William Sydney Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim (Lord Leitrim)
Tenants and labourers across Leitrim experienced hard times in the early 1840s. Year after year, the potato crop yielded just enough to stave off starvation. In 1845/46, there was optimism about the year's harvest. In August of 1845, Sydney spoke confidently about the great progress that had been made in agriculture in Leitrim and expectations of an abundant potato crop were high. The few people who sounded warnings of a `general failure of the staple food' were largely ignored. The pessimists were right. The 1846 potato crop fell to a crippling blight and heralded the Great Hunger when the population was decimated through a combination of disease, starvation and emigration. In the early 1840s Ireland's population was 8,200,000. During the famine years of 1845-51, Ireland lost some 2,225,000 people. Leitrim was as bad, if not worse, than anywhere: the `excess mortality' rate here was amongst the highest in the country, exceeded only by Galway, Roscommon, Cavan, Sligo and Mayo. Between 1851 and 1861 Leitrim lost 28% of its population, a drop from 155,397 to 111,897.
Relief in Mohill
By March 1846, Mohill was reporting that one-third of the potato crop was lost and `the distress of the population [was] great'. The Board of Guardians of the Workhouse responded by sending a letter to the Government requesting that money and food be sent immediately.
With similar requests coming from all over the country, the Government established a system of committees to coordinate relief efforts locally. The relief was to be provided through a combination of charity and self-help. Food - corn - would be provided at a low cost and public works would be initiated to provide employment and wages.
The committees were successful to a point, but were hampered by lack of understanding of local conditions and a determination to withhold much food relief until June, when, it was believed, there would be real hardship. The single factor most affecting the impact of relief committees was the change of government in summer 1846. The new administration restructured the relief to emphasise public works as the main source of help. More disastrously, they rigidly adhered to their principles of free-market economics and stopped the supplies of low-cost corn. With no competition from cheap imports, the corn merchants were able to push the price beyond the means of the majority of the population. By the end of 1846, the numbers of starving soared. As if lack of food wasn't enough, the winter of 1846 was long and harsh with snow falling up to April the following year. In the unrelenting cold and damp, thousands died on the public works programmes, some dropping from sheer exhaustion.
Sydney was appointed by the Lord Lieutenant to set up relief committees in Leitrim. He took his role seriously and instigated a number of `works' around the area. Most works involved building roads, some to improve existing roads, others to build new, quite superfluous, roads. Between 4 January and 13 April 1847, thirty-nine works were recorded for the Barony of Mohill. They ranged from making a footpath in Mohill town at a cost of £150 to building a new road from Stuck to Corrabeagh at £1,900. Others included finishing and completing the road from Rooskey to Mohill, making a new road between Gort and Drumdoo, and repairing `451 perches of road between the road newly made from Gortletteragh Chapel to Drumhirk River at Cloone'.
The public works (the Erne-Shannon canal)
Sydney was largely responsible for organising a petition for public funding of a canal between Lough Erne and the Shannon. The petition was signed by forty-four of the `landed proprietors and magistrates and residents of the County of Leitrim', including the High Sheriff La Touche, Lawders, Peytons, Morgan Crofton, Robert Noble, Alexander Knott, James Armstrong, James Nutley, Guy Lloyd, Charles Cox and James B McKeon. As well as being the first of the signatories, Sydney wrote a supporting letter urging the Government to fund the project to help alleviate `the extraordinary poverty of the locality'.
I have the honor to enclose to you a memorial from the gentry of Leitrim praying for the formation of a canal between Lough Erne and the River Shannon. We do not ask for any particular, nor for the benefit of any private interest, but we do pray that the present season of scarcity may be chosen for the adoption of this Great National Work, which will unite almost the whole inland navigation of Ireland.
[Sydney goes on to list out in detail the population, acreage and valuation of the lands of Mohill and Carrick-on-Shannon Unions.]
I feel confident that such a deplorable state of society will meet with a warm desire on your part to relieve our distress . . . the more particularly as it is not one for which the existing generation can fairly be held responsible.
We know that this petition was one of the successful ones.
While the public works helped, they were just not enough to stave off the effects of the famine. On roads projects men could earn two pence a day; women could expect a penny for a day's work hauling clay and stones. Food would be included - a bowl of porridge before starting the morning and another on finishing in the evening. Where food was not included, wages could go up to four pence a day. This was too little to feed most large families, especially once the price of corn increased. The Inspecting officer for public and relief works in Leitrim reported that `the miserable condition of the half-famished people is greatly increased by the exorbitant . . . price of meal and provisions, in so much that the wages gained by them on the works are quite inadequate to purchase a sufficiency to feed many large families'. Often too, the most needy families were too weak to participate in the projects and were left helpless. Some small farmers were, for a time, prohibited from taking advantage of the works. Officers had decided that those with holdings valued at more than £6 should not be allowed to participate, but the ban proved largely inoperable.
Through all this, the deaths continued. Relief works were frequently halted by passing funerals. Contemporary recollections of the time recount harrowing tales of people eating grasses and weeds and wild birds to stay alive, of old women walking the road to the cemetery to die and of whole families being buried where they died, in their small mud cabins or by the side of the road.
The soup kitchens
In the face of continuing crisis, the government continued to demonstrate its short-termist approach. In the spring of 1847, it decided that the public works had failed to save lives and cost too much. (Over £5 million had been spent across the country while the thirty-nine works in Mohill were done at a cost of £15,368.) The works were to be replaced with soup kitchens distributing cooked food. The works stopped almost immediately leaving incomplete roads and half-finished projects. Men and women who had maintained their families on the wages they earned on works now found themselves unemployed and penniless. While they waited for the soup kitchens to be set up, some turned in desperation to crime. Thefts of food and animals increased dramatically and bailiffs and rent collectors reported increasing incidences of violence as they went about trying to collect rent and rates.
The soup kitchens, when they were finally set up were effective but short-lived. In Mohill, the government-supplied 60 gallon pot was used to feed up to three hundred people a day and a small bakery was set up to provide bread. In Cloone, the wife of the rector, Mrs Hogg oversaw the distribution of soup to four hundred people a week. But this too proved to be a temporary measure and the kitchens were wound up after only a few months. As the famine showed little signs of abating, the government became determined to put responsibility for financing of famine relief squarely in the hands of Irish taxpayers. It looked to the Poor Law for a solution. The Poor Law had been introduced ten years earlier to deal with poverty at local level. As a reforming Whig, Sydney had been one of four Irish commissioners selected to implement the initiative. Under the Law, workhouses were built across the country to house and feed the poor and destitute. Mohill Workhouse, opened in 1842, was typical: it cost £8,000 to build and furnish, covered over six acres and was designed to hold a maximum of 700 inmates. In the early years, it was not a popular option for the destitute: up until 1845 the average number of inmates was between 215 and 245. The important element of the Poor Law was that it required the workhouses to be financed by local rates and administered locally by a Board of Guardians - usually comprising wealthy farmers and traders of the area.
When the Government decided to hand over responsibility for famine relief to this local committee, it was effectively asking them to fund famine relief out of their own pockets. With two further acts, the Government washed its hands of the problem in Ireland. In 1847, it declared the famine to be over and it imposed a restriction on whatever relief was still available, restricting it to those who occupied less than a quarter of an acre of land.
The famine, of course, was far from over in 1847. Although there was little blight that year, the crop was small and it people had not recovered from the pervasive disease and hunger. In addition, smallholders, now having rent arrears of up to two years, faced an increasing threat of eviction.
The real hardship was only beginning. In 1847, the number of people admitted to Mohill workhouse soared from 700 to 1275. By February 1850, it held 1,810 - more than double its capacity. Even in good times, the workhouse was an undesirable option for the destitute: families were forcibly split up, living conditions were bad and food was inadequate. In the bad years of the famine, it was the last resort of the hopeless. When the workhouse opened in 1842, adult inmates could expect a breakfast of seven ounces of oatmeal with a half-pint of milk and for dinner, three-and-a-half pounds of potatoes with a pint of buttermilk. By 1847, the potatoes and milk were gone and adults were limited to a dinner of eight ounces of oatmeal. At one meeting of the Board of Guardians, it was agreed that rice would be added to the dinner on three days a week and meat would be offered as a treat on Christmas Day. There is reason to believe that even these meagre rations were not dispensed and that the money supplied to pay for them disappeared into the pockets of the workhouse managers.
As the famine took hold, it became obvious that the management of Mohill Workhouse was incompetent in its response to the crisis. Sydney was one of many who complained about the Mohill Board. The complaints were taken to government level but were dismissed as having no real substance and attributed to Sydney's personal animosity to the Poor Law and its administrators. While it is true that Sydney did irritate the Administration in Dublin Castle with needless submissions, his animosity came from a genuine belief that the Government's incompetence had caused the Famine. And in this case, his irritation was justified. A report to the Poor Law Commissioners in the same year backs up his complaints. It condemns the management of Mohill workhouse and paints a vivid picture of the place as a filthy, lawless, neglected pit whose funds were probably siphoned off by members of the Board of Guardians.
The building we found most dilapidated, and fast advancing to ruin, everything out of repair, the yards undrained and filled, in common with the cesspools, by accumulations of filth - a violation of all sanitary requirements; fever and dysentery prevailing throughout the house, every ward filthy to a most noisome degree, evolving offensive effluvia; the paupers defectively clothed, and many of those recently admitted continuing in their own rags and impurity; classification and separation set at nought; a general absence of utensils and implement; the dietary not adhered to, and the food given in a half-cooked state - most inadequate, particularly for the sick; the meals distributed through the medium of one-sixth the number of vessels required, and uproar and confusion, the stronger securing an over quantity to the privation of the weaker, and the breakfast not completely dispensed until late in the evening; no contracts existing, no stores of provisions to meet even the wants of a day; the able-bodied not employed, and without restraint or discipline; the destruction of all description of Union property proceeding rapidly, many hundreds' pounds worth appearing to be missing; the children in the schools receiving no education or industrial training, in other respects their neglected state painfully exhibited by their diseased and emaciated aspect; no means for the proper treatment of the sick, the officers ignorant of their duties; coffins unused in the internment of the dead.
In short, Mohill Board of Guardians were apathetic and uninterested in organising themselves to deal with the growing crisis in Mohill. This general attitude could be a cause of or a result of a very high turnover of workhouse management staff during the period. Some were lost to death or illness, but in one case the Master and Matron were sacked because the Board disapproved of their marriage. In another, the workhouse clerk, John Clarke who looked after the workhouse accounts was sacked from his position when the Commissioners deemed him `unfit for office'. A month later he was to be found holding the same position in Carrick workhouse. By late 1847, the Administration had enough evidence to justify removing the Board and replacing it with paid officers.
While the Government and local officials lurched from initiative to initiative, the Quakers provided a continuous supply of relief through the worst of the famine years. Its relief effort was organised, targeted and channelled through carefully vetted locals - usually one or two people in an area. The Quaker records show a continuous flow of money, food and clothing to people like Arthur Hyde, WH Foster and Letitia Veevers in Mohill. They received regular sums of £10 - £30, clothing grants and deliveries of one or two tons of Indian meal and rice which they distributed as they saw fit.
As the famine progressed, emigration was seen as the best option for many who found their way to the workhouse. The new Board made money available to buy suits of clothes for inmates whose (mostly female) relatives had sent home money to pay their passage to America or Van Diemen's Land. In some cases, funds were provided to contribute to the cost of passage. In 1848, Mohill Workhouse responded to a request from the Colonial Lands & Emigration Commissioners in London for female migrants to Australia. The girls, aged 15 to 18, were selected for their good health and moral character. They were sent on their way with a box of supplies, including petticoats, gowns, shoes, a shawl and bonnet, two pounds of soap and a prayer book. At least two groups from Mohill landed in Sydney in 1849 and 1850.
Sydney's father, the 2nd Earl, was still alive at this time, and was growing increasingly fearful of the effects of the famine on his estate and legacy. His concern about the cost of relief and the growing arrears on his estate are noted in successive codicils to his will where he reduced the annuities and lump sums left to his wife, daughters and others.