1845 – Episode 1
As we have already seen, the disease which cut off at least one-half of the potato crop of Ireland in 1845, and completely destroyed that of 1846, had made its appearance several years before, in other countries.
In the first week of September, the potatoes in the London market were, to a very considerable extent, found to be unfit for human food. To the eye they did not show any sign of disease, but when boiled and cut its presence was but too evident, by the black, or rather brownish-black mass they presented. The potato fields began to be examined, and the provincial journals soon teemed with accounts of the destructive visitation, with speculations concerning its cause, and suggestions as to probable remedies. The descriptions of the disease given by the English newspapers do not quite agree with the symptoms observed somewhat later in Ireland. “Whatever may have been the cause,” says one account, “it is certain that, externally, the disease indicates itself by a fungus or moss producing decomposition of the farinaceous interior.” (Morning Post, 11th September 1845.)
Another observer reported, “The disease is very general in this locality, beginning with a damp spot on some part of the potato.” (Ipswich Gazette, 9th September.)
A third correspondent wrote, “The commencement of the attack is generally dated here from Tuesday, the 19th ultimo. A day of the heaviest rain almost ever known. It first appears a bluish speck on the potato, and then spreads rapidly.” (Cambridge Chronicle for September, 1845)
The blight was first observed in Ireland on the leaves of the potato plant as brown spots of various shapes and sizes, pretty much as if a dilution of acid had fallen upon them like drops of rain. Sometimes the blight made its appearance near high hedges, or under trees, and portions of a field would, occasionally, be greatly affected with it before other parts were touched at all. There are reports that the very first symptoms of the disease were seen opposite an open gateway, as if a blighting wind had rushed in to make a trail of discoloured leaves and stalks. When the decomposition produced by the blight was in a somewhat advanced stage there was a very offensive odour from the potato field, which could be detected at a considerable distance.
The potato disease in Ireland was commonly called, the ‘Potato Blight’. The whole stem of the plant quickly became affected after the blight had appeared on the leaves, especially if the weather was damp. As a result, for some time before the period for digging out the crop arrived, the potato fields were filled with rank weeds, with here and there the remains of withered-up stems—bleached skeletons of the green healthy plants of some weeks before.
The blight of 1845 was noticed in Ireland about the middle of September, first appearing on the coast of Wexford. From there, it soon travelled inland, and accounts of its alarming progress began to be published in almost every part of the country. Letters in the daily press from Cork, Tyrone, Meath, Roscommon, and various other places, gave despairing accounts of the extent and rapidity of the disease’s spread. A Meath peasant, at this time, wrote, “Awful is our story. I do be striving to ‘blindfold’ them (the potatoes) in the boiling. I trust in God’s mercy no harm will come from them.”
On 24th October 1845, writing from Kells, the Very Rev. Dr. M’Evoy, P.P., said. “On my most minute personal inspection of the state of the potato crop in this most fertile potato-growing locale, is founded my inexpressibly painful conviction, that one family in twenty of the people will not have a single potato left on Christmas Day next…. With starvation at our doors, grimly staring us, vessels laden with our whole hopes of existence, our provisions, are hourly wafted from our every port. From one milling establishment I have last night seen no less than fifty dray-loads of meal moving on to Drogheda, thence to go to feed the foreigner, leaving starvation and death the soon and certain fate of the toil and sweat that raised this food.”
From other places around the country the accounts being given were more favourable. From Athy, Kilkenny, Mayo, Carlow, and Newry, there were reports stating that the disease was partial, and seemed in some cases arrested. But these hopeful accounts were, almost in every instance, contradicted within a matter of weeks. It was discovered that the blight did not appear in all places at the same time, but travelled mysteriously and steadily. From those districts where the crop was safe just a few days before, the gloomiest accounts were now received. A Dublin newspaper correspondent, writing from the West of the country, reported, “The disease appeared suddenly, and the tubers are sometimes rotten in twenty-four hours afterwards.” The disease, however, did not spread so rapidly as this in all cases.
On the 18th of October, “The Royal Agricultural Improvement Society of Ireland“ held a special meeting regarding the disease in the potato crop. They had already had appointed a sub-committee on the subject, with Professor Sir Robert Kane given the Chairmanship. This sub-committee made one observation that should have immediately aroused all the energies of those in government who had the lives of the people in their hands. They stated that, “on mature consideration of the evidence now before them, it was advisable that the Council should direct the attention of the Irish Government to the now undoubted fact, that a great portion of the potato crop in this country was seriously affected by the disease in question.” It was a cautious, well-weighed sentence, which, coming from such a responsible quarter, was full of portentous meaning for the future.
The Dublin Corporation took up the question of the Potato Blight appointing a committee to enquire and report on the subject. A meeting of this committee was held in the City Assembly House on the 28th of October, which gave a very gloomy picture of the progress of the disease. Mr. William Forde, Town Clerk, in a letter to the committee, said he had recently inspected the produce of eight or ten acres that, three weeks before, had been dug and housed in very good storage, and that now it was difficult to find a sound potato amongst them.
It was at this meeting that Daniel O’Connell first brought forward his plan for dealing with the impending famine. But, it was a plan which met with no favour from those in power, with not one suggestion put forward in it that was taken up by them. The crisis, he said, was one of terrible importance, in which the lives of the people were at stake. Although the calamity was all but universal, he argued that something had to be done, and done immediately, to meet the challenge. He warned that private subscriptions would not be sufficient. Although they might meet a local need, they would not meet a national calamity like the present. He told the meeting that by a merciful dispensation of Providence there was one of the best oat crops that we ever have had in the country, but that crop was passing out of Ireland day by day. Then he informed the meeting that sixteen thousand quarters of oats were imported from Ireland to London alone in one week. He now proposed that a deputation should be appointed to wait on the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury to urge certain measures on the Government, which might help mitigate the calamitous state of the country.
The first measure he proposed was the immediate stoppage of distillation and brewing, and the next was that the export of provisions of every kind to foreign countries should be immediately prohibited, and our own ports open to receive provisions from all countries. But, from this prohibition he, strangely enough, excepted England, although he had just shown that it was England which was carrying away our provisions with the most alarming rapidity. He probably made this exception to persuade the Government to lend a more willing ear to his other propositions. Thirdly, he said all this was not enough, and that the Government must be called on to assist the country in buying provisions. Called on, not in a spirit of begging or alms-seeking, but called on to supply from the resources of Ireland itself money for this purpose. Let our own money be applied to it. The proceeds of the Woods and Forests in this country are, he said, £74,000 a year, which instead of being applied to Irish purposes, had gone to improve Windsor and Trafalgar Square. Two million pounds of Irish money had already been expended in this manner. This is no time to be bungling at trivial remedies, so let a loan of a million and a half pounds be raised on this £74,000 a year, which, at four per cent, would leave a portion of it for a sinking fund. Every absentee should be taxed fifty per cent, and every resident ten per cent. By these means abundant funds would be found to keep the people alive. Let there be got up in each county machinery for carrying out the relief. He also suggested that the projected railways be commenced, and the people put to work from one end of the country to the other, and let them be paid in food. He concluded his speech by moving, that a deputation do wait on His Excellency to lay this plan before him, and to explain to him the pressing necessity which existed for its adoption.
To the Tory Government of the day, especially to a politician like Lord Heytesbury, the scheme appeared very extravagant, and it is not much to be wondered at, that a small politician and narrow minded party-man, as Heytesbury was, should think it a victory to make the deputation feel his high displeasure at the manner in which agitators had been, for so long a period, tormenting the government with their ‘Repeal Movement’. But, the deputation was highly respectable, and ought to have been influential, consisting, as it did, of the Duke of Leinster, Lord Cloncurry, the Lord Mayor, O’Connell, Henry Grattan, Sir James Murray, John Augustus O’Neill, and some twenty other gentlemen of position. The newspapers, the next morning, informed the public that the deputation was “most formally” received, and that the Lord Mayor read to His Excellency the resolutions drawn up by the committee by which the deputation was appointed.
They delegation stated —
(1), That famine and pestilence were immediately imminent, unless the Government took prompt measures against them.
(2), That this could be best done by employing the people in works of national utility.
(3), That the ports ought to be closed against the exportation of corn.
(4), That public granaries ought to be established in various parts of the country, and the corn sold to the people at moderate prices.
(5), That the use of grain for distillation ought to be stopped.
The Lord Lieutenant read the following reply:
“My Lord Mayor and Gentlemen, — It can scarcely be necessary for me to assure you that the state of the potato crop has for some time occupied, and still occupies, the most anxious attention of the Government.
“Scientific men have been sent over from England to co-operate with those of this country, in endeavouring to investigate the nature of the disease, and, if possible, to devise means to arrest its progress. They have not yet terminated their enquiries; but two reports have already been received from them, which have been communicated to the public.
“The Government is also furnished with constant reports from the stipendiary magistrates and inspectors of constabulary, who are charged to watch the state of the potato disease, and the progress of the harvest. These vary from day to day, and are often contradictory; it will, therefore, be impossible to form an accurate opinion on the whole extent of the evil till the digging of the potatoes shall be further advanced. To decide, under such circumstances, upon the most proper measures to be adopted, would be premature; particularly as there is reason to hope that, though the evil exists to a very great extent in some localities, in others it has but partially manifested itself.
“There is no immediate pressure in the market. I will, however, lose no time in submitting your suggestions to the consideration of the Cabinet. The greater part of them can only be enforced by legislative enactment, and all require to be maturely weighed before they can be adopted. It must be clear to you, that in a case of such great national importance, no decision can be taken without a previous reference to the responsible advisers of the Crown.”
There is clear evidence in Sir Robert Peel’s memoirs of himself, that Lord Heytesbury immediately submitted the views of the deputation to the Cabinet. The Lord Lieutenant’s letter to the Cabinet includes “… there was nothing so pressing as to require us to act without waiting for the decision of the responsible advisers of the Crown. But the danger may be upon us before we are aware of its being near; for, as I said in a former letter, the sudden decay of potatoes dug up in an apparently sound state sets all calculation at defiance. Some precautionary measures must be adopted, and adopted promptly, for there is danger in delay.”
The reception accorded to the deputation was soon known through, the city, and the chief liberal daily journal opened its leader on the subject next morning in this indignant fashion, “They may starve! Such in spirit, if not in words, was the reply given yesterday by the English Viceroy, to the memorial of the deputation, which, in the name of the Lords and Commons of Ireland, prayed that the food of this kingdom be preserved, lest the people thereof perish.” (The Freeman’s Journal, 4th November 1845)
Meanwhile, the newspapers were filled with accounts of the progress of the disease, with remedies to arrest it, and with suggestions of various kinds for warding off the impending famine. Mr. Campbell Foster, then travelling in Ireland as “Times’ Commissioner,” made some very sensible suggestions, which, he says, he had obtained during his journeys through the country. In a letter describing these suggestions, Mr. Foster added, “These three plans will, if carried out, I feel assured by all that I have seen and heard, insure, first, the arrest of the disease in the potatoes, and the preservation of food for the people. Secondly, seed for next year, and lastly, if there should occur the calamity of a famine, there will be a substituted food secured for the people at a reasonable price.” (The letter is dated Cork, 22nd November, 1845)
Although Mr. Foster is unjustly severe upon the people, poor, helpless, unaided, uncared for as they were by those whose sacred duty it was to come to their assistance, still many of his views were full of practical good sense. He gave many valuable hints for the amelioration of Irish grievances, and several of his recommendations were embodied in Acts of Parliament. When he criticised the people for doing nothing, being apathetic, and so on, he should’ve remembered that in such a fearful crisis, combined effort alone is of value, which must come from the leaders of the people. The best army cannot fight without generals, and in this battle against famine the Irish people had no leaders. Their natural leaders, the proprietors of the soil, did next to nothing, and the Government of the country did next to nothing. The Government alone had the power to combine, to direct, to command, and it was called upon from all parts of the country to do so. The Viceroy, however, waited.