Famine and the Coastguards in Ireland



How the Coastguards reacted to the Great Famine in Ireland.

There were many Famines in Ireland during the 19th.Century. The Coastguard service assisted in transporting food to districts around the coast where aid was needed. But the best remembered Famine was in 1845/6 when millions of people perished or flew from the horrors in Ireland.

The Coastguards were involved in the distribution of aid around the Irish coast from 1831 until the end of the 19th.Century. In 1835, the Coastguard distributed over 1,300 worth of potatoes along the Western seaboard, including 30 tons to Clifden, when Captain Dombrain (later to become Sir James Dombrain) claimed that over 1,000 families were assisted in Connemara.
This best known Inspector-General of the Irish Coastguard was Sir James Dombrain, remembered mainly because of his independent action relating to the distribution to isolated distressed communities.
For most of the 19th.Century, the only access to communities along West and South coasts was by sea, the road system we have today was non-existent. The stations were located in isolated places on headlands or on bays and inlets, and the areas covered corresponded closely with those most at risk of famine in times of failure of crops or fisheries. They were ideally situated to serve as food depots and to report factually on local conditions to the authorities in Dublin which they did, for example during 1845 and 1846.

The Day after the eviction



Incoming letters to Relief Famine Committee. ( Conflicting views)

RLFC 3/1/39. Professor Robert Kane, Scientific Commission appointed to inquire into the potato disease, Royal Dublin Society. Discouraging the use of lime or gypsum as drying agents for diseased potatoes and suggesting the inclusion of diseased potatoes in the Workhouse diet. 25/11/1845.

RLFC 3/1/93. Lt.E.J.Morriss.Inspecting Commander, Coastguard, Miltownbay, Co. Clare, claims that reports of famine in the area exaggerated 6th.December 1845.

RLFC 3/1/141. Lt.E.J.Morriss. Inspecting Commander Coastguard, Miltownbay, Co. Clare, reporting of distress in the area as a result of the diseased potato crop. 12th.December1845.

RLFC 3/1/452. Clifden Coastguard confirming an earlier report of the loss of 1/4 of the potato crop and warning of distress as a result of local apathy and indolence. 3rd.February1845.

RLFC 3/1/2149. Sir James Dombrain reporting that he had ordered the Coastguard to sell 2 ton of Indian Meal at Recorders Quay, County Galway, and 5 tons at Ballyvaughan. 8th.May1846.

At this time Reverend Peter Ward, Parish Priest, Aghagower is of the opinion that soup kitchens will not work in the district as people would rather die than receive free soup.


RLFC 3/1/4664. John Smith, Celerna, Clifden, seeking relief for 4,000 destitute families, many of whom were ill on foot of the consumption of 18 sacks of rotten meal. 22/7/1846
( A lot of the Indian Meal was ruined in transit, due to dampness and sea-water.)

RLFC 3/1/4934. P.A.Helpman, Inspt. Comm. C.G. Clifden, rejecting John Smith's complaint about the quality of meal issued at Cleggan, and describing it as good wholesome food suitable for the Navy or
Army. 30/7/1846.



At this time there were too many families existing on 1 acre of land or less. They relied on the potato crop to feed themselves and generally kept a pig or two to pay the annual rent. Thus the loss of the crop was a disaster. Some of the landlords were sympathetic to these poor people, many were not. Pay rent, or face possible eviction faced a large proportion of people in the West of Ireland. Once eviction occurred, the roof removed, it was illegal for starving families to re-enter the house. If a family lived on an half-acre or less they were not eligible for Relief monies nor could they enter work-houses.

The introduction of Corn Meal, imported from abroad was not a solution to the problem. It had to be paid for. Lack of knowledge of cooking of same, lack of ovens and cooking utensils, and suspicion of the meal raised problems. Some feared the Indian Meal would turn them black.

Issues of British Government Indian Corn were transported all around the coast. The Treasury in London had directed quite clearly and unequivocally that the food should be sold through local relief communities or issued in lieu of wages to those on public relief schemes. But by October 1846, Coastguard officers were reporting a complete absence of food and people dying from starvation in the remote coastal areas. Sir James Dombrain instructed his officers to issue the food free to starving families on a doctor's certificate. At that time the Coastguard was directly under the control of the Treasury, so Dombrains action in countermanding those orders was courageous in the circumstances. He was publicly rebuked: the authorities in London said he had no permission to give the food away free and that he should have organised local relief committees to raise private donations. He was not the least abashed by his rebuke saying 'there was no one within miles who could have contributed one shilling to any relief fund and people were actually dying'.
In 1848 the Treasury Department, in spite of its previous clash with Sir James Dombrain stated that from the commencement of the distress the Coastguard had been distinguished by its active benevolence apart from distributing official relief as part of their duties without any additional remuneration. The officers and men of the Coastguard raised a fund amounting to 429 which was expended by members of the force in Ireland in giving relief in the neighbourhood of their respective stations.


References; Galway Roots, Vol. 5, 1998, National Archives, Bishop St. Dublin.




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