Castle Richmond, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter VII

The Famine Year

They who were in the south of Ireland during the winter of 1846-47 will not readily forget the agony of that period. For many, many years preceding and up to that time, the increasing swarms of the country had been fed upon the potato, and upon the potato only; and now all at once the potato failed them, and the greater part of eight million human beings were left without food.

The destruction of the potato was the work of God; and it was natural to attribute the sufferings which at once overwhelmed the unfortunate country to God’s anger — to his wrath for the misdeeds of which that country had been guilty. For myself, I do not believe in such exhibitions of God’s anger. When wars come, and pestilence, and famine; when the people of a land are worse than decimated, and the living hardly able to bury the dead, I cannot coincide with those who would deprecate God’s wrath by prayers. I do not believe that our God stalks darkly along the clouds, laying thousands low with the arrows of death, and those thousands the most ignorant, because men who are not ignorant have displeased Him. Nor, if in his wisdom He did do so, can I think that men’s prayers would hinder that which his wisdom had seen to be good and right.

But though I do not believe in exhibitions of God’s anger, I do believe in exhibitions of his mercy. When men by their folly and by the shortness of their vision have brought upon themselves penalties which seem to be overwhelming, to which no end can be seen, which would be overwhelming were no aid coming to us but our own, then God raises his hand, not in anger, but in mercy, and by his wisdom does for us that for which our own wisdom has been insufficient.

But on no Christian basis can I understand the justice or acknowledge the propriety of asking our Lord to abate his wrath in detail, or to alter his settled purpose. If He be wise, would we change his wisdom? If He be merciful, would we limit his mercy? There comes upon us some strange disease, and we bid Him to stay his hand. But the disease, when it has passed by, has taught us lessons of cleanliness, which no master less stern would have made acceptable. A famine strikes us, and we again beg that that hand may be stayed; — beg as the Greeks were said to beg when they thought that the anger of Phoebus was hot against them because his priest had been dishonoured. We so beg, thinking that God’s anger is hot also against us. But, lo! the famine passes by, and a land that had been brought to the dust by man’s folly is once more prosperous and happy.

If this was ever so in the world’s history, it was so in Ireland at the time of which I am speaking. The country, especially in the south and west, had been brought to a terrible pass; — not, as so many said and do say, by the idolatry of popery, or by the sedition of demagogues, or even mainly by the idleness of the people. The idolatry of popery, to my way of thinking, is bad; though not so bad in Ireland as in most other Papist countries that I have visited. Sedition also is bad; but in Ireland, in late years, it has not been deep-seated — as may have been noted at Ballingarry and other places, where endeavour was made to bring sedition to its proof. And as for the idleness of Ireland’s people, I am inclined to think they will work under the same compulsion and same persuasion which produce work in other countries.

The fault had been the lowness of education and consequent want of principle among the middle classes; and this fault had been found as strongly marked among the Protestants as it had been among the Roman Catholics. Young men were brought up to do nothing. Property was regarded as having no duties attached to it. Men became rapacious, and determined to extract the uttermost farthing out of the land within their power, let the consequences to the people on that land be what they might.

We used to hear much of absentees. It was not the absence of the absentees that did the damage, but the presence of those they left behind them on the soil. The scourge of Ireland was the existence of a class who looked to be gentlemen living on their property, but who should have earned their bread by the work of their brain, or, failing that, by the sweat of their brow. There were men to be found in shoals through the country speaking of their properties and boasting of their places, but who owned no properties and had no places when the matter came to be properly sifted.

Most Englishmen have heard of profit-rent. In Ireland the term is so common that no man cannot have heard of it. It may, of course, designate a very becoming sort of income. A man may, for instance, take a plot of land for one hundred pounds a-year, improve and build on it till it be fairly worth one thousand pounds a-year, and thus enjoy a profit-rent of nine hundred pounds. Nothing can be better or fairer. But in Ireland the management was very different. Men there held tracts of ground, very often at their full value, paying for them such proportion of rent as a farmer could afford to pay in England and live. But the Irish tenant would by no means consent to be a farmer. It was needful to him that he should be a gentleman, and that his sons should be taught to live and amuse themselves as the sons of gentlemen — barring any such small trifle as education. They did live in this way; and to enable them to do so, they underlet their land in small patches, and at an amount of rent to collect which took the whole labour of their tenants, and the whole produce of the small patch, over and above the quantity of potatoes absolutely necessary to keep that tenant’s body and soul together.

And thus a state of things was engendered in Ireland which discouraged labour, which discouraged improvements in farming, which discouraged any produce from the land except the potato crop; which maintained one class of men in what they considered to be the gentility of idleness, and another class, the people of the country, in the abjectness of poverty.

It is with thorough rejoicing, almost with triumph, that I declare that the idle, genteel class has been cut up root and branch, has been driven forth out of its holding into the wide world, and has been punished with the penalty of extermination. The poor cotter suffered sorely under the famine, and under the pestilence which followed the famine; but he, as a class, has risen from his bed of suffering a better man. He is thriving as a labourer either in his own country or in some newer — for him better — land to which he has emigrated. He, even in Ireland, can now get eight and nine shillings a-week easier and with more constancy than he could get four some fifteen years since. But the other man has gone, and his place is left happily vacant.

There are an infinite number of smaller bearings in which this question of the famine, and of agricultural distress in Ireland, may be regarded, and should be regarded by those who wish to understand it. The manner in which the Poor Law was first rejected and then accepted, and then, if one may say so, swallowed whole by the people; the way in which emigration has affected them; the difference in the system of labour there from that here, which in former days was so strong that an agricultural labourer living on his wages and buying food with them, was a person hardly to be found: all these things must be regarded by one who would understand the matter. But seeing that this book of mine is a novel, I have perhaps already written more on a dry subject than many will read.

Such having been the state of the country, such its wretchedness, a merciful God sent the remedy which might avail to arrest it; and we — we deprecated his wrath. But all this will soon be known and acknowledged; acknowledged as it is acknowledged that new cities rise up in splendour from the ashes into which old cities have been consumed by fire. If this beneficent agency did not from time to time disencumber our crowded places, we should ever be living in narrow alleys with stinking gutters, and supply of water at the minimum.

But very frightful are the flames as they rush through the chambers of the poor, and very frightful was the course of that violent remedy which brought Ireland out of its misfortunes. Those who saw its course, and watched its victims, will not readily forget what they saw.

Slowly, gradually, and with a voice that was for a long time discredited, the news spread itself through the country that the food of the people was gone. That his own crop was rotten and useless each cotter quickly knew, and realized the idea that he must work for wages if he could get them, or else go to the poorhouse. That the crop of his parish or district was gone became evident to the priest, and the parson, and the squire; and they realized the idea that they must fall on other parishes or other districts for support. But it was long before the fact made itself known that there was no food in any parish, in any district.

When this was understood, men certainly did put their shoulders to the wheel with a great effort. Much abuse at the time was thrown upon the government; and they who took upon themselves the management of the relief of the poor in the south-west were taken most severely to task. I was in the country, travelling always through it, during the whole period, and I have to say — as I did say at the time with a voice that was not very audible — that in my opinion the measures of the government were prompt, wise, and beneficent; and I have to say also that the efforts of those who managed the poor were, as a rule, unremitting, honest, impartial, and successful.

The feeding of four million starving people with food, to be brought from foreign lands, is not an easy job. No government could bring the food itself; but by striving to do so it might effectually prevent such bringing on the part of others. Nor when the food was there, on the quays, was it easy to put it, in due proportions, into the four million mouths. Some mouths, and they, alas! the weaker ones, would remain unfed. But the opportunity was a good one for slashing philanthropical censure; and then the business of the slashing, censorious philanthropist is so easy, so exciting, and so pleasant!

I think that no portion of Ireland suffered more severely during the famine than the counties Cork and Kerry. The poorest parts were perhaps the parishes lying back from the sea and near to the mountains; and in the midst of such a district Desmond Court was situated. The region immediately round Castle Richmond was perhaps better. The tenants there had more means at their disposal, and did not depend so absolutely on the potato crop; but even round Castle Richmond the distress was very severe.

Early in the year relief committees were formed, on one of which young Herbert Fitzgerald agreed to act. His father promised, and was prepared to give his best assistance, both by money and countenance; but he pleaded that the state of his health hindered him from active exertion, and therefore his son came forward in his stead on this occasion, as it appeared probable that he would do on all others having reference to the family property.

This work brought people together who would hardly have met but for such necessity. The priest and the parson of a parish, men who had hitherto never been in a room together, and between whom neither had known anything of the other but the errors of his doctrine, found themselves fighting for the same object at the same board, and each for the moment laid aside his religious ferocity. Gentlemen, whose ancestors had come over with Strongbow, or maybe even with Milesius, sat cheek by jowl with retired haberdashers, concerting new soup kitchens, and learning on what smallest modicum of pudding made from Indian corn a family of seven might be kept alive, and in such condition that the father at least might be able to stand upright.

The town of Kanturk was the headquarters of that circle to which Herbert Fitzgerald was attached, in which also would have been included the owner of Desmond Court, had there been an owner of an age to undertake such work. But the young earl was still under sixteen, and the property was represented, as far as any representation was made, by the countess.

But even in such a work as this, a work which so strongly brought out what there was of good among the upper classes, there was food for jealousy and ill will. The name of Owen Fitzgerald at this time did not stand high in the locality of which we are speaking. Men had presumed to talk both to him and of him, and he replied to their censures by scorn. He would not change his mode of living for them, or allow them to believe that their interference could in any way operate upon his conduct. He had therefore affected a worse character for morals than he had perhaps truly deserved, and had thus thrown off from him all intimacy with many of the families among whom he lived.

When, therefore, he had come forward as others had done, offering to join his brother-magistrates and the clergyman of the district in their efforts, they had, or he had thought that they had, looked coldly on him. His property was halfway between Kanturk and Mallow; and when this occurred he turned his shoulder upon the former place, and professed to act with those whose meetings were held at the latter town. Thus he became altogether divided from that Castle Richmond neighbourhood to which he was naturally attached by old intimacies and family ties.

It was a hard time this for the poor countess. I have endeavoured to explain that the position in which she had been left with regard to money was not at any time a very easy one. She possessed high rank and the name of a countess, but very little of that wealth which usually constitutes the chief advantage of such rank and name. But now such means as had been at her disposal were terribly crippled. There was no poorer district than that immediately around her, and none, therefore, in which the poor rates rose to a more fearful proportion of the rent. The country was, and for that matter still is, divided, for purposes of poor-law rating, into electoral districts. In ordinary times a man, or at any rate a lady, may live and die in his or her own house without much noticing the limits or peculiarities of each district. In one the rate may be one and a penny in the pound, in another only a shilling. But the difference is not large enough to create inquiry. It is divided between the landlord and the tenant, and neither perhaps thinks much about it. But when the demand made rises to seventeen or eighteen shillings in the pound — as was the case in some districts in those days — when out of every pound of rent that he paid the tenant claimed to deduct nine shillings for poor rates, that is, half the amount levied — then a landlord becomes anxious enough as to the peculiarities of his own electoral division.

In the case of Protestant clergymen, the whole rate had to be paid by the incumbent. A gentleman whose half-yearly rent-charge amounted to perhaps two hundred pounds might have nine tenths of that sum deducted from him for poor rates. I have known a case in which the proportion has been higher than this.

And then the tenants in such districts began to decline to pay any rent at all — in very many cases could pay no rent at all. They, too, depended on the potatoes which were gone; they, too, had been subject to those dreadful demands for poor rates; and thus a landlord whose property was in any way embarrassed had but a bad time of it. The property from which Lady Desmond drew her income had been very much embarrassed; and for her the times were very bad.

In such periods of misfortune, a woman has always some friend. Let her be who she may, some pair of broad shoulders is forthcoming on which may be laid so much of the burden as is by herself unbearable. It is the great privilege of womanhood, that which compensates them for the want of those other privileges which belong exclusively to manhood — sitting in Parliament, for instance, preaching sermons, and going on ‘Change.

At this time Lady Desmond would doubtless have chosen the shoulders of Owen Fitzgerald for the bearing of her burden, had he not turned against her, as he had done. But now there was no hope of that. Those broad shoulders had burdens of their own to bear of another sort, and it was at any rate impossible that he should come to share those of Desmond Court.

But a champion was forthcoming; one, indeed, whose shoulders were less broad; on looking at whose head and brow Lady Desmond could not forget her years as she had done while Owen Fitzgerald had been near her; — but a champion, nevertheless, whom she greatly prized. This was Owen’s cousin, Herbert Fitzgerald.

“Mamma,” her daughter said to her one evening, as they were sitting together in the only room which they now inhabited. “Herbert wants us to go to that place near Kilcommon tomorrow, and says he will send the car at two. I suppose I can go?”

There were two things that Lady Desmond noticed in this: first, that her daughter should have called young Mr. Fitzgerald by his Christian name; and secondly, that it should have come to that with them, that a Fitzgerald should send a vehicle for a Desmond, seeing that the Desmond could no longer provide a vehicle for herself.

“You could have had the pony-chair, my dear.”

“Oh no, mamma; I would not do that.” The pony was now the only quadruped kept for the countess’s own behoof; and the young earl’s hunter was the only other horse in the Desmond Court stables. “I wouldn’t do that, mamma; Mary and Emmeline will not mind coming round.”

“But they will have to come round again to bring you back.”

“Yes, mamma. Herbert said they wouldn’t mind it. We want to see how they are managing at the new soup kitchen they have there. That one at Clady is very bad. The boiler won’t boil at all.”

“Very well, my dear; only mind you wrap yourself up.”

“Oh yes; I always do.”

“But, Clara —” and Lady Desmond put on her sweetest, smoothest smile as she spoke to her daughter.

“Yes, mamma.”

“How long have you taken to call young Mr. Fitzgerald by his Christian name?”

“Oh, I never do, mamma,” said Clara, with a blush all over her face; “not to himself, I mean. You see, Mary and Emmeline are always talking about him.”

“And therefore you mean always to talk about him also.”

“No, mamma. But one can’t help talking about him; he is doing so much for these poor people. I don’t think he ever thinks about anything else from morning to night. Emmeline says he always goes to it again after dinner. Don’t you think he is very good about it, mamma?”

“Yes, my dear; very good indeed; almost good enough to be called Herbert.”

“But I don’t call him so; you know I don’t,” protested Clara, very energetically.

“He is very good,” continued the countess; “very good indeed. I don’t know what on earth we should do without him. If he were my own son, he could hardly be more attentive to me.”

“Then I may go with the girls to that place? I always forget the name,”

“Gortnaclough, you mean.”

“Yes, mamma. It is all Sir Thomas’s property there; and they have got a regular kitchen, beautifully built, Her — Mr. Fitzgerald says, with a regular cook. I do wish we could have one at Clady.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald will be here tomorrow morning, and I will talk to him about it. I fear we have not sufficient funds there.”

“No; that’s just it. I do wish I had some money now. You won’t mind if I am not home quite early? We all mean to dine there at the kitchen. The girls will bring something, and then we can stay out the whole afternoon.”

“It won’t do for you to be out after nightfall, Clara.”

“No, I won’t, mamma. They did want me to go home with them to Castle Richmond for tomorrow night; but I declined that,” and Clara uttered a slight sigh, as though she had declined something that would have been very pleasant to her.

“And why did you decline it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t know whether you would like it; and besides —”

“Besides what?”

“You’d be here all alone, mamma.”

The countess got up from her chair and coming over to the place where her daughter was sitting, kissed her on her forehead. “In such a matter as that, I don’t want you to think of me, my dear. I would rather you went out. I must remain here in this horrid, dull, wretched place; but that is no reason why you should be buried alive. I would much rather that you went out sometimes.”

“No, mamma; I will remain with you.”

“It will be quite right that you should go to Castle Richmond tomorrow. If they send their carriage round here for you —”

“It’ll only be the car.”

“Well, the car; and if the girls come all that way out of their road in the morning to pick you up, it will be only civil that you should go back by Castle Richmond, and you would enjoy an evening there with the girls very much.”

“But I said decidedly that I would not go.”

“Tell them tomorrow as decidedly that you have changed your mind, and will be delighted to accept their invitation. They will understand that it is because you have spoken to me.”

“But, mamma —”

“You will like going; will you not?”

“Yes; I shall like it.”

And so that matter was settled. On the whole, Lady Desmond was inclined to admit within her own heart that her daughter had behaved very well in that matter of the banishment of Owen Fitzgerald. She knew that Clara had never seen him, and had refused to open his letters. Very little had been said upon the subject between the mother and daughter. Once or twice Owen’s name had been mentioned; and once, when it had been mentioned, with heavy blame on account of his alleged sins, Clara had ventured to take his part.

“People delight to say ill-natured things,” she had said; “but one is not obliged to believe them all.”

From that time Lady Desmond had never mentioned his name, rightly judging that Clara would be more likely to condemn him in her own heart if she did not hear him condemned by others: and so the mother and daughter had gone on, as though the former had lost no friend, and the latter had lost no lover.

For some time after the love adventure, Clara had been pale and drooping, and the countess had been frightened about her; but latterly she had got over this. The misfortune which had fallen so heavily upon them all seemed to have done her good. She had devoted herself from the first to do her little quota of work towards lessening the suffering around her, and the effort had been salutary to her.

Whether or no in her heart of hearts she did still think of Owen Fitzgerald, her mother was unable to surmise. From the fire which had flashed from her eyes on that day when she accused the world of saying ill-natured things of him, Lady Desmond had been sure that such was the case. But she had never ventured to probe her child’s heart. She had given very little confidence to Clara, and could not, therefore, and did not expect confidence in return.

Nor was Clara a girl likely in such a matter to bestow confidence on any one. She was one who could hold her heart full, and yet not speak of her heart’s fulness. Her mother had called her a child, and in some respects she then was so; but this childishness had been caused, not by lack of mental power, but want of that conversation with others which is customary to girls of her age. This want had in some respects made her childish; for it hindered her from expressing herself in firm tones, and caused her to blush and hesitate when she spoke. But in some respects it had the opposite effect, and made her older than her age, for she was thoughtful, silent, and patient of endurance.

Latterly, since this dreary famine-time had come upon them, an intimacy had sprung up between Clara and the Castle Richmond girls, and in a measure, too, between Clara and Herbert Fitzgerald. Lady Desmond had seen this with great pleasure. Though she had objected to Owen Fitzgerald for her daughter, she had no objection to the Fitzgerald name. Herbert was his father’s only son, and heir to the finest property in the county — at any rate, to the property which at present was the best circumstanced. Owen Fitzgerald could never be more than a little squire, but Herbert would be a baronet. Owen’s utmost ambition would be to live at Hap House all his life, and die the oracle of the Duhallow hunt; but Herbert would be a member of Parliament, with a house in London. A daughter of the house of Desmond might marry the heir of Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, and be thought to have done well; whereas, she would disgrace herself by becoming the mistress of Hap House. Lady Desmond, therefore, had been delighted to see this intimacy.

It had been in no spirit of fault-finding that she had remarked to her daughter as to her use of that Christian name. What would be better than that they should be to each other as Herbert and Clara? But the cautious mother had known how easy it would be to frighten her timid fawnlike child. It was no time, no time as yet, to question her heart about this second lover — if lover he might be. The countess was much too subtle in her way to frighten her child’s heart back to its old passion. That passion doubtless would die from want of food. Let it be starved and die; and then this other new passion might spring up.

The Countess of Desmond had no idea that her daughter, with severe self-questioning, had taken her own heart to task about this former lover; had argued with herself that the man who could so sin, could live such a life, and so live in these fearful times, was unworthy of her love, and must be torn out of her heart, let the cost be what it might. Of such high resolves on her daughter’s part, nay, on the part of any young girl, Lady Desmond had no knowledge.

Clara Desmond had determined, slowly determined, to give up the man whom she had owned to love. She had determined that duty and female dignity required her to do so. And in this manner it had been done; not by the childlike forgetfulness which her mother attributed to her.

And so it was arranged that she should stay the following night at Castle Richmond.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01