Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy

16/9/2004

The Irish Potato Famine

In the twelfth century, Ireland had been “conquered”. This conquest was and remained for centuries little more than a toehold around Dublin. Ireland had to be reconquered periodically thereafter. As new leaders appeared, or as English difficulties gave the opportunity, the Irish rose in rebellion: under the Earl of Tyrone in the 1590s, on the eve of the English Civil War in 1642, against the Cromwellian regime, and again at the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

Each time the rebellion was put down savagely, and each time further measures were taken to keep the Irish in submission, measures that merely strengthened Irishmen in their hatred for England, contempt for the law, and willingness to go to any lengths to get revenge or independence.

I The Irish Problem
There were two aspects to the English attack on Irish life and institutions, each of them clearly involved with English vested interests.

A. Religion
First was religion. The great majority of Irishmen had remained loyal to Rome at the time of the Reformation, and persisted in that loyalty with a fierceness that has given the Irish priesthood an authority unmatched in any other Catholic country. The penal laws against Irish Catholics were far more severe than laws against English Catholics. In the settlement after William III’s victory over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, they reached an extreme of degradation. Catholics were not permitted to bear arms, to hold office, or to sit in the Irish parliament. No Catholic could purchase land. No Catholic could inherit land from a Protestant, and Catholic land could descend intact only to a Protestant, being compulsorily divided if it went to Catholics.

Nor was the penal code restricted to important matters: no Catholic was allowed to own a horse worth more than five pounds; a Protestant had merely to produce the money and he could take any horse that struck his fancy. Moreover, the Irish and to contribute to the support of a Protestant, episcopal, established Church of Ireland. This was a vast apparatus of archbishops, bishops, and parish priests that ministered indifferently to the small Anglican communities and that served primarily as a valuable supplement to English patronage.

Members of the Church of Ireland were not, however, the only Protestants in Ireland. Many Scots had been encouraged to settle in Ireland, particularly in the northern province known as Ulster. They were subject to the same disabilities as English Dissenters, and, even after their heroic resistance to Catholic armies in 1689, the Irish Dissenters had to wait until 1719 to get toleration.

B. Economy
The other side of English policy was concerned with the economy. Each of the reconquests of Ireland had involved some confiscation of land held by the Catholic Irish and its transfer to successive waves of English landlords, speculators, or farmers. Among these were Scottish immigrants in the early years of the seventeenth century, Cromwellian soldiers, royal favorites, and deserving politicians. By 1700, native Irish landlords held little more than an eighth of the land in the country.

The English landlords, who increasingly monopolized ownership of Irish land, were often absentees. The mode of exploitation of the land was wasteful, inefficient, and – especially once the population began to rise – so subdivided as to make even the barest subsistence for the peasants doubtful. The English Parliament also applied the Navigation Laws to Ireland with increasing severity: a colony on the doorstep was much more likely to be looked to than one across the Atlantic.

Precluded from trading in many commodities, with England or with other countries, the Irish fell back on what was permitted. But as soon as a branch of Irish trade flourished enough to threaten English interests, parliament devised new restrictions. Much of this limitation had been brought about under the Restoration – Irish cattle, for example, could not be shipped to England. But in 1699 the export of woolen cloth was forbidden. It meant the destruction of the largest Irish industry, and an industry in Protestant hands at that.

When Irish resistance once more broke out, at the end of the eighteenth century, the lead was taken by Protestant landowners and merchants. England’s ingratitude to those who could have been her best friends and allies seems almost willful. It is proof of the blindness that affected English policy and attitudes towards Ireland throughout the disastrous history of the connection.

C. The Irish parliament
The Irish parliament had been hamstrung since the end of the fifteenth century by Poynings’ Law, which gave the English Parliament power to legislate for Ireland, no matter what the Irish parliament had done. It gave the English government a veto over what remaining initiative the Irish parliament chose to exercise. The Irish government was, of course, completely under the domination of Westminster. It was saddled with a huge apparatus of useless offices of much interest only to the administrators and beneficiaries of English patronage. The government was utterly inefficient. Only the army could hold the country together and deal with the endemic terrorism, which was all the Irish could do to protest.

Throughout most of the eighteenth century there was no public attack on English supremacy. The Irish were thoroughly beaten down. The better off among them were grateful for small mercies – English governments after 1714 tended not to enforce the worst features of the penal laws against Catholics. Some of the best potential leaders had taken service abroad with the French armies fighting against England. Whatever the explanation, eighteen-century Englishmen did not have to pay much attention to Ireland. It was a triumph of sorts.

II. The Irish Famine
Before the Revolution of 1848 a host of serious problems beset the cities of Europe. There was overcrowding in larger cities, unemployment and general misery of the lower classes. But all this must be underlined in speaking of the years 1846 and 1847. These were probably the worst years of the entire century in terms of want and human suffering. To the chronic hardships of the workers were added the tribulations resulting from crop failures, financial crisis and business depression.

In the autumn of 1845 the potatoes, on which in many localities the lower classes depended for their food supply, suddenly turned black, became mushy and to a large extent inedible. It was an unknown disease, later identified as a fungus. In the following year the potato crop was again an almost complete failure. It was somewhat less disastrous in 1847, but again very poor in 1848. And to compound the food crisis, the grain crops, too, were below average in these years. The prices of wheat and rye quickly rose till they were double those of the preceding decade.

In Ireland, as might be expected, the potato famine led to one of the greatest tragedies of the century. Over 21,000 people died of actual starvation. Much larger numbers were taken off by hunger diseases such as typhus, dysentery and cholera. Cholera occurred in violent epidemic form in 1849. It has been estimated that the “great hunger” claimed a million and a half victims. Another two hundred thousand fled annually on the typhus-stricken “plague ships,” only to find a watery grave before reaching their destination. Travelers in Ireland saw corpses lying by the roadside and found the dead unburied in their deserted hovels. Everywhere strangers were besieged by starving, naked, desperate wretches. The 1851 Census reported that “the starving people lived upon the carcasses of diseased cattle, upon dogs, and dead horses, but principally upon the herbs of the field, nettle tops, wild mustard, and water-cresses. In some places dead bodies were found with grass in their mouths.”

During the famine England continued to import from Ireland large quantities of foodstuffs, even grain. This has led indignant critics to charge the London authorities with deliberately allowing the crisis to run its course in the hope of reducing the Irish population. Although this charge is probably unwarranted, it is a fact that the British government was so deeply committed to the principles of private enterprise that it was very slow in taking relief action.

At first it imported modest amounts of maize from America and sold them at low prices. Ultimately it set up a fairly extensive program of public works and introduced direct relief in the form of soup kitchens. But all these measures were taken without conviction. The prime minister, Lord John Russell, thought the idea of feeding a whole nation fantastic and was troubled about disturbing industry and trade by special grain imports and public works. Charles E. Trevelyan, the official most directly responsible, was convinced that the situation must be left to “the operation of natural causes.” The record of the government was certainly unedifying, but it was probably due more to “obtuseness, short-sightedness and ignorance” than downright heartlessness.

III. A Turning Point in Irish Politics
The Whigs were in power at the time. In the absence of some kind of disaster, the Whigs might have done well in Ireland. Melbourne’s government had had its one clear success in Ireland: a new poor law and a new constabulary act combined with a determination to trust Catholics and an expectation of responsibility from landlords had worked wonders.

A. O’Connell Dies
Moreover, O’Connell, the Irish leader in the British Parliament, was the ally of the Whigs. But in 1846 the Whigs could no longer count on Thomas Drummond, the scientist turned administrator, who as undersecretary in Ireland from 1836 to his death in 1840 had helped to provide the clear-sighted, firm, and just drive to good government.

Moreover, O’Connell was not what he had been. In the early forties, distrusting Peel and the Tories, he began a new agitation for repeal, which suggested a repetition of the twenties. But in 1843 a turning point was reached in Irish politics. Peel managed to resist Anglo-Protestant demands for a stern Irish policy, but when a scheduled mass meeting seemed to threaten the peace, the government forbade it. A week later, O’Connell was arrested, although he had responded to the government’s ban by revoking his order for the meeting. He was released from prison on an appeal to the House of Lords, but having seemed to knuckle under to the English government, he was unable to regain his power; he died on pilgrimage to Rome in 1847.

His place was taken by men he had raised up to be his successors, but they were of a very different stripe: intellectuals, free-thinkers, and true nationalists in the modern sense. Grand rhetoric and clever maneuvering at Westminster were not for them. They were principled advocates of independence and revolution.

The Whigs inherited a crisis in Ireland that grew steadily worse. In human terms, probably no catastrophe in nineteenth-century Europe was more terrible than the Irish famine. The potato blight of 1845 could have been survived, as other crop failures had been survived. There were reserves, and public works and importation of food helped. But the summer of 1846 was worse. Not only were food reserves wiped out, but the total loss of the crop meant a lack of seed potatoes for the next year. The government simply could not meet the challenge. There was a confusion of facts and assertions, a welter of conflicting advice, no relevant experience to draw on, and as good as no machinery for administration.

The government’s public works program was modified. The Irish, fearing unemployment on the land and wanting the money, had flocked to the public works, even though the pay was less than farm wages. Deluged by people flocking to the public works, administrators imposed a means test and centralized the administration. This brought delays in approving projects. The dogmatic insistence on “unproductive” works, such as road building, left plans for remunerative long-range efforts like drainage and railway building to private enterprise. This accomplished little.

The import of food was also bedeviled by troubles. Wheat continued to be shipped to England throughout the famine, not in the vast amounts alleged, but enough to be infuriating to the Irish. The maize from America came slowly, and the Irish neither liked it nor knew how to cook it. The reasons for the inefficiency were two: concern about the English food supply in a time of a severe European shortage, and a dogmatic determination that the trade in food should be left to normal commercial channels.

By 1847 the situation was so bad that the government had to set up a soup-kitchen plan, based on the successful experience of the Quaker relief programs. Deficiencies in government policy and administration were so severe that major credit for what saving of life was done is due rather to private charitable enterprise.

B. Long-range Solutions
The longer-range government solutions were three:

1. A revised Irish poor law which recognized a right to relief, as the 1838 law had not done, in the workhouse normally, but out-of-doors if necessary.
2. Legislation to encourage or even force landlords to improve their land and to open wasteland to agriculture.
3. The Encumbered Estates Act of 1849, to make it possible for new capital to come into Ireland to buy debt-ridden estates with a clear title – an act that followed the recommendations of a royal commission on Irish land appointed by Peel in 1844.

These steps were clearly based on English assumptions: Irish problems were to be solved by substituting large consolidated farms for the fragmented small holdings of the Irish peasants, and by applying capital in large doses to modernize Irish agriculture.

The situation really was beyond legislation or English dogmatics. The solutions came more drastically from other directions. Throughout the famine years and immediately after, old-style and new-style landlords were consolidating their estates. Because they held key positions on boards of guardians, they were in a position to enforce a clause in the poor law denying relief to anyone who held over a quarter-acre of land. To get relief, then, many peasants had to sell their land. Many more were evicted for nonpayment of rent.

C. Emigration and death
In ten years, the nearly 600,000 holdings of more than an acre fell to half that number. Most of the reduction was accounted for by the sale of holdings of one to five acres. The dispossessed and the discontented who were able to do so emigrated – to England, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

The population of Ireland, which had grown by three million in the sixty years before 1841, dropped in the famine decade from eight million to something over six. A million Irish emigrated, the rest died. Mortality arising from the famine has been estimated at around half a million. They died from outright starvation or from disease, during the famine at home, or on ships or in the inhospitable ports abroad. In October, 1846, Sir Charles Trevelyan, the civil servant most directly involved in the administration of famine relief, wrote that the Irish problem was beyond the power of men:

“The cure had been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and as unthought of as it is likely to be effectual.”

Send questions and suggestions to Professor Gerhard Rempel, Department of History, Western New England College. Last Revised 12-18-95.

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