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5.The Suffering during the Famine


The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate the suffering and hardship the poor of Ireland had to endure during the Famine, consisting mainly of period reports and eyewitness accounts regarding the starvation and food exports, the brutality of evictions, the unbearable conditions found in the workhouses and the ensuing mortality and emigration. According to the Census of 1851, there was a decline in the population of Ireland of approximately 20 percent to the reported figure of 6,552,385 (Ranelagh 110). The census commissioners at the time estimated the number of dead at the total of 1,383,350 and as Ranelagh observes, that was “certainly an underestimate since where whole families died, no returns were made” and he adds that “1,445,587 Irish people emigrated, mostly to America, in the same period” (110). Yet at the same time, in another part of the United Kingdom, in Britain, as Churchill proudly wrote: “The age … was one of formidable industrial advance. It was the Railway Age. By 1848 some five thousand miles of railroads had been built in the United Kingdom. Speed of transport and increasing output were the words of the day” (48). In addition to that, George Trevelyan in his Shortened History of England declared that “the country-houses and farmsteads of England were never more wealthy, populous, and happy than during the mid-Victorian age” (481). That was certainly true and when Kee compares the two countries and comments on the distress in Ireland during the Famine, he notices that “in England, unlike in Ireland, even the poorest could afford food other than the potato, and no other crop except the potato was affected in either country” (79). Furthermore, Kee explains the economic status of most cottiers in Ireland and the importance of the potato: “The poorest of all simply hired out their labour in return not for a wage, but for a small plot on which to grow them. In these circumstances, if the potato were to fail, the social consequences were not hard to predict” (78). In Miller’s opinion, “the Great Famine was largely the result of Ireland’s colonial and grossly inequitable social system” and furthermore, he believes that “the continued exportation of Ireland’s grain, cattle, and other foodstuffs to feed British markets while the Irish perished from hunger was an especially poignant example of Ireland’s political and economic subservience to British interests” (286). The reality that the food exports from Ireland were not in any way limited by the government was, according to Ranelagh, “one of the most remarkable facts about the famine period” and as he further estimates, “an average of £ 100,000 of food was exported from Ireland every month: almost throughout, Ireland remained a net exporter of food” (115). The poorest Irish had another serious problem when the Famine appeared. Their dependence on the potato was such that, as Woodham-Smith notes, “in the backward areas where famine struck hardest, cooking any food other than the potato had become a lost art.” Trevelyan wrote about the poorest Irish that: “There is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of the potato. Bread is scarcely ever seen, and an oven is unknown” (qtd. in Woodham-Smith 71). The reason why the Irish did not eat anything else than potatoes is explained in Routh’s letter to Trevelyan dated January 1, 1846, where he claims that:

The Irish people did not regard wheat, oats and barley as food – they were grown to pay the rent and to pay the rent was the first necessity of life in Ireland. It would be a desperate man who ate up his rent, with the certainty before him of eviction and “death by slow torture. (qtd. in Woodham-Smith 72)

The Irish peasants were so oppressed, as tenants liable to pay such extortionate rates, their status as tenants so insecure and with such a weak claim to the land they worked, that it led to an overall attitude to pay at any cost. John O'Connell, the son of the so-called ‘Liberator’ said: “I thank God I live among a people who would rather die of hunger than defraud their landlords of rent!” (qtd. in Ellis). Furthermore, as Woodham-Smith explains, the Irish peasants were “furiously resentful when food left the market towns under the eyes of the hungry populace, protected by a military escort of overwhelming strength” (72). From Waterford, the Commissariat officer wrote to Trevelyan, on April 24, 1846: “The barges leave Clonmel once a week for this place, with the export supplies under convoy which, last Tuesday, consisted of 2 guns, 50 cavalry and 80 infantry escorting them on the banks of the Suir as far as Carrick.” As Woodham-Smith adds, “It was a sight which the Irish people found impossible to understand and impossible to forget” (72). In the first stages of the famine, the Irish protested:

A riot, with loss of life, occurred at Dungarvan, County Waterford, on September 29. A crowd of starving unemployed entered the town, threatened merchants and shopkeepers, ordering them not to export grain, and plundered shops….the Ist Royal Dragoons were called out; the crowd began to pelt them with stones… the officer commanding the Dragoons, Captain Sibthorp, gave the order to fire… into the crowd, which then retreated. Several men were wounded and two were left lying on the ground, dead….The British Government now took strong steps to defeat anti-export disturbances, and Trevelyan arranged for the provisioning, with beef, pork and biscuit, of 2,000 troops, formed into mobile columns “to be directed on particular points at very short notice.” Provisions for six weeks were sufficient, wrote Trevelyan, because “food riots are quite different from organized rebellion and are not likely to be of long duration.” (Woodham-Smith 120)

Moreover, as Kee notes, the food policy espoused by Trevelyan dictated that the assistance should be as limited as possible and “even if people could get tickets and earn money from the public works, owing to the lateness of Trevelyan’s reluctant order for more Indian corn there were still many weeks before the new supply for cheap sale from the government depots could be made available” (Kee 90). When some local relief officers distributed small amounts of food, they were “reprimanded … for this action which ‘undermined market forces’ and ordered … to close down at once” (91). When the second failure of the potato crop occurred, Trevelyan and Wood decided that they would adhere to the Free Trade principles and there would be no “Government importation of food from abroad and no interference with the laws of supply and demand; … the provision of food for Ireland was to be left entirely to private enterprise and private traders” (Woodham-Smith 86). When it appeared that the crops would fail again, Trevelyan confirmed his intention to terminate the relief by arguing that:

The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop only makes it more necessary. … Whatever may be done hereafter, these things should be stopped now, or you run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years. (Kee 86)

Trevelyan’s concerns about a paralysis of private enterprise was not justified because Woodham-Smith illustrates the profits and greed of food merchants by confirming that already in 1846, “prices rocketed and speculators made fortunes out of Indian corn.” Mr. Hewetson wrote on December 30 that “£40,000 and £80,000 were spoken of as having been made by merchants” in Cork, and he wished Government would do “something to check the extortionate prices,” but supposed they were “according to the spirit of trade and therefore legitimate” (162). Jackson offers insight into the supposed relief measures and explains: “Irish grain bought in England was shipped by relief committees to Ireland and resold there at half its cost. The starving peasants had no money; so it was bought up by speculators, who reshipped it to England, where the relief committee bought it a second time, to send it round the circle again and again” (245). In the time of the most severe distress, a Royal Duke in England, did not refrain from making callous statements about the Irish being able to endure extreme hardship: “I understand that rotten potatoes and seaweed – or even grass – properly mixed, afford a very wholesome and nutritious food. We all know that Irishmen can live upon anything, and there is plenty grass in the fields even if the potatoes should fail” (qtd. in Jackson 245).

The Famine created such a calamity that “contemporary observers were horrified by scenes of suffering unparalleled in recent European experience” (Miller 284). Miller gives an example and states that “in 1846 the absentee landlord Nicholas Cummins found the cabins on his west Cork estate near Skibbereen inhabited by “famished and ghastly skeletons … such frightful spectres as no words can describe” and Cummins later wrote that “their demonic yells are still ringing in my ears and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain” (284-85). When Elihu Burritt visited Skibbereen in February 1847, he described what he saw:

On our way, we passed several companies of men, women, and children at work, all enfeebled and emaciated by destitution. Women … were sitting by the road-side, breaking stone. It was painful to see human labour and life struggling among the lowest interests of society. Men, once athletic labourers, were trying to eke out a few miserable days to their existence, by toiling upon these works. Poor creatures! Many of them are already famine-stricken. … there are thousands of men who rise in the morning and go forth to labour with their picks and shovels in their hands, who are irrecoverably doomed to death. No human aid can save them. … Still they go forth uncomplaining to their labour and toil, cold, and half naked upon the roads, and divide their eight or ten pence worth of food at night among a sick family of five or eight persons.

Kee presents a multitude of eyewitness accounts as the Famine progressed. A justice of the peace wrote about the scenes he had witnessed in County Mayo: “The heart sickens at the sight of so many fellow creatures all but dead. Should even public works commence, many, many, many are not able to work, they are so debilitated from want of food. I see hundreds of women and children going through the stubble fields striving to get old stalk of potato” (87). But as Kee further demonstrates, having work did not amount to being saved from starving. “At Skibbereen men were working on the roads, weak and exhausted for want of food, without being paid for a fortnight” and he continues by quoting James MacHale, the parish priest of Hollymount, County Mayo:

Deaths, I regret to say, innumerable from starvation are occurring every day; the bonds of society are almost dissolved….The pampered officials … removed as they are from these scenes of heart-rending distress, can have no idea of them and don’t appear to give themselves much trouble about them – I ask them in the name of humanity, is this state of society to continue and who are responsible for these monstrous evils? (qtd. in Kee 88)

In another first-hand account a justice of the peace, writing to the Duke of Wellington, described how in one hovel which he entered:

…six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in a fever – four children, a woman and what had once been a man… (qtd. in Kee 92)

By 1847, the Treasury had decided that all government relief, such as under the Soup Kitchen Act, was to be terminated and instead, the amended Poor Law allowed providing outdoor relief. It was to be financed by the Poor Law rates, but there was one provision, the Gregory Clause, which stated that anyone who had more than a quarter of an acre of land was not eligible. Woodham–Smith suspects that it was the parsimony of the government and their extreme short-sightedness and accuses “Russell and his advisors that, by forcing the famine-stricken applicant for relief to give up every possession, they were creating fresh armies of paupers” and there were even some government officials, such as Lord Clarendon, who “inquired if it were wise to compel a man to become a pauper, when he was not one already, in order to be saved from starvation“ (408). The Cork Examiner wrote in October 1847:

We foresee that the rural population – particularly along the coasts – will pour itself into the workhouses. The necessity will be stronger than last year. Then the people had the government works … to look to. Now they have none. The consequences for the union throughout the country must be dreadful. The houses cannot contain them all. Nor can the rate-payers pay for them all. We should not wonder if these workhouses became the charnel houses of the whole rural population. (qtd. in Kee 96)

The death rate among the workhouse population soared and as someone wrote from Ballinasloe, County Galway: “The streets are daily thronged with moving skeletons. The fields are strewn with dead….The course of Russell, more terrible than the course of Cromwell, is upon us …” and Irish newspapers, such as the Dublin Freeman’s Journal, started to ask: “Is there justice in the world that such things could be, in the middle of the nineteenth century and within twelve hours’ reach of the opulence, grandeur and power of a court and capital the first upon the earth” (Kee 96). At the time when the Irish peasantry were on the verge of physical destruction, demoralised and passive, and as the Census Commission in 1851 noted: “The forbearance of the Irish peasantry and the calm submission with which they bore the deadliest ills that can fall on man can scarcely be paralleled in the annals of any nation” (Ranelagh 116), Lord John Russell responded to the pleas for help in the House of Commons by stating in May 1849:

I do not think any effort of this House would, in the present unfortunate state of Ireland, be capable of preventing the dreadful scenes of suffering and death that are now occurring in Ireland. I distinctly repeat that I do not believe it is in the power of this House to do so. … I do not feel justified in asking the House for an additional advance of £100,000 which at least would be necessary if the House should say there should be no possible cause of starvation in Ireland. (qtd. in Kee 101)

Some of the most serious charges in support of genocide are the evictions which were carried out between 1846 and 1855 when about “half a million or more persons suffered evictions from their homes, often under especially heartless and brutal circumstances” (Miller 287). Miller also states that even before the Famine, Irish landlords had gradually been increasing their pressure on their tenants in order to consolidate their landholding and the Famine presented them the opportunity to do so and that already in 1846, large numbers of farmers consumed their grain and livestock which had always been used to pay the rent and “even large farmers and middlemen fell into arrears as subtenants defaulted, taxes increased, and grain and cattle prices plummeted after the repeal of the Corn Laws. In general, landlords refused to grant abatements, responding instead with distraining orders and eviction notices” (287).

In 1847, when the Poor Law was amended, evictions were made even easier because, according to these amendments, nobody who was in possession of more than a quarter-acre of land was eligible for government relief. According to Miller, “before the Famine smallholders, cottiers, and rundale cultivators, especially in the Irish-speaking West, had clung tenaciously to their scraps of land. Now, defeated and demoralized, they offered little resistance and fled by the thousands to the nearest ports” (299); however, some of them did not give up and he gives an example of their determination to preserve the seed by letting their family die of hunger so as to be able to keep the land (303). Furthermore, as Miller explains, “the wholesale clearances of grieving paupers, carried out as they were under British laws and often enforced by British troops, inextricably linked the government to the cruellest actions of the Irish landlord class” (305). In one such case, “the inhabitants of three villages were evicted by Mr. Walshe, with the help of a company of the 49th Regiment: their houses were thrown down and they were turned out, in the depth of the winter, to exist as best they might” and on another occasion, “two more hamlets on Mr. Walshe’s land, …, were destroyed in the same way: the inhabitants were driven out with the help of troops and their cabins demolished” and an eyewitness observed the victims “lingering helpless and bewildered round the ruins of their homes, while outside their few possessions disintegrated in the rain” (Woodham-Smith 316-17).

According to Miller, “the Famine caused such chaos and sweeping change that, in a sense, many Irish had lost all that meant “home” even before they emigrated” (300) and he demonstrates how the life of peasants changed based on the recollections of the cottier Edmund Ronayne, who recovered from a fever to which all his relatives had succumbed:

Every house on our side of the street had been long since torn down, most of the people having died and a few managing in some way to go to America, but all were gone – their little homes and gardens were levelled, trees were planted where they once stood and a high stone wall built in front. Our house was the last, and now the landlord was anxious for me to leave. (qtd. in Miller 300)

As Miller further points out, “to contemporary observers, the Famine emigration seemed unprecedented: a lemming-like march to the sea by Irishmen and –women of all classes and from all parts of the island” (293). Although people of all classes and from all over Ireland emigrated, Miller explains that in his opinion, in most parts of Ireland, “there seems to have been an inverse relation between rates of excess mortality and emigration” with the exception of north Connaught, where both emigration and mortality were high, because it had “a heterogeneous population of stock farmers who could afford to emigrate and impoverished labourers who could not” (293). This example illustrates that there were two distinct groups of emigrants: those “able and calculated to do well,” and demoralized refugees who felt they had no alternative (294). Another significant distinction was religious, as “not since the seventeenth century had Catholics composed such an overwhelming majority of Irish emigrants as in 1845-55. Although Protestants formed about a quarter of Ireland’s population, they probably accounted for no more than 10 percent of the famine exodus” and most of those who emigrated “were smallholders and artisans” (Miller 297).

There were some efforts among Whig ministers and Tory protectionists to ease the crises in Ireland by funding emigration, but as Donnelly explains, ‘Moralists’ within the government stoutly resisted public funding of emigration because, as Trevelyan put it in August 1849, “it would do much real mischief by encouraging the Irish to rely upon the government for emigration which is now going on at a great rate from private funds” (Donnelly 32). Kee acknowledges that emigration seemed to be the only way the starving could escape from nearly certain death in Ireland, so starting in 1847 there was a steady, massive stream of about a quarter million emigrants (97). The crossing of the Atlantic exacted a high death toll as well because, as Kee explains, “conditions on board the emigrant ships were sometimes as appalling as anything in Ireland” because the poor travellers had to survive “fever, little water, few rations, few cooking or sanitary facilities” and as the selected examples demonstrate, the mortality aboard these ships ran high, as on “the Virginius, nine weeks out from Liverpool to Quebec, out of 476 passengers 158 died at sea, while another 106 landed sick with fever, or ‘more dead than alive’ as an eye-witness described them” (97). In response to statistics such as these, on 12 August 1847 the Montreal Board of Health reported that:

It may well be supposed that few of the survivors could reach any other than an early grave. Terrible as have been the tales of the slave trade, against which the British nation has so long protested … they exceed not in horrors, nor perhaps equal the dreadful realities to which these unfortunate wanderers have been subjected. (qtd. in Kee 97)

As demonstrated by the aforementioned examples, the poor in Ireland suffered tremendously. When Miller compares the state of social and moral standards before and after the Famine, he notes that “before the crises the Irish poor had been remarkable for their abhorrence of the workhouse and their adherence to Father Mathew’s temperance pledge” (290); however, the Famine eroded both of these pledges. Similarly, he adds that “traditional rural hospitality also vanished” and that “everyone for himself” became the maxim of life and conduct; Ranelagh confirms that by adding that “the famine also ended the widespread use of the Irish language. Gaelic, the natural language of 4 million Irish people in 1841, by 1851 was spoken only by 1.7 million.” This was due to the fact that “speaking Irish had become firmly identified with poverty and peasanthood, with famine and death” (118). Ranelagh’s fitting observation can conclude this chapter, :

The great native Irish cultural force embodied in the language was consciously thrust aside by the very people whose national identity and pride it had sustained for centuries. No doubt this was a symptom of their wretched, conquered state when they perceived survival as depending upon their ability to conform to the image of their conquerors and governors. (118-19)


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