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The famine in Skibbereen

The 'Great Hunger' was one of many famines in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century, but the size of the disaster dwarfed those that preceded it. A contemporary comment was that "God sent the blight, but the English made the famine": and to some extent this was true because the governments of both Peel and Lord John Russell did little to help the Irish population.

On 15 December 1846, one of the Cork magistrates, Mr Nicholas Cummins, visited Skibbereen and sent a letter describing what he saw to the Duke of Wellington and a copy to The Times. The letter was published in the newspaper on 24 December 1846.

The Whig government headed by Lord John Russell did not send food to Skibbereen. There were plentiful supplies of meat, bread and fish in the area, according to the Board of Work’s Relief Inspector’s report and no one seemed to realise that the starving Irish had no money with which to buy it. However, on 8 January 1847, Charles Edward Trevelyan, the permanent head of the Treasury, wrote a minute on behalf of the Lords of the Treasury. This was the sole response of the British government.

Being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men could carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on.

In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around, when my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins - the sole covering of herself and baby. The same morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats.

The Times, 24 December 1846


It is their Lordships desire that effectual relief should be given to the inhabitants of the district in the neighbourhood of Skibbereen the local Relief Committees should be stimulated to the utmost possible exertion; soup kitchens should be established under the management of these Committees at such distances as will render them accessible to all the destitute inhabitants and ... liberal donations should be made by Government in aid of funds raised by local subscriptions.

Correspondence ... relating ... to the Relief of the Distress in Ireland (Commissariat Series), H.C. (1847)

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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