The sight of tens of thousands of emaciated, diseased,
half-naked Irish roaming the British countryside had infuriated members
of the British Parliament. Someone had to take the blame for this incredible
misfortune that had now crossed the Irish Sea and come upon the shores
The obvious choice was the landlords of Ireland.
Many British politicians and officials, including Charles Trevelyan, had
long held the view that landlords were to blame for Ireland's chronic misery
due to their failure to manage their estates efficiently and unwillingness
to provide responsible leadership. Parliament thus enacted the Irish Poor
Law Extension Act, a measure that became law on June 8, 1847, and dumped
the entire cost and responsibility of Famine relief directly upon Ireland's
The British now intended to wash their hands of
the 'Irish problem' no matter what lay ahead. Trevelyan supported this
measure in the belief that enforced financial self-sufficiency was the
only hope for ever improving Ireland. But in reality, many of Ireland's
estate owners were deeply in debt with little or no cash income and were
teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. However, the new Poor Law would require
them to raise an estimated £10 million
in tax revenue to support Ireland's paupers, an impossible task.
By now there was a plentiful supply of food in
Ireland available for purchase in local markets but no one had any money.
There was no employment of any kind. Trevelyan's public works projects
had been shut down. Factories and industry were sparse. Local agriculture
had been utterly disrupted.
Now, as the summer of 1847 ended, soup kitchens
were also being shut down according to schedule. The Soup Kitchen Act had
only been a temporary measure, designed to maintain the Irish until the
autumn harvest. But the harvest of 1847 was just a quarter of the normal
size due to insufficient planting back in the spring. The three million
Irish who had come to depend on soup for survival would now have to fend
for themselves, with no food handouts, no money, no employment, owing back-rent,
and weakened by long-term malnutrition and disease.
British Financial Troubles
Ireland was not the only country with serious
money problems. In the fall of 1847, Great Britain experienced a crash
due to bad investments by English speculators and the resulting impact
on London's banks. Wheat and corn prices had skyrocketed in 1846 throughout
Europe only to tumble by the middle of 1847 when supply far exceeded demand.
British investors that speculated took huge losses.
At the same time, investors speculating in the
topsy-turvy British railway industry were ruined as railway shares collapsed.
Money became very tight as British banks refused further credit. Eleven
banks failed outright. Over a hundred established business firms went bankrupt.
Stock prices and commodities tumbled.
The British financial crisis meant there would
be no money available to help Ireland during its greatest time of need.
British officials, greatly preoccupied with their own domestic troubles,
would now pay little attention to Ireland. However, there was one exception.
Charles Trevelyan remained deeply interested in relief operations in Ireland
and quite determined to enforce the Poor Law Extension Act.
The British wanted to make the idea of getting
a free handout as unattractive as possible to able-bodied Irishmen, fearing
they would overwhelm the inadequate relief system, especially in the hard-pressed
areas of southwest Ireland. The new Poor Law thus designated workhouses
as the only places where able-bodied men could obtain relief, but only
after surrendering all other means of support.
Anyone holding over a quarter-acre of land was
required to forfeit their land before seeking relief. As a result, countless
farm families with small holdings were forced into a life-and-death decision
over whether to stay on their land and possibly starve or to give up their
farm, surrender their dignity, and head for the workhouse as destitute
Workhouses were sparse in remote areas of Ireland
and those that existed there were already occupied by widows, children,
and the elderly. Trevelyan's idea was for these people to be ejected from
the workhouses to make way for the men. But many local officials in Ireland
were unwilling to do this.
To organize relief in Ireland, the British had
divided the country into 130 separate areas (unions) with several parishes
combined together to form a union. Each union was run by a Board of Guardians
consisting of Irishmen responsible for setting local tax rates and collecting
the revenue needed to provide aid to the people living within the union.
But the plan encountered problems from the start due to the sheer size
of most of the unions (100,000 or more acres) combined with the ever-increasing
shortage of property owners financially able to pay taxes, especially in
the hardest hit rural districts.
Wherever they were most needed, workhouses quickly
slid into debt, ran short of supplies and turned people away in droves.
Families in desolate areas resorted to living in small hovels cut out of
the bog or dirt holes dug along the hillside. In Donegal Union, ten thousand
persons were found living "in a state of degradation and filth which
it is difficult to believe the most barbarous nations ever exceeded,"
according to the Quaker, William Forster. His organization, the Society
of Friends, had refused to work in cooperation with the new Poor Law.
Ireland Turned Upside Down
By late 1847, most of the unions were heavily
in debt with only a handful managing to collect the funds necessary to
continue feeding local paupers. But rather than recognize the inherent
problems with the new Poor Law, the British Government chose instead to
exert maximum pressure on the Boards of Guardians in Ireland to collect
their taxes "...by every available legal means and power of recovery..."
"Arrest, remand, do anything you can,"
Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, instructed Lord Lieutenant Clarendon,
the ranking British official in Ireland.
"Send horse, foot and dragoons, all the world
will applaud you, and I should not be at all squeamish as to what I did,
to the verge of the law and a little beyond."
Ireland was to be turned upside down to shake
every last penny out of the pockets of property owners and former tax payers
still listed on the rolls. Rate collectors seized livestock, furniture,
or anything else of value including the clothes and tools of former tax
payers who had become homeless paupers. By the end of the year, just under
£1 million had been extracted from the
Irish by such methods.
"The principle of the Poor Law," Trevelyan
declared, "is that rate after rate should be levied, for the purpose
of preserving life, until the landlord and the farmer either enable the
people to support themselves by honest industry, or dispose of their estates
to those who can perform this indispensable duty."
The new Poor Law also made landlords responsible
for the taxes on small holdings on their estates occupied by peasant families
and small farmers. To relieve themselves of this tax burden they evicted
those tenants and broke up their little farms and villages, sometimes hiring
local thugs who delighted in throwing out the people then smashing their
cottages to bits with crowbars. British troops were also used when necessary,
although many of the soldiers were reluctant to get involved in family
As winter approached, increasing numbers of evicted
Irish families wandered the countryside in tattered rags with nowhere to
sleep. Workhouses were already jammed. In the west of Ireland, people were
now showing up by the hundreds at workhouse gates only to be turned away.
As a temporary emergency measure, auxiliary workhouses were set up in unused
warehouses, empty stores and other old buildings to provide shelter for
an additional 150,000 persons. But they had no heat or sanitary facilities.
And soon they had no food. In strict adherence
with the new Poor Law, unions that failed to raise the necessary taxes
for food purchases were not helped by the British government as a matter
of policy. Both inside and outside the workhouses of western Ireland, people
began to starve on a scale approaching the previous ruinous winter. Anger
and resentment grew in the countryside over the prospect that it was all
going to happen again. The result was intense hatred for British authority,
leading to unrest and anti-landlord violence.
Six landlords were shot and killed along with
ten others involved in land management. Among those murdered was Denis
Mahon of County Roscommon. He held the rank of major in a British cavalry
regiment and had inherited the property of Strokestown shortly before the
Famine. The property measured 9,000 acres and contained 28 little villages.
After the failure of the potato, he had been one of the landlords paying
to send unwanted tenants to Quebec. Over eight hundred tenants had thus
vacated his estate. But there were still over three thousand paupers remaining
in the villages and he proceeded to evict them all including 84 widows.
For his actions, he was ambushed along the road by two Irishmen and shot
dead. The people celebrated news of his death by lighting bonfires on the
hills around his estate.
British officials were appalled. Fearful the violence
might spread, they sent an additional fifteen thousand soldiers to Ireland
and passed the Crime and Outrage Bill curtailing certain liberties in Ireland
such as the carrying of firearms. The law also required Irishmen to assist
in capturing suspected murderers. But despite these measures, many Anglo-Irish
landowners and gentry fled the country, now fearing for their lives. Those
who remained behind utilized heavy police protection.
Early in 1848, a group of Irish nationalists known
as 'Young Ireland' decided the time was right for an armed uprising against
the British. Members of Young Ireland had been greatly encouraged by recent
political events in Europe. Popular uprisings in Paris, Sicily, Vienna,
Milan and Venice, had resulted in long-despised governments falling and
the flight of royalty. They hoped the same thing might now occur in Ireland.
But the British, with spies everywhere, quickly
became aware of this and reacted by bringing in even more troops and by
enacting yet another law curtailing liberty. The Treason Felony Act made
speaking against the Crown or Parliament a crime punishable by transportation
(to Botany Bay, Australia) for fourteen years or for life.
Throughout the spring into summer all kinds of
wild rumors swept Ireland, mostly exaggerating the strength of the coming
rebellion, but making the British increasingly nervous. More troops arrived
and troublesome areas such as Dublin, Cork, and Waterford were placed under
semi-martial law. Lord Lieutenant Clarendon, his nerves frayed, asked for
and received permission in July to suspend the right of Habeas Corpus in
Ireland lasting through March 1849. This meant anyone could be arrested
and imprisoned indefinitely without formal charges or a trial.
But in reality the rebellion of 1848 never posed
a serious threat. The Young Irelanders were not good planners or organizers.
They failed to secure any firearms and most importantly could not provide
food to the starving men of Ireland they were counting on to oppose the
most powerful army in the world, presently encamped on their soil. Without
weapons, food, or adequate planning, the movement to violently oust the
British fizzled and by autumn had disintegrated entirely.
The Long Night of Sorrow
Though it might seem hard to imagine, things now
got much worse for the Irish. In the fall of 1848, the blight returned
in full and once again destroyed the entire potato crop. Weather conditions,
cool and moist, had been ideal for the spread of fungus.
Massive amounts of potatoes had been planted all
over Ireland. The people had sold off any remaining possessions or borrowed
money to buy seed potatoes. Little attempt was made to grow any other crops.
Everyone gambled that it would be a good potato harvest and that the old
way of life would soon return. The blight had vanished in 1847 and there
was just no reason to believe the harvest of 1848 wouldn't also be healthy.
But all over Ireland, the people watched in horror
as their potato plants blackened and withered. Potatoes dug out of the
ground rotted and stank until not a single good potato was left.
Now more than ever, the Irish would need to depend
on the British for their very survival. But British officials were in no
mood to help. The British were utterly flabbergasted the Irish had chosen
once again to depend entirely on the potato after all that had happened.
They also had deep anger over the failed insurrection and growing resentment
toward a people they increasingly perceived as ungrateful.
For the Irish, the winter of 1848-49 would be
the long night of sorrow as Trevelyan and the British Parliament enacted
one harsh measure after another amid all of the suffering.
Landlords and gentry, now deeper in debt than
ever, forcibly ejected remaining tenants then pulled down their houses
to save on taxes. Eviction in winter usually meant death. The people, clothed
in filthy rags, wandered aimlessly or headed in the general direction of
the workhouse, often collapsing from fever and exposure long before getting
Reports of the conditions reached London, but
there was little compassion for the Irish left in Britain. "In no
other country," railed The Times of London, "have men
talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging sympathy
from their oppressors...and in none have they repeated more humble and
piteous [requests for help] to those whom they have previously repaid with
An exasperated Prime Minister Russell now declared:
"We have subscribed, worked, visited, clothed, for the Irish, millions
of money, years of debate, etc., etc., etc. The only return is rebellion
and calumny. Let us not grant, lend, clothe, etc., any more, and see what
that will do..."
The Irish would continue to pay for their own
relief without any help from the British treasury. Farmers and landlords,
Trevelyan decided, would now be taxed at an increased rate to provide minimal
relief to starving paupers. But the alarming news that there would be yet
another tax increase, impossible for most to pay, simply ignited the desire
among any remaining mid-sized farmers and proprietors to quit Ireland entirely
and head for America.
By the beginning of 1849, the Irish were suffering
on a scale similar to the worst months of 1846-47. Michael Shaughnessy,
a barrister in Ireland, described children he encountered while traveling
on his circuit as "almost naked, hair standing on end, eyes sunken,
lips pallid, protruding bones of little joints visible." In another
district, there was a report of a woman who had gone insane from hunger
and eaten the flesh of her own dead children. In other places, people killed
and ate dogs which themselves had been feeding off dead bodies.
Men and boys who had never been in trouble in
their lives now deliberately committed crimes in order to be arrested and
transported to Australia. "Even if I had chains on my legs, I would
still have something to eat," said an Irish teenager after his arrest.
Of the 130 unions in Ireland, up to seventy were
now on the verge of financial ruin due to insufficient tax revenues. Responding
to this, Trevelyan decided that prosperous unions should be forced to provide
funds to the distressed unions. This meant there would be a drain of money
from the few remaining stable areas into ruined areas, breaking all of
For the British, this served several purposes.
It was a continuation of the punitive mentality toward the Irish; left
Ireland entirely dependent upon itself for relief; and perhaps most importantly,
a financially ruined Ireland would be compelled "to abandon the treacherous
potato" once and for all. The long-awaited opportunity to reform Ireland
had finally arrived.
the plan also had the potential for catastrophic consequences, recognized
by some of the British officials who spoke out, including Poor Law Commissioner
Edward Twisleton who resigned his post in Ireland stating: "The destitution
here is so horrible and the indifference of the House of Commons to it
Lord Lieutenant Clarendon also criticized the
lack of government funds: "...it is enough to drive one mad, day after
day, to read the appeals that are made and to meet them all with a negative...I
don't think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard
such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland..."
Fears began to surface within the British government
of the Irish suddenly dropping dead by the tens of thousands and the possible
impact such scenes might have upon world opinion of the Crown. In spite
of this, nothing further was done, even after an outbreak of cholera ravaged
the overflowing workhouses.
The Irish, for their part, were not about to simply
sit still and die. The whole population of the starving country began to
move about. Cities, villages and entire districts were abandoned. Western
Ireland was nearly depleted of its population. Among country folk, the
centuries-old communal way of life with its traditional emphasis on neighborly
sharing, now collapsed. It was replaced by a survival mentality in which
every family, every person fended for themselves. Family bonds also disintegrated
as starving parents deserted their children and children likewise deserted
The potato disaster of 1848 had sparked a new
exodus to America. By the tens of thousands, the Irish boarded ships and
departed their beloved homeland, heading to Boston, New York, Charleston,
Savannah, and New Orleans, arriving there in tattered clothes, sick from
the voyage, disoriented, afraid, perhaps even terrified, but with a glimmer
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