on a 1,000 acre demesne which was part of his 5,961 acre property in and around the parish of Kilworth in north Cork. This multi-propertied individual was a pious, evangelical Protestant and a man of strong Tory principles, who, since his accession to the family title and estates in the early 1820s, had offended political and religious sensibilities in Cork and elsewhere. He was arrogant, opinionated and tedious. More critically, according to his biographer, he was an inept administrator of his extensive and scattered estates and a disastrously incompetent financial manager. These personal and administrative shortcomings were to land him in the Encumbered Estates Court in the early 1850s, and culminated in his bankruptcy a few years later.

Mount Cashell’s plea for famine relief for his Kilworth tenants was genuine and heartfelt, but unavailing. Forbes had some discretion in relation to the Jamestown cargo but by the time of Mount Cashell’s appeal he had ceded responsibility to the New England Relief Committee, among whom Broughton appears to have been influential, and the relief supplies were distributed in accordance with his scheme. The American philanthropic intervention came at a critical time, Spring 1847, during that interregnum in government relief policies, between the slow winding down of the public works programme and the introduction of soup kitchens to feed the starving. Under these circumstances the Jamestown supplies prolonged and maybe even saved the lives of an unknown number of individuals, though not specifically in the Kilworth district.


Laurence M Geary teaches in the School of History at University College Cork.



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