The Coastguard in Famine Relief on the West Coast

Journal of the Galway Family History Society

The Coastguard in Famine Relief on the West Coast.
James P. Murray

The Irish Coastguard Service has receded into the shadows of history, a very inadequately recorded history. There are still many coast guard houses inhabited along the coasts and ruined stations to serve as reminders. But its role in the relief of distress along the Western Seaboard during the many periods of famine and near-famine in the 19th century receives scant mention in history and even in the official history of the Coastguard Service, published in 1976, its role in famine relief operations in Ireland is not even mentioned.

The Coastguard Service in England was officially established in 1822, succeeding the Preventive Water Guard which dated from 1809 and which, in turn, was the successor to the so-called Riding Officers, the oldest branch of the preventive services founded in 1698, who patrolled the coast to prevent smuggling and illegal exports. There had been a separate Preventive Water Guard in Ireland which was incorporated into the Coastguard in 1824 and placed under the control of the Comptroller General in London, but retaining its own Inspector-General. (1)

At its establishment in 1824, the Irish Coastguard Service consisted of 200 officers and men and they were accommodated in Martello towers and hulks drawn up onto the shore until stations and houses could be built. The officers were almost all Royal Navy officers on half-pay and the men had been Naval petty officers and ratings. By 1834, the establishment in Ireland had been increased to 1,525 officers and men. (2)
At the time of the Great Famine, there were 12 Coastguard stations in County Galway, manned by 6 officers and 74 men with Inspecting Officers at Galway and Clifden. There were stations at Ardfry, Arran, Barna, Cleggan, Costello Bay, Fairhill (Galway), Killaries, Lettermore, Manning Bay, New Harbour, Roundstone and Spiddal. In all, there were 107 stations along the southwest and west coasts from West Cork to Donegal, sited in the most isolat ed coastal districts which were also the most prone to famine and deprivation. There were cruisers static and at Kinsale, Skibbereen, Castletown, Kilrush, Galway, Westport, Belmullet, Killybegs, and Rathmullen. (3)

Ireland, especially the west coast, had always been an unpopular posting for many reasons: accommodation was poor especially for men with families; stations were isolated and it was difficult to educate children; the coastguards were unpopular with the local populations and were thrown together in lone ly communities. Very few Irishmen volunteered for the Service and the lonely stations were manned mainly by Englishmen who felt they were in a foreign land and hankered for a posting back to main land Britain. The Coastguard was regarded locally as just another arm of the law sent to spy on them and prevent them from enjoying their traditional rights, such as smuggling, the plundering of wrecks and especially the illicit distillation of potheen (poitin). But, as the century progressed and they became more involved in relief of distress, they became more acceptable to the local population, at least in Connemara and west Mayo, where their essential role in the distribution of relief was recognised and appreciated. The Treasury had instructed that, where possible, local relief committees should include a coastguard officer.

The Coastguard was ideally organised to participate in the administration and distribution of famine relief. The Preventive Services consisted of three cordons: shore stations with patrolling customs officers under the direction of the Treasury; small revenue cutters which could negotiate narrow sea-inlets and channels between the islands; off-shore were larger cruisers (gunboats) manned by the Navy which could, when necessary, carry up to 50 tons cargo and serve the larger islands such as Inishmore, Inishboffin or Tory in most weathers. Those larger cruisers also provided transport for Local Government and other officials to the outlying islands, such as Henry Robinson on his many trips to the islands distributing aid to relieve the famished inhabitants.

Robinson's first trip in early 1880 was delayed by the ship being diverted to intercept a gun runner rumoured to be en route from France to Costello Bay. But, unknown to the ship's crew, the police were also making preparations to capture the (non existent) gun runner and, at night, mistook H.M.S. Goshawk for the gun runner. The engagement between the police in small boats and the cruiser, as described by Robinson, was high farce but could well have been a tragedy, as the cruiser fired on the approaching boats with her Gatling gun. Fortunately no one was injured and the episode ended with the Goshawk's crew entertaining the police to a 'well-lubricated' party on the ship which lasted until the break of day. (4)
Robinson's relief operations were not without their lighter moments and he recounts many anecdotes of his visits to the islands, which he considered amusing. Though it is doubtful if the hungry islanders would have found all of them equally amusing; they hardly enjoyed the ploy of the Goshawk's gunner in making the islanders run races for the food, on the principle that "Them as has empty bellies runs the fastest". None of the cruisers were comfortable for passengers and some were old and of doubtful sea worthiness. On one of Robinson's trips, the commander of the Orwell had to jettison 20 tons of potatoes when rounding Slyne Head to avoid being cap sized. (4)

For most of the 19th century, the only access to the communities along the south west and west coasts was by sea; the road system we have today was non existent and land access, where it existed, was by foot of horseback across bog or mountain. The stations were located in isolated places on headlands or islands or at 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. (5)
Captain Mann, RN.. in charge of the Coastguard in the area, reported on the poor state of agriculture in west Clare in 1845 and on the dramatic effects of the blight in July 1846, when people rushed to dig up the potatoes in the vain hope of salvaging some of them. He was also involved in the distribution of the first issue of the Indian Corn in March 1846 and noted the efforts of the local clergy and gentry to overcome, by example, the prejudice against 'Peel's Brimstone'. The people expected that the corn would turn people black! (5)
Captain Mann also reported on the beneficial effects of the issue of seed conveyed on HMS Dragon in Spring 1847, which resulted in hundreds of acres in west Clare producing good crops of barley, rye, oats and turnips. He noted that turnip mixed with Indian Meal and rice was used as a substitute for bread. There was no danger of the Coastguard reports being highly coloured or exaggerated as happened occasionally from clergymen who were naturally swayed emotionally by the plight of their parishioners, authorities in Dublin Castle accepted the Coastguard reports as true and without exaggeration during Great Famine but, unfortunately, they were largely ignored by the Treasury in London, surprisingly, the Irish Coastguard was then an arm of the Treasury. But then the Irish Service suffered from the vagaries of dual control: orders being issued from Dublin Castle but overriding directions from London, until the Service was transferred to Admiralty in 1856.

The Coastguards were involved in the distribution of aid along the Western Seaboard in virtually all periods of distress from 1831 until the end of the 19tl century. In 1835, the Coastguard distributed over £1,300 worth of potatoes along the Western Seaboard, including 30 tons to Clifden when Captain Dombrain claimed that over 1,000 families were assisted in Connemara. In 1846, the Coastguard operated 76 sub-depots along the south and west coasts to distribute the Indian corn purchased by Sir Robert Peel to meet the developing crisis. It was intended that the food should be sold at reasonable prices to stabilise the market but, as it transpired, it was actually distributed free on the instructions of the Inspector-General of Coastguards in Ireland. The best known Inspector-General of the Irish Coastguard was Sir James Dombrain, remembered mainly because of his independent action relating to the distribution of aid in the isolated distressed communities along the Western Seaboard in 1846. When Peel's imported Indian corn was issued from the depots at Limerick, Kilrush, Galway, Westport and Sligo to the Coastguard stations along the southwest and west coasts, the Treasury in London had directed quite clearly and unequivocally that the food should be sold through local relief committees 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 districts of north Connemara. Sir James Dombrain instructed his officers to issue the food free to starving families on a doctor's certificate. By then, Charles Trevelyan was in charge of the Treasury and the Coastguard was directly under the control of the "Treasury; so Dombrain's 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. (7) He was not the least bit 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.' He had been involved in relief operations in Ireland since at least 1830 and had been appointed to the Central Relief Commission in Dublin by Sir Robert Peel. Dombrain was the best informed member through his own tours of inspection of coastguard stations and the regular reports he received from his officers which he knew to be factual and not exaggerated. It was true that Dombrain favoured Donegal in the distribution of relief during the famines of the 1830's but then, Donegal was the worst affected at that time. Except in 1831, Galway and Mayo escaped actual crisis conditions, though, of course, the coastal fringes of both counties were always in a state of abject poverty and near famine, especially during the so-called 'meal months' of each year before the new crop of potatoes became available. In 1831, Captain Dombrain was purchasing and distributing food on behalf of funds established by "The Record' and 'The Protestant' newspapers of London; the balance of the fund was put to good use in relieving the families of victims of the cholera epidemic of 1832. Dombrain was also responsible for the delivery of a considerable quantity of potatoes and the organisation of relief works in the Clifden region in 1835, though the main emphasis in 1836 was on relief in Donegal, but then it was most needed there. (6)

Trevelyan, despite his clash with Dombrain in 1847, stated in 1848 that, from the commencement of the distress. the Coastguard had been distinguished for 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. He also paid tribute to the crews of the ships employed in the Relief Service for their seamanship and dedication to duty on the exposed west coasts during the very stormy winter of 1846/47 without the loss of a single ship. The coastguards also received high praise from the Inspectors of the Society of Friends along the West Coast for their exertions in the distribution of provisions, oversight of soup kitchens and other efforts on behalf of the poor, all in addition to their official duties and entirely uncompensated. They also advised the Society, through Sir James Dombrain, how best to help the ailing fisheries. (8)
The Coastguards were involved in the distribution of food and clothing during the poverty stricken years of 1859 to 1862 when the islands off the west coast and Connemara were especially affected by a combination of economic depression, persistent bad weather, failure of the fisheries and poor crops generally. The destitution was relieved mainly by private relief measures, funded mainly by a stream of emigrant donations from the Irish Diaspora in the United States, Canada and Australia. Those funds were channelled mainly through the Catholic Hierarchy. The Government in London made only meagre contributions and indeed denied that there was any crisis.(6)

The most spectacular and best documented involvement of the Coastguards in relief operations along the Western Seaboard came in 1879/80. By then, the Coastguard was under the control of the Admiralty and effectively an integral part of the Royal Navy which greatly facilitated co-operation between the RN cruisers offshore, the small boats operating close inshore and the shore stations. All the elements of the Coastguard were involved in distributing relief on behalf of the Dublin Mansion House Fund, the Duchess of Marlborough Fund and the generous donations of food and clothing from America. The operation culminated in the distribution of the relief brought by the U.S. Frigate 'Constellation' to Cork Harbour in April 1880 which was supervised and coordinated by the Duke of Edinburgh who was then in command of the Naval ships on the west coast. Rear Admiral The Duke of Edinburgh was a son of Queen Victoria which attracted considerable attention in the English media, notably The Illustrated London News. (9)
But, before the arrival of the Constellation, the Coastguard and Navy were active along the west coast in distributing seed potatoes and meal provided by the Duchess of Marlborough Fund. Henry Robinson, in his 'MEMORIES: WISE AND OTHERWISE', recounts his cruise on the gunboat 'Goshawk' with 50 tons of meal provided by the Marlborough Fund, distributing food to the destitute islanders along the Galway and Mayo coasts in February and March 1880, hardly the time of the year for a pleasure cruise. (4)

At about the same time, the Duke of Edinburgh was making a tour of inspection on the naval yacht 'Lively' along the south and west coasts, including a visit to Galway, when he was entertained to lunch at Galway Club House on 29th March. (10)
The Duke was organising a relief squadron which consisted of Goshawk, Bruiser, Valorous, Orwell and Hawk, and was actively engaged in distributing seed potatoes, clothing and other necessities to the islands and coastal communities. (11) In mid April, the Duke and his ships repaired to Cork to meet the U.S. frigate bearing badly needed supplies. Undoubtedly, the Duke deserves great credit for a fine logistical exercise in speedily transferring the urgently needed supplies to where they were most needed.

On 20th February 1880, the House of Representatives in Washington authorised the dis patch of a vessel with food and other supplies collected in the U.S., to relieve the distress in Ireland. The frigate 'Constellation' was made ready with the guns and other non-essential fixtures removed to allow the maximum cargo. She left New York on March 30th with over 500 tons of provisions and clothing which had been donated mostly by residents of New York as part of the fund organised by the New York Herald newspaper, 1,346 barrels of potatoes, 675 barrels of flour, 1,144 barrels of corn meal, 150 barrels of oatmeal, 59 cases of canned meats and 7 packages of clothing and shoes. The ship anchored off Haulbowline in Cork Harbour on April 19th where she was met by the Duke of Edinburgh and his flotilla of cruisers.

The cargo was transhipped to the smaller gunboats for immediate delivery as follows:-

  • HMS Imogen to Skibbereen and then to reload for Donegal.

  • HMS Hawk to North Donegal and the Islands off that coast.

  • HMS Goshawk to Sligo Bay.

  • HMS Amelia to North Mayo.

  • HMS Bruiser to West Galway.

  • HMS Orwell to the Islands off the Galway coast.

  • HMS Valorous to West Cork and then to West Galway.

The Duke of Edinburgh to cruise the West Coast in the flag yacht 'Lively' to supervise operations. (12) Timothy Collins has given a very interesting account of the career of HMS Valorous in the Royal Navy in the 1997 issue of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Journal, Volume 49, pages 122 to 142, including details of her participation in the Naval Relief Operation of 1880. (13)

This was not the first occasion in which the U.S. Congress provided ships for the transport of relief supplies to Ireland. In March 1847, the Congress authorised the use of two ships for this purpose. The 'Jamestown' sailed from Boston on 28th March 1847 . and arrived at Cork on 12th April; its cargo of 800 tons was distributed throughout Cork County. The 'Macedonian’ sailed from New York on 19th June 1847 and arrived in Cork on 14th July; 50 barrels of foodstuffs were sent to aid the destitute tenants of Maria Edgeworth's estate in Longford and the rest distributed in Cork. (14)
The visit of the 'Constellation' and transfer of its cargo caught the attention of the media but the coast guard and the Navy had been co-operating with the Dublin Mansion House and Duchess of Marlborough Committees and other fund raising organisations both before and after the 'Constellation'. A full report of the relief operations along the west coast was given by Captain Digby Morant, RN, who succeeded the Duke of Edinburgh in command of the Naval forces along the West of Ireland. It was presented as an official report to both Houses of Parliament. (15)

Captain Morant's comments on the causes and evolution of the crisis on the West Coast in the winter of 1879/80 are interesting: "the distress did not appear to have come suddenly from the failure of last year's harvest, but apparently had been getting worse and worse as the people each year had been getting poorer until the crisis arrived last winter when all credit having been stopped by the shopkeepers and the potatoes that had been saved from the harvest having been eaten, the poorest were on the verge of starvation; it was then that the Relief Committees came to these poor people's rescue in time to avert starvation". He ascribes the destitution to the failure of the kelp industry when guano was imported from South America from 1877, the decline of the inland fisheries and the over-population of the Islands and coasts where the land could not support such a number. He said: "those living in Connemara appear the most destitute" because there was not the tradition of seasonal migratory labour, as in Donegal, Sligo and Mayo (15)

In the Kilkieran district of Connemara, up to 4/5 years before, the kelp industry had brought in over £15,000 per year, but this had fallen to less than £3,000 by 1880. The large salted herring industry at Roundstone had disappeared and, apart from the Claddagh, fishing on the Galway coast was only a secondary industry. In 1846, there had been 3,194 registered fishing vessels in County Galway employing 23,250 men and boys. The Canadian Relief Committee was trying to revive the fisheries by sup plying gear and nets to the coastal communities. He paid glowing tributes to the various Relief Committees whose timely efforts averted deaths by starvation.

The Relief Naval Squadron had been assembled in early February 1880 and had been specifically allocated to the major Relief Committees; the Goshawk, Orwell, Bruiser and Imogen for the service of the Dublin Mansion House Committee and the Valorous and Hawk for the Duchess of Marlborough Committee. Since the commencement of the Naval relief operations in early February 1880 until relief operations ceased on 1st August, the ships delivered 856 and a half tons of meal, 453 tons of seed potatoes, 30 tons of oats and barley, 110 bales of clothing and a considerable amount of loose clothing and road-making implements, including the cargo from the Constellation, to the islands and coastal communities along the West Coast, relieving a population of 36,841. The bulk of the goods was delivered by the largest ship in the fleet ‘Valorous’ and varied from blankets to chemises, potatoes and meal to jars of Liebig's meat extract. The clothing was particularly needed as most observers commented on the paucity of clothing in those isolated communities. (15)

Captain Morant's report covers the period until 1st August but Royal Navy ships continued to supply food and clothing to the islands and isolated coastal regions during the rest of 1 880 and seed potatoes in the spring of 1881 which resulted in a reasonable crop in that year. The crisis of 1 879/80 was the last occasion when a large fleet was utilised in a major relief operation, though single ships continued to be used to bring relief supplies to the islands off the Galway and Mayo coasts, as during the distress of 1886. (16)

At the turn of the century, the Coastguards acted as local representatives of the Congested Districts Board and one of their functions was to decide which families should be allocated free fishing boats and gear. This was to some extent a 'poisoned chalice’ as resentment naturally built up in the disappointed families which was directed towards the Coastguard. They continued their duties of rendering assistance to vessels in distress and the operation of rocket life-saving equipment around the coasts. The prevention of gun running was added to their duties. In the early decades of the 20th century, many of the instructions issued from Dublin Castle to the Coastguard took on a political flavour: they were forbidden to fraternise with the local populations and no civilians were permitted inside the stations which were fortified and armed.
Consequently, relations with the local populations were at a low ebb when the War of Independence broke out in 1919. Many stations were attacked by Sinn Fein forces and some were burnt down and others evacuated, mostly in the southwest regions. Only one coastguard was killed and there were locations where relations with the locals were so amicable that Republican leaders always gave advance warning of an attack so that the station could be evacuated. On one occasion, the attack was postponed because the station was celebrating the commander's birthday. It was made clear that the quarrel was with the authorities, not with individual officers or their families. (1)
When the Coastguards left the Irish Free State in 1922, their 109 stations passed to the Provisional Government together with the Life Saving and Rocket Apparatus. Some of the stations were destroyed or badly damaged during the Civil War and others were sold for conversion to residences, many are still used as such today.

© Journal of the Galway Family History Society

1. COASTGUARD: An Official History of H.M. Coastguard by William Webb, HMSO., 1976.
2. Parliamentary Papers XLII. 381; Report relative to the Coastguard Establishment of Ireland, 1834.
3. Thorns Directory 1849.
4. Henry A. Robinson, MEMORIES: WISE AND OTHERWISE, Cassell & Co., London, 1923.
5. C.E. Trevelyan, THE IRISH CRISIS, Longman Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1848.
6. Timothy P. O'Neill, "Minor Famines and Relief in Galway 1815 - 1925" in GALWAY: HISTORY AND SOCIETY, Ed. by G. Moran & R. Gillespie, Geography Publications, 1996.
7. Thomas P. O'Neill, "The Organisation and Administration of Relief, 1845 - 52, in THE GREAT FAMINE, edited by R.D. Edwards and T.D. Williams, Browne & Nolan, Dublin 1956.
8. Transactions of the Society of Friends in 1846 and 1847, pp 79/80, 204, Facsimile published • by Edmund Burke, Dublin, 1996
9. Illustrated London News, February 28th 1880, March 13th 1880, April 3rd 1880, April 10th 1880, April 24th 1880, May 1st 1880.
10. Illustrated London News, April 3rd 1880. 15.
11. Illustrated London News, April 10th 1880.
12. Illustrated London News, May 1st 1880.
13. Timothy Collins, HMS 'Valorous': Her Contribution to Galway Maritime History, J. G. A.& H. Society, 1997, Vol. 49, 16. pp 122 - 142.
14. T. J. Sarbaugh, "Charity Begins at Home:
The U.S. Government and Irish Famine Relief 1845 - 1849" in HISTORY IRELAND, Summer 1996, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp 34/35.
15. Parliamentary Papers, LXII. 195, 1880: Report August 1880 from Captain D. Morant, SNO Galway, in Reference to Relief of Distressed Population on the West Coast of Ireland.
16. Illustrated London News, April 3rd and 10th 1886.


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