The Famine (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Famine | start of chapter

This was one main cause of the wholesale evictions for which the famine years furnished a plausible excuse, the reversion to pasture requiring fewer labourers and bringing milling and its kindred trades to an end. The repeal of the Corn Laws was largely responsible for the very slow recovery of the country after the famine years. Conditions were changed; labour was not wanted; and though the population had been reduced through death and emigration by nearly two million persons between the census of 1841 and 1851, there were still too many inhabitants for the means of livelihood.

The tide of emigration, once set in, has never come to an end. The population, which numbered in 1841 some 8,196,597 persons had been reduced, by the time the census was taken in 1911, to 4,390,219, hardly more than half the number. The 1926 Census gives 4,229,124 as the total population, the decrease being entirely in the Free State. Though Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws was an indirect cause of this great decrease, at the moment of carrying the measure he relied on it to bring corn into the harbours of Ireland to relieve distress.

The slow methods of Parliamentary debate were, however, not suited to such an emergency; on the heels of the famine typhus and dysentery were treading and immediate aid was called for; even from the consideration of self-preservation succour was needed, for the people were pouring over to Lancashire, Lanarkshire, and other places to seek work, bringing with them the seeds of pestilence and death.

The emigrant vessels to the United States were becoming plague-ships, in which the victims, closely packed and already weakened by hunger, succumbed long before they reached the shores of the New World. The efforts to meet the emergency, inadequate as they proved to be, were on a liberal scale. Private charity found its way to the sufferers through thousands of channels, “of the aggregate result of which no estimate can be formed.”

England, the States, and Ireland itself formed innumerable associations for relief, and did voluntary work for the suffering which has perhaps only been equalled in the recent Great War. The Government suspended the duties on foreign corn, ordered Indian meal from the United States to the amount of £100,000, and established all over the country depots for its distribution on a large scale. But the lack of money to purchase food among the sufferers showed the necessity for other measures; and public works were set on foot which employed at one time as many as 97,000 persons.

Unfortunately, like most hurried or panic legislation, these extensive relief works were planned on no system of permanent benefit to the country. It was made a stipulation that no private landowner should benefit by them, a rule which excluded reclamation, drainage, and many other much-needed plans for the permanent advantage of the country. The £50,000 voted by Parliament, which was to be supplemented on the spot, was mostly wasted in entirely unproductive labour. The Knight of Glyn found large numbers of people engaged in filling up the cutting in a hill with the stuff they had taken out of it. Thousands were set to dig up good macadamized coach-roads with spades and turf-cutters.[20]

An army of twelve thousand overseers superintended these useless works, absorbing a large proportion of the relief money into their own pockets. The fisheries were deserted, the fields untilled, shoes and boots went without mending, because from all over the country men crowded in to get “the Queen’s pay.”[21]

Universal demoralization set in. The landlords, already sore beset with the increased poor rates and cess, were none too well off, as was later to be proved by their efforts to sell their properties under the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849. Lord Clarendon wrote to Peel when the Bill was mooted:

“The condition of the landlords generally is deplorable. As a body they are insolvent. Many of them lack the first necessaries of life.”[22]

In these circumstances it is not altogether surprising that many of them took little interest in relief works which were quite useless to the country or themselves, or that the labourers did the smallest amount of work compatible with drawing the wages given. The average number employed was in October 1846 some 114,000 persons, but early in the following year it had risen to 570,000; more than two million persons altogether were employed on relief works.

The old, the young, and the disabled died; their corpses lay along the roads or were cast into hasty pits without coffins. Those who had saved money and could afford the passage fled to America or took low-grade employment in London, Manchester, and Glasgow, or other towns. The emigration returns show an increase of from 28,000 in 1840 to 105,955 in 1846. It was the best and most thrifty of the young people who emigrated to the States and Canada, many of them respectable agriculturalists and artisans whose loss to the country was a severe one.

The landlords in many cases took full advantage of the inability of their people to pay their rents to eject them in large numbers and to burn down their cabins. The obligation to become responsible for the support or part-support of the famine-stricken of their own townlands led to a general adoption by needy proprietors of this cheap but heartless method of relieving themselves of their responsibilities; and the clause introduced into the Poor Law Act of 1847 which forbade relief to all who occupied more than a quarter of an acre of land, though intended to limit relief to the most necessitous, had the effect of inducing large numbers of distressed people to give up their holdings in order to claim relief.

Admission to a workhouse was only allowed to those who held no land. The universal impoverishment caused by this clause, coming to reinforce the temptation which the Corn Law Repeal gave to owners to turn their properties into pasture and get rid of their tenants greatly changed the face of the country. A Tipperary priest in 1852 wrote:

“Two-thirds of my congregation have departed to the workhouse or gone to America. I was, God help me, very proud of my flock seven or eight years ago. … I used to point to them as the decentest and best conducted people in the country. My chapel always overflowed. There is hardly a third of it occupied at present. … There is squalor and rags, tottering old age and no children.”[23]

The people were “clad like beggars, housed like beggars, and fed like beggars.”

Famine had become a recurrent phenomenon and in 1850 it was computed that a hundred persons a week still died of hunger or of the diseases begotten of hunger. Two-thirds of the farms of from one to five acres which had existed in 1841 had disappeared. The landlords became known as “Exterminators,” and when a farm was put up for sale it was a common question whether it had been “cleared” of small holders. In one small barony (Kilrush) the dwellings of fifteen thousand persons had been destroyed. In revenge, all sorts of evasions of rent and of the law became usual among the distressed occupants. Captain Larcom’s Report gives the total number of evictions in the years 1848–49 as 177,178, which, taking an average of five in a family, would make 585,890 poor people turned out of their homes into the roads in two years.

It was manifest that no Poor Law provision could meet the needs of such a mass of misery, crowded and insanitary as the workhouses were. The sufferings of the emigrants were even worse, and on their arrival in America thousands of them, thrown out upon the streets without money, and ignorant of any trade or calling, sank into the purlieus of the great cities and fed the taverns and the gaols. The Catholic Bishop of Toronto revealed a condition of things that was truly appalling. In that city in 1863, out of a total prison population of 1,901, the Irish numbered 1,168, of whom 703 were women. Other nationalities came over, the Bishop says, with the means of establishing themselves on farms or as mechanics, but a large majority of the Irish were penniless. The parish priest of Montreal gave an even worse account of what had happened in his city, to which bands of young Irish women were sent out from the degrading workhouses at home.[24]

Emigration is a benefit only when carefully superintended, and when the emigrants are chosen with discretion and placed in positions for which they are fitted, with sufficient means to tide them over the period of removal and settlement. To cast on American shores multitudes of poverty-stricken, diseased, and famished people, absolutely ignorant of any trade or of the knowledge even of reading and writing, was to provoke the utmost misery and to make the emigrants themselves a source of evil wherever they settled.

The Devon Commission, appointed on February 14, 1845, to inquire into the land conditions in Ireland had disclosed a condition of things which pointed to the need for immediate legislation. It was presided over by the Earl of Devon and was composed entirely of landowners; while out of the 303 witnesses called 47 were landlords, 47 agents, and 128 farmers. Yet, though the Commission might be considered one-sided, it made useful suggestions, recommending that encouragement should be given to tenants by letting to them on longer leases and that fair compensation should be offered for improvements. In June of the same year Lord Stanley introduced a Bill based on the findings of this Commission. He rejected emigration, the fashionable remedy for all Irish ills, contending that the question was to be solved by rooting the occupier “not out of, but on the soil”; and he argued for a system which should induce the tenant to invest his labour and capital in his land.

Stanley’s Land Bill and Sharman Crawford’s Tenant Right Bill, a measure formed on similar lines, were fought with perseverance but again and again rejected. Horseman’s saying that “Ireland has been truly described as one adjourned debate” was as true of the Land Act as it was to prove later on the question of Home Rule. Seven years after the Devon Commission had reported, the only Act passed regarding Irish land was the Encumbered Estates Act, which relieved the landlords, but did not improve the status of the tenant. Rather it deprived him of any ownership in his holding and allowed the head landlord to sell outright over his head. Six months after the passing of this Act, in 1849, over thirteen million pounds worth of property had come under the operation of the new law; but none of it was sold to tenants, nor was any regard paid to claims made by the tenants for improvements. Meanwhile, suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act took the place of remedial measures, and in the fourth year of the famine, with sixty per cent. of the population receiving relief, nothing permanent had been done.

But the agitation was spreading through Ireland and once more Ulster held out a hand of resolute assistance to the South. The ruin that had desolated other provinces was beginning its work of destruction in the North. William Sharman Crawford, a County Down man, again introduced his Bill, which from his persistence became known as “Crawford’s Craze,” and on its accustomed defeat the Irish Attorney-General, Joseph Napier, of Belfast, presented to the House a Government Bill which contained a clause protecting tenant’s improvements and in favour of compensation. It was not passed, though John Bright, who had been studying the Report of the Devon Commission, now threw the weight of his powerful advocacy into the cause of the tenants and Lord Dufferin and Charles Gavan Duffy ably supported the relief bills.

But all efforts up to and including the elaborate but abortive Bills of 1860 and 1867, failed to effect any real improvement in the condition of land tenure;[25] they were of so complicated and unsatisfactory a nature that their abandonment was not to be regretted, and it was not until Gladstone brought in his Land Bill of February 15, 1870, twenty-five years after the sitting of the Devon Commission, that a real attempt was made to settle the question. But, in the meantime, the great annual wave of emigration continued and evictions for non-payment of rent “fell like snow-flakes” on the unprotected tenants. It was some time yet before the peasant was to be “rooted in the soil.”