Fr Kevin Hegarty
A conference was held in Galway last September to mark the bicentenary of the birth of an Englishman who made an enormous contribution to the alleviation of poverty in 19th century Ireland.
James Hack Tuke, a native of York, was the son of a tea and coffee merchant. He was a member of the Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers. It is a religious organisation, unencumbered by privilege, rigid dogma and fussy rituals. The Quakers have pared the Christian message to one of its core imperatives. The love of God is not an abstract ideal but must be actualised in practical compassion for the vulnerable and impoverished.
The arrival of famine refugees from Ireland to York in the 1840s introduced Tuke to the parlous condition of the country.
The city administration refused to provide accommodation for the fever-sticken emigrants because of fear of contagion. Moved by pity, Tuke and his father erected a shed on a field owned outside the city to provide rudimentary care. For the rest of his life James bore the wounds of his compassion. He contracted typhus which left his health permanently damaged.
His engagement with Irish emigrants impelled him to visit Ireland to witness the conditions they were fleeing. Along with his friend WE Foster he investigated the state of the famine in the west. They described what they saw in a series of graphic reports.
WE Foster observed that ‘Westport was a strange and fearful sight, the streets crowded with gaunt wanderers’. At Clifden they were surrounded by a ‘mob of men and women more like famished dogs than fellow creatures, whose figures, looks and cries all showed they were suffering the ravening agony of hunger’.
James was aghast at the devastation he witnessed in Erris. He wrote that ‘human wretchedness seems concentrated in Erris, the culminating point of men’s physical degradation seems to have been reached in the Mullet’. He found it incredible that ‘10,000 people within 48 hours journey of the metropolis (ie London) were living or rather starving on turnip tops, sand-eels and seaweed, a diet which no one in England would consider fit for the meanest animals which he keeps’.
He did what he could to relieve the anguish. He set up soup kitchens. He distributed vegetable seeds to those who were able to till the land. He established a fishing station at Tipp on the Mullet peninsula.
His involvement with Ireland did not end once the Famine was over. The plight of 19th century western Ireland had captured his soul.
By the early 1880s famine loomed there once again. There were a series of poor harvests. The potato crop failed. Seasonal emigrant remittances declined. The kelp industry faced foreign competition.
Along with the provision of immediate relief, Tuke concluded that more radical measures were necessary if western communities were to have sustainable futures. He advocated land reform, the promotion of local industries and the construction of light railways.
He also devised a scheme, funded by state aid and private donations by which entire families would be enabled to emigrate to the US and Canada. Their departure would allow for their holdings to be consolidated into bigger farms for those remaining behind. As a result of the scheme over 3,000 people left north west Mayo on 15 ships from Blacksod in 1883 and 1884.
Tuke died in 1896. The heritage centre at Ionad Deirbhle in Eachléim has gathered a wealth of information on his work in Mayo.