Was James Hack Tuke the Oskar Shindler of his day?

Week III

A surprising rescuer of the Tuke assisted emigration scheme from the west of Ireland came from the London government. After the first group of 1,315 people had sailed from Galway for America on April 28 1882, the Tukes’ emigration fund was practically exhausted. Yet the demand for places grew each day. Now more than 6,000 applications, mainly from the Clifden area, but also from Belmullet, Newport and Oughterard, poured into the Clifden union where James Hack Tuke had his office. While poverty and famine remained endemic in the west of Ireland, people with spirit must have felt that the day-to-day grind was never ending. The threat of another Great Famine was very real. They wanted a new life.

There was also a growing realisation within government that the provision of relief only was not the long-term solution to the problems of failed harvests, poverty and evictions. Assisted emigration at least gave some people a chance for a fresh start. Matters were at a standstill until Lord Spencer, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, came to Galway and Mayo in that summer. He witnessed first hand the congestion and destitution, and talked to Tuke about his emigration endeavours. Spencer was clearly impressed. As a result the government granted £100,000 to the scheme, and more was to follow. As well as contributions from benefactors, Tuke was back in business. Until the scheme ended in 1884, a bare three years in duration, about 9,500 people were helped to emigrate to America and Canada.

Unhealthy ghettos

Dr Gearóid Ó Tuaithaigh describes how the rising tide of Irish emigration became a raging flood during the Great Famine. Perhaps as many as two and a half million people emigrated during the decade 1845-1855. During the next 50 years a further four million emigrated. Ireland’s population fell from 6.6 million in 1851 to 4.4 million in 1911. In all some eight million Irish emigrated in the period 1800 - 1911. About 60 per cent went to America, about 12 per cent to Canada, while five per cent went to Australia.

During, and following, the Great Famine, many emigrants arrived at their destinations sick, weakened by malnutrition, and forced off their land, some were practically naked. On arrival, the majority clustered in unhealthy ghettos, such as the Five Points district, Lower Manhattan. Hard working American citizens regarded them as little more than vermin.

Anyone who has seen the 2002 film Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, will remember the scene where crowds of New Yorkers met and stoned arriving Irish emigrants, and shouted at them to return from where they came.

Volume of criticism

Although the Tuke emigrants, who had volunteered to go, had money for their journey, and some to tide them over until they were able to provide for themselves, they still suffered the stigma of earlier arrivals. Criticisms of ‘pauper invasion’ continued, while reports of emigrants ‘living off charity’ appeared in Canada, which were repeated in the British and Irish press. Tuke constantly defended his scheme. Writing to The Times in December 1883, he pointed out that many had already returned their passage money. Questions were asked in the House of Commons forcing the Chief Secretary for Ireland, George Trevelyan, to justify the government’s support for the scheme. He claimed that ‘the conditions of those who remained behind were considerably improved by reason of the satisfactory consolidation of holdings.’

Others rallied to praise the Tuke scheme. Fr Mahoney of St Paul, Minnesota, reported that the cry had changed from ‘send us no more Connemaras’, to ‘one of approval and keen satisfaction’.

All this only prompted a growing volume of criticism from within Ireland itself, including the powerful Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell never approved of assisted emigration. He believed that Home Rule was the answer to all Ireland’s ills. Opposition also came from the Catholic bishops in the west, and local shopkeepers.

But perhaps a more positive reason for the collapse of the Tuke scheme came after 1884, when there was a dramatic improvement in weather conditions, producing healthy harvests and good potato yields.

The immediate agricultural crisis had passed. Tuke, however, did not pack up and go home. Becoming a member of the Congested Districts Board, the only Englishman to do so, he continued to help where he could. He was able to financially assist a further 500 people to leave Clifden in 1885. Tuke died in England 11 years later.

James Hack Tuke is well remembered for his work distributing aid during the Great Famine; while his later emigration assisted plan is not so well known. Was it because his scheme was so radical? Or was he, like the German industrialist, Oskar Shindler (who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, by employing them in his factories in occupied Poland ), the man who gave more than 9,000 people the opportunity, and support, for a new life away from the endemic poverty and destitution in Connemara and Mayo?

If any of the descendants of the Tuke scheme read this perhaps they will give us their answer.

NOTES: The original purpose of the Clifden Union, which came into operation in 1840, was to provide relief for the destitute poor (Later its brief was extended to include sanitation and all public health issues ) . Administered by a board of guardians, the Union was financed by a rate levied on occupiers and owners of land with a valuation of over £4. This was probably its inherent weakness. Not every land -owner enjoyed paying for the ‘destitute poor’, and many failed to do so.

In 1888, the population of the Clifden Union, which comprised all the land west of a line drawn from Nancy’s Point on Killary harbour, along the Maam Turk mountains, crossing Connemara to Kilkieran Bay, stood at 24,260. It was regarded as one of the poorest in the country. The Union’s workhouse could accommodate 790 inmates, and the fever hospital had 32 beds.

For the past three weeks I have gleaned all the information from an excellent booklet Mr Tuke’s Fund - Connemara Emigration in the 1880s, published by clifdenheritge.org/tuke


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