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The Irish Crisis, 1846-47


The Irish Crisis, 1846-47 - Land Tenure - The Devon Commission - Condition of the Agricultural Labourers - Subdivision of Land - The Conacre System - Partial Failure of the Potatoes in 1845 - Total Blight in 1846 - Its immediate Effects - Progress of the Famine - Sketches of its Victims - Exertions of the Society of Friends - Human Burrows - Appalling Pictures of Misery and Degradation - The Famine in Ulster, Munster, Cork - Frightful Mortality - The Public Coffin - Demoralising Effects of the Famine - Neglect of the Dead - Abuses in the Distribution of Relief - Universal Mendicity - Intimidation - Estimated Loss on the Failure of the Potato Crop - Government Measures for Relief- Railway Scheme of Lord George Bentinck.
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Reverting to the history of Ireland, we now arrive at the " Irish Crisis," the famine of 1846 and 1847 - one of the greatest calamities that ever afflicted any portion of the human race. In order to understand fully the events connected with this visitation, it is necessary to notice the social condition of the country which rendered its effects so destructive. Ireland had long been in a chronic state of misery, which has been ascribed by the most competent judges to the peculiar state of the land tenure in that country, arising from a series of confiscations and other circumstances in its past history, which are too well known to be dwelt upon in this place. It had often been predicted by writers on the state of Ireland, that, owing to this rottenness at the foundation of the social fabric, it would come down with a crash some day. The facts reported by the Census Commissioners of 1841 showed that this consummation could not be far off. Out of a population of 8,000,000, there were 3,700,000 above the age of five years who could neither read nor write; while nearly three millions and a half lived in mud cabins, badly thatched with straw, having each but one room, and often without either a window or a chimney. These figures indicate a mass of ignorance and poverty which could not be contemplated without alarm, and the subject was, therefore, constantly pressed upon the attention of Parliament. As usual in cases of difficulty, the Government, feeling that something should be done, and not knowing what to do, appointed, in 1845, a commission to inquire into the relations between landlord and tenant, and the condition of the working classes. At the head of this commission was the Earl of Devon, a benevolent nobleman, whose sympathies were on the side of the people. Captain Kennedy, the secretary to the Commissioners, published a digest of the report of the evidence, which presented the facts in a readable form, and was the means of diffusing a large amount of authentic information on the state of Ireland. The Commissioners travelled through the country, held courts of inquiry, and examined witnesses of all classes. As the result of their extensive intercourse with the farming classes and their own observations, they were enabled to state that in almost every part of Ireland unequivocal symptoms of improvement, in spite of many embarrassing and counteracting circumstances, continually presented themselves to the view, and that there existed a very general and increasing spirit and desire for the promotion of such improvement, from which the most beneficial results might fairly be expected. Indeed, speaking of the country generally, they add: "With some exceptions, which are unfortunately too notorious, we believe that at no former period did so active a spirit of improvement prevail; nor could well-directed measures for the attainment of that object have been proposed with a better prospect of success than at the present moment."

But this improvement produced no sensible effect upon the mass of labouring people. However brightly the sun of prosperity might gild the eminences of society, the darkness of misery and despair settled upon the masses below. The Commissioners proceed: - "A reference to the evidence of most of the witnesses will show that the agricultural labourer of Ireland continues to suffer the greatest privations and hardships; that he continues to depend upon casual and precarious employment for subsistence; that he is still badly., housed, badly fed, badly clothed, and badly paid for his labour. Our personal experience and observation during our inquiry have afforded us a melancholy confirmation of these statements; and we cannot forbear expressing our strong sense of the patient endurance which the labouring classes have generally exhibited under sufferings greater, we believe, than the people of any other country in Europe have to sustain." It was deeply felt that the well-being of the whole United Kingdom depended upon the removal of the causes of this misery and degradation; for if the Irish people were not elevated, the English working classes must be brought down to their level. The facility of travelling afforded by railways and steam-boats caused such constant intercourse between England and Ireland, that Irish ignorance, beggary, and disease, with all their contagion, physical and moral, would be found intermingling with the British population. It would be impossible to prevent the half- starved Irish peasantry from crossing the Channel, and seeking employment even at low wages, and forming a pestiferous Irish quarter in every town and city. The question then was felt to be one whose settlement would brook no further delay.

It was found that the potato was almost the only food of the Irish millions, and that it formed their chief means of obtaining the other necessaries of life. A large portion of this crop was grown under the con-acre system, to which the poorest of the peasantry were obliged to have recourse, notwithstanding the minute subdivision of land. There were in 1841, 691,000 farms in Ireland exceeding one acre in extent. Nearly one-half of these were under five acres each. The number of proprietors in fee was estimated at 8,000 - a smaller number in proportion to the extent of territory than in any other country of Western Europe except Spain. In Connaught, several proprietors had 100,000 acres each, the proportion of small farms being greater there than in the rest of Ireland. The total number of farms in the province was 155,842, and of these 100,254 consisted of from one to five acres. If all the proprietors were resident among their tenantry, and were in a position to encourage their industry and care for their welfare, matters would not have been so bad; but most of the large landowners were absentees. It frequently happened that the large estates were held in strict limitation, and they were nearly all heavily encumbered. The owners preferred living in England or on the Continent, having let their lands on long leases or in perpetuity to " middlemen," who sublet them for as high rents as they could get. Their tenants again sublet, so that it frequently happened that two, three or four landlords intervened between the proprietors and the occupying tenant, each deriving an interest from the land. The head landlord therefore, though ever so well-disposed, had no power whatever to help the occupying tenants generally, and of those who had the power, very few felt disposed. There were extensive districts without a single resident proprietor, and when the absentees were appealed to by the local relief committees during the famine to assist the perishing people, they seldom took the trouble of answering the application.

The minute subdivision of land which placed the population in a state of such complete dependence upon the potato was first encouraged by the landlords, in order to multiply the number of voters, and increase their parliamentary interest; but subsequently, as the population increased, it became in a great measure the work of the people themselves. The possession of land afforded the only certain means of subsistence, and a farm was therefore divided among the sons of the family, each one, as he was married - which happened early - receiving some share, and each daughter also often getting a slice as her marriage-portion. In vain were clauses against sub-letting inserted in leases; in vain was the erection of new houses prohibited; in vain did the landlord threaten the tenant. The latter relied upon the sympathy of his class to prevent ejectment, and on his own ingenuity to defeat the other impediments to his favourite mode of providing for his family. This process was at length carried to an extreme that became perfectly ludicrous. Instead of each sub-tenant or assignee of a portion of the farm receiving his holding in one compact lot, he obtained a part of each particular quality of land, so that his tenement consisted of a number of scattered patches, each too small to be separately fenced, and exposed to the constant depredations of his neighbours' cattle, thus affording a fruitful source of quarrels, and utterly preventing the possibility of any improved system of husbandry. Lord George Hill stated, among other facts relating to land held in this way, that is, held in "rundale," that one person held his farm in forty-two different patches, and at last gave it up in despair of finding it, and that a field of half an acre was held by twenty-two different persons. It frequently happened where land was held in rundale, or otherwise extensively subdivided, that the landlord refused to recognise any of the tenants but one, who was made responsible for the whole rent, and might be forced to pay the arrears really due by his idle partners. These small patches, however, were not numerous enough to afford "potato gardens" for the still increasing population, and hence arose the con-acre system, by which those who occupied no land were enabled to grow potatoes for themselves. Tempted by the high rent, which varied from 8 to 14 an acre without manure, the farmers gave to the cottiers in their neighbourhood the use of their land merely for the potato crop, generally a quarter of an Irish acre to each. On this the cottier put all the manure he could make by his pig, or the children could scrape off the road during the year, and "planted" his crop of potatoes, which he relied upon as almost the sole support of his family. On it he also fed the pig, which paid the rent, or procured clothes and other necessaries if he had been permitted to pay the rent with his own labour. The labourer thus became a commercial speculator in potatoes. He mortgaged his labour for part of the ensuing year for the rent of his field. If his speculation proved successful, he was able to replace his capital, to fatten his pig, and to support himself and his family, while he cleared off his debt to the farmer. If it failed, his former savings were gone, his heap of manure had been expended to no purpose, and he had lost the means of rendering his pig fit for the market. But his debt to the farmer still remained, and the scanty wages which he could earn at some periods of the year were reduced, not only by the increased number of persons looking for work, but also by the ability of the farmers to employ them. Speculation in potatoes, whether on a large or small scale, had always been hazardous in the southern and westerly portions of Ireland. There had been famines from the failure of that crop at various times, and a remarkably severe one in 1822, when Parliament voted 300,000 for public works and other relief purposes, and subscriptions were raised to the amount of 310,000, of which 44,000 was collected in Ireland. In 1831, violent storms and continual rain brought on another failure of the potato crop in the west of Ireland, particularly along the coast of Galway, Mayo, and Donegal. On this occasion the English public, with ready sympathy, again came forward, and subscriptions were raised, amounting to about 75,000. On several other occasions subsequently, the Government found it necessary to advance money for the relief of Irish distress, invariably occasioned by the failure of the potatoes, and followed by distress and disease. The public and the Legislature had therefore repeated warnings of the danger of having millions of people dependent for existence upon so precarious a crop.

In the year 1845 marked symptoms appeared of the approaching total failure of the national food. The early crop had been saved, but throughout the whole country the late crop was lost. As, however, the grain crop was abundant, the loss was not so severely felt. But the Government were so alarmed that they appointed a commission, consisting of Professors Kane, Lindley, and Playfair, eminent chemists, to inquire into the cause of the failure; but all their skill was unavailing to discover the nature of the mysterious agency by which the destruction was effected. The farmers and peasantry were not deterred from putting in an abundant crop of potatoes next year. In the beginning of the season the crops seemed in excellent condition, and there was every prospect of a plentiful harvest; but suddenly the blight came, as if the crop had been everywhere smitten with lightning, or a withering blast had swept over the whole country. "On the 27th of July," said Father Mathew, " I passed from Cork to Dublin, and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd of August, I beheld one wide waste of putrifying vegetation. In many places the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and bewailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless." First a brown spot appeared on the leaf; the spots gradually increased in number and size until the foliage withered the stem became brittle, and snapped off immediately when touched. In less than a week the whole process of destruction was accomplished. The fields assumed a blackened appearance; the roots were like pigeons' eggs, which gradually rotted away, and were wholly unfit for food. In one week the chief support of the masses was utterly lost.

For a few weeks the cottiers and small farmers managed to eke out a subsistence by the sale of their pigs and any little effects they had. But pigs, fowls, furniture, and clothing soon went, one after another, to satisfy the cravings of hunger. The better class of farmers lived upon their corn and cattle; but they were obliged to dismiss their servants, and this numerous class became the first victims of starvation; for when they were turned off, they were refused admission by their relations, who had not the means of feeding them. Tailors, shoemakers, and other artisans who worked for the lower classes, lost their employment, and became destitute also. "While the means of support failed upon every side, and food rose to such enormous prices that everything that could possibly be eaten was economised, so that the starving dogs were drowned from compassion, the famine steadily advanced from the west and south to the east and north, till it involved the whole population in its crushing grasp. It was painfully interesting to mark the progress of the visitation, even in those parts of the country where its ravages were least felt. The small farmer had only his corn, designed for rent and seed. He was obliged to take it to the mill, to ward off starvation. The children of the poor, placed on short allowance, were suffering fearfully from hunger. Mothers, heart-broken and worn down to skeletons, were seen on certain days proceeding in groups to some distant depot, where Indian meal was to be had at reduced prices, but still double that of the ordinary market. As they returned to their children with their little bags on their heads, a faint joy lit up their famine-stricken features. Those children, who had lived for two days and two nights on a dole of raw turnips, would now be relieved by a morsel of nourishing food. The fathers, who had absented themselves from home in order to avoid the agony of listening to their heart-piercing cries, might now sit down and look their little ones in the face. But, if the mother failed to obtain the relief for which she had travelled so far, what then? Yesterday no breakfast, no dinner, no supper; the same to-day; no prospect of better to-morrow. The destitute rushed to the workhouses, which soon became crowded to excess by those who had been able-bodied men and women, while the aged, the sickly, and the children were left to starve. Overpowered by hunger, they lay down helpless, the ready victims of the pestilence that walked close upon the footsteps of famine, and died in thousands. Let us consider the state of a population such as has been described. Scattered over remote districts, with no gentry resident within many miles, none to whom a complaint could be made but the clergyman, whose energies were overtaxed, how utterly helpless must have been the condition of those doomed people!

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