The Irish Bomfords
There is no doubt that the Oakley Park Bomfords were respected and liked by the local people. Memories are long in Ireland and this respect originated from the Famine period, ten years or so after George and Arbella first arrived at Kells. Nothing much is known about the family during the famine except that they had a soup kitchen at Oakley Park and George was one of the Guardians of the Kells workhouse, being chairman in 1851; the lists of tenants before and after the famine shows the same names so there were no eviction or families wiped out. However since the whole tenor of life changed during this period it might make understanding easier if a few notes were made and to do so we must retrace history.
Ireland was first invaded by England in 1169 but it was never subdued. Land was confiscated and redistributed over and over again and the population brought to the verge of extinction; after Cromwell’s conquest only about a half million Irish survived, and they were mostly transplanted to Connaught with some to Munster. During the next two hundred years the population increased to about eight and a quarter million in 1841. Although there were uprisings these 200 years were fairly stable and the people were light-hearted and gay; they enjoyed dancing, telling stories, and conversation. Their mode of life gave plenty of time for this since their staple diet - the potato required little attention except in the spring and at harvest. They were also lucky because turf was plentiful and cost little or nothing, so their hovels were always warm. Poteen, or illicit whiskey, was also plentiful. The way of life was easy, enough food for little work giving time to attend a dance at the cross-roads, a fair or a funeral, a horse race, a fight or a wedding. Crowds of neighbours would gaily travel vast distances to attend these, with liberal potations of Poteen when all their worries would be forgotten.
Good manners and hospitality were universal even amongst the poorest. Sir John Carr wrote in the early 1800s, “ The neighbour or the stranger finds every man’s door open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time and to partake of his bowl of potatoes, is always sure to give pleasure to everyone of the house”; and twenty years later Sir Walter Scott found “perpetual kindness in the Irish cabin; buttermilk, potatoes, a stool is offered, or a stone is rolled that your honour may sit down”; the young daughter of a British Army officer, Elizabeth Ham, was astonished to find that just after the 1798 rebellion she could wander without fear of molestation, whilst in England she could not go into the fields or woods alone.
Irish dignity, Irish hospitality and the easy good manners, which still charm the modern traveller, can be explained. Three times at least the native aristocracy was conquered and dispossessed, and forced down by poverty and penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry. That figure of fun in Victorian days, the Irish beggar who claimed to be descended from Kings, was very often speaking the truth.
There was a darker and more sinister side to the Irish character. A land agent said just before the famine, “they are a very desperate people, with all this degree of courtesy, hospitality and cleverness amongst them”. Their blend of courage and evasiveness, tenacity and inertia, loyalty and double-dealing was almost totally due to the 1695 Penal Laws which barred Roman Catholics from every civic activity, be it law, commerce or the army. They were not allowed to attend school, their church services were illegal meetings and their priests were outlawed. But what probably led to the greatest hardship was that they could not purchase land and, if they owned land, it had to be split among all the sons on the death of the father; this led to minute holdings and forced families to rely on the potato which could supply a family for a year on as little as an acre and a half of ground. Most families had no land at all and these would offer their labour to a landowner in exchange for a small plot of land. There was little or no security in this but at least they could feed themselves and generally the only money, which came in, was from the sale of a pig or hens. A ‘good’ landlord would care in a feudal way for ‘his’ families and gain their respect, whereas a ‘bad’ landlord would suffer at the hands of secret societies. These societies flourished because the law did not give the peasant justice, so he set up his own law which punished, with dreadful savagery, the informer, the supplanter of an evicted tenant, or the landlord’s man. To protect his land and so his food, or his priest, he must be secret, cunning, and a concealer of the truth. Those were dangerous lessons for any government to compel its subjects to learn, and a dangerous habit of mind for any nation to acquire.
Thus the potato became the staple diet, but it was the most dangerous of crops. It could not be stored from one season to another, so every year all those with no regular employment more or less starved in the summer, when the old potatoes were finished and the new had not come in. These summer months were called the ‘mealy months’, and meal had to be bought at the cost of the sale of the pig or more usually on credit at exorbitant interest from the dreaded ‘Combeen Man’. More serious still, if the potato did fail, neither meal nor anything else could replace it because no such equally cheap food existed, and even if it did the peasant simply did not have the money to pay for it.
Yet the British Government felt no apprehension about the potato crop, it was only concerned with the problems arising from Ireland’s perennial rebelliousness and from the swarming poverty-stricken population. Far worse was the rejection by the London Government of its own promises made in the Act of Union of 1801 - free trade, Catholic emancipation, unprejudiced laws and so on. These broken promises not only incensed the peasantry but the landed gentry as well, and by 1840 the London Government made up its mind that the property of Ireland must support the poverty of Ireland. This meant that those with property had to pay for those without, a fine principle if shared equally throughout the whole Union of 1801. In Ireland this would mean a gigantic expenditure of at least five million pounds a year and there was no possibility of raising such a sum in Ireland. Such were the consequences of the 1838 Irish Poor Law Act, and the so-called Act of Union meant nothing to the Irish but gave the English the right to do whatever they wanted in Ireland. In the 45 years since the Union no fewer than 114 Commissions and 61 Special Committees were instructed to report on the state of Ireland, and without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low.
Failure of the potato crop had occurred 24 times between 1728 and 1844, but only on four occasions was the failure total throughout the country. Thus the unreliability of the potato was an accepted fact and in 1845 the possibility of yet another failure caused no particular alarm.
The 1845 failure was total and was caused by the ‘American Blight’, a new disease that had crossed the Atlantic that year and which was completely new to Europe.
2. The Blight
As the 1845 potato crop was dug it was found that it had either rotted in the ground or that it was dug sound but rotted, when it was stored. Disastrous reports poured in from all parts of the country. Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, acting on his own responsibility and without waiting for Treasury sanction ordered £100,000 worth of Indian maize, to be purchased in the United States and shipped to Ireland. This proved to be the decisive factor in relieving the distress of 1845 - 1846, but it was never Peel’s plan to simply feed it to the starving population. His plan was to hold it in reserve and’ thrown in whenever food prices rose unreasonably. The theory was one of “laissez faire”, that the people do as they think best and that the government should interfere as little as possible; this economic theory was held by almost every politician of the day and was a fanatical belief in private enterprise. Peel’s only worry was that the private traders would raise the price of food beyond the means of the Irish. Maize was purchased since no trade in maize existed thus no one could complain of Government interference “in a trade which did not exist”, and he could at will release some maize to hold down the price of other foodstuffs.
The first flaw in the plan was the undeveloped state of the food and provision trade in the west and southwest, hardly anyone purchased food at all; they grew potatoes and lived on them. There was no organisation on the English model for importing and distributing supplies, so when food ran out there was no-one to order up a new supply, there was no means of moving the food, and, even if it did arrive, there were no village shops to sell it.
The second flaw was that the potato, not money, was the basic factor by which the value of labour was determined. Farmers gave their labourers a cabin and a piece of potato ground, and the rent was worked off in days of labour at wages varying from 4d to 8d a day. These wages were not given in money into the labourer’s hand, but set off against his rent, and they did not represent the real reward for his labour. The real reward was the patch of potato ground. Customarily the only dealing in money was the receipt of a few shillings from the sale of a pig, and this provided such clothing as the family possessed. Indeed Mr Campbell Foster when visiting Galway in 1846 found “So little do the people know of the commercial value of money that they are constantly in the habit of pawning it”; a pawnbroker showed him a drawer full of coins and notes of high value which had been pawned; they included a, £10 note pawned for 10/- and a gold guinea pawned for 15/-.
It is inconceivable that these two flaws in the theory of non-interference by the Government were not understood by those in high office and this led to many decisions during the famine, which can only be described as gross stupidity. However it was realized that the principal cause of Irish misery was the bad relations between landlord and tenant. The landlord was of English extraction whereas the tenant was Irish and so completely is the history of one the reverse of the other that to the Englishman the name of Elizabeth the First means glory, victory and prosperity, but to the Irishman her name only means degradation, misery and ruin; in the defeat of the Armada, Ireland’s hopes for independence went down. The more recent Napoleonic Wars were the same; England’s gain was Ireland’s loss. (It was found, when Oakley Park was partly demolished, that the underside of a floorboard had “Long Live Napoleon” carved on it). The uprising of 1798 was a glorious though unsuccessful bid for freedom to the Irish, but was condemned by the English as a “Rebellion” in which the Irish tried to stab her in the back at a time when she was having difficulties with the French. This basic difference in outlook through the centuries caused many landlords to live in England on the rents of his Irish estates. In 1842 it was estimated that about six million pounds of rents were being remitted out of Ireland by the agents of the absentee landlord. The agents were given almost absolute power and their ability was measured by the amount of money they could contrive to extract from the tenant. Colonel Connolly of Castletown, Co Kildare, said in the House of Lords in 1846 “where the landlords have never seen their estates, you can hardly suppose that their sympathies are very strong for the suffering they have never witnessed”.
There were notable exceptions particularly amongst those landlords who resided on their own lands; the names of those, who were sympathetic to the misery of their labour or tenants, survive and are regarded with affection amongst the Irish today.
The tenant only felt secure if his rent had been paid; when it was in arrears he had to find the money or he could be evicted, and since his land meant food he must above all somehow raise the rent money, even if it meant that his family should suffer. That patch of potato ground must above all be kept, for even if the crop failed one year it was unlikely to fail the next year. The possession of a piece of land was literally the difference between life and death. “Ejectment” the House of Commons was told in 1846 “is tantamount to a sentence of death by slow torture”. Turned off the land, evicted families wandered about begging, “miserable and turbulent”, and “they die in a little time”. The lucky few were those who found a roof over their heads in an unwanted room in a town, where they crowded in and perhaps four or five families would lie huddled together in a garret or cellar without proper clothes or bedding or food, while the men scavenged for casual labour, which was seldom to be had.
3. Famine Relief
When the extent of the potato blight was known in the autumn of 1845 a Famine Relief Commission was set up, backed by the Commissariat department of the British Army. This organisation was similar to that which had been set up on previous famine occasions and its duty was to organise local committees to raise subscriptions, to buy food for resale to distressed persons and to increase local employment schemes; the Irish Board of Works was to create extra employment by the traditional method of making new roads. The fact that these measures had been tried in 1839 and found to be useless was ignored by the politicians. It had been found for instance that some subscriptions could be raised in the richer farming counties, but in the very area where the poorer people lived even the landlords were virtually destitute; in, for instance, Kerry it was impossible for enough money to be collected locally to relieve the people because the majority of the landlords were hopelessly insolvent and relied on money coming from the rents from year to year. Famine naturally meant virtually no income from rents. However desperate were the needs of their tenants the landlords were powerless to give any help. The purchase of food for resale to the distressed was equally useless, families simply did not have any money once the pig or hen had been sold. Similarly it had been found that an increase of local employment relied on landlord’s schemes, but many of the landlords could not pay additional wages; indeed in the most distressed areas just the opposite happened, since no rents were being paid labour was actually laid off, because the landlord could not even afford to carry the usual number of working men. Many landlords did in fact overstretch themselves and never recovered, some actually had to sell their encumbered estates. It was a near thing at Oakley Park where George and Arbella, having spent much of their money before the famine on the extension to the house, spent more on building walls and other improvements around the place to give famine employment; but having denuded their bank balance they were left with an income only from the land, and so as time passed land was sold to make ends meet. It was the famine, which started the beginning of the end of the large landlord.
In the long and troubled history of England and Ireland no issue has provoked so much anger, or so embittered relations between the two countries, as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. John Mitchell asserted that a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine with a cargo of grain was “sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo”. The Government was urged to take measures to stop this export but without success, the idea of no interference was too entrenched. It seems odd that the Irish sold their grain when they were starving, but it must be appreciated that the art of cooking food other than the potato had become a lost art; the oven, for instance, was unknown in the west of Ireland. The people did not regard wheat, oats and barley as food - they were grown to pay the rent, which was the first necessity of life in Ireland. It would be a desperate man who ate up his rent with the certainty before him of eviction and death. Nor was this only true of the poorest. A farmer with a holding of above average size on the Marquess of Conyngham’s estate near Slane reported to the 1846 Commission “Not a bit of bread have I eaten since I was born, nor a bit of butter. We sell all the corn and the butter to give to the landlord (for rent) yet I have the largest farm in the district and am as well off as any man in the county.”
Nevertheless the harsh truth that the poverty of the peasant and the power of the landlord, gave the Irish a burning sense of injustice and he was furiously resentful when food left the towns under the eyes of the hungry populace, protected by a military escort. The commissariat officer wrote from Waterford in April 1846, “...the barge leaves Clonmel once a week for this place. Last Tuesday the convoy consisted of 2 guns, 50 cavalry and 80 infantry”. This was a sight which the Irish people found impossible to understand and impossible to forget.
In March 1846 Sir Robert Peel introduced an Act to give some employment to the destitute. Each Barony supplied a committee, which could propose local works, pass their proposal to Dublin and, if passed, the work was to be carried out with government funds, half being a grant and half a loan to be repaid by the Barony to the Treasury. The works were put into operation and administered by the Irish Board of Works; it was a heavy and difficult task. Business like habits and technical knowledge were rare in backward Ireland. Moreover the Board of Works had only recently been established and were lamentably under-staffed with only three members and a ‘niggardly office establishment’. Although its duties were exclusively Irish, the Board was under the control of the Treasury and every item of expenditure however small had to be sent to London for approval by the Treasury together with estimates and plans.
The Board’s difficulties were immediately increased by the arrival of a deluge of applications, which overwhelmed the inadequate organisation. The Government had failed to realise the financial attraction to the landowners of the Act. Half the money was a free grant and 20 years were allowed for the repayment of the remaining half. Landlords hurried to secure a share of government money and before the end of May applications had been placed for no less than £800,000. But the applications piled up unanswered, employment did not begin and the country became rebellious.
The potato crop had failed in 1845 and the poor had sold everything they had to feed themselves during that winter. Many had not succeeded and by the spring of 184.6 there were many thousands of deaths due to starvation. The Government in London had failed to foresee the size of the problem and had acted too late. When the works did start the numbers who applied for employment were frightening. Tens of thousands appeared for work at 6d or 8d a day. This amount gave one meal a day to a family of six, and as long as a family had one member working then that family would survive - just. But no amount of work could be arranged so that every family could be kept alive and vast numbers died before the next crop of potatoes were ready to be dug. It was not long before the Indian corn which Peel had ordered was finished, and officials in Ireland implored the Government to order more.
While this was going on the Peel Government fell and a new one was elected which had even less sympathy for the Irish ‘problem’; and then, far worse for the Irish, the 1846 potato crop also failed. The new Government had accepted the fact that the failure of the crop for the second year would cause starvation in Ireland on a vast scale. Their policy makes astonishing reading, for the Government decreed that they would not import food from abroad into Ireland; whatever might be done by starting public works and paying wages, the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders; and they knew that private traders would not import food for people who simply did not have the money to pay for it. They ignored the fact that the policy of ‘laissez faire’ had failed before and was a current failure. There is no excuse for the complete lack of understanding of the problem and their decision to do nothing has been described as genocide - race murder. The people were already exhausted and those that were still alive, despaired. Whatever resources they once possessed had been used up, and death from starvation was no longer a possible but an immediate fate.
When the above became known the people clutched wildly at public works as their only hope of staying alive. They swarmed for tickets to work and those in charge found it impossible to refuse them. Chaos ensued, there were not enough officials to plan the work let alone see that it was carried out correctly. To the worker the worst of this chaos was the delay in paying wages. Not only was there a shortage of pay clerks, but also coin ran short. Captain Kennedy, the Board of Works officer for County Meath, reported on 3rd November, 1846, that the pay department was so under staffed that one clerk was expected to pay 5,000 men in three different baronies, which was clearly impossible. At Kells the men had not been paid for more than two weeks and only the action of the Savings Bank manager, who advanced £150, prevented an outbreak. Two weeks without pay was sufficient time for whole families to die of starvation, and in November the Lord Lieutenant called for a report of the numbers of persons who had died from starvation on the works because their wages were delayed.
4. The Winter of 1846 - 1847
Autumn 1846 passed into winter. The nettles and blackberries, the edible roots and cabbage leaves, on which hundreds of people had been eking out an existence, disappeared, even the cats and dogs disappeared; flocks of wretched beings, resembling human scarecrows, had combed the blighted potato fields over and over again until not a fragment of a potato remained. Then in November it seemed that nature herself was enrolled among the enemies of unhappy Ireland.
The Winter of 1846 - 1847 was “the most severe in living memory”, and the longest. Snow fell, six inches and drifts were reported from Tyrone at the early date of November 12th; frost was continuous; icy gales from the northeast blew “perfect hurricanes of snow, hail and sleet”, with a force unknown since the ‘Great Wind’ of January 1839 (25.3.4); roads were impassable and transport was brought to a standstill. Country folk unsure of their age would say later on, “I could hold a potato in me hand on the night of the Big Wind”, indicating that they had been born before 1839 and before the Famine.
Under normal circumstances this weather would have caused hardship but the Irish peasant would weather the storm by simply staying indoors, with a plentiful supply of turf for warmth and potatoes for food. Although he was dressed in rags and his children were naked, except for a single garment, he would be warm in his cabin. Now he must go out in his rags to labour on the public works, be drenched with rain and driven snow, and cut by the icy gales; but more often than not, he was already starving. Even by the end of November reports contained a rapidly increasing number of cases of deaths on the works from starvation, aggravated by exposure to the cold.
The people became bewildered. They had taken in very little of what was happening. Their knowledge of the country hardly extended beyond their parish. At this period Irish was spoken in rural districts and English barely understood, while in the west English was not understood at all. No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, Government officials treated the destitute with impatience and contempt; the wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English distrust and dislike of the native Irish.
Fear hung over the country like a cloud. Bewilderment was succeeded by panic, the unreasoning terror that makes animals stampede and which, a little later, brought about the headlong flight from Ireland in the famine emigration. At this stage those living in the country fled to the towns in the hope that they would get some food. They slept in ditches and doorways; they begged and were driven away. 5,000 beggars roamed the streets of Cork and died there at the rate of 100 a week; similar reports came in from all towns.
Meanwhile the numbers employed on the public works leapt upwards with frightening rapidity; 30,135 in September; 150,259 in October; 285,817 in November; and the Board of Works, hopelessly under staffed were utterly unable to deal with such numbers. On December 8 the returns showed that 300,000 persons were employed at a monthly cost of £500,000, and the final total for December was between 450,000 and 500,000 persons. The works had to continue in spite of the weather, snow covered the country and in Mayo it was so deep that the works could not even be seen. .
It was not easy to see why the British Government did not foresee what would happen. Without the Indian maize to keep prices down, food prices increased alarmingly and even 10d a day would not keep a family alive. In Westmeath on December 1 it was reported that a family of seven persons had only one member working and he had to walk 3 ½ miles to the works and 3½ miles back again; the sole meal that day was “a small ration of oatmeal” and the day before they had shared a turnip - two weeks later all that family were dead, because the working member could not walk the seven miles through the snow drifts. The stories that poured in from all parts of Ireland to the Government officials were horrific - bodies rotting in ditches, nearly dead children being eaten alive by rats, the reports make revolting reading. The starving in such places as Skibbereen perished not because there was no food, but because they had no money to buy it.
As the months passed more were employed, even women and children. In January 1847 the figure was nearly 600,000 and in February more than 700,000. The daily expenditure was just over £30,000; the weekly cost more than £172,000. With such outlay it was natural that the local baronies slid into insolvency even though the Government paid half.
The Government now decided on a radical change of policy. There was to be “a new scheme for feeding the people”, and they were to be given soup. Soup kitchens were a favourite philanthropic activity of the period and Irish resident gentry had been for some months making soup privately and distributing it from their own kitchens. The Government planned to finance the scheme initially but payment would be made from the local rates. The scheme was admirable on paper but it ignored the fact that it depended on the collection of rates, which in a large number of districts was practically impossible. Even before the famine it took 700 troops besides police to collect the poor rate in Galway; and in March 1844, the year before the famine, in Mayo it took one warship, two revenue cutters, two companies of the 69th Regiment, a troop of 10th Hussars and 100 police, and then only one quarter of the rates were collected. Dean Kirwan calculated that each shilling had cost a pound or more to collect.
Yet the British Government now assumed that, when Ireland was famine stricken and disorganised, a poor rate could be collected which would almost certainly be ten to fifty times larger than ever before. Further, the workhouses themselves were not in a condition to become centres for relief as was planned; they were paid for by the rates and from the day they opened they were insolvent, dirty and disorganised, and at this moment several were on the point of closing their doors. It was on this tottering structure that the British Government planned to place an enormous load and resolutely refused to admit that the immense rates required could not be collected.
Nevertheless the introduction of soup was greeted at first with enthusiasm. Good soup, if accompanied by a piece of bread or meal-cake, was of value, and private persons, often of moderate means, kept hundreds of people alive by distributing it. Much of the soup, however, was not so much soup for the poor as poor soup; it was complained that soup “runs through them without affording any nourishment” and that, to the very large number of people suffering from dysentery, it was “actually injurious”.
The demand for soup became impossible to satisfy; to a starving person soup, no matter how bad, was better than nothing. In West Cork, for instance, towards the end of January 1847, 31,000 pints were being distributed daily. But, wrote Mr Bishop, not one tenth of the destitute could be supplied; it was “a mere drop in the ocean”. Crowds waited, hour after hour, sometimes all night, and savage struggles took place when the distribution began.
February was the worst month of that terrible winter. Board of Works inspectors reported heavier falls of snow and fiercer gales; roads were again impassable, carts could not travel, horses sank into drifts and had to be dug out, the streets of towns and villages became “full of starving paupers”. Families without food or fuel took to their beds, and “very many perished unknown”. “People sink”, wrote Mr Bishop, “they have no stamina left, they say ‘It is the will of God’ and die.”
The British Government, however, had come to a further decision far more important than setting up soup kitchens - the scheme of relief by employment was to be abandoned. The public works had failed, the expenditure had been enormous, the work hopelessly inefficient, the right persons had not been employed; there had been violence, corruption, scandals. The new scheme was presented to the House of Commons on January 25 and decreed that the old works would slowly close down, all distressed people would be classed as paupers and as paupers they would be given relief paid for by the local rates and organised by the workhouses. It was obvious to all in Ireland that the workhouses were already full to overflowing and were without exception in debt because the poor rates could not be collected. To place the additional vast expense of feeding the hordes of people working on the relief works onto the workhouses, which were already in debt, was an intolerable decision. By March the public works were costing £40,000 a day of which, in the old scheme, half was being paid by the British Government. In effect the new scheme meant that the Government would contribute nothing. The whole amount had to be paid by Ireland and those in England could wash their hands of the Irish Problem, could conveniently forget the Act of Union and contribute nothing, and let Ireland take care of itself. It was an outrageous decision, which caused an outcry even in England.
The soup kitchens were slow to come into operation and by March those, which were operating, were feeding many thousands daily, but there were far too few and only a very small percentage of the population were being fed. Consequently throughout February and March the public works continued and in many areas took on additional destitute workers. In fact these were the worst months of death by starvation, and hundreds of letters poured in to the Government reporting on horrors, beseeching for food, and making suggestions many of which nowadays appear very reasonable. In spite of public opinion the Government insisted that the public works be closed down on March 20. They appear to have been concerned with only one thing - the cost. From the point of view of those who were turned off the works there was, as one of the discharged wrote, “nothing to do but bar the door, lie down and die”.
5. Famine Fever
And now, as if starvation was not enough, a new terror assailed the Irish people. The Government had been warned in the Autumn of 1846 that after famine “there, will follow, as a natural consequence, as in former years, typhus fever or some other malignant pestilence”; and fever, on a gigantic scale, was now beginning to ravage the land.
Typhus is a horrifying disease and had occurred in Ireland after previous famines; in fact it was known to the Irish as ‘famine fever’. It is primarily transmitted by the louse which itself has typhus. If the infected louse is crushed its blood, infected with bacteria now called Rickettsia will enter the slightest scratch on the skin. Even more infectious than the louse’s blood is its dust-like excrement. Thus benevolent persons who gave aid to the victims of the great epidemic of 1847, clergy, nuns, doctors, resident landlords, and government officials, contracted typhus and died, though they themselves may never have harboured a louse. The very people who were helping the destitute died in huge numbers. In Cavan, upper-class mortality from typhus was estimated at 66%. Typhus attacks the small blood vessels of the body, especially those of the skin and the brain, and the patient becomes unrecognisable; his face swells, he turns the dark congested hue which gives the disease the name ‘black fever’, his limbs twitch, he raves in delirium, a rash appears. Meanwhile the patient is in acute pain - he vomits, develops sores and sometimes gangrene. A loathsome symptom is the odour from the typhus patient, “an almost intolerable stench”.
Never had conditions been so fatally favourable to the rapid spread of lice as in the famine winter of 1846 - 1847. The people were filthy. They had sold every stitch that would fetch a fraction of a penny, and they were wearing the same rags day and night, and day after day. Their bedding had been sold and they slept covered with rags and old coats; they were eating their food half raw because they had no money to buy fuel, so washing was also out of the question; indeed, after months of starvation, even the strength to fetch water had disappeared.
The abnormal severity of the winter drove the people to huddle together for warmth; a fire or even a light in a cabin attracted neighbours and passers-by; the traditional hospitality of the Irish poor provided a welcome, and all lay down to sleep in the warmth, side by side, on the cabin floor. Hosts of beggars tramped the roads, filthy, starving and louse-infected, often with the fever actually on them.
Once infection had been brought into a district it spread with lightning rapidity among the crowds brought together for relief. On the public works were thousands of unwashed persons. Closely packed together, they waited for hours for their wages, and waited again at the soup kitchens. A brush in passing was enough to transfer a louse or its dust- like excrement to a new victim and one fever-stricken person could pass on infection to a hundred others in the course of one day.
Relapsing fever often accompanied by jaundice was another ‘fever’. This fever caused vomiting with very high temperatures lasting a few days, then apparent recovery. The patient after a week or so relapsed again and this pattern might continue for a couple of months.
The main epidemics in 1847 were typhus and relapsing fever, but at the same time there were other diseases. Some degree of dysentery, producing diarrhoea, must have been universal among people who had existed for months on a diet of old cabbage leaves, raw turnips, seaweed and Indian meal. But though painful and exhausting it was not usually fatal, except to children, its danger lay in the fact that it paved the way for infection with the terrible bacillary dysentery. Bacilli dysentery is the ‘bloody flux’, which devastated armies in the past, and is caused by bacillary conveyed in human excrement, in contaminated food and in the infected excrement of flies. Once inhaled or swallowed the bacilli multiply in the stomach or bowels. Inflammation, ulcers and gangrene follow, with intense pain, diarrhoea, violent straining and the passing of clots of blood. The result was usually death.
Another appalling condition, not infectious, was called ‘famine dropsy’ and now called ‘hunger oedema’. William Bennett described it in March 1847 as “that horrid disease - the results of long continued famine and low living - in which the limbs and then the body swell most frightfully and finally burst”. Elihu Burritt, an American, saw men whose bodies were swollen to twice their natural size at work on the public works; and a boy of twelve whose body had swollen so much that it had actually burst the only garment he wore.
Scurvy was also general. The progress of scurvy is painful and revolting; gums become spongy, teeth fallout, joints become enlarged and cause acute suffering. Blood vessels burst under the skin, especially on the legs, which turn black up to the thigh.
The courage of those who came to the help of the people is beyond praise. Doctors and clergy suffered the most deaths, but very many others also died. It is thought that the majority of those well-to-do people who died between 1846 and 1848 probably died of typhus or dysentery; one instance could be Robert George Bomford of Rahinstown who died unexpectedly aged 45 in Dublin in December 1846. Although the destruction of the potato crop itself did not seriously afflict the middle-class people of Dublin, the fever did affect the whole community. The primitive sanitation in Dublin encouraged epidemics of typhus and dysentery, which reached their peaks in June 1847 and continued unabated until February 1848.
By the spring of 1847 starvation had so reduced the people that they seemed to be walking skeletons. The bones were covered with something, which was skin but appeared like rough dry parchment and hung in folds; eyes had sunk back into the head; shoulder bones were so high that the neck seemed to have disappeared; hair was thin. The worst sufferers were the children; starving children were skeletons, many too far gone to be able to walk. The children’s bones were affected, they became brittle and distended; in many cases the children’s jawbones were so distended that they could not speak. Sidney Osborne, later one of Florence Nightingale’s helpers in the Crimea, visited workhouses and hospitals and never heard a single child utter a moan or a cry of pain, “they lie two, three or four in a bed, unmoving” and with an “unmeaning vacant stare”.
The British Government was unwilling to admit that any epidemic was likely to occur. In January 1847 the House of Commons was informed that “some cases” of fever had occurred but that “the accounts given to the contrary were undoubtedly inaccurate”. Nothing was initiated for a few months; it was “better to depend on the ordinary law”. However in March the Government bowed to the public outcry and 373 temporary fever hospitals opened and 473 additional doctors were engaged, but as usual it, was too little and too late. In April the Government ceased to assert that no fever epidemic was taking place in Ireland, and a new Irish Fever Bill was introduced. This was slow to come into operation but once started it could only be a success.
In April the epidemic seems to have reached its height in the country when, in a single week, April 3 - 10, 2613 inmates of workhouses were reported to have died. This figure was only part of the total; it does not include the many thousands who died that week in their own homes or in the ditches. The height of the epidemic continued from April into August when it started to subside, but it continued on well into the next year.
6. Emigration - North America
Before the potato failure, to leave Ireland had been regarded as the most terrible of fates, and transportation was the most dreaded of sentences. But now the people, terrified and desperate, began to flee a land, which seemed accursed. In a great mass movement they made their way, by tens of thousands, out of Ireland, across the sea to Britain, or across the ocean to America. Yet they did not leave fever behind; fever went with them, and the path to a new life became a path of horror. Historically the famine emigration was the most important event of the famine.
It was the famine emigrants who left their country with hatred in their hearts for the British and the British Government, who built up communities across the ocean, above all in the United States, where the name of Britain was accursed and whose descendants continued to be Britain’s powerful and bitter enemies. It is estimated that more than a million emigrants from Ireland crossed to North America during the years of the potato blight; and there was an even larger emigration across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, Glasgow and the Welsh ports.
The famine emigration was of a less civilized and less skilled people into a more civilized and more skilled community. Other emigrations have been of the sturdy and the independent in search of wider horizons, and such emigrants usually brought with them knowledge and technical, skills which the inhabitants of the country in which they settled did not possess. The Irish brought nothing except their abysmal poverty and in many, many cases disease. Their standard of living was far below that of the host country and so, for instance, they lived in places considered unfit for human beings. Cellar dwellings, whether in English towns or the cities of North America, were almost invariably occupied by the Irish. Poverty, ignorance and bewilderment brought them there, but it must not be forgotten that cellar dwellings resembled the dark, mud-floored cabins in which over half the population of Ireland had been accustomed to live under British rule.
Very few of the poor Irish of the famine emigration were destined to achieve prosperity and success themselves; the condition to which the people had been reduced by the famine was too severe a handicap, and it was the fate of the Irish emigrants to be regarded with aversion and contempt. It was not until the second or third generation that Irish intelligence, quickness of apprehension and wit asserted themselves, and the children and the grandchildren of the emigrants became successful and powerful in the countries of their adoption, Henry Ford is typical.
At the beginning of the famine, a passage to America for a man, his wife and four small children travelling from Belfast to Quebec cost £6, but if he went in an American ship to New York it was £21. The main reason for this difference was that the ships on the Quebec run came to Europe with timber and would have travelled back in ballast if it were not for the ‘passenger trade’. It was therefore natural that most of the Irish emigrants travelled to Quebec in Canada although nearly all were destined to go to the United States. However the ‘passenger’ could not expect much for such a fare; by law the ship had to produce seven pounds weight of provisions per person weekly and three quarts of water per person daily.
At the start of the famine the first emigrants were “all well clad and very respectable looking”, they were mostly small farmers who had been considering emigration for some time. They were often in large parties, 30 to 40 strong, who came from the same district with their belongings in two or three carts and anything from ten to thirty pounds in their pockets. Unhappily the situation was to change all too soon. Throughout the autumn of 1846 and until the ice closed the St. Lawrence an ‘unprecedented’ immigration of the Irish, of the poorest class, reached Quebec. The majority had left without any ‘sea store’, though to depend on the 7 pounds of provisions legally due to them was unheard of and most, on arrival, did not even have the sixpence, which was the steamer fare from Quebec to Montreal. These unfortunates were the first of the panic-stricken thousands. During the winter, when the Canadian ports were closed, about 30,000 persons found the means for a winter passage to the United States, and the condition of destitution in which the majority landed filled the United States authorities with anger. Congress took immediate action and entry was restricted.
Meanwhile as the winter of 1846 - 1847 passed into spring, the horror of fever was added to starvation. In February 1847 the headlong flight from Ireland began. The roads to the ports, wrote Trevelyan, were thronged with emigrants many of whom had the fever on them. Of course fever broke out on the ships and many ships arrived with as few as 25% of those who embarked. The term “Coffin Ships” originated from this period.
The St Lawrence opened in mid-May 1847 and the torrent of emigrants started immediately. By 31st May forty vessels were lying off Grosse Isle, the Quarantine station, with 10,000 emigrants on board; and a further 45,000 emigrants at least were expected. Dr Douglas in charge of the Quarantine station reported that “in all these vessels cases of fever and dysentery had occurred”, and the dysentery was bacillary dysentery.
The state of the emigrants as they landed was frightful. Arriving vessels “had not one really healthy person on board”; passengers ‘tottered’ on shore at Grosse Island, ‘spectre-like wretches’, ‘emaciated’, ‘feeble’, ‘cadaverous’. Very many had passed the voyage in a state of starvation. The official weekly issue of 7 pounds of provisions was intended to guard against absolute destitution, but “it never could have been expected to be enough to sustain an adult through the voyage”, reported a United States Senate Committee. Yet “complete reliance on this issue had been practised to an immense extent by the Irish in voyages to Quebec they arrive so emaciated and prostrate that they have to go at once to hospital”.
The reports can be impersonal but Robert Whyte, a cabin passenger, travelled from Liverpool on April 1st to Quebec and kept a diary. His brig carried Irish emigrants, among them a party of tenants from Meath who were being sent out by their landlord. He observed that the emigrants depended entirely for food on the 7 pounds of provisions. The captain made an issue daily, as otherwise the week’s rations would have been eaten on the first day; a few emigrants brought one or two salt herrings, but most had nothing. Cooking was done on “a large wooden case lined with bricks”. This stove was always surrounded by bickering emigrants, “quarrels only ended at 7 p.m. when Jack in the shrouds poured water on the fire, still surrounded by miserable squabbling groups, who snatched up their pots and pans and, half blinded by steam, descended into the hold with their half cooked supper”, the emigrants however “never got angry with Jack, however much he teased them”. The captain and his wife were kindly enough; she, was called ‘The Mistress’ and she dosed the sick with porridge containing laudanum, and a little girl who was born during the voyage was named after her.” A fortnight after sailing, water began to run short because three of casks had leaked. On 15th June “ship fever” broke out; “110 passengers are shut up in the unventilated hold of a small brig, without a doctor, medicines or even water”. Fresh cases of ship fever occurred daily, and the hold became a “shocking condition of filth” - largely caused by the dysentery. By bad luck the wind dropped, and the vessel was virtually becalmed. Since the ship was provisioned for only 50 days, the captain was forced to reduce the issue of water even further.
On 27th June Whyte was kept awake all night by “moaning and raving from the hold”, and cries for “water, for God’s sake, some water”. The mate, who appeared “frightened and quite bewildered”, told him that “fearful scenes” were taking place below. The “effluvium” rising from the hold was so overpowering that it was impossible to go on deck. A medical officer at Grosse Island recorded, “I have seen a stream of foul air issuing from the hatches as dense and as palpable as seen on a foggy day from a dung heap”.
By 9th July more than half the emigrants and several of’ the crew in Whyte’s brig had ship fever, and deaths were frequent. About 25th July the ship anchored off Grosse Island after voyaging for around 17 weeks; a doctor paid “a perfunctory visit and remarked sagaciously ‘Ha, there is fever here’, and departed”, promising to remove the sick “tomorrow or the next day”. Whyte was told he could leave but he had become attached to the ship’s company and remained. The brig was now left, he wrote, “as marooned without skill or help as at sea, still without a doctor and no water”. Though the St Lawrence at Grosse Island was no longer salty, it was “a floating mass of filthy straw, refuse of foul beds, barrels containing the vilest matter, old rags, tattered clothes” which had been thrown overboard from vessels when cleaning their holds. The sick were not taken off until 1st August, three months after embarking, and by then several had died, one was the wife of a Meath emigrant and Whyte went to her funeral on Grosse Island. He wrote “after the grave was filled up, the husband placed two shovels in the form of a cross and said, ‘By that cross, Mary, I swear to avenge your death. As soon as I earn the price of my passage home I’ll go back and shoot the man that murdered you - and that’s the landlord.”
From the deck of the brig Whyte watched a continuous procession of boats, bringing the sick and dead from other ships to the island. There was no pier, so “hundreds were literally flung on the beach, left amid the mud and stones to crawl on the dry land as they could”. Boatloads of dead were taken, four times in one day from a single vessel. Robert Whyte was horrified by the filthy state of the hold in his brig, but was told by a priest that, compared to some, the hold was clean and the brig was an average example of what was endured by emigrants.
Such was therefore a typical passage across the Atlantic. This is not the place to go into the troubles of the emigrant ashore, nor of the political troubles between the countries of America and the British Government. However space has been given to the monument on Grosse Island which records -
“In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,294 persons, who, flying from pestilence and famine in Ireland in the year 1847, found in America but a grave.”
Robert Whyte only met two young men from the brig again; “the rest wandered over the country, carrying nothing with them but disease, and owing to their weak constitutions very few can have lived through the Canadian Winter”. It is not possible to state how many died, but a modern authority estimates that over 100,000 left for Canada in 1847 of which at least 17,000 died at sea and over 21,000 died in Canada, or over one death for every three emigrants.
No disaster comparable to Grosse Island occurred in the United States as a result of the determined efforts taken by the authorities to prevent their country becoming “a lazar house for the sick and diseased of Europe”. From 5th May 1847 until the end of the year nearly 53,000 Irish landed at New York, and 37,000 at Boston, with unknown numbers arriving at other ports; so it would therefore appear that similar numbers went direct to the USA as to Canada. The death rate in the United States was less than in Canada, but even so it would be safe to say that of the 200,000 who crossed the Atlantic, over 60,000 died; and these figures are only for the year 1847 and exclude those arriving in 1846 and 1848. If a total was ever struck covering the three years, the figures might be doubled and even then they would be a conservative estimate.
7. Emigration to the United Kingdom
There was another emigration going on at the same time, more numerous though less celebrated, in which Irish in overwhelming masses crossed the Irish Sea to land at ports in England, Scotland and Wales. This was the flight of the very poor who could not “make out the money” even for a passage to Quebec. A deck passage to England in a vessel with regular sailings could be had for a few shillings, and hopefully only lasted for a few hours. For instance to go from Drogheda to Liverpool cost five shillings on the regular run, but it could be as little as 2/6 on a small coastal sailing vessel. The large export of coal from Cardiff to Cork enabled vessels to bring passengers back free of charge because captains found it cheaper to carry a living walk-on walk- off ballast than one of lime or shingle. Crossing to Great Britain was a familiar experience for thousands of Irish; they regularly went to work in the harvest, and had done so for centuries. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution droves of labourers had crossed over to dig docks and canals, to work on railways and in factories and mills.
There was an irresistible attraction in England - the starving were given food. Under the English Poor Law, outdoor relief was permitted in most districts, and the destitute Irish cottier new that once he crossed the channel he would not be allowed to die of hunger. In addition, from the end of 1846 the flight of the very poor received an extra impetus; landlords were applying not for an eviction order but for a judgement against the tenant who owed rent; he was put in prison and his family was left to fend for themselves. This prospect spread terror and the people did not wait to be proceeded against. The whole family fled as soon as they suspected what was going to happen, and, rather than be separated, they loaded all their goods on their backs and headed for a seaport to England. The army of paupers arrived in Britain at three main points, Liverpool, the Clyde, and the ports of South Wales; but by far the worst shock of the invasion was borne by Liverpool. The flood began in 1846 and in December a Liverpool citizen wrote, “the peasantry are coming over here by regiments, particularly the women and children, to beg. Mr Rushton, our magistrate who is the milk of human kindness, told me today he was fairly beat. He did not know what to do with the mass of human misery that came before him. ‘We can only send them back at the expense of the parish they come from and that is impossible. They prefer to go to gaol, but what is the good of committing them, when gaol is a comparative Paradise to them?” In fact paupers could be sent back to their own parish, but a pauper had to appear before two Justices for a warrant of removal to be issued; naturally no Irish pauper would appear voluntary and so had to be summoned. But owing to the multitude of Irish in Liverpool it was impossible to distinguish individuals, and impossible to hold them - so in Liverpool they stayed.
By February close on 200,000 Irish were being fed at enormous expense to the Liverpool ratepayers. The flood continued and by 1st June 300,000 pauper Irish had landed there in five months, descending on a town with a native population of only about 250,000. The town police could not cope and 20,000 citizens were sworn as special constables, and 2,000 regular troops were brought in and camped at Everton. In May the dreaded fever was spreading rapidly in the town and shortly 60,000 persons developed typhus with many deaths.
At the end of May a bill was rushed through both Houses, which gave the authorities the power to return the destitute to Ireland without difficulty. A few boatloads were returned but the paupers learned not to trust the Liverpool authorities, or, indeed, any other port authority, and crept to other parts of the country taking the fever with them. Fever broke out in most of the Midland towns, in London, Chepstow, Birmingham, Cheltenham, and indeed in nearly all towns of a fair size throughout the country, and in Wales and Scotland as well. Religious quarrels and riots broke out and the problems occurring almost daily around the country would fill a book and remained a problem for years.
The flood of starving Irish into Britain had important consequences. The realities of the famine in Ireland, emaciated scarecrows which were once men and women, skeleton children, dirt, nakedness, fever, and the hideous diseases which hunger brings, appeared on Britain’s doorstep and the British response was one of violent irritation. How had these people been allowed to get into such a state? Why were they invading Britain, bringing fever with them, instead of staying at home? The Government, refusing to accept any responsibility, blamed the Irish landlords; these landlords, they asserted, had not done their duty, therefore the Irish people were reduced to their present fearful condition, and now these landlords were trying to get rid of the responsibility by shipping the poor wretches away to Britain.
Admittedly it was impossible to regard Irish landlords, as a class, with sympathy, particularly those absentee ones living on their rents in England; but no effort was made to comprehend their dilemma; whatever the wrongs of the past, the majority of Irish landlords were now bankrupt. “Am I to squeeze rent out of the people one day and pay it back in wages the next?” asked Mr O’Neill of Bunowen Castle in Connemara, declaring that it was a delusion to think that landlords could possibly raise enough money to save the people, when all they had was unpaid rents. No attention was paid to the many wretched owners of encumbered estates who were burdened with properties hopelessly in debt and which under the law they were not allowed to sell. Irish landlords were made the scapegoat, and when the British Government drafted the new act, transferring the cost of relieving the destitute to local rates and local property owners, they did so in a spirit of reprisal.
Parliament was obsessed by a rage against Irish landlords and a determination to punish them. They ignored the fact that they had been warned again and again, that reliance on the potato, brought about by penal legislation could only end in disaster - the disaster which had occurred; that the tariff against Irish goods, the extraordinary Corn Laws, restricted trade, all contributed to a loss of income by the Irish land-lord and a colossal gain of income by those in Britain. There had been and continued to be a drain of huge sums of money from Ireland into England. In vain Lord Mountcashel reminded the House of Lords that out of an annual rental of thirteen million pounds it was estimated that Irish land-lords paid away nearly ten and a half million pounds in mortgages and ‘borrowed money’, so that the sum actually at their disposal was something less than three million pounds. The new Act would impose a payment of at least fourteen million pounds so how could such a sum be paid? Parliament refused to listen and “amidst the cry of famine and death in Ireland, clamour out of doors in England, and excitement, impatience and noise in the House”, the Irish Poor Law Bill was passed.
8. Late 1847
The summer of 1847 was magnificent and the crops were described as “all superb”. It was officially considered that the famine must be at an end although the acreage of potatoes planted, owing to the shortage of seed potatoes, was miserably small. It was estimated that less than one-fifth of the usual acreage had been planted and this was not enough to feed the people. However, glorious weather, superb crops and cheap food could not help the penniless unemployed masses. Nevertheless, the British Government would not modify their plan. The destitute had been transferred to the Poor Law when the Irish Poor Law Act became law, and relief under the Soup Kitchen Act must end. In a Treasury minute the date was fixed on or about August 15, 1847. Certainly during August and September employment would be at a maximum, gathering in the harvest, but the shortage of food would continue until the 1848 potato crop was gathered, because only 1/5th of the usual crop had been planted. From August onwards, good intentions on the part of the British Government become increasingly difficult to discern, taking every allowance for the depleted state of the Treasury, and bearing in mind the large sums already expended on Irish relief, sums representing many times their value today, it is still hardly possible to explain, or to condone, the British Government’s determination to throw the Irish destitute on to the local Poor Rate.
The immense size of Irish Unions put the establishment of an efficient system of relief, through the workhouses and the Poor Law, out of the question. Of 130 Irish unions, 107 contained 100,000 acres, and of these 25 were over 200,000 acres. No one could conceivably relieve the destitute efficiently and economically in such large unions. Further, the very large unions were in the most distressed districts of Connaught and Munster where there were no resident landlords or gentry. The Union of Ballina covered 509,154 acres with a population of 120,797 persons. In English terms the Ballina Union would stretch from London to Buckingham and Oxford in one direction, and from London to Basingstoke in another, with the only workhouse at St Albans. Ballina was not unique. Westport Union had districts 40 miles from the Workhouse; Tralee was similar, as was Donegal Union. These were the very districts where virtually no rates had been collected and the Guardians of the workhouse were “out all day trying to buy food on credit for the following week”. It was not unusual to have food-less days in a number of workhouses, and in the opinion of the doctor at Ballina some of the inmates had actually died of starvation. Beds, blankets and clothing were all lacking; in search for cheap clothing it was suggested that sailor’s clothing, rejected by the Admiralty, be bought, but the purchase was turned down by some Government official who considered the clothing “much too good for the Irish poor”. On 12th August Lord Clarendon wrote that only eight unions of the 130 had any money in hand, and the sum they possessed was only, £3, 600, while the debts of the 122 others was over £250,000. Incidentally in Meath there were five Unions, and so workhouses, at Trim, Navan, Kells, Oldcastle and Dunshaughlin; but even so a walk of around 8 miles to the nearest workhouse would not be unusual; these Meath unions were in the richer part of the country with a higher proportion of resident landlords, so were not too heavily in debt.
So much for Government responsibility to the workhouses, but worse was to come - On 1st October there were to be no more payments to the fever hospitals, all necessary funds must be provided by the rates. The announcement was received with consternation. Fever was still widespread and 26,378 patients were in the fever hospitals on October 1.
Boards of Guardians now tried to escape their thankless and unpaid position. They were finding it impossible to continue; the Granard Guardians in Co Longford wrote that the Union was bankrupt and there was only sufficient provisions to feed the paupers in the workhouse for three days, merchants refused to send in further supplies until they were paid, and it was “utterly impossible for the Collectors to get in rates sufficient to provide food for the inmates”; they accordingly resigned and asked for paid Guardians to be appointed, since it was “no longer in their power to conduct the affairs of the union”. This state of affairs was prevalent in most unions and many guardians resigned. The Government knew that they probably could not find suitable persons to run the unions even if they were paid; but more importantly the Government knew that if paid guardians were sent in it would be considered that “the Government are the parties administering the relief”, and the British authorities might themselves be saddled with Irish relief after all. So the Granard Guardians, and the others, were not allowed to resign and had to continue their thankless and unpaid job.
The Government even recommended that rate collectors should be assisted by troops, but not even the whole strength of the British Army could wring rates from places where nothing was left to seize. In Swineford, Co Mayo, no fewer than nine properties were already being administered by the Court of Chancery, and “out of 60 - 70 names returned as rate payers, 50 - 60 are non-resident”; there was therefore no one left to pay any rates. This shows up one of the major problems in Ireland, that the absentee landlord who was domiciled in England paid English rates but none in Ireland. Such was the law and because the majority of members of Parliament in London were landlords in England, there was no hope of changing this law, they knew on which side their bread was buttered.
Relentless severity in rate collecting increased evictions. Clare, Galway and Mayo were probably the counties with the worst record of evictions. Officials in Dublin began to be uneasy, - perhaps the Irish people were being pushed too far. On 10th October, Clarendon told Lord John Russell “A great social revolution is now going on in Ireland, the accumulated evils of misgovernment and mismanagement are now coming to a crisis”. Meanwhile workhouses were over-full; in December Ballina workhouse had 500 more than it was built to contain, Kilrush had 500 to 600 too many, Galway had 500 too many of whom 200 were fever cases. Disused buildings of every sort, old breweries, empty warehouses, derelict stores, without sanitation or heat or water were hired and dignified by the name “Auxiliary Workhouses”, and in this way another 150,000 persons were accommodated. The whole situation was out of hand and officials became even more uneasy; Major Halliday, a Poor Law Inspector, added to his sorry report, “when I go to the workhouse I see such sights of suffering and wasted humanity I cannot wash them away from my imagination”.
9. The Threat of Revolt
The suffering of the people began to approach the horrors of the Winter of 1846 - 1847; the country, generally speaking, was ruined, pauperism was spreading, there was no employment, but though the potato crop was superb the quantity planted was inadequate. Dead bodies were found lying by roadsides and in fields; men who had tramped many miles to a workhouse, only to be refused admittance, died at the gates. It was hardly surprising that during that winter, assassinations started – seven landlords and ten gentry. Clarendon became further alarmed, “Distress, discontent and hatred of English rule are increasing everywhere”, he told the Prime Minister Lord Russell. But before writing about the results it is worth detailing the story behind one of these assassinations, as it gives an insight into life at that time.
Denis Mahon, handsome, amiable and well-intentioned, who had held a commission in a crack cavalry regiment, the 9th Lancers, had inherited the extensive property of Strokestown, Co Roscommon, just before the famine started. The former owner, Lord Hartland, had been a lunatic for some years and during this time the estate had been badly managed. When Major Mahon inherited at the start of the famine, he found £30,000 arrears of rent had accumulated and rates were three years in areas; so he proposed that any tenant who was willing should give up his patch of land, be given work then a passage to Canada. 810 tenants agreed and in the late spring of 1847 they set sail for Quebec in two vessels which Mahon had chartered, loaded with extra provision. The cost of the emigration to Major Mahon was £14,000. Both ships eventually reached Quebec, but in a bad state, as typhus had broken out and 268 people (about 1/3rd) had died during the voyage.
These formed a minority of the Major’s tenants. The majority would “neither pay nor go,” and 3,006 people were evicted. Murmurs that he was a ‘tyrant’ began to be heard. Now, most unwisely since he was a Protestant, he quarrelled over the local relief committee with the parish priest of Strokestown, Father MacDermott, who was accused of having denounced him from the altar, saying, “Major Mahon is worse than Cromwell”. Father MacDermott strenuously denied he had said anything of the kind and it was not clear if a denunciation had happened at all, but the story had spread and the damage done. A few days later the Major was shot by two men on the high road on 2nd November 1847, while seated in his open carriage travelling back from a meeting of the Board of Guardians of the Roscommon Union, which he had attended in the hope of finding some way of keeping the workhouse open. That morning he had addressed a meeting of his tenants and had been cheered. Nevertheless, reported a Board of Works engineer, “the exultation of the country people at Major Mahon’s death was general and undisguised... As soon as it was dark, straw was lit upon some of the hills in the neighbourhood of Strokestown, and on the following evening, bonfires were to be seen on the hills for many miles in extent”.
Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant was almost beside himself. “There was never 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”. He was convinced that the murders were part of a rebellious campaign and that the intention was to shoot as many landlords and agents as possible, to drive away the resident gentry and make the management of property so dangerous that the tenants would be able to occupy the land. Lord John Russell, the Prime Minister, whose prejudice against Irish landlords had been made clear in the House of Commons, disagreed and Clarendon in a fury threatened to resign. The argument abated and a compromise act, the ‘Crime and Outrage Bill’ was passed by Parliament; but like all compromises it was ineffectual, and fear spread through the upper and middle classes, and a number of landlords left the country.
In Sligo and Leitrim at the end of December the sub-inspector of police could give the names of at least ten landlords who were marked men, “their lives are not worth a sheet of paper”, and Captain Pole of the Commissariat reported, “the personal insecurity of all property owners is so hideous that the impression is of being in an enemy country”; this was true not only of certain counties but was universal.
So with 15,000 extra troops in the country, a campaign of terrorization being waged, workhouses enlarged to take 150,000 additional inmates and in distressed unions, people dying of starvation, both inside the workhouses and outside them, with rates impossible to collect, employment non-existent, fever still raging and the people pauperized and wretched as never before, Ireland passed from 1847 to 1848.
In spite of the sufferings of the Irish people, the popular rising, which the English Government feared, was not being planed, and when a revolutionary movement did come it originated not among the starving masses but with the intellectual and middle classes. Lord Clarendon had misread the situation. The murders, which horrified and alienated public opinion had no revolutionary significance and were not related with any political conspiracy. They were produced, as in the past, by land hunger. Lord Chief Justice Blackburn, with his Commission of Judges in January 1848 declared that in every case “circumstances collected with the possession of land were the primary cause of the crime; the motive for all was the wild justice of revenge”.
This is not the place to dwell on the history of the insurrection, which was planned. It is sufficient to say that it was based on the Repeal Association which had started well before the famine, and had split into two, - the Young Ireland party and the Irish Confederation. There was a lot of talk but really very little action, however inflammatory speeches added to the feeling of insecurity in the country, which continued into 1849. However the Government had to watch affairs very carefully because of discontent on the Continent, which could spread very easily to Ireland. In February 1848 the French Government, which had consistently refused parliamentary reforms, had been overthrown in an all but bloodless revolution, the King forced to fly to England in disguise and a Republic proclaimed. Comparison with Ireland was irresistible and many bombastic speeches were made. Bonfires were lit to celebrate French freedom in all parts of the country; banners inscribed ‘Honour to France’ and ‘Despots Beware’ were waved; Mullingar and Kells were illuminated.
France was not the only country in trouble; the King of Sicily in January was forced to concede a constitution; the same thing happened in Piedmont; in March Vienna rose, routed the troops and Metternich was forced to fly; Milan drove the Austrians out of the city; and the people of Venice proclaimed a provisional government. Even in England there was trouble with the Chartists, a working class association led by an Irishman and a Repealer, Feargus O’Connor, who were threatening revolution. Consequently the British Government decided that steps must be taken to prevent any embarrassment in Ireland; in spite of the famine, Ireland remained a source of income to England and so worth holding.
At the end of March the Law Officers conferred to devise methods of repression, a stream of military reinforcements headed towards Dublin, the Duke of Wellington advised on military dispositions, and the Constabulary was warned to be ready. Seldom can a revolutionary movement have been conducted with more idealism and less sense of realism, there had been no careful or cunning preparation, no secrecy, no underground organization - in these the revolutionary movement of Young Ireland was utterly deficient. The colossal preparations of the government swung into action as Clarendon thought that Ireland was on the verge of a bloody uprising. In fact there were no men with arms in the country at all. However Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Drogheda were placed under semi-martial law. In July a Bill suspended Habeas Corpus. The whole sorry “Uprising of 48” fizzled out, but it might have come to something if the famine had not starved the strength from the people. However it was also a sorry reflection that if the Government had expended half the energy necessary to quell “The 48” and expended it on famine relief then many thousands of lives would have been saved.
In the summer of 1848, when the problems of the famine and disease were being mopped up, the shadow of another fearful catastrophe fell over the country; the blight appeared all over the country and there was every indication that a total failure of the potato was about to occur again. In 1847 only a small acreage had, been planted and the crop was superb. In 1848 severe sacrifices were made to obtain seed potatoes; clothes, bedsteads, tables and chairs were sold and an inspector reported that small occupiers, “already reduced to a state of all but pauperism, are straining every nerve to plant potatoes as a last desperate venture”. Landlords looked forward to rates being paid, the people to having enough to eat. “Please God it will be a blessed season, the olden times are coming back”, the inspector was told in Kells. The parish priest of Kenmare wrote on 16th July that “we were all in the greatest spirits at the approach of plenty but blight has made its appearance. On the morning of the 13th to the astonishment of everyone, the potato fields that had, on the previous evening, presented an appearance that was calculated to gladden the hearts of the most indifferent, appeared blasted, withered, blackened and the whole country has in consequence been thrown into dismay and confusion”.
At the end of July Dr Lindley showed that almost every district in Ireland was affected. This was the week the Young Irelanders were out trying to raise the country, but people were not interested in sedition; they were too intent on watching their potatoes. By October it was clear that the failure of the potato crop was as complete as in 1846, and coming as it did upon a people already impoverished and enfeebled by distress, the results must be even more disastrous. However it was made very clear by the Government that no more was to be made available and the winding down of the service throughout Ireland was to be continued. At the end of August the Commissariat left Ireland for good. Generosity was hardly to be expected after the attempted insurrection.
Ireland was left to face a winter of total failure, bankruptcy and starvation, supported only by the Poor Law. The armies of starving half-naked paupers in distressed unions was overwhelming; nine-tenths of the population of Clifden were receiving relief and there were similar figures throughout the west and southwest. It was hopeless to expect rents to be collected in these areas and more ruthless land clearances resulted.
Sir William Butler describes an eviction and a ‘tumbling’ which he witnessed in Tipperary: “The sheriff, a strong body of police, and above all the crowbar brigade, a body composed of the lowest and most debauched ruffians, were present. At a signal from the sheriff the work began. The miserable inmates of the cabins were dragged out upon the road; thatched roofs were torn down and the earthen walls battered in by crowbars; the screaming women, the half naked children, the paralysed grandmother and the tottering grandfather were hauled out. It was a sight I have never forgotten. I was twelve years old at the time, but I think if a loaded gun had been put in my hands I would have fired it into that crowd of villains as they plied their horrible trade. The winter of 1848-9 dwells in my memory as one long night of sorrow”.
The opportunity was also seized of clearing all unwanted people off the land; even those who were managing to pay their rent regularly. A bizarre individual instance of an eviction where no rent owed was that of James Brady, cleared with his family from a holding near Kells in the rich farming county of Meath. After spending nine days and nights with his wife and four little girls in a ditch, he dug the family a living grave in a churchyard on the plot of a man called Newman; Newman then served him with an eviction order but, before it could be enforced Newman himself died of famine fever and was buried in the grave beside the squatters, who thus continued to defy him into eternity. (House of Commons, Hansard, Vol 85, Col 136)
By October it was clear that another winter of starvation would occur. A wave of alarm and foreboding swept over the country; everyone who could scrape the money together prepared to leave Ireland and a new emigration began. The emigration of 1848 was of a very different quality from the disorganised flight of 1847. Canada had passed new laws following the disaster of 1847 and the cheap passages were no longer available, so the ruined small farmers had no choice but to remain in Ireland, nor could landlords afford to emigrate their pauper tenants. The new emigrants were farmers of good class whom Ireland could ill afford to spare. On 28th November “comfortable farmers” from Meath and Westmeath were said to be arriving in Dublin daily by the hundred, “apparently all of substantial class and well provided for the transatlantic journey”.
However not all considered that the movement off the land was a bad thing. Larger holdings were considered essential, and holdings could not be enlarged until the number of holders were diminished. If the small farmers go then the landlords would be induced to sell to persons who would invest capital. The flaw with such an opinion was that a debt for rates was attached to the land forever, so any purchaser undertook the debt. Mr James Martin of Ross, Co Galway, stated in evidence that he himself had a debt for rates of £11,000 on his property, and when land was sold the purchaser became liable for the debt. Such a state of affairs was hardly likely to tempt investors.
Meanwhile the destitute were being treated with increasing harshness. Without money to buy food those in charge of the workhouses had to have proof that the pauper was really a pauper. Any boxes or bundles were carefully examined in case property of some description was concealed. The applicant was stripped of every scrap which might be regarded as property and subjected to a degree of harshness. Without money which must prove injurious to health, in exchange as his reward he received about one pound of meal a day, on which he was just kept alive; it was estimated that £1 would cover the cost of keeping one person for 34 weeks, but the Government would not allow this estimate to be included in the Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission in case people should say “We were slowly murdering the peasantry by the scantiness of our relief.”
The events of 1848-49 followed the events of 46-47 though in fact the state of the country was far worse in 1849 than in 1847. The effect of the famine was cumulative and in 1849 the people were enduring a fourth year of semi-starvation. Typhus fever was still rampant and many hundreds died. Substantial towns were becoming deserted. In Athlone, for example, the best shops were closed because the owners had emigrated. Trade was at a standstill and the only commerce was the “workhouse trade”. Landlords who owned thousands of derelict acres were shut up in their mansions, existing on rabbits shot in their overgrown parks, and gossip said that Lord Sligo was living on the proceeds of an opera box belonging to his family in the Covent Garden Opera House.
The state of Ireland began to cause uneasiness in England and in February ‘The Times ‘, a consistent and stubborn opponent of help for Ireland, announced a change of heart, “with great reluctance”. The Times had been converted by the fearful reports from places like Ballina which owed more than £18,000, had nearly 21,000 destitute on relief and where persons, previously paying 13/- in rates, were now asked for £13; or from Bantry, where 2,327 persons and 600 children were huddled in the workhouse and Auxiliary workhouse, naked except for filthy rages, half starved, and without the common decencies of life. 431 people, according to official figures and so on the low side, died of starvation at Bantry between January and May 1849.
The authorities now came forward with another scheme. A ‘rate-in-aid’ was to be levied, by which the more prosperous unions were to be forced to contribute to the distressed unions, and the rates were to be raised by another 6d in the pound. There was of course an outcry; Lord Lansdowne said the rate-in-aid was “nothing less than a scheme of confiscation by which the work would not be saved, but the strong be involved in general ruin”. The biggest outcry came from Ulster where large meetings of Catholics and Protestants were held; the question was raised - was, or was not, the Act of Union a realty? If the Union was a fact and Ireland was an integral part of the Empire, then the Imperial Exchequer should contribute. This question had been raised before but the Government was in London and the vast majority of the Members of Parliament did not live in Ireland and were concerned only with their own financial matters, they flatly refused to listen to reason and equally refused to contribute any aid. Therefore the Rate-in-Aid .Act was passed in June and the sum to be levied was assessed at £322,552 for the whole country. It was reported that the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Clarendon, had completely turned against his former political allies for their treatment of Ireland. He wrote to the Prime Minister “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 Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination”. No advance was granted and the “policy of Extermination” continued; compassion for Ireland was dead.
By June 1849 there were 768,902 people on relief and the debts of the Unions were more than £456,000. Some right-thinking members of the Government raised £10,000 between them and the Queen contributed £500, but such sums were only a drop in the ocean. The “operation of natural causes” must be Ireland’s fate; however the Government now decided on a sovereign remedy - Ireland was to receive a visit from Queen Victoria! And, believe it or not, with all the problems in Ireland, the royal visit was made in August and it was a great success, even though it was boycotted by a number who felt the money spent on it would be better spent saving a few starving people.
The famine was never ‘over’, in the sense that an epidemic occurs and is over. The poverty of the Irish people continued, dependence on the potato continued and hunger continued. When Irish people refer to “the famine” they mean the years of concentrated disaster in which blight first appeared; and in rapid succession the partial failure of 1845 was followed by the total failure of 1846 and the second total failure of 1848. The Government in London has been accused, and not only by the Irish, of wishing to exterminate the Irish people, as Hitler wished to exterminate the Jews. The 1840s must, however, not be judged by the standards of today; whatever parsimony and callousness the British Government displayed towards Ireland was paralleled seven years later by the treatment of their own soldiers which brought about the destruction of the British Army in the Crimea. Their conduct during the famine can be divided into two periods; up to the transfer to the Poor Law in the summer of 1847 the Government behaved with considerable generosity and advanced more than eight million pounds, at that time a very large sum indeed. But during the second period it is very difficult to defend the behaviour of the Government.
The transfer to the Poor Law is however not the most serious charge against the British Government, but that, for decades after the famine, there was no attempt to improve the agricultural system, and that neglect condemned Ireland to decline; further, hand in hand with this, nothing was done to improve the system under which land was occupied in Ireland.
The number of people who died in the famine will never be known. If we take the 1841 census figure and match it against the 1851 census, adapted at the normal rate of increase and decreased at the known emigration, then the loss of life was about two and a half million, probably more.
One further effect of the famine should be mentioned; although emigration fell from the high level of the 1840s, it was to remain an outstanding social feature of Ireland. In the years after the famine emigration was higher than the excess of births over deaths; it thus led to a continuing decline of population, decade after decade. By 1911 the island’s population had been almost halved, compared to that of pre-famine 1841. In Meath, for instance, the 1841 population was 183,828; in 1851 140,74.8; it continued to drop until 1936 when it was 61,405 and from then on there was a slight increase to 71,729 in 1971; 90,715 in 1979 and even now it is still short of the pre-famine period.
Over much of the country the cottier all but disappeared, and the decline in population made it possible to enlarge the holdings of the tenant farmers. The sale, in the thirty years following 1849, of some five million acres, almost a quarter of the area of Ireland, under the Encumbered Estates Act, by transferring land to less indebted owners, made possible investment to drain and generally improve the land; but this sale also indicates the enormous number of landlords who became bankrupt largely due to the famine.