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Title: A Journal of a Visit of Three Days to Skibbereen, and its Neighbourhood
Author: Burritt, Elihu, 1810-1879
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Journal of a Visit of Three Days to Skibbereen, and its Neighbourhood" ***

                     A JOURNAL

                       OF A

                VISIT OF THREE DAYS




                 BY ELIHU BURRITT.




_On The Irish Poor Relief Bill, March 12th, 1847._

    "A gentleman who lately called upon me, and whom I have every reason
    to trust, gave me a letter from a person resident in that union
    (Skibbereen,) stating, that though the property within the union is
    rated to the poor as being of the value of £8,000 a-year only, its
    actual value is no less than £130,000 a-year, and that, until
    September last, no rate had been made exceeding sixpence in the
    pound, but that, in November, a rate was made of ninepence in the
    pound; but that rate has never been levied. (Loud cries of 'Hear,
    hear.')"--_See "The Times" of Saturday, March 13._

Elihu Burritt, well known on both sides of the Atlantic by his devoted
labours for the good of mankind, especially in the promotion of peace
and universal brotherhood, has recently paid a visit to some of the
distressed parts of Ireland, principally with a view of sending a
statement of facts, from his own observation, to his native country,
together with an appeal on behalf of the sufferers under the awful
pressure of famine and disease.

In this appeal, which was sent to the United States by the last steam
packet, Elihu Burritt, speaking of the locality he had visited,
says:--"I have come to this indescribable scene of destitution,
desolation, and death, that I might get the nearer to your sympathies;
that I might bring these terrible realities of human misery more vividly
within your comprehension. I have witnessed scenes that no language of
mine can portray. I have seen how much beings, made in the image of God,
can suffer on this side the grave, and that too in a civilized land."

The reader will judge for himself, when he has perused the following
record of only three days of this journey, whether the foregoing
language is too strong. Although the fearful facts Elihu Burritt relates
may have found a parallel in the statements of others, it is thought
desirable to publish them in this country, as he recently witnessed them
in the very district to which the sympathies of the English have been,
for several months past, particularly directed, and for which locality
large subscriptions have been specially contributed. A single individual
is reported to have given £1000 for Skibbereen. Yet, notwithstanding all
that has been subscribed, up to the period when this journal was
written, no effectual means had been adopted for the decent interment of
the dead, or even for their timely removal from the hovels of the
living, and the great expenditure of the British Government, appears to
have effected, at least in this district, but little mitigation of the
fearful calamity.

There are many noble instances of individual sacrifices by personal
attention to the sufferers, and other efforts for their relief, but
nothing short of a law to give the poor of Ireland the right to claim
support from the owners of the soil, before they are reduced to
starvation, will effectually meet the evil, or be any security against
its recurrence.

The Poor Law of England admits the claim of the people for support from
the land and other fixed property; and, until this is given, neither
landlord or mortgagee is entitled to rent or interest.

This should be fully applied to Irish legislation, and partial and
unjust laws removed, including those of primogeniture and entail. To the
neglect of these measures and that of giving the cultivators of the soil
a proper security for the labour and expense which they bestow upon it,
is mainly to be attributed the fact that a country possessing some of
the finest natural advantages in the world, and which could be rendered
capable of supporting in comfort at least three times its present
population, is now overspread with such extreme human misery that the
awful scenes portrayed in the following pages cease to excite a thrill
of horror.

                                                        JOSEPH STURGE.

 3rd Month, 15th, 1847._



SKIBBEREEN, SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 20.--Rev. Mr. F---- called with several
gentlemen of the town, and in their company I took my first walk through
this Potter's Field of destitution and death. As soon as we opened the
door, a crowd of haggard creatures pressed upon us, and, with agonizing
prayers for bread, followed us to the soup-house. One poor woman, whose
entreaties became irresistibly importunate, had watched all night in the
grave-yard, lest the body of her husband should be stolen from his
resting place, to which he had been consigned yesterday. She had left
five children sick with the famine fever in her hovel, and she raised an
exceedingly bitter cry for help. A man with swollen feet pressed closely
upon us, and begged for bread most piteously. He had pawned his shoes
for food, which he had already consumed. The soup-house was surrounded
by a cloud of these famine spectres, half naked, and standing or sitting
in the mud, beneath a cold, drizzling rain. The narrow defile to the
dispensary bar was choked with young and old of both sexes, struggling
forward with their rusty tin and iron vessels for soup, some of them
upon all fours, like famished beasts. There was a cheap bread dispensary
opened in one end of the building, and the principal pressure was at the
door of this. Among the attenuated apparitions of humanity that thronged
this gate of stinted charity, one poor man presented himself under
circumstances that even distinguished his case from the rest. He lived
several miles from the centre of the town, in one of the rural
districts, where he found himself on the eve of perishing with his
family of seven small children. Life was worth the last struggle of
nature, and the miserable skeleton of a father had fastened his youngest
child to his back, and with four more by his side, had staggered up to
the door, just as we entered the bread department of the establishment.
The hair upon his face was nearly as long as that upon his head. His
cheeks were fallen in, and his jaws so distended that he could scarcely
articulate a word. His four little children were sitting upon the ground
by his feet, nestling together, and trying to hide their naked limbs
under their dripping rags. How these poor things could stand upon their
feet and walk, and walk five miles, as they had done, I could not
conceive. Their appearance, though common to thousands of the same age
in this region of the shadow of death, was indescribable. Their paleness
was not that of common sickness. There was no sallow tinge in it. They
did not look as if newly raised from the grave and to life before the
blood had begun to fill their veins anew; but as if they had just been
thawed out of the ice, in which they had been imbedded until their blood
had turned to water.

Leaving this battle field of life, I accompanied the Rev. Mr. F----, the
Catholic minister, into one of the hovel lanes of the town. We found in
every tenement we entered enough to sicken the stoutest heart. In one,
we found a shoe-maker who was at work before a hole in the mud wall of
his hut about as large as a small pane of glass. There were five in his
family, and he said, when he could get any work, he could earn about
three shillings a week. In another cabin we discovered a nailer by the
dull light of his fire, working in a space not three feet square. He,
too, had a large family, half of whom were down with the fever, and he
could earn but two shillings a week. About the middle of this filthy
lane, we came to the ruins of a hovel, which had fallen down during the
night, and killed a man, who had taken shelter in it with his wife and
child. He had come in from the country, and ready to perish with cold
and hunger, had entered this falling house of clay. He was warned of
his danger, but answered that die he must, unless he found a shelter
before morning. He had kindled a small fire with some straw and bits of
turf, and was crouching over it, when the whole roof or gable end of
earth and stones came down upon him and his child, and crushed him to
death over the slow fire. The child had been pulled out alive, and
carried to the workhouse, but the father was still lying upon the dung
heap of the fallen roof, slightly covered with a piece of canvass. On
lifting this, a humiliating spectacle presented itself. What rags the
poor man had upon him when buried beneath the falling roof, were mostly
torn from his body in the last faint struggle for life. His neck, and
shoulder, and right arm were burnt to a cinder. There he lay in the
rain, like the carcase of a brute beast thrown upon a dung heap. As we
continued our walk along this filthy lane, half-naked women and children
would come out of their cabins, apparently in the last stage of the
fever, to beg for food, "for the honour of God." As they stood upon the
wet ground, one could almost see it smoke beneath their bare feet,
burning with the fever. We entered the grave-yard, in the midst of which
was a small watch-house. This miserable shed had served as a grave where
the dying could bury themselves. It was seven feet long, and six in
breadth. It was already walled round on the outside with an embankment
of graves, half way to the eaves. The aperture of this horrible den of
death would scarcely admit of the entrance of a common sized person. And
into this noisome sepulchre living men, women, and children went down to
die; to pillow upon the rotten straw, the grave clothes vacated by
preceding victims and festering with their fever. Here they lay as
closely to each other as if crowded side by side on the bottom of one
grave. Six persons had been found in this fetid sepulchre at one time,
and with one only able to crawl to the door to ask for water. Removing a
board from the entrance of this black hole of pestilence, we found it
crammed with wan victims of famine, ready and willing to perish. A
quiet listless despair broods over the population, and cradles men for
the grave.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 21.--Dr. D---- called at two o'clock, and we proceeded
together to visit a lane of hovels on the opposite side of the village.
The wretchedness of this little mud city of the dead and dying was of a
deeper stamp than the one I saw yesterday. Here human beings and their
clayey habitations seemed to be melting down together into the earth. I
can find no language nor illustration sufficiently impressive to portray
the spectacle to an American reader. A cold drizzling rain was deepening
the pools of black filth, into which it fell like ink drops from the
clouds. Few of the young or old have not read of the scene exhibited on
the field of battle after the action, when visited by the surgeon. The
cries of the wounded and dying for help, have been described by many
graphic pens. The agonising entreaty for "Water! water! help, help!" has
been conveyed to our minds with painful distinctness. I can liken the
scene we witnessed in the low lane of famine and pestilence, to nothing
of greater family resemblance, than that of the battle field, when the
hostile armies have retired, leaving one-third of their number bleeding
upon the ground. As soon as Dr. D---- appeared at the head of the lane,
it was filled with miserable beings, haggard, famine-stricken men,
women, and children, some far gone in the consumption of the famine
fever, and all imploring him "for the honour of God" to go in and see
"my mother," "my father," "my boy," "who is very bad, your honour." And
then, interspersed with these earnest entreaties, others louder still
would be raised for bread. In every hovel we entered, we found the dying
or the dead. In one of these straw-roofed burrows, eight persons had
died in the last fortnight, and five more were lying upon the fetid,
pestiferous straw, upon which their predecessors to the grave had been
consumed by the wasting fever of famine. In scarcely a single one of
these most inhuman habitations was there the slightest indication of
food of any kind to be found, nor fuel to cook food, nor any thing
resembling a bed, unless it were a thin layer of filthy straw in one
corner, upon which the sick person lay, partly covered with some ragged
garment. There being no window, nor aperture to admit the light, in
these wretched cabins, except the door, we found ourselves often in
almost total darkness for the first moment of our entrance. But a faint
glimmering of a handful of burning straw in one end would soon reveal to
us the indistinct images of wan-faced children grouped together, with
their large, plaintive, still eyes looking out at us, like the sick
young of wild beasts in their dens. Then the groans, and the choked,
incoherent entreaties for help of some man or woman wasting away with
the sickness in some corner of the cabin, would apprise us of the number
and condition of the family. The wife, mother, or child would frequently
light a wisp of straw, and hold it over the face of the sick person,
discovering to us the sooty features of some emaciated creature in the
last stage of the fever. In one of these places we found an old woman
stretched upon a pallet of straw, with her head within a foot of a
handful of fire, upon which something was steaming in a small iron
vessel. The Doctor removed the cover, and we found it was filled with a
kind of slimy sea-weed, which, I believe, is used for manure in the
sea-board. This was all the nourishment that the daughter could serve to
her sick mother. But the last cabin we visited in this painful walk,
presented to our eyes a lower deep of misery. It was the residence of
two families, both of which had been thinned down to half their original
number by the sickness. The first sight that met my eyes, on entering,
was the body of a dead woman, extended on one side of the fire-place. On
the other, an old man was lying on some straw, so far gone as to be
unable to articulate distinctly. He might have been ninety or fifty
years of age. It was difficult to determine, for this wasting
consumption of want brings out the extremest indices of old age in the
features of even the young.

But there was another apparition which sickened all the flesh and blood
in my nature. It has haunted me during the past night, like Banquo's
ghost. I have lain awake for hours, struggling for some graphic and
truthful similes or new elements of description, by which I might convey
to the distant reader some tangible image of this object. A dropsical
affection among the young and old is very common to all the sufferers by
famine. I had seen men at work on the public roads with their limbs
swollen almost to twice their usual size. But when the woman of this
cabin lifted from the straw, from behind the dying man, a boy about
twelve years of age, and held him up before us upon his feet, the most
horrifying spectacle met our eyes. The cold, watery-faced child was
entirely naked in front, from his neck down to his feet. His body was
swollen to nearly three times its usual size, and had burst the ragged
garment that covered him, and now dangled in shreds behind him. The
woman of the other family, who was sitting at her end of the hovel,
brought forward her little infant, a thin-faced baby of two years, with
clear, sharp eyes that did not wink, but stared stock still at vacancy,
as if a glimpse of another existence had eclipsed its vision. Its cold,
naked arms were not much larger than pipe stems, while its body was
swollen to the size of a full-grown person. Let the reader group these
apparitions of death and disease into the spectacle of ten feet square,
and then multiply it into three-fourths of the hovels in this region of
Ireland, and he will arrive at a fair estimate of the extent or degree
of its misery. Were it not for giving them pain, I should have been glad
if the well-dressed children in America could have entered these hovels
with us, and looked upon the young creatures wasting away unmurmuringly
by slow consuming destitution. I am sure they would have been touched to
the liveliest compassion at the spectacle, and have been ready to divide
their wardrobe with the sufferers.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 22.--Dr. H---- called to take me into the Castle-haven
parish, which comes within his circuit. This district borders upon the
sea, whose rocky indented shores are covered with cabins of a worse
description than those in Skibbereen. On our way, we passed several
companies of men, women, and children at work, all enfeebled and
emaciated by destitution. Women with their red, swollen feet partially
swathed in old rags, some in men's coats, with their arms or skirts torn
off, were sitting by the road-side, breaking stone. It was painful to
see human labour and life struggling among the lowest interests of
society. Men, once athletic labourers, were trying to eke out a few
miserable days to their existence, by toiling upon these works. Poor
creatures! Many of them are already famine-stricken. They have reached a
point from which they cannot be recovered. Dr. D---- informs me that he
can tell at a glance whether a person has reached this point. And I am
assured by several experienced observers, that there are thousands of
men who rise in the morning and go forth to labour with their picks and
shovels in their hands, who are irrecoverably doomed to death. No human
aid can save them. The plague spot of famine is on their foreheads; the
worm of want has eaten in two their heart strings. Still they go forth
uncomplaining to their labour and toil, cold, and half naked upon the
roads, and divide their eight or ten pence worth of food at night among
a sick family of five or eight persons. Some one is often kept at home,
and prevented from earning this pittance, by the fear that some one of
their family will die before their return. The first habitation we
entered in the Castle-haven district was literally a hole in the wall,
occupied by what might be called in America, a squatter, or a man who
had burrowed a place for himself and family in the acute angle of two
dilapidated walls by the road-side, where he lived rent free. We entered
this stinted den by an aperture about three feet high, and found one or
two children lying asleep with their eyes open in the straw. Such, at
least, was their appearance, for they scarcely winked while we were
before them. The father came in and told his pitiful story of want,
saying that not a morsel of food had they tasted for twenty-four hours.
He lighted a wisp of straw and showed us one or two more children lying
in another nook of the cave. Their mother had died, and he was obliged
to leave them alone during most of the day, in order to glean something
for their subsistence. We were soon among the most wretched habitations
that I had yet seen; far worse than those in Skibbereen. Many of them
were flat-roofed hovels, half buried in the earth, or built up against
the rocks, and covered with rotten straw, sea-weed, or turf. In one
which was scarcely seven foot square, we found five persons prostrate
with the fever, and apparently near their end. A girl about sixteen, the
very picture of despair, was the only one left who could administer any
relief; and all she could do was to bring water in a broken pitcher to
slaken their parched lips. As we proceeded up a rocky hill overlooking
the sea, we encountered new sights of wretchedness. Seeing a cabin
standing somewhat by itself in a hollow, and surrounded by a moat of
green filth, we entered it with some difficulty, and found a single
child about three years old lying on a kind of shelf, with its little
face resting upon the edge of the board and looking steadfastly out at
the door, as if for its mother. It never moved its eyes as we entered,
but kept them fixed toward the entrance. It is doubtful whether the poor
thing had a mother or father left to her; but it is more doubtful still,
whether those eyes would have relaxed their vacant gaze if both of them
had entered at once with anything that could tempt the palate in their
hands. No words can describe this peculiar appearance of the famished
children. Never have I seen such bright, blue, clear eyes looking so
steadfastly at nothing. I could almost fancy that the angels of God had
been sent to unseal the vision of these little patient, perishing
creatures, to the beatitudes of another world; and that they were
listening to the whispers of unseen spirits bidding them to "wait a
little longer." Leaving this, we entered another cabin in which we found
seven or eight attenuated young creatures, with a mother who had pawned
her cloak and could not venture out to beg for bread because she was not
fit to be seen in the streets. Hearing the voice of wailing from a
cluster of huts further up the hill, we proceeded to them, and entered
one, and found several persons weeping over the dead body of a woman
lying by the wall near the door. Stretched upon the ground here and
there lay several sick persons, and the place seemed a den of
pestilence. The filthy straw was rank with the festering fever. Leaving
this habitation of death, we were met by a young woman in an agony of
despair because no one would give her a coffin to bury her father in.
She pointed to a cart at some distance, upon which his body lay, and she
was about to follow it to the grave, and he was such a good father, she
could not bear to lay him like a beast in the ground, and she begged a
coffin "for the honour of God." While she was wailing and weeping for
this boon, I cast my eye towards the cabin we had just left, and a sight
met my view which made me shudder with horror. The husband of the dead
woman came staggering out with her body upon his shoulder, slightly
covered with a piece of rotten canvass. I will not dwell upon the
details of this spectacle. Painfully and slowly he bore the remains of
the late companion of his misery to the cart. We followed him a little
way off and saw him deposit his burden along side of the father of the
young woman, and by her assistance. As the two started for the
grave-yard to bury their own dead, we pursued our walk still further on,
and entered another cabin where we encountered the climax of human
misery. Surely thought I, while regarding this new phenomenon of
suffering, there can be no lower deep than this between us and the
bottom of the grave. On asking after the condition of the inmates, the
woman to whom we addressed the question answered by taking out of the
straw three breathing skeletons, ranging from two to three feet in
height and _entirely naked_. And these human beings were alive! If they
had been dead, they could not have been such frightful spectacles, they
were alive, and, _mirabile dictu_, they could stand upon their feet and
even walk; but it was awful to see them do it. Had their bones been
divested of the skin that held them together, and been covered with a
veil of thin muslin, they would not have been more visible, especially
when one of them clung to the door, while a sister was urging it
forward, it assumed an appearance, which can have been seldom paralleled
this side of the grave. The effort which it made to cling to the door
disclosed every joint in its frame, while the deepest lines of old age
furrowed its face. The enduring of ninety years of sorrow seemed to
chronicle its record of woe upon the poor child's countenance. I could
bear no more; and we returned to Skibbereen, after having been all the
afternoon among these abodes of misery. On our way we overtook the cart
with the two uncoffined bodies. The man and young woman were all that
attended them to the grave. Last year the funeral of either would have
called out hundreds of mourners from those hills. But now the husband
drove his uncoffined wife to the grave without a tear in his eye,
without a word of sorrow. About half way to Skibbereen, Dr. H----
proposed that we should diverge to another road to visit a cabin in
which we should find two little girls living alone, with their dead
mother, who had lain unburied seven days. He gave an affecting history
of this poor woman; and we turned from the road to visit this new scene
of desolation; but as it was growing quite dark, and the distance was
considerable, we concluded to resume our way back to the village. In
fact I had witnessed as much as my heart could bear. In the evening I
met several gentlemen at the house of Mr. S----, among whom was Dr.
D----. He had just returned from a neighbouring parish, where he visited
a cabin which had been deserted by the poor people around, although it
was known that some of its inmates were still alive, though dying in the
midst of the dead. He knocked at the door; and hearing no voice within,
burst it open, with his foot; and was, in a moment almost overpowered by
the horrid stench. Seeing a man's legs protruding from the straw, he
moved them slightly with his foot; when a husky voice asked for water.
In another part of the cabin, on removing a piece of canvas, he
discovered three dead bodies, which had lain there _unburied for the
fortnight_; and hard against one of these, and almost embraced in the
arms of death, lay a young person far gone with fever. He related other
cases too horrible to be published.

                                                        ELIHU BURRITT.


Transcriber's Note:

    Hyphenation has been standardised. Minor typographical errors have
    been corrected without note, whilst more significant errors have
    been listed below:

      Page 3, 'indescrible' amended to _indescribable_.

      Page 11, 'delapidated' amended to _dilapidated_.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Journal of a Visit of Three Days to Skibbereen, and its Neighbourhood" ***

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