Meeting An Old Classic

By Frank O’Shea

Steuart Trench: Realities of Irish LIfe. Macgibbon & Kee 1966. First published 1868.

Available on Internet Archive in an early American edition.

Steuart Trench was a landlord’s agent in the years during and after the Great Famine. His Realities of Irish Life was published in 1868 at a time when memories of that dreadful time were still in the air, in the geography of the countryside and in the restless sleep of the survivors. Those events were in need of being recorded for the world to hear, a task that was unlikely to be undertaken by the peasants themselves.

At the height of the Famine, Trench was agent for Lord Lansdowne in his extensive estates in the Kenmare area of south Kerry. Here is how he saw the situation:

They died in their mountain glens, they died along the sea-coast, they died on the roads, and they died in the fields; they wandered into the towns, and they died in the streets; they closed their cabin doors, and lay down upon their beds, and died of actual starvation in their houses.

When first this dreadful cry resounded through the land, the question which occurred to every thinking and practical mind was ‘why should those things be?’ Ireland was not like any part of India, cut off from extraneous supplies. It was true the potatoes had rotted, and it was true that the people had depended on the potato almost alone for food. But there was abundance of corn, abundance of flour, and abundance of meal in the country, not to speak of herds of sheep and cattle innumerable; and in the midst of such plenty, why should the people die? There was also abundance of money to purchase food: money was freely offered from many quarters, and was ready to flow forth in a mighty stream from the charitable people of England to almost any extent. If so, I may again ask, why should the people die?”

Trench is probably vilified today for his solution to the social conditions of his time. Most of Lord Lansdowne’s tenants were several years behind in their rent and with little hope of ever catching up on their arrears. With the failure of the potato crop, many sought refuge in the workhouses which were soon overflowing and unable to deal with the thousands seeking help. The solution adopted by some landlords and their agents was to create public works – road-making mainly. Trench realised that the men were physically incapable of work and that much of what was being done was either unnecessary or so badly carried out that it was of little value. Instead, he offered safe passage to any port in America that the tenant wished; each was given a new suit of clothes and a small sum of money and had his arrears of rent cancelled.

Week after week, 200 people would be taken to Cork and from there to an English port for their onward journey. In that way, the numbers in workhouses were slowly lowered and the land was returned to the estate for further letting. Social problem eased and future profits prepared.

[It is known too that a group of 20 young women from the Kenmare workhouse were sent to Australia on board the John Knox, arriving in Sydney in April 1850. Trench doesn’t mention them, though they were during his time as agent.

The decline in the population of Ireland as a result of the Famine and of this mass emigration is reasonably well known. Agents like Trench were, and continue to be, much criticised for their part in this depopulation. While some of those who went to America made a success of their new lives, for many others it was just changing one form of exploitation for another. An angry population of Irish, mostly illiterate and unskilled and largely unwelcome in their new land, would provide the basis for groups like the Fenians and Clan na Gael who would play an important back room role in the events before and after 1916.

After a few years in Kenmare, Trench took a position as agent for the Marquis of Bath in County Monaghan and much of this book is devoted to his years there. It was a time when a secret, oath-bound group known as the Ribbonmen, tried to end landlordism and get the land back for the native Irish. Not surprisingly, they are presented here in an unflattering light. Trench tells that for two years he was top of their hit list. According to him, a mixture of good fortune and great care on his part saw him survive several attempts on his life. An unsuccessful attempt on the life of another agent resulted in two men being captured and eventually hanged, something which the writer says ended the agitation in that part of the country.

The poet Patrick Kavanagh writes an introduction to the 1966 re-issue of Trench’s book and says that Trench

Is buried in Donaghmoyne Churchyard within two miles of my birthplace and his name is execrated in popular tradition. It was said that so evil was he that the rats invaded his grave and devoured his body.

But Kavanagh also acknowledges that the book is a fine piece of writing, an opinion with which it is hard to disagree – ‘the only literate recorder of the Great Famine of Black ‘47 … the only contemporary report of the potato famine,’ Kavanagh says. It is doubtful whether this is entirely correct, but the book is valuable for its sharp observance of the social events that led to the tragedy. That it is written from the point of view of one who was himself part of the problem does not take from its value as a contemporary account. Modern treatments of those times 170 years ago tend to stress the loss of population caused by forced migration. That Trench was one of those responsible for this exodus cannot be entirely excused by the fact that his motives were good, and that he felt this was a better solution than the humiliation of the workhouse and the cruelty of road-making.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean collective