An Gorta Mor Conclusion PtII

Charles_Edward_Trevelyan
Charles Edward Trevelyan

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

Charles_Edward_Trevelyan
Charles Edward Trevelyan

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

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

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

Punch 1
Punch Cartoon of Irishmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

An Gorta Mor 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 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.