A Visitor to Millstreet in 1850

At Millstreet we stopped a few minutes, and most of the passengers took a lunch. A loaf of bread, the shell of half a cheese and a huge piece of cold baked beef were set upon the table in the dirty barroom. Each went and cut for himself, filling mouth, hands and pockets as he chose. Those who took meat paid a shilling ; for the bread and cheese, a sixpence. The Englishmen had their beer, the Irishmen their whiskey, the Americans cold water. Our party came out with hands full, but the host of wretches about the coach, who seemed to need it more than we, soon begged it all away from us, and then besought us, ” Please, sir, a ha’-penny, and may God reward ye in heaven.” A woman lifted up her sick child, in which was barely the breath of life, muttering, ” Pray, yer honour, give me a mite for my poor childer, a single penny, and may God save yer shoul.” Several deformed creatures stationed themselves along the street, and shouted after us in the most pitiful tones. Others ran beside the coach for half a mile, yelling in the most doleful manner for a ” ha’-penny,” promising us eternal life if we would but give them one.

We observed that the Englishmen gave nothing, but looked at them and spoke in the most contemptuous manner. We could not give to all, but our hearts bled for them …

—-

William Stevens Balch (1806-1887)

The above is an extract from “Ireland, as I Saw it: The Character, Condition, and Prospects of the People” by Rev William Stevens Balch (page 80).

The date of his passing through Millstreet was May 19th 1859, in the midst of the Great Famine if Ireland (1845-1852 An Gorta Mór).

A much longer extract which starts as the coach is leaving Macroom and ends as they arrived in Killarney can be read below:

The author William Sevens Blach, had a biography written of him and his travels the year after his death in 1888. It can be read here.

======================

==== Longer Extract ====

And how these few rich men can feel at ease in their splen-
did mansions, while they know that whole multitudes are
kept in misery by the very means of their wealth and lux-
ury, I am not able to understand. They absorb all the
moisture that freshens human life, and then curse the
dearth they have produced themselves ! They make men
poor, and ignorant, and wicked, and then curse them for
being so ! Macroom offers not the solitary proof of this
grievous iniquity in the social organism of the world,
though the working of it produces greater contrasts than I
have seen elsewhere.

Our road now lay, after a few miles, through a rough,
wild, mountainous country much of the way. We passed
along narrow defiles, through boggy meadows, and under
loftv mountains, following a small stream to its very source
in a large bog, from which we descended into a small val-
ley running between two ranges of jagged, barren moun-
tains, in which is situated the little dirty town of Millstreet.
We passed several ruined castles on our way; among
them Carrig-a-Phouca, somewhat in the style of Blarney,
though more dilapidated, having been built by the McCar-
thys, in the early style of castle architecture.

In the course of the afternoon it came on to rain in tor-
rents. We were wholly unprotected from the ” pelting of
the pitiless storm.” An English naval officer, on the seat
before us, was sheltered by a good mackintosh cape, a cor-
ner of which I borrowed without his knowledge, to shield
my knees. He also had a large blanket under him, which
he preferred to keep there, rather than offer it to us. An-
other gentleman of the same nation, on the right, had an
umbrella, which he contrived to hold just so as to pour an
additional torrent upon one of our company, never offering
to share it with us. The poor fellows behind, and one for-
ward, were as bad off as ourselves, except Mr. Red-coat,
who bundled himself up with several cloaks and took it pa-
tiently. There was not a passenger inside, and had not
been all day. Six might have been shielded from the storm,
perhaps, from sickness and untimely death. But to enter
was not permitted, inasmuch as we had taken outside seats,
and neither the driver nor the guard had any option in the
case — we suppose they had not. Humanity is the boast
of John Bull. This is an illustration of it.

At Millstreet we stopped a few minutes, and most of the
passengers took a lunch. A loaf of bread, the shell of half
a cheese and a huge piece of cold baked beef were set
upon the table in the dirty bar-room. Each went and
cut for himself, filling mouth, hands and pockets as he chose.
Those who took meat paid a shilling ; for the bread and
cheese, a sixpence. The Englishmen had their beer, the
Irishmen their whiskey, the Americans cold water. Our
party came out with hands full, but the host of wretches
about the coach, who seemed to need it more than we, soon
begged it all away from us, and then besought us, ” Plase, sir,
a ha’-penny, oond may God raward ye in heaven.” A wo-
man lifted up her sick child, in which was barely the breath of
life, muttering, ” Pray, yer honor, give me a mite for my
poor childer, a single penny, oond may God save yer shoul.”
Several deformed creatures stationed themselves along the
street, and shouted after us in the most pitiful tones. Oth-
ers ran beside the coach for half a mile, yelling in the most
doleful manner for a ” ha’-penny,” promising us eternal life
if we would but give them one.

We observed that the Englishmen gave nothing, but
looked at them and spoke in the most contemptuous man-
ner. We could not give to all, but our hearts bled for
them. We may become more callous by a longer ac-
quaintance with these scenes of destitution and misery;
but at present the beauty of the Green Isle is greatly
maiTed, and our journey, at every advance, made painful
by the sight of such an amount of degradation and suf-
fering.

At one place, we saw a company of twenty or thirty
men, women and children, hovering about the mouth of an
old lime-kiln, to shelter themselves from the cold wind and
rain. The driver pointed them out as a sample of what
was common in these parts a year ago. As we approached,

ascending a hill at a slow pace, about half of them came
from the kiln, which stood in a pasture some rods from the
road. Such lean specimens of humanity I never before
thought the world could present. They were mere skele-
tons, wrapped up in the coarsest rags. Not one of them
had on a decent garment. The legs and arms of some were
entirely naked. Others had tattered rags dangling down
to their knees and elbows. And patches of all sorts and
colors made up what garments they had about their bodies.
They stretched out their lean hands, fastened upon arms of
skin and bone, turned their wan, ghastly faces, and sunken,
lifeless eyes imploringly up to us, with feeble words of en-
treaty, which went to our deepest heart. The Englishmen
made some cold remarks about their indolence and worth-
lessness, and gave them nothing.

I never regretted more sincerely my own poverty than
in that hour. Such objects of complete destitution and
misery ; such countenances of dejection and wo, I had not
believed could be found on earth. Not a gleam of hope
springing from their crushed spirits ; the pangs of poverty
gnawing at the very fountains of their life. All darkness,
deep, settled gloom ! Not a ray of light for them from any
point of heaven or earth ! Starvation, the most horrid of
deaths, staring them full in the face, let them turn whither
they will. The cold grave offering their only relief, and
that, perhaps, to be denied them, till picked up from the
way-side, many days after death, by some stranger passing
that way, who will feel compassion enough to cover up
their mouldering bones with a few shovels-full of earth !

And this a christian country ! a part of the great empire
of Great Britain, on whose domain the ” sun never sets,”
boastful of its enlightenment, its liberty, its humanity, its
compassion for the poor slaves of our land, its lively inter-
est in whatever civilizes, refiness, and elevates mankind!
Yet here in this beautifnl Island, formed bv nature with
such superior advantages, more than a score of human
beings, shivering under the walls of a lirrie-kiln, and
actually starving to death !

Oh, England ! in thy rush for greatness, thou hast forgot-
ten to be good ! Bedazzled with the glittering glory of thy
armies and navies, thou hast neglected the sources of thy
real strength ! Giddy in admiration of the tinseled trap-
pings in which thou hast bedecked thy queen, and her royal
bantlings and nobihty. thou hast become blind to the mise-
ry which lies festering in thy bosom. Stunned and hoarse
with the shoutings of thy own praise, thou art deaf to the
voice of justice, humanity, and religion, and sufFerest thy
own kinsmen to be wronged, insulted, cheated of the very
sources of subsistence, and denied even the hope of re-
demption ! What hast thou done — what art thou doing —
for thy millions of true and loyal Irish subjects, whom thou
hast subdued to thy authority! which is worthy a great
and christian nation ? Talk not longer of thy humanity,
of thy religion, of thy concern for poor slaves, thy keen
sense of justice and right, whilst so many arc wronged,
and wretched at home ! The world will not believe thee
sincere nor honest, but cold and heartless in thy preten-
sions, supremely selfish in the arrangement of th\^ public
and domestic affairs, and anxious only to obtain a great
name, without the trouble of deserving it !

But these Englishmen tell us ” England has exhausted
her ability and patience in attempts to improve the con-
dition of Ireland ; that she can do no more ; Irishmen are
a miserable race, destitute of enterprise, industry, and econ-
omy ; lazy, suspicious, ungrateful ; hopelessly lost in their
blind adherence to their old ways, and the superstitions of
their religion.” Is it so ? Can England conquer India,
humble China, rule the sea, and regulate the commerce of
the world, and not be able to devise and apply the means
to improve the condition of so small a portion of her do-
minions as Ireland ; to keep its inhabitants from beggary
and starvation ? Then are her statesmen destitutue of the
higher quaUties of real greatness — the knowledge and dis-
position to do good — ” to deal justly, love mercy, and walk
humbly before God.”

I have not yet seen enough of this country to form a safe
opinion of the causes of the misery and degradation we
meet at every step, nor to suggest a remedy ; but so much
wretchedness is not without a cause, for ” the curse cause-
less shall not come.” It seems strange to me that the phi-
losophers, and statesmen, and priests of religion, and polit-
ical economists, and financiers, of which England boasts a
full and honorable share should not have found out some
method to apply its vast resources of practical knowledge,
and active capital, and boasted philanthropy, to prevent the
ignorance, and crime, and suffering, which prevail so ex-
tensively in this region.

They tell us ” the famine, a visitation from God, which
fell so severely upon this part of the Island, last year, was
the principal cause of the misery we still see ; the failure
of the potato crop, upon which many thousand depended
for their subsistence, prevented those in possession of little
properties from meeting their rents and taxes, and support-
ing themselves !” Indeed ! That begins to let us into the
seci’et. The rents and taxes must be paid to support land-
lords in ease and luxury, and the government in its ability
to oppress this and other nations, even though wives and
children perish of starvation ! In default of payment the
baliff is directed to distrain and take from the poor tenant
the last resource of life and comfort, and then evict him,
and send him out pennyless and ragged, to seek by beggary
a chance to live, or a place to die. The country, it is said,
is overstocked with laborers, and there is no chance left for
this new reinforcement, and so they are compelled to wan-
der about with the hosts of idlers, about whose indolence
landlords and Englishmen prate so much. They can find
nothing to do, and so they do nothing but beg or steal —

the former failing to support life, we could hardly find it
in our hearts to blame them for the latter * Their condi-
tion is indeed deplorable. I never understood the depth
of their miseries before. I shall hereafter feel more com-
passion for the poor, ignorant, suspicious Irish, than I have
ever felt for those who seek an asylum in our blessed land.
Instead of blame and reproach, they deserve the sincerest
pity for their untoward fate. They have been reduced to
a state of dejection and helplessness from which it is im-
possible for them to deliver themselves.

But these are only our initiatory lessons, and I will for-
bear any further reflections, till better informed concern-
ing the causes of their pitiable condition.

After winding out from the heather hills and mossy bogs,
we came in full view of the Lakes of Killarney, the rough,
jagged mountains on the south, and the beautiful plain be-
fore us thickly studded with elegant mansions, fine fields, and
copses of wood, spreading around to the north and west,
with the town, embowered among trees, in the center of
the valley. The clouds had lifted, and were resting upon
the peaks of several mountains, and, here and there, patches
of sunlight were darted on different spots in the landscape.
It seemed to me there could not be found a more beautiful
place on earth. I certainly do not recollect the sight of
one in all my travels. Though dr&nched to my very skin,
I was in raptures at the sight of such a lovely spot.

Every thing was, doubtless, much enhanced by the cir-
cumstances under which I viewed it. We had been trav-
eling through a most desolate region, destitute, with here
and there a pitiful exception, of cultivation and inhabitants,
and in a merciless storm, without any protection. We
were wet, and cold, and hungry. The prospect of a com-
fortable hotel, a cheerful fire, a change of clothing, and a
decent dinner, awakened feelings and hopes which qualified
us to enjoy the sudden surprise of such a moment. Be-
sides, we had not expected to find such wild and romantic
scenery in this country — such grand and lofty mountains,
such sweet and silvery lakes, such taste and splendor
in rural dwellings. Green fields, wretched hovels, and
degraded people we had been accustomed to associate
with the Emerald Isle, but not tall mountains, bend-
ing forests, beautiful villas, and rural magnificence; es-
pecially not in the west of Ireland. But here the eye
rests, at a single glance, upon every variety of scene-
ry — on mountain, lake, and vale ; on forest, glen, and
meadow ; on pasture, heath, and garden ; on country, town,
and villa ; on castle, church, and cottage ; on splendor,
pride, and ruin ; on riches, want, and crime ; on coaches,
carts, and rags ; on virtue, sin, and sorrow ; on honor, wit,
and shame ; on every thing, which appears to be congre-
gated here in distinct and forcible contrast.

On winding into the town between rows of stately trees,
which bordered the road on either side, and passing several
elegant mansions, we came directly to the “King’s Arms”
hotel, before which a crowd of beggarly looking men and
boys were collected, each crowding about the coach, anx-
ious for a chance to serve us — or themselves by us. On
dismounting as best we could, with our wet, stiff Hmbs, be-
numbed with the cold, we fought our way through the
motley group, in order to relieve ourselves, if possible, from
their importunities. Some cried, ” go to the Victoria ;”
others cried, ” Stay here, this is a good place.” But we
had resolved to go to ” Muckruss Hotel,” at Cloghereen, a
mile or two out of the town, and near the Lakes. Every
traveler should know where to stop before entering a strange
town ; otherwise he may be sadly imposed upon ; for the
meanest taverns often have the most attractive names ; and
there are not wanting runners to swear to any thing, enough
to deceive, it’ it were possible, those who had ah-eady elected
places of abidance.

—-

It should be noted that shorter versions of this extract appeared in two publications by the Aubane Historical Society:

 

3 thoughts on “A Visitor to Millstreet in 1850”

  1. Thanks for publishing this. It is the best account there exists about the state of Millstreet during what is called the Famine. A Famine in a country full of food!
    I hope that the Dublin writer who is writing a comedy about the period will read it.

  2. All credit and thanks to Michael for publishing the above article on the Irish Famine can only agree with Jack Lane on his comment “in a Country of plenty food” at the time though the potato crop had failed due to blight the corn laws drawn up by the British Government allowed for the export of livestock and corn out of Ireland at the time and everyday of the famine boatloads of food went to Britain out of Ireland to feed their wealthy people but suppose this has happened to poor people in many Countries around the World the British Government never respected their own poor not to mind the poor of other Countries,
    Mr Balch did seem a compassionate man but on his account some of his traveling companions in Macroom and Millstreet and Killarney seemed callous and without any compassion whatsoever for poor people slowly dying of malnutrition i suppose these are some of the sort of people we get in societies where rank and class distinction are in place, poor people Worldwide through the centuries have suffered because of ignorance and prejudices, sadly as always it is only winners write history of any sort including war and famine here in the Melbourne suburbs there are are many streets named in Honor of Oliver Cromwell who in reality was a war criminal he committed many crimes against the poor people of Ireland, suppose if Germany won the war doubtless we would have Hitler Streets in Cities Worldwide, i have noticed that anyone who helps the poor in any way never becomes wealthy and famous two British poets George Crabbe and George R Sims who wrote some excellent poems on behalf of the poor of Britain are scarcely remembered today, i have met some well educated people who tried to convince me that W B Yeats is the National Bard of Ireland but when i told them that honor belongs to James Clarence Mangan they told me they had never had heard of him of course they would not Mangan was poor and he died of consumption during the famine.

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