In the summer time of the year 1862 something occurred that brought me face to face with the English landlord garrison of the South of Ireland; something showed me the spirit of exterminating the old Irish race, that possesses some of these landlords. Rumors reached Skibbereen in the month of May that much distress prevailed in the islands of Sherkin and Cape Clear—Innis Cleire—“the island of the clergy”; that the people were dying of starvation. Special messengers from the island waited on the Skibbereen Board of Guardians, and pressed for immediate relief. A committee of the Board, consisting of McCarthy Downing, Martin Jennings and James Murray, were appointed to take the matter in hand. They resolved to send a ton of meal into the islands immediately. The regular relieving officer, James Barry—Shemus Leathan, as he was called—was old and infirm; it was necessary to get an active man who would act temporarily as relieving officer, and act immediately; Mr. Downing sent for me, and asked me to undertake the work; that a boat with four men was at the quay that would take us in to the islands with a ton of meal. I told him I certainly would go on such a mission. I called on a neighbor of mine, Michael O’Driscoll, to go with me, and he readily assented. We got the meal on board the boat that night and next morning we set sail for the islands.

The first island I met was the island of Sherkin—that island of which Thomas Davis sings:

“Old Inis-Sherkin’s crumbled fane looks like a moulting bird;
And in a calm and sleepy swell the ocean tide is heard.”

The boatman told us that the distress was greater in Innis Cleire than in Innis Sherkin; that the people in the farther off island were dying of starvation, and that it would be better for us to go on to Cape Clear first. We accordingly decided to do so; and we decided to land three sacks of the meal in Sherkin, for distribution there next day on our return from the Cape.

It was a beautiful summer evening; the boat was steered into a little shingly cove; a man was stretched on a grassy bank, as if asleep; we called him to help us to take the sacks ashore; he turned his head high enough to look, and lay back upon the grass again—taking no further notice of us. I leaped ashore, and found that the man was unable to stand on his legs; he was dying of hunger—a man named O’Driscoll, over six feet, and about twenty-six years of age.

My wife had thought I would be out on the islands for a few days, and she had sandwiched up as much food for me as would feed me for a week; Michael O’Driscoll’s wife had done the same for him; we took our lunch baskets from the boat, laid them before the hungry man, and left him to help himself while we were landing the meal into the house of a Mrs. Hughes near by. We made a fatal mistake; we were accessory to the death of the starving man; he had eaten more than was good for him; he was dead when we returned to the island next day.

We got into Cape Clear about nine o’clock in the evening. News had reached there that we were coming. Father Collins was on the strand, with conveyance to take the meal to his house, near by. We distributed some of it that night; the priest sent word through the island to have the poor people be at his house next morning to take their share of the relief. We had supper and sleep at Father Collins’s, and next morning before breakfast we distributed the meal.

We brought with us a gallon measure, and a half-gallon measure. A gallon holds about seven pounds of meal, and we were to distribute our relief as nearly as we could within the bounds of the Poor Law Outdoor-relief regulations—giving no single individual more than three and a half pounds of meal.

When we had supplied the relief to all that called, we had about a hundred pounds of meal left. We decided to leave it at Father Collins’s until we would call again, which we expected to be the following week.

After breakfast, Father Collins took us to see a bed-ridden woman who was living in a cleft of a rock on a hill back of his house. He went on his hands and knees getting into her house; I went in after him in the same fashion; and there was the poor woman stretched upon flag stones covered with heath. She could not sit up to cook the measure of meal that we gave to a neighboring poor woman for her. Father Collins suggested that as we had some of the meal left, it would be no harm to give this neighboring poor woman an extra measure of it in consideration of her attendance upon the sick woman. We acted upon the suggestion, and gave the extra measure. I lost my job by doing so. Further on, I will come to the story of it.

Father Collins accompanied us to the other end of the island to take the boat for Sherkin. The walk was about three miles. We entered many houses on the way. Some of them had flags for doors—the wooden doors having been burned for firing. In one house were five or six children; one of them was dead—evidently dead from starvation. I reported that case of death to the first coroner I could communicate with when I reached the mainland; an inquest was held and the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of: “Death from starvation.”

On Thursday, Board day, the following week, I gave in my report to the Skibbereen Board of Guardians. The landlords of the islands—the Beechers—were there. They are what is called “ex-officio guardians”—that is, guardians of the poor by virtue of their possessing the lands of the poor—for the O’Driscolls owned the lands of Sherkin and Cape Clear till the Beechers came and swindled them out of these lands, as I will show you by Irish history, by and by.

The John Wrixon Beecher who was in the Skibbereen Board room that day that I gave in the report of my visit to the island is the Beecher that was married to Lady Emily Hare, the daughter of Lord Ennismore. He scrutinized every item of my report; and he asked for a postponement of its full consideration until another Board day. That Board day, he was on hand with all his friends; he laid hold of that item of my having given the extra measure of meal to the bed-ridden woman; he declared it to be a violation of the Poor Law Rules and Regulations; he proposed that I be dismissed from the situation of temporary relieving officer; that I get no salary for the time I served, and that I be made to pay out of my own pocket for the extra measure of meal I illegally gave away.

The fight on that subject continued for four or five weeks, during which time I visited the islands four or five times.

McCarthy Downing was in a fix. He was the land-agent of much of the Beecher estate; but his heart was with the people. I wrote to the Guardians and the Poor Law Commissioners some letters at the time, and in the copies of the letters before me now, I see McCarthy Downing’s pencil-writing, toning down some expression of mine, and substituting words of his for words of mine. I told him I would take the case into court, and sue the Guardians for three months’ salary. He said he could not act as my attorney, but advised me to employ Chris. Wallace or Tom Wright. I did so, and I got a decree against the Guardians for the quarter’s salary.

This story in my recollections will be better understood by my giving you to read the following letters which I wrote at the time:

Skibbereen, May 28, 1862.

To the Skibbereen Board of Guardians:

Gentlemen—On Friday, the 23d inst., I left at 12 o’clock noon, with one ton of meal, for distribution among the poor of Cape Clear and Sherkin Islands. I arrived in Sherkin about 3 o’clock, and left seven and a half cwt. of the meal at the house of Dan Minihane. I made arrangements to have word sent to all the poor whose names were taken down by Mr. Barry, that they may attend next day. I then proceeded toward Cape Clear with twelve and a half cwt. of the meal, but did not land before half-past seven o’clock, as the weather was most unfavorable.

That evening and next morning I gave eleven cwt., two quarters and eleven lbs. of meal to 81 families numbering 225 individuals. Among those are five or six farmers with families, apparently in the greatest destitution—who would not go into the poorhouse. In the house of one—Thomas Regan of Lisamona—a child was dead, and from her wretched appearance I considered she died from want and starvation. I left undistributed in Cape Clear about one cwt. of meal. I came to Sherkin Island on Saturday, and distributed the three sacks of meal I left there the previous day, among 53 heads of families, and single old infirm persons, numbering 172 individuals. About 40 were left unsupplied with any, and I requested some of those supplied to assist the others until I could come again. It is, of course, possible that in discharging so urgent a duty, and so promptly, some mistake might have been made; but I did my best.

The people appeared more wretched and distressed in Cape Clear than in Sherkin. In both places many of them said they may not want poor-law relief long, as they had hope that Father Leader would return with money to get fishing gear for them, which would be a means of affording them remunerative employment, and permanent relief. The entire number relieved are 397 individuals, comprising 139 heads of families and single persons.

Yours respectfully,

Jer. O’Donovan-Rossa.

The following is a copy of a bill I sent in to the Board of Guardians, with accompanying letter:


To Jer. O’Donovan Rossa, Dr.

To salary as relieving officer, per appointment by a committee of the Board of Guardians, for three months£12 00 00
To boat hire for second week 10 00
TOTAL£12 10 00

Gentlemen—As you have appointed a relieving officer in my place, I believe you are all under the impression that my services are virtually at an end. As this is the day, then, for paying the officers, I put in my bill. I have heard it said I would get only a fortnight’s salary, though the situation has yet involved me in five weeks’ attendance upon you, and I believe will occupy more of my time.

If you are disposed to give me only a fortnight’s salary, I shall claim my right to the entire three months’ salary, as per appointment; and then, I think I can show what has so often been talked of at the Board, that my discontinuance in office was owing to a cry of politics gotten up against me, and against the committee who appointed me—a cry unworthy to be raised, where the discharge of a duty to the suffering poor was alone involved. I remain, gentlemen,

Respectfully yours,

Jer. O’Donovan Rossa.

Here is a letter I wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners, Dublin, at the time:

Skibbereen, June 7, 1862.

The Poor Law Commissioners, Dublin:

Gentlemen—On the 22d of last month a committee of the Skibbereen Board of Guardians requested me to go into the islands of Cape and Sherkin with one ton of meal to distribute among the destitute poor people there, whose names were previously taken down by Mr. James Barry in his application-book and report book—which names I copied. I went with all possible haste, and distributed the meal. I returned, and, according to the instructions of the clerk of the Union, placed the names of the recipients on the register. He then gave me a “statistical report book,” directing me to enter the cases in the columns of the first section of the act. I found that this section contained no column for many of those I relieved; and, seeing that they were relievable under the second section of the act, I placed them in its columns.

I was not in presence of the Clerk of the Board while doing this; nor was I told that a resolution was passed by the Board to the effect that none should be relieved except those coming under the first section.

Before going into the islands I called on the clerk for a book of instructions; but he had none. I called to the committee; they had none. But they gave me a copy of the Poor Law Commissioners’ circulars of the year 1848 or thereabouts. Receiving those, to act by them as part of my instructions, it is not to be wondered at if I relieved parties who did not come under the first section of the act. It is true I gave a little meal to five or six small farmers—but their families were apparently in the most wretched state of destitution. In the house of one, I saw a dead child, who, I believe, died from want of the necessaries of life. That, a coroner’s jury subsequently affirmed. The father of the child would not go to the poorhouse. I gave the apparently starving family a little meal—as I could do according to my instructions. But the lord of the soil comes forward in the Board room yesterday, and the previous Board day, with a statement on paper to the effect that out-door relief was not wanted in the islands—signed by the tenants, including the father of the deceased child—he the lord of the soil, saying, that the relieving officer, or some other person, must be held accountable for meal given to any person not coming under the first section of the act.

I certainly acted in ignorance of the resolution previously passed at the Board. And, if I knew it, it is as certain that I would not go into the islands, fettered up in such a manner. But I thought, from all that I had seen and heard of the existing distress, and from the statements made by Sir Robert Peel in Parliament, and his replies to various deputations, that the commissioners had unlocked all the sections and clauses of the Poor Law act, and directed the guardians of the different Unions to avail of them, and to put on them the most liberal construction for the relief of the destitute poor.

The clerk of the Union has returned the statistical book to me, telling me it is not properly filled; that he cannot receive it unless all the cases are relieved under the first section of the act. Under all these circumstances, I respectfully refer to you for instructions as to how I am to satisfy the clerk, or otherwise act.

It seems I am no longer the Guardians’ Relieving Officer. They appointed another yesterday, though the committee who appointed me led me to understand I would hold the situation for three months.

For the truth of that statement, you may refer to that committee.

I would not seek such a situation; but having been requested to discharge its duties, in a pressing emergency, I do not like to be set aside for having done so, efficiently.

I would not seek such a situation; but having been requested to discharge its duties, in a pressing emergency, I do not like to be set aside for having done so, efficiently.

Jer. O’Donovan Rossa.

I have made the remark that the Beechers of a few hundred years ago, swindled themselves into the lands of the O’Driscolls in Cape and Sherkin and other islands of “Carbery’s hundred isles.” Not only that, but they and their descendants since, have been trying to wipe out the old Irish stock entirely. It is not agreeable to have around you people you have plundered, and reduced to pauperism and starvation. Doctor Dan O’Donovan, in his sketches of Carbery, says:

“In a copy of an inquisition taken in Ross Carbery in the year 1608, all the various lordships, royalties, rents and dues are detailed, and the boundaries strictly defined of the country or cantred of Collymore, called O’Driscoll’s country. It contained 65 plough-lands—39½ on the mainland and 25½ in the islands. The names of their castles would also indicate the flourishing conditions of the occupants, viz, Dun-na-sead, which means the castle of the Jewels, and Dun-an-oir, the golden fort.

“Walter Coppinger had been an arbitrator in deciding a dispute regarding landed property between Sir Fineen O’Driscoll and a relative of his named Fineen Catharach. Coppinger got an order out of Chancery against the heirs of O’Driscoll. Coppinger, after the justices had issued a commission to Sir William Hull, Mr. Henry Beecher and Mr. Barham to examine into the case, made a private contract with Beecher, and granted him a lease of the whole.”

And so, the juggling went on, till the O’Driscolls came in to be pauper tenants in their own lands, and the Beechers came in to be millionaire landlords over them.