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Chapter Eighteen

[Ireland 1800-1850 Copyright © 2001 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

The Famine Years I  

(August 1845 to June 1846)

Summary. In the autumn of 1845, following the appearance of the potato blight it became clear that there would be a large problem in some parts of Ireland where there were enormous numbers of cottiers depending for much of their subsistence on small potato patches. Various initiatives were taken by local authorities, various charities, and by the Government under Sir Robert Peel, and the great bulk of the people were successfully fed.


The Onset

Peel’s Measures


The Onset      

[September 1845] In June 1845 the Dublin Evening Post reported that the prospects for the Irish economy had never been brighter. On The 6th September, it noted that there had been a partial failure of the potato in areas along the coast. This was recognised as the 'potato cholera', a blight which was affecting potatoes in the United States and parts of Europe. A professor in Belgium said (correctly) that it was a form of botrytis or vine-mildew. (The eventual remedy against it, the 'Bordeaux mixture' was developed to protect vines.) Parliament was prorogued on 9 August 1845. O’Connell, as was his custom, went to his estate in Kerry. The Government continued with its plans for the Colleges, and commissioners were appointed to find appropriate sites and construct the buildings. Archbishop Crolly with other gentlemen went to see the Lord Lieutenant to try to get the northern college built in Armagh. However, Cork, Galway, and Belfast were selected. A Catholic priest, called Dr Kirwan, was appointed president of the Galway College and accepted. It had been expected that Dr Cooke would be offered the presidency of Belfast College, but this was offered to another Presbyterian minister, Dr Henry, minister in Armagh. Professor Kane was made president of the college in Cork. (Professor Robert Kane, author of ‘The Industrial Resources of Ireland, was professor of chemistry in the Apothecaries Hall, and was knighted in 1846.) The architect Pugin was engaged to add to the buildings at Maynooth, and had to limit himself to the grant of £30,000 for Peel would give no more. £2,000 of the grant was taken by the Board of Works for repairs to the existing buildings. 

            As September advanced, the potato blight was being reported in various places even far inland. But its spread was so uneven that no one theory seemed to account for it. By the middle of October, some local scarcities were being described, but the Dublin market was well supplied and there was a brisk export trade to the Continent. Right up until the following summer contradictory estimates were being made regarding the extent of the potato failure. All newspaper editors received a flow of letters from their readers. The Evening Mail opposed the repeal of the Corn Laws and continued to present an optimistic picture. There were many areas of local scarcity, but then there always had been such within living memory 

            The Lord Lieutenant appointed a Commission of Inquiry that clearly was not alarmed, for it undertook no prolonged or detailed research. There was certainly abundant food in the country. The only problem was what to do with those of the poorer classes who had subsisted formerly for at least part of the year on the potatoes they grew on their tiny potato patches. This problem was not confined to Ireland, for it occurred in every country in Western Europe. Nor was the problem in Leinster any worse than in the southern counties of England. Though some have criticised them for what seemed a cursory examination there really was little new to report. The Irish Government had been dealing with these crises since 1816. The main point to establish was how extensive was the failure. They did not think that anything more than the usual remedies for partial famine were required, relief and health committees, collections for distribution by charitable bodies, and some public works undertaken by the county Grand Juries supplemented by those the Board of Works had in hand or might reasonably undertake. In November 1845 Heytesbury appointed a Central Relief Committee to organise local relief committees. As late as February 1846 the Dublin Evening Mail was playing down the extent and severity of the potato failure and consequent starvation and fever. 

            Further inquiries made by the Lord Mayor of Dublin's Mansion House Committee, and by the newspapers showed that the blight was extensive but uneven. Some varieties of potatoes were more susceptible than others. The grain crop was good, and the shortage of potatoes resulted in good prices to the farmers. The Farmers' Gazette concluded that in areas of mixed tillage there would be little problem. The people who would suffer were the smaller farmers and cottiers with fewer than fifteen acres. These, by the last census, numbered about half a million, making up to two million with their dependants. 

            There are some facts about the Irish economy that should be noted. With a population of over eight million Ireland was not over-populated. With a highly developed intensive agriculture such was found in the Low Countries Ireland could have supported a population of twenty millions. Agricultural production did not fall off during or after the Famine but it was produced as easily with six million people as with eight. The average output per acre of potatoes from the patches of the cottiers was very low. It was estimated that the yield per acre on the desmesne lands of the landlord which were properly drained, manured, fallowed, and cleared of weeds, was four times as high as on the patches leased by the tenants which were not. 

            It had been known for years that in some parts of Ireland there were settlements of cottiers cultivating tiny patches and that these settlements might extend over an entire barony, or subdivision of a county. But the residents of these areas commonly hired themselves out for seasonal labour on farms in richer areas or even in England, and so could be expected to move to those places where work was being provided. The Times of London, in 1845, sent an observer to Ireland to study conditions at first hand. He commented on the generally lazy character of the Irish. He said that though poverty was widespread, it was not so universal as many people in England believed. Most of the Irish small farmers had between 5 and 10 acres and usually had money in the bank, though they tried to conceal that fact. (Quite a lot of money was in fact held in banks or in gold, for daughter’s dowries, and not used productively. The eldest son would be expected to marry a girl with a good dowry, and this would enable the eldest sister to marry, and so on.) 

            An old idea, beloved of the resident Tory landowners, was put forward strongly and adopted especially by the Whigs. It was that all sub-division, and what often accompanied it, rundale leases, or leases held in common by a group, should as far as possible be stamped out. The landlord himself should farm his estate, fence, drain, lime, manure, cultivate carefully, and purchase good seed. He would need all the tenants then as agricultural labourers. This idea was to be fundamental to all the measures of the Whigs. 

            But for the rest, there was really little else to suggest. Ideas had been tried out, often against considerable resistance from the people being helped, in both the Highlands of Scotland and in Ireland since 1800. There were no more roads to be built. The development of fisheries had been tried and largely failed. Attempt to introduce, or re-introduce new crops like flax into various parts of Ireland had failed also. Tenant Right was being advocated by some as a panacea, but others thought it would do more harm than good if agricultural improvement as described above was envisaged. 

 Other proposals for famine relief found advocates, to open the ports (repeal the Corn Laws), to close the ports (prohibit all exports of foodstuffs), to import rice or maize (neither being grown in Ireland so domestic markets would not be disturbed), the prohibition of distillation (strongly advocated by the adherents of the Temperance Movement), and, of course, draining the bogs. One pernicious suggestion was floated, not to pay rents. Now, if rents were not paid the poor rates and county cesses could not be paid and the whole system of poor relief would collapse. 

             Ireland in the eighteenth century had been notorious for county Grand Jury jobbery, i.e. getting works for private benefit done at public expense. Government had long since imposed financial and auditing controls and inspection of work proposed and actually done. Approval of projects was now made the responsibility of the Board of Works. In Ulster and Leinster the plans worked well, and the Board of Works inspectors were not overloaded. But the Board ended up employing 97,617 men (involving with their dependants up to half a million people) and this tended to become the pattern in the West and South. The total sum set aside by the Government was thus £448,000, over and above what might be voted by the Grand Juries and the Poor Law Guardians.

Peel did not wish to interfere with local markets, but to rely on private enterprise as far as possible. He even concluded that the time had come to free the markets further by ending the Corn Laws. To prevent speculation and overcharging he ordered secretly though Baring Brothers’ Bank maize from America to the value of £100,000 to be held as a reserve in food depots, and only to be distributed if food ran out or if the local traders failed to supply particularly remote areas. This sent out a signal to many parts of Ireland that if the local people did nothing the Government would supply food itself from its depots. The depots, which Peel had envisaged as a safety belt, came to be regarded in many places as the primary source of famine relief, and one that cost the local ratepayers nothing. It is worth anticipating here and noting that it was not until the Whigs two years later made it absolutely clear that famine relief was the responsibility of the local Poor Law Unions, and only the Unions, and weeded out all incompetent officials, that the famine was brought under control. 

            The contrast with Scotland was remarkable. The problem in the Highlands and Islands was identical with that in certain Irish counties like Mayo or Cork. It was estimated that there 300,000 people were affected as opposed to 3,000,000 in Ireland, but county against county, the problems and the resources were the same. Everybody in Scotland pulled together, local works were provided, voluntary relief committees bought vegetables and soup kitchens were established, collections were made, and some assistance was received from the Treasury. 

             But in Ireland there were many who said that it could not be done, while others maintained that it ought not to be done, that the Treasury should advance £10 millions, £15 millions, or £20 millions for poor relief, and as some one put it ironically at the time, remit all rents and tithes, and pay everyone's debts as well as paying for the railways! Peel said that if any money were necessary the Government would advance it, but that 'a prodigality of benevolence' would do more harm than good. He was proved right in this when, the following winter, the Whig ministry was paying out £1 million a month while the mortality increased. Nor were either the Tories or the Whigs impressed by claims that the Irish counties in general could not find the money. It was estimated that the total rental of Ireland amounted to £17 million. Allowing that half of this could not be touched for one reason or another, (estate in Chancery, charges for the support of dowagers, or mortgage repayments, etc.) it still left £8 million. At a rate, therefore of 5 shillings in the pound, or a 25% flat tax, a perfectly adequate £2 million per annum would be available. Yet, even this would not necessarily be needed. If the improvement of estates was made the primary method of famine relief several years would be allowed for the repayment of loans, so a rate of two or three shillings would be adequate. 

            It is not easy to lay hand on representative figures about what was done in various parts of Ireland, for attention tended to be focussed on those parts where the various proposed systems for famine relief broke down. From published figures it would seem that in all of Ulster, most of Leinster, and in large parts of Munster, famine relief worked as well as it did in England or Scotland. It would also seem that the landowners assumed primary responsibility themselves for looking after their tenants, and provided relief works on their own land and not on public projects. 

             A very noticeable thing about the Irish Famine was that all the religious and political factions continued their squabbling uninterruptedly. When the Catholic bishops met in November 1845, it was to discuss the Queen's Colleges. When in later years they did mention the famine, it was only to add their signatures to MacHale's complaints that it was all the Government's fault, and that the Government should do something. Young Ireland and O'Connell also continued their disputes. In the early part of 1846 the division between them deepened. (The question of the preparations for an armed struggle and the involvement of the agrarian secret societies will be dealt with in a later chapter.) 

In December 1845, Stanley resigned from the cabinet over the proposal to repeal the Corn Laws, a measure Peel felt was now essential. Peel and the rest of the cabinet thereupon resigned. Lord John Russell failed to get sufficient support so Peel returned. William Ewart Gladstone replaced Stanley. In January 1846, the question of encumbered estates was raised. If landowners were up to their eyes in debt and mortgages, there was no point in looking to them to undertake works of drainage or improvement [Top] 

Peel’s Measures            

[January 1846] The Parliamentary term began on 22nd January 1846 and Peel introduced the necessary Bills. Peel opted for well-tried measures. He assumed that the new poorhouses would continue to look after those incapable of looking after themselves, that the county or barony Grand Juries would provide public works, and that private charity would plug any gaps. He also felt it appropriate that the Government itself should take some measures, while at the same time making it clear that the primary responsibility for relieving distress lay with the various local authorities. There was some confusion here, so the law had to be made clear. The Poor Law Guardians were responsible for assistance within the workhouses, and could not give any assistance outside them. The Grand Juries were responsible for any relief works outside the workhouses. The Treasury would advance £50,000 to build or re-build fishery piers along the coasts. Another £50,000 was to be given to the Board of Works to advance projects it was engaged in. The sum of £120,000 was set aside for loans to landowners wishing to improve their estates, several years being allowed for repayment. The sum of £228,000 was similarly set aside for loans to Grand Juries to enable them to undertake productive works. (These sums were voted in separate Acts, not as a single comprehensive measure.)  

O'Connell's speech on the proposals was temperate, forceful, and well argued, showing what a fine parliamentarian he could have been had he exerted himself. He pointed out that fever always followed famine and the Government should be prepared. It could use the poorhouses as fever hospitals. It could itself borrow money against the security of landlords's rents if the landlords did not act. There was no problem about the supply of food; there was enough in Ireland. What was needed was the means to get the food to the people. 

            The Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, agreed with O'Connell. He pointed out that Parliament had just authorised advances amounting to £448,000, and had also approved the raising of £9 million for the construction of railways. It was estimated that private constructors could spend another £2 million. To simplify the adoption of schemes for public works normal procedures for selecting Grand Juries were by-passed so that smaller committees in the baronies could put their proposals to the Board of Works and on approval, the Government would immediately pay half the cost. With regard to fever, the Government had already issued instructions to the local authorities. But it placed its greatest hopes in the repeal of the Corn Laws. An Irish Piers Act was passed, by which the Government would pay three quarters of the costs of fishing piers. A Drainage Act (1845) was passed allowing advances of up to £120,000 for drainage of estates, and giving the necessary powers to make the outfalls through other people’s lands. 

            The Railway Committee of Parliament charged with examining proposals for railways prior to passing the necessary private Acts to acquire land, had approved eleven new railways or extensions to existing railways. There were by that time in Ireland 122 railway companies (compared with 94 in Scotland). Throughout the Famine, the Government agreed to requests from particular railways for assistance to complete particular stretches of line. It did not accept a proposal to spend £16 million on building railways in Ireland, feeling that public money could be better spent in other ways. The Chester and Holyhead Railway placed a contract for a railway bridge over the Menai Straits, and was about to construct a deep-water harbour at Holyhead to match that at Kingstown. 

            The Government proceeded in a leisurely fashion. From past experience it was felt that no intervention by the Government would be needed until all other resources and savings were used up. But in some places, local gentlemen submitted numerous applications for money for works, in fact up to the value in total of £800,000, completely swamping the Board of Works that had to approve them. Few projects could be begun quickly. Drainage, for example, often required the consent of two or three adjacent, willing, and solvent landowners. Every possible road had already been made, so 'road works' normally consisted of re-making roads. Cash in hand was paid out to the workers to enable them to buy food. Payment was by the day and not by the task. Men who usually sought seasonal work in England joined the crowds seeking work on the local projects. Workers with jobs on farms left them to work on the roads. Even those working with the Board of Public works, for example, in the great Shannon drainage and navigation scheme, left to take easier relief work at half the wage. Heytesbury appointed a Central Relief Committee, and on 14 March 1846 a circular was sent to the committees of relief districts in towns, enabling them to be set up, and explaining the nature and extent of their duties. The Government also enabled Heytesbury to establish a Board of Health under Sir Philip Crampton, Surgeon General to the forces in Ireland to inquire into and deal with fevers. 

On 13 March, Poulett Scrope MP expressed in the Commons an opinion that it might be better to transfer famine relief from the Grand Juries to the Poor Law Boards of Guardians. Graham did not accept this, and re-stated the Government's policy. This was to hold relatively small amounts in food depots, the release of which would prevent speculation and famine prices. Those who could work would be assisted either by the landowners or by the Grand Juries; the Guardians would assist those who were unable to work. Peel added that if money would do anything the Government would provide it, but in Ireland, the very rumour that the Government is going to do something would keep the local authorities from doing anything. Combinations of workmen in the mines and on the railways were demanding higher wages, often with threats and menaces, even though they were earning three times as much as agricultural workers in the same districts. Graham introduced in March a Bill to deal with these disturbances. 

           [May 1846]  The 'hungry months' were traditionally those of summer, especially July, between finishing the sowing and the first digging of potatoes. In May 1846, the Government opened the food depots in those parts of Ireland where the greatest scarcity was apprehended. Lists of the actually destitute had rarely been prepared and there was a rush to buy the food that was cheaper than anything else available. Peel had miscalculated in this too. If he sold any food from Government stocks it should have matched local prices or been a bit dearer. Wisely, he refused to repeat the experiment when the maize was sold out. The London Morning Chronicle was very critical of the purchase and distribution of the maize. It said that once it became known that the Government had supplies ready to unload without warning on to the market to bring down prices, not only was profiteering discouraged, but ordinary trading in expectation of normal profit. Still, it considered that the Whigs would have done the same. 

            Collections were made not only in the British Isles but also as far away as India, where the army was fighting the Sikhs on the banks of the Sutlej in North West India. In some regiments the great majority of the soldiers were Irish. A further £3,000 was sent from the Presidency of Bengal. Local voluntary relief committees, totalling 648, were formed to collect and distribute alms locally and to accept the money from abroad. Private charity was to play an important part all through the Famine. In 1846 the sum of £100,000 was collected and distributed by private charity. 

            Total expenditure on famine relief in 1845-46 exceeded £900,000 compared with £300,000 in 1822. The advances from the Treasury amounted to £852,481 of which £426,240 was repayable. Employment on public works had been given to 140,000 men who with their dependants numbered up to 700,000. 

            By and large, the Post felt that Ireland had met the crisis well. It now remained to be seen would the blight re-appear or was it a freak plague caused by unusual weather conditions the previous summer. The first signs were good and at the beginning of June there was promise of a good crop. A bad crop did not bear thinking of. The Evening Mail went further and said in June that the ‘last faint vestiges of the famine and fever mirage’ had been seen (Dublin Evening Mail 1 June 1846) 

            Peel had pressed ahead with his proposal to repeal the Corn Laws, and split his party again. Many Irish farmers and landowners considered that as Ireland was an exporter of wheat repealing them would do more harm than good. They may very well have been right, but Peel passed the necessary Act with the aid of the Whigs, who then promptly ejected him from office. The incoming Whigs were not prepared to discuss matters with the Irish Tory gentry. These may have been anti-Catholic and bitterly opposed to O'Connell and the Whigs. But they were also often the resident improving landowners, agriculturalists, and magistrates. When they took matters firmly in hand, as in most of Ulster and Leinster, there was not much problem. But it could also be argued that where they did not, for example in Mayo, there was disaster. 

 In June 1846, Sir James Graham’s Protection of Life (Ireland) Bill to deal with disturbances was defeated at the Second Reading leading to Peel's resignation. 



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.