Opinion: correspondence between scholars offers a fascinating and overlooked sense of the Great Famine in real time

The Great Irish Famine is, arguably, the most defining event of 19th-century Ireland. Affecting the whole of the island, it was, and is, described in biblical and apocalyptic terms. In attempting to convey the scale of it, scholars frequently focus on the vast numbers of those who died or who emigrated, or examine the Famine on a macro, rather than micro, level.

While there is no problem in this approach, it often ignores the more personal reflections that can be found in correspondence and in journals. One would not expect antiquarian correspondence to be a good source of this. They were, after all, scholars who spent their days translating medieval Irish literature, collecting folklore and writing history. Yet, as prolific corresponders with each other (sometimes several times a day to the same person), their letters offer a fascinating, and often overlooked, insight into the social and political matters of their day.

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John Windele was an antiquarian based in Cork who received letters from all over Ireland. One correspondent was Thomas Swanton, a Methodist land owner from Ballydehob in west Cork. He first began writing to Windele in 1846, when the potato harvest had failed for the second time and people were not optimistic about the outlook. As a member of the local Relief Committee, he offers a unique insight of how local landlords attempted to deal with the growing problem and of how frustrated he felt in not being able to do more to help, especially as he often paid out his own pocket.

On December 12th 1846, Swanton wrote warning that "there must soon be many deaths from famine in my neighbourhood if something effectual be not done." (RIA 4 B 6/104 (iii)) He grew frustrated with proposed work schemes, writing in a letter dated December 21st 1846 about how the local relief session was able to switch from fixing roads to breaking stones, which the men could at least do under sheds erected to keep them from the freezing rain. He ends the letter "I sincerely wish you many happy returns of this season which used to be joyous." (RIA 4 B 6/104 (v))

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland report by David Hanly from October 1995 on President Mary Robinson's call for British and Irish governments "to express genuine regret" for the Great Famine

His letters from 1847 spoke of the terrible conditions in the district, which he feels has been neglected, and his anger at the powers that be for not providing more help, especially those in eastern districts, which he does not feel to be as badly afflicted as west Cork or Connacht.

From the letters of another of Windele’s correspondents, we can see just how horrific the situation was. Whereas Swanton seems to be in a good personal situation, Rev. D. A. O’Sullivan from Enniskeane, who was a vicar in Bandon, wrote about his own hunger during 1847. His first letter on the subject is from March 27th 1847 and it is clear from its contents why he was not a frequent corresponder with Windele: "It was one o’clock this morning when I sat down to the dinner that was due to have at five yesterday. Fever is raging in all directions. Dead bodies for ten days without internment. My own nephew, a fine boy of 16 years of age lies dead in the next room, I fear that I will not be able; from the presence of such duty, to attend his remains to his father’s grave." (RIA 4 B 6/124)

From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, a discussion on the Coming Home: Art and The Great Hunger exhibition with artist Robert Ballagh and curator Niamh O'Sullivan

At this point, O’Sullivan was still able to have dinners but things had progressed at such a rate that he was forced to forage for food by July: "Fever here is on the increase; the rations are also decreased, and the harvest must get fit for employing all hands. We shall have much hunger, and I dread, much fever, yet to endure. However we must only beast the waves again; and from its perilous summit, preach controversy by living amid pestilence and death, or by dieing [sic] for our flocks.

"My chief diet since I saw you last consists of water cresses and an unpure [sic] spring. You can form no idea of what hunger is unless you have endured and felt it yourself. The most graphic and glowing description of it would give you but a very imperfect notion of it – the sensation and the chock [shock] must be only felt, not describable." (RIA 4 B 7/16)

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Ciaran Mullooly. from 2008 on a new famine archive at Maynooth Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House in Celbridge

One can contrast this with those supposed eastern districts to see that Swanton perhaps had a point. Redmond Anthony, an antiques dealer from Piltown in Co Kilkenny, complained that he had not been able to sell tickets to a lottery and that his business had been affected because of the distress. William Hackett from Midleton and the distilling family complained about how he was making a loss grinding relief corn. He sympathised with the poor people, though.

John O’Donovan, who was based in Dublin highlighted that conditions were bad there, writing on January 7th 1847 to James Hardiman in Galway that beggars rapped on his door every night. (RIA 12 N 10/46). Hardiman responded that, in Galway, "the fever meant that we are ‘walking in the midst of the shadow of death’" (RIA 24 O 39/JOD/38 (xxvi), p.5). O’Donovan frequently complained to a relative in Paris that his relatives in Kilkenny badgered him for money, when he found it hard to support himself and his young family. (NLI MS 132, no. 18).

 Life had went on regardless and the letters are interspersed with accounts of antiquarian research carried out

The letters highlight how the Famine affected all, even those in the supposedly safer eastern parts of the country. More importantly, they demonstrate how people reacted to the Famine on a personal level, witnessing death all around them. But life had went on regardless and the letters are interspersed with accounts of antiquarian research carried out. Seen as the news bulletins that they once were, these letters give a sense of the Famine in real time.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ