OONAGH WARKE M.A., H.Dip.
Arch.. Born in Castlerock, graduate of Queens University, Belfast. At
present on contract with the National Archives in Dublin.
On 18th April 1845, Henry Hutton, Assistant Barrister
for the county of Carlow, submitted the memorial transcribed below to
Edward Lucas, then Under Secretary at Dublin Castle, for the attention
of Lord Heytesbury.
- To the Most Noble The Earl of Heytesbury – Lord Lieutenant
General and General Governor of Ireland.
- The petition of Margaret Butler
- A Convict in Carlow Gaol -
- Most Humbly Sheweth
- That your petitioner was tried at the last quarter sessions
of Tullow before Henry Hutton Esq - Assistant Barrister - for
stealing a few potatoes and sentenced to seven years transportation.
- Petitioner begs most humbly to state that she was left a
widow with six fatherless children who have been dependent on the
bounty of a humane and charitable public for support. Hardship alone
induced her and the tears of her wretched orphans compelled her to
do what she was sentenced to leave her country for.
- Petitioner now throws herself on the mercy and clemency of
your Excellency that you would be graciously pleased to commute her
sentence to any length of imprisonment - but oh in pity to her
orphans - do not send her from them as they would be theron
friendless outcasts on the world. Your Excellency will see by the
undersigned signatures that poverty alone drove her to do what she
- Petitioner once more craves the clemency of your Excellency’s
prerogative on her favor and the Hands of her orphans shall be
uplifted in prayer.
- And your petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray
- From Margaret Butler a convict in Carlow Gaol Carlow April
Hutton’s own view of the case took little account of
Margaret Butler’s pleadings, ‘ I am not aware of any mitigating
circumstances which would render the Prisoner an object of mercy’. In
support of that opinion he also forwarded to Lucas his report of the
trial at which Margaret Butler and her three fellow miscreants were
Tullow, Easter Quarter Sessions 1845, Thursday 3rd
Esther Burgess, Mary Burgess, Margaret Butler and
Mary Griffin were indicted for stealing a barrel of potatoes of Richard
Carr at Tullowland on 4 Feby last. Richard Carr sworn - lives at Tullow.
On 4th Feby witness lost some potatoes from a pit at Tullowland on the
land of Mr. Byrne - witness visited them 1/4 after six o’clock in the
evening. The pit was then safe - he visited the pit again at about 1/2
past seven o’clock and found that about a barrel had been taken out.
There were 4 kinds of potatoes in the pit - Russenden cups, Pink-eyes,
Lumpers and Devonshires and an odd white cup thro’ the others. On the
same night about 9 o’clock witness found potatoes with the police
corresponding with those which witness had lost. Those with the Police
constituted of the 5 kinds of witness’s potatoes.
John Roddy, Constable, sworn - was questioned in
Tullow on the night of the 4th feby last - was on the Dublin road –
witness concealed himself from about six o’clock to eight in the evening
on the Dublin road. Witness saw the four Prisoners on the Dublin road
about 8 o’clock. Each of them had a bag of potatoes on her back. They
were coming towards Tullow from the direction of Carr’s pit. Witness
arrested them. On arresting them Prisoner Mary Griffin was in the act of
spilling potatoes out of the bag when witness prevented her. She also
ran away till she was stopped. Mary Burgess also attempted to run away
till she was prevented. Carr afterwards identified the potatoes. The
prisoners were all barefooted.
Witness got a pair of shoes in the
barrack which were claimed by Asther Burgess. The 5 nails in the shoe
exactly corresponded with the track close by Carr’s pit. Witness also
found a mark of fresh clay on the hands and clothes of all the
prisoners. Where he first met the prisoners is about 40 or 50 perches
from Carr’s Pit. The Prisoners told witness they had gathered the
potatoes about thro’ the country.
The Jury found all the Prisoners guilty. The Governor
of the Gaol reported that all the Prisoners had been convicted several
times before of stealing potatoes, that is to say Esther Burgess three
times and each of the other Prisoners twice - and that the Matron of the
Gaol reported Margaret Butler & Mary Griffin as desperate characters and
very ill conducted in Gaol. The Court sentenced all the Prisoners to be
transported for seven years. H.H.
The petition submitted by Esther Burgess on behalf of
herself and her daughter Mary, was drawn up by a pen even more florid,
in both style and content, than that which compiled Margaret Butler’s
[it also, interestingly, clearly identifies her as ‘Easter’ rather than
- His Excellency, Lord Heytesbury, Lord Lieutenant General, and
General Governor of Ireland. The Humble Petition of Easier Burgess,
widow and her daughter Mary Burgess - both under sentence of
transportation in Carlow Gaol, Most Humbly Sheweth,
- That your Excellency’s petitioner was tried at the last
general Quarter-Sessions of the Peace, on the 5th instant, held in
Tullow, before Henry Hutton, Esqre, Assistant Barrister for the
County of Carlow for Petty Larceny in taking some Potatoes, was
Convicted and sentenced to seven years’ Transportation.
- Your Excellency’s Petitioner, the Widow Burgess, is an
extreme poor woman, whose husband died about two years and a half
back, and left petitioner without a single penny, nor means of any
kind to support herself and her seven children, the eldest of which
is not yet fourteen years of Age, and who is under the same sentence
- Your Excellency’s petitioner had no way to support herself
and her large helpless family, but merely what petitioner could earn
by her dayly labour, and being out of employment in February last
petitioner had no means of any kind to purchase food for her
miserable children, and the poor creatures were crying for something
to eat, which caused the greatest affliction, and almost deranged
Petitioner, at the impulse of the moment, and without reflection
Petitioner unfortunately with her little daughter went out and
brought in some Potatoes from a Neighbour’s field, to keep
Petitioner’s wretched family from starvation.
- Your Excellency’s Petitioner is in jail near three months,
and if sent off Petitioner’s unhappy family must inevitably perish
or become outcasts and wretches. A great number of highly
respectable magistrates and gentlemen are so good to subscribe their
names to this Petition, as a recommendation to your Excellency’s
humane consideration of Petitioner’s case. Petitioner therefore
implores that your Excellency will be graciously pleased to take
Petitioner’s deplorable case into your Excellency’s Charitable
consideration and that your Excellency will please be so good to
commute Petitioner’s sentence from Transportation to imprisonment
for any term your Excellency may deem proper.
- And Petitioner will be ever bound to pray,
- Easter Burgess Widow
- Mary Burgess her daughter
- Prisoners under sentence of Transportation
- (Carlow Gaol, April 1845)
In neither case, however, was the Lord Lieutenant
prepared to be swayed by the distant cries of ‘wretched orphans’ [he
extended the same response to the famine victims in ensuing years]. Each
petition bears the same curt and unambiguous annotation, in his hand,
‘The Law must take its Course - Heytesbury’.
In the year 1841, the population of Carlow County
stood at 86,228; 72,172 in the rural, and 14,056 in the civic district.
In 1845, 359 of that populace were committed to trial, and of them 141
were convicted. If documents such as those transcribed above are not in
themselves of enormous significance at national level, they are typical
of material which, by filling in our often inadequate knowledge of local
conditions in pre-Famine Ireland, can aid in answering such questions as
those posed by Roy Foster when he states that ‘We remain unsure about
the background to Irish poverty, the spectacular agrarian problem of the
pre-Famine decades, and its relation to subsistence crises ...‘ (1)
Carlow in the first half of the nineteenth century
was regarded as one of the more prosperous counties, largely because
sub-division of holdings was kept to a minimum. In his ‘Account of
Ireland’ published in 1812 Wakefield noted that ‘in this county there is
very little of that minute division so injurious to other parts of
and though destitute of manufactures, it is tenanted
by more wealthy people than almost any other county’ (2). Wakefield’s
Table of Prices in the same book shows that that wealth was reflected in
the markedly higher prices charged in Carlow in comparison to prices for
the same goods and services elsewhere in the country.
Wages for skilled
tradesmen were on average 5d per day higher than in Galway, butter
almost £2 per cwt. dearer, and there were similar differences for most
other foodstuffs, including potatoes, milk and oat-meal. In other words,
these were the prices that the market could bear, and that market
included, in Carlow particularly, the smaller tenant farmers, whose
holdings would still have been generally larger than those of the rest
of the country. It is those for whom Wakefield does not provide
statistics, the Butlers and Burgesses as opposed to the Bruens and the
Brownens, who were hardest hit by that very prosperity.
In a county
whose landlords were notoriously adept at ensuring, particularly at
election time, that the course of the law ran parallel to their own
interests (one critic describing the county in 1842 as one of ‘the
leading contenders in the corruption stakes’ with votes ‘up for sale to
he highest bidder’ (3), the marginalised poor were even more
marginalised than they would have been elsewhere. A fuller analysis of
court records would provide interesting data on the degree to which
transportation was a preferred option to imprisonment for magistrates in
Carlow and other counties, not because it reflected the level of the
crime, but simply because it removed offending blots from the landscape
Wakefield regarded the majority of Protestant landowners of
Carlow as being ‘decidedly in favour of the catholic claims’ (4), but
that they were not averse to such removals is indicated by Hoppens
description of their respone to tenants who disregarded their political
injunctions. In 1835, for example, Colonel Bruen was ‘genuinely amazed
when criticized for evicting farmers with hugh arrears on electoral
rather than economic grounds’ (5), while in 1840 Lord Courtown saw to it
that at the next election his recalcitrant tenantry’ did exactly as they
were ordered’. (6)
With those tenantry who could claim to some economic
stability so entirely under the thumbs of their landlords, the situation
for those who had neither position nor employment became correspondingly
worse. Esther Burgess’ having no way to support herself and her family
but through what she could earn ‘by her dayly labour’ meant that when
work was scarce there was little to turn to except larceny or charity.
We find the same plea over and over again in statements to the Devon
Commission on the conditions of farmers and labourers in 1844, ‘I hold
no ground. I am a poor man. I have nothing but my labour’.
And that labour, when it could be had, could itself
furnish little more than a diet of potato. The widespread hardship
occasiond by the increase in rent arrears and evictions which took place
in the 1830s meant that by the 1840s the potato was the staple and often
the only food of many of the poor. Foster notes that by then too the
traditional varieties, ‘apples’ and ‘minions’, were being largely
replaced by the cups’ and ‘lumpers’ so painstakingly recorded by
Constable Roddy. (7). The tragic repercussions of this development were
to begin to emerge with the first appearance of the potato blight in
September of 1845, when it was discovered that the ‘cups’ and ‘lumpers’,
although they gave a higher yield, were less resistant to disease.
So perhaps our ‘desperate characters’ were fortunate
to be transported when they were, before they, who would have been in
the front line of victims, had to suffer the further afflictions of the
Famine (although it must be recorded here that Carlow suffered less than
other counties, its average annual excess death rate for the period
1846-51 showing the third lowest increase in the country). It remains to
record that one petition at least did meet with approval. Her own plea
for commutation of her sentence to imprisonment having been rejected,
Esther Burgess wrote again, this time with the imprimatur of the Carlow
Board of Superintendents, all of them Carlow landlords [and the name of
one of whom, Fishbourn, was also borne by the supplier to Wakefield of
information for his ‘Table of Prices’ in 1812].
- To His Excellency Lord Heytesbury Lord Lieutenant General and
General Governor of Ireland.
- The humble Petition of Esther Burgess a Prisoner under
sentence of Transportation in Carlow Gaol - Humbly Sheweth
That your Petitioner has a Daughter 13 years of age
with no person to look after her and must ultimately come to utter ruin
if your Excellency with your usual clemency and humanity will not allow
her to go along with your Petitioner to New South [Wales]. That the
Girl’s Father being dead and having no friend or relative to look after
her Petitioner humbly implores your Excellency will be graciously
pleased to issue an order to have her sent to New South Wales along with
your Petitioner and she shall ever pray.
- Esther Burgess
- Carlow Gaol, 2 June 1845.
- We believe the above statement to be true and we recommend
the case to the favourable consideration of His Excellency the Lord
- J.H. Eustace J.P., Willm. Fishbourn, B.B. Newton J.P. -
members of the Board of Superintendents, J. [Jameson?] - Local
- ‘If I have the power of granting the prayer of this Petition,
let the necessary steps be taken for that purpose. June 14th 1845
- Assistant Barristers Report and Memorials, National Archives,
Ireland, State Paper Office, CRF 1845 B15.
- (1) R.F. Foster, Modem Ireland 1600-1972, Penguin Press 1988,
- (2) Edward Wakefield, An Account of Ireland Statistical and
Political, London 1812, Vol. I, p.
- (3) K. Theodore Hoppen, Elections, Politics and Society in
Ireland 1832-1885, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984, p.p. 77, 82.
- (4) Wakefield, Vol. II, p. 599.
- (5) Hoppen, p. 145.
- (6) Hoppen, p. 146.
- (7) Foster, p. 319.
Source: Carlow Past & Present Vol. 1
No. 4. 1993 p.120
Part 2 -
"THESE UNFORTUNATE FEMALES"
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