Black '47: When Ireland Starved
The repeal of the Corn Laws were a major misfortune for Ireland. By autumn of 1845, English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel decided that the nation of Ireland, now bereft of potatoes, could be fed upon grain. To accomplish this, grain must be imported and the Corn laws repealed. The purpose of the Corn Laws were to keep up the price of homegrown grain. Duties on imported product assured the English farmer of a fair and profitable price.
The opponents of Corn Law repeal argued that no potato failure existed in Ireland, or if it did, only in scattered regions. Peel was placed in a difficult situation, and when the cabinet voted, the members were split with an overwhelming majority against Peel. Proposals to set up a Relief Commission in Ireland, to advance a sum of money to the Lord-Lieutenant for Irish relief were approved. However, this again opened the question of Corn Law repeal. Only three of Peel's fourteen ministers supported him.
On Nov. 15th, a report from Counties Meath, Louth, Westmeath, the districts around Dublin--some of the most fertile land in Ireland--was read. "Judging from the evidence thus collected ... we can come to no other conclusion than that one half of the actual potato crop of Ireland is either destroyed or ... unfit for the food of man. We, moreover, fear this to be a low estimate .... We would now add, melancholy as this picture is ... that in all probability the late rainy weather has rendered the mischief yet greater."
The plan was flawed. Ireland's food and provision trade was largely undeveloped. A large segment of the population in the southwest of Ireland rarely purchased food at all--they grew potatoes and lived on them.
Peel planned to use Indian corn to keep prices down. It would be held in store, controlled by government, and a supply "thrown in" when prices rose unreasonably, stated Woodham-Smith. Peel had no plans to use the Indian corn to feed people who had lost their potato crops, nor could he. Ireland had lost approximately
All expenditures for famine relief required Treasury sanction, and the man holding the British government's purse strings was the formidable Charles Edward Trevelyan. An able man, Trevelyan was the wrong person for Ireland. He was young, only thirty-eight, conscientious, and had a passion for work. However, he also disapproved of the Irish, and he was impatient with the Irish character. By February of 1846, Trevelyan was exercising great authority over Irish relief. A stickler for detail and policy adherence, all decisions on point of detail were made and approved by him. When the flint-hard Indian corn was obliged to be ground twice to produce a reasonably fine and digestible meal, Trevelyan insisted once was sufficient. "We must not aim at giving more than wholesome food," he told Sir Randolph Routh, the chairman of the Relief Commission.
Transportation to the outlying areas of Ireland was a problem. When two steamers were sent to the West Coast, they found the harbors woefully inadequate. This was proof to Routh that Ireland was not intended to become a mighty nation. All aspects for relief proved inadequate from transporting the grain to disbursing it. Local relief committees were a failure.
The landlords, never very secure, now contended with dissent among the tenants who were being told not to pay rents or to thresh grain because of the potato failure until aid was given. Absentee landlords denied all responsibility, and even responsible landlords were unwilling to subscribe money to committees in which they had no confidence. Some sought military aid so their properties might be safe from attack.
It was now six months since the beginning of the blight. In many districts, people had begun to starve. They ate anything that could be devoured, nettles, blackberries, edible roots and cabbage leaves, and diseased potatoes that stank and made them ill.
Disease followed on the heels of starvation. Many of the million people who starved actually died from typhus, fever, dysentery, and smallpox. These highly contagious diseases had long been endemic in Ireland, but now raged as epidemic, along with infections such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, influenza, pneumonia, and the Asiatic cholera.
A precursor to epidemic disease were evictions--or ejectments, the term of the time. The reasons varied--put out a sick family so the hut could be leased to a healthy one, turn out tenants so the landlord would not be responsible for them, or place the holding under different use. A tragic example of the latter was the evictions at Ballinglass, Co. Galway. Sixty-one houses, solidly built and well-kept, with inhabitants not in arrears in their rent, had by their own industry reclaimed four hundred acres of bog land. A Mrs. Gerrard called in a detachment of the 49th Infantry along with the sheriff and police to evict 300 tenants in order that the village might be turned into a grazing farm.
Seventy-six families were forcibly evicted, and the dwellings tumbled, the walls caved in. That night the people slept in the ruins, the following day they were driven off the property. Neighbors were not allowed to take them in.
Lord Brougham, a staunch supporter of laissez faire declared that it was the landlord's right to do as he pleased with his land. If he abstained from evicting tenants, he conferred a favor upon them, however, if he chose to stand on his right, "the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist."
Initially, when cornmeal was distributed for sale to the peasantry, it was rejected. Later, as food grew scarcer, the more adventurous began to eat it, usually boiled into a porridge called "stirabout."
Trevelyan set 15 May as the date when the stores of Indian corn might be sold to the people. What he had determined was that there would be no replenishment. Once supplies had been used up, the relief was over. Routh begged Trevelyan to order further supplies and keep the depots open until late September, when the new potato crop should be in. Trevelyan refused, even though the demand on the supply was far heavier than anticipated, and increasing daily.
By the end of June 1846, only five thousand barrels of Indian corn remained in Cork, and people in the West were starving. Routh received instructions to transfer the remaining supplies to the more desperate areas and cut down on distribution by raising the price. On July 8th, Trevelyan, winding up the relief, rejected a shipload of corn, stating that there was no need of it.
A Second Failure
The disaster was total. All that the people possessed--their clothing, bedding, etc.--all had been pawned to buy food. Even the weather turned against the people. The winter of 1846-47 was the most severe in memory; snow fell early in November, frost and gales were continuous. The Irish laborer must now go out and work in the icy chill, covered only in rags and in a half-starved condition. Men began to faint from exhaustion.
The beleaguered peasants, many of them speaking only Irish, were bewildered, government relief workers treated them with contempt. The ranks of laborers swelled the Public Works scheme ten-fold. By January 1847, the government realized the failure of public works and abandoned the scheme.
Soup kitchens were set up and workhouses began to administer portions to many of the destitute. This new scheme was greeted with relief by Trevelyan who felt that the famine was a judgment upon the people of Ireland. He hoped the priests were making this clear to their people. He wrote: "It is hard upon the poor people that they should be deprived of knowing they are suffering from an affliction of God's Providence."
Five thousand beggars roamed the streets of Cork. They were the first to die, at a rate of one hundred a week. Soup kitchens could not offer enough nourishment to sustain life to a man who had been accustomed to eating fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. In many cases, those with dysentery were left in worse condition than before the soup.
By February, some goods had made their way to Ireland, but the people could no longer buy them--there ability to earn money had disappeared. Throughout the country, the soup kitchens were hideously slow getting underway. Effective 20 March, Trevelyan ordered a twenty percent cut in Public Works funding. In addition to those being let go, every man who leased ten acres or more, would also be let go. Cecil Woodham-Smith stated that for those discharged there was nothing to do and nowhere to go, except to bar the door, lie down and die. If this weren't enough, by now fever began to sweep over Ireland.
The fever had reached epidemic proportions by March of 1847. The fever reached a peak in April when during a single week, 2,613 inmates of workhouses were declared dead. September brought some relief, but by now,the people felt the land was cursed, and those who could, boarded ships to go to America, Australia, England. Unfortunately, they took the fever with them.
Next week, read about the astonishingly high cereal and grain exports shipped out of Ireland during the famine years.
Until next time.
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