The agricultural crisis of 1879, and growing civic unrest, prompted the Society of Friends in England to send James Hack Tuke to the west to inquire into conditions and to distribute relief. Tuke, the son of a well-to-do tea and coffee merchant family in York, England, published his observations in Irish Distress and its Remedies: A visit to Donegal and Connaught in the spring of 1880. In clear-cut language he highlighted the widespread distress and destitution at a time when the British government questioned the extent of the crisis.
The Quakers were well regarded in the west of Ireland. The work of James and Mary Ellis, in providing practical help and training in agricultural and fishing skills at Letterfrack was well known and appreciated. James Hack Tuke is not as well known. Perhaps because his remedy in assisting an impoverished people was a radical one. His observations concluded that there was no major improvement in the position of the people since the Great Famine, 40 years before. Tuke saw that local resources, and in particular agriculture, could not sustain such a large population. He believed that assisted emigration was the long-term solution. His plan would only work if whole families (rather than individuals ) left, as this would free up their lands to allow another family increase the size of their holdings, and make a more viable farm. It was a controversial idea, and initially it won wide-spread approval.
In the summer of 1880, he returned to America and Canada to inquire if there were opportunities for a large number of Irish emigrants. He leaned that in the American mid-west and in Manitoba, the expansion of the railways offered good prospects and wages. The railway companies were looking for thousands of workers. Tuke reckoned that it would cost a minimum of £100 for a family of five to emigrate, with a sufficient left over to keep them in funds during their first winter. After that, hopefully, they would be expected to plant and harvest their first crop and support themselves. Wages from the railways would keep the family going before harvest time.
Failed on the Great Plains
And he was not the first to advocate assisted emigration. In the previous year a Fr Nugent in Liverpool, persuaded the Catholic bishop of Minnesota, to set aside land to accommodate 50 families from Connemara. Fifty thousand dollars raised for the experiment which ended in disaster. Work on the Great Plains in mid-west America, with its deep soil and emptiness, was very tough for people weakened and dispirited by conditions at home. This was pre-John Deere tractor times. Ploughing the rich, deep, soil was by horse-power only, and hard muscle. The ‘Connemaras’ were unable to prepare the land for crops before harsh winter conditions set in. Having escaped starvation in Ireland, they almost perished under snow in Minnesota. They were eventually resettled in the city of St Paul, where they found work, and eventually prospered.
The prospect of work on the railways must have appealed to Tuke. It would give the emigrants a strong safety-net as they got established.
Returning to England Tuke’s plans were given even more urgency as evictions continued. Weather conditions in the west of Ireland had worsened. In London, with his friend W E Forster, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and a group of influential men, including HS Northcote MP (once Gladstone’s private secretary ), WH Smith (founder of a famous retail chain ), and Samuel Whitbread MP (of the well known brewing family ), some £8,000 was immediately raised. Others took up the cause including the Duchess of Marlborough (grandmother of Winston Churchill ), and the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Mansion House Relief Committee.
On April 4 1882, Tuke arrived in Clifden where demand for emigration was very high. Within days of his arrival he had the names of 222 families (1,276 people ) who wanted to leave, one fifth of whom were from Clifden town. Many of these had been evicted by local landlords. Tuke had personally witnessed landlord Richard Berridge evict more than 70 families from their homes in the Cashel area during severe weather conditions.
The Clifden medical officer told Tuke that ‘Dozens of these unfortunate people, especially those recently evicted, have begged me to lay their case before you; those depend solely on the pittance granted them by the union, and the charity of their neighbours. They are only too anxious to emigrate, but have no means, not even the clothing needed.’
Between April and June 1882, nearly 1,300 people were assisted to leave. Most were from Clifden but some came from Newport, Co Mayo. On April 28 the first group of 201 families sailed out of Galway on the SS Austrian to Philadelphia at a cost of £1,315, or £6/11/8 per person. Eight hundred and eighty -five pounds was spent on passage fares, £125 on clothing, £125 for American rail fares to bring them to their final destinations, and other smaller sums for conveyance to Galway and incidentals. The overall cost came to £7,429, nearly all of the Tuke Committee’s available resources.
Next week: The Tuke
scheme begins to falter
NOTES: I am taking most of the above from History Ireland’s article on James Hack Tuke by Dr Gerard Moran, Maynooth; and from articles in the recently published Mr Tuke’s Fund - Connemara Emigration in the 1880s, by clifdenheritage.org/tuke