“Do something for a poor crathur [with] five starving childher” Irish poverty in "Castle Richmond"

[Throughout Castle Richmond, which Trollope sets in the Ireland of the great famine, he attempts without much success to combine the horrors of 1846-47 with one of his love stories based on standbys of the sensation novel — bigamy, blackmail, and false identities. Wanting to teach English readers about what he had observed about the Great Hunger and attempts to save the starving, he realized people didn't want to read about it, and so he tried to coat the hard facts about the famine with the sugar pill narrative of a a young girl's courtship by two men. One finds it difficult to take the tribulations of the well-fed and would-be lovers very seriously in a land filled with corpses. In the following passage Trollope describes two of his main characters encountering the “frightfully common” sight of a starving woman and children. At first Herbert tries to follow his Utilitarian beliefs, refusing to give the woman money to purchase food for her children, but in the end he cannot deny her, whatever “the deep lessons of political economy” tells him is the right thing to do. — George P. Landow]

A woman was standing there, of whom you could hardly say that she was clothed, though she was involved in a mass of rags which covered her nakedness. Her head was all uncovered, and her wild black hair was streaming round her face. Behind her back hung two children enveloped among the rags in some mysterious way; and round about her on the road stood three others, of whom the two younger were almost absolutely naked. The eldest of the five was not above seven. They all had the same wild black eyes, and wild elfish straggling locks; but neither the mother nor the children were comely. She was short and broad in the shoulders, though wretchedly thin; her bare legs seemed to be of nearly the same thickness up to the knee, and the naked limbs of the children were like yellow sticks. . . .

When Herbert and Clara reached the gate they found this mother with her five children crouching at the ditch-side, although it was still mid-winter. They had seen him enter the demesne, and were now waiting with the patience of poverty for his return.

"An' the holy Virgin guide an' save you, my lady," said the woman, almost frightening Clara by the sudden way in which she came forward, "an' you too, Misther Herbert; and for the love of heaven do something for a poor crathur whose five starving childher have not had wholesome food within their lips for the last week past."

Clara looked at them piteously and put her hand towards her pocket. Her purse was never well furnished, and now in these bad days was usually empty. At the present moment it was wholly so. "I have nothing to give her; not a penny," she said, whispering to her lover.

But Herbert had learned deep lessons of political economy, and was by no means disposed to give promiscuous charity on the road-side. "What is your name," said he; "and from where do you come?"

"Shure, an' it's yer honor knows me well enough; and her ladyship too; may the heavens be her bed. And don't I come from Clady; that is two long miles the fur side of it? And my name is Bridget Sheehy. Shure, an' yer ladyship remembers me at Clady the first day ye war over there about the biler."

Clara looked at her, and thought that she did remember her, but she said nothing. "And who is your husband?" said Herbert.

"Murty Brien, plaze yer honor;" and the woman ducked a curtsey with the heavy load of two children on her back. It must be understood that among the poorer classes in the south and west of Ireland it is almost rare for a married woman to call herself or to be called by her husband's name.

"And is he not at work?"

"Shure, an' he is, yer honor—down beyant Kinsale by the say. But what's four shilling a week for a man's diet, let alone a woman and five bairns?"

"And so he has deserted you?"

"No, yer honor; he's not dasarted me thin. He's a good man and a kind, av' he had the mains. But we've a cabin up here, on her ladyship's ground that is; and he has sent me up among my own people, hoping that times would come round; but faix, yer honor, I'm thinking that they'll never come round, no more."

"And what do you want now, Bridget?"

"What is it I'm wanting? just a thrifle of money then to get a sup of milk for thim five childher as is starving and dying for the want of it." And she pointed to the wretched, naked brood around her with a gesture which in spite of her ugliness had in it something of tragic grandeur.

"But you know that we will not give money. They will take you in at the poorhouse at Kanturk."

"Is it the poorhouse, yer honor?"

"Or, if you get a ticket from your priest they will give you meal twice a week at Clady. You know that. Why do you not go to Father Connellan?"

"Is it the mail? An' shure an' haven't I had it, the last month past; nothin' else; not a taste of a piaty or a dhrop of milk for nigh a month, and now look at the childher. Look at them, my lady. They are dyin' by the very road-side." And she undid the bundle at her back, and laying the two babes down on the road showed that the elder of them was in truth in a fearful state. It was a child nearly two years of age, but its little legs seemed to have withered away; its cheeks were wan, and yellow and sunken, and the two teeth which it had already cut were seen with terrible plainness through its emaciated lips. Its head and forehead were covered with sores; and then the mother, moving aside the rags, showed that its back and legs were in the same state. "Look to that," she said, almost with scorn. "That's what the mail has done—my black curses be upon it, and the day that it first come nigh the counthry." And then again she covered the child and began to resume her load.

"Do give her something, Herbert, pray do," said Clara, with her whole face suffused with tears.

"You know that we cannot give away money," said Herbert, arguing with Bridget Sheehy, and not answering Clara at the moment. "You understand enough of what is being done to know that. Why do you not go into the Union?"

"Shure thin an' I'll jist tramp on as fur as Hap House, I and my childher; that is av' they do not die by the road-side. Come on, bairns. Mr. Owen won't be afther sending me to the Kanturk union when I tell him that I've travelled all thim miles to get a dhrink of milk for a sick babe; more by token when I tells him also that I'm one of the Desmond tinantry. It's he that loves the Desmonds, Lady Clara,—loves them as his own heart's blood. And it's I that wish him good luck with his love, in spite of all that's come and gone yet. Come on, bairns, come along; we have seven weary miles to walk." And then, having rearranged her burden on her back, she prepared again to start.

Herbert Fitzgerald, from the first moment of his interrogating the woman, had of course known that he would give her somewhat. In spite of all his political economy, there were but few days in which he did not empty his pocket of his loose silver, with these culpable deviations from his theoretical philosophy. But yet he felt that it was his duty to insist on his rules, as far as his heart would allow him to do so. It was a settled thing at their relief committee that there should be no giving away of money to chance applicants for alms. What money each had to bestow would go twice further by being brought to the general fund—by being expended with forethought and discrimination. This was the system which all attempted, which all resolved to adopt who were then living in the south of Ireland. But the system was impracticable, for it required frames of iron and hearts of adamant. It was impossible not to waste money in almsgiving. [Chapter 16, “The Path beneath the Elms”

Related Material


Trollope, Anthony. Castle Richmond. London & New York: 1906. Project Gutenberg. E-text prepared by Charles Aldarondo, Charles Franks, and revised by Rita Bailey and Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.. 5 August 2013.

Last modified 11 August 2013