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The ‘blessed turf’: cholera and popular panic in Ireland, June 1832

  • S.J. Connolly (a1)

Extract

On 11 June 1832 Humphrey O’Sullivan, a schoolteacher living in Callan, County Kilkenny, made the following entry in his diary:

The lower classes of the Irish are a credulous people. Some practical joker sent a fool out with a small piece of charred stick, or some other bit of kindling, which had been extinguished in Easter-water, or holy water, and told him to divide it into four parts, and give it to four persons in four houses, telling them that the cholera would kill them unless each one of them did the same thing. By this means 16 persons, and 64, and 256, and 1,024, and 4,096 etc., etc., got this fire, until the entire country was a laughing stock for protestants.

O’Sullivan did not exaggerate. The events which he described were part of a remarkable popular panic which in the space of six days swept across the greater part of Ireland, from County Wexford in the south-east to County Donegal in the north-west, and from County Cork to the outskirts of Dublin city. It was an episode regarded by some contemporary observers with amused condescension, by others with deep alarm. For the modern historian it offers a brief but vivid insight into the mental world of a section of the catholic population in pre-Famine Ireland, and an opportunity to document in detail features of that mental world which are rarely reflected in conventional historical records.

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References

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1 Cinnlae Amhlaoibh Uí Shúilleabháin (The diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan), ed. McGrath, Michael (4 vols., London, 1928-31), iii, 154.

2 Connell, K. H., The population of Ireland, 1750-1845 (Oxford, 1950), p. 145 ; Crotty, R. D., Irish agricultural production, its volume and structure (Cork, 1966), pp. 35, 283-4.

3 Broeker, Galen, Rural disorder and police reform in Ireland, 1812-36 (London, 1970), pp. 204-6; O’Donoghue, Patrick, ‘Opposition to tithe payments in 1830-31’ in Studia Hibernica, vi (1966), pp 6998.

4 Longmate, Norman, King Cholera: the biography of a disease (London, 1966), chap. 13; O’Neill, Timothy P., ‘Fever and public health in pre-Famine Ireland’ in R.S.A.I. Jn., ciii (1973), pp 1624 ; Dublin Evening Post (hereafter D.E.P.), 8 May 1832.

5 D.E.P. 26 June 1832. It was also claimed that cholera had not yet appeared in Co. Kilkenny and Queen’s County, but both of these were included in an earlier list of counties in which cholera had appeared (ibid., 8 May 1832).

6 D.E.P., 2, 5 June 1832.

7 Barry to Col. Gosset, 11 June 1832 (State Paper Office, Dublin, Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers, Outrage Papers 1832, no. 1005). The Outrage papers for 1832, which are the main source used in this paper, are cited hereafter simply as O.P.

8 Charles Pemberton to Head Police Office, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

9 George Drought, Athlone, to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1048); Kilkenny Moderator, reprinted in Limerick Herald, 14 June 1832.

10 Chief Constable Robert Wright, Ballickmoyler, to Col. Sir John Harvey, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

11 Lieutenant T. Greene, Athy, to Sub-Inspector E. S. Flinter, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Sub-Inspector James Battersby, Carlow, to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Constable John Burns, Bagenalstown, to Chief Constable H. Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

12 Bartholomew Dillon to Lord Lieutenant’s Office, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1008); G. Brown, New Ross, to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1006); Waterford Mirror, reprinted in Cork Mercantile Chronicle, 18 June 1832; Chief Constable H. Hawkshaw, Borris, to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

13 J. Usher, New Ross, to Arthur Cliffe, n.d. (O.P. 1060); Hawkshaw to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Constable John Creathorn, St Mullins, to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

14 William Cox, Kildare, to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1007).

15 Burns to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Battersby to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Greene to Flinter, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Rev. Arthur Pack, Inistioge, to G. Browne, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1006); Hawkshaw to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

16 Constable B. McCann, Ballymore Eustace, to Capt. S. D. Martin, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1009); information of Patrick McDonald, 13 June 1832 (see below, appendix); S. D. Martin, Rathcoole, to Alderman Darley, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

17 Sub-Inspector Henry Hamilton, Wexford, to Gosset, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Chief Constable Richard King, Enniscorthy, to Sub-Inspector Henry Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

18 ‘Extract of a letter from a magistrate of the Co. Wicklow, dated Tuesday 12 June 1832, near Arklow’ (O.P. 1012 — see below, appendix); John C. Lees, ‘Memorandum on the late turf burning transaction in the County of Wicklow’, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1077); Lees to Frederick Darby, 22 June 1832 (O.P. 1101). Comparison with the latter two documents makes clear that John Lees was also the author of the first letter.

19 Information of William Fox, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1011).

20 Chief Constable A. T. Lefroy, Rathdrum, to Sub-inspector William Johnston, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Johnston to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Robert Gun Cunningham, James Lamb Andouin and John Dick, Newtownmountkennedy, to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1011); D.E.P., 14 June 1832.

21 Sub-Inspector John MacLeod, Cavan, to Major D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1031).

22 Chief Constable John Hazlett, Swanlinbar, to Major D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1032).

23 J. Whittaker to Major Warburton, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1070).

24 Sub-Inspector Richard Hill, Clones, to Major D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1031).

25 Rev. John Ellison, Killymard, to Gosset, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1050).

26 Chief Constable F. H. Nesbitt to Major D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1031).

27 Chief Constable J. L. Raymond, Virginia, to Major D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1032); D.E.P., 16 June 1832.

28 Sub-Inspector E. Perkins, Dundalk, to Gosset, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Constable James King, Forkill, to Capt. Henry, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1053).

29 Capt. M. Smith, Buncrana, to Capt. Roberts, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1067).

30 Belfast Newsletter, 22 June 1832.

31 Informations of Arthur Leppan and Private Joseph Hyde, 16 June 1832 (O.P. 1096).

32 Chief Constable Francis Crossley to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1033).

33 Sub-Inspector C. W. Plunkett to Major D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1032); Capt. Jones, Portglenone, to Gosset, 18 June 1832 (O.P. 1074); Constable William Garland to Jones, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1074).

34 McCann to Martin, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1009); ‘Extract of a letter from a magistrate near Arklow’ (see below, appendix).

35 Hawkshaw to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Burns to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Creathorn to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); King to Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

36 Battersby to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

37 Drought to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1048).

38 Cunningham, Andouin and Dick to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1011); Information of Patrick McDonald, 13 June 1832 (see below, appendix); Martin to Darley, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

39 Information of Edward White, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1011). See also Lees’s memorandum of 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1077), where a man went bare-legged and bareheaded, ‘the turf being carried in his hat’.

40 Pemberton to Head Police Office, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

41 Hawkshaw to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Lefroy to Johnston, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Cunningham, Andouin and Dick to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1011); ‘Extract of a letter …’ (see below, appendix); Johnston to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010). For another example, see Plunkett to D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1032).

42 Cinnlae Amhlaoibh, iii, 155. It was in fact reported in New Ross that 2,000 persons had died of cholera in Callan (Usher to Cliffe, n.d., O.P. 1060).

43 Wright to Harvey, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Burns to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Battersby to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

44 Chief Constable J. H. Hatton, Dunlavin, to Johnston, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

45 Creathorn to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Brown to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1006).

46 King to Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Dillon to Lord Lieutenant’s Office, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1008). See also the account from Rathcoole, where turf was distributed ‘that the destructive fire of a comet said to have hurt the town of New Ross, Co. Wexford, might be rendered harmless, and the reappearance of cholera averted’ (Martin to Darley, 13 June 1832, O.P. 1012).

47 Battersby to Gosset, 19 June 1832 (O.P. 1010). The Maryborough Special Commission had closed on 6 June. Thirty-eight persons had been convicted, of whom 6 were sentenced to death and 15 to transportation (D.E.P., 9 June 1832; Limerick Herald, 11 June 1832).

48 Lefroy to Johnston, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

49 See above, note 18.

50 See below, appendix.

51 ‘Extract of a letter …’ (see below, appendix); King to Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

52 Creathorn to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); information of Private Joseph Hyde, 16 June 1832 (O.P. 1096).

53 McCann to Martin, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1009); Hawkshaw to Battersby, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Yeomanry Sergeant James Pearson to Major J. E. Nesbitt, n.d. (O.P. 1035). A return of catholic clergymen in May 1835 confirms that at that date the parish priest of Suncroft was a Rev. Mr McMahon, and that a Rev. Mr Maher was one of the curates in the parish of St. Canice’s, Kilkenny. The parish priest of Donegal town was a Rev. Neal O’Callaghan. See First report of the commissioners of public instruction, Ireland, appendix 2, pp 48, 52, 53, H.C. 1835 (45), xxxiii, 48, 52, 53.

54 Barry to Gosset, 11 June 1832 (O.P. 1005); Cox to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1007); Plunkett to D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1032).

55 King to Henry, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1053). See also Newry Telegraph reprinted in Belfast Newsletter, 19 June 1832: ‘it is a matter of justice to the respectable R. Catholic bishop resident here and to his clergy to add, in conclusion, that on Thursday, in the new chapel, they not only disclaimed all knowledge of this farcical proceeding, but condemned its authors and abettors in the strongest and most indignant terms of public reprobation’.

56 Martin to Darley, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

57 Barry to Gosset, 11 June 1832 (O.P. 1005); Lees, ‘Memorandum’ (O.P. 1077); Burns to Hawkshaw, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

58 Nesbitt to D’Arcy, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1031); Martin to Darley, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1012).

59 King to Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Cunningham, Andouin and Dick to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1011); Lefroy to Johnson, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

60 Chief Constable Francis Crossley to D’Arcy, 16 June 1832 (O.P. 1032).

61 Cox to Gosset, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1007); Cunningham, Andouin and Dick to Gosset, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1011).

62 Battersby to Gosset, 19 June 1832 (O.P. 1010). See also William Henderson, Cloghan, to Gosset, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); Crossley to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1033); Report from the select committee on the state of Ireland, with … evidence …, pp. 92–3, 169, H.C. 1831–2 (677), xvi, pp. 92–3, 169. One theory linked the distribution to the ‘telegraph mounds’ which had been erected in several Leinster counties, apparently to facilitate the transmission of signals between groups of antitithe campaigners (Lees to Darby, 22 June 1832, O.P. 1101).

63 S.C. state of Ireland (1831–2), p. 119.

64 Lees to Darby, 22 June 1832 (O.P. 1101); Greene to Flinter, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010); King to Hamilton, 13 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

65 Lees to Darby, 22 June 1832 (O.P. 1101); Barry to Gosset, 11 June 1832 (O.P. 1005).

66 Murphy, M. J., Now you’re talking (Belfast, 1975), p. 55 . I owe this reference to Miss Caitríona Ní Ghallchóir.

67 Report from the select committee of the house of lords appointed to enquire into the state of Ireland in respect of crime, with … evidence …, p. 340, H.C. 1839 (486), xi, 344: evidence of Capt. G. Despard.

68 For the limited and local aims of most underground popular movements, see Lee, J. J., ‘The Ribbonmen’ in Williams, T. D. (ed.), Secret societies in Ireland (Dublin, 1973); Lee, , ‘Patterns of rural unrest in nineteenth-century Ireland: a preliminary survey’ in Cullen, L. M. and Furet, F. (eds.), Ireland and France 17th-20th centuries (Paris, 1980); Connolly, S. J., ‘Catholicism in Ulster, 1800-1850’ in Roebuck, Peter (ed.), Plantation to partition: essays in Ulster history in honour of J. L. McCracken (Belfast, 1981), pp 168-70. A more positive picture is presented by Garvin, Tom, ‘Defenders, Ribbonmen and others: underground political networks in pre-Famine Ireland’ in Past & Present, no. 96 (1982), pp 133-55. However, a planned exercise on the scale required here would have been well beyond the powers even of the somewhat more sophisticated organisations suggested by Dr Garvin.

69 S.C. state of Ireland (1831–2), p. 409, evidence of Robert Cassidy, a catholic gentleman from Queen’s County. See also the comments of Humphrey O’Sullivan, quoted above, p. 214.

70 See for example the accounts from towns in the south-east quoted on pp 222–3.

71 Hill to D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1031); MacLeod to D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1031); Dillon to Lord Lieutenant’s Office, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1008).

72 Park to Browne, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1006); Greene to Flinter, 12 June 1832 (O.P. 1010).

73 Whittaker to Warburton, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1070); Drought to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1048).

74 Hill to D’Arcy, 14 June 1832 (O.P. 1031). See also Drought to Gosset, 15 June 1832 (O.P. 1048).

75 Lee, J. J., ‘The dual economy in Ireland, 1800-50’ in Williams, T. D. (ed.), Historical Studies, VIII (Dublin, 1971), pp. 191-5. That popular magic was not confined to so-called ‘primitive’ parts of Ireland was also emphasised by Wilde, W. R., Irish popular superstitions (Dublin, 1852), p. 28.

76 For a general discussion of popular beliefs, and of the relationship between popular and official religion, see Connolly, S. J., Priests and people in pre-Famine Ireland, 1780-1845 (Dublin, 1982), pp 100120.

77 Longmate, King Cholera, pp 94, 102–4, 130–32; Morris, R. J., Cholera 1832: the social response to an epidemic (London, 1976), pp 108-17.

78 Lefebvre, Georges, The Great Fear of 1789: rural panic in revolutionary France (1932, trans. White, Joan, London, 1973). See also Lefebvre’s account of similar episodes in 1703 and 1848 (ibid., pp 52–6). For another politically-inspired panic, the ‘Irish night’ of 12–13 December 1688 in London, see Miller, John, Popery and politics in England, 1660-1688 (Cambridge, 1973), pp 259-60.

79 There is however an intriguing note, dated 20 November 1834, in the calendar of State of the Country Papers preserved in the State Paper Office. According to this, ‘a similar distribution of fire took place many years ago in Lancashire on the occasion of a disease amongst cattle called Black Murrain. The fire was stated to have been brought by an angel who desired each farmer to be served with a portion.’ I am most grateful to Mr Breandán Mac Giolla Choille for bringing this note to my attention.

80 For discussion of millenarian ideas, see O’Farrell, Patrick, ‘Millenialism, messianism and utopianism in Irish history’ in Anglo-Irish Studies, ii (1976), pp 4568 ; Zimmermann, G.-D., Songs of Irish rebellion: political street ballads and rebel songs, 1780-1900 (Dublin, 1967), pp. 2831 ; Connolly, Priests and people, pp. 109–10. For scepticism about their significance, see Lee, ‘The Ribbonmen’, p. 33.

81 Cullen, L. M., ‘The social and cultural modernisation of rural Ireland, 1600-1900’ in Cullen, and Furet, (eds.), Ireland and France, p. 207.

82 Miller, D. W., ‘Presbyterianism and “modernization” in Ulster’ in Past & Present, no. 80 (1978), pp 6690 ; Tuathaigh, Gearóid Ó, ‘Gaelic Ireland, popular politics and Daniel O’Connell’ in Galway Arch. Hist. Soc. Jn., xxxiv (1974-5), pp 2134.

The ‘blessed turf’: cholera and popular panic in Ireland, June 1832

  • S.J. Connolly (a1)

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