The People and Events that made Ireland
"shoot the first landlord I met."
It was a reflection of the fact that the government was more interested in pursuing a practical political policy, which was concerned with those urgent needs of Britain, as perceived by the Whigs. It was composed of a ‘do as little as possible’ attitude and the teachings of their favourite political economists. It was all backed-up by a widespread public relations campaign that invoked Providence and a total abhorrence for both the Irish people and the Irish landlords, all mixed in with a generous dose of hypocrisy. The sole objective sought by the government, and which was eventually achieved, was an end to the overpopulation of Irish land. This, it was believed, would enable the introduction of new and more efficient farming methods, which would secure an abundant supply of cheap agricultural products on England’s doorstep, rather than causing a constant drain on the exchequer.
The long-suffering peasantry increasingly viewed the Irish landlords and the British government as being the main human agents of misery, exile, and death. By suggesting Providence was also at work the British government in London appeared to be making a very cruel joke at the expense of the famine victims and their advocates. From the mouths of many different factions all over Ireland, who were seeking a thorough solution to the relief of the Famine victims in 1848, there came fierce, piercing, unforgiving claims of state-inspired genocide making their way into the public sphere. ‘The Nation', a nationalist minded newspaper, on 1st April commented, "It is evident to all men that our foreign government is but a club of grave-diggers.” The journal went further, saying – “It is not Providence but provincialism that plays the thief; we are decimated not by the will of God but by the will of Whigs." The voice of a ‘New Ireland’ leader, John Mitchel, added – “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine."
Debt-ridden landlords raised their rents, which tenants found impossible to pay and were summarily evicted from their homes in increasing numbers. Although there were many voices raised in opposition to these cruel clearances in Ireland, there were not many ears open to their pleas among the English government. In fact, as the Irish press persistently linked the mass evictions with the mass deaths, the landlords and the government felt it was increasingly necessary to rationalise, justify, and, therefore, excuse these clearances. In May 1848 an issue of 'The Limerick and Clare Examiner' condemned the government in the following manner, "nothing, absolutely nothing, is done to save the lives of the people - they are swept out of their holdings, swept out of life, without an effort on the part of our rulers to stay the violent progress of human destruction.”
The records of the time show that the most active and vociferous members of the anti-eviction lobby were the Catholic priests and prelates throughout the country. As they watched their own parishioners being thrown out of their homes in large numbers, it is not at all surprising that the priests felt angry and were compelled to denounce the 'exterminating' actions taken by the landlords or agents, whom they held responsible. These clerics would hurl their loud denunciations from the altars and pulpits of their own churches. But, to give vent to a larger audience than their own parishes they would write to the press to expose the mass clearances and in the hope that their words would mobilise public opinion against the guilty parties. Indeed, a great amount of our knowledge about the land clearances in the various districts comes to us from the detailed lists of those who were evicted. These lists were often accompanied by commentaries that had been submitted to the national and provincial press by various parish priests and curates. One of these many clerics, Rev. Dr. Patrick Fogarty, the parish priest of Lismore, Co. Waterford wrote to the ‘Waterford Chronicle' in April 1848, stating - "Numbers of those poor creatures who were thus cruelly exterminated are now living in huts erected by them on the roadside, the victims of famine and fever. Hundreds of them have perished in these parishes during the last two years. The monstrous conduct of the landlords here and in every other locality throughout the country has considerably added to the extreme mass of human suffering."
The landlords and the authorities reacted by accusing the Catholic priests and prelates of inciting murder and mayhem. But, "The Nation", a newspaper published by the 'Young Ireland' movement, stoutly defended the Irish clergy against all such false charges. They commented that the British press was attempting to bring about a climate of violence in which they could press forward with their solution to the Irish situation, namely "hang a priest or two and all will be right."
Archbishop McHale vigorously defended the Irish clergy for their courage in standing up for the people against any evil. As a response to the accusations being made about the priests, the Archbishop, in an open letter to Lord Shrewsbury, he sarcastically condemned the Prime Minister and his government, writing - "How un-grateful of the Catholics of Ireland not to pour forth canticles of gratitude to the ministers, who promised that none of them should perish and then suffered a million to starve." In this way, the Archbishop pointed the finger of blame for the Famine directly at those whom he held most responsible, the British Government.
Around the country the secret agrarian societies known as the ‘Whiteboys’ had not gone away from the scene. They had, in fact, been given added impetus by the Famine and acts of violence were once again a part of the scene. Throughout 1847 there were a series of murderous attacks that took place in various districts in which some sixteen landowners had lost their lives. Considering the state of misery that existed in the country, and the number of famine deaths that occurred every day, the toll of these shootings was not large. Nevertheless, these attacks were sufficient to create a great amount of fear and anger among those who held positions of authority in the land. Such was the climate of fear that there were numerous reports of landlords leaving the country in great haste. Of those who remained, it was said that "the personal insecurity of all property owners is so hideous that the impression is of being in an enemy country." In such an atmosphere of fear and suspicion toward the natives, it is not surprising that the spreading Famine continued to create a heightened sense of danger and insecurity among men of authority. Tensions in the country were rising so high, in fact, that the Viceroy, Lord Clarendon, chose to send his children out of the country, in the expectation that a violent and general insurrection was about to break out among the Irish.
When one considers the historical record concerning the Great Potato Famine in Ireland there is but one judgement that can be made. That judgement must be that a very large proportion of the responsibility for the Famine evictions, and much else that happened in Ireland, is directly traceable to the government and the cruel policies of those influential men who designed and supported the clearance drives.
The ‘Poor Law’ for Ireland was an attempt to combat the effects of famine through the efforts of Irish landlords. But, as the Famine spread, and the costs inflicted by ‘Poor Law’ began to rise, the financial burden placed upon the shoulders of the Irish landlords began to weigh more and more heavily. It did not take very long for the Irish landlords began to realise that by clearing the land, through the eviction of their poor tenants, their financial woes would be lessened considerably. The cost would be seen in the deepening misery and worsening conditions of the much trampled upon Irish peasant.
In law each landlord was responsible for paying the rates of every tenant on his land who paid less than £4 in yearly rent. As a result, in this third year of famine, those landlords whose lands were crowded with poor tenants were now facing huge bills for rates. Their tenants could not work and had no assets that would allow the landlords to collect rent, as well as the rates, from the poor, starving wretches on their estates. The landlords could see only one practical solution to their problem. To collect enough money to settle their debts under the ‘Poor Law’ they would need to clear the poor tenants from their small plots, thereby allowing them to re-let the land in bigger lots, to people with more money.
The agents employed to collect the rates now began pushing the poor tenantry harder and harder for money that they did not have. As a result, more and more tenants were summarily evicted from the land by increasingly desperate landlords. There were some of the land owners who wanted to do whatever they could for their tenants as the famine raged, but there were many landlords who held no pity for the poor. Among the worst landlords in the country was the influential Earl of Lucan, who owned approximately 60,000 acres of land, or more. It is said that he quite openly declared at one time that “he would not breed paupers to pay priests'. He was undoubtedly a man of his word and removed over 2,000 tenants in the parish of Ballinrobe alone. The lands that Lord Lucan had cleared in Mayo were subsequently converted to pasture, which he then either retained in his own hands or, more usually, transferred into the hands of large graziers, some of whom were Scottish Protestants.
Lord Lucan’s actions and attitudes towards the Catholic population were not unusual. A certain Donegal landlord was alleged to have said, quite openly, that - "The exuberance of the tree of Irish population must be immediately cut off by extermination or death." Sadly, there were too many landlords who felt justified in possessing such an attitude, because they were facing very large debts themselves. In fact, with the landlords harbouring such thoughts about their tenants it is surprising that the evictions did not begin earlier than they did. ‘Whiteboyism’, as we have seen was still alive and well in many places and it was the threat of these secret societies that stayed the hands of most landlords. Only when the Famine appeared to have weakened the ranks of these societies did the landlords begin to clear their lands by casting people out of their homes. However, revenge was still occasionally taken by the remnant of the secret groups, including the murder of six landlords that we have already considered. Ten other landowners, whose land had no tenants, were also murdered at this time and the violence, as we have seen, caused Lord Clarendon to fear insurrection.
In response to the rise in violent incidents, Clarendon as ked the government in London to provide him with special powers to combat crime, and troops to enforce his will. But, Prime Minister Russell was not at all sympathetic to Clarendon’s request. He believed that the landlords themselves were largely to blame for the tragic circumstances in Ireland and that they should resolve their own problems. Nevertheless, a compromise was reached and, in December 1847, a ‘Crime and Outrage Act’ was passed by the government. To enforce the terms of this Act, extra troops were sent to Ireland, and the regulations concerning the carrying of arms were tightened.
From County Mayo a landlord bitterly wrote, "No men are more ill-fated or greater victims than we resident proprietors, we are consumed by the hives of human beings that exist on the properties of the absentees. On my right and my left are properties such as I allude to. I am overwhelmed and ruined by them. These proprietors will do nothing. All the burden of relief and employment falls on me." The resident landowners in Ireland bitterly resented the absentee landlords and their lack of enterprise. The evictions had continued, behind which lay the widespread and longstanding desire of the landlords to modernise Irish agriculture. The financial pressures caused by heavy poor rates, combined with the total inability of the tenant farmers to maintain their rents caused landowners to increase the pace of evictions from their lands. Their efforts, however, were made easier by the virtual collapse of the ability of tenants to organise an effective resistance to the evictions.
Some landlords viewed these evictions as being an economic opportunity which they could take up without inflicting any real hardship. There were many others who justified the eviction of the tenants as a financial decision made necessary by the way in which the poor law operated in Ireland. What the landlords had especially in mind was the provision of the poor law that was known as the £4 rating clause. This particular clause made the landlords responsible for paying all the poor rates on all holdings valued at £4 or less. Such was the overpopulation of many estates that this provision gave the landlords a very strong incentive to rid themselves of small-holding tenants who could no longer pay their rents, either by voluntary or forced eviction.
Of all Irish landowners, those residing in Mayo were the most likely to take employ the idea of forced eviction. In Mayo there was an estimated 75 per cent of all those occupying land who had holdings valued at £4 or less. This situation had the result of causing many to shoulder almost the entire burden of the rates, which had been made all the more burdensome by the coinciding mass of pauperism.
To make themselves eligible for poor relief, a tenant first had to surrender his house, as well as his holding, to his landlord. Strictly speaking, the law stated that only that land exceeding a quarter-acre had to be given up. But, very often when tenants tried to take this approach, he would discover that the landlord, or his agent, refused to accept the partial surrender and declined to supply the tenant with certificate of compliance with the law until both the house and all land had been given up. When it came to the all-important matter of surrendering the tenant's house, landlords and agents almost always held the upper-hand. In many cases tenants would unroof their own cabins as part of a voluntary surrender. In exchange the tenants would be graciously allowed to take away the timber and that of their former dwellings to build temporary shelters. Unfortunately, there were many thousands of cases when estate-clearing landlords and their agents used physical force, or heavy-handed pressure, to bring about the destruction of cabins that they had targeted. There are also many cases of pauper families who had their homes burned, quite often this was done illegally, while they were away in the workhouse. Many others evicted tenants reporting to the workhouse were told, when they sought admission, that the law, or at least the guardians, required that their cabins be unroofed, or levelled, before they would be allowed entry, and so they returned to their cabins and did what was asked of them. Where tenants were evicted by force, it was usual practice for the landlord's bailiffs to level, or burn, the affected dwelling there and then, as soon as all the tenants' personal effects had been removed. All of this was usually carried out in the presence of a large party of soldiers, or police, who would be able to quickly neutralise any possibility of serious resistance.
Those families who had been evicted from their homes would have to shelter in ditches, until bad-weather eventually forced them to seek places in the local workhouse. One witness of these evictions left us the following report - "As soon as one horde of houseless and all but naked paupers are dead, or provided for in the workhouse, another wholesale eviction doubles the number, who in their turn pass through the same ordeal of wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements, they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside." On many occasions people were brought to the workhouses screaming for food. Often the workhouse buildings were surrounded by crowds of people seeking entry, in their frustration threatened those inside, and seemed ready to riot. Another witness to forced evictions was Captain Arthur Kennedy, a Poor Law inspector in Kilrush, County Clare. He reported - "... There were days in that western county when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day's work that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met."
A New Introduction – For those who prefer the term Genocide to Famine, every time you see the Famine imagine you see the word Genocide.
Famine, Eviction and Emigration
As we have seen, the potato crop of 1847 was not affected by the accursed blight, because the weather conditions had been too dry for the blight to spread. But the crop itself, though free from rot, was much too small to make any major difference to the on-going tragedy that was still affecting Ireland. In response, therefore, the farmers made great efforts to increase the yield from their 1848 crop. Everyone worked at maximum speed and with all their energies they began to plant as many potatoes as possible in the land.
The measure of their success was that the total acreage of potatoes planted in 1848 was three times more than that planted in the previous year. But, this success was marred by an extremely wet summer, which helped the blight to rage once again, causing the crop to be lost. The authorities immediately turned to the Quakers once again and asked them if they would re-establish the soup kitchens, but they refused. They gave the reason for their refusal to be that their workers were physically exhausted by their previous efforts and that their resources were almost completely at an end. Furthermore, the Quakers confident that by giving free relief to the victims was damaging to their self-respect in the long run. However, they were equally strong in their belief that reform of the land system was an essential step forward. The decision by the efficient and humanitarian Quaker organisation that they would pull out of Ireland in the face of a terrible famine, although given to the authorities in a polite letter to Prime Minister Russell.
It quickly became clear that the policy of 'doing nothing’ previously employed by the government would, once again, become the rule in Ireland. There were to be a number of circumstances and incidents that gave the Liberal government, in London, a satisfactory excuse for their non-efforts. It is ironic when you consider that, one of the most important circumstances was the effect of the Famine itself on the population, which gave rise to widespread lawlessness and the shooting of landlords.
On 1st October 1847, a new ‘Poor Law’ was brought into being, which was to be planned and controlled from Dublin, rather than London, by the ‘Irish Poor Law Board’. The new ‘Law’, however, impressed none of those whose task it was to enforce it. Commissioner Twistleton, for example, could not visualise just how the new law could possibly work in practice. He simply chose to avoid any opportunity to be blamed for its failure by completely neglecting to produce a plan.
Charles Trevelyan, however, had no hesitation in filling the void that was left, and he began to draw up a plan to enforce the new Poor Law in Ireland. In this plan, Trevelyan looked to expel the infirm, the widows and the orphans from the workhouses, and to give these people outside relief, but only in the form of cooked food. Henceforth, he decided, only the able-bodied were to be given relief inside the workhouse. At the same time, in order to ensure that the new scheme was not inundated by able-bodied men, Trevelyan’s plans carried the old and familiar stipulation that obtaining a place in the workhouse was to be made as difficult, and as unattractive, as possible.
In the latter half of 1847 England was hit hard by a major economic crisis, much of which had been caused by very injudicious speculation in the global wheat trade. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, at this time, wrote to the Irish Viceroy, Lord Clarendon to inform him about the unfortunate implications that this economic crisis would have for Ireland - "I fear you have a most troublesome winter ahead of you ... Here we have no money”. Clarendon complained about Trevelyan’s plans and openly declared that Trevelyan’s solution to the entire calamity was simply - "that people who were deprived of food or shelter and exposed to disease and starvation would naturally die off." He, Trevelyan, had already told the poor law commissioner, Edward Twistleton, "The principle of the Poor Law as you very well know is that rate after rate should be levied for the purpose of preserving life, until the Landlord and farmer either enable the people to support themselves by honest industry, or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this indispensable duty." It was clear that the Irish landlords were to pay for the Famine relief or be forced to sell their lands to others.
As the 1847 grain harvest ripened, many landlords immediately began to seize their tenants' corn in lieu of rent that was owing. Then, when the rate collectors arrived in distressed areas like Connemara, there were no crops left for them to seize and, instead, they took any article considered to be of value that they came upon, including many items of clothing. Understanding the terrible conditions that the peasantry now found themselves in, Viceroy Clarendon asked the Prime Minister what practical steps could be taken in those areas of the country where there was no-one to levy rates upon.
Clarendon, above all people, should have known that there was, absolutely, no chance of receiving a humane response from the English cabinet. They were concerned with the finances of fighting famine in Ireland and to operate the new poor law effectively would require them to have collected £14 million in rates. Even as the bill made its way through the House of Lords, it was pointed out by several members that the Irish landlords were all in great debt. The amount of money that they owed was such that the total repayments on their combined borrowings came to approximately £10.5 million per annum while it was estimated, their actual combined annual income would only have amounted to a figure of some £3.5 million a year. But, the government chose to ignore what they saw as an inconvenient truth. In Ireland, Commissioner Twistleton gritted his teeth and did what he could for approximately a year and a half, to make Trevelyan's allegedly realistic plan work. Eventually, Twistleton resigned from his post with anger and disgust during March 1849.
The government had decided that they would follow Trevelyan's advice on this occasion, with regard to famine relief, which was simply ‘to do nothing’. The rules built into the new Poor Law were being strictly applied in this new famine period. Among the rules was one, The Labour Test, which required able-bodied men to complete eight hours' work each day to maintain his place in the workhouse. In these places, the estimated cost of keeping each person alive for thirty-four weeks was £1, and each person was to receive one pound of meal a day to sustain them.
As this renewed famine began to bite hard into an already severely weakened population The Poor Law Unions in Ireland had a combined debt to the government of approximately £260,000. Meanwhile, the British Association, which had been paying out £13,000 per week in aid, finally ran out of funds on 1st July 1848. As money ran out and resources could not be renewed, the whole weight of assistance fell on the Unions, and the relief system gradually wound down. At the first opportunity the British administrators, such as Routh, decided they would now return to their homes. In the meantime, The Society of Friends continued to give what help they could to the victims of the famine, but they also realised that they were fighting a losing battle. The situation was soon made clear to all when, in September, Trevelyan told the troubled Unions that Treasury grants to them would be coming to an end, and there would, henceforth, be no more issues of free clothing.
Almost six months earlier, Lord John Russell had recognised that something had to be done to help the innocent. In a radical promise, he declared that the 200,000 children who had hitherto been fed by the ‘British Relief Association’, whose funds were already nearing exhaustion, should be sustained from the public purse. But, just as the November chills gripped Ireland in their icy hands, Trevelyan interfered once again. Without even the slightest protest from the Prime Minister, he put in writing that the feeding of the children was to stop at the same time that the tiny Treasury grants, which had been given to the more distressed unions, came to an end.
The year 1848 then, was to be a year when hatred competed with optimism in the hearts of Irelands starving people. The hatred of the people was principally directed toward the heartless landlords and, to a lesser degree, at the British government. There had been continued optimism at the prospects of a hugely improved harvest of potatoes, which lasted almost to the end of July. Everyone had been encouraged by the results obtained from the small percentage of seed potatoes that had been sown in 1847. An already impoverished people were compelled to pawn or sell everything they still possessed - clothes, bedding, furniture - in order to plant potatoes in every conceivable scrap of land they possessed. The peasantry’s reliance on the potato was as great, if not greater than ever it had been. One can only imagine the despair and great distress that was caused by the unexpected reappearance of the blight. It meant the return of fever and famine, as well as a critical rise in rent arrears, which in turn meant a rise in evictions from the land
Infamously, Charles Trevelyan showed his thoughts on the continuation of the famine in Ireland when, in January, he published what later became his shockingly gloating book 'The Irish Crisis' in the pages of the 'Edinburgh Review'. In its most crude form his ideology morally declines into the sectarian view that, through the Famine, God himself was punishing the Catholic Irish for their stubborn attachment to all the superstitions of ‘popery’. It was evidence of the policies that were going to be employed by the government in the months ahead.
With the horrors experienced in 1847 still so clear in their minds, we can only imagine the shock and terror that began to spread over Ireland as fearful reports of potato failure once more came in from various parts of the country. To the minds of poorly educated Irish peasants, the blight had returned to the land as if by the wave of a demon's wand. The potatoes that had apparently been healthy were now bad as if they had been poisonously sprinkled by someone full of hate and anger against the poor and hungry. Amid all this despair, in July 1848, Trevelyan wrote in his normal, uncaring manner, "The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence with no possibility of averting the catastrophe, if it is to happen we can only await the result.”
Souperism and Skibbereen
Although the idea of soup kitchens was a good one, its success depended on good quality food and made from decent raw materials. However, many of the relief committees went for quantity instead of quality, and they provided soup with very little food value in it. In some places the soup was far too liquid, leading to diarrhoea and an outbreak of scurvy caused by a lack of vitamins. In fact, filling famine-bloated bodies with watery soup did more harm than good.
There was, however, one basic flaw in the Soup Kitchen Act, which also proved to be a problem in the later Outdoor Relief System. The flaw lay in the fact that the money to cover both these projects was supposed to come from local ratepayers and not from the government. But, by this stage of the famine, it was almost impossible to collect rates anywhere in Ireland, and the local committees and Poor Law Unions began running up huge debts. It was recognised by all that the rates needed to fund this new system would have to have been at least ten times larger than anything collected before. Unfortunately, however, soldiers and police had already been used to collect the Poor Rate in parts of Galway and Mayo. Nevertheless, it was estimated that each shilling of rates gathered had cost one pound to collect it.
It was a deplorable fact that the Poor Rates fell most heavily on those areas where distress was most severe. Furthermore, since 1843, the landlords had been liable for paying all rates on property valued at under £4, the tenant being exempt. But, in these dark times, legislation provided an incentive to evict a tenant and pull down his cabin as a means of reducing the burden of Poor Rates upon him. Even under such circumstances, however, the local unions were still expected to collect rates to the utmost of their ability. To assist them in this effort, the rate collectors had been provided by the Government with considerable powers. They could seize the property and goods of a landlord to obtain payment for the rate money they had neglected to pay. Meanwhile, to ensure that the local effort was not undermined, the Treasury deliberately kept its financial contribution to a minimum and refused to release funds until they were convinced that starvation was the alternative left. Consequently, the finances of the poorest unions remained precarious and the relief provided was both piece-meal and sparse.
The small farmers were mostly destitute, and rent arrears grew higher and higher. In many cases the burden of rates encouraged farmers to leave their land and emigrate to pastures new in other lands. Even some of the great landlords could not pay what they owed in rates and, consequently, many Unions became bankrupt. The provision of ‘Outdoor Relief’ was more expensive than keeping people in the workhouse, so there were constant efforts to keep the lists seeking such relief small. In many cases this simply meant names being crossed off the list for the thinnest of reasons. In an article written in ‘THE NATION’ newspaper it was reported – “Here as elsewhere, the people are exported in numbers. The eflux is ceaseless. The consolidation of farms is rapidly going on, and the aristocratic wish fulfilled to the letter.
But where a family sell a small farm, two or three helpless members remain behind. Some are too old to tempt fate, and the waters, and the wilderness - some wish to lay their bones in their native earth - some are sick-stricken - some timid, some pious, some utterly unable - but in every case two or three remain behind."
It was all very well for Lord John Russell to rise in the House and say that the landlords must be compelled to pay, but what if there were no landlords available to pay? There were, by now, large, impoverished districts all over Ireland with no landed proprietor. One Irish nationalist newspaper stated quite clearly within its pages, “The Government cannot this time save them. But, if they cannot secure profit to the merchant, they have by anticipation excluded the Irish pauper from the advantage of foreign care as far as it has affected the market. To him the change has brought no alteration but for the worse. It is as if the light and life of spring burst around him and his heart, by some relentless fate was kept locked in gloom and ice.
Heretofore, as I showed, each person had one and one-third pound of Indian meal per day; or rather, by an almost utter denial to himself of most other necessaries, he could secure this quantity, with the means of cooking it.
Now he is allowed by the relief committee, under the recent act, one pound. He has no means whatever to purchase fuel, none to light him, none to clothe; one pound of raw meal, be it dear or cheap, cost it threepence or a farthing, is his fated allowance. Then to conceive the struggle, there is to obtain it, the label of beggary, the hazard of a short supply, the weakness of the applicant to jostle his way in such a jarring medley, and the certain end of failure, with no earthly alternative left - this is a thing of which I can give no idea - a complication of wretchedness, confusion, and degradation, before which the mind sinks in dumb and helpless sorrow."
Perhaps the most controversial section of the 'Extension Act' was the 'Quarter Acre' or "The Gregory Clause", which stipulated that a person who occupied more than a quarter of an acre of land could not receive relief either inside or outside the workhouse. 'The Quarter Acre Clause', however, was only one factor in a package of fiscal measures which accompanied the transfer to Poor Law Relief, which were punitive both to indebted landlords and small-holders alike. There is little doubt that the substantial rise in evictions after 1847 can be largely attributed to its introduction. There were reports, however, that said some destitute small holders had chosen to starve themselves and their families to death, rather than give up their land. Nevertheless, the increase in evictions was welcomed by several members of the government who had become convinced that a draconian adherence to the provisions of the Poor Act was necessary if Ireland was to emerge from the Famine socially and economically stronger.
The numbers in receipt of Poor Law relief, meanwhile, rose steadily after autumn 1847. This increase was helped by an expansion in temporary workhouse accommodation and the decision to increase the number of unions from 130 to 163. Although the treasury had hoped that all external financial assistance to the unions would end after the autumn of 1847, this was to prove impossible. The Outdoor Relief System now began to operate, as the soup kitchens closed, one after another. It was laid down, in the new Poor Law Act, that non-able-bodied poor could be given relief either in the workhouse or outside it, namely in their homes. It was left to ‘The Boards of Guardians’ to decide who would qualify. The able-bodied poor, meaning those who were still able to work, could also be relieved if they were unemployed and destitute, but only inside the workhouse. Only if the workhouse was full, or was infected with fever, could the able-bodied poor be granted relief outside, although only for two months, if they agreed to hard labour. This usually involved them breaking stones for ten hours per day before they would receive their portion. This was later lowered to eight hours, but it made little difference because stone-breaking was the work most hated by the poor and many kept away to avoid it.
Yet another way of restricting the numbers seeking Outdoor Relief was to insist on the paupers attending the workhouse every single day, to collect the cooked food offered. But, the Boards of Guardians often delegated the food distribution to meal contractors or shopkeepers, and this meant that there were far fewer points for distribution than there had been in the days of the soup kitchens. People had to walk several miles to the nearest point, and sometimes the food would have spoiled by the time they got home to their families. Eventually the fact was faced that cooked food caused more problems than it solved, and the authorities began to distribute uncooked food again, although the poor had neither the knowledge or the fuel to cook it properly. This and a combination of poor health and bad weather, helped to keep down the numbers who claimed their food.
Without doubt, the relief authorities made various improvement to the workhouse system, such as building separate hospitals, expanding the space for accommodation, and freely giving Outdoor Relief even to the able-bodied poor. The local Boards of Guardians tried to restrict relief as much as possible, as they knew there would not be enough money to cover all the demands. The poor, however, hated the workhouse system, and feared the fevers that were now spreading fast, so as many as possible applied for Outdoor Relief.
Then, as the grip of the famine intensified, more and more ratepayers defaulted and, as a result, many unions became bankrupt. Cheques were dishonoured, and contractors refused to supply food, causing diets to deteriorate still further. Quite quickly the effects of severely curtailed rations soon became evident in the physical appearance of the paupers and by the end of 1847 chaos reigned in many workhouses. The Ballinrobe workhouse became the subject of much correspondence among commissioners. There were reports that there was no food in its kitchen and no meals were eaten in the dining hall. Instead, paupers got their food rations raw in the morning and cooked them in numerous locations throughout the building. For some the diets in the workhouse had become so bad that inmates committed crimes to get transferred to the relatively better conditions of the gaols. Reporting on the Cork workhouse, Dr. Stephens, said that he had found 150 boys in one ward, sharing 24 beds. The week before his visit, 60 children aged under thirteen had died in this workhouse. In his opinion even if the workhouse had been good enough, most of the children arriving were already so weak and ill that hardly anything could be done for them. Meanwhile, in Limerick, a visitor wrote, "I never saw one solitary instance of any one attempt to cheer these little ones, in any one of the very many ways in which we know children, sick and dying, can be cheered." He said that he was appalled by their lack of movement, "in the very act of death still not a tear nor a cry. I have scarcely ever seen one try to change his or her position ... Two, three or four in a bed, there they lie and die, if suffering ever silent, unmoved.”
Many of these deaths were due to fevers rather than starvation. In fact, fever was endemic in pre-Famine Ireland and flared up periodically into nationwide epidemics. There was widespread awareness of the contagiousness of the disease and its ability to leap class and social barriers. Characteristically the fever began among the poor and spread to their social superiors, among whom it proved to be much more lethal. The disease impinged on rural and urban dwellers, and affected cities, towns and villages as well as the isolated cabins of the cottiers and agricultural labourers. Fever had a devastating impact on the already precarious existence of the poor. Each attack, with the weakness it left behind, lasted about six weeks and, with successive family members being struck down, fever might persist in a poor man's cabin for months on end and, thus, it had a major pauperising influence, often reducing the poor to absolute penury.
Earlier, in March 1847, a ship carrying fever-ridden emigrants was forced by bad weather to put into Belfast, and typhus fever swept through the city. Hordes of famine victims were already pouring into Belfast, seeking relief, and the epidemic reached its peak in July. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the fever epidemic reached its worst in June, and the victim count did not begin to decline until February 1848. The prevalence and perniciousness of fever in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the threat it posed to rich and poor alike provoked considerable debate on its causation and diffusion. While doctors differed over causation, there were some aspects of fever which were largely beyond dispute, such as the contagiousness of the disease, its tendency to appear at times of social upheaval or economic crisis, and its consequences. The humane and hospitable dispositions of the people of Ireland mainly contributed to introduce contagion into their dwellings.
The doctors blamed the outbreak of fever on hunger and its social consequences, on the almost tangible misery, distress and despondency which appeared to be everywhere. There was a complete disintegration of the social norms, the only reality being the desperate search for sustenance. Hygiene was neglected, clothing and bedding were pawned or left unchanged for months on end, and displaced families, who had abandoned their holdings, or been evicted, congregated together in vacant cabins throughout the country. The sick and dying clamoured for admission to the workhouses, while the jails and bridewells were filled to overflowing. Dirt, neglect and gross overcrowding generated fever, which was diffused in a variety of ways, by vagrancy, by the intermingling of the infected, the convalescent and the healthy at soup shops, food depots and public works. Even those who were barely able to crawl out of their makeshift beds were compelled by the direst necessity to report for work on the roads, where, according to one County Kilkenny doctor, they occupied themselves "in industrious idleness" and in infecting their susceptible work-mates. Wakes, funerals, weddings and patterns were condemned for the role they played in spreading fever. Soup kitchens attracted considerable ensure also. The promise of a free meal drew large numbers of the destitute and the hungry, many of them fever stricken, into cities and towns, and thus facilitated the transference of infected lice to new victims. Some medical practitioners believed that food depots, by relieving hunger, were instrumental in suppressing fever, others that they contributed to its dissemination by assembling large crowds of paupers. There was no such ambiguity regarding wakes. During the traditional mourning period, friends, namesakes and relatives assembled to pay homage to the memory of the deceased and to indulge in copious supplies of whisky, snuff and tobacco that were generally available on these occasions. It was part of the Irish tradition that even the lowliest in life should be so honoured in death. The survivors would have considered themselves eternally disgraced if the customary homage had not been paid to the memory of the deceased.
The frequent concurrence during famine of two distinct infections, typhus fever and relapsing fever. The epidemiology of the two disease is very similar. Typhus and relapsing fever propagate most actively in conditions which favour lice infestation, notably in the squalid and overcrowded residences of the poor. It was social dislocation and the disruption of normal living patterns caused by famine which transformed the nations endemic fever into destructive, terrorising epidemics. Epidemic fever in Ireland was usually preceded, accompanied or followed by certain other diseases, notably bacillary dysentery and smallpox. It is fact that relatively few died from actual starvation, the majority succumbing to diseases which were collectively described by one medical observer as "a sort of famine poison." The great despoiling infections were typhus, typhoid and relapsing fever, dysentery and diarrhoea, severe measles, and smallpox of a 'peculiarly malignant character, which according to the Board of Health, prevailed very extensively in 1849. Cholera, which affected Ireland pandemically in 1848-49, was not one of the fevers of the Great Famine. Its appearance was a coincidence, but it contributed to the overall distress and mortality. Among the poor, especially, dysentery and diarrhoea were the most frequent and most fatal complications of famine fever. According to Doctor Daniel Donovan of Skibbereen, County Cork, chronic dysentery, or 'starvation dysentery' as it was sometimes called, was almost universal among the destitute. He categorised this affliction as the most complicated and loathsome of diseases and one which was infinitely more lethal than cholera. Typhus Fever affected those in authority very badly, the middle-aged middle-classes. Because of the strain it put on the heart, older people were very vulnerable to it. Where forms of fever had always been endemic, many of the poor had formed an immunity to it during their youth, but doctors and medical officers, priests and clergymen, relieving officers and workhouse officials all took the fever, and many died. Seven doctors died in County Cavan in 1847, and forty-eight in the province of Munster. Of 473 medical officers appointed by the Board of Health, one out of every 13 died.
The term 'Dysentery' was formerly applied to any condition in which inflammation of the colon was associated with frequent passage of blood stools. Hence, its earlier designation, 'The Bloody Flux'. The term is now restricted to amoebic dysentery, which is almost entirely confined to tropical and sub-tropical countries, and to Bacillary Dysentery, and infectious disease which may occur sporadically or in epidemics. The disease is caused by the dysentery bacillus and the infection is spread by flies, by direct contact, or by pollution of the water by faeces infected with the bacillus. Dysentery is rendered more virulent by famine and by the concurrence of other exhausting diseases, being strongly conditioned by nutritional status. At one time, mortality rates were as high as 50% during epidemics, with Ordinary Dysentery killing the children rather than the adults. This deadly infection was, at one time, attributed to the potato substitutes which the starving were compelled to eat, and to the pickings of the field, hedgerow, shoreline, and especially to the immoderate consumption of raw or partially cooked Indian meal by those individuals who had neither the knowledge, fuel or patience to prepare it properly.
Scurvy, causing teeth to drop out and joints to swell, had been almost unknown in pre-Famine Ireland, because is caused by lack of vitamin C, which is plentiful in potatoes. Now it affected thousands of people, often causing fatal haemorrhaging. The eye infection, Ophthalmia, also spread rapidly in the overcrowded workhouse conditions, and hundreds of children lost their sight, partially or totally.
‘Relapsing Fever’ was the prevalent disease among the poor and destitute, while the higher social classes tended to contract the deadly typhus fever. This was particularly true for those who were more exposed to infection, notably clergymen, doctors, members of relief committees and those with the administration of the Poor Law. A distinctive feature of famine feature fever, one on which several doctors commented was the peculiar smell which clung to the clothes and bodies of the poor. A County Clare physician observed that the 'sooty and peat-smoke odour of former times' had given way to a more offensive, sickening and readily recognisable one. This emanation was described by a doctor in West Cork as "a cadaverous suffocating odour", a 'peculiar mousy smell', which was 'always the forerunner of death.' He stated, "As I entered the house the stench that proceeded from it was dreadful and noisome; but oh! What scenes presented themselves to my view as I proceeded through the wards and passages: patients lying on straw, naked and in their excrements, alight covering over them - in two beds living beings beside the dead, in the same bed with them and dead since the night before. There was no medicine - no drink - no fire."
Meanwhile, Smallpox, the third of the epidemic triumvirate, which had ravaged Ireland for generations, was so virulent that it spreads independently of nutrition, As with fever, it was the social consequences of famine, especially the increase in vagrancy, which provided the ideal conditions for the propagation and diffusion of this highly infectious disease, one which killed, disfigured, blinded and terrorised countless thousands in Ireland and elsewhere in pre-modern and modern times.
In 1846, very soon after Famine had been declared, a Central Board of Health had been set up, to run hospitals and dispensaries. But it was soon closed, because there was very little sickness or fever to treat at that time, only starvation. As a result, when typhus began to spread, there were only 28 hospitals in Ireland, and none in the more remote areas of the country. At the same time, there were about 500 out-patient dispensaries, but again these were few and far between. Even so, more money had been spent on hospitals in Ireland than in Britain, and every county had an infirmary. Medical care, in the mid-nineteenth century, was mainly preventive with infected clothes being baked to kill the fever, and infected areas fumigated with sulphuric acid. Widespread reports of fever began to come in to the Relief Commissioners in early 1847. These told of people dying quickly, in frightful numbers, and typhus was spreading like wildfire. The Central Board was rapidly reappointed to deal with this new emergency, and quickly discovered that the Workhouse Hospitals were far too small to deal with the numbers pouring in. Almost every inmate was now suffering with some form of illness, but there was not enough space to keep the sick away from those who were well. Temporary wooden fever wards, called 'Fever Sheds', were erected in some places, but many of the workhouses did not have the money to take such measures. Finally, the Government had to accept the fact that there was an epidemic, and rapidly brought in the 'Irish Fever Act' of April 1847. This Act now placed the responsibility for providing health care on the relief committees, instead of on the overburdened and debt-ridden Boards of Guardians. The Relief Committees could overrule the Guardians and do whatever was necessary for fever patients, without having to obey the Poor Law rules. The costs, they were assured, would be met by the government.
Very quickly the people began to learn about infection and how it could be controlled. Almost overnight the age-old hospitality for which the Irish were renowned disappeared. Strangers were avoided, and if even one member of a family became infected, the whole family was left alone by neighbours and friends. Fever, it was discovered, was often caught through contact with the dead because, after death, the lice would leave the cooling body and transfer themselves to anyone who was nearby. The people now became afraid to bury the dead, and instead the cabins were often pulled down and burned over the corpses inside. It also became almost impossible to increase the size of burial- grounds available, because, the living feared having those who died of fever buried near them. Workhouse yards now became burial grounds and bodies of the dead were buried in huge pits, in batches.
At this stage we should, perhaps, look at events in Skibbereen during this period. The rapid spread of the strange potato disease in the summer and autumn of 1845 caused great concern in west Cork, and Skibbereen had always been a great potato-growing district in that area. In fact, it was said of Skibbereen, that the ground was so fertile there was always a superabundance of potatoes grown. But, it also meant that when the potato crop failed the labourers went hungry and, when this disease struck the potato crop again 1846 it was no surprise that the labourers found themselves starving. By 1847 the labourers' main hope, like those of others throughout Ireland, became employment on the roads being created by the Board of Works, while the chief refuge for the destitute became the workhouse.
The condition of the people around Skibbereen became so bad that the Chief of the Relief Commission in Dublin, Randolf Routh, sent Commissary Inglis from Limerick to help organise the relief programme, and as a result two more soup-kitchens were set up.
The New Year of 1847, in all of County Cork, its title as the "Black '47”. In the meantime, ‘The Skibbereen Board of Guardians’ had announced that it had decided close the workhouse. Deaths from 10th November to the 7th January numbered 266, while for some period previously they had only been 10. The workhouse itself was filled to breaking-point. Originally the house had been built to accommodate 800 inmates, but now there were 1169, 332 of whom were in fever. There were 121 patients in forty beds, and ‘The Union’ was deeply in debt. The rates could not be collected as the land was deserted and the tenants destitute or dead or in the workhouse itself.
By early February the Skibbereen Soup Committee was bitterly complaining that the local relief committees could not obtain sufficient provisions from Col. Hughes’ stores in Skibbereen. The committee applied for ten tons of Indian meal, but they could only obtain only two tons. The price had increased from £18 to £19, but official records, however, revealed that there were 2,385 tons of meal still in the store. This was evidence of a policy of hoarding and it was Trevelyan’s stated policy that the 'resources' of the country should be 'drawn out.' As the famine grew worse in February, Trevelyan continued to say that 'food could not be found.' But, there were reports from several people that they had between 100 to 200 tons of meal, which he had difficulty in disposing of. The difficulty was said to be caused by the Skibbereen Relief Committee, which was selling meal indiscriminately for as little as two shilling and two pence a stone. The people with the meal believed that if the government bought it, they would save 'the freight for shipping it to another market.' Nevertheless, it is a prime example of how the British Government’s laissez-faire approach actually worked out in severe famine conditions. The provisions that were available were not adequate and were at inflated famine prices, especially when a road worker was only capable of earning eight pence a day. Moreover, whatever provisions were available were not all actually distributed. The records of the time show clearly that at the end of February 230 tons Indian meal had been issued, but that 410 tons were still in storage.
It was at this time that the newly appointed Chairman of the Relief Commission in Dublin, John Burgoyne, requested some extra aid for Schull. Trevelyan agreed that relief could be carried out, but only to a limited extent. Subsequently he reluctantly told Burgoyne, "Let us save as many as we can." To further show the Government’s attitude at this time, a Treasury minute that was dated 23rd February 1847 recognised 'the dreadful state of destitution in the parishes of Schull and Caheragh' and merely recommended that the local relief committees should do more for that district. The entire Skibbereen district was now fast becoming a byword for famine and, during the week ending 27th March, there were 106 deaths among the 1,170 inmates in the workhouse. The mortality rate in the Skibbereen house was clearly the highest in the country with 106 deaths in a week when there had been only two the previous year. The conditions existing in the poorhouse only reflected the state of the Union in general, and ‘The Skibbereen Soup Committee’ admitted that the farmers, 'fearful for the condition of their own families were in no position to minister to the wants of others. As spring moved on and the weather grew warmer, fever spread more rapidly and caused fever hospitals or sheds to be set up. Meanwhile, the Soup-Kitchen Act was sufficiently introduced by an inspector named Marshall in May, and the road works were gradually closed. By June, however, the famine and fever were at last under control and, by September, famine mortality in the area was greatly reduced, and the Soup-Kitchen Act phased out. Nevertheless, in Skibbereen workhouse there were 2,981 inmates from a population of the town amounting to only 3,834.
In the Autumn of 1847 the people of Ballydehob feared that the coming winter would be like the previous winter, and they appealed to Lord John Russell for aid. He told them bluntly that, "The owners of property in Ireland should feel the obligations of supporting the poor ... It is not just to expect the working classes of Great Britain should permanently support the burden of Irish pauperism." From such statements it was clear that the government would not give very much more aid, which meant that the rates on Irish property would have to increase. By December 1847 those rates had risen to three shillings for each division and since the landlord had to pay the rates on holdings under £4 it would be in his interest to evict their occupiers if they would not pay the rent. In response a 'Tenant Protective Society' was formed in Skibbereen at the end of 1847, and quite quickly remarks were heard about cattle being driven to the pound and their owners to the poor-house. Such poverty being expressed by landowners inevitably put pressure on property, some of it being already heavily encumbered.
Black '47 Continues
The Board of Works had started to run out of money, and it was also running out of work that was able to be done by weakened, starving men or women. Despite what Ministers and journalist in England declared, the problem with the relief works was not that people were idle, they were simply incapable of carrying out. The men who organised the work were, in fact, torn between feeling ashamed of the small jobs they were asking people to do, and equally ashamed that they were expecting any work at all from skeletal-framed human beings who hardly had the strength to stand upright. Elsewhere, however, an official had informed Trevelyan that as relief works were no longer of any practical use, it would make more sense, and be cheaper in the long run, to distribute the food freely instead of making people earn money to buy it with. Little or no work was being done anyway, and the average wage of about one shilling per day went nowhere, because the most basic subsistence for a family now cost more than two or three shillings per day. This estimated cost was only for food, and not for clothing or housing. Trevelyan, casting about for ways to avert the looming calamity, began to consider the example that had been given in the west of Ireland by the Quakers and their soup kitchens.
Through all the Famine time, there is nothing more remarkable than the manner in which the expounders of the views of Government, as well as many others, managed, when it suited them, to confound two things which should have been kept most jealously distinct — (1.) What was best for the Famine crisis itself; (2.) What was best for the permanent improvement of the country. The confounding of these two questions led to conclusions of the most unwarrantable and deceptive kind. Some agreed that similar ideas to that of the Government’s had been tried in England, before the Poor-laws were revised, with negative effects. Employers, instead of choosing their own workmen, had them sent to them by the parish authorities, which produced two bad results: (1.) The men did not give a good day's work (2.) In practice it was found most demoralising to the labourers themselves, destroying their independence, and paralyzing individual enterprise. Lord John agreed but, stated that when applying it to the existing state of Ireland, that such results would only occur if such a system were permanent. He insisted that the demoralisation of labour would not, in this case, be greater than that already in existence on the Public Works. He added that it wouldn’t be even near so great as what expected from his proposal that the people should be fed without any labour, or labour test whatever.
That the Poor Law was becoming an administration in crisis was indicated by the rise in excess mortality within the workhouses that had been erected under that law. Unfortunately, the workhouses by their very nature became inextricably involved in the Famine crisis that spread like wildfire across the country. Workhouses all over Ireland were overflowing and the death rate among the inmates rose drastically. Standards of care, which were already at a very low level, now began to collapse completely. The food being provided was often foul and rotten, but the slightest hope of food of any kind was enough to bring crowds to the gates of each workhouse, begging admission. As famine conditions intensified one board of Guardians after another had reluctantly ceased to use potatoes, replacing them with cereal foods, and many workhouses served Indian meal mixed with oatmeal and water to make into stir-about. Worse still, by this stage, fewer than 115,000 inmates could be accommodated in the workhouses, and the sick and the healthy were being thrown together in overcrowded conditions. It was no surprise that the poor despised the workhouse system and many of them waited until they were near death before they went to the workhouse. Entering only in the hope of receiving a proper burial.
On past evidence, nothing done to counteract the Famine was to be regarded as a permanent arrangement that would fulfil the needs and ordinary wants of the country. On the contrary, the extraordinary means adopted to meet an extraordinary crisis would normally, from the nature of things, pass away with when the crisis was over. It was expected that when the Famine was finally over in Ireland, the labour force would soon return to their ordinary tasks. But, prospects for a good harvest that might end the famine was not being reported by local sources. A newspaper correspondent, Michael Doheny, reported - "I have, during the last few weeks, been through several districts of the country, chiefly in the counties of Tyrone, Longford, Kildare, Carlow, and Wicklow, and I am happy in being able to inform you of the cheering fact, that the cultivation and cropping of the land have not been so much neglected as was at one period apprehended. In some counties I am satisfied that at least double, perhaps treble, the usual quantity of oats has been sown, and the land has been in excellent order for the reception of the seed. The weather has also been most propitious for spring operations. The young wheats, generally speaking, appear healthy and vigorous.
"It is gratifying that a very large breadth of land, especially in the midland counties, is in course of preparation for turnips; and in all parts of the country this and other green crops are now, happily, becoming more generally esteemed and more extensively cultivated than they have hitherto been.
"Parsnips and Swedish turnips are also this year sown in parts of the western counties where they would probably remain unknown for years hence had the potato not failed. But a much greater extent of land is being with that now uncertain crop than could have been expected, considering the awful and general distress which has arisen in the country. In consequence of the mass of the people depending almost exclusively on it as an article of food. It really is astonishing what quantities of sound potatoes have recently been exposed for sale in most of our markets. Their reappearance at present in such large quantity is by no means creditable to our farmers, who, of course, held them over for real famine prices; and they are now obliged to dispose of them for much less than they might have obtained some time ago."
In February 1847 the 'Temporary Relief Act' was rushed through parliament, providing for the establishment of soup kitchens throughout the country to replace the public works. Neither money nor wages were demanded in return for the food, making the relief provided under this act the most liberal available at any period during the Famine. This was immediately reflected in the take-up of relief. In fact, at its maximum, over three million people were receiving rations from the soup kitchens established throughout the country. Importantly, the three categories who were eligible for free relief were, destitute helpless persons, destitute able-bodied persons not holding land, and destitute able-bodied persons holding small portions of land. Wage earners could also purchase the soup rations but, not at less than cost price.
There were, however, two features of this Act that were particularly significant. Firstly, the Act was established as an interim measure until permanent changes could be made to the Poor Law; Secondly, although the money allocated for the soup kitchens appeared to be very liberal, it was written into the Act that approximately half of the amount expended would have had to be repaid out of the local Poor Rates.
Once the Act had passed through Parliament, no time was wasted in setting up a new Relief Commission in Dublin, which would administer the proposed soup kitchen system that had been planned. At the same time, a small finance committee was established in each of the 130 Poor Law Union districts spread throughout Ireland. There were also district relief committees, whose areas of responsibility covered the electoral divisions of the Poor Law administration. The locality chosen for the setting up the soup kitchens/shops was entirely dependent on local effort and initiative, with some remote areas never being reached at all. As a result, it took quite a long time to get this new system up and running and, all the while, the public relief works began closing. In some areas, however, the relief committees, while taking their time establishing the new system of food distribution, kept the relief works going for as long as possible. They also felt that the soup kitchens would be considered degrading by many of the poor, because they would have to queue in public to be fed and would be made to feel that they were receiving 'Charity'.
The new commissioners insisted that from 20th March 1847 the numbers on the relief works were to be cut by 20%, with a further 10% in April. By the last week of June, all but 4% of the relief workers had been let go. In effect, this meant that 209,000 labourers now had no work, and no income, but the free food distribution was still not in place everywhere and almost 15% of those who were let go from the road works were still not being reached by the soup kitchens.
Not everyone was enamoured about the establishment and workings of the new Relief Committee. One journalist commented in ‘The Nation’ Newspaper: "... It must be admitted that the twenty per cent, were dismissed before the committee had any preparations made, or were in fact appointed. The old committee had emphatically protested against the dismissal, and published a resolution condemnatory of it, as an inexcusable and cruel enormity. The Government inspector demanded that they should hand over the funds at their disposal to their successors, to be applied by them in aid of the rates. This was refused, on the grounds that these funds were subscribed for a different purpose, which, as already explained, was attended with the most beneficial results, and an altercation ensued, with the details of which it would be preposterous to burthen the pages of THE NATION.
“I shall have to return to the operations of the new committee. Here it is more important to remark that although twenty per cent of the labouring population were turned adrift to starve, not one supernumeray was dissemployed. No pay-clerk lost his salary, though his labour was diminished by one-fourth; no check clerk was dismissed, though there were far fewer to check; no steward, or under-steward, or favourite, was displaced.
"... Not alone have all the old appointees been continued while the people are discharged, but new ones have been added. There is an inspector of pay-clerks, at a large salary, and he has a clerk, who may be styled the inspector's inspector.
“There is, again, the relief district inspector, of whom I have already spoken, and his inspector; and there is the secretary of the famine committee, and the secretary of the new relief committee, with two assistant-secretaries."
As the intensity of the famine increased various philanthropic groups set up soup kitchens in various places. These were usually open six days a week and provided two distributions of soup daily. The Government took notice of the obvious success of the ‘Society of Friends' (Quakers) soup kitchens, which eventually caused the government to reluctantly change its policy.
As we have seen, the public work schemes had failed, and the workhouses became grossly over-crowded. It was vital, therefore, that another temporary operation was set up to supply food directly to the starving without cost or the imposition of a 'work test'. The main aim of the 'Act for the Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons in Ireland' was simply to establish temporary feeding facilities instead of relief works. Reluctantly the government now recognised that a network of soup kitchens would feed the starving more cheaply than public works projects. But, it was only to be a temporary measure, lasting until September, when it was hoped the new harvest would relieve the situation a bit. At that time the second part of the act would then come into force, which was the beginning of the Outdoor Relief System.
This Outdoor Relief System in simple terms meant, making help available to people through the 'Poor Law' system, but without making them enter the despised workhouse. To many this was an obvious step for the government to take, as it became obvious that there was just no room left in the workhouses, and, indeed, by now large numbers of people were too weak to travel towards them. Under the terms of the Act the destitute poor could now stay in their own homes and collect food. But, establishing a soup kitchen, staffing it and supervising the cooking of the soup entailed more effort than some unions were prepared to take and many places were left without this life-saving option.
The soup kitchen system, when it finally got under way, worked reasonably well, although there were several abuses. At the local level, the soup kitchens were under the control of the Poor Law Unions, and a District Relief Committee was responsible at the smaller unit of the electoral division. But, in some areas of need, far more people were listed as being in need of food than had actually ever lived there and, as a result, those areas got a disproportionate amount of food. Another abuse of the system involved some of the food being given to working farm labourers, because their employers pretended to dismiss them so they could claim it, while they continued privately employ them.
Under the terms of the Act the food aid, was of course, strictly supposed to go only to the infirm, the destitute unemployed, and destitute landholders. To ensure this there was a long list of rules and regulations drawn up. In the first instance, those applying for relief were classed into four categories – (i) the destitute, helpless and impotent; (ii) destitute, able-bodied though not holding land; (iii) destitute, able-bodied and holders of small tracts of land; (iv) earners of a very small wage. Finally, with only the destitute to be fed free, those earning wages which were insufficient to purchase food at market prices could receive relief at low cost. Children aged nine years and under, meanwhile, were given half rations.
Some officials would feel free to break the rules for good reasons. They realised that no matter how poor and desperate a person was, they would prefer to avoid claiming food aid because of the shame they felt having to stand in line. Another of the rules said that all able-bodied members of a family had to come to the soup kitchen before any of them could be fed, but in practice the local committees were often satisfied if just one member of each family came and collected the food for all.
The regulations that specified the permitted food rations varied from place to place, while what actually constituted soup also became a matter for debate. But, in a majority of places, the soup that was given out was called 'Stirabout', which was a mixture of two-thirds Indian meal and one-third rice or oatmeal, cooked with water. It was also about this time when one of the most well-established legends of the Great Famine began to spread. "Souperism", was allegedly a tactic that ensured people were only given the soup if they gave up their Catholic faith and became Protestant. This practice, however, was not widespread and only appears to have applied to privately-run soup kitchens that had been established by over-enthusiastic Protestants. The number of incidents were very few, and there were very few of these soup kitchens, the majority being found mainly in Connemara and West Kerry. It was alleged that these Protestant zealots would serve meat soup on Fridays (when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat) or would refuse to give out soup unless people came to a Protestant church or bible class. Starvation, of course, persuaded some of the people to pretend that they would give up their long-held Catholic faith, but such 'conversions' did not last very long.
Meanwhile, Trevelyan was becoming increasingly hopeful that the British Government could now begin to move away from having to provide famine relief in Ireland. If the new system worked, it could be run entirely by Ireland, from Irish resources. But, it was obvious that he did not seem to have any idea of how poor Irish resources were, or how difficult it was to collect any money, or how great was the load of debt that each Poor Law Union was already carrying.
In fact, the main problem with the Poor Rate was that it was very localised. Each locality zealously dealt only with the problems of its own area, and for those poorer areas of the country it was almost impossible to produce any meaningful amounts of money at all. Those areas, which were considered wealthier and would still have had some money available, were strongly against using ‘their’ money to help the less fortunate Unions that found themselves in difficulties.
The relief committees worked miracles day after day under the circumstances that prevailed. They had to cope with scenes of intense distress and misery as they were met every morning by crowds of thousands of people, who were just those that had strength to walk. Men and women dropped dead where they stood, and they fought and shrieked to get near the head of the line, where the stronger would snatch the food from the weaker. Even the Quakers, who were among the most hard-working of the soup kitchen organisers, were now beginning to feel overwhelmed by events. It appeared to all that no matter how much anyone did, they were only scratching the surface of the need which existed.
Something else was required and, after much discussion, it was decided that some changes in the Poor Law Act were required. Whatever changes the Government needed would have to be major changes, since it was obvious that simple tinkering with the existing system was going to be of no use. The fact was that there were not enough financial resources in Ireland, by itself, to deal with the unimaginable scale of misery and distress which had now been reached. The new Poor Act, or Extension Act, would introduce the name of Mr. William Henry Gregory, who was a member of Parliament for the City of Dublin, and afterwards for the County of Galway. He would remain forever associated with this measure, because of two clauses which he had succeeded in having incorporated within it.
The first of these clauses was that any tenant, rated at a net value not exceeding £5, and who would give up to his landlord, the possession of his land, should be assisted to emigrate by the Guardians of his Union. At the same time, the landlord was to forego any claim for rent, and to provide two-thirds of such a fair and reasonable sum as might be necessary for the emigration of the tenant and his family. The Guardians were empowered to pay to the emigrating family, any sum that did not exceed half the amount that the landlord should give, with the same to be levied off the rates. This clause was proposed and carried in the interest of the landlord clearing system, yet it was agreed to without what could be called even a show of opposition.
The second clause, known as 'the quarter-acre clause', was to bring Mr. Gregory enduring fame, as an Irish legislator. It stated: "And be it further enacted, that no person who shall be in the occupation, whether under lease or agreement, or as tenant at will, or from year to year, or in any other manner whatever, of any land of greater extent than the quarter of a statute acre, shall be deemed and taken to be a destitute poor person under the provisions of this Act, or of any former Act of Parliament. Nor shall it be lawful for any Board of Guardians to grant any relief whatever, in or out of the Workhouse, to any such occupier, his wife or children. And if any person, having been such occupier as aforesaid, shall apply to any Board of Guardians for relief as a destitute poor person, it shall not be lawful for such Guardians to grant such relief, until they shall be satisfied that such person has, bona fide, and without collusion, absolutely parted with and surrendered any right or title which he may have had to the occupation of any land over and above such extent as aforesaid, of one quarter of a statute acre."
Through this carefully prepared clause, the head of a family who happened to hold a single foot of ground measuring over one rood, was put outside the relief guidelines, along with his whole family. It was the perfect means for the slaughter and expatriation of an entire people. The previous clause offered facilities for emigrating to those who would give up their land, while ‘the quarter acre clause’ compelled them to give it up or die of hunger. Mr. Gregory had, he told the House, originally intended to insert "half an acre" in the clause, but he was over-ruled. He had, he said, recently been in Ireland, and people there who had more knowledge of the subject than he, told him that half an acre was too extensive and so he made it a quarter of an acre. The clause was singularly designed to help the landlords to clear the paupers off their estates for good. There is no doubt, therefore, that it was the landlords who insisted on this clause being included, because the government had not looked for it.
In summer of 1847, whilst soup kitchen relief was at its peak, the government was steering through parliament major changes to the Poor Law. The ensuing debate in parliament had dominated British political life during the early part of 1847, moving the Irish Famine to the centre stage of parliamentary issues. The great determination shown by the Whig Party to end Irish dependence on British resources was undoubtedly influenced by the approach of a general election in that summer of 1847. But, the Government’s decision to make the Poor Law responsible for the provision of all relief after August 1847, and the corresponding transfer of the fiscal burden from central to local resources was viewed with alarm by many Irish landlords. The Poor Law, with its dependence on local taxation, was seen as an effective means of penalising landlords who were absentee or had allowed their estates to become sub-divided.
At the same time, to facilitate the extended role of the Poor Law, outdoor relief was permitted. It was, however, subject to various controls and could only be provided with the prior consent of the Poor Law Commissioners. All of this meant that entitlement to relief was to be more restricted than it had been in the previous two years. But, of equal importance, this new legislation also extended the powers of the central commissioners, and provided them with the authority to dismiss recalcitrant boards of guardians.
Elsewhere, controversy surrounded whether the soup kitchens should supply cooked or uncooked food for several reasons. Firstly, the opportunities for fraud were great. Secondly, recipients all too often sold their uncooked rations to purchase tea, tobacco or alcohol. Thirdly, the Central Board of Health provided practical grounds for issuing cooked food. It pointed out that, through ignorance or lack of fuel, paupers tried to eat raw Indian meal and then suffered intestinal disorders. Fourthly, experience had shown that only the destitute applied for cooked food rations, and so cooking was an effective way of keeping costs down. Moreover, if the soup kitchens gave out cooked food only, it could not be hoarded or sold on, and so this now became the rule. At first people were very reluctant to take cooked food, no matter how hungry they were. It was seen by some as being shameful to have to stand in line, carrying a pot or a bowl, to wait for your number to be called. In a very short time the only food aid available to the hungry people was in cooked form. Despite this fact, the widespread sense of humiliation felt by the majority of the destitute meant that fewer people claimed the aid available to them. These people were willing to starve to death rather than sacrifice their pride. All these things meant that more savings were made with the new relief system.
Close your eyes now and try to imagine crowds of literally thousands of men and women who, with increasingly fewer children and old people, thronged around the workhouse gates and the soup kitchens. Many of these poor people were so weak from hunger that they fainted when they got some food in their stomachs. Others, however, failed to reach any place where they could be helped. Numerous dead bodies were found on the roads, in the ditches, and under the trees. Their friends had no strength to bury them, and, in all honesty, no longer cared to do so. They were more concerned for their own survival.
“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.