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The Irish Crisis, 1846-47 page 3


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Skibbereen was described as " one mass of famine, disease, and death; the poor rapidly sinking under fever, dysentery, and starvation." There, as early as the first week in February, 1847, there was constant use for a coffin with movable sides, in which the dead were borne to the grave, and there dropped into their last resting-place. On the whole, the resignation of this stricken people was something wonderful. Outrage was rare, and the violations of the rights of property were not at all so numerous as might have been expected, from persons rendered desperate by hunger; and where such things occurred, the depredators were not those who suffered the severest distress. But as the famine proceeded in its desolating course, and people became familiar with its horrors, the demoralising effects of which we have read in such visitations were exhibited in Ireland also. Next to the French, the Irish have been remarkable for their attention to the dead, as well as for the strength of their domestic affections. They had a decent pride in having a respectable " wake " and funeral, when they lost any member of the family; and however great their privations were, they made an effort to spare something for the last sad tokens of respect for those they loved. But now there was no mourning for the dead, and but little attention paid to the dying. The ancient and deep-rooted custom with regard to funerals was " swept away like chaff before the wind." The funerals were rarely attended by more than three or four relatives or friends. Sometimes the work of burial was left entirely to persons hired to do it, and in many cases it was not done at all for five or six days after death, and then it was only by threats and rewards that any persons could be got to perform the dangerous duty. I saw," said Mr. R. D. Webb, of Dublin, one of the agents of the Society of Friends, "many graves made within a few yards of the cabin door. In some places bodies have been interred under the floors on which they died; and in others they have been covered by the ruins of the cabins they occupied; this mode of burial being resorted to as the least hazardous, troublesome, and expensive." The demoralisation appeared further in the abuses connected with the distribution of relief. The reports of the Commissioners have stated that, in those districts where the relief committees worked together with zeal and in good faith, the administration was excellent, checking fraud and imposture, while it relieved the really distressed. But in some districts this was unhappily not the case. Abuses existed, varying from apathy and neglect to connivance at frauds and misappropriation of the funds. "Gross impositions were daily practised by the poor. "The dead or absent were personated; children were lent for a few days in order to give the appearance of large families, and thus entitle the borrowers to a greater number of rations. Almost the whole population, in many cases, alleged poverty and looked for relief; and then, conceiving the receipt of cooked food a degradation, they endeavoured to compel the issue of raw meal. One universal spirit of mendicancy pervaded the people, to which in several places the committees offered no opposition. Yielding to intimidation, or seeking for popularity, they were willing to place the whole population indiscriminately on the lists to be supported by public charity. In some cases they even sought for a share of it themselves. It is stated in the reports of the Commissioners that gentlemen of station and property were not ashamed to sanction the distribution of rations to their servants and labourers, or to their own tenants. The same persons, while willing to give to those who did not need it, frequently disregarded the sufferings of the starving poor. This painful subject may be concluded in the words of a gentleman, who had full opportunity of knowing the abuses practised in one of the worst parts of the country Had I not been an eye-witness, I could scarcely have conceived it possible that the awful visitation with which this country is afflicted should have produced such an utter disregard of integrity in the administration of its relief."

Among the instances of intimidation, a gentleman of landed property related a case, which more than anything, perhaps, showed the demoralisation produced among the Roman Catholic peasantry. He thus wrote to the Relief Commissioners: - "I know of the most shocking instance of this, where shameless, worthless farmers came in bodies, and compelled the priest by threats to give them the meal intended for the poor. In this very parish a scene occurred truly scandalous. The British Association gave our parish priest three tons of meal. On its arrival the riotous conduct of the population was such, I had to go out, and the priest begged of me to take in the meal and store it for him. I did so. On the third day after, he took it to the parish chapel, where a scene occurred which baffles description; and in the end this donation was totally misapplied, as the destitute got nothing, and those well off everything. I can prove that persons retailing meal, whose houses at the moment contained many hundred pounds' weight, received large quantities of it. The priest, poor man, came to me afterwards, and said that for the universe he would not distribute another pound of meal. It appears that when he attempted to do what was right, a regular scene of intimidation ensued; he was threatened even with personal violence, and the instant demolition of the chapel itself; and he was absolutely obliged to give away the food to those who did not require it. Now, this is only one instance; but one under my own eye, where an honest man was made the victim to this species of intimidation."

The Marquis of Lansdowne, in a speech delivered in the House of Lords on the 25th of January, 1847, gave an estimate, as accurate as the best calculation could make it, of the loss in money value that had been occasioned by the failure of the crops in Ireland. " Taking a valuation of 10 per acre for potatoes, and 3 10s. for oats, the deficiency on the potato crop alone amounted to 11,350,000, while on the crop of oats it amounted to 4,660,000, or to a total value of 16,010,000 for the whole of a country which, if it could not be said to be the poorest, was certainly not one of the richest in the world. In weight the loss was 9,000,000 or 10,000,000 tons of potatoes. The whole loss had been equivalent to the absolute destruction of 1,500,000 arable acres." On the same day, Lord John Russell, then Prime Minister, gave a statement of what the Government had done during the recess for the relief of the Irish population, in pursuance of acts passed in the previous session. He stated that an immense staff of servants had been employed by the Board of Public Works - upwards of 11,000 persons - giving employment to half a million of labourers, representing 2,000,000 of souls; the expense for the month of January being estimated at from 700,000 to 800,000.

It was proposed to form, in certain districts, relief committees, which should be empowered to receive subscriptions, levy rates, and take charge of donations from the Government; and that out of the fund thus raised they should establish soup kitchens, and deliver rations to the famishing inhabitants. Sir John Burgoyne, Inspector-General of Fortifications, was appointed to superintend the works. Lord John Russell referred to measures for draining and reclaiming waste land in Ireland, and to advances of money for this purpose to the proprietors, to be repaid in instalments spread over a number of years. On a subsequent day, in answer to questions from Mr. Roebuck, the noble lord gave a statement of the sums that had already been advanced. 2,000,000 had been issued on account of the Poor Employment Act of the last session. He expected that not less than 500,000 or 600,000 a month would be spent from the present time until August, and he calculated the whole expenditure would not be less than 7,000,000. There was great difference of opinion on the subject of the Government schemes, the operation of which will be noticed hereafter. A counter-scheme for the establishment of reproductive works deserves to be noticed, for the interest it excited and the attention it occupied for years afterwards - namely, the railway plan of Lord George Bentinck. Acts of Parliament, he said, had been passed for 1,582 miles of railway in Ireland, of which only 123 miles had then been completed, while 2,600 miles had been completed in England. In order to encourage the formation of Irish railways, therefore, he proposed that for every 100 expended by the companies 200 should be lent by the Government at the same interest at which they borrowed the money, Mr. Hudson, who was " chairman of 1,700 miles of railroad," pledging his credit that the Government would not lose a shilling by the transaction. By adopting this plan they could give reproductive employment to 109,000 men in different parts of the country, for earthworks, fences, drains, and water-courses connected with the lines. This would give support to 550,000 souls on useful work, tend to develop the resources of the country, and produce such improvement that the railways constructed would add 23,000,000 to the value of landed property in twenty-five years, and would pay 22,500 a-year to the poor-rates. The purchase of land for the railways would moreover place 1,250,000 in the hands of Irish proprietors, for the employment of fresh labour, and 240,000 in the hands of the occupying tenants for their own purposes. The Government also would reap from the expenditure of 24,000,000 on railways in Ireland, an enormous increase of revenue in the increased consumption of articles of excise and customs. The noble lord's speech, which lasted two hours and a half, was received with cheers from both sides of the House.

Leave was given to bring in the bill, though it was strongly objected to by Lord. John Russell, Mr. Labouchere, and other members of the Government. It was also opposed by Sir Robert Peel, who exposed the unsoundness of the economic principles involved in it. The bill was rejected by a majority of 204, the numbers being 118 for the second reading, and 322 against it.

Notwithstanding this decision, loans were subsequently advanced to certain Irish railways, amounting to 620,000, so that the objection of the Government was more to the extent than to the principle of Lord George Bentinck's measure.

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