Charles K. O’Hara, Chairman of the Sligo Board of Guardians, wrote to the ‘Mansion House Committee’, saying, “In many instances the conacre tenants have refused to dig the crops, and are already suffering from want of food.” The ‘Mansion House Committee’, which was established by a group of concerned citizens to appeal to the British government for some kind of help. The letter from Mr. O’Hara was just one of many from all over the country, prophesying disaster, and giving details of the devastation. Potatoes were rotting in the ground, and the ones already in storage were melting away. Although some correspondents feared what the future may hold in store, many officials believed that, despite its widespread infection, the blight was a one-off event, with the crop coming back to normal the following year, as had often happened previously.
The clergy of every denomination came forward with a zeal and charity worthy of their sacred calling. The Rev. James M’Hall, of Hollymount, County Mayo, in a letter mentioned the startling fact, that a poor man in his neighbourhood having opened a pit, where he had stored six barrels of potatoes, of sixty-four stone each, but he “found he had not one stone of sound potatoes!”
The Rector of Skull, Dr. Robert Traill, wrote prophetically, “Am I to cry peace, peace, where there is no peace? But what did I find in the islands? the pits, without one single exception in a state of serious decay, and many of the islanders apprehending famine in consequence. Oh, my heart trembles when I think of all that may be before us.”
In the meantime, the reports of the disease’s progress became, every day, more and more disheartening. The Government appeared to do nothing except publish a few scientific reports. ‘The Mansion House Committee’ met on the 19th November, with Lord Cloncurry in the chair, and unanimously passed the following resolutions:—
- “That we feel it an imperative duty to discharge our consciences of all responsibility regarding the undoubtedly approaching calamities, famine and pestilence, throughout Ireland, an approach which is imminent, and almost immediate, and can be obviated only by the most prompt, universal and efficacious measures for procuring food and employment for the people.
- “That we have ascertained beyond the shadow of doubt, that considerably more than one-third of the entire of the potato crop in Ireland has been already destroyed by the potato disease; and that such disease has not, by any means, ceased its ravages, but, on the contrary, it is daily extending more and more; and that no reasonable conjecture can be formed with respect to the limits of its effects, short of the destruction of the entire remaining potato crop.
- “That our information upon the subject is positive and precise and is derived from persons living in all the counties of Ireland. From persons also of all political opinions and from clergymen of all religious persuasions.
- “We are thus unfortunately able to proclaim to all the inhabitants of the British Empire, and in the presence of an all-seeing Providence, that in Ireland famine of a most hideous description must be immediate and pressing, and that pestilence of the most frightful kind is certain, and not remote, unless immediately prevented.
- “That we arraign in the strongest terms, consistent with personal respect to ourselves, the culpable conduct of the present administration, as well in refusing to take any efficacious measure for alleviating the existing calamity with all its approaching hideous and necessary consequences; as also for the positive and unequivocal crime of keeping the ports closed against the importation of foreign provisions, thus either abdicating their duty to the people or their sovereign, whose servants they are, or involving themselves in the enormous guilt of aggravating starvation and famine, by unnaturally keeping up the price of provisions, and doing this for the benefit of a selfish class who derive at the present awful crisis pecuniary advantages to themselves by the maintenance of the oppressive Corn Laws.
- “That the people of Ireland, in their bitter hours of misfortune, have the strongest right to impeach the criminality of the ministers of the crown, inasmuch as it has pleased a merciful Providence to favour Ireland in the present season with a most abundant crop of oats. Yet, whilst the Irish harbours are closed against the importation of foreign food, they are left open for the exportation of Irish grain, an exportation which has already amounted in the present season to a quantity nearly adequate to feed the entire people of Ireland, and to avert the now certain famine; thus inflicting upon the Irish people the abject misery of having their own provisions carried away to feed others, whilst they themselves are left contemptuously to starve.
- “That the people of Ireland should particularly arraign the conduct of the ministry in shrinking from their duty, to open the ports for the introduction of provisions by royal proclamation, whilst they have had the inhumanity to postpone the meeting of Parliament to next year.
- “That we behold in the conduct of the ministry the contemptuous disregard of the lives of the people of Ireland, and that we, therefore, do prepare an address to her Majesty, most humbly praying her Majesty to direct her ministers to adopt without any kind of delay the most extensive and efficacious measures to arrest the progress of famine and pestilence in Ireland.
Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, who had considerable experience of governing Ireland, was convinced that is problems were rooted in social backwardness. He saw maize, cheaply imported from America, as a permanent substitute for the potato in the Irish diet, and intended the rural poor to become landless labourers working for wages on the land of substantial farmers. He was confident that agricultural output would rise rapidly if the social reorganisation was accompanied by the challenge of free trade and by an increased investment in scientific ‘high farming.’ He was certain private corn merchants would develop the maize after it was freed. With the coming of the blight and the threat of famine there were many who were convinced that dependence on the potato was ‘unnatural’ and should be replaced with a higher diet based on grain. The British radicals of the ‘Anti-Corn Law League’, who had long campaigned against food tariffs, echoed Peel’s thoughts.
Peel had been planning a progressive move to free trade for several years, and he was aware of both popular expectations and the opportunity that had been raised by the potato famine. Yet he did not act purely from political expediency, and privately took a serious view of the workings of ‘Divine Providence.’ The dominant economic theory in Britain at this time was ‘laissez-faire’ (‘let be’), which was not in favour of the government providing aid for its citizens, or to interfere with the free trade of good or trade. Sir Robert Peel had decided to repeal the ‘Corn Laws’ that protected British imports threw the country into a political crisis.
Most of the Conservative Party rejected his proposals and opposed his leadership. He was now dependent on the Whig Party’s support to continue in government, but he clearly had a personal mission, which helped account for his resignation on 8th December, 1845.
In November a halt in the progress of the blight was observed in some districts. The assertion made in the first resolution of the ‘Mansion House Committee’, that more than one-third of the potato crop was lost, was not only vouched for by hundreds of most respectable and most trustworthy witnesses, as we have seen, but it was accepted as a truth by every party. Moreover, the Government, whose culpable apathy and delay was denounced on all sides, except by its supporters, was in possession of information on the subject, which made the loss of the potato crop at least one-half instead of one-third.
Estimating the value of the potato crop of 1845 in Ireland at £18,000,000, it was now certain that food to the value of £9,000,000 was already lost. Despite such estimates there was, as yet, no serious display of real concern being shown by either the Viceroy or the Premier. The authorities simply went on asking questions when they should have been taking practical action. These ‘leaders’ simply appointed yet another Commission, about this time, which sat in Dublin Castle and was presided over by Mr. Lucas, then Under-Secretary. Its Secretary, Captain Kennedy, applied to the ‘Mansion House Committee’ for information. That body at once placed its entire correspondence at the disposal of the Commissioners, and the Lord Mayor was assured that the Government was fully prepared to take such steps as might be found necessary for the protection of the people, when the emergency should arise. Most people, however, thought the emergency had already arisen.
It was on the 10th of December that the Corporation of Dublin agreed to an address to the Queen, calling her Majesty’s attention to the potato blight, and the impending famine consequent upon it. In their address they brought before her two facts just lately confirmed by the Devon Commission, namely, that four million of the labouring population of Ireland “are more wretched than any people in Europe — their only food the potato, their only drink water.” They add, that even these facts cannot convey to her Majesty an adequate idea of the destitution by which the Irish people are threatened, or of the numbers who shall suffer by the failure of the potato crop. These are facts told about the inhabitants of a country which, until lately, may have been rightly called the granary of England, exporting annually from the midst of a starving people food of the best kind in sufficient amounts to feed treble its own inhabitants. They assured her Majesty that fully one-third of their only support for one year has been destroyed by the potato blight, which will cause a state of destitution lasting for four months for a great majority of her Majesty’s Irish subjects. They say, with respectful dignity, that they ask for no charity, but only ask for public works of utility. They ask that the national treasury should be “poured out to give employment to the people at remunerative wages.” Finally, they ask her Majesty to summon Parliament for the earliest possible date.
The Corporation did not get an opportunity of presenting their address to the Queen until the 3rd of January, twenty-four days after it was agreed to. This delay, no doubt chiefly arose from the resignation of the Peel ministry at the beginning of December, the failure of Lord John Russell to form a Government, and the subsequent return of Sir Robert Peel to office on the 20th December 1845.
The Corporation of London addressed her Majesty on the same occasion, deploring the sufferings and privations of a large portion of her subjects in England, Ireland, and Scotland. They attributed the suffering to “erroneous legislation, which, by excluding the importation of food, and restricting commerce, shuts out from the nation the bounty of Providence.” They, therefore, prayed that the ports of the kingdom might be opened for the free importation of food. While the Corporation of London did not exclude the peculiar distress of Ireland from their sympathies, their real object in going to Windsor was to make an anti-Corn Law demonstration. This intention can be easily derived from the fact that the deputation consisted of the enormous number of two hundred gentlemen. The Queen politely replied that she would “gladly sanction any measure which the legislature might suggest as conducive to the alleviation of this temporary distress, and to the permanent welfare of all classes of her people.”
It was a deplorable fact that the entire ‘potato blight’ question immediately became a party question in Ireland. The Protestant and dissenting clergy, a few philanthropic laymen, and the upper classes, especially the Conservatives, remained aloof from the public meetings which were held to call attention to the blight, and its threatened consequences. ‘The Mansion House Committee’, which did so much good, was composed almost exclusively of Catholics and Liberals, which was also substantially true of the meetings held throughout the country. The Conservative elements regarded, or pretended to regard, those meetings as a new phase of the Repeal agitation led by O’Connell. And, as the distress chiefly occurred among the poor Catholics, who were all considered to be ‘Repealers’, it was, the Conservatives assumed, the business of ‘Repealers’ and agitators to look after them and provide relief. Even the Prime Minister himself was not free from having similar feelings. In a memorandum that he read to the Cabinet on the 1st November, among many other things, he said, “There will be no hope of contributions from England for the mitigation of this calamity. Monster meetings, the ungrateful return for past kindness, the subscriptions in Ireland to Repeal rent and O’Connell tribute, will have disinclined the charitable here to make any great exertions for Irish relief.” (Memoirs, part 3, page 143.)
The sentiments of the leading Tory Party newspapers coincided with views of the leader. They kept constantly declared that the ravages of the potato blight were greatly exaggerated, and they eagerly seized on any accidental circumstance that could give them a pretext for supporting this claim. The chief Dublin Conservative journal, the ‘Evening Mail’, on the 3rd November, when writing about the murder of a landowner called Clarke stated, “inclines to believe that the agrarian outrage had its origin in a design to intimidate landlords from demanding their rents, at a season when corn of all kinds is superabundant, and the partial failure of the potato crop gives a pretence for not selling it. And if we recollect, “that the potato crop of this year far exceeded an average one, and that corn of all kinds is so far abundant, it will be seen that the apprehensions of a famine in that quarter are unfounded, and are merely made the pretence for withholding the payment of rent.” This was a sample of the bitter language of a newspaper that was known to give widespread expression to the feelings of the landlords in Ireland. At the same time this newspaper was regarded as being the chief organ of the existing Government, represented by Lord Heytesbury.
A few days later, ‘Evening Mail’ reported that, “there was a sufficiency — an abundance of sound potatoes in the country for the wants of the people.” And it went on to urge farmers to sell their corn, by saying their efforts to do so might now under threat of being forestalled by both Dutch and Hanoverian merchants. At the beginning of December, a Tory backed provincial newspaper, proved itself not to be so confident of towing the Party line, reporting, “It may be fairly presumed the losses have been enormous …. We repeat it, and we care not whom it displeases, that there are not now half as many sound potatoes in the country as there were last December.” The newspaper’s Editor, undoubtedly, must have felt that he was doing a perilous thing in stating a fact which he knew would be displeasing to many of his readers. Meanwhile, in Queen’s reply to the Dublin address, in early January 1846, she let it be known that she deplored the poverty in which so many of her Irish subjects had found themselves, and that their welfare and prosperity was a constant concern of hers. She told them that she had ordered precautions to be taken, summoned Parliament for an early date, and she looked with confidence to the advice she that she shall receive from the united council of the realm. (Parliament.
At the same time that the Corporation of Dublin sent their letter , the Town Council of Belfast met and made similar suggestions. But John Mitchel, one of the leading ‘Repeal’ voices in Ireland reminded observers that neither body asked for charity. According to him, “They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an Integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used—not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility … if Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally.”
We have already read as how, in early November 1845, a very influential deputation from the citizens of Dublin went to Lord Heytesbury, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to offer suggestions, such as opening the ports to foreign corn, stopping distillation from grain, prohibiting the export of foodstuffs, and providing employment through public works. Lord Heytesbury, listened politely but urged them not to be alarmed, and told them that they “were premature.” The Lord Lieutenant assured them that scientists were investigating into all those matters, and that the Inspectors of Police, as well as the Stipendiary Magistrates had been ordered to give constant reports from their districts. There was, therefore, he assured them, no “immediate pressure on the market”.
Some weeks later, on 8th December 1845, The Head of the ‘Repeal Association’, Daniel O’Connell, proposed several remedies to help avert the pending disaster. One of the first things he suggested was the introduction of ‘Tenant-Right’, similar to that in use in the province of Ulster, which gave the landlord a fair rent for his land, but also gave the tenant compensation for any money he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements. At he same time O’Connell pointed out the means which the Belgian Government had used during the same events, namely shutting their ports against the export of provisions, but opening them to imports. He also suggested that, if Ireland had a domestic Parliament, the ports would be thrown open and the abundant crops raised in Ireland would be kept for the people of Ireland. O’Connell maintained that only the establishment of an Irish Parliament would provide food and employment for the people, saying that a repeal of the ‘Act of Union’ was a necessity and Ireland’s only hope of salvation.