Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyUsed Books of the Future that Never Made it to the Future

  • Sun, 08 Feb 2015 02:09:33    Permalink
    Spent the weekend on Sherkin Island, where our Irish friends Kathy and Mike have some family property that they're developing into an event center.  
    It's beautiful here, in the rugged but calm way that typifies so much of the Irish coast. Lovely scenery, good friends, and plenty of excellent food, drink, laughter, and talk. It's easy to think of this place as its own kind of paradise. But this morning, as I was looking out over the water back toward the town of Skibbereen,I remembered the proposal I wrote in 2004 for a non-fiction book about Ireland that presented quite a different picture of this same part of the country. The book never got published, so in commercial terms the project was a failure. But it provided an unforgettable experience of the country and its past. Here's a bit of what I had in mind back then, taken from the eyewitness account of an actual historical character.
    At noon on December 14, 1846 Nicholas Cummins boarded the coach that ran from Cork City to Skibbereen, a town about fifty miles to the southwest. Cummins, one of a prosperous Cork family of merchants and bankers, was bound to a small village in the area on behalf of a group of a well-placed private citizens who intended to aid victims of the Irish Famine... 

    The coach from Cork arrived in Skibbereen at 2 pm the following day. Cummins reached the village of South Reen late in the afternoon, with the low December sun already behind the hills. When he entered the darkening village he was met by an eerie silence. Instead of cows, pigs, chickens and children - all would’ve had equal access to the one room huts that surrounded him - Cummins saw no one. The streets were empty.Thinking the place had been abandoned, he entered the nearest dwelling, a windowless hovel perhaps ten feet by twelve, illuminated only by light from the doorway, which he had to stoop to get through. As his eyes became accustomed to the dimness he saw six famished corpses huddled on some filthy straw, covered only by a ragged horse blanket. Moving closer to inspect the bodies, Cummins discovered, by a low moaning sound from one of them, that the family was still alive. “They were in fever; four children and a woman, and what had once been a man.” They bore the jaundice of relapsing fever, or the terrible dark splotches of typhus, or the bloody filth of dysentery, and certainly the stink of vomit, shit, gangrene and death. Cummins’ arrival - perhaps his involuntary yelp of revulsion - had by this time attracted a crowd. Like extras in a scene from his own waking nightmare the villagers turned out to greet the Lord of the Manor, sporting their collapsed cheeks, distended jaws, and vacant eyes, clawing for bread with their sticks of arms. Their hair was coming out in clumps. Scurvy was claiming their teeth. The limbs and torsos of some, children most noticeably, were swollen to grotesque proportions by famine edema. “I was surrounded by at least two hundred such phantoms… by far the greater number were delirious either from Famine or from fever. Their demonic yells are still ringing in my ears.”Reeling from the encounter, Cummins was suddenly yanked around by a tug at his scarf and “grasped by a woman, with an infant just born in her arms, and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins – the sole covering of herself and babe.” The village of Meenes, where dogs devoured the unburied dead. This village no longer exists. It was obliterated by the Famine. –Illustrated London News, 1847
    The mean temperature that month was an unusually chilly 35 degrees. Those spared the fever might expect to freeze to death if they didn’t starve first. The infant stood no chance of survival, a fact that could not have been lost on Cummins, who’d left a four-year-old son at home. “A mother, herself in fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corps of her child, a girl about 12 perfectly naked, and leave it half covered up with stones. In another house… the dispensary doctor found seven wretches dying, unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been many hours dead, but the others were unable to remove either themselves or the corpse.” Then, as if sickened by the recollection of what he’d seen, he broke off. “To what purpose should I multiply such cases, if these be not sufficient.”…By the autumn of 1847 the potato blight had temporarily subsided. [British Assistant Treasury Secretary] Trevelyan declared the Famine at an end. He even wrote a book announcing this fact and trumpeting his putative success in dealing with the “Irish Crisis.” In this text the word “death” appears only once, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had already died. And, despite Trevelyan’s pronouncement, hundreds of thousands more were still to die, as the blight returned in 1848 and 1849, and its murderous effects lingered on into the 1850s. 

    The total government expenditure on Famine relief was about £8 million. A few years later Britain would spend £70 million on the Crimean War.

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