The History Place - Irish Potato Famine

Financial Ruin

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 of Britain.

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 property owners.

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 paupers.

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 " 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 evictions. Bridget O'Donnel and her children after their eviction.

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 there.

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 monstrous ingratitude."Homeless family, the day after eviction.

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 Ireland financially.

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 village of Killard in Kilrush, County Clare.But 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 so manifest..."

Lord Lieutenant Clarendon also criticized the lack of government funds: " 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 their parents.

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 of hope.

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