How the Potato came to Ireland

It was the Spanish conquistadors who first discovered the potato and brought it to the world outside of its place of origin in South America. They did not, however, realise the value of the vegetable that they had stumbled upon when chasing the Inca Emperor,  Atahualpa, and his legendary riches. Once it was introduced into Europe it soon became an important crop for the peasantry, especially in Ireland. Today, over five hundred years after Spain’s conquest of South America, the potato continues to thrive in Ireland and throughout the entire world. Yet, despite its very important role in Irish history, there is still some confusion as to how the potato eventually came to our country. A range of famous historical figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been given the credit for introducing the potato into Europe. But, even the stories concerning the involvement of such adventurers are contradictory, and the question remains unanswered; “Who brought the potato to Ireland and when?”

ConquistadorThere is some research that suggests that the first potatoes brought to Europe originated in what is now called Chile. These were selected because they had been adapted to form tubers during the long summer days of southern temperate latitudes, which would be comparable to summers in Europe where the length of the day was similar. There was, meanwhile, another potato variety that originated in Peru and Colombia. This potato variety (‘Andigena’) was more used to the shorter days of the tropical latitudes and, therefore, did not mature in Europe until late September and early October when the length of the day is approximately twelve hours.

The first journey from Chile to Europe by the faster ‘Straits of Magellan’ route did not occur until 1579, when the potato was already being grown in Europe. Because of the months of travelling it would have needed to transport potatoes to Spain from Chile the tubers would have resulted in the death of any tubers before they reached their destination. So, it is assumed that the less favourable ‘Andigena’ variety of potato was brought to Europe from Colombia. But, it is not ‘Andigena’ variety that we see every day on our dinner tables in Ireland, but the Chilean variety ‘Tuberosum’. So, what happened?

The first European potatoes were, it seems, ‘Antigena’ variety, but they could only tuberise in the shorter days of the European autumn, limiting their cultivation to the milder regions of Ireland, Spain, Italy, etc.

The sweet potato, which is unrelated to the potato, grew in lowland areas all around the Caribbean, at the time of the Spanish conquests. The potato, however, was only cultivated in the most inaccessible of places. The sweet potato, therefore, was the first to be introduced into Spain, first shipments being made almost immediately after the earliest voyages of Columbus. But, the sweet potato was not only more accessible but also exclusive, because it could only the climate in Spain suited its growth. It’s exclusivity came from the fact that it was an expensive commodity and not something commonly seen on a plate in the rest of Europe.

The evidence available  to us points to there being two early introductions of the potato into Europe. The first, into Spain about 1570 and the second into England between 1585-1590. Potatoes, it appears, were being grown in Spain for a several years prior to 1573 in order to build up stocks. Sixteenth century scientists who had studied many of the new plants, which had been brought from the New World, do not mention the potato at all prior to 1564. Many botanists today agree, therefore, that the potato was introduced into Spain sometime between 1565 and 1570.

It is believed that the potato only reached England in the early 1590s. The English herbalist John Gerard (1545-1612), was a popular man who was often presented not only with rare plants and seeds from all over the world but also with offers to supervise the gardens of noblemen. In 1597 he published his celebrated ‘Generall Historie of Plantes’,  which contained over 1,000 species, providing more than 800 chapters of information and a large amount of folklore. In his Catalogue of 1599 Gerard assigned the potato’s natural home to be Virginia, rather than its original habitat in the South American Andes. Although wild potatoes were found as far north as Nebraska in North America, no species was cultivated outside of South America at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World. The potato as we know it was completely unknown in North America until the seventeenth century and wasn’t cultivated there until the 1720s, when it was introduced by settlers from Ulster.

Records suggest that potatoes were first introduced by Sir Walter Raleigh after his return from Virginia. But such suggestions are contentious since it was much more likely that Raleigh got the potatoes from England, because he was never in Virginia and, as already stated, Solanum tuberosum is not native to Virginia. The confusion, however, may have arisen due to Raleigh’s association with a number of voyages to North America, but there is no mention whatsoever of potatoes on his return from any of those voyages.

Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96), unlike Raleigh, was introduced to solanum tuberosum in the Americas. But, it is rather unlikely that Drake seized potatoes from the Spanish when there was more valuable cargo to be taken. Drake, however, did serve under the Earl of Essex in suppressing a rebellion in Ireland, although it seems improbable that the potato was introduced around this time as it had only just been introduced to Spain and was still unknown in England. Nevertheless, it is recorded that Drake obtained potatoes by barter from the Indians of the Islands of Mocha, off the coast of Chile in November 1578. Having completed his renowned second circumnavigation of the globe in November 1580, but there is no record of potatoes appearing on the menu at this time.

If potatoes came from Virginia in 1586 they must already have been on Sir Francis Drakes’ ships and he may have acquired them from the sack of Cartagena on the coast of what is now Colombia. Potatoes may well have formed part of the valuable haul taken from Cartagena itself or from the cargoes of plundered ships. Drake left Cartagena on 30 March 1585, after picking up the colonists from the failed Roanoke settlement in Virginia, he arrived in Plymouth on 26 July 1586. Perhaps, these potatoes could have been confused with the plants from Virginia. Such a theory would reconcile a number of questions, but we can only speculate if this actually happened.

Instead of looking to England as the source of introducing the potato to Ireland, perhaps we should consider the Spanish. Often referred to as ‘An Spáinneach’, or ‘An Spáinneach Geal’ (The white or kind hearted Spaniard), such names for the potato might point to the suggestion that a Spaniard was actually responsible for introducing the potato to Ireland. There was substantial trade between Ireland and Spain and the introduction of the tuber as a curiosity from Spain through Waterford, seems highly plausible. However, given the lack of historical evidence it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of an introduction from England. Nevertheless, given that the potato thrived in Ireland from a very early date (but not in Europe), it was probably solanum tuberosum rather than andigena that was introduced.  Irrespective of who introduced the tuber to Ireland it appears that 1586 would be the earliest feasible date for introduction to Ireland, and 1600 the latest. Since we know that the potato was already being grown in London in 1596, it is almost certain that the appearance of the strange new tuber in Ireland couldn’t have been long delayed.

William Smith O’Brien Part I

Before the Insurrection of 1848

Dromoland CastleAlthough William Smith O’Brien was very proud of his descent from the great Irish High-King, Brian Boru, he was critical of his ancestors who had traded independence for English titles. William was born in 1803, the son of Sir Edward O’Brien, (Baronet) of Dromoland Castle, in Co. Clare. William’s mother, Lady Charlotte, was the daughter of William Smith, and inherited his Cahirmoyle estate in County Limerick. Sir Edward’s eldest son, Lucius, was the natural heir to Dromoland Castle and his father’s title, but Cahirmoyle was given to William, the second son, who unofficially added ‘Smith’ to his name.  While Sir Edward strongly believed that William, as his second son, should earn his own living, the young man wanted an allowance paid to him until he came of age to take over Cahirmoyle.

Strangely, Sir Edward opposed the 1800 Act of Union and consistently supported Catholic claims in parliament, but his wife, Lady O’Brien, was a strong evangelical and proselytising Protestant. During William’s early years she taught her son that the Pope was Antichrist and that the Catholic population must be converted to Protestantism. As a result, William went through an intense evangelical phase of life before he discovered that many Catholics were often more devout and good-living than those extreme Protestants who constantly condemned them.

When William attained the age of eight years he was sent by his parents to school in England. From that time, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821, he returned home to Clare only for the Christmas holidays. From his ‘private school’ at Willing, in Sussex, William moved on to Harrow. Although he quickly proved that he was above average in ability, he became disgusted by the ‘fagging’ system employed at the school, which made young boys the virtual slaves of their elders. The demands of the older boys constantly interfered with a pupil’s schoolwork and could earn the unfortunate ‘fag’ a thrashing from his teacher for his bad school work. Not surprisingly, William failed to develop any personal interest in learning. Thankfully, William was saved from Harrow by his father moving to Orleans with his family as an economy measure. Although he found his French tutors more stimulating than those at Harrow, William soon found himself back at private schools in England.  Among these he attended the evangelical establishments of the Reverends Scott and Bradley, which caused William to reach a high pitch of religious enthusiasm. This enthusiasm would, however, completely disappear by the time he reached the age of seventeen and entered Trinity College.

William had a flair for the classics, but he still had to work hard for his first examination at Trinity and achieved a first-class pass. In his second year of his course, however, he allowed himself to be seduced by social side of university life. He spent his evenings playing cards and drinking port wine, before he would stagger back to his rooms in the early morning hours. At this time, William also refused to attend chapel and incurred upon himself a series of punishments. But, he enjoyed the penalty of memorising Greek poetry and transcribing Euclid’s theorems, which only encouraged him to continue his boycott of the chapel. It was just good luck and the good offices of his tutor, a brilliant mathematician, that prevented him from being ‘sent down’ by the end of term.

Because he was unable to gain a first-class-honours in his next examination, William deliberately failed his second test in an effort to avoid appearing to be second-rate. He refused to answer easy questions, and this caused him to drop to seventh grade. Naturally, his parents were not amused at this failure and they kept him at Dromoland for the next year. At home, William read more generally in Sir Edward’s well-stocked library and diverted himself by visiting local landowners, whose regular habit of imbibing quantities of port wine reminded him of his time among the undergraduates of Trinity College. Despite his fervent claim that he was always an Irish nationalist, it was probably during this period of his life that he had more opportunity than he ever had, at school or university in England, to study Ireland and its culture. Nevertheless, although achieving high honours was now impossible, William returned to Cambridge and idly came to grips with the great questions of existence without giving up his social pleasures. It appears that he eventually reached the conclusion that because religion could not be proven by reason alone he should adhere to simple, traditional belief. Therefore, for the rest of his life, O’Brien maintained a middle-of-the-road tolerant Anglicanism.

Sir Edward had hoped that his youngest son would earn a handsome living as a barrister, in London or Dublin and, for a time, William obediently attended Lincoln’s Inn, London, where he tenaciously studied his legal texts. Then Sir Edward decided that it might be advantageous considered returning William for the ‘pocket borough’ of Ennis, which before the 1832 Reform Bill was shared by the local O’Brien and Fitzgerald families. Although Sir Edward was of the opinion that the law and politics were a good combination, William quickly lost any interest in the law and prepared for parliament by reading politics and political economy. In which he duly graduated in 1826.

After graduating, William took an active part in the wild celebrations that spread through the town of Cambridge. When the student revellers erupted into the town itself, O’Brien, too drunk to know what he was doing, assaulted a university proctor who was attempting to restrain him. He was very fortunate to avoid serious punishment from the academic authorities, but William was now ordered home for the second time by his outraged parents. Sir Edward was now completely convinced that his youngest son lacked both the temperament and the industry to succeed at the ‘bar’.

Left with nothing to do, William became frustrated and miserable. To pile further hurt upon his son, Sir Edward refused to pay a marriage settlement to the wealthy Earl of Kingston caused William’s engagement to the earl’s daughter to fall through. Furthermore, his father also refused to finance a grand European tour for a son who had strayed from the course and standards that had been laid down for him. William was, however, permitted to visit Dublin and, in that city, he was to find his life changed. It was there that he joined Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association. Although his father, Sir Edward, and other leading Protestants had long supported the right of Catholics to sit in parliament, but it was rare for a Protestant to actually become a member of the Association. Although William did not attend any meetings, his membership of the Association did him immense good in Ireland, and especially in his home county of Clare.

When a general election was called in 1828, despite his misgivings Sir Edward placed William in the borough of Ennis, while his elder brother Lucius was elected for County Clare. Now, with a definite purpose in his life, William threw himself wholeheartedly into parliamentary work. His maiden speech on the complex subject of paper money was made soon after his arrival at Westminster and, although badly delivered, according to his own account, the speech earned William widespread respect. In his autobiography he insisted that, though confident in many ways, he found public speaking to be very painful. But, eventually, through sheer will-power he learned to address large audiences, while he always kept notes close to avoid any lapses of memory.

When ‘The East India Company’ charter came up for renewal, William carefully researched the issue and produced a pamphlet on the subject, which impressed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. As a result, William was appointed to the committee on the ‘East India Company’, which was a great honour for such an inexperienced politician. Finally, Sir Edward had something to make him proud of his son. William, however, spoiled this new relationship with his father by not always voting for the Tories, as Sir Edward wanted him to. It was made plain to William, therefore, that he must vote for the government or resign his seat.

Daniel O'ConnellThe political issue of ‘Catholic Emancipation’ had now reached its peak and Sir Edward’s friend, Vesey Fitzgerald, because he had taken up a post in the Tory government of Peel and Wellington, was forced to recontest his parliamentary seat for County Clare. Although Fitzgerald was a supporter of Catholic Emancipation, he had now joined a government that was opposed to such a measure, and ‘The Catholic Association’ sought an opponent to run against him. William was, of course, invited to stand but he, naturally, refused. Finally, Daniel O’Connell himself took up the challenge and defeated the combined forces of the O’Briens and Fitzgeralds in this constituency. William, now in parliament, took no part in the campaign but quickly claimed to have been one of the first parliamentarians to recognise that O’Connell’s election must be followed by ‘Catholic Emancipation’. At the same time, however, William wrote scathing article concerning O’Connell’s intervention in County Clare. When a passionate supporter of O’Connell, Thomas Steele, replied venomously to the article, O’Brien challenged him to a duel. Neither man, however, was injured in the resulting fight.

When the Tory government led Peel and Wellington passes the ‘An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’ in 1829, it allowed William in good conscience to support, as his father had demanded, the now-embattled Prime Minister. Now, with O’Connell finally in parliament, William kept his distance from the great man. In his opinion, after achieving Emancipation, O’Connell should have concentrated his efforts on ‘Irish Reform’ and not the repeal of the union. Therefore, in an effort to politically outflank O’Connell, William sought an Irish ‘Poor Law’, demanding outdoor relief for the weak and helpless. O’Brien’s bill on the subject, however, lapsed when he conceded his parliamentary seat in 1831.

The bitter quarrel between the Dromoland O’Briens and O’Connell’s supporters continued to fester. William’s brother Lucius was defeated in the 1830 general election by O’Connell’s supporter The O’Gorman Mahon. It was William, however, who organised the subsequent evidence that had Mahon removed from his seat for electoral corruption. In the resultant by-election, Sir Edward himself stood for Parliament but was no more successful than his son Lucius. The grave insults to Sir Edward made by O’Gorman Mahon’s brother provoked William to fight another duel. Although William escaped his opponent’s pistol, he could not avoid his mother’s fury at what she saw was his unchristian conduct. Henceforth, William made every effort to moderate his future rhetoric.

By the 1830s parliamentary reform had become the leading issue at Westminster and sitting for a ‘pocket borough’, William found himself to be in a weak position. While campaigning in Ireland, he missed one of the vital votes on the issue. While he favoured reform in general, William thought the Whig bill was inconsistent and too radical. He believed that some seats for good candidates who were unlikely to obtain sufficient votes should be retained. But, O’Brien deplored the Whig acceptance of the Tory refusal to allow an increase of Irish electorates according to existing population. With Vesey Fitzgerald assuming the Ennis seat at the 1831 election, William, after a promising parliamentary start, now found himself once again without an occupation. He was, however, saved from his frustration by the ‘Terry Alt’ outbreak of violence in County Clare, which was caused by increased rents and anti-Catholic proselytisers. The ‘Terry Alt Movement’ of 1828-31 has been one of the least studied of the pre-Famine rural revolts, partly because it was dwarfed by the great anti-tithe agitation with which it temporarily shared the limelight at the outset of the 1830s.

The name, “Terry Alt” itself is obscure. According to some the name arose from the marauders, perhaps more out of sport than malice, being in the habit of crying out- “Well done, Terry! Well done, Terry Alt!’” At its peak the outbreak was similar to a volcanic eruption, with a gradual accumulation of pressure before a great explosion in the late winter and spring of 1830-31, followed by a rapid subsidence into an orderly peace. But, during its explosive phase, in its heartland of County Clare, the movement was marked by a level of activity and a degree of popular mobilisation that were unprecedented.

What caused the rise of this movement appears to have been a rich and complex mixture of economic distress, sectarian hostilities, and political antagonisms. Formal parliamentary politics had a very unusual impact on the outbreak which, in its characteristic form of protest was both open and communal to an extraordinary extent. Although secret-nocturnal activity remained important throughout the outbreak, there were great daytime gatherings of diggers and sod-breakers, who were cheered on by large, enthusiastic crowds.

In his autobiography, O’Brien shows that he sympathised with ‘Terry’ objectives, but also saw the need for law and order. While other landlords fled to the cities and towns seeking refuge, William took the lead in fortifying Dromoland Castle and organising a defensive posse that consisted of his brothers and loyal tenants. He successfully persuaded his father to address the people in one of the ‘Terry’ strongholds, and on one occasion he personally led a party of dragoons in pursuit of a group of insurgents. Outpacing his allies, with only a small pistol he confronted the ‘Terries’ and caused them all to run away. Subsequently, when some of the ringleaders were captured and faced court, O’Brien did his duty as a fearless juryman, and ensured several transportation sentences were enforced. For a period of time he lived alone, unprotected and unmolested, in a cottage at Inchiquin, which lay at the centre of ‘Terry Alt’ power. He proved that although the ‘Terries’ were ruthless against traitors and informers of their own class, they accepted the gentry upholding the existing law of the land.

Eventually he moved to his grandfather’s estates in Limerick, and he was triumphantly elected to parliament for that county. It was a seat he was to retain until he was expelled from the Houses of Parliament after his insurrection in 1848.

Rebellion 1641 – The Fuse is Lit

In 1641 the Puritan Parliament in England went as far as to decree the absolute suppression of Roman Catholicism in Ireland. The main cause for Parliament taking such a step was the effort begun by dispossessed Gaelic-Irish Lords in Ulster to recover those lands that had been confiscated from them in past years. Very quickly this effort by the local Irish of the north to have their ‘stolen’ lands restored to them became an alliance of all Catholic people in Ireland, whatever their origin, to rise up against this persecution. As a people they were determined that their religion should be preserved, and, at the same time, they would defend their rights and property under the monarchy and within the constitution. In this insurrection both the ‘Gaelic-Irish’ and the ‘Old English’ joined together to form what became known to Ireland’s history as the “Confederation of Killarney”.

Although there are many who refer to the original uprising in the north as “The Great Rebellion of 1641”, I prefer to see the event as being more of an insurrection by a dissatisfied people. In most instances those who prefer to call it a ‘Rebellion’ support their claim with various stories of massacres and bloody atrocities on the part of the ‘Native Irish’ alone in a concerted effort to mark an entire people. Even now, in the twenty-first century there are certain groups who continue with these contentious charges to maintain division and animosity among the people for their own political sectarian motives. This, however, this not an attempt to portray the Insurrection of 1641 as being less of a struggle than it was and there was bloodshed on both sides, just as there has been in all the popular uprisings in Ireland’s history that attempted redress long-standing grievances. Without doubt, there were many crimes committed during this insurrection, which must be deplored and condemned by everyone.

1641 picturesMuch has been written about the brutal atrocities allegedly committed by Catholic Irish insurgents by men such as Walter Harris, Milton, Borlase, May, Rushworth, Cox, Carlyle, and Froude. In the years since the insurrection these so-called historians have concealed what is the true story of the struggle. Many of the alleged massacres appear to be nothing more than made-up stories without any basis in truth. For the most part these reporters relied upon the depositions taken from alleged eyewitnesses to the events, which were preserved for future generations and are visible on-line at present. Since the beginning of the twentieth century modern investigative historians have studied these depositions in depth and have recognised many of them for what they were meant to be i.e. An attempt by the English authorities of the day to blacken the name and reputation of those Irish Catholics for all time. Instead of furnishing proof of bloody massacres and atrocities the depositions highlight the fact that many of the charges are both baseless and malignant. But, for the moment let us look at how the fuse was finally lit.

On Friday 22nd October 1641 Sir Phelim O’Neill, the respected Catholic landowner, justice of the peace, and Member of Parliament for the borough of Dungannon in County Tyrone, decided he would pay a visit to his neighbour, Sir Toby Caulfield, Governor of Charlemont Fort in the County of Armagh. Without warning, the men accompanying O’Neill seized control of the fort, imprisoning the startled Sir Toby who was to die later in the custody of the insurgents. This unexpected action was the match that lit the fuse of a war that would last for more than a decade and result in the death of over one-fifth of the Irish population. Although Sir Phelim belonged to the powerful and influential O’Neill family, which had ruled over Ulster for centuries, but in many ways, he was not the typical example of a ‘rebel’. His father Turlough Og, had fought for the English crown during the “Nine Years War” and his son, Phelim, received estates in the ‘Ulster Plantation’ as one of those that the crown declared to be “deserving Irish.” Although he had been raised in the Protestant faith as a ward of the English Crown, Phelim returned to Ireland in the 1620s where he reverted to his native Catholicism.

For over a decade, he played a leading political and social role in the local Ulster community and, outwardly at least, he appeared to have assimilated well into colonial society, and was knighted in 1639. As it was with all Irish Catholics, however, O’Neill was still subject to sporadic religious persecution, and resentful of the power and influence carried by the Protestant newcomers. Moreover, he struggled to maintain his family’s estates and, by 1640, he owed the then enormous sum of £12,000 to creditors in Dublin and London. His rank and position in Ulster quickly attracted the attention of similarly disgruntled Catholic landowners, such as Philip McHugh O’Reilly and Lord Conor Maguire, who were anxious to gain his support for a pre-emptive strike against what they considered to be a hostile colonial administration. They had been impressed by the success of the Scottish Covenanters, they sought to gain control of the Kingdom and negotiate with the King from a position of strength. Sir Phelim now allowed himself to become gradually entangled in the complex series of plots that developed over the summer of 1641, involving not only the Ulster Irish but also the ‘Old English’ grandees from that area of Ireland known as ‘The Pale’.

The Ulster Irish envisaged an assault on two fronts with Sir Phelim targeting Charlemont and other key points in southern Ulster as a means of preventing Protestant settlers in the north of the Province from linking up with forces that would undoubtedly be sent from Dublin. At the same time, Lord Maguire’s men would storm Dublin Castle, paralyse the government and gain access to the state’s vast store of weaponry. Successfully rallying thousands of followers to his banners, Sir Phelim executed his part of the plan to perfection. In Dublin, however, a companion of Lord Maguire, Owen O’Connolly, managed to slip away from his companions the night before the planned attack and alerted the authorities in the capital. Acting quickly the authorities rounded up the conspirators, including Maguire, who was subsequently executed in London. Maguire’s failure in gaining control of Dublin left the Ulster insurgents facing the grim prospect of a massive retaliatory action by well-armed government troops.

Within a few days, however, the limited strike that had been envisaged by the leaders of the insurgency sparked widespread unrest in the land, with reports of attacks not only in Ulster, but in North Leinster as well. By the end of 1641, less than two months after O’Neill seized Charlemont fort, the violence had spread to south-west Munster, the furthest point geographically in Ireland from the source of the initial rising. the conspirators, for the most part, belonged to the landed gentry and who were motivated by a mixture of fear, resentment and financial worries. Disillusioned with the existing discriminatory political system they, nonetheless, professed their loyalty to the King, and claimed to have acted in self-defence against the unjust policies enforced by the colonial administration in Dublin.

In his book, “The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland,” the Rev. James Seaton informs us that – “Sir Phelim O’Neill of Kinard or Caledon, in the County Tyrone, engaged to commence the insurrection in Ulster, on the same Saturday by the seizure of its chief places of strength. He was especially charged with the capture of Derry: his relation Sir Henry O’Neill was to be urged to surprise Carrickfergus; and Sir Con Magennis, his brother-in-law, to seize Newry. The Protestants were to be taken and imprisoned with as little violence as possible; and agreeably to the King’s Commission, the Scots were to remain unmolested.”[1]

The administration in Dublin had reacted ferociously to the news that a revolt had broken out in the North of the country and by their action exacerbated an already explosive situation. The day after the rebellion had began in Ulster the Lords Justices, Sir William Parsons and Sir John Borlase (Father of the historian Edmund Borlase) issued a proclamation blaming the disorder on what they called “evil affected Irish papists,” without any distinction being made. The Catholic Lords of “The Pale” were deeply angered by the administrations action and, following complaints made by them, there was a grudging retraction of the proclamation six days later. Although they now identified the Ulster-Irish as the chief culprits in the uprising, their actions had done little to assuage the fears that these Catholic Lords held about the possible heavy-handed tactics that Dublin might just employ in their response to the insurrection. The subsequent refusal Lords Justices to provide these same Catholic Lords with sufficient arms to protect their estates from the Ulster insurgents merely reinforced the general sense of grievance that was felt by all those Catholics not yet involved in the uprising. The insurgents, however, restricted their actions in those first weeks to the theft and destruction of property from Protestant settlers. The evidence that survives does suggest that relatively few people died during these opening weeks, despite the so-called ‘evidence’ produced by some parties after the events.

In early November, Sir Phelim published a proclamation that was allegedly issued by the King, Charles I, authorising Irish Catholics to take up arms on his behalf. This sensational document, although later exposed as a forgery, appeared to give a veneer of legitimacy to the actions of O’Neill and his followers. This, combined with the early successes achieved by O’Neill and his forces, began to attract a growing number of people to his banner from every rank in society. To the ranks of the insurgent forces came small tenant farmers, landless labourers, and notorious outlaws among many others. Most of these men had been drawn to O’Neill’s cause simply to be on the side that appeared to be winning. The local Catholic landowners had become anxious in the wake of the uprising, fearing that there would be a complete breakdown of law and order, and they rapidly assumed command of the insurgents in their areas. But, despite their best efforts, the landowners began to find it increasingly difficult to maintain any control of the rank-and-file supporters. Most of these men had been embittered by long-standing grievances and more recent economic hardships which they blamed on the Protestant newcomers. It wasn’t long, therefore, until the insurgents began targeting the ‘Planters’, particularly in the Province of Ulster.

After suffering several set-backs against government forces in various places, some of the insurgent groups began to adopt a more violent attitude towards their targets. Their initial efforts to drive a wedge between the Scots and English settlers, by limiting their attacks to the latter group, had proved to be unsuccessful and impossible to sustain as the disorder spread throughout the Province. Terrified Protestant settlers felt themselves exposed and vulnerable to attack from their Catholic neighbours, and they fled their homes for the relative safety of the nearest garrisoned town. From there many of the refugees would continue south toward the capital, Dublin. The journey south, however, was filled with danger as the insurgents would frequently attack the defenceless convoys that moved slowly along the road. Men, women and children would be stripped of all their clothes and possessions. Exposed to the harsh winter weather without food, or shelter many of these civilian victims would die by the side of the road.

Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the opening weeks of the insurgency had witnessed brutal and indiscriminate reprisals by the commanders of the ‘colonial’ forces. Sir William St. Leger, the President of Munster, and Sir Charles Coote in the Province of Leinster horrified the ‘Old-English’ communities in those places. St. Leger launched a widespread and bloody offensive across the southern part of the country. Indiscriminately executing large numbers of Catholics, including some of the landed gentry, whether or not they supported the uprising. Whatever the initial intention of the Dublin administration, Coote and St. Leger, the escalating conflict effectively gave them the ideal excuse to confiscate the most lucrative Catholic estates that still survived in Ireland. It was the fulfilment of a policy long favoured by many of the administration’s officials in Dublin.

On the first day of the rising the insurgents successfully captured the town, port and castle of Newry by surprise, which meant that little blood had been shed by either side. It was, however, the beginning of a ‘propaganda war’ that still has ramifications today, almost three hundred and eighty years after the events. A certain Dr. Seaton Reid tells us that when the town of Newry was taken by surprise, by the rebels, fifteen of the local townspeople were hanged. However, Dr. Reid used the depositions of alleged eye-witnesses to make such claims, without recognising them to be little more than hearsay evidence. He states – “On the same eventful day, Sir Con Magennis, at the head of the Magennis’s and the McCartans, led by a Father Crilly, surprised the town and castle of Newry. The Governor, Sir Arthur Tirringham, very narrowly escaped but the entire garrison were captured and disarmed, and fifteen of the townspeople hanged.”[2]

Another rabid anti-Catholic reporter, Walter Harris, for some unknown reason made no propaganda from the alleged sufferings of the Protestant inhabitants of Newry. As a matter of fact, Harris makes no mention of any executions around or within the town of Newry at this time. Yet another self-proclaimed historian of the period and Protestant Churchman, Dr. Knox, seems to mix up events in Newry with what was alleged to have happened in Armagh the following May. He reported the charge of murder in the following manner – “Sir Con Magennis attacked and took the castle and town, destroyed the church, and put many of the inhabitants to the sword.”


[1] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867

[2] The History of the Presbyterians in Ireland, Rev. James Seaton Reid D.D., 1867

Rebellion 1641

Bloody Truth & Damned Lies

I am taking a short break to go on holiday, but will be back on 21st May 2018.

Now that I have completed my history of An Gorta Mor, I would like to do a series on The 1641 Rebellion in Ireland that remains so controversial today, almost 400 years after the event. An event filled with ‘Massacres’, ‘Atrocities’, ‘Lies’, ‘State Cover-up’. In fact it is as if nothing has changed in the intervening years.

It will begin when I return.

Jim Woods

An Gorta Mor Conclusion Final

Anti Irish 2Historians have debated the issue of anti-Irish job discrimination in the United States. Some insist that the “No Irish need apply” signs were common, but others argue that anti-Irish job discrimination was not a significant factor in the United States. These ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs and print advertisements were posted by the limited number of early 19th-century English immigrants to the United States, who shared the prejudices of their homeland. There were, however, many instances of this restriction used in advertisements for many different types of positions, including “clerks at stores and hotels, bartenders, farm workers, house painters, hog butchers, coachmen, bookkeepers, blacksmiths, workers at lumber yards, upholsterers, bakers, gilders, tailors, among others. While the greatest number of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ instances occurred in the 1840s, there were instances that showed its continued use until at least 1909. Meanwhile, alongside the ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs, that were a common sight in the United Kingdom, in the years after World War II they were replaced with signs saying “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” or similar racial sentiments.

Several historians agree that the Irish Famine of 1845–50 was neither inevitable nor unavoidable. They point out that the underlying factors which combined to cause the famine were aggravated by a totally inadequate government response. The British Government were aware from the beginning that they had to do something to help alleviate the suffering of the Irish peasantry. But, the nature of the government’s response to the crisis, especially after following 1846, suggests there was a more covert agenda and motivation behind their efforts. This conclusion becomes much clearer as the Famine progressed, because it soon became apparent that the government was using its legislative powers not merely to help it formulate its relief policies. The Famine had also proved to be an opportunity for the government to introduce various long-desired changes within Ireland. These desired changes included a form of population control, alongside the consolidation of property through various means, including emigration. In response to the overwhelming evidence of the distress caused by successive years of potato blight, the underlying philosophy of the government’s relief efforts was that they should be kept to a minimalist level. In fact, the evidence suggests that these efforts decreased in quality and effectiveness as the Famine progressed.

Several researchers into this Famine period have highlighted the government’s decision to permit the continued export of food from Ireland as an example of the attitudes held by the government policy-makers. There were suggestions that there was an ample supply of food within Ireland, which along with Irish-bred cattle was being shipped off to feed England’s population.

Other researchers have refused to name this period as ‘The Famine’, preferring to call it ‘The Starvation’, suggesting that it was an imposed catastrophe upon the Irish people. They argue that when a country is full of food, and exporting it, there cannot be a famine. In their view only England, the government and its people were to blame for the people of Ireland being starved to death. Credence was given to the claims that England governed Ireland for what she deemed her own interest. It was said that England made her calculations on the gross balance of her trade ledgers, and left any moral obligations to one side, as if right and wrong did not matter in the scheme of things. The ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland, as history calls it, was the result of generations of neglect, misrule and repression by England. It was an epic of English colonial cruelty and inadequacy that has been seen in the history of many lands that came under the rule of the British Empire. In Ireland, the landless, starving peasantry were left with a simple choice, namely emigration or extinction.

There are, of course, certain elements who argue that the policy of the Whig Government toward Ireland during the Famine years was merely a bungled attempt at a relief, and that the policies which followed had a genocidal outcome but not a genocidal intent. When considering such an argument it is best to first obtain the official definition of the term ‘Genocide.’ In Article 2 of the UN Convention on Genocide the term is defined as meaning “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group,” by means that include the following:

  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part.
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

In Article 3 of the UN Convention, under the term “Punishable Acts”, the following is included:

  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide and complicity in genocide.


The term ‘genocide’ was originally coined by Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’. Since that time, it has been applied to the ‘Holocaust’, the Armenian genocide and many other mass killings. It (genocide) is an intentional action designed to destroy a people (usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group) in whole or in part.

That a policy of extermination was being carried out by the English government inAnti Irish 3 Ireland was a concern for several members of that government. Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Lord Russell, on 26 April 1849. In this letter, unusually for him, he urged that the Government in London immediately establish additional relief measures to combat the worsening situation in Ireland. Quite candidly, 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.” When a man, in such an influential position, questions his government’s policies there must be some truth in his understanding of government motives.

Undoubtedly some of you reading these pages find yourself believing that events described were horrific, but that they could not happen in today’s world, because we do things so much better. Unfortunately, these things do happen now, and is continuing to happen. All the old arguments are still being trotted out about how famine aid is not appropriate, how it doesn’t reach the right people, how it demoralises the ability of communities to look after themselves. People now place their trust in technological development and the ease of modern transport and communications. But, despite having all the advantages the nineteenth century didn’t have, does not seem to have made any difference to the universal human ability to delay, to confuse, to prevaricate, to discriminate, to excuse the inexcusable.

Any person who studies ‘The Famine’ soon realises that it remains a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government’s response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the exportation of food crops and livestock, the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether, or not, this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically charged issue. Some circles insist that there is no historical evidence that implicates the British Government in a conspiracy to exterminate the population of Ireland, and yet many government officials as well as those advising them looked upon the famine as a God-sent solution to the so-called ‘Irish question’.

Noted Theologian, Tutor, University Reformer and renowned Master of an Oxford College, Benjamin Jowett, reported on a conversation he once had with an Economics adviser to the Government. He wrote – “I have always felt a certain horror of political economists, since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine … In Ireland would not kill more than a million people and that would scarcely be enough to do any good.” This heartless regret that the famine would do away with only a million people was also shared by those in government as well, who spoke publicly of the Irish as though they were completely unsuitable to be a part of the human race. Instead of closing all Irish ports against the exportation of food and keeping the produce in the country where it was most needed, the British Government opened the ports. One possible solution to the problem could have been the purchase of Ireland’s wheat and oats, storing them in Ireland for Irish use during the famine. If the government had chosen this solution, the landlords would have been paid and the people kept alive and strong enough to prepare for the next harvest. This solution, however, was completely opposite to England’s sacrosanct political economy, which demanded all crops grown in Ireland, excepting the potato, be earmarked for consumption in England and elsewhere.

The suggestion that the famine in Ireland was the work of Providence gained more and more adherents with the assistance of various Anglican churchmen and government officials. As the crisis in Ireland deepened, and the deaths from starvation and disease increased, it was easy for the British Government to blame God for its grievous sins of omission. The government had both the money and the power to provide a timely intervention in the ‘Great Famine.’ But, the dismal failure of Westminster to act in time allowed a disaster to seize hold of Ireland that would soon be almost ten times greater than that witnessed during the ‘Great Plague of London, 1665’, when the Black Death killed off an estimated sixty thousand to a hundred thousand people. Four hundred thousand people had already died in Ireland and the deaths were increasing, but the government still insisted on calling it a local distress.

Eminent American law professors have concluded that the British government deliberately pursued a race- and ethnicity-based policy aimed at destroying the group commonly known as the Irish people and that the policy of mass starvation amounted to genocide as per The Hague Convention of 1948.

Others have declared that the British government’s crime was rooted in their effort to regenerate Ireland through landlord-engineered replacement of tillage plots with grazing lands, which took precedence over their obligation to provide food for its starving citizens. From the evidence it is little wonder that the British policy in Ireland had the appearance to many people of genocide. From an early stage of the ‘Great Famine’ the government’s total failure to stop, or even slow down, the evictions contributed in a major way to enshrining the idea of English state-sponsored genocide in the minds of the Irish people. It was an idea that still appeals to many educated and discriminating men and women, and not only to the revolutionary minority of the population.

There are those who disagree that the famine in Ireland was genocide. Such people argue that ‘genocide’ must include murderous intent, and that even the most bigoted and racist commentators of the day did not seek the extermination of the Irish. In fact, these people believe that most people in the government hoped that Ireland would have better times ahead. Furthermore, these people state that claims of genocide overlook the enormous challenge that faced all relief agencies working in Ireland. But, it must be said that views of the Irish as racially inferior beings, and responsible for their own circumstances, had gained a significant following in Great Britain both during and immediately after the famine, especially through propaganda disseminated through influential publications such as ‘The Times’.

For those people who still regard the Famine as being some form of Divine dispensation and punishment, you must first satisfy yourself that human agency and legislation, individual oppressions, and social relationships, have had no hand in what happened. The verdict that should have emerged from these pages by now is an unequivocal “NO!” John Mitchel’s stark analysis that “God sent the potato blight but the English created the Famine” still rings true. The policy of the Whig Government was directed at getting the peasantry off the land, and if it took mass death to achieve that objective, so be it. It was this simple.

What sort of legacy has been left to the Irish by the Famine that resulted in the deaths of so many? Firstly, the landless tenantry remained poor and insecure, and still basically dependent on the potato, for another thirty years. At the end of the 19th century, the Irish consumption of potatoes, per head was four pounds a day, and was the highest in the world. Later famines had minimal effect on the population and are generally forgotten, except by historians. But, by the census of 1911, Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, which was about the same as the population in 1800 and 2000, and only a half of its peak population. Meanwhile, the population of England and Wales doubled from 16 million in 1841 to 32.5 million in 1901.

Anti Irish 1Due to the reduction in population caused by the famine, through death and emigration, there was a breakdown of Ireland’s rural society. Entire communities that had been built up over centuries disappeared and with them went many of the age-old traditions and folk-ways. In 1845, for example there were an estimated three million people who were Irish speakers, but by 1850 this number had dropped to below two million. This occurred because those most gravely affected by the Famine were mostly in Irish-speaking districts, and those districts were also the main source of emigrants to new lands. The Famine, therefore, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish, as the language of the majority to, English. In later years, as awareness of the cultural loss heightened, Irish language activists in Ireland, Britain, America, and Australia, were spurred such pro-Irish organisations as the ‘Gaelic League’. It is through the efforts of such people that interest in the Irish language continues to grow at home and abroad.

Another area of Irish life to be markedly affected by the Famine was the custom of marriage and, with it, the decline in the birth rate. The Famine and its trials brought to the fore some unattractive characteristics of the Irish psyche. There was an innate cunning within the Irish peasant, which coined the phrase “whatever you say, say nothing”. The famine had served to deepen this sense of helplessness in the lives of the Irish peasant stock. It manifested itself in a rejection of the idea of early marriages, which they felt had contributed to the horrors of the Famine. Thus, in rural Ireland, particularly west of the Shannon, bachelordom, spinsterhood, and loneliness became common and, alongside alcohol abuse, took a toll in mental illness.

Prior to the famine the average age in Ireland for marriage had been between 21 and 24 for women, and between 25 and 27 for men. Those men and women who chose not to marry numbered about 10% of the population. In the decades following the Famine the age of marriage had risen to 28–29 for women and 33 for men, and as many as a third of Irishmen and a quarter of Irishwomen never married, due to low wages and chronic economic problems that discouraged early and universal marriage.

Culturally it is surprising to learn that, for a country renowned for its rich musical heritage, only a small number of folk songs can be traced back to the catastrophe brought about by the Great Famine. There are those who believe that subject was generally avoided for decades among poor peasantry because it brought back too many sorrowful memories. Also, with land clearances and emigration, large areas of the country became uninhabited and the folk song collectors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chose not to collect the songs they heard in the Irish language, because it was the language of the peasantry and often regarded as a dead language, or “not delicate enough for educated ears”. Of the songs about the Famine that have survived the years, probably the best known is ‘Skibbereen’. However, emigration has been an important source of inspiration for many Irish songs during the 20th century. But, it is only since the 1970s that a most of the popular songs about the famine have been written and recorded, such as ‘The Fields of Athenry’, ‘Famine’ and ‘Thousands are Sailing’.

The Famine’s legacy for the land of Ireland was one that brought conflict and misery. Admittedly, it was a difficult task to relieve a country like Ireland, which had been trapped in poverty that had been inflicted upon her by British laws designed precisely to make her poor and keep her so. Under these laws and the uncertainty of tenure they included, the tenant farmer was deterred from improving his land and home because he knew from experience that there would be no benefit to him. If he built a better cabin for his family and improved his farm, it was very likely that he would be forced to pay an increased rent for the property, or evicted for not paying it, and in either case would receive nothing for his efforts. There is no doubt that it was very difficult to help a country whose laws made a mockery of the idea of self-help and instilled in the peasantry the conviction that it was better if they remained in their squalor.

The Famine caused other social evils to raise their ugly heads in Ireland. Among these were the many ‘carpetbaggers’ who profited well from buying up the land of dead cottiers but added to the rising tensions among the Irish population. The problems of tenancy and land ownership were far from settled by the government’s actions during the period of the Famine. As a result, the latter part of the nineteenth century saw a bitter struggle ensue in what was became known as the ‘land war’. In this struggle agrarian reformers like Michael Davitt and the Irish political leader, Charles Stuart Parnell joined forces to give substance to James Fintan Lalor’s vision of “the Land of Ireland for the people of Ireland”. Ultimately, the efforts of these two men produced a series of land acts that effectively created a peasant proprietorship as the British government issued bonds to buy out the landlords, who were in turn recompensed by a system of land annuities. In this often angry but largely peaceful struggle, the Irish used tactics the names of which passed into the English language e.g. “boycotting”.

Some improvements undoubtedly took place in the existing land system, because of the Famine. It was more efficient that the smaller farms were replaced by larger holdings, but this efficiency had been purchased at great cost. In 1850, A Franchise Reform Act gave the vote to thousands of farmers, although it was mostly to those who held twelve acres of land or more. They could now act collectively for a change and caused Dairy Farming to greatly increase in importance, and cattle farmers to grow prosperous.

The greatest legacy given to Ireland and the Irish people by the Famine was the depth of anti-British feelings. When the first accounts of the Irish famine reached America during the early months of 1847, and were soon authenticated by English eyewitnesses visiting America, there was an immediate sympathetic and generous response. This was in sharp and direct contrast to that response shown by the British Government, whose responsibility it was to give immediate and sufficient aid to its own starving subjects. Beginning in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, meetings were held in cities and towns throughout the United States to devise the best and speediest means of helping the starving people of Ireland. Even the US government itself intervened, allowing its ships of war, with their guns removed to afford more room for stowage, to hurry to Ireland’s shores with supplies. The horrors of the Famine continued unabated for several years more before it came to an end. Then, the population of Ireland began to recover its numbers and its strength, once conditions improved. Within a generation many communities had built themselves up again, but the traditional stories of hunger and misery were passed down from one generation to another, fuelling the deeply held anger against Britain, which was viewed as being the author of it all.

This anger and hatred against Britain, and all things British, was probably the most long-lasting effect of the Great Famine. It was this hatred that was the driving force behind the rebellions and land agitation which broke out at intervals until the end of the century. The physical force in Irish self-assertion continued where the Whiteboys had left off. The post-famine ‘Fenian Movement’, which was founded by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the 1860s, derived enormous support from the American emigrants and was, in effect, motivated by revenge for Skibbereen and many places like it. But, it was from America also that support would come for the build-up of forces that led to the 1916 Easter Rising, the subsequent foundation of the IRA, and the Anglo-Irish War of Independence during 1919-21.

As we can see, the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ were far-reaching and included the vast diaspora of emigrants who spread as far as Australia, Canada, and the United States. It also included the pervasive distrust that has influenced relations between Ireland and Britain ever since that time. Meanwhile, another lasting effect of the Famine and the large-scale emigration that was forced upon Ireland, was that the large number of emigrants did provide fertile ground for Ireland’s efforts to win its independence and assisted in spreading elements of Irish culture far and wide.

The causes and consequences of the ‘Great Famine’ are not forgotten by the Irish and the tragic event is memorialised in many locations throughout Ireland. These include, at Custom House Quays in Dublin, the thin sculptural figures, by artist Rowan Gillespie, who are portrayed as if walking towards the emigration ships on the Dublin Quayside. There is also a large memorial at the Murrisk Millennium Peace Park at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. The creation of memorials is especially true of those regions in Ireland that suffered the greatest losses in the tragedy, but it is also true of cities overseas such as New York, that have large populations descended from Irish immigrants. Among the memorials in the US is the ‘Irish Hunger Memorial’ near a section of the Manhattan waterfront in New York City, where many Irish emigrants arrived. An annual Great Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh in County Mayo was inaugurated in 1988 and has been led by such notable personalities as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Choctaw Indian Nation of Oklahoma. The walk takes place on either the first or second Saturday of May, and always links the memory of the ‘Great Hunger’ with a contemporary Human Rights issue.




An Gorta Mor Conclusion PtII

Charles Edward Trevelyan

Even as the Famine worsened, claiming hundreds and thousands of innocent lives, Trevelyan would thunder in public and in the pages of ‘The Times’ that “every system of poor relief must contain a penal and repulsive element, in order to prevent its leading to the disorganisation of society if the system is such as to be agreeable to both, all tests of destitution must be at an end.” Under Trevelyan’s leadership the Treasury’s task would be to insist more strictly on “sound principle” being employed. While opponents cried out for the government to open grain stores and distribute free food to the starving, Trevelyan had a different agenda. He wanted to impress upon people that by providing cheap food the government would be interfering in ‘free trade’, saying that such an action would produce, “instead of the hardships of dearth, the dreadful horrors of a famine.”  Those staff that were dealing with relief efforts were also urged to take the non-intervention path. To assist them in this they were given extracts from Edward Burke’s “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity” to read and use as guidelines. But, when all these urgings were ignored by those who had more humane feelings than he, Trevelyan simply had the offending officials removed from their posts. His conscience remained unaffected by it all because he had never taken the trouble to visit Ireland and see with his own eyes the degradation that he discussed with such a glib and lofty detachment.

Charles Edward Trevelyan

The starving and disease-ridden people of Ireland appeared to be, much as they believed themselves to be, doomed to extermination. In a complacent manner the London newspapers agreed with the general political opinion that two million Irish people would die before the next harvest was brought in. This represented one-quarter of the Ireland’s entire population, but the British Government, in all its official correspondence, continued to refer to the Irish Famine crisis as just a ‘local distress’. The government considered that there was simply a ‘scarcity’ of food rather than being a nationwide famine and, just as in all its actions the British government continued to carry out a policy suited to a minor rather than a major calamity.

 The most effective weapon that the Whig government had in its armoury for managing the Irish debate and influencing public opinion was ‘The Times’ newspaper. It controlled not only the influential classes in Ireland, but the much more important domestic public opinion within Britain. Since its first publication there has been no other newspaper in Britain that has held as much influence as ‘The Times’ and directed so much of its destiny. From the very beginning of the potato crisis in Ireland ‘The Times’ was in the forefront of all condemnation directed toward Irish ingratitude to England. In several editorials, published between November 1845 and March 1846, the newspaper suggested that any proposed increased aid for Irish ‘distress’ should be considered only with the need for the British taxpayers to be compensated for the sacrifices that they endured in providing Irish with aid. They chose to neglect the fact that the Irish had been paying taxes to England over many years. Instead all these taxpayers, who were suffering, were seen to be English.

There can be little doubt that ‘The Times’ was quite rightly regarded as the most formidable machine that gathered together and drove all anti-Irish political sentiment in nineteenth-century England. These bitter prejudices against the Irish as a people was made more graphic by drawings and cartoons created by the magazine ‘Punch’. Under the editorship of Mayhew and Lemon this journal created an image of the ‘typical’ Irishman that was created in the mind of the British people. Irishmen were portrayed as “monkeys in a menagerie.” An ape-like creature dressed in a tailcoat and a derby, who was constantly engaged in plotting murder, thriving and prospering on the backs of the English workers, and generally living a lazy life while plotting treason. Constant exposure to such images quickly implanted this picture of the Irish in the popular mind. It was an image that would stay in the English memory throughout the Famine, during the days of the ‘Fenian Movement’ that grew out of Famine, and through the home-rule campaign that arose some forty-years later. But, in 1848, ‘The Times’ complacently predicted that, “A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” However, the newspaper’s most arrogantly inhumane editorials were printed in 1847, during those weeks and months when the Irish peasantry were reduced by hunger to a state of total indifference and despair. These were the days when the poorest and weakest were being evicted from their homes, and when every week thousands were literally starving to death or dying of some famine-induced disease. It was a time when those still trying to survive were so exhausted and feverish that they could not even get to their feet, let alone walk on them long enough to search for food. But, ‘The Times’ preferred to remain blind to such things and be contemptuous of them. In the columns of that newspaper continued the use of the harshest and most brutal phrases with which to infect the English mind with hatred, loathing, and contempt of everything Celtic and Catholic in Ireland.

Punch 1
Punch Cartoon of Irishmen

The popular journal ‘Punch’ allied itself with the anti-Irish forces, writing articles such – “A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes to Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages; the lowest species of the Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is moreover, a climbing animal and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder with a hod of bricks. The Irish Yahoo generally confines itself within the limits of its own colony, except when it goes out of them to get its living. Sometimes, however, it sallies forth in states of excitement, and attacks civilized human beings that have provoked its fury. The somewhat superior ability of the Irish Yahoo to utter articulate sounds, may suffice to prove that its development, and not as some imagine, a degeneration of the Gorilla.” Almost every week ‘Punch’ would publish cartoons that portrayed the Irish as dumb brutes, a lazy louts, liars, or filthy beggars who spent whatever money they collected on weapons with which to kill British soldiers and people.

 ‘Punch’ and ‘The Times’ were not alone in their anti-Irish propaganda, for example the ‘London Spectator’ printed an article on “How to Roast an Irish Patriot”, giving readers the following directions, “Pick out a young one; speakers or editors are very good. Tie the arms behind the back, or close to the sides; but not too tight, or the patriot will be prevented from moving, and the ribs will not be done. Skewer down to the pile. You will want a strong, steady fire. Dry pine makes a very good blaze. When the fire gets low, throw in a little oil or fat. When nearly done, a little gunpowder thrown in will make the patriot skip: some cooks consider this important.”

The British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, said in a speech before the House of Commons on 22nd January 1847 – “I wish it were possible to take advantage of this calamity, for introducing among the people of Ireland the taste for a better and more certain provision for their support than that which they have heretofore cultivated.” Even as he uttered these words, Peel knew that he could never have been more deceitful than this, because he was completely aware of the fact that the Irish peasant had cultivated the potato out of sheer necessity, rather than choice. As for introducing those same peasants to something better, would it not have been the perfect occasion to have introduced them to the taste of their own home-grown wheat, barley, and oats? The taste of these things they had long ago acquired without the help of the English.

From the records we can see for ourselves the many efforts exerted by the Whig Party’s opinion makers to make the Famine in Ireland seem to be not so bad. The Party’s propaganda machine went into overdrive and showed itself in many extraordinary forms. Perhaps the most extraordinary coup of their campaign was arranging the royal visit of Queen Victoria in August 1849. This visit highlighted the almost incomprehensible, but continuing popularity of the British Royal Family in a nation upon whom such suffering had been heaped in the name of that same crown. In the city of Cork, the Queen was welcomed in Cork with magnificent displays of loyalty that included coating the waterfront buildings in sumptuous red cloth. The theme of Victoria’s visit to Ireland was symbolised by the banners that greeted her, boldly stating, “Hail Victoria, Ireland’s hope and England’s Glory.” It had all been stage-managed by the Government to ensure that, although she saw Cork, she witnessed nothing of the famine-stricken West of the County wherein lay Skibbereen. Then, when she left Cork, the Queen travelled by sea to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in County Dublin and never saw any other afflicted part of the country.

The entire exercise was major propaganda triumph for the Government, providing them with endless opportunities for releasing reports in the press that Ireland was a most welcoming country in which famine did not happen. They said that the visit had seen such glamour and merriment that had not been seen in Ireland since the days when it had its own Parliament. Meanwhile, in Ireland itself, the British administration continued with its own methods of influencing public opinion and reducing opposition to their policies in the country. During election time they used straightforward intimidation. When voters who wished to vote against a landlord candidate faced an intimidating group of pro-government supporters in the shape of a bailiff, a policeman, and a soldier. Those voters knew that if they were to persist in their challenge they would face immediate eviction, which would bring fatal results to themselves and their families. They were all closely observed by agents and bailiffs who had in their possession their certificates of land registration. In most cases when these poor creatures came forward to reluctantly give their vote for the famine candidates, it was in groups that were guarded by bailiffs. The bailiff would produce the certificates of the groups that were under his care and made ready to put forward each voter in his turn.

The negative stereotyping of the Irish and anti-Irish legislation began almost with the first Norman soldier to invade Ireland. Over the centuries that followed, hostility increased towards the Irish, who steadfastly remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church despite the coercive force used the Tudor dynasty and subsequent English Royal Houses to convert them to the Protestant faith. Thus, began the perennial social conflict that resulted from a religious majority of the Irish nation being ruled over by a religious minority. During the Great Famine that began in 1845 several evangelical Protestant groups came to the country offering food aid to the starving if they would convert. Though, undoubtedly, some of the poor wretches submitted to such methods it made little difference. Discrimination against the Irish was rooted in deep anti-Catholic sentiments and in disgust for their poverty-stricken lifestyle. The latter being forced upon the Irish people by the English themselves.

There arose a particularly virulent strain of anti-Irish prejudice, which can be traced throughout the nineteenth century from the first time the potato blight appeared in 1845 until the century ended. Among those who assisted the ugly growth of the prejudice and helped it to flourish were the influential socialist economists and co-founders of the ‘London School of Economics and Political Science’, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican clergyman, historian and novelist who is best remembered today as a writer of children’s fiction including ‘Hereward the Wake’ and ‘The Water Babies’, wrote after a visit to Ireland, “I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rules than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.” This was the voice of an avowed Christian clergyman, so what could be expected from the less learned people in England when the educated class publicise such racist views.

The famous politician and future Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote in 1836 – “(The Irish] hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry and blood.” From the earliest years of Victoria’s reign, the press, politicians, and popular personalities spread racist thoughts and ideas about the Irish people. The vile racist propaganda concerning the Irish emigrants reached and took a firm hold in 19th century North America. The Irish were seen, and stereotyped, by these racist opinion makers as being violent, alcoholic sub-humans. In England many leading, popular illustrators depicted


Some English illustrators depicted Irish faces as resembling those of “apes’ to support their vile evolutionary racist claims that the Irish people were an “inferior race” as compared to Anglo-Saxons. Echoes of “Nazi” Race Theories almost a century before it came to reality in the ‘Holocaust’.

The Irish were also thought of as unwanted aliens, who were often accused of appointing friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications and were constantly subjected misrepresentations of their religious and cultural beliefs. The Irish Catholics were singled out for attack and ‘special treatment’ by the Protestant community. On 26th July 1848 ‘The Times’ published the following comment in its pages, “The English are very well-aware that Ireland is a trouble, a vexation, and an expense to this country. We must pay to feed it, and pay to keep it in order … We do not hesitate to say that every hard-working man in this country carries a whole Irish family on his shoulders. He does not receive what he ought to receive for his labour, and the difference goes to maintain the said Irish family, which is doing nothing but sitting idle at home, basking in the sun, telling stories, going to fairs, plotting, rebelling, wishing death to the Saxon, and laying everything that happens at the Saxon’s door … The Irish, whom we have admitted to free competition with the English labourer, and whom we have welcomed to all the comforts of old England, are to reward our hospitality by burning our warehouses and ships and sacking our towns.” 

In the city of Liverpool, England, where many Irish immigrants settled following the ‘Great Famine’, anti-Irish prejudice was widespread. The massed numbers of people coming across the Irish sea and settling in the poorer districts of the city increased tensions in the already overcrowded buildings. This overcrowding led to physical attacks and it became common practice for those with Irish accents, or even Irish names, to be barred from jobs, public houses and employment opportunities. Signs went up stating “Irish Need Not Apply”, or “No Irish Allowed.”

Nineteenth-century Protestant American “Nativist” discrimination against Irish Catholics reached a peak in the mid-1850s when the ‘Know-Nothing’ Movement tried to oust Catholics from public office. It is better known to history as the ‘Nationalist-minded’ “American Party” that began to flourish at this time. It was a movement that grew out of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that had begun to manifest itself during the 1840s. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East was perceived to pose a serious threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. In 1849 the ‘Secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner’ was formed in New York City, and soon after lodges were formed in almost every other major American city. Much of the opposition came from Irish Protestants, as in the 1831 riots that had occurred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany, settled in Philadelphia and the surrounding districts even before the advent of the Famine. Friction created riots for the control of job sites in the rural areas between rival labour teams from different parts of Ireland, and between Irish and local American work teams competing for construction jobs. Nevertheless, these immigrants were largely responsible for the first general strike in North America during 1835, in which workers in the city won the ten-hour workday. The city became a destination for thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the effects of the ‘Great Famine’ in the 1840s, and housing for them was developed south of the city’s South Street and were later occupied by succeeding waves of immigrants.

Irish Catholics were isolated and marginalized by Protestant society but wherever they went the Irish immigrants established a network of Catholic Churches and schools. They also rapidly gained control of the Catholic Church from English, French and Germans and, moreover, they dominated the Catholic clergy for decades. Any marriage between Catholics and Protestants was also strongly discouraged by both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, and couple who chose to go ahead were often excluded by their communities. Under Irish leadership, the Catholics Church built a network of parochial schools and colleges, as well as orphanages and hospitals. For these institutions they typically used nuns as an inexpensive work force, thereby avoiding the public offices that were mostly controlled by Protestants.

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.