Mr. Labouchere, in Parliament, estimated the total money loss accruing by the potato-blight, at sixteen millions sterling. The people likely to be affected by it were always, in ordinary years, on the brink of destruction by famine – that is, most of them were always half-starved, for eight months in the year, and many always starved to death.
Now, to replace that lost food by foreign corn, and to pay the higher price of grain over roots (besides freight), would have required an appropriation of twenty millions sterling – the same amount which had been devoted, without scruple, to turning West Indian negroes wild.
England had, for so many years, drawn so vast a tribute from Ireland (probably eight millions per annum for forty-six years1), that now when the consequence of our intercourse with the sister island turned out to be that she grew richer every year, while Ireland on her side of the account had accumulated a famine, we claimed that there was something surely due to us. It is out of the question here enter with me into these multifarious accounts. England beats all mankind in book-keeping by double entry and as she has had the keeping of the books, as well as of everything else, it has been very difficult even to approximate to the truth. Yet one or two salient facts are easily stated.
In 1800, the year of the Union, Ireland owed twenty-one millions of national debt; England, four hundred and forty-six millions. Even of our debt of twenty-one millions, one large item was the charge for bribing members of Parliament, and buying up nomination boroughs, for the purpose of carrying that Union. Now the terms of the Union were that each country should remain liable to the annual charge upon her own debt.
But England, as I said, kept the books; and, seventeen years after, she found a pretext for charging herself with our debt, and charging us with hers. It was called the “Consolidation Act.” They made a fair exchange with us, as O’Connell said; they gave us half of their debt and took half of ours. Ever since, the annual charge upon the Irish Exchequer for interest on that consolidated debt, is nearly five millions.
Yet, with all this, Ireland remitted a surplus revenue to England over and above all that they could have the face to charge to her account, of about one million. Needless to say, it was all expended in public works in England. When the famine broke out, also, O’Connell pointed out the fact that the Quit and Crown Rents drawn from Ireland, under the head of “Woods and Forests,” amounted to about £60,000, mostly expended in beautifying Trafalgar-square in London, and the Castle of Windsor.
Considering all these things, it was believed not unreasonable, that the common exchequer of the “three kingdoms” (so liberal when it was a question of turning negroes wild,) ought to devote at least as great a sum to the mitigation of so dreadful a calamity. Accordingly, our people demanded such an appropriation, not as alms, but as a right. The Committee of the Repeal Association, for example, said:
“Your committee beg distinctly to disclaim any participation in appeals to the bounty of England or of Englishmen. They demand as right that a portion of the revenue which Ireland contributes to the State, may be rendered available for the mitigation of a great public calamity.”
Up to the meeting of Parliament, the enemy concealed their intentions in mystery; they consulted nobody in Ireland about this Irish emergency, but prepared their plans in silence.
In the meantime, the abundant and magnificent crops of grain and herds of cattle were going over to England both earlier in the season, and in greater quantities, than ever before; for speculators were anxious to realize, and the landlords were pressing for their rents; and agents and bailiffs were down upon the farmers’ crops before they could even get them stacked. So the farmers sold them at a disadvantage, in a glutted market, or they were sold for them, by auction, and with costs. The great point was to put the English Channel between the people and the food which Providence had sent them, at the earliest possible moment.
By New Year’s Day, it was almost all swept off. Up to that date, Ireland sent away and England received, of grain alone, of the crop of 1845, three millions two hundred and fifty thousand quarters, – besides innumerable cattle; – making a value of at least seventeen millions sterling.
Now, when Parliament met in January, the sole “remedial measure” proposed by Sir Robert Peel (besides the Coercion Bill, and the Corn Bill to cheapen bread in England), was a grant of £50,000 for Public Works, and another grant of as much for drainage of estates; – both these being grants, not to Ireland, but to the Commissioners of Public Works; and to be administered, not as Irishmen might suggest, but as to the said Commissioners might seem good. It was the two-hundredth part of what might probably have sufficed to stay the famine.
It might have given sensible relief – if honestly administered – to the smallest of the thirty-two counties. How it was used, not for relief, but for aggravation of the misery, have to tell hereafter. For that season’s famine it was, at any rate, too late, and before any part of it became available, many thousands had died of hunger. The London newspapers complacently stated that the impression “in political circles” was, that two millions of the people must perish before the next harvest.
January, February, and part of March passed away. Nothing was done for relief; but much preparation was made in the way of appointing hosts of Commissioners and Commissioners’ clerks, and preparing the voluminous stationary, schedules, specifications, and red-tape to tie them up neatly, which so greatly embarrass all British official action2 – a very injurious sort of embarrassment in such a case as the Crimean war; but the very thing that did best service on the present occasion.
O’Connell, O’Brien, and some other Repeal members proceeded to London in March, to endeavour to stir up Ministers, or at least discover what they were intending. In answer to Mr. O’Brien, Sir James Graham enumerated the grants and loans I have above mentioned; and added something about other public moneys, which, he said, were also available for relief of distress: adding: –
“Instructions have been given on the responsibility of the government to meet every emergency. It would not be expedient for me to detail those instructions; but I may state generally there is no portion of this distress, however wide-spread or lamentable, on which government have not endeavored on their own responsibility to take the best precautions, to give the best directions of which circumstances could admit.”
O’Brien had just come from Ireland, where he had anxiously watched the progress of the “relief measures,” and of the Famine; he had seen that while the latter was quick the former were slow – in fact, they had not then appeared in Ireland at all; but the very announcement that Government intended to interpose in some decisive manner, had greatly hastened collection of rents and ejectment of tenants: and both hunger and its sure attendant, the Typhus, were sweeping them off rapidly. British Ministers listened to all he could say with a calm, incredulous smile. Have we not told you, they said, we have sent persons, Englishmen, reliable men, to inquire into all those matters? Are we not going to meet every emergency?
“Mr. W. S. O’Brien was bound to say, with regard to the sums of money mentioned by the right hon. baronet as having been, on a former occasion, voted by the House for the relief of Ireland, that as far as his own information went, not one single guinea had ever been expended from those sources (hear, hear, from Mr. O’Connell). He was also bound to tell the right hon. baronet that 100,000 of his fellow creatures in Ireland were famishing.”
And here the report adds the Hon. gentleman, who appeared to labour under deep emotion, paused for a short time. Doubtless it was bitter to that haughty spirit to plead for his plundered people, as it were, in forma pauperis, before the plunderers; and their vulgar pride was soothed: but soon it was wounded again; for he added: –
“Under such circumstances, did it not become the House to consider of the way in which they could deal with the crisis? He would tell them frankly and it was a feeling participated in by the majority of Irishmen that he was not disposed to appeal to their generosity in the matter. They had taken, and they had tied, the purse-strings of the Irish purse!”
Whereupon the report records that there were cries of “Oh! Oh!” They were scandalized at the idea of Ireland having a purse.
Notwithstanding these repeated repudiations of alms, all the appropriations of Parliament, purporting to be for relief, but really calculated for aggravation of the Irish famine, were persistently called alms by the English Press. These Irish, they said, are never done craving alms. It is true they did not answer our statement that we only demanded a small part of what was due; they chose to assume that the Exchequer was their Exchequer: – neither did they think fit to remember that O’Brien and such as he were by no means suffering from famine themselves, but were retrenching the expenses of their households at home to relieve those who were suffering. To the common English intellect, it was enough to present this one idea: – here are these starving Irish coming over to beg from you. In the inculcation of this view of the case, the Times, of course, led the way: –
“There would be something highly ludicrous in the impudence with which Irish legislators claim English assistance, if the circumstances by which they enforce their claims were not of the most pitiable kind. The contrast between insolent menace and humble supplication reminds one forcibly of those types of Irish character so popular with the dramatists of the last century, who represent an O’Flanagan or an O’Shaughnessy hectoring through three acts of intermittent brogue – bullying the husband and making love to the wife,” etc., etc.
From all this time the reader may begin to appreciate the feeling that then prevailed in the two islands: in Ireland a vague and dim sense that they were somehow robbed – in England a still more vague and blundering idea that an impudent beggar was demanding their money with a scowl in his eye and a threat upon his tongue. In truth, only a few, either in England or in Ireland, fully understood the bloody game on the board. The two cardinal principles of the British policy in this business seem to have been these: – first, strict adherence to the principles of “political economy;” and second, making the whole administration of the Famine a government concern. “Political economy” became, about the time of the Repeal of the Corn Laws, a favourite study, or rather, indeed, the creed and gospel of England.
Women and young boys were learned in its saving doctrines; one of the most fundamental of which was – “there must be no interference with the natural course of trade.” It was seen that this maxim would ensure the transfer of the Irish wheat and beef to England; for that was what they called the natural course of trade. Moreover, this maxim would forbid the government or relief committees to sell provisions in Ireland any lower than the market price – for this is an interference with the enterprise of private speculators; it would forbid the employment of government ships – for this troubles individual ship-owners; and further, and lastly, it was found (this invaluable maxim) to require that the public works to be executed by laborers employed with borrowed public money should be unproductive works; that is, works which would create no fund to pay their own expenses.
There were many railroad companies at that time in Ireland that had got their charters; their roads have been made since; but it was in vain they asked then for government advances, which they could have well secured and soon paid off; the thing could not be done. Lending money to Irish railroad companies would be a discrimination against English companies – flat interference with private enterprise.
The other great leading idea completed Sir Robert’s policy. It was to make the Famine a strictly government concern. The Famine was to be administered strictly through officers of the government, from High Commissioners down to policemen. Even the Irish General Relief Committee, and other local committees of charitable persons who were exerting themselves to raise funds to give employment, were either induced to act in subordination to a Government Relief Committee, which sat in Dublin Castle, or else were deterred from importation of food by the announcement in Parliament that the Government had given orders somewhere for the purchase of foreign corn.
For instance, the Mayor of Cork and some principal inhabitants of that city, hurried to Dublin and waited on the Lord Lieutenant, representing that the local committee had applied for some portion of the parliamentary loans, but “were refused assistance on some points of official form: that the people of that county were already famishing; and both food and labour were urgently needed. Lord Heytesbury simply recommended that they should communicate at once with the Government Relief Committee;” – as for the rest, that they should consult the Board of Works. Thus every possible delay and official difficulty was interposed against the efforts of local bodies – Government was to do all.
These things, together with the new measure for an. increase in the police force (who were their main administrative agents throughout the country), led many persons to the conclusion that the enemy had resolved to avail themselves of the famine in order to increase governmental supervision and espionage; so that every man, woman, and child in Ireland, with all their goings out and comings in, might be thoroughly known and registered – that when the mass of the people began to starve, their sole resource might be the police-barracks – that Government might be all in all; omnipotent to give food or to withhold it, to relieve or to starve, according to their own ideas of policy and of good behavior in the people.
It is needless to point out that Government patronage also was much extended by this system; and by the middle of the next year, 1847, there were 10,000 men salaried out of the Parliamentary loans and grants for relief of the poor – as Commissioners, Inspectors, Clerks, and so forth; and some of them with salaries equal to an American Secretary of State. So many of the middle classes had been dragged down almost to insolvency by the ruin of the country, that they began to be eager for the smaller places as Clerks and Inspectors. For those 10,000 offices, then, it was estimated there were 100,000 applicants and canvassers; – so much clear gain from “Repeal.”
The Repeal Association continued its regular meetings, and never ceased to represent that the true remedies for Irish Famine were Tenant-Right – the stoppage of export – and Repeal of the Union; – and as those were really the true and only remedies, it was clear they were the only expedients which an English Parliament would not try. The Repeal Members gained a kind of Parliamentary victory, however, this Spring: – they caused the defeat of the Coercion Bill, with the aid of the Whigs. Sir Robert Peel had very cunningly, as he thought, made this Bill precede the Corn Law Repeal Bill; and as the English Public was all now most eager for the cheapening of bread, he believed that all parties would make haste to pass his favorite measure first.
The Irish Members went to London, and knowing they could not influence legislation otherwise, organized a sort of mere mechanical resistance against the Coercion Bill: that is, they opposed first reading, second reading, third reading, opposed its being referred to Committee, moved endless amendments, made endless speeches, and insisted upon dividing the House on every clause. In vain it was represented to them that this was only delaying the Corn Law Repeal, which would “cheapen bread.”
O’Brien replied that it would only cheapen bread to Englishmen, and enable them to devour more and more of the Irish bread and give less for it. In vain Ministers told them they were stopping public business: they answered that English business was no business of theirs. In vain their courtesy was invoked. They could not afford to be courteous in such a case; and their sole errand in London was to resist an atrocious and torturing tyranny threatened against their poor countrymen.
Just before this famous debate there had been very extensive clearing of tenantry in Connaught; and, in particular one case, in which a Mrs. Gerrard had, with the aid of the troops and police, destroyed a whole village, and thrown out two hundred and seventy persons on the high road. The Nation thus improved the circumstance with reference to the “Coercion Bill”: –
“Some Irish Members, for instance, may point to the two hundred and seventy persons thrown out of house and home the other day in Galway, and in due form of law (for it was all perfectly legal,) turned adrift in their desperation upon the wide world and may ask the Minister, if any of these two hundred and seventy commit a robbery on the highway – if any of them murder the bailiff, who (in exercise of his duty) flung out their naked children to perish in the winter’s sleet – if any of them, maddened by wolfish famine, break into a dwelling-house, and forcibly take toed to keep body and soul together, or arms for vengeance – what will you do? How will you treat that district? Will you indeed proclaim it? Will you mulct the house-holders (not yet ejected) in a heavy fine to compound for the crimes of those miserable outcasts, to afford food and shelter to whom they wrong their own children in this hard season?
Besides sharing with those wretches his last potato, is the poor cottier to be told that he is to pay for policemen to watch them day and night – that he is to make atonement in money (though his spade and poor bedding should be auctioned to make it up) for any outrage that may be done in the neighborhood? – but that these Gerrards are not to pay one farthing for all this – for, perhaps, their property is encumbered, and, it may be, they find it hard enough to pay their interest, and keep up such establishments in town and country as befit their rank? And will you, indeed, issue your commands that those houseless and famishing two hundred and seventy – after their roof-trees are torn down, and the ploughshare is run through the foundations of their miserable hovels are to be at home from sunset to sunrise? – that if found straying, the gaols and the penal colonies are ready for their reception?”
It was precisely with a view to meet such cases that the Coercion Bill had been devised; and, were not our representatives well justified in resisting such a measure, courteously or otherwise? The English Whigs, and, at length, the indignant Protectionists, too, joined the Repealers in this resistance – not to spare Ireland, but to defeat Sir Robert Peel, and get into his place. And they did defeat Sir Robert Peel, and get into his place. Whereupon, it was not long before Lord John Russell and his Whigs devised a new and more murderous Coercion Bill for Ireland themselves.
The Nation still remained the most widely circulated and influential journal of the Irish Nationalists, and represented the extreme and most anti-English party. The “Young Ireland party” still stood, and was well known to the great enemy as its most unrelenting opponent. MacNevin and Doheny frequently contributed to the Nation; and the writings of Thomas Devin Reilly, in its columns, were greatly admired. Mr. Dillon went for the Winter to Madeira; but our fraternity began now to number among its members Thomas Francis Meagher and Richard O’Gorman, of whom (as they are well known in America,) I need not now speak. The English enemy heartily abhorred us, and in the Spring of this year aimed a blow at the Nation Office. It was a new State Prosecution. Mr. Duffy was indicted for an article of mine.
I undertook to conduct his defence; and retained old Robert Holmes to make the speech to the jury; knowing that Holmes would repeat, improve, and redouble all the “sedition” which we were desirous to inculcate. He did so; and startled the Court and the Public by a stern and passionate denunciation of the whole course of British Government in Ireland. What was more wonderful, he dared this with safety to his client. The thing came too quick after the “slipped lists” and packed jury in O’Connell’s case (which Lord Denman had said turned trial by jury in Ireland into a “fraud, a delusion, and a snare,”) and they thought they could not repeat that game so soon. The Crown left on the panel of twenty-four three Repealers.
Those three attended in court, were sworn on the jury, and refused to convict. Chief-Justice Blackburne kept them confined without food or drink for twenty-six hours, when they were discharged. This was the first State Trial in Irish history, so far as I know, in which the Grown had failed to pack the jury strictly; and the first in which a conviction was missed. It gave the Nation, probably, more popularity and larger influence amongst the people than it would otherwise have enjoyed; and thereafter it proceeded very diligently and inveterately, exposing, from week to week, the plots of the English enemy3.
I have mentioned that the Coercion Bill was defeated; this was on May 25th. Sir Robert Peel immediately resigned office, and left the responsibility of dealing with the Irish affair to the Whigs. He knew he might do so safely. This system was inaugurated. His two great ideas – Free Trade and Police Administration – were fully recognized by the Whigs; and Lord John Russell was even a blind bigot about what he imagined to be Political Economy. Sir Robert might retire to Tamworth, and “plant his cabbages.”
1 Mr. O’Brien, in his “Address,” estimated the absentee rents alone at Five Millions sterling.
2 In April of next year, Jones, Twistleton, &o., were enabled to report that they had sent to Ireland “Ten thousand books besides fourteen tons of paper.” They give no account of the tape.
3 The prosecuted article was one in reply to a London Ministerial journal, which, in advocating Coercion for Ireland, had pointed out that the railroads then in progress of construction, would soon bring every part of the island within six hours of the garrison of Dublin. The Nation snowed how effectually railroads could be made impassable to troops – how easily troops could be destroyed upon them, and how useful the iron of them would be in making pikes.