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The Great Irish Famine


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The terrors of famine have rarely been witnessed in Western Europe, though down the centuries this scourge of over-population has often ravaged India, and sometimes Egypt, China, or Russia. So, when Ireland was devastated for two years with a potato famine, beginning in 1845, this became known as the "Great Famine."

Considerably over a quarter of a million of the population in that unhappy land must have perished of starvation or disease. Through emigration, in addition, the population was permanently decreased in a few years by two millions. The disaster further embittered the people. For many a long year Irish history moved "in the shadow of the famine."

The potato was as much the enemy as the friend of Ireland. Life can be sustained by eating potatoes and nothing else, though such a malnutritious diet weakens the physique. Potatoes take far less space for growth than any cereal. An acre of land sown with them may yield three or four times as much food as an acre under corn. They could be left in the ground and dug up when wanted. Or stored in pits. The surplus was food for a pig, or fowls.

Owing to various causes, political and economic, there had been in the first half of the nineteenth century an enormous increase in the subdivision and subletting of land in Ireland. The owners and farmers found it an advantage to have a tribe of small tenants who could pay rent for their small plots by occasional labour. The new tenants, on their side, discovered they could sustain life without much trouble simply by growing potatoes. It was a low-grade life, the lowest in the Western world, but it was an easy mode of subsistence, and led to early marriages and large families.

And so a population hanging on to life by the skin of its teeth, as we say, amazingly increased. Within a generation or so under these conditions over a million and a half more peasants were bred, making a total population by 1845 of over eight and a quarter millions in the country - far in excess of any figure in Ireland's subsequent history. Considerably over a third of this total were wholly dependent on potatoes for their existence. In time of need they could not look to their landlords for help; although as a matter of fact many landowners during the famine, actuated by feelings of humanity, did help. But it is essential to remember that in Ireland there was no actual or tacit partnership between landlord and tenant, as in England and not a few other countries. Space would not permit an exposition of the Irish land troubles. Suffice it to say, the Irish small holder lived in a state of isolation. He was born into bad customs which he had no power to remedy.

The result of the system was the degradation of this peasantry. Poverty, discontent and idleness went hand in hand. The people had no incitement to be industrious, to procure comforts which were utterly beyond their reach. Living on the extreme verge of human subsistence, if they were to be deprived of their accustomed food there was nothing else but starvation or beggary. The conditions of listlessness and misery militated against attempts to cultivate any other crop. And by some irony of fate, even the potatoes were of bad quality, being of the coarsest kind.

Two years before the famine a German traveller wrote that in no other countries of Europe had he seen habitations of such wretchedness as in County Clare. The fields that lay around the abject tenements were cultivated with the utmost carelessness. And there were thousands of cabins in Ireland in which not a trace of a window was to be seen, nothing but a square hole in front, which doubled the duty of door, window, or chimney. Light, smoke, pigs, and children, all passed in and out of the same aperture.

There had been several bad jolts before the great famine. Heavy rainfalls, or deep frosts, resulted in partial failure of the potato. This happened seven times in the preceding twenty years. But the blight that came in 1845 was a catastrophe. The potato disease which had manifested itself in North America in 1844, first appeared in these islands late in the autumn of the following year. The early crop, about one sixth of the whole, dug in September and October, escaped. But the late, commonly called the people's crop, dug up in December and January, was tainted after it arrived at maturity. Once begun, the disease made steady progress, and it was often found, on opening the pits, that the potatoes had become a mass of rottenness. The attack this year was partial, though few parts of the country escaped. Such other crops as there were were good; but the suffering was severe, for the transport in the country was so ineffectual that in some parts people were starving although there were supplies available twenty or thirty miles off.

On the first appearance of the blight Sir Robert Peel appointed a Committee of distinguished specialists, Lord Playfair, Sir Robert Kane and Professor Lindley, to inquire into its nature, and to suggest the best means of preserving the stock of potatoes from its ravages. The result showed that, at any rate in those days, the mischief lay beyond remedy. Recourse was had to every expedient which science or experience could dictate, but the potato continued to rot away under any mode of treatment. The next step was to order from the United States as a beginning, 100,000 worth of Indian corn. By the introduction of this as a new popular food it was thought the void in the staple crop could best be filled without disturbing private trade and market prices. In theory the idea was good, since private merchants could scarcely complain of interference with a trade which did not then exist, nor could prices be raised against the home consumer on an article of which no stock was to be found in the home market. All the same, to avoid doubts and misgivings as to this Government action, the first transactions were kept secret. The first cargoes from America had been more than a fortnight in Cork harbour before the news leaked out. When it did, the venture was received with great suspicion by the common folk.

Tens of thousands of pamphlets and printed sheets were distributed containing instructions for cooking the Indian corn, and advising the people what other cheap descriptions of food might be available to them. For a time, unfortunately, the "yellow meal," as it was called, was rejected, and called "Peel's brimstone," for it was remembered that once before in time of stress when a similar attempt had been made it led to a popular commotion, arising from the absurd notion that it had the effect of turning those who ate it black. In the end prejudice was overcome, difficult as it is to induce a large population to adopt new habits. In order to distribute the food, central depots were established in various parts of Ireland, under the direction of officers of the Commisariat, with sub-depots under the charge of the Constabulary and Coastguard. When supplies in the local markets were deficient, meal was sold from these depots at reasonable prices to Relief Committees, where any existed, and where they did not, to the labourers themselves. This was the first chapter.

Queen Victoria's Speech to Parliament, on January 19, 1846, referred thus to the calamity - "I have to lament that in consequence of a failure of the potato crop in other parts of the United Kingdom there will be a deficient supply of an article of food which forms the chief subsistence of great numbers of my people. I have adopted all such precautions as it was in my power to adopt of alleviating the sufferings which may be caused by this calamity." Towards the end of this month Sir Robert Peel proposed his measure for the relaxation of the duties on the importation of foreign corn. The Bill passed the House of Lords in June, and Peel then announced his resignation. This was a prelude to a change of Government, and the subsequent suspension of the Corn Laws.

In the following year the blight took place earlier, and was of a much more sweeping and decisive kind. This was not the day of Special Correspondents, and the accounts are scanty. All the more valuable are the few we have. One is a narrative by Captain Mann, an Inspecting Officer of Coastguards, who distinguished himself by his exertions in the practical administration of relief measures. The first alarm in 1846, was in the latter part of July. In spite of the warning, and the rotting of the last late crop, the peasants had assumed that all would be well with the next. A great proportion of the land was again tilled with potatoes in the same way, with no precautions, in the hope that the late scarcity would be followed by a bountiful supply. In July, however, the potatoes showed symptoms of the previous year's disease. "I shall never forget," says Captain Mann, "the change in one week in August. On the first occasion, on an official tour of inspection, I had passed over thirty-two miles thickly studded with potato fields in full bloom. The next time the face of the whole country was changed; the stalk remained bright green, but the leaves were all scorched black. It was the work of a night. Distress and fear was pictured in every countenance, and there was a general rush to dig and sell, or consume the crop by feeding pigs and cattle, fearing in a short time they would prove unfit for use. Consequently there was a very wasteful expenditure, and distress showed itself much earlier than in the preceding season."

The first symptom of the disease was a little brown spot on the leaf, and these spots gradually increased in number and size, until the foliage withered, and the stem became brittle and snapped off immediately when touched. In less than a week the whole process was accomplished. The fields assumed a blackened appearance, as if they had been burnt up, and the growth of the potatoes was arrested when they were not larger than a marble or a pigeon's egg. Father Mathew in a published letter wrote that on July 27 of 1846, when he had passed from Cork to Dublin, the doomed plant was blooming in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd of August he beheld with sorrow one wide waste of putrefying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and wailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless. No potatoes were pitted this year. In many districts where they had been most abundant, full-grown wholesome potatoes were not to be procured. Even in London and other large towns they were sold at fancy prices, and were then consumed as luxuries by the wealthy, for most of the crop failed in England and Scotland, though this was a minor disaster.

Ireland was then on the point of becoming, and did become one vast lazar-house. The people, says one account, died on the roads, and they died in the fields. They died on the mountains, and they died in the glens. They died at the relief works, and they died in their houses. Little streets or villages were left almost without an inhabitant. Some few despairing of help in the country crawled into the town, and died at the doors of residents and outside the Union walls. Some were buried underground, and some were left unburied on the mountains where they died, there being no one able to bury them. And much of this took place in 1846, either because of failure to import corn in time, or the inability to bring food and people together.

A whole population stricken down, the air a pestilence, the fields a solitude, the chapel deserted, priest and pauper famishing together. No inquest, no rites, no record even of the dead. The high road a charnel house, the familiar place a chaos, the workhouse a moral pest, death, desolation and despair reigning through the land. Such were the words of one inspector, who said a destroying angel seemed to have swept over Ireland. In the annals of the time, such as the Annual Register, the reflection of a crude theology appears, and the calamity was thought an act of God. The deeds of violence which were sporadically engendered by the peasants' misery and despair were scarcely understood. "During this fearful visitation, when the peasantry were dying by hundreds," says the annual recorder in this year, "there was yet this consolation - that the evil was from the hands of the Almighty in the exercise of his wisdom, and that man could but bow himself in humility to the stroke... But we have now to contemplate the wickedness of man. The people so recently the objects of unbounded generosity turn upon their benefactors, and, all gratitude to God and man forgotten, turn their beautiful and fruitful land into an Aceldama." Exit now it was no fruitful land.

All Ireland was in a state of panic. Cottiers held meetings and offered to give up their rotting potato grounds in lieu of paying rents, but this was denied. The newspapers teemed with reports of outrages, especially in the south. The demand for rents during the famine exacerbated old feuds, and there were "agrarian" murders. Corn stores, mills, and bakers' shops, were plundered. Cattle were stolen. When men are starving, and their families dying, the controls are gone. They will seize food, whatever canons of right and wrong-are accepted in normal conditions. If in the next war threatened by mankind the civil populations are rendered destitute by attacks of enemy aeroplanes, discharging poison gas and explosives, we shall see the same food riots in many countries which then broke out in Ireland. As to the workhouses, there were too few; they could not hold the starving population, and became overcrowded pest-houses and scenes of terrible misery. Frantic efforts were made to enlarge them, timber sheds were run up near by, and unused stores and other buildings pressed into the service. Such auxiliary makeshifts, however, were ill suited to the purpose, and injurious to health.

Then, to avoid the general pauperisation of the whole community, the Government authorities strove to transfer-relief measures and provision to the local authorities. In not a few cases the local magistrates were quite unequal to the tasks before them, and lost their heads. At a Sessions House near Youghal while the magistrates were racking their brains how to expend the relief money, a seething mob surrounded the building demanding food, and laying down the law. The Justices barely escaped, with the aid of a troop of hussars, who promptly attacked the people. Not only hussars, but marines, artillery, and seamen in other cases were requisitioned to light the mobs, and restore order. At Dungarvan, when dragoons were despatched to protect the town, they were attacked, and then fired on the crowd in retaliation, wounding many of the peasants. Such times gave an impetus to secret societies, which sprang up or were reborn, and Whiteboys, Blackfeet, Terry Alts, Rockites and Ribbonmen gathered troops of followers, who disturbed the peace.

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