Alexander Somerville


Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847


Alexander Somerville (1811-1885), a British journalist of Scottish parentage, wrote his Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847 for the Manchester Examiner, which published them serially. Somerville later collected and published his diary entries himself. In his autobiography, Somerville described his task as being "sent from England by the proprietors of the Manchester Examiner, to travel through Ireland, to examine into its actual condition, without regard to political or religious parties, and to report to that paper what I saw. This task I fulfilled. "

Somerville had earlier written dispatches from rural areas of England on the Corn Laws for the Manchester Examiner and the Morning Chronicle. He published his life story, The Autobiography of a Working Man in 1848. The letters below are excerpted from a 1994 edition of his Irish journal, titled Letters from Ireland during the Famine of 1847, edited by K.D.M. Snell and published by the Irish Academic Press.


Longford, 5th March 1847.

Mr John O'Connell, M.P. for Kilkenny, has written a letter from London to the Repeal Association, which is reprinted in most of the Irish newspapers. It may possibly attract no attention in England, nor may this notice of it attract attention in Ireland; but the subject is profoundly important; and, as the member for Kilkenny has the temerity to provoke a discussion on such a subject -- that of the generosity of the English public to the Irish people in this present season of distress -- I shall not shrink from telling him, respectfully yet firmly, that his letter to me Repeal Association now circulated throughout Ireland is a most unfounded and unworthy libel against the English people. And more, that of all the gentry in Ireland, the repeal members of parliament, so far as I have yet seen their estates and the starving people on their estates, (and I have already visited a considerable number of them,) are the gentry least entitled to accus the English people of apathy and hardheartedness.

Mr John O'Connell, referring to an address delivered by him on the previous evening in the House of Commons, says in his letter -- 'I also drew attention to a monstrous sentiment prevailing in some quarters here, that it is in the natural order of things for a population to be suffered to diminish down to the diminished supply of food in a country afflicted with scarcity. I implored of the government and the house not to let this cruel sentiment have influence upon them in dealing with the question of relief to Ireland, and expressed my fears, from what I had seen, that inadequate and insufficient as are the measures proposed by the government, yet, in so far as those measures involved the expenditure of money, the government are absolutely in advance of English opinion.'

I can prove to Mr John O'Connell, and to all whom it may concern, by reference to Irish estates one by one, to farms upon those estates one by one, and by reference to me charity given or wages paid for actual labour now performed, giving the names of the proprietors and middlemen one by one, whose reputation is involved in the question, that, whatever the stage of liberality may be now arrived at by the government, public opinion and public generosity in England are far in advance of public opinion and public generosity in Ireland.

Some Irish gentlemen may be too poor to have much to give away in the present emergency; but the poorest of them might give something. The greatness of the necessity seems to be, for them, an excuse for doing nothing at all -- literally nothing at all. Moreover, they might pay wages sufficient to keep their work-people out of the public soup-kitchesn, and in a condition to be able to work. I shall here relate a case I witnessed the other day; I might relate twenty such within a week.

Seven men were in a field which measured three acres, and shich had just been sown with oats. They were employed in breaking the clods of earth, in clearing the furrows for letting off top water, and in otherwise finishing the sowing of the oats. It was about four in the afternoon when I saw them. They appeared to me to work very indifferently; the whole seven were doing less than one man's work. I watched them for some time, while they did not see me, consequently they could not be enacting a part before a stranger. I was soon convinced that the men were, some of them, leaning on their implements of work, and others staggering among the clods, from sheer weakness and hunger. I concluded this to be the case from the frequency of such signs. One of the men, after I had watched them some time, crawled through a gap in the hedge, came out upon the road on his hands and knees, and then tried to rise, and got up bit by bit as a feeble old man might be supposed to do. He succeeded in getting upon his feet at last, and moved slowly away, with tottering steps, towards the village, in a miserable hovel of which was his home.

I thought I would speak to the feeble old man, and followed and came up with him. He was not an old man. He was under forty years of age; was tall and sinewy, and had all the appearances of what would have been a strong man if there had been flesh on his body. But he bowed down, his cheeks were sunken, and his skin sallow-coloured, as if death were already with him. His eyes glared upon me fearfully; and his skinny skeleton hands clutched the handle of the shovel upon which he supported himself while he stood to speak to me, as it were the last grasp of life.

'It is the hunger, your honour; nothing but the hunger,' he said in a feeble voice: 'I stayed at the work til I could stay no longer. I am fainting now with the hunger. I must go home and lie down. There is six chidren and my wife and myself. We had nothing all yesterday, ) which was Sunday,) and this morning we had only a handful of yellow meal among us all, made into a stirabout, before I came out to work-- nothing more and nothing since. Sure this hunger will be the death of all of us. God have mercy upon me and my poor family.'

I saw the poor man and his poor family, and truly might he say, 'God have mercy!' They were skeletons all of them, with skin on the bones and life within the skin. A mother skeleton and baby skeleton; a tall boy skeleton, who had no work to do; who could do nothing but eat, and had nothing to eat. Four female children skeletons, and the tall father skeleton, not able to work to get food for them, and not able to get enough of food when he did work for them. Their only food was what his wages of 10 d. per day would procure of 'yellow meal' -- the meal of the Indian corn. The price of that was 3s. per stone of 16 lb. This gave for the eight persons 26 lb. 10 oz. of meal for seven days; being about seven ounces and a half per day for each person. No self-control could make such persons distribute such a starvation of food over seven days equally. Their natural cravings made them eat it up at once, or in one, or three days at most, leaving the other days blank, making the pangs of hunger still worse.

But in the calculation I am supposing all the wages go for meal. I believe none of it was expended on anything else, not even salt, save fuel: fuel in this village must all be purchased by such people; they are not allowed to go to the bogs to cut it for themselves. Nor is this the season to go to the bogs, if they were allowed. The fuel required to keep the household fire merely burning, hardly sufficient to give warmth to eight persons around it, to say nothing of half-naked persons, would cost at least sixpence a day. Wherefore, no fuel was used by this family, nor by other working families, but what was required to boil the meal into a stirabout. . .

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