Introduction. Sidney Godolphin Osborne (1808-89), was a clergyman and philanthropist of distinction, who wrote on diverse matters: education, sanitation, women’s rights and cholera. His publications include Hints to the Charitable (1856), and Letters on the Education of Young Children (1866). In 1849 he visited Ireland, an experience that left a deep and lasting impression on him: ‘In these pages, [readers will] find a ready source of reference to those facts, on which I ground my appeal for the consideration of all who love mercy and justice, to the oppression, and the suffering, of the people of this part of the Queen’s dominions.’ He leaves us under no allusions as to the sense of disgust and shame he feels over the seemed inaction of the British Government to alleviate the suffering of the poor. This book is the result of two trips made by Osborne to Ireland, in 1849 and 1850. Here Osborne describes his journey through Clifden in 1850, on his way to visit one of the local auxiliary houses.
Source. Sidney Godolphin Osborne, Gleanings in the West Of Ireland (London 1850) pp. 74-80.
There was a yard, with a day ward in it, of about 30 ft. by 15 ft., with open roof, in which were about 160 small children; in one corner there was a child with the small-pox out upon it; at least 30 of the others had a not been vaccinated; there were 24 with caps on, with bad heads. The state of these children’s clothing was quite shameful; if possible, they were in this respect worse than the same class at Limerick. Many of them were mere skeletons. They were walked out into the yard for me to see them better; as they passed us, one child actually, whether of herself, or by order, put her hand across to hold the rags together in front of the poor thing who walked with her, that we might not be more shocked than she could by such ingenuity prevent; they looked in the yard so cold, so comfortless, so naked, and such a libel on humanity; that I was glad to have them called in again to the close and infected atmosphere of the crowded day room; they were, I believe, all girls, though such is the nature of pure rag attire, that the dress often ceases to be any guide, as to the sex, amongst the young.
There were two underground places, which the architect meant for lumber rooms, which we, however, found inhabited; they were damp and chilly, unventilated, and utterly unfitted for the purpose to which they were applied. There were some adult women in one of them, crouched upon the cold floor, looking just as such beings, so starved, so clad, would look in such a place; they were new admissions. There was little about the whole house out of keeping with what I have described; want of space, want of clothing, in a refuge crowded by those who come in starving and naked, must defy anything like the order and decency which should characterise every public establishment professing to be under the guardianship of the laws.
We now went to an Auxiliary, just occupied by a class of able-bodied women, called the ‘Police Barrack’. The day rooms of this wretched building had no sashes in the ground-floor windows; they were, however, covered with iron lattice; immediately under them was a mass of stinking filth of the most miscellaneous character. Passing through a narrow dirty passage, we turned out of a confined yard, in which some masons were at work building up a wall, into two day rooms, i.e. what had been two rooms; the partition door, however, had been removed, though the division walls, or some of them remained. The rooms were measured in my presence, and the result, on a drawing in my notes, records, that the area of both inclusive of 21 ft. by 12 ft.; in this space, we found 32 women in the inner room, 35 in the outer, being 67 adult women in a space of 21 ft. by 12 ft.! the ceiling was not, I believe, nine feet from the ground. In another small room, 9 ft. by 11 ft., twelve grown-up women lived, i.e. existed. In a loft, of dimensions not larger than the first-mentioned rooms, the roof coming down at an acute angle to the floor, twenty-six adult women were said to sleep; I believe more did sleep.
No power of pen can describe the state of the clothing of this seething mass of female pauperage; there were some, that the others, for shame’s sake, would not let stand up before us; some I felt ashamed to ask to do so, though with more rags on. The smell of the rooms was intolerable; that of the yard, from an unmistakable source, no improvement on it. I can hardly conceive anything more thoroughly brutalising, than the herding of this mass together at night; for if they do not sleep in their dirty rags, they must at all events, I presume, be disentangled from them when they lie down, in the place where they lie down; this rag heap, then, redolent of many days or weeks’ wear in this confined space, must add its share to that offence to every sense, which, without it, the masses so herded on the floors would produce.
There were altogether 150 inmates in this house. The day room look through the lattice into the public street; how such a place, for such a number of persons, could ever have been sanctioned, I cannot understand; if they escape a pestilence, which shall destroy life, they cannot escape an amount of moral disease, which must so brutalise, as to painfully affect it.
We now went to another Auxiliary, in which were between 40 and 50 infants, with their mothers, many of these small morsels of misery were absolutely naked; their mothers, generally speaking, clothed only so far as a small allowance of filthy rags, can be called clothing. Of course they were crowded far more than was in any way justifiable. In another auxiliary, there were 2 or 300 able-bodied females; still the same want of dress, or rather the same insufficiency of rags; packed closely at night in two or three dormitories; by day, their only shelter was one room, of the same area as any one of the said dormitories; but its size reduced by the tables for dining; they were sitting in heaps, in idleness, about the yard. The auxiliary for the boys was some miles off, so that I did not see it; I can only hope it is no worse than those I did see, though that were scarcely possible.
This Clifden Union had poor rates in course of collection at the end of the quarter, terminating 30th of last March, to the amount of £2,287, it had received relief from the rate-in-aid in that quarter, to the amount of £2,115, its net liabilities at the same period, over balance at the Bank, were £6,292. The weekly average mortality per 1000 inmates, for the four weeks ending March 30th, 1850, was 8:1!
It is awful to contemplate, as in the case of this Union, to what one’s fellow creatures can be exposed, when the scene of infliction is in one of these out of the way corners of her Majesty’s dominions. There is a chance, in a place like Limerick, of some stray traveler, or some local party of sufficient courage and humanity, rising up, to publicly protest against such treatment of our fellow subjects, in establishments, supported under legal enactment, and supposed to be under official supervision; but here, I believe, anything might be done, and the chances of exposure be small. The people of all ranks are so now accustomed to scenes of misery and tyranny, that they have ceased to be shocked or roused by them; they say, ‘the potato rot’ brought it about, ‘potato plenty’ will heal it. The intermediate misery is counted as a small thing for humanity to notice; humanity, I fear, has been so taxed, that it has become blind to anything, which might increase its burden.
I know no justifiable excuse, however, for such wanton contempt of fife and decency; I do not know why the ‘rate-in-aid’ Bill was passed, but to obtain the efficient working of the Poor-law, in bankrupt Unions; it is folly to call this make-shift, make-shame system, Poor-law administration. In England one-fiftieth part of such conduct, would so rouse the indignation of the public, that a speedy end would be put to the abuse, and I have no doubt, pretty severe rebuke dealt on all who connived at, of promoted it. I have yet to learn, that Ireland is not an integral part of Great Britain; I have yet to learn, that doings so disgraceful can exist is Ireland, and not be a shame and disgrace to England.
My friend here again indulged himself in large investments in bread, to feed the poor wretches he found in the street, and with the customary result; he soon being forced from the pressure, to make a retreat at the rear of the shop. I cannot wonder at the perseverance he displayed, he was new to Ireland; less hardened than myself. From a window we got an opportunity of seeing, ourselves unseen, some of the bread he had given consumed; there was no deceit in the way it was devoured; more voracious reality, it would be hardly possible to conceive; to see the fleshless arms grasping one part of a loaf, whilst the fingers—bone handled forks—dug into the other, to supply the mouth—such mouths too! With an eagerness, as if the bread were stolen, the thief starving, and the steps of the owner heard; was a picture, I think neither of us will easily forget.
Benevolence has its drawbacks; if Mazeppa had been bound to an Irish car in Connemara; in a year of famine, with a few loaves of bread tied to him, he would have had a scarcely less lively experience of one wolf hunted, than he had on his wild horse, after the fashion in which his perilous ride is handed down to us. No sooner was our car under weigh, than a pack of famished creatures of all descriptions and sexes, set off in full chase after us; the taste of fresh bread, still inflamed the spirit of some; the report of it put others in hot hungry pursuit; the crescit eundo [it grows as it goes] is ever realised in the motion of an Irish mob. Our driver did his best, but our pursuers had us at advantage; for our road was up a very steep long hill; they gained on us, and we were soon surrounded by the hungry pack; the cry of the regular professional mendicant, the passionate entreaty of the really destitute the ragged, the really starving; the whining entreaties of the still more naked children, still more starved,—in a famine the weakest ever suffer soonest. The quickness and volubility of Irish national mendacity, sharpened by hunger, and excited by the rare chance of appeasing it, all combined to give voice to the pack. No two luckless human beings were ever so hunted; no ravening wolves ever gave more open expression of their object—food. A little coaxing—my friend’s; a little violence—my own; a little distribution of copper coin from both of us, at last rid us of the inconvenient, but natural result of an, Englishman, with money in his pocket, and a baker’s shop near, wishing in Ireland to feed some starving people.