Irish Potato Famine
On June 29, 1846, the resignation of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel was announced. Peel's Conservative government had fallen over political fallout from repeal of the Corn Laws which he had forced through Parliament. His departure paved the way for Charles Trevelyan to take full control of Famine policy under the new Liberal government. The Liberals, known as Whigs in those days, were led by Lord John Russell, and were big believers in the principle of laissez-faire.
Once he had firmly taken control, Trevelyan ordered the closing of the food depots in Ireland that had been selling Peel's Indian corn. He also rejected another boatload of Indian corn already headed for Ireland. His reasoning, as he explained in a letter, was to prevent the Irish from becoming "habitually dependent" on the British government. His openly stated desire was to make "Irish property support Irish poverty."
As a devout advocate of laissez-faire, Trevelyan also claimed that aiding the Irish brought "the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise." Thus he ruled out providing any more government food, despite early reports the potato blight had already been spotted amid the next harvest in the west of Ireland. Trevelyan believed Peel's policy of providing cheap Indian corn meal to the Irish had been a mistake because it undercut market prices and had discouraged private food dealers from importing the needed food. This year, the British government would do nothing. The food depots would be closed on schedule and the Irish fed via the free market, reducing their dependence on the government while at the same time maintaining the rights of private enterprise.
Throughout the summer of 1846, the people of Ireland had high hopes for a good potato harvest. But the cool moist summer weather had been ideal for the spread of blight. Diseased potatoes from the previous harvest had also been used as planters and sprouted diseased shoots. At first, the crop appeared healthy. But by harvest time the blight struck ferociously, spreading fifty miles per week across the countryside, destroying nearly every potato in Ireland.
A Catholic priest named Father Matthew wrote to Trevelyan: "In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless."
There were only enough potatoes to feed the Irish population for a single month. Panic swept the country. Local relief committees were once again besieged by mobs of unemployed demanding jobs on public works projects. The Irish Board of Works was once again swamped with work proposals from landlords.
Trevelyan's free market relief plan depended on private merchants supplying food to peasants who were earning wages through public works employment financed mainly by the Irish themselves through local taxes. But the problems with this plan were numerous. Tax revues were insufficient. Wages had been set too low. Paydays were irregular and those who did get work could not afford to both pay their rent and buy food. Ireland also lacked adequate transportation for efficient food distribution. There were only 70 miles of railroad track in the whole country and no usable commercial shipping docks in the western districts.
By September, starvation struck in the west and southwest where the people had been entirely dependent on the potato. British Coastguard Inspector-General, Sir James Dombrain, upon encountering starving paupers, ordered his subordinates to give free food handouts. For his efforts, Dombrain was publicly rebuked by Trevelyan. The proper procedure, he was informed, would have been to encourage the Irish to form a local relief committee so that Irish funds could have been raised to provide the food.
"There was no one within many miles who could have contributed one shilling...The people were actually dying," Dombrain responded.
Many of the rural Irish had little knowledge of money, preferring to live by the old barter system, trading goods and labor for whatever they needed. Any relief plan requiring them to purchase food was bound to fail. In areas where people actually had a little money, they couldn't find a single loaf of bread or ounce of corn meal for sale. Food supplies in 1846 were very tight throughout all of Europe, severely reducing imports into England and Ireland. European countries such as France and Belgium outbid Britain for food from the Mediterranean and even for Indian corn from America.
Meanwhile, the Irish watched with increasing anger as boatloads of home-grown oats and grain departed on schedule from their shores for shipment to England. Food riots erupted in ports such as Youghal near Cork where peasants tried unsuccessfully to confiscate a boatload of oats. At Dungarvan in County Waterford, British troops were pelted with stones and fired 26 shots into the crowd, killing two peasants and wounding several others. British naval escorts were then provided for the riverboats as they passed before the starving eyes of peasants watching on shore.
As the Famine worsened, the British continually sent in more troops. "Would to God the Government would send us food instead of soldiers," a starving inhabitant of County Mayo lamented.
The Irish in the countryside began to live off wild blackberries, ate nettles, turnips, old cabbage leaves, edible seaweed, shellfish, roots, roadside weeds and even green grass. They sold their livestock and pawned everything they owned including their clothing to pay the rent to avoid certain eviction and then bought what little food they could find with any leftover money. As food prices steadily rose, parents were forced to listen to the endless crying of malnourished children.
Fish, although plentiful along the West Coast of Ireland, remained out of reach in water too deep and dangerous for the little cowhide-covered Irish fishing boats, known as currachs. Starving fishermen also pawned their nets and tackle to buy food for their families.
Making matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 became the worst in living memory as one blizzard after another buried homes in snow up to their roofs. The Irish climate is normally mild and entire winters often pass without snow. But this year, an abrupt change in the prevailing winds from southwest into the northeast brought bitter cold gales of snow, sleet and hail.
Amid the bleak winter, hundreds of thousands of desperate Irish sought work on public works relief projects. By late December 1846, 500,000 men, women and children were at work building stone roads. Paid by piece-work, the men broke apart large stones with hammers then placed the fragments in baskets carried by the women to the road site where they were dumped and fit into place. They built roads that went from nowhere to nowhere in remote rural areas that had no need of such roads in the first place. Many of the workers, poorly clothed, malnourished and weakened by fever, fainted or even dropped dead on the spot.
The men were unable to earn enough money to adequately feed themselves let alone their families as food prices continued to climb. Corn meal now sold for three pennies a pound, three times what it had been a year earlier. As a result, children sometimes went unfed so that parents could stay healthy enough to keep working for the desperately needed cash.
A first-hand investigation of the overall situation was conducted by William Forster, a member of the Quaker community in England. He was acting on behalf of the recently formed Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, with branches in Dublin and London. The children, Forster observed, had become "like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that little was left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular, being much emaciated, and the happy expression of infancy gone from their faces, leaving behind the anxious look of premature old age."
Nicholas Cummins, the magistrate of Cork, visited the hard-hit coastal district of Skibbereen. "I entered some of the hovels," he wrote, "and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive -- they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, [suffering] either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain."
The dead were buried without coffins just a few inches below the soil, to be gnawed at by rats and dogs. In some cabins, the dead remained for days or weeks among the living who were too weak to move the bodies outside. In other places, unmarked hillside graves came into use as big trenches were dug and bodies dumped in, then covered with quicklime.
Most died not from hunger but from associated diseases such as typhus, dysentery, relapsing fever, and famine dropsy, in an era when doctors were unable to provide any cure. Highly contagious 'Black Fever,' as typhus was nicknamed since it blackened the skin, is spread by body lice and was carried from town to town by beggars and homeless paupers. Numerous doctors, priests, nuns, and kind-hearted persons who attended to the sick in their lice-infested dwellings also succumbed. Rural Irish, known for their hospitality and kindness to strangers, never refused to let a beggar or homeless family spend the night and often unknowingly contracted typhus. At times, entire homeless families, ravaged by fever, simply laid down along the roadside and died, succumbing to 'Road Fever.'
Trevelyan's public works relief plan for Ireland had failed. At its peak, in February and March of 1847, some 700,000 Irish toiled about in useless projects while never earning enough money to halt starvation.
Now, in Cork harbor, the long-awaited private enterprise shipments of Indian corn and other food supplies had finally begun arriving. Food prices dropped by half and later dropped to a third of what they had been, but the penniless Irish still could not afford to eat. As a result, food accumulated in warehouses within sight of people walking about the streets starving.
Between March and June of 1847, the British government gradually shut down all of the public works projects throughout Ireland. The government, under the direction of Prime Minister Russell, had decided on an abrupt change of policy "to keep the people alive." The starving Irish were now to be fed for free through soup kitchens sponsored by local relief committees and by groups such as the Quakers and the British Relief Association, a private charity funded by prosperous English merchants.
The Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 called for the food to be provided through taxes collected by local relief committees from Irish landowners and merchants. But little money was ever forthcoming. Ireland was slowly going bankrupt. Landlords, many of whom were already heavily in debt with big mortgages and unpaid loans, were not receiving rents from their cash-strapped tenants. Merchants also went broke, closed up their shops, then joined the ranks of the dispossessed, begging on the streets.
Daily soup demand quickly exceeded the limited supply available. In Killarney, there was just one soup kitchen for 10,000 persons. Cheap soup recipes were improvised containing stomach-turning combinations of old meat, vegetables, and Indian corn all boiled together in water. To a people already suffering from dysentery, the watery stew could be a serious health risk. Many refused to eat the "vile" soup after just one serving, complaining of severe bowel problems. Another dislike was the requirement for every man woman and child to stand in line while holding a small pot or bowl to receive their daily serving, an affront to their pride.
By the spring, Government-sponsored soup kitchens were established throughout the countryside and began dispensing 'stirabout,' a more substantial porridge made from two-thirds Indian corn meal and one-third rice, cooked with water. By the summer, three million Irish were being kept alive on a pound of stirabout and a four-ounce slice of bread each day. But the meager rations were not enough to prevent malnutrition. Many adults slowly starved on this diet.
In the fall of 1847, the third potato harvest during the Famine brought in a blight-free crop but not enough potatoes had been planted back in the spring to sustain the people. The yield was only a quarter of the normal amount. Seed potatoes, many having been eaten, had been in short supply. Planters had either been involved in the public works projects or had been too ill to dig. Others were simply discouraged, knowing that whatever they grew would be seized by landowners, agents or middlemen as back payment for rent. The rough winter had also continued to wreak havoc into March and April with sleet, snow, and heavy winds, further delaying planting. Seed for alternative crops such as cabbage, peas and beans, had been too expensive for small farmers and laborers to buy.
Many landlords, desperate for cash income, now wanted to grow wheat or graze cattle and sheep on their estates. But they were prevented from doing so by the scores of tiny potato plots and dilapidated huts belonging to penniless tenants who had not paid rent for months, if not years. To save their estates from ruin, the paupers would simply have to go.
Copyright © 2000 The History Place™ All Rights Reserved