The Avondhu - By The Fireside
In the Kilworth of 1846 and 1847 wealth and celebration walked hand in hand with poverty and hunger.
It was January 16th, 1847 and a group of men and women assembled at Downing Bridge below the village of Kilworth. It was here that Laurence Corban had his corn mill. Their ragged clothes and their pale, emaciated bodies gave witness to poverty and a lack of food. Their primary source of nourishment, the potato, had once again fallen victim to the dreaded blight and famine now stalked the land. They were desperate.
They awaited the appearance of the relief wagons bringing much-needed meal to the corn depot in Araglen. Officialdom was adamant that Earl Mount Cashell should see to the supply of provisions in his area from his own considerable resources and Kilworth would not be a priority for the meagre support available. Soon, the wagons laden with the precious Indian corn and its escort of constabulary approached that bridge over the Funcheon. Throwing all caution to the wind, those starving unfortunates made their move. The wagons were surrounded and blows were exchanged in the melee. But word had reached Fermoy and a party of military arrived. The crowd hastily dispersed, but not before five sacks of the precious cargo were carried off!
Probably no other event has had a more emotional effect on Irish national feeling than the gloomy picture of Irish society from 1845 to 1849. These were the years of the Great Famine and that not far short of one-million died. Dysentery, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis and respiratory conditions - all featured strongly and in actual fact accounted for more deaths than starvation.
While any child will mention blight as the direct cause of the catastrophe, the truth of the story is much more complex. It centres on a monumental injustice that was rooted in land ownership. It has been calculated that approximately ten-thousand landlords, mostly but certainly not all Protestant, owned the land and relied on the rental income from their tenants to support a lavish lifestyle. They - usually through their agents rented their broad acres to tenants who in turn let out a portion of their holdings to others less fortunate. These tenancies were often very small and in 1844, a total of 7,096 holdings comprised less than five acres in the Fermoy area.
But this arrangement allowed couples marry very young and the typical family produced eight to twelve children: no wonder that Ireland’s population soared from some two million in 1744 to an official 8.1 million by 1841 (a conservative figure it is believed). At the time of the Downing Bridge incident, some 135,000 unfortunates were living in smoke-filled one-room cabins with earthen floors and thatched roofs. Having neither window nor chimney, the door had to be kept open to let out blinding smoke and let in light.
Of necessity, the diet consisted mainly of potatoes. It had be thus for the precious pig and their few other vegetables went towards rent. But the potato grew abundantly in the miserably small plots and in the circumstances sustained an over populated country for most of the year. In vivid contrast, the landlords enjoyed lives of leisure in their mansions. They enjoyed their daily hunting, shooting and fishing, they had their servants to support every whim and they regularly travelled abroad. Many chose to be absentees, leaving mundane management matters to gentrified middlemen or agents who assumed responsibility for the setting and collecting of rental income.
STEPHEN MOORE OF MOORE PARK, 3RD EARL
Lord Mount Cashell lived in an imposing mansion within a walled demesne of nearly 900 acres. In addition, he controlled 6,000 acres around him, together with nearly 50,000 acres in County Antrim. To be fair to him, he and many of his fellow landlords viewed with unease, indeed horror, the export of vast quantities of grain and wheat out of Cork and other ports while thousands starved. Laying blame for this firmly on the London administration, from his seat in the House of Lords he regularly fulminated on what he asserted was its disgraceful mismanagement of the unfolding horror in Ireland.
In truth, many landlords such as Mount Cashell actually dipped into their own resources to help their starving tenants. But many of them were mortgaged to the hilt after years of foolish spending, and now with the drying up of their rental income, they were prepared to go only so far. And this was not far enough.
Mount Cashell’s criticism of state inaction is seen in his correspondence. He wrote many letters to the press complaining bitterly that after payments of interest on debts incurred, landlords in Ireland had at their disposal a mere one third of their rental income. And so he urged Trevelyan, head of Treasury, not to look to the landlords for a solution to the widespread starvation.
Writing in The Cork Constitution newspaper in April 1846, he asserted that while he could scarcely lower rents further, ‘my tenantry cannot accuse me of being a bad landlord’. Little consolation indeed to the pitiful ambushers at Downing Bridge. But, the principle followed by the government in London was that one must not interfere with market forces of supply and demand, and if food were to be doled out freely it would be courting disaster for all of the United Kingdom. This led to their insistence that the main responsibility for relieving distress in Ireland had to rest with Irish landlords. Trevelyan repeated again and again that ’too much has been done for the people… and Ireland must be left to the operation of natural causes’.
THE MOORE PARK BIRTHDAY PARTY
On 11th March, 1846 Lord Kilworth, son of Earl Mount Cashell, celebrated his coming of age with a magnificent party at Moore Park. The Union Jack was flown from the top of Cloghleagh Castle, a magnificent dinner featuring roast Moore Park deer was provided and a band played for the assembled gentry. Beer was sent down to the village where hundreds thronged and at nightfall, a fireworks display followed. Would it have seemed to the revellers that their noble landlord and his friends were far less pressed for money than he claimed?