Letters from Irish Great Famine to be auctioned

Mon May 17, 2010 9:32am EDT
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DUBLIN (Reuters Life!) - More than 300 lots of letters and reports dating from Ireland's Great Famine years will go under the hammer this week in the first auction of its kind, which has aroused much interest particularly from the United States.

One million people died and more than one million left Ireland in the 1840s when potato blight caused widespread famine. Those who left emigrated mainly to North America and Ireland's population dropped by about a quarter.

Tuesday's auction in Dublin will include letters from landlords' agents concerning rent collection as well as priests asking for charity for those who could not write themselves and from tenants asking for relief and mercy.

"There has never been an auction like this before," said Stuart Cole, director of Adam's auctioneers, which is handling the sale. "Famine letters are relatively rare."

The sale of the collection, which also includes sculptures depicting the famine years, is seen generating between 300,000 and 400,000 euros ($369,700-$493,000). Cole said there had been a lot of enquiries, especially from the United States.

The letters come from the recently discovered archives of a firm of Dublin solicitors, Stewart & Kincaid, who acted as landlords' agents during the period. They also give an account of the situation on the ground.

One letter, dated 1845 from county Offaly, recounts how damaged potato fields were.

"I don't think there is a field of potatoes in this country ... (that isn't) damaged more or less, and the people appears to be greatly alarmed on that account," it says.

Another letter from Limerick in 1845 warns that "famine stares us in every quarter."

Ireland held a ceremony Sunday to commemorate those who died during the famine years.

(Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian, editing by Paul Casciato)