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Chapter Nineteen

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

The Famine Years II

(June 1846 to 1848)

Summary. The main problems facing the new administration was to compel the local authorities to take adequate steps, to co-ordinate voluntary relief measures, and to direct relief works into self-financing schemes like land drainage, providing repayable loans for this purpose. Relief schemes should be carried out by individual landlords, but Grand Juries could, by default, also make presentments for relief works. Central Government would provide relief in remote areas where no markets existed, but otherwise would ensure the Government measures would not disrupt the ordinary markets on which the bulk of the population depended.


Russell’s Problem

Russell’s Programme

Local Activities and Problems

Further Measures of Parliament

Peak of Famine

Flight from the Land

The Poor Law Unions

Famine Mortality         


Russell’s Problem 

          [July 1846] In July 1846, the new Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, succeeded in putting a cabinet together. He appointed the Earl of Bessborough (formerly Lord Duncannon) as Lord Lieutenant, and Henry Labouchere as Irish Secretary. With regard To Ireland, he tended to rely on the great Whig landlords who had Irish estates, the Duke of Leinster, Lord Lansdowne, Lord Palmerston, and the Marquis of Clanrickarde, besides Bessborough, and Spring Rice, now Lord Mounteagle. 

            The second phase of Government efforts at relief now commenced. Nationalist writers often stated that there was a major change in policy when the Whigs replaced the Tories. It was alleged that the Whigs were steeped in laissez faire economics, and preferred market forces to Government intervention, and that the ‘Free Trade’ principles of the Manchester School already dominated Whig thinking. (There were at least some Whigs who were inclined to laissez faire, and these probably had some effect on Russell’s thinking (O’Grada 191f. But the strict Manchester doctrines were never universal even in their heyday later in the century.) None of this was true. Russell, like Peel and William Pitt, accepted the teachings of Adam Smith as far as the benefits of freeing trade was concerned, but that did no mean that any of them believed in the wholesale scrapping of Protection. Russell had become convinced of the need to totally repeal the Corn Laws just slightly ahead of Peel, and even then could not bring his party with him. Both relied heavily on the advice of the Irish merchants and landed gentry. The new Lord Lieutenant was the first resident Irish landowner appointed to the post for a great many years. Had there been a restored Parliament in Dublin it would have been composed of the same gentlemen, and would have adopted much the same policies. The only difference there would have been was that the Irish Parliament would have had to borrow on the London money markets at up to 10% and repay that money perhaps within 10 years. The Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland wrote to Bessborough asking that assistance be given to the development of agricultural property rather than useless repairing of roads. Almost certainly, if Peel were still in office he would have done exactly what Russell did, both learning from what had been done the previous year, and both relying on advice from the same sources. (On nationalist mythology regarding the Famine and the need for historians to debunk them see O’Grada 173ff. This rigorous revisionist scholar occasionally fails to purge the nationalist mythology from his own mind. For example he seems to maintain at times the traditional idea of the downtrodden Catholic peasant facing the remote British Government, the muintir Shasana – English officials - ignoring altogether the resident Irish gentry.) 

It became clear that in many places not only was agricultural improvement required but a restructuring of the population. Cashless societies had grown up and expanded enormously. An article in the London Morning Chronicle distinguished between cottiers who paid a money rent, and consequently grew a cash crop, and those on conacre who took a piece of potato ground for several summer months. Though it admitted that there was little outward difference in appearance between the two. The cottiers however grew a grain crop, and the price for grain was high, so up to the end of 1846 these had suffered less. Those with conacre were totally dependent on the potato. If the local landowner let out all his land as conacre he too was equally dependent on it. With these the landowners paid for the work done on their farms by giving leases of so many acres of potato land. Or conversely the tenant paid his rent in so many days’ labour. Productivity, both on the potato patches and the desmesne lands of impecunious non-improving landlords, was very low. Few crops were grown for the market. The landowner got oats and hay for his horses, the tenant got enough potato-land to support his family. The tenant on his tiny patch had the name and dignity of an independent farmer; he was not a despised day labourer or servant. He could go to the fair or the races without consulting anyone. Between themselves, the tenants had complicated systems of credits, usually in days of labour owed one to another. Men commonly worked in groups on each other's land, but a strict account was kept of who owed whom. Even the shoemaker was paid by working in his potato patch. As the roads spread into the far West and South this medieval system of subsistence economy declined. It would seem too that in some of the most densely populated areas such as in the Partry Mountains in Mayo squatting was rife. 

In introducing cash labour on the roads or anywhere else, Peel and Russell had primarily intended keeping the markets functioning. They both believed that the best method of relief was by providing work to those who needed it, and not through the handing out of gratuitous relief. Work would be provided to pay cash to purchase food. But it was now clear that the potato could not be relied on, so the whole system of leasing potato-patches in return for some haymaking or harvesting could not be sustained. Some people, like Lord Cloncurry, argued that the cottier class could be retained, especially in Leinster. The cottier could hire himself (and his horse and cart) for seasonal labour on the local large farms where it was always in demand, and so pay his rent. But most people felt that the landlords themselves would have to take responsibility for employing the former cottiers for a cash wage. All the cottiers could be allowed a garden patch to grow potatoes or cabbage, and would work full time (i.e. six days a week) on the landowner's farm. The latter would consolidate all the holdings, fence, drain, lime, manure, plant with good seed, harvest and market the crops himself. Even apart from the potato failure this reorganisation and improvement was proceeding on many Irish farms during the 1840's. Ultimately it proved necessary to provide soup kitchens on a vast scale, but this does not mean that Peel and Russell were wrong to attempt to provide work. 

Within months, Russell was faced with unmistakable signs that the blight was back and more widespread than then previous year. But nobody could have had any idea what 'Black Forty Seven' would turn out to be like. There would be no breathing space, as in the preceding year, for the savings of many were used up. Parliament remained sitting to pass essential legislation to deal with what manifestly would be a much larger problem. 

In accordance with the advice of the Royal Irish Agricultural Society, a Treasury Minute was issued on 31 July ordering the discontinuation of works undertaken by the Board of Works under the 9th Victoria. If later, such works were found to be still necessary they should come under the new Act and be re-presented. The Minute further instructed that no ticket should be given to those who could get other work locally, that workers on public works were to be paid two pence less than the local going rate of wages, and that they should be paid only for work actually done. The Lord Lieutenant was empowered to assist private charities. Relief committees should never try to undercut local merchants selling food (Pilot 4 September 1846). The wisdom of these recommendations, a wisdom learned from the hasty rush to provide relief the previous year, is obvious. The Relief Commission set up by Heytesbury and the 648 local committees were wound up on the 15 August. (These had to be re-established in December.) 

            [August 1846] By the middle of August Russell had his programme for the coming year ready for legislation. As far as possible, the unprofitable works on the public roads were to be stopped, and public money shifted towards assisting landowners to undertake profitable improvements on their farms, thus taking on an equal number of workers. Russell's approach the famine relief was not very different from that of Peel. Speaking in the House of Commons on 17th August 1846, he recounted the various measures taken by the previous administration, their cost, and the amount expected to be repaid. The sum of £185,432 had been spent on Indian corn and oatmeal. Grants to the amount of £67,911 for various purposes had been made. £452,727 had been paid for public works, including those under the direction of the Board of Works under the 10th of Victoria, and another advances had been made under the 9th of Victoria. (As Victoria became queen immediately on the death of William IV on 20 June 1837, the tenth year of her reign commenced on the 20 June 1846.) The total advanced by the Government, according to the Report presented to Parliament was already £852,481, of which £426,240 was repayable. The Indian corn had been sold at one penny a pound, and this was sufficient for a man for a day. 

 However, it was not possible to carry on in this way. Firstly, he made it clear that the Government would supply no food itself. For the Government to enter into retailing food itself would destroy the local markets and disrupt the economy. The success of the sale of Indian corn the previous years depended on the fact that the purchase had been made secretly through the Baring brothers; this could not be repeated. Secondly, well-paid public works would draw away workmen from other works. A report from Ireland had already shown that men were leaving works that paid eighteen pence a day for public works that paid nine pence a day. (The logic from the labourers’ point of view was that local work was seasonal or temporary, while the public works were likely to be permanent.) Workers, too who habitually travelled to England for harvest work, stayed at home.  Reports from the south of Ireland showed the early indications were that the potato crop was worse than last year (SNL 19 August; DEP 20 August 1846). [Top] 

Russell’s Programme 

His programme was as follows. Some public works could continue but funded in a different manner. They would not be paid for by Government grants but by loans repayable by the Grand Juries. The bill would give powers to the Lord Lieutenant to summon Grand Juries either of the barony or the county. They would propose such public works as were necessary for the employment of the people, and these proposals would be submitted to the Board of Works for approval. Advances were to be made from the Treasury, the interest was not to be less than three and a half per cent, and the duration of the loans was not to exceed ten years, the levy for the repayment was to be made in accordance with the Poor Law Valuation, not the county cess as this was easier on the poor. In the very poorest districts, a grant not exceeding £50,000 could be made for works directly under the Board of Works. Relief committees were to see that tickets for employment on public works were not handed out too freely. It was proposed therefore to vote the advance of £175,000 from the Treasury to the Grand Juries and a grant of £50,000 to the Board of Works for the poorer districts. Labouchere noted that this Bill placed the burden of famine relief on the landlords in the counties (ibid.). The ‘Act to authorise the advance of public money to promote the improvement of land in England and Ireland by works of drainage’ to be done after the harvest was called the Labour Rate Act (1846).It enabled Grand Juries to strike a rate for employing labour.  

 The main emphasis of the Government assistance would be directed towards helping private landlords with drainage and other land improvements. The Labour Rate Act (1846) (9/10 Victoria) or Drainage Act 1846, or ‘Million Act’, was passed and received the royal assent on 31 August 1846. It allowed advances up to £1,000,000. It allowed the Government to meet two thirds of the costs of drainage, but not the costs of underground drainage. The work had to be completed before the money was claimed. (Farmers Gazette 3, 31 October 1846). Richard Griffith estimated that 1,425,000 acres of wasteland could be profitably improved, while 2,333,000 acres would never be fit for more than rough grazing. Half of this recoverable land lay in the western and south western counties. These were the very counties where most of the unprofitable works on the roads were being carried out. (It is worth noting that in the fifty years following the Famine much of this land was reclaimed; the problem rather lay in getting instant capital for the improvements. This was especially true when tenants began withholding rents.)

For this reason, and to encourage workers on existing relief schemes again to seek work on the land, all public works would be terminated immediately. But voluntary local relief committees could stockpile food as the Scottish voluntary committees already were doing, and if necessary the Government would assist with distribution. In some very special areas where relief works were unlikely to be undertaken, either by the landowners or by the Grand Juries, he would allow the Board of Works to give some direct employment, but the sum of only £50,000 would be set aside for this purpose. (This was a direct charge on the Treasury, and so on general taxation.) The Government would in no way be involved in the distribution of food, but again, in some remote spots among the peninsulas and islands of the west coast Government boats might be used. Referring to the abuses of the preceding season he stressed that the local relief committees were not to hand out tickets for public works easily, but to examine each individual case to see if the applicant really could not get alternative work. Special powers were to be given to the Lord Lieutenant to summon barony Grand Juries that would put forward plans. By the beginning of September there were only 12,000 still employed on public works. 

Russell made it clear, in a letter (17 October 1846) to the Duke of Leinster, President of the Royal Agricultural Society, that the Government envisaged improvement works, especially of drainage, to be the primary form of famine relief. This was written as a reply to a letter sent by the Society to the Lord Lieutenant asking that assistance should be given for reproductive works rather than for road-mending. The Government had responded by passing the ‘Million Act’. However the intentions of the Government were not being heeded, and most of the money was earmarked in Ireland for public works. Labouchere also sent out a letter on the 5 October restating that Act intended reproductive works to be undertaken 

Parliament then recessed on 28 August, and there was a strong and critical response to the Labour Rate Act (1846). It was bitterly, and with some justification, criticised by many landowners. They felt that Russell had rushed the Act through without consulting them. Grand Juries, of from twelve to twenty three members, twelve of whom had to agree, were normally summoned by the sheriff of the county like other juries. The membership qualification for a Grand Jury was the same as for ordinary juries, the traditional forty shilling freehold. But especially at what were called 'presentment sessions’ (the alleged source of jobbery) the sheriff called the wealthier gentlemen of the county on the simple grounds that they would have to pay the most of the cess or rate. Abuses did occur especially in the preceding century. Saunders' Newsletter had the custom of transcribing from London newspapers items which had caught the editor's attention. It reprinted an item from the London Daily News. This said that under the system of Grand Jury presentments that were assessed on the county or barony, the county gentlemen swindled each other and so kept each other in check. But when the works were to be put before the Board of Works, they all combined to swindle the Government! (This was on the assumption, widely held in Ireland, that the loans from the Government would never be repaid.) The more responsible landowners had another grievance. The specially called Grand Juries could consist of clergymen or lawyers or such like who could call for any amount of public work at the expense of the barony, the Government making immediate and unquestioned loans, but would never themselves be required to make repayments. (It is reasonable to assume that the same occurred where there were abuses in the Speenhamland system.) 

            O'Connell, in a letter to Conway of the Post approved of the Labour Rate Act. He, like many others, had regarded it as a signal that public works on the roads could be resumed under the new Act.  He listed several reasons why even willing landlords could not undertake drainage works:

The complication of interests - the properties of minors - the properties vested in trustees for married women - the properties in the hands of receivers of the Court of Chancery, and other creditors and annuitants, all these and many other complicated relations would require much time and labour to arrange in order to secure any Government loans for profitable works, and it would consume much time to investigate titles, and to ascertain the validity of securities (SNL 18 Sept 1846). 

O’Connell was not the only one to criticise the Drainage Act. In December, the Morning Chronicle in London said the Drainage Act would need to be re-formulated if landowners were to be able to use it. In the mean time, the Labour Rate Act was the only effective measure of getting money to the starving. In a letter to Russell on 2 December 1846, John La Touche noted that landowners, with the best will in the world, could not undertake even public works under the Labour Rate Act, if the rents were not coming in. In the last two months of 1846 twelve hundred notices of foreclosure of mortgages were lodged in the Four Courts. The Marquis of Conyngham wrote to the London Times saying his estates were so heavily encumbered that he had no money coming in to spend on relief. Conway noted that these encumbered estates were often entailed as well, so that an Act of Parliament would be required to sell even part of them. The Government introduced a Bill to remedy this, but the Encumbered Estates Act (1848) did not get through Parliament until 1848. 

A year later (December 1847) the Knight of Kerry wrote to Lord Cloncurry explaining his problems on Valencia Island most of whose 6,000 acres he owned. In 1795, the land had been let out on long leases of three lives to thirteen individuals, each taking four or five hundred acres. They promptly sublet, and left the island. With increasing sub-division the population had risen from 400 to 3,000. After 52 years all but three of the leases had fallen in, so he was made responsible personally for those sub-tenants who had returned to him. He was able to re-locate some of these on other lands he held. Of the remaining three leases, two of the middlemen held 2,000 acres, but they did not contribute a shilling to poor relief, nor employ any labourers. Instead they sent 1,700 persons to the public works. Yet the rents due to him from them did not exceed 3 shillings an acre. However there were no deaths on the island because of the assistance given by the Relief Committee and voluntary organisations like the Quakers (DEP 14 Dec. 1847). The Government had good reasons for its belief that Ireland was as capable as Scotland for providing its own relief during the Famine. 

            Attention in the past, for propaganda reasons, has often been focussed on baronies that made numerous presentments for public works. But most baronies in Ulster and Leinster were restrained. [Top] 

Local Activities and Problems    

    [October 1846] As early as October 1846 there were reports of mortality from hunger coming from Skibbereen. The problems of this barony were well-publicised (properly and with the best of intentions) all through the Famine by the local rector. This made it a popular destination for reporters and journalists anxious to see the effects of the famine at its worst, (again quite properly from their point of view). In a normal year, the menfolk, commonly called 'spalpeens’ or seasonal labourers would have travelled to the richer areas of Munster or even to England to get work. They might earn four or five pounds, enough to keep themselves and their families until about Easter. But it had been noticed that men had been unwilling that year to leave home to search for work, preferring to hang about and wait for public works to be started. The potato crop near Skull, an electoral district in the Skibbereen Union, had completely failed in 1845. This would mean that when the potato did fail they had no savings at all, and if public works were not started, or they were not employed, they just died. It has often been remarked that it was the most improvident, the most impecunious, and the most easy-going landlords who had tolerated the most sub-division. 

             A different picture was seen in co. Louth in north Leinster. The barony of Lower Dundalk in co. Louth comprised fertile land in the north of the county and the mountainous area of the Cooley peninsula. As was common at the time, the mountains were reclaimed and used for potato patches up to the climatic limit of cultivation. The density of population in the peninsula equalled that in Armagh, or around Skibbereen, or in the most densely populated parts of Mayo. The barony Grand Jury met on the 12 October 1846 with Mr. Thomas Fortescue of Ravensdale Park presiding. The rector of Ballymacscanlon, the Rev. Mr. Hobson, observed that the gentlemen were agreed that works on the roads were a waste of money. Drainage works were much better, but on the other hand took a long while to organise, and work was required immediately. They agreed on various works estimated to cost £7,400 giving employment to 1,525 men, almost all in the mountains. In county Louth also, Sir Patrick Bellew and his brother took personal responsibility for all the tenants on their estates, and provided work for all that needed it. Among 'absentee landlords' of whom we have record, the Marquis of Lansdowne and Lord Palmerston took equal care of their tenants.

         In Kerry, the gentlemen, including O'Connell, got together and agreed to present for works to the extent of two thirds of one year's Poor Law income. Presentments in Kerry for works of drainage on private estates were  £2799 from the Marquis of Lansdowne, £2,640 from the Knight of Kerry, £4,078 from Daniel O'Connell, and lesser amounts from other gentlemen. This was what the Government had intended, and Kerry had a very good record of famine relief throughout the emergency. Often the local Grand Juries took a pragmatic approach, and presented for railway works passing through their districts. Sub-letting, with the consequent 'Middlemen', was not yet rooted out, bringing confusion regarding who precisely the responsible landlord was. It was all too easy in such cases to say that the responsibility and the expense belonged to someone else. 

            The Mayo Constitution (Tory) was very critical of some of the presentments. Yet the amounts presented for were not, for the moment, excessive. It mentioned the barony of Carberry, in Cork, where they put forward presentments to the value of £45,000 on a total rental of £50,000. This would amount to a cess of two shillings in the pound for several years. The Government was to prove that the counties could find much more when they were forced to. 

            Detailed studies of what was done in the various baronies and Poor Law Unions are lacking. The Evening Post sometime later published figures about the assistance provided for the famine-stricken in three adjacent divisions of the Baltinglass (co. Wicklow) Poor Law Union. In one division, almost nothing was done by the local landowners to help, and the people were roaming about in groups of twenty or thirty looking for food, sometimes going into the neighbouring division. In the first division, one estate was in Chancery, while many of the other landlords were absentees. When the soup kitchens were introduced, 1,000 people out of the 4,500 in the division had to be provided with soup. In the neighbouring division, of equal size but with resident gentlemen and clergymen, when the soup kitchens were opened only 57 persons had to be fed. The figure for the third division was midway between these. Furthermore, almost all the money raised in the barony under the Labour Rate Act had been spent in the first of the divisions. Thus it is clear that the figures for those employed under the Labour Rate Act are directly proportionate, almost from parish to parish, to the ability or inability, to the willingness or unwillingness of the landowners and farmers to provide for their own tenants (DEP 20 April 1847). 

            Another complaint, made frequently then and since, was about the useless character of most of the public works. The intention of the Government had been to provide money for re-structuring Irish agriculture. This would, at the same time, banish for ever the threat of a recurrence of the famine, and enable the cess-payers of the county to make repayments out of the increased revenues from their improved farms. But in numerous cases, the landowners did little or nothing, and the much-criticised ad hoc Grand Juries made presentments only for re-making the roads. Poor Law Unions in England could apply a 'work test', i.e. send an able-bodied applicant to break road-stone with a two-ounce hammer. In Ireland, the Guardians lacked this power. Again, without detailed studies of a representative sample of baronies or Unions it is hard to criticise. Roads had been presented for over a hundred years and there were no new roads to be made. If the landlords acted on their own estates well and good. But if they did not, what could an ad hoc barony Grand Jury do? Certainly not trespass without an Act of Parliament. But on the other hand, not all landlords in a barony were likely to be positively obstructive. The improving of land by the larger tenants was also was also much in mind, and three or four Tenant Right Acts aimed at achieving this were introduced during the Famine. 

            But the suspicion remains that in a considerable part of Ireland the problem was considered as one for England to settle and to pay for. In general, people would concede, each district should be responsible for its own destitute, but a catastrophe on this scale would have to be paid for by the Government. Nationalists, too, may have seen the problem as a British one, caused by Britain, and to be remedied by Britain. Work on the roads was then purely symbolic. Everyone knew that the money advanced by the Treasury would never be repaid. Not much work was exacted to start with, and as the winter advanced and the workforce became steadily weaker almost nothing could be exacted. It might be said that Lord John Russell should have foreseen this difficulty of relying on outdoor work all through the winter. But Russell, as he pointed out in a letter to the Duke of Leinster in October 1846, never intended roadworks to be other than a safety net. They were never intended as the principal means of famine relief. 

            The Tories who had opposed the Act must have felt their criticisms on this point were now confirmed. The sessions had been called hastily, meeting even when threatened by local violence. Relief committees did not scrutinise lists of applicants for public relief to establish whether they were really unable to find alternative work. The relief schemes drew labourers away from the farms. And many farmers were glad to see them go.  

            A Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1852 had severe criticisms of the Labour Rate Act (1846). Few works of actual public benefit were undertaken. Those undertaken were mostly quite useless. There was enormous extravagance. Most of the works were never finished. Compensation for damages caused came to £160,000. To try to cope with demand the Board of Works took on 15,000 assistants, many of whom were totally unsuitable. The system of accounting was very inadequate. In some places the works undertaken under the Act were kept going after the system had been condemned by Parliament. Relief sessions in baronies had been called where there were no practical proposals being put forward by responsible persons. 

    [December 1846] By the end of 1846, in many places in Ireland, apart from what might be done by individual gifts of charity, the only relief schemes in operation were those under the Labour Rate Act. People have criticised the employing of crowds of hunger-weakened men, and increasingly, widows, on exposed road-works in driving sleet during an unusually bitter winter. But this, as we have seen, was never the intention of the Government. By the end of the year, the road-works were giving employment to 300,000 men and thus were supporting up to a million and a half people. In addition, the Poor Law Guardians maintained between 70,000 and 80,000 in the workhouses. 

            The numbers on public works steadily grew. At the end of September, when the harvest was drawing to an end there were more than 30,000 on public works. At the end of October there were over 150,000, and at the end of November over 285,000. The enormous numbers now being employed in the cash economy brought a shortage of silver coins, but not of gold coins. Silver coins had to be imported from England. 

Where landlords were providing work on their own estates the difficulties of winter work would not arise to the same extent because of the variety of tasks that can be done around a farm. Ominously, the Mayo Constitution noted that the workhouse in the Castlebar Poor Law Union was kept open solely by the generosity of the local lord, Lord Lucan. A poor rate had been struck for £2,000 but only £900 was collected. The editor considered that at least three quarters of the outstanding rate could still be collected. In December it reported growing starvation and fever (Mayo Constitution 10 November 8, 15 December 1846). A Central Relief Committee was established in December 1846 to co-ordinate voluntary relief, and charitable donations were sent to it from every part of the world. 

            More and more reports were coming in from various districts that some people were actually dying of starvation. On 14 December 1846, O'Connell told a shocked meeting that in Connemara, in western Galway, there were 47 authenticated cases of mortality from hunger alone. By the beginning of January 1847, the Rev. Robert Traill, the rector of Skull, near Skibbereen, said that people were dying at the rate of nine or ten a day. 

            [January 1847] The Inverness Courier, early in January 1847 complained that distress in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was as bad as anywhere in Ireland, yet public attention was focussed on Ireland. There were no potatoes, nor any work to be found. But it was highly gratifying to see how prompt and liberal the public was in relieving destitution. There were 3,000,000 in Ireland destitute, but in their part of Scotland there were 300,000. A meeting was held in Dingwall in the Western Highlands to establish a soup kitchen to which wealthier farmers could donate vegetables. The Government also authorised the establishment of food depots as in Ireland, where no markets existed. The Scottish landowners also provided work on their lands. Russell was soon to provide for soup kitchens in Ireland. On the island of Skye there were 5,000 families whose membership totalled 26,000 people. The local landowners could not cope, so they formed a relief committee to seek assistance all over Scotland. Cottars, who corresponded to those with conacre in Ireland, were particularly numerous, subsisting entirely on potatoes. (Cottar and cottier were originally synonymous, but in Ireland cottier was applied to the holders of the smallest tenancies.) 

            By the beginning of 1847 there were 398,231 persons (according to official figures) employed on public works. Of these 45,487 were in the province of Ulster, one county, Cavan, accounting for 20,000. Down had 429 on public works, though the density of population in the Mourne area was equal to anything in Ireland. Antrim had the lowest number of any county with only 255 engaged on public works though the regions around Larne and Ballycastle were as densely populated as any to be found elsewhere. (Antrim was also the county with the highest rate of literacy, though there is no obvious connection.) Antrim and Down were the great flax-growing counties. There were at the same time between 70,000 and 80,000 receiving indoor relief in the Poor Law Unions. 

             In Leinster, there were 69,585 on public works, with 13,375 in Wexford, 9,023 in Meath, and 9,323 in Kilkenny. None of these counties were particularly densely populated. Most of the counties in Leinster had between 1,000 and 3,000 on public works. 

             Munster had the most on public works with 163,213. Clare had the highest county total with 40,778, followed by Cork with nearly 32,000, Tipperary with 30,000, Kerry 19,000, and Waterford with 8,500. (As Cork was much bigger than Kerry, the proportionate difference was not great.) Both had large densely populated areas, whereas Tipperary was much more like Leinster. Clare was fairly densely populated, but seems to have lacked the larger farms common in the eastern parts of the island. 

            In Connaught, where there were 119,946 on public works, Galway had over 40,000, Roscommon over 30,000, Mayo 22,000, Sligo 13,000, and Leitrim 11,000. It seems clear that the figures relate to little other than a determination to spend Government money rather than local money. The figure for Mayo looks very low. 

            At the start of 'Black Forty Seven' the numbers, as mentioned earlier, of the numbers employed on the public works rose to almost 400,000. At the end of January 571,000 (with dependants amounting thus to nearly two million) were employed on the works. In February the figure was over 700,000, in March 734,000. The costs forced on the Government were soaring. In November 1846 £308,000 was spent, in December £742,000, in January 1847 £776,000. [Top] 

Further Measures of Parliament 

    On the 19 January 1847 Parliament was re-convened, and immediately became pre-occupied with the growing crisis in Ireland. Actual deaths were not numerous at this stage, except where fever had taken hold. But it was clear that winter had scarcely started and it was several months until the next harvest. One correspondent in London noted that Irish Bills were so frequent and numerous that it was difficult to distinguish one from another. (The idea was that there should be a separate Bill for each proposed measure, and the principle of the Bill was debated during the First Reading.) On 25 January Russell gave an up-to-date account to Parliament on the present state of Ireland. About half a million persons were now employed in public works schemes under the direction of officers of the Board of Works. These were costing £800,000 a week. Many ships of the navy were employed in carrying grain to the more remote parts. Relief Commissioners were appointed to direct outdoor relief through Relief Committees, or Finance Committees in connection with the Poor Law Unions. These were to be formed in certain districts to receive subscriptions, to accept donations from the Government, to establish soup kitchens, to levy rates, half of which was to be borne on the affected district and half on the county at large. The Drainage Act was to be extended so that advances to landowners would be repayable over 22 years at three and a half per cent. Half the advances already made would be remitted. He noted that most of the works undertaken since Parliament had risen were useless, but at least they provided relief. The rate of wages set low deliberately so as not to undercut farmers had had to be increased. (Farmers usually provided a daily meal of potatoes in addition to the cash wage, and also the prices of foods had increased.) The Relief Committees would supply food for the day at one penny so enabling the recipients to work their own land and prepare for sowing this year’s crops. It was not possible to allow the free distribution of soup without destroying the local retail trade. (This principle was soon abandoned.) A sum of £50,000 would be advanced to landowners to help them provide seed for their tenants. He would also give powers to the Department of Woods and Forests to take over waste lands and reclaim them themselves. He noted too that the system of middlemen holding prevalent in Ireland made it difficult to determine on whom the responsibility of landlord fell. A temporary Soup Kitchen Act 1847 was passed on 26 February 1847 to allow funding for soup kitchens to start immediately. A circular was sent out by the Lord Lieutenant to start the re-organisation of relief on the basis of the committees in the Poor Law Unions. A Board of Health was re-established to deal with fevers, and to advise the local committees. There was no permanent Board of Health, the Lord Lieutenant could establish them in any emergency. In June, a separate Board of Irish Poor Law Commissioners was split off from the parent body. 

Distributing cooked food, it was felt, would not interfere with the normal markets for food. The relief committees were to draw up lists of those who needed support from the public purse, and were carefully to scrutinise and pare lists to ensure that no one who could get spring work on the farms was given free soup. The, by now almost farcical, public works were to be discontinued as soon as the soup kitchens were set up, and in any case by the 1 May 1847 at the latest. When the kitchens were working, the Prime Minister noted that if anyone was still dying it could only be because of local neglect. 

Conway in the Post noted that wheat was being exported from famine areas to London, and he wondered why the merchants could not sell it at a profit nearer home. The Government suspended the Navigation Acts and the remaining restrictions on the importation of corn. The great rush to emigrate commenced. He noted too that evictions were especially numerous in Mayo. This point was taken up by Labouchere the Irish Secretary, who noted that middlemen, not the landlords were responsible. (The idea apparently was to recover land previously let only for potatoes, so that it could be let to other tenants to plant other crops.) 

[February 1847] On 22 February 1847 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, introduced his Famine Budget (1847). This introduced the third phase of attempts by Government to deal with the crisis. The economy, he noted, was prosperous, and the French banks had recovered from the recent crisis. (This meant that borrowing for relief purposes would be easier.) In Ireland, he said, the Poor Rate collected for 1846 was £390,000. There had also been many contributions from private individuals, and many landlords had given employment to their tenants.  In addition, the Government was meeting the immediate cost of the public works that in January had amounted to £776,000. The Government had also purchased grain at a cost of £295,000, but would expect to recoup this outlay when the grain was sold (a laugh). Therefore he would provide for future expenditure at a rate of £1,000,000 a month for the next eight months, making a total of £8 million in addition to the £2 million already paid out. This sum would be raised by long term borrowing at three and a half per cent, thereby causing a rise in the National Debt. He preferred not to raise taxes in this crisis, so would raise the money by raising the interest paid on Exchequer bills. He rejected a call to extend the income tax to Ireland. 

Russell added that the great problem in Ireland was the two million strong cottier class, so heavily dependent on the potato. These would have to be changed into labourers, and landlord’s estates improved so as to be able to employ them. He said too that Poor Law Unions in England had the power to put those seeking assistance breaking stones for the road, but in Ireland they had not. It was for this reason that the Government itself had to take the lead in providing public works. He noted too that not all the public works were useless; in many cases the labourers worked as they would on any other job. The Irish Secretary, Labouchere, speaking on another Irish Bill on 8 March, complained that if every Irish Bill was turned into a debate on the Act of Union, on the difference between Celt and Saxon, on taxation, and other subjects, the House would never be able to mature any of the important measures submitted to them. (Just about this time the racial theories that reached their full development in Nazi Germany were being developed.) It was however an opposition member, William Gregory, who had the famous ‘Gregory clause’ inserted in a Bill to prevent anyone with more than a quarter of an acre of land from getting public relief. It caused enormous resentment, but was in line with Russell’s and Peel’s wish to get rid of the tiny uneconomic holdings, and to force the cottiers to become either substantial farmers or else farm labourers. He also had clauses to assist emigration inserted. 

            Though making this provision for possible future expenditure the Government was not prepared to see the works under the Labour Rate Act continued. Those on the relief works in February numbered 708,000 and in March 734,000. The deficiencies of the actual works were too glaring. Russell had by this time realised that potato failure was likely to be a recurring feature in Ireland, and that the temporary measures both he and Peel had adopted could not be continued. It would be necessary to make the Poor Law Guardians entirely responsible for all poor relief, and also (despite Speenhamland) to allow 'outdoor relief' on a temporary basis. An Act was to be passed for this purpose. The entire cost would be met by the Poor Law Unions who would assess the Union and charge accordingly. This plan would not be ready before mid-summer at the earliest.  

The Relief Commissioners issued their first Report. They told how they first selected superintending committees in the 96 Poor Law Unions. These were to supervise the local relief committees in the 2,409 electoral districts into which Ireland was divided. Selection of these commenced after a proclamation by the Lord Lieutenant on 4 March and by gazetted orders on the 11 and 16 March. The number of Unions was increased to 127. The Central Committee then issued guidelines, two of which produced some objections. One was the prohibition of selling food below cost, and the other was a prohibition of giving assistance in the form of an addition to wages. It was not the function of a relief committee to administer such. They noted that this form of relief was intended to be only temporary, and it was necessarily of a nature contrary to sound policy. Archbishop Whately was strongly opposed to outdoor relief, as he maintained that once given all stimulus to personal exertion was removed.  

A temporary Fever Act (10 Victoria 1847) updating the Fever Act (1819) was passed allowing the relief committees to purify towns. They could bury the dead, clear away nuisances, and ventilate and cleanse cabins. The old Act, which allowed towns to exclude beggars was still in force, but rarely acted on (Newry Telegraph 6, 8 May 1847). An article in the Post denounced the filth and total lack of hygiene in some workhouses in regions where the fevers were most prevalent. One of these was in Lurgan, in co. Armagh. On 9 March the Central Relief Committee, Archbishop Murray presiding, sent out an appeal to the local relief committees to see that as many people as possible returned to working on the land. A Treasury Minute on 20 March requested that the numbers on public works be cut by twenty per cent. The Landed Property (Ireland) Act (1847) advanced one and a half million pounds for the improvement of landed estates in Ireland. On 25 March the Pope, Pius IX sent an encyclical letter to all the Catholic bishops in the world calling for assistance for famine victims in Ireland, and also a personal letter to Archbishop Murray. The Poor Law Commissioners dismissed the Guardians of Castlebar Poor Law Union in February. A Circular on 10 April ordered all public works to be suspended from 1 May. The Government sent agents to scour Europe for seed potatoes. Naturally the price of these was very high. However, preparation for sowing the crops, and planting the seed went forward steadily. It was found that the failure of the potato was by no means absolute, and in co. Down for example, seed potatoes had kept well in the pits in the field. Some thought that too many potatoes were being planted; though the crop planted was much smaller than the previous year. [Top] 

Peak of Famine 

Conway in the Post (16 Feb 1847) noted that two months ago people were dying only in Skibbereen and in parts of Mayo. Now they were dying in every county. In March he noted that fever was now raging all over Ireland, striking at peasant, professional man, and gentleman equally. The Government agents were working like galley slaves. It was noted that Mayo, before the Famine had had an unusually high number of mendicants. He also noted the unusual severity of the winter, and the fact that all who could emigrate were doing so. All those who can muster four or five pounds were going to America; those who could only muster a few shillings were going to England. The roads from the west of Ireland were filled with people walking to the eastern towns, while in the western parts themselves people were deserting the countryside and filling up the towns. It was the small farmers, not the conacre men who were emigrating (DEP 16, 27 Feb 1847).  

Apart from the well-publicised case of Skibbereen, Mayo was the great centre of the Famine. Why Mayo was worse than other parts of the western seaboard is not clear. In 1845 it was the only county where the rundale system of tenure was the predominant form. It was also the predominant form in Skibbereen. And with sub-letting a great part of this was probably on the conacre system. But it was in this county that fever and famine struck first and hardest. Judging by the advances to the relief committees, nearby Donegal seems to have escaped lightly (Mayo Constitution 21 September 1847). Gweedore on the Donegal coast was owned by Lord George Hill, an improving landlord. He had ended rundale tenancies, split up the land and introduced rotation of crops. Gweedore suffered relatively lightly during the Famine (SNL 7 September 1847. In April the Post noted that the famine was worst in the more inaccessible parts of the west and north west, where there was a total absence of resident gentlemen and relief committees. In it a letter was published from a gentleman who travelled in those parts. In his opinion the primary object of famine relief should have been to get food to these impoverished districts. If this had been done the calamity would have been avoided. He had travelled from Galway to Clifden, Westport, Belmullet, and Ballina. Little was being done to produce crops. The peasants had deserted their holdings and were wandering around in groups looking for food. They are no longer fit for work on the roads. In Belmullet typhus and dysentery were everywhere. There were no flourmills, and no baker in the entire region. Soup was impossible to provide, for there were no vegetables. There was no reason why flourmills should not be built, and wheat shipped in from the sea (DEP 13 April 1847). 

            When the scheme was in full operation 2,900,000 portions of soup were being distributed every day. The Third Report of the Relief Commissioners on 17 June noted that 1,923,361 rations were being distributed gratuitously, and 92,326 sold at the cost price of two and a halfpence per day. Of the 2049 electoral districts 1677 had put the scheme into force. If any actual starvation was still found this must be due to neglect. It noted the great difficulties they had in securing diligent and honest people at the level of the electoral districts. There was no problem securing the services of trustworthy people at the level of the Union, but these naturally lacked local knowledge of the people, to maintain due checks on frauds and impostures that naturally attend gratuitous distributions. It did not deny that there were frauds even among the local committee members, such as asking for more rations than there were people in the district, even to an excess of several thousands. The Government inspectors could normally stroke off several hundred persons such as gentlemen’s servants who were not destitute. Intimidation was rife. Absolute starvation was arrested even in the notorious case of Skull, an electoral district in the Union of Skibbereen. This at a cost only two thirds of the public works which had not provided for everyone. The Central Board of Health has recently directed the opening of 207 fever hospitals (SNL 3 July 1847). 

This Report met with widespread indignation in many parts of Ireland, but as a London newspaper commented, there was no indication that the Irish were more dishonest than the English. Also, as Conway noted, even when this gigantic scheme was in operation there were those who maintained that the Government was starving the people. (Cecil Woodham-Smith, who has little good to say about any of the relief workers, claims that the soup was very poor. But it is hard to credit that relief committees all over Ireland were not giving the very best soup at their disposal. Soup was always liable to be diluted, but the reason for choosing soup was the difficulty of re-selling it, perhaps for drink, a very real fear, as she admits.) It is hard to say whether a distribution of free meal or flour would have wrecked the local system of food distribution as the Government maintained it would. But even in the twentieth century it is very difficult to distribute European and American surpluses in famine-stricken regions without wrecking the fragile local economies and making the famine worse. Already in the 1840’s, it was shown that it was better to rely on voluntary agencies to distribute such food. By the middle of June, the number still employed on public works had fallen to 28,000, and instructions were given that all works should end by 15 August. 

            The soup kitchen relief proved far less costly than the public works, and far more effective. But the Government regarded it as an extraordinary and extremely costly measure, and was anxious to get the ordinary Poor Law controlling all relief as soon as possible. In addition the Government had purchased at a cost of £600,000 and distributed 300,000 quarters of grain to 34 depots along the western seaboard, and recovered about £200,000 in sales. The Government also assisted in the distribution of food supplied by private agencies and the grain sent from America and elsewhere. In the hospitals the medical officers promoted the eating of fish, and this was a great benefit to coastal areas. The Board of Works in the preceding year had spent £4,900,000 and £2,200,000 had been spent on the soup kitchens.  

            The Mayo Constitution was sceptical about the new programme. Gratuitous relief had stopped in the county. There was not enough harvest in the county to last a quarter of the people six months, and in parts of Erris and Tyrawley for only one month. There was no work on the farms for these were so small that the farmers employed nobody. The Unions were bankrupt, and lacked any means for obtaining credit. The relief committees should devise some means to help the people to survive until the 1 October, when the new rules would come into force. 

[Summer 1847] By the summer of 1847, it was clear that the threat of death from lack of food had been averted. But by that time, a more formidable killer was abroad. [Top] 

Flight from the Land       

        Already, in the autumn of 1846 it was noted that many tenant farmers were not paying rent, cess, or Poor Rate. When the harvest was gathered they were selling their crops, disposing of their stocks, selling their goods, and heading off for England or America. It was a case of suave qui peut but it triggered off one of the greatest ever disasters in peacetime, the Great Irish Famine, or more correctly, the Great Irish Mortality. As they cut and ran, taking with them all the cash they could collect, the burden of supporting the destitute was thrown on to those who remained. If rents were not paid, the landowners could not give employment. If the Poor Law cess were not paid those in the workhouse would starve. Those who left might take the attitude that the others would pay, and if they did not the Government would. Somebody else would cope. 

            But that departure triggered off another, the flight of the destitute from rural areas into the towns. In theory, this should not have happened. If work had been provided in each area, and following that the soup kitchens, the people would be relieved in their own homes, and would be ready for farm work when they were required. But they crowded into the towns, and once they were huddled together, the spread of fever was inevitable. Fever was the great killer, not hunger. Some might say that the question was academic, but this was not so. Fever struck down people equally in well-managed Unions like Belfast as in badly-managed ones. It struck down the better-fed middle classes equally with the poorer classes. 

            The Fever Act (1819) had been passed precisely to prevent the assembly of people in towns at the time of scarcity, seeing that this led to the spread of fever. But now people had a right to go to their neighbouring town to seek shelter in the poorhouses, which then became great centres of infection. But they were fleeing the country as well. Those who had long resisted the best efforts to get them to emigrate now made a frantic rush to get to England. Whole regions, especially in the West, were deserted. 

            Mortality from fever proved very high on the so-called 'coffin ships' which shipping agents chartered to transport people to America. The Canadian authorities sent official complaints to the Government, especially when the ships had to be quarantined in the St Lawrence River. The Board of Trade regulations specified that the ship must be sea-worthy, that it must not be over-loaded, and that food and water sufficient for the voyage must be loaded on. Apart from seeing that these regulations were complied with there was not much anyone could do. By crowding on to ships to cross the Atlantic people were doing the very worst thing they could, gathering in small enclosed spaces where the fleas which spread the fevers could most easily pass from individual to individual. 

            Evictions during the Famine continued, but no study has been made as to whether they were done before or after the tenants had fled. Some tenants had left home without paying the rent but fully intending to return. Others fled, taking the rent with them, intending never to return. In Irish law, in the case of an absconding tenant a landlord had to go before the court to obtain an eviction order to recover possession of his land, either to re-let as it stood, or to consolidate with other holdings. Others on heavily sub-divided estates were evicted when the head lease came up for renewal. It may be too that they systematically evicted when the tenants left involuntarily to seek refuge in a workhouse. To judge on these cases we would need to know what arrangements the landowners were making for the tenants when they came back from the workhouse. Were they given a cottage with a quarter of an acre of land and taken on as agricultural labourers? Or were they given enough money to allow them to reach America?  Or were they simply thrown out?  Detailed studies need to be done. Ex parte accounts rarely give the full story. 

            In May 1847 the Earl of Bessborough died. O'Connell, whom he had introduced into the Commons seventeen years earlier, died within a few days of him. George Villiers, fourth Earl of Clarendon succeeded him as Lord Lieutenant. He had worked in Ireland as a Commissioner of Customs at the time of the Marquis of Anglesey. In July, Labouchere was replaced as Irish Secretary by Sir William Somerville, a Meathman whose father had represented Meath for many years and had always supported the Catholic cause. A proposed Bill to deal with encumbered estates was abandoned because of lack of time. Russell asked the queen to dissolve Parliament and a general election was held. The Parliament had sat in seven sessions over a period of 5 years and 11 months. The final session closed on 23 July 1847. The Whigs were returned with a comfortable majority. [Top] 

The Poor Law Unions    

        [June 1847] The fourth phase of famine relief was about to commence. By June 1847 the Government had its new Act to transfer all poor relief to the Poor Law Unions ready. Outdoor relief, or assistance to people in their own homes, was to be tolerated for a while. The 'Gregory clause' that nobody could be admitted to the poor house unless he surrendered his tenancy was deeply resented. As can be seen from the figures, outdoor relief so contrary to the basic principle of the Poor Law, was to continue to be the larger source of relief for some years to come. The fact that costs to the Poor Law Unions increased rapidly reflected the fact that they were now virtually the sole channel of relief.  

            The Government calculated that with a rate not exceeding five shillings in the pound of P.L.V. the Unions could pay for all this themselves without having to appeal for grants and subsidies. If the Guardians would not collect the rate, they would be replaced by commissioners who would. 

            The numbers given relief were as follows: 


Year                 Indoor              Outdoor          Cost (£)

            1846                243,933           -------                  435,001

            1847                417,139           -------                  803,686

            1848                610,463           1,433,042        1,835,634

            1849                732,284           1,210,482        2,177,651           

            1852                504,864                14,911           883,267       


            The Poor Rate collected was as follows: 

            1846                            £   376,507

            1847                            £   645,657

            1848                            £1,619,810

            1849                            £1,674,793 

            1852                            £1,109,630 (Marmion).


            Before the scheme began it was estimated that at least four fifths of the Unions would be able to support themselves. In the event, only twenty five Unions had to get additional assistance. In 33 Unions the Boards of Guardians were dissolved and replaced by appointed officials. In some cases it was decided to split up and re-organise districts that rose in number from 129 to 163. It should be remembered that crops other than potatoes had not failed, and market prices for agricultural produce was high. Where tenants had not fled, and rents were being paid, Poor Law Unions could manage. 

            One of the problems facing the Government all through the Famine was a lack of any reliable figures for agricultural production. It was known that large numbers subsisted only because they had patches of potatoes. But nobody had any, even approximate, idea what the acreage under potatoes was. The Government approached Richard Griffith, the valuator for an estimate, and then started doing a census of tillage for 1847, the first ever in Ireland. Griffith’s figures were shown to very inaccurate. He had estimated that there were a million and a half acres of potatoes, four million acres of oats, and two million acres of wheat. A tillage census was devised and entrusted to the police. 

            The tillage figures for 1847 showed that there were 2,200,000 acres under oats, 743,000 under wheat, 370,000 under turnips, 345,000 under barley, and 284,000 under potatoes besides grass and rough grazing. But in the next few years, the acreage under potatoes rose to a more normal figure of just under  1,000,000 acres. The acreage under potatoes was 876,000 in 1852.  It is reasonable to assume that this was approximately the same as before the Famine. The land did not go out of cultivation and much of it could be used for almost nothing but potatoes; each family now had more land and so could grow a larger crop.  

            Ireland had remained very tranquil during the Famine. Scottish newspapers seem to indicate more food riots there than in Ireland. It was when the danger of starvation receded that agrarian crime began to re-appear. Where there were threats to officials members of the agrarian societies may have been involved. 

            The British Association for Relief of Extreme Distress collected £603,000 in 1847, of which £520,000 was spent in Ireland and the rest in Scotland. It was very critical of the way relief was being organised in some districts and preferred to appoint its own relief committees. The Quakers too had their own organisation for relief. Money poured into the country from abroad, much being sent to the bishops in distressed dioceses. 

            Between 1846 and 1849 the Treasury advanced £11,000,000 in total. The advances to the baronies and Unions had mostly in the end to be written off. To landowners for improvements £2 million had been advanced and £620,000 for the completion of particular railways. 

            Treasury advances to Poor Law Unions up to 14 August 1847 indicate the regions where most reliance was placed on public assistance.

Union and cost in pounds 

Limerick (Limerick) 40,270;    Fermoy (Cork N.E.) 23,829;       Westport (Mayo, west) 36,024;      Kanturk (Cork N.W) 23,283;      Ballina (Mayo, north) 28,545; Middleton (Cork, east) 22,224;      Sligo (Sligo)  26,677;        Nenagh (Tipperary)  21,937;       Tuam (Galway, centre) 26,568;          Rathkeale (Limerick, west) 21,734;       Ballinasloe (Galway, east) 26,505;       Castlebar (Mayo, centre) 21,574;      Galway (Galway) 25,703;        Castlerea (Roscommon) 21,273;         Ballinrobe (Mayo, south) 25,653;        Kilmallock (Limerick) 20,984;                   Skibbereen (Cork, south) 25,481;        Swinford (Mayo, east) 20,625,            Ennis (Clare)   24,289;      Kilkenny (Kilkenny)   20,331;     North Dublin Union  24,119.  (Mayo Constitution) 

            We can see that some unions like North Dublin, Limerick, and Galway, attracted applicants from outside their own areas. But the location of these high spending Poor law Unions is interesting even if no explanation for the distribution presents itself to the mind. They (with few exceptions) lie in  an L-shaped  belt from north Connaught down to Limerick, and then across central Munster almost to the east coast. The absence of Ulster and most of Leinster from the list is striking. As I observed earlier, reliance on public as opposed to private relief work is no indication of the severity of the famine in a given area. Also, we have no idea how much was spent on relieving genuine distress and how much on pure mismanagement. [Top] 

Famine Mortality           

        Mortality during the famine is a matter of some confusion. It was largely caused by fever not hunger, but in some places it was very heavy. In the region around Skibbereen at least 25% of the cottiers died. There were probably some areas similar to that in Mayo (where mismanagement seems to have been chronic). On the strength of reports from his clergy Archbishop MacHale proclaimed that 25% of the population of Ireland had died, or about 2 million people, and called for a Government inquiry. This prompted a tart response printed in the Newry Telegraph that he was like the Yorkshireman who asked the Quaker, 'This is the road to York, is it not? The Quaker replied, 'Friend, first thou tellest a lie, and then thou askest a question'. 

            Recorded figures of mortality from lack of food came to about 20,000, and this is likely nearly correct. Burials were made and records kept by the coroners and health authorities throughout the period. According to figures published with the 1851 census 192,937 died of fever, 125,148 from dysentery and diarrhoea, and 22,384 from dropsy that was probably the result of starvation (Edwards and Williams). (Many scholars now regard these figures as too low, and calculate that actual mortality was close to a million or even more, O’Grada.) 

            The same census showed that between 1841 and 1851 the population of Ireland dropped by two millions, and much effort has gone into trying to find where they went. Large numbers emigrated but all calculations are faced with the difficulty that nobody knows if the population of Ireland was rising or falling in 1841. Graphs from known figures or estimates can be plotted either way. 

            To the great relief of everyone the harvest in the autumn of 1847 proved good. The various schemes for assistance were now in full operation. Incompetent officials had been weeded out. As noted above, expenditure on famine relief continued high for some years, but by the autumn of 1847 the crisis was under control. Though the Poor Rate collected reached its highest peak in 1849 this need only mean that by then it was almost the exclusive means of poor relief. As so often happens, we lack proper detailed studies of total expenditures, including those by private individuals. The newspapers began devoting less space to the famine and more to ordinary politics.

            Despite all the blunders, and human shortcomings and failings and miscalculations an extraordinary effort was made by numberless individuals far and wide to ward off disaster. Ultimately they were unsuccessful, because the fevers got an unshakeable grip. Judgements, in the present state of research can scarcely be more than impressionistic. But if there was one group to be blamed more than others surely it must be the group of better-off farmers who gathered all the money they could and fled to America. Their failure to pay the rent and the assessments set in motion a catastrophic chain of events. One could go further and say that if there was any group who had an interest in placing all the blame on the British Government it was these. But if any body failed Ireland during the Famine it was not the British Parliament, or the British people, or the Irish Government. 

            Massive amounts were still spent in 1848 and 1849 especially in Connemara and Mayo, and deaths from fever remained at a high level. The workhouses remained full, and very many were given outdoor relief. For those on outdoor relief a ‘labour test’ was required, namely to break stones for road works. As the roads were never made, and the Poor Law Boards had no powers to make them, the heaps of stones piled up. But the normal process of the administration of the Poor Law was resumed, and the sense of crisis was over. The problems of what were to become known as the ‘Congested Districts’ were never solved in the nineteenth century and local famines and crop failures were likely to occur at any time. A curious comment on the uneven incidence of the famine is provided by a report in the Mayo Constitution (4 January 1848) which stated that deposits in the Mayo Savings Bank were just over £10,000 in 1847, down from £15,000 the previous year. 

             Sidney Godolphin Osborne (S.G.O.) writing to the London Times about the far West, remarked how difficult it was for those used to the indolent life of growing potatoes and cutting turf to settle down to steady labour. The gentry, even if they were resident, and they often were not, had no tradition of poor relief, and did not pull together. There was unlimited jobbery and corruption on the public works, and idleness fostered among those employed on them. Emigration was the refuge of a very large class possessed of a little property, who felt that all they had would be taken from them to support those worse off. More and more crowded into workhouses, and extra buildings and sheds had to be erected to hold them. Boards of Guardians refused to ruin themselves by striking an adequate rate, so the Boards were dissolved and vice-guardians were appointed to run the Unions. Even then, ‘to till was to be taxed’. The deserted houses were pulled down, and the land cleared as far as one could travel in a long day. The reason for this was that the Gregory Clause, by which a tenant could surrender all his land except a quarter of an acre to get relief, was not good in law, and the tenant could return to claim his holding. So the landlords wanted the land let to other tenants before they returned (SNL 6 July 1849). In a later letter he concluded that overall the Irish had made a very creditable effort to stem the famine, despite stories about individuals (SNL 10 July 1849). 



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