In the “Freeman’s Journal” of 29th September 1846 the contents of a letter written by Daniel O’Connell were reprinted. In this letter he announced his opinion – “The landlords are providing ample means for the supply of that food. But where is the food? Money is of little value to the peasant’s hungry family, if food be not within their reach! The price of food is daily increasing. The landlords will in vain provide the money, if the government do not abandon the absurd theory that the importation of food at such a crisis as this would be an unwarrantable interference with the principles of free trade.”
The Potato Crop was, by this time, known to have failed and O’Connell used the letter to state categorically “Food, we believe must be supplied by the authorities. It must be applied in order to make it accessible to the people at reasonable prices.” In an effort to bolster this demand, he added, “The state of the country is frightful – famine hourly approaching and the enormity of the evil so great as to require for its alleviation sums of money so apparently extravagant in amount as to fill the mind of men of the most hopeful temperament with dismay and affright.”
In the same letter he warned the authorities, “Let it be remembered that there is great reason to fear, and not only to fear, but to believe, that the evils that now press upon us will not have spent their force in a single year or between this and next harvest. What will be the condition of the country, if there shall be another year of blighted crop without adequate preparation being made to meet the calamity? And what sufficient preparations should and can be made, it is not likely that individual sagacity could foretell.” O’Connell also began to apportion blame for the condition that Ireland found itself in, saying – “There is no fact more distinctly recognised than that the greater part of the Irish population are every year on the verge of starvation. It has pleased Providence in the present year to engulf them in misery – we do not confound the adventitious misfortune of the present year with the steady progression of the accumulating distress and misery which has marked the domestic history of Ireland since the date of the Union – Parliamentary documents have placed beyond doubt that the wretchedness of the Irish peasantry has been, and is, annually increasing. The effects of the Union have left the country unable to endure the loss of a single crop.” His written words, as strong and powerful as those he spoke, he ended his correspondence with condemnation – “England by a combination of the vilest fraud, with a force casually irresistible deprived us of our nationality; and then because we suffer the evils necessarily resulting from that loss, their writers taunt us with the natural and necessary consequences of that deprivation, and accuse us of being the authors of our own misery, choosing to forget that we have had no control over our own affairs, and have been nothing more than the sad serfs of an ungrateful mistress.” (Letter from D. O’Connell reprinted in Freeman’s Journal 29th September 1846).
It is time to consider the conditions in Ireland in 1846 that O’Donnell was actually referring to. Essentially Ireland was an agricultural country wherein the growing of crops was the main use of the land. There were cattle and sheep farmers raising their herds in Ireland also, but when the famine struck they were soon having to guard these herds from people who were desperate to get food. Domestic pigs and chickens, of course, were the first to be eaten up.
One form of nourishment enjoyed by some was the blood from cattle that was baked with vegetables, when available. A person could take up to two pints of blood from a cow quite safely and would scour fields for any root crops that may have been left behind. But, the countryside was overcrowded before the famine and this fact caused the greatest problems when famine struck. Overcrowding had successfully driven away much of the local wildlife such as foxes, frogs, hedgehogs, and badgers, and any of these animals that were left were now served as food irrespective of palatability. In place of fresh vegetables, the starving turned to nettles, dandelions, roots, mushrooms, berries, nuts were devoured ravenously. There were, occasionally, small amounts of cabbage, turnips, and herbs but, generally, they were eating food that prolonged their lives while, at the same time, destroying it.
When studying the famine in Ireland some are puzzled as why fish were not more widely used as a food for the starving. But, in those days, the sea-fishing was a very dangerous activity, especially when you consider that the vast majority of boats used for fishing were flimsy ‘currachs’, a type of row boat which was constructed from wood and canvas. They were not a very secure vessel to be used along the rocky, treacherous west coast of Ireland, which often suffered persistently bad weather. These deterrents in themselves were enough to limit the amount of fish caught, but even if sufficient fish were caught there were very few harbours and piers on which to land them. It is not surprising, therefore, that fishermen tended to be as much dependent upon their patch of potatoes as anyone else. As the famine tightened its grip they were often forced to sell their boats and nets to obtain food. Those that persisted with their work often became too weak to row their boats, causing them to abandon fishing and revert to eating shellfish and edible seaweed until local supplies were quickly exhausted. The fishermen of Claddagh, on the Connemara coast, would only go out to sea on certain days and at certain times, and if fishermen from elsewhere tried to fish in their waters they would destroy the nets of the strange boats and beat up their crews. River fishing, of course, was an option for those seeking eels and trout, but all the rivers belonged to the landowners and the poaching laws in the mid-nineteenth century were very strictly enforced.
“One poor woman whose entreaties became increasingly importunate, had worked all night in the grave yard, lest the body of her husband should be stolen from his resting place, to which he had been consigned yesterday. She had left five children sick with the famine fever in her hovel, and she raised an exceedingly bitter cry for help.” (Elihu Burritt)
As the extent of the blighted potato crop emerged, any good parts of the potatoes remaining were retrieved for consumption. Even diseased potatoes soaked, skimmed of the bad matter, and used to make ‘Boxty Bread’ (Potato Bread) or boiled and eaten though with painful consequences. Surprisingly it was grain from a foreign land, with an exotic name, provided the main relief food during the famine crisis. This alien food was made from maize by grinding and milling the whole maize grain. When sales of Indian Meal commenced in March 1846 it was only to those people who could afford a penny for a pound of meal. Private Traders were excluded, and local Relief Committees, were permitted to purchase Indian Meal only when local prices were rising. By 1847, however, the price of Indian Meal had doubled, by which time private merchants had taken over the trade.
Most people didn’t know how they should cook Indian Meal correctly, and some even tried to eat it raw because they lacked fuel to cook it. The consequences of eating inadequately ground and incorrectly cooked Indian Meal were painful. The flint-hard shell was sharp and irritating, and capable of piercing the intestinal wall. It is little wonder, then, that it was so unpopular among the poor. Nevertheless, as the 1846 season advanced, and the dearth of food intensified, the hungry population was compelled to overcome its dislike of Indian Corn Meal. Indeed, so widespread did its consumption become, that supplies were very quickly exhausted. The spectacle of cart loads of wheat, barley and oats continuing to be exported under armed guard, from Ireland while the peasantry starved is an indelible picture in the minds of Irishmen. Even if it had remained in the country the starving peasantry had no money to purchase grain. In fact, for them to get the grain it would have to have been given to them for free.
“Alas! The foul and fatal blight
Infecting Raleigh’s grateful root,
Blasting the fields of verdure bright,
That waves o’er Erin’s favourite fruit.
The peasant’s cherished hope is gone,
His little garden’s pride is o’er,
Famine and plague now scowl upon
Hibernia’s fair and fertile shore.” (anonymous)
What else was available? In coastal districts of Ireland, as we have said, there was usually herring, which often complimented the potato diet when in season. We have also seen the reasons why fish did not make a greater contribution to alleviating the starving during the calamitous seasons. Restricted supply brought with it an increase in fish prices and it was banished from the poor man’s table. More easily accessible sea foods were limpets and sea weeds, which could be harvested at low tide. So intense became the harvesting of limpets, however, that rocks were often picked clean by the starving population. Seaweed, such as Carrageen Moss and Dulse, were the most traditionally cooked, though the Dulse was often dried and eaten raw. It was not unusual, during famine times, to see stretches of beach stripped bare of their tidal crop.
Early in the 1846 season, when the diseased state of the potato crop became apparent, inhabitants in mountainous regions, where the growing of grain was impossible, killed grazing sheep. While the mutton lasted the people were well nourished, but all too soon stocks were exhausted and famine conditions appeared. Such was the desperation of the starving that carrion was consumed with little thought about the diseased state of the carcasses.
Cabbages, turnips and swedes were a poor alternative to the potato, because they are incapable of providing the nutritional requirements to sustain health. Nevertheless, cabbage and turnips were both used as substitute foodstuffs and, when all else failed, may hungry people resorted to eating weeds. Hungry people had eaten Charlock and Nettles long before the ‘Great Famine’. Then, as the intensity of the famine increased, various philanthropic groups set up soup kitchens.
In August 1846 the government became very much aware that the potato crop for that year had failed, and that things were going to get progressively worse and that they needed to find a new solution to the problems it brought. One new measure was the introduction of a ‘Labour Rate Act’, which effectively put the complete cost of all relief works back to Ireland, to the local landowners and ratepayers. The costs did not have to be paid until later, and landlords did not have to produce any money of their own up front. This, of course, brought hundreds of applications pouring into the ‘Board of Works’, and once again chaos reigned.
The Whig government also decided that, instead of reviving the previous system of relief committees, they would open food depots around the country. However, these were only to be opened in areas of greatest need, and to be used only as a last resort. New local committees were to be formed from the local gentry and county officials. The committees excluded Catholic priests from membership, despite the fact that it was these men who knew most about the local population. The local gentry, meanwhile, were mostly absentee landlords, which had the harmful effect of deepening the leadership deficiency already existing throughout the countryside. When the famine struck many of the class to whom both the English and Irish looked for leadership in the relief effort were simply not there. Despite the difficulties, however, the clergy and nuns, both Catholic and Protestant did what they could to fill the vacuum left.
The management of more and more Irish estates had now begun to pass into the hands of third parties, agents appointed either by the landlords themselves, or by middlemen who rented large sections of land from the landlords and parcelled them out in smaller and ever more costly rents to landless men drawn mainly from the small farmer and labouring class. It was here, at this level of society, that the potato would exert its catastrophic influence on the Irish population.
On the higher slopes of the Irish social pyramid dwelt the landlords, some 10,000 of them. It was they who dominated the land, although in practice many of their estates were usually mortgaged to the hilt because of their extravagant lifestyles. Only a handful of these landlords devoted the profits of their lands to improving their estates, while most spent their income in London or on the Continent.
Elsewhere in Ireland, as news of the 1846 crop failure spread the hungry people erupted against authority in their anger and despair. Crowds gathered in various villages and towns howling for work and food and frightening the authorities with their demands. They were usually dispersed fairly easy by groups of armed soldiers and militia because they were too weak and sickly with hunger to mount a resistance. But, these angry gatherings were being driven to protest by the sight of their families slowly withering away and dying from lack of food. They watched cartloads of food being exported while they starved, and they wanted change, rather than break the law or raise a revolution in the country. They simply needed and were asking for help.
Nevertheless, there had always been secret societies in Ireland striving for a change in the status quo, and these groups began to see an opportunity to make use of this widespread despair and demoralisation among the peasantry to achieve their aims. These so-called ‘Ribbonmen’ operated through intimidation and violence and it was only the constant vigilance by local priests that prevented serious trouble from breaking out. Despite the best efforts of the local clergy, however, large fights between factions did take place.
This ‘faction fighting’ appears to have begun in Tipperary, some time at the beginning of the nineteenth century and spread quickly from there to other parts of the country. Theses fighting gangs were usually based upon extended families, or on parishes, and the fights themselves usually occurred at fairs, on feast days, or on public holidays. On occasion it was not unknown for several hundred participants took part on either side. In fact, the most famous faction fight at ‘Ballyveagh Strand’ in County Kerry, during 1834, was reported to have involved 3000 contestants, of whom over 200 were killed.
While faction fighting itself was a relatively short-lived phenomena it engendered a brand of violence that was not so open to public scrutiny. The agrarian violence that now sprang up, accompanied by its secret societies, was far more sinister and widespread than the faction fighting. By the end of the eighteenth century, secret societies were well established throughout the country and generally based on local grievances based on localised grievances stemming from the problems of landlordism. The most extensive of these associations was called ‘The White Boys’, so called because they wore white smocks over their heads to conceal their identities. This oath-bound organisation was the most feared and most effective of the agrarian societies that were operating.
‘The White Boys’ did not hesitate to use murder as a tool against the farmers, landlords, middlemen, and those people who rented land from which a previous tenant had been evicted. Overall, however, the ‘White Boys’ and all the other societies never posed a serious threat either to the British Army or to the Act of Union. This is not really surprising when you consider the penalties that were enforced for violent crime, especially against the state.
There was, nevertheless, a rise in crime during the famine, which was mainly due to non-violent acts against property and not against persons. The use of cash on the relief works now brought money into areas where it was previously uncommon and increased the opportunities for robbery. In fact, theft of food, money and clothing were the most common crime in this period. Unfortunately, large numbers of those who were arrested for such crimes died before they could be brought to trial.
The usual punishment for such crimes involved transportation. This was simply exiling the convict abroad to Australia or other colonies, where they would undergo hard labour, and from where they would never return home. But, as the famine worsened, people began to commit crimes very deliberately so that the could be transported. It appeared that no matter how dreadful transportation might have been it was preferable to dying of starvation or fever where they were.
For approximately three months of every year the average family lived in a state of continuous hunger as the old potato stock became exhausted in March or April. This period was also the planting season for the new crop. As the old saying stated, potatoes planted “in for Paddy” came “up for Billy.” That is to say potatoes planted before St. Patrick’s Day on 17th March were edible by the feast day of King William of Orange on 12th July, which was a reflection of the current relationship between Catholic and Protestant …
Don’t talk of your Protestant Minister
Or his Church, Temple or State
For the foundation stone of his religion
Was the bollocks of Henry VIII
(assigned to Raftery – a famous blind Irish Poet)
Catholicism was the faith of the majority of Irish peasants and to these people the priest was the only sympathetic authority figure that he or she encountered. The Catholic clergy received no money from the state and would not have accepted it even had it been offered, believing that their ‘flocks’ were strengthened by living solely on whatever the people provided. The Protestant clergy of the established Church of Ireland, however, were a race apart. The lived in larger, more comfortable houses than their Catholic counterparts and received their incomes from the state. These incomes were considerable, but incited deep resentment among the poor Catholic Irish. This resentment was due to the fact that, at one stage, the cost of maintaining the Protestant clergy fell upon the Catholic population through a system known as tithes, whereby they were obliged to pay a tenth of their incomes to the clergymen of an often hostile faith. It was another burden placed upon the already deeply impoverished Irish peasant.
There were some in the upper echelons of the British political system who knew what was happening in Ireland and who was to blame for the condition in which the Irish People lived. Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, in a speech to the House of Lords on 23rd March 1846, declared, “My Lords, it is only by its government that such evils could have been produced. The mere fact that Ireland is in so deplorable and wretched condition saves whole volumes of argument and is of itself a complete and irrefutable proof of the misgovernment to which she has been subjected. Nor can we lay to our souls the ‘flattering unction’ that this misgovernment was only of ancient date and has not been our doing … such a system of government could not fail to leave behind it a train of fearful evils from which we are suffering at the present day.
We have a military occupation of Ireland, but in no other sense could it be said to be governed like England.”
Although, through the Act of Union, Ireland was supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, its people did not enjoy the same benefits as English citizens and never had. Irish Trade had been totally crippled by the occupation undertaken by Britain. Instead of being developed, valuable cattle, fishing and wool industries were taxed out of existence when they came into competition with either British trading interests or her military concerns, which led her to disrupt Irish trade with both France and America. The result was a standard of living for peasants that was among the worst in the world.
The houses of Irish peasants generally lacked windows, and ventilation came either from the single door or through the hole in the roof through which smoke escaped. Furniture frequently did not extend much beyond a bed, an occasional chair and, for the fortunate, a table. Occupants all slept together in the clothes they wore, on the cabins’ earthen floor and huddled together for warmth, but high moral standards prevailed and commentators of the day remarked on the lack of either incest or promiscuity. Yet sex was the principal outlet of the people and early marriages were the norm rather than the exception. The peasantry reckoned that their lives could not possibly be worse married than unmarried and as a result something of a population explosion occurred. Between 1741, the date of the last big famine, and the coming of the blight in 1846 the population tripled. Feeding so many people was clearly a challenge, as was the task of getting the food to them.
In the countryside many of the peasants lived in clusters of swarming mud cabins known as ‘Clachans’ (too small to be qualify as villages). In many cases, access to these ‘Clachans’ meant negotiating reeking mounds of animal and human waste that surrounded the cabins. In the circumstances, and prior to the famine, there was some amazement at the health exhibited by the people living there. Hygiene was not a priority in nineteenth century Ireland, whereas survival was. But, some good did come from the mounds of waste outside the cabins because it could be used as manure for the potato crop.
Even in the cities there was little difference in the lifestyle of the poverty stricken Irish. In 1798 Rev, James Whitelaw commented about Dublin, “… people crowded together to a degree distressing to humanity. A single apartment in one of these truly wretched habitations, rates from one to two shillings per week, and to lighten this rent two, three or even four families became joint tenants. I have frequently surprised ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room, not fifteen feet wide, stretched on filthy straw swarming with vermin … Into the backyard of each house excrement is flung from the windows of each apartment to a depth of ten feet, the stench I could scarce contain for a few minutes.”
During the famine, the city of Dublin had no sewerage system and when tenement areas flooded, as they frequently did, the halls and basement areas of the houses became cesspools several inches deep. Even the most fashionable streets in the city had cesspools dug in front of the houses. When these were opened and emptied there was a “horrid sight and smell.” This would also prove a fertile breeding ground for fevers and famine-fuelled disease.
There were also a lot of so-called ‘dram shops’ in the city that were licensed to sell raw spirits and the owners of these were often described as, “a person productive of vice, riot and disease hostile to all habits of decency, honesty, and industry, and in short, destructive to the souls and bodies of our fellow creature.” The government, of course, encouraged distilling industries because of the revenue they created, and country landlords also favoured low rates of excise duty, which led to high profits in grain. But, it must be said, excessive drinking was not just confined to Dublin. Alcohol, which could also be distilled from potatoes, became the Irish opium and it wreaked havoc on both rich and poor. The other opium of the people was, of course, religion.
By the end of 1846, newspapers were beginning to publish horrific accounts of hunger and death in Ireland. Public opinion in Britain became agitated. This was, after all, supposed to be part of the United Kingdom and already a good deal of charitable aid had already been sent, and it increased greatly under the influence of these descriptions by various reporters. Some magazines, such as ‘The Illustrated London News,” sent over artist who brought back graphic drawings of misery and deprivation. In 1847, Elihu Burritt described his three day visit the West Cork town of Skibbereen in the following fashion, “I have come to this indescribable scene of destitution, desolation, and death, that I might get nearer to your sympathies; that I might bring these terrible realities of human misery more vividly within your comprehension. I have witnessed scenes that no language of mine can portray. I have seen how much beings, made in the image of God, can suffer on this side of the grave, and that too in a civilised land … Notwithstanding all that has been subscribed, up to the period when this journal was written, no effectual means had been adopted for the decent internment of the dead, or even for their timely removal from the hovels of the living, and the great expenditure of the British, appears to have effected, at least in this district, but little mitigation of the fearful calamity.” (Journal of a 3 day visit to Skibbereen, 1847)