Outside Help and a Journey
As I have previously observed when describing Georgina's correspondence in search of funding for her enterprise, the district was not wholly dependent upon the funds available from government. News of the suffering of Irish families had reached London, and further afield, with the result that many charitable organisations collected money and sent compassionate individuals to offer practical assistance. These were not always willing to collaborate with the work of the Unions and the Relief Committees. Others were content to provide grants in support of Union activity. Thus we were able to obtain funds to purchase fabric Georgina, Naimh and Elizabeth used to make, repair and adapt clothing which we distributed to women and children too poor to redeem their winter clothing but not yet eligible for relief under the poor law.
The Society of Friends, better known by many as Quakers, apparently because of a peculiar habit they have of shaking whilst taking part in their meetings, was one of the most beneficial in this way. I have never personally observed their 'quaking'. I did, however, witness at first hand the good work their members undertook in Ireland during the famine years. They were the first to establish feeding stations, soup kitchens as they came to be called, especially when instigated as the major part of the official relief effort upon the demise of the public works programme. They also provided large quantities of seed to farmers in possession of land capable of being tilled and properly husbanded and willing to undertake those tasks. They attempted to revive the long since abandoned practice of growing flax for the manufacture of linen cloth. And, for fishermen like those in Kilrush, they redeemed the nets and boats pawned when fish stocks were scarce.
On the matter of fishing, I feel it important to state a fact of which I was unaware until my arrival in Kilrush. I had supposed that a peninsular, surrounded on three sides by water, would be a place where hunger could never be experienced, there being an abundance of fish for the taking. And, true enough, Kilrush had, before the famine, a successful herring fishery. The great difficulty, however, is that the coastal waters are generally quite shallow, such fish as enter those waters do so only at certain seasons. The best fishing grounds are in deeper waters requiring sturdier vessels with larger crews than those most often found in or able to be accommodated in, the small ports and harbours of County Clare. Fish, herring and mackerel in particular, can be preserved by salting and smoking and some such activity did take place in Kilrush in the 1830s, but the quantity of fish caught in those times when the waters were thronged with them was never enough, however well preserved, to provide sustenance throughout the year. The general shortage of food that occurred as a consequence of the potato blight, whilst it enabled fisher folk to receive a good price for their produce, meant the quantity of grain they were able to purchase during the slack season was, for many of them, insufficient for their needs. Some were thus forced to pawn their equipment. Unless some benefactor provided the means to redeem that equipment at the start of the next season they would be unable to take advantage of the opportunity. The Society of Friends became that essential benefactor, making it possible for the business of fishing the waters around the county to continue, though never with the same intensity as previously.
The people who relied on fishing for their livelihood were, in my experience, among the most resourceful. I recall one woman who I had to eject from the workhouse after I discovered her to have, tied around her waist as a belt, a string of dried mackerel. Much as I admired her determination to provide for herself, I could not allow her to remain in the House whilst still in possession of the means to do so.
There were other charitable societies that worked tirelessly, many taking considerable risks with their own health when bringing succour to fever patients. All expressed Christian motives. I found it extraordinary, for example that the Catholic Society of Saint Vincent de Paul operated in accordance with a motto not unlike that expounded by the late John Wesley.
The animosity which once existed between Catholic and Protestant had long since been exhausted except in comparatively rare and, in my view, tragically miss-concieved, instances. Protestant Landlords like Crofton had raised the funds and provided the land on which Chapels had been built to enable those of the Roman persuasion to practice the rites and rituals of their faith. Whilst these practices were still viewed as being against our Lord's injunction to disdain idolatry, there had been for many years a recognition that so long as people believed in the risen Christ and acted out his teachings in their daily lives, the violent suppression of the old religion advocated two centuries ago was a serious error.
For more than fifteen years now it had been the government's policy to insist that all schools established for the education of the young were to be administered jointly by representatives from both religions. I was, therefore, shocked to discover that certain men of one particular branch of the Protestant faith were withholding aid to any who refused to renounce their beliefs. This I deemed to be profoundly unChristian.
Of course, there were those who took the view that the current suffering being endured by the Irish was a punishment for their obstinate refusal to turn away from the old religion. I neither believed in the notion of such a belligerant God, nor that His punishment, were He to inflict it, would be so indiscriminate in its application. I held firmly to the view that our Lord intended that all of His followers would seek to help their fellow men without exception. Did He not exhort us to love our enemies? How then could any man professing to be a Christian withhold assistance to another merely because that other erred in the practice of faith?
Seamus Dunne arrived in Kilrush in April of 1848 as a representative of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I first came across him dispensing cash to destitute families in Moyarta parish. I had gone there with a similar intent. I had sent word via the Parish Priest that an examination would take place at the crossroads in the centre of the village for the purpose of assessing the eligibility of persons for assistance. The size of the crowd awaiting my arrival did not surprise me. The sight of a tall gentleman in a long dark coat and high hat at the centre of the crowd did. Surprise is hardly an appropriate word in the circumstances. This gentleman was so like myself in appearance that for a fleeting moment I deemed myself to be dreaming, observing myself, as it were, from the outside.
That sensation was quickly displaced by rising anger. This man was quite plainly an impost...