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Home History Account by Cpt. O'Brien on the effects of famine (1847)

Account by Cpt. O'Brien on the effects of famine (1847)

Parliamentary papers, Volume 52: RELIEF OF DISTRESS (IRELAND)

CORRESPONDENCE From January to March 1847
Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty


[Page 180]

Captain O'Brien to Lieut-Colonel Jones. Dublin, March 2, 1847. SLIGO. Having proceeded to Sligo, in compliance with the Board's orders, dated 20th, I became aware that great destitution existed in the northern part of that county, especially in the barony of Carberry. I therefore acceded to the desire of Sir Robert Gore Booth, that I should personally satisfy myself by inspection of the exact state of affairs there.


Blowing Sands, Ordnance Survey 1837 map
Blowing Sands, Ordnance Survey 1837 map. Click to view larger image.

On the 27th,Sir Robert Booth took me to a place, called the "Sands," situated on the north [...] The "Sands" embraces about 450 acres, and contains 60 huts, or thereabout, scattered over it, with a population of five to each hut. The sand has drifted to the tops of the walls of the huts, and in many places has accumulated, so as to be almost even with the ridge of the roofs. The entrance is by the old door-way, from which a sloping passage is daily cleared to the surface of the surrounding sand, and it is impossible to enter without crawling on hands and knees. The door is kept constantly shut to exclude the drift, of the fine particles. Windows there can be none; hence the inhabitants are in darkness, even in noon-day, during the greater part of the year. Some of the families have been there since, previous to the land being rendered unproductive. Others are squatters in these burrow-holes, when deserted by the original inhabitants. Hitherto they have lived by fishing, by cutting turf from a neighbouring bog, and selling it with marine sand for manure, in the town of Sligo, by conacre on the firm ground within two miles of them, and not a few of them by theft.

The ground is the property of a Mr. Gethan, whose means I was told, are totally inadequate to render them any assistance.

With Sir R. Booth, I went into five of these huts indiscriminately, in fact just as they lay in our path.

In the first, into which I crawled with difficulty, lay a coffin holding the owner's wife, who had died three days before, of want. The owner stood near the door, having come from the "Public Works" (where he had been earning 8d. per day) to see to burying his wife, and he told us he was about to depart "to dig a hole to put her in, and try and get a couple of men from the works to help him to carry her there." A skeleton of a living child was in a cradle, in a corner near the turf fire. A woman, a neighbour, was sitting by it, and rocking the cradle, and said it would be dead before morning, and added (truly!) "It would be better if we were all dead." The child's cradle, and a broken table, comprised the entire furniture.

The door of the second hut we came to, was shut. We called, and knocked. A voice answered from within. The door gradually opened, and out of this hole, appeared the head of a man. By degrees we saw his body, as he crawled into the light, and knelt down in the doorway, his head touching the upper framing, that is the eaves of the roof. His face and lips were colourless. His entire clothing consisted of a dirty coarse shirt, in shreds. When he saw us, he called out "Send for the priest to me ; I will be gone before morning ; I am dying of the starvation." In answer to our questions, he said, " he could do nothing, he could not go to the works; his belly was all swelled, and he had bad pains all through it to his back. Sir Robert Gore Booth asked him if he had any one to send to the meal depot, which was two miles distant He called a little girl from the hut, but when Sir Robert was giving her directions where to obtain half a stone of meal, the man cried out, "Can you give any bread, I will be dead before the meal comes, give me bread now ; there is a shop not a mile off; give me a bit of bread now." I doubt that he is now alive.

From the door of the third hut, which we stopped at, came a tall strongly made man, followed by a woman with a child in her arms, and two little girls. The child in arms was evidently dying. I asked the man if he had been at work. He showed me his feet, and asked me how any man could work with feet in that state; they were so swelled, the skin appeared ready to burst; the soft-yielding sand permitted him to walk, where I saw him ; he could not have moved a step on the hard road. He had within the previous week buried his mother and his sister.

Into the fourth hut we came to, we crawled backwards on our hands and knees. On a bedstead with a little straw over it lay a man covered only by an old quilt; his face was so swollen his eyes were scarcely to be perceived ; his feet and ancles also much swelled; his knees and thighs, which he showed, wasted to the bone ; "his belly swelled up too;" his wife was cowering over an iron pot, suspended above a turf fire, with a young child in her arms. Three other children were sitting about, and a young man was preparing a fishing-line. The father showed his limbs, and said he believed himself to be dying; the mother held up the infant, bared its body, and discovered to us its little bones almost starting through the skin. She made the other children turn their faces to the light, which came in at the door-way, and made us observe how they were "swelled with starvation." She put aside her own petticoat, which she told us she had that morning borrowed from a neighbour to go out with decency to beg or borrow a little barley, and showed us the only garment she possessed, which was the remains of a green stuff petticoat, but so much in shreds as not to conceal many, and considerable portions of her fleshless legs. The young man said, he was going out to fish in the morning, as he hoped to do no more in that way, to "stop the starvation," than he could by earning 8d. a-day on the Public Works. I asked what was in the iron pot; the woman answered that it was the barley she had begged in the morning. She stirred up the liquor with a ladle; we could see no barley, save a grain or two; the liquor was not more nourishing than so much hot water.

The fifth hut was on the verge of the Sands, and not buried as were the others. There was evidence that things here had been better at no very distant period; the dresser, and a few odds and ends of crockery were clean, but the effects of famine were more perceptible even than in the other huts. The family were eight in number. Where the father was, I do not remember, but, I am almost sure that, whether alive or dead, he rendered them no assistance. The mother was lying on the ground huddled near the fire, attenuated and moaning. Two lads of the ages of 16 and 18 in a bed, where they had been for two days, not able to go to the Public Works, upon which they had been previously earning 6d. each ; and they presented


Beyond this district to the westward is the large and populous village of Ballyconnell; I did not go there, but I was told it was scarcely better than "the Sands." To the north, as far as Cliffony, matters are scarcely better; and, I was informed, the same sad tale was to be told of nearly every place in the baronies of Carbury and Rosclogher, except where provision has been made by Sir Robert Booth to feed the people.

Sir Robert Booth's estate is large, and the supplies he has procured would keep those of his own well enough, were he not pressed also to feed his neighbours' tenants. At his own place, Lissadele, he has established two soup boilers, which make each 140 gallons of soup, and I calculated the cost of the soup in each boiler to be about 32s. 6d. He gives, gratuitously, 280 gallons of this soup per day, every day including Sundays. He sells, six days in the week, 150 loaves per day, each being 4 ounces larger than the 4d. loaf sold in Sligo, and sold by him at 2d. per loaf. He also sells 30 tons of Indian corn per week at a reduced price, and gives a portion of Indian corn to about 30 persons daily.

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