Famine, Eviction and Emigration
As we have seen, the potato crop of 1847 was not affected by the accursed blight, because the weather conditions had been too dry for the blight to spread. But the crop itself, though free from rot, was much too small to make any major difference to the on-going tragedy that was still affecting Ireland. In response, therefore, the farmers made great efforts to increase the yield from their 1848 crop. Everyone worked at maximum speed and with all their energies they began to plant as many potatoes as possible in the land.
The measure of their success was that the total acreage of potatoes planted in 1848 was three times more than that planted in the previous year. But, this success was marred by an extremely wet summer, which helped the blight to rage once again, causing the crop to be lost. The authorities immediately turned to the Quakers once again and asked them if they would re-establish the soup kitchens, but they refused. They gave the reason for their refusal to be that their workers were physically exhausted by their previous efforts and that their resources were almost completely at an end. Furthermore, the Quakers confident that by giving free relief to the victims was damaging to their self-respect in the long run. However, they were equally strong in their belief that reform of the land system was an essential step forward. The decision by the efficient and humanitarian Quaker organisation that they would pull out of Ireland in the face of a terrible famine, although given to the authorities in a polite letter to Prime Minister Russell.
It quickly became clear that the policy of ‘doing nothing’ previously employed by the government would, once again, become the rule in Ireland. There were to be a number of circumstances and incidents that gave the Liberal government, in London, a satisfactory excuse for their non-efforts. It is ironic when you consider that, one of the most important circumstances was the effect of the Famine itself on the population, which gave rise to widespread lawlessness and the shooting of landlords.
On 1st October 1847, a new ‘Poor Law’ was brought into being, which was to be planned and controlled from Dublin, rather than London, by the ‘Irish Poor Law Board’. The new ‘Law’, however, impressed none of those whose task it was to enforce it. Commissioner Twistleton, for example, could not visualise just how the new law could possibly work in practice. He simply chose to avoid any opportunity to be blamed for its failure by completely neglecting to produce a plan.
Charles Trevelyan, however, had no hesitation in filling the void that was left, and he began to draw up a plan to enforce the new Poor Law in Ireland. In this plan, Trevelyan looked to expel the infirm, the widows and the orphans from the workhouses, and to give these people outside relief, but only in the form of cooked food. Henceforth, he decided, only the able-bodied were to be given relief inside the workhouse. At the same time, in order to ensure that the new scheme was not inundated by able-bodied men, Trevelyan’s plans carried the old and familiar stipulation that obtaining a place in the workhouse was to be made as difficult, and as unattractive, as possible.
In the latter half of 1847 England was hit hard by a major economic crisis, much of which had been caused by very injudicious speculation in the global wheat trade. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, at this time, wrote to the Irish Viceroy, Lord Clarendon to inform him about the unfortunate implications that this economic crisis would have for Ireland – “I fear you have a most troublesome winter ahead of you … Here we have no money”. Clarendon complained about Trevelyan’s plans and openly declared that Trevelyan’s solution to the entire calamity was simply – “that people who were deprived of food or shelter and exposed to disease and starvation would naturally die off.” He, Trevelyan, had already told the poor law commissioner, Edward Twistleton, “The principle of the Poor Law as you very well know is that rate after rate should be levied for the purpose of preserving life, until the Landlord and farmer either enable the people to support themselves by honest industry, or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this indispensable duty.” It was clear that the Irish landlords were to pay for the Famine relief or be forced to sell their lands to others.
As the 1847 grain harvest ripened, many landlords immediately began to seize their tenants’ corn in lieu of rent that was owing. Then, when the rate collectors arrived in distressed areas like Connemara, there were no crops left for them to seize and, instead, they took any article considered to be of value that they came upon, including many items of clothing. Understanding the terrible conditions that the peasantry now found themselves in, Viceroy Clarendon asked the Prime Minister what practical steps could be taken in those areas of the country where there was no-one to levy rates upon.
Clarendon, above all people, should have known that there was, absolutely, no chance of receiving a humane response from the English cabinet. They were concerned with the finances of fighting famine in Ireland and to operate the new poor law effectively would require them to have collected £14 million in rates. Even as the bill made its way through the House of Lords, it was pointed out by several members that the Irish landlords were all in great debt. The amount of money that they owed was such that the total repayments on their combined borrowings came to approximately £10.5 million per annum while it was estimated, their actual combined annual income would only have amounted to a figure of some £3.5 million a year. But, the government chose to ignore what they saw as an inconvenient truth. In Ireland, Commissioner Twistleton gritted his teeth and did what he could for approximately a year and a half, to make Trevelyan’s allegedly realistic plan work. Eventually, Twistleton resigned from his post with anger and disgust during March 1849.
The government had decided that they would follow Trevelyan’s advice on this occasion, with regard to famine relief, which was simply ‘to do nothing’. The rules built into the new Poor Law were being strictly applied in this new famine period. Among the rules was one, The Labour Test, which required able-bodied men to complete eight hours’ work each day to maintain his place in the workhouse. In these places, the estimated cost of keeping each person alive for thirty-four weeks was £1, and each person was to receive one pound of meal a day to sustain them.
As this renewed famine began to bite hard into an already severely weakened population The Poor Law Unions in Ireland had a combined debt to the government of approximately £260,000. Meanwhile, the British Association, which had been paying out £13,000 per week in aid, finally ran out of funds on 1st July 1848. As money ran out and resources could not be renewed, the whole weight of assistance fell on the Unions, and the relief system gradually wound down. At the first opportunity the British administrators, such as Routh, decided they would now return to their homes. In the meantime, The Society of Friends continued to give what help they could to the victims of the famine, but they also realised that they were fighting a losing battle. The situation was soon made clear to all when, in September, Trevelyan told the troubled Unions that Treasury grants to them would be coming to an end, and there would, henceforth, be no more issues of free clothing.
Almost six months earlier, Lord John Russell had recognised that something had to be done to help the innocent. In a radical promise, he declared that the 200,000 children who had hitherto been fed by the ‘British Relief Association’, whose funds were already nearing exhaustion, should be sustained from the public purse. But, just as the November chills gripped Ireland in their icy hands, Trevelyan interfered once again. Without even the slightest protest from the Prime Minister, he put in writing that the feeding of the children was to stop at the same time that the tiny Treasury grants, which had been given to the more distressed unions, came to an end.
The year 1848 then, was to be a year when hatred competed with optimism in the hearts of Irelands starving people. The hatred of the people was principally directed toward the heartless landlords and, to a lesser degree, at the British government. There had been continued optimism at the prospects of a hugely improved harvest of potatoes, which lasted almost to the end of July. Everyone had been encouraged by the results obtained from the small percentage of seed potatoes that had been sown in 1847. An already impoverished people were compelled to pawn or sell everything they still possessed – clothes, bedding, furniture – in order to plant potatoes in every conceivable scrap of land they possessed. The peasantry’s reliance on the potato was as great, if not greater than ever it had been. One can only imagine the despair and great distress that was caused by the unexpected reappearance of the blight. It meant the return of fever and famine, as well as a critical rise in rent arrears, which in turn meant a rise in evictions from the land
Infamously, Charles Trevelyan showed his thoughts on the continuation of the famine in Ireland when, in January, he published what later became his shockingly gloating book ‘The Irish Crisis’ in the pages of the ‘Edinburgh Review’. In its most crude form his ideology morally declines into the sectarian view that, through the Famine, God himself was punishing the Catholic Irish for their stubborn attachment to all the superstitions of ‘popery’. It was evidence of the policies that were going to be employed by the government in the months ahead.
With the horrors experienced in 1847 still so clear in their minds, we can only imagine the shock and terror that began to spread over Ireland as fearful reports of potato failure once more came in from various parts of the country. To the minds of poorly educated Irish peasants, the blight had returned to the land as if by the wave of a demon’s wand. The potatoes that had apparently been healthy were now bad as if they had been poisonously sprinkled by someone full of hate and anger against the poor and hungry. Amid all this despair, in July 1848, Trevelyan wrote in his normal, uncaring manner, “The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence with no possibility of averting the catastrophe, if it is to happen we can only await the result.”