The Irish holocaust:
An droch shaol
"Providence sent the potato blight,
but England made the Famine"
The Irish Holocaust, an artificial famine created by the English parliament's economic policy and their domination of Ireland, was the greatest social catastrophe of 19th-century Europe. The reality of it is so appalling that there is no need for inflated statistics. The "Great Famine," as it is popularly known, began a process of depopulation which transformed the Irish physical, political, social and cultural landscape. The loss of three million inhabitants in five years (1845-'50) through death and emigration in effect removed an entire class-the landless rural laborer.
In a series of articles, Aengus O Snodaigh in this the 150th anniversary looks at the various aspects of the Great Hunger: the potato, death, fever, workhouses, coffin ships, relief works and the response, or lack of it, from Ireland's imperial masters.
By Aengus O Snodaigh
The Famine did not occur in a vacuum, and the lack of urgency by the English government in tackling it can be attributed to many factors not least of which were racism, free-market capitalism and the changed position of Ireland after the Act of Union of 1800.
Having lost its "own" legislature, Ireland had fewer representatives per head of population than England. Its MPs were in the main Protestant landed gentry who had England's, not Ireland's, interests at heart.
Throughout the Famine, all legislation and policy emanated from Westminster, while dire warnings from relief commissioners and others were ignored. After 1847, they threw the financial burden for Famine relief exclusively onto the Irish taxpayers-thus washing their hands of it. They were in fact adhering to the views of the London Times , which argued that "English" taxpayers' money spent on Irish Famine relief was money wasted.
The difference of attitude and implementation of Poor Law in England and Ireland was commented on by a committee of inquiry in County Clare in 1848:
"Whether as regards the plain principles of humanity, or the literal text and admitted principle of the Poor Law of 1847, a neglect of public duty has occurred and has occasioned a state of things disgraceful to a civilized age and country, for which some authority ought to be held responsible, and would long since have been held responsible had these things occurred in any union in England."
While the enormity of the task facing any government is to be appreciated when attributing blame for the deaths and destruction in Ireland, the British government stands condemned by its genocidal tactics regarding Ireland in those years.
One fact can demolish any sympathetic hearing which they or their supporters later sought. The sum total of the humanitarian or Famine relief by the English government represented one half of one per cent of Britain's GNP (gross national product) or less than 3% of their expenditure.
Approximately £7-million was provided by Westminster during the Famine years, a figure which led Archbishop McHale of Tuam to draw the unfavorable comparison with the £20-million paid in compensation to slave owners when slavery was abolished in 1836, or the £70-million spent within a few years on the futile Crimean War.
The attitude and the blatant racism of many of the English decision makers and their total adherence to free-market capitalism left the people to starve. Laissez-faire economic principles, yesteryear's Thatcherite policies, dictated that intervention would upset the equilibrium of the market. This policy meant that merchants exporting food from Ireland sought the markets for their produce where the price was highest-overseas. Despite what revisionists would have us think, vast amounts of food left Ireland annually (see table).
Protected by the over 100,000 soldiers quartered in Ireland, convoys of food were transported to markets overseas. Millions of tons of flour, grain, meat, poultry and dairy products were "escorted" under gun point away from the starving millions. The Waterford Harbor British army commissariat officer wrote to the British Treasury on April 24, 1846:
"The barges leave Clonmel once a week for this place, with the export supplies under convoy which, last Tuesday, consisted of two, 50 cavalry and 80 infantry escorting them on the banks of the Suir as far as Carrick."
Even those who took the initiative of arranging their own imports-smuggling-suffered at the hands of an English government which would not tolerate any interference in their economic policy. In January 1849, the Coast guard seized the Belmullet fishing fleet for off-loading flour from a passing ship. The relief from famine which fishing gave the people of Belmullet, Country Mayo, was therafter denied them.
In times past in Ireland, and in other arenas of their imperial adventure, the English were more than willing to set aside their principled stand on laissez-faire economics, as Trevelyan himself was to do later in India when faced with a similar crisis.
It is this willingness or unwillingness to intervene in market policies which raises the question of blatant anti-Irish racism. Key figures in the British establishment regarded the wholescale starvation, death and emigration of the Irish as an economic and political bonus. They could achieve the clearing of land, consolidate estates, and quash a rebellious people.
The English were in their own eyes a civilizing force on earth and, as the London Times eloquently put it in February 1847:
"Before our merciful intervention, the Irish nation were a wretched, indolent, half-starved tribe of savages, ages before Julius Caesar landed on this isle, and that, notwithstanding a gradual improvement upon the naked savagery, they have never approached the standard of civilized world."
An economic adviser to the government, Nassau Senior, is reported as saying, "that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good".
|Grain imports and exports 1844-'48|
|Year||Exports (tons)||Imports (tons)*|
|*Mainly Indian meal (maize) and wheat. Source: Bourke, 1993|
The man directly responsible for famine relief in Ireland, Charles Edward Trevelyan, permanent under-secretary to the treasury, was frankly racist:
"It forms no part of the functions of government to provide supplies of food or to increase the productive powers of the land. In the great institution of the business of society, it falls to the share of government to protect the merchant and the agriculturist in the free exercise of their respective employment, but not to carry on those employments... In Ireland, the habit has proverbially been to follow a precisely opposite course...
"A remedy has been already applied to that portion of the maladies of Ireland which was traceable to political causes, and the morbid habits which still to a certain extent survive are gradually giving way to a more healthy action. The deep and inveterate root of social evil remains; the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and unthought of as it is likely to be effectual. God grant that we may rightly perform our part and not turn into a curse what was intended for a blessing."
Another senior government employee, who controlled the purse strings during the famine, the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Wood, said:
"Except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into a state of anything approaching to quiet or prosperity."
John Russell, leader of the Whigs, was to become British prime minister-with the support of the majority of Irish MPs-just as the second crop was failing in June 1846. He said of the famine later: "The great difficulty this year respecting Ireland is one which does not spring from Trevelyan or Charles Wood but lies deep in the breasts of the British people. It is this: We have granted, lent, subscribed, worked, visited, clothed the Irish; millions of pounds worth of money, years of debate, etc.-the only return is calumny and rebellion. Let us not grant, clothe, etc., etc., any more and see what they will do."
The Economist went further, saying that paying Irish workers a living wage would "stimulate every man to marry and populate as fast as he could, like a rabbit in a warren." The Times said, "We help all those who help themselves, but we do not like throwing money into a ditch."
Following the death of Bessborough, Britain's new "lord lieutenant" [direct ruler], June 1847, was the Earl of Clarendon. Although Bessborough had been opposed to the export of food from Ireland, Clarendon, who described his appointment as akin to being thrown into an "Irish bog," openly said that "I am convinced that the failure of the potatoes and the establishment of the Poor Law will eventually be the salvation of the country-the first will prevent the land being used as it hitherto has been."
His experiences in Ireland changed him so that he was attacking the prime minister openly two years later:
"What is to be done with these 'hordes'? Improve them of the face of the earth, you will say, let them die. but there is a certain amount of responsibility attaching to it."
Or again later:
"Surely this is a state of things to justify you asking the House of Commons for an advance-for I don't think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland-or coldly persist in a policy of extermination."
Though some of Britain's Establishment came around to the view that intervention or relief was needed on a greater scale, Providence overtook them by ending that series of crop failures in 1850.
Although the legislature and Establishment are criticized for doing too little too late, the attitude and priorities of "Lord" Londonderry reflect the majority of Ireland's and England's Ascendancy towards the starving millions.
He made a contribution of £20 to famine relief, and his wife donated a whole £10, while at the same time spending £15,000 renovating their house in Mount Stewart in 1848.
The £2000 (not £5 as popularly believed) of the head of the British Empire, Queen Victoria, should be compared with £2,000 spent on her trip to Ireland in 1849 ,or the £200,000 raised and spent by the Society of Friends, the Quakers, on famine relief.
The potato and the blight
The potato was reputedly introduced by the English imperialist Walter Raleigh into his estates in County Cork in the 1580s. It thrived in the mild and damp Irish climate and produced a good yield even on marginal land.
An easy crop to grow, it was palatable and nutritious for man and beast and rapidly established itself as the principal food of the Irish poor and the one or two livestock they kept to pay their annual rent. An acre of ground could produce enough potatoes for a family to survive on for most of the year.
The growth of Ireland's population from four million in the 1780s to over nine million in 1845 is attributed to increasing dependence on the potato. The potato also led to greater sub-division of small-holdings, with greedy landlords seeking higher and higher rents for smaller plots of land. Most struggled to eke out a living, working as farm laborers or keeping a pig or two to pay the rent.
By the 1840s, three million persons depended on the potato, mainly the higher-yielding Lumper variety, which unfortunately was not as resistant as others to disease. The six weeks or so when the old crop had diminished and the new crop was awaited were hungry times for the poor. Fish, eggs, oatmeal, and lard made up the scanty rations on which they survived during this period.
Periodically there were partial failures of the potato crop because of bad weather or disease. These caused hunger and hardship; deaths from starvation or disease were common. The failures were partial and rarely lasted for more than a season. This all changed in the summer of 1845.
Coming from the United States to Belgium in 1843, phytophthora infestans--potato blight (An Dubhchán)--made its way to Ireland by August 20, 1845, when it was first recorded in Dublin's Botanical Gardens. Harvested and unharvested crops were destroyed, sometimes overnight. In a letter, Father Matthew describes one such occasion:
"On the 27th (July) I passed from Cork to Dublin and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd (August) I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places, the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly at the distraction that had left them foodless."
The hardship was increased when less were planted the following year, with much of what should have been seed potatoes being eaten. Only a quarter of the usual crop was harvested in 1846 and 1847 and a third in 1848.
Despite this, the potato continued to play a dominant role in the Irish diet well into the 20th century, and several crop failures in the latter half of the last century left many once more starving and dependent on relief, charity or emigration to survive, but never again was the Droch-Shaol--the bad life--to return on a scale comparable to the Famine years.
Disease and fever
Typhus fever was rampant throughout the Famine years, along with an array of other diseases, illnesses and medical conditions associated with the scarcity of food, lack of vitamins, weakness, the cold and wet, proximity to other infected beings and the failure to bury victims rapidly.
Typhus, transmitted by lice, affected the blood circulation and swelled and blackened its victim's face. Temperature would rise, delirium would set in, a rash would break out, followed then by vomiting and often gangrene. The Black Fever as it was known, was immediately identifiable from the "an almost intolerable stench". Often, yellow fever or jaundice followed.
Ordinary dysentery was common in those years, killing thousands. Scurvy and like illnesses were widespread and often fatal. Conditions were perfect for the spread of all contagious diseases. Clothing was sold for food, leaving the poor in filthy, lice-infested rags. The hovels were damp and cold, the occupants being too weak to dig turf or having sold their winter fuel for a few morsels of food.
Widespread though not infectious, was "Famine dropsy" (hunger edema), "that horrid disease in which first the limbs, and then the whole body, swell most frightfully and finally burst."
The eye infection, ophthalmia, spread like wildfire in the cramped conditions of the workhouses or the coffin ships, resulting in thousands losing their sight.
The cities were also centers of fever as the Freeman's Journal of July 27, 1847, stated:
"While fever patients pine, writhe and perish, among the close, pestilential atmosphere of crowded lanes and alleys, spreading the disease and dragging all who come in contact with them down to share their untimely graves."
Revenge for Skibbereen
It's well I do remember that bleak December day,
The landlord and the sheriff came to drive us all away;
They set the roof on fire with their demon yellow spleen,
And that's another reason why I left old Skibbereen.
Oh, father dead, the day will come when vengeance loud
and we will rise with Erin's boys and rally one and all,
I'll be the man to lead the van beneath our flag of green,
And loud and high we'll raise the cry: "Revenge for Skibbereen!"
Those are two of the verses of that popular ballad "Skibbereen," though in these oversensitive days "revenge" is normally replaced by "remember."
The small town of Skibbereen in west Cork came to epitomize the multiple evils of famine, and its name is indelibly associated with suffering, starvation and a society which no longer protected its poorest and most vulnerable members. At the beginning of 1847, the local Church of Ireland minister estimated that mortality in the union had reached 10,000 out of a population of 100,000.
"Sir" Randolph Routh held that the apathy of the local proprietors was largely to blame for such a high level of suffering. He forwarded to Trevelyan a list of local landlords who he estimated had an annual income of £50,000, and he posed the question, "Ought such destitution prevail with such resources?"
The suffering in Skibbereen was brought to the attention of an international audience through a series of articles and letters describing the local conditions as seen by reporters and other travellers.
Even as early as November 1846, local relief was overwhelmed. The local workhouse, built for 800, held 890. Two months later, another 300 were crammed in, and nearly 400 of those in the workhouse had fever. The reports of the situation spurred many into contributing to famine appeals worldwide.
A Cork magistrate, Nicholas Cummins, wrote this letter to the Times before the worst of the Famine struck the town.
"I went on the 15th [December 1846] to Skibbereen... being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men would carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of.
"In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive--they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful specters as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on.
"In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavor to escape from the throng of pestilence around. When my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins--the sole covering of herself and her baby. The same morning the police [sic] opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats."
Another account, accompanied by a drawing, appeared in the Illustrated London News of February 13, 1847:
"On my return home, I remembered that I had yet a visit today; having in the morning received a ticket to see six members of one family, named Barrett, who had been turned out of the cabin in which they lodged, in the neighborhood of Old Chapelyard, and who had struggled to this burying-ground and literally entombed themselves in a small watch-house that was built for the shelter of those who were engaged in guarding against exhumation by the doctors [body snatching] when more respect was paid to the dead than is at present the case.
"This shed is exactly seven feet long, by about six in breadth. By the side of the western wall is a long, newly-made grave; by either gable are two of shorter dimensions, which have been recently tenanted; and near the hole that serves as a doorway is the last resting place of two or three children; in fact, this hut is surrounded by a rampart of human bones, which have accumulated to such a height that the threshold, which was originally on a level with the ground, is now two feet beneath it. In this horrible den, in the midst of a mass of human putrefaction, six individuals, males and females, laboring under most malignant fever, were huddled together, as closely as were the dead in the graves around.
"The scenes we have witnessed during our short stay in Skibbereen equal anything that has been recorded in history or could be conceived by the imagination." --"Lord" Dufferin and George Frederick Boyle MP.
There are hundreds of similar accounts--and persons wonder why the Irish demanded an apology for the Famine of the British. Since this article was first written, the new English premier, Tony Blair, attempted an apology: "That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest, most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event. It is right that we should pay tribute to the ways in which the Irish people have triumphed in the face of this catastrophe."
If Blair, despite what Professor Joe Lee says (that "an apology concerning distant historical events is scarely worth the paper it is written on; it betokens no change of heart, merely a political calculation"--Sunday Tribune (Dublin, June 8th), continues to confront the past and present evils of the British Empire, we could be seeing the basis for healing and reconciliation between the Irish nation and England in the future. There is a long way to go, but a start has been made. The only appropriate memorial for the hundreds of Skibbereens is an Ireland where the people do not starve, where all the children of the nation are treated equally, and the ownership of Ireland lies with the Irish people.
Starving for relief
The "workhouse" system was imposed on Ireland despite opposition across the board. During the Famine years, thousands died within the workhouses. Other unfortunates, denied admission, died outside.
The Poor Law of 1838 had been aimed at providing accommodation for the absolutely destitute, and by 1845, there were 123 workhouses in Ireland, paid for by a poor tax levied on local landlords and, like other taxes in Ireland, passed on to their tenants. Conditions for entry were so strict, as was life inside, that the workhouses were the very last resort of a destitute people. Able-bodied adults had to work: knitting for women, breaking stones for men. Food was poor--even by mid-19th-century standards set for the Irish--and accommodation was cold, damp, and cramped.
By December 1846, over half the workhouses were full and were having to refuse admittance to new applicants. Few workhouses could cope with such a sharp increase in the intake of paupers, especially sick paupers, and there were widespread shortages of bedding, clothing, and medicine. This led to the practice of giving the clothes of inmates who died of fever or any other disease to new inmates, without first washing the garments. There was even a shortage of coffins, and many burial sites were situated within the grounds of the workhouse, sometimes next to the water supply.
Despite all these problems, in many unions [administrative districts for providing relief for the poor] the guardians and the workhouse officers attempted to provide relief despite their lack of capital and the various regulations imposed on them. In the winter of 1846-'47, over half of the Boards of Guardians were giving food to paupers who were not residents of the workhouse. This was actually illegal under England's law and was strongly condemned by the Poor Law Commissioners.
The introduction of soup kitchens in 1847 took much of the pressure off the workhouses. As conditions worsened, however, the workhouses became crammed. By February 1847, some 100,000 persons were getting workhouse relief, 63,000 of them children. A report of one workhouse that year states:
"The building we found most dilapidated, and fast advancing to ruin, everything out of repair, the yards undrained and filled, in common with the cesspools, by accumulation of filth--a violation of all sanitary requirements; fever and dysentery prevailing throughout the house, every ward filthy to a most noisome degree, evolving offensive effluvia; the paupers defectively clothed, and many of those recently admitted continuing in their own rags and impurity; classification and separation set at nought; a general absence of utensils and implements; the dietary not adhered to, and the food given in a half-cooked state--most inadequate, particularly for the sick."
The survivors of the workhouses had this to say about the system:
"Eagoir agus batarail agus cos ar bolg agus ocras a ba saol na mbochtan sa Phoorhouse. Bhiodh na ceanna ag slad chucu feinig agus chun a lucht leanuna, agus ni raibh le fail ag na 'paupers' bhochta ach an caolchuid -- 'an ceann ba chaoile den bheatha agus ceann ba ramhaire don bhata'."
With thousands still trying to gain entry into the already over-full workhouses, the newly-elected English government in the summer of 1847 seized its chance. Responding to the usual impatience with the affairs of Ireland on the part of the British middle and upper classes, and to the declining sympathy for the starving which was replaced by the cultural stereotyping of the Irish, the legislators removed the financial "burden" of famine relief from the English electorate's shoulders.
The government announced that the famine was over and stopped financial aid from the Treasury. The poor unions which ran the workhouses were now made responsible for outdoor relief despite the fact that many were already bankrupt. The collection of taxes was nearly impossible, and the richest landlords seemed to be paying least.
The Catholic Dean of Mayo estimated that in his diocese it cost a pound to collect every shilling, a one for twenty return. In 1844 it had been necessary to send 700 soldiers as well as constabulary to collect the poor tax in Galway, and in Mayo the authorities sent a warship, two cruisers, two companies of the 69th Regiment, a troop of the 10th Hussars, 50 police, two inspectors and two magistrates.
The English Chancellor of Exchequer, Charles Wood, justified the tight-fistedness (toward the Irish) on the grounds that "except through a purgatory of misery and starvation, I cannot see how Ireland is to emerge into anything approaching either quiet or prosperity." Pax Britannica, in other words.
The new poor law saw the demise of the government's experiment in soup kitchens. Though only in place since February 1847, the two thousand or so soup kitchens were at the peak of their operations, feeding over three-million persons a day. Only £50,000 was advanced as a start-up grant; the rest was to be made up by the cash-starved poor unions, which were of course unable to collect appropriate taxes from wealthy absentee landlords. The kitchens gave at best minimal relief and were a haphazard response to the Famine, but at least they were something.
The new law required that those seeking relief must be "destitute poor" and, in a move reminiscent of Penal Days, the Gregory Clause of the act barred those with holdings of more than a quarter of an acre [a patch of about a hundred by a hundred ten feet] from receiving any form of aid. Thus the London government facilitated the clearances of estates for landlords and wiped out a way of life and an entire class of farm laborers. Desperate to hold onto the little they had, thousands died of starvation rather than bow to this new oppression which had been added to their misery.
When it was suggested to William Gregory that the provision would destroy the class of small farmers in Ireland, he replied that "he did not see of what use such small farmers could possibly be." Palmerston, an influential member of the government and an Irish landlord himself, said: "Any great improvement in the social system in Ireland must be founded upon an extensive change in the present state of agrarian occupation, and that this change necessarily implied a long, continued and systematic rejectment of small holders and of squatting [sic] cottiers."
Even to those who accepted the Gregory Clause conditions, entry into a workhouse was not guaranteed and was often arbitrary, and your stay could be terminated at a whim: "Ranged by the side of the opposite wall [of Nenagh workhouse in County Tipperary], which afforded some shelter from the wind, were about 20 cars, each with its load of eight or ten human beings, some of them in the most dangerous stages of dysentery and fever, others cripples, and all, from debility, old age, or disease, unable to walk a dozen steps... In the evening some 30 or 40 'paupers' were turned out to make room for an equal number of the crowd, while the rest returned weary and dispirited to the cheerless homes they left in the morning."
The road to the workhouse became known as Cosan na Marbh (pathway of the dead). Up to 25% of those admitted died. Yet, by 1851, 309,000 persons were in workhouses throughout Ireland, with many more seeking entry or emigrating.
"If the government of Ireland insists upon being a government of dragoons and bombardiers, of detectives and light infantry, then up with the barricades and invoke this God of Battles-Young Irelander Thomas Francis Meagher, March 18, 1848.
"Work or blood"
Contrary to popular perceptions, the Famine victims did not all lie back and die. Short of popular uprising, Ireland was, according to English legislators, at its most "disturbed" since the 1798 Rising.
As the food shortages and evictions began to hit home, the ever-weakening victims reacted in different ways. Attacks on food depots, convoys or other locations where food was hoarded were widespread, and secret agrarian societies stepped up their actions against landlords and their agents. The Young Ireland Movement was also trying to recruit men to support their aim of establishing an Irish Republic where the poor would not suffer when there was plenty.
Statistics tell us that the number of persons committed for trial rose from an average of fewer than 20,000 in 1842-'46 to 31,209 in 1847, 38,522 in 1848 and 41,989 in 1849.
Desperation drove a starving people. Most of the "crimes" involved petty theft and were generally non-violent. The bleeding of landlords' cattle was widely practiced, by cutting a vein in the neck of the animal and extracting the fluid. The blood was mixed with meal to make a black pudding of sorts. The tails of bullocks were also stolen and then roasted. The theft of ducks, geese, sheep and other livestock initially increased, but farmers who possessed anything of value employed men to guard their fields, and the use of mantraps became common.
Instead, the people searched their localities for alternative foods. Birds, frogs, rats, dogs, cats, snails, nettles, weeds, seaweed and even grass were eaten. The latter contributed to the folk memory of the starving dying with their mouths stained green.
Despite Ireland's plentiful rivers and shorelines, many of these were claimed (owned) privately. Removing fish or other seafood from them was legally regarded as theft. Punishment was harsh, though transportation no longer appeared to be a deterrent and jail was often more attractive than starving. At least you got fed. Food riots were common, but tended to be directed at mills, corn stores, the canal barges and boats transporting grain and livestock to the markets or harbors to be exported. Forestallers (speculators) and merchants were also attacked for charging exorbitant "famine prices" for their stock.
Attacks against persons by individuals were not commonplace; the state of near martial law, the additional troops sent to Ireland and the carrying of arms by the wealthy and their agents kept these attacks at a minimum.
England's direct ruler in Ireland, "Lord" Clarendon, wrote that "there never was so open or so widely extended a conspiracy for shooting landlords and agents, and my fear is this will spread (there are already symptoms of it) and that the flame which now rages in certain districts will become a general conflagration."
Secret societies--Ribbonmen, Hearts of Oak, Whiteboys, Captain Rock, etc.--carried out actions against the wealthy in a more organized fashion. Cattle, horses and other livestock were killed or robbed; barns and houses were burnt; landlords, their families or agents were threatened, shot at, and sometimes killed. The activities did have a restraining influence on some of the landlords.
The killing of one, landlord Major Mahon in County Roscommon, was used as justification among the English Ascendancy to prevent Famine-relief measures from being discussed.
Overall, though the secret societies' activities were sporadic and localized and were therefore ineffective in trying to redress their grievances or to prevent the export of food, they were a source of anxiety to the propertied classes and the British authorities. Along with the failed Young Ireland uprisings in 1848 and 1849, the activities were regarded as acts of betrayal and ingratitude.
Much research still needs to be done on this topic, the passive and violent resistance to being told that starvation was inevitable--accept your lot, it's what God destined.
A letter in Canada's Western Star in May 1847 illustrates the people's desperation:
"Last Thursday, around 1 p.m., approximately 300 workers came together from the famous neighborhood of Rape Mills and made their way to the city. At the very moment that they were entering, they met Mr. John H. Burdett, president of the Aid Committee, who exhorted them, in the most conciliatory terms, to abstain from all excesses and not to violate the law, assuring them in the same breath that the government and the proprietors were making the greatest efforts to provide for the needs of the poor. The crowd responded with a muttering: 'Work or blood! We will eagerly accept any kind of work that can ensure our subsistence; but if we don't get it promptly, we will do anything rather than die like dogs.' "
No Axes to Grind
"Often in passing from district to district have I seen the poor enfeebled laborer, young and old alike, laid down by the side of the bog or road on which he was employed, too late for kindness to avail, nevertheless giving his dying blessing to the bestowers of tardy relief."
An engineer's description of a broken people. Such scenes were replicated all over the country, all through the Famine--humans so distressed that they were reduced to groveling like dogs for whatever pittance they could receive.
The role of charity organizations in trying to alleviate this suffering was momentous. Many overseas charities sought subscriptions, which helped to bolster the local relief committees in their work. The British Association for the Relief of the Extreme Distress in the Remote Parts of Ireland and Scotland collected over £470,000 and at the height of its efforts was feeding over 200,000 children daily in the west of Ireland.
Other benefactors, such as Father Matthew of Cork or the new group, St. Vincent de Paul, set up soup kitchens or took part in other famine-relief measures.
While the US government contributed virtually nothing in famine relief, its population was not found wanting. Through the Society of Friends (Quakers) and other groups, over £500,000 worth of food--mainly grain--was sent on 118 ships to Ireland. This figure does not include money sent directly to friends, relatives or others by those residing in the United States.
By far the most active charitable group in Ireland during the famine years was the Society of Friends. It raised hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling equivalent, mainly in England and the United States. To ensure that it was not cutting across the politics of the time, the work of others, or the grain merchants, the Society supplied rice, in the hope that local communities could look after themselves. It provided cooking equipment and large boilers for soup, and it pioneered soup kitchens in Ireland, developed a fishing industry, and encouraged new crops, such as flax. It ended its direct relief at the end of 1847, only because of sheer exhaustion, although it continued supplying relief indirectly.
The relief efforts of the Quakers have lived on in Irish memory, probably because they had no axes to grind and wanted only to help. There were no political or religious strings attached to their help. They were remembered as kind, generous and efficient workers who often traveled where other "relief" workers dared not.
(c) 1997 The Irish People. Article may be reprinted with credit.
Years a Nation |
| 1845-1848 The Great Hunger
| 1916 Easter Rebellion
| 1921 The Partition of
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