Episode six of Victoria‘s second series takes us to a very dark place as we see the realities of the Irish Potato Famine. The hero of the story is Dr Traill – a real historical figure who witnessed the crisis first-hand and tried to do something to help.
Is that Line of Duty’s Martin Compston in Victoria?
Yes. Martin Compston, who played Arnott in the TV series Line of Duty, guest stars as Dr Robert Trail. The actor also recently played serial killer Peter Manuel in the crime drama In Plain Sight.
Weirdly, the real Dr Robert Traill is the great-great-great-grandfather of Victoria writer Daisy Goodwin. “I thought his story would be a good way to illustrate the terrible way in which the Irish were treated by the British government,” she says.
Dr Robert Traill was born in 1793 and became the rector of Schull in County Cork in 1832. Fiercely Protestant, he initially had a reputation for antagonising Catholics. He has been described as a “noted controversialist”.
But when the potato crop began to rot in 1846 Dr Traill was one of the few clergymen determined to do something to help the Irish – whatever their denomination, and without trying to force Catholics to convert. He became chairman of the Schull Relief Committee and wrote “eloquent letters” persuading people to donate.
News of his efforts reached James Mahoney, who visited Dr Traill as part of his Sketches on the West of Ireland series for the Illustrated London News. Mahoney wrote: “We next got to Skull, where, by the attention of Dr Traill, vicar of the parish (and whose humanity at the present moment is beyond all praise), we witnessed almost indescribable in-door horrors.”
He explained: “Having a great desire to see with mine own eyes some of the misery which was said to exist, Dr Traill, the rector of Schull, offered to drive me to a portion of his parish.”
While there, he visited a scene of absolute misery: “Dr Traill, on putting his head inside the hole which answered for a door, said ‘Well, Phillis, how is your mother today?’ he having been with her the day before. She replied, ‘Oh, Sir, is it you? Mother is dead!’ And there, fearful reality, was the daughter, a skeleton herself, crouched and crying over the lifeless body of her mother, which was on the floor, cramped up as she had died.”
The rector established a soup kitchen in his house with the help of his own family (“my family one and all are perfect slaves worn out with attending them; for I would not wish, were it possible, that one starving creature would leave my door without some-thing to allay the cravings of hunger”).