by  Cecil  Woodham-Smith

Cecil Woodham-Smith was born in April 1896 into the well-known Irish family, the FitzGeralds.. She had an army background: her father, Colonel James FitzGerald, after retiring from the Indian Army, was Deputy Commissioner for Berar, while her mother's family included General Sir Thomas Picton who served under Wellington and was killed at Waterloo. In 1928 she married George Ivon Woodham-Smith with whom she had an exceptionally close and deep relationship until his death in 1968.

In 1941 she began nine years of meticulous research for Florence Nightingale, which, when it was published in 1950, was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for its combination of scholarship and readability. Her second masterpiece of  'refined information', The Reason Why, followed three years later in 1953. A brilliant analysis of that central Victorian episode, the Charge of the Light Brigade, it explored, the fatally converging lives of Lords Lucan and Cardigan.

The Great Hunger, a formidable and moving account of the great Irish famine of the 1840s, was published in 1962. Queen Victoria (1972) was her last work before her death in 1977 at the age of 80.

In i960 Cecil Woodham-Smith was made a CBE, an honorary Doctor of Literature at the National University of Ireland in 1964 and St Andrews in 1965 as well as an honorary Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1967.

As The Times wrote in its Obituary Notice on 17 March 1977: "Cecil Woodham-Smith was one of the most gifted biographers and narrative historians of her generation. She displayed an attention to detail, a flair for story-telling, and an historical and human intelligence that set her work apart ... In life as in scholarship and literature Cecil Woodham-Smith was a perfectionist, content only with the highest standards. A good lecturer and most entertaining in conversation, she was sharply witty in speech, but sympathetic and generous in action, especially to her fellow writers and to young people."


'Her. just and penetrating mind, her lucid and easy style and her assured command of the sources have produced one of the great works not only of Irish nineteenth-century history, but of nineteenth-century history in general'

— Conor Cruise O'Brien

'A moving and terrible book. It combines great literary power

with great learning. It explains much in modern Ireland — and

in modern America' 

— D. W. Brogan

'Mrs Woodham-Smith has made an individual contribution

to Irish history. Her thoroughness in research, compassionate

fair-mindedness and gift of narrative are all again in- evidence'

— The Times

The Irish potato famine of the 1840s, perhaps the most appalling event of the Victorian era, killed over a million people and drove as many more to emigrate to America. It may not have been the result of deliberate government policy, yet British 'obtuseness, short-sightedness and ignorance' — and stubborn commitment to laissez-faire 'solutions' — largely caused the disaster and prevented any serious efforts to relieve suffering. The continuing impact on Anglo-Irish relations was incalculable, the immediate human cost almost inconceivable. In this vivid and disturbing book Cecil Woodham-Smith provides the definitive account.

IRELAND  1845-1849



AT THE beginning of the year 1845 the state of Ireland was,  as it had been for nearly seven hundred years, a source of grave anxiety to England. Ireland had first been invaded in 1169; it was now 1845, yet she had been neither assimilated nor subdued. The country had been conquered not once but several times, the land had been confiscated and redistributed over and over again, the population had been brought to the verge of extinction— after Cromwell's conquest and settlement only some half million Irish survived—yet an Irish nation still existed, separate, numerous and hostile.

Indeed, during the last few years it had seemed that Irish affairs were moving towards a new and alarming crisis. On January 1, 1801, an event of enormous importance had taken place—the Act of Union between Ireland and England became operative. The two countries were made one, the economy of Ireland was assimilated into the economy of England, the Irish Parliament at Dublin disappeared and the Parliament at Westminster henceforward legislated for both countries. It was as if a marriage between England and Ireland had been celebrated, with the clauses of the Act of Union as the terms of the marriage settlement.

At first sight it seemed that Ireland had everything to gain. Free Trade between Ireland and England meant that the discrimination hitherto practised by England against Irish industry would come to an end; united with English riches Ireland would gain the capital she desperately needed for development, while the hundred Irish Members who were to sit at Westminster would give Ireland, for the first time, a voice in Imperial affairs. Further, an impression had been created that when the Union became law Catholic emancipation would immediately follow. Catholics (and three-quarters of the population of Ireland were Catholics) would be assured of justice from the wide and unprejudiced views of the Imperial Parliament, and the laws which, amongst other restrictions, prevented Catholics from becoming Members of Parliament or Judges or being appointed King's Counsel would be repealed.

The reality, however, was very different. The primary object of the Union Was not to assist and improve Ireland but to bring her more completely into subjection.

Two years earlier, in 1798, the Irish had rebelled. England at that moment was in extreme danger, passing through the darkest days of her struggle with revolutionary France, and the rebels of '98 were assisted by French troops and with French money. The rebellion was put down with savagery, the strength of the army in Ireland was increased to a hundred thousand men, and the Union followed. England tightened her hold over Ireland; rebellious action, it was hoped, would henceforth become impossible.

The Union was bitterly opposed; contemporaries described it not as a marriage but as a 'brutal rape', and Ireland was compared to an heiress whose chambermaid and trustees have been bribed, while she herself is dragged, protesting, to the altar. Nevertheless, after bribery on a scale such as history has seldom witnessed, and a generous distribution of places of profit and titles, 'Union titles', the Act of Union became law.

As the years passed, however, no happiness resulted. The hope of English investment proved a delusion. Free Trade between the two countries enabled England to use Ireland as a market for surplus English goods; Irish industry collapsed, unemployment was widespread, and Dublin, now that an Irish Parliament sat no longer in College Green, became a half-dead city. Above all, Catholic emancipation, expected to follow immediately on the Union, was only achieved, after a desperate struggle, in 1829.

Ireland besought a repeal of the Union, and by 1843 the strength of the demand was seriously disquieting to the British Government. The Catholic peasantry was becoming organized, the commercial classes were being drawn in, substantial sums of money were being raised. All this was the work of one man, Daniel O'Connell, who gave up a brilliant career at the bar to devote his life to Ireland.

Adopted by a Catholic uncle living at Derrynane, County Kerry, a fluent speaker of the Irish language, with a magnificent voice and presence, a quick wit, a superb gift of invective, and a flamboyance his enemies called vulgarity, he was nicknamed 'Swaggering Dan'. Self-government, not separation from England, was O'Connell's aim; and he cherished a romantic admiration for Queen Victoria, 'the darling little Queen.' He had a lawyer's respect for the law, with a horror of armed rebellion which derived from his personal recollection of the hangings, torturings and floggings that had followed the '98; his followers were pledged to obtain repeal only by legal and constitutional means.

Nevertheless, the Repeal movement was felt by the Government to be menacing. From March, 1843, O'Connell held huge mass meetings, 'monster' meetings, demanding repeal, and tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, flocked to hear him. At the historic hill of Tara, the ancient seat of Irish sovereignty in Meath, a quarter of a million persons gathered; and Sir Edward Sugden, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, wrote 'The peaceable demeanour of the assembled multitudes is one of the most alarming symptoms'. At forty monster meetings the only disturbance which could be discovered, after searching scrutiny by the Government, was the accidental overturning of a gingerbread stall.

An Irish-people united and controlled was an ominous spectacle, and the British Government, seized with something near panic, began to prepare 'as if in hourly expectation of civil war'. Troops were hastily brought from England, barracks were fortified and provisioned to withstand a siege. Justices of the Peace who were repealers were dismissed, and in the courtyard of Dublin Castle a regiment of infantry was kept drawn up and under arms, in readiness to suppress a revolt.

In the autumn of 1843 O'Connell announced that a monster meeting, the greatest of all, would be held on Sunday, October 8, on the fields of Clontarf, near Dublin, where eight hundred years before the Irish hero, Brian Boru, had defeated the Norsemen and driven them into the sea. The Government, convinced that a rising would follow, decided to 'proclaim' the Clontarf meeting, that is, to forbid it, in a proclamation issued by the Lord Lieutenant Later, O'Connell himself was to be arrested.

The subsequent conduct of the Government was, as Greville wrote in his diary, 'certainly most extraordinary'. Instead of 'proclaiming' the meeting at once, nothing was done until the eleventh hour, on the Saturday afternoon before the Sunday. Then the guns of the Pigeon House, the fort commanding Dublin Bay, were trained on Clontarf, warships entered Dublin Bay, and troops occupied the approaches to the meeting place when tens of thousands of people were massing. Had it not been for O'Connell's creed that 'human blood is no cement for the temple of liberty', a massacre might have taken place; but O'Connell ordered the people to go home and, directed by his lieutenants, the vast multitude quietly dispersed. No monster meeting took place, no disturbance occurred.

Nevertheless, O'Connell was arrested a week later on a charge of trying to alter the constitution by force. Convicted by a 'packed jury', a partisan jury on which no Catholic or repealer was allowed to sit, he was sent to prison. The verdict was reversed by the House of Lords on September 24, 1844, and he was released. But for the movement the psychological moment had passed: the iron of Repeal had cooled and O'Connell himself was a changed man, while in prison he had 'lost his nerve'. He was nearly seventy, and the strain of the monster meetings, followed by arrest, trial and imprisonment, even though he had been treated with consideration in prison, had broken his health.

Constitutional methods having failed, as armed rebellion had previously failed, Ireland relapsed into helpless hostility. No outbreak took place in 1844, the year immediately preceding the famine, but the anxiety of the Government continued to be acute, and on the eve of the famine, the Government of Ireland was admittedly a military occupation, and the garrison of Ireland was larger than the garrison of India. 'How do you govern it?' demanded Macaulay in the House of Commons on February 19, 1844. 'Not by love but by fear ... not by the confidence of the people in the laws and their attachment to the Constitution but by means of armed men and entrenched camps.'

The hostility between England and Ireland, which six centuries had failed to extinguish, had its roots first of all in race. After the first invasions, the first conquests, the Irish hated the English with the hatred of the defeated and the dispossessed. Nevertheless, eventually the English and the Irish might have fused, as the English and the Scots, the English and the Welsh have, for practical purposes, fused, had it not been that in the sixteenth century racial animosity was disastrously strengthened by religious enmity.

The crucial event was the Reformation. The ideas of liberty which the English cherish and the history of their country's rise to greatness are bound up with Protestantism, while Ireland, alone among the countries of northern Europe, was scarcely touched by the Reformation. The gulf which resulted could never be bridged. In the political division of Europe which followed the Reformation, England and Ireland were on opposing sides. Henceforward, Irish aspirations could only be fulfilled, Irish faith could only flourish, through the defeat of England and the triumph of her enemies.

Freedom for Ireland meant Philip of Spain and the Inquisition in place of Elizabeth I, it meant James II instead of William III, it even meant, since misery and oppression make strange bedfellows, the victory of Napoleon.

So completely is the history of the one country the reverse of the history of the other that the very names which to an Englishman mean glory, victory and prosperity to an Irishman spell degradation, misery and ruin. In Ireland the name of Elizabeth I stands only for the horrors of her Irish conquest; in the defeat of the Armada, Ireland's hopes of independence went down; above all, with the name of William III and the glorious revolution of 1688, the very foundation of British liberties, the Catholic Irishman associates only the final subjugation of his country and the degradation and injustice of the penal laws. Freedom for the one meant slavery for the other; victory for the one meant defeat for the other; the good of the one was the evil of the other. Ireland, resentful and hostile, lying only a day's sail, in fine weather, from Britain's coasts, for centuries provided a refuge for enemy agents, a hatching-ground for enemy plots; her motto was 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity', and in every crisis of England's history she seized the moment of weakness to stab her enemy in the back. It is the explanation, if not the excuse, for the ferocity with which the English have treated Ireland.

In the eighteen-forties, after nearly seven hundred years of English domination, Irish poverty and Irish misery appalled the traveller. The Frenchman de Beaumont found in Ireland the extreme of human misery, worse than the Negro in his chains; the German traveller Kohl wrote that no mode of life in Europe could seem pitiable after one had seen Ireland. He used, he said, to pity the poor Letts in Livonia: 'Well, Heaven pardon my ignorance! Now I have seen Ireland, it seems to me that the poorest among the Letts, the Esthonians and the Philanders, lead a life of comparative comfort.'

Exceptions were to be found in Ulster, particularly the northeast portion, which includes Belfast. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, while Dublin was decaying, Belfast was growing into a leading industrial town and port, and the linen manufacture in which Ulster was to lead the world was rapidly developing; Belfast was the headquarters and distributing centre, and flax-growing and weaving were carried on in the surrounding districts. A large part of Ulster differed from most of Ireland because it had been 'planted'. In the 'plantation of Ulster', at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the original Irish owners of the soil had been driven out and mainly Scottish Protestants put in their place. The descendants of the plantation had not been dispossessed; they shared the religion of their rulers, had rights, seldom found elsewhere, relating to the occupation of land, and their standard of life, assisted by the rise of the linen industry, was somewhat higher than in the south and south-west.

Better conditions, however, were by no means universal in Ulster. Donegal, not then separated from the rest of Ulster, was one of the poorest and most backward counties in Ireland and, nearer Belfast, in districts like the Fews, in County Armagh, the standard of living was as low as anywhere in the country.

'There never was,' said the Duke of Wellington, a native of County Meath, 'a country in which poverty existed to the extent it exists in Ireland.' Housing conditions were wretched beyond words. The census of 1841 graded 'houses' in Ireland into four classes; the fourth and lowest class consisted of windowless mud cabins of a single room '. . . nearly half of the families of the rural population,' reported the Census Commissioners, '. . . are living in the lowest state.' In parts of the west of Ireland more than three-fifths of the 'houses' were one-roomed, windowless mud cabins, and west of a line drawn from Londonderry to Cork the proportion was two-fifths.

Furniture was a luxury; the inhabitants of Tullahobagly, County Donegal, numbering about 9,000, had in 1837 only 10 beds, 93 chairs and 243 stools between them. Pigs slept with their owners, manure heaps choked doors, sometimes even stood inside; the evicted and unemployed put roofs over ditches, burrowed into banks, existed in bog holes.

All this wretchedness and misery could, almost without exception, be traced to a single source—the system under which land had come to be occupied and owned in Ireland, a system produced by centuries of successive conquests, rebellions, confiscations and punitive legislation.

In 1843, in the midst of the Repeal agitation, the British Government, recognizing that the land question was at the root of Irish discontent, set up a Royal Commission 'to inquire into the law and practice with regard to the occupation of land in Ireland'. This Commission, called the Devon Commission, after its chairman, the Earl of Devon, visited every part of Ireland, examined 1,100 witnesses, printed three huge volumes of evidence, and reported in February, 1845, a few months before the outbreak of the famine. Its secretary was an able and 'improving' landlord, John Pitt Kennedy, who had gained some celebrity as the author of a pamphlet on the Irish question entitled 'Instruct: Employ: Don't Hang Them'. It adds to the weight of its conclusions that the Commission was a landlords' Commission; every member who sat on it was a landowner, and O'Connell declared, 'It is perfectly one-sided, all landlords and no tenants.'

The Report of the Devon Commission stated that the principal cause of Irish misery was the bad relations between landlord and tenant. Ireland was a conquered country, the Irish peasant a dispossessed man, his landlord an alien conqueror. There was no paternalism, such as existed in England, no hereditary loyalty or feudal tie. 'Confiscation is their common title,' said the Earl of Clare, the famous Tory Lord Chancellor, speaking of Irish landlords, 'and from the first settlements they have been hemmed in on every side by the original inhabitants of the island, brooding over their discontent in sullen indignation.'

With some notable exceptions—whose names survive and are regarded with affection in Ireland today—the successive owners of the soil of Ireland regarded it merely as a source from which to extract as much money as possible, and since a hostile, backward country is neither a safe nor an agreeable place in which to live, from the first conquests the absentee landlord was common in Ireland. The absentee evil was 'a very great one' as early as 1377. Rents were spent in England or on the Continent; in 1842 it was estimated that £6,000,000 of rents were being remitted cut of Ireland, and Kohl, the German traveller, commented on the mansions of absentee landlords, standing 'stately, silent, empty'. Absentee estates, however, were by no means always the worst managed, and some, in particular the properties of great English territorial magnates, for instance, the estates of the Duke of Devonshire, were models. But too often owners visited property in Ireland only once or twice in a lifetime, sometimes not at all; as Colonel Conolly, of Kildare and Donegal, told a Select Committee of 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 sufferings they have never witnessed.' Meanwhile, almost absolute power was left in the hands of an agent, whose ability was measured by the amount of money he could contrive to extract.

During the eighteenth century a new method of dealing with Irish property was adopted. Large tracts of land were let at a fixed rent to a single individual on a long lease, and he sub-let as he chose. This 'middleman system' produced misery: the landlord rid himself of responsibility and assured himself of a regular income, but the tenants were handed over to exploitation. Profit was the only motive, and contemporary observers denounce middlemen as 'land sharks', 'bloodsuckers', 'the most oppressive species of tyrant that ever lent assistance to the destruction of a country'. Moreover, the middlemen degraded the land because, as the slum landlord finds it more profitable to let out a house room by room, so they split farms into smaller and smaller holdings for the sake of increased rents.

Yet whether he held under a middleman, a resident, or an absentee landlord, the terms on which the Irish peasant occupied his land were harsh, and two provisions in particular, the two 'monster grievances' of Ireland deprived him of incentive and security.

First, any improvement he made to his holding became, when his lease expired or was terminated, the property of the landlord, without compensation. Second, he very seldom had any security of tenure; the majority of tenants in Ireland were tenants 'at will', that is, the will of the landlord, who could turn them out whenever he chose.

Under a practice known as 'tenant right', found mainly in Ulster, compensation for improvements was paid, and where the practice existed it was jealously guarded. '... It is one of the sacred rights of the country which cannot be touched with impunity', the agent for Lord Lurgan's property in County Armagh told the Devon Commission; 'and if systematic efforts were made among the proprietors of Ulster to invade tenant right, I do not believe there is a force at the disposal of the Horse Guards [the War Office] sufficient to keep the peace of the province.'

The Devon Commission stated that the superior prosperity and tranquillity of Ulster, compared with the rest of Ireland, were due to tenant right.

The annexation of improvements was made more inequitable by the bare state in which land was customarily let, so destitute of every aid to cultivation taken for granted in England or Scotland that it was often impossible for the tenant to work it until he had made 'improvements' destined to enrich his landlord.

Even so, had the tenant possessed some degree of security, for instance held a reasonable lease, he might have been encouraged to exert himself. But leases were the exception not the rule, stated Lord Stanley, himself an Irish landowner, in the House of Lords on June 9, 1845, the eve of the famine. In many cases the landlord refused a lease because he had the tenant more completely under his control; in others, the tenant declined because recent legislation had so greatly increased the cost of the stamp on a lease that he could not find the necessary £10 or so.

In most cases, however, even a lease did not give security, owing to a deplorable and 'very prevalent' Irish practice known as the 'hanging gale'—'gale' being the term used for a periodical payment of rent. The hanging gale allowed an incoming tenant to leave his rent in arrear, that is 'hanging', for six, twelve, or fifteen months. Tenants were almost invariably without capital, land was let bare, frequently even a dwelling had to be erected, and it was useless for the landlord to look for his rent until at least one harvest had given the tenant a chance to gain something.

But, once the tenant owed rent, any security his lease might give vanished. Edward Wakefield, a well-known economist of the period, described the 'hanging gale' as 'one of the great levers of oppression the lower classes are kept in a kind of perpetual bondage ... this debt hangs over their heads ... and keeps them in a continual state of anxiety and terror'.

There were, of coarse, good landlords in Ireland, and on Lord Monteagle's estate at Mount Trenchard, the Duke of Leinster's at Carton, Mr. Guinness's at Stillorgan, Lord Bessboroagh's at Bess-borough, to name only a few, farm buildings were erected by the landlord, cabins were tidy, and the people contented. In such cases a lease was often felt to be superfluous. A tenant of Lord Mountcashel's told the Devon Commission: 'From the imbending integrity and honesty of Mr. Joy [the agent] we are considered as safe at will as under a lease. I have expended £500 without the scratch of a pen.' He added, however: 'But Lord Mountcashel may be gathered to his fathers and Mr. Joy may die, and another Pharaoh may arise who knew not Joseph.'

Too often the powers given to the landlord, 'the most powerful the law can create', were remorselessly used. 'The dread of landlords was such that people trembled before them,' recorded the writer of a manuscript in Donegal, just before the famine. 'In Ireland alone,' wrote John Stuart Mill, 'the whole agricultural population can be evicted by the mere will of the landlord, either at the expiration of a lease or, in the far more common case of their having no lease, at six months' notice. In Ireland alone, the bulk of a population wholly dependent on the land cannot look forward to a single year's occupation of it.'

In these circumstances industry and enterprise were extinguished and a peasantry created which was one of the most destitute in Europe. 'It would be impossible adequately to describe,' stated the Devon Commission in its Report, 'the privations which they [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure ... in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water … their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather ... a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury ... and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property.' The Commissioners could not 'forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain'.


Wretched though their condition might be, the pre-famine Irish peasants were not gloomy, 'Their natural condition,' wrote Sir Walter Scott during his visit to Ireland in 1825, 'is turned towards gaiety and happiness,' and the Census Commissioners noted 'the proverbial gaiety and lightheartedness of the peasant people'.

Dancing was the universal diversion, and Lord George Hill, who owned property in Donegal, has left an account of removing a cabin with dancing and fiddling. 'The custom on such occasions is for the person who has the work to be done to hire a fiddler, upon which engagement all the neighbours joyously assemble and carry in an incredibly short time the stones and timber upon their backs to the new site; men, women and children alternately dancing and working while daylight lasts, at the termination of which they adjourn to some dwelling where they finish the night, often prolonging the dance to dawn of day.' Arthur Young, at the end of the eighteenth century, commented on the fine physique of the average Irishman and the good looks of Irish women, and even after the sufferings of the famine Nassau Senior, the economist, revisiting Ireland, was 'struck by the beauty of the population'.


The culture of the potato required little attention except at springtime and harvest, and through the long winter nights the people sat within their cabins, fiddling, talking and telling stories. Firing, in the shape of turf—peat cut from the bog and costing little or nothing— was plentiful. 'Few, if any, had any reason to complain of cold,' records a manuscript, and poteen, illicit whiskey, was plentiful, too. Groups of neighbours gathered for dancing to the fiddle, indoors in the winter, in summer at the cross-roads; wakes, with liberal potations of poteen, were social occasions; and crowds gaily travelled immense distances to attend markets, fairs and, above all, races. 'If there be a market to attend, a fair or a funeral, a horse race, a fight or a wedding, all else is neglected and forgotten,' wrote George Nicholls, the leading English Poor Law expert, when reporting on the state of the Irish people.


As the main diversion of the women was talking, they disliked living in isolated houses. In schemes of land improvement the houses were separated, since in the old-style Irish settlement of cabins in clusters the women and the men spent too much time talking and quarrelling. The change was always unpopular. Lord George Hill relates a story of an agent who observed to a tenant that he seemed to be doing much better now that he was living away from neighbours and could 'attend to his farm instead of idling and gossiping'. The man assured him that precisely the contrary was true, and 'he could not stand it much longer on account of the expense, as he was obliged to keep a servant maid just to talk to his wife'.


Good manners and hospitality were universal among the poorest Irish. 'The neighbour or the stranger finds every man's doer open, and to walk in without ceremony at meal time and to partake of a bowl of potatoes, is always sure to give pleasure to anyone of the house,' wrote Sir John Carr, a Devonshire gentleman who toured Ireland soon after the Union; 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 . . . and those that beg everywhere else seem desirous to exercise hospitality in their own houses'.


A young lady named Elizabeth Ham came to Ballina, County Mayo, when her father, a British Army officer, was stationed there in connection with the disturbed state of the country, following the rebellion of 1798. She was astonished to find that she could roam the wild mountains without fear of molestation, while in England no girl could ramble in the woods and fields alone, even though at this time Irishmen who had taken a part in the rebellion were being hanged by the English on Ballina bridge. She would, she wrote, 'have fearlessly trusted' the Irish peasantry 'in any circumstances'. The intelligence of the people surprised her. 'I never met a solitary peasant in my rambles but I addressed him, and by this means got stores of legendary lore. One man I remember told me the subjects of most of Ossian's poems in his own version of English.'

Returning to England after five years she was 'greatly struck by the vulgarity of everyone'. Driving from Holyhead in a chaise, 'we happened to stop opposite a cottage and . . . asked for a glass of water. It was brought. . . and the woman asked for payment. An Irish woman would have considered it an insult to be offered such. The cottages were clean and neat and the country looked clean in comparison but the manners seemed far inferior.'

Irish dignity, Irish hospitality and the easy good manners which still charm the modern traveller have an historical explanation. Three times, at least, the native aristocracy was conquered and dispossessed; many fled from Ireland to exile in France or Spain, but many others remained, to be forced down by poverty and penal legislation to the economic level of the peasantry.

Until the famine, it was by no means uncommon for poor peasants in mud cabins to make wills bequeathing estates which had long ago been confiscated from their forefathers, and that figure of fun in Victorian days, the Irish beggar who claimed to be descended from kings, was very often speaking the truth. 'I am descended from perhaps as good a family as any I address, though now destitute of means' runs a letter imploring assistance in the Distress papers.


There was, however, a darker and more sinister side to the Irish character. They are, said a land agent on the eve of the famine, 'a very desperate people, with all this degree of courtesy, hospitality and cleverness amongst them.'


To understand the Irish of the nineteenth century and their blend of courage and evasiveness, tenacity and inertia, loyalty and double-dealing, it is necessary to go back to the Penal Laws.

The Penal Laws, dating from 1695, and not repealed in their entirety until Catholic emancipation in 1829, aimed at the destruction of Catholicism in Ireland by a series of ferocious enactments, provoked by Irish support of the Stuarts after the Protestant William of Orange was invited to ascend the English throne in 1688, and England faced the greatest Catholic power in Europe—France. At this critical moment the Catholic Irish took up arms in support of the Stuarts. James II's standard was raised in Ireland, and he, with an Irish Catholic army, was defeated on Irish soil, at the battle of the Boyne, near Drogheda, on July 1, 1690.

The threat to England had been alarming, and vengeance followed. Irish intervention on behalf of the Stuarts was to be made impossible for ever by reducing the Catholic Irish to helpless impotence. They were, in the words of a contemporary, to become 'insignificant slaves, fit for nothing but to hew wood and draw water', and to achieve this object the Penal Laws were devised.

In broad outline, they barred Catholics from the army and navy, the law, commerce, and from every civic activity. No Catholic could vote, hold any office under the Crown, or purchase land, and Catholic estates were dismembered by an enactment directing that at the death of a Catholic owner his land was to be divided among all his sons, unless the eldest became a Protestant, when he would inherit the whole. 

Education was made almost impossible, since Catholics might not attend schools, nor keep schools, nor send their children to be educated abroad. The practice of the Catholic faith was proscribed; informing was encouraged as 'an honourable service' and priest-hunting treated as a sport. Such were the main provisions of the Penal Code, described by Edmund Burke as a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingeniary of man'.

The material damage suffered through the Penal Laws is great; ruin was widespread, old families disappeared and old estates were broken up; but the most disastrous effects were moral. The Penal Laws brought lawlessness, dissimulation and revenge in their train, and the Irish character, above all the character of the peasantry, did become, in Burke's words, degraded and debased. The upper classes were able to leave the country and many middle-class merchants contrived, with guile, to survive, but the poor Catholic peasant bore the full hardship. His religion made him an outlaw; in the Irish House of Commons he was described as 'the common enemy', and whatever was inflicted on him he must bear, for where could he look for redress? To his landlord? Almost invariably an alien conqueror. To the law? Not when every person connected with the law, from the jailer to the judge, was a Protestant who regarded him as 'the common enemy'.

In these conditions suspicion of the law, of the ministers of the law and of all established authority 'worked into the very nerves and blood of the Irish peasant', and, since the law did not give him justice, he set up his own law. The secret societies which have been the curse of Ireland became widespread during the Penal period, and a succession of underground associations, Oak Boys, White Boys and Ribbon Men, gathering in bogs and lonely glens, flouted the law and dispensed a people's justice in the terrible form of revenge. The informer, the supplanter of an evicted tenant, the landlord's man, were punished with dreadful savagery, and since animals were wealth their unfortunate animals suffered, too. Cattle were 'clifted', driven over the edge of a cliff, horses hamstrung, dogs clubbed to death, stables fired and the animals within burned alive. Nor were lawlessness, cruelty and revenge the only consequences. During the long Penal period, dissimulation became a moral necessity and evasion of the law the duty of every god-fearing Catholic. To worship according to his faith, the Catholic must attend illegal meetings; to protect his priest, he must be secret, cunning, and a concealer of the truth.

These were dangerous lessons for any government to compel its subjects to learn, and a dangerous habit of mind for any nation to acquire.


It is a curious contradiction, not very often remembered by England, that for many generations the private soldiers of the British Army were largely Irish; the Irish have natural endowments for war, courage, daring, love of excitement and conflict; Macaulay described Ireland as 'an inexhaustible nursery of the finest soldiers'.

Poverty and lack of opportunity at home made the soldier's shilling a day, and the chance of foreign service, attractive to the Irishman; and the armies of which England is proud, the troops which broke the power of Napoleon in the Peninsula and defeated him at Waterloo, which fought on the scorching plains of India, stormed the heights of the Alma in the Crimean campaign, and planted the British flag in every quarter of the globe in a hundred forgotten engagements, were largely, indeed in many cases mainly, Irish.

A hostile, lawless, oppressed and poverty-stricken population in Ireland was already giving signs of future tragedy when a new development made catastrophe inevitable.


Between sixty and seventy years before the famine the population of Ireland began and continued to increase at a rate previously unknown, in the history of Europe. Why this took place has yet to be fully explained. Demography, the science which deals with the statistics of birth, death and disease, is a relatively new science, and the waves of population growth, which from time, to time pass over the world, are not yet fully understood. In the case of Ireland information is lacking; births were not compulsorily registered until 1863, and though the practice of taking a ten-yearly census began in 1821 the first figures considered reliable are those of 1841.

It is, however, agreed by all authorities that about the year 1780 the population of Ireland began to take an extraordinary upward leap. The increase between 1779 and 1841 has been placed at the almost incredible figure of 172 per cent.

During the same period a rapid increase also took place in the population of England and Wales. It is customary to ascribe this to the spread of industrialization, resulting in improved communications and more towns with better opportunities for social intercourse and early marriage, to a more general adoption of vaccination, with a consequent reduction of deaths from smallpox, and to some degree to improved cleanliness and medical care. More adds lived to old age, more babies were born and fewer died.

But this cannot apply to Ireland. Little can have been effected by medical care in a country which in 1841 possessed only 39 infirmaries, apart from hospitals for fever, venereal, ophthalmic and maternity patients, to serve a population officially calculated to have reached 8,200,000, and where the only medical aid available to the mass of the people was a limited number of dispensaries. Dublin had one dispensary to 6,286 people and Meath one to 6,545, but Down, Longford and Leitrim had only one to more than 20,000, and Mayo, which was not visited in 1841, five years previously had had a single dispensary for a population of 366,328.

Nor can the growth of towns and the improvement of communications have played much part in the bogs, the mountains and the lonely cabins of the West; yet Mayo, in Connaught, poorest and most remote of counties, had the largest rural population in Ireland. Moreover, the highest figure at which authorities estimate the increase in England and Wales is 88 per cent., almost half the increase—if 172 per cent, is correct—in backward, poverty-stricken Ireland.

Still, certain circumstances favourable to population increase were present in Ireland during this period. 

First, and most important, there was an abundant supply of incredibly cheap food, easily obtained, in the potato, and the standard of living of the time was such that a diet of potatoes was no great hardship. With the addition of milk or buttermilk potatoes form a scientifically satisfactory diet, as the physique of the pre-famine Irish proved. Arthur Young contrasted the Irishman's potato diet favourably with the contemporary English labourer's bread and cheese. The Irish, he wrote, 'have a bellyful ... I will not assert that potatoes are a better food than bread and cheese but I have no doubt of a bellyful of the one being much better than half a bellyful of the other'.

Next, far from acting as a deterrent, the miserably low standards of Irish life encouraged young couples to marry early. No savings were necessary, no outlay was required; a cabin was erected for little or nothing in a few days, the young couple secured a scrap of land, owned a pot, perhaps a stool, not always a bed. Marriages were daily contracted with the most reckless improvidence. Boys and girls marry literally without habitation or any means of support, trusting, as they say, to Providence as others have done before them. In fact, nothing was to be gained by waiting. Asked why the Irish married so young, the Catholic Bishop of Raphoe told the Irish Poor Enquiry of 1835: 'They cannot be worse off than they are and . . . they may help each other.' Women were chaste. Irish females, stated George Nicholls in his Report on Ireland, were 'very correct in their conduct', and his own impressions were 'highly favourable of their morals'—there was 'no need to make provision for bastards'. Girls married at sixteen, boys at seventeen or eighteen, and Irishwomen were exceptionally fertile; '... for twelve years 19 in 20 of them breed every second year. Vive la pomme de Terre!' wrote Arthur Young; and travellers in Ireland before the famine invariably comment on the troops of children to be found in every cabin. When the famine drove tens of thousands across the Atlantic, it was found that in the Irish immigrant slums of Boston, where infants under five years of age died at the rate of 61-66 per cent., the Irish nevertheless increased in numbers, because of their high birth-rate.

The Irish are fond of children, and family feeling is exceptionally strong. Moreover, in pre-famine Ireland children were a necessity. A Poor Law did not begin to operate until 1838, and then its provisions were limited; thus a man and woman's insurance against destitution in old age was their children.

There was too, barbarous and half-savage though conditions might be, one luxury enjoyed by the Irishman which favoured the survival and rearing of children—-his cabin was usually well warmed by a turf fire. Ill-clothed though he was, sleeping as he did on a mud floor, with his pig in the corner, the Irish peasant did not have to endure cold, nor did his children die of cold. They were warm, they were abundantly fed—-as long as the potato did not fail.

By 1841, when a census was taken, the population had reached 8,175,124, and Disraeli declared that Ireland was the most densely-populated country in Europe; on arable land, he asserted, the population was denser than that of China.

It seems possible, moreover, that the census figure may be too low. Though the enumerators of 1841 were largely members of the Irish Constabulary, superior to their predecessors and a 'highly disciplined body of men', much time, local knowledge and courage were needed to climb into the wild mountain glens, to penetrate the bogs and track down the communities of evicted and unemployed who existed in caves, sod huts and under tree-roots. An intelligent relief officer wrote that the Census of 1841 was 'pronounced universally to be no fair criterion of the present population'. He had tested it in Co. Clare and found the population to be one third greater than had been recorded; therefore in 1845 when famine came  the population might well have been above nine millions.


For this closely-packed and rapidly-increasing people the only outlet—with the exception of parts of Ulster—was the land. Ireland had never been industrialized; such deposits of coal and iron as she possessed were 'unfortunately of more significance to the geologist than the economist', and in 1845 the few industries she did possess were moribund. A remnant of the famous Dublin poplin weavers worked fifteen hours a day for about twelve shillings a week; in the once-prosperous woollen industry, production had fallen about fifty per cent, in the last twenty years, and three-quarters of the frieze, thick woollen cloth, worn by the peasantry, was dumped by England. The fisheries of Ireland, too, were undeveloped, and in Galway and Mayo the herring fishermen were too poor to buy salt with which to preserve a catch.

Even on the land, agricultural employment, as it was understood in England, did not exist. Labourers were not regularly employed on farms because Irish farms were too small to require hired labour; over 93 per cent, consisted of fewer than thirty acres. Ten years before the famine, the Poor Enquiry of 1835 stated that three-quarters of the labourers in Ireland existed without regular employment of any kind, and the economist, Nassau Senior, told the Government that for thirty weeks of the year, that is, for the whole of the year except when potatoes were being cultivated, 2,385,000 persons were without employment because there was absolutely no work to offer them. Unless an Irish labourer could get hold of a patch of land and grow potatoes on which to feed himself and his children, the family starved.

The consequence was the doom of Ireland. The land was divided and sub-divided, again and again, and holdings were split into smaller and still smaller fragments, until families were attempting to exist on plots of less than an acre, in some cases half an acre.

Farms had already been divided by middlemen and landlords but the sub-division which preceded the famine was carried out by the people themselves, frequently against the landlord's will. 

As the population increased and the demand for a portion of ground grew more and more frantic, land became like gold in Ireland. Parents allowed their children to occupy a portion of their holdings because the alternative was to turn them out to starve; the children in turn allowed occupation by their children, and in a comparatively short time three, six, or even ten families were settled on land which could provide food only for one family.

The possession of a piece of land was literally the difference between life and death. 'Ejectment,' the House of Commons was told in April, 1846, 'is tantamount to a sentence of death by slow torture.' Turned off the land, evicted families wandered about begging, 'miserable and turbulent'. Since no employment existed they crowded the already swarming lanes and slums of the towns, lived in ditches by the roadside until, wasted by disease and hardship, 'they die in a little time'.

To turn out an occupier to this fate, whatever his arrears of rent or his irregularities of occupation, was to invite vengeance. On Lord Carrick's estate there was a covenant against sub-division, but it 'could not be enforced for fear of outrage'. The Devon Commission was told by a large landowner that clauses against sub-division existed in most leases, but 'to put them into operation is dangerous'. Normally good-humoured and kind, where occupation of the land was in question the people became merciless. 'I never knew them attack anyone for money,' said a merchant in Tippcrary, '... but touch the farm and turn them out and they get frantic and wild.' Outrage was asserted to be the only protection of the poor; without it, said a small farmer, 'landlords would hunt tenants out like rats from a cornstack'; and the Devon Commission reported, '... the one absorbing feeling as to the possession of land stifles all others and extinguishes the plainest principles of humanity.'


In a number of districts, especially in the West, sub-division was aggravated by the system of joint tenancy known as 'rundale'. Land held in rundale was rented in common and divided up, so that each tenant, in what corresponded to a syndicate, received a portion of the different qualities of ground, good, bad and medium, that the property contained. Rundale, combined with sub-division, produced the merest fragments of land. One man, a tailor in Donegal, 'had his land in forty-two different places and gave it up in despair'. In County Mayo, the land valuator cited the case of the townland of Liscananawn, where about 167 acres of land, of three qualities, were divided into 330 portions, the 110 inhabitants having three portions each.

As a result of the desperate competition for land, rents in Ireland were enormously high, eighty per cent, to a hundred per cent higher than in England. 

High rents were farther encouraged by the practice, generally followed in Ireland, of letting land by advertising for 'proposals' and disposing of it to the highest bidder. Only on the best-managed estates, generally those owned by large proprietors, were the character and record of the tenant taken into account. Lord Gormanston, for instance, had let land to a witness before the Devon Commission at four shillings an acre less than he was offered elsewhere. But where landlords were greedy or in debt, the people's anxiety to secure a piece of land, or the fear of losing land already occupied, was so great that offers went beyond its value. 'If you ask the man why he bid so much for his farm, and more than he knew he could pay,' wrote Mr. Campbell Foster of The Times in 1845, 'his answer is, "What could I do? Where was I to go? I know I cannot pay the rent but what could I do? Would you have me go and beg?"


An immense and increasing number of people were too poor to make an offer to rent land, and this unfortunate class, mainly poor day-labourers, eked out an existence by means of a method of hiring land, called conacre.

Conacre was a contract by which the use of a portion of land was let, to grow one crop. Conacre was not a lease but a licence to occupy, and the relation of landlord and tenant was not created. Very small portions of land were let in conacre; in Tipperary, a quarter-acre was more common than half an acre; in Queen's County, it was reckoned that half an acre of conacre would support a labourer's family.

The owner of conacre ground manured the soil and prepared it for the reception of seed; the hirer provided the seed, planted it, and performed all subsequent operations. Rent was high; £10 or even £12 to £14 an acre on good ground, and about £6 on poor ground. But the Devon Commission did not consider conacre rents 'enormous', having regard to the crop which could be obtained in a normal season.

Demand for conacre was overwhelming; without it, said the O'Conor Don, one of the few representatives of the ancient pre-Norman Irish aristocracy, 'the people would starve'. But the system was not popular with landowners; the drawback was the difficulty of collecting the rent. Conacre hirers were almost invariably poor labourers, and the custom was for the rent of conacre ground to be paid after the crop was harvested. A labourer got permission to 'throw up' a cabin somewhere, for which he paid in a certain number of days' work, and then took a portion of conacre. If the season was good, he derived a considerable profit; if the crop failed, he was ruined, a gambler, as a witness told the Devon Commission, playing for a stake he cannot pay. Yet on this precarious speculation the existence of the poorest Irish depended.

The 1841 census showed that sub-division of land had reached the point where 45 per cent, of holdings, taking Ireland as a whole, were of fewer than five acres; and since no holding under an acre was enumerated hundreds of thousands of patches were not taken into account. So accustomed had the people become to tiny holdings that, as the Devon Commission noted, when 'consolidation', the throwing together of several small farms into a larger, more efficient unit, was discussed, the effect contemplated by witnesses was to produce farms no larger than fifteen, ten or even five acres; and Lord Stanley, called on to investigate complaints of excessive consolidation, found that a farm of 25 acres was looked on as a 'monstrous grievance'.

The whole of this structure, the minute subdivisions, the closely-packed population existing at the lowest level, the high rents, the frantic competition for land, had been produced by the potato. 

The conditions of life in Ireland and the existence of the Irish people depended on the potato entirely and exclusively.

The potato, provided it did not fail, enabled great quantities of food to be produced at a trifling cost from a small plot of ground. 

Sub-division could never have taken place without the potato: an acre and a half would provide a family of five or six with food for twelve months, while to grow the equivalent grain required an acreage four to six times as large and some knowledge of tillage as well. 

Only a spade was needed for the primitive method of potato culture usually practised in Ireland. Trenches were dug and beds— called 'lazy beds'—made; the potato sets were laid on the ground and earthed up from the trenches; when the shoots appeared, they were earthed up again. 

This method, regarded by the English with contempt, was in fact admirably suited to the moist soil of Ireland. The trenches provided drainage, and crops could be grown in wet ground, while cultivation by the spade enabled potatoes to be grown on mountain sides, where no plough could be used. 

As the population expanded, potatoes in lazy beds were pushed out into the bog and up the mountain, where no other cultivation would have been possible.

The potato was, moreover, the most universally useful of foods. 

Pigs, cattle and fowls could be reared on it, using the tubers which were too small for everyday use; it was simple to cook; it produced fine children; as a diet, it did not pall.

Yet it was the most dangerous of crops. It did not keep, nor could it be stored from one season to another. Thus every year the nearly-two and a half million labourers who had no regular employment more or less starved in the summer, when the old potatoes were finished and the new had not come in. It was for this reason that June, July and August were called the 'meal months': there was always the danger that potatoes would run out and meal would have to be eaten instead, the labourers would then have to buy it on credit, at exorbitant prices, from the petty dealer and usurer who was the scourge of the Irish village—the dreaded 'Gombeen man'.

More serious still, if the potato did fail, neither meal nor anything else could, replace it. There could be no question of resorting to an equally cheap food, no such food existed, nor could potato cultivation be replaced, except after a long period, by the cultivation of any other food. 'What hope is there for a nation that lives on potatoes!' wrote an English official.

Yet the British Government felt no apprehension about the potato crop. It was the problems arising from Ireland's perennial rebelliousness and from the swarming, poverty-stricken 'surplus' population, as it was called, that absorbed the attention of Parliament, and when the exclusive dependence of the Irish on the potato was deplored it was on moral grounds, as proving the improvidence and lack of energy of the Irish people.

There were, however, voices crying in the wilderness, and contrary to the usual course of history the voices were official. 

The Devon Commission reported in 1845, on the eve of the famine, giving warning in grave terms of the dangerous state of Ireland. The report was dismissed on the grounds that it did not 'contain anything of striking novelty' and 'there was nothing in it that everyone did not know already,' and a timid bill based on its recommendations giving Irish tenants a right to compensation for improvements in certain restricted circumstances was denounced as 'a violation of the rights of property' and withdrawn. 

The Devon Commission moreover was only one of many. In the forty-five 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.

True, an 'Act for the more effectual relief of the Poor in Ireland', an Irish Poor Law Act, had been passed in 1838, but its object was not so much to mitigate the sufferings of the Irish poor as to prevent them from coming over into England. George Nicholls, who drafted it, admitted as much; the vast numbers of Irish, he wrote, who 'crossed the Channel in search of the means of living … made it a matter of policy, as it assuredly was of humanity, to endeavour to improve their condition; and nothing seemed so equitable or so-readily effective for the purpose as making property liable for the relief of the destitution in Ireland, as was the case in England—in  other words establishing some kind of Poor Law.'

In vain it was pointed out that the problems of poverty in England and Ireland were totally different, that the immense amount of destitution in Ireland would entail a gigantic expenditure if a poor law was to be effective. Workhouses for hundreds of thousands would have to be erected, and the annual cost would be at least five million pounds a year: there was no possibility of raising such a sum in Ireland.

The British Government's mind was made up. The property of Ireland must support the poverty of Ireland, and a menace to England be removed. 

George Nicholls was sent to Ireland for six weeks, his first acquaintance with the country; after that the opinion of 'the most representative Irish that could be consulted' was set on one side and on July 31,1838, the Irish Poor Law Act became law.

The British Government, however, concerned as it was with Irish disaffection, with the recent alarm of the Repeal agitation, and with religious differences—much of the last session of Parliament before the famine was spent in debating an increase in the grant to the Catholic seminary of Maynooth—continued to contemplate the condition of the Irish people with 'imperturbable apathy'.

Meanwhile, in 1844, a report was received that in North America a disease, hitherto unknown, had attacked the potato crop.