A Church of Ireland rector in Northern Ireland wrote – “The entire crop that in the month of July appeared so luxuriant, about 15th August manifested only blackened and withered stems. The whole atmosphere in the month of September was tainted with the odour of the decaying potatoes.”
At the beginning of 1846 William Smith O’Brien, the Member of Parliament for Limerick county, insisted that Irish Parliamentary business should be transacted in Ireland, patriotic Irish members wanted to best serve their country. He also paid a lot of attention to those measures being brought forward by the Government for the relief of his starving countrymen, preparing and bringing up reports with Party colleagues, and reviewed and criticised the measures in his speeches. He attended the House of Commons on the 13th March, where a motion was before the House, brought forward by the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, that provision should be made to meet the impending fever and famine in Ireland. Sir James, in his speech, boasted of the sums of money already advanced for the relief of Ireland. Smith O’Brien made a brief reply, in which he said that the moneys advanced were badly expended, having found their way into other channels than those intended.
Smith O’Brien spoke up and urged the House that they should compel the landlords to do their duty to the people, and if they did, there would be neither disturbance nor starvation. Later, on 17th April, he made his longest and most effective speech, which he began by reading extracts from the provincial press of Ireland, giving accounts of “Fearful destitution,” “Deaths from Famine,” and so forth. He then told the House that the circumstance which appeared most aggravating was, that the people were starving in the midst of plenty, and that every tide carried from the Irish ports corn sufficient for the maintenance of thousands of the Irish people. He put forward the sound, but then unpopular view of the repeal of the Corn Laws, which was, that its immediate effect would be injurious to Ireland. He closed his speech by declaring that he felt it his duty to throw the responsibility upon Government, and in his conscience he believed that, for whatever loss of life might arise from want of food, or from outbreaks, the result of want, ministers would be answerable.
Meanwhile, on 9th March, O’Connell asked the First Lord of the Treasury if he were prepared to lay before the House a statement of the measures taken by the Government, to obviate the impending famine and disease in Ireland. Delay, he said, would be fatal, and the sums of money already voted would not be of the least avail. He also repeated, that the Irish people were not asking for charity, because there were resources in the country, and some further measures should be adopted, to meet the exigencies of their case. Sir Robert Peel replied, “I again assure the honorable and learned member that every precaution that can be taken by Government has been taken, not within the last week, or fortnight, but long ago.”
At the opening of Parliament the Queen was made to say, that she observed with deep regret the very frequent instances, in which the crime of deliberate assassination had been committed in Ireland. She added that it would be the duty of Parliament to consider, whether any measure could be devised, to give increased protection to life in that country. In accordance with this striking passage in the Royal Message, Lord St. Germans, Chief Secretary for Ireland, introduced in the House of Lords, on 23rd February, a bill for the protection of life in Ireland, better known by the title of the ‘Coercion Bill’, given to it by the liberal Irish members, and by the Irish people. It passed without difficulty, of course.
Strong as the Peel Cabinet had been for years, the Premier’s newly announced policy on the Corn Law question led to such a disruption of party ties, that the progress of the Coercion Bill through the Commons could not be guaranteed. When it was sent down unpassed from the House of Lords it was immediately opposed by O’Connell in a two hour long speech to the House. Mr. O’Connell had announced, that he would state his views on the condition of Ireland, and the causes of the agrarian outrages that had occurred. This remarkable address to the House proved to be a renunciation Mr. O’Connell’s entire career-long policy. It also proved, by a mass of authentic evidence, ranging over a long period of time, that Irish outrages were the consequence of physical misery, and that the social evils of that plagued Ireland, could not be successfully resolved by political actions. It was this uncompromising opposition by O’Connell and his supporters that has been attributed with the ultimate defeat of the ‘Coercion Bill’. It was this defeat that now drove Sir Robert Peel from power and brought in Lord John Russell and the Whig Party.
Daniel O’Connell’s speech was a bold denunciation of the system of evictions that had been carried out by Irish landlords, to which O’Connell attributed those murders that the Government now relied on as justification for bringing forward the ‘Coercion Bill’. If the murders in Ireland were a blot upon Christianity, O’Connell argued, were not the state of things that he had described just as big a blot upon Christianity? “This, be it recollected,” O’Connell continued, “is forty-five years after the Union, during which time Ireland has been under the government of this country, which has reduced the population of that country to a worse condition than that of any other country in Europe”.
The main objective of his address was to prove that the state of the Land Laws in Ireland was the cause of the agrarian murders, and that Coercion Acts were not a remedy. In the County Tipperary, where there were most evictions, there were also most murders, and he called the attention of the House to this particular fact.
O’Connell complained of the administration of justice in Ireland, saying that the government had appointed partisan judges and partisan magistrates, in whom the people had no confidence. At the same time, they had taken away the commission of the peace from seventy-four gentlemen, simply because they had advocated a repeal of the Legislative Union.
He came, at last, to those things he believed could remedy the situation in Ireland. It was his opinion that the reason behind the existing state of unrest in Ireland was the land question. He accused the House of having done too much for the landlords and much too little for the tenants. He enumerated the principal laws conferring power on the landlords, adding that he did not believe there was a more fertile source of murder and outrage than those powers. “Thus,” said he, “the source of crime is directly traceable to the legislation of this House.” The repeal of those Land Laws was one of the remedies which he called for, but not the only one. He wanted the House to begin immediate efforts to give proper justice to Ireland, politically as well as in relation to the law of landlord and tenant. The first area of concern, in his opinion, was that Ireland had not an adequate number of members to represent her in the House and needed an extension of the franchise. He also recommended the institution of a programme of corporate reform and, finally, a satisfactory arrangement of the temporalities of the church. These general remedies that he demanded from the House, he saw as a way of persuading the people of Ireland to have a closer relationship with England and create a desire to maintain the Union.
He demanded that the Land Laws passed since the Act of Union should be repealed, and above all he called for full compensation for every improvement made by the tenant on the land. “Labour,” he said, “is the property of the tenant, and if the tenant by his labour and skill improved the land, and made it more valuable, let him have the benefit of those improvements, before the landlord turns him out of possession.”
“Are you,” he concluded, “desirous of putting an end to these murders? Then it must be by removing the cause of the murder. You could not destroy the effect without taking away the cause. I repeat, the tranquillity of Ulster is owing to the enjoyment of tenant right. When that right was taken away, the people were trodden under foot, and, in the words of Lord Clare, ‘ground to powder.'”
That portion of the Tory party which remained faithful to Protection, being deserted by their leaders, rallied round Lord George Bentinck, and in some sense forced him to become their champion against their late chief, the Prime Minister, and his policy. Thus was formed the Protectionist party, which was the opinion that there was sufficient necessity for the Government ‘Coercion Bill’. Lord George said “he was for giving the Government a hearty support, provided they proved they were in earnest in their determination to put down murder and outrage in Ireland, by giving priority in the conduct of public business to the measure in question,” — the ‘Coercion Bill’. In short, the party supported what was called public order in Ireland, but with a proviso that might eventually defeat free trade by postponement.
After some finessing, the Government showed a determination to go on with both bills. Lord John Russell and the Whigs saw their opportunity, and to the dismay of the First Lord, he found the strange, incongruous, unprecedented combination of Irish Repealers, Tory Protectionists, Whigs, and Manchester League-men prepared to vote against him on his ‘Irish Coercion Act’. Thus, in June 1846, Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whig Party, succeeded Sir Robert Peel as Prime Minister and, almost immediately, his new government came under threat from the politically influential ‘Corn Dealers’ and ‘Protectionists’ regarding the importation of grain to ease the effects of famine in Ireland. They insisted that if the government was to continue importing grain, they would refuse to do so. If this happened, the government would be left to bear the entire burden of food supplies on its own. To avoid this situation, the government promised them that there would be no more state interference in their trade.
Although Peel had been defeated over the ‘Coercion Bill’, he had also won a triumph with the House of Lords announcing that their lordships had finally passed the bill for the repeal of the Corn Laws. It was bit late and the new government’s promise of non-interference was not at all surprising, because government offices had already been having great difficulty in buying grain supplies. All of Europe was, at this time, suffering widespread crop failures. Potatoes, Rye, Oats, and Barley were all in short supply, and the prices of these foodstuffs were raising rapidly with demand. Britain itself was experiencing an industrial depression and was extremely reluctant to spend too much of its monetary resources on food aid for the Irish. The government was still, of course, hoping that the 1846 potato harvest would be good. The ‘Relief Commission’, therefore, reluctantly ended its work on 15th August 1846, but feared that the need for relief was not yet over.
Meanwhile, the infamous Charles Trevelyan, in the Treasury, was determined that the effects of the Irish famine would not transfer to England. Neither would he allow England to pay high prices to supply food to the Irish. Surprisingly, there was very little in the way of public protest about this decision originating from Ireland. Daniel O’Donnell and the majority of the Irish members of Parliament, however, had supported the Whigs in the defeat of Sir Robert Peel and the election of Lord Russell. It was not appropriate for them to be seen attacking the new Premier so soon after giving him their support.
Despite the hopes of Trevelyan and the Whig government in London the potato blight returned with great frenzy in the summer of 1846, causing food prices in Ireland to rise higher and higher. By November a labourer would have needed to have earnings of twenty-one shillings per week to support an average family. Unfortunately, even on the relief works no man could hope to earn more than six or eight shillings, causing him and his family to become more and more undernourished.
Soon there were large numbers of people who were in a starving condition in the southern and western counties, and in districts of Ulster also. As early as 16th April 1846 a correspondent of the ‘London Morning Chronicle’, gave warning of what was to come when reporting, “The whole of yesterday I spent in running from hut to hut on the right bank of the Shannon. The peasantry there were in an awful condition. In many cases they had not even a rotten potato left. They have consumed even the seed potatoes, unable any longer to resist the pangs of hunger.”
The people assembled in considerable numbers in parts of the South calling for food or employment. In response to these calls and this more widespread appearance of the blight the government decided that they should once more rely on temporary measures to provide the additional relief. Public works were to be the main means of providing assistance with relief committees playing a secondary role. By the end of the year over 390,000 people were employed building roads, often leading nowhere, and often in deserted areas were roads were least needed. Over 150,000 were still seeking such work, but could not get it, so were obviously in a state of severe distress – perhaps a half-million were starving when you consider that most of the applicants had dependent families. Often people in most need failed to get any work, because places were taken by farmers and their families who were in no such need, but they knew someone on the committee.
Another heartrending problem for the ‘Board of Works’ officials was the numbers who applied for work but were obviously so weakened by want that they could barely lift a shovel. In some cases, women were employed, the only providers for the children who crouched by little fires of lighted turf by the road. There was no choice – you could only work or die. There were also the blind and the lame. Those who could not get into the workhouse had nowhere to turn but the relief works.
When Trevelyan had ordered the closure of public works in July 1846, there was an outcry. They were obviously all that would prevent the deaths of thousands of people, and the risk of closing them was far too great. The ‘Board of Works’ felt that there was still no guarantee that the new crop would be good and refused to close them down. But Trevelyan was concerned that the coming grain harvest would not be saved because of the lack of labourers, nor would enough turf be cut for winter. In the end the works were allowed to continue, but under new rules.
The authority of local committees to choose workers was now taken away. Now the committees were to draw up list of eligible workers and these would be checked by the Board, which was now run more efficiently. Ninety percent of its income now went directly to pay the wages of relief workers, and very little was spent on bureaucracy. The farmers, meanwhile, continually complained the relief works were distorting the labour market. They could not, or would not, pay decent wages to their labourers and had to watch more and more of them head for the relief works, abandoning their little patches of land because they could not work for the rent. Money wages had now become essential for survival.
The payment system on the relief works was now changed to piece-work payment. The system, however, was more difficult to organise, so payments were delayed once more. It was also more complicated for the illiterate labourers to understand, and they suspected they were being cheated. There was great resistance to it, and overseers were assaulted and threatened in some places.
In April 1846 a correspondent of a Dublin newspaper reported that the majority of landlords were doing little for the relief of the people. The continued to demand the rents, though it was obvious the tenants no longer had the means to pay. He informed his readers that a certain noble proprietor was just after paying a visit to his estate in Tipperary, and he had no sooner left than notices were served on his tenants to pay the November rent. When the tenants asked for time, saying they had only a few black potatoes left, the bailiff’s reply to them was characteristic of the time, “What the devil do we care about you or your black potatoes? It was not us that made them black. You will get two days to pay the rent, and if you don’t you know the consequence.”
It became obvious that even if the 1846 potato crop were healthy, there would not be enough of it to feed the population. The Irish peasantry was forced to eat their seed potatoes, and the government refused to buy and distribute seed, in case this created a dependance in future years. Even if they had agreed to do so, there was no way of transporting and distributing the huge amounts of seed that would be necessary.
In the meantime, the complacency of the ‘Poor Law’ authorities in responding to the demands for relief was shown to be a grievous error. The first appearance of blight had had little impact on the take up of workhouse relief, but in the second year od distress, demand for this relief was both early and substantial. By the end of 1846, over half of the workhouses were full and having to refuse admittance to paupers. A sharp increase in disease, emigration and mortality in the Winter and Spring of 1847 resulted.
At this time there were one hundred and twenty-three workhouses open, and great as the people’s aversion was to them the inmates went on steadily increasing. But, the demands being placed on the workhouses demonstrated the limits of the poor law system. The prohibition of outdoor relief meant that if a workhouse became full, the responsibility of the ‘Poor Law’ to provide relief had ended. The pressure on the workhouses continued until the Spring of 1847 when three-quarters of the workhouses were full. The Boards of Guardians, however, due to a combination of compassion and fear provided relief in ways that were prohibited by the legislature. In response, conciliatory and threatening tactics were variously employed by the ‘Poor Law’ Commissioners to dissuade the guardians from continuing with these illegal forms of relief.
The worsening situation did result in a modification in the role of the ‘Poor Law’. In December 1846, the guardians were directed to obtain additional workhouse accommodation. This was viewed as a preferable alternative to providing outdoor relief. At the same time, the government emphasised that they would not provide any financial assistance for this purpose, but that all additional accommodation would have to be financed from the local ‘Poor Rates’. These modifications did not, however, have the support of the ‘Poor Law Commissioners.”
At this stage also, the government was considering more far-reaching changes to the Poor Law system. These changes were partly in response to the failure of the public works, regardless of high expenditure by the government. More importantly, however, many leading members of the government were increasingly of the opinion that during a period of extended shortages and distress, relief would be effective and economical only if it was financed from local resources. This contributed to a determination to take a greater responsibility for the provision of relief in their localities.
The Dublin “Evening Mail” was one of those pro-government journals which regarded Irish distress as a financial encumberance and as a threat to British political stability. But, it regarded the poor law as a necessary protective measure for the British government.