Rev. Richard Boyle Townsend was Rector of Abbeystrewry parish and did extraordinary work to help relieve the poor and to highlight the plight and suffering in this area during the Great Irish Famine (1845-52).

On March 9, 1847 he wrote a letter stating that between 35 and 40 people were dying each day in Skibbereen, exclusive of those who died in the Workhouse and that in the previous week the death toll in the Workhouse was 65.

This is just one letter from a large volume of correspondence by Rev. R.B. Townsend. The letters were published in many newspapers in Ireland and Britain.

Rev. Townsend was regarded as an authentic and accurate commentator on Famine conditions in Ireland, and particularly in the Skibbereen Union.

Rev. Townsend died on May 7, 1850, aged 55 years. Having exhausted himself by his efforts in helping the starving masses, he succumbed to Famine Fever following a visit to the workhouse in Skibbereen. A plaque in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, is dedicated to his memory.


Skibbereen, March 9, 1847.

MY DEAR MADAM, – I beg gratefully to acknowledge the further remittance of halves of two £5 notes. I have also to correct a mistake in the sum last acknowledged by me – it should have been £42 10s. instead of £37 10s., the remainder of the sum of £165 having been appropriated by my reverend friend Mr. Webb in my absence in London.

I come now to statistics as desired by and given to another friend full of like zeal in our cause.

1st – As to the price of meal sufficient to feed a man with a family of four as compared with his wages. The price of meal per quart (9 quarts to the stone of 14 lbs,) is 5d. by retail; 1½ quarts is the quantity computed by itself the sufficit of a working man for his day’s food, one quart for a woman, one quart for a lad of 15 years, and one pint each for infants. All this, without milk &c., or calculating means of cooking, would give, for a family of five persons, 4½ quarts, which at 5d. would be 1s. 10½d. a day; while the average hire of the men on the public works, at full work, is 8d. or, not to be under, 9d., not deducting for broken days or sickness.

2nd – As to the proportion of deaths daily. As well as we can calculate – for there are some never reported – we agreed in committee yesterday that it was a low rate to say 35, or from that to 40 deaths daily, exclusive of the deaths in the workhouse, which were declared to be 65 for the last week! We paid our coffinman yesterday for 63 bodies interred by him (just taking them to the grave yard and throwing them out of it into a pit) for three weeks!


3rd – As to the numbers in this workhouse compared with originally intended power of accommodation. There were reported to me yesterday 1449 in the house built for 800! It had, therefore to be closed last Thursday; and is now closed accordingly, for the second time this season, against any further admissions till it disgorges its present overfullness. Alas! Alas! What a state of neglected misery for a country to be left in.

4th – As to what our hopes from government? Suffice it to say that we made the assistant commissary to start again in demanding of him yesterday a week’s supply of five tons of meal. He positively refused it, though we were to pay him for it! But so far as we can judge, our prospects for next year are even more gloomy, coming in as an appendix to our present condition! there is no seed! and the government refuse to supply any and there are otherwise no means to till the ground. The country is in the depth of poverty, and every day is putting it lower by sending the little money there is out of it for foreign supplies! Yet no precautions taken to prevent its future continuance! The country like its inhabitants must sink from destitution! Nothing is doing! Trade is at a standstill! The shopkeepers, who are not sellers of provisions, are sitting on their counters! The people are languishing! And to complete the hopelessness of our prospects, those who can afford to do any thing are doing it not, being determined to go off for America awe-struck by present appearances! Even our public school here is left without its pupils! The whole community, in short, is paralysed and palsied – so broken down in despair, that, so far as we are concerned, “it is as though the general pulse of life stood still, and nature made a pause! – an awful pause,” as appears to us, “prophetic of her end!” “Famines, and pestilence, and earthquakes in diverse places, the beginnings of sorrows!” being given as signs of the times! And oh! If these – such scenes as the combined result of those things which we experience – be but the beginning of sorrows, what must be the body of their effects? “Who shall live when God doeth this?” The good Lord give us an increase of faith.


5th – As to our experience from the relief fund!

We are promised supplies partly gratuitously and partly if we buy. If we had means we would want no relief. For poverty to get the means to purchase is the rub! Yet, probably considering the magnitude of the evil – the original neglect above noted – and the comparatively nothingness of the fund, though as much no doubt as private means can do – it is to the full all that can be expected; for as Captain Harston, the manager of those supplies, told us yesterday, they must endeavour to keep up the fund, otherwise it would soon be exhausted. – But you know, to those who are deprived of their all in being deprived of those resources which causes our present dire necessity, this is in fact to give nothing unless we are supplied with the means of purchasing from other sources! It is like selling soup in some places, where the creatures in order to purchase are first obliged to go and beg the halfpenny or penny!! And what in the world should we, beggars on a large scale, do with every means of procuring money being withdrawn from us who depend on land, the only value of which it has pleased God in his wisdom and justice to deprive us of, its producer, but under God for the generous supplies of you all! We have nothing to export. We are exporting nothing! Alas! How changed from the time when we exported 80,000 tons of potatoes annually, as I have heard the average computed, which, at even £2 10s. a ton, would bring into the country £200,000, besides all the wealth lost to us in the pigs, &c fed for the foreign markets, bringing back oceans of wealth! And yet, with the loss of all these we are expected to purchase supplies as plentifully as if we not only did not suffer the loss of all these, but as if we were not exhausted to the very bones – even of the marrow – to make our poverty find means to get in foreign food! What we exported, as well as lived on is gone and with it our wealth! What we have not we must get, in order to import to complete our loss!

It is scarcely necessary to observe upon the foolish, wicked falsehood of our purchasing fire arms! The people have no means to live! How, then, could any procure a thing so useless to those who are dying of want? Where resources are rife, as in other places, it may be so – not here certainly. I protest, for one, who have put all my energies into their service of mind and body to keep them alive, if I thought there was such a thing going on this district and that they were thus proved to have the means of support, I would relinquish every further effort, take my ease, which I want, and withdraw into my shell.

6th – As to the number of pints of soup we are ale to throw off daily.

By the exertions that are made by you and such other zealous friends we have been enabled to go on increasing their number till we now daily throw off by a steam-boiler 800 gallons of prime stuff! Still this quantity is found quite insufficient! We determined yesterday in dependence on Him who has raised you up to us, and who, we are sure, will continue to us your valuable endeavours, to add another vat to our boiler, producing  probably a third more, and also to increase our quantity of rice to add daily for the supply of rice milk, &c., for the sick.

So you see, my dear madam, you must not slacken your hand, for you and our multiplied English friends have raised ambitious thoughts in our minds of doing great things, and we are accordingly doing them! On the resources you supply we build to carry on our work; if you or any of you fail us, then we stand in the predicament of the foolish body who began to build but had not money to finish.

The great and good God be praised, who in judgement remembers mercy, in raising up to us such kind and considerate, and untired and working friends to us, as you all, generous contributors and gatherers of help, have proved yourselves to be to us in this our hour of need – I am, dear madam, very gratefully yours,

Richard Boyle Townsend, Vicar of Abbey Strury.

Mrs. L.B., Dublin.

P.S. – Since the foregoing was written I have had a most deplorable account of our workhouse from one who visits it daily. Nearly half the inmates are diseased in the hospitals and in the main house, and it is otherwise all but a nuisance from its terrifically overcrowded state – The well as well as the sick are perishing of cold for want of fires – Those who ought to visit it are afraid to go near it.

As to our town, there are families in fever for days, one on a sop of straw in the market place, and another in an old rejected boiler on the side of a narrow way, the smell from which is quite shocking, as described to me by a person passing in a jaunting car! No place to put them into! – quite sufficient to fill the whole place with its virus.

The chairman of our committee mentioned yesterday the case of a woman who had left the workhouse and gone to her native place, an eastern farm in this parish, and having taken, as is supposed, the seeds of disease with her, died there. She feared her brother’s anger for leaving the workhouse, the family being in extreme destitution, and she went to a neighbour’s house. When she died this person took her clothes as a kind of remuneration, and the unfortunate brother had to take the body for burial on his back in a basket, the head and legs dangling over the sides as he went, there being only a rag to cover the basket! The church yard to which he had to go was distant about three miles! As he approached the people who saw it set up screams of horror, and the clergyman near whose glebe the church yard is, on hearing them and learning the cause, sent two men to dig a grave to bury her.

He reporter of this is a magistrate and chairman of the Board of Guardians.


Appalling conditions in Skibbereen in March 1847

Upcoming Events