Lord Brougham, in his highflown, classical way, described the horrors of the Famine in Ireland, as “surpassing anything in the page of Thucydides, – on the canvas of Poussin, – in the dismal chant of Dante.” Such a visitation, falling suddenly upon any land, certainly imposes onerous duties upon its de facto government; and the very novelty of the circumstances, driving everything out of its routine course, might well excuse serious mistakes in applying a remedy to so monstrous a calamity. First, however, bear in mind that all the powers, revenues, and resources of Ireland had been transferred to London.
The Imperial Parliament had dealt at its pleasure with the “sister island” for forty-six years, and had brought us to this. Second; remember that, now, for two years, a great majority of the Irish people had been earnestly demanding back those powers, revenues, and resources; and the English people, through their Executive, Parliament and Press, had unanimously vowed this must never be. They would govern us in spite of us, “under the blessing of Divine Providence,” as the Queen said. “Were the Union gall,” said the Times, “swallow it you must.”
Well, then, whatsoever duties may be supposed to fall upon a government, in case of such a national calamity, rested on the English government. We had no legislature at home; in the Imperial legislature wo had but a delusive semblance of representation; and so totally useless was it, that national Irish Members of Parliament preferred to stay at home. We had no authoritative mode of even suggesting what measures might (in mere Irish opinion) meet the case.
But we will see what was proposed by such public bodies in Ireland as still had power of meeting together in any capacity; – the city corporations, for example, and especially the Repeal Association. It has been carefully inculcated upon the world by the British Press, that the moment Ireland fell into distress, she became an abject beggar at England’s gate; – nay, that she even craved alms from all mankind. Some readers may be surprised when I affirm that neither Ireland, nor anybody in Ireland, ever asked alms or favors of any kind, either from England or any other nation or people; – but on the contrary, that it was England herself that begged for us, that sent round the hat over all the globe, asking a penny for the love of God to relieve the poor Irish; – and further, that, constituting herself the almoner and agent of all that charity, she, England, took all the profit of it.
Before describing the actual process of the “Relief Measures,” let us conjecture what would be the natural, obvious, and inevitable course of conduct in a nation which was indeed one undivided nation; France, for example. If blight and famine fell upon the South of France the whole common revenue of the kingdom would certainly be largely employed in setting the people to labour upon works of public utility; in purchasing and storing, for sale at a cheap rate, such quantities of foreign corn as might be needed, until the season of distress should pass over, and another harvest should come. If Yorkshire and Lancashire had sustained a like calamity in England, there is no doubt such measures as these would have been taken, promptly and liberally.
And we know that the English Government is not slow to borrow money for great public objects, when it suits their policy so to do. They borrowed twenty millions sterling to give away to their slave-holding colonists for a mischievous whim. In truth, they are always glad of any occasion or excuse for borrowing money and adding it to the National Debt; – because, as they never intend to pay that debt, and as the stock and debentures of it arc in the meantime their main safeguard against revolution, they would be well pleased to incur a hundred millions more at any moment.
But the object must be popular in England; it must subserve some purpose of British policy; – as in the case of the twenty millions borrowed to turn negroes wild (set them “free” as it was called) – or the loans afterwards freely taken to crush the people of India, and preserve and extend the opium trade with China. To make an addition to the National Debt, in order to preserve the lives of a million or two of Celts, would have seemed in England a singular application of money. To kill so many would have been well worth a war that would cost forty millions.
On the first appearance of the blight, the enemy sent over two learned commissioners, Playfair and Lindley, to Ireland, who, in conjunction with Doctor [afterward Sir Robert] Kane, were to examine and report upon potatoes generally, their diseases, habits, etc. This passed over the time for some weeks. Parliament was prorogued and did not meet again till January.
In the meantime, the Corporation of Dublin sent a memorial to the Queen, praying her to call Parliament together at an early day, and to recommend the appropriation of some public money for public works, especially railways in Ireland. A deputation from the citizens of Dublin, including the Duke of Leinster, the Lord Mayor, Lord Cloncurry, and Daniel O’Connell, waited on the Lord Lieutenant (Lord Heytesbury), to offer suggestions as to opening the ports to foreign corn at least, for a time, stopping distillation from grain, providing public works, and the like; and to urge that there was not a moment to be lost, as millions of people would shortly be without a morsel of food.
The reply of Lord Heytesbury is a model in that kind. He told them they were premature; told them not to be alarmed; that learned men had been sent over from England to inquire into all those matters; that, in the meantime, the Inspectors of Constabulary and Stipendiary Magistrates were charged with making constant reports from their several districts; that there was “no immediate pressure on the market;” – finally, that the case was a very important one, and it was evident “no decision could be taken without a previous reference to the responsible advisers of the Crown.” In truth, no other answer was possible, because the Viceroy knew nothing of Sir Robert Peel’s intentions. To wait for the report of learned men, – to wait for Parliament, – in short, to wait; that was the sole policy of the enemy for the present. He could wait; and he knew that hunger could not wait.
The Town Council of Belfast met and made suggestions similar to those of the Dublin Corporation; but neither body asked charity. They demanded that, if Ireland was indeed an integral part of the realm, the common exchequer of both islands should be used – not to give alms, but to provide employment on public works of general utility.
The plea of the enemy for not being ready with any remedy was the suddenness of the calamity. Now, it happened that, nearly eleven years before, a certain “Select Committee,” composed principally of Irish members of Parliament, had been appointed by the House of Commons to inquire into the condition of the Irish poor. They had reported even then in favor of promoting the reclamation of waste lands; had given their opinion decidedly (being Irish) that there was no real surplus of population, seeing that the island could easily sustain much more than its actual population, and export immensely besides. Nevertheless, they warn the Government that – “If the potato crop were a failure, its produce would be consumed long before they could acquire new means of subsistence; and then a famine ensues.”3 Yet, when the Famine did ensue, it took “the Government” as much by surprise (or they pretended that it did) as if they had never been warned.
Not only the citizens of Cork and Belfast, but the Repeal Association also had suggestions to make. Indeed, this last-named body was the only one that could pretend especially to represent the very class of people whose lives were endangered by the dearth. Let us see what they had to propose: –
On the 8th of December, O’Connell, in the Repeal Association, said: – “If they ask me what are my propositions for relief of the distress, I answer, first, Tenant-Right. I would propose a law giving to every man his own. I would give the landlord his land and a fair rent for it: but I would give the tenant compensation for every shilling he might have laid out on the land in permanent improvements. And what next do I propose? Repeal of the Union.” In the latter part of his speech, after detailing the means used by the Belgian legislature during the same season shutting the ports against export of provisions, but opening them to import, and the like, – he goes on: –
“If we had a domestic Parliament, would not the ports be thrown open – would not the abundant crops with which Heaven has blessed her be kept for the people of Ireland – and would not the Irish Parliament be more active even than the Belgian Parliament to provide for the people food and employment (hear, hear)? The blessings that would result from Repeal – the necessity for Repeal – the impossibility of the country enduring the want of Repeal, – and the utter hopelessness of any other remedy – all those things powerfully urge you to join with me, and hurrah for the Repeal.”
Still earlier, in November, O’Brien had used these words –
“I congratulate you, that the universal sentiment hitherto exhibited upon this subject has been that we will accept no English charity (loud cheers). The resources of this country are still abundantly adequate to maintain our population: and until those resources shall have been utterly exhausted, I hope there is no man in Ireland who will so degrade himself as to ask the aid of a subscription from England.”
And the sentiment was received with “loud cheers.” O’Brien’s speech is an earnest and vehement adjuration not to suffer promises of “Relief,” or vague hopes of English boons to divert the country one moment from the great business of putting an end to the Union. Take one other extract from a speech of O’Connell’s: –
“If we had a paternal government, I should be first to counsel the appropriation of a portion of the revenues of Ireland to the wants of the people, and this, too, without very strictly considering whether the whole should be repaid or not. We have an abstract claim to such application of the Irish revenues; but if we were to advocate such an arrangement now, we should be mocked and insulted (hear, hear).
Therefore, I approach the government of England on equal terms. I say to the English people – You are the greatest moneylenders in Europe, and I will suppose you to be as determined as Shylock in the play (hear, hear, and cheers). During the last session of Parliament, an act was passed for the encouragement of drainage in England and Ireland. According to the provisions of that act, any money advanced for the purpose of draining estates takes priority over the other charges affecting those estates; so that whatever amount of money may be so applied becomes the first charge on the estate of the proprietors of Ireland, and thus is its repayment secured beyond all hazard (hear, hear).
The government can borrow as much money as they please on Exchequer bills, at not more than three per cent. If they lend it out for the purposes of drainage, they can charge such proprietors as may choose to borrow, interest at the rate of four per cent. They, therefore, will have a clear gain of one per cent, and we shall owe them nothing, but they will stand indebted to us for affording them an opportunity of obtaining an advantageous investment of the capital at their disposal.”
All this while, until after the meeting of Parliament, there was no hint as to the intentions of government: and all this while the new Irish harvest of 1845, (which was particularly abundant,) with immense herds of cattle, sheep, and hogs, quite as usual, was floating off on every tide, out of every one of our thirteen seaports, bound for England; and the landlords were receiving their rents and going to England to spend them; and many hundreds of poor people had lain down and died on the roadsides for want of food, even before Christmas; and the Famine not yet begun, but expected shortly1.
All eyes were turned to Parliament. The Commission of learned naturalists – the inquiries and reports made by means of the constabulary and various mysterious intimations in the Government newspapers – all tended to produce the belief that the Imperial “government” was about to charge itself with the whole care and administration of the Famine. And so it was – with a vengeance.
Late in January, Parliament assembled. From the Queen’s (that is Sir Robert Peel’s) speech, one thing only was clear that Ireland was to have a new “Coercion Bill.” Extermination of tenantry had been of late more extensive than ever, and therefore, there had been a few murders of landlords and agents the most natural and inevitable thing in the world. The Queen says: –
“My LORDS AND GENTLEMEN,
I have observed with deep regret the very frequent instances in which the crime of deliberate assassination has been of late committed in Ireland.
It will be your duty to consider whether any measure can be devised calculated to give increased protection to life, and to bring to justice the perpetrators of so dreadful a crime.”
Whereupon the Nation commented as follows: –
“The only notice vouchsafed to this country is a hint that more gaols, more transportation, and more gibbets might be useful to us.
Or, possibly, we wrong the Minister: perhaps, when her Majesty says that ‘protection must be afforded to life,’ she means that the people are not to be allowed to die of hunger during the ensuing Summer – or that the lives of tenants are to be protected against the extermination of clearing landlords – and that so ‘deliberate assassination’ may become less frequent. God knows what she means; – the use of royal language is to conceal ideas.”
The idea, however, was clear enough. It meant more police, more police-taxes, police-surveillance, and a law that every one should keep at home after dark. The speech goes on to refer to the approaching Famine, and, declares that her Majesty had “adopted precautions” for its alleviation. This intimation served still further to make our people turn to “government” for counsel and for aid. Who can blame them? “Government” had seized upon all our means and resources. It was confidently believed they intended to let us have the use of some part of our own money in this deadly emergency.
It was even fondly imagined by some sanguine persons that the government had it in contemplation to stop the export of provisions from Ireland – as the Belgian legislature had from Belgium, and the Portuguese from Portugal, until our own people should first be fed. It was not known, in short, what “government” intended to do, or how far they would go: all was mystery; and this very mystery paralyzed such private and local efforts, by charitable persons, as might otherwise have been attempted in Ireland.
The two great leading measures proposed in this Parliament by the Administration were, first, a Coercion Bill for Ireland, and second, Repeal of the Corn Laws. This Repeal of the duties on foreign corn had long been demanded by the manufacturing and trading interests of England, and had been steadily opposed by the great landed proprietors. Sir Robert Peel, as a Conservative statesman, had always hither to vigorously opposed the measure; but early in this Parliament he suddenly announced himself a convert to free-trade in corn; and even used the pretext of the famine in Ireland to justify himself and carry his measure. He further proposed to abolish the duties on foreign beef and mutton and bacon. Shall we exclude any kind of food from our ports, he said, while the Irish are starving?
That is to say, the Premier proposed to cheapen those products which England bought, and which Ireland had to sell. Ireland imported no corn or beef she exported those commodities. Hitherto she had an advantage over American and other corn-growers in the English market; because there was a duty on foreign, but not on Irish provisions. Henceforth, the agricultural produce of all the world was to be admitted on the same terms, duty-free; and precisely to the extent that this would cheapen provisions to the English consumer, it would impoverish the Irish producer.
The great mass of the Irish people were almost unacquainted with the taste of bread and meat; they raised those articles, not to eat, but to sell and pay their rents with. Yet many of the Irish people, stupefied by the desolation they saw around them, had cried out for “opening the ports,” instead of closing them. The Irish ports were open enough; much too open; and an Irish Parliament, if there had been one, would instantly have closed them in this emergency.
In looking over the melancholy records of those famine years, I find that usually the right view was seized, and the right word said, by William Smith O’Brien; and as he was always moderate in expression – never saying anything that he could not more than substantiate, – I am glad to perceive that he fully concurs in this view of Peel’s measure. He said, in the Repeal Association: –
“With respect to the proposal before us, I have to remark that it professes to abrogate all protection. It is, in my opinion, a proposal manifestly framed with a view to English rather than Irish interests. About two-thirds of the population of England (that, I believe, is the proportion) are dependent on manufactures and commerce, directly or indirectly. In this country about nine-tenths of the population are dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly.
It is clearly the object of the English Minister to obtain the agricultural produce which the people of this country send to England, at the lowest possible price – that is to say, to give as little as possible of English manufactures and of foreign commodities in return for the agricultural produce of Ireland.”
If this was the Minister’s design, one can appreciate the spirit in which he addressed himself to the “relief measures” for Ireland. The measures were to commence by depreciating all our produce, say to the amount of two millions sterling per annum. And observe, that this did not give the slightest chance of the Irish people themselves being able to purchase and consume one grain of corn or one ounce of meat the more – because, except by the sale of those articles, Ireland had no money. So accurately the British legislation of half a century had arranged our affairs and fitted them to the hand of England.
Stupid and ignorant peers and landed men in England cried out bitterly against the Premier’s desertion of their party, and declared that the “agricultural interest of England was betrayed.” Blockheads! Their Minister was caring for them better than they could ask or think.
The other measure was the Coercion Bill. It authorized the Viceroy to proclaim any district in Ireland he might think proper, commanding the people to remain within doors (whether they had houses or not,) from sunset to sunrise; authorized him to quarter on such district any additional police force he might think needful to pay rewards to informers and detectives to pay compensation to the relatives of murdered or injured persons and to levy the amount of all by distress upon the goods of the occupiers, as under the Poor Law; with this difference, that whereas, under the Poor Law, the occupier could deduct a portion of the rate from his rent, under the new law he could not; and with this further difference, that whereas, under the Poor Law, householders whose cabins were valued under 4 per annum were exempt from the rate, under this law, they were not exempt.
Thus every man who had a house, no matter how wretched, was to pay the new tax; and every man was bound to have a house; for if found out of doors after sunset, and convicted of that offence, he was to be transported for fifteen years, or imprisoned for three the Court to have the discretion of adding hard labour or solitary confinement.
Now, the first of these two laws, which abolished the preference of Irish grain in the English markets, would, as the Premier well knew, give a great additional stimulus to the consolidation of farms – that is, the ejectment of tenantry; because “High Farming,” – farming on a large scale, with the aid of horses and steam, and all the modern agricultural improvements – was what alone would enable Irish agriculturists to compete with all mankind.
The second law would drive the survivors of the ejected people (those who did not die of hunger,) into the pool-houses or to America; because being bound to be at home after sunset, and having neither house nor home, they would be all in the absolute power of the police, and in continual peril of transportation to the penal colonies.
By another act of this Parliament, the Police-force was increased, and taken more immediately into the service of the Crown; the Irish county cess was relieved from their pay; and they became in all senses a portion of the regular army. They amounted to 12,000 chosen men, well armed and drilled.
That readers may understand better the nature and duties of this force, I shall give a few sentences out of a manual published in this same year, 1846, by David Duff, Esq., an active Police Magistrate. It is entitled “The Constable’s Guide:”
“The great point towards efficiency, is, that every man should know his duty and do it, and should have a thorough and perfect knowledge of the neighbourhood of his station; and men should make themselves not only acquainted with roads and passes, but the characters of all, which, with a little trouble, could be easily accomplished. A policeman cannot be considered perfect in his civil duty as a constable, who could not, when required, march direct to any house at night.
Independent of regular night patrols, whose hours should vary, men should by day take post on hills commanding the houses of persons having registered arms, or supposed to be obnoxious. The men so posted, will, if possible, be within view of other parties, so as to co-operate in pursuit of offenders.
Patrols hanging about ditches, plantations, and, above all, visiting the houses of suspicious characters, are most essential. The telescope to be taken always on day patrol, and rockets and blue lights used, as pointed out in the confidential memorandum.”
The confidential memorandum I have not been privileged to see: but this will give an idea of the Irish Police and the British method of relieving a famine. The Police were always at the command of Sheriffs for executing ejectments; and if they were not in sufficient force, troops of the Line could be had from the nearest garrison. No wonder that the London Times, within less than three years after, was enabled to say – “Law has ridden roughshod through Ireland: it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled with the ground, straggling columns of exiles, work-houses multiplied and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant the institutions of this more civilized land” – meaning England.
These were the two principal measures for the prudent administration of the Famine; but there was also another, purporting to aim more directly at Relief. I approach the detail of these “Relief Acts” with great deliberation and caution. They have always appeared to me a machinery for the destruction of an enemy more fatal, by far, than batteries of grape-shot, chain-shot, shells, and rockets: but many persons who pass for intelligent, even in Ireland do believe yet that they were in some sort measures of Relief, not contrivances for slaughter. In dealing with them, I shall endeavour to exaggerate nothing; as I shall certainly extenuate nothing.
1 The Census Commissioners admit only 516 “registered deaths” by starvation alone up to 1st January. There was, at that time, no registry for them at all; thousands perished, registered by none but the recording Angel. Besides, the Commissioners do not count the much greater numbers who died of typhus fever, the consequence of insufficient nourishment.