In February 1847, the British Relief Association sent ninety-six tons of food to Schull on the naval vessel Scourge. The ship’s commander, J. Cruford Caffin, was shocked by what he saw and reported that three-quarters of the people of Schull were reduced to skeletons. He was particularly struck by the physical decline and beggar status of adult males. Accompanied by Dr Robert Traill, Rector of Schull, he visited some impoverished Protestant families.

Commander Caffin’s distressing account was published and was widely read.

On March 14, 1847 Dr Robert Traill, Rector and Vicar of Schull, wrote the following letter to a contemporary in London. Dr Traill refers to the published account of Commander Caffin and gives further evidence of the awful conditions prevailing in Schull in the early months of 1847.

Sir, – Of all the direful scenes of misery which it has been my lot to witness during the last two or three months, what I recently beheld bears the fearful palm of wretchedness; and despite all the unkind observations made respecting us and our innumerable woes in another quarter, you, Sir, will, I am persuaded, listen with patience and compassion to the narrative of our sorrows in this ill-fated, famine-stricken land.

The Reverend Dr Robert Traill, Rector and Vicar of Schull during the Famine years. Dr Traill was gandfather of the author John Millington Synge.

A remark of Captain Caffin’s during his late visit to my parish, I shall not easily forget: – “My preconceived ideas of your misery seem as a dream to me compared with the reality;” and when an eyewitness could thus speak, it may well be presumed that the reality is something fearful. What Captain Caffin witnessed, however, was but a very small portion of our wretchedness. He had leisure only in a hurried drive to examine the hovels on the roadside: higher up among our rocks and fastnesses he might have seen appalling sights indeed.

One of these I shall now briefly describe. As I was returning from my sorrowful rounds a boy came up to me and earnestly requested me to go and visit his father. As the boy was personally unknown to me, he and his family being Roman Catholics, I inquired where his father lived, and told him to show me the way to his cabin. Turning from the main road, we crossed a bridge which the winter torrents had nearly swept away; and pursuing our walk onward we reached the scene of woe. Ay, Sir: and a scene of woe it was, such as in your happier country, could nowhere be paralleled, and which, I almost fear, will be deemed incredible in the delineation.

In one wretched hovel, whose two windows were stopped with straw, lived, huddled together, sixteen human beings. They belonged not, however, to one family; three wretched households inhabited this miserable abode. Out of the sixteen, there were but two of whom it might be said that they were able to walk, and on the exertions of these two poor pallid objects had the rest to depend, if we may except the husband of one of them, who, I was informed, had crawled out to crave a little sustenance from some charitable hand. Of the others, eight were crowded into one pallet – a bed it was not – formed of a small handful of straw, which scarcely kept them from the cold mud floor. The poor father – who has since died – was sitting up and showed me his legs swollen to the last degree; beside him lay his sister, and at his feet his children – all hastening to eternity. The remembrance of that sight wrings my heart. But, to proceed. Of another family, the mother, a widow, lay in an opposite corner, famine having scarcely left in her countenance a vestige of humanity, while her son, an only child, sat crouching over a few turf embers, a most ghastly object – both of them so hideous, that the very sight of them was most distressing.

At the other extremity of this horror-filled abode, were three children, one of them apparently folded up in its deathful sleep; another pale and emaciated: and the third, an infant, which could not long survive – for among our poor, no mother can now attempt to nurse, all the sources of maternal nourishment being dried up in her care-worn, hunger-wasted frame.

Alas! Sir. such a scene of woe! could human misery exceed it! I withdrew from that emporium of mortal wretchedness with feelings which I dare not to recall. Oh, what courage does it require to go from one such scene of horror to another! It does, Sir, believe me, and I feel it wearing my very life away. In a parish like mine, which contains 18,000 souls – I should say contained, for we calculate that 1,500 have already perished – and in a district where the potato formed the sole sustenance of our population, can there be otherwise than the most appalling destitution when that esculent was utterly exterminated by a single breath of the Divine vengeance, as it looked on a land steeped with blood? I have long expected it, and retribution has overtaken us at last!
I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,
Robert Traill, D.D., Rector and Vicar of Schull,
and Chairman of the Schull Relief Committee,
Schull Rectory,
County Cork,
March 14.

Letter written by Dr Traill describing dreadful conditions in Schull in 1847

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