Chapter  3


Some weeks before these dramatic events Peel had taken a bold step. On November 9 or 10—some days after the Cabinet meeting of November 6—he had ordered, acting on his own responsibility and without waiting for Treasury sanction, £100,000 to be spent on Indian corn (maize), to be purchased in the United States and shipped to Ireland.

It was a step which could only have been taken by a Minister exercising Peel's authority. With the single exception of Corn Law repeal, his 'mastery' over his Cabinet was said to be complete; he had 'got them as obedient and well trained as the crew of a man of war'. His purchase of Indian corn proved the decisive factor in relieving the distress of 1845-46, but the subsequent value to Ireland of Peel's boldness, independence and strength of mind was unfortunately outweighed by his belief in an economic theory which almost every politician of the day, Whig or Tory, held with religious fervour.

This theory, usually termed laissez faire, let people do as they think best, insisted that in the economic sphere individuals should be allowed to pursue their own interests and asserted that the Government should interfere as little as possible. Not only were the rights of property sacred; private enterprise was revered and respected and given almost complete liberty, and on this theory, which incidentally gave the employer and the landlord freedom to exploit his fellow men, the prosperity of nineteenth-century England had unquestionably been based.

The influence of laissez faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behaviour of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind.

The loss of the potato crop was therefore to be made good, without Government interference, by the operations of private enterprise and private firms, using the normal channels of commerce. The Government was not to appear in food markets as a buyer there was to be 'no disturbance of the ordinary course of trade' and 'no complaints from private traders' on account of Government competition.

The flaw in the plan was the undeveloped state of the food and provision trade in a great part of Ireland. Large numbers of people, especially in the west and south-west, hardly purchased food at all; they grew potatoes and lived on them. Shops and organizations for importing foodstuffs and distributing them on the English model were generally found only in more prosperous districts in north-east Ulster, Dublin, some places in Eastern Ireland, and the larger towns, like Cork. Where relief would be most needed, the means by which it was to be supplied seldom existed.

Peel's plan, nevertheless, was far-seeing and ingenious. He intended to use the Indian corn he had bought as a weapon to keep prices down. It was to be held in reserve, controlled by Government, and a supply 'thrown in' whenever prices rose unreasonably. At no time did he contemplate attempting to feed on Indian corn all those who had lost their potatoes; that loss has been estimated by a modern authority at a value in money of £3,500,000, and £100,000 of Indian corn could not conceivably replace it.

Indian corn was purchased because doing so did not interfere with private enterprise. No trade in Indian corn existed: it was virtually unknown as a food in Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom and was neither imported nor bought and sold. No complaints of Government interference could therefore be made 'in a trade which did not exist, nor could prices be raised... on an article of which no stock was to be found in the home market'. Moreover, it had the immense advantage of being cheap, one of the cheapest foods on which a human being could keep alive.

The possibility that a situation would arise in which no food of any kind was offered, at prices extortionate or otherwise, and that the Government's Indian corn would become the only food available was not foreseen, even by Peel.

Placing the order caused some misgiving. How was the purchase to be made? Would not 'doubts and apprehensions' arise in the minds of merchants if the Government appeared 'as a purchaser in a new field of operations' ? Would not prices rise instantly if the Government were known to be the buyer? At this date the only Government department which had experience of buying food on a large scale was the Commissariat department, which supplied food for the British Army; and Sir Randolph Rduth, senior officer in that department, was consulted. He had served in Canada and married there, and since the purchases were to be made in the United States he suggested that his brother-in-law, a merchant in Quebec, should be employed and, to 'avoid all appearance of interference by Government', buy in his own name. But the Commissariat department was not highly regarded, and Sir Randolph was snubbed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote, in November, that Routh's brother-in-law, though 'doubtless respectable', was 'hardly likely to be a first-class merchant', and suggested that the great mercantile house of Baring Brothers, with its international organization, should be employed. For its part the Treasury pressed for official purchasing: a representative should be sent to New York, 'to buy under Treasury rules. Any increase in price would be counter-balanced by the advantage of adhering to official rules'.

Treasury advice, however, was not followed. Mr. Thomas Baring was consulted, and on November 15 he submitted a plan. Baring Brothers had a confidential agent in Boston, Mr. Thomas Ward, 'in whose discretion and management we have the greatest confidence'. Mr. Ward would distribute orders throughout the United States, so that no unnecessary rise in prices would result and it would not be known 'who are the real buyers and for what purpose the purchase is being made'. The scheme was accepted and the choice proved admirable. A complicated series of transactions was carried through without any leakage of information; 'Economy is desirable but secrecy is essential,' wrote Mr. Ward to Baring Brothers' representative in New Orleans; and on December 30 Mr. Thomas Baring assured the Treasury, 'No one in our counting house has been entrusted with any particulars, except my partner and myself, and, what is perhaps of more importance, no one in the United States, except those to whom the execution of the order has been confided.'

So well was the secret kept that when the first cargoes from America arrived 'they had been more than a fortnight in Cork Harbour before it became generally known that such a measure was in progress'. Baring Brothers were not only efficient but public-spirited. Regarding the execution of the transactions as the fulfilment of a duty, they declined any commission on purchases which had employed their organization for more than six months.

While this operation was being carried out the Relief Commission for Ireland, approved before the Cabinet split on Corn Law repeal, had been appointed, and it held its first meeting on November 20. The members mainly consisted of the senior members of those departments of the Irish Government concerned, Sir James Dom-brain, Inspector-General of the Coastguard service, who had already served on Irish famine relief in 1836-39; Colonel Harry Jones, a distinguished English officer of the Royal Engineers, who had been appointed Chairman of the Board of Works, Ireland, a few weeks before, and knew Ireland well; Mr. Twisleton, the resident Irish Poor Law Commissioner, and Colonel McGregor, Inspector-General of the Constabulary. The Chairman, Mr. Edward Lucas, had been Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle, and the Secretary was the able and enlightened John Pitt Kennedy, who had successfully managed properties in Donegal and Tyrone and been Secretary of the Devon Commission. At Peel's request, Professor later Sir Robert Kane was added. 'He is an Irishman, a Roman Catholic, and we have not one on the Commission,' wrote Peel to Graham on November 9. 'He has gained some practical knowledge from having served on other Commissions ... he has written on the industrial resources of Ireland. But, mainly, he is a Roman Catholic.'

The leading member of the Commission was Sir Randolph Routh, of the Commissariat department of the British Army, whose brother-in-law had been rejected as Government buyer in North America; it was Sir Randolph Routh's duty to distribute the Indian corn.

There was much to be said in favour of putting Routh in charge, for he possessed 'more extensive experience than any other person ... of feeding large bodies of people in sudden emergencies'. He had served throughout the Peninsular campaign and been senior Commissariat officer at Waterloo. Transferred to Canada, he had achieved unusual success, been appointed a member of the executive council and, finally, knighted for his services in the Canadian rebellion of 1837-38. He was, moreover, recommended as being 'remarkable for the invariable quality of acting cheerfully and cordially with those with whom it is his duty to act'.

Yet his appointment had drawbacks. During the period of severe military economy which followed Waterloo, the Commissariat had been cut to the bone, and the efficiency of the department impaired; within nine years it would be largely responsible for the disaster which destroyed the British Army in the Crimea. It was another drawback that Commissariat officers were regarded as inferior by other officers of the army. Though their work was with the army, it was administered by the Treasury; supply was considered to be merely a business of accounts and bills, which could be performed by any clerk. The Commissariat was thus a civilian department of clerks, responsible to the Treasury, and not of soldiers, responsible to the War Office. Every Commissariat officer received a commission from the War Office and what was termed a 'constitution' from the Treasury; this inconsistency was not corrected until 1855. Routh, in fact, had been trained to cheesepare, to save a farthing wherever a farthing could be saved; nor in dealing with his superiors was he likely to make a stand for any opinion of his own, especially as he was answerable to the rigid and all-powerful department of the Treasury.

All expenditure required Treasury sanction: the money to be spent on famine relief, the expenses of the Relief Commission, the grants for Poor Law, for public works, for medical services; and at the Treasury, standing guard over the British nations' money-bags, was the formidable figure of Charles Edward Trevelyan.

The official title of Trevelyan was Assistant Secretary, but he was in fact the permanent head of the Treasury, and owing to his remarkable abilities and the structure of British administration, which results in a capable, permanent official exercising a high degree of power, he was able to influence policy to a remarkable extent.


Trevelyan was by far the ablest man concerned with Irish relief and, unaffected by changes of government and policy, he remained a dominant figure throughout the famine years. He had been brought up in what was known as the 'Clapham Sect', not a religious body but a number of highly-cultivated families (including the Wilber-forces and the Thorntons of Battersea Rise) who lived round Clapham Common and were distinguished for their philanthropic and evangelical views. Trevelyan, who was of rigid integrity, delighted in reading chapters of the Bible aloud in a 'deep sonorous voice'. At the outset of his career, when he was no more than twenty-one, in India, he risked his future by publicly denouncing his superior, a very powerful and popular man, for taking bribes. 'A perfect storm was raised against the accuser,' wrote Macaulay, who was in India at the time and knew Trevelyan well. 'He was almost everywhere abused and very generally cut. But, with a firmness and ability scarcely ever seen in a man so young, he brought his proofs forward, and, after an inquiry of some weeks, fully made out his case.' His superior was dismissed with ignominy and Trevelyan himself applauded 'in the highest terms', though Lord William Bentinck, Governor-General of India, remarked, 'That man is almost always on the right side in every question; and it is well that he is so, for he gives a most confounded deal of trouble when he happens to take the wrong one.'

Seven years later Trevelyan married Macaulay's idolized sister, Hannah, in India. At the time of the marriage Macaulay, who was greatly attached to Trevelyan, wrote: 'He has no small talk. His mind is full of schemes of moral and political improvement, and his zeal boils over in his talk. His topics, even in courtship, are steam navigation, the education of the natives, the equalization of the sugar duties, the substitution of the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in Oriental languages.' His temper was pronounced 'very sweet', his religious feelings ardent, but he was rash and uncompromising in public affairs, and his manner was blunt, almost to roughness, and at other times awkward.

Trevelyan was proud of being a man of family, 'one of the best and oldest families in England'; the Trevelyans originated in Cornwall, a few miles from Fowey, and the name of the family is recorded as far back as the reign of Henry III. He described himself as being a Celt, 'belonging to the class of Reformed Cornish Celts, who by long habits of intercourse with the Anglo-Saxons have learned at last to be practical men'.

At the time of the famine Trevelyan was thirty-eight, at the height of his powers, immensely conscientious, and with an obsession for work. Though his integrity was absolute and he had a strong sense of justice, yet he was not the right man to undertake Ireland. He disapproved of the Irish; the cast of his mind, his good qualities, were such as to make him impatient with the Irish character, and some slight family difficulties may have intensified his feelings. His cousin, Alfred Trevelyan, married the daughter of Mr. Boyse, 'a respectable solicitor of Limerick', and soon she was left a widow, with an infant son in whose welfare Trevelyan took, in his own words, a great interest. The boy was brought up in Limerick, but not, Trevelyan thought, suitably: he was not sent to a public school, and members of the Trevelyan family went over to Limerick to try to induce his mother to send him to Cambridge, 'under, a Church of England tutor'. Trevelyan even appealed for help to Lord Monteagle, an important figure in Limerick, but with what result does not appear.

The episode was characteristic of a weakness in Trevelyan; conscientious, acting from a genuine conviction of doing right, he found it impossible to refrain from interference, official as well as private, when he considered matters were going wrong, and irritated complaints came from other departments of the meddling ways of the Treasury. Trevelyan's mind was powerful, his character admirably scrupulous and upright, his devotion to duty praiseworthy, but he had a remarkable insensitiveness. Since he took action only after conscientiously satisfying himself that what he proposed to do was ethical and justified, he went forward impervious to other considerations, sustained, but also blinded, by his conviction of doing right. As a result, Trevelyan, the strict adherent to Treasury rules, the terror of the departments, could sometimes be indiscreet.

A remarkable episode occurred at the height of the repeal agitation, the period of the monster meetings, in 1843. Trevelyan went to Ireland, probably in connection with young Alfred Trevelyan's affairs, and on his return, in an interview with Sir Robert Peel and Sir James Graham, made a confidential report on the state of Ireland. Immediately afterwards he published two long letters in the Morning Chronicle, on October n and 14, signed Philalethes (lover of truth), in which he predicted an early rebellion, described warlike preparations accused the Catholic priests of fomenting a rising, abused O'Connell as being actuated by 'the vulgar but nevertheless very powerful motive of saving himself from pecuniary ruin', and related a number of conversations with Irish peasants so hair-raising that it is probable he had been a victim of the favourite Irish sport of 'codding' a stranger.

Peel identified Philalethes and was furious. 'How a man after his confidential interview with us could think it consistent with common decency to reveal to the Editor of the Morning Chronicle, and to the world, all he told us, is passing strange. He must be a consummate fool. Surely he might have asked us what we thought of his intended proceedings?' he wrote to Graham. Trevelyan was unmoved, and after being rebuked for publishing the first article told Sir James Graham that, though he might have made a mistake in writing to the Morning Chronicle, 'I think there cannot be a doubt that now the first portion of the letter has been published it will be better that the second portion should be also,' and published it was.

Trevelyan's qualities of rectitude, industry and complacency were not calculated to win popularity, and the Treasury is not in any case a much-loved department. 

In 1846 Lord Lincoln, Chief Secretary for Ireland under Peel, called Trevelyan 'our old incubus', and added that he 'knew as much about Ireland as his baby, if he has one'. Trevelyan at the time did in fact have a baby, who was destined to become the historian Sir George Otto Trevelyan, Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1882-84.

When the first Relief Commission started work in November, 1845, the influence of Trevelyan was limited; his relations with Peel on Ireland were not good. Peel himself laid down the policy for the Relief Commission, and the instructions for putting it into effect were drawn up by Sir James Graham. Within a few months, however, Trevelyan had become director and virtually dictator of Irish relief.

The consequences of a potato failure are not immediate: 'The first effect of the disease is not scarcity, but plenty, owing to the people's anxiety to dispose of their potatoes before they become useless.' It was not until five or six months after a failure that famine began, after every scrap of food, every partially-diseased potato, every fragment that was conceivably edible by human beings, had disappeared. On October 27, 1845, Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, wrote to Peel: 'The extreme pressure from want will not take place until the month of April or May. It was then in 1822 that distress became extreme.'

Until April or May, then, the Commissioners had an interval to prepare. They were to 'ascertain the extent of the deficiency and watch approaching famine, even in the most remote localities' and to 'assist in devising the necessary measures for the employment of the people and their relief'.


The relief plan devised by Peel fell into four parts. 

The first and most important was the organization of local efforts: the Relief Commissioners were instructed to form committees of local landowners, or their agents, magistrates, clergy and residents of importance. These committees would raise subscriptions, out of which food was to be, bought for resale to distressed persons, or in urgent cases given free. Local employment schemes were to be started and landlords persuaded to give increased employment on their estates. The Government pinned its faith on the landlords; 'Our main reliance,' said Peel, 'must be placed on the co-operation of the landed interest with local aid.'

The second part of the plan depended on the Irish Board of Works; it was to create extra employment by making new roads, a traditional undertaking for the provision of famine relief.

The third part was concerned with 'destitute poor persons affected by fever'; in previous famines the British Government had learned that fever always followed scarcity in Ireland. Fever patients might be maintained in a fever hospital, or a house could be hired for their reception; or they could be put in a separate building in the grounds of the local workhouse but not in the workhouse itself. A circular containing these directions was sent to the Clerk of the Board of Guardians in every Union, and the Poor Law Commissioners directed that a separate fever hospital was to be got ready as soon as possible in connection with each workhouse.

Finally, the sale of the Government Indian corn would keep down food prices: as soon as they rose unreasonably a sufficient quantity of the Indian corn was to be thrown on the market to bring them down.

The scheme was on a larger scale than had ever before been undertaken by a British government for the relief of an Irish famine; and Peel was later accused of having embarked on plans which were too costly and too large. There was, however, an important restriction—a distinction was to be made and relief to be given only to those who were in distress solely on account of the recent failure of the potato.


On January i, 1846, as soon as he arrived in Dublin, Routh wrote to Trevelyan: 'Claims will be made on account of the distress of the people, rather than from their want of food proceeding from losses of the potato crop. There must be a distinction clearly kept.' It was at once evident, however, that to make such a distinction was all but impossible. Distress was the normal condition of a great mass of the Irish people, and the Poor Inquiry Commission had stated that 2,385,000 persons in Ireland were in a state of semi-starvation every year, whether the potato failed or not. It was easy to issue an order in London that no relief was to be given to what was termed 'ordinary distress'. But starvation carries no certificate of origin, and imposition on a large scale did undoubtedly take place; yet it was imposition which, in the words of a relief official, was 'difficult to detect and cruel to expose'.


Meanwhile, the Relief Commissioners were finding their other instructions equally difficult to put into practice. Peel had stated that the 'main reliance' of the relief scheme must be placed on local landowners; and now, presumably to assist the Relief Commissioners, Trevelyan sent each of them a memorandum containing copies of correspondence describing what had been done for relief in six previous famines. It was not an encouraging document, since on previous occasions local aid had entirely failed to materialize. In the famine of 1839, for instance, Captain Chads, the officer in charge of relief, had written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that 'after having visited the most distressed districts from Bantry to Lough Swilly ... there had hardly been a single instance in which adequate relief might not have been afforded to the poor without calling for aid from Government' but the landlords were 'looking to their future rents only and setting aside the calls of justice, duty and humanity'. The fact was that a large number of Irish landlords were hopelessly insolvent. The extravagance of their predecessors, the building of over-large mansions, reckless expenditure on horses, hounds and conviviality, followed by equally reckless borrowing, had brought very many landowners to a point where, however desperate the needs of their tenantry, they were powerless to give any help.


On the subject of road-making, Colonel Harry Jones, Chairman of the Board of Works, was discouraging. In his opinion road-making offered no solution. The districts where distress would be greatest were poor, uncultivated and boggy; the important lines of communication had already been made through them, in earlier famines, and the only roads left to be made were farm roads, which would unduly profit the owner of the land through which they passed and would not provide a large amount of employment. Moreover, before public works of any description could be satisfactorily established a great deal of preliminary work must be done. He suggested that a meeting of gentlemen should be called in each neighbourhood where distress was expected, with a representative of the Board of Works in attendance; it would then be possible to ascertain what help could be given by local proprietors and how many persons would need employment. Proposals for possible works could be examined and estimates prepared.

On January 10, 1846, the first local meeting was held at Kilkee, County Clare, but it was a failure. 'The room was so filled with people that very few of the proprietors could gain access to it.' A committee elected without official authority occupied itself in passing resolutions, complimenting the local Catholic clergy on their 'untiring and unremitting zeal in the cause of the people', and returning 'warmest thanks' to the chairman for the 'dignified manner' in which he conducted the proceedings. That afternoon the principal landlords in the district assembled at the hotel in Kilkee and drew up a statement: 'Under their present difficulties and in the apprehension of those which may come on them in the spring, they neither can advance funds now, nor can they offer any sufficient security for the payment by instalments hereafter.'


Next, unexpected difficulties arose with regard to the Indian corn. On January 5, 1846, the United States Charge d'Aifaires at Brussels wrote to warn Barings that Indian corn could not be treated as an ordinary grain: it was very hard and was called 'flint corn'. In fact, 'hominy', a staple food in the southern states of America, was not ground at all but 'chopped' in a steel-mill. Ordinary millstones might not answer.

Indian corn was also very liable to sweating and over-heating; and having regard to the long voyage from the United States, it was essential that, immediately ships arrived, cargoes should be taken out of the holds and ground at once. It was impossible. The Irish ate potatoes, not bread. Mills were not to be found, as in England, and Routh wrote that by the middle of May only 30,000 bushels would be ground, 'and we shall have arriving 350,000 bushels'. Even in Cork, the centre of import trade into Ireland, only 2,400 bushels could be ground weekly, even supposing that ordinary millstones could be used.

The solution was highly complicated. The Indian corn, having arrived at Cork, was to be unloaded at once, and, to prevent heating, dried in kilns for eight hours, being turned twice, to avoid parching; next it was to be cooled for 70 hours, dressed, and cooled again for 24 hours, before sacking. Ordinary millstones would have to be used, but to produce a reasonably fine and digestible meal the corn was to be ground twice—which to Trevelyan seemed an unnecessary piece of refinement. 'We must not aim at giving more than wholesome food,' he wrote to Routh. 'I cannot believe it will be necessary to grind the Indian corn twice ... dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.'

Even with the help of these arrangements only a limited quantity of meal could be produced, and Trevelyan wrote to Barings, on January 2, 1846, asking that the order should be cut down, for the moment, by fifty per cent, and that in future, whenever possible, Indian corn-meal should be sent instead of Indian corn in the grain.


The Relief Commissioners became discouraged, and on January 20 drew up 'conclusions' which breathed despair. They 'entertained the greatest doubt whether any adjustment of public works can be made', and were of opinion that 'there was a widespread failure in the potato crop but there was no legislation, either in existence or contemplated by Government, which could relieve it'.


As a result, in February, the Relief Commission was reorganized. Routh became chairman; new 'formal and detailed' instructions were drawn up, and this time by Trevelyan; a Treasury accountant was sent over, and to expedite decisions an executive committee was formed within the Commission. 'Our Commission is to be remodelled, thank God,' wrote Routh, on February 19, 1846. The committee met daily at 11 a.m., and though Mr. Twisleton, the Poor Law Commissioner, was included, Colonel Harry Jones, chairman of the Board of Works, was not. The third member was Robert Kane.

Trevelyan was now exercising great authority over Irish relief. The administration would be carried out according to his ideas and decisions on points of detail or of policy made by him.

The supply and distribution of food was to be in the hands of the Commissariat; two main depots were established at Cork and at Limerick, each under the charge of a senior Commissariat officer. At Cork, Deputy Commissary General Hewetson was responsible for receiving, unloading, drying, milling and dispatching cargoes of Indian corn; at Limerick Deputy Commissary General Edward Pine Coffin, of the well-known Devon family of Pine Coffin, a man of marked ability and of higher social rank than the majority of Commissariat officers, was to arrange for the supply of the remote and impoverished districts of the west and south, where distress would be most severe.

Out-depots varying in size were to be in charge of Commissariat officers and Commissariat clerks, and every member of the Commissariat was under Treasury control, that is the control of Trevelyan. They were dependent on him for their future careers, they made applications for employment to him, and he decided the appointments, issued the instructions, meted out praise or blame. It was with a distinct note of command that Trevelyan told Routh on February 20, 'The time has come for the authoritative promulgation of the plans of the Government.'


Routh, however, was struggling with difficulties; every aspect of the Government plans, laid down in Whitehall, bristled with problems. He had been instructed to establish depots of food against the coming shortage, but how was he to fill them, since the purchase of any food in ordinary use was forbidden in order to avoid competition with private enterprise and private traders? On January 25 Trevelyan had sent Routh a list of food in Government hands, and the total was far from encouraging. The principal item was the Indian corn, in process of being imported; to this, wrote Trevelyan, might be added certain supplies of biscuit and oatmeal which had been in store at different military stations since the troubles of 1843, and some quantity of similar supplies in naval establishments. However, Mr. Hewetson, the Commissariat officer in charge at Cork, wrote that oatmeal which had been in store since 1843 was not fit for human food. It seemed that Routh would have to depend on the Indian corn and little else.


More difficulties arose over transport. The plan was to send supplies from Cork to the west coast by sea, but the west coast of Ireland is notoriously dangerous, and on February 25, 1846, Barings wrote to warn Trevelyan that all charters were for the east coast of Ireland, or Cork; if cargoes were to be sent to the west coast, freights would be much higher. It was decided to use Admiralty steamers; but the Admiralty detached only two, Alban and Dee, and Dee was 'proverbially slow'. Routh protested vehemently; two steamers were 'entirely insufficient'; three, at least, were needed for the west, and there should also be a large steamer to supply the depots on the east coast. Two more steamers were then detached, one of which was immediately condemned as unseaworthy, while the other wrote Routh, 'only moves at four miles an hour'.


When supplies did reach the west coast of Ireland it came as a surprise to find that no satisfactory harbours existed. To Routh this was yet another proof of Irish inadequacy: and he wrote to Hewetson, 'It is annoying that all these harbours are so insignificant. It shows Providence never intended Ireland to be a great nation.'


It had been realized that there would be great difficulty in setting up the organization to distribute relief, because the class of responsible person suitable to undertake such work hardly existed in Ireland; Routh expected, however, that the officials of the Irish Poor Law would assist: Boards of Guardians would work with Commissariat officers, help in distribution, take charge of supplies, and supervise accounts. He was flatly refused. Under the Irish Poor Law Act, outdoor relief, that is, relief to persons outside the workhouse, was illegal, and Mr. Twisleton, the resident Irish Poor Law Commissioner, interpreted the Act as forbidding any participation by Poor Law officials in the relief scheme because the relief was to be distributed outside the workhouse.

Routh was dismayed. 'Mr. Twisleton's declaration seems ... as I understand it, to throw on me a mass of detail worthy of much thought and apprehension,' he told Trevelyan on February 9,1846, and he warned Coffin at Limerick that no help of any kind must be expected. 'We are thrown back on Commissariat resources.'


Meanwhile the filling of the depots proceeded very slowly, and in addition to previous difficulties a series of violent storms delayed February cargoes for nearly a month. 'Time is gaining on us,' wrote Routh to Trevelyan on February 18. 'We are driven into a corner for assistance.' By March 'scarcely any' of the depots had been formed, and Routh feared they could not be full before the first of May, 'even if they are then'.


Urgent appeals for relief were already coming in. The Relief Commission set up an intelligence service, one of their best measures, with £5,000 granted by the Treasury to cover the cost, and as early as January 10, 1846, it reported complete destitution in Killarty, a village near Limerick. Hewetson sent an officer from Cork to investigate; destitution of the most appalling nature proved to exist, and £15 was sent immediately from a private charitable fund.

But, Routh told Trevelyan, such cases were continually being reported. Within the last few weeks he had investigated complaints of distress from Bantry, Skull, Baltimore, Crookhaven and Castletown Berehaven, all of which proved genuine. This district, not far from, Skibbereen, was particularly wretched, though, as Routh observed £50,000 of rents were collected there annually, and he attached to his letter a list of the landlords and the amounts they received yearly.


By February 20, 1846, Routh had reports of more than ninety cases of extreme distress. In the far West, at BelmuUet, in Erris, the Commissariat officer had already been forced to distribute food, and by March 6 his supplies were exhausted.29


Much, perhaps even most, of this starvation and destitution could be attributed to 'ordinary' distress, and residents in Ireland refused to admit a crisis. 'It is always so at this time of year,' an Irish landowner told the Commissariat officer in charge of the depot at Banagher; and on February 17 Frederick Shaw, Member for Dublin University, reminded the House of Commons that distress in Ireland was a 'usual occurrence'. Though he did not doubt that, owing to the failure, there would be an aggravation of distress during the coming season, at the same time when Drs. Playfair and Lindley reported that at a low estimate one half of the potato crop was destroyed, 'there was no practical man in Ireland who did not believe they had been imposed upon.'

With Irish residents denying the existence of a crisis, subscriptions were not coming in, and on March 17 Routh wrote that he had only one subscription from the whole of County Clare. Trevelyan directed that lists of landlords who failed to subscribe were to be sent to the Lord-Lieutenant, with their reasons for refusing; but relief committees were unwilling to provoke local magnates, and few lists were ever forthcoming.

The local relief committees, generally speaking, were proving a failure, largely because unsuitable persons contrived to become members, especially in poor and remote districts. This problem had at once become evident when the first disorderly relief meeting was held at Kilkee, County Clare, and the Government tried to ensure that relief committee members possessed some education and standing by issuing additional instructions laying down that members must be chosen from the semi-official or professional classes. The respectability of relief committees was in fact of immense importance because not only did they handle subscriptions but the Government proposed to add a substantial contribution to sums raised locally, varying from one-third to one-half. The Instructions were circulated at the end of February, 1846, but a large number of districts either never received them or ignored them, and elected relief committees without reference to the Government's directions.


As a result, a number of responsible landlords were unwilling to subscribe money to be spent by committees in whom they had no confidence, and instead did what they themselves considered necessary for their tenants. Many were unable to subscribe on account of financial embarrassment, while absentees frequently denied all responsibility: if the land had been leased to a middleman they declared it had long ago passed out of their control. Whatever the cause, it was noticed that when a landowner refused to subscribe unrest and bad feeling followed throughout the neighbourhood.

In many parts of the country signs of disaffection appeared, threatening letters were sent, arms stolen. In one week in November, 1845, notices were posted on church doors and gates in Clare, Limerick, Louth and Cavan telling the people to pay no rent and thrash no corn on account of the potato failure. In the neighbourhood of Ennis 'resident aristocracy and absentee noblemen' were threatened if they did not 'come forward with plans to help'; and in Tipperary bands of men visited tenants and instructed them to refuse payment of rent. Landowners in Ireland, whose feelings of security were never great, at once became alarmed, and in a letter to the Military Secretary at Kilmainham one of them, Sir Charles O'Donnell, demanded 'fixed patrolling of the country with a mixed force of military and police at unexpected times during the day and night', with 'concentrations of military at fixed points'; he stated that 'attempts to assassinate, assaults, way layings and nightly visitations for the purpose of ... intimidation' were taking place.


On February 12, in the House of Lords, another Irish landowner, the Marquess of Clanricaxde, declared that a great part of Ireland was already in a state of insurrection. He demanded instant action by the Government—a Bill for the Protection of Life in Ireland must be brought in at once, and such a Bill, known as a Coercion Bill, was introduced into the Lords on February 23, 1846. A Coercion Bill enabled the Lord-Lieutenant, by issuing a proclamation, to place any district under what amounted to martial law; a strict curfew was imposed between sunset and sunrise, magistrates were given exceptional powers—for instance, they could sentence to transportation for seven years—arrests could be made on suspicion, and the possession of any description of firearms was a criminal offence. Seventeen previous Coercion Acts had been in operation at various times during the forty-six years since the Union; the new Bill, however, as Lord Brougham remarked, 'possessed a superior degree of severity'.

No objection was made to the Bill in the House of Lords, but in the Commons William Smith O'Brien, a member of perhaps the leading family of the ancient Irish aristocracy—he was descended from Brian Bora—fiercely attacked the Government. Famine was menacing Ireland, and the Government sent not food but soldiers— Ireland was to starve, and be coerced.


Nevertheless, in the spring of 1846 a wave of hopefulness swept over the Irish people; the establishment of the Relief Commission had become known, food was being brought into the country; and as the people knew nothing of the strict limitations of relief they believed the Government was going to 'do something' for Ireland at last. Faith in the power of England was absolute—'people have unlimited confidence in the Government,' wrote a Commissariat officer. Routh's own experience was that 'there was a general impression that Government was about to issue free food to the whole population'.


It was now six months since the blight had struck the potato, and in many districts the people had begun to starve: they were eating anything that could conceivably be devoured, food that stank, diseased potatoes that brought sickness and caused death in pigs and cattle.

In Limerick, Smith O'Brien saw families eating potatoes which no Englishman would give his hogs; in Clare, people were eating food 'from which', said Lord Monteagle, 'so putrid and offensive an effluvia issued that in consuming it they were obliged to leave the doors and windows of their cabins open'; and illness, including 'fever from eating diseased potatoes', was widespread.


The Government decided that the expected epidemic of fever, following famine, was about to break out, and on March 13, Sir James Graham, after telling the House of Commons, 'In all the provinces, almost in every county ... dysentery has made its appearance attended by fever in many instances,' announced that a Board of Health was to be established in Dublin by the Lord-Lieutenant. Five honorary commissioners, of whom Routh was one, were given powers to require Boards of Guardians to set up fever hospitals and to provide medical assistance, nursing and comforts in every Union where there was an 'appearance of fever in a formidable shape'. The measure was not permanent; it was designed to meet the coming crisis only and would expire in September.


Throughout these months, as famine, in Routh's words, was 'steadily and gradually approaching', evictions were reported weekly. The potato failure endangered the payment of rents, a swarming population was likely to become unprofitable, and landlords were eager to clear their property of non-paying tenants.

Evictions, however, were not confined to populations of paupers and squatters living in mud huts. The most notorious instance, was the eviction of 300 tenants by Mrs. Gerrard from the village of Ballinglass, County Galway, on March 13, 1846. A population reasonably prosperous, according to Irish standards, was evicted with the assistance of police and troops, in order that the holdings might be turned into a grazing farm.


The village of Ballinglass consisted of 61 houses, solidly built and well-kept, with thick plastered walls. The inhabitants were not in arrear with their rent, and had, by their industry, reclaimed an area of about four hundred acres from a neighbouring bog. On the morning of the eviction a 'large detachment of the 49th Infantry commanded by Captain Brown' and numerous police appeared with the Sheriff and his men. Taking part in evictions was disliked by troops; a little later, on April 9, at an eviction of nine families at Guitmore, County Tipperary, a detachment of the 72nd Highlanders 'openly said they detested this duty and gave the people money'.


At Ballinglass, the people were officially called on to give up possession, and the houses were then demolished—roofs torn off, walls thrown down. The scene was frightful; women running wailing with pieces of their property and clinging to door-posts from which they had to be forcibly torn; men cursing, children screaming with fright. That night the people slept in the ruins; next day they were driven out, the foundations of the houses were torn up and razed, and no neighbour was allowed to take them in.

Turned from every door, it was common for the evicted to seek refuge in what was called a 'scalp'. A hole was dug in the earth, two to three feet deep, roofed over with sticks and pieces of turf, and in this burrow a family existed. Slightly superior was a 'scalpeen', a rather larger hole often made within the ruins of a 'tumbled' house. Both from 'scalps' and 'scalpeens' the evicted when discovered were remorsely hunted out.


The Ballinglass eviction caused a scandal and was 'personally investigated' by Lord Londonderry, a great Ulster landlord and a staunch Tory. On March 30 he made a statement in the House of Lords. He was 'deeply grieved', but there was no doubt the statements with regard to the eviction at Ballinglass were true: '76 families, comprising 300 individuals, had not only been turned out of their houses but had even—the unfortunate wretches—been mercilessly driven from the ditches to which they had betaken themselves for shelter and where they were attempting to get up a covering of some kind by means of sticks and mud ... these unfortunate people had their rents actually ready ... If scenes like this occurred,' finished Lord Londonderry, '... was it to be wondered at ... that deeds of outrage and violence should occasionally be attempted ?'


Lord Brougham, however, a staunch supporter of laissez faire, held a different view. He said on March 23 in the House of Lords: 'Undoubtedly it was the landlord's right to do as he pleased, and if he abstained he conferred a favour and was doing an act-of kindness. If on the other hand 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 ... property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested in cultivation of land if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord's undoubted, indefeasible and most sacred right to deal with his property as he list. . . '


It happened that at the time Britain was celebrating a great feat of arms in India, where General Gough, against enormous odds, had won the two battles of Aliwal and Sobraon. When the lists of the killed came in Daniel O'Connell observed, 'On looking over the returns from the two glorious battles lately fought in India ... I find a great number of names in the list exactly resembling the names of the cottagers dispossessed by Mrs. Gerrard.'


Ominous reports came in. From the beginning of April Constabulary reports recorded that in Kerry, Galway and Kilkenny men were gathering in crowds, declaring they were starving; a provision ship was plundered on the river Fergus; at Mitchelstown, a mob of about a hundred women and children held up carts going to the Commissariat store, cut the meal-bags and took about two tons. Similar incidents were repeated in the western and southwestern half of Ireland, and in some districts in the east—nothing was taken but food.


A new difficulty now arose; at first the Government's Indian corn-meal had been loathed—it was called 'Peel's brimstone' from its bright yellow colour. 'Never was anything so calumniated as our corn meal,' wrote Routh to Trevelyan on March 19. Attempts to introduce it into workhouses to replace potatoes caused riots; the inmates at Limerick refused to touch it; at Waterford it was declared that persons who ate it had been poisoned and died, and its appearance was greeted by weeping and wailing. This prejudice was founded on the fact that in the famine of 1831 a quantity of very bad quality meal had been distributed as an experiment. It had been damped by the millers to increase weight, was sour and unfit for human food and the people became ill when, driven by hunger, they ate it.


However, as the season advanced and food grew scarce Indian meal began to be eaten. 'Gradually the bolder and more hungry tried it,' Trevelyan was informed on March 30, and it became immensely popular. Trevelyan conducted 'Indian corn experiments' on himself, eating the meal as stirabout (porridge) and in cakes, and he arranged for a halfpenny pamphlet to be prepared, with simple instructions for cooking.


On March 28 'the Relief Committee of the Gentlemen of Cork' announced that, as an experiment, Indian meal would be on sale that day at cost price, 1d. a pound. The result, reported The Times, was alarming: a huge crowd gathered, there was a 'tremendous rush' for the meal, and a disturbance that was almost a riot took place. It was all instantly bought up, and more was demanded; but the senior Commissariat officer in charge at Cork refused a second issue, saying he had no further instructions. At this, many hundreds of persons who were still waiting for a share became 'angry and threatening', and the demonstrations subsided only when the Mayor issued a notice saying that further supplies were expected daily. This was not true; in fact, the Relief Commissioners, frightened by the revelation of mass hunger, and dreading a 'rush upon the Commission', would allow no further issue. On April 9 John Pitt Kennedy, secretary of the Relief Commission, wrote to the Relief Committee of the Gentlemen of Cork that 'it was intended to reserve issues from the depots for the more heavy pressure of the summer months ... until then landholders and Relief Committees were expected to exert themselves to meet the existing distress'.


By April 2 the demand for the pamphlet of cooking instructions 'exceeded all credibility'; two weeks later Routh told Trevelyan he 'could not have believed Indian Corn meal would become so popular' and officially informed the Lords of the Treasury that the demand continued to increase 'beyond my anticipation'.

The Freeman's Journal now printed a furious denunciation of the Government's policy: holding over the Indian corn-meal was 'positive cruelty', the poor were left to the mercy of speculators and would be destroyed before the Government interfered. Routh insisted that 'we must hold out with a little firmness in spite of the wretchedness and bad character of the people'; the habitual want of the country was not to be thrown on to the potato failure.


There was, however, a fact of which relief committees and newspapers appeared to be unaware—Government supplies were only a drop in the ocean compared with the needs of Ireland. Potatoes worth £3,500,000 had been lost, and to make good that deficiency, in Trevelyan's words 'to fill the vacuum', the Commission had at their disposal £100,000 of Indian corn and an uncertain quantity of biscuit. It was indeed, as Trevelyan put it, a 'delicate and anxious ... operation', and Coffin at Limerick, the most intelligent of the Commissariat officers, estimated that four million people would have to be fed during May, June and July before the new crop of potatoes was fit to eat. The task was clearly impossible.


Peel made a statement in the House of Commons on April 17: he had received 'an entreaty that for God's sake the Government should send out to America for more Indian corn', and the pressure was no doubt very severe. But 'if it were known that we undertook the task of supplying the Irish with food we should to a great extent lose the support of the Irish gentry, the Irish clergy and the Irish farmer. It is quite impossible for Government to support 4,006,000 people. It is utterly impossible for us to adopt means of preventing cases of individual misery in the wilds of Galway or Donegal or Mayo. In such localities the people must look to the local proprietors, resident and non-resident'. Sir James Graham added, 'We never said this foreign supply would be sufficient for the whole population of Ireland; but we believed that under the judicious management of this supply the markets could be so regulated as to prevent an exorbitant price for native produce.'


Yet throughout these months and throughout the famine years the 'native produce' of Ireland was leaving her shores in a 'torrent of food'.

In the long and troubled history of England and Ireland no issue has provoked so much anger or so embittered relations between the two countries as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. 'During all the famine years,' wrote John Mitchel, the Irish revolutionary, 'Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people'; yet, he asserted, a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was 'sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo'.

Figures were produced in the House of Commons giving the amounts of grain and cereals exported from Ireland to England for a period of, roughly, three months from the date when the potato failure was established up to February 5, 1846. 258,000 quarters of wheat and 701,000 hundredweight of barley, worth about a million pounds, had left Ireland with, in addition, 1,000,000 quarters of oats and oatmeal; and since February 5 export had been continuing at the same rate.

Coffin wrote to Routh from Limerick pointing out 'the inconsistency of importing supplies into a country which is at the same time exporting its own resources'. Limerick was an export centre, and no doubt Coffin had seen ship after ship laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter, sailing away down the Shannon from a country which was on the verge of starvation. He urged that the Government should buy and store all the grain, which would otherwise be exported, and sell it when the time of extreme scarcity came. He did not succeed.


At first sight the inhumanity of exporting food from a country stricken by famine seems impossible to justify or condone. Modern Irish historians, however, have treated the subject with generosity and restraint. They have pointed out that the corn grown in Ireland before the famine was not sufficient to feed the people if they had depended on it alone, that imports must be examined as well as exports: in fact, when the famine was at its worst four times as much wheat came into Ireland as was exported, and in addition almost 3,000,000 quarters of Indian corn and 1,000,000 cwts. of Indian meal.

BUT  …..

Suppose, however, the grain and other produce had been kept in the country, it is doubtful if the starving would have benefited substantially. The districts where distress was most severe, Donegal, Mayo, Clare, west Cork, produced little but potatoes. Food from other districts would have had to be brought in and distributed. Grain would have had to be milled which, as the British government had discovered, was a difficult problem.


Moreover in the backward areas where famine struck hardest, cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art. 'There is,' wrote Trevelyan, 'scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato. Bread is scarcely ever seen, and an oven is unknown'; and Father Mathew, the celebrated apostle of temperance, whose crusade against drinking had for a time almost suppressed the national vice and whose knowledge of Ireland was unmatched, wrote, 'The potato deluge during the past twenty years has swept away all other food from our cottagers and sunk into oblivion their knowledge of cookery.' There was no means of distributing home-grown food, no knowledge of how to use it and in addition the small Irish farmer was compelled by economic necessity to sell what he grew. He dared not eat it. Routh writing to Trevelyan on January 1, 1846, told him that the Irish people did not regard wheat, oats and barley as food— they were grown to pay the rent and to pay the rent was the first necessity of life in Ireland. It would be a desperate man who ate up his rent, with the certainty before him of eviction and 'death by slow torture'. Therefore the Irish peasant sold his little produce, even when his children were crying with hunger, to save them from a worse fate.


Nevertheless the harsh truth that the poverty of the Irish peasant, the backward state of his country and the power of his landlord prevented him from benefiting from home-grown food did not mitigate his burning sense of injustice. 

Forced by economic necessity to sell his produce he was furiously resentful when food left the market towns under the eyes of the hungry populace, protected by a military escort of overwhelming strength. From Waterford, the Commissariat officer wrote to Trevelyan, on April 24, 1846, ' The barges leave Clonmel once a week for this place, with the expot supplies under convoy which, last Tuesday, consisted of 2 guns, 50 cavalry and 80 infantry escorting them on the banks of the Suir as far as Carrick.'

It was a sight which the Irish people found impossible to understand and impossible to forget.