Bobby bought me a selection of books for Christmas, chiefly second-hand ones from the charity shop in the Supervalu shopping centre in Kenmare – KLAWS :- Kenmare & Locality Animal Welfare Society.
KLAWS do an amazing job, with a considerable amount of help from the Kenmare Veterinary Centre; to spay or neuter feral cats and find homes for stray, abandoned or uncared for dogs.
He also bought me, from Donovan’s; delightful little newsagent and shop, old-fashioned in character, on Main Street; a brand spanking new book! “Holy Cross Church Kenmare 150 1864-2014 – A Social & Local History” compiled by the Holy Cross 150 History Group.
I am not a regular church goer, having been excommunicated for most of my adult life: I will keep “living in sin with married men” (as there is no such thing as divorce in the RC church, Bobby, my husband, whose first wife left him over two decades ago, is still considered married to her!)I do, of course, attend weddings and funerals, but I don’t “receive” (Communion). But I have had occasion to get to know, a little, the present PP Fr Tom Crean (in organising the funeral arrangements for Bobby’s late and very dear mother, Francie), and I found him a most excellent man, open and generous of spirit, friendly and willing to go the extra mile to help others.
His panegyric delivered at the Requiem Mass of a dear old friend, Florry O’Sullivan “Pendy” displayed an intimate understanding of the deceased; his words so true, so relevant, and thus so moving.
On the face of it, a book written to celebrate 150 years since the building of a parish church might not sound all that interesting, especially when one doesn’t attend that church. This could not be further from the truth!
The book is fascinating. A truly remarkable collection of local history both documented and passed down orally through the ages.
A clue to just how relevant and interesting the book is can be surmised from its title; anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Irish history would recognise immediately that it will take the reader back to that blackest of times: the Great Famine; Sometimes known as the “Potato Famine” which is a gross over-simplification of the complex “perfect storm” of conditions which actually caused the famine when the potato crop failed. (Much of the problem faced by Ireland can be traced back to the Act of Union in 1801 and the Penal Laws of the 17th & 18th Centuries which prevented Catholics (the vast majority; over 80% of the population) from purchasing or leasing land, voting, holding office, being educated, entering a profession, or even living within 5 miles of a “corporate town”. Many of these laws were removed by 1793 and in 1829 the Act of Emancipation gave Catholics back their rights, but the damage had been done. The clock could not be put back so easily. Land was still owned by “Absentee Landowners; English Aristocracy who seldom visited Ireland and who instead appointed infamous “middlemen”; Agents who collected rent on their behalf and who divided up the land into ever smaller pieces so as to exact the maximum rental income until the small parcels were so wholly inadequate to support or feed the cotter who rented it.
It is a sobering, and shameful fact, that while the country starved to death in their millions, approximately 30 – 50 shiploads of food left Ireland destined to feed the burgeoning English population.
The bounty from the sale of these goods went to these absentee Landlords whose chief, if not sole, residence was England.
It is hard to know which had a worse affect on the people of Ireland: the Corn Laws which held back the sale of cheap imported grain from the New World by enforcing heavy levies on them and ensuring the English Corn Growers maintained their income; or the repeal of same which resulted in shipments of inedible yellow meal flooding into Ireland as a last ditch attempt to feed the starving masses. There were no mills in Ireland equipped to grind these stone-hard maize kernels which needed to be cooked twice before it could safely be eaten).
The church itself is a very fine one, built in the Gothic style, with beautifully worked stained glass windows, a ceiling of wooden carved angels, graceful columns and intricate reredos etc etc etc.
But what I didn’t know was that it was built by the PP at the time of the Famine, Father John O’Sullivan. Not ONE penny of the cost was put onto the impoverished parishioners. Through his own extraordinary efforts he accrued ALL the money; a not inconsiderable sum: £15,000 (which sum includes the cost of the adjoining convent and school) himself. Much of this sum was expended on wages and was paid to the very people who would benefit from its completion; providing them with badly needed employment for two years.
Fr. John was a man of vision. And energy. Although he came from a fairly unextraordinary background; in fact, depending on what you measure his childhood against, one might even say he came from a rather disadvantaged one.
He was born in Tralee in 1807. His father was a painter, but a man of “uncommon talent” who was “addicted” to reading and possessed a good library. He died when John was 6 ½, the oldest of 3 children. John’s mother, now widowed and unable to meet his School fees, intended him to go into his Uncle Stephen Walsh’s cabinet-making business, but fortunately for all of us, he had eminent connections who recognised his advanced Latin learning even at that age. One such connection was “The Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, who pleaded with the widow not to take him out of school and bind him to his Uncle’s business, and offered instead to pay his school fees. However, his School Master, Bob Slater “one of the most beautiful scholars that ever taught in Kerry” would not hear of taking a single penny for his education. He continued to excel in his studies and went on to further education, always attracting generous benefactors, keen to support him in his ambition to become a priest.
His conduct during and after the Famine can only be described as extraordinary. For example; Mr. Hickson, a “particular friend” of Fr. John’s from his first curacy in Dingle some years earlier, and who was Lord Landsdowne’s Agent, collected £50 and gave it to the priest for the purpose of distributing it amongst the poor. The priest however had other ideas and instead sent to Skibbereen for a cargo of potatoes which he then SOLD to the people and then ordered more. In this way he distributed about £1000 worth of potatoes “and all parties acknowledged in the end that more good was done by that management than would have been done if the £50 had been distributed at once.” This account is on record and was part of Fr. O’Sullivan’s evidence given to the House of Commons Select Committee (Report into Poor Laws (Ireland)1849).
He continued in this manner, importing £8000 worth of food from an initial sum of £200.
I cannot help thinking of the “Loaves and the Fishes” when I think of how he stretched what he was given and fed so many.
Interestingly too, whilst being questioned by the Select Committee he raised the subject of “dietary” provided at the Workhouse. He visited two Workhouses in England; one in Stafford and the other at St. George Hanover Square. Here he begged a copy of the dietary so as to compare it with what the paupers in Kenmare were expected to live on. The Committee, in a vain attempt to dodge the bullet enquired as to whether he had made a similar comparison with other Workhouses in Ireland, but he was not to be fobbed off and retorted “No; but I take it that Irish paupers ought to be fed as well as English every day in the year”
The “Extracts From The Minutes Of The Meetings Of Kenmare Union Board Of Guardians” in the book make truly harrowing reading.
The Workhouse was built to house 250 people, and the nearby Fever Hospital which still stands intended for 40. At its peak there were almost 3000 paupers in total; men, women and children: being fed at the Workhouse, though only the women slept there. Several other auxiliary buildings were rented or built in order to house the men and children. There are appalling accounts of brutality too and God only knows what the children were subjected to in their hopelessly inadequate and utterly inappropriate accommodation. There are accounts of one six year old boy falling to his death from an upstairs window during the night and another whose body showed suspicious markings, evidently sustained by the most violent of assaults.
The Minutes list each week’s toll of paupers who had died, who were admitted or turned away (who very often fell down dead on the roadside on their journey home to the hovel they came from).
Details of numbers of coffins contracted from various suppliers are given, but this soon became hopelessly impractical and they ultimately resorted to mass graves, dozens of bodies, their skeletal remains intertwined, tumbled into vast pits.
Famine Fever, Relapsing Fever, Cholera, Dysentery, typhus, smallpox and ultimately, starvation took the lives of some 5000 souls during the Great Famine from the Kenmare area alone. A further 5000 were forced to emigrate to America, Canada and Australia.
The Medical Officer, Dr. Tom Taylor, whose anguish can be felt from these minutes, as he struggles against hopeless odds to improve the plight of those patients with fever, succumbed to fever himself after nearly three years of daily attendance. One feels that he knew this would be his fate. We hear from his accounts that the South-facing windows of the fever hospital letting in water which flooded the building, saturating the sparse straw on which these wretched people were bedded down. There was never sufficient turf to keep fires burning to relieve their suffering and coal could not be purchased. He constantly battles against the habitual practice of administering coffee to patients in place of milk, noting “nothing could be more improper or cruel as the patients are tormented with thirst which coffee will not quench as such a drink retards recovery and promotes a fatal termination”. There are accounts of “Daniel Hegarty aged 2 and Peter Sullivan aged 3” receiving coffee in the evening instead of milk and “Florence Sullivan born in the House on the 9th inst (December 1846), his mother having no suck, received coffee instead of milk and perished in 7 days”. To our modern eyes it seems inconceivable that anyone would think it appropriate to offer a newborn infant coffee without knowing what the consequences would be. It seems extraordinary that the child survived as long as he did.
The “dietary” was carefully allocated according to the conditions of the “pauper”; a working male (who would be breaking up limestone rock for eight hours a day) was given a breakfast of 8oz of “Indian Meal” made into a “stirabout”, 1oz of sugar. For Dinner 14oz cheap bread, 2oz oatmeal “made into a soup” (the other ingredients of this “soup” being water, salt and pepper!)
Able-bodied working females: Breakfast 7oz Indian Meal made into a stirabout, 1oz sugar. Dinner: 12oz cheap bread, 1 ½ oz oatmeal made into soup.
Aged and infirm persons and adults of either sex not working: Breakfast 6 oz of Indian Meal made into a stirabout, 1 oz sugar. Dinner: 10oz cheap bread 1 ½ oz oatmeal made into a soup.
Boys and Girls above 9 and under 15: Breakfast: 5 oz Indian Meal made into a stirabout, ½ pint of milk. Dinner: 8oz cheap bread 1oz oatmeal made into a soup + 4oz bread.
Children above 5 and under 9: Breakfast: 4oz Indian Meal made into a stirabout, ½ pint milk. Dinner: 6oz cheap bread 1oz oatmeal made into soup + 4 oz bread.
Children above 2 and under 5: Breakfast: 3 oz Indian Meal made into a stirabout, ½ pint of milk. Dinner: 6oz cheap bread 1oz oatmeal made into soup + 4oz bread.
Infants under 2: 8oz white bread and 1 pint of milk daily.
As we know from the records, fresh milk was increasingly difficult if not impossible to obtain and the children were often given coffee instead, to the dismay of Dr. Taylor.
The Poor Relief (Ireland) Bill granting outdoor relief and establishing soup kitchens became law in 1847. But if his miserable plot exceeded 1 rood (¼ acre) by so much as a single foot, he and his family were put out of the reach of any relief. If a pauper, whose rated value was less than £5 wished to emigrate, his landlord had to facilitate him, foregoing any rent and providing two thirds of the fair, provided he first “sack” or “tumble” his home to prevent any other unfortunate from squatting in it.
These dwellings are described as being little more than a pile of stones. They had a doorway but no door, windows without glazing; nothing in fact to keep out the worst excesses of weather. The roof was a sort of thatch made from “finán” (a seasonal summer grass which grows on bogland in tufts and turns to a thin, pale straw colour in autumn). There was scarce enough room to stand up inside and the hovel had no chimney. There were no separate sleeping apartments within and scarcely enough straw to supply them with a bed. Very few had any other coverings such as a blanket. Their clothing was described by many different accounts as rags; threadbare and literally falling to pieces as they wore them. Some were in such a condition as they scarcely covered them decently. Hardly any had shoes of any kind or even stockinged feet.
Some of the auxiliary buildings where the excess persons slept were as far as two miles away. This meant that they had to walk, in all weathers, to the Workhouse for their meagre meals. If the weather was bad, their rags gave them little protection and by the time they’d finished their journey they were “wet right through to the skin of their emaciated bodies”.
For some it would be their last journey and many, as previously stated, died along the roadside.
Fr. John O’Sullivan loved these people. He strived tirelessly for them. He wrote reams of letters appealing for help in every possible quarter, befriended wealthy benefactors, sympathetic to their cause and practically turned himself into a grain merchant on their behalf.
He built them a Convent and induced an order of nuns; the Poor Clares; to come to Kenmare (from Derry). It was his vision that the nuns would clothe and feed the poorest of the children and provide an education for them.
They learned lace making and were so successful at it that in the 19th Century Kenmare lace was famous around the world and provided employment and an income for impoverished girls.
Over 200 children were given a hot breakfast of porridge by the nuns, and bread for lunch. Fr. John bought flannel and tweed and the nuns made them clothes.
The nuns observed that the children, “so unused to eating meat, upon being offered it found it revolted them and they were quite unable to eat it”.
Even after his death, Fr. John’s care of his flock continued: In his Will he “bequeathed £300 from his Life Insurance together with £400 in the Funds and about £200 in Provincial Bank and in house to the Bishop, to place it in Funds and apply the interest of it annually to the clothing of the most distressed children attending the schools”. He observed “The interest of £800 will make a good many poor creatures comfortable every year…..”
NB Despite having written to the PP Fr Tom Crean, asking permission from him and the group to quote extracts from this book, after several weeks my letter remains unanswered. Therefore, If anyone from the said group wishes to complain of my use of extracts, please do so via this blog and I will remove them.