The People and Events that made Ireland
“A gentleman who lately called upon me, and whom I have every reason to trust, gave me a letter from a person resident in that union (Skibbereen) stating, that though the property within the union is rated to the poor as being of the value of £8,000 per year only, its actual value is no less than £130,000 a year, and that, until September last, no rate had been made exceeding sixpence in the pound, but that, in November, a rate was made of nine-pence in the pound; but that rate has never been levied.” (Lord John Russell P.M., speech to Parliament on 12th March 1847)
The total failure of the food of a nation was a new experience within Great Britain, and there was no machinery in place, or plan that could hope to neutralize the famine’s effects. While some allowance might be granted for the Government’s shortcomings, in a crisis so new and so terrible. But it must be admitted by all concerned that Lord John Russell and his colleagues in Government were painfully unequal to the crisis. They either could not, or would not, use all the tools that were available to them to ensure the survival of the Irish people.
Besides the mistakes they made as to the nature of the employment which ought to be given, one of their major faults was that they did not act with promptness and decision. Other nations, where famine was far less imminent, were already trading in the markets and had, to a great extent, made their purchases of foodstuffs well before the British Government. The delay caused food to be much scarcer and, therefore, much dearer for us than it needed to be. On 29th September 1846, Mr. Trevelyan of the Treasury Office complained bitterly, "It is little known what a formidable competition we are suffering from our Continental neighbours. Very large orders are believed to have been sent out to the United States, not only by the merchants, but by the Governments of France and Belgium, and in the Mediterranean markets they have secured more than their share; all of which will appear perfectly credible, when it is remembered that they are buying our new English wheat in our own market."
The fatal error of awaiting events, instead of anticipating them, and by forethought endeavouring to control and guide them, was equally destructive. About the middle of December, there was formed in Dublin a committee of landlords, which assumed the name of the ‘Reproductive Works Committee’. Its objects were excellent. It was to be the beginning of a real Irish party, whose members were to lay aside their differences, political and religious, that, by a united effort, they might carry the country through the death-struggle in which it then was, and lay the foundation of its future progress to prosperity. Many of the best men in the whole nation were active promoters of this movement; but, viewed as a whole, it was little more than the embodied expression of the fears of the landlords, that they would be swamped by the rates levied to feed the people, and of their hopes that, by uniting, for the occasion, with the popular leaders, they would be able to compel the Government so to shape its course, that, at any rate, they would come forth safe from the ordeal.
Neither the Committee, nor the landlords who met in Dublin at their call, intended to form a permanent Irish party; in fact, it could not be done in the sense indicated by them. In a circular which was issued the first week of January, they say:
"That, at this awful period of national calamity, it becomes the first duty of every Irishman to devote his individual efforts to the interests of Ireland, and that neither politics, parties, nor prejudices should influence his mind in the discharge of such a duty … That, for this purpose, we venture to suggest to the Irish members of the Legislature, to meet together at such a time as may be considered most proper and convenient, for the purpose of forming an Irish party for the protection of Irish interests; and we earnestly entreat, that every member of that body should resolve, as far as is possible, to consider and modify his own opinion, so as to meet the united feelings of the general body, and should banish from his mind all considerations of party or prejudice, at a time when the lives and interests of his countrymen are so deeply perilled."
A few days later, the Committee instructed their secretaries to call a meeting of the peers, members of Parliament, and landed proprietors of Ireland, in the Rotunda, on the 14th of January, for the consideration of the social condition of the country, all political and extraneous topics to be strictly excluded. They published at the same time the resolutions they proposed submitting to the meeting, one series of which referred to temporary measures, which, in the opinion of the Committee, were necessary for the immediate wants of the country; another suggested those required for her future prosperity.
The great meeting of Irish peers, members of Parliament, and landlords, as it was called, was held in the Rotunda on the above day. The attendance on the occasion was large, and the meeting was what might be termed a great success. Tickets of admission were issued to fourteen peers, twenty-six members of Parliament, and about six hundred other landed proprietors, from all the four provinces. Every phase of Irish politics was represented at the meeting. Amongst the peers were the Marquis of Ormond, the Earl of Erne, Lord Cloncurry, and Lord Farnham; the M.P.'s reckoned, amongst others, O'Connell, Frederick Shaw, William Smith O'Brien, Anthony Lefroy, John O'Connell, and Edward Grogan. The Marquis of Ormond was chairman. The resolutions prepared by the Reproductive Works Committee were proposed and unanimously adopted.
These resolutions had, the chairman said, been considered by a committee composed of gentlemen of all shades of parties. Great differences occurred upon almost every word of every resolution. However, personal opinions had been sacrificed with a view of having perfect unanimity at the present meeting, of peculiar construction—perhaps the only one of the kind ever assembled in the Rotunda before. Among the resolutions adopted by this very remarkable assembly were
“That we deem it our duty most earnestly to impress upon our representatives, our solemn conviction of the necessity of their now co-operating cordially together in Parliament, for the advancement of the interests of Ireland, … to save society from the ruin by which all classes in the land are now threatened; and to preserve the country from confiscation.
“That, before and beyond all other considerations, is the salvation of the lives of the people; and we therefore deem it our solemn duty—the present system having signally failed—to call upon the Government, in the most imperative terms, to take such measures as will secure local supplies of food sufficient to keep the people alive, and to sacrifice any quantity of money that may be necessary to attain the object.
“That, as the people of this country are suffering from a most extraordinary and incalculably extensive deficiency in the stock of food, we further call upon the Government to remove all artificial impediments to the supply of that deficiency.
“That we recommend that Relief Committees should be allowed to sell food under first cost to the destitute, in their respective neighbourhoods, and that their doing so should not disentitle them to Government contributions in aid of their funds.
“That while we affirm, that it is the clear and paramount duty of the state to take care that provision be made for the destitute, we regret that the means hitherto adopted for that purpose have, on the one hand, proved incommensurate with the evil, and on the other hand, have induced the expenditure of vast sums of money upon useless or pernicious works.
“That this most wasteful expenditure, tending, as it does, to diminish our resources and to increase the probabilities of future famine, has not been the result of neglect on the part of the resident proprietors of Ireland, but of an impolitic and pernicious law, which they have been compelled to carry into effect, notwithstanding repeated protests to the contrary.
“That, though entirely acquiescing in the justice of imposing upon the land the repayment of all money advanced for reproductive purposes, we solemnly protest, in the name of the owners and occupiers of land in Ireland, against the principle of charging exclusively on their property, the money which they have been forced to waste on unproductive works.
“That the destruction of the staple food of millions of our fellow-subjects cannot be considered in any other light than that of an Imperial calamity,
“That though considering the present Labour-rate Act as a most mischievous measure, to be laid aside whenever a better system can be introduced, yet, in order to prevent the continuance of the present waste of money, we call upon the Legislature to amend that Act, by enabling each proprietor to take upon himself his proportion of the baronial assessment, to be expended in reproductive works upon his own property,
“That we have heard with alarm and regret that in many districts of Ireland, the usual extent of land has not been prepared, and cannot be prepared, for cultivation, owing to the poverty of the occupants, and consequently will be waste during the ensuing year … that the supply of seed in this country will be deficient, and to meet this evil we earnestly recommend that depôts for the sale of seed be established by Government.
“That, as there must be a large amount of population dependent for subsistence, during the year, upon public or private charity, provision should be made for assisting those to emigrate (with their families) who cannot be supported in this country, by the exercise of independent labour.
“That the direct employment of the great mass of the able-bodied people by the state, has an unavoidable tendency to paralyse industry, and to substitute artificial for natural labour … therefore, any measures of relief for the able-bodied ought to have for their object the encouragement of the employment of labour by private individuals in productive works. The whole energies of the State, therefore, should be applied to the absorption of surplus labour, to the affording facilities for private employment, and to the removal of the impediments that now obstruct it.
“That, with the like object of absorbing labour, and increasing our food supplies, a systematic plan should be adopted for the reclamation of waste lands throughout the country.
“That, in any such system, an option should be given to the proprietors of waste lands to undertake the reclamation themselves, and every possible facility should be afforded them in alienating their waste lands for the purpose of reclamation.
“That it is, therefore, peculiarly the province of the State, which represents and protects the interests of all collectively, to promote emigration by direct intervention, as well as by assisting, with information and pecuniary aid, the efforts of individuals and public bodies in promoting this most desirable result.
“That, with a like object, and to diminish the enormous expense and delays that now exist in these matters, cheap and simple modes should be devised for the transfer, partition, and exchange of landed property.
“That we deem it highly expedient to raise the social state of our agricultural labourer; and that, as we believe, one of the most efficacious means of effecting this will be the improvement of his habitation, we are of opinion that measures should be adopted to enable proprietors to improve the dwellings upon their properties of the labouring poor, and by proper sanitary regulations to render it the interest of all landholders that every dweller on their estates should have a good and healthy habitation.”
These resolutions go very fully into the state of the country, its evils, and their remedies. They contain much that is wise and well-intended, and some of the measures suggested in them will be found in the programme of the Government. The Rotunda meeting having been held only a few days before the assembling of Parliament was just in time to exercise an influence on the measures the Government had in preparation, to meet the existing Irish difficulty; and very possibly it had that effect. One thing the landlords who met in the Round-room had evidently set their hearts on—there was to be an extensive emigration—the land was to be cleared. Emigration, indeed, was always in favour with the ruling class, and most effectively promoted by wholesale eviction. The people were sent to benefit the colonies by their labour.
Parliament was opened by the Queen in person, on Tuesday, the 19th of January. She read the speech from the throne, about two-thirds of which related to Ireland exclusively. No wonder. The state of that country had become the theme of public writers, politicians, and philanthropists in both hemispheres. England was on her trial before the civilized world. Could not she, the richest nation of the earth, whose capitalists searched the globe for undertakings in which to invest their vast and ever accumulating wealth—could not she—or would not she—save the lives of those starving Irish, who were her subjects, and who, if not loved by her like others of her subjects, were at least useful in giving size and importance to the empire, and in fighting those battles which helped her to keep her place among first-class nations; useful in opening up, with the bayonet's point, those foreign markets so essential to her iron and cotton lords.
Addressing the members of both houses, the Queen announced, "It is with the deepest concern that, upon your again assembling, I have to call your attention to the dearth of provisions which prevails in Ireland, and in parts of Scotland.
"In Ireland, especially, the loss of the usual food of the people has been the cause of severe sufferings, of disease, and of greatly increased mortality among the poorer classes. Outrages have become more frequent, chiefly directed against property, and the transit of provisions has been rendered unsafe in some parts of the country.
"With a view to mitigate these evils, very large numbers of men have been employed, and have received wages, in pursuance of an Act passed in the last session of Parliament. Some deviations from that Act, which have been authorized by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in order to promote more useful employment, will, I trust, receive your sanction. Means have been taken to lessen the pressure of want, in districts which are most remote from the ordinary sources of supply. Outrages have been repressed, as far as it was possible, by the military and police … It will be your duty to consider, what further measures are required to alleviate the existing distress. I recommend to you to take into your serious consideration, whether, by increasing, for a limited period, the facilities for importing from foreign countries … I have also to direct your earnest attention to the permanent consideration of Ireland. You will perceive, by the absence of political excitement, an opportunity for taking a dispassionate survey of the social evils which afflict that part of the United Kingdom. Various measures will be laid before you, which, if adopted by Parliament, may tend to raise the great mass of the people in comfort, to promote agriculture, and to lessen the pressure of that competition for the occupation of land, which has been the fruitful source of crime and misery."
The Irish M.P. Smith O'Brien said that he thought he would be wanting in his duty to his country if he did not make an appeal to the House on behalf of those whose sufferings could not be exaggerated. He was asked if he was prepared to say that the Government had been altogether guiltless of having produced that frightful state of things. Moreover, would he say that everything had been done by the Government, which might have been done by them. He answered that he believed it was in the government’s power to prevent one single individual from dying of starvation in Ireland. He did not accuse them of wilfully bringing about a state of things so disastrous, but he made it clear that it was his opinion, and the opinion of others in Ireland, that they had not introduced any measures to combat the disastrous condition in which Ireland was placed and had brought about the calamity which was now witnessed.
Mr. O'Brien also made a point to the House in favour of the Irish landlords. He pointed out that if the Irish members were legislating in an Irish parliament, it would be considered by them as a national calamity, and all classes—the fund holder, the office holder, the mortgagee, the annuitant, would be called on to contribute to the general efforts to alleviate distress. England, he declared, had the advantage of the Irish absentee rents, and the advantage of applying all the resources of Ireland, and the Irish people did not consider that it ought to be looked upon as a union for the advantage of England alone, and no union when it was for the interests of Ireland. Nothing, he thought, could be more outrageous than that one class, the landlords of Ireland, should be called upon to bear the whole burden of this calamity.
Smith O'Brien was quite right in saying it was most unreasonable that the Irish landlords should be called upon to bear the whole expense of the Famine. But it was equally true, that they made no effort worth the name to stay or mitigate the Famine, until it had knocked at their own hall doors in the shape of rates that threatened them with the confiscation of their properties.
Mr. Labouchere, the Irish Chief Secretary, replied to Mr. Smith-O’Brien that the agricultural population of Ireland, vast in its numbers, were always on the brink of starvation. So that when the potato blight swept the country from sea to sea, it was impossible for the Government to meet the disaster fully.
Such was the defence of the Irish Chief Secretary. And here it is worthwhile remarking, that in the earlier stages of the Famine it was the practice of the government organs to throw doubt on the extent of its ravages which were published, and the Government, apparently acting on these views, most culpably delayed the measures by which the visitation could be successfully combated. Now, their part was to admit, to the fullest extent, the vastness of the Famine and make it the excuse for their want of energy and success in overcoming it.
In Ireland, the winter of 1846-47 was the coldest in living memory. Ireland’s poor had always been helped by the generally mild climate and the availability of turf for fires, but now the cold became intense, and the people had no energy left for cutting turf. At the same time, the extreme cold also began to affect the relief works. The weather, in fact, became too bad to work in. The people, however, still needed money for foodstuffs, or else they would starve. Trevelyan suggested giving half-pay for each day on which work could not be done, but the Board of Works officials on the ground found it impossible to agree with him, and most of them continued to pay every worker in full, whether the work was, or could be done. Moreover, the numbers applying for work had swelled in January 1847 to an unmanageable size.
The First Minister made no unnecessary delay in bringing the state of Ireland formally before Parliament. On the 25th of January, six days after the opening of the session. He rose in a full house and claimed its indulgence whilst he endeavoured to explain what had been already done to counteract the disastrous results of the potato blight in Ireland. He wanted to call their attention to those measures which the Government considered necessary to meet the existing emergency, and to submit for its consideration other measures, which were calculated to improve the general condition of that country, thereby laying the foundation of its permanent improvement.
Like other members of the Government, he commenced by quoting the reports of Poor Law Commissioners, to prove that even in what were regarded in Ireland as prosperous times, that country was on the verge of starvation, because of a calamity that was almost without parallel. He then went into some figures to show how vast the operations of the Board of Works were. Informing the House that they had 11,587 officials, and half a million of people at work, at a weekly cost of between seven and eight hundred thousand pounds.
He then took up the objections against the Labour-rate Act, and the reproductive works that were being carried out. He told the assembly that very soon after the Labour-rate Act had come into operation there came, he said, on the part of the proprietors and country gentlemen of Ireland, a complaint that the works were useless, that they were not wanted, and that they were not reproductive.
The First Minister, strangely, did not attach any great value to these objections. "I think," he said, "the object being relief, and to combine relief with a certain amount of work, to show that habits of industry have not been entirely abandoned, that the productive nature of the work was a question of secondary importance.” To call the productiveness or non-productiveness of the labour of half a million men a matter of secondary importance was, certainly, a most cool assurance on the part of a professed political economist, who must hold as a central dogma of that science that labour is the principal producer of capital. Everybody admitted that the crying want of Ireland was the want of capital, and yet here is a Minister, holding in his hands her destinies during a life-and-death struggle for existence, expressing his belief that to expend in useless and even pernicious works the labour of half a million of men was a matter of secondary importance. Because of this, he did not attach any great weight to the objection! Furthermore, he told the house, it was not the reason why the Government was going to sanction a modification of the law as recommended by a letter of the Irish Chief Secretary.
A New Introduction – For those who prefer the term Genocide to Famine, everytime you see the Famine imagine you see the word Genocide.
In the “Freeman’s Journal” of 29th September 1846 the contents of a letter written by Daniel O’Connell were reprinted. In this letter he announced his opinion - “The landlords are providing ample means for the supply of that food. But where is the food? Money is of little value to the peasant’s hungry family, if food be not within their reach! The price of food is daily increasing. The landlords will in vain provide the money, if the government do not abandon the absurd theory that the importation of food at such a crisis as this would be an unwarrantable interference with the principles of free trade.”
The Potato Crop was, by this time, known to have failed and O’Connell used the letter to state categorically “Food, we believe must be supplied by the authorities. It must be applied in order to make it accessible to the people at reasonable prices.” In an effort to bolster this demand, he added, “The state of the country is frightful – famine hourly approaching and the enormity of the evil so great as to require for its alleviation sums of money so apparently extravagant in amount as to fill the mind of men of the most hopeful temperament with dismay and affright.”
In the same letter he warned the authorities, “Let it be remembered that there is great reason to fear, and not only to fear, but to believe, that the evils that now press upon us will not have spent their force in a single year or between this and next harvest. What will be the condition of the country, if there shall be another year of blighted crop without adequate preparation being made to meet the calamity? And what sufficient preparations should and can be made, it is not likely that individual sagacity could foretell.” O’Connell also began to apportion blame for the condition that Ireland found itself in, saying - “There is no fact more distinctly recognised than that the greater part of the Irish population are every year on the verge of starvation. It has pleased Providence in the present year to engulf them in misery – we do not confound the adventitious misfortune of the present year with the steady progression of the accumulating distress and misery which has marked the domestic history of Ireland since the date of the Union – Parliamentary documents have placed beyond doubt that the wretchedness of the Irish peasantry has been, and is, annually increasing. The effects of the Union have left the country unable to endure the loss of a single crop.” His written words, as strong and powerful as those he spoke, he ended his correspondence with condemnation - “England by a combination of the vilest fraud, with a force casually irresistible deprived us of our nationality; and then because we suffer the evils necessarily resulting from that loss, their writers taunt us with the natural and necessary consequences of that deprivation, and accuse us of being the authors of our own misery, choosing to forget that we have had no control over our own affairs, and have been nothing more than the sad serfs of an ungrateful mistress.” (Letter from D. O’Connell reprinted in Freeman’s Journal 29th September 1846).
It is time to consider the conditions in Ireland in 1846 that O’Donnell was actually referring to. Essentially Ireland was an agricultural country wherein the growing of crops was the main use of the land. There were cattle and sheep farmers raising their herds in Ireland also, but when the famine struck they were soon having to guard these herds from people who were desperate to get food. Domestic pigs and chickens, of course, were the first to be eaten up.
One form of nourishment enjoyed by some was the blood from cattle that was baked with vegetables, when available. A person could take up to two pints of blood from a cow quite safely and would scour fields for any root crops that may have been left behind. But, the countryside was overcrowded before the famine and this fact caused the greatest problems when famine struck. Overcrowding had successfully driven away much of the local wildlife such as foxes, frogs, hedgehogs, and badgers, and any of these animals that were left were now served as food irrespective of palatability. In place of fresh vegetables, the starving turned to nettles, dandelions, roots, mushrooms, berries, nuts were devoured ravenously. There were, occasionally, small amounts of cabbage, turnips, and herbs but, generally, they were eating food that prolonged their lives while, at the same time, destroying it.
When studying the famine in Ireland some are puzzled as why fish were not more widely used as a food for the starving. But, in those days, the sea-fishing was a very dangerous activity, especially when you consider that the vast majority of boats used for fishing were flimsy ‘currachs’, a type of row boat which was constructed from wood and canvas. They were not a very secure vessel to be used along the rocky, treacherous west coast of Ireland, which often suffered persistently bad weather. These deterrents in themselves were enough to limit the amount of fish caught, but even if sufficient fish were caught there were very few harbours and piers on which to land them. It is not surprising, therefore, that fishermen tended to be as much dependent upon their patch of potatoes as anyone else. As the famine tightened its grip they were often forced to sell their boats and nets to obtain food. Those that persisted with their work often became too weak to row their boats, causing them to abandon fishing and revert to eating shellfish and edible seaweed until local supplies were quickly exhausted. The fishermen of Claddagh, on the Connemara coast, would only go out to sea on certain days and at certain times, and if fishermen from elsewhere tried to fish in their waters they would destroy the nets of the strange boats and beat up their crews. River fishing, of course, was an option for those seeking eels and trout, but all the rivers belonged to the landowners and the poaching laws in the mid-nineteenth century were very strictly enforced.
“One poor woman whose entreaties became increasingly importunate, had worked all night in the grave yard, lest the body of her husband should be stolen from his resting place, to which he had been consigned yesterday. She had left five children sick with the famine fever in her hovel, and she raised an exceedingly bitter cry for help.” (Elihu Burritt)
As the extent of the blighted potato crop emerged, any good parts of the potatoes remaining were retrieved for consumption. Even diseased potatoes soaked, skimmed of the bad matter, and used to make ‘Boxty Bread’ (Potato Bread) or boiled and eaten though with painful consequences. Surprisingly it was grain from a foreign land, with an exotic name, provided the main relief food during the famine crisis. This alien food was made from maize by grinding and milling the whole maize grain. When sales of Indian Meal commenced in March 1846 it was only to those people who could afford a penny for a pound of meal. Private Traders were excluded, and local Relief Committees, were permitted to purchase Indian Meal only when local prices were rising. By 1847, however, the price of Indian Meal had doubled, by which time private merchants had taken over the trade.
Most people didn’t know how they should cook Indian Meal correctly, and some even tried to eat it raw because they lacked fuel to cook it. The consequences of eating inadequately ground and incorrectly cooked Indian Meal were painful. The flint-hard shell was sharp and irritating, and capable of piercing the intestinal wall. It is little wonder, then, that it was so unpopular among the poor. Nevertheless, as the 1846 season advanced, and the dearth of food intensified, the hungry population was compelled to overcome its dislike of Indian Corn Meal. Indeed, so widespread did its consumption become, that supplies were very quickly exhausted. The spectacle of cart loads of wheat, barley and oats continuing to be exported under armed guard, from Ireland while the peasantry starved is an indelible picture in the minds of Irishmen. Even if it had remained in the country the starving peasantry had no money to purchase grain. In fact, for them to get the grain it would have to have been given to them for free.
“Alas! The foul and fatal blight
Infecting Raleigh’s grateful root,
Blasting the fields of verdure bright,
That waves o’er Erin’s favourite fruit.
The peasant’s cherished hope is gone,
His little garden’s pride is o’er,
Famine and plague now scowl upon
Hibernia’s fair and fertile shore.” (anonymous)
What else was available? In coastal districts of Ireland, as we have said, there was usually herring, which often complimented the potato diet when in season. We have also seen the reasons why fish did not make a greater contribution to alleviating the starving during the calamitous seasons. Restricted supply brought with it an increase in fish prices and it was banished from the poor man’s table. More easily accessible sea foods were limpets and sea weeds, which could be harvested at low tide. So intense became the harvesting of limpets, however, that rocks were often picked clean by the starving population. Seaweed, such as Carrageen Moss and Dulse, were the most traditionally cooked, though the Dulse was often dried and eaten raw. It was not unusual, during famine times, to see stretches of beach stripped bare of their tidal crop.
Early in the 1846 season, when the diseased state of the potato crop became apparent, inhabitants in mountainous regions, where the growing of grain was impossible, killed grazing sheep. While the mutton lasted the people were well nourished, but all too soon stocks were exhausted and famine conditions appeared. Such was the desperation of the starving that carrion was consumed with little thought about the diseased state of the carcasses.
Cabbages, turnips and swedes were a poor alternative to the potato, because they are incapable of providing the nutritional requirements to sustain health. Nevertheless, cabbage and turnips were both used as substitute foodstuffs and, when all else failed, may hungry people resorted to eating weeds. Hungry people had eaten Charlock and Nettles long before the ‘Great Famine’. Then, as the intensity of the famine increased, various philanthropic groups set up soup kitchens.
In August 1846 the government became very much aware that the potato crop for that year had failed, and that things were going to get progressively worse and that they needed to find a new solution to the problems it brought. One new measure was the introduction of a ‘Labour Rate Act’, which effectively put the complete cost of all relief works back to Ireland, to the local landowners and ratepayers. The costs did not have to be paid until later, and landlords did not have to produce any money of their own up front. This, of course, brought hundreds of applications pouring into the ‘Board of Works’, and once again chaos reigned.
The Whig government also decided that, instead of reviving the previous system of relief committees, they would open food depots around the country. However, these were only to be opened in areas of greatest need, and to be used only as a last resort. New local committees were to be formed from the local gentry and county officials. The committees excluded Catholic priests from membership, despite the fact that it was these men who knew most about the local population. The local gentry, meanwhile, were mostly absentee landlords, which had the harmful effect of deepening the leadership deficiency already existing throughout the countryside. When the famine struck many of the class to whom both the English and Irish looked for leadership in the relief effort were simply not there. Despite the difficulties, however, the clergy and nuns, both Catholic and Protestant did what they could to fill the vacuum left.
The management of more and more Irish estates had now begun to pass into the hands of third parties, agents appointed either by the landlords themselves, or by middlemen who rented large sections of land from the landlords and parcelled them out in smaller and ever more costly rents to landless men drawn mainly from the small farmer and labouring class. It was here, at this level of society, that the potato would exert its catastrophic influence on the Irish population.
On the higher slopes of the Irish social pyramid dwelt the landlords, some 10,000 of them. It was they who dominated the land, although in practice many of their estates were usually mortgaged to the hilt because of their extravagant lifestyles. Only a handful of these landlords devoted the profits of their lands to improving their estates, while most spent their income in London or on the Continent.
Elsewhere in Ireland, as news of the 1846 crop failure spread the hungry people erupted against authority in their anger and despair. Crowds gathered in various villages and towns howling for work and food and frightening the authorities with their demands. They were usually dispersed fairly easy by groups of armed soldiers and militia because they were too weak and sickly with hunger to mount a resistance. But, these angry gatherings were being driven to protest by the sight of their families slowly withering away and dying from lack of food. They watched cartloads of food being exported while they starved, and they wanted change, rather than break the law or raise a revolution in the country. They simply needed and were asking for help.
Nevertheless, there had always been secret societies in Ireland striving for a change in the status quo, and these groups began to see an opportunity to make use of this widespread despair and demoralisation among the peasantry to achieve their aims. These so-called ‘Ribbonmen’ operated through intimidation and violence and it was only the constant vigilance by local priests that prevented serious trouble from breaking out. Despite the best efforts of the local clergy, however, large fights between factions did take place.
This ‘faction fighting’ appears to have begun in Tipperary, some time at the beginning of the nineteenth century and spread quickly from there to other parts of the country. Theses fighting gangs were usually based upon extended families, or on parishes, and the fights themselves usually occurred at fairs, on feast days, or on public holidays. On occasion it was not unknown for several hundred participants took part on either side. In fact, the most famous faction fight at ‘Ballyveagh Strand’ in County Kerry, during 1834, was reported to have involved 3000 contestants, of whom over 200 were killed.
While faction fighting itself was a relatively short-lived phenomena it engendered a brand of violence that was not so open to public scrutiny. The agrarian violence that now sprang up, accompanied by its secret societies, was far more sinister and widespread than the faction fighting. By the end of the eighteenth century, secret societies were well established throughout the country and generally based on local grievances based on localised grievances stemming from the problems of landlordism. The most extensive of these associations was called ‘The White Boys’, so called because they wore white smocks over their heads to conceal their identities. This oath-bound organisation was the most feared and most effective of the agrarian societies that were operating.
‘The White Boys’ did not hesitate to use murder as a tool against the farmers, landlords, middlemen, and those people who rented land from which a previous tenant had been evicted. Overall, however, the ‘White Boys’ and all the other societies never posed a serious threat either to the British Army or to the Act of Union. This is not really surprising when you consider the penalties that were enforced for violent crime, especially against the state.
There was, nevertheless, a rise in crime during the famine, which was mainly due to non-violent acts against property and not against persons. The use of cash on the relief works now brought money into areas where it was previously uncommon and increased the opportunities for robbery. In fact, theft of food, money and clothing were the most common crime in this period. Unfortunately, large numbers of those who were arrested for such crimes died before they could be brought to trial.
The usual punishment for such crimes involved transportation. This was simply exiling the convict abroad to Australia or other colonies, where they would undergo hard labour, and from where they would never return home. But, as the famine worsened, people began to commit crimes very deliberately so that the could be transported. It appeared that no matter how dreadful transportation might have been it was preferable to dying of starvation or fever where they were.
For approximately three months of every year the average family lived in a state of continuous hunger as the old potato stock became exhausted in March or April. This period was also the planting season for the new crop. As the old saying stated, potatoes planted “in for Paddy” came “up for Billy.” That is to say potatoes planted before St. Patrick’s Day on 17th March were edible by the feast day of King William of Orange on 12th July, which was a reflection of the current relationship between Catholic and Protestant …
Don’t talk of your Protestant Minister
Or his Church, Temple or State
For the foundation stone of his religion
Was the bollocks of Henry VIII
(assigned to Raftery – a famous blind Irish Poet)
Catholicism was the faith of the majority of Irish peasants and to these people the priest was the only sympathetic authority figure that he or she encountered. The Catholic clergy received no money from the state and would not have accepted it even had it been offered, believing that their ‘flocks’ were strengthened by living solely on whatever the people provided. The Protestant clergy of the established Church of Ireland, however, were a race apart. The lived in larger, more comfortable houses than their Catholic counterparts and received their incomes from the state. These incomes were considerable, but incited deep resentment among the poor Catholic Irish. This resentment was due to the fact that, at one stage, the cost of maintaining the Protestant clergy fell upon the Catholic population through a system known as tithes, whereby they were obliged to pay a tenth of their incomes to the clergymen of an often hostile faith. It was another burden placed upon the already deeply impoverished Irish peasant.
There were some in the upper echelons of the British political system who knew what was happening in Ireland and who was to blame for the condition in which the Irish People lived. Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, in a speech to the House of Lords on 23rd March 1846, declared, “My Lords, it is only by its government that such evils could have been produced. The mere fact that Ireland is in so deplorable and wretched condition saves whole volumes of argument and is of itself a complete and irrefutable proof of the misgovernment to which she has been subjected. Nor can we lay to our souls the ‘flattering unction’ that this misgovernment was only of ancient date and has not been our doing … such a system of government could not fail to leave behind it a train of fearful evils from which we are suffering at the present day.
We have a military occupation of Ireland, but in no other sense could it be said to be governed like England.”
Although, through the Act of Union, Ireland was supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, its people did not enjoy the same benefits as English citizens and never had. Irish Trade had been totally crippled by the occupation undertaken by Britain. Instead of being developed, valuable cattle, fishing and wool industries were taxed out of existence when they came into competition with either British trading interests or her military concerns, which led her to disrupt Irish trade with both France and America. The result was a standard of living for peasants that was among the worst in the world.
The houses of Irish peasants generally lacked windows, and ventilation came either from the single door or through the hole in the roof through which smoke escaped. Furniture frequently did not extend much beyond a bed, an occasional chair and, for the fortunate, a table. Occupants all slept together in the clothes they wore, on the cabins’ earthen floor and huddled together for warmth, but high moral standards prevailed and commentators of the day remarked on the lack of either incest or promiscuity. Yet sex was the principal outlet of the people and early marriages were the norm rather than the exception. The peasantry reckoned that their lives could not possibly be worse married than unmarried and as a result something of a population explosion occurred. Between 1741, the date of the last big famine, and the coming of the blight in 1846 the population tripled. Feeding so many people was clearly a challenge, as was the task of getting the food to them.
In the countryside many of the peasants lived in clusters of swarming mud cabins known as ‘Clachans’ (too small to be qualify as villages). In many cases, access to these ‘Clachans’ meant negotiating reeking mounds of animal and human waste that surrounded the cabins. In the circumstances, and prior to the famine, there was some amazement at the health exhibited by the people living there. Hygiene was not a priority in nineteenth century Ireland, whereas survival was. But, some good did come from the mounds of waste outside the cabins because it could be used as manure for the potato crop.
Even in the cities there was little difference in the lifestyle of the poverty stricken Irish. In 1798 Rev, James Whitelaw commented about Dublin, “… people crowded together to a degree distressing to humanity. A single apartment in one of these truly wretched habitations, rates from one to two shillings per week, and to lighten this rent two, three or even four families became joint tenants. I have frequently surprised ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room, not fifteen feet wide, stretched on filthy straw swarming with vermin … Into the backyard of each house excrement is flung from the windows of each apartment to a depth of ten feet, the stench I could scarce contain for a few minutes.”
During the famine, the city of Dublin had no sewerage system and when tenement areas flooded, as they frequently did, the halls and basement areas of the houses became cesspools several inches deep. Even the most fashionable streets in the city had cesspools dug in front of the houses. When these were opened and emptied there was a “horrid sight and smell.” This would also prove a fertile breeding ground for fevers and famine-fuelled disease.
There were also a lot of so-called ‘dram shops’ in the city that were licensed to sell raw spirits and the owners of these were often described as, “a person productive of vice, riot and disease hostile to all habits of decency, honesty, and industry, and in short, destructive to the souls and bodies of our fellow creature.” The government, of course, encouraged distilling industries because of the revenue they created, and country landlords also favoured low rates of excise duty, which led to high profits in grain. But, it must be said, excessive drinking was not just confined to Dublin. Alcohol, which could also be distilled from potatoes, became the Irish opium and it wreaked havoc on both rich and poor. The other opium of the people was, of course, religion.
By the end of 1846, newspapers were beginning to publish horrific accounts of hunger and death in Ireland. Public opinion in Britain became agitated. This was, after all, supposed to be part of the United Kingdom and already a good deal of charitable aid had already been sent, and it increased greatly under the influence of these descriptions by various reporters. Some magazines, such as ‘The Illustrated London News,” sent over artist who brought back graphic drawings of misery and deprivation. In 1847, Elihu Burritt described his three day visit the West Cork town of Skibbereen in the following fashion, “I have come to this indescribable scene of destitution, desolation, and death, that I might get nearer to your sympathies; that I might bring these terrible realities of human misery more vividly within your comprehension. I have witnessed scenes that no language of mine can portray. I have seen how much beings, made in the image of God, can suffer on this side of the grave, and that too in a civilised land … Notwithstanding all that has been subscribed, up to the period when this journal was written, no effectual means had been adopted for the decent internment of the dead, or even for their timely removal from the hovels of the living, and the great expenditure of the British, appears to have effected, at least in this district, but little mitigation of the fearful calamity.” (Journal of a 3 day visit to Skibbereen, 1847)
A Church of Ireland rector in Northern Ireland wrote – “The entire crop that in the month of July appeared so luxuriant, about 15th August manifested only blackened and withered stems. The whole atmosphere in the month of September was tainted with the odour of the decaying potatoes.”
At the beginning of 1846 William Smith O'Brien, the Member of Parliament for Limerick county, insisted that Irish Parliamentary business should be transacted in Ireland, patriotic Irish members wanted to best serve their country. He also paid a lot of attention to those measures being brought forward by the Government for the relief of his starving countrymen, preparing and bringing up reports with Party colleagues, and reviewed and criticised the measures in his speeches. He attended the House of Commons on the 13th March, where a motion was before the House, brought forward by the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, that provision should be made to meet the impending fever and famine in Ireland. Sir James, in his speech, boasted of the sums of money already advanced for the relief of Ireland. Smith O'Brien made a brief reply, in which he said that the moneys advanced were badly expended, having found their way into other channels than those intended.
Smith O'Brien spoke up and urged the House that they should compel the landlords to do their duty to the people, and if they did, there would be neither disturbance nor starvation. Later, on 17th April, he made his longest and most effective speech, which he began by reading extracts from the provincial press of Ireland, giving accounts of "Fearful destitution," "Deaths from Famine," and so forth. He then told the House that the circumstance which appeared most aggravating was, that the people were starving in the midst of plenty, and that every tide carried from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the maintenance of thousands of the Irish people. He put forward the sound, but then unpopular view of the repeal of the Corn Laws, which was, that its immediate effect would be injurious to Ireland. He closed his speech by declaring that he felt it his duty to throw the responsibility upon Government, and in his conscience he believed that, for whatever loss of life might arise from want of food, or from outbreaks, the result of want, ministers would be answerable.
Meanwhile, on 9th March, O'Connell asked the First Lord of the Treasury if he were prepared to lay before the House a statement of the measures taken by the Government, to obviate the impending famine and disease in Ireland. Delay, he said, would be fatal, and the sums of money already voted would not be of the least avail. He also repeated, that the Irish people were not asking for charity, because there were resources in the country, and some further measures should be adopted, to meet the exigencies of their case. Sir Robert Peel replied, "I again assure the honourable and learned member that every precaution that can be taken by Government has been taken, not within the last week, or fortnight, but long ago."
At the opening of Parliament, the Queen was made to say, that she observed with deep regret the very frequent instances, in which the crime of deliberate assassination had been committed in Ireland. She added that it would be the duty of Parliament to consider, whether any measure could be devised, to give increased protection to life in that country. In accordance with this striking passage in the Royal Message, Lord St. Germans, Chief Secretary for Ireland, introduced in the House of Lords, on 23rd February, a bill for the protection of life in Ireland, better known by the title of the ‘Coercion Bill’, given to it by the liberal Irish members, and by the Irish people. It passed without difficulty, of course.
Strong as the Peel Cabinet had been for years, the Premier's newly announced policy on the Corn Law question led to such a disruption of party ties, that the progress of the Coercion Bill through the Commons could not be guaranteed. When it was sent down unpassed from the House of Lords it was immediately opposed by O'Connell in a two-hour long speech to the House. Mr. O'Connell had announced, that he would state his views on the condition of Ireland, and the causes of the agrarian outrages that had occurred. This remarkable address to the House proved to be a renunciation Mr. O'Connell's entire career-long policy. It also proved, by a mass of authentic evidence, ranging over a long period of time, that Irish outrages were the consequence of physical misery, and that the social evils of that plagued Ireland, could not be successfully resolved by political actions. It was this uncompromising opposition by O'Connell and his supporters that has been attributed with the ultimate defeat of the ‘Coercion Bill’. It was this defeat that now drove Sir Robert Peel from power and brought in Lord John Russell and the Whig Party.
Daniel O’Connell’s speech was a bold denunciation of the system of evictions that had been carried out by Irish landlords, to which O'Connell attributed those murders that the Government now relied on as justification for bringing forward the ‘Coercion Bill’. If the murders in Ireland were a blot upon Christianity, O'Connell argued, were not the state of things that he had described just as big a blot upon Christianity? “This, be it recollected," O’Connell continued, "is forty-five years after the Union, during which time Ireland has been under the government of this country, which has reduced the population of that country to a worse condition than that of any other country in Europe".
The main objective of his address was to prove that the state of the Land Laws in Ireland was the cause of the agrarian murders, and that Coercion Acts were not a remedy. In the County Tipperary, where there were most evictions, there were also most murders, and he called the attention of the House to this particular fact.
O’Connell complained of the administration of justice in Ireland, saying that the government had appointed partisan judges and partisan magistrates, in whom the people had no confidence. At the same time, they had taken away the commission of the peace from seventy-four gentlemen, simply because they had advocated a repeal of the Legislative Union.
He came, at last, to those things he believed could remedy the situation in Ireland. It was his opinion that the reason behind the existing state of unrest in Ireland was the land question. He accused the House of having done too much for the landlords and much too little for the tenants. He enumerated the principal laws conferring power on the landlords, adding that he did not believe there was a more fertile source of murder and outrage than those powers. "Thus," said he, "the source of crime is directly traceable to the legislation of this House." The repeal of those Land Laws was one of the remedies which he called for, but not the only one. He wanted the House to begin immediate efforts to give proper justice to Ireland, politically as well as in relation to the law of landlord and tenant. The first area of concern, in his opinion, was that Ireland had not an adequate number of members to represent her in the House and needed an extension of the franchise. He also recommended the institution of a programme of corporate reform and, finally, a satisfactory arrangement of the temporalities of the church. These general remedies that he demanded from the House, he saw as a way of persuading the people of Ireland to have a closer relationship with England and create a desire to maintain the Union.
He demanded that the Land Laws passed since the Act of Union should be repealed, and above all he called for full compensation for every improvement made by the tenant on the land. "Labour," he said, "is the property of the tenant, and if the tenant by his labour and skill improved the land, and made it more valuable, let him have the benefit of those improvements, before the landlord turns him out of possession."
"Are you," he concluded, "desirous of putting an end to these murders? Then it must be by removing the cause of the murder. You could not destroy the effect without taking away the cause. I repeat, the tranquillity of Ulster is owing to the enjoyment of tenant right. When that right was taken away, the people were trodden under foot, and, in the words of Lord Clare, 'ground to powder.'"
That portion of the Tory party which remained faithful to Protection, being deserted by their leaders, rallied round Lord George Bentinck, and in some sense forced him to become their champion against their late chief, the Prime Minister, and his policy. Thus, was formed the Protectionist party, which was the opinion that there was sufficient necessity for the Government ‘Coercion Bill’. Lord George said "he was for giving the Government a hearty support, provided they proved they were in earnest in their determination to put down murder and outrage in Ireland, by giving priority in the conduct of public business to the measure in question," — the ‘Coercion Bill’. In short, the party supported what was called public order in Ireland, but with a proviso that might eventually defeat free trade by postponement.
After some finessing, the Government showed a determination to go on with both bills. Lord John Russell and the Whigs saw their opportunity, and to the dismay of the First Lord, he found the strange, incongruous, unprecedented combination of Irish Repealers, Tory Protectionists, Whigs, and Manchester League-men prepared to vote against him on his ‘Irish Coercion Act’. Thus, in June 1846, Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whig Party, succeeded Sir Robert Peel as Prime Minister and, almost immediately, his new government came under threat from the politically influential ‘Corn Dealers’ and ‘Protectionists' regarding the importation of grain to ease the effects of famine in Ireland. They insisted that if the government was to continue importing grain, they would refuse to do so. If this happened, the government would be left to bear the entire burden of food supplies on its own. To avoid this situation, the government promised them that there would be no more state interference in their trade.
Although Peel had been defeated over the ‘Coercion Bill’, he had also won a triumph with the House of Lords announcing that their lordships had finally passed the bill for the repeal of the Corn Laws. It was bit late and the new government’s promise of non-interference was not at all surprising, because government offices had already been having great difficulty in buying grain supplies. All of Europe was, at this time, suffering widespread crop failures. Potatoes, Rye, Oats, and Barley were all in short supply, and the prices of these foodstuffs were raising rapidly with demand. Britain itself was experiencing an industrial depression and was extremely reluctant to spend too much of its monetary resources on food aid for the Irish. The government was still, of course, hoping that the 1846 potato harvest would be good. The ‘Relief Commission’, therefore, reluctantly ended its work on 15th August 1846, but feared that the need for relief was not yet over.
Meanwhile, the infamous Charles Trevelyan, in the Treasury, was determined that the effects of the Irish famine would not transfer to England. Neither would he allow England to pay high prices to supply food to the Irish. Surprisingly, there was little in the way of public protest about this decision originating from Ireland. Daniel O’Donnell and the majority of the Irish members of Parliament, however, had supported the Whigs in the defeat of Sir Robert Peel and the election of Lord Russell. It was not appropriate for them to be seen attacking the new Premier so soon after giving him their support.
Despite the hopes of Trevelyan and the Whig government in London the potato blight returned with great frenzy in the summer of 1846, causing food prices in Ireland to rise higher and higher. By November, a labourer would have needed to have earnings of twenty-one shillings per week to support an average family. Unfortunately, even on the relief works no man could hope to earn more than six or eight shillings, causing him and his family to become more and more undernourished.
Soon there were large numbers of people who were in a starving condition in the southern and western counties, and in districts of Ulster also. As early as 16th April 1846 a correspondent of the ‘London Morning Chronicle’, gave warning of what was to come when reporting, "The whole of yesterday I spent in running from hut to hut on the right bank of the Shannon. The peasantry there were in an awful condition. In many cases they had not even a rotten potato left. They have consumed even the seed potatoes, unable any longer to resist the pangs of hunger."
The people assembled in considerable numbers in parts of the South calling for food or employment. In response to these calls and this more widespread appearance of the blight the government decided that they should once more rely on temporary measures to provide the additional relief. Public works were to be the main means of helping with relief committees playing a secondary role. By the end of the year over 390,000 people were employed building roads, often leading nowhere, and often in deserted areas were roads were least needed. Over 150,000 were still seeking such work, but could not get it, so were obviously in a state of severe distress – perhaps a half-million were starving when you consider that most of the applicants had dependent families. Often people in most need failed to get any work, because places were taken by farmers and their families who were in no such need, but they knew someone on the committee.
Another heartrending problem for the ‘Board of Works’ officials was the numbers who applied for work but were obviously so weakened by want that they could barely lift a shovel. In some cases, women were employed, the only providers for the children who crouched by little fires of lighted turf by the road. There was no choice – you could only work or die. There were also the blind and the lame. Those who could not get into the workhouse had nowhere to turn but the relief works.
When Trevelyan had ordered the closure of public works in July 1846, there was an outcry. They were obviously all that would prevent the deaths of thousands of people, and the risk of closing them was far too great. The ‘Board of Works’ felt that there was still no guarantee that the new crop would be good and refused to close them down. But Trevelyan was concerned that the coming grain harvest would not be saved because of the lack of labourers, nor would enough turf be cut for winter. In the end the works were allowed to continue, but under new rules.
The authority of local committees to choose workers was now taken away. Now the committees were to draw up list of eligible workers and these would be checked by the Board, which was now run more efficiently. Ninety percent of its income now went directly to pay the wages of relief workers, and little was spent on bureaucracy. The farmers, meanwhile, continually complained the relief works were distorting the labour market. They could not, or would not, pay decent wages to their labourers and had to watch more and more of them head for the relief works, abandoning their little patches of land because they could not work for the rent. Money wages had now become essential for survival.
The payment system on the relief works was now changed to piece-work payment. The system, however, was more difficult to organise, so payments were delayed once more. It was also more complicated for the illiterate labourers to understand, and they suspected they were being cheated. There was great resistance to it, and overseers were assaulted and threatened in some places.
In April 1846, a correspondent of a Dublin newspaper reported that the majority of landlords were doing little for the relief of the people. The continued to demand the rents, though it was obvious the tenants no longer had the means to pay. He informed his readers that a certain noble proprietor was just after paying a visit to his estate in Tipperary, and he had no sooner left than notices were served on his tenants to pay the November rent. When the tenants asked for time, saying they had only a few black potatoes left, the bailiff's reply to them was characteristic of the time, "What the devil do we care about you or your black potatoes? It was not us that made them black. You will get two days to pay the rent, and if you don't you know the consequence."
It became obvious that even if the 1846 potato crop were healthy, there would not be enough of it to feed the population. The Irish peasantry was forced to eat their seed potatoes, and the government refused to buy and distribute seed, in case this created a dependence in future years. Even if they had agreed to do so, there was no way of transporting and distributing the huge amounts of seed that would be necessary.
In the meantime, the complacency of the ‘Poor Law’ authorities in responding to the demands for relief was shown to be a grievous error. The first appearance of blight had had little impact on the take up of workhouse relief, but in the second year of distress, demand for this relief was both early and substantial. By the end of 1846, over half of the workhouses were full and having to refuse admittance to paupers. A sharp increase in disease, emigration and mortality in the Winter and Spring of 1847 resulted.
At this time there were one hundred and twenty-three workhouses open, and great as the people's aversion was to them the inmates went on steadily increasing. But the demands being placed on the workhouses demonstrated the limits of the poor law system. The prohibition of outdoor relief meant that if a workhouse became full, the responsibility of the ‘Poor Law’ to provide relief had ended. The pressure on the workhouses continued until the Spring of 1847 when three-quarters of the workhouses were full. The Boards of Guardians, however, due to a combination of compassion and fear provided relief in ways that were prohibited by the legislature. In response, conciliatory and threatening tactics were variously employed by the ‘Poor Law’ Commissioners to dissuade the guardians from continuing with these illegal forms of relief.
The worsening situation did result in a modification in the role of the ‘Poor Law’. In December 1846, the guardians were directed to obtain additional workhouse accommodation. This was viewed as a preferable alternative to providing outdoor relief. At the same time, the government emphasised that they would not provide any financial assistance for this purpose, but that all additional accommodation would have to be financed from the local ‘Poor Rates’. These modifications did not, however, have the support of the ‘Poor Law Commissioners.”
At this stage also, the government was considering more far-reaching changes to the Poor Law system. These changes were partly in response to the failure of the public works, regardless of high expenditure by the government. More importantly, however, many leading members of the government were increasingly of the opinion that during a period of extended shortages and distress, relief would be effective and economical only if it was financed from local resources. This contributed to a determination to take a greater responsibility for the provision of relief in their localities.
The Dublin “Evening Mail” was one of those pro-government journals which regarded Irish distress as a financial encumbrance and as a threat to British political stability. But it regarded the poor law as a necessary protective measure for the British government.
1846 -The First Real Pangs of Hunger
Sir Robert Peel was reinstated as Prime Minister of England for a third time. He now went to Parliament on the 22nd January 1846 with a Queen's speech, in which her Majesty's first words with regard to Ireland were words of deep regret at the deliberate assassinations that had become so frequent in that country. The speech then went on to deplore the failure of the potato crop in the United Kingdom, the failure being greatest in Ireland. At the same time, the speech assured Parliament that "all precautions that could be adopted were adopted, for the purpose of alleviating the calamity."
Naturally, Peel was keen to explain, at the very earliest opportunity, the reasons behind the end of his Ministry and the swiftness of his return to office. He had previously stated to Parliament that he wanted to take advantage of this current calamity in Ireland to introduce, among the people there, a taste for a better food item to support them … and thereby lower the possibilities that they will be left vulnerable to a recurrence of the great disaster they were currently suffering.
Sadly, at this time, the relief of suffering was never the sole concern of many politicians and administrators. In Parliament the members were divided over where the line should be drawn, and over what changes were desirable, as well as how they should be introduced. But the prevalent belief that the famine had been ordained for some providential purpose underlined British thinking on the subject.
Peel put the potato blight in the foreground of his political strategy, believing that this was the object upon which he could best float his Free Trade policy, popularise his Government and himself. And, indeed, from the first night of the session until the resolutions on the Corn Laws were carried, the members of the Government showed the greatest anxiety to keep the terrible consequences of the potato failure before Parliament.
They took great pains not to exaggerate the crop failure, or its probable effects, while ensuring they gave a sense of importance to both areas. The Protectionist faction, however, declared all these things to be an exaggeration, even against the most clear evidence that had been given from every part of the country, by persons from every social rank and holding every shade of political opinion. One leading protectionist, Mr. Calhoun, declared - "We havefamine in the newspapers, we have famine in the speeches of Cabinet Ministers, but we find abundance in the markets; the cry of famine is a pretext, but it is not the reason for the changes." The latter part of this declaration was not at all a pretext, but it was used by ministers to strengthen their ‘Corn Law policy’.
Regaining office as Prime Minister in January 1846, Sir Robert Peel reminded parliament that they now had two especially important measures before them i.e.
1) the measures that must be adopted immediately in the face of the potato blight.
2) and the ultimate course to be pursued in relation to the importation of grain.
He said that the personal opinions he had held on the subject of Protectionism had undergone a dramatic change, which had been brought about because the claims made by protectionists, when the tariff was altered in 1842, were shown to be false. ‘The Free Traders in the face of this had their own watchword, which they used more frequently than any other, i.e. "cheap bread." The Premier, in the face of all this spoke, “I want, at the same time, to show that concurrently with the increase of importation, there has been an increase in the prices of the articles." He went on to quote several of the Government contracts to prove this assertion, which was quite correct.
Despite all the criticism he had faced, thus far, Sir Robert Peel was happy that so few had died of starvation or disease since the potato blight had been identified. In a speech, made on the 22nd January 1846, he tried to allay the suspicions of his critics by telling them, that "nothing could be more base or dishonest" than to use the potato blight as a means of repealing the Corn Laws. Nevertheless, five days after this speech was made the great debate on the repeal of these laws began.
Peel’s party, The Conservatives, were totally opposed to any interference in market forces, which had led to his resignation in December. But, unknown to them, Peel had secretly arranged to purchase £100,000 of Indian Corn (Maize) from America in November 1845. He had hoped to relieve some of the distress being suffered by the people in Ireland, but Indian Corn is not the most efficient substitute for the potato because it was hard to mill and in Ireland there were few mills to grind the corn into meal. But, because there was no existing British trade in India Corn, it was not affected by the existing ‘Corn Laws’. Unfortunately, maize was hard to digest, and people dependent on the potato could get no satisfaction from their hunger through this substitute, which was very unpopular at first. As the famine got worse, however, the popularity of Indian Corn rose, especially when the imports were of corn meal rather than a grain. It was a very generous gesture on Peel’s behalf and caused some indignation among his Party colleagues.
Now, in January 1846, Peel, at great length and very ably, repeated the arguments he had been putting forward since the previous November, in favour of taking the duty off everything that could be called human food. He even went as far as to propose the repeal of the duty on the importation of potatoes, in the hope that he could obtain sound seed from abroad. Speaking to Mr. Greene, the chairman of the Committee, he said, "Sir, I wish it were possible to take advantage of this calamity, for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support than that which they have heretofore cultivated."
On the fifth night of the debate, Sir Robert rose again, and, in his speech, applied himself almost exclusively to the famine part of the question. He read many letters from persons in high position in Ireland, to prove to the House what was unfortunately but too well known in that country for many months, that the greater portion of the only food of four million people was destroyed. The old Tory party had, in the beginning, admitted, to a great extent, the failure of the potato crop in Ireland; but seeing the use the Peel Government were making of it, they seem to have agreed to maintain that the reports received were greatly and deliberately exaggerated. Lord George Bentinck, the coming leader of the Protectionists, said, that "in my opinion, which every day's experience confirmed, the potato famine in Ireland was a gross delusion—a more gross delusion had never been practised upon the country by any Government."
Mr. Stafford O'Brien, the member for North Northamptonshire, but connected by marriage with the county Clare, said he had just returned from Ireland and that he wanted to assure the House that there was no exaggeration about the failure of the potato crop there, but that it had nothing to do with the question of the Corn Laws. He accused the Government of introducing a new principle for a disaster which he hoped would be short lived, and of announcing that new principle without tracing out how the Corn Laws had contributed to the famine in Ireland. He also wanted to be shown how the total removal of those laws was likely to alleviate Ireland’s distress.
Meanwhile the government had acted to alleviate some of the distress, caused by the coming of the potato blight, through invoking traditional relief measures. In fact, a national state system of poor relief had been introduced into Ireland in 1838, after years of debate. Ireland’s poverty was seen by many in Britain as a threat to the nation’s prosperity unless a solution could be found. The solution would have to look at how Ireland’s widespread poverty was inextricably linked with that country’s over-population. The debate on Irish poverty had raised concern in England regarding the mounting costs and demoralising effects of the so called ‘Old poor Law.’
Initially, it was suggested that an extensive schedule of improvement schemes and emigration programmes should be introduced. But, any proposal to extend the amended ‘English Poor Law’ to Ireland were rejected because it was based on the ‘workhouse’ system. The government of the day sent George Nicholls, an ‘English Poor Law Commissioner’, to Ireland and advised him to limit his investigation into the relief of ‘destitution’ and not the relief of poverty, giving a report on the suitability of extending the workhouse system to Ireland. Nicholls supported the extension of the ‘Poor Law’ to Ireland and a bill, based on his report, was passed for Ireland in 1838. As a result, a system of poor relief was transposed from the wealthiest and most industrially advanced economy of Europe to one of the least industrially developed parts, with little attention being given to the local characteristics prevailing in the country.
In addition to the relief of destitution, the ‘Poor Law’ was regarded as playing a vital role in the transition of the Irish economy from one based on subsistence potato-growing and small holdings, to one based on wage labour and a more capitalised system of agriculture. It was the conviction of the Whig government in England that the workhouse system could play an important role in the transition period. At the same time, they hoped the system might also improve the character, habits, and social condition of the people.
Although the Irish Poor Law was closely modelled on the ‘new’ English Poor Law it differed in a number of key areas. Firstly, relief could only be administered within the confines of a workhouse, outdoor relief being expressly forbidden. Secondly, no ‘right’ to relief existed. Finally, a Law of Settlement, which had been an integral part of the English Poor Law since the seventeenth century, was not introduced in Ireland. From the outset, then, it was clear that Irish paupers were to be treated differently and, in fact, more harshly, than their counterparts in England. But, the new Poor Law, did not include any provision for periods of extraordinary distress, limiting relief, at all times, to that which could be provided within the confines of the workhouses. All in all, the Poor Law introduced only in 1838 was ill-prepared to meet the challenges which confronted it after 1845.
Peel’s strategy when introducing relief measures in 1845 was to co-operate with the Irish landowners, whom he hoped would take local responsibility for relief. Around 650 local committees were established by early 1846, which were largely dominated by the local gentry. These bodies were expected to supply the poor with affordable food and received state donations equal to the charitable subscriptions they raised. It was recognised that in some isolated areas such committees could not function, and sub-depots were authorised to distribute food to those in extreme want. The Central Commission in Dublin questioned the government’s reliance on the goodwill of landowners and complained that neither the public spirit nor their spending was adequate. The administrators preferred a compulsory and permanent mechanism for dealing with extreme destitution based on the Poor Law. This suggestion was vetoed by ministers. Peel insisted that relief measures remain temporary, that landowners retain considerable freedom in action, and that the state should provide only transitional aid.
When it came to providing relief, the government placed the greatest burden on the ‘Board of Works.’ But confusion existed from the very beginning, as it was intended that the Board organise not only permanent improvements such as land drainage and harbour construction, but also a system of relief works designed primarily to give employment and wages to the destitute.
Local landowners were expected to take the initiative and contribute to the expense. In practice very few took advantage of loans made available for the first category of works, and a concerted effort was made for the Board to take full responsibility. It was policy to grant 50% of the cost of road works and inadvertently encouraged this attitude, and even where landowners dominated the procedures, they hoped the ban would never have to be repaid.
Ministers intended British Treasury control over relief finances would curb abuse, but they often relaxed the rules and accelerated distribution of food from the depots, and supply of employment on the public works, in response to civil disturbances. The relief measure of 1845-46, however, received considerable criticism in Britain, most of which was ideologically motivated and condemned the ‘indolent Irish’. Nonetheless, despite the criticism, Peel was pleased that few people had died of starvation or disease. Furthermore, Maize was being widely consumed and the future looked quite bright for Ireland due, in part, to an exception being made to the principle of maintaining separation between the permanent and temporary relief regarding the treatment of fever victims.
Increasingly, the Poor Law played a significant role in providing a medical safety net in some of the poorest parts of the country. Each workhouse possessed its own infirmary and, since 1843, the ‘Poor Law Guardians’ had been given the authority to treat victims of fever who were poor but not necessarily destitute. Following the 1845 blight, boards of guardians were empowered either to acquire or to erect a separate building for the treatment of fever victims.
The impact of the blight on the numbers of workhouse inmates was gradual. In December 1845, the workhouse had contained just over 38,000 paupers, and by June 1846 had reached in excess of 51,000. Despite this increase the workhouses were still less than half-full. Overall, therefore, the Poor Law emerged from the first year of potato blight relatively unscathed although as the summer of 1846 progressed and as the system of temporary relief was being wound down, reports of even more widespread blight made a second year of extraordinary distress inevitable.
Early in 1846 the relief commissioners once again began to discuss ideas for relief works, employing men to do such jobs as building public roads or drainage schemes, or improving harbours. There was plenty of need for such improvements, but in the end the money provided went almost entirely to road building, which was easiest to organise.
Some landlords provided work on their estates, such as building towers or follies or enlarging their boundary walls. Other landlords were holding on to their resources for the future because they feared that worse distress was on the way.
As we have seen, some relief schemes were run by the ‘Board of Works’. A County granted Board of Works aid would have to repay only half the grant over twenty years. This was called the ‘Half-Grant’ Scheme, but it did not work as it should have done, because of local greed. The landowners and ratepayers saw a chance to attract money to their counties, at no immediate cost to themselves, and applications for the Relief Schemes poured into the Board of Works. Many of these were from places which did not yet need help. By the end of May 1846, the exhausted and understaffed Board of Works had received applications of up £800,000 worth of works, and long delays were caused while they tried to sort them out.
The ordinary population had to wait for the relief works, which could not start without the Board’s permission. People saw their only hope of food being delayed and some rioting did take place. Even when the works began there were complaints of irregularities because some committees gave work to people who didn’t really need it and ignored those who were in desperate need. Some people who were given tickets, which gave them a place on the works, sold them for profit to whoever could pay them most.
In the beginning wages were paid to the labourers by the day rather than by the amount of work done. Farmers who still needed work done on their farms complained that this made workers lazy because they would try to make the job last as long as possible. Rates of pay were higher than the usual labourer’s wage, and the 9 to 10 pence a day tempted farm workers to go to relief work instead. Farmers were worried for future crops if there was no one willing to plough and sow.
A shortage of currency brought delays in relief payments. Some died of starvation waiting on their pay. Some traders sold food on credit at exorbitant prices, to men waiting for their pay. Not surprisingly these profiteers, ‘Gombeen Men’, or money lenders, and shopkeepers becoming figures of hatred among the peasantry. The relief schemes were often not organised efficiently, but no one had ever had experience of an aid operation of this size before. If matters had improved, the schemes would have begun to function more effectively, as a useful stop gap before the new crop came in. But, in August 1846, all hope for a short-lived famine disappeared. The infected tubers from the previous year had been left in the fields and had re-infected the new crop, because the mild winter had allowed the spores to survive. The total yield of potatoes on this occasion was only enough to feed the population for just one month.
1845 Part II
Charles K. O'Hara, Chairman of the Sligo Board of Guardians, wrote to the ‘Mansion House Committee’, saying, "In many instances the conacre tenants have refused to dig the crops, and are already suffering from want of food." The ‘Mansion House Committee’, which was established by a group of concerned citizens to appeal to the British government for some kind of help. The letter from Mr. O’Hara was just one of many from all over the country, prophesying disaster, and giving details of the devastation. Potatoes were rotting in the ground, and the ones already in storage were melting away. Although some correspondents feared what the future may hold in store, many officials believed that, despite its widespread infection, the blight was a one-off event, with the crop coming back to normal the following year, as had often happened previously.
The clergy of every denomination came forward with a zeal and charity worthy of their sacred calling. The Rev. James M'Hall, of Hollymount, County Mayo, in a letter mentioned the startling fact, that a poor man in his neighbourhood having opened a pit, where he had stored six barrels of potatoes, of sixty-four stone each, but he “found he had not one stone of sound potatoes!”
The Rector of Skull, Dr. Robert Traill, wrote prophetically, "Am I to cry peace, peace, where there is no peace? But what did I find in the islands? the pits, without one single exception in a state of serious decay, and many of the islanders apprehending famine in consequence. Oh, my heart trembles when I think of all that may be before us."
In the meantime, the reports of the disease’s progress became, every day, more and more disheartening. The Government appeared to do nothing except publish a few scientific reports. ‘The Mansion House Committee’ met on the 19th November, with Lord Cloncurry in the chair, and unanimously passed the following resolutions:
- "That we feel it an imperative duty to discharge our consciences of all responsibility regarding the undoubtedly approaching calamities, famine and pestilence, throughout Ireland, an approach which is imminent, and almost immediate, and can be obviated only by the most prompt, universal and efficacious measures for procuring food and employment for the people.
- "That we have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt, that considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop in Ireland has been already destroyed by the potato disease; and that such disease has not, by any means, ceased its ravages, but, on the contrary, it is daily extending more and more; and that no reasonable conjecture can be formed with respect to the limits of its effects, short of the destruction of the entire remaining potato crop.
- "That our information upon the subject is positive and precise and is derived from persons living in all the counties of Ireland. From persons also of all political opinions and from clergymen of all religious persuasions.
- "We are thus unfortunately able to proclaim to all the inhabitants of the British Empire, and in the presence of an all-seeing Providence, that in Ireland famine of a most hideous description must be immediate and pressing, and that pestilence of the most frightful kind is certain, and not remote, unless immediately prevented.
- "That we arraign in the strongest terms, consistent with personal respect to ourselves, the culpable conduct of the present administration, as well in refusing to take any efficacious measure for alleviating the existing calamity with all its approaching hideous and necessary consequences; as also for the positive and unequivocal crime of keeping the ports closed against the importation of foreign provisions, thus either abdicating their duty to the people or their sovereign, whose servants they are, or involving themselves in the enormous guilt of aggravating starvation and famine, by unnaturally keeping up the price of provisions, and doing this for the benefit of a selfish class who derive at the present awful crisis pecuniary advantages to themselves by the maintenance of the oppressive Corn Laws.
- "That the people of Ireland, in their bitter hours of misfortune, have the strongest right to impeach the criminality of the ministers of the crown, inasmuch as it has pleased a merciful Providence to favour Ireland in the present season with a most abundant crop of oats. Yet, whilst the Irish harbours are closed against the importation of foreign food, they are left open for the exportation of Irish grain, an exportation which has already amounted in the present season to a quantity nearly adequate to feed the entire people of Ireland, and to avert the now certain famine; thus inflicting upon the Irish people the abject misery of having their own provisions carried away to feed others, whilst they themselves are left contemptuously to starve.
- "That the people of Ireland should particularly arraign the conduct of the ministry in shrinking from their duty, to open the ports for the introduction of provisions by royal proclamation, whilst they have had the inhumanity to postpone the meeting of Parliament to next year.
- "That we behold in the conduct of the ministry the contemptuous disregard of the lives of the people of Ireland, and that we, therefore, do prepare an address to her Majesty, most humbly praying her Majesty to direct her ministers to adopt without any kind of delay the most extensive and efficacious measures to arrest the progress of famine and pestilence in Ireland.
Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, who had considerable experience of governing Ireland, was convinced that is problems were rooted in social backwardness. He saw maize, cheaply imported from America, as a permanent substitute for the potato in the Irish diet and intended the rural poor to become landless labourers working for wages on the land of substantial farmers. He was confident that agricultural output would rise rapidly if the social reorganisation was accompanied by the challenge of free trade and by an increased investment in scientific ‘high farming.’ He was certain private corn merchants would develop the maize after it was freed. With the coming of the blight and the threat of famine there were many who were convinced that dependence on the potato was ‘unnatural’ and should be replaced with a higher diet based on grain. The British radicals of the ‘Anti-Corn Law League’, who had long campaigned against food tariffs, echoed Peel’s thoughts.
Peel had been planning a progressive move to free trade for several years, and he was aware of both popular expectations and the opportunity that had been raised by the potato famine. Yet he did not act purely from political expediency, and privately took a serious view of the workings of ‘Divine Providence.’ The dominant economic theory in Britain at this time was ‘laissez-faire’ (‘let be’), which was not in favour of the government providing aid for its citizens, or to interfere with the free trade of good or trade. Sir Robert Peel had decided to repeal the ‘Corn Laws’ that protected British imports threw the country into a political crisis.
Most of the Conservative Party rejected his proposals and opposed his leadership. He was now dependent on the Whig Party’s support to continue in government, but he clearly had a personal mission, which helped account for his resignation on 8th December, 1845.
In November a halt in the progress of the blight was observed in some districts. The assertion made in the first resolution of the ‘Mansion House Committee’, that more than one-third of the potato crop was lost, was not only vouched for by hundreds of most respectable and most trustworthy witnesses, as we have seen, but it was accepted as a truth by every party. Moreover, the Government, whose culpable apathy and delay was denounced on all sides, except by its supporters, was in possession of information on the subject, which made the loss of the potato crop at least one-half instead of one-third.
Estimating the value of the potato crop of 1845 in Ireland at £18,000,000, it was now certain that food to the value of £9,000,000 was already lost. Despite such estimates there was, as yet, no serious display of real concern being shown by either the Viceroy or the Premier. The authorities simply went on asking questions when they should have been taking practical action. These ‘leaders’ simply appointed yet another Commission, about this time, which sat in Dublin Castle and was presided over by Mr. Lucas, then Under-Secretary. Its Secretary, Captain Kennedy, applied to the ‘Mansion House Committee’ for information. That body at once placed its entire correspondence at the disposal of the Commissioners, and the Lord Mayor was assured that the Government was fully prepared to take such steps as might be found necessary for the protection of the people, when the emergency should arise. Most people, however, thought the emergency had already arisen.
It was on the 10th of December that the Corporation of Dublin agreed to an address to the Queen, calling her Majesty's attention to the potato blight, and the impending famine consequent upon it. In their address they brought before her two facts just lately confirmed by the Devon Commission, namely, that four million of the labouring population of Ireland "are more wretched than any people in Europe — their only food the potato, their only drink water." They add, that even these facts cannot convey to her Majesty an adequate idea of the destitution by which the Irish people are threatened, or of the numbers who shall suffer by the failure of the potato crop. These are facts told about the inhabitants of a country which, until lately, may have been rightly called the granary of England, exporting annually from the midst of a starving people food of the best kind in sufficient amounts to feed treble its own inhabitants. They assured her Majesty that fully one-third of their only support for one year has been destroyed by the potato blight, which will cause a state of destitution lasting for four months for a great majority of her Majesty's Irish subjects. They say, with respectful dignity, that they ask for no charity, but only ask for public works of utility. They ask that the national treasury should be "poured out to give employment to the people at remunerative wages." Finally, they ask her Majesty to summon Parliament for the earliest possible date.
The Corporation did not get an opportunity of presenting their address to the Queen until the 3rd of January, twenty-four days after it was agreed to. This delay, no doubt chiefly arose from the resignation of the Peel ministry at the beginning of December, the failure of Lord John Russell to form a Government, and the subsequent return of Sir Robert Peel to office on the 20th December 1845.
The Corporation of London addressed her Majesty on the same occasion, deploring the sufferings and privations of a large portion of her subjects in England, Ireland, and Scotland. They attributed the suffering to "erroneous legislation, which, by excluding the importation of food, and restricting commerce, shuts out from the nation the bounty of Providence." They, therefore, prayed that the ports of the kingdom might be opened for the free importation of food. While the Corporation of London did not exclude the peculiar distress of Ireland from their sympathies, their real object in going to Windsor was to make an anti-Corn Law demonstration. This intention can be easily derived from the fact that the deputation consisted of the enormous number of two hundred gentlemen. The Queen politely replied that she would "gladly sanction any measure which the legislature might suggest as conducive to the alleviation of this temporary distress, and to the permanent welfare of all classes of her people."
It was a deplorable fact that the entire ‘potato blight’ question immediately became a party question in Ireland. The Protestant and dissenting clergy, a few philanthropic laymen, and the upper classes, especially the Conservatives, remained aloof from the public meetings which were held to call attention to the blight, and its threatened consequences. ‘The Mansion House Committee’, which did so much good, was composed almost exclusively of Catholics and Liberals, which was also substantially true of the meetings held throughout the country. The Conservative elements regarded, or pretended to regard, those meetings as a new phase of the Repeal agitation led by O’Connell. And, as the distress chiefly occurred among the poor Catholics, who were all considered to be ‘Repealers’, it was, the Conservatives assumed, the business of ‘Repealers’ and agitators to look after them and provide relief. Even the Prime Minister himself was not free from having similar feelings. In a memorandum that he read to the Cabinet on the 1st November, among many other things, he said, "There will be no hope of contributions from England for the mitigation of this calamity. Monster meetings, the ungrateful return for past kindness, the subscriptions in Ireland to Repeal rent and O'Connell tribute, will have disinclined the charitable here to make any great exertions for Irish relief." (Memoirs, part 3, page 143.)
The sentiments of the leading Tory Party newspapers coincided with views of the leader. They kept constantly declared that the ravages of the potato blight were greatly exaggerated, and they eagerly seized on any accidental circumstance that could give them a pretext for supporting this claim. The chief Dublin Conservative journal, the ‘Evening Mail’, on the 3rd November, when writing about the murder of a landowner called Clarke stated, "inclines to believe that the agrarian outrage had its origin in a design to intimidate landlords from demanding their rents, at a season when corn of all kinds is superabundant, and the partial failure of the potato crop gives a pretence for not selling it. And if we recollect, "that the potato crop of this year far exceeded an average one, and that corn of all kinds is so far abundant, it will be seen that the apprehensions of a famine in that quarter are unfounded, and are merely made the pretence for withholding the payment of rent." This was a sample of the bitter language of a newspaper that was known to give widespread expression to the feelings of the landlords in Ireland. At the same time this newspaper was regarded as being the chief organ of the existing Government, represented by Lord Heytesbury.
A few days later, ‘Evening Mail’ reported that, "there was a sufficiency — an abundance of sound potatoes in the country for the wants of the people." And it went on to urge farmers to sell their corn, by saying their efforts to do so might now under threat of being forestalled by both Dutch and Hanoverian merchants. At the beginning of December, a Tory backed provincial newspaper, proved itself not to be so confident of towing the Party line, reporting, "It may be fairly presumed the losses have been enormous .... We repeat it, and we care not whom it displeases, that there are not now half as many sound potatoes in the country as there were last December." The newspaper’s Editor, undoubtedly, must have felt that he was doing a perilous thing in stating a fact which he knew would be displeasing to many of his readers. Meanwhile, in Queen's reply to the Dublin address, in early January 1846, she let it be known that she deplored the poverty in which so many of her Irish subjects had found themselves, and that their welfare and prosperity was a constant concern of hers. She told them that she had ordered precautions to be taken, summoned Parliament for an early date, and she looked with confidence to the advice she that she shall receive from the united council of the realm. (Parliament.
At the same time that the Corporation of Dublin sent their letter, the Town Council of Belfast met and made similar suggestions. But John Mitchel, one of the leading ‘Repeal’ voices in Ireland reminded observers that neither body asked for charity. According to him, "They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an Integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used—not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility ... if Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally."
We have already read as how, in early November 1845, a very influential deputation from the citizens of Dublin went to Lord Heytesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to offer suggestions, such as opening the ports to foreign corn, stopping distillation from grain, prohibiting the export of foodstuffs, and providing employment through public works. Lord Heytesbury, listened politely but urged them not to be alarmed, and told them that they "were premature." The Lord Lieutenant assured them that scientists were investigating into all those matters, and that the Inspectors of Police, as well as the Stipendiary Magistrates had been ordered to give constant reports from their districts. There was, therefore, he assured them, no "immediate pressure on the market".
Some weeks later, on 8th December 1845, The Head of the ‘Repeal Association’, Daniel O’Connell, proposed several remedies to help avert the pending disaster. One of the first things he suggested was the introduction of ‘Tenant-Right’, similar to that in use in the province of Ulster, which gave the landlord a fair rent for his land, but also gave the tenant compensation for any money he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements. At he same time O'Connell pointed out the means which the Belgian Government had used during the same events, namely shutting their ports against the export of provisions, but opening them to imports. He also suggested that, if Ireland had a domestic Parliament, the ports would be thrown open and the abundant crops raised in Ireland would be kept for the people of Ireland. O'Connell maintained that only the establishment of an Irish Parliament would provide food and employment for the people, saying that a repeal of the ‘Act of Union’ was a necessity and Ireland's only hope of salvation.