An Gorta Mor Conclusion PtI

The Famine’s Aftermath

Most historians agree that by 1850 the very worst of the Great Famine was over, and that the potato crop was beginning to recover its former strength. The potato blight, however, continued to strike the potato crop at intervals, but with less calamitous results. Nevertheless, the Great Famine in Ireland affected future generations of Irishmen and left echoes of Ireland’s suffering for years to come within their minds.

All through those years when the people of Ireland died of starvation and disease, the British Government continually complained about the cost of providing relief schemes. In the end the total costs to the British government of the Famine, between the years 1845 and 1850, according to the records amounted to £8.1 million. Less than half of amount was given as grants from the Treasury, while the rest was provided from Treasury loans that were supposed to be repaid through the levy of poor rates. However, by 1850, there was less than £600,000 repaid to the Treasury, which proceeded to consolidate the debts and refinance them. But, these measures did not lower the total debts by any large amount and, finally, they were cancelled completely in 1853, when Ireland was brought into the British income tax system.

But, if details of these large outlays by the British Government are examined at a closer level quite a different interpretation can be taken from the records. Britain, at this time, was a major world and European power and had to maintain considerable forces for defence. In fact, Britain’s expenditure on its national defences since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, had amounted on average to an amount of approximately £16 million per year, from the nation’s average annual tax revenue of about £53 million.

Irish Famine 2In the meantime, when the famine began in Ireland, the government sent one Commission after another to investigate. They analysed, evaluated, reviewed, and wrote many reports, which they sent to superiors in London for further evaluation. One can only imagine the man-hours that were spent in preparing and collating all this paperwork, but we can be certain that these were considered English, not Irish, man-hours. So, when England boasted about the large amount of money that she was spending to alleviate the suffering of the Irish people, there was a substantial portion of that money going back into English coffers. This cash return came in the form of wages paid to those who completed the paperwork, or to the members of Ireland’s Anglo class, who were the only people employed as commissioners, superintendents of work, inspectors of work, and so forth. In 1847 it was estimated some ten thousand government servants were administering relief to the poor in Ireland, which came out of the same government funds from which their salaries were drawn. What remained of the fund after these costs and salaries were paid left only a small portion of the relief that was needed.

There were, of course, many contemporary voices, in Parliament and elsewhere, who argued that the government was providing funds that were totally insufficient to meet the size of the tragedy being suffered by the people in Ireland. This is particularly cruel when you realise that the Irish had, for generations, been paying taxes to England and tithes to her alien church. But, suddenly, those taxes and tithes were no longer considered Irish money that the English were spending to help relieve the distress; Now, by some hidden means or other construed by the Treasury, it was now all English money. In fact, overall, the greatest assistance to Famine Relief came from Ireland itself, through Poor Rate collections, and money that was contributed by some landlords. On top of these funds there was at least £1 million collected through private charity efforts.

Yet another important fact that is ignored in British reports of the time is the value of Irish exports to the English Treasury. In 1847 a government statistical commissioner, Captain Larcom, listed the total value of the agricultural produce of Ireland for that year to be £44,958,120. In this, one of the darkest years of the famine, the produce listed would have been enough to feed, at least during the famine months, not only the eight million people living in Ireland at that time, but another eight million besides. In almost every major harbour in Ireland during this period, a ship sailing in with Indian maize from America would have passed half a dozen British ships sailing out with Irish wheat, oats, and cattle. Due to the political economy forced upon Ireland, its people were too poor to buy the products of their own labour. The British exported that harvest to a better market, and left the people to die of famine, or to live on the charity of others. They then had the audacity to blame the Irish people for their own distress. But what else could be expected of a country where its own profitable scheme, rather than the Irish lives it cost, that British Government officials held sacred.

It is unfortunate that an exact number of how many people died during the period of the famine is unknown. It is believed, however, that people more died from disease than perished from starvation. State registration of births, marriages, or deaths had not yet begun at this time, and the records kept by the Roman Catholic Church are incomplete. The number of deaths that occurred during the Famine were so numerous that record-keeping virtually stopped, because no-one could keep up with them. Sadly, during this tragic period there were hundreds of men, women and children who died unknown and unmissed, because their families had departed this life before them.

There is one estimate that may help answer this question, which compares the expected population with the eventual numbers in the 1850s. The census of 1841 recorded Ireland’s population at 8,175,124. Subsequently, a census taken immediately after the famine in 1851 counted the population at 6,552,385, which reflected a drop of over 1.5 million people in 10 years. The census commissioners estimated that, at the normal rate of population increase, the population in 1851 should have grown to just over 9 million people, if the famine had not intervened. In this latest census commissioners collected information on the number who had died in each family since 1841, along with the cause, season, and year of their death. They recorded 21,770 total deaths had resulted from starvation in the previous decade, while 400,720 deaths had been caused by disease, among which were listed Typhus fever, Diptheria, Dysentery, Cholera, Smallpox, Scurvy and Influenza. Despite their efforts, the commissioners were not confident about the accuracy of their figures and suggested that the true number of deaths was probably much higher. It is a fact that the more widespread the number of deaths, the less will be the accuracy of recorded deaths, provided through household information. The terrible fact of this Famine was that not only were whole families swept away by disease, but entire communities were also wiped from the land. Later historians agree that the 1851 commissioners’ figures on the number of deaths were flawed and that they had probably under-estimated the level of mortality. The combination of institutional figures and those provided by individuals do give an incomplete account of fatalities during the famine years. The true figure is likely to be somewhere between the two extremes of half and one and a half million people, with the most widely accepted estimate being one million deaths.

At least a million people are thought to have emigrated because of theAn Gorta Mor famine in Ireland. There were about 1 million long-distance emigrants between 1846 and 1851, most of whom, as we have seen, travelled to North America. The total given in the 1851 census is 967,908, while short-distance emigrants, mainly to Britain, have been estimated to have been approximately 200,000 or more. Yet another area of uncertainty are those descriptions of disease as given by tenants, who believed them to be the cause of their relatives’ deaths. The 1851 census has been rightly criticised as being deeply flawed about the true extent of famine mortality. Nevertheless, the census does provide an excellent framework for the medical history of the Great Famine.

The diseases that badly affected the population fell into two categories, namely famine-induced diseases and diseases of nutritional deficiency. Of the latter group, the most commonly experienced were starvation and a form of serious protein-energy malnutrition (Marasmus), as well as a condition at the time called dropsy. Dropsy (oedema) was a popular name given for the symptoms of several diseases, one of which, kwashiorkor, was a severe form of malnutrition that most commonly affects children.

But, the greatest death rate did not come from nutritional deficiency diseases, but from famine-induced ailments. Malnourishment makes us all very vulnerable to infections and, therefore, they are more severe when they occur. Measles, Diphtheria, Diarrhoea, Tuberculosis, most Respiratory infections, Whooping Cough, many Intestinal Parasites, and Cholera were all strongly conditioned by nutritional status. Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent, however, that their spread was independent of nutritional problems. The best example of this phenomenon was Typhus fever, which exacted the greatest death toll among the starving peasantry. In the popular mind, as well as medical opinion, fever and famine are still considered to be closely related. Social dislocation that brought about the gathering of the hungry at soup kitchens, food depots, and overcrowded work houses created the ideal conditions for spreading infectious diseases such as Typhus, Typhoid, and Relapsing Fever.

Diarrhoeal diseases, on the other hand, are the result of poor hygiene, bad sanitation, and dietary changes. The final deadly attack on a population which was incapacitated by famine was delivered by Asiatic cholera, which had visited Ireland briefly in the 1830s. In the 1840s, it had spread uncontrollably across Asia, through Europe, and into Britain, finally reaching Ireland in 1849. It is estimated that this terrible disease reduced the existing population of Ireland by between twenty and twenty-five per cent.

The British Government’s response to the Famine and disease that was sweeping through Ireland was not without its critics. Contemporary opinion was very critical of the manner, in which Russell’s government responded to and managed the great crisis to the benefit of those affected by it. From the very beginning of the tragedy there were accusations that the Government completely failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster that was happening in Ireland. Sir James Graham, a former ‘Home Secretary’ in Sir Robert Peel’s late government, had written to Peel, telling him that, in his opinion, “the real extent and magnitude of the Irish difficulty are underestimated by the Government, and cannot be met by measures within the strict rule of economical science”. In short, he believed that the normal ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of the government would be completely disastrous.

Criticism, however, was not confined to critics outside of Government circles. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Clarendon, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849 in which, unusually for him, he urged that the Government establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. He told Lord Russell, “I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.” Added to this criticism levelled at the Government by Edward Twisleton, the Chief Poor Law Commissioner, when he resigned his post in protest over the ‘Rate-in-Aid Act’, which provided additional funds for the Poor Law through a 6p in the pound levy on all rateable properties in Ireland. Twisleton declared that “comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation”.

We have seen how the government in London spent £8 million for poor relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, which represented approximately one-half of one percent of the British gross national product over those five years. There were, of course, certain figures who noted the difference this was from £20 million in compensation paid to the West Indian slave-owners in the previous decade 1830s. There were other critics who loudly maintained that, even after the government did recognise the scope of the crisis, it blatantly failed to take sufficient steps to address it. In 1860, John Mitchel, one of the leaders of the Young Ireland Movement, wrote – “I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call the famine a “dispensation of Providence”; and ascribe it entirely to the blight on potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud; second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” starving

There were, also, others who criticised the government for taking any action, no matter how meagre, whilst still more critics saw in the government’s response its attitude to the so-called ‘Irish Question’. A well -known economics professor at Oxford University, Nassau Senior, cold-heartedly wrote that the Famine in Ireland “would not kill more than one million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do any good”. This was much in line with Denis Shine Lawlor’s suggestion that Lord Russell must be a student of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser, who had taken great pains to calculate just how far English colonisation and English policy might be most effectively carried out by Irish starvation”. Also, in 1848, Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant with most direct responsibility for the government’s handling of the famine, described it as “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, which laid bare “the deep and inveterate root of social evil”. He also affirmed that the Famine was “the sharp but effectual remedy by which the cure is likely to be effected. God grant that the generation to which this opportunity has been offered may rightly perform its part…”

With all of this in mind, it is only fair that we ask whether the policies of Sir Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, would have achieved the terrible results that they did without the Whig Party’s evil manipulation of the press. In 1845, when the blight first struck the Irish potato crop the weight of British public opinion was firmly behind the government making efforts to relieve the tragedy. The change in the British public’s support for these efforts came quickly when donor fatigue and deeply felt resentment against the Irish landlords set in. Other contributory factors affecting this change of support were the widespread revival of traditional Irish prejudice, brought to the boil by sudden appearance of hordes of Irish famine victims fleeing to English soil and filling the slums of the industrial cities. Sir Charles Wood, in trying to excuse Government inaction, told the House of Commons – “No exertion of a Government, or, I will add, of private charity, can supply a complete remedy for the existing calamity. It is a national visitation, sent by providence.” In this one sentence we can see just how the thinking of political economists influenced members of the Government by providing them with a justification for them sitting on their hands doing nothing and allowing the Irish people to starve to death.

Sir Charles Wood’s colleague, Charles Trevelyan, much more anti-Irish and left o-one in doubt about what he thought should be done in Ireland. In his infamously self-justificatory book ‘The Irish Crisis’, published in 1848, he insisted that the crisis In Ireland had ended that year. He maintained this obvious error in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Almost every day there were reports of the great tragedy that was being faced by the Irish in the face of a continuing famine, but Trevelyan stuck to his line even as more and more poverty-stricken Irish peasants found themselves on the streets of England’s cities. Official attitudes to these growing numbers of starving and shoddily dressed refugees were reflected in ‘The Times’ newspaper, which closed an eye to the evidence that Irish emigrants were still pouring into England. This unofficial organ of the Whig Government chose to give support to the government’s generally anti-Irish propaganda. In the columns of that influential newspaper readers were told that the Famine was not a curse, but a blessing sent by God to cleanse an indolent Ireland of its many blemishes.

An Gorta Mor IX Part IV

Emigration and Coffin Ships

Coffin ship 2The fact that the horrors of the ‘Coffin Ships’ were virtually restricted to vessels making for Quebec during 1847-48 provided little solace to the tens of thousands who perished after buying bargain tickets for as little as £2. Other than these vessels there were few ships wrecked, and shipboard mortality seldom exceeded one in fifty persons. The same statistic applied to the even more hazardous and expensive voyage to Australia, which typically took three or four months. But, because most Australian emigrants received state subsidies, the shipboard conditions were far more closely supervised by government inspectors and surgeons-superintendent. Due to the introduction of passenger legislation at this time overcrowding and cross-infection were eventually curtailed on the shorter American routes. It appears, from the mortality figures among the many passengers that sailed from Ireland, the passage to Australia and North America while scarcely a pleasure cruise, was not a death sentence.

 In Ireland the transition from panic-driven expulsion from the land to a calculated pursuit of economic betterment was already underway. As the Famine continued unabated, more and more emigrants sent reports home about their success in finding employment and marriage partners, which convinced others that emigration was a choice rather than a sufferance. Admittedly, emigrants faced formidable obstacles in securing a satisfactory livelihood in those new lands. The serious lack of capital, education and skills restricted many of the Irish settlers in Britain and America to undertaking poorly paid menial employment and living in insanitary housing.

 The number of emigrants from Ireland continued to increase and some ships’ officers described the appalling conditions these poor people had to endure – “… friendless emigrants stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air, who can do no cooking, nor warm so much as a cup of water … Passengers are cut off from the most indispensable conveniences of a civilised dwelling … We had not been at sea one week, when to hold your head down the fore-hatchway was like holding it down a suddenly opened cess pool.”

Despite all the reasons to cause them to fear undertaking such a journey into the unknown, there was nothing that could stop desperate people who were determined to go. They would have to face seasickness, insanitary accommodation, violent fellow passengers and often the hostility of the crew. There would be rotten food and foul water, and they would have to fight off the crooks and touts who tried to rob and cheat them both before and after the journey. Meanwhile, thousands of emigrants had arrived already in the New World, where their numbers and their poverty had caused problems. In response various Passenger Acts were drawn up and passed, which forbid any emigrant without sufficient funds or subsistence to land. But, along with all the difficulties that emigration brought to North America, no one expected the ‘ship fever’ of 1847. This is now what they called the typhus fever, which had now crossed the Atlantic as well.

Coffin ship 1In May 1847, the ice on the St. Lawrence river had melted and the first emigrant ship arrived at Grosse Ile, the quarantine station. All passengers on board the ship had come from Ireland, via Britain, and there were 84 cases of fever among them, nine of whom had died. The quarantine hospital ship at Gross Ile could only accommodate 200 people, but eight more ships arrived carrying 430 fever cases and, three days later, seventeen more ships landed. By 26th May there were thirty vessels waiting at Grosse Ile to be cleared, with approximately 10,000 emigrants on board. By 31st May this had risen to a fleet of forty ships, which stretched two miles down the river. Conditions on board these ships quickly became intolerable. In an effort to ease the problems tents were hastily erected ashore but patients were often left for days on the ships without any treatment. Most of the ships had not one healthy person on board, and those few who had managed to escape the fever were severely weakened by starvation. There were processions of boats that carried the sick and dead from the ships, abandoning them upon the beach to crawl to the hospital if they could. By the middle of the summer it was impossible to quarantine people in a proper manner. The sick passengers were left to stay on the ships for fifteen days or more, instead of spending ten days in the hospital. This meant that the sick and healthy were still cooped up together, allowing the fever to spread as before. By the end of July all quarantine efforts had been abandoned and the hordes of emigrants, sick and healthy, were just sent on inland. The result of this foolishness was that Quebec and Montreal later suffered widespread fever epidemics.

 The St. Lawrence River was the main artery through which the Irish emigrants flowed into the towns of Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Toronto, the Ottawa Valley, and the rest of Canada. Others would use Canada only as a stop-over and would subsequently make their way into the United States. Grosse Ile is a small island on the St. Lawrence and was the place where the unhealthy emigrants were landed. It had already gained a horrific reputation even before the events of ‘Black ‘47.’ In 1832, for example, Coffin Ships that had been designed not as passenger vessels but as ships to carry timber from North America were filled with Irish people as fare paying ballast for the return journey. It was these ships that were instrumental in bringing cholera to Canada from Ireland and the flophouses of Liverpool. The fever victims that arrived in 1847 may have already been dead, or they may have been near death, but they were always able to spread the fever either through the conditions existing aboard the ‘coffin ships’, or on the overpacked island itself.  

The authorities in both Canada and America condemned the conditions in which the emigrants were sent across the Atlantic. They knew about the Famine in Ireland, and the land clearances by the landlords, whom they held in contempt. Lord Palmerston’s expressed views on emigration caused more widespread shuddering at the Cabinet table than did his contribution on land clearances, and he became the subject of every public international controversy. Adam Ferrie, a member of Canada’s Legislative Council wrote a strongly worded letter to the British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey. In it he condemned the dumping on Canadian soil of half-naked paupers, the aged, the infirm, beggars, and vagrants “without regard to humanity or even common decency.” Ferrie also itemised the crimes that had been committed against the emigrants, among which were the promise of clothes, food, and money. They would, however, only receive these when they arrived in Quebec. But, the £5 that was promised was never paid to the emigrant, nor did they receive the clothes or food. They were simply put on a ship that was carrying twice the number of passengers for which it had been built, and in conditions that were described to be, “as bad as the Slave Trade.”

As explained, none of the promised food or clothing was forthcoming. Palmerston’s tenants had formed part of a sizeable flotilla of nine ships, which picked up these paupers in Sligo and Liverpool. Some of these ships carried only the aged, the decrepit, and the widows with young children. No one on board had the necessary skills that would be required to survive in a fledgling colony. On one ship, carrying 477 passengers, the overcrowding on board made the passage a hellish experience for them all. But, in addition to the overcrowding, fever had broken out and 107 passengers had to be buried at sea. On arrival at their destination almost half the survivors were described as virtually naked, and eighty-seven of them had to be clothed before they could be allowed ashore. Even the crew had fallen into such a bad condition that the ship had to be sailed from the mouth of the St. Lawrence by five of the passengers.

It wasn’t long before the American press in New York began to take notice and began to comment on the condition of the Irish emigrants landing on their shores – “It is lamentable to see the vast number of unfortunate creatures that are almost daily cast on our shores, penniless and without physical energy to earn a day’s living. Yesterday, groups of these hapless beings were to be seen congregated about the (City Hall) Park and in Broadway, looking the very picture of despair, misery, disease and want. On enquiry, we ascertained that they had arrived here by the ship ‘Robert Peel’, and that they had been, for the most part, tenants of the Marquis of Lansdowne, on his County Kerry estate – ejected without mercy by him, and “shipped” for America in this wholesale way. Among them were grey haired and aged men and women, who had spent the heyday of their life as tillers of their native soil and are now sent to this country to find a grave. This is too bad – it is inhuman; and yet it is an act of indiscriminate and wholesale expatriation committed by the “liberal” President.”

 Did no one in high places disagreed with him or pointed out that there were humane ways of dealing with the Irish land problem. Did no one in the government say that it was cruel and inhumane to subject old women and children, with no adult to support them, to the rigours of an Atlantic crossing in a Coffin Ship, followed by disembarkation in the snows of Canada, the stews of New York, or possibly worst of all, the sums of Liverpool? Did no one say that many of these people would die aboard ship and be buried at sea? Or that when they landed in a filthy, emaciated state, unskilled in anything but the lowest labouring work, for which disease had in any case unfitted most of them, they would be received in their new situations with fear and execration? The answer to this question is – of course there were voices continually protesting government policy, but to no avail. From the point of view of the landlords the emigration scheme was an unqualified economic success, and they held sway in Westminster.

New York was the main entry port for emigrants into America, and it did not welcome them warmly. In fact, the first reaction of the American Congress toward emigrants fleeing from the Famine in Ireland was to try to keep them out. Far from validating a subsequent inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which welcomed the poor and huddled masses of the world, Congress passed Navigation Acts that tightened up embarkation laws in a variety of ways. Captains either had to enter a bond that no passenger would become a burden on the city or pay a ‘commutation fee’, as it was known, of $10 per passenger. The port of Boston went further and placed a levy of $1,200 on aged or infirm persons. Ships with fever aboard were refused landing rights. This rejection meant that passengers who had already suffered the horrors of the Atlantic voyage were driven away from the American ports and sent to British ports, such as those in British Canada.

But the determination of the emigrants was such that, having landed in Canada, they proceeded to pour back across the American border by any means they could. This caused further antagonisms and tensions among the Americans that were directed against the Irish. Moreover, their own failure to prosper triggered a rather unpleasant trait among the emigrant population, which was deeply held anti-black feelings on their part. As the Irish strived to find their feet in their new home, they began to rail at the fact that black labour was undercutting their wages, and anti-black riots became part of the Irish-American experience. Meanwhile, the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who controlled America, and nativist groups such as the ‘Know Nothings’ were also antagonistic to the hordes of ragged, starving Irish Catholics that were arriving daily. New York in those days was wild and unruly sort of city. Not only were the Irish accused of living like pigs they kept them, much as they had done in Ireland. The ‘New York Sun’ newspaper estimated in August 1847 that there were upward of ten thousand pigs roaming the streets of the city and causing a great threat to the health and welfare of its citizens. But, when public outcry led to a police crackdown on the keeping of pigs, the Irish put up such a stern resistance to police efforts to commandeer their animals that eventually they were left to continue with their piggeries. These only added to the miseries of the slum accommodation they had to endure. This was created principally in two ways, firstly was the old ‘Knickerbocker Houses’ (Apartment buildings) once owned by the wealthy who got out as soon as the emigrants started to come in. The second type of slum accommodation, however, was deliberately constructed by and for them. These flimsy, jerry-built ‘barracks’, as they were known, were rented out to emigrants by the room and very soon became overcrowded. All of these habitations in the slum areas had one thing in common, and that was dirt and lack of sanitation.

 The ‘Barracks’ were generally built behind existing buildings and therefore had to be reached through narrow, noxious alleys in which dirt of all sorts quickly accumulated.  Rubbish collection and disposal was rarely heard of, pigsties abounded, and there were piles of what was described as ‘decaying matter’ giving off awful smells. The buildings were surrounded by moats of sewerage that were just ‘pools of standing water’. Given their poverty and numbers, it was inevitable in the early decades of Irish mass emigration to North America that the words ‘slum’ and ‘Irish’ became synonymous. Being essentially a communal people, the Irish emigrants tended to congregate in ‘Irish Quarters’, and they stayed in the cities – only about ten per cent moved on to rural areas. The city dwelling Irish were fodder for the political bosses who ruled the various precincts and wards. They also became notorious for their drunken rows, street brawls, and violent crime. So low was the reputation of the Irish, in fact, that it took many years for the Famine emigrants to overcome their disadvantages, and to begin to make a positive contribution to the countries they had reached.

In Boston they congregated in what became known as the ‘Eighth Ward’ of the city, which is an area known today as the affluent ‘Back Bay District’. From there some of the more successful occasionally spread out, as in New York with the Knickerbocker houses, to the homes of wealthy Boston citizens in the North End. These old houses had large gardens that rapidly became covered in cabins reminiscent of those the emigrants had left behind in Ireland. Even the alleyways were built over, while the spaces between the houses and sometimes the houses themselves “had within them stores, shops and places where fruit, vegetables and refreshments (grog) were sold.” In 1849 the Board of Aldermen reported – “The Back Bay at this hour is nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and constantly increasing population … A greenish scum, many yards wide stretches along the shore and the basin, while the surface of the water beyond is seen bubbling like a cauldron with the noxious gases that are escaping from the corrupting mass below.” Houses in the area were often reported to be “flooded with every tide” and yet the Irish packed themselves into the cellars of such houses. These cellars had low ceilings and, in one recorded case, a ceiling only five feet high, the same as the width of the cellar, which still held eighteen people. Poverty, disease and crime flourished in these conditions, which inevitably had the greatest effect upon the children, whose major outdoor activity was not playing football or childish games but begging. The Mortality Rate among Irish Catholics was estimated between 1841 and 1845 as having decimated the children, with 61.5 per cent dying before they reached the age of five years.

Generally, the emigrants who came to Canada fared better than many of those who had landed in Liverpool, which was the principal port of entry for Irish emigrants to England. Because England was closer to Ireland than North America it was the cheapest and shortest journey for the fleeing paupers, and they filled the large numbers of ferries and packet-boats that served Liverpool. Besides being a major port, Liverpool in the 1840s was a huge bustling city. Its vast wealth had been derived from the trade of empire, including slavery. These riches had created both mansion and slum, with the latter probably being among the very worst in Europe. It was an unfortunate feature of the city was the number of poor people who lived in cellars or in “courts”, which were streets of houses built facing each other that were often separated by roadways only nine feet wide. The filth and stench of these areas were almost indescribable, with sewage and surface water being carried off through open, and often clogged, drains. In 1841 the population of Liverpool numbered approximately 250,000, according to the census returns. Between December 1846 and the following June, the population of the city had increased to 300,00 by poverty-stricken and starving Irish.

The large numbers of emigrants and their terrible condition on arrival presented a threat to the city as well as to themselves. But, the only official relief provided by the authorities was a distribution of tents and the provision of two floating hulks on the river Mersey, which were used as hospital ships for fever victims. Dislocation, anxiety, hunger, and want created such mental stress among the Irish emigrants that many became mentally ill, patient levels in all Lancashire asylums reached incredibly high levels. Traditionally, the Irish who were forced by conditions to emigrate, considered themselves to be exiles rather than willing travellers. They, as a rural people, had no history of travel from their native place, no folk memory of it, and no idea of the society they were travelling to. They were buried in the mud they died in, and their dreadful working lives contributed to a pattern that would continue for decades, generating much hostility toward the Irish emigrants. They worked for lower wages than anyone else and in more dangerous conditions. In Louisiana, for example, the slave owners for example, would not allow their slaves to work on the New Orleans Canal, because they possessed a commercial value that the Irish did not. Such things were easily understood when you realise the frenzy and despair that forced the Irish out of Ireland during the years of Famine. It was a time when able-bodied, and law-abiding men actively sought transportation to Van Dieman’s Land and elsewhere, just to get out of Ireland. At home, death lay all around them and touched every the lives of every individual and every family.


Old Skibbereen

By Patrick Carpenter

Air: ‘The Wearing of the Green’

A Young American and his Irish Father

Old Skibbereen

“O! father, dear, I’ve often heard you speak of Erin’s Isle –

Its scenes how bright and beautiful, how “rich and rare” they smile;

You say it is a lovely land in which a Prince might dwell,

Then why did you abandon it, the reason to me tell?”


“My Son, I’ve loved my native land with fervour and with pride –

Her peaceful groves, her mountains rude, her valleys green and wide,

And there I’ve roamed in manhood’s prime, and sported when a boy,

My Shamrock and shillelagh sure my constant boast and Joy.


“But lo! A blight came o’er my crops, my sheep and cattle died,

The rack-rent too, alas! was due I could not have supplied;

The landlord drove me from my cot where born I had been,

And that, my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen –


“O! what a dreadful sight it was that dark November day;

The Sheriff and the Peelers came to send us all away;

They set the roof a-blazing with a demon smile of spleen,

And when it fell, the crash was heard all over Skibbereen.


“Your Mother dear, God rest her, fell upon the snowy ground,

She fainted in her anguish at the desolation round; –

She never rose, but passed away from life’s tumultuous scene,

And found a quiet grave to rest in poor old Skibbereen.


“Ah! I sadly recall that year of gloomy ’48;

I rose in vengeance with “the boys” to battle against fate;

We were hunted thro’ the mountains wild, as traitors to the Queen, –

And that, my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen.


“You then were only two years old, and feeble was your frame,

I would not leave you with my friends – you bore my father’s name! –

I wrapped you in my ‘Catamore’ at dead of night unseen,

Then heav’d a sigh, and bade good-by to poor old Skibbereen.


“O! Father, Father, when the day for vengeance we will call, –

When Irishmen o’er field and fen shall rally one and all, –

I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green,

While loud on high we’ll raise the cry – Revenge for Skibbereen!”



An Gorta Mor IX Part III

When a great tidal force, even a tidal force of human misery, builds up sufficient force it will burst out from its confinement into freedom. Throughout 1847 and 1848 such a tide of human misery built up in Ireland and it strained against the fetters that were holding it back. This struggle did not, fortunately, manifest itself in bloody revolution. As we have seen, in the attempt by the ‘Young Irelanders’, such uprisings could end in an embarrassing and costly failure. But, increasing numbers of the Irish population had found their ‘safety valve’ in emigration and they began to frantically flee their once beloved, but now accursed land. For many, getting out of Famine stricken Ireland quickly became a matter of life and death.

The Famine was not only a ‘visitation’ on the poor but was a great equaliser in the way that its effects struck at every stratum of Irish society, from the highest ranks to the lowest. Those who lived through these dark days found it virtually impossible to find the words that could accurately convey the horror around them, as they sent their appeals for assistance to friends and relations who had been lucky enough to have escaped Ireland. In fact, the scale of that escape from famine, poverty and death was without precedent in the annals of international migration. Even in the periods when famine-induced deaths were at their heaviest, the numbers emigrating were equally important in the overall decline in Ireland’s population. It is estimated that, between 1846 and 1850, about a million people left Ireland’s shores. Over the following five years, even with the end of famine, emigration grew in even greater numbers.

The Famine that first struck the country in 1846 quickly spread throughout the entire land, and it brought the appeal of massive emigration to almost every county and parish of Ireland. The idea of emigrating to pastures new was like an infection that spread with such astonishing speed that the poorest counties of western area of the country quickly became the major sources of Famine emigration as well as Famine deaths.

As we have seen, this terrible Famine struck the poverty stricken Irish Catholic peasantry that tilled the land. As a class of people, the Catholic peasantry had never felt the need to stray more than a few miles from their ramshackle cabins. But, driven by the needs to feed one’s hunger, traditional norms were abandoned. Driven by famine and disease the people began to lock-up their homes and travel all around the country on journeys that extended to a hundred miles, or more, in search of work and food. Opportunities to work for food relief soon disappeared as disruption and death from disease and starvation began to spread. In their despair the minds of these poor people now turned to those places across the sea that they had heard so much about. Canada, America, and, because it was nearer, England became increasingly attractive to a suffering class.

As the year, known as “Black ’47” turned bleaker and increasingly deadly, the better-off farmers from among the tenant class began to leave in large numbers. Entire families left the land with sufficient funds, and much needed farming skills, to find a better life in the New World. Then, as 1848 dawned, a nationwide panic began to set in, which saw a flood of terrified poverty-stricken peasantry that was ready to escape the evils that were tearing Ireland apart. They were willing to risk their lives in an Atlantic crossing, facing horrific conditions in the depths of winter, rather than face almost certain death from starvation, or disease, in their own country.

There were some concerns among landowners concerning the numbers of people leaving their lands to emigrate to distant lands, especially the larger tenant farmers that regularly paid their rent. But, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was not so concerned about the land clearances caused by emigration said, “I do not know how farms are to be consolidated if small farmers do not emigrate … By acting for the purpose of keeping them at home, we should be defeating our own object. We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farmers go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country.”

 With the arrival of the ‘Gregory Clause’ on the legislative rolls for Ireland the landowners quickly discovered that emigration could save them money. A poor peasant could be shipped out of the country for half what it cost the landowner to maintain him in the workhouse for a year. Furthermore, once the poor peasant was shipped off to foreign parts, it was almost certain that he and his family would almost inevitably never came back. The advantages of this system became only too obvious to landlords in January 1847, when the government transferred its responsibilities toward the destitute by making landlords responsible for them under the poor law, through the payment of increased rates. For the poor peasantry emigration was seen as a better option than being evicted from their homes to wander the roads.

Coffin ship 2By September 1848 the wave of emigration had become a torrent of the destitute, as more and more people gave up any hope of remaining alive in Ireland. Sir Charles Trevelyan was almost ecstatic at the way things were now going in Ireland. He declared, “If small farmers go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement of the country.” Everywhere land was being left waste, and the landowners who despaired of selling the land simply abandoned their estates. It was a virtually impossible task to find any buyers who would even consider the purchase of large estates that were crumbling under the weight of massive debt. Trade across the island was almost at a standstill, with the smaller towns being abandoned by the people hoping for a better life in the cities.

Among the millions who fled from the ravages of the famine there were large numbers of the very old and the very young, all of whom had been severely weakened by fever, lack of food, and need of warm clothing before they had even started their journeys. In those far off days, undertaking the long journey to such countries as the United States was both exhausting and full of hardship. Even at those times when the travelling conditions were good, the emigrant needed to be very fit for the journey ahead of them. It was not unknown that weak and ill children were sometimes left behind by parents to die alone of fever or starvation.

 It would be wrong to believe that every landlord was happy to evict the tenants from the land, throwing them at the side of the road to struggle for life and shelter. Even prior to the onslaught of the potato blight, emigration from Ireland had become a common means for the poor and oppressed Catholic population to seek a new life. But, with the arrival of famine and the overriding aim of landlords to clear their lands of unproductive tenants, there now began some ‘assisted emigration’. This tactic called upon the landlords to give their tenants enough money for a passage to America, Canada, or other destination. In fact, some landlords went as far as to hire ships to transport them.

In the years up to 1848 most of the long-distance movement of people out of Irish ports consisted of family groups or unmarried men. But, the impulse to escape hunger and disease soon proved too strong to ignore. That impulse became powerful enough even to overwhelm the conventional aversion to emigration among young girls in Ireland. This reluctance had been reflected in previous years by the male domination of migrations out of Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe. At the height of the ‘Great Famine’ the numbers of male and female emigrants were quite evenly balanced and was to remain like this in subsequent years. Boys and girls alike swarmed out of every parish, every social stratum, and almost every household in Ireland. Such was the size of this exodus that it systematically thinned out the entire fabric of Irish society. There had, of course, been numerous plans put forward for colonisation that was subsidised by the state. But, such plans had usually involved the evacuation of the surplus population from some troublesome district and transplanting them in some scarcely populated area in Canada or the United States. They were well-intentioned schemes that, like most of these plans for social and moral betterment, collapsed miserably because of the great expense and uncertainty involved. Not surprisingly, any effort to remove Ireland’s excess population would not be carried out at public expense. Sadly, only a few thousand Irish emigrants received official subsidies, which would include the tenants of derelict crown estates, workhouse inmates, and some crown witnesses or ‘informers’ who needed to be moved for their own protection. 

Rather more emigrants received assistance from landlords than did from the state. The landowners would offer financial inducements to tenants, which encouraged them to surrender their holdings and, by doing so, assisted in the consolidation of estates.  These ‘assisted’ passages were very few because of the manner in which ‘unassisted emigration’ grew. “Necessity being the mother of invention”, those desperate to emigrate began to create their own informal mechanisms to assist them, and the opportunity for state sponsored social engineering faded away. The records show that only some three or four per cent of emigrants overall were helped by the landlords. The remainder succeeded in getting aid from various charitable groups or were sent money by family members who already gone.

By the time this massive shift of population had begun to slow down, almost two million people had left the Ireland forever. In the beginning, those landowners who helped people to emigrate were praised for their efforts, but by 1848 there was a dramatic change of tone. Priests, politicians and the Press began to attack this enforced exile, accusing Britain of conspiring with the landowners to annihilate the population. Nevertheless, because so many people had already emigrated over the previous decades, emigration considered to be a common-sense response to the appalling conditions in Ireland. Meanwhile, in most European countries, emigration was the last resort in bad economic conditions. In Ireland, however, the emigration process began within a matter of months after the first crop failure. Then, once the famine had tightened its grip, it was not just the poor and hungry who emigrated. The Merchants and tradesmen, who had watched the economy collapse and were financially overburdened by heavy taxation now joined the throng of emigrants. Large numbers of young and old from all strata of society now began to flood the emigration ports.

Unfortunately, in countries to which they were being sent, the Irish were not welcome emigrants. The only thing that the Irish brought with them to the ‘New World’ was their poverty and the fevers they carried. Very few of them had any suitable skills or trades, and the majority were so weak they were not fit for any kind of work, even the unskilled agricultural labour they had been used to. When they landed the Irish emigrants usually drifted into the slum areas of the large cities, supporting themselves by unskilled labour. Quite a few drank heavily as they attempted to cover their despair and loneliness in this new land and fighting among themselves was a frequent occurrence.

Between 1846 and 1852, an estimated one million people left Ireland for other places. Once a pattern had been established the increasing number of emigrants continued to drain the country. The ships that took them away were overcrowded, rarely provided with the legal quotas of provisions and water, and dangerously inadequate for the journey. The loss of life that took place on these vessels earned them the well-deserved name of ‘Coffin Ships’. It was only after 1848 that stricter controls on these vessels and their owners were enforced and resulted in emigrant death rates falling quite dramatically.

In the sailing ships, which were so prevalent prior to 1850, it took the emigrants at least a month to cross the wide Atlantic Ocean. Ship passengers were provided with the basic minimum of food and water but had to provide any other requirements themselves. The ships’ holds, packed with suffering human beings, were a fertile ground for typhus and other deadly contagious infections. The worst recorded death rate among emigrants occurred in 1847 when the notorious ‘Coffin Ships” took emigrants to Canada. There were over 100,000 emigrants making this trip and one-sixth of them died on board ship or soon after landing, which was much higher than the normal death rate of Famine emigrants being about two per cent.

A serious recession struck Britain between 1847 and 1851, which made it an unattractive place to settle. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of poor emigrants did their utmost to scratch out a living as unskilled workers, or paupers receiving relief in British towns. The Australian colonies were also in an economic crisis and did not regain their popularity among emigrants until the ‘gold rush’ of 1850. Naturally, these factors increased the appeal of the United States, where prices during the Famine years were stable and low. For most emigrants, America’s expanding industrial sector and receding frontier made it the desired destination. Even those emigrants who had been forced to enter the New World through Canadian ports were celebrated for their determination to continue their journey south, into the U.S.A. It was from there that ‘American Money’ came for the most effective agency for promoting emigration, namely the pre-paid passage. Those emigrants who first left the country were only able to do so through the savings, loans, local lotteries or unrecorded gifts from their family and neighbours. These emigrants to the New World took with them a deep sense of moral and financial indebtedness to those who had helped them. And they sent back money to repay the debt, or to help others to get out of Ireland.

 The tremendous growth in numbers seeking to leave Ireland placed unprecedented pressures on the under-regulated passenger trade. In rudely converted and unsafe cargo vessels many passengers had to endure disgusting and dangerous conditions. The perils of life aboard these ships were increased by the weakness of many undernourished and diseased emigrants, and ‘Famine Fever’ spread quickly before, during and after the long sea journey.