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The Famine


The Famine - Government Measures of Relief - Inadequacy of the Poor Law System - Vast Extent of the Unions - The Public Works - Abuses and Demoralisation - Enormous Expenditure of Public Money - The Temporary Relief Act - Gratuitous Rations to Three Millions of People- Mr. Trevelyan, Secretary of the Treasury, on the Irish Crisis - Exertions and Influence of Father Mathew; his Appeal to the English Government - Effect of the Temperance Movement in preserving the Public Peace during the Famine - Intemperance encouraged at the Relief Works - Organisation of Relief Committees - Gradual Decrease of the Famine - Measures adopted for the Mitigation of the Famine Fever - Consumption of Indian Corn during the Distress-The "British Association " - Munificence of the United States - Exertions of Private Individuals - Tabular View of Contributions during the Famine.
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As in the whole history of the world, perhaps, so great a calamity as the Irish famine never called for sympathy and relief, so never was a more generous response elicited by any appeal to humanity. The Government and the Legislature did all that was possible with the means at their disposal, and the machinery that already existed, or could be hastily constructed, to meet the overwhelming emergency. The newly-established poor law system, though useful as far as it went, was quite inadequate to meet such great distress. It had been passed while the country was comparatively prosperous, and contained no provision for such a social disorganisation as this famine. By the Acts of 1 & 2 Vic., c. 56, no out-door relief whatever could be given under any circumstances. " This unyielding enactment was manifestly unsuitable amid such extended destitution. The workhouses were soon filled with the old and the sick, with widows and orphans, and with the helpless of every kind, who were of course the first to feel the pressure, and to seek for shelter. Even for these, so greatly increased was their number, the workhouse accommodation was wholly inadequate; yet, when the houses were once filled, there remained no legal provision for the destitute. In-door relief was given to the class who might have been safely relieved out of doors; while the able-bodied, who of all others required the most stringent test of destitution, received out-door relief indiscriminately, to an enormous extent, on the public works.

The size of the unions was also a great impediment to the working of the Poor Law. They were three times the extent of the corresponding divisions in England. In Munster and Connaught, where there was the greatest amount of destitution, and the least amount of local agency available for its relief, the unions were much larger than in the more favoured provinces of Ulster and Leinster. The union of Ballina comprised a region of upwards of half a million acres, and within its desert tracts the famine assumed its most appalling form, the workhouse being more than forty miles distant from some of the sufferers. As a measure of precaution, the Government had secretly imported and stored a large quantity of Indian corn, as a cheap substitute for the potato, which would have served the purpose much better had the people been instructed in the best modes of cooking it. It was placed in commissariat depots, along the western coast of the island, where the people were not likely to be supplied on reasonable terms, through the ordinary channels of trade. The public works consisted principally of roads, on which the people were employed as a sort of supplement to the poor-law. Half the cost was a free grant from the Treasury, and the other half was charged upon the barony in which the works were undertaken. The expense incurred under the "Labour Rate Act, 9 and 10 Vic., c. 107," amounted to 4,766,789. It was almost universally admitted, when the pressure was Qver, that the system of public works adopted was a great mistake; and it seems wonderful that such grievous blunders could have been made with so many able statesmen and political economists at the head of affairs and in the service of the Government. The public works undertaken consisted in the breaking up of good roads to level hills and fill hollows, and the opening of new roads in places where they were not required - work which the people felt to be useless, and which they performed only under strong compulsion, being obliged to walk to them in all weathers for miles, in order to earn the price of a breakfast of Indian meal. Had the labour thus comparatively wasted been devoted to the draining, sub-soiling, and fencing of the farms, connected with a comprehensive system of arterial drainage, immense and lastingbene fit to the country would have been the result, especially as works so well calculated to ameliorate the soil and guard against the moisture of the climate, might have been connected with a system of instruction in agricultural matters of which the peasantry stood so much in need, and to the removal of the gross ignorance which had so largely contributed to bring about the famine. As it was, enormous sums were wasted. Much needless hardship was inflicted on the starving people in compelling them to work in frost and rain when they were scarcely able to walk, and, after all the vast outlay, very few traces of it remained in permanent improvements on the face of the country. The system of Government relief works " failed chiefly through the same difficulty which impedes every mode of relief, whether public or private - namely, the want of machinery to work it. It was impossible suddenly to procure an efficient staff of officers for an undertaking of such enormous magnitude - the employment of a whole people. The overseers were necessarily selected in haste; many of them were corrupt, and encouraged the misconduct of the labourers. In many cases the relief committees, unable to prevent maladministration, yielded to the torrent of corruption, and individual members only sought to benefit their own dependants. The people everywhere flocked to the public works; labourers, cottiers, artisans, fishermen, farmers, men, women, and children - all, whether destitute or not, sought for a share of the public money. In such a crowd, it was almost impossible to discriminate properly. They congregated in masses on the roads, idling under the name of work, the really destitute often unheeded and unrelieved because they had no friend to recommend them. All the ordinary employments were neglected; there was no fishing, no gathering of seaweed, no collecting of manure. The men who had employment feared to lose it by absenting themselves for any other object; those unemployed spent their time in seeking to obtain it. The whole industry of the country seemed to be engaged in road-making. It became absolutely necessary to put an end to it, or the cultivation of the land would be neglected. Works undertaken on the spur of the moment, not because they were needful, but merely to employ the people, were in many cases ill-chosen, and the execution equally defective. The labourers, desirous to protect their employment, were only anxious to give as little labour as possible, in which their overlookers or gaugers in many cases heartily agreed. The favouritism, the intimidation, the wholesale jobbing practised in many cases were shockingly demoralising. The problem was to support 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 of destitute persons, and this was in a great measure effected, though, at an enormous cost to the empire.

The following statement of the numbers receiving rations, and the total expenditure under the Act in each of the four provinces, compared with the amount of population, and the annual value assessed for poor-rate, may serve to illustrate the comparative means and destitution of each province: -

Population.Valuation.Greatest number of rations givenTotal Expenditure
Ulster2,386,3733,320,133346,517170,598
Leinster1,973,7314,624,542450,606308,068
Munster2,396,1613,777,1031,013,826671,554
Connaught1,418,8591,465,643745,652526,048
8,175,12413,187,4212,556,6011,676,268

In order to induce the people to attend to their ordinary spring work, and put in the crops, it was found necessary to adopt the plan of distributing free rations. On the 20th of March, therefore, a reduction of twenty per cent, of the numbers employed on the works took place, and the process of reduction went on until the new system of gratuitous relief was brought into full operation. The authority under which this was administered was called the "Temporary Relief Act," which came into full operation in the month of July, when the destitution was at its height, and three millions of people received their daily rations. Sir John Burgoyne truly described this as "the grandest attempt ever made to grapple with famine over a whole country." Never in the history of the world were so many persons fed in such a manner by the public bounty. It was a most anxious time - a time of tremendous labour and responsibility to those who had the direction of this vast machinery. A member of the Board of Works thus describes the feeling which no doubt pervaded most of those that were officially connected with the administration of relief: - " I hope never to see such a winter and spring again. I can truly say, in looking back upon it even now, that it appears to me not a succession of weeks and days, but one long continuous day, with occasional intervals of night-mare sleep. Rest one could never have, when one felt that in every minute lost a score of men might die." Mr. Trevelyan was then Secretary of the Treasury, and it was well that a man so enlightened, energetic, and benevolent, occupied the post at such a time. He was indefatigable in his efforts to mitigate the calamity, and he wrote an able account of "the Irish Crisis" in the "Edinburgh Review." Having presented the dark side of the picture in faithfully recording the abuses that had prevailed, it is right to give Mr. Trevelyan's testimony as to the conduct of the relief committees during this supreme hour of the nation's agony. "It is a fact very honourable to Ireland that among upwards of 2,000 local bodies to whom advances were made under this act, there is not one to which, so far as the Government is informed, any suspicion of embezzlement attaches."

The clergy, Protestant and Eoman Catholic, almost the only resident gentry in several of the destitute.districts, worked together on the committees with commendable zeal, diligence, and unanimity. Among the Eoman Catholic clergy, Father Mathew was at that time by far the most influential and popular. The masses of the peasantry regarded him as almost an inspired apostle. During the famine months, he exerted himself with wonderful energy and prudence, first, in his correspondence with different members of the Government, earnestly recommending and urging the speedy adoption of measures of relief; and next in commending those measures to the people, dissuading the hungry from acts of violence, and preaching submission and resignation under that heavy dispensation of Providence. Of this there are ample proofs in the letters now published in his biography. "It is not to harrow your feelings, dear Mr, Trevelyan," he wrote, "I tell this tale of woe. No; but to excite your sympathy in behalf of our miserable peasantry. It is rumoured that the capitalists in the corn and flour trade are endeavouring to induce the Government not to protect the people from famine, but to leave them at their mercy. I consider this a cruel and unjustifiable interference. I am so unhappy at the prospect before us, and so horror- struck by the apprehension of our destitute people falling into the ruthless hands of the corn and flour traders, that I risk becoming troublesome, rather than not lay my humble opinions before you." Again - " I hail with delight the humane, the admirable measures for relief announced by my Lord John Russell; they have given universal satisfaction. But of what avail will all this be, unless the wise precautions of Government will enable the toiling workman, after exhausting his vigour during a long day, to earn a shilling, to purchase with that shilling a sufficiency of daily food for his generally large and helpless family?" Father Mathew earnestly pleaded for out-door relief, in preference to the workhouse, foreseeing the danger of sundering the domestic bonds, which operate so powerfully as moral restraints in Ireland. The beautiful picture which he drew of the Irish peasant's home in his native land was not too highly coloured, as applied to the great majority of the people: - "The bonds of blood and affinity, dissoluble by death alone, associate in the cabins of the Irish peasantry not only the husband, wife, and children, but the aged parents and the married couple and their destitute relatives, even to the third and fourth degree of kindred. God forbid that political economists should dissolve these ties! should violate these beautiful charities of nature and the Gospel! I have often found my heart throb with delight when I beheld three or four generations seated around the humble board and blazing hearth; and I offered a silent prayer to the great Father of all that the gloomy gates of the workhouse should never separate those whom such tender social chains so fondly link together." If the temperance organisation established by Father Mathew had been perverted to political purposes by the Repeal agitation, there is no doubt that it contributed in a very large degree to the preservation of life and property during the two awfully trying years of famine. " It is a fact," said Father Mathew - "and you are not to attribute my alluding to it to vanity - that the late provision riots have occurred in the districts where the temperance movement has not been encouraged. Our people are as harmless in their meetings as flocks of sheep, unless when inflamed and maddened by intoxicating drink. Were it not for the temperate habits of the greater portion of the people of Ireland, our unhappy country would be before now one wide scene of tumult and bloodshed." His indignation was excited by one source of demoralisation connected with the relief works. Writing to Mr. Trevelyan towards the close of 1846, he said - " I am not called upon to give an opinion as to the utility of the public works now in progress; necessity gave them birth, and they must be executed. But it afflicted me deeply to find the benevolent intentions of Government frustrated, and the money so abundantly distributed made a source of demoralisation and intemperance. Wherever these benevolent works are commenced, public-houses are immediately opened; the magistrates, with a culpable facility, granting licences. The overseers and pay-clerks generally hold their offices in these pestiferous erections; even some of these officers have pecuniary interest in those establishments. It often happens that the entire body of labourers, after receiving payment, instead of buying provisions for their famishing families, consume the greater part in the purchase of intoxicating drink. The same deplorable abuse takes place on the different railway lines."

The number of persons relieved in the several workhouses had continued to increase during the year 1846; the total being 114,205, which was an increase of more than 9,000 in three months. On the 1st of January, 1846, there were 42,000 persons relieved in 123 workhouses, and the entire cost of relief during the year amounted to 316,000. The system of affording relief through the agency of public works having broken down, as we have already seen, it was determined to expand the poor-law system, so as to meet the present emergency in giving out-door relief. The Act 10 & 11 Vic., c. 7, therefore, directed the formation of relief committees, each consisting of the magistrates, a clergyman of each persuasion, the Poor Law guardian, and the three highest ratepayers in each electoral division, with a finance committee of four gentlemen to control the expenditure of each union. Inspecting officers were also appointed; a central commission, sitting in Dublin, was to superintend the working of the whole system. This commission consisted of Sir John Burgoyne, chairman; Mr. Twissleton, Poor Law Commissioner; Mr. Reddington, Under-Secretary; Colonel Jones, Chairman of the Board of Works; and Colonel M'Gregor, who was at the head of the constabulary. The test of destitution applied consisted in requiring the personal attendance of all who needed relief, excepting only the sick and impotent, and children under the age of nine, and that the relief should be given in cooked food, in portions sufficient to maintain health and strength. It was usual to give it in this manner, because even the most destitute often disposed of the meal for tea, tobacco, or spirits. But meal cooked into stir-about could not be thus bartered. Depots of corn and meal were formed, mills and ovens were erected; huge boilers, cast specially for the purpose, were sent over from England, for preparing the stir-about, and large supplies of clothing were collected, for the people were almost naked as well as starving. In July, 1847, the system reached its highest point. 3,020,712 persons then received separate rations; of whom, 2,265,534 were adults, and 755,178 were children. This vast multitude was, however, rapidly lessened at the approach of harvest, which happily was not affected by the disease. Eood became comparatively abundant, and labour in demand. By the middle of August, relief was discontinued in nearly one half of the unions, and ceased altogether on September 12. It was limited by the act to the 1st October. This was the second year in which upwards of 3,000,000 of people had been fed out of the hands of the magistrates in Ireland; but it was now done more effectually than at first. Organised armies, it was said, had been rationed before; but neither ancient nor modern history can furnish a parallel to the fact that upwards of three millions of persons were fed every day in the neighbourhood of their own homes, by administrative arrangements emanating from, and controlled by, one central office. The expense of this great undertaking amounted to 1,559,212 - a moderate sum in comparison with the extent of the service performed, and in which performance the machinery of the poor-law unions was found to afford most important aid. Indeed, without such aid, the service could hardly have been performed at all; and the anticipations of the advantages to be derived from the poor-law organisation in such emergencies were fully verified.

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