“shoot the first landlord I met.”
It was a reflection of the fact that the government was more interested in pursuing a practical political policy, which was concerned with those urgent needs of Britain, as perceived by the Whigs. It was composed of a ‘do as little as possible’ attitude and the teachings of their favourite political economists. It was all backed-up by a widespread public relations campaign that invoked Providence and a total abhorrence for both the Irish people and the Irish landlords, all mixed in with a generous dose of hypocrisy. The sole objective sought by the government, and which was eventually achieved, was an end to the overpopulation of Irish land. This, it was believed, would enable the introduction of new and more efficient farming methods, which would secure an abundant supply of cheap agricultural products on England’s doorstep, rather than causing a constant drain on the exchequer.
The long-suffering peasantry increasingly viewed the Irish landlords and the British government as being the main human agents of misery, exile, and death. By suggesting Providence was also at work the British government in London appeared to be making a very cruel joke at the expense of the famine victims and their advocates. From the mouths of many different factions all over Ireland, who were seeking a thorough solution to the relief of the Famine victims in 1848, there came fierce, piercing, unforgiving claims of state-inspired genocide making their way into the public sphere. ‘The Nation’, a nationalist minded newspaper, on 1st April commented, “It is evident to all men that our foreign government is but a club of grave-diggers.” The journal went further, saying – “It is not Providence but provincialism that plays the thief; we are decimated not by the will of God but by the will of Whigs.” The voice of a ‘New Ireland’ leader, John Mitchel, added – “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”
Debt-ridden landlords raised their rents, which tenants found impossible to pay and were summarily evicted from their homes in increasing numbers. Although there were many voices raised in opposition to these cruel clearances in Ireland, there were not many ears open to their pleas among the English government. In fact, as the Irish press persistently linked the mass evictions with the mass deaths, the landlords and the government felt it was increasingly necessary to rationalise, justify, and, therefore, excuse these clearances. In May 1848 an issue of ‘The Limerick and Clare Examiner’ condemned the government in the following manner, “nothing, absolutely nothing, is done to save the lives of the people – they are swept out of their holdings, swept out of life, without an effort on the part of our rulers to stay the violent progress of human destruction.”
The records of the time show that the most active and vociferous members of the anti-eviction lobby were the Catholic priests and prelates throughout the country. As they watched their own parishioners being thrown out of their homes in large numbers, it is not at all surprising that the priests felt angry and were compelled to denounce the ‘exterminating’ actions taken by the landlords or agents, whom they held responsible. These clerics would hurl their loud denunciations from the altars and pulpits of their own churches. But, to give vent to a larger audience than their own parishes they would write to the press to expose the mass clearances and in the hope that their words would mobilise public opinion against the guilty parties. Indeed, a great amount of our knowledge about the land clearances in the various districts comes to us from the detailed lists of those who were evicted. These lists were often accompanied by commentaries that had been submitted to the national and provincial press by various parish priests and curates. One of these many clerics, Rev. Dr. Patrick Fogarty, the parish priest of Lismore, Co. Waterford wrote to the ‘Waterford Chronicle’ in April 1848, stating – “Numbers of those poor creatures who were thus cruelly exterminated are now living in huts erected by them on the roadside, the victims of famine and fever. Hundreds of them have perished in these parishes during the last two years. The monstrous conduct of the landlords here and in every other locality throughout the country has considerably added to the extreme mass of human suffering.”
The landlords and the authorities reacted by accusing the Catholic priests and prelates of inciting murder and mayhem. But, “The Nation”, a newspaper published by the ‘Young Ireland’ movement, stoutly defended the Irish clergy against all such false charges. They commented that the British press was attempting to bring about a climate of violence in which they could press forward with their solution to the Irish situation, namely “hang a priest or two and all will be right.”
Archbishop McHale vigorously defended the Irish clergy for their courage in standing up for the people against any evil. As a response to the accusations being made about the priests, the Archbishop, in an open letter to Lord Shrewsbury, he sarcastically condemned the Prime Minister and his government, writing – “How un-grateful of the Catholics of Ireland not to pour forth canticles of gratitude to the ministers, who promised that none of them should perish and then suffered a million to starve.” In this way, the Archbishop pointed the finger of blame for the Famine directly at those whom he held most responsible, the British Government.
Around the country the secret agrarian societies known as the ‘Whiteboys’ had not gone away from the scene. They had, in fact, been given added impetus by the Famine and acts of violence were once again a part of the scene. Throughout 1847 there were a series of murderous attacks that took place in various districts in which some sixteen landowners had lost their lives. Considering the state of misery that existed in the country, and the number of famine deaths that occurred every day, the toll of these shootings was not large. Nevertheless, these attacks were sufficient to create a great amount of fear and anger among those who held positions of authority in the land. Such was the climate of fear that there were numerous reports of landlords leaving the country in great haste. Of those who remained, it was said that “the personal insecurity of all property owners is so hideous that the impression is of being in an enemy country.” In such an atmosphere of fear and suspicion toward the natives, it is not surprising that the spreading Famine continued to create a heightened sense of danger and insecurity among men of authority. Tensions in the country were rising so high, in fact, that the Viceroy, Lord Clarendon, chose to send his children out of the country, in the expectation that a violent and general insurrection was about to break out among the Irish.
When one considers the historical record concerning the Great Potato Famine in Ireland there is but one judgement that can be made. That judgement must be that a very large proportion of the responsibility for the Famine evictions, and much else that happened in Ireland, is directly traceable to the government and the cruel policies of those influential men who designed and supported the clearance drives.
The ‘Poor Law’ for Ireland was an attempt to combat the effects of famine through the efforts of Irish landlords. But, as the Famine spread, and the costs inflicted by ‘Poor Law’ began to rise, the financial burden placed upon the shoulders of the Irish landlords began to weigh more and more heavily. It did not take very long for the Irish landlords began to realise that by clearing the land, through the eviction of their poor tenants, their financial woes would be lessened considerably. The cost would be seen in the deepening misery and worsening conditions of the much trampled upon Irish peasant.
In law each landlord was responsible for paying the rates of every tenant on his land who paid less than £4 in yearly rent. As a result, in this third year of famine, those landlords whose lands were crowded with poor tenants were now facing huge bills for rates. Their tenants could not work and had no assets that would allow the landlords to collect rent, as well as the rates, from the poor, starving wretches on their estates. The landlords could see only one practical solution to their problem. To collect enough money to settle their debts under the ‘Poor Law’ they would need to clear the poor tenants from their small plots, thereby allowing them to re-let the land in bigger lots, to people with more money.
The agents employed to collect the rates now began pushing the poor tenantry harder and harder for money that they did not have. As a result, more and more tenants were summarily evicted from the land by increasingly desperate landlords. There were some of the land owners who wanted to do whatever they could for their tenants as the famine raged, but there were many landlords who held no pity for the poor. Among the worst landlords in the country was the influential Earl of Lucan, who owned approximately 60,000 acres of land, or more. It is said that he quite openly declared at one time that “he would not breed paupers to pay priests’. He was undoubtedly a man of his word and removed over 2,000 tenants in the parish of Ballinrobe alone. The lands that Lord Lucan had cleared in Mayo were subsequently converted to pasture, which he then either retained in his own hands or, more usually, transferred into the hands of large graziers, some of whom were Scottish Protestants.
Lord Lucan’s actions and attitudes towards the Catholic population were not unusual. A certain Donegal landlord was alleged to have said, quite openly, that – “The exuberance of the tree of Irish population must be immediately cut off by extermination or death.” Sadly, there were too many landlords who felt justified in possessing such an attitude, because they were facing very large debts themselves. In fact, with the landlords harbouring such thoughts about their tenants it is surprising that the evictions did not begin earlier than they did. ‘Whiteboyism’, as we have seen was still alive and well in many places and it was the threat of these secret societies that stayed the hands of most landlords. Only when the Famine appeared to have weakened the ranks of these societies did the landlords begin to clear their lands by casting people out of their homes. However, revenge was still occasionally taken by the remnant of the secret groups, including the murder of six landlords that we have already considered. Ten other landowners, whose land had no tenants, were also murdered at this time and the violence, as we have seen, caused Lord Clarendon to fear insurrection.
In response to the rise in violent incidents, Clarendon as ked the government in London to provide him with special powers to combat crime, and troops to enforce his will. But, Prime Minister Russell was not at all sympathetic to Clarendon’s request. He believed that the landlords themselves were largely to blame for the tragic circumstances in Ireland and that they should resolve their own problems. Nevertheless, a compromise was reached and, in December 1847, a ‘Crime and Outrage Act’ was passed by the government. To enforce the terms of this Act, extra troops were sent to Ireland, and the regulations concerning the carrying of arms were tightened.
From County Mayo a landlord bitterly wrote, “No men are more ill-fated or greater victims than we resident proprietors, we are consumed by the hives of human beings that exist on the properties of the absentees. On my right and my left are properties such as I allude to. I am overwhelmed and ruined by them. These proprietors will do nothing. All the burden of relief and employment falls on me.” The resident landowners in Ireland bitterly resented the absentee landlords and their lack of enterprise. The evictions had continued, behind which lay the widespread and longstanding desire of the landlords to modernise Irish agriculture. The financial pressures caused by heavy poor rates, combined with the total inability of the tenant farmers to maintain their rents caused landowners to increase the pace of evictions from their lands. Their efforts, however, were made easier by the virtual collapse of the ability of tenants to organise an effective resistance to the evictions.
Some landlords viewed these evictions as being an economic opportunity which they could take up without inflicting any real hardship. There were many others who justified the eviction of the tenants as a financial decision made necessary by the way in which the poor law operated in Ireland. What the landlords had especially in mind was the provision of the poor law that was known as the £4 rating clause. This particular clause made the landlords responsible for paying all the poor rates on all holdings valued at £4 or less. Such was the overpopulation of many estates that this provision gave the landlords a very strong incentive to rid themselves of small-holding tenants who could no longer pay their rents, either by voluntary or forced eviction.
Of all Irish landowners, those residing in Mayo were the most likely to take employ the idea of forced eviction. In Mayo there was an estimated 75 per cent of all those occupying land who had holdings valued at £4 or less. This situation had the result of causing many to shoulder almost the entire burden of the rates, which had been made all the more burdensome by the coinciding mass of pauperism.
To make themselves eligible for poor relief, a tenant first had to surrender his house, as well as his holding, to his landlord. Strictly speaking, the law stated that only that land exceeding a quarter-acre had to be given up. But, very often when tenants tried to take this approach, he would discover that the landlord, or his agent, refused to accept the partial surrender and declined to supply the tenant with certificate of compliance with the law until both the house and all land had been given up. When it came to the all-important matter of surrendering the tenant’s house, landlords and agents almost always held the upper-hand. In many cases tenants would unroof their own cabins as part of a voluntary surrender. In exchange the tenants would be graciously allowed to take away the timber and that of their former dwellings to build temporary shelters. Unfortunately, there were many thousands of cases when estate-clearing landlords and their agents used physical force, or heavy-handed pressure, to bring about the destruction of cabins that they had targeted. There are also many cases of pauper families who had their homes burned, quite often this was done illegally, while they were away in the workhouse. Many others evicted tenants reporting to the workhouse were told, when they sought admission, that the law, or at least the guardians, required that their cabins be unroofed, or levelled, before they would be allowed entry, and so they returned to their cabins and did what was asked of them. Where tenants were evicted by force, it was usual practice for the landlord’s bailiffs to level, or burn, the affected dwelling there and then, as soon as all the tenants’ personal effects had been removed. All of this was usually carried out in the presence of a large party of soldiers, or police, who would be able to quickly neutralise any possibility of serious resistance.
Those families who had been evicted from their homes would have to shelter in ditches, until bad-weather eventually forced them to seek places in the local workhouse. One witness of these evictions left us the following report – “As soon as one horde of houseless and all but naked paupers are dead, or provided for in the workhouse, another wholesale eviction doubles the number, who in their turn pass through the same ordeal of wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements, they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside.” On many occasions people were brought to the workhouses screaming for food. Often the workhouse buildings were surrounded by crowds of people seeking entry, in their frustration threatened those inside, and seemed ready to riot. Another witness to forced evictions was Captain Arthur Kennedy, a Poor Law inspector in Kilrush, County Clare. He reported – “… There were days in that western county when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day’s work that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.”