AT THE beginning of the year 1845 the state of Ireland was, as it had been for nearly seven hundred years, a source of grave anxiety to England. Ireland had first been invaded in 1169; it was now 1845, yet she had been neither assimilated nor subdued. The country had been conquered not once but several times, the land had been confiscated and redistributed over and over again, the population had been brought to the verge of extinction — after Cromwell’s conquest and settlement only some half million Irish survived — yet an Irish nation still existed, separate, numerous, and hostile.
The hostility between England and Ireland, which more than six centuries had failed to extinguish, had its roots first of all in race. After the first invasions, the first conquests, the Irish hated the English with the hatred of the defeated and the dispossessed. Nevertheless, eventually the English and the Irish might have fused as the English and the Scots, the English and the Welsh have for practical purposes fused, had it not been that in the sixteenth century racial animosity was disastrously strengthened by religious enmity.
The crucial event was the Reformation. The ideas of liberty which the English cherish and the history of their country’s rise to greatness are bound up with Protestantism, while Ireland, alone among the countries of Northern Europe, was scarcely touched by the Reformation. The gulf which resulted could never be bridged. In the political division of Europe which followed the Reformation, England and Ireland were on opposing sides. Henceforward, Irish aspirations could only be fulfilled, Irish faith could only flourish through the defeat of England and the triumph of her enemies.
So completely is the history of the one country the reverse of the history of the other that the very names which to an Englishman mean glory, victory, and prosperity to an Irishman spell degradation, misery, and ruin. In Ireland the name of Elizabeth I stands only for the horrors of her Irish conquest; in the defeat of the Armada, Ireland’s hopes of independence went down; above all, with the name of William III and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the very foundation of British liberties, the Catholic Irishman associates only the final subjugation of his country and the degradation and injustice of the penal laws. Freedom for the one meant slavery for the other; victory for the one meant defeat for the other; the good of the one was the evil of the other. Ireland, resentful and hostile, lying only a day’s sail, in fine weather, from Britain’s coasts, for centuries provided a refuge for enemy agents, a hatching ground for enemy plots; her motto was “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,” and in every crisis of England’s history she seized the moment of weakness to stab her enemy in the back. It is the explanation, if not the excuse, for the ferocity with which the English have treated Ireland.
In the 1840s, after nearly seven hundred years of English domination, Irish poverty and Irish misery appalled the traveler. Housing conditions were wretched beyond words. The census of 1841 graded houses in Ireland into four classes; the fourth and lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room; “nearly half of the families of the rural population,” reported the census commissioners, “are living in the lowest state.” In parts of the west of Ireland, more than three fifths of the houses were one-room windowless mud cabins, and west of a line drawn from Londonderry to Cork the proportion was two fifths.
Furniture was a luxury; the inhabitants of Tullahobagly, County Donegal, numbering about 9000, had in 1837 only 10 beds, 93 chairs, and 243 stools among them. Pigs slept with their owners, manure heaps choked doors, sometimes even stood inside; the evicted and unemployed put roofs over ditches, burrowed into banks, existing in bog holes.
All this wretchedness and misery could almost without exception be traced to a single source — the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland, a system produced by centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, confiscations, and punitive legislation.
In 1843 the British government, recognizing that the land question was at the root of Irish discontent, set up a royal commission “to inquire into the law and practice with regard to the occupation of land in Ireland.” This commission, called the Devon Commission after its chairman, the Earl of Devon, visited every part of Ireland, examined 1100 witnesses, printed three huge volumes of evidence, and made its report in February, 1845, a few months before the outbreak of the famine.
The report of the Devon Commission stated that the principal cause of Irish misery was the bad relations between landlord and tenant. Ireland was a conquered country, the Irish peasant a dispossessed man, his landlord an alien conqueror. There was no paternalism such as existed in England, no hereditary loyalty or feudal tie.
With some notable exceptions — whose names survive and are regarded with affection in Ireland today — the successive owners of the soil of Ireland regarded it merely as a source from which to extract as much money as possible, and since a hostile, backward country is neither a safe nor an agreeable place in which to live, from the first conquests the absentee landlord was common in Ireland. Rents were spent in England or on the Continent; in 1842 it was estimated that six million pounds of rents were being remitted out of Ireland, and Kohl, the German traveler, commented on the mansions of absentee landlords, standing “stately, silent, empty.” Absentee estates, however, were by no means always the worst managed; and some, in particular the properties of great English territorial magnates — for instance, the estates of the Duke of Devonshire — were models. But too often owners visited property in Ireland only once or twice in a lifetime, sometimes not at all; as Colonel Gonolly of Kildare and Donegal told a Select Committee of the House of Lords in 1846, “Where the landlords have never seen their estates, you can hardly suppose that their sympathies are very strong for sufferings they have never witnessed.” Meanwhile, almost absolute power was left in the hands of an agent, whose ability was measured by the amount of money he could contrive to extract.
Whether the Irish peasant held under a middleman, a resident, or an absentee landlord, the terms on which he occupied his land were harsh; and two provisions in particular, the two “monster grievances” of Ireland, deprived him of incentive and security.
First, any improvement he made to his holding became, when his lease expired or was terminated, the property of the landlord, without compensation. Second, he very seldom had any security of tenure; the majority of tenants in Ireland were tenants “at will” — that is, the will of the landlord, who could turn them out whenever he chose.
WRETCHED though their condition might be, the pre-famine Irish peasants were not gloomy. “Their natural condition,” wrote Sir Walter Scott during his visit to Ireland in 1825, “is turned towards gaiety and happiness,” and the census commissioners noted “the proverbial gaiety and lightheartedness of the peasant people.”
Dancing was the universal diversion, and Lord George Hill, who owned property in Donegal, has left an account of moving a cabin with dancing and fiddling. “The custom on such occasions is for the person who has the work to be. done to hire a fiddler, upon which engagement all the neighbours joyously assemble and carry in an incredibly short time the stones and timber upon their backs to the new site; men, women and children alternately dancing and working while daylight lasts, at the termination of which they adjourn to some dwelling where they finish the night, often prolonging the dance to dawn of day.” Arthur Young, at the end of the eighteenth century, commented on the fine physique of the average Irishman and the good looks of Irish women, and even after the sufferings of the famine, Nassau Senior, the economist, revisiting Ireland, was “struck by the beauty of the population.”
The culture of the potato required little attention except at springtime and harvest, and through the long winter nights the people sat within their cabins, fiddling, talking, and telling stories. Firing, in the shape of turf— peat cut from the bog and costing little or nothing — was plentiful. ”Few, if any, had any reason to complain of cold,” records a manuscript, and poteen, illicit whiskey, was plentiful too. Groups of neighbors gathered for dancing to the fiddle, indoors in the winter, in summer at the crossroads; wakes, with liberal potations of poteen, were social occasions; and crowds gaily traveled immense distances to attend markets, fairs, and above all, races.
Good manners and hospitality were universal among the poorest Irish. “The neighbour or the stranger finds every man’s door open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time and to partake of his bowl of potatoes, is always sure to give pleasure to everyone of the house,” wrote Sir John Carr, a Devonshire gentleman who toured Ireland soon after the Union; and twenty years later, Sir Walter Scott found “perpetual kindness in the Irish cabin; buttermilk, potatoes, a stool is offered, or a stone is rolled that your honour may sit down . . . and those that beg everywhere else seem desirous to exercise hospitality in their own houses.”
Irish dignity, Irish hospitality, and the easy good manners which still charm the modern traveler have a historical explanation. Three times, at least, the native aristocracy was conquered and dispossessed; many fled from Ireland to exile in France or Spain, but many others remained, to be forced down by poverty and penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry.
AN OPPRESSED and poverty-stricken population in Ireland was already giving signs of future tragedy when a new development made catastrophe inevitable. Between sixty and seventy years before the potato famine, the population of Ireland began and continued to increase at a rate previously unknown in the history of Europe. Why this took place has yet to be fully explained. Demography, the science which deals with the statistics of birth, death, and disease, is a relatively new science, and the waves of population growth which from time to time pass over the world are not yet fully understood. In the case of Ireland, information is lacking; births were not compulsorily registered until 1863, and though the practice of taking a ten-year census began in 1821, the first figures considered reliable are those of 1841.
It is, however, agreed by all authorities that about the year 1780 the population of Ireland began to take an extraordinary upward leap. The increase between 1779 and 1841 has been placed at the almost incredible figure of 172 percent.
During the same period a rapid increase also took place in the population of England and Wales. It is customary to ascribe this to the spread of industrialization, resulting in improved communications and more towns with better opportunities for social intercourse and early marriage; to a more general adoption of vaccination, with a consequent reduction of deaths from smallpox; and in some degree to improved cleanliness and medical care. More adults lived to old age; more babies were born and fewer died.
But this cannot apply to Ireland. Little can have been effected by medical care in a country which in 1841 possessed only thirty-nine infirmaries, apart from hospitals for fever, venereal, ophthalmic, and maternity patients, to serve a population officially calculated at more than eight million, where the only medical aid available to the mass of the people was a limited number of dispensaries. Nor can the growth of towns and the improvement of communications have played much part in the bogs, the mountains, and the lonely cabins of the west; yet Mayo, in Connaught, poorest and most remote of counties, had the largest rural population in Ireland.
Still, certain circumstances favorable to population increase were present in Ireland during this period. First, and most important, there was an abundant supply of incredibly cheap food, easily obtained, in the potato, and the standard of living of the time was such that a diet of potatoes was no great hardship. With the addition of milk or buttermilk, potatoes form a scientifically satisfactory diet, as the physique of the pre-famine Irish proved.
Next, far from acting as a deterrent, the miserably low standards of Irish life encouraged young couples to marry early. No savings were necessary, no outlay was required; a cabin was erected for little or nothing in a few days; the young couple secured a scrap of land, owned a pot, perhaps a stool, not always a bed. Marriages were “daily contracted with the most reckless improvidence. Boys and girls marry literally without habitation or any means of support, trusting, as they say, to Providence as others have done before them.” In fact, nothing was to be gained by waiting. Asked why the Irish married so young, the Catholic bishop of Raphoe told the Irish Poor Enquiry of 1835: “They cannot be worse off than they are and . . . they may help each other.”
The Irish are fond of children, and family feeling is exceptionally strong. Moreover, in pre-famine Ireland children were a necessity. A Poor Law did not begin to operate until 1838, and then its provisions were limited; thus, a man and woman’s insurance against destitution in old age was their children.
There was too, barbarous and half savage though conditions might be, one luxury enjoyed by the Irishman which favored the survival and rearing of children — his cabin was usually well warmed by a turf fire. Ill clothed though he was, sleeping as he did on a mud floor, with his pig in the corner, the Irish peasant did not have to endure cold, nor did his children die of cold. They were warm, they were abundantly fed — as long as the potato did not fail.
By 1841, when a census was taken, the population had reached 8,175,124, and Disraeli declared that Ireland was the most densely populated country in Europe; on arable land, he asserted, the population was denser than that of China.
For this closely packed and rapidly increasing people the only outlet, with the exception of parts of Ulster, was the land. Ireland had never been industrialized; such deposits of coal and iron as she possessed were “unfortunately of more significance to the geologist than the economist,” and in 1845 the few industries she did possess were moribund. A remnant of the famous Dublin poplin weavers worked fifteen hours a day for about twelve shillings a week; in the once-prosperous woolen industry, production had fallen about 50 percent in the last twenty years, and three quarters of the frieze, thick woolen cloth worn by the peasantry, was dumped by England. The fisheries of Ireland, too, were undeveloped, and in Galway and Mayo the herring fishermen were too poor to buy salt with which to preserve a catch. Unless an Irish laborer could get hold of a patch of land and grow potatoes on which to feed himself and his children, the family starved.
The consequence was the doom of Ireland. The land was divided and subdivided again and again, and holdings were split into smaller and still smaller fragments, until families were attempting to existon plots of less than an acre, in some cases half an acre.
Farms had already been divided by middlemen and landlords, but the subdivision which preceded the famine was carried out by the people themselves, frequently against the landlord’s will. As the population increased and the demand for a portion of ground grew more and more frantic, land became like gold in Ireland. Parents allowed their children to occupy a portion of their holdings because the alternative was to turn them out to starve; the children, in turn, allowed occupation by their children, and in a comparatively short time three, six, or even ten families were settled on land which could provide food for only one family.
The possession of a piece of land was literally the difference between life and death. “Ejectment,” the House of Commons was told in April, 1846, “is tantamount to a sentence of death by slow torture.” Turned off the land, evicted families wandered about begging, “miserable and turbulent.” Since no employment existed, they crowded the already swarming lanes and slums of the towns, lived in ditches by the roadside until, wasted by disease and hardship, “they die in a little time.”
THE whole of this structure, the minute subdivisions, the closely packed population existing at the lowest level, the high rents, the frantic competition for land, had been produced by the potato. The potato, provided it did not fail, enabled great quantities of food to be produced at a trifling cost from a small plot of ground. Subdivision could never have taken place without the potato; an acre and a hall would provide a family of five or six with food for twelve months, while to grow the equivalent grain required an acreage four to six times as large and some knowledge of tillage as well. Only a spade was needed for the primitive method of potato culture usually practiced in Ireland. Trenches were dug, and beds, called “lazy beds,” made; the potato sets were laid on the ground and earthed up from the trenches; when the shoots appeared, they were earthed up again. This method, regarded by the English with contempt, was in fact admirably suited to the moist soil of Ireland. The trenches provided drainage, and crops could be grown in wet ground, while cultivation by the spade enabled potatoes to be grown on mountainsides, where no plow could be used. As the population expanded, potatoes in lazy beds were pushed out into the bog and up the mountain, where no other cultivation would have been possible.
The potato was, moreover, the most universally useful of foods. Pigs, cattle, and fowl could be raised on it, using the tubers which were too small for family use; it was simple to cook; it produced fine children; as a diet, it did not pall. Yet it was the most dangerous of crops. It did not keep, nor could it be stored from one season to another. Thus, every year the nearly two and a half million laborers who had no regular employment more or less starved in the summer, when the old potatoes were finished and the new had not come in. It was for this reason that June, July, and August were called the “meal months”; there was always the danger that potatoes would run out and meal would have to be eaten instead. The laborers would then have to buy it on credit, at exorbitant prices, from the petty dealer and usurer who was the scourge of the Irish village — the dreaded “gombeen-man.”
More serious still, if the potato did fail, neither meal nor anything else could replace it. There could be no question of resorting to an equally cheap food—no such food existed; nor could potato cultivation be replaced, except after a long period, by the cultivation of any other food.
In 1844 a report was received that in North America a disease hitherto unknown had attacked the potato crop. The potato of the mid-nineteenth century, not yet even partially immunized against disease by scientific breeding, was singularly liable to failure. The unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact in Ireland, ranking with the vagaries of the weather, and in 1845 the possibility of yet another failure caused no particular alarm.
At the beginning of July of that year, the potato crop promised remarkably well; the weather was then dry and hot. The abrupt change which followed, extraordinary even for the fickle climate of Ireland, brought for upward of three weeks “one continued gloom,” with low temperatures and “a succession of most chilling rains and some fog.” Nevertheless, at the end of July the crop was still exceptionally heavy, and on July 23 the Freeman’s Journal reported that “the poor man’s property, the potato crop, was never before so large and at the same time so abundant.”
The first disquieting news came from an unexpected quarter. At the beginning of August, Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, received a letter from the Isle of Wight, as famous for its market gardens as anywhere in the south of England, reporting that disease had appeared in the potato crop there. This was the first recorded evidence that the blight which had recently ravaged the potato crop in North America had crossed the Atlantic.
The British government was anxious not only for Ireland but for England. During the previous fifty years potatoes had assumed a dangerous importance in the diet of the English laboring classes. Hard times, the blockade during the Napoleonic Wars, the unemployment and wage cutting which followed the declaration of peace after Waterloo had been gradually forcing the English laborer to eat potatoes in place of bread. A failure would be serious enough for England, but for Ireland it would be disaster, and Ireland loomed in every mind — wretched, rebellious, and utterly dependent on the potato.
It was only a question of time before the blight spread to Ireland, and on September 13 Dr. John Lindley, editor of the Gardener’s Chronicle and Horticultural Gazette, held up publication of the magazine to make a dramatic announcement. “We stop the Press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing . . . where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?”
Nevertheless, through the next few weeks the British government was optimistic. Very likely the failure would be local, as had often happened in the past; and the Home Secretary, who “repeatedly" requested information from Ireland, was receiving many favorable reports. These were explained later by the sporadic nature of the failure of 1845; “the country is like a checkerboard,” wrote a government official, “black and white next door. Hence the contradictory reports.” It was, too, the habitual policy of British governments to discount the veracity of news from Ireland; “there is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable,” wrote Sir Robert Peel on October 13, 1845.
IT HAS been proved that the organism of the blight fungus is so sensitive to heat and drought that its spread for any considerable distance by air currents is impossible, and the blight fungus almost certainly reached Europe in a diseased tuber carried in a ship from North America. Contemporary scientists attributed blight to the wetness of the summer, and they were very nearly right. Though rain and damp are not the cause of blight, without them the fungus does not multiply rapidly. Consequently, in a dry summer there is little blight, and the fungus, though present, is more or less dormant. It is when the atmosphere is moist and muggy that spore production reaches its height, and the blight fungus spreads with such rapidity that potato fields seem to be ruined overnight. The soft, warm climate of Ireland, particularly in the west, with its perpetual light rains and mild breezes, provides ideal conditions for the spread of the fungus.
The blight fungus also infects potatoes after digging, a source of despair and bewilderment in 1845. The top and foliage of a plant can be destroyed by blight while the potatoes in the ground beneath may be sound; either the potatoes were too well covered with earth for the blight spore to reach them or, as was frequently the case in Ireland, rain was light and did not wash the spore containers down through the soil. But even so, danger of infection is not over; countless thousands of live spore containers are on the leaves of surrounding plants, and as the potatoes are dug they are showered with spores. If the weather is dry no harm is done, but if it is moist the spore containers find the drop of water they must have to germinate, and within a few hours the fungus is active, growing rapidly through the tubers.
As digging of the potato crop progressed, the news from Ireland grew steadily worse, and the Constabulary Reports of October 15, 1845, were the gloomiest yet forwarded. In Antrim the failure was more serious than at first supposed; Armagh had hardly a sound potato; in the south, Bantry and Clonakilty reported great failure; in Bandon and Kinsale disease was extending, while in the fertile midlands and Kildare blight had appeared. In Wicklow, where the clouds broke on the mountains in rain, potatoes grown between the sea and the mountains were diseased to an alarming extent. In Monaghan, Tyrone, and several other counties it was reported that “potatoes bought a few days ago, seemingly remarkably good, have rotted.”
The soundness of the potato when first dug was responsible for bewildering contradictions. Optimists, delighted to witness the digging of what seemed a splendid crop, hastened to send off glowing accounts. In almost every case, hope was short-lived. Within a few days the fine-looking tubers had become a stinking mass of corruption, and growers began to flood the market with potatoes, anxious to get rid of them before the rot set in.
PEEL decided to set up a scientific commission in Ireland to investigate what science could do to save the potato. Dr. Lindley agreed to serve with Dr. Lyon Playfair, a chemist of considerable reputation, and they crossed immediately to Dublin. In addition, Peel arranged for the cooperation and assistance of an Irish Catholic scientist of eminence, Professor Robert Kane, knighted in 1846, who was already making an investigation of the potato disease on behalf of the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society for Ireland and had recently published an important book, The Industrial Resources of Ireland.
No deliberation was necessary. The briefest possible inquiry was sufficient for the professors to become alarmed, and the scientific commissioners estimated that half the potato crop of Ireland either had been already destroyed or would shortly perish. Thus, to find a method of preventing potatoes sound when dug from rotting was of overwhelming importance. A number of suggestions were now put forward by the commissioners, none of which worked.
Seventy thousand copies of these well-meant suggestions were printed by the government and circulated to local agricultural committees, to newspapers, and to parish priests, who received thirty copies each. This was only a beginning. For between October 26 and November 12 the “untiring industry” of the commissioners produced in rapid succession what the Times called “four monster reports,” as well as two statements dated from the Royal Dublin Society and addressed to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. After having been in Ireland somewhat less than three weeks, the men of science returned to London.
Meanwhile, apart from the appointment of the men of science, the government had taken no steps, and on October 28 a meeting was called by a committee of the Dublin Corporation, under the chairmanship of the lord mayor. Three days later a meeting of citizens was called, which appointed a committee presided over by the Duke of Leinster. On November 3 a deputation of the highest respectability waited on the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury, to urge him to adopt measures “to avert calamity.” The deputation included the Duke of Leinster, Daniel O’Connell, Lord Cloncurry, the lord mayor of Dublin, Henry Grattan, son of the famous patriot, Sir James Murray, John Augustus O’Neill, and some twenty others.
Their proposals, drawn up by O’Connell, called for the immediate stoppage of the export of corn and provisions and for the prohibition of distilling and brewing from grain; the ports should be thrown open for the free import of food and rice and Indian corn imported from the colonies; relief machinery must be set up in every county, stores of food established, and employment provided on works of public utility. It was proposed that the cost be met by a tax of 10 percent on the rental of resident landlords and from 20 to 50 percent on that of absentees. In addition, a loan of £1,500,000 should be raised on the security of the proceeds of Irish woods and forests.
The Lord Lieutenant received the deputation “very coldly” and read aloud a prepared reply. Reports on the potato crop varied and at times contradicted each other, and it was impossible to form an accurate opinion of the extent of the failure until digging was completed. The proposals submitted by the deputation would at once be placed before the government, but the greater part of them required new legislation, and all must be “maturely weighed.” As soon as Lord Heytesbury “had concluded reading, he began bowing the deputation out.”
As the news worsened, Sir Robert Peel took a bold step. On November 9 or 10 he ordered, acting on his own responsibility and without waiting for Treasury sanction, £100,000 to be spent on Indian corn, to be purchased in the United States and shipped to Ireland. His purchase of Indian corn proved the decisive factor in relieving the distress of 1845-1846, but the subsequent value to Ireland of Peel’s boldness, independence, and strength of mind was unfortunately outweighed by his belief in an economic theory which almost every politician of the day, Whig or Tory, held with religious fervor.
This theory, usually termed laissez-faire (let people do as they think best), insisted that in the economic sphere individuals should be allowed to pursue their own interests and asserted that the government should interfere as little as possible. Not only were the rights of property sacred; private enterprise was revered and respected and given almost complete liberty; and on this theory, which, incidentally, gave the employer and the landlord freedom to exploit their fellowmen, the prosperity of nineteenth-century England had unquestionably been based.
The influence of laissez-faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by government, and the behavior of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered government intervention are borne in mind.
The loss of the potato crop was, therefore, to be made good without government interference, by the operation of private enterprise and private firms using the normal channels of commerce. The government was not to appear in food markets as a buyer; there were to be “no disturbance of the ordinary course of trade” and “no complaints from private traders” on account of government competition.
The flaw in the plan was the undeveloped state of the food and provision trade in a great part of Ireland. Large numbers of people, especially in the west and southwest, hardly purchased food at all; they grew potatoes and lived on them. Shops and organizations for importing foodstuffs and distributing them on the English model were generally found only in more prosperous districts in northeast Ulster, Dublin, some places in eastern Ireland, and the larger towns, like Cork. Where relief would be most needed, the means by which it was to be supplied seldom existed.
Peel’s plan, nevertheless, was farseeing and ingenious. He intended to use the Indian corn he had bought as a weapon to keep prices down. It was to be held in reserve, controlled by government, and a supply thrown in whenever prices rose unreasonably. At no time did he contemplate attempting to feed on Indian corn all those who had lost their potatoes; that loss has been estimated by a modern authority at a value in money of £3,500,000, and £100,000 of Indian corn could not conceivably replace it.
Indian corn was purchased because doing so did not interfere with private enterprise. No trade in Indian corn existed; it was virtually unknown as a food in Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom and was neither imported nor bought and sold. Moreover, it had the immense advantage of being cheap, one of the cheapest foods on which a human being could keep alive.
ALL expenditure required Treasury sanction — the money to be spent on famine relief, the expenses of the relief commission, the grants for Poor Law, for public works, for medical services; and at the Treasury, standing guard over the British nation’s moneybags, was the formidable figure of Charles Edward Trevelyan.
The official title of Trevelyan was assistant secretary, but he was in fact the permanent head of the Treasury, and owing to his remarkable abilities and the structure of British administration, which results in a capable permanent official’s exercising a high degree of power, he was able to influence policy to a remarkable extent.
Trevelyan was by far the ablest man concerned with Irish relief, and, unaffected by changes of government and policy, he remained a dominant figure throughout the famine years. He had been brought up in what was known as the Clapham Sect, not a religious body but a number of highly cultivated families (including the Wilberforces and the Thorntons of Battersea Rise) who lived around Clapham Common and were distinguished for their philanthropic and evangelical views. Trevelyan, who was of rigid integrity, delighted in reading chapters of the Bible aloud in a “deep sonorous voice.”
At the outset of his career, when he was no more than twenty-one, in India he risked his future by publicly denouncing his superior, a very powerful and popular man, for taking bribes. “A perfect storm was raised against the accuser,” wrote Macaulay, who was in India at the time and knew Trevelyan well. “He was almost everywhere abused and very generally cut. But, with a firmness and ability scarcely ever seen in a man so young, he brought his proofs forward, and, after an inquiry of some weeks, fully made out his case.” His superior was dismissed with ignominy and Trevelyan himself was applauded “in the highest terms,” though Lord William Bentinck, GovernorGeneral of India, remarked, “That man is almost always on the right side in every question; and it is well that he is so, for he gives a most confounded deal of trouble when he happens to take the wrong one.”
Seven years later Trevelyan married Macaulay’s idolized sister, Hannah, in India. At the time of the marriage, Macaulay, who was greatly attached to Trevelyan, wrote: “He has no small talk. His mind is full of schemes of moral and political improvement, and his zeal boils over in his talk. His topics, even in courtship, are steam navigation, the education of the natives, the equalization of the sugar duties, the substitution of the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in Oriental languages.” His temper was pronounced “very sweet,” his religious feelings ardent, but he was rash and uncompromising in public affairs, and his manner was blunt, almost to roughness, and at times awkward.
At the beginning of the famine, Trevelyan was thirty-eight, at the height of his powers and immensely conscientious, and he had an obsession for work. Though his integrity was absolute and he had a strong sense of justice, he was not the right man to undertake Ireland. He disapproved of the Irish; the cast of his mind, his good qualities were such as to make him impatient with the Irish character. His mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself that what he proposed to do was ethical and justified, he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained, but also blinded, by his conviction of doing right.
When the first relief commission started work in November, 1845, the influence of Trevelyan was limited; his relations with Peel on Ireland were not good. Peel himself laid down the policy for the relief commission, and the instructions for putting it into effect were drawn up by Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary. Within a few months, however, Trevelyan had become director and virtually dictator of Irish relief.
The consequences of a potato failure are not immediate: “The first effect of the disease is not scarcity, but plenty, owing to the people’s anxiety to dispose of their potatoes before they become useless.” It was not until five or six months after a failure that famine began, after every scrap of food, every partially diseased potato, every fragment that was conceivably edible by human beings had disappeared.
The commissioners, then, had an interval to prepare. They were to “ascertain the extent of the deficiency and watch approaching famine, even in the most remote localities” and to “assist in devising the necessary measures for the employment of the people and their relief.”
The relief plan devised by Peel fell into four parts. The first and most important was the organization of local efforts: the relief commissioners were instructed to form committees of local landowners or their agents, magistrates, clergy, and residents of importance. These committees would raise funds, out of which food was to be bought for resale to distressed persons, or in urgent cases given free. Local employment schemes were to be started, and landlords persuaded to give increased employment on their estates. The government pinned its faith on the landlords. “Our main reliance,” said Peel, “must be placed on the cooperation of the landed interest with local aid.”
The second part of the plan depended on the Irish Board of Works; it was to create extra employment by making new roads, a traditional undertaking for the provision of famine relief.
The third part was concerned with “destitute poor persons affected by fever”; in previous famines the British government had learned that fever always followed scarcity in Ireland. Fever patients might be maintained in a fever hospital, or a house could be hired for their reception, or they could be put in a separate building in the grounds of the local workhouse, but not in the workhouse itself.
Finally, the sale of the government Indian corn would keep down food prices; as soon as they rose unreasonably, a sufficient quantity of the Indian corn was to be thrown on the market to bring them down. Trevelyan conducted “Indian corn experiments” on himself, eating the meal as stirabout (porridge) and in cakes, and he arranged for a halfpenny pamphlet to be prepared, with simple instructions for cooking.
In the long and troubled history of England and Ireland, no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. “During all the famine years,” wrote John Mitchel, the Irish revolutionary, “Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people”; yet, he asserted, a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was “sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo.”
At first sight the inhumanity of exporting food from a country stricken by famine seems impossible to justify or condone. Modern Irish historians, however, have treated the subject with generosity and restraint. They have pointed out that the grain grown in Ireland before the famine was not sufficient to feed the people if they had depended on it alone, that imports must be examined as well as exports; in fact, when the famine was at its worst, four times as much wheat came into Ireland as was exported, and in addition almost 40,000 tons of Indian corn and 50,000 tons of Indian meal.
Suppose, however, the grain and other produce had been kept in the country; it is doubtful if the starving would have benefited substantially. The districts where distress was most severe — Donegal, Mayo, Clare, West Cork — produced little but potatoes. Food from other districts would have had to be brought in and distributed. Grain would have had to be milled, which, as the British government had discovered, was a difficult problem.
Moreover, in the backward areas where famine struck hardest, cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art. “There is,” wrote Trevelyan, “scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato. Bread is scarcely ever seen, and an oven is unknown”; and Father Mathew, the celebrated apostle of temperance, whose crusade against drinking had for a time almost suppressed the national vice and whose knowledge of Ireland was unmatched, wrote, “The potato deluge during the past twenty years has swept away all other food from our cottagers and sunk into oblivion their knowledge of cookery.” There was no means of distributing homegrown food, no knowledge of how to use it, and in addition, the small Irish farmer was compelled by economic necessity to sell what he grew. He dared not eat it.
Sir Randolph Routh, the chairman of the relief commission, writing to Trevelyan on January 1, 1846, told him that the Irish people did not regard wheat, oats, and barley as food; they were grown to pay the rent, and to pay the rent was the first necessity of life in Ireland. It would be a desperate man who ate up his rent, with the certainty before him of eviction.
Nevertheless, the harsh truth that the poverty of the Irish peasant, the backward state of his country, and the power of his landlord prevented him from benefiting from homegrown food did not mitigate his burning sense of injustice. Forced by economic necessity to sell his produce, he was furiously resentful when food left the market towns under the eyes of the hungry populace, protected by a military escort of overwhelming strength. From Waterford, the Commissariat officer wrote to Trevelyan on April 24, 1846, “The barges leave Clonmel once a week for this place, with the export supplies under convoy which, last Tuesday, consisted of 2 guns, 50 cavalry and 80 infantry escorting them on the banks of the Suir as far as Carrick.”
It was a sight which the Irish people found impossible to understand and impossible to forget.
IN JUNE, 1846, Sir Robert Peel was defeated. The new Whig government, under Lord John Russell, was more to Trevelyan’s taste than Peel’s administration. As a government servant he had no politics, but in private life he was a Whig, and his relations with Sir Robert Peel had not been happy. On July 6 he wrote in a private letter to Routh, “The members of the new Government began to come today to the Treasury. I think we shall have much reason to be satisfied with our new masters,” and he added, on the thirteenth, “Nothing can be more gratifying to our feelings than the manner in which the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has appreciated our exertions.”
The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Wood, who succeeded as Sir Charles Wood, Bart., in December, 1846, and was later created first Viscount Halifax, was congenial to Trevelyan. He had a solid mind and a fixed dislike both of new expenditure and new taxes, and was a firm believer in laissez-faire, preferring to let matters take their course and allow problems to be solved by “natural means.”Head of an ancient Yorkshire family, he united love of liberty with reverence for property, a strong sense of public duty, lack of imagination, and stubborn conservatism. Humanitarianism was not among his virtues. Charles Wood remained in office as Chancellor of the Exchequer for six years and came increasingly under Trevelyan’s influence. The two men were alike in outlook, conscientiousness, and industry, and Charles Wood brought Trevelyan a further access of power in the administration of Irish relief.
Trevelyan’s intention was to restrict Irish relief to a single operation; the Indian corn purchased at the orders of Sir Robert Peel was to be placed in depots, sold to the people — and that was the end. There was to be no replenishment; on July 8 Trevelyan rejected a shipload of Indian corn. “The cargo of the Sorcière is not wanted,” he wrote to the American agent; “her owners must dispose of it as they think proper.”
Trevelyan had an urgent reason for wishing to get Sir Robert Peel’s relief scheme for the 1845 failure cleared up and out of the way. He disagreed with it in several important respects, and by July a new and alarming probability had become evident — there were unmistakable signs that the potato was about to fail again.
As early as February 16, 1846, new potatoes had been shown at meetings of the Horticultural Society in London “in which the disease had manifested itself in a manner not to be mistaken,” and on February 20, a question had been asked in the House of Commons. In reply it was admitted that the potatoes “exhibited the disease of last autumn,” but added that they had been grown from sets of potatoes which were themselves slightly diseased.
Trevelyan and Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had decided that in the second failure there was to be no government importation of food from abroad and no interference whatsoever with the laws of supply and demand ; whatever might be done by starting public works and paying wages, the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders.
The new policy was received by officials in Ireland with dismay, and on August 4 Routh pressed Trevelyan to import food, now and at once. “You cannot answer the cry of want by a quotation from political economy. You ought to have 16,000 tons of Indian corn . . . you ought to have half of the supply which you require in the country before Christmas.” How great a quantity would be needed, wrote Routh, would be determined this month, when the main crop began to be dug.
No preparations, however, even if preparations had been made on double the scale urged, could in fact have saved the Irish people from the fate which lay before them. Before the depots could be closed or the public works shut down, almost in a night every potato in Ireland was lost. “On the 27th of last month,” wrote Father Mathew to Trevelyan on August 7, “I passed from Cork to Dublin and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the third instant I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.”
“I shall never forget,” wrote Captain Mann, a coast guard officer employed in relief service, “the change in one week in August. On the first occasion, on an official visit of inspection, I had passed over thirty-two miles thickly studded with potato fields in full bloom. The next time the face of the whole country was changed, the stalk remained bright green, but the leaves were all scorched black. It was the work of a night.”
Disaster was universal. The failure of 1845 had, to some degree, been partial; the loss, though serious, had been unequally distributed, and the blighted areas “isolated and detached.” With the exception of the potatoes, the harvest had been above the average, and though distress was greatly intensified, thanks to the relief scheme the people in many districts had been better off than usual. In the summer of 1846 the situation was very different. The harvest generally was poor, and the people were at the end of their resources. Every rag had already been pawned to buy food, every edible scrap had gone. The people were weakened and despairing.
THE gravity of the impending catastrophe was felt by Lord John Russell and his government; reports of the universal failure of the potato were being confirmed by every mail, and new measures for Irish relief had been in course of preparation for some weeks.
The new plans were the work of Trevelyan. He prepared a memorandum, dated on August 1, 1846, in which he detailed last season’s relief plans, set out the respects in which they had failed, and outlined a plan to meet the coming crisis. This memorandum formed the basis of the new scheme, and Trevelyan, who possessed the administrative abilities which Lord John Russell’s colleagues on the whole lacked, now became virtually dictator of relief for Ireland.
The new relief scheme, briefly, fell under two main heads. First, though public works were again to be undertaken, and on a large scale, the British government would no longer, as last year, bear half their cost. The whole expense was to be paid by the district in which the works were carried out. The cost was to be met by advances from the Treasury, repayable in their entirety in ten years, at 3½ percent interest, and the money for repayment was to be raised by a tax levied on all poor-rate payers in the locality, a momentous and controversial innovation. The expense was designed to “fall entirely on persons possessed of property in the distressed district,” who were, after all, responsible for the poor on their estates.
Second, the government would not import or supply any food. There were to be no government depots to sell meal at a low cost or, in urgent cases, to make free issues, as had been done during last season’s failure. No orders were to be sent abroad, nor would any purchases be made by government in local markets. It was held that the reason why dealers and import merchants had so signally failed to provide food to replace the potato last season had been the government’s purchases. Trade, said Trevelyan, had been “paralysed” on account of these purchases, which interfered with private enterprise and the legitimate profits of private enterprise; and how, he asked, could dealers be expected to invest in the very large stocks necessary to meet this year’s total failure of the potato if at any moment government might step in with supplies, sold at low cost, which would deprive dealers of their profit and “make their outlay so much loss”?
This section of the scheme was received with consternation, and Routh, with unaccustomed boldness, wrote from Dublin, “As for the great question of leaving the country to the corn dealers they are a very different class of men from our London, Liverpool and Bristol merchants. I do not believe there is a man among them who would import direct a single cargo from abroad.”
Such, very broadly, were the outlines of the scheme devised by Trevelyan for the government of Lord John Russell to meet the total failure of the potato. In the course of relieving last season’s failure, some very painful lessons had been learned. Then the whole laboring population of Ireland, wherever they had the chance, had rushed to throw themselves on the government works; the scheme had, to a large extent, been swamped; there had been confusion and waste; and very large sums of public money had melted away. Yet last year’s failure had been only partial; the prospect of relieving a total failure by the same methods was impossible to contemplate. Trevelyan declared that the Exchequer itself would not be equal to the occasion.
Therefore, the first object of the new plans was to “check the exorbitant demands of last season”; they were, in fact, designed not to save Ireland but to protect England. The scheme was to be in force for a year and no longer; writing to Mr. Labouchère, appointed chief secretary for Ireland by the Whigs, Trevelyan spoke of “the year of relief” and laid down, in a Treasury minute, “No advances . . . will in any circumstances be made for carrying on . . . works after the 15th August 1847.”
Trevelyan anticipated that there would be what he called a “breathing time” about the second week in August, when the potatoes from the new crop became fit to eat. Last year there had been such a pause while the crop was hurriedly dug and every potato conceivably edible eaten before it rotted. He intended to use this “breathing time” to overhaul the relief organization, so that the departments would be ready “to put our whole machinery in motion at an early date.”
THROUGHT August, 1846, Trevelyan worked very hard indeed. He spoke of being at the Treasury until 3 A.M., “dead beat,” and of working weekdays and Sundays alike. An official of the Board of Works summoned over to London was told “to come on Sunday and knock at the private entrance in Downing Street below the Treasury.” Every detail of the new relief scheme was controlled by Trevelyan, and all Commissariat and Board of Works, Ireland, letters, as well as all private letters, were by his instructions sent up to him unopened. It was, he wrote, “the most difficult and responsible task that has ever fallen to my lot.”
All these exertions were in vain. It was too late for preparation. Disaster was upon Ireland now. No breathing time occurred; the “influx of early potatoes,” wrote Routh, on August 13, 1846, “due to the desire to realize something before that something shall be wholly lost . . . failed on account of the rapid progress of the disease,” and the notification that the government depots were to close brought frantic protests. Already, in the west, the government meal was all that stood between a swarming population and starvation.
Outside government circles, closing the food depots at the moment of failure appeared inexplicable. The Times, no advocate of relief for Ireland, found it impossible to understand why “the authorities cut off supplies with the undisputed fact of an extensive failure of this year’s potato crop staring them in the face,” and Catholic Archbishop John MacHale, known as “the Lion of St. Jarlath’s,” told Lord John Russell, “You might as well issue an edict of general starvation as stop the supplies.”
But Trevelyan and the British government were not to be shaken in their determination. A quantity of meal, rather under 3000 tons in all, the residue of Sir Robert Peel’s scheme, remained in the depots, and permission was given to distribute this to starving districts, but in the smallest possible quantities, and then only after a relief committee had been formed and a subscription raised to pay for it. No free issues whatever were to be made. Nevertheless, Commissariat officers in Ireland did give food away; a Major Wainwright, for instance, was detected giving a quantity of meal to starving persons in Oughterard, County Galway, early in August and was reprimanded from Whitehall.
Closing the public works was even more difficult. A Treasury minute of July 21, 1846, directing all works to be closed, except in certain unusual cases, had had little effect; on the excuse that works were not finished, or that extraordinary distress existed in the neighborhood, a large number continued. The Chancellor of the Exchequer now ordered that all undertakings must be shut down on August 8, irrespective of whether or not they were completed and of the distress in the district.
Angry demonstrations followed. In Limerick on August 5, on being told their employment was to end, laborers tore up the stretch of road they had just laid; in Cork about August 18 a mob of 400 laborers, declaring they were starving, marched into the town carrying their spades and demanding work; however, they dispersed “quietly” on being addressed by the sub-inspector of police, who added a note to his report that “employment is very much needed.”
DURING a bad year in Ireland the condition of the people invariably took a sharp turn for the worse after October 1; vegetables and gleanings were finished, and in normal years this was the moment at which the people became dependent on the potato — and if the crop was poor, this was when they began to starve. And now there were no potatoes at all.
Trevelyan renounced a basic principle of his scheme: orders for Indian corn were sent to the United States. But on October 14 the American packet brought a discouraging report to Liverpool. Orders for the new crop of Indian corn, to be exported in the spring, were ten times the quantity obtainable; the French government in particular was buying very largely. As for rye, the Prussian government had bought up all available supplies in August and September. Nevertheless, the British government continued to take refuge behind the promise that ample supplies would arrive in December or January.
If, however, by a miracle the promised “ample supplies” of Indian corn had arrived in Ireland, the Commissariat would have been quite unable to deal with them. Milling was an insoluble difficulty; either there were no mills or, as in Westport and other places, the mills were occupied by merchants milling grain for their own account and for export, protected by the government’s tenderness for private enterprise, while the Indian corn for the starving remained unground. In September an additional misfortune occurred; during a spell of exceptionally hot weather streams all over Ireland went dry, and small country mills were unable to grind.
Eventually the government Indian corn was milled in the Admiralty mills at Deptford, Portsmouth, and Plymouth, the naval mills at Malta, and in hired mills at Rotherhithe and Maldon, Essex, and taken by Admiralty steamer to Ireland.
Trevelyan was then struck by the idea of hand mills; why should not the people grind the Indian corn themselves? he asked. True, the grain of Indian corn was so hard that in the Southern states of America it was milled more than once, but Trevelyan borrowed a hand mill from the museum at India House; a quern, a Celtic hand mill, from the west of Ireland; and another from Wick, in the Shetlands; and “by putting all three into the hands of skilful workmen” hoped “to produce something.” A “manufactory of handmills” was actually established by Captain Mann at Kilkee, County Clare, early in November; each hand mill cost the impossibly large sum, for the Irish destitute, of fifteen shillings, but a number were bought out of charitable funds and distributed free.
Yet there was a simpler solution: why should not the people eat Indian corn unground? On October 9 a memorandum was sent out to relief committees informing them that “Indian corn in its unground state affords an equally wholesome and nutritious food” as when ground into meal. It could be used in two ways: the grain could be crushed between two good-sized stones and then boiled in water, with a little grease or fat, “if at hand.” Or it could be used without crushing, simply by soaking it all night in warm water, changing this, in the morning, for clear, cold water, bringing to the boil, and boiling the corn for an hour and a half; it could then be eaten wuth milk, with salt, or plain. Boiling without crushing was the method particularly recommended. “Ten pounds of the corn so prepared is ample food for a labouring man for seven days. . . . Corn so used,” continued the memorandum, blandly, “will be considerably cheaper to the Committee and the people than meal, and will be well adapted to meet the deficiency of mill power. . . .”
Unground Indian corn is not only hard but sharp and irritating — it even pierces the intestines — and is all but impossible to digest. Boiling for an hour and a half did not soften the flint-hard grain, and Indian corn in this state eaten by half-starving people produced agonizing pains, especially in children.
Autumn was now passing into winter. The nettles and blackberries, the edible roots and cabbage leaves on which hundreds of people had been eking out an existence disappeared; flocks of wretched beings, resembling human scarecrows, had combed the blighted potato fields over and over again until not a fragment of a potato that was conceivably edible remained. Children began to die. In Skibbereen workhouse, more than 50 percent of the children admitted after October 1, 1846, died; the deaths, said the workhouse physician, were due to “diarrhœa acting on an exhausted constitution.” This was probably bacillary dysentery.
At this moment of suffering, unprecedented weather added greatly to the misery of the people. The climate of Ireland is famous for its mildness; years pass without a fall of snow: in the gardens of the south and west semitropical plants flourish, and tubers of the genus Dahlia can be left to winter in the ground without damage from frost. In 1846, at the end of October, it became cold, and in November snow began to fall. Six inches of snow and drifts were reported at the early date of November 12 from Tyrone.
The winter of 1846-1847 was “the most severe in living memory,” and the longest. Frost was continuous; icy gales blew “perfect hurricanes of snow, hail and sleet,” with a force unknown since the famous “great wind” of 1839; roads were impassable, and transport was brought to a standstill. In the autumn and winter of 1846-1847 the wind came from the northeast; it had blown across Russia, and it was icy. The whole continent of Europe that winter was gripped by bitter cold, and in England, by the middle of December, the Thames was a mass of floating ice.
To the Irish people the abnormal severity of the winter brought disaster. One of the compensations of the nineteenth-century Irish peasant’s life was warmth. The climate was normally mild, and the possession of a supply of peat almost universal; a turf fire burned in the Irish cabin night and day, and in normal times did not go out perhaps for a century. Since potatoes do not require cultivation during the winter, the Irish peasant was not forced to go out in bad weather; he spent the cold, wet days indoors, and though he was dressed in rags and his children were naked except for a single garment, they endured little hardship.
Now he had to go out in his rags to labor on the public works, be drenched with rain and driving snow and cut by icy gales; and more often than not, he was already starving. Laborers began to “faint with exhaustion,” and a Board of Works engineer told Trevelyan that “as an engineer he was ashamed of allotting so little task-work for a day’s wages, while as a man he was ashamed of requiring so much.” After the end of November Routh’s reports contained a rapidly increasing number of cases of deaths on the works from starvation aggravated by exposure to cold, snow, and drenching rain.
The people became bewildered. They had taken in very little of what was happening; at this period Irish was spoken in rural districts and English barely understood, while in the west English was not understood at all. No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt; the wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English distrust and dislike of the native Irish.
Trevelyan had reached the conclusion that everything that could and should be done for Ireland had been done, and that any further step could only be taken at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom. “I deeply regret the primary and appalling evil of the insufficiency of the supplies of food in this country,” he wrote on December 22, “but the stores we are able to procure for the western division of Ireland are insufficient even for that purpose, and how can we undertake more?” In a private letter to Routh he wrote, “If we were to purchase for Irish use faster than we are now doing, we should commit a crying injustice to the rest of the country.”
The outcome of this policy was such a tragedy as overtook the district of Skibbereen. Starvation in Skibbereen had been reported as early as September, and on December 3 two Protestant clergymen from the district, Mr. Caulfield and Mr. Townsend, crossed to London and saw Trevelyan at the Treasury. They told him the government relief scheme was failing in Skibbereen. The sole employment in Skibbereen was on the public works, but only eightpence a day was paid, which was not sufficient to feed a family; sixty to seventy persons who would otherwise die of hunger were fed daily with soup at Mr. Caulfield’s house. The two clergymen implored the government to send food. No food was sent.
On December 15 Mr. Nicholas Cummins, the well-known magistrate of Cork, had paid a visit to Skibbereen and the surrounding district and had been horrified by what he saw. He appears to have written to the authorities, but without result, because on December 22 he addressed a letter to the Duke of Wellington, who was an Irishman, and also sent a copy to the Times. It was published on December 24, 1846.
“My Lord Duke,” wrote Mr. Cummins.
Without apology or preface, I presume so far to trespass on your Grace as to state to you, and by the use of your illustrious name, to present to the British public the following statement of what I have myself seen within the last three days. Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there, I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of several lamentable accounts which had reached me, of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the country was reduced. I accordingly went on the 15th instant to Skibbereen, and to give the instance of one townland which I visited, as an example of the state of the entire coast district, I shall state simply what I there saw. . . . Being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men could carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive — they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on.
In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around, when my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins — the sole covering of herself and baby. The same morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats.
A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house, within 500 yards of the cavalry station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse.
Routh blamed the landlords. The proprietors of the Skibbereen district, he told Trevelyan, “draw an annual income of £50,000.” There were twelve landowners, of whom the largest was Lord Carbery, who, Routh declared, drew £15,000 in rents; next was Sir William Rixon Beecher, on whose estate the town of Skibbereen stood; Sir William, alleged Routh, drew £10,000, while the Reverend Stephen Townsend, a Protestant clergyman, drew £8000. “Ought such destitution to prevail with such resources?” Routh inquired, but suggested no action, and officially the appeals for Skibbereen were answered by a Treasury minute written on behalf of the Lords of the Treasury by Trevelyan on January 8, 1847. “It is their Lordships’ desire,” ran the minute, “that effectual relief should be given to the inhabitants of the district in the neighbourhood of Skibbereen . . . the local Relief Committees should be stimulated to the utmost possible exertion; soup kitchens should be established under the management of these Committees at such distances as will render them accessible to all the destitute inhabitants and . . . liberal donations should be made by Government in aid of funds raised by local subscriptions.” These counsels of perfection closed the discussion.
AS IF starvation were not enough, a new terror assailed the Irish people. The government had been warned in the autumn of 1846 that after famine “there will follow, as a natural consequence, as in former years, typhus fever or some other malignant pestilence”; and fever, on a gigantic scale, was now beginning to ravage Ireland.
The Irish people spoke of “famine fever,” but in fact two separate diseases were present, typhus and relapsing fever, both conveyed by the common louse and both already familiar in Ireland.
Typhus is a horrifying disease and was regarded by the Irish people with terror. Rickettsia attack the small blood vessels of the body, especially those of the skin and brain, and the patient becomes all but unrecognizable; the circulation of his blood is impeded, his face swells, and he turns the dark congested hue which has given typhus its Irish name of “black fever.”
The organisms of relapsing fever enter the human bloodstream through the skin, like Rickettsia, and once infection has taken place the progress of the disease is rapid; within a few hours high fever and vomiting begin, continuing for several days. A crisis, with profuse sweating, follows, succeeded by extreme exhaustion. One crisis, however, does not indicate the end of the attack: six to seven days later there is a relapse; microscopic examination shows the organisms to be swarming in the blood once more; high fever and vomiting are again followed by a crisis; and should the patient survive, the pattern may be repeated three or four times before the attack finally comes to an end.
Never had conditions been so fatally favorable to the rapid spread of lice as in the famine winter of 1846-1847. The people were filthy. They had sold every stitch that would fetch the fraction of a penny, and they were wearing the same rags day after day, and night and day. Their bedding had been sold, and they slept covered with rags and old coats; to heat water to wash themselves or their clothes was out of the question; they were eating their food half or wholly raw, because they had no money to buy fuel; indeed, after months of starvation, even the strength to fetch water had disappeared.
The abnormal severity of the winter drove the people to huddle together for warmth; a fire or even a light in a cabin attracted neighbors and passersby; the traditional hospitality of the Irish poor provided a welcome, and all lay down to sleep in the warmth, side by side, on the cabin floor.
Hosts of beggars and homeless paupers tramped the roads, drifting from place to place without a fixed destination, filthy, starving, and louseinfested, often with fever actually on them. “Whole families were to be seen lying in fever by the roadside”; the contemporary name for the epidemic was “road fever.” Yet the poor Irish, however distressed themselves, never refused admission to the poorest and most abject mendicant. The Irishman, wrote the Central Board of Health, “thinks himself accursed if he refuses admission to a begging stranger.”
The total of those who died during the fever epidemic and of famine diseases will never be known, but probably about ten times more died of disease than of starvation. Among the upper classes, the percentage of those who caught fever and died was high; in Cavan upper-class mortality was estimated at 66 percent; around Ballinrobe 70 percent who took the fever perished; and in Sligo, Roscommon, Newry, Tuam, Leitrim, Tyrone, Lowtherstown, and almost every district in Ireland mortality among the upper classes was reported to be proportionately much higher than among the poor. The reason probably was that the constant occurrence of fever cases in their midst had brought the poor Irish some degree of immunity. No legal register of deaths existed at the period, and though the government asked repeatedly for estimates of the number of deaths, they were told an estimate was impossible. Too many had died for funeral services to be said over the bodies, and corpses had been burned at night, leaving no trace.
But horrors taking place in Ireland were only one aspect of the fever epidemic. As the terrible months of the autumn and winter of 1846-1847 went by and to starvation was added pestilence, the minds of the Irish people turned in an unprecedented direction. Before the potato failure, to leave Ireland had been regarded as the most terrible of all fates, and transportation was the most dreaded of sentences. But now the people, terrified and desperate, began to flee a land which seemed accursed. In a great mass movement they made their way, by tens of thousands, out of Ireland, across the ocean to America or across the sea to Britain. Yet they did not leave fever behind; fever went with them, and the path to a new life became a path of horror.
THE famine emigration, the exodus from Ireland in which hundreds of thousands of Irish fled from their country because to remain was death, is historically the most important event of the famine.
It was the famine emigrants, leaving their country with hatred in their hearts for the British and the British government, who built up communities across the ocean, above all in the United States, where the name of Britain was accursed. Their descendants continued to be Britain’s powerful and bitter enemies, exacting vengeance for the sufferings their forbears endured. It is estimated that about a million and a quarter emigrants from Ireland crossed the Atlantic to North America during the years of the potato blight, and there was an even larger emigration across the Irish Channel to Great Britain, to Liverpool, Glasgow, and the ports of south Wales.
The Irish famine emigration is unlike most other emigrations because it was of a less civilized and less skilled people into a more civilized and more skilled community. Other emigrations have been of the independent and the sturdy in search of wider horizons, and such emigrants usually brought with them knowledge and technical accomplishment which the inhabitants of the country in which they settled did not possess. The Irish, from their abysmal poverty, brought nothing, and this poverty had forced them to become habituated to standards of living which the populations among whom they came considered unfit for human beings. Cellar dwellings, whether in English towns or the cities of North America, were almost invariably occupied by the Irish. Poverty, ignorance, and bewilderment brought them there, but it must not be forgotten that cellar dwellings resembled the dark, mud-floored cabins in which over half the population of Ireland had been accustomed to live under British rule.
The vast majority of emigrants to British North America landed at Quebec and went up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, a distance of 180 miles. But there was very little desire on the part of Irish emigrants to settle in British North America; with an almost frantic longing they wished to go to the United States. In 1847 the United States, with its nearly 23 million inhabitants and its rapidly developing territories, was immeasurably in advance of Canada.
Material advantages were not the only magnet which drew the Irish emigrant away from Canada to the United States. The native Irishman had become convinced that no justice or opportunity could exist for him under the Union Jack, and he shrank from the British North American colonies.
To offset the attractions of the United States, the British government consistently made the passage to British North America cheaper than to United States ports, and in addition transported poor emigrants who declared their intention of settling in Canada free, in barges, up the St. Lawrence into the interior. The urgent need of the British North American colonies for population was not, however, the British government’s only reason for encouraging Irish emigration. The fear of an enormous poverty-stricken Irish migration into Britain was always present, and eighteen years before the famine, in 1827, a parliamentary committee had asserted that the choice was whether the Irish were to be enabled to emigrate to the North American colonies by fares’ being kept down or “to deluge Great Britain with poverty and wretchedness and gradually but certainly to equalize the state of the English and Irish peasantry.”
Cheap passages did not result in emigrants’ settling in British North America. Advantage was taken of the low fare to cross the Atlantic to Quebec in a British ship, and often the emigrant, by alleging that his intention was to settle in Canada, procured free transport up the St. Lawrence before making his entry into the United States by the simple method of walking across the border.
In Canada in the spring of 1847, intelligent officials and citizens apprehensively awaited the immigration which would fall on them as soon as the St. Lawrence was clear of ice. The reports reaching Quebec of the frightful state of Ireland indicated a very large Irish immigration destitute and in bad health. The idea, however, that fever, known to be raging in Ireland, constituted a danger crossed no one’s mind. What was called “ship fever” was a well-known disease, recognized as being typhus but considered to arise from overcrowding and dirt in the confined space of a ship.
Regulations at Quebec required that all ships with passengers coming up the St. Lawrence should stop at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, thirty miles down the river, for medical inspection; those vessels which had sickness on board were then detained, and the sick taken to the quarantine hospital. Grosse Isle, a beautiful island lying in the middle of the majestic St. Lawrence, had been selected as the site for a quarantine station in 1832, at the time of a cholera epidemic; it is small, and its peculiar charm lies in the number of trees and shrubs which grow down to the water’s edge and are mirrored in the St. Lawrence, so that the island seems to float. The brief coastline is diversified by a number of tiny rocky bays; in the interior large trees grow from green turf, and there is a remarkable variety of wild flowers. Near the river the quarantine buildings, which still exist, are low and white and do not detract from the beauty of the landscape; on rising ground above them a small white church nestles in green trees. “A fairy scene,” exclaimed an emigrant as he approached the island. In this island paradise an appalling tragedy was to take place.
On February 19, 1847, Dr. Douglas, the medical officer in charge of the quarantine station at Grosse Isle, asked for £3000 to make preparations for the coming immigration, pointing out that during the previous year the number admitted to the quarantine hospital had been twice as large as usual and that reports from Ireland indicated that the state of the immigrants this year would be worse. Far from getting £3000, Dr. Douglas was assigned just under £300. He was allowed one small steamer, the St. George, to ply between Grosse Isle and Quebec and given permission to hire a sailing vessel, provided one could be found for not more than £50 for the season.
The citizens of Quebec, however, were so uneasy that at the beginning of March, 1847, they sent a petition to the secretary of state for the colonies, Earl Grey, in which they pointed out that the number of Irish immigrants was annually rising, that the present distress in Ireland must mean a further large increase, that they viewed with alarm the probable fate of poor Irish immigrants in the rigorous winter climate of Canada, and that there was also the possibility of such immigrants’ bringing disease. They begged the Canadian government to take action.
There was one man who might have been able to convince the Canadian government that a catastrophe was approaching, Alexander Carlisle Buchanan. He was the chief emigration officer, he was esteemed in official circles, his reports were studied, his opinion carried weight. Nevertheless, Buchanan, though he anticipated a very considerable increase in sickness, “did not make any official representation to Government” because, as he wrote, “it was a subject that did not come within the control of my department.” The government, therefore, received no official warning that the emigration from Ireland was likely to present any problem, beyond being unusually large.
THE opening of the St. Lawrence was late in 1847; “the merry month of May started with ice an inch thick,” reported the Quebec Gazette, and the first vessel, the Syria, did not arrive until May 17. Less than a week later, the catastrophe had taken place and was beyond control. The Syria had 84 cases of fever on board, out of a total of 241 passengers; nine persons had died on the voyage, and one was to die on landing at Grosse Isle. All its passengers were Irish, had crossed to Liverpool to embark, and had spent one night at least in the cheap lodginghouses of Liverpool. In Dr. Douglas’ opinion, 20 to 24 more were certain to sicken, bringing the total for the Syria to more than 100, and the quarantine hospital, built for 150 cases, could not possibly accommodate more than 200.
Dr. Douglas now told the Canadian government that he had “reliable information” that 10,600 emigrants at least had left Britain for Quebec since April 10. “Judging from the specimens just arrived,” large numbers would have to go to the hospital; and he asked permission to build a new shed, to cost about £150, to be used as a hospital. On May 20, he received authority to erect the shed, provided the cost was kept down to £135.
Four days after the Syria, on May 21 eight ships arrived with a total of 430 fever cases. Two hundred and five were taken into the hospital, which became dangerously overcrowded, and the rest had to be left on board ship. “I have not a bed to lay them on or a place to put them,” wrote Dr. Douglas. “I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now.” Three days later, seventeen more vessels arrived, all with fever; a shed normally used to accommodate passengers detained for quarantine was turned into a hospital and instantly filled. There were now 695 persons in hospital and 164 on board ship waiting to be taken off; and Dr. Douglas wrote that he had received a message that twelve more vessels had anchored, “all sickly.”
On May 26 thirty vessels, with 10,000 emigrants on board, were waiting at Grosse Isle. On May 31 forty vessels were waiting, extending in a line two miles down the St. Lawrence; about 1100 cases of fever were on Grosse Isle in sheds, tents, and laid in rows in the little church; an equal number were on board the ships, waiting to be taken off; and a further 45,000 emigrants at least were expected.
By July, more than 2500 sick were on Grosse Isle, and conditions were appalling. “Medical men,” wrote Dr. Douglas, were “disgusted with the disagreeable nature of their duties in treating such filthy cases.” Many doctors died; Dr. Benson of Dublin, who had experience in fever hospitals in Ireland, arrived on May 21 and volunteered his services, but caught typhus and died six days later. Each of the medical officers was ill at some time, and three other doctors died of typhus in addition to Dr. Benson. At one period, twelve out of a medical staff of fourteen were ill; of the two other doctors, one left because he was afraid of catching typhus and one was summoned to a dying parent, leaving Dr. Douglas virtually singlehanded. Patients on the ships were often left for four or five days without any medical attention; under the Passenger Act of 1842 ships were not compelled to carry a doctor, and only one doctor besides Dr. Benson happened to have been a passenger.
Nurses, too, were unobtainable, and the sick suffered tortures from lack of attention. A Catholic priest. Father Moylan, gave water to sick persons in a tent who had had nothing to drink for eighteen hours; another, Father McQuirk, was given carte blanche by Dr. Douglas to hire nurses, as many as possible, from among the healthy passengers. He offered high wages and told the women, speaking as their priest, that it was their duty to volunteer, but not one came forward. The fear of fever among the Irish, said Dr. Douglas, was so great that “the nearest relatives abandon each other whenever they can.” The only persons who could be induced to take charge of the sick were abandoned and callous creatures, of both sexes, who robbed the dead.
The state of the emigrants as they landed was frightful. Very many of them had passed the voyage in a state of starvation. The official weekly issue of seven pounds of provisions was intended to guard against absolute destitution, but “it never could have been expected to be enough to sustain an adult through the voyage,” reported the Senate Committee of the United States on Sickness and Mortality in Emigrant Ships. Passage brokers at Liverpool made a practice of displaying a loaf of bread in their offices to the starving Irish “to delude the poor into the belief that they will be fed at sea.”
On the voyage, water often ran short, casks leaked; dishonest provisioning merchants bought cheap casks which had previously been used for wine, vinegar, or chemicals that made the water they contained undrinkable. When a government inquiry was held into the disaster at Grosse Isle, Alexander Carlisle Buchanan testified that during the summer of 1847 “the provisions of the Passenger Act appear to have been very generally observed by the masters of Emigrant vessels,” and he was no doubt correct. But the Passenger Act of 1842 reduced requirements to such a bare minimum that very little had to go wrong for the emigrant to suffer severely, even if he were fortunate enough not to fall a victim to typhus.
By the middle of the summer of 1847, imposing a quarantine for fever had been abandoned as hopeless. The line of ships waiting for inspection was now several miles long; to make quarantine effective, 20,000 to 25,000 contacts should be isolated for whom there was no room on the small island. Therefore, to carry out the quarantine regulations was, wrote Dr. Douglas, “physically impossible,” and at the end of May passengers on ships with fever were allowed to stay after the fever cases had been removed and to perform their quarantine on board, the period to be fifteen days instead of ten. Dr. Douglas believed that a simple washing down and airing would make the holds healthy. “After ablutions with water,” he wrote, “by opening stern ports and bow ports . . . a complete current of air can pass through the hold, in fact a bird can fly through it.” So the passengers remained in the holds, with disastrous consequences.
So great was the number of sick that “a fatal delay of several days” occurred before fever cases were taken away; meanwhile, sick and healthy were cooped up together, and fresh infection took place. The Agnes, for instance, which arrived with 427 passengers, had only 150 alive after a quarantine of fifteen days.
In a wooded hollow, one of the most beautiful of the miniature valleys of Grosse Isle, once the site of the emigrant cemetery, a four-sided monument commemorates those who died. On the first side the inscription runs:
In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,294 persons, who, flying from pestilence and famine in Ireland in the year 1847, found in America but a grave.
A second side bears the names of Dr. Benson of Dublin and of three other doctors who died while attending the sick; the third, the names of two doctors who died on Grosse Isle during the cholera epidemic of 1832-1834; and the fourth records that the monument was erected by Dr. Douglas and eighteen medical assistants who were on duty during the epidemic of 1847.
Over 100,000 emigrants left the United Kingdom for British North America in 1847. By the end of that year, it is estimated, 20,000 had died in Canada — 5300, at the lowest estimate, on Crosse Isle, and 14,706 in Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto. A further 1120 died in the province of New Brunswick, and 25,000 persons at least had been in Canadian hospitals. Crossing the Atlantic exacted a fearful toll, and 15,000 emigrants perished during the voyage, the majority from typhus. “If crosses and tombs could be erected on the water,” wrote one of the commissioners for emigration in the United States, “the whole route of the emigrant vessels from Europe to America would long since have assumed the appearance of a crowded cemetery.”
THE flow of emigrants, “practically all of them Irish,” from British North America across the border into the United States provoked angry resentment. United States officials at river and lake ports and captains of United States ferryboats turned back poor Irish emigrants; steamboats plying at St. John’s and on Lake Champlain refused them as passengers; the United States authorities at Ogdensburg sent them back; and the official in charge of the ferry at Lowiston was sent to prison for landing Irish emigrants on the United States shore. Nevertheless, thousands of poor Irish did cross the border, and those who went from Canada were able-bodied men who left their wives and young children, their parents and aged relatives behind them, to be maintained by the British government and the generosity of the inhabitants of British North America. If the men established themselves in the United States, their families joined them; if not, the families remained a permanent charge on British charity.
The poor Irish emigrant was excluded and feared and, by a section of the populace, persecuted as well; but the generosity and the sympathy of the citizens of the United States for nations in distress were already strong, and when the tragedy taking place in Ireland became known, shiploads of food and thousands of dollars began to pour across the Atlantic.
The first organizers of the United States aid for Ireland on a large scale were the Quakers, the Society of Friends; and, headed by Jacob Harvey, a prominent citizen of New York, an Irishman, and a Friend, they became the main channel for the transmission of relief.
Family feeling is stronger in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe, and sending money home was already a characteristic of the Irish emigrant. “I am proud to say,” wrote Jacob Harvey, “that the Irish in America have always remitted more money, ten times over, than all the foreigners put together!” He estimated that the total amount sent home by Irish emigrants in America during 1847 amounted to a million dollars, or £200,000 at the then prevailing rate of about five dollars to the pound sterling.
The response of the citizens of the United States to the appeal for starving Ireland was “on a scale unparalleled in history.” A great public meeting was held in Washington on February 9, 1847, under the chairmanship of the vice president of the United States, at which it was recommended that meetings should be held in every city, town, and village so that a large national contribution might be raised and “forwarded with all practicable dispatch to the scene of suffering.” Meetings all over the country, from Albany to New Orleans, followed; on several occasions, Nicholas Cummins’ letter describing the state of Skibbereen was read, and large sums were collected. New York, for instance, sent more than $30,000, and Philadelphia, in spite of the anti-Irish riots of 1844, more than $20,000, with an additional sum of $3800 which had been raised in 1846. Mayors and chief collectors of customs at the ports of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, with members of the Senate, volunteered to receive local contributions and forward them to Ireland, placing them “in such hands for distribution as they, in their discretion, may think advisable.” The contributions were entrusted to the Friends, who acted, among other bodies, as agents for money collected for Ireland by Tammany, the central organization of the Democratic Party of the United States. The Catholic churches in New England sent $19,000, and the Catholic church in Brooklyn $13,000. Other contributions included $20,000 sent by Bishop Fitzpatrick of Boston to Archbishop Crolly of Armagh on March 1, 1847, and a further $4000 later; the historian of the Catholic diocese of Boston estimates that a total of $150,000 was subscribed in the diocese for Irish relief.
“Donation parties” for Ireland were held undenominationally; concerts and tea parties were organized; and young ladies in select New York boarding schools devoted their recreation time to making “useful and beautiful articles” which were sold for Ireland.
A high proportion of contributions were in kind, not in cash, encouraged by an announcement made early in February that the British government would pay the freight on all donations of food, and that on United States roads and canals no tolls on provisions for Ireland would be charged. In many states, South Carolina for instance, railroads volunteered to carry packages marked “Ireland” free. The amount of freight paid by the British government on the donations of food consigned to the Society of Friends amounted to the considerable sum of £33,017 5s. 7d. Cities and towns in the United States chartered vessels to go to Ireland. Newark, New Jersey, sent the brig Overmann at the end of March to the Committee of the Society of Friends in Cork to distribute “without distinction of religious sect or location,” and the Irish Relief Committee of Philadelphia sent the bark John Walsh to Londonderry, the brig St. George to Cork, and the brig Lydia Ann to Limerick, to be disposed of at the discretion of the Committee of the Society of Friends.
On July 29, 1847, the treasurer of the New York Irish Relief Committee wrote to the Society of Friends in Dublin, “I think there is now an appearance of an end being brought to this glorious demonstration of a nation’s sympathy for poor suffering Ireland.” Transport of food across the United States in winter was not possible, because the canals, which were then the main arteries of communication, froze; and in the autumn of 1847 the collection of subscriptions for Ireland ceased. Generosity had been astonishing; Cincinnati, for example, had expected to raise $6000 but had sent $30,000, and New York contributed to the value of more than $200,000. About £16,000 in cash was forwarded to the Central Relief Committee of the Friends in Dublin, and the food consigned to their committees in Dublin and Cork amounted to nearly ten thousand tons. In addition, large quantities of clothing were dispatched, on which no value was put by the donors in the United States.
To arrive at any accurate total is impossible; while the Society of Friends formed the main channel, large sums in donations and from collections in Catholic churches were also forwarded to Catholic bishops in Ireland. A modern United States authority estimates the total value of gifts at a million dollars, a sum worth many times its value today. This was in addition to money remitted by Irish emigrants themselves.
But while American generosity to Ireland during the famine has rightly become a tradition, it should not be overlooked that money was subscribed in England. Queen Victoria personally gave £2000. The British Association for the Relief of Extreme Distress expended about £391,700 in Ireland, and the Society of Friends raised £42,906; other societies in England subscribed £70,916. The final total, not including money raised in Ireland, was more than £505,000, amounting at the rate of exchange at the time to over $2,500,000.
THE famine had brought about a change in the attitude of the British government toward Ireland. It was impossible any longer to deny that something was dangerously wrong with the state of Ireland, and while there was little to choose between the rebellious people and the irresponsible extravagant landlords — as Lord John Russell remarked, “a plague on both your houses” — England, for her own safety, could not abandon Ireland entirely. Therefore, though direct responsibility for Irish relief was to cease, Lord John wished to lay a “ground work” for “permanent improvement,” and on July 17 he wrote, “What we must chiefly look for is advance of money for good profitable works, be they drainage, harbours, railroads, reclamation of waste lands, or what not. In short we must give very little for relief and much for permanent improvement — that is my programme for next year.” The government had about a million pounds in hand already earmarked for Ireland, which it proposed to devote to works of permanent improvement.
A substantial financial concession was also given to Irish property owners when, on July 8, Sir Charles Wood announced that half the money advanced by the British government to finance public works and soup kitchens would be forgiven, a sum of £4,500,000. It seemed that a ray of hope for Ireland was becoming visible, especially as, during the summer of 1847, the position of Lord John Russell’s government was strengthened by victory in a general election. But with the ill luck which dogged Ireland at this moment, Great Britain was overtaken by a serious financial crisis, one of the most serious the country had ever experienced, and the Treasury found itself dangerously short of money.
“The falling off in the Revenue,” wrote Lord John on September 10, “still above one million sterling in two months, damages all my views of being able to help Ireland out of the savings of the loan.” Once again urgent domestic affairs in Great Britain pushed Ireland into the background. “I have been so worried about the state of trade in the city,” Lord John told the Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, “that I have little time to write or think on other matters,” and he warned him, “I fear you have a most troublesome winter ahead of you . . . and here we have no money.”
Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, flatly refused financial help for Ireland. “I have no money,” he told Clarendon. He would refrain from pressing Ireland for repayments due on money already advanced, but no fresh money would be forthcoming. “The more bent I am on throwing present expenditure on them, the more lenient I am disposed to be as to what is expended already,” he wrote. “I have the most perfect understanding on this subject with Trevelyan.”
From this point onward, good intentions on the part of the British government became increasingly difficult to discern. Making every allowance for the depleted state of the Treasury, and bearing in mind the large sums already expended on Irish relief, sums representing many times their value today, it is still hardly possible to explain, or to condone, the British government’s determination to throw the Irish destitute on the local poor rate, the able-bodied men being sent to the workhouse to discourage applications.
The Irish Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 guaranteed that all the expense of relief was to be borne by the already hard-pressed landlords. The property of Ireland was to maintain the poverty of Ireland. Relief operations under the Soup Kitchen Act, by which England had helped to finance the issue of more than three million rations daily, had been rapidly brought to an end. By August 15, Commissariat depots had been closed, the meal and grain being sold not cheaply but at current market prices, and remainders not being given away but picked up by government steamer.
If the new Poor Law was to be effective, the workhouses must be cleared and filled with ablebodied men who were destitute; but to clear the workhouses proved impossible. The Poor Law guardians were unwilling to turn the helpless out; at Galway, for instance, they indignantly refused, while at Tralee, the immense distressed district which contained two estates under the Court of Chancery, the workhouse inmates had no clothes to put on and no shelter to which to return, for landlords customarily took advantage of destitute persons’ being forced to enter the workhouse to pull their cabins down.
The Treasury had no intention of acting, nor any doubt what should be done — taxes must be collected, force must be used. “Arrest, remand, do anything you can,” wrote Charles Wood to Clarendon on November 22; “send horse, foot and dragoons, all the world will applaud you, and I should not be at all squeamish as to what I did, to the verge of the law, and a little beyond.”
By the middle of December, 1847, the destitute, half naked, and starving were besieging the workhouses. From Tralee on December 15, Mr. Dobree of the Commissariat reported that the able-bodied were “coming up in masses to be refused,” 700 to 800 at a time. The workhouse, which held 1400, was full; “the labouring class have no visible means of existence.” Ballina workhouse on December 11 had 500 more inmates than it had been built to contain; Kilrush on December 14 had 500 to 600 too many; Galway on December 19 had 500, of whom 200 were fever cases; Erris was “out of control,” with three quarters of the population urgently requiring relief.
The sufferings of the people began to approach the horrors of the winter of 1846-1847; the country, generally speaking, was ruined, pauperism was spreading, there was no employment, and though the yield of the potato crop was superb, the quantity planted was inadequate — only 20 percent of that of previous years, because of the failure to provide seed potatoes. Dead bodies were found lying by roadsides and in fields; men who had tramped many miles to a workhouse only to be refused admittance died at the gates; a man turned away from Tipperary workhouse died after lying outside the gates for twelve hours.
THE spring of 1848 was cold in Ireland; throughout February there were falls of snow, and the country people believed that snow would prevent the reappearance of blight. In 1847 the potato crop had proved superb, and now potatoes were planted all over Ireland in what Lord Clarendon described as a “frenzy of confidence.”
Severe sacrifices were made to obtain seed potatoes: clothes, bedsteads, tables, and chairs were sold, and a Poor Law inspector reported that small occupiers, “already reduced to a state of all but pauperism, are straining every nerve to plant potatoes as largely as possible as a last desperate venture.” Potatoes were “stuck in everywhere they could be planted and everyone’s hopes were raised at the idea of a return to the old system.” Landlords looked forward to rents’ being paid, the people to having enough to eat. Reports coming in to the Board of Works in Dublin estimated the amount of land put down to potatoes, compared with the previous year, as twice as much in some districts, in others three, four, five, and even ten times as much. Almost no green crops — cabbages, beans, carrots, kale — had been sown; the resident magistrate at Ballinasloe reported that the “small farmers have abandoned attempts at any other kind of crop and have staked all they possessed or could borrow” on potatoes.
Through May and until halfway through June, the weather was favorable. But from the middle of June, 1848, the terrible story of 1846 was repeated, blow after blow. The weather changed and became continually wet; by the middle of July the catastrophe had begun. “We were all in the greatest spirits at the approach of plenty,” wrote Father John O’Sullivan, parish priest of Kenmare, on July 16, “but blight has made its appearance. On the morning of the 13th, to the astonishment of everyone, the potato fields that had, on the previous evening, presented an appearance that was calculated to gladden the hearts of the most indifferent, appeared blasted, withered, blackened and, as it were, sprinkled with vitriol, and the whole country has in consequence been thrown into dismay and confusion.”
For the Irish people, “the famine” will always mean these years of concentrated disaster in which blight first appeared and in rapid succession the partial failure of 1845 was followed by the total failure of 1846 and the second total failure of 1848. The history of what then occurred is deeply engraved in the memory of the Irish race; all hope of assimilation with England was then lost, and bitterness without parallel took possession of the Irish mind.
THE treatment of the Irish people by the British government during the great potato famine has been described as genocide, race murder. The British government has been accused, and not only by the Irish, of wishing to exterminate the Irish people, as Cromwell wished to “extirpate” them and as Hitler wished to exterminate the Jews. The 1840s, however, must not be judged by the standards of today, and whatever parsimony and callousness the British government displayed toward Ireland were paralleled seven years later by the treatment of her own soldiers which brought about the destruction of the British Army in the Crimea.
The conduct of the British government during the famine is divided into two periods. During the first, from the date of the partial famine in 1845 until the transfer to the Poor Law in the summer of 1847, the government behaved with considerable generosity. An elaborate relief organization was set up, public works were started on a scale never attempted before, and what was for the time a very large sum of money indeed, more than eight million pounds, was advanced. Not enough was done, considering the size of the catastrophe, but it is doubtful if any government in Europe at that date would have done more.
But during the second period, after the transfer to the Poor Law in the summer of 1847, the behavior of the British government is difficult to defend. Lord John Russell and his advisers, in particular Sir Charles Wood and Trevelyan, were aware of the state of the Irish Poor Law. They knew that most of the distressed areas were bankrupt, that the worst had never been anything else, that in those districts where poverty, destitution, and starvation were greatest the workhouses were badly equipped or not equipped at all, dirty, understaffed, and disorganized. They knew that in the most distressed areas, taxes for the relief of the poor in normal times had been virtually uncollectable, while in others they had to be collected with the aid of police, troops, and sometimes ships of war, and even then were only partially gathered. Yet, with these facts before them, the government threw the hordes of wretched destitute on their local poor rates, refusing assistance when the second total failure of the potato occurred in 1848. Since Britain was passing through a financial crisis, the justification of the government’s actions was expediency, but it is difficult to reconcile expediency with duty and moral principles.
The most serious charge against the British government, however, is not the transfer to the Poor Law. Neither during the famine nor for decades afterwards were any measures of reconstruction or agricultural improvement attempted, and this neglect condemned Ireland to decline. A devastating new disease had attacked the potato; nothing to equal the total destruction of 1846 had been seen before; yet no serious effort was made to teach the people to grow any other crop, and when Lord Clarendon tried to effect improvement by means of “agricultural instructors,” his scheme was ridiculed, Charles Wood writing contemptuously of Clarendon’s “hobby.” The Irish small tenant was inevitably driven back on the potato: he was penniless, starving, ignorant; the only crop he knew how to cultivate was the potato; generally speaking, the only tool he owned and could use was a spade. He had no choice. Yet when the potato failed totally again in 1848, the government exploded in fury. “In 1847,” Lord John wrote, angrily, “eight millions were advanced to enable the Irish to supply the loss of the potato crop and to cast about them for some less precarious food. . . . The result is that they have placed more dependence on the potato than ever and have again been deceived. How can such people be assisted?”
As nothing was done to improve agriculture, so nothing was done to improve the system under which land was occupied in Ireland. Tenants at will remained tenants at will; twenty years after the famine, Isaac Butt was still writing, “The vast majority of the occupiers of land in Ireland are at this moment liable to be turned out at the pleasure of their landlords”; and improvements carried out by the tenant continued to become the property of the landlord.
These misfortunes were not part of a plan to destroy the Irish nation; they fell on the people because the government of Lord John Russell was afflicted with an extraordinary inability to foresee consequences. It has been frequently declared that the parsimony of the British government during the famine was the main cause of the sufferings of the people, and parsimony was certainly carried to remarkable lengths; but obtuseness, shortsightedness, and ignorance probably contributed more.
To take only a few instances, it did not occur to Lord John Russell and his advisers that, by forcing the famine-stricken applicant for relief to give up every possession, they were creating fresh armies of paupers, even though Lord Clarendon had inquired if it were wise to compel a man to become a pauper, when he was not one already, in order to be saved from starvation. It was not, apparently, anticipated that refusing to assist the faminestricken small tenants with seed would result in holdings’ being left unsown, nor that, unless some means of subsistence were provided, men with families who had lost their winter food must crowd on the public works.
Even the self-evident truth that Ireland is not England was not realized by the government in Whitehall; the desolate, starving west was assumed to be served by snug grocers and prosperous merchants and to be a field for private enterprise; bankrupt squireens living in jerry-built mansions with rain dripping through the roof became county gentry, and plans for sea transport of corn were made as if the perilous harbors of the west coast were English ports.
Much of this obtuseness sprang from the fanatical faith of mid-nineteenth-century British politicians in the economic doctrine of laissez-faire — no interference by government, no meddling with the operation of natural causes. The government was perpetually nervous of being too good to Ireland and of corrupting the Irish people by kindness and so stifling the virtues of self-reliance and industry. In addition, hearts were hardened by the antagonism then felt by the English toward the Irish, an antagonism rooted far back in religious and political history; and at the period of the famine, irritation had been added as well. The discreditable state of Ireland, the subject of adverse comment throughout the civilized world, her perpetual misfortunes, the determined hostility of most of her population, even their character provoked intense irritation in England. It is impossible to read the letters of British statesmen of the period — Charles Wood and Trevelyan, for instance — without astonishment at the influence exerted by antagonism and irritation on government policy in Ireland during the famine.
It is not characteristic of the English to behave as they have behaved in Ireland; as a nation, the English have proved themselves to be capable of generosity, tolerance, and magnanimity — but not where Ireland is concerned. As Sydney Smith, the celebrated writer and wit, wrote: “The moment the very name of Ireland is mentioned, the English seem to bid adieu to common feeling, common prudence and common sense, and to act with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots.”
How many people died in the famine will never precisely be known. It is almost certain that, owing to geographical difficulties and the unwillingness of the people to be registered, the census of 1841 gave a total smaller than the population in fact was. Officers engaged in relief work put the population as much as 25 percent higher; landlords distributing relief were horrified when providing, as they imagined, for 60 persons to find more than 400 “start from the ground.”
In 1841 the population of Ireland was given as 8,175,124; in 1851, after the famine, it had dropped to 6,552,385. and the census commissioners calculated that, at the normal rate of increase, the total should have been 9,018,799, so that a loss of at least 2,500,000 persons had taken place. Between 1846 and 1851, nearly a million persons emigrated, and it therefore appears that, roughly, about a million and a half perished during the famine, of hunger, diseases brought on by hunger, and fever. Between 1848 and 1864, however, thirteen million pounds was sent home by emigrants in America to bring relatives out of Ireland, and it is part of the famine tragedy that, because no adequate measures of reconstruction were undertaken, a steady drain of the best and most enterprising left Ireland, to enrich other court tries.
Time brought retribution. By the outbreak of World War II Ireland was independent, and she would not fight on England’s side. Liberty and England did not appear to the Irish to be synonymous, and the Free State remained neutral. Many thousands of Free State Irishmen volunteered, but the famous regiments of southern Ireland had ceased to exist, and the “inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers” was no longer at England’s service.
There was also a more direct payment. Along the west coast of Ireland, in Mayo especially, on remote Clare Island, and in the dunes above the Six Mile Strand are a number of graves of petty officers and able, seamen of the British Navy and Merchant Service, representatives of many hundreds who were drowned off the coast of Ireland because the Irish harbors were not open to British ships. From these innocents, in all probability ignorant of the past, who had never heard of failures of the potato, evictions, fever, and starvation, was exacted part of the price for the famine.