“A gentleman who lately called upon me, and whom I have every reason to trust, gave me a letter from a person resident in that union (Skibbereen) stating, that though the property within the union is rated to the poor as being of the value of £8,000 per year only, its actual value is no less than £130,000 a year, and that, until September last, no rate had been made exceeding sixpence in the pound, but that, in November, a rate was made of nine-pence in the pound; but that rate has never been levied.” (Lord John Russell P.M., speech to Parliament on 12th March 1847)
The total failure of the food of a nation was a new experience within Great Britain, and there was no machinery in place, or plan that could hope to neutralize the famine’s effects. While some allowance might be granted for the Government’s shortcomings, in a crisis so new and so terrible. But, it must be admitted by all concerned that Lord John Russell and his colleagues in Government were painfully unequal to the crisis. They either could not, or would not, use all the tools that were available to them to ensure the survival of the Irish people.
Besides the mistakes they made as to the nature of the employment which ought to be given, one of their major faults was that they did not act with promptness and decision. Other nations, where famine was far less imminent, were already trading in the markets and had, to a great extent, made their purchases of foodstuffs well before the British Government. The delay caused food to be much scarcer and, therefore, much dearer for us than it needed to be. On 29th September 1846, Mr. Trevelyan of the Treasury Office complained bitterly, “It is little known what a formidable competition we are suffering from our Continental neighbours. Very large orders are believed to have been sent out to the United States, not only by the merchants, but by the Governments of France and Belgium, and in the Mediterranean markets they have secured more than their share; all of which will appear perfectly credible, when it is remembered that they are buying our new English wheat in our own market.”
The fatal error of awaiting events, instead of anticipating them, and by forethought endeavouring to control and guide them, was equally destructive. About the middle of December, there was formed in Dublin a committee of landlords, which assumed the name of the ‘Reproductive Works Committee’. Its objects were excellent. It was to be the beginning of a real Irish party, whose members were to lay aside their differences, political and religious, that, by a united effort, they might carry the country through the death-struggle in which it then was, and lay the foundation of its future progress to prosperity. Many of the best men in the whole nation were active promoters of this movement; but, viewed as a whole, it was little more than the embodied expression of the fears of the landlords, that they would be swamped by the rates levied to feed the people, and of their hopes that, by uniting, for the occasion, with the popular leaders, they would be able to compel the Government so to shape its course, that, at any rate, they would come forth safe from the ordeal.
Neither the Committee, nor the landlords who met in Dublin at their call, intended to form a permanent Irish party; in fact, it could not be done in the sense indicated by them. In a circular which was issued the first week of January, they say:
“That, at this awful period of national calamity, it becomes the first duty of every Irishman to devote his individual efforts to the interests of Ireland, and that neither politics, parties, nor prejudices should influence his mind in the discharge of such a duty … That, for this purpose, we venture to suggest to the Irish members of the Legislature, to meet together at such a time as may be considered most proper and convenient, for the purpose of forming an Irish party for the protection of Irish interests; and we earnestly entreat, that every member of that body should resolve, as far as is possible, to consider and modify his own opinion, so as to meet the united feelings of the general body, and should banish from his mind all considerations of party or prejudice, at a time when the lives and interests of his countrymen are so deeply perilled.”
A few days later, the Committee instructed their secretaries to call a meeting of the peers, members of Parliament, and landed proprietors of Ireland, in the Rotunda, on the 14th of January, for the consideration of the social condition of the country, all political and extraneous topics to be strictly excluded. They published at the same time the resolutions they proposed submitting to the meeting, one series of which referred to temporary measures, which, in the opinion of the Committee, were necessary for the immediate wants of the country; another suggested those required for her future prosperity.
The great meeting of Irish peers, members of Parliament, and landlords, as it was called, was held in the Rotunda on the above day. The attendance on the occasion was large, and the meeting was what might be termed a great success. Tickets of admission were issued to fourteen peers, twenty-six members of Parliament, and about six hundred other landed proprietors, from all the four provinces. Every phase of Irish politics was represented at the meeting. Amongst the peers were the Marquis of Ormond, the Earl of Erne, Lord Cloncurry, and Lord Farnham; the M.P.’s reckoned, amongst others, O’Connell, Frederick Shaw, William Smith O’Brien, Anthony Lefroy, John O’Connell, and Edward Grogan. The Marquis of Ormond was chairman. The resolutions prepared by the Reproductive Works Committee were proposed and unanimously adopted.
These resolutions had, the chairman said, been considered by a committee composed of gentlemen of all shades of parties. Great differences occurred upon almost every word of every resolution. However, personal opinions had been sacrificed with a view of having perfect unanimity at the present meeting, of peculiar construction—perhaps the only one of the kind ever assembled in the Rotunda before. Among the resolutions adopted by this very remarkable assembly were
That we deem it our duty most earnestly to impress upon our representatives, our solemn conviction of the necessity of their now co-operating cordially together in Parliament, for the advancement of the interests of Ireland, … to save society from the ruin by which all classes in the land are now threatened; and to preserve the country from confiscation.
That, before and beyond all other considerations, is the salvation of the lives of the people; and we therefore deem it our solemn duty—the present system having signally failed—to call upon the Government, in the most imperative terms, to take such measures as will secure local supplies of food sufficient to keep the people alive, and to sacrifice any quantity of money that may be necessary to attain the object.
That, as the people of this country are suffering from a most extraordinary and incalculably extensive deficiency in the stock of food, we further call upon the Government to remove all artificial impediments to the supply of that deficiency.
That we recommend that Relief Committees should be allowed to sell food under first cost to the destitute, in their respective neighbourhoods, and that their doing so should not disentitle them to Government contributions in aid of their funds.
That while we affirm, that it is the clear and paramount duty of the state to take care that provision be made for the destitute, we regret that the means hitherto adopted for that purpose have, on the one hand, proved incommensurate with the evil, and on the other hand, have induced the expenditure of vast sums of money upon useless or pernicious works.
That this most wasteful expenditure, tending, as it does, to diminish our resources and to increase the probabilities of future famine, has not been the result of neglect on the part of the resident proprietors of Ireland, but of an impolitic and pernicious law, which they have been compelled to carry into effect, notwithstanding repeated protests to the contrary.
That, though entirely acquiescing in the justice of imposing upon the land the repayment of all money advanced for reproductive purposes, we solemnly protest, in the name of the owners and occupiers of land in Ireland, against the principle of charging exclusively on their property, the money which they have been forced to waste on unproductive works.
That the destruction of the staple food of millions of our fellow-subjects cannot be considered in any other light than that of an Imperial calamity,
That though considering the present Labour-rate Act as a most mischievous measure, to be laid aside whenever a better system can be introduced, yet, in order to prevent the continuance of the present waste of money, we call upon the Legislature to amend that Act, by enabling each proprietor to take upon himself his proportion of the baronial assessment, to be expended in reproductive works upon his own property,
That we have heard with alarm and regret that in many districts of Ireland, the usual extent of land has not been prepared, and cannot be prepared, for cultivation, owing to the poverty of the occupants, and consequently will be waste during the ensuing year … that the supply of seed in this country will be deficient, and to meet this evil we earnestly recommend that depôts for the sale of seed be established by Government.
That, as there must be a large amount of population dependent for subsistence, during the year, upon public or private charity, provision should be made for assisting those to emigrate (with their families) who cannot be supported in this country, by the exercise of independent labour.
That the direct employment of the great mass of the able-bodied people by the state, has an unavoidable tendency to paralyse industry, and to substitute artificial for natural labour … therefore, any measures of relief for the able-bodied ought to have for their object the encouragement of the employment of labour by private individuals in productive works. The whole energies of the State, therefore, should be applied to the absorption of surplus labour, to the affording facilities for private employment, and to the removal of the impediments that now obstruct it.
That, with the like object of absorbing labour, and increasing our food supplies, a systematic plan should be adopted for the reclamation of waste lands throughout the country.
That, in any such system, an option should be given to the proprietors of waste lands to undertake the reclamation themselves, and every possible facility should be afforded them in alienating their waste lands for the purpose of reclamation.
That it is, therefore, peculiarly the province of the State, which represents and protects the interests of all collectively, to promote emigration by direct intervention, as well as by assisting, with information and pecuniary aid, the efforts of individuals and public bodies in promoting this most desirable result.
That, with a like object, and to diminish the enormous expense and delays that now exist in these matters, cheap and simple modes should be devised for the transfer, partition, and exchange of landed property.
That we deem it highly expedient to raise the social state of our agricultural labourer; and that, as we believe, one of the most efficacious means of effecting this will be the improvement of his habitation, we are of opinion that measures should be adopted to enable proprietors to improve the dwellings upon their properties of the labouring poor, and by proper sanitary regulations to render it the interest of all landholders that every dweller on their estates should have a good and healthy habitation.
These resolutions go very fully into the state of the country, its evils and their remedies. They contain much that is wise and well intended, and some of the measures suggested in them will be found in the programme of the Government. The Rotunda meeting having been held only a few days before the assembling of Parliament was just in time to exercise an influence on the measures the Government had in preparation, to meet the existing Irish difficulty; and very possibly it had that effect. One thing the landlords who met in the Round-room had evidently set their hearts on—there was to be an extensive emigration—the land was to be cleared. Emigration, indeed, was always in favour with the ruling class, and most effectively promoted by wholesale eviction. The people were sent to benefit the colonies by their labour.
Parliament was opened by the Queen in person, on Tuesday, the 19th of January. She read the speech from the throne, about two-thirds of which related to Ireland exclusively. No wonder. The state of that country had become the theme of public writers, politicians and philanthropists in both hemispheres. England was on her trial before the civilized world. Could not she, the richest nation of the earth, whose capitalists searched the globe for undertakings in which to invest their vast and ever accumulating wealth—could not she—or would not she—save the lives of those starving Irish, who were her subjects, and who, if not loved by her like others of her subjects, were at least useful in giving size and importance to the empire, and in fighting those battles which helped her to keep her place among first-class nations; useful in opening up, with the bayonet’s point, those foreign markets so essential to her iron and cotton lords.
Addressing the members of both houses, the Queen announced, “It is with the deepest concern that, upon your again assembling, I have to call your attention to the dearth of provisions which prevails in Ireland, and in parts of Scotland.
“In Ireland, especially, the loss of the usual food of the people has been the cause of severe sufferings, of disease, and of greatly increased mortality among the poorer classes. Outrages have become more frequent, chiefly directed against property, and the transit of provisions has been rendered unsafe in some parts of the country.
“With a view to mitigate these evils, very large numbers of men have been employed, and have received wages, in pursuance of an Act passed in the last session of Parliament. Some deviations from that Act, which have been authorized by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in order to promote more useful employment, will, I trust, receive your sanction. Means have been taken to lessen the pressure of want, in districts which are most remote from the ordinary sources of supply. Outrages have been repressed, as far as it was possible, by the military and police … It will be your duty to consider, what further measures are required to alleviate the existing distress. I recommend to you to take into your serious consideration, whether, by increasing, for a limited period, the facilities for importing from foreign countries … I have also to direct your earnest attention to the permanent consideration of Ireland. You will perceive, by the absence of political excitement, an opportunity for taking a dispassionate survey of the social evils which afflict that part of the United Kingdom. Various measures will be laid before you, which, if adopted by Parliament, may tend to raise the great mass of the people in comfort, to promote agriculture, and to lessen the pressure of that competition for the occupation of land, which has been the fruitful source of crime and misery.”
The Irish M.P. Smith O’Brien said that he thought he would be wanting in his duty to his country if he did not make an appeal to the House on behalf of those whose sufferings could not be exaggerated. He was asked if he was prepared to say that the Government had been altogether guiltless of having produced that frightful state of things. Moreover, would he say that everything had been done by the Government, which might have been done by them. He answered that he believed it was in the government’s power to prevent one single individual from dying of starvation in Ireland. He did not accuse them of wilfully bringing about a state of things so disastrous, but he made it clear that it was his opinion, and the opinion of others in Ireland, that they had not introduced any measures to combat the disastrous condition in which Ireland was placed and had brought about the calamity which was now witnessed.
Mr. O’Brien also made a point to the House in favour of the Irish landlords. He pointed out that if the Irish members were legislating in an Irish parliament, it would be considered by them as a national calamity, and all classes—the fund holder, the office holder, the mortgagee, the annuitant, would be called on to contribute to the general efforts to alleviate distress. England, he declared, had the advantage of the Irish absentee rents, and the advantage of applying all the resources of Ireland, and the Irish people did not consider that it ought to be looked upon as a union for the advantage of England alone, and no union when it was for the interests of Ireland. Nothing, he thought, could be more outrageous than that one class, the landlords of Ireland, should be called upon to bear the whole burden of this calamity.
Smith O’Brien was quite right in saying it was most unreasonable that the Irish landlords should be called upon to bear the whole expense of the Famine. But, it was equally true, that they made no effort worth the name to stay or mitigate the Famine, until it had knocked at their own hall doors in the shape of rates that threatened them with the confiscation of their properties.
Mr. Labouchere, the Irish Chief Secretary, replied to Mr. Smith-O’Brien that the agricultural population of Ireland, vast in its numbers, were always on the brink of starvation. So that when the potato blight swept the country from sea to sea, it was impossible for the Government to meet the disaster fully.
Such was the defence of the Irish Chief Secretary. And here it is worth while remarking, that in the earlier stages of the Famine it was the practice of the government organs to throw doubt on the extent of its ravages which were published, and the Government, apparently acting on these views, most culpably delayed the measures by which the visitation could be successfully combated. Now, their part was to admit, to the fullest extent, the vastness of the Famine and make it the excuse for their want of energy and success in overcoming it.
In Ireland, the winter of 1846-47 was the coldest in living memory. Ireland’s poor had always been helped by the generally mild climate and the availability of turf for fires, but now the cold became intense, and the people had no energy left for cutting turf. At the same time, the extreme cold also began to affect the relief works. The weather, in fact, became too bad to work in. The people, however, still needed money for foodstuffs, or else they would starve. Trevelyan suggested giving half-pay for each day on which work could not be done, but the Board of Works officials on the ground found it impossible to agree with him, and most of them continued to pay every worker in full, whether the work was, or could be done. Moreover, the numbers applying for work had swelled in January 1847 to an unmanageable size.
The First Minister made no unnecessary delay in bringing the state of Ireland formally before Parliament. On the 25th of January, six days after the opening of the session. He rose in a full house and claimed its indulgence whilst he endeavoured to explain what had been already done to counteract the disastrous results of the potato blight in Ireland. He wanted to call their attention to those measures which the Government considered necessary to meet the existing emergency, and to submit for its consideration other measures, which were calculated to improve the general condition of that country, thereby laying the foundation of its permanent improvement.
Like other members of the Government, he commenced by quoting the reports of Poor Law Commissioners, to prove that even in what were regarded in Ireland as prosperous times, that country was on the verge of starvation, because of a calamity that was almost without parallel. He then went into some figures to show how vast the operations of the Board of Works were. Informing the House that they had 11,587 officials, and half a million of people at work, at a weekly cost of between seven and eight hundred thousand pounds.
He then took up the objections against the Labour-rate Act, and the reproductive works that were being carried out. He told the assembly that very soon after the Labour-rate Act had come into operation there came, he said, on the part of the proprietors and country gentlemen of Ireland, a complaint that the works were useless, that they were not wanted, and that they were not reproductive.
The First Minister, strangely, did not attach any great value to these objections. “I think,” he said, “the object being relief, and to combine relief with a certain amount of work, to show that habits of industry have not been entirely abandoned, that the productive nature of the work was a question of secondary importance. To call the productiveness or non-productiveness of the labour of half a million men a matter of secondary importance was, certainly, a most cool assurance on the part of a professed political economist, who must hold as a central dogma of that science that labour is the principal producer of capital. Everybody admitted that the crying want of Ireland was the want of capital, and yet here is a Minister, holding in his hands her destinies during a life-and-death struggle for existence, expressing his belief that to expend in useless and even pernicious works the labour of half a million of men was a matter of secondary importance. Because of this, he did not attach any great weight to the objection! Furtheremore, he told the house, it was not the reason why the Government was going to sanction a modification of the law as recommended by a letter of the Irish Chief Secretary.