Death knells

A doc­tor’s notes re­veal how Famine led to both hero­ism and moral degra­da­tion in west Cork

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY BREANDÁN MAC SUIBHNE

Breandán Mac Suibhne on hero­ism and de­prav­ity dur­ing the Famine

It was, he thought, “as if the grave had that mo­ment vom­ited her forth”. It was Fri­day, Jan­uary 22nd, 1847, cold and wet, with a gale ris­ing. Her mar­ried name was Keat­ing. She was from Let­ter, two miles out­side Sk­ib­bereen. And she had “crawled” those two miles to the house of Daniel Dono­van, a 39-year-old dis­pen­sary doc­tor, on North Street. She was suf­fer­ing from “ma­lig­nant fever” and “ema­ci­ated to the ut­most de­gree”, and Dono­van, though a com­pas­sion­ate man, was afraid that she would in­fect his own young fam­ily. He handed her a shilling and told her to leave his door.

“I don’t want this,” she said of the doc­tor’s shilling. “But I want to get my boy buried; he is dead these 11 days, he died two days af­ter his fa­ther; I got the sick­ness my­self; my two chil­dren are dy­ing; no per­son will go to give them or me a drink of the cold water, and I got up in the fever to­day and put the corpse in a ditch, and I came to you to get it put in the grave, that the dogs may not eat it.”

That evening, Dono­van and Jerry Crow­ley, the town apothe­cary, went out to Let­ter. The “scene of mis­ery” ap­palled them.

“The mud floor of the hovel was one mass of filth, the rain pour­ing down freely through the rot­ten thatch; on the ground, which was a per­fect cloaca [sewer], lay two chil­dren upon whose bod­ies the anatomy of the bones could be stud­ied as per­fectly as on a dried skele­ton; and in the ditch in front of the door was a cof­fin, con­tain­ing the pu­trid body of a dead boy of seven years old.”

Dono­van asked the woman how she had pro­cured the cof­fin. She told him that it was the shilling that he had given her to buy food that paid for it. Nei­ther she nor her other two chil­dren, she said, “cared about the vict­uals now, as they for­got the taste of them”.

Dono­van and Crow­ley be­gan to dig a grave in the cor­ner of a “kitchen gar­den”, a veg­etable patch. None of the woman’s neigh­bours came near them. And so alone they fin­ished the grave, “or rather the hole”, as Crow­ley phrased it, and there they buried the seven-year-old boy who had been 11 days dead in that hovel with his mother and sib­lings.

It was 11 o’clock that night when they got back to Sk­ib­bereen. Four days later, on Jan­uary 26th, Dono­van was go­ing up High Street to at­tend a fam­ily in fever. Some­one caught him by the coat, and turn­ing around he recog­nised the Widow Keat­ing. She had come into town to bury her daugh­ter, Mary, who had died the pre­vi­ous morn­ing. But she had some­thing else on her mind.

“Doc­tor,” she said, “Won’t you send for my boy? The pigs got into the field where you put him, and I fear they will root the grave, and as no Chris­tian would come near me, I brought in lit­tle Mary my­self to lay her along­side of her fa­ther in the Chapel-yard.”

Dono­van hired two men to re­move the coffined corpse of the seven-year-old from the gar­den and rein­ter it in con­se­crated ground. How­ever, on go­ing out to Let­ter, they found that the body of the boy, then over two weeks dead, was “in such an ad­vanced state of de­com­po­si­tion as not to ad­mit of its be­ing raised by them”. The next day, the Widow Keat­ing her­self ex­humed

the pu­trid corpse, brought it into Sk­ib­bereen, and buried it with the re­mains of her hus­band and daugh­ter.

Seven days later, on Fe­bru­ary 2nd, the widow again met Dono­van in the street and “ac­costed” him with “a de­mand for an­other cof­fin for the last of her chil­dren and fam­ily, who was then ly­ing dead”. She per­ceived a cer­tain hes­i­ta­tion on his part – he had al­ready pur­chased coffins for two of her chil­dren, and con­trib­uted to­wards the burial of her hus­band. And so she im­plored him, “in the name of the great God, not to let her fine boy, that would be her help and sup­port if he lived, be thrown into the grave like a dog”.

“There was some­thing so im­pres­sive in the man­ner and so awe-in­spir­ing in the death-like ap­pear­ance of this spec­tre-look­ing woman,” wrote Dono­van, now call­ing her Mrs Keat­ing, “that I yielded to her en­treaties; the cof­fin was pur­chased; she placed it on her head, and was about to leave the town when I again saw her. I re­mon­strated with this dy­ing crea­ture, who was dur­ing the whole of these melan­choly scenes labour­ing un­der famine-fever, and pointed out the risk that would at­tend her un­der­tak­ing such a task in her weakly state.”

But the Widow Keat­ing dis­re­garded his ad­vice and walked home with the “heavy cof­fin” on her head. She reached her cabin door, fell to

the ground be­fore en­ter­ing it, and died “a vic­tim”, as Dono­van put it, “to her fond­ness for her fam­ily, and rev­er­en­tial re­spect for their

re­mains” (em­pha­sis in orig­i­nal). In Let­ter, Keat­ing’s neigh­bours, dread­ing con­ta­gion, would not go near her body and so it lay out­side her cabin door un­til the next day, when Dono­van heard of her fate and sent a car for her re­mains and those of her son. He had the two of them laid with her hus­band, her daugh­ter, Lit­tle Mary, and her other son, “to sleep in death with those whom she had so much loved in life”. And he promised him­self that when he had time he would have a head­stone raised to this “mar­tyr to ma­ter­nal duty”, this “hum­ble hero­ine”, so that, “Her sad tale shall one speak­ing stone de­clare/From fu­ture eyes to draw a pity­ing tear”.

Daniel Dono­van was to live an­other 30 years. It is not known if he ever raised that stone. To­day, no mon­u­ment can be found in Sk­ib­bereen to the Keat­ings of Let­ter – the fa­ther who died on Jan­uary 9th, the mother who died on Fe­bru­ary 2nd, and their three chil­dren who died be­tween those dates. Yet, through the doc­tor’s ac­count, the Widow Keat­ing’s de­ter­mi­na­tion, in ex­tremis, to see her chil­dren buried with some sem­blance of de­cency, her clutch­ing at that which marks us out as hu­man, sur­vives the wreck of time. And so too does the doc­tor’s com­pas­sion. But no less con­spic­u­ous is the re­fusal of her neigh­bours to as­sist in the re­moval and in­ter­ment of her dead.

That re­fusal shook Dono­van as it did Crow­ley, who re­marked on it in a let­ter to a friend in Cork. Yet it is dif­fi­cult to judge those neigh­bours. Ma­lig­nant ty­phoid fever, which ex­tin­guished that starv­ing fam­ily, was highly con­ta­gious. In­deed, two lead­ing physi­cians would later cal­cu­late that in the year 1847 alone, 131 Ir­ish med­i­cal men suc­cumbed to “epi­demic and con­ta­gious dis­ease”, with the vast ma­jor­ity (123) dy­ing of fever. It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary toll in a sin­gle year of a more pro­tracted cri­sis on a pro­fes­sion that num­bered some 2,600 male prac­ti­tion­ers, and it is all the more ex­tra­or­di­nary as it ex­cludes women work­ing as ma­trons and nurses. Dono­van him­self later re­marked, of west Cork, “that al­most ev­ery per­son ac­tively en­gaged in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of re­lief to the poor was at­tacked with fever”.

And so the neigh­bours’ re­fusal of as­sis­tance to the Widow Keat­ing (the re­fusal even to dig a hole) – like Dono­van’s ini­tial con­cern that his fam­ily might con­tract fever from her – can be ex­plained. More­over, many (although not nec­es­sar­ily all) of those neigh­bours were doubt­less also in a dire con­di­tion. In 1851, the pop­u­la­tion of Let­ter was 106 – 60 males and 46 fe­males – ex­actly half of what it had been in 1841 (212). And there was then ex­actly half the num­ber of in­hab­ited houses – 17, where, a decade ear­lier, there had been 34. And much of this win­now­ing of men, women, and chil­dren – by death, mi­gra­tion, and com­mit­tal to the poor­house – would have taken place in the three months be­fore and four or five months af­ter Jan­uary 1847, when Daniel Dono­van found the Widow Keat­ing, as if the grave had vom­ited her, at his door.

Re­fusal to as­sist some­body in dis­tress seems only slightly less griev­ous than de­lib­er­ately in­flict­ing harm on a per­son. And in the years of the Famine, poor peo­ple did in­flict harm on peo­ple sim­i­larly cir­cum­stanced to them­selves, of­ten by steal­ing small sup­plies of food: houses and hov­els were bur­gled, hun­gry peo­ple were way­laid com­ing home from shops and soup kitchens, and bread was snatched from the hands of the starv­ing. In­deed, peo­ple mur­dered for food.

One hor­rific in­ci­dent out­side Ross­car­bery, in west Cork, in spring 1847 came to Dono­van’s at­ten­tion. Men em­ployed on the pub­lic works used to go to nearby houses to boil their break­fasts. On the morn­ing ofMarch 4th, De­nis Finn of Carhoog­a­r­riff and his 12-year-old son Johnny took their break­fast in Cor­ran, in the house of Ju­dith Donoghue. She was liv­ing with three chil­dren – Johnny (14), Mary (6-7), and Jerry (4) – her hus­band hav­ing died on the first Tues­day in Lent, Fe­bru­ary 23rd; the Finns, who lived only about two miles away, had been break­fast­ing with her for nine or 10 days.

Af­ter the Finns had left that morn­ing, the widow took Johnny with her to get soup in ex­change for turf from the Rev Richard Hayes, the rec­tor at Bal­ly­roe; the soup was not ready when they ar­rived and so she sent the boy home. There, he found Jerry dead face down near the door and Mary dead on her back in the cor­ner near the fire­place. Their throats had been cut with the widow’s own knife, which was found un­der Mary’s “poll” (back of the head); Ju­dith would later say that “her head had been cut off all to a lit­tle bit of the poll be­hind”, and Jerry’s throat cut from ear to ear.

Miss­ing was a small grey bag of oat­meal flour, that the widow had locked in a box with a cake of bread that she had made that morn­ing; the box was now in pieces on the floor. Also miss­ing was a pair of shoes be­long­ing to the widow’s late hus­band.

Eight days later, Johnny Finn was ar­rested in the poor­house in Sk­ib­bereen. Philip Somerville, a mag­is­trate, with Con­sta­ble Michael Jor­dan trans­lat­ing from the Ir­ish, took a state­ment from the child, who spoke no English:

“. . . the two chil­dren were there by them­selves; that he found a knife in the house and with that knife he killed both chil­dren. That he took two quarts of flour that the lit­tle girl told him was in the house and the bag that it was in to his own house and that his fam­ily eat of it with him, but [he] did not tell where he got it; he fur­ther states that he killed the two chil­dren to get the flour, as he was hun­gry . . . he first killed the lit­tle girl and af­ter­wards the lit­tle boy.

“He is a most wretched look­ing half-starved crea­ture,” Somerville re­marked when for­ward­ing this con­fes­sion to Dublin, “and what to do with him I am at a loss to know”.

Finn’s first trial, in April 1848, col­lapsed when a juror took ill. That July he was ac­quit­ted of mur­der, his at­tor­ney hav­ing, in­ter alia, cre­ated a rea­son­able doubt as to whether the “ema­ci­ated” child, who he claimed had been only 10 in spring 1847, had the phys­i­cal power to kill the Donoghues; he also strongly im­puted the dou­ble mur­der to his fa­ther, De­nis, who, that morn­ing, had asked the widow “what she gave for the meal or did she bring much of it [from mar­ket]”.

The gen­eral im­pres­sion in the court, ac­cord­ing to the Evening Packet, was that the verdict was a proper one. But oth­ers en­ter­tained no doubts about Johnny Finn’s ca­pac­ity to kill. Be­fore the case had even come to trial, Dono­van had given his opin­ion of the boy:

“He sub­se­quently was ad­mit­ted into the Sk­ib­bereen Work­house, and then frankly ad­mit­ted his act to me; did not con­sider that he was guilty of any crime; did not think that he de­served or would suf­fer any penalty for it; the un­for­tu­nate be­ing ap­peared so stolid and dull that I thought he must be a con­gen­i­tal id­iot; but on mak­ing in­quiry into his pre­vi­ous his­tory, I as­cer­tained that he was a boy of great cun­ning, and al­ways re­garded as an art­ful, de­sign­ing knave.”

Within five years of the boy’s ac­quit­tal, there was no Finn house­holder in Carhoog­a­r­riff; un­less she had re­mar­ried, the Widow Donoghue had no house of her own in Cor­ran; and the daugh­ter of the Rev Richard Hayes, to whose house she had gone that fate­ful morn­ing for soup, was dead from ty­phoid fever.

The “moral” con­se­quences of hunger and dis­ease trou­bled Dono­van. “The most sin­gu­lar ef­fect pro­duced by the hor­rors of the famine now rag­ing”, he wrote in Jan­uary 1847, “is the sev­er­ance of the ties of con­san­guin­ity which it has caused, and the de­struc­tion which it was in­duced of the ar­dent do­mes­tic af­fec­tions that formed, per­haps, the strong­est trait in the char­ac­ter of the Ir­ish peas­ant.”

He had been par­tic­u­larly struck by an in­ci­dent in his dis­pen­sary:

“A woman named Driscoll came to get medicine for her hus­band, who was af­fected with road sick­ness; whilst I was pre­scrib­ing for him, a woman, who en­tered the surgery, begged that I would give her some­thing for a sick child; upon which the fe­male first al­luded to ex­claimed, ‘Bad luck to them for chil­dren! I have five of them sick, and I would think my­self lucky, if they were all dead be­fore morn­ing.’”

Dono­van re­mon­strated with that woman for her “ap­par­ent cru­elty”, but she per­sisted: “[T]his time 12 months [ago] I would as soon lose my heart’s blood as one of my chil­dren, but it is killing me now to see them starv­ing and cry­ing.” And a year later, re­flect­ing on the storm of death that had raged through his district, Dono­van was even more in­sis­tent on the moral con­se­quences of famine:

“I have seen moth­ers snatch food from the hands of their starv­ing chil­dren; known a son to en­gage in a fa­tal strug­gle with a fa­ther for a potato; and have seen par­ents look on the pu­trid bones of their off­spring with­out evinc­ing a symp­tom of sor­row. Such is the in­evitable con­se­quence of star­va­tion; and it is un­fair to at­tribute to in­her­ent faults in our peo­ple the moral degra­da­tion to which they are at present re­duced, and which is in­sep­a­ra­ble from a state of se­vere phys­i­cal pri­va­tion.”

There lies a brute re­al­ity of famine. It “re­duces” peo­ple, pushes them be­low the wa­ter­line of what they had un­der­stood to be civilised be­hav­iour. And so the Widow Keat­ing of Let­ter an­swers Dio­genes the Cynic, who asked why it mat­tered if corpses were tossed over the city wall to be devoured by birds and beasts. Un­til the day that she died at her own door, hav­ing borne home a cof­fin for her third and last child, that re­mark­able woman af­firmed that the care which so­ci­ety ac­cords its dead raises the liv­ing above the level of the dogs and pigs that would have devoured the bod­ies of her chil­dren. She, who is num­bered among the Famine dead, died un­de­feated.

I have seen moth­ers snatch food from the hands of their starv­ing chil­dren; known a son to en­gage in a fa­tal strug­gle with a fa­ther for a potato; and have seen par­ents look on the pu­trid bones of their off­spring with­out evinc­ing a symp­tom of sor­row


Michael Far­rell’s paint­ing Black ’47 (1997-98), which de­picts the trial of Charles Trevelyan, the Bri­tish of­fi­cial who was in charge of Famine re­lief.

The Wounded Won­der, a litho­graph by Ir­ish artist Micheal Far­rell

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