An Gorta Mor VIII – Part II

Black ’47 Continues

The Board of Works had started to run out of money, and it was also running out of work that was able to be done by weakened, starving men or women. Despite what Ministers and journalist in England declared, the problem with the relief works was not that people were idle, they were simply incapable of carrying out. The men who organised the work were, in fact, torn between feeling ashamed of the small jobs they were asking people to do, and equally ashamed that they were expecting any work at all from skeletal-framed human beings who hardly had the strength to stand upright. Elsewhere, however, an official had informed Trevelyan that as relief works were no longer of any practical use, it would make more sense, and be cheaper in the long run, to distribute the food freely instead of making people earn money to buy it with. Little or no work was being done anyway, and the average wage of about one shilling per day went nowhere, because the most basic subsistence for a family now cost more than two or three shillings per day. This estimated cost was only for food, and not for clothing or housing. Trevelyan, casting about for ways to avert the looming calamity, began to consider the example that had been given in the west of Ireland by the Quakers and their soup kitchens.

Through all the Famine time, there is nothing more remarkable than the manner in which the expounders of the views of Government, as well as many others, managed, when it suited them, to confound two things which should have been kept most jealously distinct — (1.) What was best for the Famine crisis itself; (2.) What was best for the permanent improvement of the country. The confounding of these two questions led to conclusions of the most unwarrantable and deceptive kind. Some agreed that similar ideas to that of the Government’s had been tried in England, before the Poor-laws were revised, with negative effects. Employers, instead of choosing their own workmen, had them sent to them by the parish authorities, which produced two bad results: (1.) The men did not give a good day’s work (2.) In practice it was found most demoralising to the labourers themselves, destroying their independence, and paralyzing individual enterprise. Lord John agreed but, stated that when applying it to the existing state of Ireland, that such results would only occur if such a system were permanent. He insisted that the demoralisation of labour would not, in this case, be greater than that already in existence on the Public Works. He added that it wouldn’t be even near so great as what expected from his proposal that the people should be fed without any labour, or labour test whatever.

That the Poor Law was becoming an administration in crisis was indicated by the rise in excess mortality within the workhouses that had been erected under that law. Unfortunately, the workhouses by their very nature became inextricably involved in the Famine crisis that spread like wildfire across the country. Workhouses all over Ireland were overflowing and the death rate among the inmates rose drastically. Standards of care, which were already at a very low level, now began to collapse completely. The food being provided was often foul and rotten, but the slightest hope of food of any kind was enough to bring crowds to the gates of each workhouse, begging admission. As famine conditions intensified one board of Guardians after another had reluctantly ceased to use potatoes, replacing them with cereal foods, and many workhouses served Indian meal mixed with oatmeal and water to make into stir-about. Worse still, by this stage, fewer than 115,000 inmates could be accommodated in the workhouses, and the sick and the healthy were being thrown together in overcrowded conditions. It was no surprise that the poor despised the workhouse system and many of them waited until they were near death before they went to the workhouse. Entering only in the hope of receiving a proper burial.

On past evidence, nothing done to counteract the Famine was to be regarded as a permanent arrangement that would fulfil the needs and ordinary wants of the country. On the contrary, the extraordinary means adopted to meet an extraordinary crisis would normally, from the nature of things, pass away with when the crisis was over. It was expected that when the Famine was finally over in Ireland, the labour force would soon return to their ordinary tasks. But, prospects for a good harvest that might end the famine was not being reported by local sources. A newspaper correspondent, Michael Doheny, reported –  “I have, during the last few weeks, been through several districts of the country, chiefly in the counties of Tyrone, Longford, Kildare, Carlow, and Wicklow, and I am happy in being able to inform you of the cheering fact, that the cultivation and cropping of the land have not been so much neglected as was at one period apprehended. In some counties I am satisfied that at least double, perhaps treble, the usual quantity of oats has been sown, and the land has been in excellent order for the reception of the seed. The weather has also been most propitious for spring operations. The young wheats, generally speaking, appear healthy and vigorous.

“It is gratifying that a very large breadth of land, especially in the midland counties, is in course of preparation for turnips; and in all parts of the country this and other green crops are now, happily, becoming more generally esteemed and more extensively cultivated than they have hitherto been.

“Parsnips and Swedish turnips are also this year sown in parts of the western counties where they would probably remain unknown for years hence had the potato not failed. But a much greater extent of land is being with that now uncertain crop than could have been expected, considering the awful and general distress which has arisen in the country. In consequence of the mass of the people depending almost exclusively on it as an article of food. It really is astonishing what quantities of sound potatoes have recently been exposed for sale in most of our markets. Their reappearance at present in such large quantity is by no means creditable to our farmers, who, of course, held them over for real famine prices; and they are now obliged to dispose of them for much less than they might have obtained some time ago.”

In February 1847 the ‘Temporary Relief Act’ was rushed through parliament, providing for the establishment of soup kitchens throughout the country to replace the public works. Neither money nor wages were demanded in return for the food, making the relief provided under this act the most liberal available at any period during the Famine. This was immediately reflected in the take-up of relief. In fact, at its maximum, over three million people were receiving rations from the soup kitchens established throughout the country. Importantly, the three categories who were eligible for free relief were, destitute helpless persons, destitute able-bodied persons not holding land, and destitute able-bodied persons holding small portions of land. Wage earners could also purchase the soup rations but, not at less than cost price.

There were, however, two features of this Act that were particularly significant. Firstly, the Act was established as an interim measure until permanent changes could be made to the Poor Law; Secondly, although the money allocated for the soup kitchens appeared to be very liberal, it was written into the Act that approximately half of the amount expended would have had to be repaid out of the local Poor Rates.

Once the Act had passed through Parliament, no time was wasted in setting up a new Relief Commission in Dublin, which would administer the proposed soup kitchen system that had been planned. At the same time, a small finance committee was established in each of the 130 Poor Law Union districts spread throughout Ireland. There were also district relief committees, whose areas of responsibility covered the electoral divisions of the Poor Law administration. The locality chosen for the setting up the soup kitchens/shops was entirely dependent on local effort and initiative, with some remote areas never being reached at all. As a result, it took quite a long time to get this new system up and running and, all the while, the public relief works began closing. In some areas, however, the relief committees, while taking their time establishing the new system of food distribution, kept the relief works going for as long as possible. They also felt that the soup kitchens would be considered degrading by many of the poor, because they would have to queue in public to be fed and would be made to feel that they were receiving ‘Charity’.

The new commissioners insisted that from 20th March 1847 the numbers on the relief works were to be cut by 20%, with a further 10% in April. By the last week of June, all but 4% of the relief workers had been let go. In effect, this meant that 209,000 labourers now had no work, and no income, but the free food distribution was still not in place everywhere and almost 15% of those who were let go from the road works were still not being reached by the soup kitchens.

Not everyone was enamoured about the establishment and workings of the new Relief Committee. One journalist commented in ‘The Nation’ Newspaper: “… It must be admitted that the twenty per cent, were dismissed before the committee had any preparations made, or were in fact appointed. The old committee had emphatically protested against the dismissal, and published a resolution condemnatory of it, as an inexcusable and cruel enormity. The Government inspector demanded that they should hand over the funds at their disposal to their successors, to be applied by them in aid of the rates. This was refused, on the grounds that these funds were subscribed for a different purpose, which, as already explained, was attended with the most beneficial results, and an altercation ensued, with the details of which it would be preposterous to burthen the pages of THE NATION.

“I shall have to return to the operations of the new committee. Here it is more important to remark that although twenty per cent of the labouring population were turned adrift to starve, not one supernumeray was dissemployed. No pay-clerk lost his salary, though his labour was diminished by one-fourth; no check clerk was dismissed, though there were far fewer to check; no steward, or under-steward, or favourite, was displaced.

“… Not alone have all the old appointees been continued while the people are discharged, but new ones have been added. There is an inspector of pay-clerks, at a large salary, and he has a clerk, who may be styled the inspector’s inspector.

“There is, again, the relief district inspector, of whom I have already spoken, and his inspector; and there is the secretary of the famine committee, and the secretary of the new relief committee, with two assistant-secretaries.”

As the intensity of the famine increased various philanthropic groups set up soup kitchens in various places. These were usually open six days a week and provided two distributions of soup daily. The Government took notice of the obvious success of the ‘Society of Friends’ (Quakers) soup kitchens, which eventually caused the government to reluctantly change its policy.

As we have seen, the public work schemes had failed, and the workhouses became grossly over-crowded. It was vital, therefore, that another temporary operation was set up to supply food directly to the starving without cost or the imposition of a ‘work test’. The main aim of the ‘Act for the Temporary Relief of Destitute Persons in Ireland’ was simply to establish temporary feeding facilities instead of relief works. Reluctantly the government now recognised that a network of soup kitchens would feed the starving more cheaply than public works projects. But, it was only to be a temporary measure, lasting until September, when it was hoped the new harvest would relieve the situation a bit. At that time the second part of the act would then come into force, which was the beginning of the Outdoor Relief System.

This Outdoor Relief System in simple terms meant, making help available to people through the ‘Poor Law’ system, but without making them enter the despised workhouse. To many this was an obvious step for the government to take, as it became obvious that there was just no room left in the workhouses, and, indeed, by now large numbers of people were too weak to travel towards them. Under the terms of the Act the destitute poor could now stay in their own homes and collect food. But, establishing a soup kitchen, staffing it and supervising the cooking of the soup entailed more effort than some unions were prepared to take and many places were left without this life-saving option.

The soup kitchen system, when it finally got under way, worked reasonably well, although there were several abuses. At the local level, the soup kitchens were under the control of the Poor Law Unions, and a District Relief Committee was responsible at the smaller unit of the electoral division. But, in some areas of need, far more people were listed as being in need of food than had actually ever lived there and, as a result, those areas got a disproportionate amount of food. Another abuse of the system involved some of the food being given to working farm labourers, because their employers pretended to dismiss them so they could claim it, while they continued privately employ them.

Under the terms of the Act the food aid, was of course, strictly supposed to go only to the infirm, the destitute unemployed, and destitute landholders. To ensure this there was a long list of rules and regulations drawn up. In the first instance, those applying for relief were classed into four categories – (i) the destitute, helpless and impotent; (ii) destitute, able-bodied though not holding land; (iii) destitute, able-bodied and holders of small tracts of land; (iv) earners of a very small wage. Finally, with only the destitute to be fed free, those earning wages which were insufficient to purchase food at market prices could receive relief at low cost. Children aged nine years and under, meanwhile, were given half rations.

Some officials would feel free to break the rules for good reasons. They realised that no matter how poor and desperate a person was, they would prefer to avoid claiming food aid because of the shame they felt having to stand in line. Another of the rules said that all able-bodied members of a family had to come to the soup kitchen before any of them could be fed, but in practice the local committees were often satisfied if just one member of each family came and collected the food for all.

The regulations that specified the permitted food rations varied from place to place, while what actually constituted soup also became a matter for debate. But, in a majority of places, the soup that was given out was called ‘Stirabout’, which was a mixture of two-thirds Indian meal and one-third rice or oatmeal, cooked with water. It was also about this time when one of the most well-established legends of the Great Famine began to spread. “Souperism”, was allegedly a tactic that ensured people were only given the soup if they gave up their Catholic faith and became Protestant. This practice, however, was not widespread and only appears to have applied to privately-run soup kitchens that had been established by over-enthusiastic Protestants. The number of incidents were very few, and there were very few of these soup kitchens, the majority being found mainly in Connemara and West Kerry. It was alleged that these Protestant zealots would serve meat soup on Fridays (when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat) or would refuse to give out soup unless people came to a Protestant church or bible class. Starvation, of course, persuaded some of the people to pretend that they would give up their long-held Catholic faith, but such ‘conversions’ did not last very long.

Meanwhile, Trevelyan was becoming increasingly hopeful that the British Government could now begin to move away from having to provide famine relief in Ireland. If the new system worked, it could be run entirely by Ireland, from Irish resources. But, it was obvious that he did not seem to have any idea of how poor Irish resources were, or how difficult it was to collect any money, or how great was the load of debt that each Poor Law Union was already carrying.

In fact, the main problem with the Poor Rate was that it was very localised. Each locality zealously dealt only with the problems of its own area, and for those poorer areas of the country it was almost impossible to produce any meaningful amounts of money at all. Those areas, which were considered wealthier and would still have had some money available, were strongly against using ‘their’ money to help the less fortunate Unions that found themselves in difficulties.

The relief committees worked miracles day after day under the circumstances that prevailed. They had to cope with scenes of intense distress and misery as they were met every morning by crowds of thousands of people, who were just those that had strength to walk. Men and women dropped dead where they stood, and they fought and shrieked to get near the head of the line, where the stronger would snatch the food from the weaker. Even the Quakers, who were among the most hard-working of the soup kitchen organisers, were now beginning to feel overwhelmed by events. It appeared to all that no matter how much anyone did, they were only scratching the surface of the need which existed.

Something else was required and, after much discussion, it was decided that some changes in the Poor Law Act were required. Whatever changes the Government needed would have to be major changes, since it was obvious that simple tinkering with the existing system was going to be of no use. The fact was that there were not enough financial resources in Ireland, by itself, to deal with the unimaginable scale of misery and distress which had now been reached. The new Poor Act, or Extension Act, would introduce the name of Mr. William Henry Gregory, who was a member of Parliament for the City of Dublin, and afterwards for the County of Galway. He would remain forever associated with this measure, because of two clauses which he had succeeded in having incorporated within it.

The first of these clauses was that any tenant, rated at a net value not exceeding £5, and who would give up to his landlord, the possession of his land, should be assisted to emigrate by the Guardians of his Union. At the same time, the landlord was to forego any claim for rent, and to provide two-thirds of such a fair and reasonable sum as might be necessary for the emigration of the tenant and his family. The Guardians were empowered to pay to the emigrating family, any sum that did not exceed half the amount that the landlord should give, with the same to be levied off the rates. This clause was proposed and carried in the interest of the landlord clearing system, yet it was agreed to without what could be called even a show of opposition.

The second clause, known as ‘the quarter-acre clause’, was to bring Mr. Gregory enduring fame, as an Irish legislator. It stated: “And be it further enacted, that no person who shall be in the occupation, whether under lease or agreement, or as tenant at will, or from year to year, or in any other manner whatever, of any land of greater extent than the quarter of a statute acre, shall be deemed and taken to be a destitute poor person under the provisions of this Act, or of any former Act of Parliament. Nor shall it be lawful for any Board of Guardians to grant any relief whatever, in or out of the Workhouse, to any such occupier, his wife or children. And if any person, having been such occupier as aforesaid, shall apply to any Board of Guardians for relief as a destitute poor person, it shall not be lawful for such Guardians to grant such relief, until they shall be satisfied that such person has, bona fide, and without collusion, absolutely parted with and surrendered any right or title which he may have had to the occupation of any land over and above such extent as aforesaid, of one quarter of a statute acre.”

Through this carefully prepared clause, the head of a family who happened to hold a single foot of ground measuring over one rood, was put outside the relief guidelines, along with his whole family. It was the perfect means for the slaughter and expatriation of an entire people. The previous clause offered facilities for emigrating to those who would give up their land, while ‘the quarter acre clause’ compelled them to give it up or die of hunger. Mr. Gregory had, he told the House, originally intended to insert “half an acre” in the clause, but he was over-ruled. He had, he said, recently been in Ireland, and people there who had more knowledge of the subject than he, told him that half an acre was too extensive and so he made it a quarter of an acre. The clause was singularly designed to help the landlords to clear the paupers off their estates for good. There is no doubt, therefore, that it was the landlords who insisted on this clause being included, because the government had not looked for it.

In summer of 1847, whilst soup kitchen relief was at its peak, the government was steering through parliament major changes to the Poor Law. The ensuing debate in parliament had dominated British political life during the early part of 1847, moving the Irish Famine to the centre stage of parliamentary issues. The great determination shown by the Whig Party to end Irish dependence on British resources was undoubtedly influenced by the approach of a general election in that summer of 1847. But, the Government’s decision to make the Poor Law responsible for the provision of all relief after August 1847, and the corresponding transfer of the fiscal burden from central to local resources was viewed with alarm by many Irish landlords. The Poor Law, with its dependence on local taxation, was seen as an effective means of penalising landlords who were absentee or had allowed their estates to become sub-divided.

At the same time, to facilitate the extended role of the Poor Law, outdoor relief was permitted. It was, however, subject to various controls and could only be provided with the prior consent of the Poor Law Commissioners. All of this meant that entitlement to relief was to be more restricted than it had been in the previous two years. But, of equal importance, this new legislation also extended the powers of the central commissioners, and provided them with the authority to dismiss recalcitrant boards of guardians.

Elsewhere, controversy surrounded whether the soup kitchens should supply cooked or uncooked food for several reasons. Firstly, the opportunities for fraud were great. Secondly, recipients all too often sold their uncooked rations to purchase tea, tobacco or alcohol. Thirdly, the Central Board of Health provided practical grounds for issuing cooked food. It pointed out that, through ignorance or lack of fuel, paupers tried to eat raw Indian meal and then suffered intestinal disorders. Fourthly, experience had shown that only the destitute applied for cooked food rations, and so cooking was an effective way of keeping costs down. Moreover, if the soup kitchens gave out cooked food only, it could not be hoarded or sold on, and so this now became the rule. At first people were very reluctant to take cooked food, no matter how hungry they were. It was seen by some as being shameful to have to stand in line, carrying a pot or a bowl, to wait for your number to be called. In a very short time the only food aid available to the hungry people was in cooked form. Despite this fact, the widespread sense of humiliation felt by the majority of the destitute meant that fewer people claimed the aid available to them. These people were willing to starve to death rather than sacrifice their pride. All these things meant that more savings were made with the new relief system.

Close your eyes now and try to imagine crowds of literally thousands of men and women who, with increasingly fewer children and old people, thronged around the workhouse gates and the soup kitchens. Many of these poor people were so weak from hunger that they fainted when they got some food in their stomachs. Others, however, failed to reach any place where they could be helped. Numerous dead bodies were found on the roads, in the ditches, and under the trees. Their friends had no strength to bury them, and, in all honesty, no longer cared to do so. They were more concerned for their own survival.

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Author: weebush

I am an author of Irish Short Story books and have two books currently in publication i.e. "Across the Sheugh" and "Short Stories and Tall Tales." other new stories can be previewed on my blog

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