by  Cecil  Woodham-Smith



The spring of 1848 was cold in Ireland; throughout February there were falls of snow, and the country people believed that snow would prevent the reappearance of blight. In 1847 only a small acreage had been planted, though the potato crop had proved superb, and now potatoes were planted all over Ireland, in what Lord Clarendon described to Lord John Russell as a 'frenzy of confidence'.

Severe sacrifices were made to obtain seed potatoes: clothes, bedsteads, tables and chairs were sold, and a Poor Law inspector reported that small occupiers, 'already reduced to a state of all but pauperism, are straining every nerve to plant potatoes as largely as possible as a last desperate venture'. Potatoes were 'stuck in everywhere they could be planted and everyone's hopes were raised at the idea of a return to the old system'. Landlords looked forward to rents being paid, the people to having enough to eat. 'Please God it will be a blessed season . . . the olden times are coming back,' the Poor Law inspector was told in Kells. 'Next season, please God, we shall have potatoes as plentiful as ever,' people said in County Clare. Reports coming in to the Board of Works in Dublin estimated the amount of land put down to potatoes, compared with the previous year, as twice as much in some districts, in others three times, four times, five times, and even ten times as much. Almost no 'green crops'—cabbages, beans, carrots, kale—had been sown; an official travelling through the west saw 'green crops' only on the experimental farm of the Society of Friends, at Pontoon, County Mayo; the resident magistrate at Ballinasloe reported that the 'small farmers have abandoned attempts at any other kind of crop and have staked all they possessed or could borrow on potatoes.

Through May, and until half-way through June, the weather was favourable. A few cases of blight did appear, as early as April 15, in County Monaghan, but caused no anxiety. Cases of blight had been reported early in 1847, and the crop had proved superb. Potato blight, like typhus, was endemic in Ireland, and an odd case or two could always be found. 


But from the middle of June, 1848, the terrible story of 1846 was repeated, blow after blow. The weather changed and became continuously wet; by the middle of July the catastrophe had begun. 'We were all in the greatest spirits at the approach of plenty,' wrote Father John O'Sullivan, parish priest of Kenmare, on July 16, 'but blight has made its appearance. On the morning of the 13th, to the astonishment of everyone, the potato fields that had, on the previous evening, presented an appearance that was calculated to gladden the hearts of the most indifferent, appeared blasted, withered, blackened and, as it were, sprinkled with vitriol, and the whole country has in consequence been thrown into dismay and confusion.'

Skull, Castletown, Galway, Carlow, Parsonstown (now called Birr), Mayo, Sligo, Limerick all reported disease, 'as in 1846'. At Clifden a Poor Law official saw 'four acres blackened as if steeped in tar'. At Bantry, not a garden had escaped for nine miles, and Mr. Twisleton, the Poor Law Commissioner, noticed the characteristic 'intolerable stench'. Meanwhile, Dr. Lindley sent Trevelyan a report, 'which tells its own unpleasant story'; blight was also appearing throughout England and Scotland, 'from the Isle of Wight to Banffshire'.

Trevelyan was not greatly disturbed. 'The matter is awfully serious,' he wrote, on July 19, 'but we are in the hands of Providence, without a possibility of averting the catastrophe, if it is to happen; we can only await the result.' He refused to be alarmed, and on July 25 noted in a memorandum, 'I have read today and yesterday numerous answers to circulars addressed by the Poor Law Commissioners to their Inspectors about the potato disease, and the general result is that, although blight has appeared in many places, it has not done much damage as yet . . . The accounts from the South and West of England are worse than from Ireland'.

At the end of July a report from Dr. Lindley showed that almost every district in Ireland was affected. This was the week when William Smith O'Brien was out trying to raise the country, but, said Colonel Jones, of the Board of Works, the people were not interested in sedition, they were too intent on watching their potatoes. Through August, rain fell 'in one continuous cataract', 'incessantly night and day'; hay was 'actually floating'; 'torrents' descended, 'as bad as 1846'. Blight, as in 1846, made rapid progress, and on August 8 Father Mathew wrote to Trevelyan that the worst fears had been realized and the potato crop was all but destroyed, while Lord John Russell told Clarendon he was 'lost in despair about the potatoes ... we must prepare for a calamitous winter'.

At the end of the second week in August Dr. Lindley warned Trevelyan, 'an Irish famine in 1848 - is, I think, inevitable.' Wheat and corn crops were poor, wet weather had produced maggot, and 'Hessian fly', had caused the wheat to sprout on the stalk and produced 'smut' in the oats; in the second week of September it was estimated that half the wheat crop was lost. By October, as in 1846, the fungus of phytopthera infestans was reducing potatoes, apparently sound when dug, to a stinking mass of rottenness in a few days; in many districts 'no portion of the crop remained for the people's food', and Lord Clarendon told Prince Albert that he looked forward to the winter 'with perfect dismay'; he was afraid that 'a great pan of the population must die of absolute want'. The failure of the potato crop in 1848 was as complete as in 1846, and coming as it did upon a people already impoverished and enfeebled by distress, the results must be even more disastrous.

Even before the crushing blow of the new potato failure, the condition of the people, in those parts of Ireland which depended on the potato, was worse than in the previous year. The excellent yield in 1847 did not help them because an inadequate acreage was planted, and in addition to the acute shortage of potatoes, distress this summer was increased for two reasons. In May, 1848, the 'Quarter acre clause', which had forbidden relief to any member of a family while the head of that family remained in possession of a quarter of an acre or more of land, was relaxed, and relief to the destitute wife and dependent children of a man holding a quarter of an acre or more was permitted. The decision was based on an opinion given by Air. Henn, Q.C., in which the Irish Attorney-General concurred, but Trevelyan wrote, 'I think this is a very doubtful measure'; he was in favour of 'making the applicant for relief give up everything'. An eye-witness testified that 'many lives were saved, which would certainly otherwise have been lost'.


Far more numerous were the applications for relief, the result of a sharp increase in evictions due to the liability of the landlord for rate on holdings rated at £4 and under, whether the rent was paid or not. The Earl of Clancarty, giving evidence before the Select Committee on the Irish Poor Law, stated that a landlord might be without any rent for years and still pay rates on the holdings valued at £4 and under. 'It is absurd to suppose,' said Lord Clancarty, 'that the landlord should be compelled to pay where he has not the power of receiving. He will, of course, get rid of that class of tenantry. He will not pay £500 a year in rates for tenants from whom he receives no rent. He will direct an ejectment... and the tenants will be turned out. It is forced on the landlord by the £4 clause.'

With good intentions towards his tenantry, a landlord found it difficult to avoid clearance. The Marquess of Sligo was twenty-eight years of age and, according to The Times, was in receipt of £7,200 a year from his estate in Westport, on which, however, there were charges of £6,000 annually. He had been active in relief work, had twice supported the insolvent Westport workhouse for a period at his own expense, and since the famine kept 'no establishment, not even a carriage'. On October 8,1848, he wrote to Lord Monteagle that he had 'struggled hard not to eject', but was now being forced to do so. He had received no rent for three years, had had to borrow £1,500 to pay the rates, and now found himself 'under the necessity of ejecting or being ejected . . .' 'The landlords,' wrote Lord Clanricarde, a large Irish landowner, to Clarendon, 'are prevented from aiding or tolerating poor tenants. They are compelled to hunt out all such, to save their property from the £4 clause;' and since the majority of smallholders in Ireland were tenants at will, the landlord was able to get rid of them when he chose.


In the spring of 1848 Captain Kennedy, the able temporary Poor Law Inspector in County Clare, reported 'An immense number of small land holders are under ejectment or notice to quit, even when the rents have been paid up, the universal and minute sub-division of land may make this necessary, but the immediate effect must be disastrous'. In February 120 houses were 'tumbled' in the townland of Moyarta, about the same number in Carrigaholt, and 575 families were turned out on the world. The 'few respectable residents' were helpless. The following month 200 houses were 'tumbled' on an adjacent estate and the dispossessed occupiers, 'wretched, houseless, helpless', were wandering about the country, 'scattering disease, destitution and dismay in all directions ... the most awful cases of destitution and suffering ever seen. When the houses are torn down, people live in banks and ditches like animals, until starvation or weather drives them to the workhouse. Three cartloads, who could not walk, were brought in yesterday'.

At the end of March, cabins were being thrown down in all directions, and the workhouse at Kilrush was full. 'I cannot think where the evicted find shelter,' Captain Kennedy jotted down in his diary. A thousand cabins had been levelled in three months.

On April 13, at the request of the Poor Law Commissioners, Captain Kennedy sent in a report on oath. 'The great mass are tenants at will, and dare not resist'; many evicted in County Clare had taken refuge in 'bog dens', holes in the living bog roofed over with sods. 'Several of these wretched dens,' which contained sick persons, 'were without light or air and I was obliged to light a piece of bog fir to see where the sick lay, while many good substantial houses lay in ruins round them. Whatever future good these clearances may effect, they are productive of a present amount of suffering and mortality which would scare the proprietors were they to see it.' The evicted were dazed; they 'don't know where to face, linger about localities for weeks or months burrowing in ditches or among the rafters of their former dwellings ... the poor are hunted off land, when perhaps they have never been five miles away'.


The second complete failure of the potato fell on a people already ruined; and not only were they ruined but the landlords were plunged still more deeply into insolvency. It was one of the peculiarities of Irish law that for a bankrupt landlord to sell his estate was extremely difficult; mortgages and loans in Ireland were raised, not on separate items of property, a farm, a piece of woodland, a mill, but on the whole estate, and a property could not be transferred to a new owner until all encumbrances and debts had been satisfied. A large part of Irish land was thus practically unsaleable, an insolvent owner was unable to get rid of his property, and his tenants suffered. In the summer of 1848 an attempt was made to facilitate the sale of estates burdened by debts by passing an Act under which a sale might be effected with the authority of the Court of Chancery, or an estate might be sold and the money paid into the Court of Chancery and distributed by it among persons with a claim. It proved useless. Owing to the immensely slow procedure of the Court of Chancery, delays could extend to five years, and purchasers did not come forward. In the coming crisis the ruined landlord must continue to hold his property, and his tenantry must pay the price.

On August 13 John Russell wrote to Charles Wood, 'Clarendon in his letter today asks what we propose to do in the event of a deficiency (almost certain) of the potato crop'. The answer was, as little as was conceivably possible. Generosity was hardly to be expected after the attempted insurrection and the denunciations of the 'thrice accursed British Empire'. As John Russell warned Clarendon, 'The course of English benevolence is frozen by insult, calumny and rebellion', and The Times, reporting the potato failure, remarked that the frame of mind created by the recent attempt at insurrection was 'not a good atmosphere for compassion for Ireland'. In a leading article on August 30 The Times declared, 'In no other country have men talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging for sympathy from their oppressors. In no other country have the people been so liberally and unthriftily helped by the nation they denounced and defied, and in none have they repeated more humble and piteous supplications to those whom they have previously repaid with monstrous ingratitude. As a matter of state economy, some relief will be given to Ireland, in case she needs it, but we warn her that such relief will not be carried to the extent, or dealt forth, after the measure of former years.'

Mitchel's wild boasts and insults and the folly of the insurrection were now to be paid for by the helpless victims of the new potato failure, and when Clarendon pressed for food supplies and relief plans, Lord John Russell told him, 'Neither assistance from public works nor a general system of rations are to be looked to for any large portion of relief,' repeating, in a second letter, that it was 'impossible for the Government to do much to relieve distress'.

Eight million pounds, wrote Lord John, had been advanced, after the failure of 1846, 'to enable the Irish to supply the loss of the potato crop and to cast about them for some less precarious food. The result has been that they have placed more dependence on the potato than ever, and have again, been deceived. How can such a people be assisted? No one in their senses would think of repeating the outlay to lead to a similar improvidence'.

The fact that the Government had refused to supply seed, to enable the people to grow some crop other than the potato, was forgotten. Trevelyan was already determined on ruthless economy. The £160,000 which the British Association had agreed to spend on distressed unions was melting away; by May 28, some months before the potato failed, the Association's agent, Count Strzelecki, was giving out £13,000 a week, and the sum increased each week. 'Terrible,' wrote Routh, 'the funds would soon run out.' On the same date the distressed unions, with a population of half-starved paupers, already owed almost £264,000; a very large sum of rates was in arrear, and it was useless to attempt collection. Twisleton told Trevelyan that a number of unions would soon be asking for loans, and in a crushing reply Trevelyan told him there would be no loans. 'I hasten to remark,' he wrote, 'that you appear to contemplate a much more extensive system of assistance to the unions than the government has any idea of according…' Nothing was to be advanced out of public funds; '... the assistance given by the Treasury will be in the form of grants, which should be doled out in the proportions absolutely necessary to enable the worst class of distressed union to feed the paupers dependent on them until harvest ... and a detailed report should be made to the Treasury of the circumstances of every such case previously to any assistance ... I have thought it right,' concluded Trevelyan, 'to state clearly what is intended without loss of time, for half the embarrassments which take place are for want of knowing beforehand the wishes and intentions of the Government.'

On July 1 the funds of the British Association were exhausted, and their help ceased. Two hundred thousand children were being fed by the Association, and Lord John Russell promised that this relief should continue; '. . . the government will take up the charge when the British Association lays it down,' he wrote.

At the end of August the Commissariat left Ireland, and this time for good. Though the potato failure was now all but certain, Trevelyan decided that 'Commissariat operations ought to be discontinued even if the potato does fail'; by August 31 final reports had been submitted and the Commissariat relief service in Ireland was over.

One after another, familiar figures disappeared. Sir Randolph Routh left Dublin for London and wrote to Trevelyan from Bangor, North Wales, that he did not find the Welsh as handsome a race as the Irish, though, he remarked, Irish women were 'passionless'. Mr. Dobree, who had been Commissariat officer at Sligo, went to clear up at Dublin Castle. Captain Mann left Kilrush for Plymouth, 'disappointed because he has not been promoted', wrote Routh. On September 12, Count Strzelecki, a good friend to Ireland, left Dublin, refusing any payment for his services. 'I never could justify myself to my inner tribunal if I were to take money for what I have gone through,' he told Twisleton.

Ireland was left to face a winter of total failure, bankruptcy and starvation, supported only by the Treasury, the Poor Law, and some help from the Society of Friends. 

The armies of starving half-naked paupers in the distressed unions were almost overwhelming; nine-tenths of the population of Clifden, for instance, were receiving outdoor relief, and more than forty thousand persons in Ballina; in Castlebar, where the Poor Law organization had collapsed, not a single entry was made in the Guardians' minute book between March 13, 1848, and May 25, 1850, the applications were equal in number to the entire population of the union.


After the second potato failure, it was hopeless to expect rents to be collected in the west and south-west, and more ruthless clearances resulted. In Kilrush Union, County Clare, Captain Kennedy wrote that by November 7, 1848, the evicted were 'swarming all over the union, living in temporary sheds, unfit for human occupation, from which they are daily driven by the inclement weather'. Huts were made by roofing ditches with boughs and sods, or leaning sticks against walls and covering them with turf and furze, and here whole families huddled for shelter.

Between August and December 1848 in the Kilrush Union alone 6,090 persons had been evicted; by January 22, 1849, 880 more had been evicted, nearly 7,000 in less than six months and evictions were continuing at the rate of 150 persons a week.

The evictions in Kilrush were duplicated all over the west. 

Sir William Butler describes an eviction and a 'tumbling' which he witnessed as a boy in Tipperary: 'The sheriff, a strong force of police, and above all the crowbar brigade, a body composed of the lowest and most debauched ruffians, were present. At a signal from the sheriff the work began. The miserable inmates of the cabins were dragged out upon the road; the thatched roofs were torn down and the earthen walls battered in by crowbars (practice had made these scoundrels adepts in their trade); the screaming women, the half-naked children, the paralysed grandmother and the tottering grandfather were hauled out. It was a sight I have never forgotten. I was twelve years old at the time, but I think if a loaded gun had been put into my hands I would have fired into that crowd of villains as they plied their horrible trade.' 'The winter of 1848-9,' he goes on, 'dwells in my memory as one long night of sorrow.'

Many years later Captain Kennedy, by then Sir Arthur Kennedy, C.B., was staying with Lord Carnarvon at Highclere Castle. 'One day,' writes a fellow guest, 'the conversation turned upon Ireland and the Irish famine ...' Turning full towards his host, Kennedy said, 'I can tell you, my Lord, that there were days in that western country when I came back from some scene of eviction so maddened by the sights of hunger and misery I had seen in the day's work, that I felt disposed to take the gun from behind my door and shoot the first landlord I met.'

In July Twisleton had told Trevelyan that the Poor Law would have to find a minimum of £12,000 a week for grants to distressed unions and £2,700 to feed the children, and that in the distressed unions no rate 'worth mention' could be collected for several months. On September 14, however, Trevelyan sent a letter to the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland, informing them the Treasury had decided that a 5s. rate was to be collected. Referring to the total failure of the potato, he wrote that extensive relief would probably be required during the coming season, and that the Lords of the Treasury could not sanction 'a smaller rate than will be needed for the Poor Law expenditure ...' Twisleton wrote back a furious letter. To collect a 5s. rate was 'morally and physically impossible'. There was universal opposition from the magistrates, and from all the Government officials in Dublin.

Twisleton and Trevelyan were not on good terms. Twisleton sent angry letters to Trevelyan, asking him to observe 'the usual official procedure' and give explanations before he cast 'slurs' on the Irish Poor Law Commission, and Trevelyan harried Twisleton, as he had harried Colonel Jones of the Board of Works, requiring detailed information, analyses and returns to be sent to the Treasury when the Irish Poor Law Commission was overwhelmed with work. 'A heavy and most complicated task,' wrote Twisleton of a request for analysed acconnts. 'The gentlemen of the Statistical Department were up all night as well as Sunday,' but 'The Statistical Department ... found themselves beaten by the work'.

The alliance between Trevelyan and Charles Wood had become closer, and Sir Charles now sent Trevelyan jovial little notes scribbled in his own hand and signed with his initials. On September 14, 1848, for instance, ridiculing a scheme, organized by Lord Clarendon, to send agricultural instructors round Ireland, he wrote, 'Clarendon seems fond of his hobby, and if the Irish are grateful for them, it is more than they are for anything else. C.W.'

Clarendon, meanwhile, complained to Sir Charles Wood that the Treasury would not give a 'civil answer' and 'won't listen'. Above all he implored Wood to fix a rate at 3s., not 5s. To collect a 5s. rate was utterly impossible now that the potato had failed again. This, wrote Clarendon, was Twisleton's opinion, and Redington's opinion and his own opinion. Making an almost frantic appeal to Lord John Russell, Clarendon urged that famine was approaching and that at the prospect of such taxation 'the people will be rendered desperate and abscond'.

For once, Charles Wood and Trevelyan were defeated. On September 16, 1848, Trevelyan wrote to Charles Wood, 'These letters from Twisleton ... show clearly what the Irish Poor Law Commissioners are about ... they have taken upon themselves, without our leave but with the connivance, I suspect, of Lord John and Lord Clarendon, to reduce the maximum rate from 5s to 3s.'

Rumours of the 5s. rate had already 'spread terror' among farmers. Mr. Richard Bourke, permanent Poor Law inspector of ten unions in Mayo and Galway, reported a 'panic'. Ratepayers who had managed to keep solvent knew that the 5s. rate was only a beginning; double or treble the amount would not bring distressed unions through the year, and rates would be collected with merciless severity, troops and police used to seize property by force, and special collectors, devoid of local sympathy, sent down from Dublin.


On September 30 another blow fell; as the potato failure was spreading despair and ruin throughout Ireland, Trevelyan informed Twisleton that Treasury grants to distressed Irish unions were to cease. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had rather less than £3,000 in hand, out of the sum allocated, and the issues were to stop. A few weeks later Twisleton was informed that there would be no issue of condemned and unwanted Ordnance clothing to Irish workhouses, as there had been last winter. 'It is a great object not to revive the habit of dependence on Government aid,' wrote Trevelyan, and to encourage independence further he stopped feeding destitute children, in spite of Lord John Russell's pledge, and wrote informing applicants that the British Association's funds were now exhausted and the Government could do nothing.


A wave of alarm and foreboding swept over the country; everyone who could scrape the money together prepared to leave Ireland, and a new emigration began.


The emigration of 1848, however, was of very different quality from the disorganized flight of 1847. New Canadian legislation had followed the disaster of 1847, to prevent helpless and diseased pauper emigrants being landed on Canadian soil, the cheapest passages were no longer available, and the ruined small farmers who had made up the bulk of the emigration of 1847 had no choice but to remain in Ireland, nor could landlords afford to emigrate their pauper tenantry.


The emigrants of 1848 were farmers of a good class whom Ireland could ill afford to spare. 'A new emigration is developing of the most fatal kind,' wrote Lord Monteagle on October 30, and he gave an example of a man who had just announced his intention of leaving, an excellent tenant of thirty acres on his estate who had paid his rent regularly and put up good buildings and a house on his farm. In Sligo and Donegal a Poor Law inspector reported that 'the better, more energetic farmers are selling up and going'. In Cork, wrote Mr. Nicholas Cummins, the quays were 'thronged with emigrants as in spring', a thousand a week were leaving; and on November 28 'comfortable farmers' from Meath and Westmeath were said to be arriving in Dublin daily by the hundred, 'apparently all of substantial class and well provided for the transatlantic journey'. But Charles Wood wrote to Monteagle, 'I am not at all appalled by your tenantry going ... that seems to me to be a necessary part of the process': larger holdings were essential in Ireland, and holdings could not be enlarged until the number of holders was diminished. Trevelyan agreed. 'I do not know how farms are to be consolidated if small farmers do not emigrate,' he wrote, 'and by acting for the purpose of keeping them at home, we should be defeating our own object. We must not complain of what we really want to obtain. If small farmers go, and then landlords are induced to sell portions of their estates to persons who will invest capital, we shall at last arrive at something like a satisfactory settlement-of the country.'


Ireland, however, was assuming an appearance unlikely to tempt investors. In the huge union of Ballina thousands of acres looked as if they had been devastated by an enemy; in Erris seventy-eight town-lands were without a single inhabitant or four-footed beast; in Munster the landlords could not deal with the farms abandoned and thrown on their hands, and large tracts of arable were either deserted or squatted on by paupers, living in a 'hut in a ditch' and with 'no chattels whatever distrainable for poor rate', Barrington & Co., well-known land agents in Dublin, were stated to have land to the value of over £300,000 on their hands for which they could not find a purchaser; and on Saturday, October 7, the well-known Ballydowlan estate, Galway, was put up for sale at Ballinasloe and withdrawn, 'there being scarcely any bidders' and not one reasonable offer received. In Clare, an owner of eighteen farms was preparing to abandon his property. Fourteen farms had been thrown on his hands by emigration, destitution and death; he received nothing in rent, and meanwhile arrears of poor rate piled up against him. Once a rate was levied it became a debt, attached to the land for ever. Mr. James Martin, one of the famous Martins of Galway, stated in evidence that he himself had a debt for rates of £11,000 on his property, and when land was sold the purchaser became liable for the debt.

Substantial towns were becoming deserted. In Athlone, for instance, the best shops were closed because the owners had emigrated, and all the respectable part of the population was leaving. In the finest streets in Dublin, shops had their shutters up, and broken windows were stuffed with paper. All over Ireland trade was almost at a standstill, and markets were reported 'glutted with all kinds of provisions at fearfully unremunerative prices to the producer, but there is no money among the indigent poor to pay even the lowest prices'. 'Everyone who can get out of the country is trying to do so,' and Colonel Knox Gore added that the land left waste was not poor land but some of the richest; the occupiers, being reasonably prosperous, were able to find the money to get away. 'Honest farmers are going, fraudulent farmers are absconding,' wrote Monteagle to Lord John Russell on November 3. 'We shall be left a pauper warren the Queen being the matron of the largest union workhouse ever yet founded.'


Meanwhile, the wretched hordes of destitute were being treated with increasing harshness. Trevelyan would have liked to abolish outdoor relief; and by the exercise of ruthless severity, in spite of the failure of the potato, numbers outdoor relief had been reduced to 200,000 in October, though by December they all but doubled, to nearly 400,000. In Mayo, wrote a landowner, 'thousands are brought to the workhouse screaming for food and can't be relieved'. The starving people became violent; Shanagolden, Co. Limerick, Lord Monteagle's own union, was described as 'greatly above the average', but the Board of Guardians, of which Lord Monteagle was chairman, had to sit under police protection all day because of the crowds of starving, who threatened to riot if they did not get food; and on November 3, in spite of 'armed police, an attempt was made by the excited mob of paupers to break into the house ...' Lord Monteagle told Lord John Russell, 'The pressure for outdoor relief from the pauper, the relieving officers and the elected guardians is very strong, and will be irresistible. Last year we had 13,000 ... this year they speak of more than double on a population of 68,000 ... We have taken auxiliary workhouses in the central town, and I now propose leasing three others in more distant places, seven, nine and eleven miles apart. But how are these to be governed and kept in order?'

Lord Sligo declared the Government responsible for creating the crowds of paupers. He pointed out, in a letter to The Times on December 16, that in 1847, under the Soup Kitchen Act, 26,000 persons had received free rations in the Westport Union, 'on the express condition that they should make no provision for the future ... There are now therefore, at this moment, in obedience to the law, 26,000 people in Westport who are destitute of food, fuel and clothing ... The long account of money spent will not feed the crowds of destitute, the rates cannot do it, and if the union be left to that fund alone, these myriads must perish by famine.'


Meanwhile, the resident landlords and resident gentry, the class on whom Trevelyan had repeatedly declared any relief scheme for Ireland must depend, were rapidly being ruined by rates and no rents. Lord Monteagle warned Lord John Russell, 'The crack of the gentry is going on right and left'; a Poor Law inspector spoke of 'the dread of the breakup of all society ... the state of the gentry is awful', and The Times prophesied, 'A tremendous crash must come in which all interests and all classes will be swept away'.


Lord Qarendon implored the Government to make advances to the distressed Irish unions. 'I dread some wholesale calamity,' he wrote to Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, on December 7, 'some hundreds dying all at once of starvation, which would not only be shocking but bring disgrace on the Government.' Sir George Grey, an ally of Trevelyan and Charles Wood, administered a snub in his reply. 'It may be that if numerous deaths should occur the Government would be blamed,' he replied, 'but there is such an indisposition to spend more money on Ireland, that the Government will be assuredly and severely blamed if they advance money to pay debts ....' At this Clarendon became angry, citing Trevelyan, who in accordance with the principles of laissez-faire had produced a phrase, 'the operation of natural causes', to which he considered Ireland should be left. As for 'the operation of natural causes', Clarendon told Grey, it meant 'wholesale deaths from starvation and disease, and John Bull won't like that, however cross he may be at paying'. Charles Wood, however, denied that the state of Ireland was as frightful as Clarendon represented—'... there had been exaggeration last year and there was probably exaggeration now.' Trevelyan was now said to be all-powerful with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Greville reported that Clarendon 'attributes a great part of the obstacles he meets with to Charles Wood, who is entirely governed by Trevelyan; and C.W. is to the last degree obstinate and tenacious of the opinions which his Secretary puts into him'.


Meanwhile, numbers on relief continued to increase; nearly 200,000 persons were crammed into workhouses intended for 114,000. Fever—typhus and relapsing fever;—was still prevalent, and Routh's son, Captain Jules Routh, of the Welsh Fusiliers, who had become a temporary Poor Law inspector in Newcastle, County Limerick, caught 'fever' in December and died.


Poor Law instructions were applied with the utmost stringency. In Gort, to take one example, a distressed union, but not one of the worst, the workhouse was emptied of women and children, old and infirm persons, even convalescents, before being filled with able-bodied men; and before outdoor relief was given the labour test was carried out 'in the most stringent manner'. This test required all able-bodied men to attend and remain at work for the full period of eight hours every day. 'Many of them have to travel considerable distances morning and evening,' wrote the Gort Vice-Guardians, 'and we have observed some without shoes of any description working at the drain leading from the workhouse site. All clothing is in a very bad state, insufficient to stand the present cold weather.' Only those persons who were completely destitute qualified for relief: 'All applications are rigidly scrutinized, and the Relieving Officers, when visiting houses of applicants, make a careful examination of all boxes, bundles and parcels they may observe' —in case property of some description was concealed. The applicant, who had been stripped of every scrap which might be regarded as property and subjected to a degree of hardship which must prove injurious to health, received as his reward about one pound of meal a day, on which he was just kept alive; it was estimated that £1 would cover the cost of keeping one person for thirty-four weeks. Twisleton told Trevelyan he had thought it better to omit from the Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission (Ireland) any statement as to how much each pauper cost, in case people should say 'we were slowly murdering the peasantry by the scantiness of our relief.'


At the end of the year, on December 27, 1848, Lord Clarendon wrote to Trevelyan in despair. 'How,' he asked, 'are the next six months to be got through in the South and West? I am at my wits' end to imagine. The reports of our own officers are bad enough, heaven knows, but the statements I have received from (credible) eyewitnesses exceed all I have ever heard of horrible misery, except perhaps that of shipwrecked mariners on a yacht or desert island.' On these words Ireland entered the year 1849.


The answer was that Ireland was to be abandoned to Trevelyan's operation-of-natural-causes system. On February 9, 1849, Clarendon, 'quite disheartened', told Lord John Russell that he was unable 'to shake Charles Wood and Trevelyan, that the right course was to do nothing for Ireland, and to leave things to the operation of natural causes'. Three days later he wrote that he had now given up all hope and was convinced that 'the doctrinaire policy of Trevelyan, reflected through C. Wood, and supported by Grey, would prevail'. Lord John's reply was that a loan for Ireland could not be obtained from Parliament—'rage against Ireland on account of its faction, its mendicancy, its ingratitude, is extreme'. The attempted rising of 1848, and the violent abuse which accompanied it, had done immense harm. 'We have subscribed, worked, visited, clothed, for the Irish,' wrote Lord John, 'millions of money, years of debate, etc., etc., etc. The only return is rebellion and calumny. Let us not grant, lend, clothe, etc., any more, and see what that will do. This is the great difficulty today—British people think this.'

Officially, it was declared that no deaths from starvation must be allowed to occur in Ireland, but in private the attitude was different. 'I have always felt a certain horror of political economists,' said Benjamin Jowett, the celebrated Master of Balliol, 'since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.' The political economist in question was Nassau Senior, one of the Government's advisers on economic affairs. Meanwhile, the British Exchequer was still struggling with financial difficulties; the revenue accounts, wrote Lord John, were 'very bad', and the first three months of 1849 showed a deficit of more than a million pounds.


The emigration of farmers from Ireland began to cause alarm. 'The U.S. will have gained enormous wealth and resources by the Irish famine and the Irish Poor Law,' wrote Lord Clanricarde to Qarendon. 'All who should have tilled, or should be tilling Irish soil ,in Mayo and Galway, which is left untilled, have been carried off to clear land in America—this is the direct consequence of the Poor Law.' Landlords tried in vain to persuade good tenants to stay; for example, near Clonmel, County Tipperary, a year's delay in paying the rent was offered and rejected, tenants saying, 'if they didn't go this year, they would have to go next'; one landlord had been forced to take up 300 acres, another 180 acres, others 150 to 200 acres, and for ten miles along the high road to Kilrush, County Clare, no cultivation whatsoever was to be seen.


Jails had already become a refuge, and men had committed crimes to be transported out of Ireland. Destitute young people, even children of twelve, now courted transportation to escape from Ireland. In Mayo, for instance, Mr. Michael Shaughnessy, the Assistant Barrister (in Ireland the Assistant Barrister was a judicial officer appointed by the Crown and independent of local influence) was repeatedly asked, by young persons under eighteen years of age, for sentences of transportation. At Westport, Dominic Ginelly, aged 17, was charged with stealing hemp ropes; he said he wanted to be transported and would do the same again; he was transported for seven years. John Austin and Charles Ruddy, 12 and 15 years old, 'honest people's children from 'Dare Island', where there had been 576 deaths from starvation out of a population of 1,700, were found guilty of sheep stealing; transported for seven years. Michael Gavin, Thomas Joyce, Martin McGinty, John McGrene, John English, guilty of stealing, asked to be transported. A youth named Owen Eady, asked if he knew what transportation meant, said even if he had chains on his legs he would have something to eat; anything was better than starving and sleeping out at night. Mr. Shaughnessy said, 'I am satisfied that they had no alternative but starvation or the commission of crime.' He found, he added, the state of young people, as he passed from town to town on his circuit, 'afflicting'. Some months had now gone by since feeding the children had been stopped, and they were 'almost naked, hair standing on end, eyes sunken, lips pallid, protruding bones of little joints visible'. He asked himself, 'Am I in a civilized country and part of the British Empire?'

The authorities in London and in the penal settlements were embarrassed by the deluge of youthful convicts. 'Your transportation returns are indeed appalling,' Sir George Grey told Clarendon, on February 5, 1849. 'More were sentenced to transportation, at these last two sessions, than were transported at all the assizes ... in a year before 1846. It becomes absolutely impossible to carry the sentences into effect with such numbers.' Governors of penal settlements, he went on, complained that many of those sentenced were 'wholly unfit for ordinary convict association and treatment, owing partly to their youth and partly to their general good conduct'.


The first few months of 1849 saw as much, if not more, suffering than at any time since the potato failed. The Irish Poor Law Commissioners, in their second annual report, stated that the misery and distress was equalled only by the worst months of 1846-47, and Count Strzelecki, consulted as an expert, declared that 1849 was the worst of all. The effect of the famine, he pointed out, was cumulative; in 1849 the people were enduring a fourth year, and they were 'skinned down to the bone' by workhouse and relief tests, by the economic consequences of the Quarter Acre clause and evictions. After they had gambled every last vestige of any value they possessed on a good potato harvest, they had been confronted with a new total failure of the potato. A 'singular and melancholy state of depression', Count Strzelecki said, brooded over the western unions, and the people declared 'the land is cursed'.

Distress was worst in the twenty-two 'ruined' unions, but those unions were not merely plague-spots in a country otherwise restored to prosperity. On April 9 Lord Monteagle estimated that there were forty to fifty further unions 'which are on the very verge of ruin and which must be absorbed in the whirlpool before harvest. I am astonished to see some of the Leinster and Ulster names included in the list'. It was, he wrote, 'a most frightful picture', and by English standards the whole of Ireland was ruinous, dilapidated and starving.

In 1849 Carlyle paid a visit to Ireland. Carlyle was not a compassionate man, he was squeamish; and the beggary, dirt and disease of famine-stricken Ireland repulsed him. He found Dublin patched and dilapidated, the harbour at Kingstown empty, and the swarms of beggars little short of terrifying; leaving Dublin, he considered the small town of Kildare, in Leinster, the most prosperous part of Ireland, to be 'a wretched, wild, village ... like a village in Dahomey ... beggars, beggars ... wretched streets ... the extremity of raggedness'.


At Waterford he found commerce ruined; the bacon-curers had left the town, owing to the poverty consequent on the potato failures; for the same reason, the butter trade and cattle trade had ceased, and numbers of warehouses on the quays, at one point three in a row, were empty and shuttered. Indeed, trade in Ireland seemed to be at an end; when he did meet carts going to and fro on the road, 'alas, when you look it is mostly, or all, meal sacks, Indian corn sacks—workhouse trade ... I didn't, in all Ireland, meet one big piled carrier's cart, not to speak of a carrier's wagon, as we see here'. Some small country dealers were furtively prospering, but 'by workhouse grocery and meal trade, by secret pawnbroking—by eating the slain'. These individuals were the curse of Ireland, the 'gombeen men'. The crammed workhouses and auxiliary workhouses of distressed unions with their wretched pauper inmates Carlyle dismissed as 'human swineries ... pity dies away into stony misery and disgust in the excess of such scenes'.


Landlords who owned thousands of derelict acres were shut up in their mansions, existing on rabbits shot in their overgrown parks, and gossip said that Lord Sligo was living on the proceeds of an opera box belonging to his family in the Covent Garden Opera House, London. In conclusion, Carlyle wrote, '... the whole country figures in my mind like a ragged coat, one huge beggar's gabardine, not patched, or patchable any longer....'


The state of Ireland began to cause uneasiness in England, and on February 8, 1849, The Times, a consistent and stubborn opponent of help for Ireland, 'with great reluctance', announced a change of heart. There must be some 'exceptional relief.' The Times had been converted by the fearful reports from places like Ballina, which owed more than £18,000, had nearly 21,000 destitute on outdoor relief, and where persons, previously paying 35 pound in rates, were now asked for £13; and from Bantry, where 2,327 persons and 600 children were huddled in the workhouse and auxiliary workhouse, naked, except for filthy rags, half starved, and without the common decencies of life. 


Four hundred and thirty-one persons, according to official figures, died of starvation in Ireland between January and May, 1849. 'Nobody knows what to do,' wrote Greville, on February 9 '... Charles Wood has all along set his face against giving or lending money ... and he contemplates (with what seems very like cruelty, though he is not really cruel) that misery and distress should run their course; that such havoc should be made among the landed proprietors, that the price of land will at last fall so low as to tempt capitalists to invest their funds therein...'


In accordance with this policy the Government now came forward with a scheme, of which Trevelyan was the 'real author'. A rate-in-aid was to be levied, by which the more prosperous unions in Ireland were to be forced to contribute to the support of the unions listed as distressed; and an additional rate of 6d. in the pound was to be paid by every union, against which the Treasury would make advances, not exceeding £100,000, for relief. The duration of rate-in-aid was limited to December 31, 1850, and the Bill was accompanied by a vote, authorizing the Treasury to advance £50,000 immediately for the distressed unions. 'There must be a stop put to these drains on the Treasury,' wrote Sir George Grey, on March 8. '... some means must be found in Ireland of making whatever provision is indispensable for certain parts of the country the local means of which are clearly insufficient to support their population.' 

Lord Lansdowne, however, 'a great proprietor' in Ireland, said the rate-in-aid filled him with 'horror and dread'. It was 'nothing less than a scheme of confiscation, by which the weak would not be saved, but the strong be involved in general ruin'. Supporters of the rate-in-aid regarded it as a disciplinary measure. George Nicholls, who had drawn up the recent Poor Law Act, wrote of the 'necessity for compelling the Irish people to abandon the treacherous potato ... The rate-in-aid was calculated to effect this object, by casting the consequences of the failure entirely on Ireland herself'. In Ireland the announcement of the new Act provoked fury, and Ulster was strongly resentful at being called on to support Munster and Connaught. But uniting all parties was the anger felt at England's attitude to Ireland; was, or was not, the Act of Union a reality? Catholic and Protestant came together, and on February 23 a joint meeting of Orange and Green—Protestant and Catholic—was held at Fermanagh, the largest meeting that had been held in the north for many years. After protesting against the rate-in-aid the meeting declared that if the Union was a fact, and Ireland an integral part of the Empire, then the Imperial Exchequer should contribute.

Trevelyan, Sir Charles Wood and Sir George Grey were still determined not to give Ireland a penny more than would prevent a scandal, and the immediate advance of £50,000 offered against the security of the rate-in-aid was painfully small. In 1848, Count Strzelecki, on behalf of the British Association, had distributed nearly £160,000 in less than three months, and his distribution had been made before the new potato failure.

For Twisleton the rate-in-aid was the last straw, and on March 12 he resigned. 'He thinks,' Clarendon told Lord John Russell on the same day, 'that the destitution here [in Ireland] is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons to it is so manifest, that he is an unfit agent of a policy which must be one of extermination ... Twisleton feels that as Chief Commissioner he is placed in a position ... which no man of honour and humanity can endure.' He was succeeded by the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, Mr. Alfred Power, a successful solicitor, described by Lord Clanricarde as 'a man of landed property and well to do'; Lord John Russell and Sir George Grey, however, had not 'a high opinion of his capacity'. Mr. Power soon fell out with Trevelyan; his appointment was gazetted on May 8, and by August he was at war with the Treasury, complaining of its interference, of the tone of Trevelyan's letters, the unfair statements made in them, and going so far as to take legal advice on the extent of Treasury authority.

Nevertheless, on May 24, 1849, the Rate-in-aid Act passed, and a general order of June 13 assessed the sum to be levied in each union; the total was to amount to £322,552 11s


Before the Act was put into operation yet another terrible misfortune fell on Ireland; an epidemic of Asiatic cholera broke out. On December 2, 1848, a man had arrived by sea at Belfast who a few days previously had left a part of Edinburgh where cholera was raging. The vessel and the route by which he came are not mentioned, but it is certain that he was for some hours in a Belfast workhouse, before he was removed to the hospital, where he died. Some days later cases of Asiatic cholera occurred in the workhouse and extended to the town of Belfast; and travellers then carried it to the overcrowded workhouses and auxiliary workhouses, the pauper hospitals, the crammed jails and military barracks all over Ireland.


In spite of this new blow the British Government remained adamant—the Irish unions were 'not to be helped.' Boards of Guardians were warned that a cholera epidemic was imminent, and in successive circulars the Central Board of Health, in Dublin, issued instructions for nursing, accommodation, setting up special dispensaries, medical treatment, necessary drugs, and even, on March 22, the treatment of convalescent patients. But, wrote the Central Board of Health, 'Guardians shall defray the expenses incurred ... out of the funds of their respective unions'. The instructions were a mockery—funds in distressed unions had ceased to exist. Clarendon now became frantic: he had, it was reported, completely turned against his former political allies for their treatment of Ireland '…. it is enough to drive one mad, day after day, to read the appeals that are made and meet them all with a negative,' he wrote to Lord John Russell on April 26. 'At Westport, and other places in Mayo, they have not got a shilling to make preparations for the cholera, but no assistance can be given, and there is no credit for anything, as all the contractors are ruined. Surely this is a state of things to justify you asking the House of Commons for an advance, for I don't think there is another legislature in Europe that would disregard such suffering as now exists in the west of Ireland, or coldly persist in a policy of extermination.' No advance was granted, but the Irish Poor Law Commissioners went so far as to record their regret that, in the cholera epidemic, 'a want of means had crippled their efforts'; in some districts, where every penny was needed to save the destitute from starvation, money had to be diverted from the purchase of food to make some provision for cholera victims.

The epidemic originated in January, became serious in March and April, reached a peak in May, and in most parts of the country declined in June; but little sympathy was felt for Ireland; her misfortunes were too frequent, too hopeless, too impossible to remedy, and, moreover, the attempted insurrection of 1848 had not been forgotten. Even the total failure of the potato in 1848 had not been much noticed, though the failure of 1846 had been universally reported as a horrifying and shattering catastrophe. In the winter of 1848-49 no subscriptions were raised, no philanthropic persons knitted or sewed for the Irish destitute. Compassion for Ireland was dead.


The consequences of a total failure of the potato, complicated by the extra and unexpected destitution arising from the cholera epidemic, had to be met; but if destitute persons must be rescued from death by starvation, they were to be rescued in a workhouse. Harsh conditions would prove the extremity of their need, and confinement keep them under control. Buildings to serve as auxiliary workhouses were hired wholesale, and ultimately accommodation for 250,000 persons was provided.


In addition, the ration given to persons who did succeed in obtaining outdoor relief was reduced to under a pound of meal a day. By June, 1849, numbers on outdoor relief had risen to 768,902, and the debts of Irish unions amounted to more than £456,000, Munster alone owing nearly £250,000.


Horrifying reports of the state of the destitute in the workhouses came in. The Guardians had funds enough to supply only what were termed 'the necessaries of life', which meant just enough food to avoid death from starvation. Inmates of female wards were reported to be more than half naked, since one of the measures of economy had been to stop the issue of clothing to Irish workhouses. In a number of workhouses, in auxiliaries in particular, which were frequently isolated and difficult to supervise, discipline broke down. Spirits were passed in, young men climbed into the wards at night, inmates and workhouse officers became intoxicated together, and confinement within the workhouse became a farce—in Westport, for instance, paupers were to be met strolling boldly about the town. Fever, dysentery, and an epidemic of ophthalmia were general: 13,812 cases of ophthalmia were reported in 1849, and in 1850 the figure rose to 27,200. The disease was especially severe among the young, and the number of one-eyed children became noticeable.


As a result of shocking reports, a private subscription was launched by members of the Government in the second week of June, each Minister subscribing £100 and the Queen £500; about £10,000 was collected, and Count Strzelecki returned to Ireland to take charge of the distribution.


And now Ireland lost her last remaining friends; for in June, 1849, the Quakers gave up relief work. On June 2 Lord John Russell offered the Central Relief Committee a donation of £100 towards any plan the Society of Friends might be drawing up for the relief of the distress in the west of Ireland. In reply, the Central Relief Committee wrote that there would be no plan, and with their habitual courtesy and restraint administered a few home truths. There was 'great and increasing distress prevailing in many parts', but the problem of relief was 'far beyond the reach of private exertion, the Government alone could raise the funds and carry out the measures necessary in many districts to save the lives of the people ... and we are truly sorry that it is now out of our power to offer ourselves as the distributors of Lord John's bounty to our suffering fellow countrymen'. In the opinion of the Central Relief Committee, '... the condition of our country has not improved in spite of the great exertions made by charitable bodies', and could not be improved until the land system of Ireland was reformed, which was a matter for legislation, not philanthropy.'


The 'operation of natural causes' must now, it seemed, be Ireland's fate; but there was a remedy in which Lord Clarendon had great faith, and one that might justly be termed a sovereign remedy. Through his efforts, it was now to be applied—Ireland was to receive a visit from Queen Victoria.