THE IRISH POTATO FAMINE #8
THE TERRIBLE WINTER AND SO DISASTER
THE winter in Ireland of 1846-47 was 'the most severe in living memory', and the longest. Snow fell early in November; frost was continuous; icy gales blew 'perfect hurricanes of snow, hail and sleet', with a force unknown since the famous 'great wind' of 1839; roads were impassable and transport was brought to a standstill.
The prevailing wind in Ireland is a west wind, and though the approach of winter is usually heralded by a gale blowing up out of the Atlantic, it is mild in spite of its force. But in the autumn and winter of 1846-47 the wind came from the north-east—it had blown across Russia, and it was icy. The whole continent of Europe that winter was gripped by bitter cold, and in England, by the middle of December, the Thames was a mass of floating ice.
To the Irish people the abnormal severity of the winter brought disaster. One of the compensations of the nineteenth-century Irish peasant's life was warmth. The climate was normally mild and the possession of a supply of turf, that is peat, almost universal; a turf fire burned in the Irish cabin night and day, and in normal times did not go out perhaps for a century. Since potatoes do not require cultivation during the winter the Irish peasant was not forced to go out in bad weather; he spent the cold, wet days indoors, and though he was dressed in rags and his children were naked, except for a single garment, they endured little hardship.
Now he must go out in his rags to labour on the public works, be drenched with rain and driving snow and cut by icy gales; and, more often than not, he was already starving. Labourers began to 'faint with exhaustion', and a Board of Works' engineer told Trevelyan that as an engineer he was ashamed of allotting so little task-work for a day's wages, while as a man he was ashamed of requiring so much. After the end of November Routh's reports contained a rapidly-increasing number of cases of deaths on the works from starvation, aggravated by exposure to cold, snow and drenching rain.
They people came bewildered of what was happening; at this period Irish was spoken in rural districts and English barely understood, while in the west English was not understood at all. No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, Government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt; the wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English distrust and dislike of the native Irish. 'Everything has been tried but a little sympathy and kindness,' declared an eye-witness on December 2, 1846; and Trevelyan reproved Routh for the 'unnecessary harshness of manner' reported to be used by Government officials towards the poor.
Bewilderment was succeeded by panic, the unreasoning terror which makes animals stampede and which, a little later, brought about headlong flight from Ireland in the famine emigration.
The first to succumb were the poorest of all, the 'squatters', who had put up a hut of sods in a bog, or on the seashore, for the sake of seaweed for potato manure. These unfortunate creatures had never had any other means of existence but their small crop of potatoes, and with the potatoes lost they abandoned their hovels and descended on the towns in droves. Five thousand beggars roamed the streets of Cork; Oranmore, in Galway, had 'hundreds of poor creatures wandering about'; complaints from Thurles in Tipperary reached the Lord-Lieutenant that a 'vast population' had 'poured in from the surrounding country, half are starving'. These unhappy beings slept in ditches and in doorways, begged, and were driven away and, wrote Father Mathew on December 16, in Cork alone died at the rate of one hundred a week.
Fear hung over Ireland like a cloud. 'There is an undefined notion that something Very terrible is going to take place soon,' wrote Colonel Jones to Trevelyan.
Meanwhile, the numbers employed on the public works leapt upwards with frightening rapidity; 30,135 in September, 150,259 in October, 285,817 in November; and the Board of Works, hopelessly understaffed, was utterly unable to deal with such numbers. Only 4,021 overseers and stewards bad been found to arrange and supervise the work of nearly 286,000 labourers on works all over Ireland, and they were, frequently, men of low intelligence, quite incapable of assessing piece-work. In Leitrim, one case out of dozens, 150 men were without work for three weeks because no one could be found capable of measuring tasks, and as well as being stupid many of these men were untrustworthy. 'It is universally reported' that the officials 'are dishonest and unfair to the poor people,' wrote a Board of Works' inspector from Roscommon.
By the end of November task-work as originally planned had been abandoned. 'The incompetency of the Board of Works' subordinate officials makes task-work impossible'; and the only tasks allotted were breaking a certain quantity of stones. 'It requires a certain talent to measure out work of a higher class,' wrote Routh. The struggle to establish that system which, Trevelyan said, 'nearly led to a dissolution of society in some districts', had been in vain.
Far more serious than the abandonment of task-work was a change which had taken place in the type of labour employed. The original plan, laid down in Whitehall, was to employ able-bodied men and to exact a fair day's work for a day's wage; but because destitution was the qualification for employment it proved impossible to refuse destitute women, especially destitute widows with families. Thus by the end of October Routh was allowing relief committees to employ women on the works, mainly 'breaking stones at 4d. a day'; on the same grounds destitute 'old, feeble and very young persons were engaged'. Board of Works' officers complained that 'Relief Committees place women and children on the roads, with spades and shovels, completely unfit for work', and it was 'impossible to keep within estimates' if such labour was employed.
The presence of hordes of wretched, half-starved women and children, totally unfit for manual labour, ended any hope of discipline; on the works the mobs of labourers began to get out of hand, and irregularities became common. For instance, the lowest kinds of drinking-dens, in wooden sheds, were hastily erected, the magistrates, Father Mathew told Trevelyan, 'with culpable facility', granting licences for the sale of liquor whenever works were begun.
Overseers and pay clerks paid out wages in these 'pestiferous erections', and even had a financial interest in them. In one ease the local publican was a member of the relief committee, and would recommend a man for the works only on condition that he spent part of what he earned in the drinking-shop. Owing to the shortage of silver coin, gangs were paid jointly with a single note. They then had the choice of taking the note to the nearest town to be changed, and losing a day's work, or of going for change to the drinking-shop and, too frequently, remaining. Through the intervention of Father Mathew, who appealed to Trevelyan, the erection of drink-ing-shops was, to some extent, at least, forbidden.
In obtaining tickets for employment all the frauds and impositions of the previous year were repeated on an enlarged scale. Prosperous farmers got themselves put on the works, tickets were bought and sold, sometimes several times over. 'Landlords competed with each other in getting their tenants on the lists ... clergy insisted on the claims of their respective congregations.' Collusion between labourers and overseers was 'habitual', and false returns gave men task-work rates of pay without the labour. Meanwhile, free from supervision, the enormous and rapidly-increasing multitudes idled on the works, 'doing literally nothing but what they please', wrote Captain Wynne from Ennis, County Clare, on December 5.
Because farming work was neglected the prospects for next year's harvest were disastrous. On November 14 Colonel Jones of the Board of Works reported that, in the course of a journey of fifty miles, he saw 'only one plough and one man sowing'; holdings in Sligo were reported 'choked with weeds'; near Oughterard a Commissariat officer found three hundred farmers working on the public works while only two men were tilling the soil.
For this deplorable state of affairs the British Government blamed the Irish people: as Irish cottiers were notoriously idle, they preferred to do nothing on the works rather than labour on their farms. The Irish were hopelessly improvident, therefore they closed their eyes to the terrible fate which must await them if next year's harvest were lost.
The British Government did not suggest how people who were without food of any kind were to keep alive until next year's harvest while they tilled their ground. 'The people are driven to the Public Works,' wrote a Commissariat officer, 'by the utter impossibility of cultivating their own small-holdings unless assisted in doing so by a loan ... to keep them from starving in the meanwhile.' Moreover, though labourers were accused of criminally deserting the farms, the truth was that farmers were turning their labourers adrift. Hired labourers in Ireland customarily received one or two meals a day as part of their remuneration, and farmers who had paid their labourers mainly in potatoes were quite unable to produce money instead. 'The small farmer,' wrote a Commissariat officer, 'says ... owing to the total loss of his potato crop he ... has no means to feed and pay the servants he once kept.' It was true, wrote an inspector, that a 'large part of the men on the works have left the land ... the greater number however have been discharged and are bitter'.
BOARD OF WORKS AND FARMERS IN BIG TROUBLES
The lack of demand for labourers was proved when, on October 29, the Board of Works issued a circular for distribution to farmers directing them to apply to the stewards on the public works for the number of labourers they required—any man refusing to return to farm-work would be instantly discharged. No applications were received. 'Every opportunity is given to farmers of taking men from the public works but they never demand them,' reported a Board of Works' inspecting officer on November 15.
While the hired farm labourer could find no employment, the occupier of a piece of land, the small farmer, had nothing to put in it. In the extremity of hunger as the terrible winter dragged on, farmers were reported to be 'actually consuming the seed which should be sown for next year's crop'. From Tipperary, Colonel Douglas, the Board of Works' Relief Department Inspector, wrote to Routh on December 8, 'I think it incumbent on me, under a solemn sense of the truth of what I now write, to state my conviction that nobody who has not personally seen the state of matters in this country can form to himself any idea of the inevitable result of the present system ... Farmers have been grinding and consuming their own corn ... the supply of seed will be eaten for food and this is the most productive wheat country in Ireland.'
A few days later he wrote again: seed oats as well as seed corn were being consumed and 'farmers were asking, what is the good of preparing the ground when there was going to be no seed?' He implored the Government to arrange a scheme to supply seed. Throughout November and December urgent and, indeed, abject petitions to the Government for seed of any kind were forwarded to Trevelyan from all over Ireland. All were refused. '... the conclusion,' wrote Trevelyan, 'inevitably arrived at was,' that the moment it came to be understood that the Government had taken upon itself the responsibility of this delicate and peculiar branch of rural economy, the painful exertions made by private individuals ... to reserve a stock of seed would be relaxed! At the express desire of Lord Bessborough an attempt was made to buy seed rye, but it was too late; and though Erichsen was instructed to buy 5,000 quarters, 600 quarters was all he could secure, 'with the utmost exertion'. On his advice seed rye was given up, 'as the season is so far advanced', he wrote on November 3.
Some landlords, including the Duke of Manchester at Tandragee Castle, had bought seed rye privately and distributed it to their tenants, but apart from private philanthropy virtually nothing was done.
MORE PROBLEMS THAN JUST NO SEED
Shortage of seed, however, was not the sole reason why holdings lay uncultivated. The Irish small farmer knew that the landlord would have no scruple in taking possession of his harvest, even at such a time, if he owed rent.
'The land,' wrote Mr. Lowe, a Board of Works' inspector, on December 5, 'is neglected ... partly from the inability to get seed and partly from the feeling that if they do sow it the landlord will seize the crop.' The people were in anxiety over their rent; they had 'nothing left to give the landlord' and 'naturally concluded', wrote Mr. Lowe, that when they did have something he would take it.
Various schemes to end the alarming neglect of agriculture were pressed on the Government. A deputation from a 'large and respectable meeting' at Fermoy urged that smallholders, while cultivating their land, should be paid the same wage as on the public works; another, put forward by Stephen Spring Rice, proposed that labourers should be 'drafted' off the works and 'assigned' to farmers, being paid by Government at the same rate as on the works.
Trevelyan rejected all these proposals. The 'social evils which beset us on every side', he wrote to Stephen Spring Rice, were due to Government interference; for Government now to provide 'the funds required by farmers for carrying on the ordinary cultivation of the land' was to extend Government interference to a fatal extent.
The appalling results which must follow a shortage in, the following year's harvest were better appreciated in Dublin than in Whitehall, and Richard Griffith, one of the two Commissioners in charge of the Board of Works' Relief Department, worked out a scheme, termed 'family task work', which would give small farmers something to live on while they cultivated their plots; and on December 9, 1846, a circular, No. 38, announcing the scheme was issued by the Relief Department of the Board of Works. The Treasury was not consulted.
Under the plan drainage and sub-soiling (improvement of the soil), the two great necessities in Ireland, were to be executed by spade labour, thus employing the poorest class. Each man was to have a task allotted to him, estimated to require fourteen or twenty-one days; he was to dig a certain length of drain and break stones with which to construct it. His wife and family might assist him, and if he chose to work hard and finish his task in six to eight days he could collect his wages and spend the rest of the allotted time cultivating his own ground.
Circular No. 38, with its details of the plan, burst on the Treasury like a bombshell, and on behalf of the Lords of the Treasury Trevelyan wrote the Commissioners of the Board of Works a letter of majestic indignation. The circular had been issued without Treasury sanction; it had been read with great surprise by the Lords of the Treasury. 'My lords are in hopes that its circulation may hitherto have been confined to officers acting under orders of the Commissioners and that there may yet be time to withdraw it without its being publicly known ... it is quite impossible for my lords to give their sanction to parties being paid from public funds for the cultivation of their own land....' The circular was suppressed.
MORE BAD WEATHER
Meanwhile, snow had continued to fall throughout November— 'appalling aggravation of the frightful misery round me', wrote a Board of Works' relief inspector. Small farmers who had been snuggling to attempt some cultivation were now 'forced on the relief works by the severity of the weather', and an even more general rush to get tickets began. 'The whole labouring population seems to be seeking employment on the Public Works,' wrote a Board of Works' officer on November 28. That night snow was falling thickly, in the west inspections were held up and mountain roads blocked. 'From morning till night' hundreds of labourers and small farmers thronged the doors of houses where Board of Works' officials lodged, a sight 'painful in the extreme'. In Westmeath, in the once-prosperous midlands, the Board of Works' officer, Captain Maxwell, reported on December 5 that he had 'poor wretched half-clad wretches howling at the door for food'. Six hundred persons waited outside the door of Mr. Millet, the engineer, at Ennistymon, County Clare, and 'handled him roughly when he came out.' From Monaghan the Board of Works Inspector wrote that he did not think the public works could possibly cope with the enormous numbers. He was beset morning, noon and night by hundreds of applicants and 'besieged' by clergy imploring employment for their flocks.
Yet wages on the works were only a few shillings a week; l0d a day was about the average earned, and 10d a day, wrote an inspecting officer on November 28, 'will only give one meal a day to a family of six'. In the bitter weather crowds of starving, half-clothed men, women and children huddled on the works. Could not some kind of rough shelter be made of furze and stones, or screens made of old sails, asked the Board of Works' Inspector for Wicklow? For some months, if bad weather made work impossible, a day's pay was lost; however, on December 14 a circular was issued directing that half a day's wages, about 4d. or 5d., be paid when weather stopped work; but even so early morning roll-call, which frequently involved a walk, in snow and sleet, of several miles, must be attended.
NOT ENOUGH WORK
Yet so immense was the number of applicants that though the total of employed rose with dangerous rapidity only a fraction of the destitute, in badly distressed districts, could be given work. In Mayo, in November, 13,000 were employed, but 400,000 were estimated to be destitute; in Galway 3,000 out of 9,000 received tickets; in Roscrea, Tipperary, 75 per cent, of the applicants were rejected.
Even so, Colonel Jones complained that the paper-work involved was so great that inspecting officers could do nothing else, and instead of being on the works, supervising and inspecting, they were forced to spend their days in an office. 'Filling up tickets' repeatedly appears in inspecting officers' diaries as the whole of a day's activities. 'The ticket system is such a bore an I.O. can do nothing else,' wrote Captain Stirling, the Inspecting Officer for Mayo, on December 5. When a new work was opened in Galway, on December 6, it took the Inspecting Officer and two clerks from morning until 11 p.m. to make out the tickets.
PEOPLE ARM THEMSELVES
Bodies of sullen, emaciated men with spades looking for work, marching on the roads, inspired fear, and rumours began to spread that people were arming. Firearms were reported to be selling, 'to an alarming extent', in King's County; in Clare it was declared that 'every man in the country is armed'; in Tipperary even the 'lowest class now carry firearms'. A private letter written from Liverpool on December 15, and forwarded to the police, asserted that 10,000 stand of arms were known to have been purchased recently in Birmingham for Ireland, and 20,000 more had been ordered; 'What can be the cause of this frightful arming of the people ?'
A 'stand' of arms is an Anglo-Irish term denoting a single rifle or musket complete with bayonet.
WHO HAD THE GUNS
In a manuscript dated January 4, 1847, James Hack Tuke, a Quaker philanthropist who had just returned from the West, wrote, 'The subject of the "arming of the peasantry" having been ... the means of steeling so many hearts to the sufferings of the Irish; it may be well just to state that to the many questions we put upon this question we received but one answer, viz. the poor starving people are not those who buy arms, it is quite impossible that people dying with hunger or earning only 8d. and l0d. a day ... could buy them. It is the sons of our large farmers and apprentice boys and young men in the towns who are induced to buy a few fowling-pieces and pistols for amusement, it being a novelty here to possess arms, owing to the Irish Arms Bill having just expired.' The fairly well-to-do, went on Mr. Tuke, bought arms for the protection of property; the starving, even if weapons were put into their hands, had not, in his opinion, the physical power left to use them.
PUBLIC WORKS VIOLENCE
On the public works themselves, however, where tens of thousand of starving discontented men were brought together, mutinies and acts of violence were common. Men in women's clothes, and with blackened faces, were reported to be 'appearing everywhere and threatening the stewards, overseers and officers'. Employees of the Board of Works were assaulted on the works, while the labourers looked on without attempting to interfere, and gangs in disguise broke into the houses of officials, dragged them from bed, and beat them. A rule was then made that works on which an 'outrage' had occurred were to be closed down until the person or persons committing the outrage was in the hands of the authorities.
'Any officer of the Board of Works who does his duty properly incurs considerable personal danger,' reported a Board of Works' inspector; and from the turbulent district of west Clare Captain Wynne, an exceptional officer of the Board, wrote that when unpopular orders were issued 'the employees of the Board of Works resign rather than carry them into effect.'
Relief committees became intimidated. 'Such is the state of alarm in which they live' that they 'dare not do their duty for fear', wrote an inspecting officer, and the gentry were terrorized. The Inspecting Officer in Thurles wrote on December 10 that very frequently, at the same time as he received a 'strong recommendation' of a man from one of the gentry, he was also sent a private message not to attend to the recommendation, for the writer had 'dared not refuse' to give it.
RELIEF COMMITTEE MEMBERS
Under the relief scheme of 1846 the Lieutenant of the county was to nominate relief committee members, but in practice relief committees were self-constituted; '... any persons who on moderately plausible grounds made application to the Lieutenant of the County for permission to form themselves into a committee received his sanction ... all have the same end in view, viz. to gain popularity at the expense of the Public purse', wrote an inspecting officer, on December 12.
Lists from such committees, Colonel Jones told Trevelyan, were 'prepared with a desire to impose'; persons 'with stacks of corn, with stores of meal, with cows and houses' were recommended, while 'the poorest are passed over in every district'. The highly unpopular task of examining applicants and striking those who were not, in fact, destitute off the lists fell on the Board of Works' Inspector; and instead of assisting him dishonest committees violently opposed revision, sometimes refused to allow an examination at all, and implanted the idea that the Board of Works' Inspector was the enemy of the destitute.
TRANSFER OF RESENTMENT
The resentment formerly felt by the people of Ireland against the landlords was now, wrote Trevelyan, transferred to the officers of the Board of Works. 'This is the man who is starving you,' shouted the parish priest of Islandeady, pointing his finger at Captain Carey, the Board of Works' Inspector for County Mayo; all those present, he went on, should tell their friends that Captain Carey was the cause of their sufferings. It was a fact that in Islan deady distress was very great, but Captain Carey's instructions allowed him to employ only a limited number.
TURBULENT CLARE DISTRICT
One of the most turbulent districts was west Clare; 'these people are dangerous,' wrote the County Surveyor. A vast poverty-stricken population was further increased by unknown thousands of destitute 'squatters', who lived in huts on the seashore. 'All the money in the Treasury cannot meet the wants of this frightful population,' wrote the Inspecting Officer, Captain Wynne. Relief lists were dishonest, terrorization prevalent, and outrages common; 'Strong nerves are needed in the present state of west Clare society,' wrote Captain Wynne to Trevelyan. Captain Wynne, however, did possess strong nerves, and he proceeded to go through the lists name by name, striking off those who were not destitute. The reductions were made in public, accompanied by shouts and threats from an angry crowd. At Ennistymon, for instance, 'two hours were occupied reported in Dublin, mountain roads blocked, works 'everywhere' stopped; in Mayo the snow was so deep that the works could not even be seen; and from Cork the Inspecting Officer reported that 'people were dying fast'. Since no information leading to the arrest of Hennessy's assailant came in, the works at Clare Abbey remained closed, and on December 19 Captain Wynne reported that the people of Clare Abbey were starving, 'but as yet peaceably'.
However, on December 24, in bitter weather, Captain Wynne paid a visit to Clare Abbey, and that evening he wrote two urgent, personal letters, substantially the same; one to Colonel Jones of the Board of Works, the other to Trevelyan, to the effect that the works at Clare Abbey must be started again, whether Hennessy's assailant was brought to justice or not. 'I ventured through the parish this day,' he wrote, 'to ascertain the condition of the inhabitants, and, altho' a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the intensity and extent of the suffering I witnessed more especially among the women and little children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair while their children were screaming with hunger. I am a match for anything else I may meet with here, but this I cannot stand. When may we expect to resume the works? Nothing but dire necessity would make me advocate this step, feeling as I do that I thereby throw away the only armour we possess against the bullet of the assassin, but it cannot be helped.'
The works at Clare Abbey were reopened on December 28. The arrest of Hennessy's assailant does not appear to be recorded.
On December 8 the Board of Works' returns showed that 300,000 persons were employed on the works, at a monthly cost of £500,000; while in Dublin the Board itself had become, in Trevelyan's words, the centre of a colossal organization; 5,000 separate works had to be reported upon; 12,000 subordinate officers had to be superintended. The correspondence was immense; on November 30, 2,000 letters were received and on December 12, 2,500. A member of the Board wrote that the period, '.... looking back on it ... appears to me not a succession of weeks and days, but one long continuous day, with occasional intervals of nightmare sleep. Rest one could never have, night nor day, when one felt that every minute lost a score of men might die'.
It is not easy to understand why the British Government did not foresee what would happen; the relief scheme so recently brought to a close had already demonstrated both the extent of destitution in Ireland and the difficulty of administering a scheme of public works; and now, after the total failure of the potato, with additional hundreds of thousands made destitute, the public works became impossible to control. Trevelyan, however, was still undaunted, and on December 8 he wrote to Routh, 'We have reached an important crisis in our operations.' Future prospects were, he wrote, 'appalling', and owing to the 'neglect of all the most ordinary farming operations' the Government was shortly going to be faced with the alternative of letting the Irish starve or of feeding them out of the public purse. The numbers employed on the works must not be allowed to rise, and his solution was to tighten official control. 'We must at this stage throw all our strength into our inspecting machinery,' he wrote. Yet before the letter even reached Routh the numbers had jumped again; on December 9 they were 310,000, an increase of 10,000; next day Colonel Jones reported a further jump to 319,000. The final total for December proved to be between 450,000 and 500,000.
IRISH THOUGHT TO BE EVIL
These complications confirmed Trevelyan in his low opinion of the Irish. 'The great evil with which we have to contend,' he wrote to Colonel Jones, on December 2, is 'not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.' These feelings—held not only by Trevelyan—exercised a momentous influence on the Government's policy towards Ireland during the period of the famine now about to open.
By this time assistance for Ireland was being organized by bodies other than the British Government, and in England, Ireland and elsewhere philanthropists and humanitarians formed committees and raised subscriptions for Irish relief. The first sum was subscribed as early as April, 1846, thousands of miles away, in Calcutta, where, £14,000 was collected as soon as news of the distress, arising from the first failure of 1845, reached India. A high proportion of the Queen's troops in India was Irish, and many younger sons of Irish families served in the East India Company. Next, on September 2, 1846, an organization called the Irish Relief Association, originally formed to provide relief in the famine of 1831, was revived, ultimately collecting more than £42,000; another Irish committee, the General Central Relief Committee, was set up in Dublin on December 29, 1846, under the presidency of the Marquess of Kildare, eldest son of the Duke of Leinster, and it collected more than £63,000. 'Ladies' Work Associations were formed in England and Ireland to make clothes and knit jerseys for the destitute poor. 'It was common practice,' wrote Trevelyan, 'for ladies in England to have parishes assigned to them in Ireland, and each lady raised all she could, and made periodical remittances to the clergyman of her adopted parish, receiving accounts from him ... The self-denial necessary to support this charitable drain was carried to such an extent at Brighton and elsewhere, that the confectionery and other trades-people suffered severely in their business.' Government officials, especially in the Commissariat, wrote home to friends in England and raised small funds.
THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS BY THE QUAKERS
On November 13, 1846, an organization of historical importance was formed: the Society of Friends, the Quakers, set up the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, in Dublin, supported by a sister-committee in London.
One of the first objects of the Central Committee was to obtain 'trustworthy information respecting the real state of the more remote districts', and the members of the Society of Friends are witnesses whose integrity it is difficult to challenge. The sufferings endured by the people of Ireland during the famine, the ghastly happenings in the bogs of Erris, the mud huts of Mayo, the lanes of Skibbereen, might be dismissed as exaggeration if it were not for the calm and sober evidence of the Quakers.
The membership of the Society of Friends extended all over Ireland, and 'corresponding members', in addition to the Central Committee, were appointed in various districts; such men as Mr. Marcus Goodbody, owner of the well-known mills at Clara, King's County. In Munster, which included the badly-distressed districts of the south-west, four sub-committees of local residents were formed, but in Connaught, the most distressed province in Ireland, including Mayo, Connemara and Sligo, an effective organization was impossible, on account of the backward state of the country, the want of respectable residents and of the 'machinery' of civilized life. No organization was necessary in north-east Ulster.
Mr. William Forster, a minister in Norwich and one of the most respected members of the Quaker community in England, had been intending to visit Ireland on his own account, and he undertook the first investigation, starting on November 30, 1846. He was accompanied by James Hack Tuke, who was to be the ardent champion of Ireland for forty years, and another well-known Quaker, Joseph Crosfield, and was later joined by his son, W. E. Forster, a brilliant young man of twenty-eight. Time transformed the young man into the hated Chief Secretary, 'Buckshot' Forster, so-called because, it was alleged, he had ordered the constabulary—though for humanitarian reasons—to load with buckshot when firing into a crowd; but in 1846, he was heart and soul in sympathy with Ireland.
The Central Committee had decided to finance the establishment of soup kitchens—Quakers, and Mr. Forster in particular, had experience in managing soup kitchens for the English poor. Only persons who received no relief or inadequate relief from Government were to be helped, and the 'strictest instructions were given ... that no preference should be made in the distribution of relief on the ground of religious persuasion'.
INVESTIGATION BY MR. FOSTER
From the first Mr. Forster's investigation 'disclosed a state of destitution and suffering far exceeding that which had been at first supposed'. The public works were not saving the people from starvation, on account of the enormous rise in food prices. In West-meath, on December 1, 1846, a typical family, consisting of seven persons, was found to be living on 10d. a day; only a single member of the family had obtained employment, and to earn l0d. he had to walk 3 and 1/2 miles to work and 3 and 1/2 miles back. The sole meal that day was to be 'a small ration of oatmeal'; the day before they had had a turnip. At Carrick-on-Shannon well over a hundred persons waited outside the workhouse to apply for thirty vacancies, and a 'painful and heart-rending' scene took place, mothers imploring that two or three of their six or seven children be taken in, since it was impossible to feed them on 8d. or 10d. a day. Mr. Forster particularly noticed the children, 'like skeletons, their features sharpened with hunger and their limbs wasted, so that there was little left but bones, their hands and arms, in particular, being much emaciated, and the happy expression of infancy gone from their faces, leaving the anxious look of premature old age'. A member of the Board of Guardians remarked callously to him that the poor 'were dying like rotten sheep'; and two clergymen said that, while they were at their meals 'poor famishing wretches appear before the windows and groan in the most pitiable manner'. Throughout the country, he noted, pigs and poultry had 'entirely disappeared'.
At Stranorlar, in County Donegal, on December 12, Mr. Forster found that no public works had yet been started—many of the inhabitants were 'scarcely able to crawl'. They were existing on a little Indian meal on some days, on a little cabbage on others, and sometimes on nothing at all.
His next stop was at Dunfanaghy, and the journey was made in 'deep snow' and with 'constant storms of snow and hail'. The two younger men walked up all the hills, and finally the luggage had to be temporarily abandoned because the horse could not pull the loaded car through the snowdrifts. Dunfanaghy was without public works or any employment whatsoever; fishing was the local occupation, but the severity of the weather made it impossible for the 'wretched boats' to go out. James Hack Tuke found as many as seventeen persons living in a single hut not six feet high; the children lying on the ground on a little straw, and there was 'nothing whatever' in the hut in the shape of money or food.
Worse still was the condition of what Mr. Forster described as 'the miserable and neglected tenantry of the Marquis of Conyngfcam, an absentee proprietor who holds an immense tract of land here'. No Sessions had been held to propose public works, and no relief of any kind was given.
At each place he visited Mr. Forster offered to provide a boiler and give a donation to get a soup kitchen started, and with the exception of Castlerea the offers were gratefully accepted. At Castlerea the Catholic priest refused, because the result would be to bring the poor from the surrounding country into the town, 'by which they would be overwhelmed'.
In January 1847 W. E. Forster joined his father for about ten days, and they visited Mayo, where conditions were very bad. Westport was 'a strange and fearful sight, like what we read of in beleaguered cities, the streets crowded with gaunt wanderers...' Across the harbour, at Bundorragha, in Galway, the population 'were like walking skeletons, the men stamped with the livid mark of hunger, the children crying with pain, the women, in some of the cabins, too weak to stand ... all the sheep were gone, all the cows, all the poultry killed; only one pig left, the very dogs ... had disappeared'. At Clifden W. E. Forster was 'quickly surrounded by a mob of men and women, more like famished dogs than fellow creatures, whose figures, looks and cries all showed they were suffering the ravening agony of hunger'.
'When we entered a village,' wrote W.E., 'our first question was, how many deaths? The hunger is upon us, was everywhere the cry, and, involuntarily, we found ourselves regarding this hunger as we should an epidemic, looking upon starvation as a disease.' There was an idea in England, he wrote, 'that the accounts of the state of Ireland given in the newspapers were exaggerated, but no colouring can deepen the blackness of truth'.
FRANTIC APPEALS TO WHITEHALL
As the winter continued with unrelenting severity, frantic appeals for food poured into Whitehall from all over Ireland. Money was becoming useless in Limerick, reported Mr. Hewetson, the senior Commissariat officer—even if people had money they could find nothing to buy. From Cork on December 12 Mr. Nicholas Cummins, J.P., wrote, 'The alarming prospect cannot be exaggerated . . .' In the whole of the city and port of Cork there were only 4,000 tons of 'bread stuffs'. 'Unless great amounts reach us from other quarters, the prospect is appalling.' 'I assure you that unless something is immediately done the people must die ...' The Board of Works' Relief Inspector at Sligo told Trevelyan; 'Pray do something for them. Let me beg of you to attend to this. I cannot express their condition.' Appeals were not only from the west. In Wicklow on December 16 there were already 25,000 paupers and no food; in Monaghan public works alone could not solve the problem, there must be food.
'The distress of the wretched people is heart-rending,' wrote the Commissariat officer at Burtonport, County Donegal; 'something ought to be done for them ... there is absolutely nothing in the place for food ... It strikes the people as very unfeeling to keep corn in the stores without using it'; and Colonel Jones told Trevelyan 'a panic appears to have come over the people's minds; they are apprehensive there is not enough food in the country ... The applications to Sir Randolph Routh to open his stores, when refused, give rise to a feeling of discontent'.
Routh meanwhile, miserably conscious that his stores did not contain sufficient to make opening possible, was pressing Trevelyan, without success, for adequate supplies. 'I wish you would consider that little important word "quantity" he wrote on December 15 and 16; 'with 4,800 tons in store, I am really afraid of the result. Pray do not think me importunate or troublesome, if I repeat to you my anxiety to see a further reserve of as much more....' Trevelyan answered, irritably, 'Our purchases, as I have more than once informed you, have been carried to the utmost limit short of seriously raising the price in the London market.' Routh's anxiety was so acute that he persisted, reminding Trevelyan of the Government's pledge to feed the west. Why not purchase eight, ten or fifteen thousand tons 'to keep the pledge to the west and secure the tranquillity of the country?' he asked.
But Trevelyan had reached the conclusion that everything that could and should be done for Ireland had been done, and that any further step could only be taken at the expense of the rest of the United Kingdom. 'I deeply regret the primary and appalling evil of the insufficiency of the supplies of food in this country,' he wrote on December 22, 'but the stores we are able to procure for the western division of Ireland are insufficient even for that purpose, and how can we undertake more?' In a private letter to Routh he wrote, '... if we were to purchase for Irish use faster than we are now doing, we should commit a crying injustice to the rest of the country'.
MORE IMPLORED WITH NO RESULT
The outcome of this policy was such a tragedy as overtook the district of Skibbereen. Starvation in Skibbereen had been reported as early as September, and on December 3 two Protestant clergymen from the district, Mr. Caulfield and Mr. Townsend, crossed to London and saw Trevelyan at the Treasury. They told him the Government relief scheme was failing in Skibbereen; 'practical and influential persons of property and respectability' had not come forward to serve on the relief committee; no subscription had been raised; the committee was now in a 'state of suspension', and useless. The sole employment in Skibbereen was on the public works, but only 8d. a day was paid, which was not sufficient to feed a family; sixty to seventy persons who would otherwise die of hunger were fed daily with soup at Mr. Caulfield's house. The two clergymen implored the Government to send food. No food was sent.
On December 15 the Commissioners of the Board of Works wrote an official letter drawing the attention of the government to the extreme destitution existing in Skibbereen, upon which, on December 18, Trevelyan wrote a letter to Routh 'with reference to what is now going on in Skibbereen'. He was afraid that Routh would be persuaded to send Government supplies—because a relief committee was not operating in Skibbereen the town was not eligible for relief under the Government plan. Trevelyan reminded Routh that there were 'principles to be kept in view'. The relief committee system must be adhered to, in order to prevent a run on Government supplies and 'to draw out the resources of the country before we make our own issues'. There was, moreover, the unpleasant truth, which Trevelyan admitted by forbidding issues, but never stated, that the Govemment depots did not contain sufficient supplies to meet the demand if an attempt was made to feed the starving. Routh was ordered to 'act with firmness and be prepared to incur much obloquy, but it will be as nothing compared with the just reprehension you would rightly incur from Government and public if you were to allow your depots to become exhausted'. Finally, to protect private enterprise, Trevelyan concluded, 'We attach the highest public importance to the strict observance of our pledge not to send orders abroad, which would come into competition with our merchants and upset all their calculations.'
However, on December 15 Mr. Nicholas Cummins, the well-known magistrate of Cork, had paid a visit to Skibbereen and the surrounding district, and had been horrified by what he saw. He appears to have written to the authorities, but without result, because on December 22 he addressed a letter to the Duke of Wellington, who was an Irishman, and also sent a copy to The Times, It was published on December 24, 1846.
'My Lord Duke,' wrote Mr. Cummins, 'Without apology or preface, I presume so far to trespass on your Grace as to state to you, and by the use of your illustrious name, to present to the British public the following statement of what I have myself seen within the last three days. Having for many years been intimately connected with the western portion of the County of Cork, and possessing some small property there, I thought it right personally to investigate the truth of several lamentable accounts which had reached me, of the appalling state of misery to which that part of the country was reduced. I accordingly went on the 15th instant to Skibbereen, and to give the instance of one townland which I visited, as an example of the state of the entire coast district, I shall state simply what I there saw ... Being aware that I should have to witness scenes of frightful hunger, I provided myself with as much bread as five men could carry, and on reaching the spot I was surprised to find the wretched hamlet apparently deserted. I entered some of the hovels to ascertain the cause, and the scenes which presented themselves were such as no tongue or pen can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive;—they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe, either from famine or from fever. Their demoniac yells are still ringing in my ears, and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain. My heart sickens at the recital, but I must go on. In another case, decency would forbid what follows, but it must be told. My clothes were nearly torn off in my endeavour to escape from the throng of pestilence around, when my neckcloth was seized from behind by a grip which compelled me to turn, I found myself grasped by a woman with an infant just born in her arms and the remains of a filthy sack across her loins—the sole covering of herself and baby. The same morning the police opened a house on the adjoining lands, which was observed shut for many days, and two frozen corpses were found, lying upon the mud floor, half devoured by rats. A mother, herself in a fever, was seen the same day to drag out the corpse of her child, a girl about twelve, perfectly naked, and leave it half covered with stones. In another house, within 500 yards of the cavalry station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying unable to move, under the same cloak. One had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move either themselves or the corpse.'
These facts were confirmed by Government witnesses. Mr. Richard Inglis, a Commissariat officer, was ordered to Skibbereen on about December 17, and horrified by what he saw he sent a statement to Mr. Hewetson, the senior Commissariat officer at Limerick, who forwarded a certified copy to Trevelyan on December 21. As Mr. Inglis arrived in Skibbereen he saw three dead bodies lying in the street, and he buried them with the help of the constabulary. Deaths were occurring daily; 197 persons had died in the workhouse since November 5, and nearly 100 bodies had been found dead in the lanes or in derelict cabins, half-eaten by rats. Mr. Inglis brought with him £85, which he had collected privately, and started two soup kitchens. Major Parker, Relief Inspector of the Board of Works, estimated that about 200 people had died in Skibbereen during the last few weeks. 'A woman with a dead child in her arms was begging in the street yesterday,' he wrote on December 21, 'and the Guard of the Mail told me he saw a man and three dead children lying by the roadside ... nothing can exceed the deplorable state of this place.'
LANDLORDS TO BLAME….IN PART
Routh blamed the landlords. The proprietors of the Skibbereen district, he told Trevelyan, 'draw an annual income of £50,000'. There were twelve landowners, of whom the largest was Lord Carbery, who, Routh declared, drew £15,000 in rents; next was Sir William Wrixon-Becher, on whose estate the town of Skibbereen stood; Sir William, alleged Routh, drew £10,000, while the Reverend
Stephen Townsend, a Protestant clergyman, drew £8,000. 'Ought such destitution to prevail with such resources?' Routh inquired, but suggested no action, and, officially, the appeals for Skibbereen were answered by a Treasury minute, written on behalf of the Lords of the Treasury by Trevelyan on January 8, 1847.
'It is their Lordships' desire,' ran the minute, 'that effectual relief should be given to the inhabitants of the district in the neighbourhood of Skibbereen ... the local Relief Committees should be stimulated to the utmost possible exertion; soup kitchens should be established under the management of these Committees at such distances as will render them accessible to all the destitute inhabitants and ... liberal donations should be made by Government in aid of funds raised by local subscriptions.'
These counsels of perfection closed the discussion. Trevelyan wrote privately to Routh suggesting that Mr. Bishop, the senior Commissariat officer in west Cork, should address letters to landlords in the Skibbereen district pointing out the urgent distress existing on their estates, and urging them to contribute to relief; but no emergency supplies of food were sent to Skibbereen.
THE READER CAN SEE BY NOW THE HORRIBLE STATE OF STARVATION IN IRELAND FROM THE POTATO FAMINE, AND THE INEPT GOVERNMENT RESPONSE FROM ENGLAND. THE MUCH POLITICALIZATION, AND STONEWALLING, AND FAILURE OF PUBLIC WORK SCHEMES, WITH EVERYTHING ELSE THAT HAS BEEN BROUGHT OUT, WHEREBY THE FAMINE DISASTER CONTINUED TO TAKE ITS DEADLY TOLE UPON THE IRISH.
THE AUTHOR HAS MANY MORE CHAPTERS OF THE SAME KIND OF DETAILS, AS WE HAVE SEEN ALREADY.
I WILL THEREFORE MOVE TO HER LAST TWO CHAPTERS, AND WITH SUCH I BELIEVE THE READER, WILL HAVE SEEN THE TERRIBLE HISTORIC NIGHTMARE, OF THE IRISH POTATO FAMINE.