THE government in power was the Whig Government which had defeated the Tories under Sir Robert Peel at the end of June, and at first glance it seemed as if the Whigs were more likely to be sympathetic to Ireland than the Tories.

Civil and religious liberty was the Whig watchword, and the Whig leader, Lord John Russell, had an impressively liberal record. He had moved the first reading of the famous Reform Bill on March 31, 1831; he had brought forward a resolution, in 1834, to inquire into the expenditure of the immense revenues of the Established Protestant Church of Ireland; after the Repeal crisis, he had moved for an inquiry into the state of Ireland, which resulted in the great Irish debate of February, 1844. William IV had called him 'a dangerous little Radical'.

His radicalism was, however, qualified by the circumstances of his birth. John Russell was the son of the sixth Duke of Bedford, and with liberal principles he combined a strong, at times an overweening, sense of rank. His manners were arrogant; his brother, the Marquess of Tavistock, warned him in 1838 that he was giving great offence to his followers in the House of Commons by not being courteous to them, by treating them superciliously and 'de haut en bas'; while the diarist Greville complained of being received in John's 'coldest and most offensive manner, nothing could be more ungracious and I mentally resolved never to go near him again... .'

He had had to contend, however, with disabilities which would have crushed a less determined man. To begin with, he was so small as to be little more than a dwarf. The savage wit of the period caricatured him as a large-headed midget, a puny little girl, an elderly child seated on Melbourne's lap; and when he married, as his first wife, the widow of Lord Ribblesdale, he was nicknamed 'The Widow's Mite'.

John Russell had some connections with Ireland: his father had been Lord-Lieutenant between 1806 and 1807, and Lord John had spent three months of the summer of 1806 at the Vice-Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park; there was also a family property, Ardsallagh Castle, in County Meath.


He was now to be in control of the fate of Ireland throughout the coming crisis. He held office from June, 1846, until February, 1852, the worst of the famine years, and during that period the Irish policy of the British Government was his responsibility. When he ceased to be Prime Minister, in 1852, the famine, officially at least, was over.


One of the first acts of Lord John Russell's administration was to appoint a new Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland; the office was political, and when the Tories went out their Lord Lieutenant, Lord Heytesbury, automatically resigned. Lord Bessborough was selected, an admirable and popular choice. He was head of the respected family of Ponsonby; his estates at Bessborough were well administered, and he was not only a good but a resident landlord, the first resident landlord to be appointed Lord-Lieutenant since the Union. His temper was 'remarkably calm and unruffled', and he had distinguished himself as a minister during two successful terms of office. Most important of all, he had been 'during almost the whole of his life on terms of warm friendship' with O'Connell and had introduced him to the House of Commons when no one else would do so, on O'Connell's first taking his seat, after Catholic emancipation was passed. It was hoped that, through Lord Bessborough, the enormous power O'Connell wielded in Ireland would be used for, and not against, the Government during the coming crisis.


But in the summer of 1846 O'Connell's power was no longer absolute. The Liberator was seventy-one years of age, his health was beginning to fail; within the Repeal Association there was discontent, and a group of intelligent, ardent young Repealers had formed themselves into a new party, which they called 'Young Ireland'. The Young Irelanders were extremists; their language was violent, and they declared that O'Connell's policy of moral force, his insistence on 'the carrying the Repeal by peaceable, legal and constitutional means and by none other' had failed, and must be discarded.

In July, 1846, on the eve of the total failure of the potato, and the month when Bessborough took office, differences between Young Ireland and Old Ireland came to a head, on the question of resorting to physical force to win freedom, and the leaders of Young Ireland, now labelled the 'physical force men', walked out of Conciliation Hall, Burgh Quay, Dublin, the Repeal Association's headquarters.

O'Connell's power and prestige were shaken, armed rebellion appeared a possibility, very violent language had been used. Bessborough became alarmed. In spite of his Irish sympathies he asked for a Coercion Bill declaring that Ireland could not be governed without emergency powers amounting to martial law. The Coercion Bill was, in fact, withdrawn; for no reason connected with Ireland, but because members of Parliament, having turned out the Tory Government on a vote against Irish Coercion, refused to vote in favour of it a few weeks later; nevertheless, irreparable damage had been done. Young Ireland, the physical force men, had presented a fatal image of Ireland when the time of her greatest need was just at hand.


English newspapers represented the Irish, not as helpless famine victims, but as cunning and bloodthirsty desperadoes. Punch, for instance, published cartoons week after week depicting the Irishman as a filthy, brutal creature, an assassin and a murderer, begging for money, under a pretence of buying food, to spend on weapons. 'With the money they get from our relief funds, they buy arms,' wrote Greville.


Ireland was a disturbing thought, and it was therefore a comfort to be able to believe that the Irish were not starving or, if some of them were, the depravity of the Irish was such that they deserved to starve; and to treat Ireland's desperate appeals, as famine approached, as merely another whine from a professional beggar. 'It is possible to have heard the tale of sorrow too often,' observed The Times leader-writer, on August 3, 1846.


Yet no doubts of the gravity of the impending catastrophe were felt by Lord John Russell and his Government; reports of the universal failure of the potato were being confirmed by every mail, and new measures for Irish relief had been in course of preparation for some weeks.


The new plans were the work of Trevelyan. He prepared a memorandum, dated on August 1, 1846,6 in which he detailed last season's relief plans, set out the respects in which they had failed, and outlined a plan to meet the coming crisis. This memorandum formed the basis of the new scheme, and Trevelyan, who possessed the administrative abilities which Lord John Russell's colleagues on the whole lacked, now became virtually dictator of relief for Ireland.

On August 1846, Lord John Russell rose in the Commons to acquaint the House, 'with great pain', that 'the prospect of the potato crop is even more distressing than last year—that the disease has appeared earlier, and its ravages are far more extensive'; it was imperative on the Government and Parliament to take extraordinary measures for relief.


The new relief scheme, briefly, fell under two main heads. 

First, though public works were again to be undertaken, and on a large scale, the British Government would no longer, as last year, bear half their cost. The whole expense was to be paid by the district in which the works were carried out. 'Presentment sessions', meetings of ratepayers at which works were proposed, would be held as before, but instead of being voluntary meetings they were to be summoned by the Lord-Lieutenant, at his discretion. Works were to be approved and executed by the Board of Works. The cost was to be met by advances from the Treasury, repayable in their entirety in ten years, at 3 and 1/2 per cent, interest, and the money for repayment was to be raised by a rate levied on all poor-rate payers in the locality, a momentous and controversial innovation. The expense was designed to 'fall entirely on persons possessed of property in the distressed district', who were, after all, responsible for the poor on their estates. This part of the new procedure was embodied in an Act, 'to facilitate the employment of the Labouring Poor for a limited period in distressed districts in Ireland', popularly called the Labour Rate Act. This measure was the most important section of the new scheme, and proved a source of difficulty, confusion, discontent and ruin. In addition, the modest sum of £50,000 was to be spent in free grants to those districts in Ireland too poor to bear the whole cost of public works.


Second, the Government would not import or supply any food. There were to be no Government depots to sell meal at a low cost or, in urgent cases, to make free issues, as had been done during last season's failure. No orders were to be sent abroad, nor would any purchases be made by Government in local markets. It was held that the reason why dealers and import merchants had so signally failed to provide food to replace the potato last season had been the Government's purchases. Trade, said Trevelyan, had been 'paralysed' on account of these purchases, which interfered with private enterprise and the legitimate profits of private enterprise; and how, he asked, could dealers be expected to invest in the very large stocks necessary to meet this year's total failure of the potato if at any moment Government might step in with supplies—sold at low cost —which would deprive dealers of their profit and 'make their outlay so much loss?'

This section of the scheme was received with consternation, and Routh, with unaccustomed boldness, wrote from Dublin, 'As for the great question of leaving the country to the corn dealers they are a very different class of men from our London, Liverpool and Bristol merchants. I do not believe there is a man among them who would import direct a single cargo from abroad.'

On August 7, 1846, Father Mathew, the 'apostle of Temperance', wrote in agitation to Trevelyan: he had heard rumours that 'the capitalists in the corn and flour trade are endeavouring to induce government not to protect the people from famine but to leave them at their mercy', and he implored Trevelyan to take some action to feed the people.

The merchants however declared 'they would not import food at all if it were the intention of government to do so'; they required an official assurance that no Government importation was contemplated, and Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons on August 17,1846, that the assurance had been given. The Government was pledged 'not to interfere with the regular mode by which Indian corn and other grains were brought into the country', but 'to leave that trade as much liberty as possible'. Trevelyan and Charles Wood were convinced that, once wages were being paid on the new large-scale public works, and the people had money to spend on food, then food would be attracted to Ireland. The field was to be left strictly to private enterprise.


The west of Ireland, however, was to receive special treatment. In Kerry, Donegal, the country west of the Shannon, and that part of west Cork which included Skibbereen, and the Dingle Peninsula, the population lived so exclusively on the potato that no trade in any other description of food existed; and here, and here only, Government food depots were to be established. Each depot was to be in charge of a Commissariat officer; officers stationed in Canada, the West Indies and the Mediterranean, had already been instructed to proceed home 'without delay', and gaps were to be filled by temporary appointments of military officers. But even in these districts depots were to be opened only as a last resort, when private traders had failed to provide supplies of food; and the Government gave a pledge that the eastern part of Ireland was to be left wholly to private enterprise. Members of local relief committees were no longer to be elected, but nominated by the Lieutenant of the county, and instead of issuing employment tickets would 'furnish lists of distressed persons eligible for employment'. Nominations must be of persons holding official or semi-official positions, magistrates and resident magistrates, senior constabulary and coastguard officers, chairmen of Poor Law unions, and the principal clergymen of each denomination, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Nonconformist. The regulation specifying only principal clergymen had the effect of excluding Catholic curates; and though it was true that during the previous year some Catholic curates had found difficulty in working smoothly with persons not of their religious persuasion, they undoubtedly possessed an intimate and invaluable knowledge of the inhabitants of their parishes. 'You must not exclude R.C. curates,' wrote Lord Monteagle, a Protestant, to Lord Bessborough; 'without them we could not do a stroke and here they are labouring like tigers for us, working day and night.'

Lieutenants of counties had power to add members to committees, but whether or not this power was ever exercised in favour of Catholic curates does not appear to be recorded.

Subscriptions were still to be collected locally in aid of relief, but the Government donation was limited to half the total amount collected, at the most. 

Finally, officials employed by the Commissariat and the Board of Works would be paid by the British Government.

Such, very broadly, were the outlines of the scheme devised by Trevelyan for the Government of Lord John Russell to meet the total failure of the potato. In the course of relieving last season's failure some very painful lessons had been learned. Then the whole labouring population of Ireland, wherever they had the chance, had rushed to throw themselves on the Government works; the scheme had, to a large extent, been swamped; there had been confusion and waste, and very large sums of public money had melted away. Yet last year's failure had been only partial; the prospect of relieving a total failure by the same methods was impossible to contemplate— Trevelyan declared that the Exchequer itself would not be equal to the occasion.


Therefore, the first object of the new plans was to 'check the exorbitant demands of last season'; they were, in fact, designed not to save Ireland but to protect England. The scheme was to be in force for a year, and no longer; writing to Mr. Labouchere, appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland by the Whigs, Trevelyan spoke of 'the year of relief, and laid down, in a Treasury minute, 'No advances ... will in any circumstances be made for carrying on ... works after the 15th August 1847.'


It has to be admitted, wrote a Whig historian, 'that the Government in the summer of 1846 did not realize the full consequences of the loss of the potato'.


Trevelyan anticipated that there would be what he called a 'breathing time' about the second week in August, when the potatoes from the new crop became fit to eat. Last year there had been such a pause: while the crop was hurriedly dug and every potato conceivably edible eaten before it rotted. He intended to use this 'breathing time' to overhaul the relief organization, so that the departments would be ready 'to put our whole machinery in motion at an early date'; in particular, he was determined that the Board of Works should be set out 'to re-organize to meet the increased magnitude of the coming exigency'. At the beginning of the scheme he lost one of his ablest colleagues: Edward Pine Coffin, who had been in charge of the depot at Limerick, was knighted in recognition of his services and sent to report on distress in the highlands of Scotland.


Throughout August, 1846, Trevelyan worked very hard indeed. He speaks of being at the Treasury until 3 a.m., 'dead beat', and of working weekdays and Sundays alike. An official of the Board of Works, summoned over to London, was told 'to come on Sunday and knock at the private entrance in Downing Street below the Treasury'. Every detail of the new relief scheme was controlled by Trevelyan, and all Commissariat and Board of Works, Ireland, letters, as well as all private letters, were, by his instructions, sent up to him unopened. Commissariat officers recalled from Canada and the Wrest Indies each received a personal letter from Trevelyan, with 'blue books' to study during the voyage. It was, he wrote, 'the most difficult and responsible task that has ever fallen to my lot'.


Great exertions were expected of his subordinates; Mrs. Perceval, wife of a Commissariat officer, wrote to Trevelyan complaining that her husband was being worked so hard that he was losing his health, and was told, shortly, by Trevelyan, on July 9, that he had 'never known a person injured by hard work'.


All these exertions were in vain. It was too late for preparation. Disaster was upon Ireland now.

No 'breathing time' occurred; the 'influx of early potatoes', wrote Routh, on August 13, 1846, 'due to the desire to realize something before that something shall be wholly lost ... failed on account of the rapid progress of the disease'; and the notification that the Government depots were to close brought frantic protests. 

Already, in the west, the Government meal was all that stood between a swarming population and starvation. From Swineford, the secretary of the Relief Committee wrote on August 5, 1846, that closing the depot there would produce 'the extremest misery'; all the new potatoes had failed and the price of meal was already more than doubled. At Ballyhaunis the people were 'not far off starvation': if the Government depot shut down there would be violence. At Ballina Mr. Vaughan Jackson, a well-known resident landlord, considered the situation critical; if the depot closed peace would be endangered.

Outside Government circles, closing the food depots at the moment of total failure appeared inexplicable. The Times, no advocate of relief for Ireland, found it impossible to understand why 'the authorities cut off supplies with the undisputed fact of an extensive failure of this year's potato crop staring them in the face', and the Catholic Archbishop John MacHale, known as 'the Lion of St. Jar-lath's', told Lord John Russell, 'You might as well issue an edict of general starvation as stop the supplies....'


But Trevelyan and the British Government were not to be shaken in their determination. A quantity of meal, rather under 3,000 tons in all, the residue of Sir Robert Peel's scheme, remained in the depots, and permission was given to distribute this to starving districts, but in the smallest possible quantities, and then only after a relief committee had been formed and a subscription raised to pay for it. No free issues whatever were to be made. Nevertheless, Commissariat officers in Ireland did give food away; a Major Wain-wright, for instance, was detected in giving a quantity of meal to starving persons in Oughterard, County Galway, early in August, and was reprimanded from Whitehall.

Closing the public works was even more difficult. The Treasury minute of July 21, 1846, directing all works to be closed, except in certain unusual cases, had had little effect; on the excuse that works were not finished, or that extraordinary distress existed in the neighbourhood, a large number continued. The Chancellor of the Exchequer now ordered that all undertakings must be shut down on August 8, irrespective of whether or not they were completed and of the distress in the district.

Angry demonstrations followed. In Limerick, on August 5, on being told their employment was to end, labourers tore up the stretch of road they had just laid; in Cork, about August 18, a mob of 400 labourers, declaring they were starving, marched into the town carrying their spades and demanding work; however, they dispersed 'quietly', on being addressed by the Sub-Inspector of Police, who added a note to his report that 'employment is very much needed'. Bodies of starving, workless labourers marched into Dungarvan, Clogher and Macroom, and the Poor Law Guardians of Bandon, 'expecting a visit from a mob demanding employment', asked for Government protection.

Suffering was so painful and widespread that by order of the Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Bessborough, all uncompleted works were re-started on September 6. 


The unfortunate Board of Works thus received a double task, to get the works of last season going again and to set up an organization capable of meeting the demands which would follow the first presentment sessions to be held under the new Act, in September. Staff was wanting, office space in Dublin was wanting, the interval for reorganization did not occur, and even before the new scheme began the Board of Works was in confusion.

Mr. Richard Griffith and Mr. Thomas Larcom were appointed, by Act of Parliament, special Commissioners, to supervise relief works, and two better men could not have been found; Mr. Griffith had pushed through a scheme which fixed the value of land throughout Ireland; Captain Larcom had played a large part in the Ordnance Survey and had been a Census Commissioner in 1841. The Freeman's Journal, however, remarked that, whatever their attainments and aptitudes, they could not possibly get through 'all that was heaped upon them'.

Extra office accommodation for the new Commissioners was not provided, and the offices of the Board in Dublin were crammed to bursting point. Desks stood in corridors, 'in every available place where there was light for a clerk to see', and corridors and passages were further 'blocked with deputations and expectants for office'.

Trevelyan was asked, on September 17, to sanction the addition of an extra storey to the Board of Works' building, at a cost of £905 4s., and refused.

'A stranger can form no idea!' wrote Colonel Jones. 'Instead of the quiet of a well regulated London office, ours resembles a great bazaar.'


Meanwhile, from London, Trevelyan, toiling to produce order and method, sent directions and requests for information which must have arrived in the 'great bazaar' of the Board of Works' office like messages from another world.

On August 26, for instance, he directed Colonel Jones to submit 'a sketch map of Ireland showing the number of separate works and the total ... in each Barony, and distinguishing improvements of roads, etc., and their cost from new roads and their cost, and also stating the number and amount of works of each of the two above descriptions which have been discontinued, that is the number sanctioned and not commenced, the number commenced and stopped, and the amount which has been saved by each of these proceedings.'

No answer appears to have been received, and in any case a few days later the information would have been useless. The Labour Rate Act received the Royal Assent on August 28. Presentment Sessions, under the Act, began on September 4, and applications immediately poured into the Board of Works in numbers exceeding the worst expectations. Last year's history repeated itself on an immensely larger scale, and the Board of Works was again swamped.

The object of the Labour Rate Act was to force Irish landlords to pay for the relief of their distressed tenantry. Since they had failed to do their duty voluntarily, they were to be compelled: under the new Act, there could be no evading payment of the rate to be levied. 'The backwardness of the landlords has made compulsory measures inevitable,' Trevelyan wrote to Stephen Spring Rice, Lord Mont-eagle's son, on September 2.


Trevelyan was further convinced that because, under the Labour Rate Act, the whole of the money advanced had to be repaid by the district in which it was spent, the scramble of last year would not take place and property owners would think twice before sending distressed labourers in droves to the works, when the result would be that they incurred a mountain of debt.


Yet there was a possibility which the Government had not considered. How would the Labour Rate Act operate if the landlords did not possess sufficient funds to pay the rate for relief works assessed on them? Trevelyan, however, chose to believe as firmly in the financial resources of Irish landlords as in the capacity of Irish private enterprise; and the only direct contribution Government proposed to make was the £50,000 advanced, under the Labour Rate Act, to districts so poor that it was impossible advances should ever be repaid.


Fifty thousand pounds to save a starving people! exclaimed Archbishop MacHale, and he reminded Lord John Russell that although twenty million pounds of public money were spent by England to emancipate the Negroes of the West Indies, £50,000 was all that was to be allotted to save Ireland from death.


Irish landlords considered they had been disgracefully treated by the British Government over the Labour Rate Act—it was pushed through and became law before they realized what was taking place. Stephen Spring Rice, Lord Monteagle's son, wrote that 'the Irish gentry were taken by surprise'. The Act 'was not introduced until the middle of August 1846, and was hurried through in ten days, after almost all the Irish Members had left London'. 'It is enough to make a man turn Repealer,' he told Trevelyan angrily, 'to have such a measure hurried through Parliament ... without giving us an opportunity to be heard'; while Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary and an Irish landlord, observed that if the Act was to remain in force for any length of time 'the landlords will in the end be as well qualified as their cottiers to demand admission into a Union [Work] House'.


The Labour Rate Act, however, contained a fatal and most alluring provision—no money had to be found immediately. In 1845, landlords who assumed half the cost of a work undertook a considerable personal responsibility, even though the other half was a free grant. This year, under the Labour Rate Act, personal responsibility was removed and the liability spread over all ratepayers in a district. No man felt the debt would fall on him; if he could not pay, someone else would, and repayment was in any case ten years away. The result of the Act was the direct opposite to Trevelyan's expectation, and there was an orgy of wild extravagance. 'Large sums are voted at baronial sessions, as if there were no such thing as repayment in the memory of the ratepayers,' reported The Times, on September 22, 1846.

Presentment Sessions were held in public, to prevent property owners from evading their obligations; any person might attend and any person might put forward proposals for works. From these the most suitable were selected by what, in effect, was a committee of ratepayers and submitted to the Board of Works; and to make certain that adequate relief works were provided the Act required the ratepayers to select works large enough to employ all the distressed in the district.


The consequence, however, of admitting the public was chaos. 'All persons,' wrote Mr. Stephen Spring Rice, 'had a right to attend and make proposals without stint, mobs beset, and crowded the session-houses until there was scarcely space to sit or air to breathe. Hundreds of proposals, drawn up by illiterate and interested persons —labourers, petty farmers or whiskey sellers—were thrust before the persons appointed to preside, and supported by threats within doors and sometimes by violence without.


At a typical session, held at Kilfinan, Coshlea, County Limerick, Lieutenant Inglis, of the Board of Works, reported on September 20 that 'all was riot and confusion. Sums were named without any regard whatever to the nature and extent of the work ... Everything was approved. No one dared oppose ... During this, the riot both inside and outside the court became more and more violent, and the confusion on the Bench became more and more confused. At length we left and passed with difficulty through the crowd to a neighbouring hotel'. At a township named Hospital, near Ennis, on September 30, a Board of Works' officer, Mr. Kearney, was 'hunted like a mad dog by the whole country population'. It was believed by the people that Mr. Kearney was preventing works being started in the district, and they were, he wrote, 'in a fury'. Police had to interfere, 'with loaded carbines', before he could drive off in his gig, 'under awful groaning and pelting of stones ... Several hundred disencumbering themselves of their coats, shoes and stockings ... followed me for 4 miles, but thanks to a good horse I got off with my life'.


Even at Shanagolden, County Limerick, where the landlord, Lord Monteagle, was one of the best in Ireland, the Sessions were, wrote Monteagle to Charles Wood, on October 4, 'tumultuous'. On the one hand, some ratepayers were 'prepared to pass anything up to the Board of Works for the sake of peace and quietness ... others were encouraging a lavish expenditure in the hope that repayment will be rendered improbable if not impossible'. On October 7 he described to Trevelyan a 'presentment session in the midst of a crowd of hungry peasants and eager farmers to give consideration to no less than 200 projects'. Deliberation and discussion were impossible, and on the advice of the Board of Works' Inspector the whole 200 proposals were sent up to the Board of Works in Dublin. Though the rates collected, annually, for all purposes in the district amounted only to £34,303, the proposed works would cost £53,000.

What the Dublin Evening Mail described as a 'delirium of presentments', and The Times as 'presentment mania', took place. Poverty-stricken Mayo, with a total annual rateable value of only £293,282, presented, within a month, works to cost £403,466; in about the same period the County of Cork, containing some of the poorest and most distressed districts in Ireland, asked for £600,000, while turbulent, half-starving Clare in six Presentment Sessions demanded £300,000. A total of more than a million and a half pounds worth of works was sent forward in the first month.


Panic had seized the country, and the people clutched wildly at public works as their only hope of staying alive. On September 5, the day after the Presentment Sessions began, Colonel Jones told Trevelyan that 'dismay appears to have taken possession of men's minds'; those who were 'optimistic in 1845 are despairing now', and Trevelyan himself wrote, 'The general failure of the potato spread despondency and alarm from one end of Ireland to the other.'

Presentments, however, enormous though they might be, did not produce wages; and while the Board of Works, on receiving proposals, was very ready to send forms and requisitions for further information, the operation of the Act then stopped dead.

It was impossible for a staff which, up to September 30, consisted of only 24 county surveyors, 15 engineers in charge, 39 assistant engineers and 36 inspecting officers to examine, sift and establish works out of a total of a million and a half pounds worth of applications.


'The utter inadequacy of the Government measures,' wrote a resident of Skibbereen, was 'impossible to describe.' All the Government had done was to send a printed circular, requiring names of all families, number in each family, whether large families or small families, and the names of all persons requiring employment on the public works. How was this information to be obtained? It would not be worth while to collect it. What use were a few relief committees 'in a corner here and there' to deal with the sufferings of 'hundreds, thousands, nay millions of starving people ... I defy anyone to exaggerate the misery of the people ... it is impossible ... Whatever is done by Government or Public Works will be too late, after people have been driven to desperation by hunger. The whole country is nothing but a slumbering volcano. It will soon burst.'


On September 5, Sir James Dombrain, Inspector-General of the Coastguard Service, informed Routh that his officers had found it necessary to make free issues of meal. The coastguards and Sir James Dombrain were not popular in Whitehall, and Trevelyan had directed that this year they were to be employed only for transporting supplies in their cutters. However, coastguard officers, making tours of inspection in the Killeries, Clifden and Ballinakill, remote districts in the far west, had found the people apparently dying, owing, said the local dispensary doctor, to a 'total absence of food'. Upon this, Sir James Dombrain decided that 'people must not be allowed to starve', and in the circumstances 'Her Majesty's Government would justify the issue of small quantities of food on certificates of the Dispensary Surgeon', and free issues were then made. He was, he admitted, 'quite unprepared-for the quantity thus issued, though in every case on doctor's certificate'—it amounted to as much as 11,663 pounds.


For this action Sir James received a public and severe rebuke, in a Treasury minute. He had no authority, he was informed, to give meal away free. His proper course would have been to call upon the leading persons in each distressed locality to form themselves into a relief committee, and raise a fund by private contribution, which might possibly be increased later by a Government donation. On September 18 Sir James replied, shortly, 'No Committee could have been formed. There was no one within many miles who could have contributed one shilling ... The people were actually dying.'


At Lochrus, near Adara, the people had been starving from August 25 onwards; the district was mountainous, no grain was ever grown and the only food was potatoes, which were entirely lost. Mr. Moore, a coastguard officer, managed to obtain some meal from Sligo, but only enough for one-third of the people. 'Never saw anything like it,' he wrote, 'and I hope I never will. People came 18 miles for a little meal, which I could not give, 14 tons, all but one bag, went in a day.' Unless the Government sent a supply of food the people must inevitably die of starvation.


In Longford, on August 20, not 'a loaf of bread or half a cwt. of meal' was to be obtained, even from a meal-merchant; and on September 5 The Times reported 'people hunting up and down Longford with money in their pockets looking for food'. In neighbouring Roscommon the people were getting out of hand; Lord de Freyne, a large landowner, had been hanged in effigy opposite the hall door of his mansion, Frenchpark; and the O'Conor Don wrote urgently to Routh, on September 7, telling him that destitution in Roscommon was fearful and that supplies of food must be sent at once. The letter was sent on to Trevelyan, who saw a chance to get rid of some of the unwanted biscuit, which had been in store since 1843. He wrote by return, pointing out to Routh that the destitution in Roscommon was the right kind of opportunity to transfer the broken biscuit from military stores; his letter contained no other comment or suggestion.


The British Government was not prepared to supply food but very ready to call out troops. On August 28, for instance, the people of starving Longford were 'made angry' by two troops of Dragoons galloping through the town, to 'repel a hunger movement of the people' in Roscommon. The hunger movement consisted of 200 to 300 starving men, marching to make a protest at Lord Crofton's seat, Mote Park.


Protests, however, were few and violence rare; the general feeling was despair. Fear of famine was in the Irish people's blood; only too clearly they realized that they were helpless before the fate overtaking them, and turned blindly to those in authority for salvation.

'The subjection of the masses,' wrote Captain Perceval, the Commissariat officer at Westport, County Mayo, was 'extraordinary'. On August 31 a 'large and orderly body of people', including 'many respectable persons', marched, in fours, through Westport to Westport House and asked to see Lord Sligo. When Lord Sligo came out, someone cried 'Kneel, kneel!' and the crowd dropped on its knees before him. The state of Westport, Captain Perceval had already reported to be 'indescribable'; it was 'a nest of fever and vermin.'


Nothing was done; nothing could be done. An unforeseen situation was upsetting the plans of the Government; 1846 was a year of general shortage in Europe, and not only were the expected imports of food into Ireland not arriving, but the British Government was experiencing difficulty in securing any supplies at all.