Sir Robert Peel and his Ministry resigned on the 29th of June, 1846; Lord John Russell formed a new Ministry, and went on without dissolving Parliament.
I must take care that I do no injustice to Sir Robert Peel, nor suppress any of his acts which “might look like in attempt to stay the famine. It is true, then, that he advised and procured an appropriation of £100,000 by two several acts, to be laid out in giving employment in Ireland; but all this employment was to be given under the order and control of English officials: further, the professions of “Government,” – that they had taken all needful measures to guard against famine – had made people rely upon them for everything, and thus turned the minds of thousands upon thousands from work of their own, which they might have attempted if left to themselves.
This sort of government spoon-feeding is highly demoralizing; and for one who derived any relief from it, one thousand neglected their own industry in the pursuit of it. In truth, the amount of relief offered by these grants was infinitesimally small, when you consider the magnitude of the calamity1, and had no other effect than to unsettle the minds of the peasantry, and make them more careless about holding on to their farms.
It is true, also, that the government did, to a certain small extent, speculate in Indian corn for Irish use, and did send a good many cargoes of it to Ireland, and form depots of it at several points; but as to this also, their mysterious intimations had led all the world to believe they would provide very large quantities; whereas, in fact, the quantity imported by them was inadequate to supply the loss of the grain exported from any one county; and a government ship sailing into any harbor with Indian corn was sure to meet half a dozen sailing out with Irish wheat and cattle.
The effect of this, therefore, was only to blind the people to the fact, that England was exacting her tribute as usual, famine or no famine. The effect of both combined was to engender a dependent and pauper spirit, and to free England from all anxiety about “Repeal.” A landless, hungry pauper cannot afford to think of the honour of his country, and cares nothing about a national flag.
I may here mention that it was the English Government that invented paupers in Ireland, when they imposed on us their Poor Law. Before that time there had been plenty of poor men in Ireland, but “no able-bodied paupers.” It is one of the very few English institutions in which they have made us full participants.
How powerfully the whole of this system and procedure contributed to accomplish the great end of uprooting the people from the soil, can be readily understood. The exhibition and profession of public “relief” for the destitute stifled compunction in the landlords; and agents, bailiffs, and police swept whole districts with the besom of destruction.
Another act had been done by Sir Robert Peel’s Ministry, just before retiring, with a view of breaking up the Repeal Association. This was the imprisonment of Mr. Smith O’Brien several weeks in the cellar of the House of Commons. It grievously irritated the enemy that O’Connell, O’Brien, and the Repeal members still continued to absent themselves from Parliament. The House of Commons had tried various methods of persuading or coercing them to London. Mr. Hume had written them a friendly letter, imploring them to come over to their legislative duties, and he would aid them in obtaining justice for Ireland.
A “call of the House” was proposed; but they declared beforehand, that if there were a call of the House they would not obey it, and the Sergeant-at-Arms must come to Ireland for them; – he would find them in Conciliation Hall. They were nominated on English Railroad Committees, and the proper officer had intimated to them the fact. They replied that they were attending to more important business. Now, when they went over to oppose the Coercion Bill, it was understood that this was to be their sole errand, and they were not to engage themselves in the ordinary details of legislation.
But they were not long in London before the opportunity was seized to place their names on Railway Committees. O’Connell and his son both obeyed the call. O’Brien, of course, refused, and was imprisoned in the cellar for “contempt.” London and all England were highly pleased and entertained: Punch was brilliant upon the great “Brian Born” in a cellar; and Mr. O’Brien was usually afterwards termed, – with that fine sarcasm so characteristic of English genius, – the “martyr of the cellar.”
Instantly arose dissension in the Repeal Association. To approve and fully sustain O’Brien’s action in refusing to serve, would be to censure O’Connell for serving. In that body a sort of unsatisfactory compromise was made but the “Eighty-Two Club,” where the young party was stronger, voted a warm Address of full approval to O’Brien (who was a member of the Club), and despatched several members to present it to him in his dungeon. I had the honour to be one of that deputation, and the “cellar” was the only part of the Houses of Parliament I ever visited.
The divisions in O’Connell’s Association were soon brought to a crisis when the Whigs came in. O’Connell instantly gave up all agitation of the Repeal question, and took measures to separate himself from those “juvenile members” who, as Lord John Russell had asserted, were plotting not only to Repeal the Union, but to sever the connection with England (“the golden link of the crown”) – and that by physical force. All this famous controversy seems to me now of marvellously small moment; but I find a very concise narrative of it in Mr. O’Brien’s words, which will be enough: –
“Negotiations were opened between Mr. O’Connell and the Whigs at Chesham-place. ‘Young Ireland’ protested in the strongest terms against an alliance with the Whigs. Mr. O’Connell took offence at the language used by Mr. Meagher and others. “When I arrived in Dublin, after the resignation of Sir Robert Peel, I learnt that he contemplated a rupture with the writers of the Nation. Before I went to the county of Clare, I communicated, through Mr. Ray, a special message to Mr. O’Connell, who was then absent from Dublin, to the effect, that though I was most anxious to preserve a neutral position,
I could not silently acquiesce in any attempt to expel the Nation or its party from the Association. Next came the Dungarvan election and the new ‘moral force’ resolutions. I felt it my duty to protest against both at the Kilrush dinner. Upon my return to Dublin, I found a public letter from Mr. O’Connell, formally denouncing the Nation; and no alternative was left me but to declare, that, if that letter were acted upon, I could not co-operate any longer with the Repeal Association. The celebrated two-day debate then took place. Mr. J. O’Connell opened an attack upon the Nation and upon its adherents. Mr. Mitchel and Mr. Meagher defended themselves in language which, it seemed to me, did not transgress the bounds of decorum or of legal safety.
Mr. John O’Connell interrupted Mr. Meagher in his speech, and declared that he could not allow him to proceed with the line of argument necessary to sustain the principles which had been arraigned. I protested against this interruption. Mr. J. O’Connell then gave us to understand that unless Mr. Meagher desisted, he must leave the hall I could not acquiesce in this attempt to stifle a fair discussion, and sooner than witness the departure of Mr. J. O’Connell from an association founded by his father, I preferred to leave the assembly.”
When O’Brien left the Assembly, he was accompanied by his friends; and there was an end of the Repeal Association, save as a machinery of securing offices for O’Connell’s dependants. Even for that purpose it was not efficient; because it had too clearly become impotent and hollow; there was no danger in it; and Ministers would not buy a patriot in that market unless at a very low figure.
In the meantime, the famine and the fever raged: many landlords regained possession without so much as an ejectment, because the tenants died of hunger; and the county Coroners, before the end of this year, were beginning to strike work they were so often called to sit upon famine-slain corpses. The verdict, “Death by Starvation,” became so familiar that the county newspapers sometimes omitted to record it; and travellers were often appalled when they came upon some lonely village by the western coast, Avith the people all skeletons upon their own hearths. Irish landlords are not all monsters of cruelty.
Thousands of them, indeed, kept far away from the scene, collected their rents through agents and bailiffs, and spent them in England or in Paris. But the resident landlords and their families did, in many cases, devote themselves to the task of saving their poor people alive. Many remitted their rents, or half their rents; and ladies kept their servants busy and their kitchens smoking with continual preparation of food for the poor.
Local Committees soon purchased all the corn in the government depots (at market price, however,) and distributed it gratuitously. Clergymen, both Protestant and Catholic, I am glad to testify, generally did their duty; except those absentee clergymen, bishops, and wealthy rectors, who usually reside in England, their services being not needed in the places from whence they draw their wealth. But many a poor rector and his curate shared their crust with their suffering neighbors; and priests, after going round all day administering Extreme Unction to whole villages at once, all dying of mere starvation, often themselves went supperless to bed.
The Western and South-western coast, from Derry round to Cork, is surely the most varied and beautiful coast in all the world. Great harbors, backed by noble ranges of mountains, open all around the Western coast of Munster, till you come to the Shannon’s mouth: there is a fine navigable river opening up the most bounteously fertile land in the island – Limerick and Tipperary. North of the Shannon, huge cliff-walls, rising eight hundred feet sheer out of deep water, broken by chasms and pierced by sea-caves, “with high embowed roof,” like the choir of a cathedral; then the Bay of Galway, once thronged with Spanish and Irish ships, carrying wine and gold, – but now, it appears, dangerous, and fatal (static mala fide carinis) to steam-ships bound for America.
Westward from Galway, and round the circuit of Connaught, the scene becomes savage and wild, with innumerable rocky islands, – deep inlets, narrow and gloomy, like Norwegian fiords, – and grim, steep mountains hanging over them. But the most desolate region of all is found in Ulster. As you travel northwards from Killybegs, by way of Ardara, Glenties, and Dunglow, you pass for nearly forty miles through the dreariest region of moor and mountain that is to be found within the five ends of Ireland; – wide tracts of quaking bog, interspersed with countless dismal lakes, intersected by rocky ridges, and traversed by mountain rivers roaring in tawny foam to the sea.
The two or three wretched villages that lie along this road give to a traveller an impression of even more dreariness and desolation than the intervening country: a cluster of ragged-looking, windowless hovels, whose inhabitants seem to have gathered themselves from the wastes, and huddled together to keep some life and heat in them; a few patches of oats and potatoes surrounding the huts, and looking such a miserable provision for human beings against hunger in the midst of those great brown moors; hardly a slated building to be seen, save one or two constabulary and revenue police-stations, and a court-house in Glenties, for dealing out “justice,” and close by that a certain new building – the grandest by far that those Rosses people ever saw – rearing its accursed gables and pinnacles of Tudor barbarism, and staring boldly with its detestable mullioned windows, as if to mock those wretches who still cling to liberty and mud cabins – seeming to them, in their perennial half-starvation, like a Temple erected to the Fates, or like the fortress of Giant Despair, whereinto he draws them, one by one, and devours them there: – the Poorhouse.
This is the estate of a certain Marquis of Conyngham: and for him those desolate people, while health lasts, and they may still keep body and soul together, outside the Poorhouse, are forever employed in making up a subsidy, called rent; which that district sends half-yearly to be consumed in England, or wherever else it may please their noble proprietor to devour their hearts’ blood and the marrow of their bones.
So it is; and so it was, even before the Famine, with almost the whole of the coast region. The landlords were all absentees. All the grain and cattle the people could raise were never enough to make up the rent; it all went away, of course; it was all consumed in England; but Ireland received in exchange stamped rent receipts. Of course there were no improvements, – because they would have only raised the rent; and in ordinary years many thousands of those poor people lived mainly on sea-weed some months of every year. But this was trespass and robbery; for the sea-weed belonged to the lord of the manor, who frequently made examples of the depredators2.
Can the American mind picture a race of white men reduced to this condition? White men! Yes, of the highest and purest blood and breed of men. The very region I have described was once – before British civilization overtook us – the abode of the strongest and richest clans in Ireland; the Scotic MacCauras; the French Clan-Gerralt, (or Geraldin, or Fitzgerald) the Norman MacWilliams (or De Burgo, or Burke) the princely and munificent O’Briens and O’Donnells, founders of many monasteries, chiefs of glittering hosts, generous patrons of Ollamh, Bard, and Brehon; sea-roving Macnamaras and O’Malleys, whose ships brought from Spain wine and horses, – from England fair-haired, white-armed Saxon slaves, “tall, handsome women,” as the chroniclers call them, fit to weave wool or embroider mantles in the house of a king3.
After a struggle of six or seven centuries, after many bloody wars and sweeping confiscations, English “civilization” prevailed, – and had brought the clans to the condition I have related. The ultimate idea of English civilization being that “the sole nexus between man and man is cash payment,” and the “Union” having finally determined the course and current of that payment, out of Ireland into England, – it had come to pass that the chiefs were exchanged for landlords, and the clansmen had sunk into able-bodied paupers.
The details of this frightful famine, as it ravaged those Western districts, I need not narrate; – they are sufficiently, known! It is enough to say that in tins year, 1846, not less than 300,000 perished, either of mere hunger, or of typhus-fever caused by hunger. But as it has ever since been a main object of the British Government to conceal the amount of the carnage (which, indeed, they ought to do if they can,) I find that the Census Commissioners, in their Report for 1851, admit only 2,041 “registered” deaths by famine alone, in 1846.
A Whig Ministry, however, was now in power; and the people were led to expect great efforts on the part of government to stay the progress of ruin. And I am bound to say that O’Connell used alt his power to make the people depend upon that expectation. In August it became manifest that the potato-crop of ’46 was also a total failure; but the products otherwise were most abundant, – much more than sufficient to feed all the people. Again, therefore, it became the urgent business of British policy to promise large “Relief,” so as to ensure that the splendid harvest should be allowed peacefully to be shipped to England as before; and the first important measure of the Whigs was to propose a renewal of the Disarming Act, and a further increase in the Police-force.
Apparently the outcry raised against this had the effect of shaming Ministers, for they suddenly dropped the Bill for this time. But the Famine could not be correctly administered without a Coercion Bill of some sort; so the next year they devised a machinery of this kind, the most stringent and destructive that had yet been prescribed for Ireland. In the meantime, for “Relief” of the Famine, – they brought forward their famous Labour Rate Act.
This was, in few words, an additional poor rate, payable by the same persons liable to the other poor rates; the proceeds to be applied to the execution of such public works as the government might choose; the control and superintendence to be entrusted to government officers. Money was to be in the meantime advanced from the Treasury, in order to set the people immediately to work; and that advance was to be repaid in ten years by means of the increased rate. There was to be an appearance of local control, inasmuch as barony sessions of landlords and justices were to have power to meet, (under the Lord Lieutenant’s order,) and suggest any works they might think needful, provided they were strictly unproductive works; but the control of all was to be in the government alone.
Now, the class which suffered most from the potato-blight consisted of those small farmers who were barely able, in ordinary years, to keep themselves above starvation after paying their rents. These people, by the Labor-rate Act, had an additional tax laid on them; and not being able to pay it, could but quit their holdings, sink to the class of able-bodied paupers, and enroll themselves in a gang of government navvys, – thus throwing themselves for support upon those who still strove to maintain themselves by their own labour on their own land.
In addition to the proceeds of the new Poor Rate, Parliament appropriated a further sum of £50,000 to be applied in giving work in some absolutely pauper districts, where there was no hope of ever raising rates to repay it. £50,000 was just the sum which was that same year voted out of the English and Irish revenue, to improve the buildings of the British Museum.
So there was to be more Poor Law, more Commissioners, (this time under the title of Additional Public Works Commissioners); innumerable officials in the Public Works, Commissariat and Constabulary departments; and no end of stationery and red tape; – all to be paid out of the rates. On the whole, it was hoped that provision was made for stopping the “Irish howl” this one season.
You have already been told that Irishmen of all classes had almost universally condemned the Poor Law at first; so, as they did not like Poor Law, they were to have more Poor Law. Society in Ireland was to be reconstructed on the basis of Poor Rates, and a broad foundation of able-bodied pauperism. It did not occur to the English – and it never will occur to them – that the way to stop destitution is to Repeal the Union, so that Irishmen might make their own laws, use their own resources, regulate their own industry. It was in vain, however, that anybody in Ireland remonstrated. In vain that such journals as were of the popular party condemned the whole scheme. The Nation of that date treats it thus: –
“Unproductive work to be executed with borrowed money – a ten years mortgage of a new tax, to pay for cutting down hills and filling them up again – a direct impost upon land proprietors in the most offensive form, to feed all the rest of the population, impoverishing the rich without benefiting the poor not creating, – not developing, but merely transferring, and in the transfer wasting the means of all; – perhaps human ingenuity, sharpened by intensest malignity, could contrive no more deadly and unerring method of arraying class against class in diabolical hatred, making them look on one another with wolfish eyes as if to prepare the way for ‘aristocrutcs d la lanterne;‘ – killing individual enterprise, – discouraging private improvement, – dragging down employers and employed, proprietors, farmers, mechanics, and cottiers, to one common and irretrievable ruin.”
Whether this view was justified by the result, will be seen hereafter.
It may seem astonishing that the gentry of Ireland did not rouse themselves at this frightful prospect, and universally demand the Repeal of the Union. They were the same class, sons of the same men, who had, in 1782, wrested the independence of Ireland from an English Government, and enjoyed the fruits of that independence in honor, wealth, and prosperity, for eighteen years. Why not now? It is because, in 1782, the Catholics of Ireland counted as nothing: now they are numerous, enfranchised, exasperated; and the Irish landlords dare not trust themselves in Ireland without British support.
They looked on tamely, therefore, and saw this deliberate scheme for the pauperization of a nation. They knew it would injure themselves; but they took the injury, took insult along with it, and submitted to be reproached for begging alms, when they demanded restitution of a part of their own means.
Over the whole island, for the next few months, was a scene of confused and wasteful attempts at relief: bewildered barony sessions striving to understand the voluminous directions, schedules and specifications under which alone they could vote their own money to relieve the poor at their own door; but generally making mistakes, – for the unassisted human faculties never could comprehend those ten thousand books and fourteen tons of paper; insolent Commissioners and Inspectors, and clerks snubbing them at every turn, and ordering them to study the documents: efforts on the part of the proprietors to expend some of the rates at least on useful works, reclaiming laud or the like; which efforts were always met with flat refusal and a lecture on political economy; (for political economy, it seems, declared that the works must be strictly useless, as cutting down a road where there was no hill, or building a bridge where there was no water, – until many good roads became impassable on account of pits and trenches): – plenty of jobbing and peculation all this while; and the laborers, having the example of a great public fraud before their eyes, themselves defrauding their fraudulent employers, – quitting agricultural pursuits and crowding to the public works, where they pretended to be cutting down hills and filling up hollows, and with tongue in cheek received half wages for doing nothing. So the labour was wasted; the laborers were demoralized; and the next year’s famine was ensured.
Now began to be a rage for extermination beyond any former time; and many thousands of the peasants, who could still scrape up the means, fled to the sea, as if pursued by wild beasts, and betook themselves to America. The British army also received numberless recruits this year (for it is sound English policy to keep our people so low that a shilling a day would tempt to fight for the devil, not to say the Queen): and insane mothers began to eat their young children, who died of famine before them.
And still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England. There was also a large importation of grain from England into Ireland, and the speculators and ship-owners had a good time. Much of the grain thus brought to Ireland had been previously exported from Ireland, and came back – laden with merchants’ profits and double freights and insurance – to the helpless people who had sowed and reaped it. This is what Commerce and Free Trade did for Ireland in those days.
Two facts, however, are essential to be borne in mind – first, that the net result of all this importation, exportation, and re-importation, (though many a ship-load was carried four times across the Irish Sea, as prices “invited” it,) was, that England finally received our harvests to the same amount as before: and, second, that she gave Ireland – under free-trade in corn – less for it than ever. In other words, it took more of the Irish produce to buy a piece of cloth from a Leeds manufacturer, or to buy a rent-receipt from an absentee proprietor.
They could do without much of the cloth; but, as for the rent-receipts, these they must absolutely buy; for the bailiff, with his police, was usually at the door, even before the fields were reaped; and he, and the Poor-rate Collector, and the Additional Poor-rate Collector, and the County-cess Collector, and the Process-server, with Decrees, were all to be paid out of the first proceeds. If it took the farmer’s whole crop to pay them, which it usually did, he had, at least, a pocketful of receipts, and might see lying in the next harbor the very ship that was to carry his entire harvest and his last cow to England.
What wonder that so many farmers gave up the effort in despair, and sunk to paupers? Many Celts were cleared off this year, and the campaign was, so far, successful.
1 Double the sum (£200,000) was by the same Parliament authorized to be borrowed on the security of the Crown revenue, to be laid out on Battersea Park, a suburban retreat for Londoners: – yet this was never spoken of as alms given by Ireland to England.
2 I have defended poor devils on charges of trespass by gathering sea-weed below high-water mark, and remember one case in which a number of farmers near the sea were indicted for robbery, on the charge of taking limestone from a rock uncovered at low-water only to burn it, for spreading on their fields.
3 The monasteries still stand: the golden collars of chiefs are still turned up by the plough: the records may still be read, the most authentic historic monuments in Western. Europe. Yet it is customary with the English to deny, or laugh at the ancient civilization of Ireland! They are bound in policy, perhaps, to do so; but any liturary man on the Continent of Europe would be ashamed to call it in question.