Ireland, The Famine

Famine In Ireland
Author: Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan

Famine In Ireland


From the fact that its immediate cause was the almost complete failure of
the potato crop, due to the rot, the great Irish famine is known as the
"potato famine." The crop that suffered so was that of 1845, and the famine
began in the following year and reached its climax in 1847. It is estimated
that by this calamity two hundred thousand persons perished. Many
compensating features in connection with this appalling distress have been
pointed out. Some writers friendly toward Ireland have declared that the
famine proved one of the greatest blessings to the country; that it hastened
free trade, better drainage of the island, and the passage of the Land
Improvement Act; that it relieved the overcrowded labor market, led to more
scientific farming, and in other ways produced changes that have been of
lasting benefit. But though all this be true, the misfortune itself gave to
modern history one of its most harrowing chapters.

The population of Ireland in 1845 is supposed to have been nearly nine
millions. The manufactures were small, and the people depended on the potato
crop, and had no other resource in time of scarcity. For several years the
potato yield had been abundant, the country was comparatively prosperous, and
the temperance movement led by Father Mathew promised a happier future. A
great harvest was expected in 1845, but almost at a single stroke this
expectation was blasted; for although the crop was large the greater part of
it was destroyed in the ground, and the potatoes that were gathered" rotted in
pit and storehouse." The farmers taxed all their means and energies to secure
even a larger crop in 1846, but the blight of that year was even more fatal
than the last. To pinching want was added discouragement, and the people sat
in the shadow of a frightful catastrophe. In vain British Government was
called upon to give relief through Parliament, until, in the autumn of 1846,
parliamentary authority was obtained to grant baronial loans. But these and
every local endeavor to mitigate the suffering failed, and the destructive
work of the famine continued, the number of victims increasing, to the end of
that fatal year. The horrors of 1846 were more than equalled by those of the
year that followed, and the woful picture presented by Sir Charles Gavan
Duffy, the distinguished Irish patriot, statesman, and historian, is but too
amply justified by the accepted records of the time.

The condition of Ireland at the opening of the year 1847 is one of the
most painful chapters in the annals of mankind. An industrious and hospitable
race in the pangs of a devouring famine. Deaths of individuals, of husband
and wife, of entire families, were becoming common. The potato blight had
spread from the Atlantic to the Caspian; but there was more suffering in one
parish of Mayo than in all the rest of Europe. From Connaught, where distress
was greatest, came batches of inquests with the horrible verdict "died of
starvation." In some instances the victims were buried "wrapped in a coarse
coverlet," a coffin being too costly a luxury. The living awaited death with a
listlessness that was at once tragic and revolting. Women with dead children
in their arms were seen begging for a coffin to bury them.

Beranger has touched a thousand hearts by the picture of Pauvre Jacques,
who, when the tax-gatherer came in the King's name, was discovered dead on his
miserable pallet. But at Skibbereen, in the fruitful Country Cork whose
seaports were thronged with vessels laden with corn, cattle, and butter for
England, the rate collector told a more tragic tale. Some houses he found
deserted; the owners had been carried to their graves. In one cabin there was
no other occupant than three corpses; in a once prosperous home a woman and
her children had lain dead and unburied for a week; in the fields a man was
discovered so fearfully mangled by dogs that identification was impossible.
The relief committee of the Society of Friends described the state of the town
in language which it was hard to read with dry eyes. The people were dying of
the unaccustomed food which mocked their prayer for daily bread, and were
carried to the graveyard in a coffin from which the benevolent strangers who
had come to their relief had to drop them, like dead dogs, that there might be
a covering for the next corpse in its turn.

"This place is one mass of famine, disease, and death. The poor
creatures, hitherto trying to exist on one meal a day, are now sinking under
fever and bowel complaints, unable to come for their soup, which is not fit
for them. Rice is what their whole cry is for, but we cannot manage this
well, nor can we get the food carried to the houses, from dread of infection.
I have got a coffin constructed with movable sides, to convey the bodies to
the churchyard, in calico bags prepared, in which the remains are wrapped up.
I have just sent it to bring the remains of a poor creature to the grave, who
having been turned out of the only shelter she had, a miserable hut, perished
the night before last in a quarry."

The people saw the harvest they had reared carried away to another
country without an effort, for the most part, to retain it. The sole food of
the distressed class was Indian-meal, which had paid freight and storage in
England, and had been obtained in exchange for English manufacturers. Under a
recent law a peasant who accepted public relief forfeited his holding, and
thousands were ejected under this cruel provision. But landowners were not
content with one process alone; they closed on the people with ejectments,
turned them out on the roads, and plucked down their rooftrees. In more than
one country rents falling due in November for land that no longer yielded food
to the cultivator, were enforced in January. In the southwest the peasantry
had made some frantic efforts to clutch their harvest and to retaliate for
their sufferings in blind vengeance, but the law carried a sharp sword. Eight
counties, or parts of counties, were proclaimed, and a special commission,
after a brief sitting in Clare and Limerick, left eleven peasants for the
gallows. Chief Justice Blackburn took occasion to note that "The state of
things in 1847 was exactly that described by an act passed in 1776." The
disease was permanent, so were the symptoms. One well-head of Irish
discontent was English prejudice, which refuses to listen to any complaint
till it threatens to become dangerous.

It was a fearful time for men who loved their country, not only with deep
affection, but with a wise and forecasting interest. A revolution of the
worst type was in progress. Not the present alone, but the future, was being
laid waste. The marvellous reform accomplished by Father Mathew, the
self-reliance which had grown up in the era of monster meetings, and the moral
teachings of Davis and his friends were being fast swallowed up by this
calamity. The youth and manhood of the middle classes were scrambling for
pauper places from the Board of Works, and the peasants were being transformed
into mendicants by process of law. These calamities, related of a distant and
savage tribe, would move a generous heart; but seeing them befall our own
people, the children of the same mother, and foreseeing all the black,
unfathomable misery they foreshadowed, it was hard to preserve the sober rule
of reason.

The gentry, who were responsible in the first place for the protection of
the people from whom they drew their income, insisted that the calamity was an
imperial one and ought to be borne out of the exchequer of the empire. It was
an equitable claim. If there was no irresistible title of brotherhood, at
lowest the stronger nation had snatched away from the weaker the power of
helping itself, and still drew away during this terrible era half a million
pounds every month in the shape of absentee rents. The demand was put aside
contemptuously. The claim of the Nationalists to reenter on the management of
their own affairs, since it was plain England could not manage them
successfully, was treated as sedition. We were proffered, instead of our own
resources, which were ample -

"Alms from scornful hands, to hands in chains,
Bitterer to taste than death."

All the nations of the earth were appealed to and they gave generously;
but the result was far from being proportionate to the need. During the year
1846 the contributions fell short of two thousand pounds a week. And it was
not forgotten than after the great fire of London, when the citizens were in
deep distress, the Irish contributed twenty thousand fat cattle for their
relief, which at their present value would amount to a sum greater than
England and Europe sent to the aid of Ireland in 1846.

To lie down and die, like cattle in a murrain, was base. No people are
bound to starve while their soil produces food cultivated by their own hands.
No other people in Europe would have submitted to such a fate. But the leader
whom they were accustomed to follow had involved himself in a tangle of false
doctrines by his unhappy "Peace Resolutions," and he exhorted them to endure
all with patience and submission. His son had the amazing assurance to add
that if they starved with complete resignation the repeal of the union was
near at hand.

On the relief committees, doctors, clergymen, and country gentlemen bore
the burden of the work, but a multitude of the gentry stood apart as if the
transaction did not concern them. They were busy in transferring the harvest
to England or clearing the population off their estates. The English
officials in Ireland accused them of jobbing in public works, or quartering
their relations and dependents on the Relief Fund, as overseers, and, in some
extreme cases, of obtaining grants for their own families of money designed
for the suffering poor on their estates. The benevolence of the minority
could not counterbalance these odious offences, and deadly hatred was sown,
which has since borne an abundant harvest.

The state of the country grew worse from day to day. It is difficult now
to realize the condition of the western population in the autumn of 1847; but
a witness of unexceptionable impartiality has painted it in permanent colors.
A young Englishman representing the Society of Friends, who in that tragic
time did work worthy of the Good Samaritan, reported what he saw in Mayo and
Galway in language which for plain vigor rivals the narratives of Defoe. This
is what he saw in Westport:

"The town of Westport was in itself a strange and fearful sight, like
what we read of in beleaguered cities; its streets crowded with gaunt
wanderers, sauntering to and fro with hopeless air and hunger-stricken look; a
mob of starved, almost naked women around the poorhouse clamoring for soup
tickets; our inn, the headquarters of the road-engineer and pay-clerks, beset
by a crowd begging for work."

As he approached Galway, the rural population were found to be in a more
miserable condition: "Some of the women and children that we saw on the road
were abject cases of poverty and almost naked. The few rags they had on were
with the greatest difficulty held together, and in a few weeks, as they are
utterly unable to provide themselves with fresh clothes unless they be given
them, they must become absolutely naked." And in another district: "As we went
along our wonder was not that the people died, but that they lived; and I have
no doubt whatever that in any other country the mortality would have been far
greater; that many lives have been prolonged, perhaps saved, by the long
apprenticeship to want in which the Irish peasant has been trained, and by
that lovely, touching charity which prompts him to share his scanty meal with
his starving neighbor."

The fishermen of the Cladagh, who were induced to send the Whig
Attorney-General to Parliament a few months before, had to pledge the
implements of their calling for a little daily bread. "Even the very nets and
tackle of these poor fishermen, I heard, were pawned, and, unless they be
assisted to redeem them, they will be unable to take advantage of the herring
shoals, even when they approach their coast. In order to ascertain the truth
of this statement, I went into two or three of the largest pawnshops, the
owners of which fully confirmed it and said they had in pledge at least a
thousand pounds' worth of such property and saw no likelihood of its being

In a rural district which he revisited after an interval, he paints a
scene which can scarcely be matched in the annals of a mediaeval plague: "One
poor woman whose cabin I visited said, 'There will be nothing for us but to
lie down and die.' I tried to give her hope of English aid, but alas! her
prophecy has been too true. Out of a population of two hundred forty I found
thirteen already dead from want. The survivors were like walking skeletons;
the men gaunt and haggard, stamped with the livid mark of hunger; the children
crying with pain; the women in some of the cabins too weak to stand. When
there before I had seen cows at almost every cabin, and there were besides
many sheep and pigs owned in the village. But now all the sheep were gone,
all the cows, all the poultry killed, only one pig left; the very dogs which
had barked at me before had disappeared; no potatoes; no oats."

The young man pointed the moral, which these horrible spectacles
suggested, with laudable courage: "I would not now discuss the causes of this
condition, nor attempt to apportion blame to its authors; but of this one fact
there can be no question: that the result of our social system is that vast
numbers of our fellow-countrymen - of the peasantry of one of the richest
nations the world ever knew - have not leave to live. Surely such a social
result as this is not only a national misfortune but a national sin crying
loudly to every Christian citizen to do his utmost to remove it. No one of us
can have a right to enjoy either riches or repose until to the extent of his
ability he strive to wash himself of all share in the guilt of this fearful
inequality, which will be a blot in the history of our country and make her a
byword among the nations."

The weekly returns of the dead were like the bulletins of a fierce
campaign. As the end of the year approached, villages and rural districts,
which had been prosperous and populous a year before, were desolate. In some
places the loss amounted to half the resident population. Even the poorhouses
shut up, and paupers did not escape. More than one in six perished of the
unaccustomed food. The people did not everywhere consent to die patiently.
In Armagh and Down groups of men went from house to house in the rural
districts and insisted on being fed. In Tipperary and Waterford corn stores
and bakers' shops were sacked. In Donegal the people seized upon a flour-mill
and pillaged it. In Limerick five thousand men assembled on Tory Hill and
declared that they would not starve. A local clergyman restrained them by the
promise of speedy relief. "If the Government did not act promptly, he himself
would show them where food could be had." In a few cases crops were carried
away from farms.

The offences which spring from suffering and fear were heard of in many
districts, but they were encountered with instant resistance. There were
thirty thousand men in red jackets, carefully fed, clothed, and lodged, ready
to maintain the law. Four prisoners were convicted at the Galway assizes of
stealing a filly, which they killed and ate to preserve their own lives. In
Enniskillen two boys under twelve years of age were convicted of stealing one
pint of Indian-meal cooked into "stirabout," and Chief Justice Blackburn
vindicated the outraged law by transporting them for seven years. Other
children committed larcenies that they might be sent to jail where there was
still daily bread to be had. In Mayo the people were eating carrion wherever
it could be procured, and the coroner could not keep pace with the inquests;
for the law sometimes spent more to ascertain the cause of a pauper's death
than would suffice to preserve his life.

The social disorganization was a spectacle as afflicting as the waste of
life; it was the waste of whatever makes life worth possessing. All the
institutions which civilize and elevate the people were disappearing, one
after another. The churches were half empty; the temperance reading-rooms
were shut up; the Mechanics' Institute no longer got support; only the jails
and the poorhouses were crowded. A new generation, born in disease and reared
in destitution, pitiless and imbecile, threatened to drag down the nation to
hopeless slavery. Trade was paralyzed; no one bought anything which was not
indispensable at the hour. The loss of the farmers in potatoes was estimated
at more than twenty millions sterling; and with the potatoes the pigs, which
fed on them, disappeared. The seed, procured at a high price in spring, again
failed; time, money, and labor were lost, and another year of famine was
certain. All who depended on the farmer had sunk with him; shopkeepers were
beggared; tradesmen were starving; the priests living on voluntary offerings
were sometimes in fearful distress when the people had no longer anything to

The poor-rate was quite inadequate to support the burden thrown upon it
by the suspension of public works, but there was another claim upon it which
could not wait. When the elections were over and the Government majority
secure, the Treasury called on the poor-law guardians to levy immediately a
special rate for the repayment of a million and a quarter lent by the State in
a previous year. They were warned that, if they refused, their boards would
be dissolved and the rates levied by the authority of the Commissioners. The
guardians in many districts declared that an additional rate could not be
collected. All that could be got would be too little to support the
distressed class. But the Treasury would listen to no excuse, and a dozen
boards were dissolved and paid guardians put in their place. The Treasury had
lent seven millions sterling in 1846; five millions of it had been spent in
making roads which were not needed nor desired, and one million was diverted
from the wages fund to purchase land for this experiment. The aid which the
stronger country proposed to give to the weaker, from the Treasury to which
both contributed, was the remission of one-third of this debt. A blunder in
foreign policy, the escapade of an ambitious minister in India or Africa, has
cost the British taxpayer more in a month than he spent to save millions of
fellow-subjects beyond the Irish Sea.

When the increased mortality was pressed on the attention of the
Government, Lord John Russell replied that the owners of property in Ireland
ought to support the poor born on their estates. It was a perfectly just
proposition if the ratepayers were empowered to determine the object and
method of the expenditure; but prohibiting productive work, and forcing them
to turn strong men into paupers and keep them sweltering in workhouses instead
of laboring to reclaim the waste lands - this was not justice. The Times,
commenting on the new policy, declared that Ireland was as well able to help
herself as France or Belgium, and that the whole earth was doing duty for
inhuman Irish landlords. An unanswerable case, if Ireland, like France and
Belgium, had the power of collecting and applying her own revenue; otherwise
not difficult to answer.

The people fled before the famine to England, America, and the British
colonies. They carried with them the seed of disease and death. In England a
bishop and more than twenty priests died of typhus, caught in attendance on
the sick and dying. The English people clamored against such an infliction,
which it cannot be denied would be altogether intolerable if these fugitives
were not made exiles and paupers by English law. They were ordered home
again, that they might be supported on the resources of their own country; for
though we had no country for the purpose of self-government and
self-protection, we were acknowledged to have a country when the necessity of
bearing burdens arose.

More than a hundred thousand souls fled to the United States and Canada.
The United States maintained sanitary regulations on shipboard which were
effectual to a certain extent. But the emigration to Canada was left to the
individual greed of ship-owners, and the emigrant-ships rivalled the cabins of
Mayo or the fever-sheds of Skibbereen. Crowded and filthy, carrying double
the legal number of passengers, who were ill-fed and imperfectly clothed, and
having no doctor on board, the holds, says an eyewitness, were like the Black
Hole of Calcutta, and deaths occurred in myriads. The survivors, on their
arrival in the new country, continued to die and to scatter death around them.

At Montreal, during nine weeks, eight hundred emigrants perished, and
over nine hundred residents died of diseases caught from emigrants. During
six months the deaths of the new arrivals exceeded three thousand. No
preparations were made by the British Government for the reception or the
employment of these helpless multitudes. The Times pronounced the neglect to
be an eternal disgrace to the British name. Ships carrying German emigrants
and English emigrants arrived in Canada at the same time in a perfectly
healthy state. The Chief Secretary for Ireland was able to inform the House
of Commons that of a hundred thousand Irishmen who fled to Canada in a year,
six thousand one hundred perished on the voyage, four thousand one hundred on
their arrival, five thousand two hundred in the hospitals, and one thousand
nine hundred in the towns to which they repaired. The Emigrant Society of
Montreal paints the result during the whole period of the famine in language
not easily to be forgotten:

"From Grosse Island up to Port Sarnia, along the borders of our great
river, on the shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie, wherever the tide of
immigration has extended are to be found one unbroken chain of graves repose
fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, in a commingled heap - no stone
marking the spot. Twenty thousand and upward have gone down to their graves!"

This was fate which was befalling our race at home and abroad as the year
1847 closed. There were not many of us who would not have given our lives
cheerfully to arrest this ruin, if we could only see a possible way - but no
way was visible.

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