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.”

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.