This first-hand account – letters written from Kerry on a daily basis in April/May 1847 – is one of the few contemporaneous written records of what was happening in Kerry during the Great Famine (1847-1852).
Transcribed by myself (Kay Caball) from the handwritten letters in Quaker archives, October 2016.
At a meeting of the Religious Society of Friends held in Dublin in November 1846, it was decided to establish a Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends. This committee was to have two main objects – the raising of funds for distribution and the gathering of accurate information regarding the severity of the situation in the most destitute areas. The accuracy of this information would allow the Society to give relief where it was most wanted and this information would also be disseminated to the wider public, particularly the public in England, where it was believed that some of the newspaper accounts were exaggerated.
The Limerick committee would act as the gatherers of information and administers of relief within their own areas. Limerick was given responsibility for the Kerry Baronies of Iraghticonnor and Clanmaurice. Cork Quakers were to look after the remaining six Kerry baronies of Corkaguiny, Trughanacmy, Iveragh, Dunkerron North, Dunkerron South, Glanerought and Maguinhy.
The aim of raising funds and distributing them where most needed was immediately implemented. From their own funds the Central Relief Committee donated 1,705, equivalent to more than €90,000 at to-day’s prices. Funds were also sought and received from the London Relief Committee and from U.S. Friends mainly in New York and Philadelphia. An appeal to American Friends helped to spread the news of the magnitude of the destitution, resulting in donations being offered throughout the United States. By May 1847 the financial contributions sent from North America had amounted to £15,000. We can see that one of the main aims when setting up the Central Relief Committee was to gather accurate information and in this regard a number of English Friends arrived in Ireland, and travelled through some of the worst hit areas, particularly in the western parts of the country, assessing the extent of the disaster, distributing relief and setting up Soup Kitchens. Quakers holding an absolute respect for the truth, their accounts which they wrote as they travelled along, were invaluable in informing the world of the disastrous state of Ireland.
Letters Written by Edmund Richards & Edward Fitt
Report of Friends through the Co. of Kerry 4th Mo 29th 1847
We crossed this day from Kilrush to Tarbert & from thence to Listowel. When within one mile of the latter place, we were informed that a most distressed family lived there; having stopped the vehicle we proceeded into the poor man’s dwelling & here beheld by the aid of a lighted piece of bog deal, the father of 7 children, stretched on a miserable pallet on the floor, he had been 14 days sick, no doctor had seen him nor had any relief been sent, being unwell he lost his labor (sic) on the public works and was thus reduced. We procured medical aid for him, the doctor said he was beyond the power of medicine; some wine and beef tea were ordered for him which we sent to him.
In the morning he was alive but having much to pass over we left assistance for his relief. We mention this as an isolated case and as the cottage was near the public road makes it a case to show the apparent apathy of those around. The country from Tarbert to Listowel generally speaking is very poor, with a number of wretched cabins along.
The relief committee of which Capt Holmes is chairman, have funds sufficient to supply immediate relief, and intend to commence their operations early next week. We were informed that there is gratuitous relief afforded at Ennismore the residence of John Hewson. The fever hospital is full several cases sent away for want of room, one of which came under our notice . A man attacked with fever was brought into town in a cart covert (sic) with a garment and exposed to the pitiless storm of hail and rain but we hope something was ultimately done for him we recommended relief committee (some members whom we met) to fit up temporary accommodation for those truly unfortunate people, when famine and disease are so predominant. The government local inspector Lieut. Greenwell assisted us a good deal in our object.
4th Mo 30 1847
We left Listowel this morning for Ballyheigue passing through the village of Ballyduff where gratuitous relief was being dispensed. At the causeway (sic) we had a meeting with the Committee. They have some funds, but as dysentery was prevalent we wrote your committee to forward them ½ ton Rice from Tarbert. We called on Richd Plummer Cleg who recd us courteously and furnished us with useful information regarding the district. Causeway & Ballyduff are in a distressed state. We called on J.P. Chute Ballyhorgan and were pleased to hear that their funds are adequate for the present exigency; we were informed that in many of the places much potatoes were stored, thereby retaining stock for the present season. This is gratifying and we hope that it may be the means of relieving in some measure the visitation which is so general over this land.
We arrived in Tralee late in the evening and had an interview with Capt Laballmondier, Inspector of the district as to the extreme west part of the county, the information recd confirmed the prospect of our friend E. Richards to extend his labours towards Dingle.
On the following morning we waited on E.B. Rowan Clrg, at his residence Belmont near Tralee. Having ascertained the state of the western locality, we decided on moving off for Castlegregory & thence to Dingle. At Castlegregory the state of the people is indeed distressing, we had a meeting with three of the Committee, R.F. Swindell, P. Curate, Jn O’Kane P.P., & W. Busteed M.D. Fever and dysentery prevail to an alarming extent, more than 120 cases labouring under those diseases were attended to at the Dispensary yesterday (6th day). & many that could not be attended to were sent away for the next day of attendance, of which number many may perish from inability to attend. This place is an extremely distressed locality. Death has been here in a fearful degree, reduced the population. In the Glens where no kindly hand was near to administer to the poor cottiers wants, he was left to perish with his family in his lonely cabin, and instances were told us from good authority, that the dead were found in a decomposed state. We heard many cases of extreme misery and death and although many have suffered to an almost incredible extent, the poor creatures appear to have been quite patient under thir awful visitation. Their supply of food and funds being entirely exhausted, it appearing that an immediate supply was wanted, and many starving persons in the hamlet, we purchased ½ ton meal at Bunnow Mill 4 miles distant from present relief, and gave an order on Dingle for one Ton Rice & Two of India meal, as we found any would perish ere the government measures would take effect. This district with Clahane and Kilquhane claims the sympathy of the benevolent. Isolated far away on the shores of the Atlantic, no direct intercourse anywhere it appears these are only fishing villages. There are many persons who when able earned a livelihood by fishing, and with their patch of potatoe (sic) land managed to struggle through at ordinary seasons, and now when the failure of this chief maintenance occurred, their hopes fled, many a family has passed away to be seen here no more. We continued our route to Dingle, where we arrived late in the evening in consequence of a retrograde movement to the Mill. The country is intersected with hills, and it is in the valleys of these vast ranges of Mountains, that much accumulated misery exists.
5th Mo 2nd 1847 This morning we were much pained by with the cries of poor famished children who, early as it was, had come into the town to get a morsel of food; it being the first day of the week, many poor were to be seen, and their miserable countenances & starved appearance claimed our sympathy. Old people tottering with feeble steps from door to door seeking relief, children with drawn features stamped with premature old age following their miserable parents crying the painful pangs of hunger; we endeavoured to mitigate their sufferings at the time and dispenses some relief during the day.
One poor old woman was sitting opposite our window by the church yard gate this morning apparently exhausted we send (sic) for her & the poor creature had to be assisted to the Hotel, where we got her something to eat, which revived her and we hope her life may be spared.
During the day several funerals passed the door, silently borne by sorrowing friends; famine & disease are fast reducing the population of this district. The situation of the poor fishermen here is very afflicting; many cannot get to their usual employment for want of clothes; more’s their boats being out of order & not having means to repair them are much to be felt for. If we would claim from our friends sympathy for them & see if some warm clothing could be sent for their relief, enabling those who are willing to provide for their famishing families.
We passed over to Ventry in the morning and had a conference with Rev. Moriarty Clg., who has done much for this truly deplorably destitute part of the country. He has two soup boilers in full operation, where much relief is dispensed, and intends placing two more in different parts of his parish. The devastation in this parish and the adjoining adjacent one Dunquin, has been dreadful, whole families have been swept off; the church yards filled many were interred in the sands of the sea shore, where the dogs have been turned away from turning up the half interred bodies; latterly this has been looked after, but we fear in many places, that sufficient care had not been taken to inter in a decent manner.
Many from fear, would not go into the cabins to remove the dead, & this, we state it, the mind revolts from the idea the living & the dead now lying in the same house in many places in the same miserable pallets until death put a period to their sufferings, or some person removed those who had died; we were told that men had to be hired for this purpose. We have heard of most humiliating & revolting scenes, which in a civilized country one would suppose might have been averted. Many of these dreadful occurrence have been before the public, which may appear exaggerated, yet from creditable information we have heard of scenes of misery, disease & death which were dreadful in the extreme, at the thought of which the heart sickens. As the clergyman has not any meal on hand, we left him a order on Dingle.
We returned to Dingle & saw one of two members of the Comtee. But as they had recd. a grant of meal & rice from a charitable source, we did not leave them an order. The appearance of the many, who were waiting in groups at the church gate & hotel for relief was pitiable. The gratuitous relief daily given by D. Williams & C. Gayer Clg is limited, the operations of Relief Commtee were confined for the most part to selling at cost but now the relief must be gratuitous. We that Ventry & Dunquin require more aid. The daily scenes of accumulated wretchedness are appalling, fever & dysentery prevail, to an alarming extent, carrying off numbers to their graves. Dingle is a poor town, partakes more of a fishing town than any thing else.
It is principally from the rural districts that so many destitute people come, & is …. melancholy to see, depicted in the countenances & men of those poor areas, the different grades of starvation & disease. Buoyant youth reduced to the appearance of old age, childrens want fleshless, sinking under the agonising pains of hunger or premature decay in dropsy or dysentery.
It is remarkable here, that in observation the wild magnificence of all that is beautiful in nature, we as man (who were made in the image of his Creator) in a moral or intellectual capacity scarcely elevates above the savages, this is a melancholy state of things. Most of the peasantry do not speak English, & it would seem with some, that under this visitation even the tie of that natural family bond of affection was severed, there is an apathy an apparent apathy in the mind of such, in which they not fully testify the kindly feelings for those among them and even among their own people, this is too much the case. We are concerned to say, that true (sic) fear this may apply to others, who from their standing in Society, would be supposed to be first to assist their fellow creatures in this work of mercy, to assuage their sufferings as much as in their power; many have, we are confident, nobly come forward and by their co-operation with others they have averted much misery. Yet we invite all to aid, and labor for the mitigation of the sufferings & to be pure channels thro’ whom relief may be dis … administered to all who may require it.
Leaving Dingle on the 4th we passed thro’ Anascaul, in this place much poverty exists, the country is for the most part very poor & mountainous, the villages are so distant from each other, relief cannot be easily afforded. At Milltown we called on Sir Wm Godfrey, Chairman of Comtee. There is a soup kitchen here under a ladies Comtee under which gratuitous relief is afforded, that under the local Comtee is also given to the poor, but not to meet … cases of destitution.
Killorglin appears to be a very distressed district, when we got in we observed numbers of poor people waiting to get meal from depot. Before we left, the Rev .Harrington called on us and said that many of the poor persons had to be sent away for want of having meal for them, we gave a temporary grant for Dingle. We continued our journey to Rossbehy where we remained for the night.
5thMo 5th Drove to Cahirciveen & had a conference with Captn Forbes inspector of the district, who evinced much satisfaction in yielding, for the furtherance of the intention of our journey, the local information he was so well calculated to offend do Soup & porridge is gratuitously in the kitchen of this place.
The appearance of many in the streets bore testimony to this distribution. As we passed on to Waterville we saw many who have not recd. relief, these in a small way we assisted. We called on Captn Buflin at Waterville, from whom we learned that relief is afforded to the poor, by soup & porridge in that parish.
On our way to Sneem, we drove to Derrynane Abbey & waited on Maurice O’Connell M.P., for County who recd. us courteously, and with whom we had much general conversation as to the state of the poor in this part of the country; though kindly pressed to remain for the night, we considered it best to continue our journey to Sneem
The country from Derrynane to Sneem is for a considerable way mountainous & bordering on the sea shore. There are small creeks that which run close to the road, near to which are generally a few cabins, as the peasantry heretofore lived pretty much on shellfish & potatoes, they are for the most part badly off. In many places along the sea shore we observed larger heaps of mussels & their shells outside the cabins, tokens of poverty, & frequently saw number of children & others collecting them on the beach. Many of these villages are very distressed, we afforded trifling relief in many cases, but generally speaking extreme distribution exists along that sea coast. Kells appearing to be a distressed locality we forwarded a small grant there to the head boatman. Having, for gratuitous relief. One poor family living near one of those bays was wretchedly destitute, the parent a poor widow & several children were actually famishing, the eldest daughter used a crutch, being as weak, and at first view appeared an old woman decrepit & lame. Their father had died a short time since & their chief sustenance being boiled sea weed, indeed, this is used by numbers of the poor people along the sea shore, bringing disease in addition to the dreadful xxxxxxxx pangs of hunger
When within a few miles of Sneem,, a district called Ardmore (to the west of Sneem), our attention was attracted to a boy who was rapping at a door for admittance, having called him we enquired why he was crying, he said his father was sick & that they were all starving. We went into the house & there beheld a very distressing sight; the father of the family (D. O’Sullivan), lay on a bed or dresser sick for some time, one child expiring from actual starvation, two more were skeletons, forms of humanity, one crouched under the coverlet where this dying child lay, the other at the fire, such pitiable condition were these poor creatures reduced to. The rest of the family (except the boy) were collecting seaweed to eat; we saw the remnants of a former meal in a wooden bowl. He had been at work on the road, got sick, & was thus reduced , we have heard of many cases of this description, ending in misery & starvation. We gave this family & younger children a little wine & procured some meal from a cabin some way off, to give them a meal. We have since given his name to the P.P. of Sneem for gratuitous relief * left a little assistance for him. In another house in this same district we entered & after getting a piece of bog deal lighted same, two fine young men in fever, in a miserable damp place, the rain passing through the roof, we felt it right to administer some relief here & in many places, as we believed in some instances, and we had reason to fear so, that death would be the result if a timely assistance was not given. This district is peculiarly distressed being a damp marshy soil where fever is very prevalent.
We found on our arrival into Sneem, the Soup is distributed to the poor we called on P.P. Walsh who seems to be a charitable man well disposed to relieve the destitute. From his representation of the state of things, and much destitution apparently, we deemed it necessary to send him an order for some Indian meal on Kenmare depot
On the faith of this, although late in the day, he recommended that gratuitous distribution of meal which we have, no doubt was much required. The appearance of the Cabins from thence to Kenmare was very poor; at some we stopped, the inmates had not tasted food for a length of time, many disease has added its ravages to famine, so that we deemed it incumbent for the urgency of the cases, to procure some immediate relief for them. At a small village we had hoped to procure some bread, but were unable to do so; and it was ptiable to see the expression of the poor children with whom we divided one loaf of bread; which was all we could purchase. Our usual supply of bread had been long since exhausted. The district from Sneem to Kenmare is really destitute, many squatters dispersed both on the roadside, & lower parts of the mountains.
5th Mo 6th We had interviews this morning with many resident gentry.and clergymen of the districts adjoining, tending very much to the absolute state of destitution. We visited the Soup Kitchen, which seems to be well organized & where a good degree of regularity prevails, a daily list of persons kept who get relief at the kitchen. The P.P. O’Sullivan, waited on us, he appears to be very actively engaged in mitigating the suffering of the those around him. We have to notice that in many places & parishes active members are not be had as well as when no resident gentry live, that the clergyman of both persuasions generally speaking are humanely engaged in this arduous undertating. Godfrey Templenoe has a soup kitchen near his residence where daily gratuitous distribution is made, and with whom we had an interview. We left Kenmare on 7th for Bantry passing thro’ Glengarriff & got into Bantry late in the evening, where we expect to meet some friends from Cork Comtee as was requested of them by E.R.
On 30th April 1847 , the day after two representatives from Limerick Friends landed in Tarbert, William Rathbone was writing ‘on behalf of the New England Relief Committtee’ from Cruises Hotel Limerick to the Relief Committee based in the city, telling them that a ‘New England & Boston Committee have chartered the Tarbar, Russell M., to convey a cargo of Provisions to Cove there to be placed in the Government stores Haulbowline and from thence also at their expence (sic) to be taken to their different depots on the Coast, but to be removed from the depots at the cost, and by the parties to whom portions may be given for distribution in their immediate localities.
 Rob Goodbody, A Suitable Channel, Quaker Relief in the Great Famine, (Old Connaught Bray 1995), p. 21
 29th April 1847
 James Murray Home, Lord Listowel’s Agent
 John Francis Hewson, local landowner & Chairman Listowel Relief Committee.
 Office of Public Works Inspector
 Rev. Richard Plummer, Rector of Killury
 Rev. James P. Chute, Rector of Ballyheigue
 Inspector Office of Public Works
 Rev. Arthur Blennerhassett Rowan, Curate of Blennerville, Author & later Archdeacon of Ardfert
 Richard Fitzgerald Swindell, Rector of Killiney Parish.
 Parish Priest of Killiney (Castlegregory).
 Dr. John W. Busteed, Medical Officer, Castlegregory Dispensary.
 Rev. Thos Moriarty, Rector Ventry.
 Rev. Charles Gayer, Rector of Dunurlin & Ventry
 Sir William Godfrey, Landowner, Kilcolman Abbey, Milltown.
 Rev. Tim Harrington, Parish Priest, Killorglin.
 Office of Public Works (OPW) Inspector.
 Maurice O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Tralee, son of Nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell M.P.
 William Rathbone (11 February 1819 – 6 March 1902) was a member of a Liverpool merchant family and businessman noted for his philanthropic and public work. He was an English Liberal politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1868 and 1895.