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Leadership In Times Of “Great Calamity”

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Above quote by American author, Socialist party member, political activist, and lecturer Helen Adams Keller (1880 – 1968); first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Rev. Archdeacon Dr. Henry Cotton, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

At the start of 2020, no one could have predicted that the people of Ireland would be fighting a global pandemic.

Presently, as we battle the spread of Covid-19, it is a must that we endure ongoing social restrictions, isolation and economic fallout.

Thankfully however we are not alone. Amidst all of this turmoil, the Irish people have been guided by great leadership. In time the history books will remember these people for their judicious nature, initiative, honesty, commitment, loyalty, sacrifice and empathy. These leaders will include Dr. Tony Holohan, Taoiseach Mr Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Mr Simon Coveney, Minister for Health Mr Simon Harris and Minister for Finance Mr Paschal Donohoe. Let’s not forget at this time our unsung leaders either, namely our frontline heroes, including doctors, nurses, Gardaí, shop assistants, volunteers, community groups and servants.

The power and potential of great leadership to guide us through times of hardship and calamity is a theme repeatedly evident throughout history.

Great Famine (1845-1849)

The year 2020 marks the 175th year, since the start of one of Ireland’s darkest and most devastating catastrophes – the Great Famine (1845-1849).

Here in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, during this great calamity, eminence leadership in our midst locally, helped our ancestors’ weather what was then, also, the darkest of times.

Venerable Archdeacon Dr. Henry Cotton as Chairperson then led the “Thurles and Rahealty Famine Food Committee” and its then membership, e.g. J.B. Kennedy (Secretary); Rev. Messrs Baker, Lanigan, Laffan; John Gore Jones (Reg Resident Magistrate – R.M.); Wm Crowe; Martin Quinlan; Francis O’Brien Esq (Justice of the Peace – J.P.); Dr. J. Knaggs; Dr. O’Connor; Dr. Bradshaw and Joshua Lester.

Among other tasks, this committee sourced and managed food, supplies and much needed paid employment for the poor and starving local inhabitants.

The transcription hereunder, published here for the first time publicly, is a final communication report, written by Rev. Archdeacon Dr. Henry Cotton and his committee, in relation to local efforts championed during the Great Famine. As you read it, you will be struck by the parallels to our present-day pandemic crisis, as well as the many differences.

Remember: Ireland’s Great Famine brought about by the failure of the potato crop, was a calamity that hit Ireland in 1845, causing the deaths of some 1.3 million people and the emigration of up to 2.5 million more, over the course of the following six years.

One lesson from Archdeacon Cotton’s final letter that remains so very true today, is that to get through any crisis we must continue to work together as a community.

Final Report of the Thurles Relief Committee addressed to the Relief Commissioners at their request.

Archdeacon Dr. Henry Cotton writes: –

“The Relief Committee of the Electoral Division of Thurles and Rahealty being about to close their general labours under the Act of 10 Vic. Chap 7, beg to send for the satisfaction of the Relief Commissioners the following summary of their proceedings during a part of the period of the late lamentable distress. The circumstances of the district which has been the field of the Committees operations are these: –

The united parishes and electoral divisions of Thurles and Rahealty contain a population of nearly 14,000 persons, a very large majority of whom depend upon agriculture for support.

The loss of the potato crop fell with peculiar severity upon this district for it not only deprived the poorer classes of their present food, but likewise cut off their chief hope of employment and therefore of subsistence for at least another year.

It was unfortunate for us at such a crisis that the chief proprietors of land within this district are non-resident. It is true that most of these sent us a portion of aid when applied to, but if they had been present with us during the last winter, spring and summer and had personally witnessed the miseries endured by thousands, and endured with wondrous patience, their Christian sympathies would have been called into more active exercise and they might have furthered the benevolent designs of Government by their local influence and have lightened the labours of our committee by their counsel and cooperation.

The committee constituted by the Lieutenant of the County in March last pursuant to the directions of the Act 10 Vic. Chap 7, commenced its labours immediately and continued them with a steady perseverance of men who were conscious of the magnitude of the task imposed on them. The greatest harmony prevailed among the members. The same spirit animated both Protestant and Roman Catholic, all appeared to remember that poverty and misery know no distinction of sect and that it was the duty of all to unite in alleviating that calamity which providence had thought fit to send upon our land.

The good effects of this cordiality were soon evident. The poor felt confidence in us and looked up to us and were guided by us, and although we were never able to do for them all which we desired and often had to cross their wishes and refuse their requests, their patience and forbearance were most exemplary to the last. Nothing in the shape of outbreak of violence has taken place in our district since the opening of the committee although the population is dense, their privations and sufferings most severe and temptations to plunder were many and close at hand.

We endeavoured to conduct all our business in strict conformity with the instructions of the Relief Commissioners and Col. Douglas, an officer deputed by Government to inspect local committees, expressed his satisfaction with the regularity of our proceedings. In any case where we found ourselves unable to comply with the letter of the Commissioners directions, we offered them our reasons for the deviation and detailed the circumstances which had governed our conduct in that matter.

We do not pretend to say that all the applications made to us for relief were strictly agreeable to the truth. Sharp biting poverty will often put moral principal to a very secure trail. But every care was taken to ascertain the real state of applicants, and we are in hope that no very serious errors have been communicated on that score.

Nor can we admit that the amount of relief (though great) was adequate to the overwhelming mass of destruction which covered the land. But at all events we have the happiness of feeling assured that innumerable lives were saved by the prompt and benevolent exertion made; and although many of our poor have fallen under the complicated privations of the last twelve months, we of this district have mercifully been spared those heart rending scenes of death from actual starvation, which are said to have occurred in other parts of the country.

We subjoin a detailed statement showing the account of our estimates forwarded to the Finance Committee and the numbers of destitute poor, relieved by us in each of the ten fortnights during which food rations were issued. By this it will be seen that we distributed in the Thurles Electoral Division 659,162 whole rations at a cost of one penny and four ninths of a penny per ration, and in Rahealty Electoral Division 53,340 rations at a cost of one penny and two thirds of a penny per ration, including all expenses of kitchen, offices, servants etc.

Our expenses have ever been within our estimates sent to the Finance Committee and there now remains a balance in out treasurer’s hands of £6.18.4 for which the proper sic [latter ‘sic’ a Latin word meaning ‘thus’], an acknowledgement has been given to the inspecting officer.

With these details of the past, we cannot help connecting an anxious glance into the future, for we cannot conceal from ourselves the conviction that the present is a most critical time. It has pleased providence in its mercy to remove the famine and to grant us an abundant harvest, and the problem now is, in what way that abundance can be most readily and safely made available for the benefit of the labouring classes. It is beyond all doubt that, for the coming year, they will require not only assistance but the most prudent advice and watchful care.

Let us take courage from the success of the past year as well as warning from its mistakes.

If we feel that the country still contains within it the seeds of a return to a healthy and prosperous activity, let us study how we can best develop all its resources, and as the surest prospect of this appears to lie in the general and continued employment of the people by individuals, let us hope that the early attention of Government may be directed to the encouragement and promotion of this great object; that property of every kind without exception may be declared liable for its due share of the necessary burden of that district in which it lies; and that in any scheme which private benevolence may suggest, we never may lose sight of the principal that it is our duty to elevate the peasantry as well as to feed them; to teach them self-respect and self-reliance; to make them a credit to themselves and useful to the community; to see them become labourers not beggars; earning the wages of honest industry, instead of receiving alms in thankless idleness.

While in the awful events of the past year we visibly trace the hand of providence and humbly bless the almighty for disposing the hearts both of our rulers and our people, that the late severe visitation may be turned into an eventual blessing, our warm thanks are due to the Queen’s Government for its benevolent intentions towards us, and for the seasonable aid afforded to meet a sudden calamity of the most unexampled magnitude. They are also numerous individuals in Great Britain, in Ireland, and in foreign countries for the truly Christian sympathy and most munificent donations. Among those benefactors we particularly desire to recognise the British Association, The Irish Relief Committee in Dublin and the Relief Association of the Society of Friends.

We offer our best acknowledgements to the Relief Commissioners for their readiness in attending to our communications and their liberality in forwarding supplies; and to the inspecting officer of Her Majesties Government Mr Moore Labarte (Barrister), a special vote of thanks has been passed by out committee for his prudent and conciliating conduct towards us.”

Signed: Dr. Henry Cotton, Archdeacon, Chairman, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
Extract from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” by author J.K. Rowling, OBE, FRSL.

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