Ireland’s Great Potato Famine
(The following is from www.irishhistorian.com)
August First reports of the potato blight came in from the Isle of Wight and Kent. The blight spread across England and reached Scotland, Belgium and Holland. One observer on the Isle of Wight, published in The Gardener’s Chronical and Horticultural Gazette, reported that “a blight of unusual character, which almost universally affects the potatoes in this island, have been the last few days, repeatedly, brought to the notice by several gardeners.”
On the 3rd, Longford Poor Law union reported that it could not procure potatoes.
The governments of Belgium, Turkey, Alexandria and Sweden would eventually move to prohibit exports of food, particularly corn.
September The blight was reported in Ireland at the beginning of this month.
On the 16th, Dr Lindley stated that the ‘potato murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland’. He asked ‘where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?’
October Around 50% of the crop was estimated destroyed. Robert Peel privately acknowledged that Ireland was on the brink of disaster, and that a report by the Scientific Commissioners was ‘very alarming’. However, he also said that ‘there is a such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting upon them is always desirable.’
By the end of October, the Mansion House Committee had been established with Lord Cloncurry as chairman. In the meantime, public meetings were being held. These demanded the establishment of public works; a temporary halt on the export of corn; opening ports to foreign corn; and the closure of distilleries. Peel had ‘no confidence in such remedies.’ The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, warned the government that prices were beginning to rise.
November The question of repealing the Corn Laws began to dominate British political life. Repeal was opposed by the Protectionist lobby, including many successful Irish merchants, who claimed that reports eof scarcity had been exaggerated.
Peel and the Irish Executive discussed the use of public works at Dublin Castle. Drainage and navigation were seen as the most favourable alternatives.
At the beginning of the month, workhouse guardians were given permission to depart from a potato diet, supplying inmates with rice, soup and bread.
A Temporary Relief Commission was established to organise food depots and co-ordinate the efforts of local relief committees. Their first meeting took place on the 20th. The Commission’s role was to advise the government on the amount of distress, and to supervise and co-ordinate the activities of local relief committees. These local committees were voluntary bodies comprised of large farmers, landlords, merchants and clergy. Their contribution was to mediate purchasing and re-selling Indian corn imported by the government from America, so that the government wasn’t directly involved; and to oversee employment on small works. They were funded through voluntary subscriptions and a government grant.
Secret arrangements were made to import £100,000 worth of Indian corn to Ireland, to be made available in the spring. This was done clandestinely so that private enterprise and local relief efforts would not be disrupted.
December Sir Robert Peel tendered his resignation over the Corn Law. He was forced to stay in office as Lord John Russell was not in a position to form a government.
A decision was made to make an extra grant to the Board of Public Works. The Irish Board of Works became involved in the provision of relief.
The Commissioners reminded all local boards of guardians of their responsibility to provide fever care. There were at this time 38,232 inmates in workhouses.
The Mansion House Committee was reconstituted for the purposes of famine relief.
January Charles Trevelyan, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, told the Relief Commissioners that ‘the landlords and other ratepayers are the parties who are both legally and morally answerable for affording due relief to the destitute poor’.
On the 20th, the chairman of the Relief Commission, Edward Lucas, said he believed that current and contemplated measures could not ‘provide an effectual remedy’. 1400 out of 2049 electoral divisions in Ireland had reported the appearance of the blight.
Medical officers recorded a rise in cases of influenza, jaundice, and small pox, but particularly of diarrhoea and dysentery, caused by eating rotten potatoes.
February Charles Trevelyan commented that ‘indirect permanent advantages will accrue to Ireland from the scarcity, and the measures taken for its relief[…] Besides, the greatest improvement of all that could take place in Ireland would be to teach the people to depend upon themselves for developing the resources of the country, instead of having recourse to the assistance of the government on every occasion’.
The first shipment of Indian corn arrived in Ireland. It was unloaded in Cork where it was to be ground ready for consumption. Indian corn was difficult to prepare and not known in Ireland. It was bulky and filling. Sir Randolph Routh of the Relief Commission believed it kept off fever, but people referred to it as ‘Peel’s brimstone’. The decision to order something so obscure and unpalatable had been taken deliberately by the government, calculated not to interfere with private trade.
On the 20th, Trevelyan informed Routh that government plans should be ‘promulgated’.
On the 28th, instructions were issued to advise on the duties of relief committees. The Lieutenant of each county should oversee the formation of local relief committees. In the spring and summer of 1846, almost 700 relief committees would be set up, most of them in the south and west.
By this time distress was being reported on the western seaboard, including Clare, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, West Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon.
March Constabulary reports stated that Antrim, Clare, Kilkenny, Louth, Monaghan and Waterford were the worst affected areas. This can only give a general impression, as some areas, such as Mayo, were not so well recorded.
Legislation was introduced to confirm the role of the Irish Board of Works in relief measures. Four separate Acts were passed to promote the development of fisheries, harbours, drainage, road repair and other public works. The most important of these acts provided for the construction and alteration of roads. Funding was to be shared equally through local tax and the government.
On the 24th, the Fever Act was introduced. This established a temporary Board of Health in Dublin.
By this time, there were 47,403 inmates in Irish workhouses. They were still less than half full. Many were beginning to feel the effect of the potato shortages. The cumulative credit balances of all unions was £52,115.
April Sir Randolph Routh described the country as being like a chequer-board, black and white.
May The government was still convinced that it was ‘applying merely a temporary remedy to a temporary, though widespread, calamity’.
On the 3rd, a report by the Treasury condemned the payment of people on public works regardless of their results. It recommended that food should be given instead of wages, and if money wages were paid, they should only be sufficient to prevent starvation. This report had been written personally by Trevelyan and had not been reviewed before publication.
On the 15th, food depots were officially opened so that grain could be sold. A few had been open unofficially since March.
By the end of the month, applications for the half-grant scheme had been received from eighteen different counties.
June The Treasury decreed that the price of corn would no longer be sold at cost price, but the local market price. Some local relief committees ignored this.
By the end of the month, corn supplies were already low. The government purchased another 3000 tons of corn. This was not intended to feed all the starving, but to discourage private traders from hoarding supplies and then overcharging. It was also designed to encourage the import of grain, which did in fact increase.
On the 26th, a Treasury Minute stated that ‘numerous’ people who did not require relief were employed on the public works.
The average number of people employed on public works in this month was 21,000 daily.
Signs of a new potato blight were noted, and it became obvious that the crop was affected throughout Ireland.
July On the 21st, a Treasury Minute announced that all public measures for combatting the famine would be brought to a close. Trevelyan believed that relief operations should be ended despite the reappearance of the blight ‘or you run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years’.
The Corn Laws were repealed. Lord John Russell became Prime Minister.
The average number of people employed on public works in this month was 71,000 daily. The Treasury had privately ordered the Board of Works to lower wages to force people off the works. This led to some protests, including 10,000 people assembling at Castlebar in a ‘show of physical force’.