William Carleton, Historian of the Famine

The famous Irish author and poet, W.B. Yeats, once described the 19th Century Irish author William Carleton (1794–1869) as ‘a great Irish historian’. Yeats considered “the history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields but in what the people say to each other on fair-days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage”. In all of his books and short stories these were precisely the things that Carleton recorded and left for succeeding generations to read. A new edition of his book “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry” was published in 1843, and in its ‘Introduction’ he explained that he was trying to give his readers “a panorama of Irish life among the people . . . their loves, sorrows, superstitions, piety, amusements, crimes and virtues”. With great word skills Carleton had as he said, “painted them honestly and without reference to the existence of any particular creed or party”. Throughout his novels and his sketches of peasant life in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century William Carleton described in great detail the living conditions and living standards of the poor, alongside other social realities that existed such as the relationship between poverty and illness, the prevalence of disease among the poor, and the recurring famines and accompanying fever epidemics that had become a major feature of Irish peasant life.

The-Black-Prophet-A-Tale-of-Irish-FamineCarleton’s story ‘The Black Prophet’ was subtitled ‘A Tale of Irish Famine’, and it was serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between May and December 1846. By this time the entire country was gripped in the crisis that was to become the ‘Great Irish Famine’ and Carleton’s story created such interest that it was published in book form early in the following year. The story itself was based on the author’s experience of famine between 1817 and 1819, and again in 1821 and 1822. In that same year, 1846, an influential pamphlet concerning famine and fever as cause and effect in Ireland also appeared. It was written by Dr Dominic Corrigan, whose work with many of Dublin’s poorest inhabitants had led to him specialising in diseases of the heart and lungs, and the abnormal “collapsing” pulse of aortic valve insufficiency is named ‘Corrigan’s Pulse’ Corrigan’s influential pamphlet on famine and disease was based on earlier famines and fever epidemics that had plagued the country. His central thesis was that fever was the inevitable consequence of famine. From his studies he had come to the conclusion that famine would always be accompanied by a lethal outbreak of disease.

Corrigan’s pamphlet was widely noted and widely reviewed, because his argument was extremely controversial. This was a time when medical science was still a great mystery and long before the germ theory of disease was formulated and causes of disease were still speculative. But, the manner in which Carleton portrayed fever in ‘The Black Prophet’ was closely based on Corrigan’s controversial pamphlet. In a footnote to the story, Carleton reproduced several extracts from the pamphlet, including the final paragraph in which Corrigan compared the relative impact of typhus fever and Asiatic cholera, both of which had appeared in Ireland for the first time in the early 1830s, causing unprecedented consternation and panic. In Corrigan’s opinion fever was much more lethal and destructive than cholera or any other infectious disease. Corrigan stated – “Cholera may seem more frightful but it is in reality less destructive. It terminates rapidly in death, or in as rapid recovery. Its visitation too is short, and it leaves those who recover unimpaired in health and strength. Civil war, were it not for its crimes, would be, as far as regards the welfare of a country, a visitation less to be dreaded than epidemic fever.”[1]

As Carleton wrote in his lengthy footnote, Corrigan’s pamphlet “ought to be looked on as a great public benefit”, because it revealed “it conveyed ‘most important truths to statesmen’. Both Carleton’s story and Corrigan’s pamphlet were written with the purpose of serving as a warning to the government in England and its administration in Ireland about the inevitable consequences of the current famine situation that was evolving throughout the country. In ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton warned that during the famine and fever epidemic of 1817–19 “the number of those who were reduced to mendicancy was incredible”, which was an observation that was corroborated by numerous contemporary accounts. Carleton compared Ireland during these years of famine to a huge fever-hospital that was filled to capacity with victims of famine, disease and death. Adding to the desolation of the scenes that he had witnessed he wrote, “The very skies of heaven were hung with the black drapery of the grave”. The author also commented that hearses, coffins, and long funeral processions appeared to be everywhere one looked. Describing the deathly note of the constantly pealing church bells, Carleton wrote about the roads of the countryside being “literally black with funerals”.[2]

The language and imagery used in ‘The Black Prophet’ resembles those used by a young Irish doctor, Dr. Robert James Graves, who had been sent to Galway during the famine of 1822 as an emergency physician. He reported that the local peasants were always scrupulous in the manner that they conducted wakes, while the cries and lamentations of the large numbers that thronged after funerals, alongside the tolling of the death-bell from the church, always gave the local area a strikingly mournful appearance.  But, one of the features of Graves’s report, which occurs regularly in Carleton’s stories, is the terrible fear of infection among the Irish peasantry. It was a fear that intensified on every occasion that any one of the deadly epidemic diseases that plagued Ireland periodically, in the first half of the nineteenth century, appeared among them. Dr. Graves had accurately described the alarm that he met among the people when he arrived in Galway during late September 1822, where, he noted, that the common topics of conversation among the peasants were the sick and the dead. The ties of blood, friendship and hospitality were frequently broken by the same fear of contagion, Graves reported, and those who had been infected were either turned out of their cabins or left therein and abandoned to their own devices.

 “The dreadful typhus was now abroad in all its deadly power, accompanied, on thisFamine.7 KMC occasion, as it always is among the Irish, by a panic, which invested it with tenfold terrors. The moment fever was ascertained, or even supposed, to visit a family, that moment the infected persons were avoided by their neighbours and friends as if they carried death, as they often did, about them, so that its presence occasioned all the usual interchanges of civility and good-neighbourhood to be discontinued.”[3] In this extract from ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton captures the reaction of the ordinary people to communicable diseases like typhus fever. There are also contained within Carleton’s tales that make up ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’ many echoes of Dr. Graves’s reports.

In the ‘The Black Prophet’ Carleton also wrote, “Such as had typhus in their own families were incapable of attending to the wants or distresses of others, and such as had not, acting under the general terror of contagion which prevailed, avoided the sick houses as they would a plague”. This is an authentic portrayal of Irish social realities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The fear, dread, mass panic and hysteria that filled the people were features that were prevalent in all outbreaks of fever and other diseases in Ireland. It was a terrible fear of the unknown, because these simple and virtually uneducated people did not understand how these diseases were caused. Not knowing the causes, they had no idea how to begin to cure them, and they feared anything that they did not know and could not control. But, they were very much aware of the terrible impact and consequences of diseases like fever upon those already weakened by hunger. If these diseases did not kill their victims, they were often left in much worse condition than prior to infection.

Unfortunately, the Irish people had an unrivalled knowledge of fever, its symptoms and its consequences. They were very much aware that the disease was contagious, and their terrible fear of infection drove them to quarantine any fever victims. There were, at the time, two main ways in which they could try to keep people in isolation, each of which was dependent upon the family circumstances of the affected persons. Those victims from the middle and upper classes of Irish society, with better housing and superior domestic arrangements than their poorer neighbours, would often try to isolate the infected person within their homes. One common method was described by a County Kilkenny doctor in 1844, stating that when fever appeared in the homes of wealthier farmers the door of ‘the sick room’ was “built up with sods, and a hole made in the back wall, through which the doctor must scramble in the best way he can upon all fours into an apartment which is almost invariably dirty, dark and damp”. However, he added that such efforts were invariably fruitless and any attempts at domestic segregation of the sick did little to check the spread of disease.[4]

The method employed by the peasantry to isolate the fever victims was to house them in shelters that they called ‘fever huts’. These huts usually consisted of a few stakes, covered with long sods called ‘scraws’ and a small portion of straw or rushes. These flimsy structures were quickly thrown together at the side of a road, the corner of a field or at the verge of a bog. In the 1830s a County Kildare doctor informed a parliamentary commission that was inquiring into the circumstances of the Irish poor, the so-called ‘Poor Inquiry’, of a fever patient he had found lying on some straw in a ditch. He told the commission, “It could not be called a hut, because it had only two sides, the back of the ditch forming one and some straw and furze tied together formed the other. This was removable and changed to whatever side the wind blew from.” In 1839 a visitor to County Fermanagh 1839 came across five instances “where the inmates of fevered hovels had fled to the roadside and struck up a kind of wigwam, composed of an upright stick, at the back of a ditch, and a lock of straw”.

In ‘The Poor Scholar’, one of several tales forming Carleton’s “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry”, the author describes the experiences of Jemmy McEvoy, who had contracted fever. He writes, “The early symptoms of the prevailing epidemic were well known . . . The Irish are particularly apprehensive of contagious maladies. The moment it had been discovered that Jemmy was infected, his school-fellows avoided him with a feeling of terror scarcely credible.” In Carleton’s story, the infected schoolboy was avoided as if he was a leper. Even when a group of agricultural labourers discovered the dazed and barely conscious Jemmy, they too were afraid of the disease but, after some deliberation, agreed to help him because, as one of them said, “there’s a great blessin’ to thim that assists the likes of him”. “Let us help him!” exclaimed another, “for God’s sake, an’ we won’t be apt to take it thin!” The labourers then built a small hut’ for Jemmy on the side of the public road, which was built from a few loose sticks that were covered over with “scraws”, which are the sward of the earth pared into thin strips. Jemmy, the ‘Poor Scholar’, Jemmy, was placed on some straw that had been laid in this structure, and food and drink were passed to him by means of a pitchfork and a long-shafted shovel, which was the custom of the time. It was a strategy that the peasantry resorted to in their efforts to avoid coming into personal contact with the infected person.

The sentiments expressed in Carleton’s story follows the evidence that was recorded in the ‘Poor Inquiry’ relating to the provision of charity to beggars and vagrants. ‘The Poor Inquiry’, conducted in the mid-1830s, took place almost at the same time as Carleton was writing ‘Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry’. When speaking to the inquiry several contributors expressed sentiments, such as, “When I give, I do so for the good of my soul, the honour of God, and for their benefit”, “I give, recollecting that I have another place to go to, where, if I give alms, I will receive fourfold reward”. Because of his knowledge of the people Carleton was able to capture the popular voice, which we find is often absent from the historical record. But, we must recognise the fact that Carleton was more than just a social chronicler. ‘The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine’ has a special meaning with regard to the Anglo-Irish politics of the day.  Carleton dedicated this work to Lord John Russell, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, acknowledging that both Russell and his predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, were “sincerely anxious to benefit” Ireland. However, in his dedicatory preface he did add, “. . . the man who, in his ministerial capacity, must be looked upon as a public exponent of those principles of government which have brought our country to her present calamitous condition, by a long course of illiberal legislation and unjustifiable neglect, ought to have his name placed before a story which details with truth the sufferings which such legislation and neglect have entailed upon our people.”

Carleton assured the Prime Minister that all of the facts and circumstances that he had depicted in his book were authentic, and he expressed the hope that Russell would prove himself to be ‘a friend’ of Ireland.  Although well-meaning it had little chance of success, as the events of the ‘Great Irish Famine’ would show. ‘The Black Prophet’ is indeed an historical record of the manner in which the peasant way of life in Ireland disappeared, and how an entire society was utterly changed by that ‘Great Famine’. Anyone who has read the wonderful stories written by William Carleton will without doubt agree with W.B. Yeats that he was a historian of the people, and through his words we have a better insight into what life in early-nineteenth century Ireland was like.

[1] From an article by Laurence M. Geary in ‘History Ireland’ Magazine.

[2] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[3] W. Carleton, The Black Prophet: a tale of Irish famine (Belfast and London, 1847).

[4]  J. Robins, ‘The Miasma. Epidemic and panic in nineteenth-century Ireland’, Dublin, 1995.

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 IX Part IV

Emigration and Coffin Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLD SKIBBEREEN

Old Skibbereen

By Patrick Carpenter

Air: ‘The Wearing of the Green’

A Young American and his Irish Father

Old Skibbereen

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

My Shamrock and shillelagh sure my constant boast and Joy.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

She fainted in her anguish at the desolation round; –

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

An Gorta Mor IX Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Gorta Mor IX Part II

“shoot the first landlord I met.”

It was a reflection of the fact that the government was more interested in pursuing a practical political policy, which was concerned with those urgent needs of Britain, as perceived by the Whigs. It was composed of a ‘do as little as possible’ attitude and the teachings of their favourite political economists. It was all backed-up by a widespread public relations campaign that invoked Providence and a total abhorrence for both the Irish people and the Irish landlords, all mixed in with a generous dose of hypocrisy. The sole objective sought by the government, and which was eventually achieved, was an end to the overpopulation of Irish land. This, it was believed, would enable the introduction of new and more efficient farming methods, which would secure an abundant supply of cheap agricultural products on England’s doorstep, rather than causing a constant drain on the exchequer.

The long-suffering peasantry increasingly viewed the Irish landlords and the British government as being the main human agents of misery, exile, and death. By suggesting Providence was also at work the British government in London appeared to be making a very cruel joke at the expense of the famine victims and their advocates. From the mouths of many different factions all over Ireland, who were seeking a thorough solution to the relief of the Famine victims in 1848, there came fierce, piercing, unforgiving claims of state-inspired genocide making their way into the public sphere. ‘The Nation’, a nationalist minded newspaper, on 1st April commented, “It is evident to all men that our foreign government is but a club of grave-diggers.” The journal went further, saying – “It is not Providence but provincialism that plays the thief; we are decimated not by the will of God but by the will of Whigs.” The voice of a ‘New Ireland’ leader, John Mitchel, added – “The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

Irish Famine 7Debt-ridden landlords raised their rents, which tenants found impossible to pay and were summarily evicted from their homes in increasing numbers. Although there were many voices raised in opposition to these cruel clearances in Ireland, there were not many ears open to their pleas among the English government. In fact, as the Irish press persistently linked the mass evictions with the mass deaths, the landlords and the government felt it was increasingly necessary to rationalise, justify, and, therefore, excuse these clearances. In May 1848 an issue of ‘The Limerick and Clare Examiner’ condemned the government in the following manner, “nothing, absolutely nothing, is done to save the lives of the people – they are swept out of their holdings, swept out of life, without an effort on the part of our rulers to stay the violent progress of human destruction.”

The records of the time show that the most active and vociferous members of the anti-eviction lobby were the Catholic priests and prelates throughout the country. As they watched their own parishioners being thrown out of their homes in large numbers, it is not at all surprising that the priests felt angry and were compelled to denounce the ‘exterminating’ actions taken by the landlords or agents, whom they held responsible. These clerics would hurl their loud denunciations from the altars and pulpits of their own churches. But, to give vent to a larger audience than their own parishes they would write to the press to expose the mass clearances and in the hope that their words would mobilise public opinion against the guilty parties. Indeed, a great amount of our knowledge about the land clearances in the various districts comes to us from the detailed lists of those who were evicted. These lists were often accompanied by commentaries that had been submitted to the national and provincial press by various parish priests and curates. One of these many clerics, Rev. Dr. Patrick Fogarty, the parish priest of Lismore, Co. Waterford wrote to the ‘Waterford Chronicle’ in April 1848, stating – “Numbers of those poor creatures who were thus cruelly exterminated are now living in huts erected by them on the roadside, the victims of famine and fever. Hundreds of them have perished in these parishes during the last two years. The monstrous conduct of the landlords here and in every other locality throughout the country has considerably added to the extreme mass of human suffering.”

The landlords and the authorities reacted by accusing the Catholic priests and prelates of inciting murder and mayhem. But, “The Nation”, a newspaper published by the ‘Young Ireland’ movement, stoutly defended the Irish clergy against all such false charges. They commented that the British press was attempting to bring about a climate of violence in which they could press forward with their solution to the Irish situation, namely “hang a priest or two and all will be right.”

Archbishop McHale vigorously defended the Irish clergy for their courage in standing up for the people against any evil. As a response to the accusations being made about the priests, the Archbishop, in an open letter to Lord Shrewsbury, he sarcastically condemned the Prime Minister and his government, writing – “How un-grateful of the Catholics of Ireland not to pour forth canticles of gratitude to the ministers, who promised that none of them should perish and then suffered a million to starve.” In this way, the Archbishop pointed the finger of blame for the Famine directly at those whom he held most responsible, the British Government.

Around the country the secret agrarian societies known as the ‘Whiteboys’ had not gone away from the scene. They had, in fact, been given added impetus by the Famine and acts of violence were once again a part of the scene. Throughout 1847 there were a series of murderous attacks that took place in various districts in which some sixteen landowners had lost their lives. Considering the state of misery that existed in the country, and the number of famine deaths that occurred every day, the toll of these shootings was not large. Nevertheless, these attacks were sufficient to create a great amount of fear and anger among those who held positions of authority in the land. Such was the climate of fear that there were numerous reports of landlords leaving the country in great haste. Of those who remained, it was said that “the personal insecurity of all property owners is so hideous that the impression is of being in an enemy country.” In such an atmosphere of fear and suspicion toward the natives, it is not surprising that the spreading Famine continued to create a heightened sense of danger and insecurity among men of authority. Tensions in the country were rising so high, in fact, that the Viceroy, Lord Clarendon, chose to send his children out of the country, in the expectation that a violent and general insurrection was about to break out among the Irish.

When one considers the historical record concerning the Great Potato Famine in Ireland there is but one judgement that can be made. That judgement must be that a very large proportion of the responsibility for the Famine evictions, and much else that happened in Ireland, is directly traceable to the government and the cruel policies of those influential men who designed and supported the clearance drives.

The ‘Poor Law’ for Ireland was an attempt to combat the effects of famine through the efforts of Irish landlords. But, as the Famine spread, and the costs inflicted by ‘Poor Law’ began to rise, the financial burden placed upon the shoulders of the Irish landlords began to weigh more and more heavily. It did not take very long for the Irish landlords began to realise that by clearing the land, through the eviction of their poor tenants, their financial woes would be lessened considerably. The cost would be seen in the deepening misery and worsening conditions of the much trampled upon Irish peasant.

In law each landlord was responsible for paying the rates of every tenant on his land who paid less than £4 in yearly rent. As a result, in this third year of famine, those landlords whose lands were crowded with poor tenants were now facing huge bills for rates. Their tenants could not work and had no assets that would allow the landlords to collect rent, as well as the rates, from the poor, starving wretches on their estates. The landlords could see only one practical solution to their problem. To collect enough money to settle their debts under the ‘Poor Law’ they would need to clear the poor tenants from their small plots, thereby allowing them to re-let the land in bigger lots, to people with more money.

 The agents employed to collect the rates now began pushing the poor tenantry harder and harder for money that they did not have. As a result, more and more tenants were summarily evicted from the land by increasingly desperate landlords. There were some of the land owners who wanted to do whatever they could for their tenants as the famine raged, but there were many landlords who held no pity for the poor. Among the worst landlords in the country was the influential Earl of Lucan, who owned approximately 60,000 acres of land, or more. It is said that he quite openly declared at one time that “he would not breed paupers to pay priests’. He was undoubtedly a man of his word and removed over 2,000 tenants in the parish of Ballinrobe alone. The lands that Lord Lucan had cleared in Mayo were subsequently converted to pasture, which he then either retained in his own hands or, more usually, transferred into the hands of large graziers, some of whom were Scottish Protestants.

Lord Lucan’s actions and attitudes towards the Catholic population were not unusual. A certain Donegal landlord was alleged to have said, quite openly, that – “The exuberance of the tree of Irish population must be immediately cut off by extermination or death.” Sadly, there were too many landlords who felt justified in possessing such an attitude, because they were facing very large debts themselves. In fact, with the landlords harbouring such thoughts about their tenants it is surprising that the evictions did not begin earlier than they did. ‘Whiteboyism’, as we have seen was still alive and well in many places and it was the threat of these secret societies that stayed the hands of most landlords. Only when the Famine appeared to have weakened the ranks of these societies did the landlords begin to clear their lands by casting people out of their homes. However, revenge was still occasionally taken by the remnant of the secret groups, including the murder of six landlords that we have already considered. Ten other landowners, whose land had no tenants, were also murdered at this time and the violence, as we have seen, caused Lord Clarendon to fear insurrection.

In response to the rise in violent incidents, Clarendon as ked the government in London to provide him with special powers to combat crime, and troops to enforce his will. But, Prime Minister Russell was not at all sympathetic to Clarendon’s request. He believed that the landlords themselves were largely to blame for the tragic circumstances in Ireland and that they should resolve their own problems. Nevertheless, a compromise was reached and, in December 1847, a ‘Crime and Outrage Act’ was passed by the government. To enforce the terms of this Act, extra troops were sent to Ireland, and the regulations concerning the carrying of arms were tightened.

From County Mayo a landlord bitterly wrote, “No men are more ill-fated or greater victims than we resident proprietors, we are consumed by the hives of human beings that exist on the properties of the absentees. On my right and my left are properties such as I allude to. I am overwhelmed and ruined by them. These proprietors will do nothing. All the burden of relief and employment falls on me.” The resident landowners in Ireland bitterly resented the absentee landlords and their lack of enterprise. The evictions had continued, behind which lay the widespread and longstanding desire of the landlords to modernise Irish agriculture. The financial pressures caused by heavy poor rates, combined with the total inability of the tenant farmers to maintain their rents caused landowners to increase the pace of evictions from their lands. Their efforts, however, were made easier by the virtual collapse of the ability of tenants to organise an effective resistance to the evictions.

Some landlords viewed these evictions as being an economic opportunity which they could take up without inflicting any real hardship. There were many others who justified the eviction of the tenants as a financial decision made necessary by the way in which the poor law operated in Ireland. What the landlords had especially in mind was the provision of the poor law that was known as the £4 rating clause. This particular clause made the landlords responsible for paying all the poor rates on all holdings valued at £4 or less. Such was the overpopulation of many estates that this provision gave the landlords a very strong incentive to rid themselves of small-holding tenants who could no longer pay their rents, either by voluntary or forced eviction.

Of all Irish landowners, those residing in Mayo were the most likely to take employ the idea of forced eviction. In Mayo there was an estimated 75 per cent of all those occupying land who had holdings valued at £4 or less. This situation had the result of causing many to shoulder almost the entire burden of the rates, which had been made all the more burdensome by the coinciding mass of pauperism.

To make themselves eligible for poor relief, a tenant first had to surrender his house, as well as his holding, to his landlord. Strictly speaking, the law stated that only that land exceeding a quarter-acre had to be given up. But, very often when tenants tried to take this approach, he would discover that the landlord, or his agent, refused to accept the partial surrender and declined to supply the tenant with certificate of compliance with the law until both the house and all land had been given up. When it came to the all-important matter of surrendering the tenant’s house, landlords and agents almost always held the upper-hand. In many cases tenants would unroof their own cabins as part of a voluntary surrender. In exchange the tenants would be graciously allowed to take away the timber and that of their former dwellings to build temporary shelters. Unfortunately, there were many thousands of cases when estate-clearing landlords and their agents used physical force, or heavy-handed pressure, to bring about the destruction of cabins that they had targeted. There are also many cases of pauper families who had their homes burned, quite often this was done illegally, while they were away in the workhouse. Many others evicted tenants reporting to the workhouse were told, when they sought admission, that the law, or at least the guardians, required that their cabins be unroofed, or levelled, before they would be allowed entry, and so they returned to their cabins and did what was asked of them. Where tenants were evicted by force, it was usual practice for the landlord’s bailiffs to level, or burn, the affected dwelling there and then, as soon as all the tenants’ personal effects had been removed. All of this was usually carried out in the presence of a large party of soldiers, or police, who would be able to quickly neutralise any possibility of serious resistance.

Those families who had been evicted from their homes would have to shelter in ditches, until bad-weather eventually forced them to seek places in the local workhouse. One witness of these evictions left us the following report – “As soon as one horde of houseless and all but naked paupers are dead, or provided for in the workhouse, another wholesale eviction doubles the number, who in their turn pass through the same ordeal of wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements, they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside.” On many occasions people were brought to the workhouses screaming for food. Often the workhouse buildings were surrounded by crowds of people seeking entry, in their frustration threatened those inside, and seemed ready to riot. Another witness to forced evictions was Captain Arthur Kennedy, a Poor Law inspector in Kilrush, County Clare. He reported – “… There were days in that western county when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day’s work that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.”

An Gorta Mor IX Part 1

1848

Famine, Eviction and Emigration

 As we have seen, the potato crop of 1847 was not affected by the accursed blight, because the weather conditions had been too dry for the blight to spread. But the crop itself, though free from rot, was much too small to make any major difference to the on-going tragedy that was still affecting Ireland. In response, therefore, the farmers made great efforts to increase the yield from their 1848 crop. Everyone worked at maximum speed and with all their energies they began to plant as many potatoes as possible in the land.

The measure of their success was that the total acreage of potatoes planted in 1848 was three times more than that planted in the previous year. But, this success was marred by an extremely wet summer, which helped the blight to rage once again, causing the crop to be lost. The authorities immediately turned to the Quakers once again and asked them if they would re-establish the soup kitchens, but they refused. They gave the reason for their refusal to be that their workers were physically exhausted by their previous efforts and that their resources were almost completely at an end. Furthermore, the Quakers confident that by giving free relief to the victims was damaging to their self-respect in the long run. However, they were equally strong in their belief that reform of the land system was an essential step forward. The decision by the efficient and humanitarian Quaker organisation that they would pull out of Ireland in the face of a terrible famine, although given to the authorities in a polite letter to Prime Minister Russell.

It quickly became clear that the policy of ‘doing nothing’ previously employed by the government would, once again, become the rule in Ireland. There were to be a number of circumstances and incidents that gave the Liberal government, in London, a satisfactory excuse for their non-efforts. It is ironic when you consider that, one of the most important circumstances was the effect of the Famine itself on the population, which gave rise to widespread lawlessness and the shooting of landlords.

On 1st October 1847, a new ‘Poor Law’ was brought into being, which was to be planned and controlled from Dublin, rather than London, by the ‘Irish Poor Law Board’. The new ‘Law’, however, impressed none of those whose task it was to enforce it. Commissioner Twistleton, for example, could not visualise just how the new law could possibly work in practice. He simply chose to avoid any opportunity to be blamed for its failure by completely neglecting to produce a plan.

Charles Trevelyan, however, had no hesitation in filling the void that was left, and he began to draw up a plan to enforce the new Poor Law in Ireland. In this plan, Trevelyan looked to expel the infirm, the widows and the orphans from the workhouses, and to give these people outside relief, but only in the form of cooked food. Henceforth, he decided, only the able-bodied were to be given relief inside the workhouse. At the same time, in order to ensure that the new scheme was not inundated by able-bodied men, Trevelyan’s plans carried the old and familiar stipulation that obtaining a place in the workhouse was to be made as difficult, and as unattractive, as possible.An Gorta Mor

In the latter half of 1847 England was hit hard by a major economic crisis, much of which had been caused by very injudicious speculation in the global wheat trade. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, at this time, wrote to the Irish Viceroy, Lord Clarendon to inform him about the unfortunate implications that this economic crisis would have for Ireland – “I fear you have a most troublesome winter ahead of you … Here we have no money”. Clarendon complained about Trevelyan’s plans and openly declared that Trevelyan’s solution to the entire calamity was simply – “that people who were deprived of food or shelter and exposed to disease and starvation would naturally die off.” He, Trevelyan, had already told the poor law commissioner, Edward Twistleton, “The principle of the Poor Law as you very well know is that rate after rate should be levied for the purpose of preserving life, until the Landlord and farmer either enable the people to support themselves by honest industry, or dispose of their estates to those who can perform this indispensable duty.” It was clear that the Irish landlords were to pay for the Famine relief or be forced to sell their lands to others.

As the 1847 grain harvest ripened, many landlords immediately began to seize their tenants’ corn in lieu of rent that was owing. Then, when the rate collectors arrived in distressed areas like Connemara, there were no crops left for them to seize and, instead, they took any article considered to be of value that they came upon, including many items of clothing. Understanding the terrible conditions that the peasantry now found themselves in, Viceroy Clarendon asked the Prime Minister what practical steps could be taken in those areas of the country where there was no-one to levy rates upon.

Clarendon, above all people, should have known that there was, absolutely, no chance of receiving a humane response from the English cabinet. They were concerned with the finances of fighting famine in Ireland and to operate the new poor law effectively would require them to have collected £14 million in rates. Even as the bill made its way through the House of Lords, it was pointed out by several members that the Irish landlords were all in great debt. The amount of money that they owed was such that the total repayments on their combined borrowings came to approximately £10.5 million per annum while it was estimated, their actual combined annual income would only have amounted to a figure of some £3.5 million a year. But, the government chose to ignore what they saw as an inconvenient truth. In Ireland, Commissioner Twistleton gritted his teeth and did what he could for approximately a year and a half, to make Trevelyan’s allegedly realistic plan work. Eventually, Twistleton resigned from his post with anger and disgust during March 1849.

The government had decided that they would follow Trevelyan’s advice on this occasion, with regard to famine relief, which was simply ‘to do nothing’. The rules built into the new Poor Law were being strictly applied in this new famine period. Among the rules was one, The Labour Test, which required able-bodied men to complete eight hours’ work each day to maintain his place in the workhouse. In these places, the estimated cost of keeping each person alive for thirty-four weeks was £1, and each person was to receive one pound of meal a day to sustain them.

As this renewed famine began to bite hard into an already severely weakened population The Poor Law Unions in Ireland had a combined debt to the government of approximately £260,000. Meanwhile, the British Association, which had been paying out £13,000 per week in aid, finally ran out of funds on 1st July 1848. As money ran out and resources could not be renewed, the whole weight of assistance fell on the Unions, and the relief system gradually wound down. At the first opportunity the British administrators, such as Routh, decided they would now return to their homes. In the meantime, The Society of Friends continued to give what help they could to the victims of the famine, but they also realised that they were fighting a losing battle. The situation was soon made clear to all when, in September, Trevelyan told the troubled Unions that Treasury grants to them would be coming to an end, and there would, henceforth, be no more issues of free clothing.

Almost six months earlier, Lord John Russell had recognised that something had to be done to help the innocent. In a radical promise, he declared that the 200,000 children who had hitherto been fed by the ‘British Relief Association’, whose funds were already nearing exhaustion, should be sustained from the public purse. But, just as the November chills gripped Ireland in their icy hands, Trevelyan interfered once again. Without even the slightest protest from the Prime Minister, he put in writing that the feeding of the children was to stop at the same time that the tiny Treasury grants, which had been given to the more distressed unions, came to an end.

The year 1848 then, was to be a year when hatred competed with optimism in the hearts of Irelands starving people. The hatred of the people was principally directed toward the heartless landlords and, to a lesser degree, at the British government. There had been continued optimism at the prospects of a hugely improved harvest of potatoes, which lasted almost to the end of July. Everyone had been encouraged by the results obtained from the small percentage of seed potatoes that had been sown in 1847. An already impoverished people were compelled to pawn or sell everything they still possessed – clothes, bedding, furniture – in order to plant potatoes in every conceivable scrap of land they possessed.  The peasantry’s reliance on the potato was as great, if not greater than ever it had been. One can only imagine the despair and great distress that was caused by the unexpected reappearance of the blight. It meant the return of fever and famine, as well as a critical rise in rent arrears, which in turn meant a rise in evictions from the land

Infamously, Charles Trevelyan showed his thoughts on the continuation of the famine in Ireland when, in January, he published what later became his shockingly gloating book ‘The Irish Crisis’ in the pages of the ‘Edinburgh Review’. In its most crude form his ideology morally declines into the sectarian view that, through the Famine, God himself was punishing the Catholic Irish for their stubborn attachment to all the superstitions of ‘popery’. It was evidence of the policies that were going to be employed by the government in the months ahead.

With the horrors experienced in 1847 still so clear in their minds, we can only imagine the shock and terror that began to spread over Ireland as fearful reports of potato failure once more came in from various parts of the country. To the minds of poorly educated Irish peasants, the blight had returned to the land as if by the wave of a demon’s wand. The potatoes that had apparently been healthy were now bad as if they had been poisonously sprinkled by someone full of hate and anger against the poor and hungry. Amid all this despair, in July 1848, Trevelyan wrote in his normal, uncaring manner, “The matter is awfully serious, but we are in the hands of Providence with no possibility of averting the catastrophe, if it is to happen we can only await the result.”

An Gorta Mor VIII Part III

Souperism and Skibbereen

Although the idea of soup kitchens was a good one, its success depended on good quality food and made from decent raw materials. However, many of the relief committees went for quantity instead of quality, and they provided soup with very little food value in it. In some places the soup was far too liquid, leading to diarrhoea and an outbreak of scurvy caused by a lack of vitamins. In fact, filling famine-bloated bodies with watery soup did more harm than good.

There was, however, one basic flaw in the Soup Kitchen Act, which also proved to be a problem in the later Outdoor Relief System. The flaw lay in the fact that the money to cover both these projects was supposed to come from local ratepayers and not from the government. But, by this stage of the famine, it was almost impossible to collect rates anywhere in Ireland, and the local committees and Poor Law Unions began running up huge debts. It was recognised by all that the rates needed to fund this new system would have to have been at least ten times larger than anything collected before. Unfortunately, however, soldiers and police had already been used to collect the Poor Rate in parts of Galway and Mayo. Nevertheless, it was estimated that each shilling of rates gathered had cost one pound to collect it.

It was a deplorable fact that the Poor Rates fell most heavily on those areas where distress was most severe. Furthermore, since 1843, the landlords had been liable for paying all rates on property valued at under £4, the tenant being exempt. But, in these dark times, legislation provided an incentive to evict a tenant and pull down his cabin as a means of reducing the burden of Poor Rates upon him. Even under such circumstances, however, the local unions were still expected to collect rates to the utmost of their ability. To assist them in this effort, the rate collectors had been provided by the Government with considerable powers. They could seize the property and goods of a landlord to obtain payment for the rate money they had neglected to pay. Meanwhile, to ensure that the local effort was not undermined, the Treasury deliberately kept its financial contribution to a minimum and refused to release funds until they were convinced that starvation was the alternative left. Consequently, the finances of the poorest unions remained precarious and the relief provided was both piece-meal and sparse.

starvingThe small farmers were mostly destitute, and rent arrears grew higher and higher. In many cases the burden of rates encouraged farmers to leave their land and emigrate to pastures new in other lands. Even some of the great landlords could not pay what they owed in rates and, consequently, many Unions became bankrupt. The provision of ‘Outdoor Relief’ was more expensive than keeping people in the workhouse, so there were constant efforts to keep the lists seeking such relief small. In many cases this simply meant names being crossed off the list for the thinnest of reasons. In an article written in ‘THE NATION’ newspaper it was reported – “Here as elsewhere, the people are exported in numbers. The eflux is ceaseless. The consolidation of farms is rapidly going on, and the aristocratic wish fulfilled to the letter.

But where a family sell a small farm, two or three helpless members remain behind. Some are too old to tempt fate, and the waters, and the wilderness – some wish to lay their bones in their native earth – some are sick-stricken – some timid, some pious, some utterly unable – but in every case two or three remain behind.”

It was all very well for Lord John Russell to rise in the House and say that the landlords must be compelled to pay, but what if there were no landlords available to pay? There were, by now, large, impoverished districts all over Ireland with no landed proprietor. One Irish nationalist newspaper stated quite clearly within its pages, “The Government cannot this time save them. But, if they cannot secure profit to the merchant, they have by anticipation excluded the Irish pauper from the advantage of foreign care as far as it has affected the market. To him the change has brought no alteration but for the worse. It is as if the light and life of spring burst around him and his heart, by some relentless fate was kept locked in gloom and ice.

Heretofore, as I showed, each person had one and one-third pound of Indian meal per day; or rather, by an almost utter denial to himself of most other necessaries, he could secure this quantity, with the means of cooking it.

Now he is allowed by the relief committee, under the recent act, one pound. He has no means whatever to purchase fuel, none to light him, none to clothe; one pound of raw meal, be it dear or cheap, cost it threepence or a farthing, is his fated allowance. Then to conceive the struggle, there is to obtain it, the label of beggary, the hazard of a short supply, the weakness of the applicant to jostle his way in such a jarring medley, and the certain end of failure, with no earthly alternative left – this is a thing of which I can give no idea – a complication of wretchedness, confusion, and degradation, before which the mind sinks in dumb and helpless sorrow.”

Perhaps the most controversial section of the ‘Extension Act’ was the ‘Quarter Acre’ or “The Gregory Clause”, which stipulated that a person who occupied more than a quarter of an acre of land could not receive relief either inside or outside the workhouse. ‘The Quarter Acre Clause’, however, was only one factor in a package of fiscal measures which accompanied the transfer to Poor Law Relief, which were punitive both to indebted landlords and small-holders alike. There is little doubt that the substantial rise in evictions after 1847 can be largely attributed to its introduction. There were reports, however, that said some destitute small holders had chosen to starve themselves and their families to death, rather than give up their land. Nevertheless, the increase in evictions was welcomed by several members of the government who had become convinced that a draconian adherence to the provisions of the Poor Act was necessary if Ireland was to emerge from the Famine socially and economically stronger.

The numbers in receipt of Poor Law relief, meanwhile, rose steadily after autumn 1847.  This increase was helped by an expansion in temporary workhouse accommodation and the decision to increase the number of unions from 130 to 163. Although the treasury had hoped that all external financial assistance to the unions would end after the autumn of 1847, this was to prove impossible.  The Outdoor Relief System now began to operate, as the soup kitchens closed, one after another. It was laid down, in the new Poor Law Act, that non-able-bodied poor could be given relief either in the workhouse or outside it, namely in their homes. It was left to ‘The Boards of Guardians’ to decide who would qualify. The able-bodied poor, meaning those who were still able to work, could also be relieved if they were unemployed and destitute, but only inside the workhouse. Only if the workhouse was full, or was infected with fever, could the able-bodied poor be granted relief outside, although only for two months, if they agreed to hard labour. This usually involved them breaking stones for ten hours per day before they would receive their portion. This was later lowered to eight hours, but it made little difference because stone-breaking was the work most hated by the poor and many kept away to avoid it.

Yet another way of restricting the numbers seeking Outdoor Relief was to insist on the paupers attending the workhouse every single day, to collect the cooked food offered. But, the Boards of Guardians often delegated the food distribution to meal contractors or shopkeepers, and this meant that there were far fewer points for distribution than there had been in the days of the soup kitchens. People had to walk several miles to the nearest point, and sometimes the food would have spoiled by the time they got home to their families. Eventually the fact was faced that cooked food caused more problems than it solved, and the authorities began to distribute uncooked food again, although the poor had neither the knowledge or the fuel to cook it properly. This and a combination of poor health and bad weather, helped to keep down the numbers who claimed their food.

Without doubt, the relief authorities made various improvement to the workhouse system, such as building separate hospitals, expanding the space for accommodation, and freely giving Outdoor Relief even to the able-bodied poor.  The local Boards of Guardians tried to restrict relief as much as possible, as they knew there would not be enough money to cover all the demands. The poor, however, hated the workhouse system, and feared the fevers that were now spreading fast, so as many as possible applied for Outdoor Relief.

Then, as the grip of the famine intensified, more and more ratepayers defaulted and, as a result, many unions became bankrupt. Cheques were dishonoured, and contractors refused to supply food, causing diets to deteriorate still further. Quite quickly the effects of severely curtailed rations soon became evident in the physical appearance of the paupers and by the end of 1847 chaos reigned in many workhouses. The Ballinrobe workhouse became the subject of much correspondence among commissioners. There were reports that there was no food in its kitchen and no meals were eaten in the dining hall. Instead, paupers got their food rations raw in the morning and cooked them in numerous locations throughout the building. For some the diets in the workhouse had become so bad that inmates committed crimes to get transferred to the relatively better conditions of the gaols. Reporting on the Cork workhouse, Dr. Stephens, said that he had found 150 boys in one ward, sharing 24 beds. The week before his visit, 60 children aged under thirteen had died in this workhouse. In his opinion even if the workhouse had been good enough, most of the children arriving were already so weak and ill that hardly anything could be done for them. Meanwhile, in Limerick, a visitor wrote, “I never saw one solitary instance of any one attempt to cheer these little ones, in any one of the very many ways in which we know children, sick and dying, can be cheered.”  He said that he was appalled by their lack of movement, “in the very act of death still not a tear nor a cry. I have scarcely ever seen one try to change his or her position … Two, three or four in a bed, there they lie and die, if suffering ever silent, unmoved.”

Many of these deaths were due to fevers rather than starvation. In fact, fever was endemic in pre-Famine Ireland and flared up periodically into nationwide epidemics. There was widespread awareness of the contagiousness of the disease and its ability to leap class and social barriers. Characteristically the fever began among the poor and spread to their social superiors, among whom it proved to be much more lethal. The disease impinged on rural and urban dwellers, and affected cities, towns and villages as well as the isolated cabins of the cottiers and agricultural labourers. Fever had a devastating impact on the already precarious existence of the poor. Each attack, with the weakness it left behind, lasted about six weeks and, with successive family members being struck down, fever might persist in a poor man’s cabin for months on end and, thus, it had a major pauperising influence, often reducing the poor to absolute penury.

Earlier, in March 1847, a ship carrying fever-ridden emigrants was forced by bad weather to put into Belfast, and typhus fever swept through the city.  Hordes of famine victims were already pouring into Belfast, seeking relief, and the epidemic reached its peak in July. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the fever epidemic reached its worst in June, and the victim count did not begin to decline until February 1848. The prevalence and perniciousness of fever in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the threat it posed to rich and poor alike provoked considerable debate on its causation and diffusion. While doctors differed over causation, there were some aspects of fever which were largely beyond dispute, such as the contagiousness of the disease, its tendency to appear at times of social upheaval or economic crisis, and its consequences. The humane and hospitable dispositions of the people of Ireland mainly contributed to introduce contagion into their dwellings.

Skibbereen 1The doctors blamed the outbreak of fever on hunger and its social consequences, on the almost tangible misery, distress and despondency which appeared to be everywhere. There was a complete disintegration of the social norms, the only reality being the desperate search for sustenance. Hygiene was neglected, clothing and bedding were pawned or left unchanged for months on end, and displaced families, who had abandoned their holdings, or been evicted, congregated together in vacant cabins throughout the country. The sick and dying clamoured for admission to the workhouses, while the jails and bridewells were filled to overflowing. Dirt, neglect and gross overcrowding generated fever, which was diffused in a variety of ways, by vagrancy, by the intermingling of the infected, the convalescent and the healthy at soup shops, food depots and public works. Even those who were barely able to crawl out of their makeshift beds were compelled by the direst necessity to report for work on the roads, where, according to one County Kilkenny doctor, they occupied themselves “in industrious idleness” and in infecting their susceptible work-mates. Wakes, funerals, weddings and patterns were condemned for the role they played in spreading fever. Soup kitchens attracted considerable ensure also. The promise of a free meal drew large numbers of the destitute and the hungry, many of them fever stricken, into cities and towns, and thus facilitated the transference of infected lice to new victims. Some medical practitioners believed that food depots, by relieving hunger, were instrumental in suppressing fever, others that they contributed to its dissemination by assembling large crowds of paupers. There was no such ambiguity regarding wakes. During the traditional mourning period, friends, namesakes and relatives assembled to pay homage to the memory of the deceased and to indulge in copious supplies of whisky, snuff and tobacco that were generally available on these occasions. It was part of the Irish tradition that even the lowliest in life should be so honoured in death. The survivors would have considered themselves eternally disgraced if the customary homage had not been paid to the memory of the deceased.

The frequent concurrence during famine of two distinct infections, typhus fever and relapsing fever. The epidemiology of the two disease is very similar. Typhus and relapsing fever propagate most actively in conditions which favour lice infestation, notably in the squalid and overcrowded residences of the poor. It was social dislocation and the disruption of normal living patterns caused by famine which transformed the nations endemic fever into destructive, terrorising epidemics. Epidemic fever in Ireland was usually preceded, accompanied or followed by certain other diseases, notably bacillary dysentery and smallpox. It is fact that relatively few died from actual starvation, the majority succumbing to diseases which were collectively described by one medical observer as “a sort of famine poison.” The great despoiling infections were typhus, typhoid and relapsing fever, dysentery and diarrhoea, severe measles, and smallpox of a ‘peculiarly malignant character, which according to the Board of Health, prevailed very extensively in 1849. Cholera, which affected Ireland pandemically in 1848-49, was not one of the fevers of the Great Famine. Its appearance was a coincidence, but it contributed to the overall distress and mortality. Among the poor, especially, dysentery and diarrhoea were the most frequent and most fatal complications of famine fever. According to Doctor Daniel Donovan of Skibbereen, County Cork, chronic dysentery, or ‘starvation dysentery’ as it was sometimes called, was almost universal among the destitute. He categorised this affliction as the most complicated and loathsome of diseases and one which was infinitely more lethal than cholera. Typhus Fever affected those in authority very badly, the middle-aged middle-classes. Because of the strain it put on the heart, older people were very vulnerable to it. Where forms of fever had always been endemic, many of the poor had formed an immunity to it during their youth, but doctors and medical officers, priests and clergymen, relieving officers and workhouse officials all took the fever, and many died. Seven doctors died in County Cavan in 1847, and forty-eight in the province of Munster. Of 473 medical officers appointed by the Board of Health, one out of every 13 died.

The term ‘Dysentery’ was formerly applied to any condition in which inflammation of the colon was associated with frequent passage of blood stools. Hence, its earlier designation, ‘The Bloody Flux’. The term is now restricted to amoebic dysentery, which is almost entirely confined to tropical and sub-tropical countries, and to Bacillary Dysentery, and infectious disease which may occur sporadically or in epidemics. The disease is caused by the dysentery bacillus and the infection is spread by flies, by direct contact, or by pollution of the water by faeces infected with the bacillus. Dysentery is rendered more virulent by famine and by the concurrence of other exhausting diseases, being strongly conditioned by nutritional status. At one time, mortality rates were as high as 50% during epidemics, with Ordinary Dysentery killing the children rather than the adults. This deadly infection was, at one time, attributed to the potato substitutes which the starving were compelled to eat, and to the pickings of the field, hedgerow, shoreline, and especially to the immoderate consumption of raw or partially cooked Indian meal by those individuals who had neither the knowledge, fuel or patience to prepare it properly.

Scurvy, causing teeth to drop out and joints to swell, had been almost unknown in pre-Famine Ireland, because is caused by lack of vitamin C, which is plentiful in potatoes. Now it affected thousands of people, often causing fatal haemorrhaging. The eye infection, Ophthalmia, also spread rapidly in the overcrowded workhouse conditions, and hundreds of children lost their sight, partially or totally.

‘Relapsing Fever’ was the prevalent disease among the poor and destitute, while the higher social classes tended to contract the deadly typhus fever.  This was particularly true for those who were more exposed to infection, notably clergymen, doctors, members of relief committees and those with the administration of the Poor Law. A distinctive feature of famine feature fever, one on which several doctors commented was the peculiar smell which clung to the clothes and bodies of the poor. A County Clare physician observed that the ‘sooty and peat-smoke odour of former times’ had given way to a more offensive, sickening and readily recognisable one. This emanation was described by a doctor in West Cork as “a cadaverous suffocating odour”, a ‘peculiar mousy smell’, which was ‘always the forerunner of death.’ He stated, “As I entered the house the stench that proceeded from it was dreadful and noisome; but oh! What scenes presented themselves to my view as I proceeded through the wards and passages: patients lying on straw, naked and in their excrements, alight covering over them – in two beds living beings beside the dead, in the same bed with them and dead since the night before. There was no medicine – no drink – no fire.”

Meanwhile, Smallpox, the third of the epidemic triumvirate, which had ravaged Ireland for generations, was so virulent that it spreads independently of nutrition, As with fever, it was the social consequences of famine, especially the increase in vagrancy, which provided the ideal conditions for the propagation and diffusion of this highly infectious disease, one which killed, disfigured, blinded and terrorised countless thousands in Ireland and elsewhere in pre-modern and modern times.

In 1846, very soon after Famine had been declared, a Central Board of Health had been set up, to run hospitals and dispensaries. But it was soon closed, because there was very little sickness or fever to treat at that time, only starvation. As a result, when typhus began to spread, there were only 28 hospitals in Ireland, and none in the more remote areas of the country. At the same time, there were about 500 out-patient dispensaries, but again these were few and far between. Even so, more money had been spent on hospitals in Ireland than in Britain, and every county had an infirmary. Medical care, in the mid-nineteenth century, was mainly preventive with infected clothes being baked to kill the fever, and infected areas fumigated with sulphuric acid. Widespread reports of fever began to come in to the Relief Commissioners in early 1847.  These told of people dying quickly, in frightful numbers, and typhus was spreading like wildfire. The Central Board was rapidly reappointed to deal with this new emergency, and quickly discovered that the Workhouse Hospitals were far too small to deal with the numbers pouring in. Almost every inmate was now suffering with some form of illness, but there was not enough space to keep the sick away from those who were well. Temporary wooden fever wards, called ‘Fever Sheds’, were erected in some places, but many of the workhouses did not have the money to take such measures. Finally, the Government had to accept the fact that there was an epidemic, and rapidly brought in the ‘Irish Fever Act’ of April 1847. This Act now placed the responsibility for providing health care on the relief committees, instead of on the overburdened and debt-ridden Boards of Guardians. The Relief Committees could overrule the Guardians and do whatever was necessary for fever patients, without having to obey the Poor Law rules. The costs, they were assured, would be met by the government.

Very quickly the people began to learn about infection and how it could be controlled.  Almost overnight the age-old hospitality for which the Irish were renowned disappeared. Strangers were avoided, and if even one member of a family became infected, the whole family was left alone by neighbours and friends. Fever, it was discovered, was often caught through contact with the dead because, after death, the lice would leave the cooling body and transfer themselves to anyone who was nearby. The people now became afraid to bury the dead, and instead the cabins were often pulled down and burned over the corpses inside. It also became almost impossible to increase the size of burial- grounds available, because, the living feared having those who died of fever buried near them. Workhouse yards now became burial grounds and bodies of the dead were buried in huge pits, in batches.

At this stage we should, perhaps, look at events in Skibbereen during this period. The rapid spread of the strange potato disease in the summer and autumn of 1845 caused great concern in west Cork, and Skibbereen had always been a great potato-growing district in that area. In fact, it was said of Skibbereen, that the ground was so fertile there was always a superabundance of potatoes grown. But, it also meant that when the potato crop failed the labourers went hungry and, when this disease struck the potato crop again 1846 it was no surprise that the labourers found themselves starving. By 1847 the labourers’ main hope, like those of others throughout Ireland, became employment on the roads being created by the Board of Works, while the chief refuge for the destitute became the workhouse.

The condition of the people around Skibbereen became so bad that the Chief of the Relief Commission in Dublin, Randolf Routh, sent Commissary Inglis from Limerick to help organise the relief programme, and as a result two more soup-kitchens were set up.

The New Year of 1847, in all of County Cork, its title as the “Black ’47”.  In the meantime, ‘The Skibbereen Board of Guardians’ had announced that it had decided close the workhouse. Deaths from 10th November to the 7th January numbered 266, while for some period previously they had only been 10. The workhouse itself was filled to breaking-point.  Originally the house had been built to accommodate 800 inmates, but now there were 1169, 332 of whom were in fever. There were 121 patients in forty beds, and ‘The Union’ was deeply in debt.  The rates could not be collected as the land was deserted and the tenants destitute or dead or in the workhouse itself.

By early February the Skibbereen Soup Committee was bitterly complaining that the local relief committees could not obtain sufficient provisions from Col. Hughes’ stores in Skibbereen. The committee applied for ten tons of Indian meal, but they could only obtain only two tons. The price had increased from £18 to £19, but official records, however, revealed that there were 2,385 tons of meal still in the store. This was evidence of a policy of hoarding and it was Trevelyan’s stated policy that the ‘resources’ of the country should be ‘drawn out.’ As the famine grew worse in February, Trevelyan continued to say that ‘food could not be found.’ But, there were reports from several people that they had between 100 to 200 tons of meal, which he had difficulty in disposing of. The difficulty was said to be caused by the Skibbereen Relief Committee, which was selling meal indiscriminately for as little as two shilling and two pence a stone. The people with the meal believed that if the government bought it, they would save ‘the freight for shipping it to another market.’ Nevertheless, it is a prime example of how the British Government’s laissez-faire approach actually worked out in severe famine conditions. The provisions that were available were not adequate and were at inflated famine prices, especially when a road worker was only capable of earning eight pence a day. Moreover, whatever provisions were available were not all actually distributed. The records of the time show clearly that at the end of February 230 tons Indian meal had been issued, but that 410 tons were still in storage.

It was at this time that the newly appointed Chairman of the Relief Commission in Dublin, John Burgoyne, requested some extra aid for Schull. Trevelyan agreed that relief could be carried out, but only to a limited extent. Subsequently he reluctantly told Burgoyne, “Let us save as many as we can.” To further show the Government’s attitude at this time, a Treasury minute that was dated 23rd February 1847 recognised ‘the dreadful state of destitution in the parishes of Schull and Caheragh’ and merely recommended that the local relief committees should do more for that district. The entire Skibbereen district was now fast becoming a byword for famine and, during the week ending 27th March, there were 106 deaths among the 1,170 inmates in the workhouse. The mortality rate in the Skibbereen house was clearly the highest in the country with 106 deaths in a week when there had been only two the previous year. The conditions existing in the poorhouse only reflected the state of the Union in general, and ‘The Skibbereen Soup Committee’ admitted that the farmers, ‘fearful for the condition of their own families were in no position to minister to the wants of others. As spring moved on and the weather grew warmer, fever spread more rapidly and caused fever hospitals or sheds to be set up. Meanwhile, the Soup-Kitchen Act was sufficiently introduced by an inspector named Marshall in May, and the road works were gradually closed. By June, however, the famine and fever were at last under control and, by September, famine mortality in the area was greatly reduced, and the Soup-Kitchen Act phased out. Nevertheless, in Skibbereen workhouse there were 2,981 inmates from a population of the town amounting to only 3,834.

In the Autumn of 1847 the people of Ballydehob feared that the coming winter would be like the previous winter, and they appealed to Lord John Russell for aid. He told them bluntly that, “The owners of property in Ireland should feel the obligations of supporting the poor … It is not just to expect the working classes of Great Britain should permanently support the burden of Irish pauperism.” From such statements it was clear that the government would not give very much more aid, which meant that the rates on Irish property would have to increase. By December 1847 those rates had risen to three shillings for each division and since the landlord had to pay the rates on holdings under £4 it would be in his interest to evict their occupiers if they would not pay the rent. In response a ‘Tenant Protective Society’ was formed in Skibbereen at the end of 1847, and quite quickly remarks were heard about cattle being driven to the pound and their owners to the poor-house. Such poverty being expressed by landowners inevitably put pressure on property, some of it being already heavily encumbered.

An Gorta Mor VIII – Part II

Black ’47 Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Trevelyan – Sinner or Saint?

When trying to unravel the role that Charles Trevelyan played in the ‘Great Famine’ you are entering something of a minefield. Any person who has attempted to learn about ‘The Famine in Ireland’ quickly realised that the research that has been carried out is filled with invective supporting opposing views on its cause, effects and results. The student soon discovers that Irish history-writing is more subjective than objective and requires reading ‘between the lines’ to get to the truth. We read opinions such as that spoken openly by the Nationalist politician, John Mitchel, when he stated his verdict that, “God sent the blight but the British Government sent the Famine.” Against such opinions we have the more recent ‘revisionist’ opinions that attempt to sanitise the ‘Great Hunger’ by arguing that, given the scale of the disaster, the British Government had done everything it could to prevent further death and suffering among the poverty stricken Irish peasantry.

Charles_Edward_TrevelyanThere exists an increasing number of modern ‘historians’ who wish to ‘revise’ the long-accepted view of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the permanent head of the Treasury during the Famine. The ‘revisionists’ suggest that what has been written about this man is simply the result of the ‘half-truth, innuendo and careless repetition’ by pro-Nationalist commentators that has found its way into the records of this terrible period in Irish history.  These modern revisionists seek to undermine the prevalent view that Trevelyan was a dictatorial civil servant, who held undue influence over government policy in handling the Famine. From his own words and deeds we can see that he is a devout disciple to those doctrines of classical political economy, especially ‘leaving well alone’ or ‘laissez-faire’. He was filled with a staunch racial prejudice against the Irish, and a providential view of the Famine being an ‘act of God’ against Irish Roman Catholicism. Trevelyan was convinced that the way that these things came together prevented him from doing anything that would stop the Famine from ‘running its course’. But, the revisionists insist that there is no defensible reason to condemn this man for the inadequate, criminal government response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in Ireland.

There is little argument that Trevelyan was an important government figure during the Famine. The arguments arise when there is discussion concerning Trevelyan’s importance when compared to that other major protagonists that were involved in Famine relief. The revisionist historians will generally admit that Charles Trevelyan was an influential adviser for his government department, but not the key influence on the British Government’s overall Famine relief policy. They put forward the premise that Trevelyan, although an influential adviser, was simply carrying out the wishes of his departmental chiefs during the Famine, who received instructions from the cabinet. In other words, Trevelyan was simply a centrally placed civil servant who was unfortunate to become a ‘scapegoat’ for the manoeuvrings and machinations of the British Government and those who were governing Ireland from Dublin Castle. It is further claimed that Trevelyan’s bad reputation was a result of criticisms that were aimed at his political superiors, rather than him. The revisionist historians assert that these criticisms, therefore, have been taken out of context and are not reflective of Trevelyan’s character in any way. Against such a viewpoint we have the following description of the man by the well-respected historian of the Famine, Cecil Woodham-Smith – “his mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself what he proposed to do was ethical and justified he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained but also blinded by his conviction of doing right.” The question remains that did he believe he was doing right when, during the height of the famine, Trevelyan deliberately dragged his feet in disbursing direct government food and monetary aid to the Irish because of the strength of his belief in ‘laissez-faire’ economics and the free hand of the market. In a letter to an Irish Peer, Lord Monteagle, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Trevelyan described the Famine as being an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.” He determined that it was “the judgement of God,” and wrote that “The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”. From his own words, he condemns himself.

An Gorta Mor 2In 1840 Trevelyan was appointed as assistant secretary to the Treasury, and served in this capacity until 1859, which covered both the Irish Potato Famine and the Highland Potato Famine in Scotland of 1846–1857. In Ireland, he administered famine relief while, in Scotland, Trevelyan was closely associated with the work of the ‘Central Board for Highland Relief.’ There is little doubt concerning Trevelyan’s devotion to his job, or the difficulty his position placed him in. He acted as liaison between Westminster and Dublin Castle, which proved not to be among the happiest of relationships. Trevelyan was also assigned to arbitrate disputes within the Irish executive, and the various committees, boards and commissions which were established in response to the outbreak of the Famine. However, his lack of action and his personal negative attitude towards the Irish people are widely believed to have been responsible for slow introduction of relief efforts during the Famine. When local committees wanted to open the food stores to the people, for example, Trevelyan decided against such a measure, writing, “Our measures must proceed with as little disturbance as possible of the ordinary course of private trade, which must ever be the chief resource for the subsistence of the people, but, at any cost, the people must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to starve.” Meanwhile, the starving Irish watched with growing resentment as boatloads of homegrown grains and cereals left regularly from Irish ports to England. Anger led to food riots erupting in many ports as the hungry tried unsuccessfully to confiscate the food that was being removed. During one incident in Dungarvan, a small port in County Waterford, armed British troops were pelted with stones and they shot into the crowd in retaliation. This resulted in at least two people being killed and several others being wounded.

In answer to those who wonder why Trevelyan was considered for such an important post. But, he had already enjoyed a distinguished career in India before the Famine, having been involved in schemes aimed at gaining economic improvement. At the same time, he had expounded very forthright views on educating the native Indian population along English lines. Because of his work in India, Trevelyan was convinced that he was qualified to handle any problems that related to land tenure and the consolidation of smallholdings in Ireland. He seems to have failed to recognise that in India he had presided over an area where smallholdings had been peacefully well established for many decades, which was not the case in Ireland. Furthermore, Trevelyan ignored the fact that India in the mid-nineteenth century was much different from Ireland in the same period, particularly when it came to the problems of widespread poverty and famine. Poverty and famine-stricken Ireland was a country that was supposed to be an integral part of the United Kingdom and expected to be treated as such. At the same time, Ireland resembled India only in its resistance to having English standards of improvement and development being imposed on them.

Irish Famine 2It was undoubtedly the ideological forces that Trevelyan gave voice to that constrained the British government’s intervention in the Irish economy during the crisis. There was the influence of classical political economy, the prejudiced views of the Irish people, and the influence of evangelical Providential beliefs that influenced the government’s policy toward Famine relief. That policy included limited state intervention in Ireland and favouring the alternative and less effective demand of ‘local responsibility’ for the relief schemes introduced. It was this policy that brought about a government amendment to the ‘Irish Poor Law’ in late 1847, which shifted the burden of relief from the central government to the local ratepayers in Ireland. It was Trevelyan’s firmly held belief that Ireland needed to heal itself from within, without any substantial aid from the British Government. Using his position within the government and his influence with the English ruling aristocracy it was quite easy for Trevelyan to persuade the Irish landowners to believe that “the government establishments are strained to the utmost to alleviate this great calamity and avert this danger.” He praised the government efforts and denounced the Irish gentry, blaming them for the famine. Trevelyan explained his belief that it was not the government’s responsibility to provide supplies of food or increase land productivity, but the responsibility of the landlords’. The influential English press agreed with his views and blamed the Irish gentry for not demanding that their tenants improve their land and plant crops other than the potato. Trevelyan identified the Irish gentry as being the “defective part of the national character” and he chastised them for expecting the government to fix everything, “as if they have themselves no part to perform in this great crisis.” He knew exactly how the Irish gentry was viewed by their own people, as well as the English, and by placing the blame for the famine upon them, Trevelyan justified the ineptness of the British Government’s response.

Trevelyan was simply a man driven by ideas, which influenced him in formulating policy. These same strongly held ideas caused him to justify those policies even when the terrible scale of the suffering became clear. Even if we accept the revisionist theory that Trevelyan was not as influential as we believe, they must admit that neither he nor the cabinet ministers under whom he served were immune to the influence of ideas. But, one characteristic of the man, which revisionists cannot deny, is that he was an arch-racist and although his racial venom was directed chiefly against the Irish landholders, he did not ignore the Irish Catholic tenants and smallholders. Trevelyan voiced his opinions that the Irish were a lazy, dirty and unimaginative race, which reflected the general belief of Victorian society about the Irish people

Whereas Trevelyan’s role may have been exaggerated, and that he was much more at the command of his political superiors, it cannot be denied that he prided himself on being a ‘moralist’. He was an enthusiastic reformer whose ideas and convictions allowed him to justify the government’s Famine policy as a God-given opportunity for the British government to regenerate Irish economic and social life to the benefit of England.