Voyage of Mercy: “The Distress is Universal”

Posted on March 17, 2020

by Stephen Puleo

Ireland, 1846. Father Theobald Mathew implores assistant secretary at the British Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, to provide aid to Ireland as the potato blight ruins crops across the country. Read on for an excerpt from Voyage of Mercy.

December 16, 1846, city of Cork, County Cork

When night finally came, a bone-weary Father Theobald Mathew dipped the nib of his pen into the ink and scratched the full measure of his despondency onto the page.

Irish temperance reformer Theobald Mathew (1790-1856).
This photo is in the public domain via WikiCommons [PD – US].

He aimed for precision with his writing, but he also needed to modulate his description of a truly appalling situation. Bold, direct words were necessary, but overly inflammatory language would raise skeptical eyebrows in London, damage his credibility, and, most importantly, put thousands of additional lives at risk. This was his fifth letter since August to Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary at the British Treasury responsible for famine relief efforts, each more desperate than the last. Now, just days before Christmas, Mathew wrote with renewed urgency, hoping that his reputation for directness and honesty, and as a champion for the poor, would convince Trevelyan of his veracity.

“I am grieved to be obliged to tell you that the distress is universal,” he lamented at the outset of his letter. “Men, women, and children are gradually wasting away.” It was not the first time Father Mathew had underlined passages to emphasize the urgency of his message, and it would not be the last. Reviewing his opening words, he debated whether he had succumbed to the very temptation he sought to avoid—the use of sensational rhetoric. In the end he decided to let the letter stand: he knew of no more accurate way to describe the heartbreak he witnessed each day. These imperiled citizens were not anonymous “famine victims” but people he knew and loved—neighbors, parishioners, followers, friends.

He would speak for them.

In some ways, these were the most frustrating and dispiriting hours for the fifty-six-year-old priest, sitting quietly at his desk, fighting exhaustion, his eyes straining by his lantern’s pallid light in the otherwise dark parlor, his desktop covered with ink-stained pages and the floor beneath him strewn with correspondence. Daytime hours were a blur, physically draining and mentally dispiriting—Mathew had just returned from several weeks’ work in different parts of Ireland, assessing the potato blight, organizing relief efforts, comforting the sick, ladling soup to the hungry, kneeling at their deathbeds and praying for their souls, presiding over their burials. Upon his return to Cork he discovered that his city and county were among the hardest hit by the famine; again his daytime hours were consumed with tending to those burning with fever or filling their stomachs with “cabbage leaves and turnip tops . . . to appease the cravings of hunger.” The night offered time to reflect, to be sure, but these were unwelcome and damnable hours, for it was while he sat alone in the darkness that the full tragedy of the widespread hunger, coupled with the futile sorrow that he could do little or nothing to stop it, pressed upon him like a great stone.

* * * * *

The destruction of the potato crop had occurred—or, rather, revealed itself—almost overnight. Mathew himself was one of the first to observe and report on the disaster. In late July, he was traveling from Cork to Dublin and saw fields of potato plants blooming “in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest,” a sight that heartened him after widespread potato-crop failure a year earlier had resulted in severe food shortages, but not full-scale famine. But six days later, August 3, during his return trip to Cork, Mathew’s spirit was shattered when he “beheld, with sorrow, one wide waste of putrefying vegetation.” The blight, caused by a fungus that thrived and multiplied in Ireland’s damp climate, had reproduced with lightning speed. In many places along the road, “the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly against the destruction that had left them foodless.”

Four days later Mathew expressed the worst in a letter to Trevelyan: “The food of a whole nation has perished.” The Times of London concurred: “From the Giants Causeway to Cape Clear, from Limerick to Dublin, not a green field is to be seen.” Indeed, on September 2, the Times declared that “total annihilation” had befallen the Irish potato crop. At this point, more than one-third of the entire Irish population depended exclusively on the potato for food and as a cash crop, but among poor tenant farmers, the proportion was even higher; a strong potato crop was their only hope for sustenance, for nourishment, for life itself.

Even pre-famine, survival had been precarious in Ireland, as tenant farmers and peasants scratched out a living raising and selling potatoes, or perhaps traded a pig or a cow for other goods. Food shortages were a near-constant peril, and temporary migration was a lifeline for many Irish families engaged in agricultural work, particularly those from western counties; seasonal trips to the grain-growing areas of the eastern counties, and to England, were commonplace. In the first half of the nineteenth century, seasonal migrants, often accompanied by their livestock, walked along Ireland’s dusty roadways in search of work and food.

Now such searches proved more and more futile.

Since Mathew’s August letter, the downward spiral had progressed with alarming speed. Now, he wrote to Trevelyan, more than 5,000 “half-starved wretched beings from the country” were begging on the streets of Cork city; “when utterly exhausted, they crawl to the work- houses to die.” He estimated that more than a hundred people a week were dying in his parish. And because of the frightful calamity that had swept the countryside, where food was all but nonexistent, thousands of peasants straggled into the city in search of something to eat, further straining scarce resources. Ten to twelve people a day died from starvation in the village of Crookhaven, where the community organized a collection to purchase a public bier upon which to place the bodies of those whose families could not afford coffins. Mathew was filled with dread, not only for the current state of affairs, but for the unknown depth of the abyss that lurked ahead.

“This country is in an awful position,” he stressed to Trevelyan, “and no one can tell what the result will be.”


Credit: Kate Puleo

Stephen Puleo is a historian, teacher, public speaker, and the author of seven books, including Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919; American Treasures: The Secret Effort to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address; and The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War.  A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, the Boston Globe, and other publications, he holds a master’s degree in history and has taught at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Suffolk University.  He and his wife Kate reside in the Boston area.

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