NEW IN MANUSCRIPTS: A Kerry famine journal in Hawaii

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Volume 24

THE LONELY PLANET GUIDE TO HAWAII RECOMMENDS A VISIT TO GREENWELL FARMS COFFEE PLANTATION AND THE ADJOINING ‘CLEVER MUSEUM’ CALLED H.N. GREENWELL STORE MUSEUM. VISITORS ARE SHOWN A TYPICAL GENERAL STORE OF THE 1890S, COMPLETE WITH GOODS AND EQUIPMENT FROM THE PERIOD. ANOTHER REASON TO VISIT IS TO CONSULT THE JOURNAL OF HENRY NICHOLAS GREENWELL, WRITTEN IN KERRY IN 1846–7, WHICH IS HELD IN THE ARCHIVES OF KONA HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN THE BASEMENT OF THE MUSEUM.

By Bryan MacMahon

Above: Portrait of Henry Nicholas Greenwellc. 1847. (Maile Melrose)

Above: Portrait of Henry Nicholas Greenwellc. 1847. (Maile Melrose)

In researching the Famine in Kerry, I found frequent references to LtH.N. Greenwell in local newspapers and in parliamentary papers. Searching on-line for further information on him, I discovered that his later life was spent in Hawaii, where he set up a successful coffee business in the Kona district. The coffee won an award at the World’s Fair in Vienna in 1873 and became an internationally famous brand.I made contact with Kona Historical Society (www.konahistorical.org) and with Maile Melrose, who lives in Hawaii and is a great-granddaughter of H.N. Greenwell. Sheinformed me that her ancestor’s journal, written in Kerry between mid-September 1846 and mid-March 1847, was extant. Unfortunately, his journal for the remaining six months of his posting has not been found. Following our correspondence, Maile and her sister Amanda Barnes decided to visit Kerry in February 2015 to walk in the footsteps of their ancestor.

Public works—‘a system strained beyond its proper limit’
Henry Nicholas Greenwell (1826–91) was born in Greenwell Ford near Lanchester, Co. Durham, in 1826, the youngest of a prominent landed family first establishedin the areain the twelfth century. Hejoined the army and his regiment was sent to Ireland in 1845; the following year he was appointed as inspecting officer in Kerry, supervising the public works and liaising with local officials and the Poor Law Commissioners.His appointment must have seemed like an important progression in his military career, but in fact he left the army immediately after completing his duties in Kerry.

Above: ‘Daily journal commencing with the day on which I left Dublin for Kerry, September 18th 1846’—page 1 of Greenwell’s journal. (Kona Historical Society)

Above: ‘Daily journal commencing with the day on which I left Dublin for Kerry, September 18th 1846’—page 1 of Greenwell’s journal. (Kona Historical Society)

H.N. Greenwell’s area of responsibility initially was the whole county and he was expected to report on relief works undertaken in Kenmare, Killarney, Dingle, Listowel, Tralee and the areas surrounding these towns. He told his superiors that he found it impossible to carry out his duties over such a wide area and other officers were later appointed to the south of the county, while he concentrated on Listowel and north Kerry. By the late autumn of 1846, it was recognised that the system of public works was ‘a system strained beyond its proper limit’ and was an inadequate response to the looming crisis. As prices rose through the exceptionally harsh winter, wages on the public works remained static and were not sufficient to buy food for families. Payment by task proved a failure because, as the people became increasingly debilitated, theywere unable to do the required work and so earned far less than they needed. Yet desperate people still clamoured for places on the public works as their last hope, while officials like Greenwell were being instructed to reduce the numbers at work;official policy was ‘to keep the numbers as low as the existing calamity will permit’. Those who were refused places on the works had no other resources to fall back on, most of them having already pawned or sold their goods and clothes; they faced certain death.

Greenwell’s reports
Much of Greenwell’s time was spent in drawing up lists of those eligible for work and arranging for tickets of work to be distributed to them.Between 14 and 17 October, Greenwell recorded that he distributed 360 tickets in Killarney, 20 in Killorglin, 350 in Tralee and 960 in Listowel. He also noted that there was ‘great opposition’ among labourers towards task-work and that ‘men possessing cows and otherwise being in a position independent of public relief have been represented as indigent labourers without any land at all’. He was determined to ensure that such malpractice was ended. He also criticised the bureaucratic procedures thatcaused delays in payments, and when hundreds protested in Listowel at the suspension of public works Greenwell took it upon himself to order their resumption. He was frustrated by his dealings with his superiors and his repeated observation was that there was ‘a want of system and order’ in everything.

Above: Page 53—‘Weekly report, Listowel [ending] 14 Nov. 1846 … Monday & Tuesday, the 9th and 10th … in Tralee attended the Relief Committee and issued tickets for different works in my district … Wednesday I forwarded … maps, schedules etc. to Capt. Labalmondiere, on his taking charge of the work in South Kerry. Thursday the 12th went to Listowel and afterwards inspected the following works [numbered]. Friday the 13th I went to Tarbert, attended the Relief Committee … and afterwards inspected [numbered relief works]. Saturday the 14th I went to O’Dorney [Abbeydorney] and Ardfert for the purposes of attending the Committee and investigating into complaints made to me of the conduct of several stewards employed on public works in that neighbourhood.’ (Kona Historical Society)

Above: Page 53—‘Weekly report, Listowel [ending] 14 Nov. 1846 …
Monday & Tuesday, the 9th and 10th … in Tralee attended the Relief Committee and issued tickets for different works in my district …
Wednesday I forwarded … maps, schedules etc. to Capt. Labalmondiere, on his taking charge of the work in South Kerry.
Thursday the 12th went to Listowel and afterwards inspected the following works [numbered].
Friday the 13th I went to Tarbert, attended the Relief Committee … and afterwards inspected [numbered relief works].
Saturday the 14th I went to O’Dorney [Abbeydorney] and Ardfert for the purposes of attending the Committee and investigating into complaints made to me of the conduct of several stewards employed on public works in that neighbourhood.’ (Kona Historical Society)

His reports are written with confidence and professionalism and he was blunt and independent-minded on occasion.At one meeting, after only a week in the county, he was very critical of a ‘claptrap speech’ by a Listowel landlord,and he caustically remarked on the greed of landlords and their ignorance of their own areas. He was critical of the neglect of drainage work, which he believed to be far more appropriate than public works on roads. He witnessed with surprise the power exerted by priests, and at one raucous meeting he was struck by how ‘the raising of the priest’s hand was like the pouring of oil upon the raging waters’. Greenwell saw the ailing Daniel O’Connell at a meeting in Sneem in early October 1846 and wrote: ‘He seems quite like an old man and his eye, instead of having that sprightly expression so characteristic of him, is now lustreless and fixed’. O’Connell had only months to live.

The potential for violence among the despairing populace was never far away, and on 12 January 1847 Greenwell reported that ‘people in Tralee and neighbourhood [are] becoming very boisterous’.Helater wrote about an incident near Duagh: ‘Was stopped by the mob and for the first time threatened in County Kerry. Things are in a queer state.’Hundreds of desperate people surrounded a hotel in Listowel,threatening the engineer of the Board of Works,and they were dispersed eventually by the intervention of the local priest and the constabulary. Greenwellfrequently stressed the peaceable nature of the people in spite of their growing desperation. In other parts of the country, inspectors were blamed for the catastrophe and they were subjected to assaults and intimidation, and there were cases of nervous breakdown, resignations, suicides and desertions among them.

In late February 1847Greenwell was particularly concerned about the Corkaguiny (Corca Dhuibhne) barony,reporting that ‘disease is on the increase, especially to the west of Dingle, and many are daily being added to the hundreds who have perished within the last two months’. This report was evidently disbelieved by his superiors,because his next report indignantly stated that he had always given ‘a fearful, yet I believe truthful, account’ of conditions and asserted that his reference to hundreds of deaths ‘was not merely a loose expression’.He cited reliable reports of 40 deaths in Ventry and 26 deathsin Dingle in one week, and in Kilquane and Kilmalkedar people were falling on the roadside from exhaustion.

Tributes
In August 1847 the government declared the Famine officially over. As Lt Greenwell was preparing to depart from Kerry in September, there were warm tributes to him from the various relief committees with which he was involved. The committees were standing down, the government inspectors were departing and there was a palpable sense of an arduous campaign coming to an end. The tributes began with one committee praising Greenwell’s ‘zeal, attention and kindly feeling for the poor, combined with firmness and courage during a period of much difficulty and severe trials’.The Lixnaw committee referred to his ‘assiduity and urbanity’. The Tarbert committee thanked him for his ‘unremitting attention and uniform courtesy’. Greenwell in reply referred to ‘the kindly feeling which ever from our first connection subsisted’, and stated that ‘the receipt of such a testimony affords me unfeigned gratification and will prove hereafter the more delightful as aftertime has blotted out the remembrance of many tedious hours’.Theseelaborate tributes in the press do not tell the complete story of the relationship between Greenwell and the local relief committees; his journal records some scathing observations on their operations and on some of their members.

Hawaii
At the end of 1847, Greenwell resigned from the army in disillusionment and left England soon after, arriving in Australia in July 1848. His experience there caused him to abandon his plan to start a sheep farm and November 1850 found him in Hawaii,where he began to purchase land.He built a home and a provisions store at Kalukalu,and this was the foundation of an extensive enterprise that continues today, in part, as Greenwell Farms, Kealakekua Ranch Shopping Centre and Palani Ranch. Greenwell had a busy career as a farmer, storekeeper, sheep-station owner, rancher, postmaster, schools’ agent and customs collector.

There is one shadow on the reputation of H.N. Greenwell, involving his appearance in court on a murder charge in 1852. One of his employees, a Chinaman, was caught in the act of stealing and was severely whipped by Greenwell as a punishment. The man died soon afterwards, and Greenwell was tried for murderand acquitted. The trial judge told the jury that Greenwell was ‘a man not only of cultivation and refinement but of principle and heart, the last of his acquaintance he would have expected to appear before the court arraigned as a criminal’.Regardless of the verdict, it is likely that Greenwell carried a sense of guilt for the rest of his life, although he does not refer to the incident in his journals.H.N. Greenwell was travelling on an inter-island steamer in May 1891when he died suddenly at the breakfast table, apparently of a heart attack. He was buried in Christ Church cemetery in Kona. His wife Elizabeth was left to run the family business and rear their ten children.

Today, 170 years after the Kerry journal was written, researchers do not have to visit Hawaii to consultit:H.N. Greenwell’s great-granddaughters have generously donated a digital copy to the Local History and Archives Department of Kerry County Library in Tralee. Substantial extracts are published in the 2015 Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society.

Bryan MacMahon’s book on the Great Famine in Tralee and north Kerry will be published by Mercier Press in 2017.

'


Copyright © 2022 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568