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