THE IRISH POTATO FAMINE
ROBERT PEEL DOES HIS BEST
Sir Robert Peel, having completed his arrangements for controlling the price of food, went on to attempt some solution of the unemployment which, as the Devon Commission had reported, was responsible for the unhappy condition of the peasantry in most parts of Ireland and 'the privations which they and their families patiently endure'.
He now introduced four Bills to increase employment in Ireland, and on March 5, 1846, they received the Royal Assent.
The first, and most important, was intended to provide for the rapid establishment of public works. Five persons of respectability, two magistrates and three county taxpayers, could meet in any barony—a barony being a county division, used in Irish local government—and send to the Lord-Lieutenant proposals for local works; if approved, the works were to be executed with Government funds, half being a loan, repayable to the Treasury, and half a grant.
A second Act provided for the execution of specified works by contractors, such as road repairing, levelling, drainage and sewerage. It was found to be 'ill adapted': the procedure was slow, contractors proved unreliable, and in addition the whole sum, instead of only half, advanced out of public funds had to be repaid by the barony that obtained the loan.
The two other Acts, of less importance, dealt with the construction of piers and fishing harbours and the encouragement of large projects of drainage, water power and improvement of navigation. The sum set aside for piers and harbours, £5,000 a year, for ten years, was too small to be effective, and for large projects, a preliminary survey had to be carried out, at the applicant's expense; consequently, only one important work, the drainage of the river Fergus, in County Clare, was undertaken under the Act.
IRISH BOARD OF WORKS…… INADEQUATE !
These Acts were to be put into operation and administered by the Irish Board of Works, and it was a heavy and difficult task. Businesslike habits and technical knowledge were rare in backward Ireland. Moreover, the Irish Board of Works, established in 1831, was lamentably under-staffed and already charged with extensive duties: thanks to a 'rage for economy' it consisted of only three members and a 'niggardly office establishment'. At one point, a fourth member had been added, to deal with fisheries and drainage, but he was never to be found, because he happened to be a Parliamentary draftsman, and was kept busy at Dublin Castle, preparing Bills for Parliament which were in no way connected with the Board of Works. Nevertheless, only two or three persons were added to the staff in preparation for administering the four new Acts.
UNDER CONTROL OF THE TREASURY….. POLITICAL MIRE!
Though its duties were exclusively Irish, the Board was under the control of the Treasury. 'The Board of Works,' stated Trevelyan, 'is a subordinate Board to the Treasury; they are under their orders and the Treasury have full power to give them any directions they think proper.'
The authority which Trevelyan exercised over the distribution of food for relief, through the Commissariat, would now cover the establishment and administration of public works; thus, item by item, Irish relief plans came under Treasury control, and Treasury control was strict and jealous. The procedure following the initial meeting of five persons, as directed in the first of the new Acts, bristled with safeguards and was immensely complicated. Estimates and plans had to be prepared, a difficult task in primitive Ireland, and submitted in turn to three sets of officials, the County Surveyor, the Lord-Lieutenant and the Relief Commissioners; if all three approved, then an official of the Board of Works visited the site and made a detailed report; if this, too, was satisfactory, the papers were posted to the Treasury, in Whitehall, for final sanction. Further, the type of works which might be undertaken as public works was restricted. They were to be, wrote Trevelyan, 'of such a nature as will not benefit individuals in a greater degree than the rest of the community and therefore are not likely to be called for from any motive but the professed one of giving employment'. In other words, all works were to be useful to the community in which they were carried out and not simply of benefit to individuals.
The length and intricacy of the procedure bewildered officials in Ireland. 'I really do not see my way clear with the Board of Works,' wrote Routh to Trevelyan, on March 18. 'Something more direct, more immediate is necessary. The forms of office and the course of law, so invaluable at other times, must give way to a system more rapid in its erection and more powerful in its application.'
Difficulties were now enormously increased by the arrival of a deluge of applications, overwhelming the inadequate organization of the Board of Works. The fact was that the Government had failed to realize the financial attraction to landowners of the first of the new Acts. Half the money to be expended was a free grant, twenty years were allowed for repaying the remaining half, and making the application was simple—the only simple step, in fact, in the entire procedure.
Landlords hurried to secure a share of government money, innumerable meetings of two magistrates and three county ratepayers were held, and before the end of May applications for works to cost no less than £800,000 had been received. Baronies sent in applications not for one or two but for dozens of works—one barony applied for ninety-nine, another for one hundred and thirteen. The consequent burden thrown on the Board of Works was crushing.
Though some fifty surveyors were detached from the Ordnance Survey and six officers seconded from the Royal Engineers the technical staff remained totally inadequate, while the three or four members of the Board in Dublin had piled on them the impossible task of sifting and making a decision on a mass of proposals from all over Ireland. Applications piled up unanswered, undertakings were not inspected, employment did not begin, and the country became rebellious.
EMPLOYMENT SLOW IN COMING….. UNREST
On March 23, 1846, a deputation from Limerick, headed by the Mayor, came to Dublin to urge the Relief Commission to hurry on with the works: if employment were not instantly provided there would be an outbreak in Limerick. On April 6, a riot took place in Carrick-on-Suir—a mob marched through the town, demanding work, and troops were called out; the rioters, however, quietened down on being given some temporary employment. In the course of similar riots disappointed unruly mobs invaded the Petty Sessions, declaring that 'all they sought for was employment and wages'; and Routh anxiously urged Trevelyan to hurry schemes through: 'employment is the only way of restraining the people.'
But hurrying on proved impossible; and as late as July 31, 1846, Lord Monteagle declared that though both he and Lord Kenmare had, months since, put in applications for works they had been quite unable to get the Board to do the preliminary survey.
Usually well over 60,000 men migrated from Ireland to England for the harvest, but this year few went. As there was hope of employment at home, on the public works, men were unwilling to leave their families at a time of crisis; and very few had a stock of potatoes to feed their families while they were away.
The numbers who applied for employment were frightening. Tens of thousands appeared, the relief committee rooms were 'besieged with unfortunate people', and, in a panic, committees issued tickets broadcast. In answer to criticism from Trevelyan, Routh pointed out that it might seem easy to adhere to rules in Whitehall, but for the relief committees it was a very different matter. Faults of 'looseness and irregularity' were readily committed when one was 'surrounded by an immense population clamorous for food and employment'. 'Work at any cost,' wrote the Board of Works, 'was prayed for as the only means of saving the people from famine and property from pillage,' and the meetings of magistrates and ratepayers, which should have deliberated what could best be done in the neighbourhood, 'through haste and pressure became useless.'
With a strong sense of grievance, the Board of Works complained of the position into which they had been forced and the useless works they had been compelled to undertake. A 'rush' had taken place and pressure was so great that 'the Commissioners of Public Works ... felt themselves under the necessity of recommending ... works which were not really wanted ... and to authorise the commencement of works sooner than was required'; distress had swept away caution and magistrates and ratepayers had undertaken to repay sums far beyond the means of the barony.
Meanwhile, the impossibility of finding suitable staff in Ireland made supervision of the works impossible; labourers were to be seen 'in groups, talking or smoking tobacco', and Board of Works' officers were assaulted and ill-treated by groups of idlers who had failed to get employment. In the opinion of an intelligent observer, Mr. John Ball, a Catholic Irishman who inspected 219 relief districts as Assistant Poor Law Commissioner and, later, entered politics and rose to ministerial rank, this unsatisfactory state of affairs was largely due to the relief committees; members were unsuitable persons and too closely connected with the distressed population, as neighbours or even relations, though he observed that many of their actions, for instance the broadcast distribution of tickets, were due to genuine, if mistaken, benevolence. They were also usually at daggers drawn with the officials of the Board of Works, who accused them of interference with the Board's officials and instructions.
CONFUSION AND IGNORANCE IN BRITAIN
Difficulties with relief committees were, however, of minor importance compared with the supreme cause of the confusion—the ignorance of the British Government about conditions existing all over Ireland, with the exception of north-east Ulster and large towns in the east—conditions which made providing relief through employment an almost impossibly difficult task. In Whitehall, providing relief through employment appeared simple. Everyone knew that the number of applications would depend on the rate of wages offered—this was an economic law. Therefore all that was necessary was to fix the rate of wages, on the public works, below what was usually offered locally: 'a lower rate of wages acts as a test of destitution'. The British Government, however, now discovered that in Ireland 'there is no such thing literally as wages'.
THE POTATO WAS THE MONEY OF THE IRISH
The potato, not money, was the basic factor by which the value of labour was determined. Farmers and landlords gave their labourers a cabin and a piece of potato ground, or permitted them to put up a cabin and allowed them a portion of conacre. Rent, in each case, was worked off in days of labour, at wages varying from 4d. to 8d. a day, with frequently two meals on each working day. These wages were not given in money into the labourer's hand, but set off against his rent, and they did not represent the real reward for his labour. The real reward was the patch of potato ground. Customarily the only dealing in money was the receipt of a few shillings from the sale of a pig, and this provided such clothing as the family possessed. The poorest labourers could not afford a pig, and coins of small value only were involved: unfamiliarity with money was so great that coins and notes of value were not recognized.
When The Times Commissioner, Mr. Campbell Foster, for example, visited Gal way in 1846 he found 'so little do the people know of the commercial value of money that they are constantly in the habit of pawning it'. A pawnbroker in Galway city had shown him a drawer full of coins and notes of substantial value which had been pawned; they included a ten-pound Bank of Ireland note, pawned six months previously for 10s., and a gold guinea, pawned two months previously for 15s. It was not unusual for owners to fail in redeeming their pledges.
THE IRISH HOARDED MONEY….. FOR LAND
But ignorance of values did not mean that money in the shape of those coins which the people understood was not prized; it was prized inordinately. Money meant ability to purchase land, and land was life itself in Ireland. However wretched a family, if they had a little money they would not use it to improve their living conditions but jealously hoarded it. In a graphic phrase a witness said that money was never used or even put out at interest—it was 'stuck in the thatch'. Consequently, as soon as silver coins were paid out on the public works they vanished.
For instance, on August 8 the Board of Works told the Lords of the Treasury that at Kilnish, in County Qare, £11,360 had been issued in silver but only £4,760 had come back through the banks. So extra coin, in boxes containing £500 to £1,000, had to be sent down in charge of confidential clerks, 'a risky proceeding'.
Whether wages were at a low rate or a high rate made no difference. In many districts only 6d. or 8d. a day was offered; nevertheless, whatever the rate, the prospect of wages paid into the labourers' hand in coin was irresistible, and holdings were left uncultivated and farming operations abandoned as eager crowds besieged the relief committee rooms for employment.
FAILED TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT
Moreover, the British Government had failed to take into consideration how, without potatoes, a man and his family were to keep alive while cultivating the ground for next year's crop; and landlords were already proceeding against the luckless hirers of conacre—150 in Fermoy alone. It was an added inducement that wages on the public works were paid by the day; there was no 'task' or piece-work, which Irish labourers detested because so much power was given to stewards; and workers on the Shannon Navigation scheme earning is 6d. a day by taskwork walked out, to apply for employment on the public works at 9d. a day.
CRITICAL TIME OF THE YEAR
While the Board of Works, struggling with these difficulties and hopelessly under-staffed, was being overwhelmed, the month of May arrived, the period when, as Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, had stated, the effects of the potato failure would be severely felt, and when, every year, a kind of famine more or less intense occurs in Ireland between the going out of the old and the coming in of the new crops. Applications became even more numerous, crowds began to get out of hand, threatening language was used by labourers with destitute families, and 'larger numbers than could be employed forced themselves on the works'. The height of the season of 'normal distress', enormously intensified by the potato failure, was approaching.
INDIAN CORN NOT THERE
Trevelyan now judged the time had come to call in the Commissariat, and he fixed May 15 as the date when the depots in Ireland would open for the sale of Indian corn. The two senior officers of the Commissariat, Routh in Dublin and Coffin in Limerick, were dismayed—the depots were not filled. Eight thousand tons of Indian corn and meal was the quantity, by no means excessive, ultimately imported by the British Government into Ireland, but this total was reached only on July 31. On May 15 there was much less, and on the 13th Coffin had written urging that opening should be postponed until further supplies had come in.
Nevertheless, the opening took place. Routh directed Coffin to restrict issues as far as possible, to make no 'regular supply daily or monthly', to consider each issue as 'single in itself and dependent on the merits and truth of each separate representation', and to instruct all officers to 'distinguish between the usual scarcity of the season and the present extraordinary dearth'.
A rush followed; at about 1d. a pound the Government Indian corn was by far the cheapest food available, and depots everywhere were besieged. At Limerick, Coffin was writing two or three letters a day to relief committees to explain why demands could not be met; 'I am instructed not to promise any specific supply'; 'the aim of the depots is to maintain an equilibrium of prices, they are not intended to feed the whole population and are not adequate to do so'; 'Meal is not sold as the sole or even the principal resource for the period of want. . . .' These and similar letters were received by the committees throughout Ireland with angry indignation. 'They universally thought,' Coffin told Trevelyan, on June 4, 'all their demands would be filled and they had only to send a carter to the depot with money in his hand as to an ordinary shop.'
MORE INEPT JUDGMENTS FROM ENGLAND
Trevelyan's intentions were very different. Irish relief was to be restricted to a single operation; the government Indian corn, purchased at the orders of Sir Robert Peel, was to be placed in depots by the Commissariat, sold to the people—and that was the end. There was to be no replenishment, even if there was a sum of money in hand from sales; once supplies had been disposed of relief was over. In several letters, written with unusual boldness, Routh begged Trevelyan to allow further purchases. The demand on the depots was 'immense', far heavier than anything that had been anticipated, and it was increasing every day; surely the depots should remain open until September. The new potato crop would not provide any food whatsoever for the people before the middle of September at the earliest, while 'lumpers', the huge, coarse potato called the 'horse' potato, on which the people mainly depended, would not be ready until the end of that month. Trevelyan refused; relief was to be brought to a close; possibly some depots might shut down a little later than others, but issues must shortly cease. By the end of June, 1846, government supplies were all but exhausted; on the 24th of that month, 5,000 bushels of Indian corn were all that remained in Cork and, at that, were unground, while in remote districts the people were starving. The revenue cutter, Eliza, making a visit of inspection, on June 22, to the Killeries, a wild district of mountain and deep ocean inlets in the far west, was implored for food by a boat-load of skeletons. The Commissariat officer at West-port, supply centre for the Killeries, had been instructed to send no more meal to the region because the depot was becoming empty.
One man, stated the officer in command, was lying on the bottom of the boat, unable to stand and already half dead, the others, with emaciated faces and prominent, staring eyeballs, were evidently in an advanced state of starvation. The officer reported to Sir James Dombrain, Inspector-General of the Coastguard Service, who had served on relief during the famine of 1839, and Sir James Dombrain, 'very inconveniently', wrote Routh, 'interfered'. He 'prevailed' on an officer at the Westport depot to issue meal, which he gave away free; he also 'prevailed' on the captain of the Government steamship, Rhadamanthus, to take 100 tons of meal, intended for West-port, to the Coastguard Station at the Killeries. 'The Coast Guard with all their zeal and activity are too lavish,' wrote Routh to Trevelyan.
FRUSTRATION BY COFFIN
Almost on the same date Coffin at Limerick wrote Trevelyan an urgent letter. He could not answer for the consequence if the depots were closed. 'Only issues of food,' he declared, 'keep the country peaceful ... Only for the Government meal thousands would be now dying by the road side.' In a private letter to Routh, Coffin confessed himself bewildered and depressed. Intelligent, well-intentioned and widely experienced though he was, the state of Ireland baffled him. 'I sincerely hope August will see us out of our troubles,' he wrote;'... the most anxious and unsatisfactory task I ever undertook, working in the dark... I have often felt I could not go on any longer.'
DEMAND GREATER THAN WHAT THEY HAD
Nevertheless, on June 25, Routh received directions to carry out 'the closing measures of our present service'; supplies were to be transferred from less destitute to more destitute districts, demand cut down by raising prices, and the relief scheme wound up. In a private letter to Routh, Trevelyan attributed the enormous demand on the depots to the low price at which the meal was sold; above all, to the fact that it was sold to persons suffering from distress, normal at the time of year, and not solely to persons whose distress was caused by the potato failure. Indiscriminate sales had 'brought the whole country on the depots, and without denying the existence of real and extensive distress', the numbers were beyond the power of the depots to cope with; they must therefore be closed down as soon as possible.
MEANWHILE "BACK AT THE RANCH"
Meanwhile, across the Channel, in London, dramatic events were taking place, and a change of Government was imminent.
Repeal of the Corn Laws was proving Peel's downfall. He was regarded with detestation by the Protectionists, who formed a large part of his own Party, and the Whigs, forced into the mortifying position of supporting their chief enemy, who had, they considered, stolen their principal measure, were consumed with vindictive fury. The ingenious mind of Benjamin Disraeli devised a way to bring Peel down. Whigs and Protectionist Tories must combine. Nothing could be done, as far as the Bill to repeal the Corn Laws was concerned, since the Whigs could hardly vote against a measure with which they had been identified; but if the second reading of the Irish Coercion Bill, introduced by Peel in February, was opposed by a combination of Whigs and Protectionist Tories, the defeat of Peel was assured. There were difficulties, since both Lord George Bentinck, leader of the Protectionists, and Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whigs, had previously voted in favour of the Irish Coercion Bill; but scruples were overcome 'with boldness and dexterity'.
The momentous night was June 25, and by a curious coincidence, as the debate on Irish Coercion was in progress, messengers entered the House of Commons, returning with the Bill repealing the Corn Laws, which had just received the assent of the Lords. The debate was interrupted while 'Mr. Speaker, amidst profound silence, announced that the Lords had agreed to the ... Bill ... without any amendment'.
A few hours later the House divided on Irish Coercion; Disraeli's scheme succeeded, and Sir Robert Peel fell, defeated by a majority of 73 votes. His resignation was officially announced on June 29, 1846.
BLINDED MINDS OF THE BRITISH
The majority which defeated Peel had no connection whatsoever with the real situation in Ireland. Indeed, the apathy of the House of Commons with regard to Irish affairs was seldom more marked than during the discussions on the Coercion Bill. During the debate on the first reading Mr. Fitzgerald, Member for Tipperary, noted there were 'not half a dozen gentlemen on the benches opposite'; and when the Bill was debated for the second time there were not twenty-five Members present, and the number never rose to more than forty. As was said at the time, the majority which defeated Peel had 'as much to do with Ireland as Kamschatka'.
A NEW BRITISH GOVERNMENT
The new Whig Government, under Lord John Russell, was more to Trevelyan's taste than Peel's administration. As a government servant he had no politics, but in private life he was a Whig, and his relations with Sir Robert Peel had not been happy. On July 6 he wrote in a private letter to Routh, 'The members of the new Government began to come today to the Treasury. I think we shall have much reason to be satisfied with our new masters,' and he added, on the 13th, 'Nothing can be more gratifying to our feelings than the manner in which the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has appreciated our exertions.'
CHARLES WOOD….. NO HUMANITARIAN
The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Wood, who succeeded as Sir Charles Wood, Bt., in December 1846 and was later created first Viscount Halifax, was congenial to Trevelyan. To a solid mind, he united a fixed dislike both of new expenditure and new taxes, and was a firm believer in laissezfaire, preferring to let matters take their course and allow problems to be solved by 'natural means'. Head of an ancient Yorkshire family, he united love of liberty with reverence for property, a strong sense of public duty, lack of imagination and stubborn conservatism. Humanitarianism was not among his undoubted virtues. Charles Wood remained in office, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, for six years, and came increasingly under Trevelyan's influence. The two men were alike in outlook, conscientiousness and industry, and Charles Wood brought Trevelyan a further access of power in the administration of Irish relief.
Winding up relief was now pushed on vigorously, and on July 8 Trevelyan rejected a shipload of Indian corn. 'The cargo of the Sorciere is not wanted,' he wrote to Mr. Thomas Baring; 'her owners must dispose of it as they think proper.' Mr. Baring sent congratulations 'on the termination of your feeding operations'. But Routh, in Ireland, was depressed. He sincerely hoped that congratulations might not prove premature; the pressure on the depots was still increasing. 'This is a worse month than June,' he wrote.
POTATO TO FAIL AGAIN
Trevelyan, however, had an urgent reason for wishing to get Sir Robert Peel's relief scheme for the 1845 failure cleared up and out of the way. He disagreed with it in several important respects, and during the last few weeks a new and alarming probability had become evident—there were unmistakable signs that the potato was about to fail again.
As early as February 16, 1846, new potatoes had been shown at meetings of the Horticultural Society in London 'in which the disease had manifested itself in a manner not to be mistaken', and on February 20, a question had been asked in the House of Commons. In reply Sir Robert Peel admitted that the potatoes 'exhibited the disease of last autumn', but added that they had been grown from sets of potatoes which were themselves slightly diseased.
Whether blight reappeared or not, however, the outlook for the potato crop was poor. Distributing seed potatoes had proved impracticable. Immense quantities would have been needed, 'nearly a ton an acre', wrote Trevelyan, and there was neither an organization to buy such huge amounts nor means of conveying and distributing them.
DEPOTS CLOSED….. BACKFIRE RESULT
In April, Mr. E.B. Roche, Member for Cork, had warned the House of Commons that thousands of people were eating seed potatoes as a result of the refusal of the Government to, open the depots; and on July 10 Routh reminded Trevelyan, 'You must remember we kept back all issues during the winter making the people consume their potatoes.' Routh estimated that the acreage of potatoes planted in 1846 was about one-third less than in 1845, and since the quantity of potatoes grown was never sufficient, except in a very good year, scarcity in the coming season was inevitable, unless the crop was overwhelmingly good.
A DECEPTIVE LOOKING "ABUNDANT CROP"
An overwhelmingly good crop, however, was what the people of Ireland persisted in expecting. There was a belief that plenty followed scarcity; the Irish temperament is naturally optimistic, and hope ran high. During May and June the weather was warm and the plants grew strong; on June 10 the Commissariat officer at Clonmel reported that the crop of early potatoes 'looks most abundant. It is generally supposed here that the crops have never looked better at this season'.
On the 26th the Freeman's Journal confirmed that there was 'every appearance of an abundant harvest' —crops were 'most luxuriant'. In the spring there had been 'icy continuous drenching rain', but now the weather was 'most propitious for growing crops'.
True, on July 3 the Freeman's Journal noted reports of 'a few cases of potato disease', but 'not enough to cause any excitement' and, later, 'exaggeration' was rebuked: 'Every spot and blemish' was being 'magnified' into incipient disease.
THE REALITY…. GREATER DISEASE
Routh, however, who was receiving daily reports from every part of the country, could not be optimistic, and on July 14 he told Trevelyan, 'Disease is reappearing'. Three days later he wrote a letter of solemn warning: 'The reports of the new potato crop are very unfavourable. All letters and sources of information declare disease to be more prevalent this year than last in the early crop.' It was too soon to speak of the main crop, the 'people's crop', but he judged that most of the early crop had already been lost.
Trevelyan considered these ominous facts as the strongest possible argument for winding up the present relief scheme with all possible haste. If Government relief was still available when the people became aware that another failure had occurred they would expect to be fed. 'The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on Government,' he told Routh, on July 17, 'is to bring the operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes it more necessary.' In a second letter he wrote, 'Whatever may be done hereafter, these things should be stopped now, or you run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years. The Chancellor of the Exchequer supports this strongly.' Routh received instructions to close the Commissariat depots on August 15.
MORE STUPID MINDLESSNESS
Had the decision rested with Routh he would not have closed the depots in the face of a second failure. However, he shrank from opposing Trevelyan; the training of a lifetime forbade it, and his admiration for Trevelyan's capacities was great. He tried therefore to convince himself that Trevelyan's policy was just and wise. 'The apprehensions for the new crop make it all the more necessary that we should close our present labours on August 15,' he wrote to some of his senior officers on July 20, '... so as to allow the Government time to make up their opinion as to the future, for if we were to remain at our stations and depots until the end of September when the fate of the late crop will be determined, it might be difficult to relieve us, and the authorities might be forced into a continuance of the same measures without a fair opportunity of consideration.'
BOARD OF WORKS…. TO CLOSE DOWN….. RE-CONSTRUCT
Trevelyan next turned his attention to the Board of Works. Of the bodies concerned with relief, the Board of Works had been the least satisfactory; not only Trevelyan, but Routh, declared 'the Board of Works has been a failure'; and on July 20, Trevelyan wrote, privately and peremptorily, to the chairman of the Board, Colonel Jones, telling him that the Board was to be reorganized. The reconstruction had been already drafted in a Treasury minute, and was, wrote Trevelyan firmly, 'as good as settled'.
The minute, dated July 21,1846, directed the closing of all public works, save in exceptional circumstances, on August 15, and also directed the reconstruction of the Board and the augmentation of its staff 'to meet the increased magnitude of the coming exigency'. Proper plans and estimates for works under the recent Acts were to be prepared now, in anticipation of the new emergency, in order that the confusion of the previous season might be avoided.
THE BOARD OF WORKS INDIGNANT
The Board of Works received the Treasury minute with indignation. It was not possible or reasonable to stop works, without warning, at only three weeks notice. How could works be left in their present state? Many roads were actually dangerous to the public; was this to be ignored? Local distress was already more urgent than ever, and immense new destitution was known to be impending.
The Government gave way. An attempt was made to limit expenditure, but in fact what amounted to a general renewal of relief works took place. Trevelyan became exasperated, and so much annoyance was evident in his letters that Routh ventured to remonstrate. The Board of Works, admittedly, had been a failure, but he was not sure, he wrote, on August 3, that the relief committees had been unsatisfactory: 'Pray if you put forth any public documents on the subject speak carefully of the Committees whose assistance you will certainly require next year. Praise if you like, but do not find fault, at least publicly; they are very sensitive and so are all the Irish.' Whatever their shortcomings, the relief committees had collected £98,003 by July 31, 1846, the largest sum ever raised in Ireland for the relief of distress; to this, £65, 914 10s. od. was added by the Lord Lieutenant out of public funds, as the Government contribution.
GOVERNMENT PLANS FOR SECOND FAILURE
The Government had now accepted the fact that a second failure of the potato was about to occur, and Trevelyan was preparing plans. He was determined to pursue a new policy, a policy which all but reversed that of Peel.
Trevelyan and Charles Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had decided that, in the second failure, there was to be no Government importation of food from abroad and no interference whatsoever with the laws of supply and demand; whatever might be done by starting public works and paying wages, the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders.
IRISH ARE DISMAYED…..GOOD ADVICE
The new policy was received by officials in Ireland with dismay, and on August 4 Routh pressed Trevelyan to import food, now and at once. 'You cannot answer the cry of want by a quotation from political economy. You ought to have 16,000 tons of Indian corn ... you ought to have half of the supply which you require in the country before Christmas.' How great a quantity would be needed, wrote Routh, would be determined this month, when the main crop began to be dug.
EVEN SO…. NO SALVATION
No preparations, however, even if preparations had been made on double the scale urged, could, in fact, have saved the Irish people from the fate which lay before them.
Before the depots could be closed or the public works shut down, almost in a night, every potato in Ireland was lost.
'On the 27th of last month,' wrote Father Mathew to Trevelyan, on August 7, 'I passed from Cork to Dublin and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the third instant I beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless.'
'I shall never forget,' wrote Captain Mann, a Coastguard officer employed in relief service, 'the change in one week in August. On the first occasion, on an official visit of inspection, I had passed over thirty-two miles thickly studded with potato fields in full bloom. The next time the face of the whole country was changed, the stalk remained bright green, but the leaves were all scorched black. It was the work of a night.'
Sir James Dombrain reported that, in a tour of eight hundred miles during the first week in August, 'all is lost and gone'; the horrible stench from the diseased potatoes was 'perceptible as you travel along the road'; in Cork, on August 3, the stench from rotting potatoes was 'intolerable'. On August 7 Colonel Knox Gore, Lieutenant of County Sligo, found 'from Mullingar to Maynooth every field was black', and on August 8 the steward of the Ventry estates wrote that 'the fields in Kerry look as if fire had passed over them'. Failure was 'universal' in Ulster by August 7, and in Longford, Galway, King's County, Westmeath and Co. Dublin every potato was completely blighted.
Disaster was universal.
LOOKING AT 1845
The failure of 1845 had, to some degree, been partial; the loss, though serious, had been unequally distributed, and the blighted areas 'isolated and detached'. The country, in Routh's words, had been 'like a checker board, black and white next door', and Trevelyan, summing up the first failure, was able to describe it as 'a probationary season of distress'.
The difficulties experienced in administering Sir Robert Peel's relief scheme were due to the state of Ireland, the poverty, the unemployment, the annual semi-starvation which millions customarily endured. It was these unfortunate wretches, 'the old habitual mass of want in Ireland', the 'fixed tide of distress which never ebbs' who, besieging the relief committee rooms and surging on to the public works in tens of thousands, had broken down the administrative machinery.
In the first failure, with the exception of the potatoes, the harvest had been above the average, and though distress was greatly intensified, yet thanks to the relief scheme the people in many districts had been better off than usual. Trevelyan, with whom John Ball agreed, wrote, 'In the first failure the people suffered less than in ordinary years, owing to the pains taken to prevent them from feeling want.'
SUMMER OF 1846
In the summer of 1846 the situation was very different.
The harvest, generally, was poor, and the people were at the end of their resources. Every rag had been already pawned to buy food, every edible scrap had gone. The people were weakened and despairing. 'A stranger,' wrote a sub-inspector of police from County Cork, on August 4, 'would wonder how these wretched beings find food ... Clothes being in pawn there is nothing to change. They sleep in their rags and have pawned their bedding.'
The whole face of the country was changed. 'From the Giants Causeway to Cape Clear, from Limerick to Dublin, not a green field is to be seen.' Violent thunderstorms occurred: 'electricity'—lightning—was seen playing over the blackened fields, torrential rain fell, the country round Dublin was flooded, and an 'extraordinary dense fog' was seen by Routh on August 6 to descend over blighted areas, 'cold and damp and close without any wind'.
'It is,' declared a lead-writer in The Times on September 2, 'total annihilation'.